The Lessons of Old Wood

Some projects take more time than others. Twenty-seven springs ago, when I knew we were moving into this house, I bought an old, cedar lined, wardrobe trunk, to use as multipurpose furniture.
“It can be a coffee table or a lamp table” I caroled to my overwhelmed husband. “While it stores extra blankets and quilts.”
“What we need is more floor space,” he replied, eyeing the battle-scarred box, “and we’re not going to get it with that ugly thing.”
“Just you wait, once I paint it, this thing will be beautiful,” I said. And, because I was in a hurry, I poured a quart of ivory paint over the entire trunk and hauled it into the house. It didn’t look good or hold the out-of-season linens like I planned, but it served as table and storage container for decades, first in the living room and then on the porch. With the construction of Darling Husband’s garage, the cedar trunk was emptied of its cache of tools and finally ready for the restoration I promised it years ago.
Trunk after years on the porch. This should be an easy cleanup, right?
That process has taken the best part of a week and three layers of skin from my hands. But I also gained some wisdom worth keeping: what I think of as The Lessons of Old Wood
Respect the Product That’s what I didn’t do with ivory paint years ago. Wardrobe trunks were manufactured to be complex, durable luggage made from various woods, metals, cloth adhesives and other materials. As a result, these trunks were durable, one reason there are still so many on the market. But that also meant, no matter how sad my trunk looked when I purchased it years ago, the ivory paint didn’t hide the scars of its use; instead, it added an extra layer I’d have to take off down the line. And none of those layers would leave without a fight.
Respect the Process. After years of neglect and exposure, I expected stripping this thing would be a cinch. So, putty knife in hand and the lyrics to Born in a Trunk in my head, I went to work. And five hours later, the porch floor was covered in layers of adhesive, paint and cardboard, I was a sweaty mess and the trunk looked like it had an incurable skin disease. After that came three days of rubbing, sanding, chemical strippers and removing decades of grime from the details of this box. By the end of the third day, my unconscious had switched from Born in a Trunk to Give Me Something to Believe In and the top layer of skin on my hands was gone. And the trunk still looked sick.
3 days and the boring trunk now looks diseased.
Strong Problems require Strong Treatment. After a little Internet Research, I found Citristrip, a marvelous product that cleans wood and metal without killing your sense of smell. That took layers off the wood of the box and floor below when it dropped (well, I can repaint the porch later.) Notice all the stained wood? Yeah, so did I. Trust me, no chemical stripper or high-grit level of sandpaper will fix that issue. So I went to work with the 60 grit sandpaper and kicked up a huge level of dust. Now that sucker’s beginning to clean up.
Post CitriStrip – Stained but Cleaned
You have to Get Dirty to Clean Something Else Up. This is something the DIY blogs don’t mention. When I reviewed posts on restoring old furniture (and there are thousands of them out there) they all mentioned several things, like chemical strippers, vinegar and water solutions and lots and lots of sanding. None of them mentioned the mess all this creates. As layers of paint, glue, and cardboard came off of the trunk, they reattached themselves to whatever was handy; the floor, my shorts and me. And stripping gel is an ooey-gooey gunk before it gets to work, even worse when it does its job. So have trash bags handy and lots of paper towels if you decide to do this. Expect to wash a lot of laundry during the process. And repaint the porch when you’re done.
Stripped and Sanded – The trunk looks better even if the porch floor looks worse
Perfect ain’t necessarily flawless. When the trunk was clean inside and out and the goo-soaked mess was gone, I took a serious look at the box left behind. To me, the wood was beautiful, but it looked far from flawless. There were scars and pits in the surface that even a good sanding couldn’t touch and the woodgrain had some serious issues. I remembered that, although the interior was lined with cedar, this exterior was a different wood, probably considered inferior and cheap. So had all of my work been for nothing?

No.  I cherish this old wooden box because of the age and events that gave it these scars.  It was probably made somewhere between 1910 and 1940, which means it’s seen at least one world war, a few revolutions, some economic downturns, and a lot of social change.  At first, it was somebody’s luggage with drawers on one side and hangers on the other, which means it’s probably been hauled to a lot of places and had a lot of hands upon it.  As the times changed, it got shoved into unlikely places, filled with crap, and ignored.  And then I dumped my husband’s greasy tools inside and left it out in the weather.  And still, the trunk survives.  
So, this time, I rubbed it down with layers of tung oil, allowing it time for each layer to cure. I didn’t try to mask the imperfections in the wood but I did try to let its golden beauty shine through along with its age.  And then I put it back to work.

Now the Trunk is where I always wanted it to be, holding the quilts and blankets we don’t need right now.  Even Darling Husband says it’s beautiful.  And I think he’s right.


