Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wild Coffee

Now is a good time to discuss the wild coffee plants, Psychotria nervosa, that we have in our front yard. As the Latin name suggests, there is a lot to discuss here.

The wild coffee and the coffee that we drink (coffee arabica, etc.) are related, both members of the Rubiaceae family. According to legend, coffee was discovered by goat herders who noticed that their goats got frisky after snacking on the bushes. But were those goats munching on psychotria nervosa bushes or some other member of the coffee family? And does the wild coffee plant have any unusual properties at all?

I've read that the word nervosa, in this context, refers to the prominent veins of the plant's leaves, but I am suspicious. Some plants are identified in this way for other reasons (the Hawaiian baby woodrose, Argyreia nervosa, for example, has psychoactive seeds). And what about the word psychotria? Apparently another species of wild coffee, psychotria viridis, is used in combination with a vine in South America to create a psychoactive drink called Ayahuasca, which has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries.

From most accounts on the web the wild coffee in our yard is just a benign bush with no unusual properties, though you can find contrary opinions. I could settle the issue by doing some testing of my own, but I'm just not that interested in spending the day in a South American jungle conversing with some excitable lizard/jaguar/god.

Cheryl and I have always lived quiet lives. We once had a glass of whiskey in Scotland (more like a fourth of a glass) and we have an occasional beer or glass of wine. She, especially, is a naturally silly person, so we have no interest in drugs, recreational or otherwise.

Coffee is another matter. We drink too much coffee. Maybe this is why I have a fondness for our wild coffee plants, and I'm content to allow them some mystery. Some things are better left alone.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Milkweed Finds a Home

After my recent character-building failure with the patio, I've turned my attention back to the yard and to one of our newer plants: a giant milkweed (Calotropis gigantea). We got this comical looking guy last spring at a big plant fair. Cheryl picked it out and was optimistic. I expected that it would die soon enough.

Like other milkweeds, the gigantea provides a nice home for the monarch butterfly. We were told that monarch caterpillars would strip this nearly six-foot giant to the stems in a matter of days, only causing the gigantea to come back prettier and stronger. But no monarchs this year--like many migratory animals, it is having a rough time lately.

Because of its size I planted the milkweed in the hottest and driest and most deserted section of our yard, a miserable place where more than a few plants have shriveled and died. With puffy leaves and thirsty-looking disposition, it seemed doomed from the first day. Oh, well. I did say that it had no chance at all.

Our gardening philosophy has evolved to a pretty simplistic approach. If a plant thrives without our constant attention, it is a good plant. Otherwise dig it up and try something else. Eventually, the logic goes, we will have a happy, self-sufficient yard. I know what you are thinking: there is a more scientific approach, with soil analysis and so forth, and this would eliminate the unnecessary suffering of many misplaced and unfortunate plants. (you know, you can be pretty critical sometimes...)

To my surprise the milkweed seems overjoyed with its new home. While most of our plants have the winter blues, the gigantea is sprouting new limbs and showing off. Cheryl was right (curses).

In the meantime, work on my new biobot (the one designed for the good of humanity) is going well. If things work out, I should be able to confront the evil Sri-Lankan biobot weevil very soon. A video is in the works.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Clean Up and Start Over

My idea was simple enough. Pour some grout onto the patio and sweep it into the cracks between the stones. Then spray down the stone, causing the grout to mix with the sand (about one ton of it) that I swept into the cracks when I laid the patio two years ago. This mixture would set and I would have a perfect grout job--and no more weeds.

Funny that you can't find anyone on the web who thinks this is a good idea. Could it be such an obscure process that no one has thought of it? Wouldn't a reasonable person be suspicious--and cautious? Yes, but instead I poured an entire bag of grout onto the patio. Fortunately I did this off to the side in an area not very visible.

Grout is a little like flour: powdery when dry but very sticky when wet. It is designed to stick to tile or stone. As I swept it, the grout turned into a thick film of gray and spread out to cover about 50 square feet. More sweeping, but the surface of the stone was not letting go of the now pasty goo. And I knew that once it dried, the grout would never ever come off.

At times like this we are reminded that enthusiasm and determination are no substitute for practical planning. Back when Bush decided to enter Iraq, for example, against the judgment of some senior military advisers (back before I was in charge of things, by the way), he was practicing what he considers to be his strong suit: shooting from the hip. The image is a disturbing one for those of us who do things better done by professionals.

I grabbed the garden hose to wash off the stones, but already the paste was hardening so I had to scrub with a brush, trying to do a good job but moving quickly. As I washed the stones, more grout would come out of the cracks and deposit a film over the stones. I would scrub, come back, wash, scrub, come back, and after about three hours most of the grout was washed out. Many of the stones still have small areas on the surface where the grout has hardened. In some places, though, it worked pretty well. The picture above shows one of the joints.

It's not easy to admit a mistake. Sometime all you can do is clean up the mess (quickly, to minimize the damage) and resolve to get it right in the future. To pretend otherwise is like turning away and waiting for the rain to wash off a layer of stone.

By the way, I can always grout the patio the way people have done it for thousands of years. But maybe there is a better way...

