April 2002


Yesterday was beautiful. What an understatement! It was one of those days that make you remember why springtime is so great. It also makes you regret that around here, springtime is so short; quickly giving way to the blast-furnace like temperatures of summer. The weather was perfect: after a few days of light rain, the sun came out, the temperature was about 75 degrees and you could look at the grass and almost see it grow. Which kind of stinks when you’re the chief lawnmower guy.

It was one of those days where you go to the park and enjoy the world. Of course, we didn’t do that; we spent the day in hard labor in the back yard.

I will admit that after 20 years of marriage, there are times when I still don’t know exactly what it takes to make Melissa happy but I do know that if we’re involved in working on the house to improve the place, she’s always happy. Yesterday, she was ecstatic.

The kids have wanted for some time now to put in a garden. I’m not sure why since neither Mel nor I have ever had one or even talked about it but there you have it. They want a garden. I figured “why not”? So we took to the backyard with hoe and rake in hand.

It didn’t take long for us to develop a healthy respect for the original settlers of this land who had to hack through several inches of firmly established turf to get started. Then my superior education kicked in and I remembered a friend who happened to have a roto-tiller. A quick phone call secured the use of the tiller and the garden beginnings were quickly established. The groundwork was laid so to speak. In my younger days I would see those commercials on TV for those Troy-Bilt tillers and wonder why. Now I know why. Mr Briggs and Mr Stratton deserve every dollar they have for developing those small gas engines and making my life easier.

The dogs were in dog heaven; we were all out there and we were all digging. They decided to do a little digging themselves but in a much more uncontrolled way. A dog doesn’t ask for anything more than that (except perhaps the occasional dead bird to gnaw on – Dixie took care of that for us.) We had no seeds or plantings but those will come later. The appearance of those few neat rows of soil seemed to make everybody happy. Plus, there’s about 64 square feet that I won’t have to mow. Win-win! The kids have an eclectic collection of plants they want to grow there ranging from watermelons to marigolds to cotton. Whatever. It’s more important that they enjoy childhood than that we have a neat orderly garden. It’s in the back yard anyway.

Then we turned to the trees. We have two young but vigorous oak trees in the back yard. There is every indication that they will eventually make 60 feet and have trunks that are about 24 inches in diameter. They are the picture of health but they are one of those unfortunate variety of oak whose branches almost always point down. As a result, there are low-hanging twigs to poke you in the eye even though the lowest limb is about 13 feet above ground. Plus, the ground underneath is so shaded that nothing grows there. It’s actually dark under there. So I borrowed an extension ladder from a neighbor and took to the tree with my chainsaw in hand.

The eco-warriors of this country would have us all using electric powered appliances rather than pollute the atmosphere with those stinky two-cycle engines but anybody who has ever climbed a tree with a chainsaw will tell you that dragging an electrical cord up there with you is just bad. At times, the cord can weight almost as much as the tool itself. Still, it’s all I had. Oaks are not called “the might oak” for nothing. When the tornadoes come, they are the last trees left standing but that means that they don’t give up their limbs willingly. If you don’t have a chainsaw, you’d better have arms like Charles Atlas.

I removed a prodigious number of branches and the tree hardly looks any different except that now there is a little sunlight under the tree there to illuminate the dirt. And there is now an enormous pile of limbs in the yard. Experience tells me that for every five minutes spent pruning, there is another 20 minutes to be spent bundling up the refuse since in our town, one must gift-wrap the brush for the garbage men before they will take it. (Note to self: buy string on the way home from work) After yesterdays work, I’ll be busy tying it into bundles for the next month. Next weekend is free dump day and it would be very nice to be able to borrow the brother-in-law’s pickup and take it all over there in a couple of easy loads but that’s the weekend of Evan’s birthday paintball bash so I guess I’ll be gift-wrapping it.

Oh for the good old days when you could just douse it with diesel fuel and set a match to it.

It’s about the time of year for career day to roll around. I have (not surprisingly) not been invited to attend and talk about the exciting field of business transaction processing even though it ranks right up there with civil law and accounting. I don’t think any lawyers or accountants have been invited either. I think they’re focusing on the fireman sort of image this year.

