Friday, July 24, 2009

Coming to Terms

I have time for just one last diversion before I return my attention to the empty shell that is the once and future kitchen. Three terms or phrases that emerged in the past several hours:

Cat Trick - When a feline devours three consecutive helpings of his least favorite canned food in one "sitting".

Double Boiler Over - The result of failing to turn down the heat quite enough while cooking the oatmeal this morning.

Remudiation - Having to go back and redo a part of a wall that you thought was ready to prime and paint.

It's Friday (well, except in New Zealand, where the weekend comes early). Hope you have a good one!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Bit More Mud

One of my friends growing up was "Steve" (not Steve's real name). At least we were friends when he wasn't trying to kill me with a golf club, which makes, by the way, an interesting whirling sound when thrown at you.

Steve was an avid and skilled golfer, and the top player on our team. Steve grew up playing golf, and had the complete support of his parents, who were willing to buy him a new set of clubs whenever he needed, such as after hitting one bad shot or breaking a club by throwing it at a friend. This was in sharp contrast to the way my brothers and I were raised. Our parents certainly supported us, but our golf clubs were an interesting mix drawn together from various yard sales. Even at that, they were seemingly irreplaceable. If you broke one, you'd just have to use another. And bad shots? We were raised to believe that bad shots were usually the result of a problem with the nut on the end of the handle.

I thought of "Steve" just this morning upon noticing that I used 6 different joint knives in applying mud to one side of one doorway in my latest drywall adventure. I must have thought that employing a different joint knife would compensate for my apparent lack of skill. Though I don't want to make adjustments on those tools loaned to us by our friends in Colville, ours are a different matter. I'm taking a hard look at the nut on the end of their handles.


In one sense, applying joint compound to drywall is not difficult. It isn't hard to lift, nor does it have an objectionable odor. It is water soluble, so spills and mistakes wipe up easily. So what makes this part of the job so demanding?

Mudding is art. It requires concentration, fine motor skills, and the ability to work under pressure. The pressure comes from knowing that your "artwork" will be visible to any and everyone who ever again enters the house. I imagine pleasant conversation over drinks: "Oh, I see that you drywall!"

After an hour or so I get impatient with the process, wanting to be able to obtain more consistent results. A bubble interferes with my plans. Efforts to fix the bubble make everything worse. One problem leads to another and I'm ready to throw mud everywhere. Time for a break.

We joke about the "inner Sheldon" that we carry about, in reference to the outrageous character on television's "Big Bang Theory". Sheldon is brilliant in a narrow sense, and broadly obsessive-compulsive. The littlest irregularities in his regimen and existence confound him. Sheldon should not attempt mudding. But it's too late for me... the attempt is already underway.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More on Contextualism

The confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor have given us another opportunity to listen to earnest members of the Senate emphasize that the U.S. Constitution should not really be interpreted, but rather only applied within the limited constraints of the intent of the framers. In making this point they employ the buzz phrase, legislating from the bench. This perspective, like all literalism, is patently absurd. Even if we could determine the framers' intent, using other writings and the like to build a case, we would still be left with the enormous question of what the framers might think about, say, electronic communication, or global warming, or moving the headquarters of a corporation to Bermuda so as to avoid paying taxes in the United States. Newsflash: they didn't think about such things.

Literalistic religion is even worse, in part because the scale of time is much greater. The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) crowd seems to be asking serious questions, though a Rolex wearing, Mercedes driving, Brooks Brothers clad member of a prosperity gospel church wearing a WWJD wristband is also patently absurd.

Before we can consider WWJD, we need to ask WDJD and WDJS (What Did Jesus Do?, and What Did Jesus Say?). The answers to these questions, however, are not clear. Though we have access to written works purporting to record the actions and words of Jesus, whole panels of scholars engage in lively debate about which accounts of Jesus' words and actions, if any, are literally true. (for more information, go to a link explaining the Jesus Seminar, here.)

Further, even if we established the historicity of any of Jesus' words and actions, we would then need to consider WDJM (What Did Jesus Mean?). Again, there is no unanimity about the meaning or intent of anything Jesus said. This is one of the explanations for the many different faith traditions and denominations within the larger "family" of Christianity. We interpret what Jesus (might or might not have) said differently.

Truth be told, we're really just making stuff up.

