It’s a Beautiful Thing

July 23rd, 2019

My friend suggested I stop by the store in Tapiola and look at a recent delivery.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he told me.

And he was right. Not only was it lovely as it came off the truck, but it was even nicer burred in the ground and hooked up to the building. It was our new septic tank.

1,500 gallons with manholes, all in a row like ducks marching toward the lake. This will be the core of the septic system in our new firehall. Our volunteer fire department has been saving for this dream for decades now, and this summer we are making significant progress. If things continue to more forward, we should be inside by the time winter rolls around.

While a septic tank might not be everyone’s idea of beauty, it surely is to some. Which makes me think about art museums and the eclectic mixture of items on display. Alice and I have visited Chicago many times, and every chance we get, we try to visit the Chicago Art Institute. It has a little of everything, although now that I think about it, I don’t recall seeing any septic tanks. I must have a word with the curator 🙂

Objects of art in museums take many forms, from paintings to hang on walls, to vessels that hold liquids, to furniture for sitting on or storing things. We enjoy surrounding ourselves with beautiful things, some of which have a purpose, and some that are just pretty.

The most beautiful thing to someone who’s house is on fire is a firetruck coming in the driveway. Someone who is sick probably likes the look of an ambulance outside her window with lights flashing. One person’s beauty is another person’s every day item. And who is to say which is right? The important thing, in my opinion, is to seek out and enjoy beauty wherever you find it.

I Guess I’m a Farmer

July 17th, 2019

One advantage to living in this rural part of the UP of Michigan is my acquaintance with farmers. Folks that make their living off the land are a special breed, and I’m privileged to be friends with some of them.

In my professional life, I was able to control many of the variables that could affect my success. My farmer friends also have that luxury to a certain extent, but the weather, that unpredictable ally/enemy, is mostly beyond control. There are strategies available to prepare for the weather, but when the weather rolls over, about all a farmer can do is hope for the best, and roll up his sleeves in the aftermath. A special breed of folks is attracted to this profession, and a still more special breed manages to stick it out.

This maple syrup season tested my mettle. When I made my first trip to the sugar bush to look things over, I saw that one of my 4 firewood sheds had been destroyed by the snowload. The other 3 had survived because they were full of wood. The empty one just couldn’t take the strain, so down it came. Even though the maple sap was running, there was still a lot of snow in the woods. I hang the buckets on my trees in two positions, 2′ and 3′ above the ground. I alternate between these two positions as I move around the trees year-by-year to keep the trees healthy. The 2′ positions often meant the top of the bucket was below the snow line. This made hanging and gathering the buckets challenging.

Good sap weather is below freezing nights and above freezing days. From the day I tapped until I pulled my buckets about 5 weeks later, I had good sap weather every day except 2. On those two days, the daytime weather stayed below freezing, so I was able to stay inside and bottle syrup. I normally get several more days like this during the season, but this year the sap just ran and ran. So I gathered and boiled, day in and day out. I thought I had plenty of firewood, but as the days went by, the firewood evaporated from my piles.

Many of my sap days were above average production. From my 70 taps, a good day would be 25 gallons of sap. It takes me about an hour to gather, but my little evaporator can only boil about 5 gallons of sap per hour. So 25 gallons means 5 hours of boiling. There is no tubing or other labor savers in my little operation. Buckets collect the steady drip drip drip of sap, and repurposed stainless steel milk pails (5 gallon capacity each) are used to move the sap from the buckets to my collecting barrel. With all the snow I was on showshoes much of the time, but sometimes if the weather was cold enough, I could walk on the snow crust without too many mishaps.

Above average days would sometimes throw the whole system into a panic. I had several days with 50+ gallons of sap. My storage barrel is only 55 gallons, and I like to empty the barrel of the previous day’s gather, and rinse it out, before I start gathering the next day. Some days I couldn’t do this because the buckets were close to overflowing. When there was no room for more sap and the buckets were getting full, I had to roll up my sleeves and spend more hours tending the evaporator.