We never had these career days when I was in school. I wish we had because the kids come back with some interesting stories. I asked Evan what he learned last year and he proceeded to tell a story of giant hissing cockroaches.

Well, that’s something you don’t see every day.

It seems that one of the dad’s who had been invited was an exterminator. The local exterminator seems to have a collection of six and eight-legged nasties that they can make a road-show out of in order to make us think “Boy, I’m glad those guys are around to take care of monstrous disgusting insects like that!” I must admit, it’s a marketing masterpiece – they now portray the local Orkin man in the same light as a heart surgeon by juxtaposing him with tarantulas, crickets, wasps, flies, and so on. And so, this dad brought along the giant hissing cockroaches.

I feel sorry for the next guy who had to come after that. Only a fighter pilot could possibly have regained their attention after that. In elementary school, nobody is impressed with an orthodontist. They will always give the loudest applause to the guy with the best props and this year’s award definitely goes to the giant hissing cockroaches.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t there. I would have stomped them first and asked questions later. Sometimes extinction can be a good thing.

They would have made for an interesting photo. I’ve been taking many photos with the new camera and I’ve discovered that when you have enough memory to shoot 85 photos without worrying about having to stop and download (equivalent to running out of film in the old days), and when the camera is fully automatic and does all the thinking for you, you wind up with a very large number of mediocre to bad pictures. Not so much bad as just uninteresting. Drat the luck! I’ll have to start thinking again!

There is a Corporate Challenge golf tournament today that I’m hacking in; those would make some interesting photos. I usually see a great deal of pretty scenery from my usual vantage points in the woods. Who wants to spend their time in the fairways? The real scenery is in the rough. Wait a minute…I’m supposed to be playing golf. I hope my teammates are low-handicappers.

Anybody ever see Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Of course you have; if not, don’t run right out and rent it – it’s no Star Wars but I used to like it. In fact, I liked it a bit too much and so put it aside for a long time. I was given DVD special edition of the movie for Christmas. What has this got to do with woodworking? Wait and see. The surprise of our house is that the kids seemed to know about it and have watched it many times since then. They might like it a little bit too much – just like I did. Sometimes I hate it when the apple falls so close to the tree. Are we strange? When you read the rest of this you’ll say to yourselves “Oh yeah!”

The DVD “special edition” is really nice since it has lots of other stuff including one of those “the making of…” videos. One of the stranger things is a section on how to make your own horse-clopping sounds with the two halves of a coconut. That’s where my story begins.

Leave it to my two children (the craft-project king and queen) to see this video and want to make their own coconut cloppers. Well, we were at the grocery store and coconuts were there and they were cheap. Why they decided to notice them yesterday as opposed to any other day is anybody’s guess. When I stopped to consider all the other things they could have asked for (more expensive things), I thought “what the heck – buy two coconuts.”

This is where the woodworking comes in. Coconuts are hard. Really hard. Common sense will tell you (as well as the DVD special-edition video) that you’ve got to let the coconut milk out first or face a really big mess. That calls for the cordless drill. Problem solved. Drill a hole and…

Nothing happens.

You have to drill two holes; one on the bottom and one on the top. When that top hole breaks through, watch out! Better have that lower hole poised over a bowl for that second drilling process. I chose an old-fashioned twist bit but in retrospect, a brad point would have been better – the bit wanders a bit on the round surface before finally biting. Anything larger than a quarter inch is a bit much. (Oops, bad pun alert!)

Then your task becomes to cut it in half neatly. Well, that’s easy just get a saw. Of course, I’m not putting those things on any of my power tools. I can just see pushing that thing through my bandsaw and then cleaning out the coconut mush from all over the inside. The table saw is right out unless you like to live dangerously. This calls for a handsaw.

Luckily, I had just been practicing my skills at sharpening hand saws. Hmmm… does coconut husk have “grain”. Rip or cross cut? I chose a recently acquired antique Disston; filed for cross-cut work.

