Monthly Archives: September 2013

Alphorn Harvest

It’s autumn again! Where did the year go? Last fall, I covered husband Mike’s and my thorough celebration of harvest time in Portland. This year, we live in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains, known as the “Alps of North America.” So it makes sense that the celebration here is Alpenfest—a celebration of Swiss-German culture.

The weekend’s events kicked off on Friday evening at Terminal Gravity pub, in Enterprise. A band in tracht played polka music as the proprietor tapped a keg of ale brewed especially for the occasion. The featured meal was a bratwurst with sauerkraut, all made locally.

Look closely at these “accordions”—they’re actually electronic!

Look closely at these “accordions”—they’re actually electronic!

The highlight for me was a man named Bruce Coutant. As a young man, he had a career as a professional French horn player in Los Angeles. After a while, he moved to the Wallowa County town of Lostine and began a new career as a carpenter. A few years ago, he put the two together to become one of North America’s few alphorn builders.

An alphorn is approximately twice the height of its player

An alphorn is approximately twice the height of its player

I’ve seen photos of alphorns and have always assumed they produce one long tone, like a conch shell. I couldn’t be more wrong. Bruce squared his shoulders, took a deep breath and launched into a sorrowful, short tune. Then another, a little perkier. Then another, jaunty and sweet. The range of notes he could hit was astonishing. The instrument has no keys, just a mouthpiece and an 11-foot sloping horn with a bell at the end. He created notes as one does on a bugle, simply with embouchure.

Between songs, Bruce explained the history of the instrument. Each family had an alphorn, and each son got one once he was old enough to escort the cows as they roamed up and down the valleys.

“They were the cell phones of the day!” said Bruce. A shepherd would play his signature ditty as a way of telling his family he was okay, and the family would respond in kind. A little research indicates that they were also used to welcome people to church, call cows in for milking, and communicate between villages.

I sipped my Alpenfest ale and hoped that the alphorn’s rich tones would carry across the Wallowa River valley, across the United States, all the way to Switzerland.

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We’re Moving!

This week’s post is short because I’ve been busy finishing up my job at Oregon Humanities and packing! We are loading up our moving van on Sunday and taking off Monday morning for Wallowa County. Check back here next week for the full story. In the meantime, remember to lift with your knees!

Looking south from our new house

Looking south from our new house!

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Desk Demolition

“Home improvement” doesn’t always mean building something—sometimes it means tearing something down. In this case, it meant destroying my desk. Or, part of it.

My friend and fellow writer, Lynn Darroch, offered me this desk a few years ago, along with two plywood shelving units that originally came from the phone company in North Bonneville, Washington, a town with an interesting, checkered history.

The sticker is dated 11-21-47

Ma Bell! The sticker is dated 11-21-47

“Are you sure you want it?” he asked me. “It’s pretty heavy.”

The desk is a behemoth, and I love it. It weighs about a hundred pounds, is nearly three feet deep, and has six legs! I know my trees better than my lumber, so I’m not sure what it’s made of. Oak with a cherry finish? What I do know is that it is solid wood.

Another reason it’s so heavy is that it has an old-fashioned typing table: A cabinet on the right that opens to a flat drawer, which pulls out and then lifts to give you access to your Underwood.

Anyone who has experience with old typewriters knows how heavy they are. People used to build things to last. So what kind of mechanism is strong enough to support that kind of weight? Industrial-grade steel, of course.

Having moved this monster three times, Mike and I were not looking forward to doing it again. I decided that I could eliminate at least twenty pounds if I removed the typing table.

How was the issue. This is no Allen-wrenched ticky-tacky “modern Danish” furniture. The more I investigated, the more futile it seemed. But I ignored the reality and started picking away at it.

I started by unscrewing the hardware from the wood drawer, even though I suspected this would get me nowhere. I managed to remove a couple screws but, sure enough, they were essentially finish work on a much more complicated operation.

Sheared-off screwheads don't help ...

Sheared-off screwheads don’t help

The brackets that held the drawer were connected to roller-wheels that ran along tracks. Bolts that needed to be removed were blocked by the sides of the cabinet. Some of this must have been assembled, and then inserted into hardware that had been installed in the cabinet. And then the carpenter locked it all in with a wooden frame around the front of it for the cabinet door.

