Archives for category: memories

Be Prepared

A.V. Walters

girl-guide-pin

When I was just a kid, ten or eleven, “they” started a Girl Guide troop in my village. I was elated. The Boy Scouts—the male version of our Canadian youth organization—did all kinds of cool stuff. They hiked. They went camping. They learned sailing and essential survival skills. I wanted in.

But, Girl Guides was a major disappointment. We met regularly, paid our dues and stood around in formation. There was a lot of discussion about earning badges—and we all eagerly researched the requirements in our Guidebooks. There were no nature hikes, no tips on identifying wildlife, no talks on campfire safety (and, needless to say, no campfires.) Oddly enough, there were tips for the application of cosmetics. And, they emphasized the gentle arts of knitting, crochet, sewing, and swapping patterns. If I’d wanted that, I could’ve simply signed up for Home Ec, at school.

Just once, we had a promising project. We made camp stoves out of coffee cans, which were to be used with beeswax candles as fuel. Of course, when we’d finished with the tinsnips and wax, some of us decided to light the damn things. Our Girl Guide leader had a total fit. You’d have thought we were trying to burn down the building! “Who brought those matches?!!!”

I was a problem child. So, naturally, I complained. The organizers, a trio of women from our village, told me to be patient, that they were just getting started. But, I was bored. To amuse myself, I did handstands against the walls. My concerns (and restlessness) stirred up the other girls, inspiring them to look beyond handicrafts and sock-puppets in their expectations. We started practicing gymnastic moves when the meetings were slow or disorganized. Our leaders didn’t approve of gymnastics. (Admittedly, it’s difficult to keep your Girl Guide uniform neat and tidy while practicing gymnastics.) Consequently, I earned demerits, and was soon regarded as a disciplinary problem.

Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts continued their outings to neat locations, like the local Provincial Parks, and did nature hikes. Could we do that? The response was a “hike,” but not in a park. It was through our village, and down the local highway—marching. Marching In formation. We did about six miles. The other girls groaned. This wasn’t anyone’s idea of fun. Essentially, the entire troop was being punished because of my entreaties. I considered quitting.

Before giving up, I started asking the girls from next town over what they did in their Girl Guide meetings. Needless to say, their troop was far more active and interesting than ours. And, their dues were only a dime a week, while ours were a quarter. Of course, I pressed further, asking other girls, even farther afield what they paid in dues. Always, the answer was the same—a dime.

Finally, I brought it up at one of our meetings, pointing out that other troops paid a lot less and got more out of Girl Guides. Our leaders seemed a bit unnerved at my public questioning. They weakly explained that the excess was used to purchase their uniforms and to cover “incidental” costs. They were volunteers, after all! I retorted that we had to pay for our own uniforms—and we were just kids. I had done the math, and pointed out that uniforms for the three leaders could have been fully paid in three to six months—but that the imposed surcharge had gone on for nearly a year. (Obviously a young girl, like myself, had no appreciation of the cost of a used coffee can.) I knew it wasn’t like we were talking big money, but it was the principle of the thing.

At the end of the meeting, I was unceremoniously kicked out of Girl Guides. Gone. I should have, but I sure didn’t see that coming. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a Girl Guide. Our motto was, after all, “Be Prepared.”

Needless to say, it was no real loss; it wasn’t much fun, anyway.

 

A couple of years ago, I joined Facebook. As an indie author, I was told that social media was an important part of our “branding.” So, I put my blog feed through Facebook and accumulated a wide variety of “friends.” Though I enjoyed it, my Facebook page never did much of anything from a marketing perspective.

In 2015 and 2016 my Facebook activities widened to include political expressions. I wrote on issues of food and agricultural policies, climate change and the upcoming elections. I joined groups and made even more “friends.” My topics of discussion included resistance politics, protests and, of course, the elections.