Then there was the ice. On very cold nights, if sap is left in the buckets overnight, I can get several inches of ice on top of the buckets. The deal I’ve made with the trees (yes I talk to my trees) is if you give it to me, I’ll boil it. Many syrup producers throw out their ice believing that the ice contains less sugar, and therefor is a bonus, since the liquid sap that is left is sweeter and requires less boiling. Towards the end of the season, the barrel was mostly full, the trees were really producing, and I had to make a hard choice. The top 25% of the barrel contained ice, and I really needed that space, so I grabbed my hand sieve and strained the ice as best as I could, tossed it on the ground, and continued through the storage barrel until there was nothing but clear sap left. Sorry trees.

For 5 weeks this continued, day in and day out. I did my best to keep up, but was steadily losing ground. My philosophy of not storing sap more than 24 hours went out the window. It was coming so fast I didn’t have the luxury of completely emptying the barrel every day. Sometimes 3 days went by before I found the bottom of the barrel, and then wham! One more gather and the thing was full again. The syrup was coming out of the woods in 1 gallon glass jars and being stored in the refrigerator until I could get it bottled. I was running on the ragged edge of a knife blade, and still the run continued.

When the sap started turning yellow after a few warm nights, I pulled my taps and called it a season. After the last quart jar was filled and sealed, I counted up the year’s take. Seventeen gallons! My previous high was 13 gallons, but this record will surely stand unless I upgrade my equipment.

Since the season ended in mid April, I’ve sat down and attempted to write about it several times. My butt was so thoroughly kicked by the 2019 maple syrup season, that I couldn’t seem to collect my thoughts enough to put a coherent story together. I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write again. My respect for my farmer friends went up several notches this year. My season only lasts for 5 weeks, but these guys go year round. It their luck holds out, they can make some money. If not, they just roll up their sleeves and put in the extra effort to salvage what is salvageable. My hat is off to them.


March 10th, 2019

Remember in the old days when you wanted to use a word you don’t use very often, but it was just the right word? You could marry a good speller, as I had the good fortune to do, or, you were doomed to try to look it up in a book… a book called a dictionary. This is not a small book either. Ours, the one we still have but hasn’t seen the light of day for some years now, came with our Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a large format book in 3 volumes. And words like “pneumatic” were especially problematic. You knew how to say it, but how is it spelled? You look all through the “NEW”s, and nothing shows itself. You often wound up choosing a different word because of that P stuck at the beginning.

Now we can just start typing, and by golly, a decent stab at it usually gives you the correctly spelled word. Writing should be writing, and weight lifting should be weight lifting. You shouldn’t have to haul out a heavy book when you are trying to write, at least I don’t think so.

Lately GMAIL ™ has been helping me with more than spelling. I start typing a sentence, and it cheerfully suggests a completion of the sentence for me. If I hit the TAB key, if fills the rest in, and often even puts the right punctuation at the end. I often find myself liking much of what it suggests, and when I consider the effort to type out exactly what I had thought about, vs the suggestion that is almost the same, I will choose to let GMAIL ™ do the writing for me. GMAIL’s ™ suggestions are often more cheerful that what I had had in mind, which makes me wonder whether it is trying to make the world a more civil place. I hope it succeeds.

Back to the topic of pneumatic tires. I have a lot of them. Besides the ones on my cars and trucks, there are bikes, a riding lawnmower, rototiller, wheelbarrow, etc. Tires filled with air make my life easier. While it isn’t quite as obvious with cars, a low wheelbarrow tire can be a real downer. They stand tall and proud until you get a load in them, and then you have to push twice as hard. Wheelbarrow manufactures do everything they can to obscure the low tire until it is too late. The thing is loaded, and the tire is pneumatically low. It needs some air.

I’m fortunate to have a good air compressor in my garage/shop. When I pop on the right attachment, I can put up to 110 psi into just about any tire I own. It is effortless and very satisfying. There is just one problem though. Not all tires take the same air pressure. My plow truck takes 75 psi, while the car takes 32 psi. My bike takes around 70, and the riding lawnmower does take air, but I have absolutely no idea how much.

