I didn’t feel well this morning either, so I stayed home with the cat. W- took care of both of us. I felt much better after a painkiller, so it turned out to be a pretty productive at-home day.
The cat bravely snarfed down her medicated food and then sniffled through the day, coming up to us for cuddles and spending the rest of the time watching squirrels and birds from her bed near the window. She used her litter box today – hooray!
We also attended the school barbecue and curriculum night. I asked the teacher what Grade 5 students typically found challenging, and how we might be able to help. He suggested checking out the Math textbook’s companion website, asking her questions about reading and writing, and looking for ways to make far-off concepts like ancient Greece be more vivid. =) Time to build a model of the Parthenon!
W- and I got to know each other over lots of carpool conversations. One time, he gave me a lift downtown. I asked him to drop me off at the Lillian Smith library, which was just a few blocks from my dorm. I had just discovered that I could order books online and have them delivered to a branch close to me, and I was looking forward to a quiet evening with a pile of books.
I hadn’t expected forty-two books to arrive all at once.
I called W- on his cellphone and explained the situation. He drove back, loaded the books into his car, and helped me take the books to my place.
I wonder what he must thought when he saw me with those two large piles of books and big puppy-dog eyes.
After we cleared the dinner settings, W- sat down with Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age. He was nearly done with it, and had been amused by Stephenson’s occasional geek references (pirates and ninjas! Lisp!). I started reading You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard. When I finished before he did, he said, “Sometimes, you scare me.” I made slurping sounds, and he laughed. We joke about this–I practically inhale books. Most nonfiction books are easy to skim. On the other hand, fiction and really well-written non-fiction are meant to be savoured.
“I have some more books for you,” W- said as he walked in the door. He had dropped by the library at his workplace and picked up a few books: one book on women and success, and another book on design.
He often brings home books he knows I’ll like. Two weeks ago, he brought home books about leadership, management, and workplace engagement. Before that, he brought home books on productivity, life, and comics.
He reads them as well. He likes how I bring a constant stream of books into his life, and often enjoys reading my finds.
We went to the library today. W- and I were browsing through the section for graphic novels. Flight Vol. 4 (Kazu Kibuishi) caught my eye. I picked it up and browsed through it, then tucked it into my to-read pile. When I looked up, I noticed that W- already had the next volume in his. That made me smile.
“There seem to be about fifty new books in my account,” W- said over lunch.
I’d borrowed a great idea from a friend and had someone go through my long list of things to read, requesting them from the library if available. My assistant must have put the requests on W-‘s library card instead of mine.
He laughed and corrected himself. “Okay, seventeen outstanding holds.” He read a few titles and smiled. He knows who I am, what I read, and why I read what I read.
I often tell people that my two main reasons for putting up with Toronto’s winters are W- and the Toronto Public Library. In some countries like my homeland, books are hard to get. I want to change that. Someday.
The squirrels had messed with the wrong seedlings.
To entertain cats and people alike, we’d fed the squirrels throughout winter. Now we were paying for it with the consequences of population explosion: ravaged seedling beds, munched-on sprouts, and dug-up and discarded onion bulbs.
The stench of bloodmeal didn’t stop the marauding rodents from plundering our vegetable patches. We didn’t want to use hot pepper flakes and other painful irritants. We needed a plan.
We stapled chicken wire on our raised beds, which kept the scallions and other bulbs safe for the moment. When the strawberry plants grew tall enough to poke white and pink flowers through the mesh, we knew we needed something bigger.
I was about to experiment with circles of chicken wire held together with duct tape and string. But W- had an engineering decree, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.
After days of discussing diagrams on scratch paper, we decided to build a semi-permanent frame. We picked up spruce and hardware from Home Depot, and then set to work. W- taught me how to use a circular saw to cut the lumber. I told him that it felt a lot like sewing: marking my seams and following the lines. We sanded, measured, marked, leveled, measured, and fastened. We finished the frame just as the sky darkened.
This is what it will probably look like:
We’ve finished the vertical and horizontal supports, and we’ll work on the chicken-wire doors this week. I’m looking forward to it.
I’m making my peace with subjects I detested in school. Now that sewing and cooking have become enjoyable hobbies, I’ve set my sights on shop class and drafting.
