At the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts.
Let’s make it clear: I despise wall-to-wall carpet. It just captures dirt and dust and can’t ever really be cleaned. I especially despise beige carpet. I super especially despise beige carpet padded so thick you feel like you’re walking on a pillow. And that was what we had on the stairs (where it really constitutes a balance hazard) and in the upstairs hall – I’d already torn it out of the bedrooms. The stairs, I started in on renovating about this time last year. It took a while, but I did get it done. The upstairs hallway was next.
Partly we were inspired by what we wanted to put there: a rug. Not just any rug, but a custom-made knit rug sized exactly to fit in our long, narrow hallway. We were wandering around Kathleen’s Fiber Arts in Troy and were enamored of some small wool rugs she had knit, and thought how nice it would be to have one of them in our hall – only, you know, longer. Turns out, not a problem. She was most happy to do a custom job for us. Now, having someone knit you a rug is not cheap, but we thought of how much more we would like it than anything else we could possibly find. Some commercial remnant? Two runners shoved together? It just made more sense to get what we really wanted. So we ordered it, and aimed to have it done in time to be our Christmas gift to ourselves. So it was.
That meant, of course, having to get the old carpet out and refinish the floor, which is always a leap of faith in a 116-year-old house. There was no telling what was underneath the carpet. The stairs hadn’t gone too badly, although the entire house is floored in pine, but when I took up the carpet in the main bedroom, there were some gaps between boards, and a gigantic former stovepipe hole that had to be addressed. So, in the hallway, who knew.
But it turned out not to be too bad. I mean, of course there were 400 million staples that had to be pried up, one at a time. There was one little place where some rot had happened at some point. There was some unevenness, and some boards that needed to be screwed down.
Sometimes, it’s better not to know. I lifted up one of the loose floorboards just to see what was underneath, and found the dry skeleton of old knob and tube wiring that apparently traveled in the floor space way back when. I put the board back, and quickly.
As messy as it was, a little (or a lot) of sanding and it didn’t look too bad.
Four coats of Minwax oil-modified water-based polyurethane later, and it looked pretty good:
So, finally, with the rug (very soft on the bare feet, by the way) in place:
Got to see “Hidden Figures” over the weekend. This weekend, of all weekends – both the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., and the last weekend that a rational thinker will be in the executive office, at least for a while.
The movie, by the way, is better than flawless. It shows, it doesn’t tell, a very important story, without preaching or swelling up the “triumph of the human will” music. Because as much as this movie is about triumph, and as much as it is very much a feel-good movie, there is also something profoundly sad behind it – and that is that it has a story to tell at all. And it has several.
First, the story, focusing on three black female pioneers at NASA, very matter-of-factly reminds us how straight-up awful it was to be African-American, how deeply ingrained the Jim Crow laws were (separate library books – where there weren’t separate libraries). This was during my lifetime, but early in it, and it’s easy for those details to slip from memory. Being Northern, we tend to shake it off more and forget there were plenty of iniquities up here as well (redlining, anyone?).
And if we like to think that’s all a comfortable distance in the mirror (and it’s not), add to that the challenges the subjects faced as women, and women in science. Both my daughters deal with the fact that they are still very much in the minority in their programs. Engineering programs are up to 18-20 percent female now, and the old prejudices continue. Both have gone to schools led by women, which has barely had an effect, and both have seen continuing institutional and cultural bias that affects how they are perceived, how they are able to participate, and what it is considered acceptable for them to do.
So while the movie featured some fabulous portrayals by seriously talented actresses (and the supporting cast, with an exercise in understatement by Kevin Costner), I couldn’t help but think how sad and stupid and wrong all this was and is. Why would we deny the best and brightest because of their skin color or gender? Why is that even “our” option? So much wasted human potential, lost to us forever, because blacks couldn’t attend courses in a white school, because women shouldn’t be doing math (their tender reproductive systems might suffer). We have chosen to hobble ourselves, in order to . . . what?
Growing up in the ’60s, when the idea was that we would overcome all these unfounded prejudices and hatreds, it just seemed like it was a matter of time. Rights were gained, laws were passed, and it seemed like by now we would be past most of this. It certainly did not seem like we would be riding a resurgent wave of crazed, open racism. I’d like to say the same for misogyny but there wasn’t even the same pretense with regard to women’s rights by those who oppose them. Whether it’s unjust rates of incarceration or forced unnecessary ultrasounds, I can’t imagine thinking this would still be happening.