Now I’m sure the engineers that design tires are very smart people. I know this in part because when they construct the molds that tires are made in, for the writing on the tire to be legible, they have to make the numbers and letters backwards in the mold. Not just anybody can do that, and I’ll bet these engineers have degrees from institutions of higher learning.

However, the people that decide what gets printed on the tires must have been hired off the street at below minimum wage. They often have the manufacturer of the tire in big bold legible letters. With a wheelbarrow full of sand and a half flat tire, you can walk right up to that tire and know in a minute that it is a BF Goodrich or a Firestone. Information I would suggest is completely useless in the current situation. In a slightly smaller font, but almost as prominently displayed is the size of the tire, in a code that only tire salespeople understand. It reads something like P235/75R15. This string of useless gobbledygook can also often be read in the standing position.

But to determine how many psi of air to put into the tire, one has to read the tiniest most inaccessible print on the whole bloody tire. You have to get down on your side, put some spit on your finger, and rub it along where you think the magic number is located. The spit makes the raised lettering stand out and able to be read more easily. You know when you’re getting close when you see words to the effect of, “not intended for highway use.”

“Great,” I think to myself. “I was just about to wheel this barrow of sand over to the highway and start passing cars with it.” In the tiniest font, often upside down and on the other side of the tire you started looking first, because of course you wouldn’t print the max psi on both sides, there it is, the number you’ve been looking for. “Inflate to 20 psi. DANGER, do not over-inflate!”

“Yes, I know I shouldn’t over-inflate! That is why I’ve been lying in a mud puddle for the last half hour looking for that tiny number!”

Not that I would ever qualify for the lofty position of pneumatic tire engineer, but if I did, I would insist that the manufacturer of the tire, the tire size, and all the rest of the nonsensical gibberish on the side of the tire be relegated to a one point font, and in big white letters would be the words, “Inflate to 20 psi max.”

Buying a Refrigerator

February 17th, 2019

On my infrequent flights, I often am glued to my window as we are landing. Down there are row after row of houses. I think I could fairly confidently say that each one has at least one refrigerator in it. I never gave that concept much thought until Alice and I were sitting in the boarding area for our flight to Miami at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

One of our fellow passengers was engaged in a lengthy loud verbal battle over a refrigerator. This woman summers in Chicago, but winters, to the best of my recollection, near mile 66 in the Florida Keys. This woman, like many of us, uses a smart phone to communicate. Unlike many of us, she speaks in a very loud voice on her phone, and often puts the phone on speaker.

There is little in the way of entertainment available when you are waiting for a flight, which is perhaps why this woman chose her method of communication. Maybe she was hired by the airline to keep us all occupied while we waited for our flight to board.

This woman really needed a refrigerator, had ordered one, and had arranged to have it delivered later in the day after she arrived from Chicago. The store that she bought it from attempted to deliver the fridge that morning, when she was, of course, still in Chicago. She read them a loud riot act for some time for daring to mistake the delivery time. This went on for some time. I would characterize her behavior as bridge-burning, in that if she ever tried to buy something from that store again, they would likely call the police on her.

Once that call was completed, we thought we might be able to return to whatever it was we had been doing, but we were wrong. She was determined to order another refrigerator. I felt as though I was in the midst of an Agatha Christie novel plot, where thread after thread was explored, until the right one finally exerted itself. We (I say we because by now, this was a group effort) called numerous places looking for a fridge, and for some reason, none of them worked out. We thought we had it once, but the people doing the delivery only offered to drop it off in the driveway. Rats. A couple of places had clerks that seemed not to speak English. Several did not deliver at all. We were rooting for her to strike gold, but every path she took led to a dead end.

Which made me think about all those houses I see from the airliner window. Did every refrigerator in the houses visible from the air come at such a high price in terms of loud phone persistence? If so we are probably talking more hours of effort expended in ordering and getting the thing delivered than were necessary to build it in the first place.