Now, we make it up in full accordance with the rules established by the particular branch of the Faith we follow. Before anyone can be recognized as having the authority of the church to which they belong, they need to pass rigorous examination by others within that denomination or sect to make sure they are making things up according to their tradition's established rules. After all, we don't want just anyone making up just anything! Heavens, no!

Look, I'm not picking a fight with the Faith.... In the first place, it's too easy, and in the second, you can't ever be recognized as having made a valid point anyway, so why bother.

My point is, if we are going to make things up, that is to say, select for emphasis certain religious tenets which may or may not be based upon historically accurate information for application to circumstances totally beyond the experiences or awareness of anyone that may or may not have uttered them in the first place (unless you're a member of a sect that believes that the Almighty is indeed All-Knowing and therefore anticipated everything that is happening and that will happen, and caused stuff to be said and written for just that purpose), let's be honest about it. And let's be purposeful.

Rather than worrying about whether or not we are getting our understanding of the past right, I propose that we concentrate on understanding the implications of present actions for the future. Can we find an ecological ethic in the Bible, or in the words of Jesus? Perhaps, but we really have to engage in some eisegetical gymnastics to do so. I'd prefer we just say that, given the time we are in, and the new circumstances we face, we cannot afford to spend much time wrestling with whether or not the words of any ancient text commend action. To continue to do so is patently absurd.

Could Jesus help the commercial fishing industry by instructing them from which side of the trawler to let out their 20 mile long drift net? Would following his teaching on the matter limit the ecological damage done to fish stocks and coral reefs?

We aren't any longer debating how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. Thank goodness we've progressed so far.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Curious Neighbor

It isn't unusual that I would be brushing my teeth on the deck. After all, that's where we brush the dog's teeth. I just have a hard time standing in one place for two minutes while waiting for the electronic toothbrush to signal that my teeth have had enough for another night, and so I amble about as I brush. Last night I strolled out onto the deck and took in the night sky, the C note from my Sonicare Elite in harmony with the music of the spheres.

As I returned to the door, a strange, dark lump at the top of the basement stairs drew my gaze. Being the two-legged companion of a cat and two dogs, I pay close attention to unexpected dark lumps on the floor. But since I don't wear my glasses when brushing my teeth on the deck - that would be strange - I wasn't able to identify the lump in the faint evening light.

Suddenly, as I opened the door, the lump exploded into action. It hurled itself down the stairway, and stuck, as if by magic, on the stairwell wall. A tree frog! My gurgled, foamy exclamation of surprise got Sally's attention in the bedroom. "There's a frog on the wall!" Even though she couldn't quite make out the words that I carefully articulated while trying not to drool toothpaste on my shirt, she knew something was afoot. She joined me at the top of the stairs, and I directed her attention to the lump clinging to the wall several feet away.

My family members know that I have been challenged by amphibians and reptiles in the past:

  • Mikey, the pound of toad, whose misshapen form appeared before my eyes like a demon from the deep one January morning in the basement sump while I was doing the laundry
  • the baby bull snake who hid in his box so convincingly that I nearly destroyed the house looking for his hideout, and subsequently attained earth escape velocity when I stepped on a piece of surgical tubing in the middle of the night, thinking I had found him
  • The snake I found on a walk in Lincoln - it's lifeless length showed signs of having been run over by a bicycle. I put it in a plastic bag and stuck it in my pocket where it got all warmed up....
Sally caught the little tree frog on just the second try, and released it at the margin of the back yard, where the vegetation is thicker than in our basement. As I had been watering the grass last evening, I imagine that our curious little visitor had followed the hose to the house, and was heading upstream like the mighty salmon. If Sally hadn't stopped it, it might have made it all the way to the water meter to spawn.

My dentist would be proud that I didn't let the excitement of the moment alter my dental hygiene protocol.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I have many kitchens...

Megan moved into her first home in April. Though the move from being an apartment dweller to a homeowner is monumental, the distance between her old and new abodes was but three miles. Rather than packing as if she were making a transcontinental move, Sally and I suggested that we take looting as our model. Looters don't use specially designed packing boxes or much newsprint in transporting their wares, and neither did we. Grab it and go became our motto and modus operandi. Though it took several trips, Megan's belongings made their three mile trek without significant incident.

