Monday, December 31, 2012

Puerto Rico Rocks

It's drizzling here in Puerto Rico. Cheryl and Gisah are off to the market for food as we prepare to hunker down in our beach shack for New Years eve instead of venturing out into the night. For the past several nights we've heard load announcements from cars driving along the beach, invitations to one night club or another, Spanish words blasting out along with the bump, bump, bump of salsa music. Yes, it sounds like fun but we are staying indoors tonight, I guess, because we are getting old. And also now we have David and Gisah's daughter, Tizita, with us, and she is a delight.

Today we visited the forts of old San Juan and walked through the city, which is very hilly and beautiful, with many views of the ocean--a very old city as well. Classical architecture and long, narrow streets and more colors than I could have imagined. And in much of the town are residential homes, several stories tall and with as many ornate balconies facing the street, either in iron or wood. Very tall ceilings, too, because we have been peeking in whenever we get a chance.

And as for landscaping, I've seen so many ideas that I'd like to incorporate into our yard, but so much more is possible here, because of all the hills, than is practical in our flat back yard. Even so, having this break gives me a chance to relax and get recharged. The big yard project begins when we return.

More later.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Basket for That

Cheryl has a thing for baskets: wicker, cloth, wire, plastic, metal, it doesn't matter. Maybe she had an especially nice Easter once. Who knows, but we have a hundred baskets in the house.

I, too, have some baskets, but out in the garage where baskets are intended to live, baskets for tools, for electrical stuff, for plumbing stuff, for nails and screws, and mostly because I hate to throw things away.

The flush mechanism on our toilet broke during the Christmas party on Saturday, and I had to make a quick fix with some wire.

And when I went to make the permanent fix last night and my plumbing basket in the garage had just what I needed--a complete new handle assembly. Yes, that was very cool, though Cheryl was not at all impressed.

Later, on TV, as if it knew my future plans and wanted to raise the bar, a pagoda appeared. A beautiful pagoda, much nicer than the one I had in mind (to create in the back yard).

But this pagoda might well be out of my class, beyond my capability, outside my comfort zone, above my artistic ability, cooler than I will ever be, especially someone who takes so much pleasure in fixing a toilet.

And yet, what is accomplished by setting a low bar? I think I can do it...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Fixtures

For quite a while we've been experimenting with the lights out front. First with Christmas lights that tucked under the awnings, then with lights on the banisters, and to do this I ran the power directly from the light sockets of our existing fixtures, which we had abandoned as actual lights because the blue glass sleeves had long since fallen out and broken. An ugly mess, with wires hanging here and there. Because the big party is coming up, we decided to get new fixtures.

Picking out new light fixtures with Cheryl was certain to be difficult. She has one thing in mind, and I another, and so it goes for most things. But there in the store we looked up and said, in unison, that we both liked the same fixture. Sweet.

They have a yellowish stained glass that seems to go well with the house color. Installation was a snap, and now we have these nice geometric shapes to replace the chaotic clutter from before.

Christmas means hanging up my favorite ornament, a red chili with green sparkly top. I don't know why, but this thing makes me happy.

Otherwise, everything is pretty much on hold until after the parties. No more deadlines for now. Our big dog party is coming up, and Coach has a new coat.

Then our friends fly in for Christmas. I remain a lucky guy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


For the longest while I've been aggravated by a strange situation in the downstairs bathroom. At first I thought it might be mold--what else would explain the bubbling paint and white powder beneath? Yes, they looked very much like bubbles of paint on the wall, pustules of paint. Microscopic creatures might be extruding gas, I thought, but how would it bubble paint that was already dry?

And under the paint was a whitish powder. But no, the internet told me, mold is not powdery (it is sticky). The paint bubbles that I'm seeing are probably to do effervescence, a chemical reaction of the lye in the plaster reacting to water.

Of course, I believed it was effervescence because the Internet said so. The actual truth of the matter is of no consequence.

I did notice, however, that when I put some sheet rock compound on the wall to smooth it out, the compound bubbled up (and it is very sticky stuff). Even Cheryl noticed the bubbling, and she said so, which she probably regretted because it then drew her into a discussion with me about it, and I'm sure that quickly bored her to tears.

I knew what to do. More later...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Considering the Back Yard

It's 9 pm and I realize that I haven't written a post in a while, not a word even though many fascinating things have happened to me in the past few weeks.