I was sitting next to her as we were getting ready to board, and we struck up a conversation. That was when I learned she summered in Chicago. I told her we lived north of Chicago about 400 miles, and gave her some idea of the cold and snow we encounter.

“Is it really that bad?” she asked me.

“I don’t remember saying it was bad,” I told her. “We like the seasons and the challenges they bring.”

She looked at me skeptically.

“And,” I thought to myself, “we have a perfectly functioning refrigerator waiting for us when we get home.”


February 16th, 2019

My third best surprise of all time had to do with my beard. When Steve was born and came home from the hospital, it was just after we’d had a well drilled and had hooked up the toilet. An inside bathroom! Although it wasn’t exactly a room yet. It was a toilet sitting in the middle of a place that would one day have walls and become a bathroom when we had the money and time to get it finished. In those days, I told Alice that as soon as I had a sink to shave in, I’d shave off my beard.

Progress on the bathroom was pretty good, and in a couple of years, the walls were up, bathtub installed, and a bathroom sink in place. The day I hooked up the sink plumbing and made sure it was all working was the day I remembered my pledge. So, after Alice fell asleep that night, I snuck out to my workshop with my electric razor and shaved off my beard. Then I snuck back in bed. When Alice woke up the next morning, she was next to a strange man! Steve had never seen me without a beard, and was skeptical about his Dad for some time after that.

My second best surprise ever was for my Dad’s 80th birthday. He was never big on celebrations or presents for himself or for others for holidays. My cousin Dan Soldan approached me with an idea to have a surprise birthday party for Dad at the Soaring Eagle Casino in Mt. Pleasant. Dan had a friend at the casino that would arrange for the room, and we worked together to invite as many of Dad’s friends and relatives we could think of. Alice and I were visiting in Dimondale on the big day, and I casually asked him if he’d like just the two of us to take a drive up to the Soaring Eagle on his birthday. He jumped at the chance.

Dad and I would often take the drive up to Mt. Pleasant. He would play the slots while I walked around or sat with him (I don’t gamble). So up we went, and as he was gambling, I checked in at the restaurant to see how things were progressing. I made a deal with the maître d’ that when we came in and said “dinner for 2”, that he would lead us to the conference room at the back where everyone was waiting. When the time came, I asked Dad if he’d like some dinner. “My treat,” I think I told him. “Sure,” he told me, so off we went. When the waiter led us into the back room, 40 people shouted “SURPRISE!” It is lucky Dad had a good heart! He was really really surprised.

But my best surprise of all time, and a very high bar indeed for future surprises, came about this year on Alice’s birthday. The two of us are finding it increasingly difficult to get gifts for each other, because we really don’t consume that much, and when we do need something, we tend to just buy it. Alice’s birthday is especially hard, because it is on January 26, which is right on the heels of Christmas, and I’ve usually used up all my good gift ideas. We do find it hard to surprise each other.

This year I suggested to Alice that we take a cruise for our winter getaway. It turned out there was one we were interested in that left the day after her birthday. So we decided to leave home on her birthday, fly to Miami and stay at a hotel, so we’d be ready to take a taxi to the cruise ship port the next day.

We’ve done 4 cruises together in the past. For several of them, we’ve invited Steve and John to come along, but for various reasons, we were never able to get our schedules to mesh. I approached Steve and asked him if he’d be able to come along this time, but to keep it a secret from Alice. He said he’d look into it. He and John had a lot of things going on, and it was touch and go as to whether they’d be able to make it. While this was happening in the background, Alice piped up and said, “Why don’t we ask Steve and John to come with us on the cruise?”

“Good idea!” I said with as much feigned enthusiasm as I could muster. One of the next times they talked on the phone, Alice asked Steve if he thought they could come. Steve, already primed by his Dad, expressed skepticism they’d be able to make it. A week or so later Steve texted me to say they were definitely a go for the cruise. So I arranged for their passage on the ship, booked their flights, and also booked a room for them in the hotel we were staying at the night of Alice’s birthday. But when Alice next asked him on the phone if they’d be able to make it, he said, sadly, “No I’m sorry we can’t come.”

