(March 14, 2022). Most people who know me well know that I don’t do a lot of reading. Or, more accurately, I do read a lot…just not a lot of books!
Instead, you’ll often find me reading news articles, blog posts, short stories online, work-related documents…all mainly to keep up with current events, to stay on top of the job, or to sharpen my own skills as a blogger. Aside from pursuing my Masters Degree in the aughts or complying with a few work-related mandates meant to enhance management skills, I (shamefully) hadn’t finished an entire book in the 21st century.
That all changed this weekend when I picked up With Worn-Out Tools: Navigating the Rituals of Midlife, the semi-autobiographical story of a man who had it all—seemingly— until an “incident” in his very early 50s changed his life—and that of those around him—forever.
That man happens to be an old friend and classmate Darren C. Lyons, someone I’ve known since we were 15 (he turned 56 last week, I join him in June). Darren and I were high school classmates with some uncanny similarities and common bonds growing up.
For instance, he was an aspiring, talented singer who loved music. I had no delusions of being a singer (at least not publicly) but loved music nonetheless. We each grew up in lower middle-class families with both parents and one brother, and we both had moms named Joyce. My mother recently shared that it was Darren’s late mom who’d inspired mine to join the church both of our families have since attended.
Darren and I also had a common set of buddies that we collectively and self-inclusively referred to as the “Cool Crew.” This was largely inspired by the Prince/Morris Day/Time collective and The Time song “Cool.” It was that whole Minneapolis soul/“Rude Boy” aesthetic that somehow gave me the nickname “Rude,” a moniker that only a few select friends—Darren included—have consistently used in the 40 years since (I still don’t recall how I ended up with the nickname; my mom, of course, thinks they call me that because of its traditional definition, but I digress…).
Darren and I both struggled with weight growing up: he on the heavy side and me being too skinny. Both of these issues, as it turned out, would affect our adult lives, though in vastly different ways.
Darren’s cousin Karen was also my girlfriend and date for senior prom, which seemingly had the potential to further connect Darren and me, until our HS graduation and subsequent departures from Petersburg took us in different life directions. Different colleges, different fraternities, different career paths and geographic locations. Different lives. Except for the occasional high school reunion, Darren and I wouldn’t connect again more regularly until Facebook brought us together some decades later.
Fast forward to now and With Worn-Out Tools, the story mostly centered on the first two years of Darren’s fifties, and how he went from being a world-traveled, top-level executive to being an aspiring entrepreneur to being unemployed and faced with a slew of health challenges that, collectively, could have easily killed his spirit were it not for his own inner strength and the support of those in his immediate circle of family, friends and healthcare professionals.
With Worn-Out Tools is an easy read (I started Friday night and finished by noon Sunday), with much of the first half devoted to the ups-and-downs of his globetrotting professional life as a Black corporate executive in the call center world, and the last nearly two-thirds chronicling the author’s life-changing “incident” and his subsequent health-related stumbles and triumphs.
Darren, or D. C. Lyons (his pen name), mixes self-effacing humor and wit with an uncanny ability to draw vivid comparisons to everyday things that most people wouldn’t think to connect, all while pulling the reader further into his experiences with charm and appeal. The unique visuals he creates through his stellar storytelling are matched by his understanding of everyday people and his descriptions of the often humorous encounters with them, like the big Hispanic kid who had invited Lyons to the parking lot to “beat his ass” following a job layoff Darren had to execute (there was also the hilarity of a “hoopty” that was parked in front of that office’s parking lot blasting early Jay-Z music).
He adeptly mixes professionalism with slang (a skill so many Black professionals have had to employ as we toggle between two worlds). Lyons even has fun with verb tense (I challenge anyone to find another book that effortlessly weaves “shat” into its narrative).
But those storytelling abilities are exceeded by his introspection throughout the book. In various chapters you see him contemplating his life and career choices, the role his decision to ignore the smallest of symptoms played in the extreme health consequences he ultimately faced, and his relationship with his wife.
Lyons takes you to the most intimate places in his personal journey, filled with not-so-flattering details about the many maladies he’s faced as his physical—and sometimes mental—tools began failing him. He lays his soul bare for all to see, exposing all the warts of debilitating illnesses that would have felled someone less strong.
