Monday, September 28, 2009

Training, Part 3

"No doubt you all have questions," the woman said to us. With this, our puppy Bingo began to pull on his leash, struggling to move closer and get a better look. "Easy, easy", we said to him.

"To start with," she continued with no hint of apology, "we obviously are not in Orlando." A young man approached her from the side and gently touched her shoulder to capture her attention and then whisper something into her ear.

For several weeks we had known that Bingo was not a normal dog. He was delivered to us by my old handler, and at the time I thought it was an elaborate gag--my friend showed up at our house with books and computers and high tech equipment and a thick instructions manual, all for this small puppy. Right. Except by the age of 3 (months) Bingo was studying mathematics, astronomy and computer science. He understood several languages and had a fondness for foreign movies. And I am pretty sure (though my old friend failed to mention it) that Bingo is equipped with more than a few non-biological features. Such as: he can take a video with his eyes and transmit it to the home server (though no one suspects yet that I know this).

But despite all his intelligence and gadgetry, Bingo is mostly a normal Lab puppy, a wiggling source of endless energy, overwhelmed by an passion for squeaky toys, ice cubes, old shoes, food and any opportunity to play and have fun. For example, when he came to a problem in his calculus book that he couldn't solve, he ripped out the page and ran around with it (until we said Drop-It). And good thing they brought him a slobber-proof laptop.

A few more people, some in uniforms, joined the whispered conversation at the front of the room while the puppies and their humans grew more restless. Cheryl was working up a serious snit fit, wondering now if she would be back in time for school. And from the look on one officer's face, I feared that I might never work on a project again...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Training, Part 2

Then, in the far corner of the shack, a kind of trap door opened up and a young man in a uniform emerged from the floor, indicating that we should join him. The bearded man seemed amused, and I noticed that the puppies all watched him closely--about 25 puppies waiting patiently even as the humans on that porch (including me) were more than a little distracted by that strong wind and rain that pelted our backs. Could this shack in the middle of nowhere actually have a basement?

With a simple hand signal, the bearded man made his intent known to the puppies. Immediately these wet and stinky little dogs began pulling their humans toward the trap door, and soon we all were underground, not in some old basement but in a shiny well-lit hallway, linoleum on the floor and industrial stainless steel fixtures on the wall and doors. The puppies knew which way to go, so we humans all followed their lead, past a door that said "Exam" and another that said "2A". I looked around but the bearded man was nowhere in sight.

OK, I thought to myself, no questions asked--I had agreed to go along, but this was becoming surreal. Here we were, somewhere (according to a whispered conversation between two humans just ahead of me) in the Yucatan peninsula, in an opening carved out of the jungle and yet underground in what appeared to be a modern hospital or university. We were met by two young soldiers handing out towels: one each for Cheryl and me and one for the puppy. This was a big classroom with chairs, tables, a blackboard and flat-panel screens on the wall.

Once we all got settled and almost dry, a woman walked into the room and up to the blackboard in front. She wore a dark suit and dark glasses, and once again the puppies became as transfixed and still as stone (except for a few of the young ones who could not resist wiggling the tips of their tails)...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Training, Part 1

It must have been 2 or 3 in the morning, after a bumpy ride in the back of a small CIA-chartered cargo plane, after hours of pitch black and the roaring sound of overtaxed engines and the howling wind and rain, surrounded by 20 or 30 serious-minded and quiet puppies (well, except for one or two). At regular intervals the cabin door would open for few seconds and allow some light into the plane, revealing a bearded man wearing shorts and a flowery shirt, causing the puppies to sit up at quiet attention and wag their tails as he gave us all a look, all of us sitting on the empty and cold metal floor that had a puddle of water that shifted back and forth with the roll of the plane. Once again I asked myself why Cheryl and I agreed to go along with this.

We landed in what I guessed was somewhere in Central America, possibly the Yucatan, on a open grassy field with no lights except for a bare bulb hanging on the porch of a shack at the edge of the jungle. The wind and rain picked up as we raced across the field, humans with puppies on a leash, and I could only guess that the other humans were as clueless as me, each of us agreeing to come along and to ask no questions.

