Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Ottawa Mutual Back-Scratching Association

I have stumbled across something amazing. I have very often been asked by a friend to help them move. And I have always been happy to comply, if I'm able. But I received a rather unusual request from my buddy Danny over the weekend. He was hoping I could show up and help him dig a ditch around his house. He is becoming increasingly paranoid, you see, and wants a moat to keep the sellers of Girl Guide Cookies at bay. Well, he said it was for foundation repair, but I know the truth. So I did. I showed up, with my own shovel, expecting to find Danny and one of his friends slowly hacking away at the foundation of his house. But there were eight guys working on this project. The ditch could handle only three at a time, because there was a lot of pickaxe swinging. I used to do a certain amount of foundation repair for money, and I have never dug out a tougher ditch.

All of this meant that there was a solid, steady rotation of three people in, three people out, and the work progressed quickly. Those of us who were lazier (I'm referring to myself, mostly) were able to take many breaks for water and just sitting down. Those of us who were more highly motivated (like Steve, who started at 9 a.m. and barely got out of the hole until 4:30) could work all they wanted. And through the back-breaking labour, and the sparks that flew into my mouth when I accidentally pickaxed a rock one-third the size of Gibraltar, we got most of it done. By 4:30, everyone was done. Finished. Absolutely exhausted. Except for Steve, who may well be on some kind of anabolic performance-enhancer. And we got free barbecue and beer, and Danny saved $1,000 on his foundation repair. (The beer, I must say, was the cheapest at the beer store. And although I initially made fun of Danny for providing such cheap beer for so much labour, it turns out to be just fine. When you're moving, the work is much less intense and you can taste the beer. With work this tough, you don't care at all what beer you're drinking when it's all over. Any beer tastes fantastic.)

This was an amazing event though. The idea that you can bring together seven of your friends to help you do something so taxing is incredible. I dug out my entire backyard this spring, and I would never have dreamed of asking a bunch of friends to come help me with what proved to be a few ten-hour days of hard labour. Not only would I have assumed that they would laugh at me, I also figured it would put them in an awkward position of coming up with some kind of excuse to skip the hard labour. I...am attending...the Chamber Festival. All over Ottawa, dozens of my friends would have been experiencing culture just to avoid backbreaking work. But this, it turns out, may not be the case. Perhaps they would have jumped at the chance to join with a bunch of friends in a sort of chain-gang camaraderie! And that's really what you get in this situation. It's like being with a bunch of prisoners on the chain gang from Cool Hand Luke. There is a lot of dirty talk, a lot of swearing, contentious debate over major issues, and good-natured insults flying all around. This was actually - dare I say it - fun.

This is something we should all start doing. We should all pitch in to save our buddies money when it comes to things getting done around the house. It's actually a fantastic way to hang out with friends, feel some kind of sense of accomplishment, and get outside to do something physical and satisfying. The guys all said, after it was done, that if any of us had anything that needed doing around our houses, give them all a call and they'd come right over. So now I'm searching for some kind of major project I want done around my house for free. So far I have found nothing. But that time will come! I'm looking very, very hard. But here's the key - whatever project I decide to do, it must involve back-breaking labour. Inviting a bunch of friends over to help paint a room in your house is not the same. That's the kind of thing you could easily do all on your own, and I think it might be met with a more tepid reaction. But ditch digging, or porch-building, or something to that effect? These are projects that are meant for eight sweaty gross men trading insults, swearing at each other, and then drinking beer and eating barbecue.


  1. I think giving the oportunity, people should help each other when called upon, as long as the task does not intefere with previous plan made that cannot be broken. This help must also recipricate when called upon.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Wow this is a story I can relate to and seems to be something of the past that I hope you can help rejuvenate and make "cool again" because for years now the way of the wordl is everyman for himself. I built a house in the country (Lanark) back in 1975 with no cost for labour (except some electrical main service wiring hook up, the well etc.) because it was all done by volunteers and friends. We had the time of our lives and loved every minute of this adventure. We lived in a canvas tent (the looney bin) most of the summer.
    As neither my buddy Tim or I had any experience building a house we made the structure in one summer without a basement and built it on SONA Tubes. Needless to say it was a major flaw and huge mistake but it was corrected after living one winter in the house. The following summer my buddy Tim Bond (Meadows) dug out two ditches the entire length of the house (over 32 feet long) and 9 feet deep. Yes you read that right - 9 feet deep by 32 feet long by himself. Actually one weekend he had Ruth and Susan help him out and I took pictures of them digging the ditches topless and having a great time slinging mud all over themselves.
    There are many stories I could relate from this experience and so many friends to thank who helped out but they ended up thanking me because they had such an incredible experiene. I'm so glad to hear you write about this and encourage you to promote this kind of experience. A suggestion I could make is offer you and your friends for a work weekend at some cottage, they always need big work projects getting done.
    Best regards - Rick Brand