Category Archives: Projects

There Are Stories in the Wood

I’m accustomed to my wife having the grand visions for our home as far as decorating, re-decorating, renovating, re-renovating, etc. My strategy when she begins one of these projects is usually to keep my head down and stay out of the way. Of course, this is largely impossible, because her projects often involve me building something. There was the dining room table, a while back, and then the built-in bed, more recently.

Her current project has been the renovating/repurposing of our sunroom. The room has always been a bit awkward, a late 50s addition that apparently turned an external porch into a long, narrow space we never quite knew what to do with. It held a tiny desk that I used for what passed as my home workspace, as well as a piano, a couple dog kennels, and assorted randomness.

My wife’s Pinterest-inspired vision for the room was to turn it into a more functional office/study/library, and my portion of this would involve the construction of a custom desk running the length of the room. I love the idea of a mammoth desk, and the skill level didn’t seem to exceed my standard: putting large pieces of wood together in a fashion that would keep them from falling apart over extended usage.

We measured the corner where we wanted it to fit, and I got to work. I had grand ideas of getting beautiful ten-foot planks of some kind of lovely hardwood, and then I saw the prices at Lowe’s. I settled for three ten-foot pieces of regular untreated lumber, which I assume were pine but know from their labels were grown in Idaho forests.

building desk

The trick was finding three pieces that didn’t look like they had fallen off the back of the truck multiple times on the way from the sawmill. I dug through the piles until I found a few that were good on at least one side and relatively straight, and then I stared at them for ten minutes trying to figure out the math. Did I want three that were ten inches wide (which would have made the desk too wide) or three that were only eight inches wide (which would have been too narrow)?

My son, who was helping me out that day, finally sighed and said, “Dad, why don’t you just get a mix so the measurement comes out right?”

Genius. So the middle plank is an 8-inch and the outer two are 10-inchers.

stained desk

I joined them with the magic of a kreg-jig and only modest cussing (actually, it went together pretty easily) and then put 1 x 1 braces underneath and at the far lip. No fancy finishes here. This is going to be a workhorse. My wife reminded me that she wanted a hole drilled in the middle to run cords for those who don’t pen their epics in ink and blood, so I used a 2 1/4-inch hole saw inherited from my dad to make the whole thing look like a doorway for skinny giants.

My wife used witchcraft to find a stain that matched the engineered hardwood floor I installed in the room a couple weekends ago, and she filled in some of the more noticeable cracks with wood filler. On top of that went three coats of a water-based polycrylic, and then it was good to go.

finished desk

Here it is, ready for work. You can see one of the brackets that I used to mount this on the far wall lying on the floor in the middle image above. The brackets I used were probably overkill, but if you know anything about my projects you know they need to be built to withstand the hostility of four rowdy kids. There are two brackets on the far wall and one in the middle, and as you can see here the near end rests on a salvaged file cabinet that my wife painted a whimsical blue.

It’s level, it’s solid, and I have room to sprawl. I like to think that the grain of wood holds stories, maybe compounded of years of soil and sun and wind. If that’s the case, I hope some of that distills into the work I’ll be writing atop these planks.

Or at the very least that they don’t end up crushing my legs.

In Which I Build a Bed

A couple years ago I did a stupid thing. My wife asked for a dining room table for Christmas, and I built her one. She told me it would be easy. She told me she wanted a rustic farmhouse table. She told me that meant it was supposed to be kind of blocky and rough and that I didn’t have to be a great finish carpenter like my dad to make it work.

She was right.

It wasn’t incredibly easy, but it was easy enough that a guy with limited manual dexterity and some of his father’s borrowed tools could put it together over a few days in the basement and then haul it into the living room (out the back door and back in through the front because the thing was so massive) and put it together and hope to never have to move it again.

But it was a tactical error. Because now my wife seems to think I can build furniture.

I’ve held her off for quite a while. Besides some limited projects around the house, I’ve convinced her that most of what needs to be done should be done by skilled professionals or maybe doesn’t even really need to be done at all. But our youngest son had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for over a year and it was really time to build him a bed. My wife hoped to turn the front dormer in the boys’ room into a built-in bed, and she showed me some pictures online that made me believe this might be a bit less involved than building a table.

