If Destruction Be Our Lot

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Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes.

Those words could have been written yesterday, but they were actually spoken by Maine Senator (R) Margaret Chase Smith on June 1st, 1950. Her famous address, The Declaration of Conscience, was a response to the tactics of Wisconsin Senator (R) Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although Senators McCarthy and Smith were members of the same party, Smith’s conscience compelled her to reject the behavior and tactics of her colleague, even should it should cost her party the election.

I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.

Though her stand was ultimately ineffectual, as it took this country another four years to master its fear and repudiate McCarthyism (thanks in large part to Joseph Welch), it was no less brave for this. It is, in these dark times, sadly incredible to see a politician willing to put her country before her party.

Everyone reading this knows why I bring this up. Since founding RedMonk fourteen years ago, with the exception of my advocacy for same sex marriage in my home state, I have never publicly commented on political matters before. Ever. This is, however, the most important election of my lifetime. This country is at the kind of crossroads it has not known since 1860, and if you think comparisons to the Civil War are mere hyperbole, I would respectfully suggest that you have not been paying close enough attention.

Much of this fraught election has been driven by fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of minorities, fear of terrorists, fear of people that are different. There are always, in every era, legitimate reasons for the United States to be concerned. There is, at this moment, no reason for this country to be afraid from external threats.

Twenty-two years before he assumed the presidency in that similarly troubled year of 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838. Although it has come to be known as the Lyceum Address, it was in fact titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” In it, the man who would become the greatest President this country has ever known said the following:

Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

I sincerely hope that this nation of free men and women shall live through all time.

If you are reading this and you are a US citizen, please vote.

Things To Know About Closet Organizers

this project was a disaster from the start, and still has my blood on it, but at least it's done

A photo posted by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

 

I’d never really thought much about closets, to be honest. Whether that’s because I don’t generally wear things that need to be hung up, or that even if I did I wouldn’t, isn’t important right now. What happened was that I ran across a closet organizer product and showed it to Kate. In my defense, recreating one didn’t look that hard at the time. And probably isn’t, actually, if you have the right tools and know what you’re doing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The basic idea of a closet organizer is that most closets don’t use their space efficiently. Hangers, for example, are typically at a height to accommodate longer garments. Have mostly shirts? Too bad, it’s wasted space.

If you have a lot of closets, or if you don’t have much worth hanging up, this isn’t a particular concern. In our case, the fact that we were wasting maybe a third of the available space in our closets was less than ideal.

Most people, if they care about their closet space at all, will just buy a solution.

We had a complicating factor in our testbed, otherwise known as the second bedroom, however. The entrance to the attic happens to be in that closet’s ceiling. Which meant that a closet organizer either needed to be designed with that in mind, or be entirely removable. Neither of which described most of the commercial closet organization products, so we were doomed to a custom job whether we liked it or not.

Rather than starting from scratch, I borrowed ideas from other closet organizer systems – hanging two rows of dress shirts, one on top of another, for example. I didn’t think building one of these would be that hard, which is almost funny in retrospect. I won’t go into detail on how to build one, because anyone who’s handy can figure that out. Basically you build a narrower bookshelf with fewer shelves, then hang things off its side. No big deal, right?

Well, there are a number of things I wish I had known ahead of the project.

  1. Melamine Plywood is Heavy. Also, Sharp.
    Some people build closet organizers out of expensive hardwoods, but given the fact that we didn’t know how long it’d be in there as we are planning on remodeling, we were going with plywood from day one. Given that, we opted for melamine – a white plasticky material – coated plywood. The good news is that it looks clean, is easy to maintain and you don’t have to paint it. The bad news is that a 3/4” 4×8 sheet of melamine plywood is heavy. Heavy and unwieldy enough that if you’re working by yourself, as I usually am, it’s a pain to even get a full sheet up on to sawhorses for the initial cuts. As for the sharpness, let’s talk about clamps.

  2. You Need a Lot of Clamps

    I have a fair number of clamps, but most of them are smaller and of no use in clamping bigger projects. In total, I had three 36” clamps that I could use to build the center console which was six or so feet high and had seven shelves. Ideally, each shelf would be clamped front and back during the glue in – 14 clamps in my case. When you have three clamps total, you’re looking at two to three days minimum just to glue in the shelves with three clamps – time which I did not have. Instead I tried using my three clamps to glue up the completed console – twice. The first time, the lack of clamps holding everything in place meant that it collapsed, knocked over a sawhorse and snapped one half of the console in half (which was the cause of much later woe). The second time, it was still unstable and collapsed again. This time I couldn’t get my hand out in time and four shelves and half of the console fell on the tip of my index finger, with the sharp melamine edge slicing the nail on my right index finger in half. I was fortunate to not lose the tip of my finger entirely, though I still don’t have much feeling in it. Melamine is sharp. The third time, I bought a few more clamps and was successful. Depending on your definition of “successful.” Basically, have all the clamps.

  3. Check Your Router Bit Width

    While I initially considered using a jig to drill holes for pins to make the shelving movable, given the requirement that the shelving system be removable in case of a need to access the attic, I decided on a fixed central console for the closet organizer. To accomplish this, I decided to cut dados (“a groove cut in the face of a board, into which the edge of another board is fixed”) and glue the structure together. Given that the melamine plywood was 3/4” thick, this meant I’d need a 3/4” router bit, which I ordered from Amazon. It showed up, and I cut a few dados with no issue. Trouble was, it was actually 11/16” – a sixteenth shy of what I needed. Generally when people have issues with router bit sizes for dados, it’s that the bit is larger because the plywood is actually smaller than claimed. This was the opposite. I ended up having to drive down to Rockler to get another 3/4” router bit, and recutting the dados. Sometimes this worked. Other times, the second pass cut was slightly too big as you can see in the picture above.

  4. A Table Saw is Helpful

    The workroom in our basement is tiny, which is why I haven’t prioritized a tablesaw. For this project, that would have been much simpler. I have a homemade cutting guide that I can use, but making straight eight foot cuts into plywood with a circular saw is a pain even with a guide. Add in all of the repetitive smaller cuts you have to make for things like shelves and it’s would have been a lot easier and faster if I had a table saw. You can make it work with just a circular saw, at least to my level of dubious competence, but I don’t recommend it.