In particular lately I am just amazed at how interesting each day can be. I look forward to my pot of tea first thing in the morning, and then to my first and then second cups of coffee later on. As noon approaches I am caught up in my private world of programming, one that never gets old (but should, if only I had some ambition or basic curiosity about life or art). Lunch time is a miracle--I can eat anything I like: okra, beans, soup. And then back to work and more programming and emails, solving one meaningless problem after another, watching them go up in smoke, one after another, a stupid way to make a living but one that I never get tired of. Then Cheryl comes home and we have some time together. And then it is time to go to bed again. Every day is oddly wonderful.

Last weekend I finally finished the stairs project. Here is a picture of it, prepped for the final coat of paint on the sideboards.

The project that will capture my attention for the next several months is the back yard. It is a real jungle, and by next spring I hope to have it completely transformed, with a new, high fence and new landscaping to replace the wilderness.

The jungle has played an important role, though. It has kept hidden the two ugly buildings in the neighboring yards. More later.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stone Oven

I've been ignoring the old stone oven in the back yard for years. On more than one occasion I tried to use it as a grill, but it was a failure, or rather I was the failure. After looking at some articles, I realize now that this is probably meant to be used as a slow-cooker oven instead of a grill. So I've cleared off the vines (almost) and am ready to give it a shot

First, it is pretty big, about 6 feet. It has an oven door in the front.

The grate sits about 10 inches down from the top.

And under the grate (behind the door) it has a big space, probably about 2 feet from the floor to the grate, almost 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep.

And a stone shelf extends to the right, at the same level as the grate, and it's about 8 inches high.

So how should this be used? My guess would be to put the food in the shelf to the right, put the charcoal into the box (a bunch of it), put some wet wood on the coals and then completely close off the opening above the grate so that the smoke is pulled up the chimney. This would keep the food away from direct heat. I guess I should use a thermometer to be sure.

Sound like a good plan?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Encounter with Black Paint

Everyone ought to bear patiently
the results of his own conduct.
- Shakespeare

This weekend I had the opportunity and good fortune to paint the metal frame of our big awning on the back porch. The awning canvas is away at the shop being adjusted, so the frame--a collection of steel pipes with black paint that has been peeling away for years--is bare.

First step was to sand the pipe to remove the loose paint. But before that I put some plastic tarp on the patio, just in case I might spill some paint on the stone. Of course the flecks of loose paint went everywhere, especially on the top of my head.

I had planned ahead. At Home Depot I bought spray paint and a can of paint, just in case. But the spray paint was messed up--the spray cap didn't fit, and when I tried to make it fit the paint went in all directions. I tried again and again, thinking that maybe it was a test of wills, but now my hands were covered in paint. Then it occurred to me that I might be able to discharge the contents of the can into a plastic container and then use a brush. Seemed like a good idea at the time. In the process, the plastic tarp became saturated, and some of the paint leaked onto the patio.

About an hour later, after scrubbing the stone with paint thinner and putting down a new tarp, I was back on track. No problem, I thought calmly, I'll just use the paint from the can, but when I opened it I discovered that it was sparkling white instead of the black that I needed. I stared at the white paint for quite a while just to be sure it was not black. It was not at all black.

I could just quit, but the frame would rust without paint, and I won't be able to paint it after the canvas is stretched on.

Wow. I realized that this was one of those very important moments when I have the opportunity to test the limits of my character instead of screaming and hitting things. More later...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dealing with the Details

Now that the tile is up, I'm faced with the nit-picky tasks of finishing the trim work on both sides. Given just a quick thought, a person (or a project manager) might see this as a trivial single task, just a quick swipe of paint and be done with it. But no, if things are to be done correctly, many steps and many types of work are required.

To start, I spent time yesterday cutting out little triangles of trim and gluing them into place so that the molding would be square under the corner of the step. No one would ever know about this if not for my plan to tell it to every single person who steps into the house.

Next I put on strips of joint tape and then joined the edges of tile to the wood trim. This will need another application or two, just to even it out. And then I'll tape everything and paint.

To our project managers this all looks like busy work. They are impatient now because the tile went up so quickly, and now they are certain that I'm dragging my feet. They don't realize that the worst is yet to come--I still need to grout and apply the silicone, and in this regard I admit that I am especially hesitant to go forward quickly.

The grout will be too white, I fear, and will look funny against the tile. And depending on my mood at the time, I may not care. I have a mood, a personality, a person inside me that is not allowed to work on projects. He does not give a damn if the grout color does not match. He tends to fix things with a hammer. For the most part, he is allowed only to watch TV and walk the dogs. Oh, and mow the lawn and pull weeds. Anything that is not permanent...