So, yes, “Hidden Figures” is a note-perfect motion picture, and one of the rare important movies that doesn’t feel like a homework assignment. Its portrayals are supremely human and real (as were the performances in director Theodore Melfi’s previous feature, “St. Vincent”), and it’s supremely entertaining. As sad as the conditions at the time were for the people affected by them, I couldn’t help but feel a strong stirring of nostalgia for one aspect of the culture the movie portrayed, the culture I grew up in – a culture that valued, praised, and celebrated science. A culture that took pride in advancements . . . in moving forward, not backward.
Truly. I once had a great memory. What happened to that? Is it just age, or stress, or just too damn many years and things to remember (which, of course, would be age)? Not clear. But it is true, I once remembered things that had happened not only to me but to those around me. I had a great knack for knowing the events of certain years. Increasingly, I’m finding myself unclear when things happened or if they happened at all.
A case in point came in in a recent somewhat minor family argument over an event from some years ago. Honestly, I’d have struggled to put a year to the event, but I thought I remembered a chunk of the particulars pretty well. Someone else remembered it quite, quite differently, and of course that’s how memory is – faulty, subjective, unreliable. I was pretty clear on my perspective of events, but just the doubt was enough to make me doubt myself. And I carried that doubt around for a week until just now when, through the miracle of my having once been a blogger, I found an account of the event, right here on my very own internet, that told it pretty much the way I remember it. In that case, it turns out, my memory was good (though, again, I could never have said what year it happened).
But while looking for that, I found another entry, one that relayed how I went to, and enjoyed, a movie that, had you asked me twenty minutes ago, I would have sworn I had never seen. With memory now jogged, I can even remember where we went to see it, but without that jog, I’d have denied I ever saw it.
I really think a lot of it has to do with the years, and what was going on during them. There are some pretty big stress-created craters in my timeline, when all I think I was doing was holding it together. The months following 9/11 were a big crater – I remember a huge amount of my work-related activities in those months, but what went on in family life I’m afraid I’ve barely a clue. The years I spent trying to consult independently are also a bit of a blur, in terms of remembering what happened when. I remember the summer of 1989 at a level of detail that I’d probably be able to reconstruct in a calendar – but to remember the years my daughters graduated, I sometimes need to do a little bit of math. Vexing.
Right now, the stress is locked in high, which probably means that in a few years, when I want to remember how it was that these holidays came to be so strange logistically, I’m going to wish I had written it down here. Family obligations have caused some lengthy separation, multiple and concurrent AirBnBs in different cities, car rentals and other goings on that I know I’m going to be confused about in a couple of years. Heck, I’m confused about them now. How did we get to this place? It’s never a straight line.
I generally have a policy against wishing away the days, weeks, months, and years, but 2016 is one I won’t be sorry to see go. Personally, there have been better. While being able to enjoy our first “summer of fun” in some time, having a summer without major construction projects and even sneaking in a vacation, finding new places to bike and paddle, that relaxation was countered by other events.
There were losses in the family, two more empty seats at the Christmas Eve festivity that my mother has put on since somewhere around 1970. It’s more Christmas to me than Christmas itself, particularly now that there are no children in the house, and as the years go on there are just more of us that aren’t there any more. That sense of loss starts to weigh on the soul, and this year it weighed more heavily than in most years.
Family has struggled, too, with health and personal issues causing pain, literal and otherwise, in daughters whose distance I now feel too acutely. Sharing suffering over Skype is something of a miracle, but when we hang up there are still hundreds of miles between us and our children, and the desire to just get in the car and be there is strong (and sometimes that’s what happens).
And then, of course, there’s the whole thing of the country descending into fascism, racism, and some other -isms that I had really thought, when I was growing up in the ‘60s, we’d just be over by now. It seemed like all we needed was time, and eventually the old “set in their ways” people would fall off the conveyor belt into the trash bin of history, and what was left would be a somewhat better world. Instead, we have a huge reactionary element now trying to get back a nation that never existed – it was a construct of the prevailing culture that simply excluded everything that wasn’t it from the official story – while maintaining the myth of American exceptionalism without the messy multi-cultural/immigrant parts of it. So, yes, going into this cowardly old world (because bravery is acceptance of others; this whole reactionary culture is based on fear) in the new year, I’m more than a little concerned. Never been a fan of mob rule, amateur government, or presidents who are proclaimed to be kings. Our nation also used to not be a fan of any of that, but as had always been suspected, all those highly selective constitutional “scholars,” who mostly couldn’t memorize the single amendment they proclaimed the most important, didn’t believe in the document at all. They just believed in leveraging the rule of law against those who do believe in it. And it’s working.
Partly because of all of that, partly because of the ability to be more personally connected through other media, and partly because my other blog, Hoxsie, takes a fair amount of effort, this blog has been mostly silent. I don’t know if it’ll stay that way or not in the coming year. There are things to be said that don’t fit in a Tweet or a Facebook post. There’s a continuity I’d like to maintain with a blog that’s more than a decade old (if not more than a decade full), so I may redouble my efforts here. Or you may get the occasional cryptic photograph.