  5. Glue Goes Through Drop Cloths
    One of the few things I did correctly on this project was realize before I started that if I’d assembled the bulk of the closet organizer in my tiny basement shop, I would never be able to get it out of there. Between its small size and the fact that it’s at the end of a long narrow hall, anything large built in there stays in there. Instead, I did the glue up in our upstairs hall. Which has a nice carpet in it. A carpet that I responsibly protected with two layers of our painting dropcloth. Which wasn’t enough, as it turns out, because – surprise! – glue goes right through dropcloths. This is where I’m at with that issue. If anyone has suggestions for removing glue from a carpet that don’t involve cutting it (that’s been forbidden), I’m all ears.

The bad news is that the resulting project is charitably described as a mess. More than usual, I mean. Two of the dados were cut too wide thanks to the router bit issue, so the shelves don’t fit tightly. Two other shelves seated improperly thanks to a lack of clamps and aren’t flush, which looks weird. The good news is that, functionally speaking, none of that matters particularly. The shelves will still work fine, as will the clothing rods. Also, the closet has doors – which we took the opportunity to paint – which help conceal my shame. All of which in turn means that our closet will be much more efficient at utilizing the available space, and if you don’t look at it too closely you might not notice how poor the implementation was.

The big question now is the master bedroom closet. Was the lesson a) building this is dumb and a waste of time, just buy one or b) building the first one gives me the experience to get it right the second time around? The answer? TBD.

I Have Squandered My Days With Plans of Many Things

All good things must come to an end, and in spite of another home improvement injury (no hospital this time), a multi-day storm without historical precedent, and the fact that I spent the majority of my time off from work working with my hands, it was a good vacation.I may have negatively impacted my ability to make fun of my parents for being the world’s worst retired people based on their inability to stop actually working, however.

As is usual, the world spun on without me. Also as is usual, things in the technology world went bonkers in ways large and small. Sooner or later, those craving stability are going to relent and pay me to never go on vacation. Though admittedly my weather-blackmail scheme shows more immediate promise.

The plan going in to my mutiple weeks off was to take the downtime and leverage the bulk of it on projects in and around the house. The good news is that I completed 13 of my vacation To Do’s. The bad news is that the original list had 28 items on it. Part of the poor completion rate was project setbacks, part of it was injury, but mostly it was the fact that a bunch of the work consisted of doing things I’d never had the opportunity to do before. Which made for a great learning experience, but terrible efficiency.

Lest all work and no play make me a dull boy, I took a day off from hurting myself for a road trip, then closed out my vacation with a week in a cottage up north with the family. And by up north, I mean within an easy driving distance. The best part about living in Maine is that I don’t have to get on a plane to visit amazing places, which is fortunate because I spend so much time on planes for work that literally the last thing I want to do in my free time is fly.

Anyway, the following is my report on what I did on my summer vacation.

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With a bunch of construction projects looming, we tested the hearing protection for my shop assistant. She wasn’t terribly enthused, but we’ll work on that.

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After watching dozens of YouTube videos to look at how other people did it and optimize my technique, I used everything from a simple prybar to a sawzall to deconstruct six or eight pallets I found in Portland on Craiglist for free.

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This yielded a fair amount of “reclaimable” wood, which is another way of saying wood with a shitload of nails in it.

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The first project with the pallet wood was building a patio table to replace the glass one that was shattered by a freak gust of wind. If you’re interested, here’s more on how to do that.

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Building the table was the first of many days spent wearing a respirator.

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Though it turns out that a shop-vac makes a reasonable dust collection system for a random orbital sander.

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For this and my follow up project, I bought a used but perfectly functional lunchbox planer off Craigslist. The seller’s story was interesting: a former master electrician, he and his wife were headed out to California to work for the National Park Service. His first post? Death Valley.

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With the wood left over from the table, I built a companion bench. This would have been a somewhat easier task, but I made the mistake of showing Kate a video of a substantially more complicated model than the one I had planned on building which she preferred.

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Thanks to a very kind brother-in-law, made my first second appearance at Fenway this season. The knuckleball giveth, but it also taketh away.

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Next up after the bench was building a closet organizer, which was going swimmingly until a saw horse collapsed and snapped one of my two center panels. This required some in project adjustments and compromises that resulted in a center portion that is, well, let’s just say mistakes were made.

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To be fair, if someone had given me a choice between being injured by one of the many power tools I used over my vacation or plywood, I would have taken the latter. That being said, it’s amazing how much damage several thick and heavy sheets of melamine coated plywood can do if they drop suddenly. If you’re not squeamish, this is my finger eight days after the initial injury.

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Taking advantage of a break in the weather, I picked a good day to take a road trip through some beautiful country.

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My destination was a place I try and visit every summer, one of the few swimming holes with a waterfall I have a shot at having to myself.

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A day after that, the whole family packed up and headed up north to one of our favorite towns in Maine. Town being a somewhat generous term in this instance.

We took up a full size station wagon and a midsize pickup truck. Both were absolutely packed. Traveling with kids is no joke.

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The view out of our cottage was not too bad.

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The view from the deck of the cottage was also better than average.

Eventually, I more or less gave up taking pictures because Kate was getting shots like this one.

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Because Poseidon hates me, the better part of the week was characterized by truly massive surf, the ancillary effects from Hermine, a truly unique storm system. The swells were big enough, in fact, that when they impacted the granite ledge the cottage sat on, you could feel it.

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When we weren’t at the beach, out on a seal watch, or walking the neighborhood, life was hard.

Exhibit A: Wednesday, we had a family outing to Oxbow.

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On Friday, we returned to Monhegan Island. Two things made this trip stand out. First, it was by far the roughest crossing I’ve ever had out to the island thanks to Hermine. I didn’t get seasick, thankfully, but it’s the first time in a long time where it seemed like a possibility.

Daddy & Sophie & E ❤️ Island trekking. #BabyEOG

A photo posted by MK Lynch O'Grady (@girltuesday) on

The other first for this trip was that I’d never visited the island as a dad before.

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Importantly, we also verified that the Monhegan Brewery is a) still there and b) still delicious.

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While the weather was both colder and foggier over our week than was originally forecast – thanks again, Poseidon – it was, as ever, a great and relaxing week. We were also gifted with a very nice sunset to close out our time up in Chamberlain.

Now it’s time to get back to work, but I’m already looking forward to next year.

How to Build a Table from Used Pallets

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Two months ago, Kate and I got an email from her mother with a subject line of “Oops.” While my mother-in-law was watching our baby, she heard a dull thud outside and walked out on to our deck to investigate. What she discovered was that our glass patio table surface had decided to reorganize itself into thousands of smaller pieces of glass. As best we could reconstruct, a gust of wind lifted the umbrella up off the table, only to drop it right back down on to the glass surface, shattering it.

