As someone who has a collection of tube radios, I found this article interesting for a number of reasons. The author has a huge collection of tube amplifiers, and was looking for a way to resurrect them. He bought a device called a variac, which is basically just a power transformer with adjustable input. In the article he explains how he used a variac to slowly bring the capacitors inside old tube amps back to life by slowly increasing the voltage applied; this sounds like another interesting project.
Off in the distance are the lights of downtown. Around the corner from this spot is a Walgreens, sitting on a lot that used to house a thrift store we called Saks North Avenue when I was in college: a football-field sized building with more treasures than our 18-year-old brains could process. I still have some of the clothes I bought there: a blue sharkskin jacket, a full tuxedo set, a National Beer delivery shirt…
When it comes to carpentry I’m definitely an amateur. Maybe a Pro-Am. I’ve done enough paying work that I maybe could sneak into the union, but I know there are years of tools and tricks I’ve never heard of or seen. Watching my friend Brian work humbles me. He can eyeball up a cabinet or a floor or a section of wall and have it measured out correctly in minutes, and know exactly how to tuck something too big into a place too small with ease. He’s got tools I’ve never seen before rolling around in the back of his truck, and he knows how to use them the way God and the engineers at Craftsman intended. I learn tons of stuff just by watching what he’s doing.
I can mill and frame wood with the best of them. I’ve built mantles and cabinets and toolbenches and all sorts of smaller objects, and most of them have come out square and clean and sturdy. I’ve milled and installed all the moulding in five rooms of this house. If there’s anything I’m professional at, it’s cobbling together some kind of jig out of scrap wood and hose clamps to get the saw or the drill or the router to do what I need it to do; the mantle I mentioned earlier was put together with nothing more than a miter saw, a circular saw, and a shit-ton of backwoods engineering. I bought, disassembled, and jury-rigged a crappy old router stand to mill a 15˚ angle on the thresholds for the bathroom upstairs, and then, having pretty much ruined it for any other purpose, threw the whole thing in the garbage.
Frankly, I’m kind of sick of that shit. I would love nothing more than to have a barn with a dedicated woodworking space, where there’s a large flat clean table to do joinery on, an area with a full-size table saw, miter saw, sanding equipment, and proper lighting. All of my carpentry is done in the basement, tucked behind shelving and assembled on plywood sheets atop an old table. I have to open the basement door to ventilate the dust out of there, and Jen gets pissed when the laundry comes upstairs covered in sawdust (I don’t blame her). The lighting sucks. I’m always tripping over cords or piles of wood or boxes waiting to be reshelved. The truth is, I don’t do carpentry enough every day to warrant this kind of space—but I’d love to pursue that hobby.
This weekend I decided I’d put together a frame for the mirror that’s going in the upstairs bathroom. We don’t want to just glue a mirror to the wall, so I’m constructing a frame with wood slightly narrower than the door moulding and beveling the inner edge to accept the mirror. Normally I’d rig up a jig on my table saw and make two cuts per board, but this time I thought I’d use the router and a square removal bit to accomplish the same task. For anyone with a router stand this would be a 10-minute job, but as mentioned I threw out the last stand, so I mounted a fence to the router and did it all by hand, generating a pile of sawdust higher than my knees. And because it was handheld, the results were less than optimal—the inside edge of the bevel was a bit wavy because the fucking bit began to come loose—and I’m a careful guy. But I thought maybe I could salvage what I had, so I kept going.
I also thought I’d use this project as a reason to buy a Kreg jig, which is basically an inexpensive joining tool, and use that to bolt the parts together. The jig is nice but not made for 45˚ angled cuts, so the test runs I did all came out too short or too long and I couldn’t replicate success with any precision. So I started drilling and countersinking screws, but on the first corner the grain of the wood carried the bit downwards and I busted through the front of the frame with the screw. That ended Saturday’s attempt.
