Undoing Shrooms

The mushroom, for those of you who have never studied mycology, is the flower and fruit of a fungus. The fungal organism itself is a big and hidden mass of invisibly thin tendrils living in a moist medium. But periodically, when the fungal mass gets mature enough, it sends up little above-ground shoots to spread its seed. Well, spores. We call these little buds from the organism “mushrooms.”

Today’s Object at Hand is the frightening appearance of mushrooms in a crack of my old patio table. How old? It is made of redwood, a material effectively forbidden for such uses since the early 1970’s. I grew up with this Sears patio table since the 1960’s. Every few years (since I was able to see the top of it while standing on the ground) I would partake in the process of applying a coat of wood preserver, oil stain.

Mushrooms sprouting from the patio table 😦

Now, clearly, something had gone wrong; my table was sick. Fungus is the pathogen for wood. Aside from termites, fungi are the only things that eat wood. Other critters like carpenter ants and cutter bees burrow in wood, but don’t actually eat it. By the time it fruits, when you first see a mushroom, there must be extensive damage.

After I took a few pictures, I took the top apart and found that over a board foot of the space in between the solid stained surfaces had turned to mush. Picture an oval volume two feet wide, half a foot deep, and an inch thick between fully polymerized wood veneer above and below.

So I dug out the mush, and treated the interior with copper sulfate (it preserves wood well, but eats iron fasteners). Where does one get such a toxic chemical? Zep Root Kill is found in most hardware stores. Most crafting stores have it as copper plating solution. It has many uses.

Once the blue solution had dried, I filled the hole with wood putty and reassembled the table. I replaced the rotted dowel pegs with copper pipe. Copper will not rot, and actually prevents rot almost as well as lead. And dowel assembly avoids the use of nails, screws, or other iron fasteners that will corrode faster when near copper compounds.

Once the putty had time to fully cure, I also gave the whole thing another coat of oil stain. The table lives to be eaten off of another day, decade, or generation.

Quadrennial application of oil stain to the 1960’s patio table, its lazy Susan, and the benches.

Lego my Ego

I recently recalled an event from my early childhood. One that may reveal too much about myself. But as it revolves around a very specific object, and I happen to still have this object at hand, here we go.

I was probably 4½ years old, and my mother had taken me and my baby brother on errands. I infer that she promised me a toy, as I clearly recall being in a hole-in-the-wall strip-mall toy store, and my mother impatiently goading me to go ahead and pick something out.

My brother (maybe 18 months old) got fussy. Clearly, my brother was about to melt down right there in the store. So mom handed me a dollar and told me to pick out some Lego. I felt quite grown up being given that responsibility. Not only to choose what I wanted, but also to handle the money myself. So there I was alone in the Lego aisle.

I could read numbers and quite a few words by this point, so knew that I could only afford some of the small boxes. Also I could only reach the bottom two shelves. Even with these restrictions, it was an overwhelming variety. I also had been instilled with the idea of getting as much as possible for my money. So I carefully looked at the piece counts on the boxes. Finally grabbed a box that looked like a good deal, and walked over to the counter. I reached up and placed the box and the dollar up there.

Squat Lego block
Well used six-stud
one-third height
Lego block I’ve had since 1965

The clerk (whom I remember being a young man) asked me if I was sure this was what I wanted. His tone struck me as condescending, and I didn’t like being challenged, so I confirmed.

He opened the box, and showed me the colorless, flat, odd sized pieces inside. He probably was sure that I would be happier with a box of assorted pieces that would assemble into something. He probably was right.

He said that this box only has this one kind of piece in it, was I sure?

“I know that,” I asserted. I did see the picture on the box, and the number of pieces. I wasn’t some stupid little kid, after all. Sure, I had no idea what I would use them for. But they looked like a good value, and my mother was waiting for me, and I had to finish my business.

So the clerk (who had been hoping my mother would return) went ahead and kachinged the register way up on the counter, then leaned over and counted out the change on the counter where I could see by standing on my toes. Then handed the change down to me, and then he handed me the little brown bag with my box of Lego.

I hastily made my egress (had to push hard to open the door) and found our white VW bug parked at the sidewalk with its nose toward the store. My mother was wrestling with my brother in the back seat, probably a diaper change against his will.

When I came up, she was watching for me. She asked for the change and the receipt. I handed them to her and climbed into the back seat. It was my job to keep my brother on the seat; this was before child seats or seat belts. And then (as one might surmise) she drove us home.

