Reification in Real Life: Home Improvement Update

Numerical descriptions of reality, however useful, are not reality. While science has a whole set of its own issues with practitioners wanting math to be reality, rather than, at best, to provide a useful description of reality, in mundane life, the risk of reification can perhaps be summed up in the old adage: measure twice, cut once. Don’t imagine your first measurement tells you too much about the thing-in-itself. Mistakes happen, best give yourself a second shot at avoiding them. While measurements will never be the thing, they’re certainly more useful when they’re accurate.

What brings this all to mind is my skipping a step when laying out the bricks to be cut to allow the metal rods that support the wrought-iron style fence to pass through. I did indeed measure several times, but what I failed to do was take the fence and position it atop the marked up bricks, to verify that the rods were more or less centered within the chalk rectangles I’d drawn for cutting before I started in with the mortar. I’d carefully measured the locations, checked them a couple times, but, the fence being awkward and kind of heavy (for an old guy, at least), I just sort of skipped that step.

Spent an hour or two cutting the bricks, then a couple hours setting up and mortaring them in. Then, and only then, did I put the fence in place and drop the rods through.

Thus:

And:

The map is not the territory. Have a couple theories about what I did wrong, but no matter. With misgivings, got out a masonry bit and drilled into the bricks to widen the holes – I’d feared drilling would loosen the bricks, but it worked like a charm. Which suggests that all this falderal I’d gotten into cutting the bricks was a waste of time: should have just put ’em in, set the fence up, marked where to drill, and drilled holes. Would have been much tidier and a lot less work.

Oh, well. With that slight detour, finished it up:

Looking south.
Looking north, with the twin of this fence/planter in the background.

Updating the Insane Eternal Brick project diagram from a few months back, this is where we’re at:

Next up, apart from the little towers for the gate across the steps into the mini-orchard, is a the crescent wall above the water meter. It will go a little something like this:

Sloppy even by my low standards. The idea is 4-5 courses of bricks with river rocks worked in, then some brackets along the top upon which might be fastened some wooden posts for a fence/trellis. Or something, still working it through.

Maybe plant some ground cover around the meter?

I find myself obsessing about getting this done. Hanging over my head too long now. Hampered by my inability to do more than a couple hours work per day for more than one day. If I do any more, need to take a day or two off. The knees, back and general muscles won’t put up with much more than that. That said, you can get pretty far with a couple hours a day 2-3 times a week.

Three weeks of summer to go. Would be so nice to get this project done. Then get a job.

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Brief Home Improvement Update

Probably should wait a couple days to post an update, when I have the fence installed, but, hey.

Ten days ago, when we last checked in, the Endless Brick Project looked like this:

Tower stubs, rebar, cap bricks positioned & marked for cutting so that the fence rods can pass the through and get epoxied to the bricks.

As of today, we’re here:

Cap bricks cut for fence rods and mortared in; towers completed; wrought iron style fence staged.

Also spent an afternoon making some hardware: four pieces of angle iron cut and drilled so that the rebar can pass through it and the fence can be bolted on, as well as two rods bent and cut to make simple hinges for the gate off the front porch, and some little angle iron brackets that will allow (I hope) for the concrete to better grip the hinges. Had fun, after a fashion, wishing I had hotter heat (used a propane torch, not clear it heated the rod enough to make any difference, didn’t get red hot, at least not in daylight) and an anvil, so that bending the rod could have been a little quicker and tidier. Ended up clamping 4 5lbs weights together as an anvil and hammering the rod while trying to not to break anything or burn myself. It kind worked. Anyway:

One of the two hinges at the top. All this stuff gets epoxied into position and then set in concrete. I’ll show pictures when done.

Further updates as events warrant.

Home Improvement Update 08/18/19

Got lots of little essays percolating, but writing those takes time and and thought and quickly begins to resemble actual work. Therefore,

BRICKS!