“I understand,” answered his gullible Mom.

Flying this time of year is always a challenge, because winter storms can close down our airport. Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:05 AM, meaning the roads might not be plowed, so the 30 mile trip to the airport could be hazardous. Added to all that, the longest government shutdown in history had just ended. It was beginning to affect some flights across the country. But we made it to the airport on time, and with minimal difficulties, made the trip to Miami, where we caught an Uber to the hotel.

I was in text contact with Steve, and knew they’d arrived at the hotel ahead of us. When we checked in at the hotel, I was afraid the desk clerk would blurt out that there was already a Soldan staying here! But he was cool and I later learned that Steve had coached him that a surprise was in the offing.

Around dinner time, I suggested we head down to the hotel dining room for a birthday dinner. The plan was for us to find a table, and once we were settled in, to text Steve and tell him it was time to come down. Steve had the idea that he would call her on his cell phone and wish her happy birthday. Once they got into position, he would say, “look to your left,” and he and John would be standing there.

I was nervous as a cat, but did have the foresight to have my camera on my lap, and to have it ready to capture what came next:

And that, my friends, is the story of the best surprise I’ve ever pulled off in my life.

Eight Below

January 20th, 2019

2018 was a tough year for us. I lost my Dad in early April, and my Mom on Thanksgiving day. For all of my 66 years, they’ve been there… none us perfect, but each respecting the other and with few harsh words.

Nothing had prepared me for this. I found many important things in my life not getting done, and had to just roll with it. Whether it was at home or at the fire department, things were just not getting done, or someone else was stepping up and doing them.

I have a German’s sensibility about how things should be, and I feel a little stab every time I encounter something that is not right. I get this tingle that says (in a German accent) “How hard can it be? Just roll up your sleeves and get it done!” I’m embarrassed to admit that our downstairs freezer has been nagging me for some time. We have two freezers, that do a great job preserving our yearly bountiful harvests. Neither freezer has a self defrost. Before this year’s garden produce started infiltrating, I moved everything from the smaller upright freezer into the larger chest freezer and defrosted the upright. When that project got completed, I pronounced a hearty “Ja Wohl!” onto myself.

But the chest freezer remained frosty. And as the produce began to fill it up, the chances of that frost sticking around increased. I make a lot of trips into that freezer, and each time I opened it, the frost crystals seemed to spell out “loser.”

That is until this morning. Being in the northernmost region of one of the northernmost states, we get our share of cold. And being surrounded by Lake Superior on three sides gives us our share of snow. All the seasons are welcome to us. Sometimes the cold gets a bit extreme though, like this morning’s eight degrees below zero. It is hard to get much accomplished outside in temperatures that cold.

Alice and I decided this was the day to empty the chest freezer. I made 6 trips up the steps with boxes and baskets of frozen food. I stacked them all neatly on the brick patio outside our door in the -8 air. Then I grabbed my Milwaukee heat gun and went to work on the frost. As each sheet of freezer frost fell off the sides, a chuckle of delight escaped my lips. I took great satisfaction in dumping each chunk into a bucket, and then into the sink to slowly melt away and disappear into the basement sump.

When it was all defrosted, I washed the whole inside with a solution of baking soda and water, and then made 6 more trips back downstairs with the still frozen food. Alice took the opportunity to organize the food back into the freezer as I brought down each container. I think it was a balmy -1 outside by the time we finished the project.

Now I can eagerly anticipate future visits to a frost free chest freezer, secure in the knowledge that no frost will soon deface its walls.

I’ve heard it said there is not bad weather, just inadequate gear. I’ve also learned that when minus eight is tossed in front of you, an opportunity to make use of it might just present itself.


January 7th, 2019

One of my pet peeves is junk mail. Especially in this era of email, the Internet, and online shopping, catalogs and junk mail seem mostly superfluous to me. I can’t remember the last time I’ve found something in a catalog that I’ve wanted to order. I can’t remember the last time I opened a bulk mail letter and said, “Eureka, I need that!”