Again, she was right.

So now I’ve built a bed. I started by measuring the dimensions of the dormer and the dimensions of the single mattress we needed to fit in there. The dormer is a bit wider than the mattress, and the mattress is a bit longer than the dormer, so the bed sticks out a bit into the room. And since we have three boys living in this room who like to jump onto and off of everything that’s higher than six inches off the floor, I knew I needed to make it sturdy. I had seen a few plans of built-in beds that were basically built on a frame of two-by-fours (or 2×4’s? how do the DIY guys type this out?) screwed into the wall. I wanted something that on the one hand was more stable than that and on the other hand was more free-standing. I wanted to be able to slide this back out of the dormer years down the road when the kids are in college and this room becomes my Don’t Go Up into That Room Because The Author is Working on His Next Great Novel room.

bed-1

So I built a massive frame out of 2x8s (by convention, that’s how we’re going to assume contractor-types write these out). I used a Kreg-jig to put the boards together length-wise, mainly because it’s fun to use a Kreg-jig and to give the frame stability while I fit it together. (Note that immediately after taking this picture I had to hammer that middle cross-section out of place so I could slide the frame all the way into the dormer. The whole thing is wedged in there so tightly now I didn’t bother anchoring the frame into the wall. Don’t tell my wife.)

bed-2

My wife wanted the open end of the bed to be a shelf for storage baskets, and she had very specific dimensions for the three storage baskets from Target that she wanted to be able to fit there. That determined where the second cross-support would go and the height of the bottom of the shelf. I was going to finish the bottom with trim anyway, so that gap would be covered up. Building the frame so high also meant that there were two big storage spaces under the bed for blankets and stuff in the summer.

Yeah, I probably went overboard with how solid I build the frame, but again– three boys jumping on absolutely everything.

bed-3

I covered that shelf on the end with shelving boards that matched the piece of plywood in thickness. I had them cut the plywood to dimensions for me at Lowe’s, which only took three store guys, forty-five minutes, and about seventeen cuts. I put more 2x8s as support/separators between where those grey storage baskets are going to go. (Seriously, my wife loves her some storage baskets. Organization is her coping mechanism for life. And one of the reasons I adore her.)

bed-4

And presto– here’s the bed looking all lived in and moderately organized. I put trim around the base of the bed to complete that built-in look the wife was after. I’m still not quite sure how we (read: she) will do the finishing touches on this end, whether we’ll want to add some additional trim and then paint the whole thing white.

The best part of this project though was how incredibly excited our five-year-old was to go from a mattress to a REAL BED. I think every person who has been to our house over the past month has been escorted upstairs by him to see this wonder of a REAL BED.

And so far, only one or two head-to-bedcorner contacts during upstairs roughhousing, and no trips to the ER so far. (Yeah, I probably should have finished those edges with styrofoam guards.)

That’s all for now because this isn’t in any way a DIY blog and I’m not in any way a DIY guy.

 

FantasyCon!

10151854_10152946615338603_3384822066841045803_n
Last week I participated in my first con, a local one here in my hometown. I thought it would be a good way to get the word out about First Fleet, especially as we get close to the fourth and final installment being released this summer. I approached my publisher about getting some promotional materials printed for distribution, and he had the idea to print up pamphlets of First Fleet 1: Bones with links on the back to the rest of the installments on Amazon.

I did a bit of research online about what makes a good convention table stand out. My goal was to look professional, catch people’s eyes, and get copies of Bones into as many hands as possible. Also to have fun.

I had business cards printed through Vistaprint with a QR code on the back that links to my Amazon author’s page. I considered going with Moo, but as cool as their card designs look, the price differential was just too high. There are some complaints online about the quality of Vistaprint’s cards, but I was quite pleased. I had mine printed vertically on Vistaprint’s recycled paper option and found a couple old Gundam figurines in the basement that served quite nicely as card-holders (and got attention from the sort of people who like robot figurines– of whom there were many).