Ever been slapped upside the head by a forgotten Memory?

I’m not talking about the memories with short-cut, easy-access triggers.  Those are the ones you use from every day, stuff like your computer password, social security number and how to drive a car. Other recollections get misfiled in dusty cranial drawers so when you need the information, you walk around feeling stupid for five minutes, saying, “I know (fill in the blank) like I know my own name, what is it?” I’m talking about the memories that pop up out of nowhere and surprise the heck out of you.  That happened to me today. You could say it was a random accident or because Father’s Day is coming up soon. Personally, I think the culprit is cake.

See, dense sugar/carb sweets are like cocaine to me and I’ve been trying to live without them for the last 14 months or so.  I’ve been doing pretty well with that too, not even missing the pastries I couldn’t live without before.  At least until a couple of things that happened lately….

See some friends did us a wonderful favor.  I mean HUGE.  And nothing says “Thank You” to a friend like bringing them a great, big, gorgeous, dessert you’ve made yourself.  But nothing will get me in trouble faster than getting my fingers near cake batter So, I purchased and froze one angel food cake, two cartons of ice cream, some strawberries and whipped topping.   The frozen angel food cake was sliced into three layered rings, ice cream was spread like mortar between the layered rings, the whole thing was frosted with topping and strawberries and the result?

Tempting, right?

One “Thank You” cake pretty enough for the cover of Southern Living that still managed to avoid the perils of temptation…barely.  But then, there came the cookout.

Cookouts are almost an obligatory component of summer, like visitors.  Since we were hosting the latter, we had the former.  And (because you can’t host a cook-out without dessert), pound cake and fruit were on offer for dessert.  A dessert no one had room to eat.  So after the cook-out, I’m stuck at home with a pound cake.

Does anyone remember Richard Pryor’s routine about the cocaine pipe?  He swore that the pipe talked to him when he was actively freebasing. Now, when I first heard it, I thought he was a brilliant comedian, during the misery of addiction into performance art but I didn’t really believe the pipe talked.  Well folks…the cake started talking.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN:  Lessslie. Oh, Lessslie… I’m heeere.

ME:  Shut up, cake.  I don’t want you.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: Now, we both know that’s a lie. You liiiike me. Come on over here.

ME:  No.  Go Away.

VOICE IN THE KITCHEN: You want me to go away?  You know how to get rid of me.

Cake wouldn’t stop talking until I left the room and went to bed. Right after I cut out one thin slice.

Next morning, I’m back in the kitchen and cake’s voice is stronger than ever, which makes no sense since there’s less of him now on the plate.  I’m actually considering eating a slice for breakfast when I heard one of my dad’s favorite records playing:

You came…and I was aloooone

 I shudda knooown

You wuz Tump-TAY-shun 

This was a speeded-up, country version of the old standard Red Ingle and Jo Stafford recorded. Dad loved because it sounded so silly. I hated it. I hadn’t heard of or thought of the recording for years, but here it was, plain as day.

I stood there, looking at Cake and listening to Stafford moan and yowl her way through the lyrics.  When she got to,”Take it Away, Take it AWAY” the memory meaning clicked in my head. That cake was Tump-TAY-shun and I had to take it away or, succumb.

Well, somewhere in this favored land, 95% or more of a pound cake lies in wait, looking to seduce some other poor chump jonesing for sugar.  But not in my house.  And I have the memory of Dad’s music choices to thank for this. And I’ve decided, no matter what the occasion, I’m not bringing cake back into my house for awhile. It’s one dessert that doesn’t know when to shut up.

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans

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It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.

The Story

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success.  Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public.  At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.

The Summary

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed.  It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century.  Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.


Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are that your vacation history includes one or more of our National Parks.  That’s great! The National Park system is a great idea: beautiful spaces owned by and open to the public. The only problem, for the addicted reader, is you can’t look at the natural beauty while you’re reading a book. I mean, as much as I adore the outdoors, I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I’m face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the second my face turns to the book, I feel guilty about ignoring Nature.  I can’t enjoy both together.

At least I thought so until my friend, Edna, introduced me to the Anna Pigeon mystery series by Nevada Barr.  Why are those books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Park Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.   Let’s start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It’s set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot my folks dragged me to when I was small.  It’s a beautiful, barren, desert kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That’s the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also sees the Park’s human visitors. There are the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists and permanent neighbors who have their own agendas for Park land. Anna also sees the word of Park Service employees many of whom work for a pittance in order to keep the land and its visitors safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna’s mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that’s why I’m continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I’ve started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don’t disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you’ll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you’re visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.


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