Chapter Seven

Framing the teahouse/study--Part I

Kieran Egan

I mentioned earlier the influences that flowed from Chinese artists' huts in the mountains to the creation of the Japanese teahouse, and that my purpose was more akin to the Chinese retreat for study and work than the more contemplative, austere, and ceremonial Japanese tea house. But the Western idea of the study also influences my plans&endash;&endash;if plans they can be called. While the secluded hut of China was converting into the urban garden teahouse of Japan, in Europe something not entirely different in spirit was taking place. In the medieval house, all rooms, including the bedrooms, were public spaces. The modern idea of privacy seems a later development. But during the Renaissance in Italy a distinct kind of room was invented. The studio was a small private room set off for "studious leisure".

In the studio the owner could read and write or reflect on life with the help of favorite classical authors, whose works were becoming more available. Possibly the monastic cell provided a model for the rich man's study-- a place of contemplation, study, and prayer in private. Or so Dora Thornton suggests in The Scholar in his Study (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

A degree of ceremonial and reverence for the activities to be engaged with in such rooms was not uncommon, as developed in the East with the teahouse. Machiavelli, heeding the advice I ignored of the master-gardener that distinctive clothing is appropriate for any task one wishes to engage in the right spirit, solemnly changed clothing before entering his study to commune with the ancient, mighty dead.

These earliest Western studies were typically furnished sparsely with a built-in desk and bench. A revolving lectern might be present. There would also be a few shelves for books or antique ornaments. This I will likely replicate, putting out there my Roman oil lamps and small vases, and perhaps the ancient Greek bronze spear heads I had bought&emdash;much corroded, so I got them very cheap. They had been found in Asia Minor, and dated to around 1200 BCE, so one of them might have been the one that got Achilles in the heel.

As time went by, the decoration and furniture of the studio became more elaborate. Trust a Medici (Piero, in this case) to have a vaulted ceiling inlaid with roundels--those decorative carved medallions--by Luca della Robbia, representing the Labors of the Months. Not something I expect to emulate. Just can't find that quality of labor around here for some reason. But even if one could, and could afford it, the Japanese ideal of simplicity and a certain starkness attracts me.

The starkness or sparseness of the physical surroundings is a reflection of the lack of clutter one desires for the mind. So the teahouse is to be a retreat from the crowding cares and hugger-mugger of daily life, from its newspapers, radios, and TVs, and from the clamor that is so hard to shake from one's mind. Nan-jung Chu visited the Taoist sage Lao Tzu. As the man approached, Lao Tze says, "Why did you come with all this crowd of people?" Surprised, Nan-jung Chu whirled around, but saw no one. It was his baggage of anxieties, the clutter of voices in his mind, and the everyday concerns the sage observed in him. So as we approach the teahouse, we are to leave our crowds behind; we are to go in alone, as we were born alone and shall die alone, whatever crowds may be around us.


Beginning the teahouse

The path to this serene and simple place is through a lot of work, sweat, dirt, ruined cloths and boots, damaged fingers, bruised legs, strained back, pulled muscles, cuts and lacerations, aching knees, shoulders, and elbows, endless silent and not so silent cursing, significant anxiety about costs, shouted frustrations at stupid errors, and much else that seems to share little with the end in view.

But tomorrow I will begin building. My lack of planning has reached pathological proportions here, as I have no idea what I am going to do. I imagine I would like to have an Asian style roof, with upturned edges, though I have no idea how to build such things. They are not common on the more simple teahouse styles I have seen, and aren't standard bits one can pick up at the local lumberyards. One thing at a time; just set about doing the next thing, and bit by bit it will just happen.

I don't even know whether to build it on stilts or lay a concrete pad at ground level. I have vaguely imagined a raised tea house, with a few steps going up to it and a narrow veranda under the long curving roof that juts out over the pond. Why should I build it above ground? Why not? Is it a memory of the Swiss Family Robinson, contented in their tree house? It's not the most practical way to go, but if practicality is the criterion that is supposed to dominate here, I'd never have done any of this. Perhaps it is an image of sitting on a balcony or veranda raised a little above the pond, from which one could look down and feed the fish or watch the waterfall.

