It’s Wednesday. I’m sitting at my Mac listening to Elle King sing Wild Love. On Monday I wasn’t sure that any copy I had of that song would ever play again. You see, last Saturday morning I walked by my Mac to see the external hard drive indicator light blinking. Furiously. I thought nothing of it. Hard drive indicator lights blink. Saturday afternoon it was still blinking. Furiously. I sat down to see what was the matter. The computer woke up to hundreds of messages from a drive I had not touched in three days. The drive had not ejected properly. Apparently 483 times. Long story short, my beloved decade-old Hitachi was in its death spiral.
As Alfred E. Neuman said, “What? Me worry?” All of my critical files were neatly backed up off site using BackBlaze. In this case, it was a blush less than a terabyte of files. Not much. But more than I wanted to jam through my internet connection. So at 8:00 PM Saturday, I opted to have Backblaze send me a hard drive. At the same time I had Amazon send me a brand new Seagate Pro 4TB drive and an Inateck enclosure. The fantasy world inside my head saw the two coming together on Monday night. Hard drive crash? It’s like it never happened.
But Backblaze had a different vision. When you start a restore—that’s what they call it, a restore—it prompts one of those swirly things that all computer programs use nowadays to tell you that something is happening. But that it hasn’t happened.
On Tuesday morning my tiny terabyte restore was still swirling. You didn’t have to be the geeky kid in school to know that much swirling was a bad thing.
I canceled my order explaining that if it was going to take more than 72 hours getting the files onto the drive, I’d be until the cows came home getting them off. Backblaze didn’t respond with so much as a “Sorry for the inconvenience. This usually goes pretty well.” In fact their response made it seem like this was business as usual.
So there I was. My Barracuda, or Cheeta, or whatever fast animal Seagate names their drives after, was sitting lonely in its enclosure waiting to be fed data. And I had none to feed it. I had no Wild Love from Elle King.
What BackBlaze had given me, then, was two days to think about my past and future backup options, I found an app on my Mac called Intego Backup Manager Pro. Ah. I once had a LaCie external drive. With that came the slickest little backup manager I’d ever seen. Like all things slick, it had its day. So when I got my new Mac, the backup manager informed me that we could no longer be together. But, it said, you can upgrade to Intego Backup Manager Pro. I decided to give the trial version a whirl. As a test I made a backup of my critical files onto some old external drive I had laying around. Wow! It was even better than its slick predecessor. Then I unplugged it and promptly forgot. Cuz, hey, I had Backblaze.
So I pulled that drive out of its shoebox and copied everything from it. That got me up to about a year ago. My music and photos came back from their safe haven in iCloud. My Scrivener files, and 2Do, get synced through Drop Box and so were safe. All of the Grand Canyon stuff was still in Google Drive. After that it was a matter of locating more recent files on Backblaze, painstakingly creating restores, and slowly downloading them to my machine.
Lessons learned? Always backup your data. But think about how you do it. A backup is only as good as your ability to recover your files. With BackBlaze my options sucked. Offsite backups seem great. And I did finally manage to wrest some files from Backblaze. But offsite backups for personal use are a little underwhelming. And business sites like Backblaze apparently care less about your little terabyte corner of the world.
You probably have some sort of cloud service. Maybe it’s from your internet provider; maybe iCloud; maybe DropBox or Google Drive. Use those for files that change daily. Long term, hard drives are cheap. USB 3.0 is fast. Apps like Intego Backup Manager Pro give you granular control over what you backup, where, and when. Files that change weekly or monthly can go there. So from now on I’m going to bake my own cookies. The advantage of offsite is fire protection. But I have to have a fireproof safe anyway. I just need a bombproof backup plan.
So thanks, Backblaze. Thanks for nothing. I’ll take it from here. Elle King, take it away…
I got a dog recently, everybody. …I went down to the pound. I got one of those free dogs. Free dog. That’s how I say it too. I don’t say, “I rescued a dog.” I hate when people say that stuff. They say, “She’s a rescue. I rescued her.” Really? Did you pull her out of a burning building? Did you jump in a river with your wingtips still on with no concern for your own safety? Or did you just go down to the pound and get a free dog…? — Bill Burr, comedian
I gotta agree with Bill on this one. You’ve probably noticed that when people tell you that their dog “is a rescue” it has nothing to do with the dog’s situation. They are really telling you about themselves. I am a great person. I found this poor pitiable cur cowering in a corner. I, my magnanimous self, ushered it into the light of the civilized world and am giving it the life it deserves in its forever home. Am I not wonderful?