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A New Geometry

Somehow, I've lost the ability to manage time and put away a few minutes to document this project or even to work on it. The details are never far from my mind, though. I see the rows of tiles, the little gaps above, below and between them. In my mind I see feet walking up and down, I see the steps creaking and giving, moving with a geometric give and take, wood moving in space or pulsing like under water, while the tiles are perfectly still at the concrete center.

And somehow I finished the tiling in one day this weekend.

The effect is pretty understated, not the colorful splash that you see on some stairs. I like it more and more, and I think Cheryl does, too.

The next step is to do the grouting between the tiles, and then do silicone putty above and below the tiles, where the world is on the move and a flexible relationship is essential.

More later.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A More Elastic Religion

After being lost for over a week, the tiles finally arrived, and my suspicions were quickly confirmed; most of the tiles are a little bigger than 6 x 6 inches. And on closer inspection I've discovered that the stair risers also are of various dimensions, some taller than others. Any random tile might fit on one riser but not on another. But this size problem is not my immediate concern. I have some philosophical issues to contend with.

It turns out that stairs are the least stable structure in a home. Tiles need stability. They are rigid conformists who believe in the ideals of geometry, not in some relativistic, wishy-washy abstract morality of physical law. If the tile looses the stability of its moral foundation, it will have a breakdown, and it will crack.

Tile professionals love this fact above anything else--no matter what environment they work in, the tile pro will seek to make it more stable, more waterproof, more solid, before the tiles go down. They are like over-protective parents seeing danger around every corner and well into the future.

I communicate with one such professional on the web, the Floor Elf, and he recommended that I put concrete backer board on the risers before tiling. Backer board is rigid, giving the tiles a nice safe foundation, because the stairs are a wild place, creaking and vibrating and moving as we stomp on them.

But here's my problem. Steps have a nose that sticks out over the riser. Why? They are a psychological tool to trick the brain into thinking that your foot has less room to land than it actually has. And so, the heel of your foot is less likely to come down on the riser, and you are less likely to take a fall. Stair noses are good.

Unfortunately my tiles are pretty thick (about 1/2 inch), so my stair nose will be shrinking. And if I put backer board on the riser first, I would loose even more of my nose. So what to do? An alternative (said the Floor Elf) is to use stuff called Ditra, an orange plastic material that's only about 1/8 inch thick. Whereas concrete backer board is rigid (like some old-school religions), Ditra allows for some flexibility while still providing a stable environment for the tile. Vibrations and movement (evil, immorality) on the the riser will be absorbed by the plastic so the the tile can remain rigid.

In an imperfect tile world, Ditra provides for a more elastic religion.

Here I am, applying the Ditra. When it dries, I can move on to the tile size problem. Yes, I will need to cut some of the tiles so that they will fit. In a perfect world, this would not be necessary...

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

More Than a Little Late

I've often wondered how it is that annoyance turns into relief and then into joy, like when a package of tile that I've paid for has gone missing, and when all hope of finding it is lost, after an entire week and the denial phase has passed, and now, like a miracle, the tile has mysteriously been found, and I find myself so happy and grateful. What a wonderful world.

Had the shipping company been only one day late, I would have been only annoyed. Two days late and I would have been rude to them when they arrived. But now it is eight days later and I'm as happy as a little girl with a new pony--I'm sure I will be laughing and shaking hands when the truck driver arrives. Instead of eight-times angry I am eight times happy, happy because the tile has turned up and I don't have to wait another three weeks for new tile to be made in Mexico.

What happened between Sept.17 and Sept. 24? No one knows. The tile apparently arrived in Tampa on the 17th--this according to the tracking log--but the tracking log contains a lie. The shipping company people are happy as well; they do not know how this happened, or why the log contains a lie, and they do not seem at all curious about it. And who cares because I'm not mad about it anymore.

11:25 and still no truck. They were supposed to be here before 11 am...

Friday, September 21, 2012

To Yell or Not To

Apparently the trucking company lost our tile. It was due to be delivered two days ago, but according to the customer service department, the tile was not on the truck that pulled into Tampa, so it could be just about anywhere by now. They said they put out an "all points bulletin" on the tile--I suppose they use the phrase to convey a sense of urgency and calm--it's like a small child has been kidnapped and I, the grieving parent, should just be patient.