The area left for the teahouse is where I had been tossing all the rubble and waste soil I couldn't work out what to do with earlier. First I would have to get rid of the now grassy mound of mixed clay and topsoil I had been chasing round the garden from the time I began on the fence.

Most of what was here, though, came out of what is now the pond. I began digging into the mound, thinking I was so familiar with this particular pile it might start calling me by my first name. There was space for some of it, perhaps all of it, to the rear of the shrubs on the north side of the garden. Just to make life difficult, I seem to have sprung a leak in the tire on the wheelbarrow, so carting the soil away has to wait on getting a bicycle pump. Then it's slow work, spading the soil into the wheelbarrow, then taking it ten yards or so down the garden, looking for places behind the shrubs that might be able to accommodate wandering loads of mostly infertile soil. A few afternoons of hefting and slinging got rid of the whole pile. Then I gathered up the leftover acreage of liner and found a place for it under the deck, piled against the shed various bits of wood from earlier building, and tossed the dozens of stones that had been dug out of the various excavations against the north fence.

Then I raked and weeded, until I had a smooth and neat piece of teahouse sized real estate. I think it is this stage that gives me most satisfaction, like looking down at the sculpted space for the pond, or the shaped stream bed from the bog. At this point it was tempting to decide that what I needed there was just a raked piece of dark brown soil. Well, not very tempting perhaps.

The next trick was to work out how big I would make the teahouse, and what shape it would be, and where I would put the support posts&emdash;little things like that. The kind of things it is good to sort out before getting too advanced: lest one try building teahouses in the sky. If I used up all the space I had, I could build it about ten feet deep, with a two foot jog half way along the back wall to avoid the cedar tree that my wife is reluctant to lose. I thought that could create an attractive alcove inside, with tall, narrow windows on one or both sides of it, and a seat in the base, cushioned; a nice place for reading. There seemed room for about twelve feet across the front. So I began pegging it out.

It quickly became clear that using up the whole space was not a good idea. It would push the teahouse right up against two sets of the bamboo, leaving no room to get around the back. Also I would have to forgo my alcove, as I needed to leave three feet from the neighbor's fence. So I was reduced to a simple eight by ten-foot space. I pegged it out roughly, tied string around the pegs where the walls would be, and put a garden chair in the middle to get a sense of the space I would have. It was enough for a small writing surface and to be able to have a chair and footstool so that I could sit back with feet up and read. I know this isn't like the spare teahouse you were perhaps expecting&emdash;but those are my compromises with the European studio, and we'll see what can be done around them to maintain the spirit of the teahouse.

I bought the wood I needed to build the posts and to string joists between them and lay a plywood floor on top. Once the base was in place, I would begin the framing&emdash;but I'd put off planning that until the base was finished, on the assumption that failing to plan further would reduce considerably the options I then had, which would in turn reduce the need to plan. A very Irish logic.

So first I would need to dig the holes into which I would put the posts that would support the raised teahouse. I went to rent the posthole digger that I had become familiar with when building the fence.

"How many holes?" asked the cheery equipment rental guy.


"You'll want a power auger then. Much quicker, and twelve will take you ages with the hand digger."

I realized that, in all the times I had been there and was to go in the future, he never rented me what I asked for. If I was always guided to something more expensive, I would recognize an easy pattern. But sometimes he insisted I needed a cheaper tool, or would be better off with something I already had&emdash;like the time he wouldn't rent me a chainsaw to get rid of a tree stump, insisting I use an axe. Good exercise, but a bit more wearing on the joints. A more complex psychological explanation was needed. It was as though this was his way of insisting on his professional status and my amateur incompetence. It's certainly not that I always asked for the wrong thing.

