Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Building Mortality

The great thing about construction projects, especially renovation projects, is that they strongly suggest mortality.

I've been rebuilding a bathroom over the last couple of weeks. Carpentry, plastering, tiling, painting, minor plumbing, and more than I 've wanted of industrial strength cleaning. I've scratched knuckles, raised blisters, plastered my hair, sanded joint compound dust into every crevice of myself and the place, lost the ability to smell paint, and felt the sting of industrial solvents in my nightmares.

And I've loved it. The bathroom looks great. I couldn't be prouder of myself, my skill, my capacity to improve the world. I want to show off my accomplishments to all family, friends, landlords, and anyone else willing to admire my work.

Yet renovation, by its very nature, is also humbling. With every hammer swing and brush stroke, I know that I am replacing the fruits of someone else's proud labor. Thus I know--even as I aspire for my work to last, to be a monument to my skill and labor and accomplishment--that my excellent work will fade, crumble, disappear.

Indeed, I'm inspired--in my tiny tiny way--by the great builders in history, most especially the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest by far of any of the ancient Wonders of the Mediterranean World and the only one surviving. Built by untold thousands of slaves over a period of twenty years, the pyramid must represent some astronomical percentage of Pharonic Egypt's GNP. I also wonder how many slaves died in its construction. Nevertheless, it is remarkable. Built with the most amazing mathematical and engineering skill, after 45 centuries it still less shows than 0.1% error in symmetrical dimensions, and the interior blocks of stone weighing several tons each are so perfectly placed that a playing card will still not fit between any two stones.

Yet even the Great Pyramid, the oldest and best monument to immortality in the history of the planet, is in fact a testament to mortality. Today it stands in defiance of time, but still shows the effects of time: it has lost its smooth stone exterior; ten feet of its tip has eroded away; its original purpose as a monument/tomb/symbol of religious and political power probably lasted centuries, perhaps millennia, but the place was thoroughly looted by the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the 4th century BC. Like the tortoise that lives for centuries compared to the insect that lives for hours, the pyramid has a much longer life span than any other building, but still a mortal lifespan.

Tones of tragedy thus accompany the doomed effort to create something that endures. Yet, if we accept this fact of life from the outset, then building something to last offers a challenge, plus the fun and satisfaction of meeting that challenge with all the skills we can muster, all our energy to do our best with the meagre tools and talents we have, to at least improve over what was there before, to create a better world. Embracing the tragedy of unavaoidable failure yet doing our best to refute it is the joy of mortality.


Queen Whackamole said...

I can vouch for the former decrepitude of the rejuvenated bathroom--it is transformed! Great work!

Anonymous said...

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my bathroom, ye mighty, and despair!"

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