Occasionally, I was trolled, challenged on my positions. Some politicians and political organizations were using paid trolls in their programs of disinformation. In my posts, I was always civil and thorough. If you challenged me, you’d best have your facts straight, because I was ready with mine. I’d research the trolls and, in pretty short order, could tell who was a legitimate person, and who was there just to make trouble. Real people had real friends, and they had longtime Facebook accounts, populated by photos and comments and, well, lives. I attracted the trouble-makers.

One day, recently, I tried to log-in to my Facebook account and was greeted with this:

“HELP US IDENTIFY YOU-

We’re working hard to make sure everyone

on Facebook can be their authentic selves.

We don’t allow accounts that:

  • Pretend to be someone else
  • Don’t represent a real person

From time to time, we check to make sure

it’s really you with a few short questions

before you log into Facebook. It won’t take long

and it helps keep Facebook safe for everyone.”

What? I’ve been booted off Facebook?!

The successive security screens informed me that, in order to regain access to Facebook, I’d have to upload a copy of a government-issued, photo ID. Some troll (or trolls) had fingered me! Of course I’m a real person. My posts were always thoughtful, cogent and informative. While I’m shocked that the exotic Facebook Algorithms couldn’t recognize my obvious humanity, I’m equally appalled that it is so easy to silence the voice of someone with whom you might simply disagree. I have a “liberal’s” extreme distaste for Big Brother tactics and I’ll be damned if I’ll provide ID in exchange for access to cat videos, photos of restaurant food and trolls. Make the damned trolls show their ID. For no clearly articulated reason, I’ve been kicked off Facebook.

They talk about Facebook withdrawal. Admittedly, I spent too much time on the site. It’s a major mind-suck. And, like any junkie, I’d talked about cutting back, or quitting, altogether. (“I can quit anytime I want. I’ve done it a million times.”) Hell, a recent study even suggested that low doses of LSD can eliminate Facebook Addiction! But I didn’t see this coming, either. I’m out—cold turkey. I’ve completely disappeared from Facebook. It’s as though I’d never existed. Gone. And, there is no way to communicate with the minions of Facebook to question why I vanished, or to explore other options.

There’s a recurring theme, here. I guess that in my own way, I’m a born troublemaker.

So, I’m recovering my personal time and enjoying it. In any event, the lesson is clear: Be Prepared.

 

 

 

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Dreams, Anxieties and Outcomes

A.V. Walters

b3

Ready to go!

When I was very little, my father dreamed of owning a sailboat. Saddled with five small children, it wasn’t a dream that was on his horizon, but a man can dream. He had the big blue book of sailing, Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling. It lived on the shelf in the living room, and he’d take it down from time to time and study it—while bringing my mum up to speed on the tips and best practices he’d learned. The closest we got to boating was an 18 foot, molded mahogany canoe. It was big enough to hold the whole family for day excursions, though in rough water the waves came dangerously close to the gunnels. Five little tow-heads with guarded, wide eyes scrutinized those lapping waves.

I understand the lure of the long-term dream. I’m approaching a number of mine—living in the country, building a home, and keeping bees. I have to keep pinching myself. In my mind’s eye, I also always wanted play a musical instrument. I cannot sing (or so say those around me) but I love music and throughout my life I wanted “in” on that secret language.

That’s how I think my father felt about sailing. His grandfather had worked the lake boats. He grew up on stories about the big lakes. When he retired, it was time. He didn’t need a fancy boat or a fast boat. He wanted something stable; after all, he was a beginner in his sixties. He settled on a MacGregor—a bit of a tub, with an oddly avid following. To pinch his pennies, he searched for one that needed work. (Sound familiar?) It was not seaworthy when he got it. He spent a couple of years upgrading, and, being a woodworker, he added a lot of nice little touches one wouldn’t expect on a beginner boat. As completion approached, he pulled out the big blue book and he and my mom drilled on small boat handling. As a landlubber, she was cautiously enthusiastic. Her father had been an expert boat pilot, both in the Coast Guard and during his 1920s exploits as a rumrunner in Detroit.