But Darren seems to make even the cringeworthy laughable (in a good way). And for any of us who’ve lived long enough to have to really provide “care” for someone (I’m talking the cleaning up of one’s poop and seeing all their private parts kinda care), we certainly can relate to the situations Lyons describes.
Unlike other writers who might take a safer route (I know this because I’ve read so many books, right?), Lyons delves right in, devoting—for example—a whole chapter to “A Prayer for Pee,” in which he anxiously anticipates the horror of an intrusive medical procedure that awaits him if he cannot produce any of the golden flow. (No spoiler here, readers will have to get the book to see if his faith proves preemptive.)
Other maladies get their own chapters as well (including the likes of “Diarrhea” and “Dialysis”).
In earlier chapters you get a glimpse of his pre-“incident” adult life, where he navigates the onslaught of middle age with all of its successes and uncertainties. The guilt-ridden anticipation of a 50th birthday party—one he was “convinced” to have for himself—is soon overcome by the recognition that we all only cross that milestone once in our lifetimes (if we’re lucky enough to get there).
It was only months later that Lyons would face the challenges that had him wondering whether he’d see many more birthdays.
Very early in With Worn-Out Tools we see how a poem he learned while pledging his fraternity (the first Black Greek fraternity and a chapter he chartered at George Mason University) inspired the book’s title and served as a recurring theme throughout his adult life. Nearly as important is a painting Lyons purchased while at the peak of his career, which, ironically enough, guided his career travails as he moved “between gigs” from one job to the next, mostly—but not always, as we learn—at his own choosing.
For many of us fellow 50-something-year-olds, we empathize when Darren laments not having attended the 50th birthday celebrations of the lifelong friends who reached that milestone around the same time, knowing that those relationships can often be fleeting, but when nurtured properly can also provide sustenance.
No more important a relationship is explored, however, than that between Lyons and his wife, Elaine, who through some very difficult times in their marriage remained a pillar of support (and the difficult times are not sugarcoated in With Worn-Out Tools, by the way). Through it all, readers get the sense that, without Elaine by his side, an ultimate demise might have been Lyons’ fate rather than the triumphs the book upliftingly chronicles.
For many of those who, like myself, knew Darren as “Big D” growing up but then lost touch as we each went our separate ways, With Worn-Out Tools fills in a lot of gaps. It goes far beyond the guarded snippets of one’s life that we choose to provide on social media like Facebook or Instagram.
Instead, it’s like a chance to sit down and catch up with a long lost friend after 30 or more years apart. It’s almost unfair that we get this glimpse into Darren’s life without reciprocation. How many of us would be willing to lay bare our personal stories about second marriages, struggles with weight, joblessness, body odors… man-crushes?
Or falling down and not being able to get back up?
Darren does all this and more in With Worn-Out Tools. And he pulls it off without wallowing in self-pity that would certainly have been understandable given the kind of 2017 he had. At least the self-pity wasn’t so evident here, if it existed at all.
The book concludes with a twist and the author’s life-affirming epiphany that provides an account of what his (and, by extension, his readers’) worn-out tools really are…tools that have little to do with the physical ailments that Darren so expertly documents.
And just as he casually mentions his wife Elaine’s startling observation on the book’s last page, you get the sense that Lyons was much better equipped to deal with the related challenges the second time around.
With Worn-Out Tools gets ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (out of five) from this reviewer.
You can pick up With Worn-Out Tools: Navigating the Rituals of Midlife at the following links:
Barnes & Noble:
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff (and an occasional book)! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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I’m often amazed at the number of superstars—no, make that superheroes—that have come from the small town of Petersburg, VA, where Darren and I grew up. There are the well known ones like Moses Malone, Mark West, Blair Underwood, Trey Songz and Frank Mason…guys who span multiple generations and whose names are known worldwide in some cases.
But then there are the unsung heroes, the ones whose talents aren’t illuminated by the bright lights of Hollywood or crowded basketball arenas. D. C. Lyons—once an aspirant to be a professional football player or “the next Lionel Richie”—is one such superhero.
With Worn Out Tools is his greatest testament to that status.
Congratulations, Darren, on this very enjoyable, most intimate of memoirs!