Weekend Update: the Sierra Leaves Me In Stitches

My head is starting to clear enough to at least think about doing some reading and writing. Let’s see if I can get this blog back on track.

A. My dear brother-in-law and his family in San Francisco invited my mother-in-law, who has been living with us over the last 16 months, to spend the weekend. This freed the more ambulatory contingent of the household to do some Nature, in the form of swimming at Clark’s Hole near Auburn, California, near where the American River’s branches conflux (that should be a verb!) on their way out of the Sierra.

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Looking back at the Old Forrest Hill Road from the Lake Clementine Trail. About the last bit of water you can see at the top is the spot where the Middle Fork meets the North Fork of the American River. The South Fork confluxes (It’s a verb, I say!) a little further down in Folsom Lake, a huge reservoir.

About an hour 40 minutes east of Concord, CA, the city of Auburn lies in the Gold Country on the old Gold Rush road called, appropriately, Highway 49. A couple miles south of town, the road descends to near the bottom of the river canyon, where Old Forrest Hill Road splits off. A ranger station sits just west of the bridge pictured above; the Lake Clementine Trail starts on east side.

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Offspring heading down the Lake Clementine Trail (the lake is another reservoir). That bridge, 730′ above the canyon floor, has been seen in many movies when a dramatic car-falling-off-a-bridge scene is called for.

Up the trail, under the impressive bridge, about 3/4 mile in is Clark’s Hole, a deep, slow-moving piece of what is otherwise a white-water river. Who Clark was has been lost to history, but this swimming hole has been in use as such for well over 100 years.

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Looking down at Clark’s Hole from the trail. That little rock cliff overlooks water 25-30′ deep, and is ideal for jumping. A passel of teenagers showed up later, and, after the manner of their kind, spend a couple hours jumping off those rocks. My offspring took a few turns. My beloved and I gave it a pass.
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Down by the water. Clark’s Hole runs quite a ways up the river, but only here near the end are there both easy-ish access and places to sit along the shore.

A good time was had by all, despite the 100F+ temperatures. The water was refreshing, but, thankfully, not the fresh snow melt temperatures these rivers coming out of the Sierra tend to be. About 7 years ago, we camped on the Stanislaus River in July, farther in and higher up, to be sure – the guy at the campsite told us the snow had finally melted off on July 4. The water was COLD. Here at Clark’s Hole, the water has been melted off and held in Lake Clementine for a few months now, so it’s not bad at all.

All would have been near perfect, had I not slipped on some mossy rocks and fallen, ending up with a gashed hand (5 stitches between my ring and middle finger on my left hand) and some very sore ribs. But, hey, I’m alive. It only hurts when I laugh. Or cough. Or reach for something. Or get up. Or sit down…. All it cost in the end was a copay at the emergency room and a couple more hours under the tender ministrations of the medical establishment.

(aside: while I have done my best to avoid the medical establishment – people who do so tend to live a lot longer! It’s science! – I’ve had interactions. This is the first time I’ve ever had a medical professional tell me: ‘this is going to hurt quite a bit’ and ‘keep breathing or you’ll pass out.’ What occasioned these comforting words was having painkillers injected into my hand so that she could stitch me up. And – hell, yea. It’s almost like your hands are a collection of highly sensitive nerves designed to enable mankind’s incredible fine motor skills, such that jabbing a needle in there and pumping in stuff HURTS LIKE HELL. Almost exactly like that.)

B. Got a little farther on the brickwork out front.

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Looking north.
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Looking South.

I one sense, this is an exercise in seeing if I can make use of ugly bricks. The back wall farthest from the street is made of those ugly concrete bricks people mostly use as pavers. The front wall will be made of those extra tall construction bricks. It will be double wide, capped in standard clay bricks, and topped with a 3′ wrought iron fence. There will be a 1′ wide planter between the walls. As we scavenged free bricks off Craig’s List, I ended up with many concrete and construction bricks; by building this wall/planter and its twin to the south, hope to use them up in an aesthetically pleasing way.

