Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Last week my brother came to visit, and as is our usual custom we put him to work. He is a talented builder, full of knowledge and tricks from the building trade gleaned from several years of construction and remodeling experience. He earned his stripes again on this project: the framing of the bedroom closet. Kudos to you, Christopher--doing this alone would have been a nightmare!

The first wall is up. Note the right sexy true 2x4 home-milled hemlock boards, turned on edge to maximize the interior space of the closet:

Here's the, um, backside of our site manager putting the finishing touches on the outlet on the south side of the closet (second wall up):

And voila! Two walls are up:

We know that we're going to repaint the whole room when the closet's finished. So we don't have to meddle with pieces of paper that get lost. We can figure out all of our measurements right on the wall:

When we designed this closet, I thought it would be cool to have an outlet on the top surface, in case we decided to use the space above less for storage and more for some sort of decorative lighting. So we made sure to include power to the roof:

It turned out that putting a thick, 5/8" sheet of plywood on the roof would be essential to keeping the doorway of the closet square. (Squaring it up took some serious grunt work to rack the whole frame, and some cleverness on Christopher's part to get it to stay. That's the consequence, I guess, of using hemlock lumber and 20d nails.) So I put several more screws in the roof than code required, to keep the frame in the right place:

With cathedral ceilings, there's plenty of room up there. Here I am with upstairs hallway far below:

And here she is, all framed out. We decided that if a tornado ever rips through our little creek valley, we're skipping the bathroom and getting into this closet:

Next step: drywall. It's my second least favorite part of construction; but it'll give the whole thing a little more aesthetic appeal.


Just a Story

As I chauffeured a friend of mine the other day, we got to telling stories about ourselves, and particularly a couple that we found humorous. I won't share his here for, as C. S. Lewis says with the voice of Aslan, it's his story to tell. But here is mine: a snapshot story from my elementary school days. I don't remember what came before it, nor what after it. It shines with the intense flicker of a memorial shooting star.

One day during fourth or fifth grade I discovered that I couldn't find my pencil.

I was intensely introverted as a kid; I often became so absorbed in whatever my mind worked on that it didn't matter what was happening around me. Sometimes it didn't even matter what my body was doing. I would get lost in my inner world. On this day my inner world required me to write or draw something, and I couldn't find my pencil.

But I knew I had one. I had just used it a few minutes ago. I looked across the pale faux-wood finish of my elementary desk, around the floor, and under my chair. Nothing. In a fit of frustration I turned to the neighboring student and asked him if he had seen my pencil.

Or at least I tried to ask. As soon as I began to talk, he gave me a look as if I were speaking an alien tongue. At the same moment, instead of my intended, "Have you seen my pencil?" I heard myself say, "Haboo feen mah benfil?"

I had been holding the pencil in my mouth the whole time.

In extreme embarrassment I sucked the drool off the pencil and returned to my inner world.

Yes, my friend and I had a good laugh about that in the car this week.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bedroom Closet Part 3: Electricity in the Dark

Dealing with electricity always scares me, mostly because I don't understand it. Alright, I get the movement of electrons, and that you have to have a complete circuit for electricity to flow. But why AC (which seems to me always like one step forward, one step back--how can that be useful?) works better than DC, building up a charge over a capacitor, and other details: these things mystify me. Add in the fact that a piece of copper one-eighth of an inch in diameter can deliver a lethal jolt, and I get nervous.

But sometimes you have to face the beast to get things done.

We want neither an outlet nor a cable jack in the back wall of our closet. Since both were present on the wall, I needed to move them to the outside of the right wall of the closet. This meant splicing wire, covering the junction, and fitting a new outlet and cable jack for the new location.

I knew enough to turn off the breaker before getting to work. What I didn't know was that it would take me over an hour to get the splices finished. This mattered because I started the work at 4:00pm, and it gets dark at 5:00. Since the breaker was off, no electric light was available in the room. So by the end of the project I was working in very dim conditions.