The table was focused on First Fleet, but I also wanted to highlight some of my other publications. I borrowed a book display from work and set out copies of some of the magazines in which my work has appeared. None of these were for sale (though you can access them through my Amazon author’s page), but several people stopped to thumb through them. The Lore cover in particular with the lovely monster drew a few..

DSCF5703

I read that a table should have something with good height, and the fantastic poster my publisher sent featuring the cover of First Fleet 2: Wake (which was available for free download the day of the con) served this function nicely. If I was going to do this again, I might replace the poster (which took up table space) with a collapsable vertical banner to stand behind my table.

Again, my goal was primarily to make local contacts, have fun, and get the word out about First Fleet. To that end, I think it was successful. I distributed about 250 copies of Bones, and online stats showed almost 200 downloads of Wake that day. That’s a pretty good “activation rate,” considering it means that many people took the additional step of going online and downloading the first portion of the novel.

Plus, I learned that our town once again has a local comic book shop.

So, wins all around.

The Land of the His-lonyups

DSCF5406

My daughter writes stories. They’re terrifying and delightful. She’s six. Her latest is a fully illustrated book, made up of several sheets of white scrap paper bound together along the righthand margin with eight haphazard staples.

“What can I do?” she had asked after we arrived home from a day in Chicago. I was tired and wanted a break from kids.

“Anything you want,” I said. “Read a book, draw a picture, play with–”

“No,” she interrupted. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh.” I paused. “You could write me a story and illustrate–”

She didn’t even let me finish. Before I was done speaking, she was at the table with the paper and the pencils, bent over her work.

Later, she brought me the finished product. “It’s pronounced ‘His-lon-ee-ups,’” she explained.

“What are his-lonyups?”

“I made them up.”

I’ve recreated the text of the work below, edited for spelling. It’s grim, folks. The girl is a miniature Edward Gorey.

The Land of the His-Lonyups

The cover has a image of a skull and a backward question mark. From the side of the skull protrudes the hilt of a sword, along with what might be an effluence of blood or brain matter.

Long ago in a far away land, there was a man who was named Peter.

She introduces the story’s main character. In his image he is depicted as a young, smiling man with spiky hair. He holds what might be a milkshake in his left hand and wears a backpack. Our hero is obviously young, hopeful, and prepared to travel.

He went to an island on a boat.

There are hints here of Where the Wild Things Are, especially in this image, which shows Peter in his small boat on the waves. The island he approaches holds trees– flame-like protuberances on slender sticks. But what is this hidden among them? Do the trees bear fruit, or is that something more sinister?

The island was creepy. He heard a noise. SRESS! [sic] went the noise.

She’s effectively building atmosphere as well as intrigue. What sort of island is this creepy island? What kind of animal would make a noise like “Sress!” Is it a shriek? Or a hiss? Or some unholy combination of the two? The image here gives us no clues. It simply shows Peter, now as a stick-figure, approaching a weirdly-shaped tree. In a thought bubble over his head hangs the ominous backward question mark from the cover.

Then he saw a black face stick out of the trees!

This image shows Peter– his face now bearing an expression of horror and surprise– at the base of the strange tree. Extending downward from one of the branches, hanging upside-down like a bat, is the face of what I can only assume to be a his-lonyup. Twin fangs extend upward from a grinning mouth. Its eyes are thin and slanted; its ears sharp and pointed.

It was a his-lonyup. The his-lonyup kild [sic] him . . .

Our worst fears have been confirmed. Peter, the plucky protagonist, lies prone, his dotted eyes replaced by the familiar cartoon Xs of death. The his-lonyup, which we can now see as some horrific bat-cat crossbreed, stands beside him. The slitted eyes are wide, the smile even wider. This monster, it is clear, kills not for food or from a sense of self-preservation but for the simple pleasure of it.

and he still remains in the graveyard forever more.

The final image is a tombstone marked “Peter.” What may have been a cautionary tale of youthful exploration gone horribly wrong on this final, poignant page becomes something deeper– an examination of the mortality we all carry with us. We will all, one day, the author seems to be saying, face our own his-lonyups– the savage, inexplicable wilds of our own existences that kill without thought or mercy. We are all Peter, and each day is an island. Who knows what horrors await among the trees?