In the meantime, the fencing arrived.

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All I have to do is finish the planters to get them off our front porch. Sheesh.

C. We’re reading aloud Lord of the World and Lord of the Rings. Probably should start Lord of the Flies to keep the theme going? JK. While Tolkien is a sure crowd pleaser, I’m happy to report that the kids, age 20 & 14, are digging Lord of the World as well. It’s a very early – 1907 – dystopian apocalyptic novel told almost entirely via the internal lives of the main characters, at least over the first third to half. That you can get and hold young people’s attention with such a thing is remarkable, but Benson is a very good writer telling an remarkable story.

Almost finished that r/K is politics book. Will have stuff to say about it. It’s – something else.

Then, as energy and attention allow, back to the massive to be read stack.

D. Spent much of the first month of my involuntary unemployment dealing with health issues. Boring stuff, nothing life-threatening except in the way that mere health is life threatening if you let it go on long enough. Say, an additional 20-30 years, in my case. If I’m lucky.

My main complaint is tiredness, weakness and muddleheadedness. Adjusting the blood pressure meds did seem to deal with the sleepy part, however I’m still weak and have a very hard time focusing for very long. Been spending inordinate amounts of time on Twitter (I follow a bunch of SciFi writers, Catholics, Catholic SciFi writers, friends of Catholic SciFi writers, and so on) – 240 characters is about the limit of my focus. Match made in Hell.

But according to medical Science! my heart is good, a relief since at my age, my father had already had a massive heart attack resulting in quadruple bypass surgery and early retirement. So thank goodness. (Of course, he then lived to 88. I should be so lucky.)

Anyway, if my head clears up and I’m not feeling so weak all the time, should be able to return to reading and blogging. Let us hope.

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2nd of July Update

A. Made a little progress on the 3rd year and running Never-ending Front Yard Brickwork Project of Doom:

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Got the forms removed, added a couple feet of brick walk. I needed to see how it looked before deciding exactly where to position the column that will hold up the fence. Thinking the column should be about 4-6″ in front of the wall, to add a little articulation. Yes, I’m that geeky and obsessive.  
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This gives some idea where we’re going with this. Column on the end where the rebar is sticking up, 8″ (2 bricks wide) wall along the front nearest the street, 12″ planter in the middle, 4″ wide wall in the back. 3′ tall iron fence runs down the middle of the 8″ wide 16″ tall wall, flanked at either end by a brick column. Then, after the gap for the water meter, an identical set up on the other side. Fearful symmetry. 
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Oh look! A row of bricks for the 4″ wall! The Caboose and I threw them down just now. 

It will be extremely cute, with a little orchard behind it and climby plants in the planters, maybe some rosemary hanging down. Hope I live long enough to enjoy it…

B. Speaking of which, still ill. Still think it’s at least partly the blood pressure drugs, but to be honest I’ve gained a frightful amount of weight over the last 25 years, to the point where I need to own that that’s most likely the root of the problems. So, I’ve cut calories by about 1/3. All I need to do is keep that up for a couple years,,,,

It would be good to get some regular exercise, but that’s tricky when I can’t count on feeling up to it at any regular time. Getting long walks in when I can. So I’m logging blood pressure readings several times a day, keeping track of when I take the meds and how I’m feeling. Then when my doctor gets back after the 4th, we need to talk.

No reading, very little writing – mostly just this blog. Concentration is intermittent. More apologies to my beta readers – I am grateful and will get back to you soon, I hope.

C. Finally, got laid off from my job of 21+ years. While not the prime cause, I don’t think, being unable to focus or even stay awake at work helped things. So now I have about 5 months to find another job before I have to start in on my retirement savings. Wish me luck. Say a prayer if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m in much better shape than most people who go through this sort of thing, thank God, and I’m frankly glad to get out of what has long been a deteriorating work situation. But it’s no fun.

Home Improvement: Build That (Little Garden)Wall

Health is variable, but I did get it together enough Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday morning into the early afternoon to get started on a long-delayed project. Yesterday evening, with the trenches dug and the little forms and rebar laid in, the Caboose and I *finally* got the concrete poured for the first half of the long planned (over three years now!) little brick wall wall and walk along the street in the front of our house.