Based partly on this recent success, Sally and I employed the same method in evacuating our kitchen before the remodeling project. Rather than carefully sorting and packing our things, we pretty much hurled them about to get them out of harm's way before the deconstruction work began.
We did give some consideration to where we might prepare food for the ensuing weeks, (months and years), and set up a bivouac kitchen in the music room. And a coffee area by the washing machine. And the portable gas grill in the workshop area. Appliances, pots, pans, oils, spices and canned goods were strewn about respectively.

None of this seemed strange to us, until the plumber's droll comment. Our mountaineer plumber asked if the area in the back of the basement was my workshop. I attempted a manly tone in reply, but the words I offered in response undercut my parry. "It usually is, when we're not using it as a kitchen."

The opportunistic workman pressed his advantage. "You seem to have a lot of kitchens." I slipped up the stairway to safety. Though I don't believe the plumber heard my internal trumpet sound the retreat, I'm sure he took satisfaction in my hasty withdrawal from the arena.

As it was quite chilly here yesterday, a hot meal sounded good. We're trying not to eat out very often, and the cold mist argued against using the barbecue, so I used the gas cooker and electric grill to make soup and toasted cheese sandwiches. The ventilation fan in the workshop worked perfectly, and the meal was tasty and expeditious. I've decided that, rather than a source of embarrassment, our numerous options for food preparation are a sign of our prosperity. And so I avow with pride, "I have many kitchens."

But I dread the plumber's return.

Monday, July 13, 2009

A Case for Contextualism

In the early 1990's I was asked to work with a group of parents in Lincoln, Nebraska who were concerned about conveying spirituality to their children. In the weekly discussions held in the home of one of the couples, several interesting perspectives emerged. For one, I was struck by the sense that, though these parents were relatively content with their own beliefs and practices, they were concerned that their children needed something better, deeper, or "right". It is likely that there is a connection between this concern and the tendency to rely on "the experts" in such matters, rather than trusting our own insights, experiences and abilities. This theme, touched on in a previous posting, merits further exploration at another time.

Another prominent issue in these discussions was the parents' desire for fixed points or spiritual absolutes to convey to their kids. The terminology used was "building blocks". What are the building blocks for spirituality, for faith, or for ethics? This question became the central focus of our discussions, and the main point of contention.

You might think the point was contentious because we had different notions of which building blocks to employ. For example, some would proffer the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments as foundational, while others might propose the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount. Some might go so far as to argue that the Bible itself is one, coherent foundation. (I'm reminded of the sermon title once displayed on the sign of an Indiana church: "What the Bible says about God." Do you think the good pastor got that one done in 20 minutes?)

In fact, the "building block" point was contentious because I argued that there are no building blocks. The image of a "firm foundation"or "building blocks" is based on the solid rock of a static world view, where change is discounted or ignored entirely. I remember quoting financial planner Joe Dominguez of the New Roadmap Foundation, who drew upon the illustrative image of trying to navigate through modern Seattle using an 1880's road map. I also told the parents that, in raising children in a fast changing world, it would be better to offer them swimming lessons than attempt to build them a platform in the midst of the current.

On the whole, the parents were unconvinced. One dad argued that his kids were taught that 2 plus 2 equals 4, and that upon such a foundation all subsequent math knowledge was based. I replied that, in base three, 2 plus 2 equals 11. The problem, as I saw it, was that out of a desire to offer our kids lasting values, we fall prey to providing our children with simple "building blocks" that they are bound to outgrow. Though adolescence is associated with such metamorphoses, sometimes the kids move beyond our efforts even earlier.

Though the best example of this phenomena may be in regard to the existence of Santa Clause, I am struck that it is also reflected the effort to teach creationism or intelligent design in the public schools. Parents realize what will happen when adolescents learn in school that the literal story of creation they were taught at church is contradicted by the theory of evolution. The brightest and best embrace modernity. As for the rest? Some remain literalists and reject evolution and science with it. Others become what I term "spiritual schizophrenics", maintaining two sets of beliefs simultaneously.

My dad had an uncle who was just such a spiritual schizophrenic. He was a student of geology, and a fundamentalist Christian. He could tell you that a rock strata dated back millions of years, but also argued that the world was created only 6,000 years ago. When asked about this apparent conflict, Dad's uncle stated that there was no conflict: when he was a geologist he was a geologist, and when a Christian, a Christian. Spiritual schizophrenia.