I do not recommend doing electrical work in the dark. ("Is that red or green?" These things matter.)

I got everything set up, wire nuts in place, junction box closed, and went downstairs to throw the breaker back on. When I returned to the bedroom, I was greeted by an ominous darkness. Hadn't I left the overhead light on?

Something was wrong. And this is the other thing about electrical work that makes me nervous: I know enough to try to do the work, but not enough to troubleshoot. If I've done something to create a short or improper circuit, I won't be able to tell. (Especially in the dark.) Thus with natural light fading too fast for my comfort, I opened up the junction box again and began to mentally prepare myself to call for an extraction by an electrician friend of ours.

Praise the Lord, the problem was simple and apparent. I had not tightened the wire nut enough, and one wire had come loose. I refitted the cap and threw the breaker again. Hallelujah! The lights came on, and I did not have to pay for it with a heart-stopping experience.

I did have to learn, however, that three 14-gauge wires and two 12-gauge wires are almost too much for a single wire nut.

Not only did I not kill myself rewiring the outlet, but thanks to a helpful guy at Lowe's I now know how to replace the female connector on a coaxial cable.

The hobbyist builder of our home had pulled the cable through to the bedroom wall, then installed a wall plate without hooking the cable up to the back side of the wall plate. How frustrating would that have been, if we had bought cable service for our bedroom? Hook up the TV, attach coax cable, and get nothing. Oy! There's a nice side-effect to the closet project. If future owners get cable or satellite, they can know that the wall jacks are connected. (Well, at least one is.)

~ emrys

Bedroom Closet Part 2: Something Old, Something New

Before I could begin the actual construction of the closet, I had to put in cripple studs to which to attach the walls of the closet. For the left side I reclaimed an old 2x4 from the garage, originally used who-knows-where:

For the right side, however, a groundbreaking moment. Here is the brand-spanking new 2x4 in place:

Why is this groundbreaking, you might ask? Last summer we milled some hemlocks from our property into rough-cut lumber. Much of that work resulted in 2x4s (true measurements, mind you, none of this 1 5/8 x 3 1/2 junk) that have since been drying in our garage attic. This right-hand cripple stud is the first piece of home-milled lumber to be incorporated into our house. A victory for this do-it-yourselfer!

The rest of the closet will be composed of home-milled lumber, too, but there's something about the first one.

Next stop: moving electrical. On to new levels of danger!

~ emrys

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bedroom Closet Part 1: Ginger Demolition

The gentleman who built our home had an eye for open spaces. The two upstairs bedrooms are huge, with windows all around and cathedral ceilings. However, his attention to closed spaces, particularly closets, left something to be desired. One forty-two inch closet with a single bar and upper shelf in the master bedroom just doesn't cut it these days. So Sara and I have decided to convert some of the rolling plains of floor space into a closet that will better accommodate our needs (and probably anyone who might own the joint after us).

Here's a shot of the east end of our bedroom before the necessary disruption has begun. Note the presence of dressers and a wardrobe necessary to supplement the "closet" we already have:

We designed a closet that will stretch as far as possible along the wall, leaving just enough room for the window on one end and the door to open on the other. Here's the scheme, with masking tape marking the footprint of the finished closet:

Now it's par for the course that our plans require some, well, creativity in order to come to fulfillment. There's bound to be much creativity in store that I can't foresee, but the first element requiring improvisation is the fact that the ends of the closet we want don't line up with the existing studs in the wall. Therefore, I needed to put in cripples to which to attach the walls of the closet.

(Sidebar: As I described my plans to my brother over the phone (he is doomed to help out with this project), he noted that most people would not bother to find studs at all, but would just slap up a closet against the existing drywall. I guess this makes me anal: the fact that I want to anchor the closet directly against the frame of the house. My excuse is that I'm planning on storing things above the closet, so it needs to be sturdy. But I suspect I'm really just being anal. C'est la vie.)