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Taken from the street. On the far left is the end of the brick walk and planters from 2 summers ago, now with attractive citrus tree!  In the center is the shade cloth for the poor suffering avocado trees. To right in the back are some of the many, many bricks I’ll need to finish this entire project (why yes, I am insane. Why do you ask?). Out of frame right is the water meter access that is the cause of not just pouring one 35′ footing  all the way across the frontage and being done with it. 

 

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The Caboose, 14 and very helpful, adds water. 
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Here I do a little preliminary smoothing. This shot reveals the plan a bit better: 8″ wide by 16″ tall wall in front, 12″ planter in the middle, 4″ by 16′ wall in back. My son stands on what will be a 24″ wide continuation of the brick walk.  Note the in-ground water meter (that gray rectangle) and yet more bricks in the background. 

The plan: after work from now until September, in the cool of the evening and with help of whatever kids are around and want to help, a wall gets built and a path gets paved. Also, an identical section of forms and rebar gets laid in on the other side of the water meter. Not sure what I’ll do about the meter – something like a 6′ diameter semicircle around it to give the meter reader (do those guys still exist?) plenty of room. Maybe I’ll mix it up and use stone? I got stone, too.

On top of the 16″ wall, I’ll put a 3′ wrought iron fence, like this:

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6 panels ordered from A Rustic Garden in rural Illinois.  Lovely stuff.  Imagine 2  12′ length between 1′ square brick columns at either end atop a 16″ brick wall….

The net effect: about 25′ of 3′ high fence atop a 16″ high brick wall, interrupted in the middle by whatever I do about the meter. At either end on either side, I’ll put in little 4′ towers to tie the ends of the fence into.

Then throw a little rosemary, climbing things and flowers in the planters. The cute meter will be pegged. But the brick work itself is seriously manly, I trust we all can agree.

Planning on Being Stupid?

It seems I’m planning on being stupid. Alas, I am not alone. On a grand cultural and political level, it often seems that stupidity is not always spontaneous, but rather many people plan and then execute being stupid. Examples include borrowing vast sums for degrees that will in no way aide you in making the vast sums you’ll need to pay back the loans. At no point in the process did the thought arise that this might not be a good idea? Politics presents many such examples: this time, the panic-driven government action will result in a solution to whatever (largely ginned up) crisis is being hard-sold today; this time, the various police institutions can/cannot be trusted more than anybody else; this time, our loyalty will be repaid by something other than the claim that the other guys would have done worse.

At some point, after enough repetitions, enough time to think it over, enough examples of the outcomes, one would almost have to conclude that either people are really, actively blind in a truly scary way or that the continued hope that, this time, the results will be different is, effectively, a plan of sorts. Perhaps these options are not mutually exclusive nor exhaustive…

But I digress. This is all about ME! And how stupid I’m planning to be.

At the moment, the plan is as follows: As soon as I get home, throw on some work clothes and head out front to work on prepping the forms for a small concrete pour (maybe 8 cubic feet) that is the next step in the Front Yard Improvement Project that was begun, oh, 3 years ago? If I can get it ready tonight, maybe I can pour this weekend when my teenage son will be available to help. He helped me pour the last somewhat larger stage:

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The concrete underlay for the ramp up to the front door, last year’s May/Junes project. David helped a lot, hefting bags, adding water, just doing stuff. He’s a year older and bigger this year, too. So I’ll get him to help this weekend when he gets back from a week’s camping.

This current step requires a bunch of hands-and-knees work measuring, laying out, hammering in stakes, laying in some rebar, as well as some digging (very little at this point). With luck and not counting the inevitable run(s) to the hardware store, maybe 3 hours of work? I tend to overestimate my efficiency, so – 4?

For many years, I’ve done stuff like this. Today, however:

  • it’s near 100F outside;
  • I’m 60 years old;
  • In possibly related news, my hands, back and knees have about a 2 hr limit on stuff like this. Any more than that, and I’ll pay for the next several days.

