Building your own house is more than measuring and mitering and hammering and cursing. Take my friend Carlo.
Carlo is putting up a daring three-story side-hill creation in the foothills of the Rockies just outside of Boulder. One day I went out there to see how he was doing. I found him on the top floor with his brother Sal; they were looking up through where a roof ought to be.
"You can see the whole sky from up here?" marveled Sal, who had just arrived from New York.
Carlo pointed his briar pipe toward the Continental Divide. "You can see the storms gathering wayyyy off there."
Building a house is being out where you can watch the clouds pass by. Especially if you were a philosophy major in college, like Carlo, and still have an airy approach to things. Carlo sees homebuilding as a construct of imagination, a model of life. The carpenter erects a shell and, from that process, learns about himself.
As he was saying that day, "The worst thing you can do is get angry. If you get mad, you're going to make mistakes. You'll be impatient and take the wrong measurement. You'll hit your finger with the hammer. You'll screw up. You could even . . ."
He looked over the edge, three stories down . . .
"If you loose your cool, you could die."
THE BROTHERS were working on their hands and knees on the raw-plank floor of what would become the master bedroom. They were building the 2x4 frame of the east wall. Sal stretched out the tape to measure a crossbeam.
"Hundred and nineteen inches," he said.
"Huh? You sure?"
He measured again. "Yep."
Carlo rubbed his chin and made gruff noises in his throat. "You know how . . . it's frustrating when . . . every measurement checks out except . . . you go back and . . . everything's all right except . . . that one."
It's the little things that aggravate.
Now Carlo was trying to put a new blade on the power saw and it wouldn't quite fit. "What takes so long to build a house," he said, "is the thousand and one delays you can never figure on - like this. Something that should take a minute takes an hour."
Building, he said, turned out to be an exercise in existentialism. You've got to keep your eye on the moment - the nail that needs pounding, the blade that won't fit, the three-story dropoff awaiting your inattention.
"Working up here on the top floor," he said, "I forget about those other floors down there. They don't exist. When I was working on them, then this up here didn't matters."
Building, Carlo thought, was satisfying in that way. "Most jobs are a constant redoing of the same task. But a house has a beginning and an ending. A floor, walls, a roof . . ." One step follows the other - each step different - and at some point you can say you've finished. It's done.
"You get so attached to it . . . every nail."
It's a memorial, he said rather gaily, a labor of love. "It'll last 80 to 100 years. I feel like writing my name on every stud: This Is The House That Carlo Ciarravino Built."
IN THESE confusing days of liberation, we men still need to flex our manhood occasionally, if only just for old time's sake. To chop a load of wood . . . build a fire . . . throw a football or catch a glance from a pretty girl. It feels good to stir up the masculine juices. And the biggest macho trip of all, I imagine, would be to use these two bare hands of mine to build shelter for my family.
Carlo is 30 years old, a refugee from Long Island. Since getting his pilosopher's degree, he has been a high school teacher, spent a year touring the country with his wife Marguerite (and picked Boulder as the choicest place to live), delivered furniture; he helped Marguerite set up a daycare center; sold real estate.
In recent years he has been, like me, as much of a house-husband as anything else. We both have working women. We do the laundry and the dishes and generally try to keep up with what's expected.
In the meantime, Carlo got involved in a couple of business ventures that almost made him rich - but in fact made him nothing at all. I suspected that he was feeling low about his vestigial role as breadwinner and family financial umbrella and all that. When I'd see Carlo, his head would be kinda droopin.'
Then came the house. Originally, it was conceived as a sober investment.
Carlo found the sloping acre of land and bought it, and sent away for the building plans he wanted. Sal, with his degree in construction technology and a bit of genuine experience, could help with the framing. Professionals could do the plumbing and wiring and finishing work and, when it was done, Carlo could place it on the market.
IT TURNED OUT to be a larger project that either brother had counted on - A monument of a house it was, with a living room, dining room, rec room, library, kitchen, three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, utility room, cathedral ceilings, balconies, windows everywhere. "If I was going to build a first house again," Carlo said later, "I'd never choose one this big."
Yet, board by board (keeping their eyes on each moments), a skeleton began poking up from the bare hillside.
"At first," said Carlo, "if we had a wall that was an eighth of an inch off, I thought we had to tear if down and start all over again. But then you realize . . . in the overall scope of things . . . you step back and take a look at the whole structure . . . you realize there's some tolerance for error."
By early October they put on the roof to cover up the big sky: The framing was finished and Sal went back to New York.
SOME GUYS like to talk about flashings and bushings and bearings and lath; they like the brutal sound of a socket flange or a vee clamp, a lap joint or a jack rafter or a plunger seal or a false girt; some guys I try to tell you about leaders and headers and leaders heads, joists and joist spaces and joist headers, grommets and stringers and raglets and rust.
Well, Carlo didn't use the secret code to build his house, and he doesn't need it to get into my club either.
When the leaves were off the aspen trees, I went back to the foothills to see how the builder-philosopher was doing.
Two hired carpenters were leaning out the third-four windows of his house, putting on the cedar siding. Their Triumph TR-6 crouched in the scrap-pile driveway with both doors open and music blasting out. It was Bonnie Raitt singing one of my favorites - "Love Has No Pride."
"When you're building a house," Carlo said, "music really helps the time pass. If you get real frustrated about something, music just kind of . . ."
He spreads his palms out slowly . . .
"It just calms you out."
Carlo said he was letting the pros put on the siding and roofing. "It's not worth risking my life - the idea of being out there would totally petrify me. Besides," he said, "the trim is what you see, I'll let them do it.
Carlo said he figured the house should be ready to move into late this winter. The big question now was: Who was going to be moving in?
"It'd be hard, after all this work, just to sell it off," he said. "It'd be nice to see what it's like to live in."
We were standing in the living room, which was still a crude figment, a matchstick supposition of a living room.
"It'd be damn hard," he said, gazing up through the would-be cathedral ceiling to the once-and-future master bedroom with the Lord's-eye view, "not to sleep here at least one night."