Wednesday, January 28, 2009

snow day

a driving snow is falling outside my window, which is keeping me in the house today. It is the kind of heavy snow that seems like it should make a lot more noise as it falls. I just stepped out on to the porch, and the absence of sound as the snow hits the ground is always a little strange to me. It is a light, powdery snow, accumulating quickly, but dry and small, and not clinging to the leaves or fences.

Snow always makes me think about The King and I. I realise now as I type that is maybe not quite a linear connection, but it goes like this: In 1999 I was designing scenery for a national tour of King and I. The Technical Rehearsals were held in the auditorium at West Point Military Academy that summer. The students who were going to be first year students that fall were there, going through some kind of boot camp experience that looked not at all fun to me. I would see them when I went out to loading dock to smoke cigarrettes all suited up in camoflage, with great big packs on their backs running up and down the hills in the late summer Hudson Valley heat. It occurs to me now that many of those students probably ended up in the Middle East a couple of years later. They were such children when I saw them, of course, and I wonder how many of them are still alive, and how fast they had to grow up.


Where was I? Oh, right, King and I. It ended up touring the country for about 4 years and then went to asia (where it is apparently a big hit) and then South America, somewhere. Truthfully, I find the idea of a couple of thousand folks in Thailand watching a bunch of Americans in a 1950's American musical about mid-nineteenth century Thailand to be absurd in the extreme, but there it is.

There is a scene in the show in which Anna, the lead, is explaining to these royal children about snow, and there is this huge fight in which they say they do not believe her. The King comes in and tells them all that if Anna says there is snow, then there is snow, and that they had better listen to her, so there. The stage is silent, and then the youngest of the children (she was really very very cute, about five, and small for her age. Always smiling, just a great kid. I liked her even before my biological clock went kerflooey and made me start crying at Pampers commercials. You think I am kidding. Where was I? Oh, right, the little girl) walks up and says to her father (and this is taken directly from the script. A lot of it was written in what passed for "dialect" or something in the 1950's) "I believe in suh-no." It is a sweet moment, one that speaks of a daughter's blind devotion to her father.

So whenever I see snow, the first thing that flashes through my mind is that line said by that teeny little girl. Boy, I believe in suh-no today, you bet. And I am about to have to go and shovel more of that shit. Jesus.

So here I sit, at home when my whole body thinks I should be in the studio. Not Making is an interesting contrast to Making, and so I am thinking about that this snowy morning. Working with my hands provides shelter in so many ways, it is a comfort to do something that I do well, it is affirming to create pieces that are (I think) beautiful, it is humbling to be in the presence and work with tools and materials that are decades and decades older than I am. I had a great day in the studio yesterday, with a couple of moments of actual giddiness. I am working on a floor lamp, and it took some really great turns. I was grinning like a fool as I soldered copper pipe together, heat fusing the components in a really satisfying way as the solder went from solid to shimmery liquid and back.

Instead, the suh-no says "stay at home." So I will have to make in a different way today. I can make a blog post, for example, which I have been meaning to do for a few days now. I can make a clean kitchen. Perhaps I will make a letter or two, or maybe some music. There is making to do here, and in the end, I am glad that the suh-no is here to remind me of that. I learn slowly, but I am trying to learn. Perhaps I will start by making tea.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


when I was in high school, I had a friend named Jessica Stine. Now Jessica Hanff. It is her dogged tenacity that has kept us in touch all these years, and I am damn glad she has. Her folks lived then in a white farmhouse out away from town, and I used to go over there sometimes to hang out, and we would go ranging out over what used to be the farm. Over the river river and through the woods, indeed.

I have a distinct memory of wandering out in those fields one winter day. It was a gray, cold (to us) day, as I recall, and we came across an old tobacco barn. Post-and-beam, leaning, built on a foundation of fieldstone, unused for quite a while. There is a picture of it in my brain, clear as day. I have been thinking aboaut that picture over the last few days. That structure was built using the same kind of tools and methods as the one I am working on.

When you walk in the front door of this little house in Chester, there is a vertical beam dead in front of you that is supporting the second floor. It is not quite vertical, of course, but strong enough, and has a gentle, graceful curve on the side facing the walkway next to it. I think that curve has been worn in there over the years by people walking past from the front of the house to the back. It is a breathtaking record of this house and its occupants. I love walking by it.

My job yesterday and today is upstairs. A pine floor was laid this past summer, and is now an eloquent lesson in wood science (which I know is why you read this, these lessons in wood science). See, wood moves. Always. Even after it is felled and seasoned, the cells in the wood that used to take water and nutrients up and down the trunk of the tree continue to absorb moisture in the humid months and divest themselves of it in drier ones. This makes the wood swell and shrink in an annual cycle. Most traditional woodworking techniques were devised centuries ago based on this knowledge; frame-and-panel doors, cabinet construction, decks of wooden boats, tables, chairs, houses, all of them were built according to rules that every carpenter and woodworker knew to be true.

