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.