But I have no emotional attachment to this shipment of tile. It may be lost and scared and hungry and alone in some dark warehouse. It may be stolen, sitting now in someone's garage in Chicago, waiting to be sold on Ebay. But it is not my tile. I have no tile.

After communicating with the shipping company, I turned next to the tile company. I've paid them for tile and for the task of shipping the tile. And yet I have no tile. They've assured me that a new shipment of tile will be coming to me soon if the existing shipment is not found. How soon? Very, the tile company says.

During the course of my conversation with the tile company guy, I did not yell or scream or use abusive language or even give a hint that I might be upset. It's not his fault, right? He asked when the project was scheduled to begin, and I casually said Saturday, just to imply that I will need to reschedule a contractor. Otherwise, we had a nice talk.

I wonder if my friendly approach will be effective...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stair Project: Kick-off

Right now, somewhere out on the freeway, my shipment of Mexican tile is making its way here in the back of a big truck. It could be here tomorrow, possibly even later today, so the project manager called an early morning meeting.

A kick-off meeting sets the tone for an entire project. Management is there to put on a public face of authority and to inspire the troops to rise up and become something more than the stupid and lazy oafs that we are when left alone and unsupervised.

Meanwhile, over the weekend, I've been corresponding with my friend, the Floor Elf, about how to actually do the work for this project, because it will be much more tricky than it seems, more tricky than the project manager could ever guess (but what else is new?).

Sure, putting tile on the stair risers could be as easy as putting stamps on a letter. But the stairs are possibly the most dynamic structure in a house. They creak and bounce and shift and slide, not much, but more than enough to make tiles wriggle loose over time or crack or cause the grout to turn into dust.

We close the meeting on a positive note, as usual. The project manager hasn't passed around a schedule yet. Ha, she knows that this one is going to take a very long time...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Lighting Up

Years ago I was playing piano in a crappy nightclub, the name of which makes me nauseous to remember, probably because I wish I hadn't wasted so many hours of my young life there.

For some reason yesterday a memory came into my head while at the doctor's office, seeing a my new doctor for the first time, a very young doctor, while I am not so young. My memory was from that pathetic nightclub in Arkansas. I can see it sitting there on the side of a freeway like some huge turd waiting to be flushed. And because of Google, I can see literally see that it is still there.

But to be honest I also had some good times there. I was much younger at the time.

The owner occasionally brought in some has-been musicians (like Sha Na Na and Jan and Dean), and we would be the opening act. On the particular night I'm remembering we had a woman (I can't remember her name) from Nashville who had one big record in the 1950s and then faded away. How old was she? 50? 60? None of us in the band had ever heard of her. Along with her was a man, her husband I think, also a singer but less well-known. And while he was red-faced telling jokes and shaking hands and talking loud, she was the opposite: pale despite all her makeup, a little wrinkled, a little gray, possibly in pain, possibly medicated, and quiet.

These two were alone--no band. So they arrived early to teach us her big song and then practice a few standards. She was clearly weak and shaky, but her partner laughed it away and joked that everything would be OK. Practice couldn't have lasted more than 5 or 10 minutes.

That night we had a packed house--apparently the place was filled with the woman's fans. She sat in a chair near the stage, greeting people quietly in her lacy dress with puffy sleeves. Why do I remember all this?

The man got on stage first, sang a few songs, told some jokes. But all of us in the band were worried when he introduced the woman and she quietly climbed the stage. She seemed like such a nice person.

Then, with the microphone in her hand she just turned on, lit up like a Christmas tree, sparkling with such charisma and singing with such strength that we all were stunned. She was the real pro, and she lasted for almost an hour on stage. Then she returned to her chair and she turned off again. Lights out.

I remember one thing in particular. At the end of the night I went over to her chair to congratulate her. Before I could say a word, she took my hand and pulled me close so that she could whisper into my ear. She lit up again for that instant, and I could imagine the beautiful young face that was once there.

"Thank you for being so kind," she said.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Calculating the Price

All personal shortcomings have their price, or at least I imagine this to be true if only to provide for some justice and meaning.

My fear of heights, for example, prevents me from doing certain projects, like fixing the drip, drip, drip of water that comes from the air conditioner on the roof and that, over time, had strayed from its intended course down the gutter and instead was crawling its way down the wall and onto the big tent awning over the back porch, collecting into a permanent damp spot on the canvas, breeding mold and mildew and turning the pretty green cover to black.

From underneath the awning the effect was not visible--everything is still new and green except that now some threads have given way and some fringe has become unfringed.