In order to put in cripple studs, I needed to remove drywall in the locations where the closet walls and ceiling will meet the existing wall. This meant cutting out wall board up one side:

and getting a wicked blister on my hand from the utility knife:

Ach! What would a home project be without some sort of injury? I wrapped my hand in a bandanna and continued cutting.

By the way, I couldn't get my hands on a drywall saw easily, so I used the toothed blade on my Leatherman. (Thanks, David!) I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK!

Some sawing over and down, plus a low excision for electric and cable, got me the silhouette of a closet on the wall:

That's the extent of the precision demolition required; the next step is putting in cripple studs.

~ emrys

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Going Absolutely Forward

Words are one of the great gifts given by God to humanity. Words express, command, describe, and act to make unseen realities understood. They form the most basic building blocks of communication without which society would fall apart.

Like so many other things in our societies, however, they are also subject to the power of the fad. (For a fun little riff on living "fad-free," see our friend's entry of the same title.) Certain words become fads, used over and over again, ad nauseum, until the word serves less as a communication tool than as a distraction. Or, worse, the word's appearance becomes a signal that the words around it are self-consciously insufficient or deceptive; the fad-word has been thrown in to hide the futility of the ones next to it.

My generation, when it was younger, burned out the word "totally." In middle school we wore out "radical." The generation after me, in its adolescent years, is busy beating the dead horses of "wicked," "ill," "sick," and "whatever."

Right now the adults who get paid to put their voices on the radio waves and their faces on TV screens have two favorites that have begun to get distracting. The first is "going forward."

"Going forward" has become a tack-on for everyone from movie producers to presidents, who are "going forward" with production or a war in the mountains. Said enough times, the phrase makes one wonder why it has to be said. After all, aside from science fiction plot lines involving time machines, there are few arenas in which "going backward" is a positive goal.

Or perhaps "going forward" tries to answer the suspicion that really we're just at a standstill. Listen for it as you are going forward into your day.

The second is "absolutely." This four-syllable adverb (which part of speech, by the way, is sternly discouraged in most forms of formal written discourse) stands in the place of "Yes." After all, it is not enough to say, "Yes," right? "Yes" doesn't sound nearly definitive enough. We might not give the speaker sufficient gravity of trust if she said just "yes" to a question. I suspect "absolutely" junkies want to remove all doubt about what they are saying. Their observation or judgment is not enough; they want to squelch any possible qualification of their affirmative.

But we're human. So there are always qualifications to every "yes," aren't there?


~ emrys

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Achilles' Heel, or, The Gift That Keeps On

Most computers have a tiny lamp somewhere whose job it is to inform you that electrical power is reaching the computer. On my Toshiba (a gift that Sara bought for me way back in 2005), the display looks like this (green on the left for power, yellow in the middle to tell me that the battery is charging):

Lately, however, something has been amiss. Unless I set the computer in just the right position, or wiggle the power cord just right, the lights look like this:

You got it: nothing. My computer had developed a faulty connection, somewhere near this dohickey on the butt end:

Now we must remember that after four and a half years of faithful service, bumps in the road are to be expected from computers. As my father-in-law quipped about cars (but applies even better to computers): "The wonder is not that they break down. The wonder is that they work at all." Such amazingly complex pieces of equipment are bound to fail. However, like good cynical British game shows, they're also bound to fail at the weakest link.

Power failure is not like a system crash, however. There's no recovery disk for lack of electricity. And since both of my batteries have retired to a second career as paper weights, lack of power to my computer presents a permanently fatal problem. So after two months of building anxiety, I decided to do something about it.

Funny: "doing something" about a computer problem, for me, always results in the same scene in the living room:

After a consult with Sara on finding hidden screws, I got the case open, and found the offending part. The post in the center of this female power link was really loose:

After further invasive surgery (during which I produced two fragments of plastic that I hope are not essential to the computer's function), I got to the innards of that part. The central post of the female power link connects to the internal wire by way of a piece of aluminum less than 1/32 of an inch thick. I found the weak point in my computer's hardware. After four years of jostling the cord in and out, and (I admit) a couple of walk-aways with the computer still plugged in, that tiny metal link had given up the ghost.