I can't do such philosophical gymnastics, and I don't believe we should expect our children to do so either. But if we are not to teach our children lessons they are bound to outgrow and forced to reject, we will have to shift our orientation as well. It comes down to the question of whether or not we accept the concept that change is real. If we accept the idea of a continually shifting reality, we will be required to move from solid, black and white foundations of rules and laws that govern thought and action, to the challenging gray area of foundational principles, which need to be applied in an ever changing context. Challenging stuff, this, and not for the faint of heart. But we really have no choice.

When you get down to it, It's About Time....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's About Timing

I blame Sally. She exercised extremely poor judgment in going off to work today, leaving me alone with sharp objects that plug in.

Let's back up a step. On Tuesday I spent a couple hours mapping out on paper every piece of drywall we needed for the kitchen project. I was the very model of efficiency and economy, getting all of our pieces out of five gypsum wallboards. It was almost elegant. We even had a little bit left over, in case we made a mistake. And what are the chances of that happening?

Last night we cut and mounted the first three pieces without incident, making us happy and me overconfident. I decided to proceed without Sally this morning, hoping to surprise her with my progress. I set up our work area in the driveway, and began by transferring my paper maps onto the sheet rock territory. It was then that I discovered my error. We were working backwards! We had started cutting drywall from the wrong corner, requiring me to reorient my maps. I did so, skillfully, and then began cutting my own pieces. The first cuts, which represented completion of yesterday's work, went fine. I then made three, ten-inch cuts into the large remnant, allowing for a "tab" to repair the ceiling where a can light had been.

Just after I made those fateful cuts, it hit me: I had the whole thing upside down! Though upside down doesn't come into play with regular shapes like squares and rectangles, it makes all the difference in the world with large, irregular pieces cut for the ceiling. In the next few moments my efficient, economical, skillful, almost elegant world spun off in a new direction, leaving me disoriented, frustrated, and angry. Why didn't I see that before making those little cuts that have ruined everything! Why? Why?

Just at that moment our neighbor across the street walked over to say hello. We've lived here for more than five years and he has never so much as stepped off his sidewalk in our direction. "Hello!" he said cheerily, walking up my driveway, as I tried to mask my devastation. "I hear you're really quite skilled!"

He left out efficient, economical, and almost elegant. I kept the words that came to mind to myself, and showed him the neo-kitchen. I returned his pleasant conversation, all the while wishing he would go away and let me suffer in peace. Quite skilled, indeed.

Our neighbor finally wandered back across the Great Divide known as 34th Avenue, and, having thought better about cutting drywall on my own, I've put the tools away until Sally gets home. Though writing, like carpentry, requires some measure of planning and precision, the computer comes equipped with a delete key. I wish I my circular saw had one.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


In truth, I've never considered myself to be a "do it yourself" person. One aspect of my perfectionism is the debilitating fear of making a mistake. My attitude has been, "Oh sure, I could do it myself rather than paying someone else to do it, but I like the peace of mind that comes from knowing it will be done right."

This attitude was reaffirmed by my beloved father-in-law, who took umbrage at the thought of my paying $19 for someone to change the oil in my VW Rabbit. I was taking a study leave at the folks' place in Grand Junction, and asked where the best place to get an oil change was. "I'll change your oil", growled Joe, as only Joe could growl. Now, I had once changed the oil in that car, and found that everything in the engine compartment was so tightly packed together that there was no way to even get a wrench on the oil filter. The car was designed to be serviced from beneath a lift, rather than in a driveway. Though feeling a bit emasculated, as I often did around Sally's self-sufficient male family members, I didn't resist his offer.

For the next several hours I did my reading in the RV parked near the house. Several times I heard Joe's car going and coming in the long drive, but paid it little attention. Eventually the story came out: In attempting to access the filter, Joe had broken off the oil pump. Four hours, several trips to auto supply stores and about $80 later, the oil was changed.

My feelings of emasculation were transmogrified into the thrill of victory, though I could scarcely express my smug satisfaction. I apologized to Joe for his trouble, and secretly reaffirmed my vow never to attempt to change my own oil again.