I own several domain names, which cost me $15/year to maintain. I only actively use one of them ( but I keep renewing the others thinking I’ll use them someday. All domains are stored in a database that is freely available on the web. Along with the domain name is name/address information of the domain name owner. Several times a year, I get a junk mail letter from a company that gets my name from that database, and wants to be sure I don’t let my domain name expire. I’ve written back to them a couple of times asking them to stop sending the mail, but have not been successful in getting it stopped.

So today I looked up their phone number and dialed it. A man came on the phone, and once I made it clear that it was my intention to be removed from the mailing list, he grew increasingly hostile. As I was questioning him about being sure we were removing all mail from his company to my address, he told me he had just explained to me that was what he was going to do (he hadn’t) and suggested I “…put on my thinking cap.” I asked him if he was having a bad day, but there was no answer, because his end was dead.

These things bother me, although I know they shouldn’t. I’m sure whoever it was on the other end of the phone forgot about our interaction as soon as he hung up on me. But I’ve been thinking about it all day long. The world is changing, and I’m having to learn to change with it. You see, I’m used to dealing with companies like Amazon that seem to value me as a customer. When something goes wrong with an order, they bend over backwards to make it right. It works for me. I usually search Amazon before I look elsewhere. Wal-mart has an excellent return policy, and seems to have their customer service representatives trained well enough that the experience of standing in line for a refund or exchange is not a negative one for me.

With a bar set that high, I find that I’m pretty unprepared for rudeness. I’m getting better at is as I get older, I think because the anger juices are slower to start flowing. And that is a good thing, because I’m not good at being angry. And there surely are some experts at anger out there. My goal is to make sure I do not cross paths with these folks if possible.

Which brings me to a couple of books I’ve been reading lately, both by Jaron Laniar. The first is “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” and the second is “You Are Not a Gaget.” His basic argument is that social media has a customer, but you ain’t it. The customer is advertisers, and you are the product. This isn’t sinister in and of itself, but Jaron suggests that social media has determined that if it can feed articles to you that make you angry, you’ll be more likely to hover, thereby spending more time looking at the advertisements it sells. Anger sells widgets.

The ostensible reason you keep coming back to social media is to keep track of your friends. Perhaps the real reason is a bit more deeply buried in your subconscious. Whatever the technique, it seems to work… people keep coming back day after day, and the advertisers that pay a lot of money to social media have access to a select group of folks that will look at their online ad, while they would just toss a piece of junk mail.

Since I’ve been reading these books, I’ve curtailed my use of social media significantly, but not completely. I wonder why I don’t just pull the plug?


December 24th, 2018

When we dropped our son off at college in 1998, I suggested that he spend as much time as possible around exceptional people. College can be a good place to exercise that option. My belief is exceptional people give one a target in life. Alice and I were lucky enough to both work at a university for our professional lives, and we also did our best to surround ourselves with great folks.

Fast forward to about 5 years ago, when the Internet was becoming more and more an important part of my life. A new web page presented itself to me:

TED talks became a regular feature of my life and remained so for several years. For the first time in my life, I could enjoy the company of exceptional people, and listen to them talk about their fields of expertise without having to move from the computer screen in front of my armchair. I indulged in TED talks, and shared many of my favorites with friends.

The next level of technology that changed my access to great ideas was my discovery of podcasts. As you know, I do write a blog, but I never really caught on to blogs as a way to taste the world of ideas. But podcasts really opened my eyes. Even with the discovery of podcasts, I had to wait for one more technological breakthrough before podcasts started showing their current potential. The breakthrough was a new pickup truck.

My old truck, a 2002 Ford F250 was showing its age, so this summer I decided to bite the bullet and buy myself a new truck. I got the most basic model available with an 8′ box and no crew cab. This was to be a truck, not a car with a little box out back. But even with just the basics, it came with a radio with an unanticipated feature… the radio could pair via Bluetooth ™ to my smartphone. When the truck was new, I went through the pairing procedure as part of the familiarization phase, but didn’t really see any applications that grabbed me.