The raising mechanism was bolstered by four rusted steel springs that sang with tension any time the drawer was moved or the cabinet door closed. These seemed like they needed to go first, and very carefully.

Prying one end off seemed safer than trying to sever. Still, I recognized the hazard of this operation—I donned work gloves and eye protection, replaced my shorts and sandals with pants and shoes, and used the pliers in the toolbox with the longest handles. I got a good hold on the end of the first spring, moved as much of my body away from the cabinet opening as possible, and twisted.

I marveled at violence with which the spring let loose. It reverberated through my bones, threw the pliers, made a wicked zingy snapping sound, and then bobbed around from the top in odd, menacing circles. The second one was a little harder to do simply because I knew what I was in for. Line it up. Brace yourself. Twist. ZZZWANNGGG!!! Got it.

None of this exciting and dangerous operation changed the fact that it was impossible to extract the wood shelf in one piece—I couldn’t get the shelf out without detaching it from the hardware, and I couldn’t get the hardware out without removing the shelf. I was not about to try to pry the front of the desk off.

I saw no alternative but to take the shelf out in pieces. I wanted to cut as close to the hardware as I could to preserve the largest piece of wood. Remember, this was solid oak or whatever—might come in handy for another project down the line. It was too thick for our little trim circular saw, so I pulled out the reciprocating saw instead. This wouldn’t give me as nice of a cut, but I didn’t want to go buy another tool just for this “project.”

Attacking the shelf

Attacking the shelf

I propped up the shelf so it wouldn’t vibrate, and chopped through it. Now I was really committed.

I also needed to cut through the remaining piece of wood, the short way, so that it freed the steel frame to collapse toward the center so I could coax it out. This time, there was no way to prop up the wood. It vibrated like crazy! The noise was formidable. Should have added earplugs to my safety gear. I gritted my teeth and kept on it until I had two cuts. I’m sure the neighbors wondered what I was up to.

The wrestling match wasn’t over—I had to remove a bunch more eighty-year-old screws, cut the lateral support bar, and work the whole thing around the lip on the front of the cabinet. It didn’t want to come out, and I couldn’t blame it. I thought of the man who had built this desk, so long ago. He did a good job.

Extracted steel track and frame with emasculated tension springs

Extracted steel track and frame with emasculated tension springs

Coda: When I first acquired Lynn’s desk in 2006, after Mike and I finally wrestled it into place and I was replacing its empty drawers, I looked in the chasm that housed the typing table and saw a piece of paper wedged into the very rear of the cabinet. I fished back there with my outstretched fingertips and retrieved it. It was my own business card—the one I had made after moving to Portland in 1995. Lynn had been one of the first people I met, when I attended a meeting of the now-defunct group Northwest Writers. And here was the card I’d given him! I put it back where it was.

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Take Me to the Woods

Have you ever noticed that part of the magic of art is timing? A painting or song can resonate with one person and not another, or resonate with someone at age 30 but not 50.

My friend Jon Rombach keeps popping up in this blog. But he keeps being in the middle of a good story! I’m singing his praises this time because, well over a year ago, he gave me a book to read. In fact, he didn’t even give it to me; he gave it to my husband Mike, who was up in Wallowa County for a little creative-time solitude.

The book is We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich, published in 1942. I didn’t know anything about this book or its author, and I was in the middle of whatever city things I was doing, and I put it on the shelf.

Mike and I went to visit Jon in April for my birthday, and I had long forgotten about the book at that point. Maybe Jon had too, as he didn’t mention it.

A couple weeks ago, I started packing for our impending move to the same Wallowa County. If we’d known we were going to move there ourselves, we might have chosen a different vacation destination, for variety’s sake. It’s safe to say we are drawn to the area.

In any case, I was packing books and came across this old hardcover. Oh yeah—that book Jon sent my way! Jon is an entertaining writer, as evidenced in his blog, so I should have known any book he recommended would be the same.

Available in paperback these days ...