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We have finished the banjo restoration. I say “we” because a project this cool attracts volunteers. Rick could not resist, and it became our joint endeavor. Really, how hard could it be? It took many internet consultations. Rick re-machined some of the damaged parts. There are You Tube videos on how to stretch a calfskin banjo head. (Of course, beyond the general, no two of them agree on how it’s done.) We picked a natural calfskin (not white) because it’s most likely what would have been put on the banjo when it was first made, back in 1928. We were a little intimidated by the mounting process. Basically, you learn what you can—and then you throw caution to the wind and let common sense guide you. Then you have to set the tailpiece and the bridge, so that you can install the strings. Suddenly, it’s a banjo! It’s not rocket science, but I’m grateful that there were extra hands in the crunch. It’s beautiful, fully restored to its authentic 1920s glory. It has a rich, warm resonant tone—with just the right amount of steel-string twanginess. I am smitten.

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My father only sailed for a couple of seasons. He loved his boat. He had a vast book knowledge of how to maneuver it on the water. But he hadn’t counted on seasickness. Both of them. Even if you think you know the ropes, it’s hard to master sailing if the Captain and the crew (of one) are both incapacitated, hurling over the sides of the boat. In the calmest of conditions they could handle the motion, but of course, the calmest of conditions don’t include wind. Wind is a necessity in sailboat operation. They floundered. It became a bit of a joke in the Harbor—these two eager, elderly sailors, flailing at the task. More than once they ran aground, because neither of them could see beyond their nausea to steer to safety. My nephew (who apparently takes after my grandfather and can sail like a pro) tried to help. In the end, all he could do was to watch, laughing. I understand their predicament because I, too, am plagued with motion sickness.

My father did well on the sale of the boat. After all, it was in mint condition with many, many, lovely little upgrades.

Now it’s time to walk my talk on the banjo. I’m a little nervous. The instrument itself is so awesome that I feel like a fraud, holding it. It’s unnerving, to get that close to your dreams. All I need now is a pitch pipe, so I can start up with the proper tuning.

 

 

The Sum of Its Parts

A.V. Walters–

blog pic

We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”

All the way to building a house.

That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.

In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.

But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.

It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.

The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.

In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.

“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.

“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.

“Why, what would you use?”

“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”

He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”

But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.

“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.

“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”

“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”

“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.

I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”

He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”

The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.

Pledge?”

“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.

“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.

I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.

So, really, how hard could it be?

We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.

Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Mike: Part Three

A.V. Walters

Mike sign

We are all, each of us, a bundle of talents and deficits. My sweet Rick would be the first to agree; he is continually amazed that a highly functional, over-educated adult, like me, cannot tell left from right, or measure anything with accuracy. The trick is, that for most of us, we focus on the talents we possess.

We completely fail at this when the object of our attention becomes a diagnosis, and not a person. A diagnosis can be an opportunity, or an excuse, depending upon how one wields it. In essence, a diagnosis regarding mental capacity gives us information about the nature (and maybe cause) of a deficit. It’s what we do with that information that matters.

A couple of decades ago, I worked as a coordinator for an Adult Literacy Program. We banged our heads against this very phenomenon, repeatedly. Students and tutors would blame their failures on learning disabilities diagnosed when the students were children, instead of looking for the work-around. Despite the educational failures of the past, we found that many of our students were highly motivated and, with individualized instructions, were able progress beyond everyone’s expectations. All too often, the diagnosis of a learning disability had quickly become the operative reality—an excuse for failure instead of a challenge for success.

I have mentioned in this series that my Uncle Mike was shortchanged by the educational system. He had speech impediments that, unrecognized and unaddressed, led teachers to believe that he was language impaired and uneducable. A second chance in his late teens gave him speech therapy—and language. Not that Mike doesn’t have deficits but, armed with language, he presented a whole new package. Mike moved away before I was an adult, so I didn’t have much opportunity to get to know the “new” Mike, the one who could talk, until many years later.

