Monday, September 11, 2006

Rocks in His Head 2: An All-natural Gift of Sweat, Rustic Beauty, and Practicality to Last Several Lifetimes.

Most people celebrate Labor Day by taking a break from labor. Me? Having rocks for brains, I kick up the labor several notches.

I built a mini Wall of China. In a brutal Labor Day week of almost non-stop heavy work, I built a 60-foot long fieldstone wall around my daughter Misha's deck behind her new Connecticut home.

The wall is similar to the one I built in my front yard, shown here, except longer and higher. In my opinion, there is nothing like a fieldstone wall to both define a home's outside and make it more beautiful and welcoming.

I built Misha's wall as a surprise while she was in Lake Tahoe designing and putting together the interior of a client's mountain home. I knew she wanted a stone wall because she had been getting quotes on a stone wall, patio, and steps. The quotes were discouragingly high, ranging from $20,000 on up.

She wanted a long -- very long -- wall. But, because of the cost, she had decided to put it off. By the time she left for California, all thoughts of a stone wall had been banished from her head, in no small measure thanks to me.

But when she came home, while she was in the kitchen talking about her trip, she happened to look out the window. "Oh my God!" she shreiked. "A wall!"

You have never seen a young woman more surprised -- or more delighted. She rushed outside to inspect her new wall. As she did so, she kept saying, "I don't believe it. I don't believe it." Then, giggling like a preteen girl, she ran to me and hugged me.

"Do you like your new stone wall?" I asked.

"Are you kidding? I love it."

I felt a wave of relief. Because Misha is an interior designer and has a trained eye for harmonious use of space, any space, inside or out, I had taken a certain amount of risk. As a talented designer and a perfectionist on top of that, she would not be able hide her displeasure with a stone wall that was in the least discordant.

Her eye goes immediately to any design failure, however tiny, and displeasure is written all over her face. She can't fake liking something that hits her wrong, though, because she is sweet and caring, she does try.

I could tell she wasn't faking it. There was nothing in her face but delight with my surprise gift. Her pleasure was later confirmed at a family gathering in which she told the whole story of her new wall. I hadn't been talked about so much since when I used to chase women.

It was nice to be a player again.

I did point out certain weak points in the wall, such as not enough flat rocks on top and an errant wiggle, and said I would fix them first chance. For a perfectionist not to see shortcomings that were obvious to me, well, who could ask for more than that?

The surprise was total. Her joy was bounteous. My diabolical scheme had worked perfectly. All the brutal, back-breaking work had been worth it. I almost didn't make it, physically and timewise, and was working bone-tired in the dark on the night of her arrival.

Let me now give you an idea of how physically hard it was for me to build such a long wall in such a short time. In the first place, I didn't have the stones delivered from a masonary supply company. I had to find them in the wild, literally.

First, I harvested all the suitable rocks I could find in the immediate vicinity of the house. Many were buried, with perhaps an edge showing. They had to be dug up with a shovel or pick. With the bigger buried rocks, I had to use my long iron bar. Thanks to the magic of leverage, with this heavy piece of iron I can get amazingly large rock out of the ground.

Once I found rocks and dug them up, I had to get them to the work site. Normal people with brains larger than mine use a wheelbarrow. Like our prehistoric ancesters, I pick up as many as I can by hand and carry them to the location of the future wall.

Often, it is one large rock and it is all I can do to carry it. Large rocks are needed for the base of the wall to give it a strong foundation. After gathering the easy pickings, I climbed like a mountain goat up a steep hillside, slipping and sliding all the way, to get suitable rocks. Several times while lugging large base rocks down the hillside, I nearly lost my footing.

Did you ever pick up a good-sized fieldstone? Try it some time. It's a solid dead weight that leaves mere human flesh and bone decidely overmatched. Did you ever try to pick up and muscle a few thousand heavy rocks in the course of a few days?

If your brain is filled with geologic deposits as mine is and you have done so, then you know that fieldstones are heavy. Carrying even a few medium-sized fieldstones takes a lot of energy and strength. Lugging large fieldstones through the woods, hour after hour and day after day, is extreme grunt work at its most primordial.

Not any rock will do. It must have wall potential. That means it must have at least one smooth face and have a workable shape. The ideal rock is flat and square. Unfortunately, in real-world rock hunting, this beauty, this object of a rock hounds's fantasy, is mostly a romantic figment.

Rocks in the wild come in all shapes except flat and square. On the rare occasion that I do unearth such a gem, my rock hound's heart pounds with excitement. I see it hiding ugly, though hard-working, rocks. I see it covering up holes and mistakes and providing a finishing veneer to the top of the wall.

To me, this part of building a wall is an exciting treasure hunt. Finding the perfect flat and square rock is always possible. You never know when that little edge poking out of the ground will turn out to be a wall-builder's dream come true. But even finding rocks that are far from perfect but that you know will work is a thrill.

It's amazing how many rocks I needed to build Misha's wall, by far the longest and most ambitious I have ever built. After using up all the rocks from the hillside and nearby woods, I ran out of building material. Basically, I told Misha's husband Ed, no rocks, the walls ends.