The auger required two people, and I wouldn't be able to get any help before the next weekend, so I thought I finally had him trapped. He would have to rent me the manual posthole digger I came in for. But, no; he had a new kind of manual digger that he was sure I'd find better than the old one, and he insisted I give it a try.

The new one worked on a corkscrew principle. It had, at about waist height, a straight piece of wood across the top with hand-grips on either end, like an upright bicycle's handlebars. The business end was like two narrow spades joined rigidly together, with a kind of cutting piece sticking out. The effect was that if one pushed down on the wide handles and turned, one would cut and loosen the soil, which would be dragged between the spade-like blades. Then one pulled up and threw the soil to one side. I began; push down and turn, and turn again, and again. After some time a small amount of soil fell between the two blades. Lift and toss aside. Then again, and again. This was hard and slow work. As soon as it encountered a stone or root, it shied off sideways, so I had to get a trowel or seccateurs and dig out whatever was obstructing progress downwards. Quite wearying, and mostly it didn't pull up the soil well. The soil dribbled over its sides, so I had to lean down and scoop it out by hand.

Eventually I was down about two feet, leaning in to scoop out the loosened soil, and then stopped, with my nose inches from the top of the hole. What was the smell? Not just the mix of soil odors, from the top rich layer and the lower clay, and a wisp of something damp and fresh from the cut roots, but also something else, faint, like a ghost vanishing as I tried to capture it. Some animal smell. Something that died here a thousand years ago? It had a ghostly suspiration to it. Perhaps the last desperate exhalation of a caught skunk, held in the soil for decades or centuries till released just now. I'm sure smells can't last like that, nor was it so distinctively skunk-like, but that's what came to mind, as something that clings tenaciously. And it was only the faintest half-caught smell, like an echo of something fading and hardly there, but yet undeniably there, like a presence of some other form of life, disturbed. I paused, looking into the shadowed hole, half expecting a whispered voice from the deep backward and abysm of time. What would it say? "You too will join us soon?" One hardly needs ghostly voices for such banal messages. More likely, instead of such solemnities, the voice would be preceded by a few clicks and ask in a bored tone for the expiry date of my credit card.

I sniffed at the other holes as I dug them out, but didn't again sense that curious faint animal odor. I was reminded of the Sufi teacher Ansari's words: "I heard a voice whispering in the night saying 'There is no voice whispering in the night.'"

At about two feet down in the third hole I hit another stone. I got out the trowel, and began trying to loosen it. I had clearly hit the head of Moby Rock's sibling. So that post would go down two feet, and no further.

I spent a couple of hours, screwing the posthole digger down an inch or so at a time. It wasn't so bad when I was going through clear soil, but as soon as even a small stone or root got in the way, I was down with the trowel or seccateurs, hacking and cutting then pulling it out with my gloved hand. The glove was some protection, obviously, but as I pulled upwards, soil from the sides of the hole dribbled down inside the glove, till my fingers were packed with soil inside and outside the glove. And my hand was increasingly sweaty, so the soil inside smeared and caked in the most attractive way. Occasionally expecting a hand to come up and shake mine reaching down.

A couple of hours the next day, and then our elder son visited on the Sunday, and he had a go as well. After all this effort, I still didn't have half of them done. Clearly I needed mechanized violence

I phoned Geoff, who had helped me get Moby Rock out of the pond area. He would be happy to help, and came over the next afternoon. I rented a power auger and we got it back home and into the garden. There were four handles sticking out at the top, with a broad metal screw at the business end, and an accelerator trigger on one handle. One pulled the starting handle and the gas engine burst into life.