Obviously this was a training mission of some sort--the puppies seemed to know exactly what to do (except for one or two). In the middle of this open field the wind had nothing to stop it from rushing through the big shack, which had no doors or windows, just big openings on all sides. Up ahead, under a swaying light bulb, the bearded man was speaking, speaking to the puppies, I guess, because we humans certainly couldn't hear a thing over the wind.

Then one of the puppies moved to the front and turned around to face us...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stained Glass Project--Conceptualization

Our downstairs bathroom is tiny but not without some charm. It has a little nook with a sink and the same tile that's in our kitchen. Its window looks onto the back yard, except the window is frosted and we never open it. Cheryl has developed has passionate hatred for the curtains (helping to move this up the to-do list), but at least they hide the ugly old rusty metal window frames.

Instead of replacing the window, we've decided to make a stained glass window and a nice wooden frame to just fit over the 2 x 4 feet opening. We're looking for a pattern with koi and frogs--or maybe I can draw something...

Stained glass, of course, is an ancient and beautiful art form. The early Christian churches (around the 4th century) used sliced alabaster rather than glass in windows. Muslims began to use colored glass in windows around the 8th century. But some of the finest examples can be found in gothic churches throughout Europe, masterpieces that still hang in air after 1,000 years.

I made a stained-glass lamp shade years ago, and even though it was hideously ugly, I have a good idea how the process is done, and for some reason I feel confident now that I can do it and make something cool. Like with life, attitude is important with glass--otherwise it will cut you quick.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Regulation and Fear

Years ago I was playing music in a nightclub when it was raided by the police to see if minors were being served. The club was frequented by bikers (sweet guys, really), so the police came in with overwhelming force--probably 25 of them. I remember that we stopped playing and watched as the police came in, one after another, until (after a period of stunned silence) everyone in the club starting laughing, everyone thinking the same thing: are we really that scary?

But what seems like excess from one perspective may seem prudent from another. Today, I feel like a lone policeman as I stare out into the yard and watch the vines and weeds make obscene gestures at me. And I don't like the idea of going out there alone.

While I've been busy inside, the forces of nature have been churning outside with energy from months of rain--crazy wild energy that has infected our plants with shameless intoxication and unrestrained growth, not unlike the feeding frenzy of financial greed that recently devoured our retirement accounts and pooped them out into stinking piles of feces, not that I am emotional about it.

The big bamboo, for example, is on a serious binge, with the new shoots climbing above the old canopy. Already this guy dominates the backyard, and he has the potential to become twice as big.

Even safely nearby, at the edge of the pond, I found vines choking my cute little volunteer bamboo. Where have you been, she asked me, unable to straighten up after I set her free.

It's clear that we need some major regulation, so Willow and I have scheduled a committee meeting to discuss it. A first draft should be ready no later than November.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Paneling--Completion and Inspection

After weeks of work, often without a clear direction or cohesive plan, I eventually look up and realize suddenly that nothing else needs to be done. I had such a moment earlier this week. I sealed up the door opening, painted the wall, did the final sanding and put a final coat of wax on the baseboards and crown moulding. Done.

Now it's time for the project manager to come in for an inspection--with all of her drama and ritual--to make me feel that my efforts were not a complete waste of time. This makes me pretty nervous.

With our puppy away for 3 days of advanced training in cyber security, Willow and I are back into our old routine, and she took her time in silently reviewing my work, not betraying any sense of approval or disgust, knowing that it really makes me nuts.

I could have drawn out the project and made my own shoe moulding for the baseboards, but just as you cannot eat squash casserole for more than 2 days in a row, I just cannot bear to do another thing in this room--not for a while.

Willow looked up and down, into every crack and and imperfection and blemish, taking notes but not saying a word, until I threatened (to myself) to throw all of my tools into the big stone smoker in the back yard, big a big fire to melt them into a hunk of worthless metal, and never, ever take on another project of any kind.

Finally she licked my face, wagged her tail and curled up for a nap. Sunshine burst through the window, and all my work, and my life, pulsed with a new sense of purpose and anticipation of projects to come. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. (Oh, yeah, and Cheryl said she liked it, too.)