All this because I cannot climb a latter very far, certainly not the 20+ feet to the gutter, which is accessible only in this way.

So not only did my fear of heights delay the necessary repair work, it caused the collateral damage to the awning. Or did it?

We had to hire someone to make the repair to this and the other gutter boxes. Here's a photo that I took of him on the ladder. I was standing on the balcony outside my office, very much tempted to vomit at the sight of the ladder extending all the way to the patio floor.

We had to drop the awning in order to place the ladder, and this brought the moldy top into full view and convinced us that the canvas must be replaced.

But was the damage to the awning really my fault? Was this the price for my fear of heights?

We brought in an awning guy for an estimate, and he absolved me of all responsibility. It turns out that all of the older awnings around the house are coming apart and must be replaced. All of them are finally relenting to the Florida weather. The awnings have lived out their expected life span. There's nothing you could have done, he said with a smile.

Yes, I am not to blame. Now it's time to pay.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Letting the Stairs Dry

It's a waiting game now, waiting to see how time and the traffic of doggy toe nails will treat the stairs. I can tell that the finish is getting a little harder each day as it dries out. I'm using that same varathane that I put on my office floor a couple months ago, and my floor is as hard as a rock now.

So during this hardening phase we only allow the dogs to come upstairs once or twice a day. Of course Willow had to supervise, approve and take credit for the finished product.

The air conditioner guy stopped by on Thursday and, literally, walked into the house without knocking. He had called to let me know he was coming. But I had never met this guy. And who just walks into your house without knocking? He walked in wearing heavy work boots, then started to approach the stairs to get to the ladder on our balcony, and I yelled at him to stop. No shoes on the stairs! I made him get up to the roof from the outside. We did not establish a friendship.

Life is all about learning new things. For me, using stain on the stairs was a new thing. I've always avoided stain because natural wood is usually beautiful on its own. And stain can be a problem with damaged wood because the pigment can soak into deep scratches and darken them. But I was able to sand away most of scratches before staining.

If the stairs have lost any character as a result of the severe sanding I gave them, I don't really feel it. Plenty imperfections remain, and I'm not sure whether to brag or feel shame about them.

We're waiting now for more tile samples for the stair risers. More later.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sanding the Stairs

With Cheryl away this weekend I had time to make a huge sawdust mess, but this time I covered the furniture and my piano with plastic first. I was committed to sanding down the stairs. No more hesitation. No girly half-measures. There would be much sanding and much sawdust in the air.

First step was to remove the spindles. I was assured on-line that spindles are difficult to remove and that I should be prepared to break a few.

So I gently encouraged the spindles to come out, getting to know each one individually, and they obliged me by not breaking, such is the nature of patience and common respect.

Time to sand, but after a few minutes with my orbital sander, it was clear that I needed more power, which meant a trip to Home Depot to rent an edger sander (a powerful tool for sure), except that Home Depot did not have one. The news could not have hit me harder. I wandered the aisles in a daze, not unlike that day almost 15 years ago when I was laid off from work and stopped on the way home to wander around in the grocery store looking for dry rice and beans and whatever food that my desperate position would allow.

In the power tool aisle I explained my situation to a man who was about my age. I was desperate about sanding these steps--today, it had to be done today. He looked a little sorry for me, but not really sorry. I'm sure he has his own troubles. I remembered that I had an old belt sander at home, a primitive awful tool that always leaves gouges in the wood, so much that I swore never to use it again, but now I had no choice. He agreed that I had no choice. I bought two new belts.

More later.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Not Like a Violin

After several days waiting for this stupid cough to go away, it's time to finish up the stairs, no matter how I feel. But no more chemical strippers and gooey mess. The stairs need a really good sanding, even though I will be sanding away whatever character remains amid the ugly scratches, dings and black spots.

I had this same feeling with the bathroom. After all, I could have replaced the broken tiles and made a huge patch job of it all. Then we could have said the bathroom was still "original." I wonder and worry about these things, still. Sanding the stairs will change the way they look, and I can't predict the outcome.

I faced the same dilemma years ago with my violin. Its finish was in terrible shape, and it literally fell to pieces one night as I was playing it--the neck separated from the body, which flopped around like a puppet. I was able to glue it all together, and then, impulsively, I also stripped away the finish. I stripped away the 100-year old finish. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

The stairs aren't like a violin, though. I tried doing a restore a few years ago, but it didn't work. I need to sand down to the bare wood. And to do this right I need to remove the spindles from the railing, otherwise I will have to sand in little circles around them, using my pinkie finger or something equally as small, and I don't have the patience for it.