When we last checked in, way back on July 23, the front planter project looked like this:

Some progress has been made:

The capping bricks along the front are not yet mortared in. I first needed to lay out where the holes go for the upright spikes on the fence. This requires carefully laying out the bricks, numbering them, marking the seams, then marking where the uprights go, so that I can then take the bricks that need cutting, cut them, check them, then stack all the bricks on the ground so that I can mortar them in in the right spots one by one. Only then can I epoxy in the little pieces of angle iron to which the bottom horizontal runner of the fence will be attached, fill the square towers with concrete up to that point, add another 7 rows, add another couple little pieces of angle iron for the top runner – THEN I can attach the fence.

I’ve done this once already, worked out fine. Lot of little detail tasks.

Marks and numbers:

May be a few days before I get to this. Our lovely and beloved younger daughter, Anna Kate, is home for a few days before heading off to South Sudan for a year of missionary work with the Salesians. 22 years old. Kids these days.

Meanwhile, a little progress on the front steps. We left them here:

Doesn’t look like much, and it isn’t really, but today we’re here:

Got the rebar epoxied in; cut and shaped a piece of round stock for the bottom hinge – a very simple post through a hole style; got a corner piece for the rain spout, which will help guide exactly where I put the bricks. This little square tower is critical, as the gate will hang on it – must be sturdy and exact. There will be, again, little pieces of angle iron with holes for the hinge rod and the rebar, to tie it all together so little kids won’t destroy the gate when they (inevitably) swing on it.

I’m holding off a bit on epoxying stuff until I’ve got a bunch to do, so I’m not opening and closing the tube of industrial epoxy mix (works like a caulking gun, only with two internal tubes that must be mixed) and thereby wasting the stuff. I’ll do the brackets on the front planter and the hinge on this tower at one time.

For your possible amusement: we had 3 old coolers, each with various issues: the hinges on the big one broke off, and the little drain plug went missing; a handle broke on another, and a crack developed in a third. After pricing replacements, decided to throw the cracked one away and repair the other two so they are at least useable.

Have I mentioned I tend strongly to overthink and over do things? I replaced the handle on the smaller one with a piece of broomstick with a hole drilled through it lengthwise (1) tied to the cooler with a length of heavy nylon cord – well and good. Then came replacing the little plug on the larger one.

The lost original was a plastic cap that screwed on. Now, you may be thinking, as I was after 5 minutes of trying other solutions: how about getting a piece of cork, shoving it in there, and calling it a day? I have in my shed a little drawer full of various sized corks. Entire process would take maybe 60 seconds, if I sauntered my way through it. I eventually did just that:

But no. The above fix took place maybe 20 minutes after I had started trying other solutions, and 15 minutes after the smarter part of my brain started whispering, then yelling: just get a cork, you schmuck!

We’re talking washers, expansion bolts, butterfly nuts, plumber’s tape, futzing with pliers and power drills and looking through a couple dozen little drawers with bits and pieces of plumbing hardware and nuts and bolts, none of which worked even a little…

And then I put a cork in it.

On the garden front, God is maybe trying to tell me something. Might be something simple like: plant in good soil with plenty of sun and water and far from any walnut roots. But I’m thinking it might be more complicated. For this year, a number of surprising things happened in the garden.

A little background: I grew up in Southern California, land of the long, perfect growing season, son of a man who grew up on a farm. When I was 12, we moved to a house with enough land attached that Dad cleared a nice area, had a truckload of manure delivered, and we put in a vegetable garden.

My childhood memories of gardening are that you plant stuff, make sure you don’t forget to water it, and you get more vegetables than you can use. And tomato worms.(2) Easy-peasy.

About 27 years ago, we rented a house with an overgrown dump of a backyard. I thought: garden! and put in a ton of work clearing and tilling a nice chunk of it. Beneath the dead grass and weeds, the soil was iffy – closer to the house, it showed signs of having been worked at some point in the not too distant past; the farther out you got, the harder the clay.

Thus began 27 years of gardening frustration. In Northern California, while the weather is still very good, nothing from my childhood seemed to work. I added manure. I watered and watered. I fertilized (which we never did when I was a kid). We’d get some stuff some years, but never anything like what we got when I was a kid. Our house where we’ve lived now for 23 years has rock-hard clay soil and a couple huge walnut trees in the back. The only way we get anything is planting in planters, and that only sort of works.