Mike is highly literate. (His keen vision and ability to quickly read signs from a distance were a godsend while traveling with him, across the country.) He reads newspapers and follows current events. He is just as opinionated and informed as the rest of the family—which is saying a lot. He is funny and, in particular, gets situational humor. He has a great memory. But, because his speech is not perfect, many expect him to exhibit lower levels of performance. Mike hides behind these low expectations and, even if it means that he’s misjudged, never puts himself in a position where he will disappoint. Surely, sometimes he fails to “connect the dots,” but I never know if it’s capacity, or training. Mike has spent a lifetime fulfilling his diagnoses.

Not that there aren’t deficits. He has great difficulty measuring the motivations of others. Perhaps an early life without language meant that he could hide behind my grandmother’s skirts, and let her do the coping for him. This is especially true when, all too often, in his human interactions he was the victim of bullying and abuse. He doesn’t get arithmetic at all—and is at a total loss with budgeting and money. Beyond that, I’ve decided to judge Mike’s skills by first-hand experience, rather than by maligned expectations.

A decade ago Mike and I worked together to set him up in his first apartment. He was thrilled with it, with its humble furnishings and independence. We bought him a modular desk, (IKEA style) that required assembly. I took the lead—never pausing to read the directions. Mike and I chatted as I worked. About half way through, Mike expressed his reservations, “Alta, I don’t think that will work.” I was tempted to press on, but Mike got up off the couch and showed me that part of my assembly was backwards! (Did I mention that spatial skills are not my strong suit?) We both laughed so hard, we cried, and then finished the project, together.

Similarly, as we approached the end of our travels, I took a back road shortcut, up a steep hill in Hancock. It’s a winding road—I know it well and I took it at a good clip. We were nearly to the top when Mike cautiously inquired, “Is this a one-way street?” It was, and he was right to question what would have been reckless in two-way traffic. Mike gets it. We have to do a better job of “getting” Mike.

The point is, Mike has a far greater understanding about what goes on around him than we give him credit for. His homecoming can be a new beginning, for all of us. We can plan for successes, instead of failures, while providing safe opportunities for success. There are many wonderful possibilities here. Mike is a little intimidated by his return to real winters—but once his health is recovered, I think he will enjoy snow and season. Already, he is recounting childhood memories of winter in a favorable light.

There are decided advantages to small town living. My hometown, Copper Harbor, has about one hundred, year-round residents. Already, I am impressed with the welcome. Family members and friends are pulling together to outfit Mike with clothing and necessities for winter living. All of us are making plans for fun and community engagement as soon as Mike is on his feet. This is a seasonal town, if he wants, there are opportunities for work in the summer. My sister told the owners of a local resort that Mike was coming, and when we rolled into town, he was welcomed home, on their marquis! It brought tears to my eyes, and a ready smile to Mike’s face. Finally, we know that he is safe and loved. Finally, Mike has come home.

 

 

 

 

Banking on Winter…

A.V. Walters–

After several false starts, I think we can finally say that it’s winter. The last eighteen hours have dropped six inches on us, with another five or six expected over the next two days. More than that, the temperatures are dropping. The next week promises single digits and lower, if you count the wind chill factor. It’s not last year’s record breaking snows and recurring ‘polar vortex,’ but it is winter.

We’re a bit concerned about the heat in our little basement apartment. So far we’ve been fine—interior temperatures in the low sixties, which works for us. When we did the remodel, we did connect the apartment to the heating and cooling for the house—then we promptly blocked it. The landlord keeps it way too cold in the summer and way too hot in the winter. In addition, she has dogs—lots of dogs. I’m allergic to dogs, so a shared HVAC system isn’t going to work for me. I’m a mess when I visit my mum, with just the one dog, so blowing three dogs’ worth of winter dander into my living space is a non-starter.

