Thursday, January 29, 2009

Economic Stimulus

Chapter 1: Job security. (So far that's all I've got.)

I was supposed to rewrite the economic stimulus package this week before things got out of hand in Washington. Too late.

Had I bothered to ever learn anything about economics I might be in a better position to write some meaningful legislation. Maybe if I had ever read a serious book on the subject (no, Tom Friedman does not count), things would be more clear. I know that people in Congress feel the same way because they bother me every five minutes for a solution. Job security.

But Congress will have to wait. Today I'm planning a new bookshelf for Cheryl. I've learned that any space in the house without books is "wasted space." You just can't have too many bookshelves. Also notice the new window is still waiting to be installed. Job security.

I'll try to finish the economic plan tomorrow afternoon or Sunday. My mom always said that you should take a nap if you struggle with a problem for very long. When you wake up, the solution will be waiting for you. If it's not, then have a good snack. Job security.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Royalty for the New World

Last night we threw a party for the princess of Cuba. Yes, that's right. In the fifteenth century Ferdinand II of Aragon had an affair with an Italian princess, and their daughter was sent to Cuba in an elaborate attempt to set up a Spanish/Italian kingdom in the new world. When Isabella learned of the matter, she sent an assassin to kill the new Cuban princess, who narrowly escaped and fled into the countryside.

There is no mention of any of this in the history books. The assassin was never seen again. Only the descendants of that princess know the story and have kept it alive along with the hope that the new world kingdom can finally be realized with its rightful royal family finally in place. The new heir to the throne is getting married, and good luck to her.

Years ago my Uncle Jimmy (a very funny guy) and I were watching a story about Queen Elizabeth on TV. He surprised me when he said that the royal family should be booted out onto the street. The concept of royalty, he argued, was contrary to human nature. I'm still not sure.

Human beings become discouraged when contemptible people rise to power. We like the idea of a king and queen, I believe, but only if they are young and smart and benevolent, with pretty and smart princes and princesses. We replay this fantasy over and over in movies and books, and kids are naturally drawn to the concept.

That's why we were especially happy when Barack and Michelle stopped in to our party for a few minutes last night. The talks went well, and we are hopeful for the restoration of the united New World.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Leave the Lights On

It has been a very busy few days, planning for the inauguration and finishing the stairs. Barack and Michelle invited Cheryl and I to spend the first night at the White House but we had to decline. We go to bed by 9:30 or 10 pm, so we thought why not just let them celebrate without worrying about us? We can visit later.

The cold weather from the inauguration made its way to Florida, threatening to snuff out my mango crop. Today the tree seems OK, but it takes a few days to see if the buds have died. Last year we lost all the buds. We also have a particularly delicate and young Tibouchina urvilleana (cute, with velvet leaves and purple flowers) that I strung up with lights to help fight off the cold. I had one of these die a few years ago from just a mild frost. You can't be too careful.

I worry about Obama, too, but what can you do? He keeps telling me that he "can take it from here," just like a kid you have just sent to college (who is smarter and more mature than you are, anyway) . Maybe he's right. After the past eight years it is hard to believe that politicians are capable of crossing the street without some hand-holding. And, to be honest, I haven't done such a good job with things either.

The president is in a warm bubble now. It is such a big job, though, at such a tough time and in a vicious political environment that can turn to ice overnight. He seems like a kid sometimes, young and optimistic. Of course, I am his main go-to guy, an older-but-not-too-bright-brother type of guy, with all the responsibilities that go along with that, but I need to get started on my window project soon and finish off the big set of stairs. Next month I will have loads of yard work--fertilizing, pruning, etc. Maybe he can make it without my help...

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Sea Change

Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change

On Tuesday I put a first coat of polyurethane on the stairs. On Wednesday I filled the cracks and holes in the wood. As usual, Willow is micro-managing the project to let me know who is boss.

You want to put on polyurethane before filling the holes so that the finish is absorbed evenly into the wood (filler gets into the pores of the wood). You can buy tinted filler at Home Depot, but it's never the right color. So while sanding earlier this week I saved the sawdust, and yesterday I mixed this with glue to make some custom filler that would be exactly the right color. Smart, right? Not exactly. I underestimated how hard the filler would become (rock hard, it turned out) and how much time (a very long time) it would take to sand it down.

As I sanded and sanded, I looked at the poor, pockmarked wood and considered ripping out the steps with some violence and replacing them with new ones. A few days ago I would never have considered such a thing. What happened, I wondered, to my way of thinking in such a short time?