Until this year:

Two of 4 cantaloupes on a volunteer vine in the front planter, along with one of 8 nice butternut squash on another volunteer vine.
A few of the couple dozen large tomatoes on one of two plant in the front.
One of 5 and counting sugar pumpkins.
Scale is hard to get here, but that’s a large and growing giant pumpkin, heading toward 100+ lbs (we hope)

And there’s some peppers and sweet potatoes, along with a lot of fruit from the fruit trees. The backyard stuff in planters is disappointing as usual (although we’re getting a few melons and some nice peppers) but the front yard in-the-ground stuff is a flashback to childhood! Woohoo!

So: I lost my job 14 months ago; my wife quit her (modestly salaried) school job in June. We’re both trying to get some home stuff taken care of before hitting the job hunting trail. Yet this is the year of the fairly epic garden and orchard. Like I said, not sure what if anything this means.

  1. If you’re wondering, I drilled a hole freehand the length of the handle, coming at it from both ends and meeting in the middle. Got lucky – the holes met up exactly. I mention this because if the Universe wants me to stop doing stupid things like this, which had probably under a 20% chance of working, I need to fail the *first* time I try. Otherwise, flush with success, I’ll keep doing stupid things, thinking they’ll work. Ya know?
  2. My little brothers and I were greatly amused when we showed the dog the tomato worms. They’d spit at him, he’d eat them. He’d have green whiskers the rest of the day.

Saturday Update, 7/27/19

1 I still need a job. Been a year now. About 1/2 through my contingency savings, so we could (theoretically) skate another year. But that would be bad.

2 We’re having the volunteers from the local Birthright over this afternoon for pizza and other good things the board, of which I’m a member, are providing. Most of the volunteers are retired or empty-nest women, who show up at our little center for a few hours a week to council women in crisis pregnancies. They tend to get attached to the women and their babies, and often form longer-term relationships. Good people. Should be fun. Lot of prep yet to do.

3 This upcoming pizza party occasioned another little Home Improvement Project! If you spend far too much time on this blog and have a scary-good memory, you may recall this pizza oven door I built a couple years ago:

Pizza oven, front, with its late oak door

It was cute. Well, a year or so ago, a houseguest wanted to help out, and, since he had worked as a fireman, I told him he could get a nice fire going in the pizza oven, so we could make some pizzas when I got back. Gave him instructions about how one builds a fire toward the front, then, once it’s going, shove it to the back and starts another fire in the front, then, once both are going, you can put the door in front loosely to trap some of the heat, so that the whole oven heats evenly.

Set up for a sit-com moment? You bet!

I come home, and flames are coming out of the pizza oven’s chimney; branches of the nearby privet are smoldering. And my nice little door is on fire. The door had two thin sheets of galvanized steel sandwiching an inch of high-temp mineral wool on the side facing in. The wood was not directly exposed to the fire. I’d used it a dozen times without catching it on fire. A little singe, here and there, but that’s about it. It took some, um, enthusiasm to set it on fire.

So, finally got around to building a replacement door:

Note the intense soot above the door. Scrap oak, again, but this time with one much heavier sheet of steel toward the fire, 1″ mineral wool insulation, and some high-temp furnace gasket around the edges, not for sealing, but for a barrier to the mineral wool. The fire-facing stuff is rated minimum 1,000F. So, can we not burn the oak this time?

This was a surprisingly frustrating project, took hours longer than it should have. End result looks OK, but man…. Sloppy glue-up required quite a bit of shaping; both the chop saw and the jig saw were having difficulties I could not identify and correct; cracked the board when I got a little too enthusiastic about attaching the insulation… just a bunch of stuff went wrong. Oh, well, it’s done.

4 Finally, and this is harder to write about: I’ve been having empty nester symptoms. True, our 15 year old still lives with us, but he’s been on 3 1-week Boy Scout adventures this summer already. So, it’s me, my wife, MIL and the cat. The older kids scattered to the winds for (Newman List! Don’t leave home without it!) colleges, so they’ve been gone for four or more years already. So, yea.

On the selfish plus side, Older Daughter has moved to Napa, only a 45 minute drive away. So we see more of her, and it is a blessing. She also has a lovely boyfriend there. This is all very good.