I was occasionally using my smart phone to listen to music, and one time I got into my truck, started it up, and started going down the road when suddenly the song I’d been listening to came up on the truck’s speakers. And it sounded good! I still owned an iPod in those days, so I paired it with my truck radio and began to use it to listen to some podcasts. It was great. I make weekly trips to town with my truck to run the week’s errands, and found that the miles just flew by when I had something interesting to listen to.

Next I downloaded an app to my smart phone called Pocket Casts ™, and began to use it for listening to podcasts. I also moved my music library over to my phone, and quickly rendered my little iPod obsolete. Now when I get into my truck, it talks to my phone, figures out what I was last listening to, and starts playing it for me. It is seamless, simple, and I hear a lot of good stuff while driving with very little effort on my part.

There are so many podcasts out there that I believe a professional trucker couldn’t listen to them all. I’ve settled on 7 of them. I can’t think of any I’d like to delete, and don’t think I could add any more, since I can barely keep up with the 7 I have. Here they are in no particular order:

Fresh Air, Freakonomics Radio, Big Picture Science, The Ezra Klein Show, This American Life, The Moth, and Waking Up (with Sam Harris). (note that the Waking Up podcast is in the process of changing its name, but if you do a search, you should still be able to find it.)

If you haven’t yet discovered the world of podcasts while driving, I encourage you to look into it. These things have changed my perspective on things, and frees me from the tyranny of finding something interesting on the radio dial. My little phone contains enough material to keep me interested during several cross country trips.

Enough Clamps?

December 23rd, 2018

A friend at work told me a story some years ago. Her husband and another guy were sitting at the table talking about woodworking tools, as guys sometimes do. During a pause, she asked them, “How do you know when you have enough clamps?”

She said both guys stopped and slack jawed, just looked at her. No words came.

That story came to me the other day when I was replacing the fiberglass rope gasket on our Jotul stove. The instructions on the bottle of adhesive were cheerful and clear. “Clean the groove that accepts the new gasked thoroughly. Then add a bead of adhesive to the door groove, insert the rope gasket, and close the door for 2 hours. You may want to put some newspaper in the door so you don’t glue it shut.”

Sounds easy enough. The adhesive had been sitting in the shop for a few years now. I bought the new rope and adhesive some time back, because frankly this job is past due. But I did finally get around to it. I shook the little jar of adhesive, even though the directions said nothing about that. I then attempted to insert a bead in the groove. The adhesive was like water. There was no way I would be able to insert a bead without it running down the glass in the door.

So I measured and cut the correct length of rope, sat it on the hearth, and applied a bead of adhesive to the rope. Then I carefully fed the rope into the channel. Things went fine until the first bend, when the rope fell out. I enlisted Alice’s help, but to no avail. The raw adhesive was not sticky enough to hold the rope in place long enough for me to get the door shut, and we did not have enough hands between us to hold the rope in place. What to do?

As is so often true, clamps were the answer. With the adhesive drying on the hearth, I sprinted out to the shop, grabbed every spring clamp I had, came back inside, reapplied the glue, and then started feeding the rope back into the channel. When I came to a corner, I pinned it down with a clamp. As you can see in the picture, by the time I made it all the way around the door, I’d used up a lot of clamps. If I would have had more, would I have used them? Probably.

After about an hour, the adhesive had dried enough so I could removed the clamps, stick the newspaper in the door, and close it tight so the glue could finish its curing.

Besides spring clamps, I have a good assortment of C-clamps, bar clamps, Jorgensen clamps, pipe clamps, workbench clamps, and a couple of Kant-twist ™ clamps to round out the picture. There are probably others out there I could call on if the need arose. I am frequently grateful for my clamp collection.

So how many is enough? The better questions is how many is too many. What would have to happen for me to have more clamps than I want to keep around. That is a bridge I’ve not yet had to cross, but then again, I’m only 66 years old. I hope I’ve still got a lot of clamping left in me.

