In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

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This past week was the most intense I’ve had at any school. We spent the week assembling a drystone wall. It is about 30 feet long and 40 inches high. That might not seem like a lot, but limestone is heavy, and we had no idea what we were doing.

20190923-102854 5D3 4M6C6776.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 28mm, 1/160, f/5.6, 400 ISO
The excavation is nearly complete.

Our instructors for the week, Dean McLellan and Andre Lemieux, certainly remedied that situation! We started with a pile of stoned and the spray painted outline of where the wall was to go. Our first instruction was about the batter frame and how we use it to level the courses and have them narrow toward the top to strengthen the wall.

Once the batter frames were placed, we started with the foundation, digging to packed soil, and laid the first course. We quickly learned how to position the stones and how to fill the area between with smaller stones, a procedure called ‘hearting.’

I cannot stress how much of a physical labour shifting all this stone is. I was flabbergasted when Dean told me that he and Andre could have put up the wall in one day … a job that took the six of us nearly four days. But they’re the professionals! Even beyond their obvious skill, they have the physical conditioning that we do not. I have never been so wracked with muscle and back pain by any activity as this. Yes, I’m older, but my classmates (half of whom are in their twenties) echoed my complaints about stiff muscles, especially upon waking.

20190924-140434 5D3 4M6C6810.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 34mm, 1/1600, f/8, 400 ISO
Work progresses. Note the wood batter frame on the left with the string to indicate the level of the top course.

Slowly but surely, our efforts at sizing the stones with a hammer became more and more accurate, our placement of those stones more creative and tight, and the courses more regular and level. Of course we made mistakes, some of which came back to complicate things later, but we learned and improved. We’re no where near pro calibre, but we learned the basics, and that was the whole point.

Over the first two days, the wall slowly took form. Slowly being the key word. Working with heavy stones so near the ground is hard work. As its height increased, our work seemed to speed up. By the end of the third day, we were pleased with what we saw. We had a wall!

The forth day, we laid the last course and the cope stones. Those are the heavy stones placed vertically to anchor the top course with their mass. With the wall being so short, we needed no through-stones to tie both sides together.

20190926-143602 5D3 4M6C6873.CR2: 5D Mk.III, EF 17-40mm 1:4L @ 32mm, 1/80, f/8, 100 ISO
The completed wall. Our instructors stand in front of the wall, my classmates behind.

What surprised me is that such a simple structure can be so strong and so ridiculously resilient. If the ground heaves and settles through freeze and thaw, the stones will move against each other as necessary, maintaining their relative positions. No cracks form because drystone construction not locked into place. It is far more plastic than masonry. Well-constructed drystone walls, if left alone, will stand for centuries. More often than not, maintenance is required because of poor construction or damage.

I am absolutely in love with how these walls look. I’d love to get the first level of drystone building certification and work on them for pay. But I know myself … I just learned how and am still excited by the experience. I’ll give it some time and see if I’m still so enthusiastic.

If I am, I know a couple of guys in the field I can contact for information. 

The quinquagenarian goes back to school!

Holy cow, shit got real. I feel like a different person. A very busy person, among other things. You may know that I started school two weeks ago. I’m now a student at The Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. At least I think that’s the name, but no one ever uses it. It’s just Willowbank. Technically it’s a private career college, but there’s only one program offered. After three years, I’ll get a diploma in Heritage Conservation.

Basically, I’m starting the process of learning how to repair and conserve heritage structures. At the two week mark, the only hands-on we’ve had is with glass, but coming is an array of hands on learning. I’m particularly looking forward to stone carving and blacksmithing.

Willowbank upper campus. This is where I go to school!

I’m not a rich person so I have to keep my part time job, and with full time classes, it’s a challenge. School is 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and two consecutive days this coming week I’ll also be working from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm. I can have dinner in the 30 minute span that I can spend at home before I have to leave for work. I’m certain that people have far busier lives, but this is busy for me! The last day off I had with no school and no work was September 4. I don’t see that changing for a while and I have no complaints.

Things were pretty sedate before school but it seems I have less time for everything else now. It just means that I go to bed earlier and feel more tired, more often. But the advantage is that I’m doing something that I really enjoy and it may continue after I graduate. I’m not sure I’ve ever in my life thought, “I’m looking forward to Monday. Why? Because I get to go to school!” With this school, how they teach, and what they teach, I am looking forward to Monday.

This week we’re building a drystone (mortar-free stone) wall!

A classmate in Bright Parlour, a lecture space in the upper campus.

Class sizes are small. My year has six students, myself included, so we’ve already started to form into a cohesive group. And there’s no sign from the other students that they’re somehow better or superior because they’ve been around longer. We’re all just students at various levels of experience. Everyone’s been so terrific, including the instructors. They’re all people in the field who agree to come and teach us for a number of days, either once or a number of times. Some are Willowbank graduates so they know us because they have been us.