In any event, if I know you, I wish you the best for the new year. If I don’t know you, I also wish you the same. Be good to other human beings. It’s all we’re here for.
Listen, if you want to have blood drawn by someone who’s never drawn blood before, by all means, have at it. That’s your problem. If you want surgery done by someone who has never done surgery before, that’s also your problem. Go ahead. But if you suggest trucks, buses and planes should be commanded by absolute amateurs, someone else is going to get hurt. And if you want to put the workings of a complex, powerful government in the hands of amateurs, ideologues and worse, a lot of people are going to get hurt.
As someone who tried to faithfully serve the public to the best of my ability for a number of years, who tried to bring reason and logic to my small corner of governing, it has always been painful to watch those who enter government with more personal motives, whether they are ideological or driven toward personal gain. And it has been hard to watch as qualified, dedicated individuals decide to leave public service, or never to enter it, because it has come to be universally disparaged. This will only get worse.
But now, we have decided to put the federal executive branch and the armed services in the charge of an individual who, by any measure, appears to be unstable at best, and who has nothing but contempt for the institutions he is supposed to be in charge of. We haven’t just put a pilot with zero experience behind the yoke – we’ve put in a pilot who hates planes. And everyone associated with planes.
And he’s staffing up with an array of horribles that, prior to his election, no one would have accused him of considering. None would have accused him of thinking of someone who actually leaked secrets to be Secretary of State, when his whole campaign was that Clinton could have exposed secrets. None would have accused him of considering an education secretary with not only no educational experience of any kind, but an absolute hatred for the very system she’s supposed to be put in charge of. None would have accused him of putting an avowed anti-feminist, racist, white supremacist who believes that only property owners should be able to vote in place as his “chief strategist,” because even he could not possibly be that bold. And yet . . .
I’m hearing a lot of “wait and see.” There was an amount of that in 1930s Germany, too, and a lot of accommodation because of the thought that Hitler couldn’t possibly be as bad as his words would indicate. History showed that he meant everything he said, and then some. The thing is, we don’t need to wait to see. It’s happening right now. Racist, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT acts are being committed day after day by an emboldened minority unleashing hate. These are not just far-off events or abstractions; these are things that have happened to people I know. We don’t need to stand by while we Make America Germany Again. Let’s not.
So, what does a man of a certain age (let’s just say that getting to double my current age is now at best unlikely, and is likely undesirable) do once the kids are gone, the career is relatively stable, and the house projects are getting complex? Seems like there are two routes for such a man: grow a white beard and become a Civil War fanatic, or finally get more serious about some woodworking. Given a recent explosion of creativity from the spousal unit, which creativity requires not only frames for displays in art galleries but very special frames (oil pastels don’t like to be pressed against glass), I decided to get serious about some finer skills and frame-building. That means getting serious about mitered corners and rabbet joints. It meant finally getting a good router table (you cannot imagine the lengths I have gone to and what I have done without one, and I cannot imagine why that was the case). It means getting some quality router bits and angle guides, and really making sure the saw is dialed in perfectly. It means measure 5 or 6 times, cut once. There is a lot of arithmetic.
The first framing effort, suspending glass away from an oil pastel painting, looked pretty good. Until I saw it in the gallery, and saw everything that was wrong with it. The angles were a little skewed, the miters less than perfect, the staining a bit uneven – all things that would have been hidden by paint, but we went natural and in the end I didn’t love it. The second was a big piece that required plexi instead of glass, and it went better but I still didn’t have my miters quite perfect. The third was better still, and didn’t look embarrassing hung in a gallery. Getting there.
Then we had this painting sitting above the mantel, purchased from a local artist. Just love it, but it came in the most rudimentary of frames and I was sick of looking at it that way. I saw another large piece at a gallery and stole the idea for how it was framed. Knowing I was going to paint the perimeter, and given the size, I went with rabbetted joints, rather than miters, and rabbetted the inlay piece too, made out of some birch that for some reason I’ve had and never used for more than 20 years. This piece came up pretty damned close to perfect. Not quite, but it’s just about at the point that woodworking should be, where only the builder can find the flaws. And it really makes the scene look complete. (Thanks again to the spousal unit, the house actually looks like we decorated it on purpose.)
We have other things I want to be able to build, and that means I’ve spent about three weeks rearranging our tiny, highly-longitudinal basement. Someone recently asked me if I had a woodshop, and I just had to laugh. I have a lot of tools that I have to move into place every time I want to use them. I don’t really even have room for the table saw to sit in place where I would need to use it. It’s on wheels so I can spin it around and fit longer pieces of wood. A new working table, only for assembly, is drying and ready for the legs to be mounted, and a million other things have been rearranged around the basement so that I can have something like a workflow.