It makes in incredible racket, but dives downward into the soil as though taking a bite out of its favorite dessert after not having eaten for a week. It bores into the ground, but then gets stuck. We realize that the trick is to let it bore down a few inches, then raise it so the soil caught in the screw gets thrown clear of the hole. We get into the pattern, and all seems to go quite well, until the screw hits a root or stone. Once that happens it lurches to one side, but continues its impressive chewing downwards. In one or two cases, it hits something just under the surface, and veers off. After a while, I can't tell whether we have drilled holes in the right places or whether they have all shot off to various undesired compass points. Geoff and I feel like marionettes pulled two and fro by this roaring demon whose sole aims seems to be reaching Australia by the most direct route. But within an hour or so we have the remaining holes dug. We returned the auger to the rental shop with a small swagger to suggest we managed to work the beast successfully, rather than admit that it worked us.


Putting in the supporting posts

I now faced the problem of getting the 12 posts all lined up and square. After dropping a few inches of small stones into each hole, to help drain water from the base of the posts underground, and pounding the stones with the post, I dropped a 5 foot 4 by 4 into each hole, and felt some apprehension at the result. They didn't look much in line, nor did the whole thing look very square. I had only an hour or so in the evening of a couple of days the next week and it seemed as though I was making no progress at all in getting the posts the right distance from each other, each vertical, each in line, and all square. I had bought a number of ten-foot strips of 1 by 2 pieces of wood, and had been staking the posts in place, and then fastening them together with the long strips, which were supposed to hold them upright and in precise line. I knew the 3o4o5 method, but there just seemed too many dimensions to keep under control: I had to have them vertical, north-south and east-west, then in line with the posts running north-south, and with those running east-west, and all square. Well, I know I am overdoing this&emdash;if I had measured more carefully in the first place and controlled the auger better, it shouldn't have been such a problem. But I hadn't and it was.

The family next door was having some renovations done. As I went out each morning to take the chicken wire cover off the pond, I would chat with the carpenter. I had seen him working during the day when I was home in my study, measuring with great care, cutting with calm precision; he seemed a true craftsman. I ask him did he know a way to get the base squared off easily.

"Yes. I'll come," he says putting down his circular saw. A slight Dutch accent, kindly face, gray moustache.

He looks at my posts and ribbons of thin strips trying to hold them together and in place.

"It ought to be easier, I know," I said apologetically.

"Yes. It is easy. You see, take these three posts, this line" he said, pointing to the three parallel to my Japanese fence. "Put them right, then pour concrete. When that is dry you have secure baseline. Then across there, and across there. It is easy. Measure 3o4o5. There."

He smiles and waves as he wanders down the garden. Pardon? Could we go over that a few times more?

Well, at the very least he gave me the good idea to start with one line that is sure, and then concrete those three posts in place, and that was something to begin with. Which was better than constantly chasing my errors from one corner to another, trying to keep all the posts vertical, square, and in line. Each time I had fixed one post, it seemed to throw at least one of the others out in at least one dimension. So I started by firmly setting up the three posts, making sure they were vertical in all dimensions, in line with each other, and each precisely equidistant from the fence. I cut small stakes and pounded them into the ground, then nailed them to the 4 by 4s, to make them entirely secure.

Then to mixing concrete. I was going to rent one of those mechanical jobs, but having been persuaded to put a few posts in at a time, I thought I may as well do the old mixing-in-the-wheelbarrow routine. I found indeed that it was much easier with a hoe than a shovel, and after a while I was ready to slurp the gray soup into the hole.

Concrete dries to a rather boring light gray, but when it is newly mixed and poured and first sets, it is a distinguished and serious dark shade, with hints of deeper greens or blues. Set around the first posts when I came out the next day, it seemed dignified and proud in its magic of turning from that slurped porridge to immovable servant.

By the end of a couple of hours of careful measurements and staking, I had the three end posts in place and embedded in concrete. A couple of days later I went out to do some more. Instead of doing the 3o4o5 measuring, as the craftsman working next door and every book in the land had told me, I decided to repeat what I had already done by measuring the four posts along the rear from the north fence. It was a bit difficult getting everything lined up, and some of the holes needed extending northwards a few inches. So I troweled down, scooping the soil up by hand every few minutes, grainy clay gathering inside my glove as I worked. When all was in place, I mixed concrete and poured. After more precise measuring and staking, mixing and slurping, I finished the afternoon with three further posts embedded in concrete.