Okay. So I got myself a free Doberman.
I have wanted a Doberman pinscher for 20 years. They are the ultimate dog: sleek, elegant, muscular, not too big or small, typically brave, athletic, hyper-intelligent, minimal shedding, minimal drool, low odor. And they do not bark a lot.
They are all that and, by reputation, the last type of dog you would ever want to get from the pound.
As Bill Burr goes on to (very correctly, very hilariously) point out:
Dude, the shelter is not a pet store. It’s like Shawshank for a Golden retriever. Why don’t we just go down to the prison and rescue an inmate and just roll the dice that maybe the guy was wrongly convicted? Are you out of your mind? F—k that. I want a brand-new 2009 bulldog, all right? I don’t want some 1995 half-a-labrador with part of its ear chewed off, you know? I’ve got to put together its backstory. Every time I go to use the toaster, it starts freaking out because his last owner hung him from the ceiling fan every time the Jets didn’t cover the over, you know? Dude, that’s an animal, man. That thing can kill you.
And he’s right. This is an animal you do not know. That baleful look may be from selective breeding. But it might also be from poor socialization, neglect, mistreatment or abuse. It may have a neurosis you have no ability to detect or correct. That dog could be like the mad barber of Fleet Street, biding time until it can remove a child’s face as you try sneaking it onto a plane in the guise of your “emotional support animal.” (See footnote) To top it off, none of us are a Barbara Woodhouse, or a Sophia Yin, or, heaven forbid, a Cesar Milan. We have no clue what to do with a twisted animal psyche.
The way to avoid all of that is to raise a dog from a puppy. But I haven’t had 15 or 20 extra Benjamins stuffed into the mattress any time in the last 20 years to spend on a newly minted Doberman. Then this year we had a Christmas miracle.
My daughter, who volunteers at the pound, came home one night and opened her phone to show a photo of a pair of Dobermans that had come in together, a black male, and a red female. When she did, I blurted out, “I want the black one!” But with the image lodged in my wife’s mind being a snarling, leaping Doberman taking down a soft-armored perp in protection training that’s as far as I expected it to go. To her Dobermans represented what you least want in a dog: aggression. And pound dogs represent what you least want to deal with: an unknown backstory.
Don’t get me wrong. Of the eleven dogs, seven cats and fourteen turtles we have owned, all were rescues but three. (Have I mentioned that we are wonderful magnanimous people?) So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me when my wife ended up steering me to the shelter. And in the chaos, in the cacophony of yapping canines—mostly pit bull mixes—the pair of Dobermans were as cool as cucumbers. Neither was skittish or aggressive. Any neuroses they had were wrapped in a demeanor of pure calm. That was enough for my wife to encourage me to put the black male on reserve. That is to say, its owner had five days to claim it. After that a Doberman rescue group could claim it. After that folks on the reserve list would be contacted. I signed the form, handed over the non-refundable $50 reserve fee, and waited to be disappointed.
But we weren’t. The pound called on the winter solstice to ask when we could pick up our new baby.
The mythical Doberman is protective, attached to a single person, quick to warn off strangers. The anecdote is that after the AKC recognized the breed, it won Best of Show three years in a row without the judges even looking at their teeth. But the mythical Doberman is just that: mythical. The aggression shows up mostly as an atavistic trait brought out by bad upbringing. The best kept secret about modern Dobermans is that they are absolute cuddle-muffins. In fact, if the secret were out, people would abandon their boring Golden Retrievers in droves and take up with the Doberman.
And what about ours? To Bill Burr’s point, he really does have part of one ear chewed off. He came to us underweight, dehydrated, dull, dirty. He was very unsure of his new status. There was no sign that he had any memory of spending a night in a house, or a ride in a car. He must not have ever had a toy, or chased or caught a ball. Early on he had an altercation with our rat terrier, Sammy. That got the terrier shaken like, well, a rat. And it almost got Jericho—that’s what we named him, Jericho—sent back to the pound. But he adjusted quickly. You could almost see him absorbing his new situation minute by minute. Inside of two weeks he and Suzie Q were fast friends, and Jericho was giving Sammy a wide berth.