In retrospect, I wish I had gone out to the garage with Joe to watch what he did, if only to learn how NOT to break the oil pump. Knowledge is power. Conversely, as penned by Frank Herbert in Dune, "Fear is the mind-killer, the little death." Joe's snarls weren't responsible for my emasculation. My fear was.

I came by my fear naturally. Members of my family remember the time we noticed Mom's outside lights coming on at 3 p.m. The timer was way off, but Mom hadn't wanted to bother our engineer-neighbor, John Cartwright, with a request to reset it. Before he died, Dad had always asked John for help with the timer. It turned out that the timer was just a simple wheel with thumb screw sets. I can't imagine how John Cartwright must have felt in being asked to change it.

On that same score, my mother suffered 20 years with an upright vacuum that lacked a belt for the brush. She had told my dad it wasn't working right. He hadn't wanted an upright in the first place, and assumed her complaints validated his perspective.

Now I'm tentatively working to get beyond my past. Over the weekend I wired a series of outlets for the under-cabinet lights. Yesterday I installed two wall fixtures and changed the ceiling light. Today we'll start hanging drywall.

I'm still a bit nervous about all this "do it yourself" stuff, but my anxiety is gradually being supplanted by a new and unfamiliar sense of power. I CAN do this! Really! Even if I continue to chant:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Well, I trust Sally will remain too, as well as some drywall remnants and a stack of receipts from Home Depot.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Time for Everything. As to place....

At our house, it's always time for coffee. Whether using the eccentric Presso pot to make shots, the old Barista machine, one of the two french presses, or the 10-cup automatic drip pot, it's always time for coffee.
Honestly, I think I enjoy making it as much as I do drinking it, which is why these past weeks have been challenging. The loss of a dedicated coffee preparation area is a seeming hardship.

That brings us to the question of place. Where is the best place for coffee preparation? A flat spot for the equipment is required, as is access to electricity for the grinder and brewer, fresh water, and a trash receptacle. Given these criteria, I selected the top of the washing machine in the basement as my coffee spot during our remodeling work. It seemed fine, until this morning.

There may be a reason why the masses have not adopted the practice of making their coffee atop their washing machine. I spilled some coffee grounds this morning. Not too many. Just a few. However, I now realize that coffee grounds breed like rabbits. I learned this when starting a load of laundry once Sally and I finished breakfast. I opened the little door for the detergent, fabric softener and bleach dispensers, and found that each had been transformed into a coffee storage and dispensing facility. I tried my best to clean it all out, to little effect.

So I'm washing the load on "hot".

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The "Wow!" factor

I know. You waited patiently for me to get beyond "Bike to Work Week", and now you're stuck reading about "Remodel Your Kitchen Biennium". Sorry.

Our kitchen didn't work. The range worked, as did the oven, refrigerator, dishwasher and sink. But the kitchen didn't. It was a combination of the homemade cupboards that had been cut in half to mount appliances, drawers without glides or any lubrication other than the sawdust they continually emitted, the fresh fruit wallpaper and the "layered look" vinyl vinyl floor floor with the patched square in the middle. For five years we tried to make it work, shifting use of counters again and again, moving the microwave, coffee prep area and main work spaces in an attempt to find some combination that made sense. It simply never did.

So, after months and years of talking about it, we invited bids for the remodel. The contractor we went with asked what we were looking for, to which we replied that, though we certainly appreciate quality materials and artisan skills, we just wanted the kitchen to work. "You aren't going for the Wow! Factor", they asked?

As it is turning out, we are getting the Wow! factor....

  • First of all, there was a 50% increase from the initial estimate to the numbers given us, at our insistence, before we would consider signing a contract. Wow!
  • There was the decision to part ways with the contractor, even though we'd already ordered the cabinets and paid design fees. Wow!
  • We learned about underfloor heating, first from our son, and later from our neighbor, Ron, who is helping it become a reality. Wow!
  • Sally and I have become accustomed to living with dust everywhere, including copious quantities in our lungs, and are getting along fine. Wow!
  • We've learned how to remove cabinets, soffits, and flooring, as well as how to string wiring for lights and outlets. Wow!
  • We've had help from neighbors, conversations about religion with people as eclectic as ourselves, and made the acquaintance of a mountaineering plumber who works both quickly and with a flair that can only be described as art. Wow!
It's too early to tell how this story will end. But for now, in spite of the disappointments, false starts, and sore joints and muscles, it's feeling just right.