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Case for Husbandry

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry

In Shakespeare's day the word husbandry referred to the practice of managing your finances in a sensible and frugal manner. It is a skill that becomes sharp (as he alludes) through hard times and necessity, and this is true for some of us more than others. My mother was a master of husbandry, one of those survivors of the Great Depression who practiced thriftiness as an art form, always searching for coupons, checking for the best deals, worrying that someone might spend too much money on her, especially at this time of year. Being frugal was a passion for her, not a discipline.

But setting the terms of frugality for others is difficult, and I've been struggling about what to do with the car companies. The social system as a whole became addicted to credit and consumption long before I was (put) in charge of everything, so don't blame me if things get a little dicey as I sort things out. I have to find an orderly way to give the auto makers and related businesses a chance to recover. These companies are collections of people, not assets.

I also have to get things wrapped up quickly because I've decided to start a new project and I can't be on my brain phone every 5 minutes with the knuckleheads in Washington. It's not a very exotic or dramatic project, but I am excited. A couple years ago Cheryl and I put in flagstone in the back yard--about 700 square feet. I swept crushed rock in between the stones, and even though the patio has a layer of fabric underneath, great clumps of weeds and grass grow up in the cracks. Here is an ugly, dead bunch of weeds. I will be grouting between all of these stones. More on this to come. Very cool! (If this doesn't get you excited, you aren't living right.)

My mother would get a kick out of this project, mainly because it is cheap and not dangerous. The first step will be to clean up the cracks and pull out all the dead weeds. Mom would say something like you should always keep your crack clean. Willow and I had to laugh at that one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bombastic Biobot Warfare

On our back porch we have a pseudobombax ellipticum, also known as the shaving brush tree because of its silky, brushy-looking flowers. Our bombax is young (no flowers yet) and until recently pretty happy in its Talevera pot. But now it has lost almost all of its little branches.

The bombax is related to the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra, also known as cotton silk tree), and we've got a kapok in the side yard. Like the bombax it has pretty flowers that bloom after the tree drops it leaves, making them conspicuous to birds and other creatures who eat and then transport the seeds to a new place. Pretty good deal.

The word bombastic comes from bombax, Latin for "cotton". The cottony flowers from the bombax tree were used as lining in coats and jackets. A bombastic person might also be called a stuffed shirt.

In a few years the kapok tree may consume the side yard (if not our house) since they can get unbelievably big, with fan-like roots that reach high above ground. Ours is about 5 feet tall now, with a slender green trunk like the bombax and with only a few branches, so it has a long way to go before we need to move to another house.

But back to the unhappy guy on our porch. When I looked under the remaining leaf cluster of the pseudobombax, I saw it--a lone Sri Lankan biobot weevil, so fat and lazy that it just could not be bothered.

I wanted to see our yard as a simple collection of plants and animals living in such a state that my job would be only to mildly discourage those actors whose ambitions grew too large (like the monstrous cactus plant that attempts to devour the orange tree every year). But these biobots are neither plant nor animal. I realized that my approach to gardening was naive.

The CIA was no help, so I decided to engineer my own biobot to control the Sri Lankan devil. I know--the last thing we need is some new, indestructible cyber-organism with pulse laser emitters and the intelligence of a poodle and the ability to reproduce unchecked and destroy the world. But I had no choice.

My first prototype is in development now. Here's a scene from the training camp behind the koi pond.

OK. It's just a silly video, but you get the idea.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


The dinner party went well this weekend despite a close call when a wood nymph (a tinker-bell looking thing) became visible briefly on the table top and then burst into flames, lighting one of the paper menus on fire. Fortunately a candle was close by and no one suspected that anything unusual happened.

Everyone said kind things about our new floors and the window. Liars, but with good intentions. It seems like ages now since I had a good project but I'll need to wait until after New Years to get started on something new, probably something to resolve my feelings about the window's anemic pine finish, which seems pale and washed out and determined to vex me and suck the life out of me every time I walk into the room.

Last night we went to dance recital featuring a good friend. She was great. I promised the secret service I wouldn't publish any pictures of her performance, and I'm trying to get back on their good side.

But the highlight of the night came when a rotund man in a Luke Skywalker outfit danced with princess Leah and battled with Lord Vader. I had to get a few shots with my iPhone.

After a while I realized that what seemed a simple bit of fun was actually a serious allegory of our current status in the world--the United States now older, slower, out of shape, somewhat confused by the dizzying changes as the image of our former selves dances around us as a cruel reminder of what could have been, while the rest of the world waits off-stage waiting to challenge us. And yet we remain upright in the posture, dignity and dress of the hero.

Or possibly it was just an old dude not afraid to have fun and maybe look a little silly.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Merry Bhut Jalokia

Each year at this time we throw a big dinner and the theme this year (OK, every year) is the chili. Cheryl's collection of chili ornaments is no doubt approaching a world record. We have chili lights, chilies hanging on the front door, chilies growing in my garden and chilies in the appetizers, soup, salad and entrees of the dinner.