I told my daughter the next morning that I had nightmares about his-lonyups all night. She grinned.

I think she’s already at work on a sequel.

Eclipses

Sometimes I’m a lazy stargazer. The first lunar eclipse of the year was April 15th. I wrote a post about it on the Adler Planetarium blog. But when it came to setting the alarm to get up in the middle of the night to view it, I was secretly relieved to go to bed to an overcast sky. William Herschel used to fall asleep reading astronomy books in bed. He, of course, eventually got out under the night sky. I often don’t get beyond the books in bed.

Which is perhaps one reason why the history of astronomy appeals to me. I admit it: sometimes I like reading about the discoveries made by observers throughout history more than I like sitting under a cold observatory dome alone at night. Books don’t cloud over. Manuscript collections usually can only be visited by day. If I fall asleep over my work, there’s no real fear– as there was for the Herschels– of falling off a telescope platform.

I do wish though I had caught the most recent lunar eclipse. They’re slow events, more sublime than spectacular. Not like a solar eclipse (which I have never witnessed, though 2017 is fast approaching).

The most recent display I curated at the Adler was of eclipse depictions throughout history. These are all from the works on paper collection at the Adler (maps, diagrams, pictures, things that can be hung on a wall). The images really are quite nice, though the pictures I took don’t do them justice. (The gallery has subdued lighting, and a camera flash would have only created glare.) My favorite is of a broadside poster printed in the 1760s in England providing information on an upcoming solar eclipse. This would have been hung in a public place and is an early form of public science education, explaining what causes the eclipse and what the public could expect to see.

There’s a diagram from a medieval textbook as well, illustrating how the shape of the Earth can be deduced from the shape of the shadow during a lunar eclipse, and a few other images.

If you’re in Chicago, stop by the planetarium and take a look.

DSCF4411

Rice Boy

354

About a month ago, the website io9 ran a very dangerous story. It was a list along with short descriptions of 17 completed science fiction and fantasy web comics. I spent some time perusing it, knowing that they represented at least 17 potential worlds to fall into but that I couldn’t read them all. Their description of Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy as “fantasy word-building with a heavy dose of the surreal” caught me though, so I gave it a shot. I was not disappointed.

I have a few favorite web comics (Hark a Vagrant and David Troupe’s Buttercup Festival top my list), but reading a full-on graphic novel in a web medium was a new experience for me. I can see the appeal that such a form has for the creator and the freedom it affords. Ideally it allows an artist more creative freedom, without editors or publishers. It also seems a fairly smart business model: build a following by allowing people to read it for free, and then offer hard-copy version for sale. (This is the same model used by online services from WordPress to Spotify: those who pay the premium fees, along with advertisers, subsidize the cost that allows it to be free for everyone else.) As the io9 article indicates, there are a lot of talented individuals out there building graphical worlds along these lines.

Dahm’s Rice Boy is colorful and surreal. It follows the travels of the machine man The One Electronic (T-O-E), an agent of God looking to find the fulfiller of an ancient prophecy, and Rice Boy, a small, meek, polite, uh, thing, who may or may not be said fulfiller. Like any classical fantasy-quest story, there is lots of running around to lots of different ancient and magical realms. Interesting characters are met, words of magic are spoken, enemies gather, and the prophecy is fulfilled, though of course not in the way you expect. If that all sounds like fairly standard fantasy fare, it is. Indeed, the running hither and yon as Rice Boy slowly learns more about the history of Overside (the world in which the tale is set) and his own past gets a bit tedious, especially as Rice Boy himself seems to lack all agency until the very final chapter of the work.

What saves Dahm’s work though, indeed what makes it quite wonderful, is that this fairly standard fantasy trope is told through completely enchanting visuals. Imagine a fantasy epic set in the various vistas of Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go or Oh the Thinks You Can Think and you have a starting point. Dahm’s world is vibrant, and it’s easy to set aside you frustration as Rice Boy is sent off to meet yet another mysterious figure in yet another distant land, because every place he visits is beautiful and singularly new. Really, Seuss’s worlds are the closest thing I can compare this to, though in Dahm’s work the whimsy of Seuss is supplemented by eerie loneliness and haunting vastness. This isn’t a place to rhyme about whether or not the sneetch has a star on its chest; this is a place to fight the Bleach Beast and venture into the foreboding desert of Skorch.

