Blog

This is a spotlight where the latest post can do its song and dance, before the gnome with the hook drags it off to its category.

Notes From the Van:

Living Under the Sword

I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.

He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.

“Did that cure it?”

“No, I was still afraid.”

I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.

“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”

The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.
I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:

“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”

I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:

“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”

Home Improvement

Securing a Deck Post with Big Ass Bolt

“Howdy folks,” part of me wants to say. “Today we’re gonna talk deck posts, so giddyup lil’ saw horse, yuppie-mai-tai-o-kay.” Something about Home Improvement begs for a grizzled, gruff-but-kind, suspender-wearing, folksy sage.

And something in me rebels. Maybe I’ll use an upper-class British voice: “In addressing issues with veranda fenders, it is critical that one first select the correct gin.”

Or maybe Beat carpentry, from Kerouac or Ginsberg: “I have seen the best deck posts of my generation peel from their joists like bananas made naked from the yellowblack rot of bad technique, flinging tiki torches and angelheaded ex-hipsters like mediocre comets across the suburban sky into the Nirvanic Void of drained swimming pools, and while the railing is not safe you are not safe.”

Let’s just let it rip, shall we? There may be some stylistic swerves.

We dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Code—
We need not bracket deck posts—
What could—Possibly—go Wrong?

— Emily Dickenson

The Problem

It was 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrived at the bungalow. Her eyes were as cool as the ice in her Gin Rickey. She wore a thin negligee, and with the air conditioner on, I guessed the rest of her must be cool too. Anyway, one of us had goosebumps.

“Come in, Mr. Bolt. I’m Misty—Misty Carrera.”

“The introduction is hardly necessary, Ms. Carrera—I’m familiar with your oeuvre.”

Her eyes flashed hot in anger: “You know nothing of my ovaries. Besides, I don’t do those kinds of movies anymore.”

“You have a problem with your deck.”

“My deck is fine. I have a problem with an inspector—that awful Inspector Pinckney. Follow me.”

I sighed. Pinckney—James “Picky” Pinckney. We went out onto the deck.

“Look, Ms. Carrera, everyone has a problem with Picky. He’d hold up the opening of the Taj Mahal if the acidity of the elephant shit in the alley was off.”

A familiar fedora appeared above the floor of the deck, followed by the rest of his rare roast beef face. “Big Ass—I should have known you’d show up. Sorry I can’t test you, I left my pH kit at the office.”

She glanced at my butt with arched eyebrows: “Big Ass? You look more like a Titus to me.”

I’ve given up trying to explain—my parents named me Bhigas—a revered name in the old country, something to do with lots of land. That which doesn’t kill me.

“Let’s cut to the chase. Something about a dryer vent? C’mon Picky, let the nice lady enjoy her deck.”

“Not a chance. She coulda bolted the post into the wall of the house, but no, she’s got to be cute and let the railing float. But with the dryer vent in the way, there’s no room to nail in a bracket. And you’re not going to find a way around this one, Big.”

There it was, the smoking gun. People think that deck posts break or something, if they bother to think about them at all. But that’s not how they fail. They’re bolted to the rim joist, and they act like a lever—get enough force leaning on the top rail, and it’ll pry the joist off like a pop top on a cheap beer. Brackets create a “load path”, tying the post to an inner joist.

I shook my head. Stoned rail-leaners on high decks, taking in the view. Lots of people have died of the view.

I turned to Misty. “So why not remove the dryer vent?”

“Are you kidding me? I had a hard enough time getting it through the foundation wall, but getting those quarter inch screws to secure vent cover? I finally had to use my little 90 degree screwdriver without a bit in it—I was just lucky the standard shaft size is also a quarter inch.”

I passed on the obvious joke. I was impressed—I figured she hired some Joe to do her dirty work. She was tough, and resourceful. More to her than I realized.

“I’ll take a look.”

Picky was smirking. He knew he had me.

It was worse than I thought. It was tighter than—okay, that’s two jokes I’m passing on. Even a 90-degree attachment on a power screwdriver wouldn’t fit. Her trick with the little driver was good, but these were structural screws going into wood, not sheet metal.

The Solution

The way to do the impossible is to do the impossible. If the goal is to tie to an inner joist—just do it. But how? There wasn’t room for much more than a bolt.

Maybe it was the joke I didn’t make about the tiny shaft. Suddenly, I knew what to do.

“Be right back.” I went out my car came back with a namesake. They were exchanging barbs. She saw me over his shoulder.

“Wow—that’s a big-ass bolt,” she said. He turned to me, puzzled, and then his jaw dropped. He knew. I was packing 24 inches of ¾” galvanized steel—enough to go through the post, the rim joist, and through the next inner joist. The head alone was 3 inches wide.

The bright kids at Virginia Tech had figured out the loads on posts, and it got put into code: 500 lbs. My bolt had a tensile strength in the thousands of pounds.

It didn’t take long to pull the old bolt, drill the larger hole, and install the new one. Picky signed the permit, spat out “Be sure to use an approved deck sealer,” and slunk away.

She turned to me, amused. “Would you care to come in and have a drink? Perhaps we can discuss my oeuvre.” She said it with a perfect French accent. There were many layers to her, and I wanted to peel them all back. Slowly.