We, however, are not excessive about chilies. Some people worship the chili to the point of religious fanaticism and pagan fetishism, blurring the distinction between pleasure and pain, abandoning all common sense for a cheap thrill or to demonstrate some semblance of machismo.

Consider the following man who has just eaten, in one bite, a Bhut Jalokia chili, rated 10 times hotter than the habanero:

I like this one. The girl on the right is (perpetually, I suspect) unable to find what she is looking for.

No. We will not be having the Bhut Jolokia on the menu. I need to find some seeds first. I have a perfect spot for one in my pepper garden. I grew the small guys on the front row from seeds we brought back from Sante Fe. The little white one is called a Fish pepper--very hot. I've got a Thai pepper, a habanero and various others. More later on these.

Also, the CIA got back to me on the Euphorbia. It is a Euphorbia lactea, sometimes called candelabra cactus (although it is not a true cactus). The strange little plant that grows underneath is Kalanchoe beharensis, sometimes called velvet leaf.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


After waffling for a few weeks, I finally gave the go-ahead for a partial bailout of the Detroit car makers. You'd think that congress could do something without getting my advice. And now that I have some free time on my hands I really don't have an excuse to ignore them.

I'm reluctant to expand my own gardening theories beyond the limits of my back yard, especially when it comes to notions about economics, but sometimes these analogies are all we have (lacking any formal training in economics). Someone has to decide these things or nothing would get done.

Consider our Euphoribia, at least that's what I think it is (the CIA hasn't gotten back to me yet). (Click on the photo for a better view.) Cheryl and I bought it in Arizona years ago, kept it in a pot in the blazing sun, carried it in the back of a U-haul to Florida, finally put in the ground and now it's over six feet tall. We bought this one from a Hopi woman who claimed it possessed the soul of a extra-terrestrial who visited her over the years and finally died in a burst of flames when he touched the plant. Euphorbia have stickers like a cactus and a milky sap that is extremely poisonous and, apparently, flammable to some life forms.

A strange plant grows in the shadow of the Euphorbia, and I suspect it is the reincarnated Hopi woman, or possibly just an old girlfriend. The CIA is on this. Frankly, I am losing confidence in the new C23X department there. Do I have to do everything?

The Euphorbia loves our sandy side yard but is growing now at a slight angle and is getting so big that I'm afraid it will topple from its own weight. I could tie it up, but it might stick me (and I might explode). Instead I'm trusting that it can survive without my intervention.

Why, then, bail out the auto industry while ignoring my Euphorbia? Because the Euphoribia won't harm anything if it falls over. OK, it might take out the weird little plant.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


The tops of my bamboo plant start to glow just after sunrise. This year three new culms came up, and they are beginning to send out their canopy branches. Bamboo sends out branches out in the winter to provide shade for the next crop of shoots, which grow like crazy in the spring and summer. By spring the canopy will be thick. Next year we may have six or seven new shoots, and they should go even higher (these guys are about 30 feet tall).

These are the giant Bambusa Oldhamii. only two years old now and already a major player in the back yard. Big, fat culms with a nice, glossy green finish.

Bamboo is a social plant. It likes to raise its offspring very close by. Trees, by contrast, like lots of space and are not particular fond of their own children, much less human beings (though I still am fond of them). But Bamboo is no push-over. Like every other foolish organism on earth, it intends to control the world .

As you can see, Willow can barely hide her contempt for the bamboo. She has no interest at all in helping with the yard (except for some random fertilizing), which I believe is a fairly self-centered attitude. Now that we are on hiatus from projects in the house, she assumes that it is my sole job to play Frisbee with her. I suppose I should be thankful she is not digging around the bamboo, yet.

I still am at odds with the Sri Lankan biobots that are chewing up my Turk's cap (and that threaten civilization). The CIA technique for handling this global threat is to place an umbrella upside down under the plant and shake the leaves, then dispose of biobots appropriately. Boy, I feel safer now. I've also learned about a band of vigilantes somewhere in the south who are intimidating the biobots by screaming at them, but that just sounds nutty.

I'm considering a new philosophy for the yard. For now, if the biobots only chew on the leaves and don't chew up the Turk's cap flowers, I will give them a pass. To be honest, I am beginning to be a little afraid of them. They seem to notice me now, which is not good.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sri Lankan Robots

Late last night I received an encrypted message from the CIA on my brain phone. The plant that I thought was a monk's cap is actually a Turk's cap plant, Malaviscus penduliflorus. It sometimes is called sleeping hibiscus, probably because it always seems droopy and never quite opens up its bloom.

Turk's cap is native to Mexico and South America and is fairly common here, so why am I just now learning about it? (And how many more of these things are there to learn?) I once saw this plant growing along a remote caminho in southern Brazil just outside a house that sold hand-spun yarn. Cheryl and Gisa are like crack addicts for yarn.

The little white bug in the picture, however, is the real concern. It is a Sri Lankan weevil, a brazen pest with a healthy appetite for Turk's cap, citrus trees and just about everything else. Though they will deny it, the CIA suspects that this bug is actually a biobot recently designed by a group of cyberterrorists living in the jungles of Sri Lanka and plotting the destruction of mankind. It is lazy, slow, as gentle as a lady bug, with no defensive mechanisms and no natural enemies. Not even my koi will eat them (they, at least, understand the danger). Diabolical.