During the coming months we may see a special prosecutor attempt to see if the Bush administration broke the law by authorizing the use of torture. We might also see such hearings in Congress. While this may seem unlikely today, we are years removed from the Clinton impeachment. Can we really predict what the new Congress, one filled with power and momentum, might be willing to do a few months from now?

We can see some hints of what's to come. Yesterday Obama's pick for attorney general, Eric Holder, said that waterboarding is torture and illegal. The current attorney general has no opinion on the matter and refuses to look into it. In a recent interview, Cheney admitted that he and others approved the use of waterboarding. He and others will argue that waterboarding was necessary and (though the practice has been officially discontinued by the U.S.) still necessary in certain situations. If hearings take place, episodes of "24" may well be shown as defence testimony.

And you might wonder why, with all the economic and other troubles, Congress would pursue such a thing. Here's why: The financial problems are complicated. Even economists don't seem to understand them and journalists don't know how to explain them. But torture is one of those emotional issues (like abortion) that generates endless passion and argument in a narrative that everyone can understand.

Expect to hear more stories like this:

Monday, January 12, 2009


In nature there's no blemish but the mind;
None can be called deformed but the unkind

Last night I spent a few hours sanding the stairs. I'm starting with the stairs between the dining room and piano room (only 3 steps) and I'll then move to the other set of stairs (10 steps up to the second floor).

The stairs had some bad stains and some new scratches. Willow maintains that these were caused by Thud. I threatened to bring in a toenail specialist from the CIA, but she didn't blink. She's good.

Wood gets stained like this when it is left unprotected and exposed to moisture for a while. I'm embarrassed to say that I've neglected this problem since we moved in. Various types of fungi and bacteria make the stains while doing their jobs of breaking down the wood fibers. They've been in this business forever, these full-time recyclers of all things organic. And they give you fair warning by showing up as dark splotches on the wood. If given a steady water source they can do real damage and quickly. But on the stairs they just nap and goof off most of the time. They really are pretty cool.

Cheryl and I did some hiking in Alaska, and we learned that wood decomposes there in an interesting way. Most bacteria can't handle the climate, so fungi is king and you see it everywhere and in all forms. Trees fall over and take a long nap on the forest floor covered in thick multi-colored blankets of mossy-looking stuff that slowly eats its way to the earth. The process is much more laid-back that the feeding frenzy here in Florida. The Alaskan redwoods get huge and live forever while their youngsters have a hard time finding enough nutrients to get a start. Pretty good deal.

The sanding process is delicate: I don't want to remove much wood but I need to get most of the stains and scratches out of the way. In this photo (after an hour of hand sanding) you can still see some tiny black marks on the wood. These are caused by gouges, by something pointy that penetrated the step during the past 80 years, making a neat place for the fungi to party.

I can't sand the blemishes away (they are too deep), but I can effectively hide some of them. And the rest will remain as a reminder to me that I (possibly) am also not perfect.

More on this later.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Stairway Project

For the past several days I've been ignoring my brain phone messages. As far as I'm concerned I have every right to duck the issue, but when you are the actual decider it's tough to just walk away.

Now that the distractions of the holidays are over and things are almost back to normal, the pressure to decide something is growing. So I've decided to start a new project in the house and refinish the stairs.

We have some nice cypress stair steps that have needed refinishing since we moved in, and they're getting worse since Willow started sleeping upstairs in our room. Willow had always slept downstairs with Thud (poor guy; he was too arthritic to get up the stairs). We do our best to keep her from dashing up and down the stairs and we try to keep her nails rounded off. Still, the steps are getting a real beating. The polyurethane I used on the kitchen floor is really tough and should do well on the stairs.

Face it, I am a terrible decider. Whenever a difficult problem pops up I look for a new project to occupy mind until it passes. The Israeli army is still in Gaza, waiting on my word to get out or go in deeper. Escalate or withdraw. Obama's transition team is also watching and waiting and calling me night and day. The media pundits continue to advocate for one side or the other, like tired lawyers retrying the same case over and over. And no matter how much I read and study, I realize that I will never really understand what is happening, much less how to fix it.

What do I know? Cheryl and I can walk around our neighborhood day or night (though I don't like for her to go out alone). I can't imagine bombs landing in the yard or soldiers in the street. I can't imagine having neighbors who have always hated me (usually they get to know me first).

However, I do have a strategy for refinishing the stairs. I will do one side--clean, sand and finish, and I'll put a chair at the top and another at the bottom with a rope down the middle so that none of us wander into the side that is under repair. Segregate, fix one side, then the other. Simple, right?