On Sunday I bought more wood with Hazel and started on Version 2. In ten minutes I cobbled together a clean jig on the table saw and had three boards down neatly—exactly what I should have done in the first place. Then I set up a jig on some plywood, clamped the frame ends down, and pre-drilled countersink holes on the top and bottoms, where nobody will see them. With a carpenter’s angle and a screw gun I had the whole thing assembled in about an hour. It needs some filler and a little sanding, but it’s clean and ready for a mirror. I’m all about learning new skills and trying new things, but sometimes it’s cheaper and faster to go with what you know.
Sunday’s Advent activity was a Bad Santa Challenge: we each picked a name out of a hat and had to buy the tackiest gift we could for our chosen person. We decided we’d pick out but not buy anything so that we didn’t drag tacky crap we’d never use home with us. Jen and I figured the best place for this was the thrift store: where else to find the most tacky in the smallest space?
In Laurel we hit the Second Avenue and each had 20 minutes to find our treasures, with an imaginary cash limit of $20. I had Jen, so I immediately went to the tchotchke area and started looking; a woman was putting a 16″ porcelain statue of a nude couple embracing in her cart just as I was walking towards it. Dammit. I looked through that area, then went over to the women’s clothing thinking I could find something super-trashy like I used to in the Saks North Avenue days. But these stores turn over much quicker than Back In The Day and my tack-o-meter isn’t finely tuned; some of the stuff I saw could have been tacky or could have been high fashion. I did a circuit of the store, beginning to panic, and went back to the tchotchke area to discover a huge carved wooden sign saying LIVE LAUGH LOVE over some banal decoration; this is as diametrically opposed to my wife’s tastes as anything I’ve ever seen. I figured I’d hit it big but I was still a couple of dollars under my limit, so I picked out a battered golf driver from the racks of sad sporting goods and hurried over to meet them.
Finn had picked out a hideous birdhouse, a random crime novel, a strange army belt and a moldy 50’s pop music record for me. Jen presented Finn with a strange and frightening porcelain hobo statue, which (when powered by batteries) played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After laughing over our presents, we returned them to the shelves and looked around the store for real. I found a Pelican knock-off case originally created to hold hideous overpriced watches and scored it for $5; the compartments are sized perfectly for camera lenses:
Five minutes with a knife made a comfortable waterproof house for my Fuji rig with the big lens, and the rest of the kit fit neatly inside. Now I just have to spray-paint over the stupid watch logo on the top.
Somewhere in America, a floor sander is whirring. It’s removing the top layer of dirt and wax and crud and stain and age from our oak floors, and collecting it in a bag to be disposed of somewhere else. Rick showed up at 8:30 this morning to do the dirty deed (and let me just tell you, this is an awful day to be sanding floors in Baltimore: the humidity we had been avoiding for a month suddenly landed like a sack of cement yesterday) and he was sweating before he got any of the tools out of the van. We closed the door behind him and RAN for the coffee shop.
I’ll back up a little bit here and say that the Cauzzi family is doing well. Jen and I brought barbecue to Todd and Heather, and in between feedings, they were actually able to enjoy some food of their own. Declan and Callie are tiny sleepy little people, mostly zonked out between meals for as long as we were there. Jen and I both got our baby on, however— we traded Declan back and forth for about an hour, and he slept through the whole thing. Great going, you guys. They are beautiful.
The rest of the weekend was a blur of cleaning, moving, packing, shopping, and more cleaning. All our first-floor furniture is on the front porch. We took some time to set up the automatic sprinklers and tend to the gardens (which will be in full bloom the week we’re in Ireland, I’m sure) and square away the cats, who are probably doing laps in sheer terror as the huge metal machine grinds away at the floor above their heads. I took a crowbar and pulled the disgusting ‘wainscoting’ from the living room wall—it was built out from the wall by about 2 inches, covering that much of the oak flooring—and tossed the wood out the window and into the garage.
Sunday we avoided the humidity by heading to the Arundel Mills Mall in search of some clothes to replace the 1995-era rags I still wear. Six hours later, we came back home and finished preparing the house for demolition. Some high points:
- A queen Sleep Number bed with the digital control is considerably less than we thought it would be, which means it’s on our list of Stuff To Buy When We Get Home, right after an air conditioner.