If not controlled this bug may destroy everything. I will find its weak spot and defeat it, if only as a patriotic gesture. But no pesticides will be used. We need to maintain our humanity and common sense, even with a threat to the homeland.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The CIA and Other Mysteries

It was nice to have a few days of rest and vacation from projects of all kinds. The Obama team left early this morning after breakfast and coffee, so things are back to normal. It only took a few minutes after they first arrived to sort out all their issues and calm them down. Then we all had a nice, relaxing Thanksgiving and a few more days of rest.

There was one weird incident. I was in the back observing a little white bug on my monk's cap. At least I think it is a monk's cap bush. The new CIA guys and seemed very interested in the bug, but when I quizzed them, they clammed up and pretended nothing was up (though one of them walked off and started talking into her wrist). The guy then asked if we ever found anything... unusual on the property.

"Like a dancing frog?" I asked.

"Anything you see," he said, handing me a small camera, "take a picture with this and we will get it." Here's a shot of the bug. If you click on the photo, you will see it. Look closely (which is all I can say for now).

I was sorry to see Barack leave. He's really a laid back and decent guy. After Christmas he's coming to visit for a few days and help me put in the window for the TV room. Best buds for now...

Friday, November 21, 2008


After a long day Thursday of varnishing and prepping the floor, I grouted and finished the tiles, much to the approval of my project manager who was on-hand today to take ownership of the process now that the work is done and everything has gone relatively well. She does seem happier today. Like all good subjects, I bask in the radiance of the queen.

Have you grouted? It is a messy business. Those cracks between the tiles are filled with a mixture of sand and cement that dries very quickly and very permanently. You apply it with a rubbery trowel and then carefully wipe it off with a sponge, rinsing and wiping until the sponge washes clean.

These little tiles had lots of space between them so I had just enough grout. Imagine. The area is just 10 inches wide and 10 feet long and only about 1/4 inch deep, and it took 7 pounds of grout to fill it up. Oh, wonders of the universe, when will you stop blinding me with your magnificence?

Yesterday we moved furniture back into place and put pictures and little statues on the wall, marking the unofficial end of this project and a return to relative normalcy, though there is still much to do.

Today I'll clean out the garage. Later this afternoon the Obama transition team arrives for secret meetings and, who knows, maybe they will want to see the garage? I have some cool tools out there. Cheryl is convinced that they will not be interested, but I know these Washington types. They are all do-it-you-selfers at heart, doing things they aren't really trained to do, making up the rules as they go, covering up mistakes, smearing mud then sponging it away.

My people are coming.

But here I am typing this when I should be preparing for the meeting. We will be reviewing some of their proposed cabinet picks and other assignments--Barack is taking Lincoln as his role model and wants to surround himself with his rivals. Right. Except Lincoln didn't have 24-hour TV news. I'll straighten him out,. Now I need to finish off the base boards in the breakfast room before everyone gets here. Or maybe they would like to help?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Jack Plane

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus,
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus?

The Obama transition team is coming to visit this weekend so I am busy getting the new tile section finished. I spent 4 hours yesterday getting the oak trim pieces cut so that they rest on the floor and snuggle up to the tiles just so. To do this I got to use my small jack plane.

This little tool has been around, in one form or another, since the iron age. It has a sharp edge that extends ever so slightly through an opening on the bottom plane, so it peels off ribbons of wood so thin you can see though them. Back before power tools, this was the instrument of choice of all master carpenters, though the tools usually were made completely from wood except for the pointy blade. Ever seen Jesus's dad (not the baby-daddy) without one?

The new tile strip is about 1/2 inch higher, more or less, than the breakfast room considering that Willow stepped on some of the tiles while the mortar was still wet. She is out to get me again, probably for the incident last week when she got her paws wet. I'm doing my best to get along.

Getting the oak strips to fit was a challenge, but now they have a nice curve, making the rise between rooms hardly noticeable. They are now glued and nailed into place and I'm varnishing today. I'll grout the tiles tonight and be almost done (it will never be done).

Earlier this week Amy, the princess of Eckardia who is secretly finishing her education in this country, invited us to hear her sing in the choir--Mozart's Requiem. Cheryl and I enjoyed it very much. If you are not sure whether you've heard the Requiem, here is an interesting adaptation of the Introitus. Crank it up loud.

What then shall I say, wretch that I am?,
What advocate entreat to speak for me,
When even the righteous may hardly be secure?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Paw Prints

What a busy weekend. Cheryl and I found some little one-inch tiles that should work pretty well as the border strip between the living room and breakfast room. I also finished stripping the pine table and then put on two coats of Danish oil and then rubbed in the bees wax finish, which smells like fresh oranges--very nice.

And the Obama team was after me to make a decision on the auto industry bailout. Making the transition to Obama may be difficult. He is an impatient guy already and seems to have a brain of his own (so why call me if you are so smart?), and he's not even in charge yet. I was planning to call him back Sunday but then we had the incident with the floor.