All of that netted him rides in the car and walks in the park to get him exercised and socially adjusted. And that’s when I realized I’d gone old-school. A sleek, black, alert Doberman is a sight to behold. So people would stop to ask about him. And then they would say, “You don’t see many of these any more.” That set me back a step the first time. But my mind clicked through all of the inmates at the pound. Wall-to-wall pit bulls. All of those clunky canis lupus waddling the streets, some still sporting spiked collars? Pit bulls. They have become almost—well—cliche. Yeah, yeah, there are still more black labs than you can shake a stick at. We have golden retrievers up the wazoo. And you practically can’t move without stepping on a Chihuahua or its doo-doo. But the Doberman is almost an artifact.
And now I hear it on almost every circuit of that aging asphalt path. “Nice dog. You don’t see many any more.” “Gorgeous dog. I haven’t seen one in awhile.” Of course, Suzie Q gets compliments; she’s a straight up sweetheart. Strangers are friends she hasn’t met yet. And Sammy gets the occasional, “Oh look at the cute little fat one.” But only the Doberman is passé, yesteryear, old school.
That’s fine by me. The classics never go out of style.
Footnote: It’s true. One mom sued Alaska Airlines and Portland International Airport over facial injuries her daughter suffered after beng bitten by a pit bull traveling as an “emotional support animal.” Click here to read the story.
Although I did not know it at the time, I first met Edward Abbey through a book about the Great Smokey Mountains. He was the book’s author. Being a Pennsylvania boy like me, Abbey appreciated the soft round fullness of the Appalachian Mountains. So he spoke well of the place—in his own prickly style. And why not? With Clingmans Dome poking into the clouds at 6600’; with the historic hollow of Cade’s Cove deep in one of its valleys, with hillsides seeped in the eternal mist of untold exhaling trees; with the half-buried secrets of the Cherokee and Scotch-Irish settlers, you won’t find a finer example of the Appalachians than the Great Smokies.
Like me, Abbey also suffered from wanderlust, that itch you scratch with new place names on new maps, the next river bend, the next flank on the next trail. Before I was born he had wandered west. When I couldn’t hike or paddle, I had armchair adventures back in our little house in Grindstone, Pennsylvania. At one point I picked up another book called Cactus Country. There was that cantankerous voice again, ringing this time like a clapper in a bell—the clarion call of twisted spiny plants, broken down porphyritic rocks, gaudy sunsets, and a sere, always thirsty land. If I had slipped the previous book back on its shelf, this time I did not. This was new. And it was fascinating.
I was lured west. Or I should say ‘we‘ since I had a family by then. Admittedly, Cactus Country had an impact on where we pushed our pin into the map. And it was here in Tucson at the Haunted Bookshop—now a ghost itself—that I discovered Desert Solitaire. This time it took only Abbey’s name on the cover to make me read it. By the time I closed the book, it had transformed how I looked at wilderness; how I looked at writing; and how I looked at authors.
Abbey’s simple wilderness ethics and spare writing style followed a single guidon: his fierce independence. Well, maybe two, since he was a hopeless romantic as well. His approach to wilderness waspedestrian, clear-eyed and uncluttered, save the necessary allowances for laziness and economy. His writing, too, was stripped to the essence. He had little tolerance for adjectives, placing them as carefully as an artist fitting tiles to a mosaic. He simply wrote down what he saw. If he described a landscape too fantastic to be true, it was because it was too fantastic to be true. He became the first author who made me want to read everything he wrote.
So I started in on his fiction. By the time I’d read most of it, he’d finished his “fat, American novel,” The Fool’s Progress. It was printed the same year as the 20th anniversary edition of Desert Solitaire. As a concession to being a Tucson resident, Professor Abbey stepped off his dais at the university and wandered into The Haunted Bookshop to sign copies. I handed over my fresh hardback copy of Desert Solitaire and, while he scribbled in it, explained that he had been sort of responsible for my kids, then aged 6, 4 and 2, being dragged all over the state of Arizona. We switched books, and when he handed back A Fool’s Progress he had written, “to Gerald & Kelly and three great kids! from Ol’ Uncle Ed Abbey, Tucson 1988.”