Why now, why not put it off? You might prudently ask.

These are the days, for next 2 months, where it is light enough after work to do anything. If I can get the forms & rebar done, I can pour concrete this weekend, then start in laying bricks in the evenings when I come home during the week. This stretch is nice and straight and orderly, so that I can mix a bag of mortar, put in 20-30 bricks in a couple hours, clean up and be in before dark. Do that a couple times a week for a few weeks, and I’m done.

Besides, been putting it off all spring. Truth is, I’ve been not feeling well. This has been going on for months or years, depending on how you want to count it. Think it has something to do with the array of blood pressure meds I’m on, but I’m not sure. Went through the whole stress test/EKG/bloodwork etc. maybe 9 or 10 months ago, and they seem to think I was fine. Yet, here I am, dragging around, falling asleep in the middle of the day, getting woolly-headed (a particularly discouraging thing for a guy who lives in his own head as much as I do), feeling generally weak and tired. Tasks both physical and mental that I used to throw myself at now seem to wear me out promptly or too difficult to even try.

However: Never give up! Never surrender!

So I think I’ll try, again, to muscle through it and see how it goes. Put on a hat, bring a big pitcher of water, and do it. Wish me luck.

It should be more like 90F by the time I get started. Balmy!

 

Better Living Through Cumulative Engineering

Got these excruciating posts on Deep Topics(tm) that I’m bogging on because  I have a cold and the concomitant even-more-than-usual muddled head. (all together now: “poor baby!”). So: lighter observations:

Lee Iacocca tells the story in his autobiography(1) of his first day at work for Ford.  After getting an engineering degree and a MBA from Harvard, he’s assigned to work on improving the design of a spring. He spent his first day studying a spring used someplace in some Ford vehicle or other, then marched off to request transfer into sales.

What’s striking me today about this story: it is very probable many men spent many hours working on that spring over the years. There were no doubt a set of specs for that spring, such as how big it could be, how long it had to last, how strong and resilient in needed to be to do its job. That was probably a pretty darn good spring. Ford then assigns a highly intelligent, highly trained young man to look at it again.

A generic toilet seat, for illustrative purposes only. Not exactly the model I used.  Like you care.

This story was brought to mind because I, rising from my sickbed (that’s your cue to cry me a river), replaced a toilet seat Tuesday in the front downstairs bathroom. The crummy plastic one that came with the toilets 15 years ago broke a hinge, so I got a slightly less crummy one with metal hinges and a sturdier-looking lid and seat to replace it.

What’s of note here, apart from my manly competence (I even had to use a screwdriver!) is that a crummy plastic toilet seat lasted 15 years in the most-used bathroom in a house of 6-7 people. Not bad, really. Further, the replacement seat used some pretty fancy engineering for the attachment to the bowl. I was impressed.

The spec for toilet seat fasteners includes some fairly stringent requirements, due to the, shall we say, environment in which they are to be deployed. First, they can’t rust. The top of a toilet bowl tends to be a damp, corrosive place. Second, since the bowl is porcelain, the fasteners must hold tight but not too tight, or they will crack the bowl. Third, they must be cheap. Nobody is going NASA-level on toilet seat fasteners.

The traditional approach, at least in my very small experience, is to use brass screws (don’t corrode like steel) and rubber or plastic gaskets and nuts, which will not permit overtightening. The nuts will break first. The nuts are winged, so that, when tightened from above, the wings will contact the underside of the bowl enough not to turn – handy.

And it works – OK. The cheap, 15 year old seat fasteners require regular tightening. This need was evidently anticipated by the engineers, who put slotted bolt heads under little plastic flaps at the back of the seat, so that they can be easily retightened using a screwdriver or a dime (my preferred method, although I’m compelled to wash the dime before putting it back in my pocket).