Now something my wife and I long suspected may be coming to pass: younger daughter has had this thing about going to Africa as a missionary for years now. Prior to graduation, she looked into a bunch of options, and hooked up with the Salesians. She’s training with them now in New York state. In a couple months, she’s heading off to South Sudan for a year.

She was thanking us for not trying to talk her out of it, but it wasn’t easy keeping my mouth shut. She’ll be with a bunch of other people at a well-established mission, with folks who have been doing this for years, so it’s about as safe as could be hoped. But this is my little girl here!

And – this is the part we’ve suspected – she is loving the Salesian community. She’s not talking about becoming a religious sister (yet), but loves the work and the people.

Well, she’s God’s, not ours, and has always been His. Thy will be done.

Home Improvement Update: BRIX!

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since the last update on the Eternal Infernal Brick Project of Doom. My, time flies.

When we last checked in, the steps into the front yard mini orchard were in this state:

Finished up the steps proper:

From the porch.
From the orchard.

Came out well. The hole on the right and the bare concrete on the left will be the sites of two little brick towers upon which will be mounted a gate.

Meanwhile, out against the street, we left the brick planter/wrought iron style fence, southern section, in this state:

We’ve reached this critical juncture:

Looking south.
Looking north.

So, now I get to hammer-drill a few holes into the concrete, epoxy in some rebar off of which will hang some hardware from which the wrought iron style fence will be supported on either end, build the little brick towers, fill them with concrete, install the fence, add capping bricks to the front double-brick wall (can’t do it until the fence is fitted, as some of the bricks will need cutting or notches for the iron fence uprights to pass through). Similar process for the porch, for the gate hardware.

Then fill the planter in the front and puts some, I dunno, plants in it. THEN build the southern border wall – I hear such things are all the rage – which is similar planter concept, but without an iron fence, thinking more wooden lattice.

Got a month and a half of summer. Will he make it? Stay tuned!

Also, I mentioned earlier that my avocado tree project had failed, and, rather than let prime garden spots lie fallow, I threw in a some tomatoes and peppers – and 4 pumpkins. Which is between 2 and 4 pumpkins too many.

Prime spot. Hot, sunny days. Plenty of water. These suckers are going to take over the yard, the house, and it not stopped somehow, THE WORLD. OK, maybe not, but they are growing like crazy. On the plus side, as they crawl out of the bed and onto the surrounding ground, I’m motivated to clean up and weed, to make room. Two sugar pumpkins for eating, two of some giant variety for fun. Here’s the current status on the Great Pumpkin Conquest of Concord:

They’re only maybe 8 weeks along. I think with a little patience you could see them grow. The giant variety is in the foreground, and will be trained into an open area to the left; the sugar pumpkins are in the back, and will be trained off to the sides. That’s the plan, anyway.

Vermin have discovered my garden and orchard. We have a fair array of furry little bastards – pardon my Urdu – from moles, mice, rats and gophers through possums, racoons and potentially deer (seen plenty a few blocks from here, never seen any this far up our street. The threat is there, however). Damage so far suggests squirrels or rats. In a just world, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to spend a few nights out front with a pellet gun, nail some of whatever they are, and leave their carcasses to rot upon little pike-equivalents as a warning to their vermin kin.

But I think that’s frowned upon.

I do have some commercial-level vermin poison, stuff farmers use, which I of course never use anywhere anything other than vermin can get it, which kind of rules out the front yard. Sigh. So – we’ll see. Will check out various traps. Don’t know what the local policy, if any, is regarding offing squirrels – there are certainly plenty around here, many of whom die trying to outsmart cars. A few garden-fattened vermin would not be missed…

How about a raptor eyre? Probably not viable short term. Seen all sorts of hawks and owls around these parts…

Stay tuned for more exciting old-guy home improvement news!

What’s New With the Bricks? Thought You’d Never Ask!

It’s been almost 10 days since the last Home Improvement Project Update! How have all you, my many, well-into-double-digits number of readers contained yourselves?

When we last checked in, the front looked a little like this:

Path done; footer for planter/fence done; planter and fence columns not started.