And then just like that he was gone.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then, traveling in ever widening circles, chasing his ghost. Or maybe using it as an excuse to simply wander in ever widening circles. The circles grew, in time, to include rivers and canyons in Utah. Then, just a few years ago, Arches National Park itself. And finally, just this past year, a river journey through Grand Canyon. It’s been an amazing journey. My plan, before the 50th anniversary of his passing, is to romp through it all again, with some well-worn copies of his books along for the ride. I suspect, at the end of it all, his ideas will still be valid. Which brings me to one other thing I want to say.
Abbey needs no apologists. I doubt he cottoned to that sort of thing. But I’d like to clear up one little misunderstanding about where he stands among today’s philosophers. Quite a few believe, maybe because of his unflinching advocacy of wilderness preservation, that he was a bit of a socialist. He might admit to that on an off night. But that’s far from the truth. He was a salt-of-the-earth hillbilly and a rock-ribbed conservative. I’m not calling him a right-winger. I can already imagine him bristling at being lumped with those pustular, rabid dogs, eager to fatten themselves selling our planet off to the highest bidder. Nope, Abbey pointed out often enough how to keep that fat mixed into the stew. I say conservative in that he actually believed in conserving things. The more irreplaceable it was, the more loudly he spoke out for it. And, he is also differentiated from the piss-ants of current conservatism by a sense of humor. In other words, he knew what should be shared; what should be kept; and he faced the psychotic babble of the world outside of those safe mountain valleys with a bit of sardonic wit. In short, he reminds me of home, of the people I grew up around.
Do I have a point? Probably not. I just wanted to say that I miss Cactus Ed, that my life has been a bit better because of him. When I sometimes forget that it’s good to be out there, out in the empty spaces, trudging along—cold, wet, tired, thirsty, hungry, lost—there is that voice again reminding me why it’s all worthwhile. And since there’s no sense in me offering a second-hand reminder, I’ll let Ed finish this:
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”
—Edward Abbey, Missoula, Montana, 1976
The silvery thing in the photo above looks like a Christmas ornament. It is, in fact, a scale model of a sculpture now gracing the Engineering Quad at Texas A&M University. The sculpture, in gleaming stainless steel, is a repeating geometric pattern that makes a sphere from cubes. That’s clever. But also buried in the myriad of shapes along the way is a Texas star. Very clever.
I don’t go around photographing scale models. I took this photo because I helped get this project built. But before we got to that point somebody had to make heads or tails of just what the artist was trying to do. I have been reading fabrication blueprints for over 40 years. Yet, I could only look at the prints from our customer and say, “Well, isn’t that nice.” So it fell on our company’s Vice President of Design, a guy who has forgotten more about custom metal fabrication than I will ever know, to come up with the above scale model. I’m going to let how he came up with this be his little secret and move on to my small contribution to this project.
Most of my projects go into private industry. Private competitive industry. Our customers don’t want mug shots of their tanks, vessels, gantries, mix trucks and process piping in the wild. It’s not secret stuff; it’s just proprietary stuff. But I sometimes land a project that goes into the public domain. This is one of those.
I avoid art projects like the plague. But this one was different. Unlike other art projects, it wasn’t a fabrication problem. A wizened, bespectacled welder in a leather apron wasn’t going to solve this one. It was a manufacturing problem.
It was a manufacturing problem for the very reason that the sculpture was an array of regular shapes. This was the goal of the artist, Olafur Eliasson of Studio Olafur Eliasson. He wanted five geometric shapes in the sculpture. He began with a cube—as far from a sphere as you can get. Cutting the cube into a diamond gave triangles and hexagons. Arranging five diamonds around an axis yielded circles and pentagons—and the Texas star. Assembling the stars gets you a sphere. The sphere, I might add, needed to be twenty feet in diameter. And it needed to be open to reveal triangular mirror panels inside. (Olafur Eliasson loves putting mirrors in public art.) That is to say that the sculpture was the framework of those geometric shapes—not the solids. Here is a picture of our framework prototypes:
On to the manufacturing problem. You might not have enough psilocybin on hand to know how to transform a cube into a sphere. But, tripped out or not, you do know how a dozen small mistakes can add up to one big mistake. So I’ll begin there. We needed to start with the smallest plane geometry feature in the sculpture and build all the other shapes from it. That was the triangle. From there we needed to make the smallest, most logical assembly component possible. That was a diamond. These needed to go into the largest shipping piece possible. (Assuming you are shipping by truck.) That’s your star.