In the time since World War II, we have developed materials (some of which are made of wood) that do not move: Plywood, Medium Density Fiberboard, plastics, foams. As these have become the builder's materials, the knowledge of and repsect for the fact that wood moves has been shoved out of common parlance. You slap a sheet of plywood down on a laminated beam in a modern house, and it is not going to move ever. But a career doing that has made carpenters less aware of what happens when you use honest-to-god wood. Like, real wood really froma tree. Bringing us around to the job I am doing.

The floors in two of the rooms upstairs were laid in the late summer (pretty humid time) in pine planks that had obviously been kiln dried extremely rapidly and not allowed to season. Now that the heat is on, and the wood has had some time to divest itself of a lot of moisture, pretty wide gaps have opened up, some over 1/2" which is enough to make walking across the floor uncomfortable. My job: custom make tapering or wavy strips of pine and glue them into the cracks, leaving a consistent gap so that when summer comes around, there is still room for the planks to swell again.

It is not swift work. Definitely a good "slow. down." job.

Ultimately, I am told, there is going to be air conditioning in these rooms, so the thought is that the wood will move less, as humidity and temperature will be more constant. I am, to say the least, skeptical. The thing is, if the flooring had been seasoned properly, and had been installed in the spring in a more concientious way, this band-aid of a job would not be necessary. Instead it was probably felled in the summer when it was full of moisture and rush-dried in a klin, and sold when the moisture content was "within acceptable range," but I bet you a dollar it was on the high side of that range. So it has dried and shrunk dramatically over the last few months.

Every time we think we can do whatever we want, without consulting Mother Nature, every time we think we can bend the ways the world works to our tiny whim, we are proven wrong. It may work for a little while, but the end result is always that nature wins out. It is a lesson that we seem to continue to resist learning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

t here is a little, old house on Wig Hill Road. You get there by turning left off of South Wig Hill Road in rural Connecticut. No, really.

It is a kind of house that I am familiar with from rural North Carolina. The kind of house that was built while land was being cleared. Set up sturdily but hastily, a need for shelter taking precedence over straight lines or square corners. Puts me in mind of Roy Underhill (I think, or it could be Eric Sloane. In fact, I think it is Eric Sloane. The proprietor of Waypoints is such a stickler for attributing correctly, I want to make sure that I oblige. Where was I? I just got lost in this parenthetical statement.)

Oh. Right. Eric Sloane: "For why should a corner be absolutely square, if the beam does not wish it? Why should the beam be planed absolutely flat if the need is not present?"

Down on the mountains of the Old North State, these cabins were built by farmers who were clearing land by hand in the mountains as a place to live until they could build a nicer house. Low ceilings, small rooms, exposed hand-hewn beams. The kind of place that a real estate agent would say was "full of charm." I think of them as the result of a very direct need for shelter and warmth and protection from the elements.

I am working in this little house. I know nothing of the history of it except what I can see with my own eyes and feel with my hands. It has not had an easy life or been well cared for, that much is instantly clear. Structure was removed long ago that was vital, and that has had to be replaced (with beams from Brooklyn, Connecticut, it turns out. Old Rudy is well known over here). Repairs have been made in impromptu and temporary ways over the years. When the current owners bought the house, the first contractor told them that they should number all the pieces, take it apart, and rebuild it from the ground up.

They chose not to.

Think what you may about that choice, it put into place a string of events that led to me standing in this little, very old house yesterday, going over a list of tasks. So I am glad that things worked out this way. Here are post and beam joints that have held for a hundred years, with "trunnels," which are wooden pegs, holding them in place. Still. The frame may be sagging, the roof may be trying to cave in, but those joints are still holding, by gum. Those mortices and tennons and pegs that were laid out and cut by hand are maybe all that are keeping this old shack from collapsing completely.

I am aware that my blog posts here are repetitive. "Old stuff is great, new stuff is crap. Blah blah blah." But every time I stand in front of, or in this case, inside of an example of the work of hands and heart and mind that are so strong and so well placed so many years later, I can not help myself.

This is beauty, you know? The beauty of a Thing Well Made. It is the beauty that I feel hauling on a line on a vessel that was built in 1885 and is still sailing. It is the beauty that I get to feel when I use a hand saw that belonged to my great great grandfather. It is a different beauty from the beauty of my niece, or of a song wonderfully rendered, or of a sunset in the Appalachians, but it is a beauty that really grabs me, and that I love to feel and to smell and to touch and to taste.

For this week, I get to work on and in and with this little, old house. More posts as work goes forward.