I don't have soldering equipment on hand, but I knew that only a small piece of wire stood between me and computer power. Where would I get thin, tough wire to patch this fracture?

It dawned on me that I had just spent several months making bronze wire cribbage pegs for Sara's anniversary gift. I rummaged for the remaining wire and a pair of needle-nosed pliers, then got to work. After about ten minutes of fumbling with wire, pliers, and electrical tape, I had what appeared to be a hunk of plastic with some bronze wire crammed into its very small contact post:

But it might just work. I reconnected the contacts to the computer, then plugged it into the AC adapter. Nothing.

Just before I was about to bring down a hailstorm of curses upon my errant machine, I realized that I hadn't plugged the adapter into the wall.

Kingdoms rise and fall because someone didn't plug in the appliance. After a self-deprecating comment, I made the final connection to the power grid and:

Voila! That green glow signified victory! My computer now had power.

I reassembled the shell of my computer, inserted all those impossibly tiny machine screws, and flipped over my small silver lifeline to the world. I jostled it, shook it (but not too hard), turned it, lifted it, and then set it down. Like a pair of weird but comforting eyes, my computer greeted me with its constant bichromatic glow:

Praise the Lord for improvised conductivity!


Monday, January 11, 2010

Original Sin

St. Augustin told a story from his youth to illustrate the pervasive and gratuitous corruption of the human will. He remembered sneaking into a pear orchard with a group of friends. Once there, they plucked the ripe pears from the branches and, instead of eating even a single one, cast them over the wall where they spoiled on the ground or were eaten by animals. Their nighttime exercise displayed a human tendency to take joy in what is damaging and wasteful.

We have been trying to teach Gwendolyn not to toss food over the edge of her high-chair tray. She's not yet in the phase where she really throws food; she just holds a chunk over the edge between two fingers and drops it.

A few days ago Sara had been giving Gwendolyn chunks of fruit out of a canned fruit cocktail. Our daughter displayed a preference for the peach chunks over the pineapple and pear. Near the end of the meal, when she was playing with her food more than eating it, Gwendolyn began to dangle chunks over the edge of her tray table.

"On the tray," said her mother, tapping the gooey plastic surface with a finger.

Without breaking eye contact with her mother, and using what appeared to be practiced care, Gwendolyn carried a chunk of pear between two fingers and set it right on the downward-sloping edge of the tray table.

I think we're in trouble.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Not Anymore

My dad enjoyed traveling. During his university days, and especially during the time when he attended the Sorbonne in Paris, he got around. He had stories of some grandiose and hairy adventures. I didn't really appreciate them until I went to university myself and got a taste of what it was like to step off a train in a brand new city. After I did that, I started to come home and ask Dad about where he'd been.

Dad visited Berlin in 1961, the year that the German Democratic Republic (also known as East Germany) erected the Berlin Wall between post-World War II East and West Berlin. The announcement that the border between the two portions of the city would be closed came without a lot of warning to the people. So it was that Dad found himself on the East side of the city as the tanks and personnel carriers were setting up to prevent anyone from crossing. He had been travelling with a couple of friends (none from East Germany), and these guys found themselves on the wrong side of a wide, emptying DMZ. There were a lot of guns to discourage spontaneous last-minute emigration.

Emboldened, perhaps, by much experience managing sticky situations in foreign languages, Dad and his friends approached the nearest border patrolman and asked for permission to cross.

Oh, did I mention that my dad loved to take pictures everywhere he went? He had a Pentax 35mm (which still works) with which he recorded all sorts of adventures. If there are some tactics in traveling that I would definitely discourage, it's trying to export photographs taken in the territory of a paranoid isolationist regime. The East German patrol did what any such patrol would do: it opened everyone's cameras and pulled out the film. Then, with a finger pointed across the forbidding void of concrete to the West German side, the patrolman let them go.