Our mantra became “Triangles make diamonds. Diamonds makes stars.” So we began with 360 pesky triangles. Pesky? Pesky because they all needed to be almost identical. That’s the problem. You can never make two things identical. Any two things you try to make identical will vary just a bit from each other. It doesn’t matter why, they just will. So our triangles were going to vary. The trick is managing variance enough to keep it from adding up. In manufacturing you set up a means to check your parameters. Any number of gages and fixtures tell you that your parts are right. Other fixtures and jigs ensure your assemblies go together.
Now… this is easy in a world that comes together in right angles. If you are sitting in a room right now, look around. It’s all right angles. The planar floor is horizontal. The planar walls are vertical. Those two things come together at a right angle. The corners where the walls come together? Right angles. The four corners of the doors and doorframe? Right angles. It is no accident that we’ve built our world on this theme. Euclid made it easy for us. And that was the problem. Diamonds have no right angles. A prototype of ours looked like this:
So how do you fixture it? I puzzled over that for awhile. A few of us did. We hatched three or four schemes—all bad. And it looked for awhile like this was going to end up a fabrication issue after all. But plumb bobs and levels and chalk lines on the floor were not going to let us meet our schedule. We needed to build diamonds fast and without variables.
Of course, you clever kids in the front row are already on this. (Well done!) And that’s the answer I crawled to. The artist had started with a cube. A cube! You know, a special geometric solid in which all of the corners are right angles and all the sides are the same length. And that was the key to the project. So after we all banged our heads together for awhile, I finally managed to come up with this fixture:
Of course, the fixture doesn’t matter. What matters is that it ensures that the assembly goes together. In our case, we had to bring 180 mating surfaces together using almost 1100 screws. In most welded structures that involves a lot of prying and pounding. This assembly, though, went together in our shop like LEGOs® and looked like this:
Exactly what are the details that make this work? Well, if I told you that you could build your own stainless steel sculpture, twenty feet in diameter, in your own backyard, replete with repeating patterns of cubes, triangles and circles. That would make Studio Olafur Eliasson unhappy. That would make my employer unhappy. And that would stop me from getting to share once in awhile. You wouldn’t want that, would you?
Anyway, our project manager was on the job site in College Station to make sure everything went well. He was kind enough to share this photo of the sculpture freshly installed on the university’s Engineering Quad:
If you want more, here is a link to TAMU’s web page for the finished quad: Zachary.TAMU.edu
(At the iBeam link, You can select a tab named Timelapse. From there you can set up a timelapse from July 21 through August 14 to see our part of the project being erected. Or, there is link to the righthand side of the timelapse page that let’s you download that timeframe.)
The universe is expanding. So we should soon all have more room. But it should come as no surprise this does not apply to sheds. Our family has outgrown two of them. Outgrowing them is easy; replacing them is the trick. What’s a family with too much stuff to do?
Tapping into the hive mind reveals building your own shed to be one popular solution. Yeah. Uh-huh. When it comes to do-it-yourself projects I’ll paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: You were so preoccupied asking yourself if you could, you didn’t ask yourself if you should. Should you build your shed?
After 12 straight weekends up to my elbows in my shed project, plus a full vacation spent building the bulk of it, I have the definitive answer: I’m not sure.
There are lots of other ways to get a storage building onto your property. There are plastic sheds. We had a Keter that we just loved. There are metal sheds. We had an Arrow that we did not love. You could buy a shipping container. Built watertight, dust tight, and vermin proof, these are surprisingly cost effective. Throw a cammo net over it so your neighbors can’t marvel over its utilitarian beauty and you’re good to go. But our property has no alley. A container would have to be dropped in with a big crane. That’s a non-starter. Big cranes are expensive. Likewise, you can buy a prebuilt shed. That’s the shipping container problem, just with a smaller crane.
Then there are shed kits. These range from some pretty questionable offerings from Lowes, to some pretty spiffy offerings from not-from-Lowes. Spiffy means expensive features I didn’t need. At the next level, you can buy a shed, built by professionals, from a company like Tuff Shed or Home Depot. Pick your basic design, pick your options, level your lot. Tuff Shed comes in with prebuilt panels and finishes the construction on site. Or… you can be a dumbass and design and build your own shed. That gets you what you want. And it saves you some money. Reluctant to forgo being a dumbass, I followed the hive mind down that rabbit hole.