Made a little progress:

First couple rows of the wall/fence laid – 2 more rows to go, then build the little towers that go on either end. Also moved a ton of bricks over into staging position.

Trying to keep it moving, so we don’t have another 2-year delay. Mostly, I worked on finishing the front porch, specifically, the steps down into the front yard mini-orchard. Background: the concrete path and steps leading up to the front stoop had become cracked and raised up in several places by the roots of the very large walnut tree in the front yard. Once that tree was removed, my strapping sons sledge-hammered the concrete out. While appreciated, it left the front door easily accessible – for mountain goats. A little uneven and now featuring one large step.

So I put in a ramp as part of the Deathless Front Yard Brick project. I was rushed, as my mother in law was coming to live with us (that was 2 years ago) so I finished the basic ramp, but did not finish the hand rail and steps down into the yard from the ramp. Finished the hand rail back in April. Here’s where I stand on the steps:

The ramp & porch ended in this unsightly drop-off.
As of about 10 days ago. Had begun to excavate a little and put in some forms for some footings. This is opposite the handrail, which can be seen in the background.

Finished digging, put in minimal forms and a little rebar to tie it all together (you can perhaps see three pieces of rebar sticking out of the footing in the first picture of the non-step above), which required hammer-drilling a couple holes and epoxying in the rebar, then bending it to match the general contour of the steps. Anyway, got here:

View from orchard.
View from ramp. Just mixed up some mortar, about to start slinging bricks.

Did the footings in two steps: first, did the ground level work seen above. Then, added two rows of bricks, the bottom step and the beginnings of the next step level with the ramp. That way, I could pour the next level, even with the current slab showing above, without having to build complicated curved forms. Not too worried about adhesion between the pours, as it’s just holding up some bricks and has no where to go.

Started adding the bricks:

Will sweep dry mortar into the cracks when done, then add water.

Stopped here because 1) I was tired and it was getting late; and 2) I’m going to need to cut a lot of bricks to fill in all the odd spots, and the angle grinder is loud. I’ll shoot for tomorrow afternoon, when most people are gone at work.

Couple more hours, and I’ll have this finished. What then remains for the porch: Mailbox atop one of the brick columns holding up the handrail, and two brick columns on either side of the step (you can see the rebar sticking up on the left for one of the columns) to hang an iron gate from.

Get this checked off, then the planter/fence, then the final simple but large planter on the south side – and I’m sorta kinda done!

Image result for young frankenstein it could work

More Brick Action! Woot! You Know You Want It!

Continuing the gripping tale of Home Improvement Insanity. Some old guys fill their need for order and beauty by, say, collecting stamps or taking up the banjo, civilized and largely sweat-free activities. Me? I sling bricks. (1)

Micro back story: about 20 years ago, there was a small, ugly front yard in the building we rented for the school. The root system of a large, unruly tree had created a very uneven surface. I thought that we could maybe put in a foot high retaining wall following the contour of the existing uneven portion, backfill a little behind it, and have a somewhat more useful and much less ugly area. Someone suggested we could get free (2) bricks for this project off of Craig’s List, which we did.

It came out really cute, and it was fun! Ever since, I’d been looking for opportunities to do more brick work. Found some more brick work! A couple orders of magnitude more! Whee!

When we last left the Project That’s Even Money to Kill Me Before I Finish It, was looking like this:

Dirt. A hole in the ground. Little patch of concrete. Couple 2 x 4s staked to the ground.

This week, finished the forms and added some rebar for the footers for the next section of fence planter. The Caboose, our 15 year old, helped me pour the concrete Friday:

If there were a Concrete Finishing Merit Badge, the Caboose would have earned it.

Saturday, got to work on finishing the brick walk. Didn’t grab any in progress, ‘fat old man on his hands and knees putting down gravel, sand and bricks’ photos, but snapped a couple ‘sweeping dry mortar into the spaces’:

Cleaned up, sprayed it down with the hose, and voila! A mere 8 hours of work later, looks pretty good:

Completed walk, including the old stuff from a couple years ago.
Couple steps down toward the new stuff…
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille.” The concrete to the left gets the planter/fence treatment seen above. Hidden are the little bits of concrete poured earlier, upon which are affixed the bricks that would otherwise have one side not supported by the planter or curb. You can see at the top the bit that completes the curve around the power pole.