Because the little tiles take on the contour of the floor, I had to put down a skim coat (a thin layer of concrete) to smooth out the bumpy parts. It just took a few minutes, and I got to use this cool tool that attaches to my drill and mixes the concrete. Sweet! Afterwards I went outside to clean my tools. Willow, who was supposed to be in a meeting with Cheryl doing management stuff (while Cheryl actually was reading some vampire romance pop-up figure book), decided to stick her paw right into the fresh concrete then run through the house making cement paw prints with a material that has the sole purpose of sticking quickly and permanently to anything that it touches before it then dries as hard as stone.

So we had to clean the floors quickly and smooth out the skim coat and then meet with Willow for an incident review session (which is management's main purpose in life so that it appears to have some actual purpose)--all the while the Obama team is ringing my brain-phone and bugging me for a plan, as if I didn't have enough to do already.
The pine table looks pretty good, at least. I'm glad I stripped it instead of sanding it.

Today I will set the new tiles and get started on the oak trim to join up the border with the breakfast room. Maybe someday in the future a worker will remodel our house and unearth the paw print and discover what may have caused Ford and GM to go out of business.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Code Name McDude

After her 3-day management seminar (ha ha) in Zihuatanejo, Willow is back on the job and is not pleased that the strip between the breakfast room and living room remains un-tiled. Again with the details about this cursed strip of concrete.

In 1928 the living room was a back porch. And like most porches, the slab was poured at an steep angle to allow rain water to drain. When the area was converted to a living room, the owners patched the slab to make it level but in a drunken spasm they failed to make a clean edge on the north side. Instead, they stopped halfway down (as if they ran out of concrete) and then pushed the breakfast room wood flooring under the tile.

Willow does not want to hear this again, but goes along with me. A few days on the beach can really improve your attitude.

As you can see the concrete is slightly lighter on the right side. This is the part that I poured to make for a straight edge and to replace the void where the wood floor used to extend (almost 6 inches deep by the wall).

Today Cheryl and I will try to find some tile to fit in this area. She is wanting to find something special, something hand made by handsome, muscular Italians who only drink coffee and laugh, so this may be a difficult find. Otherwise I may need to finish the strip with wood, maybe with a cool parquet pattern. In the mean time, I've run out of stripper for the pine table so it sits on the back porch. I started to get more stripper last night but got mesmerized by a movie about Tommy Chong. Too many important things to do.

Also, I'm working out some details with Obama's transition team. My code name is McDude (not my idea). I think it's going to work out OK.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


In case you don't know, a few weeks ago I agreed to oversee the $700 billion bailout package. And now that the Window project is over (though I still have some painting to do outside), Washington is bugging me to get on the stick and do something.

I try not to discuss my day job, but sometimes you have to put things in context. Last night all I wanted to do was strip the pine table, but my cell phone kept going off, and I have one of these CIA phones that is hardwired into my brain and I can't really turn it off, so it is hard to concentrate sometimes.

Despite all the distractions, my strategy finally came into focus yesterday. I found a good stripper (not that kind of stripper) that doesn't smell too bad. Even so, Cheryl threw a fit about the stinkiness so I moved the table to the back porch. It works pretty well--you just rub it in with fine steel wool then wipe it off. When I get it stripped, I'll rub in a few coats of Danish oil and then top it off with bees wax. Now I'm wishing that I did this for the window, but it is too late. Maybe I'll do it for the other window.

Redemption is always possible if you look for it.

Anyway, I'm stripping and stripping and the phone keeps going off, and I am getting more annoyed, and finally I answer and tell them to just forget about bailing out the mortgages and do something else with the money. Use it to buy a pickle factory, I said, just quit bothering me while I'm working here.

Then it got dark outside so I had to quit. Don't blame me if things don't work out. I told them I had a lot on my plate this fall.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Strip It, Strip It

The Window project is finally over. No surprise when our project manager got a bonus and kudos and a big milk bone for all the good work while the rest of us just got a pat on the back. She can really turn on the charm when she needs to. (Enough said.)

I couldn't wait for the presentations to be over so that I could get started with the next project: refinishing the pine table that Cheryl and I bought after we got married. It is really beat up now and full of memories.

For our New Years party, back when we lived in Arizona, we would make tamales and stuff them with peppers and olives. One year we used food coloring to make red tamales but some of the dye spilled on the table and never came out. The table has had many meals, happy Thanksgivings, tea parties, poker games, and countless scars and abuse.

So while the table could use a good sanding, I will try to preserve the patina (and possibly some of the memories) and strip away the old finish using some kind of chemical stripper. Sanding destroys the exterior to reveal a brand new layer of wood. Chemical strippers can also destroy the wood, so it is a delicate process.

I have a long history of failing at this particular task, probably because I cannot resist pulling out the sandpaper and shwish, shwish, shwish. Also, stripping the finish requires stinky chemicals and is messy, though maybe there is a better way that I haven't found yet. This time I will not give in. Under no circumstance will I give in.

The table is back in the breakfast room now, under the window.