- For the first time in my life, I own a suitcase. Instead of jamming all my crap into a duffel bag (you may laugh, but I made it from here to Italy and back again in a $15 duffel bag) I own a wheeled Samsonite suitcase, in fashionable black. This is progress.
- I may have found the replacement for my Syracuse hat. I bought this aleady beat-up hat used at Saks North Avenue for $.95 in 1991, and it has been the only hat to correctly fit my misshapen alien head since then. It’s been through art school, camping trips, to Italy, Bimini, California, and countless other places; it almost drowned in the Atlantic Ocean until the co-sponsor of our diving trip cried, “WILSON!” and jumped off the boat, swam back, and got it; It went everywhere I did, and it’s showing its age. I tried on a women’s Adidas hat yesterday, and it seemed to fit my head correctly (the brim is not three feet too wide, which makes most hats look like a duck swallowed my scalp) so I bought it.
- We are taking the Italian good-luck frog with us to Ireland. May he watch over us as we drive on the wrong side of the road.
- I have two green bell peppers growing in the greenhouse. The gladiolous in the perennial bed are as tall as the bedframe.
Tonight we are being graciously put up by our neighbors M&S, who (I’m pretty sure) have air conditioning and a queen bed. Hopefully after four days, they will still be speaking to us.
One of the things Jen has had on her bucket list is to go see the lights in New York City during Christmastime. We decided we’d make this one of our advent activities this year before time gets away from us and Finn grows out of it entirely. We boarded an early-morning train on Sunday and got up to the new Moynihan Train Hall by 11AM. I was so happy to climb out of the track areas into a beautiful new station with soaring ceilings and modern amenities, and happier still that Finn didn’t have to experience shitty old Penn Station as her first introduction to New York.
After sorting out the breakfast and bathroom situation we walked out into the sunshine and headed east on 34th until we hit 7th Avenue, turned north to 34th and then walked east again past Macy’s and through Herald Square up to the Empire State Building. We couldn’t seem to buy tickets to go up to the observatory level, so we punted and kept walking to 5th Avenue where we turned north and walked to the lions in front of the Public Library. Pausing to take some pictures, Jen had to clear something from her eye so Finn and I browsed through the vendors in Bryant Park until she was able to find a mirror.
From there we continued north up Fifth Avenue, hoping to take in the windows; things have changed a lot since I’ve been in the city. It’s essentially one big mall connected by sidewalks and construction; every store available is someplace we can go at a local mall. It wasn’t until we got closer to the park and the high-high-high-dollar stores until we started seeing good window displays.
5th Avenue before Rockefeller Center was closed off to traffic and there were food trucks and performers parked outside. We peeked down through the plaza at the tree and decided we’d wait until dark to explore it further. The windows of Saks were done up with some EXTRA clothing and shoes, and it was super fun to look them all over. Right up the street we climbed the stairs to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and walked inside with a throng of other people. I found a $5 bill and we walked up the aisle until we found a saint we all liked, and then lit candles for Jen’s mom and my Dad. It was a lovely break from all of the crush of people and noise and cold to sit on a bench with my girls across from the votive stand and listen to the hymns and hush of people out in the pews.
Back outside in the fresh air, we walked up 5th Avenue and around the corner to the Tiffany storefront, where, disappointingly, there was nothing in the window. We crossed back over 5th Avenue and through Grand Army Plaza into Central Park, where we took a left at the Zoo and walked to Gapstow Bridge so Finn could see the true scale of New York City.
Walking back up 5th Avenue on the other side of the street, we paused in front of Bergdorf Goodman, whose windows were by far the best of any of the luxury stores. At the top of the hill the street was still cordoned off so we stopped for some mocha lattes to power back up, then plunged back into the crowds forming in front of Saks for the display. They have the lights on the front of the store keyed to different music, sort of a luxury-goods version of the Metallica House, and we enjoyed a quick medely of Elton John before heading down into the plaza to look at the skaters and the tree. I told Finn about the Christmas tree that came from Mahopac after we explained that it was a real tree, and tried to move closer to the edge to look down on the rink.