So the Keter and the Arrow are gone to recycling. I now own a real shed. No, correction. I own a 10X14 storage building. I also now own a miter saw and three 1 nail guns. I also have a sore back, a very tiny portion of a fingertip missing, a few bruises, and a tan to make George Hamilton jealous. The process saved me—using Tuff Shed prices as a guide—about $3000.
That looks good on paper. But, I put about 50 hours into designing it. I put another 150 hours into building it. So, that means I paid myself about $15 an hour to design and, singlehandedly, build the thing. Sometimes I really question just how smart I am.
Then again, huge swaths of this project had intangible benefits. One such is that weird thing called a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment and $3 gets you a coffee at Starbucks. It’s worthless. That is, until you accomplish something. Real accomplishment is harder and harder to come by these days. Or, to knap that flint to a finer point, our accomplishments are more artificial. Sure, we fine-tuned that spreadsheet. Yes, we closed the circles on our health app. Yep, we checked ‘balance the bank account’ off of our to-do list. But are these accomplishments? At the end of last year’s Grand Canyon trip, stepping out of the raft at Diamond Creek was one of the great moments of my life. But the water in the river is dam controlled. The highly regulated Canyon backcountry is routinely patrolled. The entire run is well mapped, well documented; there are few surprises waiting. In the end, I’m not sure what I accomplished. Hell, I didn’t even row a boat for more than an hour. Real accomplishments are hard to come by, for sure. But putting up my own storage building sure felt like one.
Then there is doing actual work. Words are elastic. They stretch and shift, taking on new meaning over time. Work is one such word. I’ve met any number of fat-asses, gussied up in suits, garroted in neckties, who sally off to their desk job in the financial sector each day. To a man, each one has proclaimed how hard they work. Work? I suppose. I suppose some explanation is in order for just what makes skimming off the top so lucrative. I go to a desk job everyday too. I get that it is stressful. I get that it requires a certain skill. I get that I dedicate a lot of time to it. But it’s tough to truly call it work. Work can be measured. Pick your term—horsepower, calories, watts—we can define work being done. Put me in a metabolic chamber, a calorimeter, let me use my brain as hard as I can. I will never raise the needle above my basal metabolism. That’s because, frankly, no work is being done.
During nine straight days of shed building I lost five pounds. Not in water weight. Not in muscle mass. I dropped five pounds of fat. Losing a pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories. So in nine days, I burned through a 17500 calorie deficit. This despite eating anything that I wanted and drinking about six gallons of sugary lemonade. In short, work was being done. The output is measurable. A storage building now stands where there was dirt. And I literally worked my ass off. Admittedly, I enjoy not working for a living. But with projects like these, I truly enjoy the work.
And then there is the club I now claim membership in.
Dad used to quip that you only need four woodworking tools: a saw, a hammer, a drill and a slotted screwdriver. (Because the screwdriver could also be used as a chisel.) He was kidding of course. Dad came from a family that just seemed to know how to build things out of wood. Not a single one of them ever had a minute of training. They just did it. My grandfather built, first a log cabin; then a two story house—skinned from slabs from his sawmill to look like a log cabin. My uncle built the house in Glade City he still lives in today—with its, not paneling, but actual wood plank walls. Knotty pine and wormy chestnut.
My dad worked the other two ends of the precision spectrum. He built a pole barn for my sister’s horses. He converted an outbuilding into a garage. But he would also create the most amazing small things out of wood. I still have a model he made of the 1940’s Batmobile. And I have a cradle he made for my daughters’ first baby dolls. It wasn’t really the things themselves that were amazing. What was amazing is that he seemed to conjure them from memory and thin air. He could draw as well as anybody. (I used to dig though his completed assignments from The Famous Artists School.) But I never saw him put a plan to paper. The objects just appeared out of wood as if an unseen hand were guiding his planer, router or table saw.
Mom also has an uncanny ability to just do things. She is an accomplished cook and baker. She can knit and crochet. She can sew. And not just A-line dresses. One winter, she made my brother and I coats from surplus WWII wool army blankets. She made a full-on wedding dress for one of my younger sisters. She can decoupage, macramé, and refinish furniture. She can hang wall paper. She can butcher chickens and rabbits. She is an expert gardener. She was doing organic gardening in the sixties. Not from some hippie notion of revolutionizing the world. But because it just made sense. I could go on and on.