So much glass.

The good news is that no one was hurt. The bad news was that we needed a new patio table.

By the time July rolls around, however, most of the available patio table inventory is depleted and out of stock. Which meant that we were looking at throwing a few hundred dollars at a table that was of questionable quality, taste or both.

Which is how we ended up declining to go that route, and instead deciding to build a table from scratch. It certainly helped that we now have a pickup truck, which made acquiring the necessary materials substantially simpler, and also that I had vacation coming up on the schedule.

When it came time to selecting the style of table and the materials, I’m fortunate that Kate appreciates the rustic and reclaimed wood aesthetic, both because that makes construction simpler in that it’s easier to hide mistakes, and because the cost of materials was zero dollars – but I’ll come back to that. In the meantime, here’s how to build a pallet table of your own.

Tools Used

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  • Hammer (Estwing)
  • Cat’s paw
  • The Extractor (Jefferson Tools)
  • Prybar (Stanley Wonderbar)
  • Drill (Makita)
  • Jigsaw (Makita)
  • Chop saw (Hitachi)
  • Sawzall (Dewalt)
  • Drillpress (Delta)
  • Thickness Planer (Ryobi)
  • Pocket-hole jig (Kreg)
  • Brad-nailer / compressor (Senco)
  • Glue (Titebond)
  • Lots and lots of clamps
  • Shop-vac (Rigid)

Step One: YouTube

This first stop in building a table, as with every home improvement project I work on, was YouTube. For anyone interested, here’s a YouTube playlist of a few of the videos I watched as background. I didn’t follow any of them precisely, because Kate’s preferences were not for some of the fancier implementations like the Herringbone table. Collectively, however, they provided the ideas, tips and tricks I needed to build the one we wanted.

Step Two: Sourcing Pallets

If you’re going to build something out of pallets, it’s pretty important to have pallets. I had one left over from the drop off of the materials I used to build our woodshed last year, but tables require more than one pallet. Craigslist provided several interesting options. There were a number of places that offered pallets for sale for prices ranging from $3 to $7 a pallet, which is still enormously more cost effective than purchasing new lumber. But it also turned up a number of sources that just wanted to be rid of pallets, and made them free for the taking. So two or three times, I stopped by a warehouse out west of Portland, loaded up the truck with four or five pallets and ferried them home for deconstruction.

Note that I did not need all those pallets for just the table: four or five would probably suffice.

Step Three: Deconstructing Pallets

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Most of the pallet construction videos I watched suggested that taking the pallets apart was actually the hardest and most time consuming part of the project, and for the most part that was correct. Everybody seemed to have their own preferred style, but having watched a lot of videos on the topic, there are basically three ways to take apart a pallet.

  1. Use a Prybar:
    The advantages of this approach are that you don’t need any particular power tools, and that you don’t risk said powertools encountering a hidden nail. Or cutting something off you’d prefer remain attached. The disadvantages are that it is by far the most time consuming, and depending on the thickness of the pallet slats, you may not be able to pry them lose without splintering them.
  2. Use a Circular Saw:
    In several videos, people decided not to pry anything off, and simply cut slats out between where they were fastened. This is by far the fastest approach, but it means that you’re limited to very short sections of pallet wood which may or may not work for your project.
  3. Use a Sawzall:
    The hybrid approach is to take a sawzall, and attack the pallet slats where they are fastened to the 2×4’s, simply cutting off the nails they’re fastened with. This isn’t as fast as using a circular saw, but it leaves you with longer pallet slats and they are usually, if not always, less damaged than if you pried them up by hand.

I didn’t try the circular saw approach because I wanted longer slats. Instead, I relied on a combination of prybar and sawzall, depending on the pallet and what I needed to extract from it.

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One quick note on the second tool from the right. It’s called “The Extractor,” and I picked it up off Amazon for $29.99. It is unbelievable at extracting nails, even those that have been broken or cut off and are thus impossible to pull with the claw end of a hammer. If you’re going to be doing any work with pallets, I recommend this tool highly.

It’s also worth noting that all pallets are not created equal: if you want a wide plank look, for example, look for that. If you need 2×4 equivalents, look for pallets that provide those.

In general, however, if I had three recommendations for working with pallets, they’d be:

  1. Watch for nails
  2. Watch for nails
  3. Watch for nails

Step Four: Build the Frame

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With the pallets deconstructed, the next phase was building the basic frame of the table. For dimensions, I roughly copied our old table. Nothing’s exact when you’re dealing with pallet wood, but it’s also more forgiving in a sense. To build the frame, I picked out all of the thicker, center sections of the pallet that were approximately the dimensions of a typical 2×4 – some slightly thinner, others thicker. As best I could, I matched like segment to like. Once the frame was complete, I clamped on the legs, squared them as best I could and bolted them on.

Step Five: Fit the Surface

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Once the frame was in place, and knowing I had a specific overhang in mind, I picked out wider pallet slats for the edges, measured them out and then glued and nailed them down. From there, I simply had to fill in the middle segments. Because I don’t have a table saw, I didn’t try and cut pallets down to a uniform width. Instead, I mixed and matched and picked the ones that fit the width most closely, then cut them to fit length-wise. There were a few gaps, but these were acceptable in a “rustic” piece. I also had to trim two pieces slightly with a jigsaw to slot them into place. But eventually, I had a frame and workable – if uneven – surface.

One quick note on the uneven nature of the surface: many of the tables on YouTube are even surfaced, as their builders put all of the pallets through a thickness planer to make them uniform. While I had to thin a few of the thicker segments using a Ryobi planer I bought off Craigslist for $75 from an electrician five miles away, ultimately I decided that some variation was preferable and more consistent with the overall aesthetic. We’ll see if I come to regret this decision later.

Step Six: Sand Everything

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Once your table is complete, it’s time to sand. Generally with furniture, you start with a rough grit and keep sanding at higher and higher increments. Given the preference to preserve some of the pallet wood’s character, however, I stopped after a thorough sanding at 80 grit. This smoothed out the wood enough to prevent splinters and shave off sharp corners, while opening it for staining and sealing as necessary. It didn’t take off enough of the surface to lose any of the unique coloring, stains and stamps from the pallet wood, however.