So, with a breath of relief, Dad and his travelling buddies high-tailed it between the tanks and across the DMZ. They slipped out of East Germany by the skin of their teeth; by the end of that day, the border had been completely closed, inaugurating a twenty-eight-year nightmare for anyone wanted to cross. Even siblings caught on opposite sides of the wall became separated for decades. Workers lost jobs because their factory was on the wrong side of the city; friends and family lost each other, sometimes all the way until 1989, when to the great joy of Germans everywhere the Wall came down.

If Dad hadn't been bold enough to squeeze through when he did, I might not be here today.

And if my dad hadn't put his exposed film in his boot, we might not have any record of the adventure. (More on that when I find the photos. They're somewhere in this pile of inherited stuff.)

I've stood at the Brandenburg Gate and at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. I've seen the space that my dad ran across in 1961. Now it's museums and offices, parks and World Cup fanmiles. It's a different world than where my dad traveled.



My grandparents, George and Dorothy Tyler, owned a home in Bethlehem that could well be described as a Temple to the Great Pack Rat. They were not pathological about it; that is to say, the rooms visitors saw were comfortable and easily navigable. But upstairs, on the fourth floor, and in the basement, one could find a treasure trove of, well, what anyone else would call the dispensable.

My dad, George Tyler, inherited some pack rat genes. Not nearly so much as my grandparents, mind you (who lived through the Great Depression, which may have contributed to this tendency): my dad would, within my memory, periodically "go through" rooms, which meant that he was going to get rid of stuff. In my university years I remember semi- or annual phone conversations in which my dad would say, "I found this in your closet (or dresser, or the model room)--are you attached to it?" If I said no, it was going to a better place.

But having become the repository of all my dad's memorabilia since his death, I'm discovering how much he didn't throw away. In a "Weis quality Light Spread" margarine container (I don't think Dad ever had real butter in the house; and of course the saved all the margarine containers), I found a collection of patches, pins, and plates from the past. Here's a taste of the kind of stuff my dad kept.

Two metal key chains from our high school. What's mysterious is that I entered Liberty High in 1990, and my brother in 1992:

Herkimer diamonds are not really diamonds at all:

Random brass button. What do you suppose it belongs to?

My dad spent some time in Russia during his travels. I have no idea what these pins say--although I'm sure Putin's and Medvedev's governments would not approve:

I never remember any reference to my dad going to the Rochester Institute of Technology. Then again, he was the kind of guy who would order the pin from a catalog because he heard some strange story about the guy who designed the three-cornered square on the emblem (then retell that story to anyone who asked, "Did you go to RIT?"):

Dad was a Wales buff, always interested in remembering how our ancestors (the Tylers) came from Wales, and may have had their own property there. I wonder where Dad planned to put these pins?

Dad liked to travel by backpack, so patches were a favorite souvenir. I tried this for a while myself in university, but have long since given up the canvas satchel as a living photo album. Some of his patches never made it out of their wrapping:

Others speak of adventures and locales that I never heard about:

Others remember places and events we know all too much about. Here's a patch from the First Cavalry Division, Dad's division in Vietnam:

Who knew that hospitals had their own patches? Do physicians put them on the white coats? Cincinnati General is where Dad did his residency; MCH is where he did an internship:

The last three came off the same pack (judging by the torn material to which each patch is attached). They are from Germany:

More on this patch later (it's one of the few of which I know some story):

I have no idea where this one is, but given its high-altitude reference, it may be from a trip my dad took into the Alps and nearly got himself killed climbing mountains. I remember something about that trip because my dad said that his mother had written to him about a vivid dream that he was in trouble. The time of her dream matched his ill-fated ascent. Weird:

For me, most of these patches are lost memories or, at best, pointers to vague remembrances. Thus, having archived them digitally, I am going to send them the way of all pack-ratted paraphernalia, pausing only to note the rich tapestry of travelling experiences from my dad's life reflected in their woven images.