Put like that, it may seem the concrete mixing was pretty easy. It involved the usual back-pulling work to get the water and gray powder and stones to mingle properly, and then more back and knee straining to add further mix to get the right consistency, and some cursing as I had to open another bag because I put in too much water, and then add a bit more water because I had put in too much mix, etc. And when I had been digging out all those holes I had to deposit the soil somewhere. So the surface was unevenly mounded between the holes, like a miniature alps, and the wheelbarrow had to be maneuvered carefully to sit more or less level, but then had to be further maneuvered over the alps to be able to pour the concrete accurately into the holes. One time my sloppy working surface led to near disaster, as I was heaving the full barrow of ready-to-pour concrete over a hump, and it began to tumble sideways. They say one should let a barrow fall in such circumstances, as it is easy to do real damage to muscle, bone, and sinew if one tries to fight against a falling barrow load. I did, of course, the wrong thing. If I hadn't I would have had a load of drying concrete sitting on top of the soil. At the time one doesn't think or notice one's pains, and I shoved a thigh against the side of the barrow and heaved till most of the mixture poured in the direction of the hole. I was able to use a trowel to shove the rest to its proper destination. Part of the trouble was caused by working late, into the near darkness. Only the next day entering the shower did I notice the large and vivid bruising on my inner thigh. Which took a few weeks to clear.

The lessons so far: measure carefully, clear the surface of the area one is working in, let barrows fall, stop work before it gets too late to see clearly. One evening, finishing off the last hole, I kept going till I was could no longer see the bubble in the carpenter's level. I unplugged the pond and hooked up a light onto a branch of the cedar, and did, satisfyingly, finish concreting the last post in place.

The next day I went out in the daylight to assess the work of the previous evenings. I measured across from corner to corner, and was puzzled&emdash;the corners didn't . . . I stopped . . . what could be the problem? Why didn't I get the same measurement from corner to corner? I warily took the long set-square, and placed it next to the small straight one by two strips I had placed running along the two lines of posts in place. I couldn't believe it . . . they were out of square, by a significant amount. How had I gone so wrong? I stood back and looked. The fences! They were not square! What a fool! I had built my posts in line with fences that were not themselves square. What could I do? The concrete had dried and was becoming immovable as I looked at it. Could I dig the posts out?

I stood looking at the two sides of what was to be the teahouse, and felt an awful sense of stupidity, helplessness, despair. I was near tears, of frustration and shame.

My wife had been out during the day, and came in just after I had cleaned and put away my tools. I told her about my gross mistake in measuring. She said, to my considerable comfort, that human beings do these kinds of things, and if the teahouse is to sit at a somewhat unsquare attitude to the world, well, so did we. It was indeed a comfort; my off-square teahouse was a product of the twisted nature of human beings, who never sit four-square to the world. And within a while, I was almost recovered, almost laughing at my stupidity, and almost cheerfully accepting that this stupidity is a part of me and is what I have to work with, so I must accept its results and fare forward.

That night, feeling still a bit despondent after the day's major failure, I decided to watch TV rather than do something more constructive. Fate's rather sick sense of humor decided to put on for me a program on the leaning tower of Pisa, and the errors of its construction and the endless problems of trying to fix them. I should check whether there were any Irish engineers involved.

Soon I should be putting in the long joists and the floor that would rest on them, and once that was done it would be very awkward doing anything to the earth beneath. So this was the time to level the ground, adding a few more barrow-loads to the rising piles behind the shrubs. Then I laid landscape fabric over every exposed inch of soil.

I had intended to dump more of the gravel I had put on the area along the fence, but made another mistake. I forgot to tell the stone merchant that I wanted compactable gravel, and said yes to pea-gravel, of the kind I had put on the top of the bog. It was dumped in the drive and I began barrowing it back and spreading it inches deep on top of the black fabric.