Luckily I was able to remove one of spindles already, though almost by accident, so I believe I see how to get the others out.

More later.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

If Ants Wanted To

Working at home, I am cut off from the normal daily flow of human traffic experienced by most people. I see the mail man, our house-keeper, some contractors, and a few others, and I'm always delighted to meet someone with fresh ideas.

Consider our bamboo. It has a case of scale, which is a sticky, ugly brown substance on the surface of the culm. Scale is perfectly normal on this type of bamboo; it is produced by aphids that live in the tops of the branches, 50 or 60 feet off the ground.

But here's the weird part. Ants loves to eat the scale, so they "farm" out the aphids--they bring them down to the bottom of the plant and make them crawl back to the top, leaving the little deposits along the way. To control the scale, as I understand it, I need to first get rid of the ants. (The bamboo lady says I should leave it alone because ladybugs like it.)

As luck would have it our pest control guy came by yesterday for his annual visit. He specializes in pet-safe and environmentally safe methods. I remembered from the past that he is a scholar in the subject of ants, and he loves to talk about them, so I took him outside to the bamboo.

"Those are fire ants. See that guy, there," he said, pointing to an ant that was several times bigger than the others, all of them marching in a line upwards. "He's the soldier. It's his job to protect these workers."

We had a nice talk about the ants. I noticed, though, a cloud forming in his eyes. Something was troubling him, and he needed very much to tell me. "No one really knows this," he told me in a whisper, "but if these guys ever figure out that we are a threat to them, they will take us out overnight, and there's nothing we could do to stop them.

"There are millions and millions of these guys in your yard alone. If they wanted to attach us, there's nothing we could do and nowhere we could go."

"Is this possible?" I said back in a whisper, hoping to prolong the discussion.

He looked at me as if to determine my trustworthiness--could I handle the truth?

More later...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

To Sand or Not To

I'm sitting here in a sweater and heavy pants, overcoming another bout with the flu or whatever. I spent all Monday and Tuesday in bed with a fever, thinking some crazy abstract thoughts, or maybe dreaming, about how to finish the stairs, but there was never an answer, just me working with bizarre fuzzy tools that might have been alive. After awhile I didn't need to take my temperature--I could judge it by the weirdness of my daydreaming.

Of course, this happened after I was half finished stripping the wood.

So even after these 3 or 4 days of meditation I still don't know what to do: strip the steps and finish them (to capture the patina and character of this old wood) or sand them down (because they really look like crap).

I put chairs and the top and the bottom and connected them with a rope. I don't know why--I guess to keep Cheryl and the dogs off. But immediately after doing so, Cheryl knocked over the chair at the top and it crashed to the bottom, breaking its top rib. Like usual, she was mad at me because this happened. I am the cause of every unfortunate event in this house.

The steps even have some rotten spots, where rain has dripped over the years and turned the surface to a soft feathery fuzz that will never hold varnish. I close my eyes but the solution doesn't come to me. At least for now, I can sit and rest, because I'm recovering.

Friday, August 3, 2012

It's On Now

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone

Emily Dickinson has a famous poem about a snake and her sense of horror at seeing it. But instead of pursuing the typical overheated notions of fear, of racing hearts and flushed red faces, she leads the reader to a cold, internal horror: zero at the bone.

I felt such a horror last week when, following a rain, I noticed some spots forming at the top of the window frame in the guest bathroom. The roof or the gutter--something--is still leaking and is now threatening my bathroom.

My heart must have stopped for a minute or two.

So now I'm talking to a new contractor, and I'm determined to stop the leaks once and for all. We're going to rebuild the gutter boxes and seal every possibly crack if I have to cover the entire house with a thick coat of sealer. Oh yes, it's on now...

Willow seems encouraged about starting a new project.

Here's the entire poem: The Snake, by Emily Dickinson

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, -did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, -
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Fought the Sun

As a test this weekend, I spent about 4 hours on the side roof working on the window and on the box that supports the new gutters. If roofers can do this everyday, out in the Florida summertime, then I should be OK for one afternoon.

The smart thing to do would have been to wait until about 5 pm so that I would be shaded by the prodigious growth of bamboo nearby. But the rains start every afternoon, and I needed to get some caulking done on a dry surface. Another option was to start in the early morning. Instead, I walked out onto the roof (from our bathroom window) at about 1 pm.