One quick safety tip: while I hooked our sander up to the shop-vac to reduce dust, it’s still important to wear a respirator while sanding pallet wood because you never know what’s in it.

Step Seven: Polish and Seal the Table

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This being an outside table, one of the primary concerns was not just polishing the rough pallet wood to highlight the varying natures of the lumber types used, but sealing it against the elements. For this task, Kate asked if there were any natural sealants we could use rather than a standard polyurethane. After a bit of Googling, I turned up a recipe – and YouTube videos, naturally – for making a sealant and polish out of linseed oil (aka flaxseed oil) and beeswax, in a 4:1 ratio.

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Making this couldn’t be easier.

  • First, you cut up beeswax into small pieces and melt it in a can placed inside a pot of boiling water. This double boiler set up is necessary because directly heating the beesax can apparently set it on fire, which is bad.
  • Once the beeswax is melted, you slowly stir in four times as much linseed oil. It congeals at first, but stirring will cause it to dissolve into the wax.
  • Once you’ve mixed the two completely and you’re left with a clear liquid mixture, turn the heat off and let the solution cool. It will harden into a thick wax.

The wax is not the easiest thing in the world to apply, but it goes on without too much effort and, once applied and buffed out, gives the wood a nice and warm tone, while not being tacky to the touch. And as for water resistance, so far anyway water beads up on contact rather than soaking in.

This natural sealant is both less effective overall and much less durable – it’ll have to be applied annually, at a minimum – than alternatives like polyurethane. But it’s much less damaging environmentally, and it’s easier to work with, so at least at this point it’s been a welcome development.

Step Eight: Build a Bench

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Normally, step eight should be have a beer and enjoy your new table. In my case, however, the completion of the table was followed immediately by a project to build an accompanying pallet bench. With the exception of the mortice and tenons, which my friend Joe talked me out of in favor of pocket screws, I followed this build pretty closely. Originally my plan had been to follow this I Like to Make Stuff model, but I made the mistake of showing the first video to Kate and she preferred the wide plank layout and asymmetrical legs.

Because I was headed down to Fenway Park (good guys lost), I ran out of time yesterday afternoon and haven’t finished sanding and sealing the bench yet, or applying trim to the sides, but the bench is in functional shape now. Hoping to finish that up Monday morning. Then it’s time to start on our closet organizer build.

In the meantime, I hope this writeup helps anyone who’s interested in building pallet furniture. As long as you have YouTube, it’s really not that challenging.

About the Truck

call me marty mcfly

A photo posted by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

Friday afternoon, I got out of work a couple hours early and bought a truck. Or more accurately, I leased a truck, but I’ll come back to that. A lot of people have had questions about the truck, beginning with: why did you get a truck? So that seems like a good place to start.

Why a Truck?

The answer is mostly: our house. That’s not the only reason, of course – I spent almost a half hour trying to shoehorn our stroller into the passenger seat of my Volvo S40 last weekend because it didn’t fit in the trunk, for example. But it’s mostly the house. As has been documented here many, many times previously, we have done and will continue to do quite a bit of work on our home. It’s a lot better than it was when we bought it, but there’s a lot left to do.

Which means picking up everything from plywood to drywall to solid core doors to gravel to 8′ weather treated 4×4’s to fill. Taking construction debris to the dump. Picking up random free pallets to build a pallet wall. Trailering down my father-in-law’s Kubota. And on and on.

To his credit, my Dad’s been fantastic about driving down with his F-150 whenever we’ve needed him. But I could honestly have him down here two or three times a week, which is a bit much to ask given that he’s forty minutes up the road and that my parents have a schedule of their own (they are literally the world’s worst retired people).

A truck, then, is something we’ll get a lot of use out of. Having sadly failed to persuade Kate to get one when we replaced her car, then, the job fell to me. Even though I hate driving trucks and have always driven sports cars (Mustang/Thunderbird) or sportier sedans (Taurus SHO/S40).

Why not an SUV?

This is the second most common question I got. The short answer is that there are enough things I need to pick up (e.g. plywood sheets) that either a) wouldn’t fit or would be awkward to fit in an SUV or b) would destroy a carpeted rear cargo area (e.g. fill or gravel), that an SUV is optimal only for a subset of what we need it to do. A cargo space not constrained by a roof that I can clean with a hose has advantages for what I need it for.

Conversely, as a two adult and one baby household that also has a station wagon, we’re not in desperate need of additional interior storage space. The versatility of an open bed, therefore, was preferable.

Why a Midsize?

Theoretically I get better marginally better mileage, but really it’s the size. As someone who drives to and parks in Portland a lot, I was in the market for the smallest pickup that would work for what I need, and the midsize (Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, Honda Ridgeline, Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier) are basically as small as it gets.

My Dad’s full size F-150 counterintuitively helped sell me on a midsize. His has a short bed – around the same length as my own – but still could handle 4×8 sheets that we braced and hung over the tailgate. Seeing that I could generally get what I needed in a more compact footprint made a midsize pickup seem like a reasonable option.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the midsize trucks start at eight or ten grand less than their full size counterparts.

Why a Tacoma?

When I first started looking, I really thought I’d end up with a Chevy Colorado, as that is getting the best reviews in the class at present. But it was narrowly edging the Tacoma, for the most part, and Toyota’s truck offered two things the Colorado didn’t: a manual transmission option on any engine, and a moonroof.

The latter sounds dumb, but I’ve really grown accustomed to having an open roof, and it’s not available on the Colorado at all. Even on Chevy’s full size Silverado, the moonroofs are available only on models that start at $50,000 – far more than I wanted to spend on a pickup.

As for the stick, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find a manual transmission on anything these days. Basically zero full size trucks come with one, and the Chevy Colorado comes with a stick but only on the most basic models with a tiny four cylinder engine. Outside of Subaru, Toyota is one of the few vendors selling a standard on any engine you like – though it’s not available on their highest end Tacoma model, the Limited.

Car people will tell you that automatic transmissions have come a long way in reliability and efficiency, and that they are now superior to humans with manual transmissions in both aspects. I have no doubt that they are correct. For me, however, there is something profoundly enjoyable about how a manual transmission involves me in the driving process in a way that an automatic or even manual paddle shifters never could.

So yeah, I might be able to do without a moonroof, but once I found out I could get a stick with the Tacoma’s V-6, I was pretty much sold.

Do You Hate the Environment?