Back to my prize: I suspect that I realized pretty quickly that my first purchase ever was not a great choice. Who ever uses Lego with a multiple of three? Every piece I’d seen before had 1, 2, 4, or 8 studs. All were also full height. I probably secretly hoped that there was something better in the box, besides what the box claimed. But no.

So my ego was clearly very defensive already back then, when I had only a fuzzy idea of the relationship between value and price. But I still look for best value, and still am unable to admit that I had acquired something that I didn’t really want. And returning things just feels wrong.

Spicy Pumpkin

This is not a recipe; well, not for food. We have an ornamental pepper plant in our garden, and we have a problem with squirrels noshing on Halloween pumpkins sitting decoratively on our porch. The object at hand today is the little ornamental pepper.

We decided to taste the cute little thing recently, The tempting red flesh had almost no flavor, and no spice. But then I chewed a seed. You know that kind of heat that lets you hear colors? That’s what it was like. And so (once I was breathing normally) I was inspired to make a squirrel repellent pumpkin preserver.

I cut open two peppers, and dried them for a few days. Then I muddled them with some canola oil in a mortar and pestle. Finally the mixture was stored in a jar with more oil for a few days. Then carefully applied to the pumpkin with a silicone brush, and the pumpkin then set out for neighbors to admire. Carefully not for the sake of the pumpkin, but so as not to get the truly hot (in the Scoville sense) oil on my hands.

So now our pumpkin can sit safely on the porch, defended from squirrels and from mold and rot (capsaicin acutually evolved as an anti-fungal agent in peppers).

Pumpkin so shiny because we brushed it with hot pepper oil to deter the squirrels, after noting them having already partaken.

Sugar Bowl Past

For my parent’s 25th Wedding Anniversary (their “silver”) I decided to make them a solid sterling sugar bowl. I’d been taking silversmithing classes for a few years, and thought I was ready by my penultimate college semester. The process started with a few days sketching (often during Systems Science or archaeology class). Then I borrowed a car and went out to a precious metals foundry and bought the biggest piece of silver I’d ever acquired. It was a full square foot of 20 gage sheet metal in sterling. Plus a foot of quarter inch square bar. Silver was still slowly recovering from the Hunt Brothers, so it cost nearly a month’s rent. This was a big bite for me.

To begin the weeks of part time (art studio hours) smithing, I had to anneal and then face my big, flat, still-returnable sheet of metal. I held it in one hand on a stake, the five pound hammer raised up to my shoulder. I hesitated for the decisive moment.

Then I did smite it: “Bam!” No longer returnable. Oh well, onward…

Silver sugar bowl and spoon on copper standThis went on into fall finals, while I was taking a 21 hour course load to finish an engineering degree at a fairly high end university. The whole process was actual smithing: Pure hammer work, both cold forging and shell forming. Not a cast to be poured.  I turned in the finished object as my final project in silversmithing class.

My parent’s anniversary is between the winter solstice and the end of the calendar year (to make it harder for hackers to guess at security questions). I also made a batch of cookies, with a chocolate “25” embedded in a pale orange roll, so each sliced cookie had the number. It was my first attempt at such an embedded pattern two-tone cookie, so the shapes and sizes were a bit variable. But readable and tasty.

Anyway, the morning of their anniversary, I walked the snowy mile from my apartment to their house (convenient in-town college) carrying the cookies and artwork in my ratty backpack. They were not expecting me, nor my presents. After greetings and salutations, I pulled out the cookies and presented them on a silver-Mylar platter, and let them get past the initial “clever boy” sounds that always seemed so much to me like when a kindergarten presents a finger painting.

Then I pulled out the sugar bowl. Sure it’s weird. They didn’t know what to say. I think they appreciated the gesture. I suspect my father appreciated the form, and my mother the execution.

But as my own 25th wedding anniversary is imminent, this seemed an appropriate Object at Hand to share. I pulled it from the depths of a cabinet (where I stashed it after my last parent died almost a decade ago), dusted it, polished it up, and snapped some pictures on the kitchen counter using just natural light.

Several images of it below. The base is copper that I rolled into slightly tapering tubes from flat sheet metal. The black coating is copper sulfide (via liver of sulfur) then varnished. The pads are little bits of ebony wood. The spoon is hammered from a 1/4″ square bar of sterling, a process that I find soothing. I did not try to hide the reflected clutter, camera, or my face.

Click on a picture to see it larger.

Silver sugar bowl and spoon on copper stand

A Chip Off the Old Stack

I recently dropped the memory card for my camera, and it split apart into 4 pieces. Two of them form the shell, the part most people are aware of. The tiny slider that allows a device to write to the card vanished; I scavenged one from an inferior card to replace it when I fixed this card, but that is not the point.