Only a week or so later did I realize that this gravel was not going to compact down and allow me to spread stones on top of it. Another mistake that will have to be rescued by making it into a design feature. In this case an opportunity presented itself almost immediately.

There is a steep decline from the neighbor's fence to the north and the flat on which the teahouse is to be built. The pea gravel just rolled down the incline, exposing the black landscape fabric. The other anomaly still to be dealt with was the mound of stones dug from making the fence and the pond. I had been throwing them ahead of me from job to job, most recently tossing them back against the neighbor's fence out of the way of the teahouse area. The solution to two problems in one go is especially satisfying. I used the stones to build a small supporting wall along the back of the teahouse area, and round to the front where it would hold back the pea gravel from dribbling onto the lawn. Here's what the small wall looks like at the back. I tossed pea gravel in among the stones to hide any sign of the underlying landscape fabric:


Building the floor.

I was going to bolt a series of joists onto the posts, one joist on each side of each posts. I had four rows of posts, so would need eight long joists running north/south, and another three or four to go along the back and to go east/west between the joists. The joists would extend three feet out beyond the edge of the teahouse, to support a balcony, from which one could look down at the fish and the pond. The balcony would stick out maybe a foot over the nearest edge of the pond.

The lumberyard delivered the wood, and sheets of plywood to form the floor. This was going to be tricky, as the joists that stuck over the edge of the pond would also be the supports for the balcony fence I would build to stop children, and me, from falling into the pond. But I could hardly do the drilling to fix those supports to the joists later while leaning out over the pond, if only because any drilling would have shavings of wood falling onto the fish, who would probably try to eat it, thinking it was their flakes of food. I had bought that treated wood, which is no doubt even more toxic to the fish.

Mind you, my first concern was that it would be toxic to me. Even though I set up the workbench in the garden, I thought I should wear a mask while cutting, as well as the usual protective glasses. I measured each piece of 2 by 8 joist, intending to cut them with a subdued upward slice at the end that would hang over the pond, to give them a somewhat Japanese style. I lay the first twelve-foot joist stretched between the workbench and the back of a garden chair, and prepared to cut. First I fitted the mask over my nose and mouth, then the glasses, plugged in the circular saw, and approached the wood warily. I had also laid an old shower curtain where the sawdust would fall, as I didn't want it to damage the lawn, or get into the food chain by finding its way to the compost heap.

Breathing, which I felt was a good habit to keep up even when wearing a mask, glasses, gloves, etc., meant that my breath came out of my mouth, slid up the mask and under the glasses, fogging them up. I couldn't see the pencil line on the wood. After a few more breaths, I could hardly see anything. I pushed the glasses up onto my head. It looked as though I could have a choice of mask or glasses but not both. I elected to use the mask and see well, being careful to stand above the saw so that no splinters would be able to come up towards my face.

Within an hour or so, I had dispensed with the mask, and went back to the glasses. It was now mid October, and dusk was coming too early. I gave up, and began early in the afternoon of the next day. Having cut all the timber, I thought I'd stain everything first. It was a lovely fall day, sunshine all day, and temperatures approaching 20°. I was going to paint all the supports in the same solid charcoal stain I had used on the fence. I still had a good half can or more, and began shaking it around. But then I recalled the requirement that it remain dry for at least 24 hours, and I had just heard the weather forecast promising drenching rains for overnight and the next day&emdash;which didn't come.

So I decided to build now and stain later. My main problem was what to do about the support posts for the balcony fence. The solution had come to me a few days earlier in my favorite planning place, bed. I was away on a trip near Toronto, and lying in the dark of some motel suddenly saw a solution.