This new seat, which I’m guessing is heavy duty hardboard with a thick plastic coating, came with something else: stainless steel threaded rods, a force-fitted plastic collar for the top and a long plastic ‘nut’ with an hexagonal cross-section for the bottom. The rods screwed into the hinges and the collars made sure the rods didn’t make contact with the bowl. I’m thinking the engineers thought this separation would reduce the risk of both cracking the bowl and corroding the rod.

The nuts, which are a bit like short straws only threaded in the middle, could only be tightened from below. Too early to tell if this was part of the plan assuming the engineers had solved the loosening over time issues, or just valuing aesthetics over ease. The engineering coolness: the nuts have an hexagonal nub on the end that, according to the instructions, is supposed to break off once you’ve gotten the nuts to the proper tightness, solving the overtightening issue. (A determined monkey could grab the remainder of the nut and keep turning, but that would be stupid.)

This tech might be 100 years old, for all I know. That’s not the point. Somebody still had to notice it, and apply it to something as utterly mundane and as lacking in glamour as toilet seats.

The point of all this: we live in a time and place where real engineers spend real time on issues as utterly trivial as springs in cars and fasteners on toilet seats, and have done so now for generations. There are hardly any aspects of our physical lives that have not been touched and improved by some unknown engineers somewhere improving this or that gadget or tool. Our cars are safer, last longer and are easier and more fun to drive. Our utilities just work. The lines painted on our roads last longer and reflect the light. We guys can get a good shave without committing facial seppuku even when half-asleep. And so on.  All these little changes have made life easier and more pleasant, overall.

While we are perhaps more aware of stupid innovations that fail to make life easier (*cough* Microsoft *cough*), it would be good to also notice all the little improvements that are so easy to miss because they Just Work. Science gets all the attention, and it is indispensable. But without all the endless mundane engineering, science would just be pie in the sky dreaming.

So, cool, and thanks to the unknown army of engineers. The toilet seat failure reminds me, however, that I now have to face replacing pretty much all the appliances we bought 15 years ago, as they march right past their use by dates and start falling apart. Guessing 10 years was probably the engineering target. There’s a dark side to almost everything.

(Would also mention that this cumulative engineering is the sort of thing a free market does well and a managed market very poorly or not at all, but this is a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o!)

  1. Yes, I’ve read Iacocca’s autobiography. Hey, I was young and foolish and stuck some place that had a copy of it on the shelf. I probably am not remembering it right. So sue me.

Home Improvement Oops

I learned to measure things at my dad’s sheet metal shop. Two things about working with sheet metal and my dad: metal doesn’t change dimensions much with humidity; and a 10th of an inch is close enough but hardly fussy.

Ever since I started working with wood, I’ve had problems: wood, at least along 2 out of 3 axes, does change dimensions with humidity, and a 10th of an inch is way less than the amount the width and thickness of wood change as it dries and absorbs moisture. I keep telling myself not to cut things so tight, and I keep cutting it too close anyway.

Current case in point: this oak door I made for the brick oven:

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Weeeell, I was shooting for about 3/8″ of clearance on the sides, which I more or less achieved – during the heat and dry of summer. Should have shot for 1/2″ at least. One problem is that the old, recycled bricks that form the arch into which the door fits are hardly consistent and smooth. They have uneven surfaces even apart from any inconsistency in my brick work. My 3/8th” theoretical clearance was not achieved in practice.

So: While it rained maybe a week before, had a few nice days over Thanksgiving and the almost 22 year old son was in town only a couple days before his birthday, and so was thinking about firing the oven up. The door, while maybe a bit snug this summer, at the time still fit without too much falderal.

When we last used the oven, we left the door in. On Friday, it had swollen to the point of complete immobility. I yanked. I pushed. I wiggled. Nothing – stuck so that any more force seemed likely to break it.

Found a little fan, ran it for a day straight – nothing. I’m considering seeing if I can whack it from the inside with a sledge stuck down the chimney (kind of doubt it). Seriously getting worried it may destroy the brickwork if it swells any more.

If I ever get it out of there, will trim the sides a bit – and store it somewhere dry for the winter.

