It's not what you do with your time on this earth, it's what you get out of doing it, says Charley Lang, a retired Carson bartender.
And what better way for Lang to illustrate his philosophy than to point to his own doings over the past seven years. He is nearing the end of a mind-boggling effort to paste jigsaw puzzles on the walls, ceilings, doors and hallway of his six-room home.
He built the last two rooms himself--one of them a surrealistic, six-sided gazebo--to gain more space to reach his ultimate goal: a million-plus-one puzzle pieces covering every square inch of wall and ceiling.
Running Out of Space
Except in the living room. His wife, Marjorie, has insisted on keeping ordinary paneling there. "She calls herself the Puzzle Widow," he said. "I'm the Puzzle Man." Early this week, by Lang's reckoning, he had pasted up 917,630 pieces, and he expects to complete the undertaking in another two months. Wall and ceiling space is rapidly running out in his last room addition, but Lang says he is prepared to use the floor if necessary.
Now for most people, Lang's puzzle project might seem like a rather eccentric way to spend, or waste, time.
But Lang, when confronted with that view, merely smiles. And he smiles in a way that suggests he has gained more satisfaction and joy through his puzzle creations than many others who spent the days and years of their lives on more conventional enterprises.
At 65, Lang seems as excited about his achievement as Alexander Graham Bell must have been when he first heard a human voice over a metal wire, or when Balboa stood silently and first looked at the Pacific, or when Neil Armstrong took that small step on the moon and proclaimed it a great leap for mankind.
When Lang folds his arms, cocks his head back and gazes across the expanse of scenery and people spread over the ceiling of his gazebo, a visitor may conjure up images of others awed by what they had wrought: The great Kublai Khan surveying his stately pleasure dome, the builders of pyramids and Golden Gate bridges, Henry Ford watching the Model T rolling off the world's first automobile assembly line.
"I've done something that nobody else has done," he said. "Me, Charley Lang. The Guinness Book of Records doesn't even have a category for this. It is pretty, isn't it?"
So, says Lang, smiling at a visitor, "What have you been doing with your time?"
Lang says he acquired his philosophical bent of mind from 39 years of observing his fellow human beings across a bar. "Time and what to do with it seemed to be the big worry of the people who came in the joint," he said. "They either had too much time, so they had to kill some, or they didn't have enough. Isn't it amazing that some people want to kill time?
"I always tell people that time is out there, and all they've got to do is take it, fill it up with something--anything that gives them joy or that at least keeps them busy. If they don't use time, they'll end up with an empty sack in their hands."
Project 'Kept Growing'
Lang says he can't estimate how many thousands of hours he has spent assembling and pasting up puzzles. But he knows it takes a day for a 1,000-piece set, and he can do two or three smaller ones in the same time. His biggest puzzle, Rembrandt's "Night Watch," has 5,000 pieces.
He began with the modest goal of covering the interior of his porch "and from there it just kind of kept growing and growing." During his bartender days, he says, he could hardly wait to shoo out the last customers and hurry home early in the morning to work four or five hours on his puzzles.
"It's like a religion," he said. "I can't wait to finish one puzzle so I can start another one."
After all the available space ran out, Lang says, he got one of his most exciting ideas: Build an enclosed gazebo, instead of an ordinary room addition. "I had a picture of it in my mind, with six sides on the floor and ceiling," he said. "My friends doubted that a bartender could build a gazebo. I said, 'I don't know if I can, let me try.' It's pretty, don't you think?"
After assembling a puzzle, Lang says, he slaps a coat of Elmer's glue on the back (he's used nearly 16 gallons so far), mounts it on a board, lets it dry, then cuts it to fit the next open space and applies another layer of glue to stick it on a wall or ceiling.
He says his wife serves as a consultant on where to place the next puzzle, taking into account the colors and the overall design. She doesn't have the patience needed to assemble puzzles, he says, nor did his son, Charles Jr., who is now 25 and out on his own.
"I guess my patience is with Charley," said his wife of 26 years, "but I don't mind the time he spends on his puzzles. It makes him happy, so I'm happy."
Gluing puzzles to the ceiling is the biggest challenge, he says. He puts up a scaffold and lies on his back on a plywood sheet. That experience, he says, makes him appreciate Michelangelo's labors in the Sistine Chapel.