So, assuming I can hold up physically (so far, so good, and way, way better than the last 2-3 years) I will try to at least get the planter/fence finished. Then, what remains is the step down from the porch to the orchard, and the south planter/fence combo. The first is a little complicated but not too huge a project; the second is vary simple but a lot of work. Think I have enough bricks.

My daughter and her boyfriend dropped by while I was working, and I asked her if I’d started this project before she left for college or after. We determined that she’d left already, so it could not be more than 7 years running. We settled on 5. I’ve been at this for 5 years. Sheesh.

In related news, as this whole project started when we had to take out an old walnut tree in the front year and I decided I wanted to put in a mini orchard, as front lawns are definitionally useless, at least in the California suburbs, here’s how the little trees are doing:

This is a dwarf fig tree that’s about 15 years old. It spent the first dozen years in a half wine barrel, and was , you know, a dwarf tree. Well, it clearly likes being in the ground, where we planted it about 3 years ago: even though I trimmed it back severely this past winter (3), it’s now threatening to take over the porch. Next winter, it’s going to have to be cut back to about 4 sticks 3′ high, given its growth rate.

On the bright side, up until this year, the figs it produced were also small, and a little bland. This year, for the last couple weeks, I pick about half a dozen nice plump large figs every day. When the tree broke dormancy, it immediately put out a bunch of figs. Then, when the new growth kicked in, it started putting out more, many more, on the new branches. The first round is ripening now, the next round has got a few weeks to go. Last summer we had three rounds of figs ripening throughout the summer, with a fourth round forming that didn’t make it before winter. Let’s see how it goes.

Wish I liked figs more. Need to figure out more uses for them. Got some fig jam cooking on the stove now. I hear there’s a fig jam on toasted brie thing, but that’s not going keep up with the supply no matter how tasty.

Sadly, the avocado trees didn’t make it. While the other trees thrive (if I let the cherry go instead of trimming it relentlessly, I could probably harvest it for lumber in a decade or two), the avocados were stunted pathetic little sticks. So I yanked them – root balle the size of my hand, after 3 years. May try again, but with much larger trees planted a little later in the year, on the theory that bigger trees with 9 months to get established might tolerate the winter better. There are plenty of avocado tress in out neighborhood, so it is possible to grow them here.

The avocados were in a choice spot, and I couldn’t let it just lay fallow, so:

Up front: pumpkins, since thinned to one plant per hill. Plan is to train them along/between the raised beds. Mid: Tomatoes and peppers. Got a late start, but we have a very long growing season. Background: back side of the brink planter, with two volunteer vines we’re waiting to see of what, along with some flowers & rosemary, and a pepper and tomato that a kid we know grew as a school project but didn’t want.

Way more than enough for now. Further bulletins when I feel like it, far beyond what events warrant.

  1. And play piano, read, and write. But the brick slinging is more colorful, shall we say. The language I use when I screw up is, at least.
  2. “Free” for the price of going to get them and cleaning mortar off them. I’ve cleaned mortar off several thousand bricks by this point. You get to be a connoisseur: mortar more than, I dunno, 50 years old? come right off with the proper application of leverage; the new stuff, especially refractory cement, is harder than the bricks themselves – if you hit the mortar hard enough to break it, the bricks break as well. You want bricks that were either pavers with little or no mortar on them, or from somebody’s old chimney. You do not want bricks from some suburban barbecue pit project that didn’t fit with the new homeowner’s lifestyle choices. The sad part: in another 50 years, there won’t be enough chimneys coming down for this whole ‘free brick’ thing to work. (In case you’re curious: professional urban recyclers seem to get the big project, like demolitions of old brick building and especially pulling up old brick-paved streets. For us amateur bargain hunters, it has to be small-fry projects.)
  3. Fig trees bleed quite a lot of sap if you trim them when they are growing, I’ve read they can be damaged and even die. Thus, I’m not going to trim this thing for another 6 months, until dormant this coming winter.