While I began work on the table I noticed that Willow and Cheryl had dressed up for the Window project wrap party, and they seemed really sad that I had not been invited. Oh well, maybe next time.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Workers of The World

Yesterday the first coat of finish went on the windows. Cheryl and I had a very busy day. She washed the windows of the back door and skylights, and they look great. I put more varnish on the laundry room floor and did some touch-up painting.

A few days ago I masked off the glass with blue tape so that I wouldn't have to scrape the varnish later. It strikes me that the tape job seems unusually orderly and neat, overlapping in squares just so at the ends. Weird. Neatness is not easily found in our house, especially not in something as temporary as this.

The iPhone camera has a way generating all sorts of interesting effects in low light. In this picture the window frame appears to have an amber glow from the first coat of finish. I wished it actually looked like this--it is more of a natural pine color (unless you squint your eyes really hard).

At the left of the picture is one of the pots that sits on our back porch and you can just see the stone walkway that leads from the fish ponds to the back yard. I can't wait to finish the indoor projects and get started on the outside.

After some mediation and negotiation, Willow has rejoined the project and (though I am forbidden by agreement to discuss the details) she now has the gratuitous title of Project Manager. I have always been amused by the fascination with titles and the concern over who is in charge and all the endless fussing about compensation and benefits. It's always the people who do the actual work who get crapped on.

Anyway, here she is reminding me that while I have pissed away time fussing over the window there is still a gaping hole of concrete between the breakfast room and and living room that needs to be tiled. And have we even picked out the tile yet?

I am tempted to remind her that we have a new president now, and there will be changes. Do-nothing, overpaid, management types: watch your backsides!

Friday, November 7, 2008

For Tree Huggers Only

After our unfortunate argument yesterday, Willow is refusing to help with the project. Instead she sits on the couch and pretends I am not working to fix the window trim pieces that she screwed up yesterday. In all fairness, it's possible that she was not responsible, and I even offered this as a token of compromise on my part, but apparently we still have some issues to work through.

The pieces ended up pretty nice. Here are two of them. The dark marks on the piece to the right are burn marks from the saw (these are on the back of the piece and won't show). I used a razor blade to trim them up, cutting one fiber at a time.

Trees grow one ring at a time, fatter and fatter each year, and only the outer rings are really alive, with cells that move water and nutrients up and down. The inner part of the tree--the wood--is fibrous cellulose that is hard and dead (at a cellular level) yet still part of the living tree. Our outer layer of skin is similar (it's dead but still provides an important function). The difference is that we shed our dead skin cells while trees use their old cells to create architectural masterpieces. They are the biggest and oldest living things on earth. If you are completely bored by this subject you probably won't completely love The Tree by Colin Tudge.

So the wood that you see in Home Depot is in its natural state, tempting you to touch it, and wanting to perform some useful service. Cheryl won't go with me to the wood section.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Willow in the Details

The uncertain glory of an April day, Which now shows all beauty of the Sun, And by and by a cloud takes all away.

As the window project nears completion, the tasks become more intricate while my patience becomes more thin. I'm beginning to regret my decision to offset the window trim and make the molding zig-zag around the edges. The little angles of wood have to meet perfectly, with pieces that are no bigger than a postage stamp. What was meant to give me a sense of accomplishment is now taunting me and tempting me to rename this blog to Fred Sucks.

The picture above shows the left corner, and it's not so bad. But the right corner--well, I could not bear to upload the photo. I just now pulled down the pathetic, misshapen, vile and cankerous pieces so that I am forced to redo them.

Yesterday, while installing the pieces, everthing looked fine. But this morning they looked like crap. I realize that the sunlight from outside was blinding me to the shadows that this morning, under just the overhead lights, made the joints look as though they were pieced together by a certain dog who I will not name but suspect may be sabotaging the project out of spite. I've got my eye on her from this point on.

Oh, yes. I will make these pieces fit like gears in a Swiss watch, in all manner of light. You know what I'm saying.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

To Wax Or Not

It's Saturday morning early. The light from the breakfast room extends a few feet into the yard to reveal our palm tree and the vine that strangles it. Normally you can hear our frogs croaking and croaking and you can hear the waterfalls from our koi pond and the blue jays whistling, but the cool weather has quieted the frogs, and these new windows (along with the extra insulation I've put in the walls) block out much of the sound from outside.

Just for fun, I open and close the windows to hear the difference. Our old metal-frame windows had collapsed on one side, so you could never actually close them all the way. But at least you could hear the backyard.

Today I'll be working on the baseboards and trim, replacing the pieces that were damaged when I took everything apart at the start. Then I'll paint them white and we can put all of the furniture back where it goes. Then I can focus on the finishing the window.

When Cheryl and I visit Lake Tahoe we usually hike down to the Vikingsholm mansion on the lake. It is a beautiful old home built, inside and out, from the sugar pines around the lake. The pine panelled walls have a nice glow to them, and the tour guides claim that the walls have never been refinished--they still have the original banana wax finish.