Cherry Lumber

November 19th, 2018

My neighbor Jim had some cherry trees on his property. His friend Bill thought he might like to make some cabinets out of cherry. So Jim and Bill embarked on a small scale logging operation. They cut down and bucked up several trees, and hauled them out to the bush road by hand, because they didn’t have a tractor between them.

Once on the bush road, the heavy logs were moved onto a trailer and pickup and hauled to Bill’s place. Bill then went to work finding a sawyer to make lumber out of the hard-won cherry.

Things got more complicated, because local sawmills are used to dealing in 40 cord truckloads. Jim and Bill’s few logs were random length… small diameter ones longer and big ones shorter, to make them possible to be lifted by hand. For-profit sawmills want standardized log lengths. Jim and Bill could not find a sawyer interested in their small project.

Jim is Ernie’s son. Ernie, who passed away some years ago, helped me on numerous occasions when I was much younger, poorer, and less capable with tools. Ernie never refused a request from me, often worked with me for a long while, and when asked what was the charge, would say, “Oh, give me a dollar.” I swore I’d get even someday.

Jim (Ernie’s son) called me up and asked if I’d be interested in sawing some cherry lumber for his friend Bill. I was very busy, and my sawmill was not reliable after I replaced some parts last summer. But when Jim asked, I happily said yes. He said his friend Bill would be dropping off the logs.

The cherry up here often grows crooked, which is fine for firewood, but a sawmill demands straight logs. The crooks become firewood as the log is being squared up in order to make lumber. These guys had some pretty crooked logs. Some were quite small. And the big ones were a little short. Short logs mean extra work, because fewer sawmill “dogs” are available to hold the logs in place as the saw head passes up and down. I had an challenging pile of cherry logs to work with.

But the crooked logs also provide some interesting lumber, which became evident as the logs were taken apart. I spent some extra time and “bookmatched” the lumber as much as I could as I stacked it. Bookmatching means I stacked it with contiguous board edges touching, like the pages in a book. So the grains in one board more or less mirror the next one down the log. As I got into the project, I found interesting cherry boards whose mirror images suggested improbable designs.

When I called Bill to tell him his lumber was ready, he came right over, and was thrilled by what he saw. “How much do I owe you,” he asked as he reached for his wallet. “You’ll have to take it up with Jim,” I said. “I’m doing this as partial payback for all the kind things Jim’s Dad did for me over the years.” Bill put his wallet back.

Later on in the season, Jim ordered a 40 ton load of gravel to repair a different section of his farm trail. Before he could spread it out, Bill intervened, and said he and his grandson would spread the gravel, and they did a quick and thorough job with shovels and rakes. When Jim asked him how much he owed him, he said, “You’ll have to take it up with Ted.”

A recent survey asked people how many friends and family did they have in their lives that they could call for help if they needed it. For the same survey question some years back, the most common answer (not the average) was 5. The most recent survey’s most common answer was 0.

My question is, what cements a friendship to the point that a call for help in the middle of the night would be reliably answered by a friend? Had Bill have bought his cherry lumber, all kiln dried, straight, and unchecked, at the Home Depot ™, there would be no story. He’d bring it home, build his cabinets, and that would be that. But the cabinets Bill builds with the Soldan milled cherry lumber will carry a story along with them. I can see grandchildren telling (exaggerated) stories about the trials and tribulations involved in bringing grandpa’s heirloom cabinets to life.

All three of us felt some satisfaction in this project. And I can tell you that if either of these two need anything it is in my power to help them with, I will. I would argue that this “transaction” is reminiscent of the barter system we were all a part of not so many generations ago. I would further argue that while we are perhaps richer in material things than the folks several generations back, we are much poorer in social terms. I think humans are happiest when they are part of a group, as complicated as such a thing always is. Working our way through the ins and outs of our group’s dynamics cements our place in the world. And it gives us the satisfaction of knowing we’ll have help when the need arises.