If the landscapes lack a Seussian whimsy, Dahm finds it again in his characters. Besides the innocence of Rice Boy himself (who reminds me randomly enough of the main character of Troupe’s Buttercup Festival), this land is filled with creatures who both in their friendliness and cuddliness might have tumbled off of an Ugly Dolls display. That’s not to say there are no villains. We have creepy black assassins and a frog army as well as some monsters, but Dahm’s bright colors and clear drawing style seem more suited for squishy friend than scaly foe.

Rice Boy is Dahm’s first complete tale set in his world of Overside, and on his website you can find another complete epic (this one in black and white) as well as his current, uncompleted project. And this is the real danger or gift of online web comics. Once you venture down that rabbit hole and realize how many talented folks there are out there continually creating worlds, where does it end?

It doesn’t, I suppose, and that’s kind of the point.

My photography

If you’ve been following this blog with any regularity, you’ll notice that there’s been a pattern to my posts. Tuesday and Thursdays I try to post a review of a book I’ve read. (I had a good backlog of these on Goodreads to draw from.) On Saturdays I try to post about something I’ve created (usually a published short story). And on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I post a photograph I’ve taken.

I had a pretty good backlog of these as well, and one of my motivations for this blog was that I simply didn’t know what to do with them. I wanted to share them. This seemed like a pretty low-stress way of doing it. So far I’ve been pleased.

I have very little photographical training (a single audited photojournalism course as an undergraduate). But I like to think I have an eye for detail. And I think I know where that came from.

Rails II copy

When I was young I used to pour over the photograph albums my parents kept in their bookcases. It was always surreal to see images of my parents and their friends as much younger people, but what held my attention– what captured my eye– were the photographs my father had made. A railway yard. A long row of straw bales in a meadow. A certain dead tree in different seasons against different skies. I grew up with a father who always had a camera strap across his shoulders. Wherever we went, it was normal to see him stop, lean up against a wall or hunker down on his heels, and take a shot at something. And it wasn’t the desire to document every single experience that has become so prevalent with our ubiquitous camera phones. It was simply seeing something from a different perspective.

scan0022_1 copy

When I started traveling, I found myself doing the same things in the cities I saw. What attracted me most though were the colors and textures of urban entropy. The tangle of electrical wires. The forgotten, peeling mural. Weathered wood. The things you walk by a hundred times and never really look at. (One day I’ll write a post about stencil graffiti, my favorite urban ghost.) I haven’t figured out how to capture large natural vistas, and I don’t like taking pictures of people. (I was scared to death in my photojournalism class that I’d have to take pictures of strangers.) But I think the camera is well suited for calling out the lovely, busy, complex details of the streets and alleys of a city, and so I go look for them.

This blog has been good motivation to continue. Now when I travel I try to give myself at least one morning wherever it is I’m going to get out and shoot. I try to leave early, just after sunrise, both for the quality of light and to avoid awkward questions.

“Why are you taking a picture of that fire escape?”

“Um. Color and texture?”

“It’s ugly and rusty. Go away.”

I always go by bike or by foot, because if you’re looking for details, there’s no way you’re going to catch them in a car. Plus, this is the way to really learn a city (or at least patches of cities).

I shoot with a Fujifilm FinePix S 5200 that my father got for me. I always use natural light, and I don’t do any more adjusting than can be done easily in iPhoto. I delete a lot. Then I post the ones I like.

Things change. Cities, streets, and buildings are born and die like people, only slower. Brick and mortar ephemera. There was a building across campus for a few months on which someone had spray-painted in huge letters YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL. I kept forgetting to bring my camera, and then it was gone.

scan0035_2 copy

Capturing things that will disappear. My dad taught me that too. All these images are his, but this last one is especially significant. That structure is the tower in the train yard in Flint, Michigan, where my grandfather spent most of his career as a yard master. It’s gone now. But one morning the light was perfect, and Dad took the shot.