I'm tempted to put a wax finish on the windows. Banana wax is, apparently, hard to find but Home Depot has a bees wax wood finish. It's risky because if is doesn't look good, there's really no way to strip it off and do something else (it would require too much sanding). And how long would the finish last in Florida? So I'll probably chicken out and use polyurethane. Wuss. Nancy boy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I've put some new sheet rock on the walls and some framing around the window, and it's starting to look more like a place where normal people live. Here is the before and after.

Up to this point I've focused on details that no one will ever see: the framing and the metal window straps that I designed. So it was a little sad to cover it all up with sheet rock. Maybe this is why surgeons leave it to others to sew you up? Maybe they would prefer to pass you around to their friends for show and tell, at least for a few days?

After the wall and baseboards are painted I will be putting a clear finish on the windows. I found some nice pine for the frames, which are designed to match the windows in the rest of the house (it's only partially finished in the photo). But Cheryl and I want this one to be natural pine instead of painted white. So it will be more sanding, but now delicately and by hand with the fine sandpaper so that the sawdust is as fine as goose down.

I continue to wonder I if am the luckiest person ever.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Quarter Round

He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden.

Yesterday we decided it was time to put the dining room back in order. But we had one remaining task: put down the quarter round, a narrow piece of wood with a rounded side that ties the baseboard and floor together with just a bit of detail. You might say that quarter round is the plain and lesser cousin of crown molding. Most of the quarter round is missing from our house, and we are not quite sure why, but it has especially annoyed Cheryl from the start.

The quarter round has been in the garage for a week now, and I have been hoping, like Tom Sawyer, that someone would come along and paint them for me. One morning I came up with a idea to put notches into a piece of wood so that the quarter round strips would stay in place while I painted them. What a cool idea (my brain said to me). In effect, I tricked myself into painting the wood.
There were 18 pieces of quarter round to paint. What if I had 180 pieces, or 1800 pieces, or what if I knew that I would be painting quarter round every day for the rest of my life? Could such a prospect cause me to rethink the nature of existence? If you keep your business email like I do, just go back a few months and read one or two at random. From a distance, your real job can lose the sense of variety that you feel day-to-day. Apparently I have been painting strips of wood over and over and over for years, so why not be happy and make the best of it.

Update: the quarter round is down and Cheryl helped by putting the final touches the installation. She has always been interested in the baseboards. Cute, right? Sometimes it nice to work together.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Master Chemicals

For centuries the master builders of the world made do with simple hand tools and common materials. Stone and steel, wood and brick. A great tradition of master carpenters passed techniques from teacher to apprentice, a brotherhood of professionals that continues to this day.

But today we have the Internet. Besides, the real carpenters are very expensive, so why not just "do it"?

Allen and I slid the window into place without much trouble. What a relief! The metal straps that I made and screwed into the sides of the window worked perfectly. You can barely see them in the photo to the right (one is shining just above the window on the left side). I saw this technique in a video on the web, so it must be a good idea, right?

The cynical among you might say "metal straps? in Florida? Won't they just rust?" Yeah, they probably will rust, but I will be dead by then and you won't have me to kick around any more with all your negativity. Besides, this is where modern chemicals play a role.

One of the coolest things to play with is expanding foam. It comes in a spray can, and you squirt it into an opening and watch it go. The master carpenters of times past did not have this foam, but I have it. Here is the window with foam squirting out. This stuff is very sticky and forms a tight seal around everything it touches, including my metal straps. It will keep the moisture and ants and termites away from the pine frame of the window for (my) foreseeable future.

So who is the master now, Willow? (She remains unconvinced.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Negotiating with Adversity

Cheryl was away this weekend, chaperoning kids at a Model United Nations event, where students get to pretend that they are ambassadors while learning to speak the language of diplomacy (how to obfuscate when necessary to advance an agenda). Cheryl has a much less cynical outlook than I, which is important when students look to you for advice.

I spent the weekend with a more mundane project, replacing the breakfast room window. If I were a diplomat, I would say that the experience was challenging but the house and I are better for it. In reality, I have my doubts.

To start, I removed the trim from around the window. I had suspected a problem on the right side. I poked a hole into the wallboard, and where I expected to see a 2 x 4 piece of lumber I saw a void, not a good sign. So I removed the wall board on all sides to discover that the wood was completely dissolved is some places, and it some places it just turned to dust in my hands. Notice to the right there are two pieces of lumber (upper left corner of picture) that stop about half way down. The bottom portions of these are gone.

Normally replacing some framing like this is no big deal, but we have a stucco house--the outside layer of stucco is attached to the framing. To avoid cracking the outside wall (or worse) I would have to be very careful when nailing or doing anything that might put pressure on the outer wall.

I was not surprised to find that the old window was reluctant to leave its long-time home. I threatened it with my sledge hammer, but the window knew that my threats were empty, that doing so might crack the exterior. But like an aggressor nation in the security council I gestured and spoke with theatrical bluster. Oh yes, I have the big weapons and am not afraid to use them.

Two or three hours later, the window was out. Then the remaining old lumber had to pulled away from the wall, again with all possible gentleness. By this point I was reduced to cajoling and deal-making, expressing my deep understanding of their plight and apologizing for the sins of the former occupiers and for not coming to the rescue sooner, before it was too late. Concessions were made and the wood agreed to be removed.