We kept heading down 50th Street past 30 Rock, and stopped inside to show Finn the murals in the lobby, which remain amazing. Noticing they’ve added a big arcade with food in the basement, we headed downstairs to find bathrooms and some food.
Once we were fed and watered, we continued west on 50th until we hit 7th Avenue and walked south to Times Square, which was probably even more crowded than Rockefeller Center had been. It was, we explained to Finn, the closest to Tokyo she’d probably find in the U.S. and she was suitably impressed (if not overwhelmed).
At this point it was cold and we were all tired, so we continued south to 34th Street and back to the train station, where we posted up on some comfortable chairs and warmed up with some drinks until our train arrived.
We walked back in the door at about 1:30AM and went directly to bed; I don’t think any of us got a decent night’s sleep. Jen’s watch said we walked about 9 miles in total and over 20,000 steps, which is pretty respectable, I think. I was happy to have worn Smartwool socks and an UnderArmour Cold Gear shirt; the only parts of me that were cold were my hands. All that being said I was happy to be in a warm bed.
There was a point when we were walking back up 5th Avenue towards people and Christmas music and lights and dusk was just beginning to set in, and I was happy to be in the Big City with my girls, enjoying the feeling of sharing the season with thousands of strangers.
I love a bargain. I’ve haunted the yard sales in our neighborhood for years, looking for good deals, and I’ve been lucky more times than I can count. As Finn has gotten more interested in sewing and creating her own clothes, we’ve been looking for materials to work with. Jen started taking her to thrift stores a while back, and tagging along with them has awakened the dormant thrift store shopper in my blood.
I found a couple of things yesterday that I’m excited about, and one of them isn’t even for me. Our daughter is now a Teen, which means she sleeps 21 hours a day and complains about not seeing her friends for the other 17. Jen has been waking at 6:30 to get her out of bed and off to school by 7:45; the bus picks her up within visual distance of our front door but she’s already missed it once. We are eager to get her functioning as more of an adult, so a better alarm clock was in order. Among the shelves of disused electronics I found the exact same model GE alarm clock I took to college; in a weird bit of circular irony I donated that clock to charity back when I got my first iPhone, glad to be rid of its grating alarm noise. After scrubbing this one with bathroom cleaner and a toothbrush I plugged it in on her dresser and set the time. She’ll need to climb down from bed to shut it off, and hopefully that will wake her up enough to get the day started. Because if it’s in there going off for ten minutes every morning I’m going to bury her body somewhere deep in the backyard.
The other gem I found is a Toshiba 19″ LCD/DVD combo in working order with an attached stand and power cord. I did my best to test it out at the store at the single available power outlet, and all seemed to work OK—for $12 I figured I could deal with some broken features, as long as the coax input still worked. See, I like to enjoy listening to football when I’m working around the house in the fall, and the only room I can do that in currently is the den. For another $20 I can pick up a digital antenna from Amazon and move the TV where I’d like to watch some games before the season is over. For the rest of the year, I can plug a laptop into the HDMI port on the back and watch movies (I checked, it works) or use the built-in DVD player (I checked, that also works).
I tested this plan out on Sunday while I installed a lockset on the new door going into the new bathroom; the TV sat on the dresser next to me, and I got to watch the Packers finally beat the Bengals in overtime while I put a final coat of paint on the back of the door. It’s nice to have something in there that closes and latches and locks, and it’s nice to hear the game while I’m working.
Then I moved it downstairs and addressed a leak in our washing machine, which has been covering the floor in water for the past couple of weeks. I’d looked over all the attachments and found nothing wrong, so I bought a water tray and set it up underneath the washer partially as insurance and partially to see if the leak was under the washer or somewhere else. My hunch paid off when Jen reported a new leak this afternoon, so I pulled the drain hose off and checked it out: a leak at the low point squirted water out into the sink. $15 and a trip to the store fixed that right up; the TV sat on the workbench and kept me up to date on Giants/Cowboys. Not bad for less than $20.