My theory was this: drink plenty of water before I go out, and wear a hat, and I should be OK. As far as I'm concerned, I'm as fit as ever, better even. I didn't intend to let the Florida steam-bath summer bitch defeat me.

Here's a picture of the rotten window sill and rusted window from several weeks ago. By the time I finished this weekend, after about 4 hours in the hot sun, with the asphalt burning my feet, I had a new sill, had replaced some boards near the gutter, applied some caulking all around and put on some primer paint. And I finished just before it started raining. Perfect.

I went downstairs, no longer aware of my extremities, to tell Cheryl the good news, and she just stared at me. I opened my mouth again. "You need to go to bed," she said, "You're not making any sense."

You're welcome.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why We Do What We Do

What better way to spend an Florida summer afternoon than on an angled roof, scraping bits of old glazing, paint and rust from the bedroom window, always one step away from slipping down over the edge and onto the stone patio below.

The old window hasn't been refinished since Roosevelt was in office; its sill was so rotten that it had curled upward and was actually catching the rain water instead of draining it away. And much of the old putty was dried and separated from the window.

Of course, there are contractors who restore windows; it's a specialized art, not really for amateurs like me, especially not these old rusty metal windows. In particular, there's an art to applying the putty, a mysterious technique known as glazing.

I knew from experience that I did not understand how to glaze; my attempts have always been pathetic. The putty should be perfectly smooth and continuous around the window.

So I poked around on YouTube until I found a video by some guys who specialize in antique window restoration. One guy was holding the camera and narrating while the other one carefully cleaned up an old wood window, doing all the work work that you would expect, filling in some damaged spots, etc. Then it came time to glaze.

"I know," the narrator said, "that some people don't like to do glazing, but it is my favorite part." His partner took up a big handful of the glazing compound and began kneading it like bread dough, to "get it nice and warm," he said. Then he took the putty knife and pressed several chunks of the putty onto the window frame. No problem--I can do that.

The camera came in close while the artist took the putty knife firmly between the thumbs and first fingers of both hands and, at a very deliberate speed, moved from right to left, cutting the putty at the window and leaving a perfectly smooth white putty surface behind. Beautiful.

The camera zoomed out, the artist stepped back, and the narration stopped for several seconds. With a tender voice, the guy then said, "This is why we do what we do."

It began raining lightly just as I was ready to do some glazing. I kneaded a chunk of putty, pushed it in place, and grabbed the knife with both hands.

More later...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Vikings Visit the Back Yard

For the first time since we've lived here, the power company sent a group of single-minded tree-trimmers through the neighborhood to clear the power lines in advance of hurricane season. The neighbors are angry (but I'm not) because these guys are not artists; these tree cutters came through with little regard for symmetry, let alone sympathy for the trees. They were like drunken Viking invaders, conquering one cherry laurel after another, burning a wide swath.

In particular we have a number of tree along our back fence, which runs almost directly underneath the lines. We even have a big, ugly pole in our back yard, something that is now difficult to ignore.

The Vikings did this while we were away on vacation last week, but I don't care because they helped prepare for my next mega-project: to build a new fence and then a pagoda out back. I was planning to cut many of these tree anyway.

What they lacked in artistic sensibility was matched by a disregard for common sense, because several of the tree in our back yard grow at an angle.
These poor trees live on the edge, struggling for the sun, staring always at the ground and wondering when gravity will finally defeat them, holding on to life only because of the limbs that grow and offer some counter weight in the opposite direction.

One of these poor souls couldn't take it any more, couldn't take the indignity of being stripped bare, couldn't adjust to its missing limb, and so, a few days later, it pulled its roots from the sandy ground and took a nose-dive into the neighbor's yard, taking out a section of fence in the process. The Vikings are responsible, but they are long gone.

Here I am in the neighbor's yard, cutting up the remains. One down, about 12 to go, and now I'll be the bad guy.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Thinking of Jellyfish

The floors are done, and I only have the threshold to finish. I'm using one of the oak boards that I pulled up from the original kitchen floor, which looked about as pitiful as you can imagine, at least on the surface. After I shaved off about 1/8 inch from the top, it looked as bright and cheerful as a new sapling.

To celebrate, Cheryl and I are in California, visiting with our cool little niece and her parents (also cool), and hanging out in Monterey and Carmel with Cheryl's parents, who have come to play golf at Pebble Beach only to be turned away because the place is so crowded.