Putting in the new framing presented the same challenges, so I used screws whenever possible to reduce the shock of driving nails into place. After two full days of work, including 5 or 6 trips to Lowes and Home Depot, I still have a big hole in the wall. My friend Allen is coming over at lunch to help put the window into place (if it will fit). More on this tomorrow.
Diplomacy is the art of patience and compromise. Do or say whatever is necessary, claim victory, then move on.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Red is Gray and Yellow, White

The varnish is down. I used an oil-based finish to give some amber color to the wood. It takes a few days to dry completely so we are walking around in socks and speaking in whispers. We scold Willow whenever she starts her spinning and jumping and Snoopy dancing, which is more often that I ever noticed before.

For the next few weeks (or maybe months, or maybe forever), the floor will be too shiny for my tastes. As you can see, the light bounces off of it like water. This didn't happen in the dining room and laundry room, which are older floors, but the new floors are pretty glossy. I could buff them or I could lightly sand and touch them up. I could start all over if I wanted to.

The second photo is a shot from overhead, with Willow staring into the kitchen wondering why her food bowl is no longer in the corner (where it has always been) but is instead upstairs where she has been sequestered for several days.

There's nothing special about the color differences in these photos. We make these adjustments in our brains all day long while developing our own personal sense of the true nature of things. The floor is sort of amber in my mind. To Willow it looks like a vast Frisbee field. To Cheryl it finally looks finished and she can have the Christmas party (it's never too soon to start planning).

But the project goes on. Tomorrow I am painting base boards and getting some new quarter-round to install in all the rooms, back on my hands and knees using my new nail gun. We also need to pick up some nice tile to create a mosaic for the divider between the breakfast room and living room (a section that is now a gaping strip of concrete).

Oh yes, the project goes on. This is no time to sit and stare.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

As Good As It Will Get

I must admit, I like to take sandpaper to wood. I like to see the grain reveal itself as the finer sand paper is applied. Sanding is an art form that can never be mastered, and it is a task that can never be finished.

I like sanding by hand and hearing the swish, swish of the paper. But for a job this size (because now I have added the dining room and laundry room, both of which need refinishing), I needed to rent some big tools. Big, loud, foul, bad-tempered, dangerous tools that cut things into tiny pieces. A drum sander can rip a layer of oak away in seconds, turning hardwood into a powder, which explains the picture to the right. I hung some plastic here and there to prevent the dust from wandering into other parts of the house. If Dexter had a thing for wood, it might look like this.

Normally, I am into big tools. I spent Sunday with the big sander, punishing my poor floor with brute force. Soon I learned that the sander would not reach several tight spaces in the kitchen and pantry and (almost to my relief) it became clear that I would need to be down on my hands and knees sanding by hand for three days, studying the boards face to face, working where the big sander could not reach. You might say "What a lucky guy, on his hands and knees for three days" but don't be so quick to envy me. You have your share of fun, too, I'm sure.

Willow drools and sheds hair and Cheryl spills things, and the poor, unfinished and defenceless floor could not survive without its protective coat for much longer. I cannot sand forever, no matter how much I might like. A deadline had to be imposed, and today was it. Time to varnish. So here I am, waiting for a coat of varnish to dry so that I can apply another.

Now there's nothing to do but wait. The time for sanding is past.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Floor is Down

Here's Willow sitting in what now seems to be a very large breakfast room. I spent the day moving all my hand tools, table saw, air compressor, air gun, nails, screws, paint, tar paper and extra lumber (enough to do a small room) to the garage. All the plastic is off the floor, and now it's swept and vacuumed.

There's still more to do: rent a sander on Sunday, put on 3 coats of varnish--one each night before we go to bed so Willow doesn't get her paws in it. But now it is nice to see the clean, empty rooms. No more work today.

I took some pictures of the new threshold piece I created this morning. Sweet, but the pictures don't capture its true essence, how it just kisses the bottom of the door to the garage so that the smallest ant could not squeeze through even one of its little feeler things or butt whiskers (or whatever you call them). I showed the threshold to Cheryl and she pretended to be impressed (good enough for me).

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Nature Break

About three feet to go and the floor will be down, not counting the parquet strip that is driven from my consciousness several times a day because I can't decide on the design.

Yesterday Cheryl came in all excited and said "you've got to come see this." Just outside, next to our stone porch, we have some cactus-looking plants that I've taken for granted since we moved in. But now they have these fantastic flowers coming from them. It's my intent in this blog to document each plant in our yard, to figure out what is there, what it is called, how not to kill it, and so on. I have a long way to go, starting with this plant (that fortunately appears to be pretty tough and able take care of itself).

But now it is back to the floor to finish it. Next step is sanding, then put down the finish. The parquet design will come to me in a dream, maybe?

Also, for years we have had orchids in the yard and in the house, and we haven't had luck getting them to bloom, but then we noticed this one yesterday. How cool! If you click on the photo, you will see the new blooms and Cheryl being pleased with herself for willing them into existence.