My Object at Hand today is that little circuit card, the actual memory for my fancy camera. I bought it a couple of years ago, making sure it was rated U3 (fast enough to record 4K video or a continuous stream of 20Mp jpgs at the rate of 60 per second). But this was not my point, either.

When I saw that little circuit board, the wrapper for the tinier chip of silicon inside, I had a personal memory flash of how many floppy disks it represented. Back before flash memory, some early digital cameras stored to a floppy disk.

My little 32GB card holds the same amount of data as a stack of about 88,000 5-1/4″ double sided, double density diskettes. These ruled through the early 1980’s, when the floppies actually seemed floppy.

If you aren’t old enough to remember those, you could picture it as a stack of about 22,700 3-1/2″ rigid “floppies” that took over in the later 1980’s. I managed to barely miss the era of 8″ floppies (some of which held almost as much data as the later 3-1/2″ floppies). Those were mainly used on pre-desktop computers.

After that, came optical media. This SD card could be copied onto only 44 CDR’s; those cost about $20 each when I first was using them in the early 90’s. Then came the DVD-R, of which only 7 would be needed.

And this is no longer considered a big SD card. As of today, one can buy a 2TB (2,000GB) card at most electronics outlets. My main computer hard disk is only 1TB (although I am thinking of upgrading).

So this was just a “back in my day, dadgummit” post.

Well Read Journey

Today’s Object At Hand is a book, Henry Reed’s Journey. I’ve probably read this book more often than any other (starting as a child). There is irony behind that: I was usually car sick as a child, thus hated actual travel. So, why would I so regularly read a book about an epic trans-American car trip?

Well, I first read this book in entirety when I was ten, and had discovered recreational reading and a nearby public library. Before that summer, reading was just something I did for information, or for school requirements.

The first time I read this book (selected pretty much at random), I recognized one chapter in it from when I had to read aloud in a group in third grade. Back then, kids were divided up into small groups based on reading skill, from brown, red, green, etc. up through silver and (my group) gold. The teacher used an anthology text, chapters from various sources. In this case, we third graders were reading stories (like this) meant for 12 year olds. But once we were reading at Junior High level, the reading circles ended. Fine with me; my mouth could never keep up with my reading speed. I was probably an unintelligible orator.

Anyway, there is a whole series of these Henry Reed books, and this is the second in the series. Once I discovered them at age 10, I re-read them each summer until I was old enough to feel foolish going up to the children’s section of the library.

So in the new millennium, well into my second marriage, and with many cross country road trips under my belt, I had a yen to read this book again. I got this copy on eBay and have resumed my childhood habit of reading it once each summer.

I still enjoy it. But now more for the nostalgia for the road trip world of the 1960’s than for the potential adventure it had evoked when I was young.

In for a Penny: A Father’s Day Memory

One of my early memories involves wheat pennies and Father’s Day. In 1965 my mother wanted to surprise my father with a hammock, for him to better enjoy his summer weekend afternoon naps. His birthday is in mid winter, so Father’s Day seemed the appropriate occasion. To this end, she had been saving the change from all household purchases for months. Back then, most retail transactions were in cash.

I remember her sorting the coins into rolls in the morning, and then taking my brother and me along to the department store (probably Sears at Crestwood Plaza) after lunch. My brother (13 months old) was in the stroller and not yet toddling. I remember her telling me (an undersized and solemn four year old) that this trip was a secret. We walked in to the garden department, where I absorbed the view of the patio tables and benches and colorful umbrellas from my point of view just below table height.

We waited by the display model of the canvas hammock, on its beige steel tube stand, with green longways stripes and white fringe hanging from the wood supported ends right at eye level. A salesman finally appeared, talked to my mother carefully (she had a pretty thick accent), and then fetched a big box with a picture of the same hammock on it. My mother carefully  counted out rolls of quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies on to the glass counter by the register to pay for it.

Now a bit of back story: My mother had been coin-collecting wheat pennies for years, since the change to memorial backs in 1959. Carefully segregating them from the modern memorial back pennies. Unfortunately, she had not specifically labeled the “special” penny rolls kept in her desk drawer.

So it was some time after the Father’s Day-of-the-hammock that she discovered that her squirreled away special wheat-back penny rolls were gone, and that she had probably spent them on the hammock. It was a personal crisis for her, a loss that I could feel, and still sharply remember.

So today’s Object at Hand is the (no longer common) wheat penny. Every time I receive one, this memory flashes through my mind. And I also carefully stash them away, separate from the other copper pennies (as opposed to the zinc filled ones from 1982 through  the present).