I began laying pairs of the heavy eleven-foot long joists together, with bits of four by four between them. Then I sliced off corners of the 4 by 4s that were to be the supports for the balcony fence to fit the "Japanese-style" slices I had made at the ends of the joists. The trick now was to fit the 4 by 4 posts at right angles to the ends of the joists and bolt them in place. Maybe all this would be a bit clearer with a picture. Here's what I finished up with:

But having now got my first pair of joists bolted to a 4 by 4 at the pond end, I had the problem of how to fasten the whole unwieldy apparatus to the posts. I measured down seven and a half inches from the lowest post, nailed one of the 1 by 2 strips to it, then making sure the strip was exactly level, nailed it to the other posts. I then nailed another strip parallel to and level with that one on the other side of the posts. Then it was a matter of adding such strips to all the other sets of posts. Such cunning. I was very pleased with myself when I heaved the first set of joists over the posts and rested them on the 1 by 2 strips. I slid them carefully outward, making sure they were exactly even with the end of the rear post. The balcony supports were sticking up over the edge of the pond. Then I quickly screwed each joist onto the posts.

Having got them all up and in place, I then had the fun of drilling holes for the carriage bolts. But that wasn't so easy. I needed to buy a screw bit that would go through one 2 by 8 joist, then through the central 4 by 4, then through the other 2 by 8. In the hardware store I consulted the guy who has been giving me unbelieving advice throughout this project&emdash;unbelieving that I was really doing any of this. I mentioned my need to drill through the considerable distance, and so for a long drill bit.

"Why not measure carefully and go in one side with a regular bit then drill in from the other side to meet the hole."

"Because I would never get them exactly to meet, or perhaps meet at all."

He looked at me with his usual skeptical eye, and agreed that I needed a longer bit. I bought a murderous looking hard-metalled sharp-horned brute that would go through steel. But it was a wonder to work with. With the joists held in place by the screws, which would be wholly inadequate to support the weight of the teahouse, I began driving the drill bit on its journey through the three pieces of wood.

It went in a quarter inch, and slowed. I eased it out and it tossed aside the wood shavings, then in another quarter inch, and out, and in and in no time I was through, tapping a carriage bolt through the hole and fastening it at the other side. There are few things as satisfactory as a good tool doing its job. The joists were fixed in place, and now I could slice the tops of the posts where they stuck above the level of the joists.

With a delicious sense of impending triumph, I entered the tool rental shop. I was sure I had him this time. I needed to cut the tops off the 4 by 4s that stuck up above the joists, to create a level base for the floor of the teahouse, and a small chain saw was ideal for the job. Having described what I needed to do, I asked for a chain saw, and he even came across the shop floor to join me as I examined the various models he had available.

"Of course, what you really need for that job is a reciprocating saw."


He described its advantages, and I relented yet again. I'm not sure he was right. It turned out to be a tough beast, and cost me a lot of trouble working sideways across the edge of the joists. He hadn't calculated the distance from the edge of the 2 by 8 added to the 4 by 4, and sold me a blade that was too short. Once I began and realized the problem, I was faced with the choice of unfastening the blade, unplugging, changing out of my muck-caked jeans, and returning to the shop for a longer blade, or keeping going and cutting half way through on one side of each post and then again on the other. I chose the latter, and finished the job with my arms weak as jellyfish from the brutal juddering of the powerful saw. I had expected it to work like a circular saw. But my forearms were numb after the first post, and ready to drop off at the elbows after the last.

Looking at the construction at this point, I suspect that someone ignorant of such things might assume I knew what I was doing. It was a curious sensation, looking at this construction through the eyes of a visitor. Do you suppose the builders of the pyramids or Stonehenge stood back as visitors admired their work, bemusedly reflecting on the concatenation of errors and guesses and compromises that nevertheless stood there confidently, set to sail forward forever on the ocean of time? No? You're probably right; they really knew what they were doing. (I hope you don't think these comparisons are inappropriate!)

Lying awake in Ireland soon after cutting the posts level with the joists, jet-lagged, with water running all night long in the room next to mine, I fretted that it was raining non-stop on the exposed freshly cut and unprotected stumps of the posts. Would water seep into the fibers and lead to their rotting, or could I still protect them by soaking in some preservative? Not the best topic for a wakeful night.


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