A long time ago, I had a neighbor named Bernard who was a master craftsman, and I loved to watch him work. He had bought the house beside us, a turn-of-the-century number with what could generously be described as ‘having a lot of character,’ but which was really just a house that needed a lot of money.
Over a period of a few years, the home was transformed.
When I first spoke with him, he told me everything he would do, and it began with changing the elevation of the property, which meant he had to factor in draining water away from the house. It is too difficult to explain, at least here anyway, how he made this happen, but his solution was ingenious. I had never seen anything like it before and as a result, I became a fan and his friend. He was happy too to have someone take an interest in not only his work, but the thinking and motivation behind it.
You will have to trust me when I tell you that everything, even the simple things he created, were remarkable feats of art and engineering.
Towards the end of his renovation, he laid interlocking stone for his driveway and courtyard as well as down the side of his house. He did this in such a way that each area came together to make a giant work of art. Specifically, the stones were laid to resemble water and rapids, all of it cascading down to the street to take advantage of the home’s new elevation. It was gorgeous of course, but when you understood that the first step in creating this had been to change the home’s elevation, a process that involved a whole lot of measuring and hauling, you couldn’t help but be impressed.
Twice, for reasons he well knew, he took an area of the stone river apart and moved it six or eight feet, and with some effort and patience, he put the puzzle back together again.
In order to move it all, he and his apprentice, an older man named Henri, had to remove some of the stones and pile them to one side, then wrap a long chain around the remaining pattern of placed stones (in this case, a circle) and pull it to where they wanted it. They did this by securing a car-jack to the chain. In this way, they could move the circle without it falling apart. The entire maneuver wasn’t hard, but you had to be very mindful and very patient.
They worked at moving the stones around for a few days. Hauling the circle of rocks this way, then that way, then back to the original place where they would reassemble it, before taking it apart again. This constant adjusting and chattering in French lasted for days, and I had a front row seat.
One night after work, Bernard was standing alone having a coffee, looking at – or maybe admiring – the finished work.
He explained to me then that there was nothing wrong with the stonework and that there never had been. In fact, he told me that the original plan and design had been perfect. Then he told me that the next day, he and Henri would take it all apart again, and move it around some more.
“I’m teaching Henri patience,” Bernard told me. “I want him to learn what it takes to make everything just right.”
In a one-size-fits-all world, just right is hard to come by.