Weekend Update: Brick Oven Blowout

On Saturday, the Caboose and I finished up a couple details on the brick oven: the Guadalupana shrine and the oven door.

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The Caboose putting on a 2″x2″ framing tile.

 

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Next time I’m doing stucco, I’ll stucco around this, hide the tile set and cinder blocks.

David (that’s the Caboose) was inspired: he tracked down a couple small statues of Mary to flank the big tile, and spotted some Guadalupana votive candles at, of all places, Home Depot. So now the image has candles and little statues, and will eventually have some flowers and plants growing in front.

Don’t think I posted a picture of the little ledge with tiles on it:

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Plan to tile around the edges, too – tentatively scheduled for May, 2020. Only slightly kidding.

Next, if you want to do bread in a brick oven (one that isn’t gigantic, at any rate) you need an oven door. Scrounged up some scrap oak, dragged out the trusty table saw, clamps and glue:

 

What doesn’t show: thin sheet of galvanized steel, 1″ layer of ceramic insulation batting, and another layer of steel bolted to the back of the door. That sucker is heavy! But worked like a charm. Only issue: around the top, the wood is already being charred – heat rising, and the seal not being perfect. All I can see to do is monitor the situation – can’t see an obvious solution at this point, and maybe getting charred is all that will happen?

Fired up the oven a little after noon. By a little after 3, we were cooking. First up: seared flap steak:

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Two steaks, One was a little on the rare side, the other a nice medium rare. Tuck a few slices into half a ciabatta roll, add deli mustard – it was good. Later, reheated the meat in a cast iron skillet, and it was all medium to medium-well done. Still yummy.

Per Alton Brown, you liberally salt both sides, then let sit for an hour to warm to room temperature, spread some 1000F coals, and throw the steaks directly on them! Paleo, dude! 45 seconds to a side, knock off any coals that stick, then lay the steaks on top of each other on foil, wrap snuggly, let rest 15-20 minutes, slice thin against the grain – and super yummy.

Also made pastrami for the less bloodthirsty among us:

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Next up: the ciabatta rolls. Shovel back the coals, sweep the ash to the back, and throw the raw dough right on the bricks:

 

Did you know that ciabatta can catch fire if it gets too close to those 1000F coals?

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I was concerned, a little, about the blackened mess, but – these crispy, chewy rolls were soon gone! Yummy, and I learned a thing or two, mostly about the inflammability of bread dough.

Next up: pizza!

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Goat cheese, tomatoes and basil on pesto. It got et.

Made 5 pizzas, one was a dud – you can’t use very runny sauce, tends to boil and dissolve the crust before the pizza is done – the others were quite good.

Also wanted to try baked potatoes, because it seemed weird:

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Coat in oil, salt, and wrap in foil. Put the dutch oven on the coals to preheat, add potatoes, slide back up against the fire. Takes about 30 minutes to bake. Didn’t try one, reports are the texture came out very smooth.

Finally, spread the remaining coals over the oven floor, closed up the door, let sit for almost an hour while getting the ciabatta dough ready. Then remove all the hot coals and ash (got a cool lidded metal pail for just this thing) sweep, then mop with a dripping rag, check floor temp – should be around 550F – and throw the bread in right on the bricks.

The mopping not only reduces the amount of ash you going to get on your bread, but also raises the humidity in the oven which, paradoxically, makes for a crisper crust. 20-30 minutes later:

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Delicious with a little of the sharp cheddar you can see at the bottom there. Crispy, light and chewy – good stuff! Could have been maybe a little browner. Next time!

To get proper use out of a non-commercial brick oven, one must dedicate half a day to prep, and all of a day to firing/cooking. So, invite a lot of friends over – we did, worked out well, weather was California perfect. Spent Saturday evening making the ‘biga’ – the sponge – for the ciabatta and mixing up some pizza dough.  Then cleaned up and set up and first firing. Guests started showing up around 2, cooking started around 3, and the last guests left after 8. Just hanging out on the patio and backyard, yacking and eating and drinkling.

A lot of fun. It will take me a week to recover.