I don’t, and it’s unfortunate that the mileage on a pickup isn’t better. But the work that needs to get done on our house is going to be done by a truck, whether we own it or not, so the net loss to the environment by a truck sitting in our driveway is marginal. That being said, if Tesla ever gets around to making a pickup – a prospect which is reportedly not as crazy as it sounds given that electric motors apparently can produce virtually infinite torque – I’ll be first in line.

One other helpful development: bus service from Freeport down to Portland starts this Thursday, so wherever and whenever possible, I’ll be taking public transportation.

What Don’t I like?

Apart from the fact that Toyota puts reverse on the other side of the gearbox from Volvo, which means that I keep stalling out the truck while trying to back up because it’s in 6th, the most unfortunate thing about the Tacoma so far is its electronics package. GM has wisely, in my opinion, punted and acknowledged that they are probably not as good at developing consumer electronics systems as Apple or Google, so they support both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Toyota, meanwhile, has borrowed from Ford’s playbook and is attempting to outcompete the consumer tech giants. The result is Entune, a poorly reviewed – to put it charitably – app that patches your phone into the Tacoma’s electronics package, allowing the passthrough of apps like Pandora. It’s not Ford Sync bad, but it’s not great.

The good news for Toyota is that my S40 was literally the last model Volvo ever made that was incompatible with an iPhone adapters, so I’ve been patching my phone into my car stereo with clumsy Monoprice FM radio adapters forever. By comparison, Entune – warts and all – is a godsend.

Why a Lease?

Generally speaking, my preference is to buy a car, both because I have no interest in always driving a new car and because the years without car payments are really enjoyable. In this case, however, I’m leasing for three reasons. First, because my brother who’s in finance ran the numbers for me and told me to lease. Second, because I have no idea whether or not I’m going to be able to adapt to driving a pickup after spending years driving things that actually handled well, so limiting my commitment to three years makes sense. Last, because a lease allows me to hedge against factors I can’t predict right now. What’s the trajectory of gas prices three years from now? How much progress have electric vehicles made in that span? And so on. If I buy, particularly given the unnaturally long lifespans of Toyotas, I’m locked into the Tacoma for a decade plus. With a lease, I can reassess the landscape in three years and re-up if that makes sense, or head in an entirely different direction if gas costs $4 a gallon again and electric vehicles can make it from Maine to Fenway and back on a single charge.

What Did You Do With Your S40?

Normally it’s bad news when they don’t offer you much for your trade-in. In my case, it was something of a relief. I get to hang on to my S40 for a little longer, providing it continues to run, and hope against hope for some sort of last minute miracle that restores it to working order so we don’t have to donate it to charity.

As Kate said today, people may think it’s a little weird that the first thing I’d do upon winning Powerball would be to fully restore my ten year old car with a hundred and ninety thousand miles on it, but those people have never driven my car.

How Did Our Heating Upgrades Pan Out?

IMG_20150413_131825 (1)

One of the things you do when you’re an analyst is try to turn everything into numbers. Which you can then analyze. If anything, this tendency has gotten worse since becoming a parent, because I find myself up late but not in a position to watch one of my movies which typically involve explosions, a lot of yelling or both.

The latest target of this unhealthy fixation on metrics is our heating costs.

By way of background, our house is a modestly-sized single floor ranch built in the 1970’s. When we bought it, we believed that the house had both adequate attic insulation and an oil burning furnace of a relatively recent vintage. Both of these things were later proved to be untrue. Which is how we ended up paying around $2,800 to heat our house two winters ago.

Part of that was oil that cost two dollars more a gallon than it did this winter, but still, that’s bad for a house of our size, even in a climate like Maine’s. Terrible, actually. Worse was the fact that we’re using the word heat very loosely. Up until this past winter, we kept our house cold: heat set to 50 the majority of the day, bringing it up to 60 during the morning when we left for work and for a few hours when we were making dinner.

Humans really are adaptable creatures, so this felt normal to us. Friends wore mittens when they came over. This, for almost $3,000.

So we did the logical thing: we contacted an energy auditor. He had a lot of recommendations, new attic insulation among them. What we thought was adequate was actually somewhere around R17 versus the recommendation for new construction of R49. Thankfully, when we got bids for attic insulation, they came within a reasonable enough margin of the DIY cost, so I didn’t have to crawl around our attic with a respirator getting stuck with tiny shards of fiberglass. I have legitimately never been more relieved than when the winning bid came in.

One of the other recommendations from our auditor was ductless minisplit heat pumps, which are hyperefficient relative to our old and inefficient oil furnace. Not believing the technology was quite ready, we instead swapped out our fireplace for a fireplace insert (a Jøtul Rockland 550, specifically). If you’re unfamiliar with the product, it basically crams a woodstove into an existing fireplace. Wood is not a perfect heat source and has its environmental drawbacks, obviously, but given that the new EPA approved model wood stoves burn much cleaner and that after loading all of the costs oil doesn’t look too good we didn’t have much debate about the insert.

We made many other smaller changes to the house – I hung storms on two windows that were so leaky we used to get snow inside, we sealed cracks with spray foam and so on – but the major changes were the new layer of insulation in the attic and the stove. The question was: were they worth it?

Having run the numbers, the answer is an unambiguous yes – in spite of the cratering of price of oil.

Examples:

  • As mentioned above, in 2013 we spent $2,821.29 on heating oil. In 2015, we spent $610.62.
  • The huge difference is not attributable to any single factor, of course. The average temperature was a few degrees warmer this year, and most obviously, oil cost a lot more in 2013. But the savings would be massive even without the huge price drop: at 2013 prices, we would have spent $1,368.29 on oil.
  • We would have spent less than half as much because we used less than half as much oil. In 2013, we bought 827.6 gallons of oil. This year, that number was down to 401.4.

The pricing numbers are slightly misleading, however, because a wood stove obviously requires fuel of its own. We spent a little less than a thousand on wood. If we take that thousand, then, and add it to what we would have paid for oil if it cost as much it did in 2013 we’d come out just shy of $2,400.00. A savings of better than $400 over our 2013 costs, but substantially less impressive. Except for the real wild card in all of this.

Remember how I said we kept our house cold? We did not – could not – do that this winter, because we came home from the hospital with a tiny human in December. What this meant in practical terms was first that we needed to keep the house a lot warmer than we usually do, and second that we needed to heat it essentially round the clock while we were home with the baby. So instead of heating the house to 60 for a few hours a day, we had to keep it at 68 or higher from December through March, 24 hours a day. All of a sudden, the numbers look a lot more impressive.