Now Ed is one can-do guy and he very much wanted a wall for his wife. Large new homes are under construction nearby, and Ed immediately suggested that we ask the builder -- the same one who built Ed and Misha's house -- if we could take rocks from the site.

We went up and chased down the builder who was quite happy to accommodate a customer with rocks that he had no need for and that were only going to be buried anyway.

Using Misha's SUV, I made trip after trip to the building site, searching, digging, picking, bending, lifting, hauling. I sweated buckets. My dirt-caked clothes stuck to me. I paused only for water and to watch Andre Agassi wind up his brilliant career with a hard-fought and emotional loss to B. Becker (not the one you're thinking of) in the U.S. Open.

Then there is the minor detail of actually building the wall. If I had all flat and square royalty, all I would have to do is place them on each other. But what I had was mostly peasant-class rocks who had to be made to perform like royalty. They had to be able to meet the approval of Misha's unerring eye for design and visual harmony.

The wall had to look good but it also had to be strong so it won't fall and make me the laughing stock of the whole family. I had to create a pleasing and unified facade by putting each rock's best face forward. The many rocks had to be forced to create a unified whole.

A wall is not rocks piled on each other. It is part puzzle, part physics, part aethestics, part brute strength. It is also, I would argue, cosmically (not comically, please) significant, a transformation of choas into order. By application of prehistoric work methods and dimwittedness, in my case at least, rocks existing randomly in nature come magically together in a wall that serves humanity.
And who is to say that a wall does not also serve individual rocks by rescuing them from dark, hidden, lonely, and pointless existences. Take a beautiful square and flat rock, for example, buried in dirt, unseen and unappreciated except by worms who love to nest under it.
But when I dig it up, everything changes. It becomes the object of a rock hound's love. It is brought up from the darkness into a community of all kinds of different-shaped brethren. It is given a place of honor at the top of the wall where it reigns as royalty over the rough, flawed, hard-working commoners arranged below.
Robert Frost wrote that a good wall makes good neighbors. I say that a good wall makes good rocks and good people better because it puts them both to work creating something of innate and lasting value. A stone wall? Yes, a stone wall, at least one built and given with love as Misha's was.
But it must be a good wall and this means it must be strong. The trick is to make the extraordinary weight of each stone contribute to the strength of the wall overall. A good wall has a complicated and necessary interlocking and its strength comes primarily from its own weight.

Each rock must be placed to bear weight without movement. Each placement is an engineering decision that must anticipate the next rock and the next and the next. This takes a lot of time, something that many people do not appreciate. Misha's husband, Ed, is one.

He came home from work one day and came out to check on my progress. I had been working flatout like a slave. I was soaked with sweat. I was filthy. I was tired. I thought I was making good progress. "It looks the same, " he said. "Did you take a break?"

Now I like Ed and we get along terrifically, but sometimes he says exactly the wrong thing and this was one of those times. But instead of telling him so as I usually do, I just gave him a stern look, and said, "Ed ... Ed ..."

He got the point.

Later, kidding, I told him, "You know, Ed, there are laws against exploiting a person over 65. If I reported you to the authorities, they would come here and take you away just like that. You'd go to jail for working an old man like this."

It didn't stop him from pushing me to add about 20 feet to what I had planned. He said, "The trouble is you sit at the table and look out and the wall ends. It looks funny. It would really look a lot better if when you looked out you saw all wall."

I agreed with him, reluctantly. Because I had to build 20 more feet of wall, I ended up pushing myself even more. Nearly delerious, I put the final touches on the wall in the dark of night.

As I was leaving after a week of brute physical labor, Misha let me know that she would love it if I would extend the wall quite a bit more: the entire length of the house. She asked when I would be coming back. She said it would be nice if the wall were completed before the holidays.

I made believe I was being put upon, but I was secretly pleased. She loved the wall. She loved it so much that she wanted more. After complaining that I had not seen a cent of the 75 cents per hour I charge her for such work, I told her I would be happy toextend the wall. She said the check was in the mail.

Misha and Ed stopped by our place this weekend. They talked about how wonderful it was to have breakfast in the morning while looking out at the wall. But it does need to be longer, they said.

"When are you going to finish it?" Ed asked.

I gave him THE LOOK. "Ed .... Ed..."

But inside I was proud and happy. I had given a gift to be enjoyed for a lifetime, perhaps several lifetimes. It is appreciated. It did not cost a cent, only time and hard work. I can't remember having a more enjoyable week.

Plus, you should see my arms and shoulders: rippling muscles, man. Okay, maybe not "rippling," but certainly toned up after an extreme weeklong workout.

When I got back home, I went swimming at my sister's lakefront place. She took one look at me in my bathing suit and said, "You're so thin!"

I smiled. "Not thin," I said. "Last week in Connecticut, I just exchanged a little fat for muscle." Then I told her the story of Misha's wall.

Instantly, she said, "I need a wall."

I smiled and dove in and had a wonderful end-of-summer swim.

So long and keep moving.

 E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.