Willow is at home, pleased that we are away because she gets to spend time with Lauren, our dog-sitter.

I took a video of jellyfish in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and then I uploaded it to YouTube. But then I forgot my password and couldn't find the video. Searching on the words "Jellyfish" and "Monterey" I found about a thousand other videos of jellyfish at the aquarium, and this one is almost exactly like mine.

The implications of this are pretty clear. I rarely have an original thought or moment, no matter how I pretend otherwise. Countless other Fred's have Cheryl's in Carmel, with Willows back home. In fact, I'm guessing that several other people are typing these same words at this instant. The internet can be so cruel.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Painter at Heart

My favorite paint brush is made from natural hair, but I have no idea about the origin. The very best brushes (those used by artists) are made from the Siberian weasel (or sable). Mine is probably made from horse hair or goat hair or maybe even squirrel or possum hair. I never buy the most expensive thing in the store.

Yesterday Willow wanted to watch as I put another coat of paint on the baseboards upstairs. Project managers do this sometimes, I'm guessing, because they get bored with their "managing." They get nostalgic about those days before they traded in their craft and became a boss, those days when they were younger.

I knew that in Willow's case her younger self was a painter, and so I wasn't surprised when she wanted to come and watch me paint.

But as with any type of nostalgia--like with a middle-aged accountant who played football in high school or an old programmer who was once a musician--the old memories can sometimes seep into the present moment so that we believe we are young again and doing the things again that we once did well.

So while I wasn't looking, Willow took up her old natural-hair brush and began helping me with the baseboards. Yes, she still has a great brush, but I see now why see went into management.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Plum People

I've spent the past couple evenings putting down the shoe molding around the crazy angles in the hallway. Not one of them was at 90 degrees, though my photo isn't very helpful in making the case.

These baseboards didn't have shoe molding when when moved in. For some reason, Cheryl has a thing about shoe molding (or quarter-round)--she's been griping about the hallway for years.

With each step of work I get a better picture of the previous owners. The people who painted the bathroom green, for example, were very neat and tidy people. They put putty in the V-grooves of the bathroom door to make them more uniform, and now, after spending 2 days stripping the door and cleaning out the grooves, I realize what a completely worthless exercise I've been on. I should never have removed the putty because now I need to putty the grooves again, and I won't do as good a job as the Green people.

No, I should have stopped stripping at the plum layer. The Plum people made a real mess of things; now that I know their personalities, I can see their handiwork elsewhere in the house, and I intend to yank it all out.

Then last week, during a fierce downpour, water started pouring into the master bedroom from inside the wall. I'm not prepared to discuss it yet.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A Work of Art

As I was stripping the bathroom door today, I stepped back to rest for a second, and I realized that I had created a work of art.

I call it Retrospective on a Door
I was determined to remove the paint from the bathroom door, the nearly 100 years of paint, and now I know the history: yellow first, then mustard, green, plum, and white. One layer on top of another.

Memories and some questionable color choices.

So I'm not sure what to do now; finish the job or take this to an art gallery.

By way of comparison, above is an actual exhibit from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jack Plane, Part 2

Journalism school gives you the notion that people care about your writing. Working as a technical writer takes that notion away, as I soon learned after getting the job at that aerospace company.

I had just moved from Arkansas to Arizona, and in Arkansas I lived a hermit's existence way out in the country. Wood heat, no air conditioning. I had a few hand tools--my favorite was a little jack plane.

Because my brother worked at a big aerospace company in Tucson, I had a good chance of getting hired in the technical editing/writing department with him. I still remember that day, sitting in a small office at a table, writing on the back page of a job application with a pencil, free to describe anything at all, as long as it was technical.

Something about the jack plane interested me. I would sometimes just stare at it, not really knowing why. It was perfectly flat on the bottom except for the protruding steel blade sticking through a slot, so it really didn't sit down flat except when pushed along a piece of lumber, when the blade pulled off a ribbon of wood.

But even then the wood is never really flat. The front of the plane is always riding on wood that is about to be sliced, and the tail end of the plane is lower, dropped into the space where the ribbon used to be. Then when you get to the end of the wood, the front end of the plane flies off into space. It is never level. And yet it creates a level surface.

I understand sandpaper because it is flat. A drill bit is a nice cylinder. But a plane is not normal; it's never what it appears to be.

Fortunately my brother worked at the place.

Fast forward, and I've got my second coat of finish on the office floor and hallways.

Also, the cactus in our side yard is really blooming...