The analyst side of me desperately wants to extract and assign the precise savings per investment – the fireplace insert saved us X, the insulation Y – but even if that’s possible with any degree of precision, it’s not worth worth it. It’s enough to know that the combined investments have the potential to save us hundreds (potentially thousands) a year while allowing us to make the house much more comfortable for a child. The insert is also an excellent hedge against fluctuations in the market price of heating oil.

All in all, it’s money well spent. And when we build a fire now, it actually heats the room.

My 2015 in Pictures

As I’ve fallen into the habit of doing, it’s time to wrap up the year with a pictures post. This is where I walk through the events of the calendar year via pictures along with the occasional tweet or screenshot. I write less words that way, which is less words for you to read. Everybody wins.

Every year has its ups and downs, but the peak was considerably higher this year than in years past. Unfortunately, however, the valleys were commensurately lower. As is the practice in my family, however, you take the bad with the good and make the best of what you’re given. Anything else is a waste of time.

Now before we get to the pictures, a quick look at some of the data that describes my 2015.

Travel

2015 was an improvement travel-wise. I still traveled more than I’d like to (i.e. basically not at all). But my mileage was down over 13K from the year prior, my status-match fueled affair with Virgin America actually saw me get a few cost effective upgrades to first class for red eyes and I finally got around to getting an AMEX Platinum card – which was worth the price for the automatic Starwood Gold and 4 PM checkouts alone. With circumstances changed at home – we’ll get to that shortly – I’ll be more strict about travel in the year ahead, so we’ll see how that goes.

In the meantime, a few other tidbits courtesy of Cemre’s TripIt Year in Review tool and Openflights.org.

  • Distance-wise, I flew 90,023 miles, or 13% less than last year (the pre-baby travel blackout helped).
  • This was the second time in six years I failed to reach 100,000 miles.
  • 44 of my 60 segments were on JetBlue. 9, however, were on Virgin America which is likely to steal some of JetBlue’s business thanks to a better loyalty program.
  • Partially because of my time on VA, I was more likely to fly out of Boston (25) than Portland (17).
  • Interestingly, however, I was in SFO as much as PWM.
  • I spent over 9 days on planes.
  • My most popular route again was between JFK and SFO at just under 30,000 miles.

Personal Stats

  • My Top 5 non search-engine referrers to the work blog were 1) Twitter 2) Facebook, 3) Reddit, 4) Heise.de, 5) Google+. Yes, Google+. Seriously.
  • Seven of the top ten searches on my personal site for the year were about building your own Netflix. The other three were about kegerators.
  • Per FitBit, I took 2.6 million steps in 2015, the second year in a row that number has been down. Some of that was a lot of time spent at the hospital, more of it was issues using the treadmill desk at the office which led me to relocate it to the home office. Still, work to do.
  • Per ThinkUp, I tweeted 47,678 words last year, or 17K words more than Hamlet, 18K more than Of Mice and Men and 21K more than The Old Man and the Sea. All I can say is: I’m sorry.

With that, on to the pictures.

January 3

IMG_20150103_193026518Kate and I brewed our first beer of the year, a Heady Topper clone. It wasn’t Heady Topper, but even fake Heady Topper is delicious. Plus the dry hopping made the house smell amazing.

January 4

IMG_20150104_175329274Finally got frustrated enough with my tool situation to go out and get pegboard and start hanging everything up. Still not finished, but it worked well enough that I’ve looked up how to do this on concrete walls for my Dad’s basement.

January 28

IMG_20150128_074704643_HDRGot a bit of snow, which meant we were not flying to London.

January 29

IMG_20150129_190338245Flew to London, just in time for the Monki Gras. As always, amazing.

January 30

2014-02-01 01.32.57Never miss a chance to visit Au Bon Vieux Temps. Won’t be there this year, unfortunately, but given the reason, I’m ok with it.

February 3

IMG_20150203_134508506Kate and I had both been to Ireland, but never together. Fixed that.

February 5

When we got home from our flight around 10 PM that night, our driveway was covered in multiple feet of snow. So after getting off a transatlantic flight, I had to dig out enough space to get our cars off the road and then get up the next morning and finish the job. Decided that I’d prefer not to repeat this and started looking at snowblowers.

February 7

IMG_20150207_132200328For the first time in my life, we had so much snow that we had to rake off our roof for fear of it collapsing. I wasn’t alone – the snow rake I bought from Home Depot was the last one in stock.

February 8

Remember how the snow was so bad I had to rake our roof off? It got worse.

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This was looking straight out of the bedroom window. On the positive side, the bedroom stayed very dark during the day which made for good napping.

February 9

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The Rockport House, where I spent many happy summers and which had been in my Dad’s family for over a hundred years, was sold.

February 20

IMG_20150220_191749368My best friend flew in from Denver for my 40th birthday.

Screenshot_2015-02-19-17-53-01Not shockingly, he was delayed.

February 21

IMG_20150221_175818604My brother drove five hours to be there as well.

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Some randos showed up too.

What followed was absolutely insane. Kate rented a small bus, crammed all of us in it, and we were driven from brewery to distillery to brewery for tours and fine libations.

IMG_20150222_222044534When we got back to the house, the big reveal was a custom built bar made from reclaimed wood, fully stocked with a little help from our friends.

If you’re going to turn 40, this is how you do it.

March 5

IMG_20150305_205856853Made it through one more offseason.

March 14

IMG_20150314_212459639Celebrated Pi Day with friends. And Sasuga.

April 13

IMG_20150413_131825We replaced an inefficient fireplace with a hyper-efficient fireplace insert. We’ve turned the furnace on maybe three or four days this winter.

April 24

IMG_20150424_145359Already panicked about what to get Kate for her birthday, Rachel blew me out of the water before I knew what had happened.

April 25

IMG_20150425_122345Because I’m incompetent, friends helped me prepare for Kate’s bday.

May 9

so, so well done

A photo posted by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

With Kate off alcohol for the best reason there is, Ryan and I went to the Allagash / Cantillon / Russian River event at Allagash. It was easily the best beer event I’ve been to.

May 19

IMG_20150519_120423157 (1)Had never been to Vancouver. Once there, my only question was: why? Every tech event that will fit in their conference center should be in Vancouver. Gorgeous city.

June 3

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My second book, The Software Paradox, was published by O’Reilly.

June 13

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Our hop plants – Cascade and Centennial – sprouted.