Next in line--making a stained glass window for the bathroom downstairs.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Worst-case Planning

Instead of working on the paneling yesterday, I took our CIA-engineered puppy to an undisclosed location for his secret training, though it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see what's going on.

Maybe today I can paint the archway and finish off the project for good. The baseboards are all in, and Friday I squirted some adhesive caulk between the edge of the panels and the arched doorway so that hopefully it won't splinter to pieces when a suitcase or other missile strikes a glancing blow. Who knows what might happen?

Years ago, in a previous life, I lived alone with my dog Matt in a 100-year old house in Arkansas. My landlord was an eccentric millionaire who came to sit, dressed in overalls, in the old work shed out back, sentimental about his childhood home. He would straighten old bent nails and behave, generally, like someone who could not afford a pot to piss in.

Matt and I would go out to visit with him--at the time I was a musician with no other job. I remember he warned me never to put money in the stock market (this was about 25 years ago). I don't know, maybe he thought I was wealthy, too, since I had time to hang out with him.

Late one night the guys in the band and some aimless loser drunks from the club came over to my house. Matt was a good judge of character--he sniffed everyone more than once, no wagging tail, and looked at me with some pity as if to say Is this the best you can do?

Then a commotion erupted in kitchen. The guitar player had taken a hammer that I'd left on the counter and was banging it on the stove over and over, singing some idiotic song. Matt rushed into the kitchen with his teeth bared and the laughing stopped immediately. I took the hammer away and told everyone to leave--before Matt did something excessive.

The moral: always plan for the unexpected. I may need to put up a corner guard to protect the doorway opening. You never know what might happen.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Router Table

Finally I figured it out. I wanted to make some unusual baseboard trim--something with tiny curves and angles--out of knotty pine, but this is tricky because the knots are hard and brittle. My high-speed router can make the cuts, but it is just not possible to do it by hand.

So I broke down and bought a router table, one of those things that I've always sorta wanted but was able to resist thanks to my genetic frugality and years of practiced cheapness and skinflintery.

A router table holds the router upside down, with the pointy part sticking up through a hole in the table, allowing you to cut the angles and curves with some precision (rather than holding the router itself by hand and moving it over the wood). Yeah, I know, for centuries craftsmen made trim like this without power tools--another reminder that I am a simpering maggot, a sickly sucker fish in comparison to those guys.

I was so pleased with the results that I've been reminding Cheryl, again and again lately, what a special and talented person I am, using my store-bought power and precision to create something cool. Such is the nature of woodworking, of life, today.

The trim does add a nice touch. But I'm not done. Next I need to finish off the arched doorway so that the paneling blends into the curved wall. The project goes on and on.

Bingo, our CIA-engineered puppy-bot, was on hand to inspect my work and to practice his secret uplink protocol. Apparently he can automatically record a video and upload it to the agency servers just by staring. The days of me walking around in my underwear are over. Who knows what is out there by now...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Pig with a Broom

I spent one summer in college working as a musician at a theme park in Arkansas, and I got to know a professional animal trainer. He was only about my age, but he was so good with animals that he had his own animal show, probably the most popular show at the park because it had a pig that could sweep sawdust from the floor with a broom, pick it up with a dust pan, and put it in a waste basket. After watching the show a few times I learned that few things will delight a tourist more than seeing a pig with a broom it its mouth.

I became the animal trainer's friend and often went to have lunch with him and his parents on a farm with probably a dozen dogs, many of whom were in the show. I was amazed at how he talked to them and how they listened. But, I asked him, what about the pig?

He claimed the pig was actually his younger brother, who after a normal childhood slowly transformed into his present form. Not only could this pig handle a broom, he told me, but he also played poker and drove a pickup truck. At the time I doubted the trainer's honesty, but recent experience with our puppy's super-human intelligence have caused me to reconsider the possibility of transmogrification. I have some theories about the puppy...

Sometimes in woodworking you also have to make do with what life gives to you. My baseboards, for example, started out in my mind with a certain shape, but circumstances are transforming them into something else altogether. I pictured the top trim pieces with some graceful curves and cuts, but I'm not having much luck and patience is running out and I don't want to drive down to Home Depot yet again in pursuit of router bits that may or may not work out, and did I mention about my patience running out.

I may well end up with a pig.