It’s pretty difficult to hold onto a round thing while you’re sawing it in half. Hmmm… how to hold this wobbly thing? Miter box? No, my miter box is too small. Make another one? Nah, who wants to make a jig for a one-off project like this. I used a bench hook. It didn’t help much but it helped enough. When you’re wielding a large cross-cut saw on your wife’s cutting board, make sure you know where your blade is with respect to the highly valued cutting board.

Now, to get the meat out. It’s not as mushy as I thought it would be. A spoon is pretty much worthless. It’s also attached pretty firmly to the husk but if you score the meat with a paring knife and then work the knife under the meat and twist, it pops right off in a large chunk. Our woodworking friends from Hawaii probably already know this but for us Oklahomans, it was a learning experience.

Hmm… now you’ve got a nice crosscut saw with coconut meat clogging the teeth. It may be that coconut mush is the best rust-preventive known to man but I wasn’t in the mood to do research. I reached for the first thing that came to hand – a can of WD-40. I figured that the coconut stuff had lots of water in it and WD stand for “water displacement” right. Spray away! It cleaned up nicely.

In the final analysis, we got quite a bit of enjoyment out of such a small investment. And they work pretty well too. If you like the sound of clopping horses that is. This morning, Erin got up and clopped to the breakfast table only to have her coconuts confiscated. I guess it was too early in the morning for Mel to have to listen to horse clopping.

Implied Criticism Causes Problems at Home

Evan has made first chair in french horn in the sixth-grade band and hasn’t relinquished it all year long. He’s the best. Early in the school year, his playing was more or less what you’d expect from a beginner but he has steadily improved.

But the french horn, for all its mellow sounds, can be a very loud instrument. The dogs go sit by the back door and ask to be let out whenever they see him open the case to practice. He sits at the piano to practice since there is a music stand there. This is right next to where we keep our computers so that one night, while I was doing a bit of e-commerce, I was having a difficult time concentrating since the bell of his horn was right next to my left ear.

My way of dealing with things is based on practicality. Unfortunately, this is often at odds with diplomacy; therefore, when I went and got my ear-protectors that are normally used while operating noisy power tools, Evan took this the wrong way. I only meant to reduce the volume somewhat so that I could make sure and type in the correct credit card number while ordering something but he seemed to think that it was a critique of some kind. You know how musicians are.

Since then, he will every so often ask me if I like his playing. Well, of course I do but it’s difficult to explain the difference between volume and quality.

All Hail Hewllet-Packard

We all know how electronic devices become obsolete quickly. We often don’t care how reliable something is since it’s so cheap to replace and you can double your functionality for the same price in eight months anyway. Not so with things made by HP. I have in my possession a calculator, model HP-11C. I bought it in 1984. Back then, you could get a calculator (like now) for a few dollars and this one cost me about $80. Heavens! What could have caused me to take leave of my sense that way? Well, it had the reputation for being useful and resisting obsolescence.

And so it turned out. I still use it.

Here is an excerpt from the introductory manual that came with it: (there were two)

Example: Assume you have a 52 gallon cylindrical water heater and you wish to determine how much energy is being lost due to poor insulation.

Well, if you’re an engineer or scientist (as I was), that’s the sort of thing that makes your heart beat a little faster. And I just had to have it. My point? That was 1984 and I’m still using it. And the batteries finally gave out today. That’s a pretty good track record for batteries. May they rest in peace. I’ll replace them soon.

Temp Drops but Soccer Slogs On

The weather was glorious on Sunday. Evan had some sort of make-up game on Tuesday night so we showed up for that – right after the cold front had passed through bringing the temperatures down from glorious to intolerable. As I walked up to the aluminum bleachers, I could only see lumps of blankets where parents would normally be. There were indeed parents inside the blanket-lumps which I could see when I went around in front of them. Only their eyes were visible. I asked the obvious question:

“Why are we here?”

All eyes looked at me although no heads moved; they were too heavily bundled up for that. Once again, that wind “sweeping down the plains” was getting to us. The blanket lumps moved briefly skyward as all parents shrugged their shoulders under their covers.