Up until now, we’ve done fine with a little plug-in baseboard heater. After all, it’s a (walk-out) basement apartment. Nearly two sides are imbedded in the ground. As a baseline, underground keeps things warmer than at the surface.

Our landlord’s heat ducts run above us, and that warms us up a little more. The furnace is in the basement—two rooms away; it’s collateral heat. Still, we start to worry when our interior temperature drops into the fifties, a tad chilly, even for us. At that point, I begin baking. While Rick loves the goodies, it’s not exactly a heating strategy (and threatens to send us both into spring portly.)

With the snow drifting around the house, and with silent thanks to my dear departed dad, I finished up our regular snow removal chores by ‘banking’ the foundation. It’s an old-fashioned insulation strategy. I piled the snow up about four feet against the cinder-block foundation walls that are also our exterior walls.

My dad grew up in the far northern reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When we returned there, he had a local-yokel solution to most of the problems posed by extreme weather. To be really effective, my dad used to make us bank the house two or three feet thick, cautioning us not to pack it against wood or other surfaces that could be damaged. We don’t have quite that much snow yet, but today was a good start. In the next few days, with the snow we’re expecting, I’ll finish, and bank the foundation anywhere that there aren’t windows. Rick smirked a little at my efforts, but I noticed that he packed snow over areas of shallow or exposed pipes. He’s not eager for a repeat of last winter’s pipes freezing.

It’s “cold snow,” light and fluffy. With a grin, Ricks tells me that it’s snow—but that it’s a dry snow.

It’s About Time

A.V. Walters–

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Lately, my job has been sanding. It gives me a lot of time to think. I work in a bubble—face mask, ear protection, hat and eye glasses—for safety, but it keeps me in my own head. Of course, there’s always the day job, so my attention is split, part to regular work and part to building. While I sand, Rick has been busy working the site, rough wiring, and building, installing the boards that I’ve finished sanding.

In the Zone

In the Zone

I learned sanding from my Dad. I think I earned that chore as a little kid because I was observant and, well, anal. I have a constitutional tolerance for the tedious. Now as I sand, I hear my Dad’s voice—and it’s a comfort.

“No, go with the grain. There, that’s it.”

The task of sanding is so integrated with my childhood memories that the sandpaper, the smell of sawdust, and the feel of sanding are enough to bring my Dad back. His voice and advice is a part of the physicality of the job. I’m using the sander he advised me to buy. I’d burned through two Black & Deckers, prepping my house for a paint job, when he said I needed better tools. So here I am, twenty-six years later, still using the Porter Cable he’d recommended.

We’ve had a lot of trouble with lumber on this project. We’ve rejected nearly a third of what we’ve ordered from local building supply houses. We even tried the local “specialty” builders’ outfit—and paid a significant premium for what was supposed to be custom picked lots. You can get quality lumber from the discount guys, but you’ll have to spend a ton of time picking through it. So, we swallowed hard and tried a “pro-builder custom order.”

It was a more than a disappointment. It was just as junky as if we’d picked from the top of the rejects pile at the discount stores. For this we paid an extra 25%? I called to complain. Rick and I sorted the pile into junk, usable and good. The sales guy lives not far away; he said he’d drop by. When he did, he looked at the pile and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s just not right.” Even then, it took two more deliveries to get it right. Another delay.

Every glitch just burns daylight. We’ve had snow flurries already so the delays are really a problem. We want to achieve a “defendable” enclosure before any serious snow accumulation. As for lumber, we’re back to hand picking on our own—it’s cheaper and, if you get junk, you know who to blame.

“Check your sand paper. See, if it clogs up like that, it’s time to change the paper.   Here, let me show you.”

“Daddy, how will I know when it’s done?”

“You’ll know, honey, your fingers will know.”