Between the both of them, I never realized that there were things that people did not know how to do. This has sort of worked against me because my wife believes that I know how to do all of these things she ever saw them do. Believe me, I cannot sew a wedding dress.
While we were pricing Tuff Sheds one Saturday, my wife decided we needed to look at a 10X14 Tall Ranch. Her voice echoed inside it. That echo confirmed two things: one, that was the size shed we needed; two, I would simply build ours. I had made the same decision, fueled partly from the misplaced confidence that if Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Uncle Bob could do those things, so could I.
There was also the fact that I got to spend a summer watching Olle work. Olle was a Swede and he was an actual carpenter. By actual carpenter, I mean that he was not just a two-bit framer. There are lots of guys, like me, who can cut a 2X4 to length; who can end nail them in place, maybe even toe nail them, without splitting any wood, on a lucky day. And sure, we can layout one length of a single story wall and pop it upright. Carpenters, on the other hand, can be amazing. For Olle, king studs, jack studs, cripples, blocking & braces and top & bottom plates were not just words. He understood them and how to use them counter to each other to take the twist out of a stud, or the bow out of a wall. I watched him frame a staircase using nothing more than a tape measure, pencil, framing square, hand saw and hammer. You could almost see the trigonometry equations circling above his head. Watching Olle was like watching a moving meditation. Like my dad, he was slow and deliberate. Like my dad, I never saw him pull out a set of plans for the guest house he was building. But as he worked tools floated in and out of his hands like they were willed by the cosmos.
Olle’s wife owned Swiss Heights Kennels. I was working for her that summer repainting the kennels. I spent most of my time curled up inside pens—which had been just recently used as poodle pissoirs—applying fresh latex paint. Twice a day I would stop to feed the dogs. This is where I developed my love for working dogs. Feeding time at the Poodle House was a frenzy. The entire time I doled out kibble the little Jheri-curled pricks would jump and yap. Seeing that wall of leaping sub-canines always made me think it should be part of a carnival shooting gallery. But the big dogs—the Siberian Huskies, the German Shepherds, the Labrador retrievers—would calmly sit, sure of themselves, waiting for me to fill their dishes. I still remember one of the Huskies, as patient as a monk, its ice blue eyes looking at me from some faraway place. But while I was peddling Purina, I would pause to watch Olle complete another piece of the guest house. From him, I learned an appreciation for folks, confident of their skills, masters of their work, who could move from task to task with a transcendent surety.
And I have been on a roof before. During my days as a Watchtower Society adherent, a brother offered to help re-roof my house. It was built-up roofing. And I did little more than carry buckets of molten tar. But I learned a thing or two. Later, I worked beside Brother Bealer re-shingling our Kingdom Hall. Don could lay a shingle in the amount of time it would take you to say, swoosh, tapbamtapbamtapbamtapbam. Don was old school. The swoosh was him sliding the shingle into place. Tap was when he would set the nail by tapping it with a hammer while it was pinched between his fingers. Then bam actually drove the nail. He did not use pneumatic tools. His parents had crossed the plains into the Dakotas in a covered wagon. His mother was tough enough to still be around to talk about it. No, Don used the classic method. And his shingles were placed quickly, neatly and accurately. Let me assure you that, unlike some of these new-fangled nail gun speed demons, every nail Don placed would meet code.
So with sawdust in my genetic code, with a few tips picked up from watching the masters, and from a semester of architectural drafting at technical school, I felt I could knock together what amounted to a miniature house. And I did. For the first time, I felt I could stand with my parents as someone willing to tackle anything.
So I saved some money. On a per-hour basis it wasn’t much. But, being honest, it was the difference between having a shed or not. I have not gotten far from my hillbilly roots: I still belong to a socioeconomic class where sweat equity counts. So that was something. The sense of accomplishment is huge; I might brag about this for awhile. I have always said if money is being made and no work is being done you should ask why. It was nice having a reality check about what work really means. And then there is being able to stand with my parents as someone who can simply do things.
So, yeah, if I were to get a little uppity, if I were to brag on myself a little bit, I would say: Yup. A shed is a great DIY project. You should definitely build yours yourself.