June 20

IMG_20150620_165451298With wood playing a more primary role in our winter heating plans, started construction on a woodshed.

June 24

IMG_20150624_182117626_HDR-PANO (2)Scratched “watch game from the Green Monster and a private box at Fenway” off the bucket list.

June 30

IMG_20150630_154103527_HDRFirewood dropoff.

July 7

rachel-bday

One of our favorite people in the world was in town for her birthday.

July 19

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My best friend’s dog Floyd – who once was flown to LA to be on Pet Stars, hosted by Mario Lopez, where he (playfully) mauled Joan Rivers’ daughter – passed away. People who don’t have pets might not understand it, but this was devastating. He was not my dog, but I had known Floyd since he was a puppy.

I’d been all over Colorado with him, and remember him long before he was the biggest lab I’ve ever seen. My friend and I used to drive up into the mountains with Floyd, and along the way he’d take turns trying to lie on top of us as if we were mattresses. Once we got there, he’d be diving through snow drifts like a porpoise. He always slept very well up there.

It was time, and he had a great life, but that didn’t make it any easier. RIP Floyd.

July 31

IMG_20150814_163239529_HDR-PANOBaxter State Park is nice.

August 3

2015-08-03 18.10.12Woodshed was both finished and loaded.

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The best part of the project was using chisels that had been polished smooth by my grandfather before me.

August 13

IMG_20150813_110411257_HDR-PANO (1)I really don’t mind staycations at our house.

August 20

this was a good day

A photo posted by stephen o'grady (@stephenogrady) on

Made the annual pilgrimage to Houston Brook Falls.

August 25

IMG_20150825_170612519_HDRKate and I rented a little place on the water up north for a week. Quiet, beautiful and local(ish). Perfect.

August 28

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Made the annual pilgrimage to Monhegan Island (and the now annual visit to the Monhegan Brewery).

September 6

IMG_20150906_185240456_HDRCamping with friends. Having learned from last time, we didn’t try and hike a jockey box, ice and keg in a half mile.

September 21

IMG_20150921_222619153
Yet another birthday celebrated at the O’Grady Compound.

September 28

As many of you already know, my friend Alex King passed away after a battle with cancer. I was able to visit him a few weeks before, and we got to sit and watch baseball. Red Sox/Yankees, even. I got to tell him in person that Kate was pregnant, and to pick his brain on what it’s like being the father of a daughter.

He was still fighting when last I saw him.

I got the news via a personal Slack instance that we were all on together. I was coming out of the South Portland post office on a pre-Monktoberfest errand. I typed “oh god,” then sat silent in my car for a while. I called Kate, but couldn’t really talk. I was no better a few days later at the Monktoberfest.

To be honest, I’m not much better now. Pretty much every day I read something about technology, baseball or half a dozen other things and think, “I have to ping Alex.” I remember a second too late. I know from experience that this will get less difficult. But not soon.

Alex was my friend, and he is missed.

October 1

IMG_0032The fifth Monktoberfest. Still can’t believe I’ve survived five of them.

October 24

IMG_0096Remember when I said I didn’t care to repeat last winter’s experience?

October 24

IMG_0097One of my favorite events every year. Great beer, great setting. It’s good to be outside on a gorgeous Fall day drinking something nice.

November 6

IMG_0155With our new arrival looming, snuck in a last minute visit with my best friend. First task was getting Kate situated in her hospital room.

November 15

IMG_0219Stupidly rushing because I was splitting my time between home and the hospital, I almost put the router I was using to mortice the hinges on the door to the baby’s room through my palm. Instead, I caught it in time, disaster was averted and the nursery was now an actual room with a door.

November 26

IMG_0254That time we had Thanksgiving at the hospital. That’s Allagash Tiarna, in case anyone’s curious.

November 30

IMG_0282The morning of our big day.

IMG_0287An hour later.

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An hour later.

I will never have a more important day than November 30, 2015.

December 7

IMG_0371The O’Grady Family heads home for the first time.

December 26

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Kate got a new baby-friendly ride.

December 31

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New Year’s Eve was a little quieter this year for some reason.

From other similar year end accounts, I  know many of you had up and down 2015’s as well. Here’s hoping the new year treats us all well.

Enjoy your time.

 

How We Leased a New Car Without Setting Foot in the Dealership

Volvo XC70 exterior

After a quick mention on Twitter, a number of people have asked how we managed to buy a car without visiting the dealership we bought it from. The answer is pretty simple: email.

With Kate’s old car, a 2002 Volvo S60, having crossed the 210,000 mile mark with a relatively expensive exhaust system repair looming, we’ve been in the market for some time. My efforts at convincing her to replace it with a pickup truck having failed miserably, another Volvo was the default choice. We’ve both been very happy with the reliability and maintenance record of our Volvos, and this is the second in a row for Kate that’s eclipsed 200,000 miles.

So we headed to our local dealership to test drive two models with a little more space than her S60 (new baby, new priorities): the XC60 and XC70. Kate had no real preference, so I went to work finding the best deal we could on either.

Step one was tracking down every Volvo dealership within a reasonable driving distance: 110 miles or so. I would have stretched it further to include Boston-area dealerships, but with a new baby time is at a premium. Interestingly, Google Maps was less than helpful for this exercise, including as it did a host of service stations that weren’t relevant for this search. Volvo’s website gave me a list, however, and I emailed five dealerships in New Hampshire and Maine with basic information: the two models we were considering, the lease terms we expected, the details of our trade-in, and so on. I (eventually) got five replies.

From there, I simply negotiated over email, taking the best offers and seeing whether or not other dealers would match or beat them. It took a couple of rounds of this, because a few of the dealerships were more traditional and wanted to do things over the phone or in person, but eventually one of them (Portland Volvo) was willing to go the extra mile and give us a higher end model at our price target and we were done.

Even better for us, Portland Volvo has a drop off delivery option. The first time I spoke to anyone on the phone was the day before Christmas Eve to put down a deposit. Three days later, I called their finance department to provide the necessary information for the credit application and the car was dropped off at our house an hour later. The driver brought all the necessary paperwork, which we signed and then he drove back to the dealership in our trade-in.

All in all, that’s about as painless a buying process as you’ll find, with the possible exception of Tesla. Not every dealership will drop off the vehicle, of course, but there’s no reason apart from test drives at this point to visit a dealership to talk price. It’s much more efficient to stick to email, engage a number of dealerships and let them compete with one another. If you’re working with one that has an internet sales department, as well, expect them to be much more efficient.