Available in paperback these days …

We Took to the Woods was a great read! Rich is sort of a Betty MacDonald (The Egg & I) of the East Coast, but more enthusiastic about living in a remote place and not critical of the shortcomings of her neighbors. (Though, to be fair, Rich went by choice.) She describes a number of activities that serve as entertainment as well as historical record, such as working a cross-cut saw or running logs through a series of dams. She describes how people interact with nature—as participants or as tourists—showing how in the last century nothing has changed but the gear. And she prefers as her winter footwear wool socks under rubber-soled tennis shoes. Total badass.

What I like about her approach is that she neither glorifies rural living nor demonizes it. It is harder than city living; it is worth the effort. Same thing I was going for with Get Your Pitchfork On.

I’m glad the right time for me to read this book finally arrived!

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Yard Sales for Fun and Profit

Gin-and-tonic season is almost over, and that means so is yard sale season.

I often work on my blog posts on Friday, but this last Friday I spent the entire day sitting in my front yard. Sunbathing? Only indirectly. Since my husband and I are moving at the end of September, I decided to try and get rid of a few unneeded items in a yard sale.

We didn’t really have that much—we did a major purge four years ago, when we sold our land in Washington. Now, that was a huge sale! How do people always manage to fill the space they have?

A sale has to be a balance between displaying things prominently to attract the drive-bys to stop, and piling things so that people who like to dig feel like they’re finding something special. And don’t skimp on signage. Because we live on a major bike arterial, I relied on people happening upon it more than “professionals” who read the newspaper and Craigslist.

As I discuss in Get Your Pitchfork On!, not everyone who comes to a yard sale has innocent intentions. If you are selling the usual sundry household items and clothing, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. If you’ve got tools and other things that have serious resale value, watch for thieves.

There are two kinds of people—those who think bargaining is a fun game, and those who won’t even ask what something costs if there is no tag on it. The bargainers kind of drive me crazy—I price things to sell, not to make money. I’m already practically giving it away; it’s silly when someone tries to act outraged by the injustice of a pair of pants that cost two dollars.

However, I had the opposite experience in July, when I visited Seaside to give a reading at their library. On my way out of town I stopped at a yard sale, and as soon as I got out of my car I realized this was one of those perpetual sales. Among other telltale signs, there was a long table had about fifteen table lamps on it. No one has fifteen table lamps. The proprietor lives on a major thoroughfare of a major tourist destination in Oregon; it makes sense for her to have a sale every weekend, and to buy things elsewhere to sell at her sale.

That was all well and good—in fact, I love those giant old ‘70s lamps with 3-foot-tall shades on them. There was even a pair with ornate golden feet and green glass globes at the base. I looked at the tags–$25! Each! This lady was nuts. The shades were period, but a liability. They didn’t match and weren’t in very good shape. One even sagged off its metal armature.

I’m not usually much of a bargainer, but I wanted those lamps. And I was not about to drop fifty bucks on them. They were not family heirlooms; she probably got them at a sale in one of the tiny farm towns inland.

I stewed over it while I considered the rest of the sale: a bunch of ceramics, probably made by a friend. Videos. Sports equipment. Not bad stuff, all in all. I found a ceramic pitcher that I really liked ($12) and a brand-new hunter’s cap with drop-down ear flaps ($8).

“Here’s the deal,” I said to her. I’m usually not a bargainer! But I wanted those lamps. And I was telling the truth, which helped. “I would like to buy these two things, and those two lamps. But I have $40 in cash. If you want to take $40, I’ll buy them.”

“There’s an ATM in town,” she said. “And I’ll be here tomorrow.” She had these sales every weekend, remember.

“I’m headed out of town,” I said. I let her consider in silence for a minute.

“It’s up to you,” I said, and held the two twenties toward her. She looked at me, and she looked at the lamps.

“Okay,” she said.

I was very proud of myself as we crammed these giant lamps into the back seat of my car. The damaged lampshade came completely off as she worked one in, but I didn’t say anything. I had bargained!

I have already packed these fantastic lamps into a moving box, but I promise to post a photo of them on the Get Your Pitchfork On Facebook page once we’re in Wallowa County and settled in. Stay tuned!

photo

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