“Is this a make-up for that Saturday we lost when it snowed?”

Again the collective blanket-lump shrug. One parent ventured to guess that it was.

“Well, I’m watching this one from the car.”

Which I did. I had a pair of binoculars in the car and was able to make out enough of the details to talk about it later. The mutiny had begun.

When is it going to warm up?

I’m always amazed at the unbridled avarice of those little animals when you let them into a room. If you observe their behavior with the detached air of a scientist, you can see that in the grand scheme of things, they’re actually scavengers. They take what you give them and then go about hunting for more. It’s never enough; they always keep rooting about for more.

And that’s just the kids on Easter morning. But the dogs do that too.

And so, Easter morning dawned much the same way that it always has. At least as it always has since I was a kid. Like me, the kids don’t want those hollow chocolate Easter bunnies; they want the solid ones. They also want the expensive ones without all the wax in them to keep them from melting so easily. They want the good stuff. And so did I when I was in their shoes. They got it.

Mel made her now-traditional bunny-shaped cake. Nobody ever wants to cut the head off initially since that seems too cruel. And, of course, nobody wants to cut off the other extreme end for obvious reasons. Therefore, we end up cutting pieces out of the middle. It’s strange how often we back ourselves into weird corners like that. I hope we’re not the only family with such quirks. And of course we went through the age-old struggle: do we put fur on it by using coconut or not? The one camp maintains that coconut is necessary since it looks like fur and everybody knows that if it’s a rabbit it’s got to have fur. The opposing camp doesn’t like coconut and refuses to tolerate it on the bunny. The compromise: use the coconut for fake grass and leave it off the bunny. This did not make for total happiness but there you have everything you need to know about diplomacy in a single lesson.

In payment, we made them go to the early church service and then come home and eat a fancy lunch with multiple forks. It was a high price to pay in their minds but they made it through.

The church orchestra was out in full force. The music director has managed over the years to put together an actual orchestra without having to resort to hiring any musicians to round out the hard-to-find positions. He has also managed to put together a collection of instruments over the years through a process of accepting donations, scouring stores for sales, and having derelict instruments repaired whenever either he or the church could spare a few dollars and so they now offer to train almost anybody (anybody with any musical knowledge) in the ways of the orchestra.

He has done a remarkable job in the sense that the orchestra sounds indistinguishable from a “real” orchestra to most of us. Although I must say that the teenager they put on the big kettle-type drums was tinkering with them throughout the entire hour. One might have thought that there wasn’t all that much to tune up on a drum. He spent the entire sermon bending over with his ear to the thing, tapping gently and twisting this or that screw and then standing up and mentally rehearsing his part, swinging his sticks in a most distracting manner. I felt like walking up there and taking him by the arm and pointing out that if the first violinist could get her instrument all tuned up before the show started, there was no fundamental reason that he could not do the same. I’m sure his Dad felt the same way.

But the weather was so nice that nothing could have put any of us in a bad mood. After some really dreary days, the clouds parted and the sun came out and the temperature warmed up enough so that all the little girls could wear their new things and not freeze to death. So we all set forth into this glorious weather and drove straight to the movie theatre where we sat in the dark watching Ice Age. Perhaps we should have been out flying kites but hey, everybody was happy. The wind wasn’t blowing anyway.

We then went home and watched The Ten Commandments on TV. I remember when an exhibit of Egyptian artifacts made the rounds of the museum circuit back in the 80’s. We went to see them in Dallas and rented the cassette tape thingies narrated by none other than Charlton Heston. Moses himself! You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone in the building that didn’t think of the voice in the headphones as anybody other than Moses. Of course, Easter is when we celebrate the life of Jesus and The Ten Commandments has nothing to do with Jesus. At least Ben Hur was set during the time of Jesus so you might think that the network types would have chosen that one. I’m not too annoyed by that fact itself but it certainly points out that there are an awful lot of dumb people who make too much money in our country; network programming executives for example. What annoys me is that I’m not one of them. Sometimes I think I might trade some brains for a network executive’s salary.