With the upper campus being so gorgeous, I park there in the morning, get out of the car and take a moment to myself. I breathe the fresh air, listen to the sounds of the insects and the trees, take in the beauty of the grounds through the thick morning air, and be glad because I have the good fortune to be able to attend such an amazing school.

Unwelcome interest

One day last summer I was driving home from my workplace. I had worked the evening shift so it was nearly 10:30 pm. I was stopped at a red light turning right onto a four lane road. Looking to my left, I could see a pickup approaching in the left lane, and a car behind it. Since the right lane was free, I made the turn and proceeded on my way. As a habit, I tend to practice a more moderate acceleration because of the increased fuel economy. Since my lane was clear, I felt no reason to change my habit.

As the truck pulled up beside me, there was a flurry of noise and light behind me. The car that was behind the truck had pulled into the right lane behind me. As my acceleration brought me up to speed, the pickup truck came up beside me as I matched its speed. Had the driver in the car simply changed lanes, he would have been behind me with ample space just as he was behind the truck previously. But no, he pulled out and accelerated knowing full well I was there. He didn’t hit me so I wasn’t concerned. If he wants to demonstrate that he’s an ass, that’s his prerogative.

As we continued on, I moved past the truck and the car dropped back. To my surprise, the car made no move to pass. It didn’t feel right. Instead of my usual left turn, I took the next right into an older subdivision. The car followed. I then took the first left. The car followed. I made another half-dozen turns and the car stuck with me, with a few flashes of his high-beams for good measure. As I reached the edge of the sub-division, I turned right, away from my home. The car turned left, to get back to the main road we were on, apparently giving up on me.

I wasn’t afraid because I was in my car and safe. At the same time however, I didn’t want to lead an interested stranger to my home when I have no idea what form their interest took. I’m not that interesting, so when I find a car has been with me for a time, I’ll throw an extra turn into my route to see if it’s more than a coincidence. I’m far more likely to do this as l near home, as where I live is no one’s business.

Be aware of what’s around you. Not only to prevent collisions, but to prevent someone following you, especially if you think another driver may be upset for whatever reason.

Cinema Strangiato: R40+

So Julie and I attended a show this evening.

It was terrific. No recording is like being at a live show but this was pretty darn good, having much of the live R40 concert. Not only was it better than any seats I’ve ever had, but it was more than enough to remind me of the good times I’ve had at their shows. The mix of live performance, interviews with other musicians, and the band’s goofiness was ideal. With all of the Rush-related ads at he beginning (the ad for Geddy Lee’s Big Beautiful Book of Bass alone must have been 15 minutes long), it was 2½ hours in length. I thought it was great but I felt bad for Julie. She wanted to come with me not because she likes Rush, but because she likes me! Although I’m pretty sure she doesn’t dislike Rush, I can understand that it could have been a lot to take since she knows little about them and their music.

They’re not touring any more but it was a lovely walk down memory lane. Recommended!

I don’t know who owns the copyright on the marquee poster. Probably Anthem Entertainment, but who knows.


I can’t be sure it was grade five but it feels like it was.

Some of my classmates and I decided to play baseball at recess. The large yard beside the school was occupied by most of the children doing various activities so we went to the smaller empty yard in front of the school. How I got to be the pitcher, I don’t remember. Given the small size of the yard, I had to stand uncomfortably close to the batter and I didn’t like this at all. The best thing I could think of was to turn around after I threw the ball. At least I wouldn’t be hit in the face.

The one of the class athletes took the bat. Now I was even more afraid, especially given that we were using a hardball. I pitched and quickly turned. There bat cracked and a split second later, all I could see was white. I don’t recall when I realized it, but the ball hit me square in the back of the head. By the time my vision returned, I was off to the side of the yard, perhaps six metres away. One of my classmates likened me to a Timex watch because I took a licking and kept on ticking. I was still dizzy though I seem to have managed to walk to the side of the yard, perhaps with help, without falling.

Back in those days, if you had a mishap and remained conscious, weren’t bleeding too badly, and had no broken bones, you were all right and the game continued. I seemed okay and I recall we didn’t even tell any adults. Why would we? The game did continue but without me.

The only after effect, and I can’t even be certain that it was related, is for the next 20 or 30 years, I would occasionally have my vision fill with white and clear a few seconds later. I would also get partially dizzy and have to stop moving to avoid falling. This would happen with varying frequency but it never happened more than once every month or two. By the time I was 16, I was worried about what would happen if these ‘whiteouts’ ever happened while I was driving, but they never did.

I don’t think they happen any more, but I can’t be totally sure. I do recall more recent similar occurrences where I feel a bit dizzy for a few seconds, but I don’t lose my vision. These happen even less often.

Surely there is nothing to be gained by pursuing it now, but I really do wonder what effect it had. With all the recent talk of how head injuries and concussions are far more serious than we realized, I’m certain it did affect me but I can’t be sure how serious it was.

I wonder how things might have been different if I had decided against baseball that day, long ago.

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