My dad had a belief that sometime, in our past, there was a Golden Age of Tools and Materials. Even when I was little he would curse the shoddy workmanship in building supplies. When materials fell short of the mark it was the fault of some national disgrace. I grew up to the litany of, “Goddamn Canadian nails!” or “How can they sell this shit!” He cursed like a trucker.

Rick shares this creed. He’ll eye a 2 X 6, shake his head and throw it back in the pile. “You just can’t get quality materials anymore!” (Another kind of echo from my Dad.) Picking up yet another bowed or twisted 2 X 10, he points out the wide soft wood between the growth rings, “See that, plantation lumber, grown fast and weak.”

Was there really ever a NeverNeverLand of strong nails and straight lumber?

I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s an argument about quality that’s been going on at least since the Industrial Revolution—and probably back beyond that—to the woodworking guilds of the Middle Ages. Wood is an agricultural product. Trees are not perfect. What makes lumber true, is time. Time and effort. Somewhere in the chain of commerce someone has to care enough, or make enough money, to make it worthwhile to spend the time to do it right. It’s the same for building and for any craft. In a world of mass production, suppliers will produce any product that will sell. Unfortunately that means that the quality will be as marginal as the market will bear.

As my father aged he became more and more of a fine craftsman. He complained less about milled lumber, not because it got any better, but because he bought raw, and milled and finished it himself. Towards the very end of his life the furniture he built was more art than craft. He was not fast. He certainly couldn’t have made a living at it. But he knew the work was good and it gave him great satisfaction. He reached the point where he’d select wood for its “flaws,” knots or whorls, and then fashion the piece to highlight these natural features.

In the months before he passed away he and I were enjoying morning coffee at a walnut table he’d made. “See this?” he tapped a spot where the grain swirled and rippled, catching the light. “That’s where I let the sun out.” He smiled and ran his hand along its smooth edge.

Rick and I are building a log cabin. The purveyors of the materials would prefer we call it a log home, but ours will be a modest dwelling that fits within the cannons of the design’s history. It’s suited to the simple lines of its primitive forebears. There is a lot of natural wood. Rick is taking the time to position the beams to their best advantage, even to straighten them with weird clamps and strapping devices of his own invention. I don’t think a builder could afford that level of care on a paying gig. This will be our home.

A traditional log cabin would have beams across the log perimeter, with a heavy plank ceiling that served as both the ceiling above and the floor for the second level. We searched for the right material that would work, and be in the spirit of a log cabin. We settled on kiln dried, southern yellow pine, beveled, tongue and groove, 2 X 6s. It was a special order so we had to take the quality on faith and wait several weeks for it to arrive.

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When it did, it was a huge disappointment. The wood was much more knotty than the catalogue description. It was not “finish-milled” and ready, as described. Rustic shouldn’t be synonymous with slivers. This wood bore the deep mill markings, chatter and the “tear-out” that you get when the mill’s blades are not sharp. Worse yet, the wood arrived moldy. And I’m not talking about the ubiquitous blue stain that comes with some pine. This wood was alive with green and orange colonies of mold. (Again, I can hear my Dad’s voice, “Kiln dried, my ass!”) Our expensive special order was a bust. We had to decide whether to reject it (and pay the chunky restocking fee AND wait for new wood) or whether to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem, which brings me to sanding.

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I am neither as strong, nor as skilled as Rick in building. I am really just a knowledgeable gopher, but I can sand. And that’s what we did. We bleach treated all the areas of mold and then sanded it all to remove any sign of mold or mill markings. All 150, 12-foot lengths, both sides. (There I was, sanding pine, a wood my father didn’t think was worth burning!) It took me an extra two weeks—while Rick worked on site grading and electrical. It’s up now, and looks really good. A silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I have my hands on my hips now. “Really Daddy, how will I know, how will my fingers know?”

“You’ll know it’s done, honey, when it’s as smooth as a baby’s ass. You just keep sanding ‘til then.”

 

My Dad's Sandpaper Box

My Dad’s Sandpaper Box