"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Thursday, June 1, 2017

I'm Not Your Stepping Stone

The phone rang shortly after noon one day last week. The display indicated the call was from my beloved wife, Carol, no doubt stealing a few minutes from her lunch break to express her profound affection for me.

"Hello, my dearest darling," I answered.

The voice on the other end of the line said, "I'd like you to check out this rhubarb-centric website to watch an instructional video, make a list of the required materials, and pick them up this afternoon so I can get started on making some concrete stepping stones for the garden as soon as I get home from work."

After a brief pause, I replied, "Who is this?"

One of Carol's patients had brought her several big rhubarb plants. The patient told her that, in addition to using the stalks for strawberry-rhubarb pie, the leaves -- which are "yuge" -- could be used to make a decorative impression in concrete. Carol, being a very crafty person (meaning, in this context, "arts and crafts"), was immediately intrigued and, as is her nature, wanted to get started on the project without delay.

I said sure, right after I finished what I was doing (which was dozing while watching SportsCenter, but I may have told her I was folding the laundry) I'd watch the video, compile the list, and -- if I had to -- spend a few hours wandering through the aisles of the hardware store. At this stage of my life, a trip to the hardware store brings almost as much titillation as a bachelor party's visit to a strip club.

I Googled the website, quickly viewed the video, assembled the list, and hit the road. The top priority, as you might imagine, was to purchase a bag of concrete. My only prior experience with the material was from slipping on it while running around our community pool as a kid. Little did I know that there are, like, EIGHT different kinds of concrete. I tried to stream the video again on my phone to see if I could pinpoint which variety was used for this project, but inside the cavernous store I had no bars (unlike inside the cavernous strip club, which had three bars downstairs and two more in the VIP lounge), so I selected a package that looked vaguely familiar from my original viewing. I awkwardly muscled an 80-pound bag of concrete mix into my shopping cart. Shrugging off hernia symptoms, I then deadlifted a 50-pound bag of sand from the shelf. I think they call that move a "deadlift" because the effort nearly killed me.

After checkout, I managed to heave the load into the back of my car, launching a cloud of concrete and sand grit that covered every square inch of the upholstery. I lowered the windows and opened the sunroof, hoping to blow all the granules out on the drive home. The moment I merged onto the highway it started to rain, so I quickly closed up everything before the moisture had a chance to mingle with the concrete and form a rigid carapace around the seating in my Subaru.

Once Carol came home from work and was ready to get underway, I wrestled the monstrous bags out of the car and into the wheelbarrow, stoically shedding only a few silent tears from the effort, and delivered everything to where she planned to tackle the creation of the decorative pieces. "OK -- I'm going to take a nap cut the grass," I announced. "Wait," she said. "Aren't you going to spread out the sand for me?" I wrangled the bulky bag of sand out of the wheelbarrow, sliced it open, and dumped it on top of her work table. "There you go. Have fun!" I headed toward the soft and inviting living room couch tool shed to retrieve the mower, getting only two steps away before Carol called to me again -- "What about the concrete?" "What about it?" I replied. She pleaded, "Can't you mix it up for me?" I let out a deep sigh while thinking to myself, "When did this become a collaborative project?" (I may have actually mumbled those words sotto voce, but I don't think Carol heard me.)

Now, as I said before -- I had no experience working with concrete. My knowledge of how to prepare it was limited to that brief video. It seemed simple enough - stir together concrete and water, in measured amounts, in a deep bucket using a big stick until it reached the proper consistency. As the weighty bag kept slipping from my grip, I guesstimated the amount to pour into the mixing bucket. The good news -- aiming for 40 pounds, my bucket weighed in at 39.5. That was close enough for me; I added the recommended amount of water to the dry contents and commenced stirring. Too late, I realized I should have started with the water and gradually added the dry mix. That would have saved me thirty minutes and injuries to both wrists. It also would have resulted in far fewer profanities uttered during the process.

Carol came over to examine the finished slurry -- "Is it supposed to have rocks in it? The stuff in the video looked smooth, like cake batter." "Look," I steamed, "I bought the kind that looks like the bag in the video. I had no idea how many different kinds of concrete there are, or what their specific uses might be. If you want some other kind of concrete, then get in the car with me RIGHT NOW and we'll head back to the hardware store and you can pick out what you want." "No, I'll try it with what we've got here and if it doesn't work, then we'll try again another day."

I fervently hoped not to spend another minute, much less another day, on this project, but I nodded my assent. Dying for a towel to mop my sweaty brow and a cold beer drink of water, I headed toward the house. "Where are you going now? Aren't you going to make the stones with me?"

I'll cut to the end result: to our delight, the stones turned out just fine, whether or not we used the right kind of concrete or are still on speaking terms. The patterns are lovely and distinct; the contrast between the delicate imprint from the leaves and the solid mass of the concrete will make a striking addition to our garden.

I also learned a better way to deal with Carol's request for assistance with her next crafts project: there's no harm in letting her call go to voicemail and give myself a chance to come up with a concrete reason why I can't participate.

Photos and sweat equity courtesy of the author. Craft skill and ability courtesy of Carol.


  1. I'm pretty impressed with the end result of this heroic effort, John. My son has his master's in structural engineering and one of his graduate courses was entirely focused on concrete. So your success after watching one video is astounding! Give yourself an honorary degree in 'concrete mixing!'

    1. Hmm, I may need to update my LinkedIn profile.

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