Note: This article is written for your dining and dancing pleasure only. Want to know how to properly secure a deck post? Check out this article in DeckMagazine.com:
http://www.deckmagazine.com/design-construction/railings/code-compliant-guardrail-posts_o

About


My favorite galaxy: NGC 4013

I. Why Outpost 4013

As you look at the galaxy above, let your eyes drift down the dark groove below the starburst, and notice the intense spots of blue-white light. This is a “stellar nursery,” literally where stars are born. All of the complex atoms that make life possible are formed inside stars. As the physicist Lawrence M. Krauss said,

“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.”

For me, it’s an image of deep creativity, and divine feminine energy. (My friend Jeanie said, “It looks like a vagina.” Well, yes.) It’s inside us too, and to whatever extent I can, I hope to refract a glimmer of that ferociously generous energy. To be an outpost of 4013, however small.

II. The Dream, or How This Blog Was Almost Called, “SallyFieldIsGod.com”

I was in my thirties, going around to my housecleaning jobs on my bike. Life certainly hadn’t turned out as advertised, or fantasized, but it had its compensations. Listening to music, thinking about things. I had been wondering about how it all began. In one popular story, it seemed like God was a superb Swiss watchmaker, meticulously crafting and populating the world, then setting it in the shop window to admire while tucking into a plate of bundnerfleisch and a glass of kirsch.

But, I wondered, what if it was more like a birth than a project; what if it was passionate, bloody, dangerous, with a chance of disaster. However I might feel about my small life, I had the miracle of a consistent reality: I had thoughts that logically followed each other, an identity and a body and the beauty of nature around me. Not a paradise by any stretch, but I had a sense that it could have all gone terribly wrong; chaos could have reigned, and any shred of possible identity would be torn apart in that mad cosmic gale before it could find its feet.

This led to a period of about three days where I was filled with appreciation for our elegant and reliable reality. The green alphabet of plants, the wind pushing it into song. I was filled with gratitude and love for She who had managed to birth this coherent world. At the end of the third day, I had a dream:

I became aware I was dreaming, and decided to fly, because that’s what I like to do. It went unusually well: I found myself outside earth’s atmosphere, in space. As I was looking around, a voice told me that if I wanted, I could try to visit God. It said I probably couldn’t do it, but the conditions were just right, if I wanted to try. So I took off.

I flew through the galaxy, and beyond; a sense of immense distances. And every now and then, I’d hit some kind of shortcut, and cut across entire universes. This went on for a while, and then I seemed to be on a planet again.

An unusual one, though. There’s the loose beauty of nature, like trees in a forest, and then there’s the formal beauty of humans, like the columns of the Parthenon. This world seemed to be both, the natural and formal joined: as I flew past a giant stone mountain, the cracks in the cliff were just regular enough to seem like letters, if only I knew how to read them, yet they still that fresh, random quality.

Finally, I landed at the foot of a small dusty hill. There was a wall at the top. This was it–where God was. I climbed the hill.

The wall was circular, maybe seven feet high, something like adobe, with a wooden gate. I pushed it open and went inside. In the center was a fountain. I started walking around it.
A quick detour here. In 1985, Sally Field won the Oscar for Best Actress, and in a widely mocked acceptance speech, said, “You like me—right now, you like me!”

In the dream, I was about a quarter of the way around the fountain, when a female voice from the fountain said, “You love me—you really do love me!” I thought, “God, that’s so corny.” And of course I immediately felt terrible about thinking that. But I kept walking and sensed that She was amused. I was about halfway around the fountain when everything, myself included, started dissolving into a blissful white light. I was maybe three-quarters of the way around when the light was all there was.


III. Really, Now

One thing about my god, you have to admit She has a sense of humor. One thing that struck me: that god is pleased when we appreciate what she’s done (I can never make up my mind about deity capitalization). I sometimes think we live in a jazz, rather than classical, universe. Maybe the score isn’t written to the last note; we have our part to contribute, too. And what if god isn’t perfect; what if She (He, It) needs us to do our best as well?

Anyway, I don’t think I met the Total Essence, or however we might try to title it. For one thing, it’s a question of scale: how much can a cell in a hair on your arm appreciate Shakespeare? I took my cup to the ocean, and filled it up. There weren’t any whales swimming around in it, I checked. It was a personal journey, and I’m content with that.

I don’t plan to swing for the cosmic fences in this blog; I’ll just write pieces as they come to me, and who knows, maybe now and then a mysterious wind will lift one over the fence, and into the sky. Until then, I hope now and then you’ll look at your hands. And see different stars.


NGC 4013 is also known as the Diamond Ring Galaxy

IV. Postscript

I had some friends look at this About section before I published it. It’s funny and humbling, what you think, and what other people think. The image on the home page that Jeanie said looked like a vagina? Marta, a nurse, said it looked like a gashed shin to her. (Ouch.) Michelle liked the piece, but said that she gets a bit tired of feminine energy always being described as “giving.”

M, the image above is for you. That beautiful purplish ring of dust? It’s actually the remains of a dwarf galaxy that got in the way of 4013, and got ripped to shreds by tidal forces of her immense gravity.

Blog

This is a spotlight where the latest post can do its song and dance, before the gnome with the hook drags it off to its category.

Notes From the Van:

Living Under the Sword

I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.

He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.

“Did that cure it?”

“No, I was still afraid.”

I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.

“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”

The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.
I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:

“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”

I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:

“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”

This is a spotlight where the latest post can do its song and dance, before the gnome with the hook drags it off to its category.

Notes From the Van:

Living Under the Sword

I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.

He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.

“Did that cure it?”

“No, I was still afraid.”

I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.

“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”

The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.
I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:

“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”

I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:

“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”