Maybe I should just let the whiskers grow and take a drive to Gettysburg.
Take your pick:
- Tigers ate my homework.
- I’ve become fabulously well-to-do.
- The molasses flood.
- I’m really dedicated to plowing through the entire works of Shakespeare.
- Finally learning piano.
- Life, man. Life.
Yeah, it’s that last one. No worries (well, a few here and there). Mostly took the summer off from doing things to my house (which is usually how I spend my summers) to have a dedicated summer of fun, and for the most part, that’s what happened. We went places we’d been meaning to go since moving to this idyllic little corner of the Keystone state. We bought more kayaks than are strictly called for. We ran the living hell out of our air conditioning. We built a garden in the back that is freaking adorable, and kept most of the flowers alive through a dry summer. We visited people, people visited us. We ran screaming from a theater for Blobfest. Art was made, and the frames to put it in. I found some great new cycling routes and got better at riding in heat than I’ve ever been, but still had to beg off most of August for other things and now most of September for work.
And so this, which goes back a long way in terms of sort of chronicling my musings and family life, has taken a serious back burner position, and even my daily dalliance with history has suffered from less frequent attention. It’s just how it is. If I’ve got something pithy to say, I generally say it on the Twitter. That’s all about the pith.
Second year in a row of giving into certain realities with regard to vacation – where we want to be is a long way from here, weather in the Adirondacks is often cruel, we are old and may have spent enough of our lives being wet – and renting a lakeside cottage in the Fulton Chain of Lakes, rather than tenting. Since last year, we’ve had a plan to drive up with an empty kayak rack and go back home with at least one new boat from MountainMan in Old Forge, and to get rid of the monstrously heavy tandem kayak we bought when the kids were little. Just as that plan was being executed, a friend said he’d be selling his super light carbon kayak, which sounded even better to me than some of the boats we’d been researching. With a small side trip to the foothills, we could pick it up on our way north. Long, stiff, and light – I nearly threw it up into the rack. So we went to camp with that and our old faithful tandem canoe, which also isn’t getting any lighter but which we’ve had for 27 years.
Upside of a really efficient touring kayak: it’s really efficient. Downside: the inexperienced kayaker (such as someone who has previously used a wide-open tandem) will quickly become experienced. That means wet. The cockpit is super-tight, so getting in and out requires some special skills, skills that I’m still developing. It’s also super-narrow, which it turns out meant it’s not a good fit for my wife. But once in it . . . paddling is almost zero effort, and control is amazing. So we figured we’d executed the plan for this year: buy one boat, get rid of another, hold onto the two canoes.
Of course, we needed some additional gear, so we ended up at MountainMan anyway, and there got to look over one of the boats we had been planning on looking over. Then we got to sit in it. Then we got to test paddle it. Then we bought another boat, one that much better suits the better half and is still light and quite fast.
For those keeping track, that means we drove up with a wide-ass canoe, and were going back home with that and two more boats. That was asking a lot of my roof rack. Luckily, in one of those weird developments that I never saw coming, we’re now those people whose adult children come to join in on part of the vacation, along with their significant others. That’s delightful, by the way. We had a fire, we paddled together, we watched movies together. But most importantly, one of the daughters conveniently had a kayak rack on her car. So, another side trip on the way home, a borrow of some real estate from my mother to store the canoe for a few weeks, a transfer of one of the new kayaks, and off we went.
So that was this year’s plan – go on vacation, come back with a new boat. By any measure, we overachieved our goal. Along the way, elder daughter became excited/interested in paddling the Adirondack Canoe Classic, and we were probably lucky that the deadline for this year’s event had already passed. By no coincidence, this is an event that has been a goal of mine since the ’80s, and which I’ve never really been in a position to train for or participate in; it’s also one I’ve always had an inkling that I’d love to do with one of my daughters, both of whom have been on the water their entire lives. And now one of them wants to do it. But the level of preparation – make no mistake, this is a serious distance. 90 miles in three days, with 5.25 miles of carry. You carry all your gear (or have a support vehicle meet you at the landings, but it’s all on you). On one of the vacation days, I did a nice eight mile trip (and was only nearly tossed from the boat twice) – so if I could just do four times that distance for three days in a row, I figure I’m all set. I’m scouting training locations now, because that’s a scary commitment.
By the way, first time in years I’ve gotten ready for and gone on vacation without having the old Go-Go’s song “Vacation” get stuck in my head . . . oh, there it is. All is right with the world then.