Working on shelves and other small projects in high school shop/tech class, I had felt awkward and clumsy. I struggled to wrap my mind around the spatial puzzles of carpentry. The classroom was full of sweat and sawdust, and the lab coats we wore did nothing for either.
Drafting classes in fourth year were more refined, but not more enjoyable. My classmates drew neat lines that intersected at just the right places. My papers were full of smudges, distortions, and impossibilities.
Now, without the pressure of a classroom and with more developed spatial skills (thank you, sewing and drawing), I can find these long-forsaken subjects relaxing, even enjoyable. Working with wood, I found myself thinking of other things I’d like to build. Drawing the structure, I though
Helps to have the right tools, too. Axonometric grids in Inkscape for drawing isometric images? Yes! So much easier than erasing and redrawing segments.
It’s great to challenge my memories. I’m learning that sometimes things are better learned the second time around. It’s great to know it wasn’t me, it was then. Who knows? I may yet revisit the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and learn how to look at fiction and poetry with a critical eye.
But first, I have some squirrels to chase off the lawn.
Russian birch plywood love © 2010 Sacha Chua – feel free to use it under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence
After Neko (our cat) joined our household, we discovered that we couldn’t leave bagels and other bread products outside without the risk of nibbles from a cat with the midnight munchies. We’d been looking for a wooden bread box for some time, but the stores we frequent have only plastic and stainless steel bread boxes. So I found a simple bread box plan and borrowed the basic ideas from it.
I modified the plan to use butt joints instead of lap joints because we haven’t figured out how to make proper joints yet. I also changed the plan to use 3/4″ plywood all around, because we might wall-mount the bread box and the back needs to be sturdy. I changed the height, width, and depth of the bread box too, so that it was as long as the microwave but shallow and short enough not to get in the way.
After drafting the plans on graphing paper, I marked the pieces on a sheet of 3/4″ Russian birch plywood, with 1/8″ gaps for the kerf removed by sawing. W- cut the pieces using the circular saw and his straight-cut jig. I glued and nailed the box top, back, bottom, and front rail. The nails gave me a bit of trouble, but I’m getting better at driving them in.
With the center assembled, it was easy to trace the outline on the two pieces of wood for the sides, adding 3/4″ near the top to account for the cover. I refined the lines with a ruler and W- cut them to size. While I attached the sides, he beveled the cover to fit.
All the bread box needs now are two hinges, a knob, and some kind of finish. It’s a substantial bread box with plenty of space for bread and other things we want to keep away from cats.
If I were to do this again, I’d probably make it out of a thinner wood. Russian birch plywood is stronger than regular birch plywood, so 1/2″ or thinner might do the trick. Russian birch is probably overkill for an everyday bread box, but (a) we had it, (b) I enjoyed working with it, and (c) the 13 layers of alternating dark and light wood look rather pretty on the front-facing edges. So maybe it would be regular plywood for the bottom and back (no exposed edges), and Russian birch for the sides, front, and top. =)
Oak bread boxes sell for ~$85 – 120 on Amazon.com. The 3/4″ sheet of Russian birch was around twenty dollars. Sure, it’s not oak, and we spent a lot of time making things, but it was a great way to learn something new, create something useful, and enjoy a holiday with someone I love.
We spent the Labour Day weekend finishing our Adirondack chairs, patching holes and dings in our hallway, and priming the surface for the another colour. I’m speckled with paint, but most of it has ended up on the wall and on my chair, so things are good.
I got frustrated, was encouraged, took a break, returned to my work, and made things happen. I had fun.
DIY makes me feel just a little more grown-up, a little more ready to take on life. I’m not afraid of hanging things on the wall, because I know we can patch it up. I’m not constrained by the furniture available in stores. I can make simple pieces. I’m not limited by the produce in the neighborhood supermarket. I can grow bitter melon and different varieties of basil.
It would’ve been much harder to explore these things on my own. I’m so lucky that W- has a lot of experience in these things, and he makes it easy for me to learn too. A lot of it has to do with having a house, and investing time into shared practical interests.
What else could I have been doing with my time? Writing. Coding. Drawing. Every moment is a decision to do one thing instead of another. Even if DIY leads to a less optimal life than, say, focusing on development and outsourcing time-consuming tasks not related to that, I like the balance and the freedom and the diversity of experience. I like building more stories into the everyday backdrop of our lives.
Here’s to working with your hands.