So that’s how we leased our new car without setting foot in the dealership.

November 30

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Many things have happened on November 30th over the years. In 1782, the preliminary peace articles that would later be known as the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War, were signed. In 1954, in the only documented case in the Western Hemisphere of a human being hit by a rock from space, Ann Elizabeth Hodges was struck by a meteorite while taking an afternoon nap. After it was slowed by the roof, she was bruised but otherwise fine. In 1980, Shane Victorino was born. This later became very relevant. Two years after Victorino was born, Thriller was released on November 30th and went on to become the best selling album of all time.

Shane Victorino or no, however, 2015’s November 30th will always be the best November 30th for us. At 8:33 AM, we welcomed Eleanor Gilman O’Grady into the world. Our first child, and one who brought her share of complications, we are grateful beyond words that she arrived happy and healthy. Well, healthy, anyway. She was a little grumpy post-delivery. She got here a little late for Thanksgiving, but as she was five weeks early (as Kate says, she’s already an O’Grady) we can’t really hold that against her.

Kate and I are adapting to the life of parents of a newborn, which is to say we’re adapting to a life where you measure sleep in minutes rather than hours. Exhausted as we are, though, what pretty much every parent told us has proven true: it’s all worth it. It always was.

November 30th, 2015 was a good day.

Books: Fall 2015

Last fall I took a few minutes and wrote up reviews for some of the books I’d been reading. I have no idea if anyone read that post, let alone any of the books recommended, but it was a useful exercise for me to capture my fresh impressions. What worked for me, what I thought fell flat. Why I liked or disliked a book, and to what degree.

If you’re interested in book recommendations, Harper Reed crowdsourced a related question and the answers were interesting. Some of the recommendations there are excellent.

But of the books I’ve read over the past few months, here are some of the more notable ones both good and bad. I’m restricting myself to fiction because non-fiction reviews take too long, but for what it’s worth I’m finding Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns of August less compelling than I expected.

With that preamble out of the way, some thoughts on books.

The Good

 

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino

wintersnight

This is an experimental novel by Italo Calvino that is relayed in fragments, with a meta second-person narrative interwoven with segments from multiple fictional and incomplete novels. This book was another that made me wish that Goodreads split its ratings in two – one rating for technical execution, the second for enjoyment. If On a Winter’s Night would score very highly on the former, for me. It’s an impressive achievement, and I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Which makes it worth reading, and guarantees it a place in the “Good” section. That being said, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the process of reading it. I’m glad I read it, but I wasn’t as glad reading it if that makes sense.

Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

grapes

As with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I somehow missed the Grapes of Wrath in school, in spite of having read quite a bit of Steinbeck along the way. This was unfortunate, as the Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant piece of work. The prose is excellent but accessible, it’s stylistically enjoyable and the characters are well drawn – not surprising because they were based in part on Steinbeck’s firsthand impressions of having spent time firsthand with many of the poor Okie migrants during the period. This was an important novel at the time, and if Piketty’s ideas on inequality are correct, will remain an important novel for the foreseeable future. Read this.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

hundred

Frequently compared – even in the book’s own description – to Forrest Gump, this book certainly has a lot in common with that novel. It also read to me like a less literate version of Mark Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case. Some reviewers hold it up as the antithesis – except in the quality, for better and for worse, of the writing itself – to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Those comparisons are mostly reasonable, though it goes back to the slapstick well a bit too often to really present itself as the Swedish Forrest Gump. At times it has more in common with the old cartoon Mr Magoo. Going back to the two pronged rating above, I’d give Jonas Jonasson’s effort moderate marks for execution, but the novel itself is entertaining if ultimately light on the substance.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carre

tinker

Though I’ve read a couple of novels by his son, I’d never actually read any John Le Carre. To rectify this, I picked up his classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Like Ian Fleming before him, Le Carre was actually in the trade, not just writing about it. Unlike Fleming, Le Carre’s works are stark, understated and full of moral ambiguity. His experience as a spy is constantly evident, but not in a flashy way: his comprehensive understanding of the basic, pedestrian mechanics of spycraft are sublimated into a confusing world constantly engaged in silent war. It’s a realistic rather than stylized spy novel, which will work for some and not others. Fortunately for Le Carre, the former group is much, much larger than the latter.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

lostthings

This Neil Gaiman-esque adult fairy tale borrows heavily from actual children’s fairy tales – there is a curiously lengthy postscript/bibliography, in fact, which traces these influences in detail. It’s not quite Neil Gaiman-esque in terms of the quality, but it’s an entertaining and readable story. Given some of the descriptions and themes, however, it’s probably not the first fairy tale you read to a young child. Once they’re a bit older, however, they may recognize some of the drivers behind the youthful protagonist and I could see it becoming a favorite.

The Peripheral, William Gibson

peripheral

This William Gibson novel was in every way a William Gibson novel. From the original, borderline-hallucinatory plot to the at times incomprehensible and yet taken for granted future tech, there is no point in reading the Peripheral when you’re not acutely aware that you’re reading Gibson. If you like Gibson, it’s probable that you’ll like The Peripheral. Not as much Neuromancer, but possibly more than the Bigend trilogy. I enjoyed it, even if he wrapped things up at the end a bit too neatly for me.

Revival, Stephen King

revival

See above. If you like Stephen King, you’ll probably enjoy Revival. It’s a nod to Machen with some Lovecraftian elements, but is all King otherwise (regrettably including his recent and unfortunate tendency to match older male protagonists with improbable (much) younger female love interests). Still, that’s a footnote in the larger arc of the book, which is dark and spans time and distance. This won’t be counted among King’s greater works, but it was an entertaining read for me.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

fielding

This novel was born admist a great deal of hype; it commanded a sizable advance for a first time author, and a great deal of attention as a result – a place on the New York Times Best Book of the Year list included. And it’s about baseball. Put those things together, and you would have figured I’d have read this years ago. Instead, I just read it this year, and my immediate reaction was that reading it is like watching a slow-motion car accident. Self-destructiveness doesn’t begin to describe how just about every character torches their own lives in one way or another. Hell, if I’d known a great deal of the book was about a player with Steve Blass disease – an utterly horrifying prospect for anyone who’s ever played a sport – I may never have started the book in the first place. To the novel’s credit, however, by the time I figured that out it was too late, and I had to finish it. The baseball is well rendered, and Harbach can write. It was a painful read at times, but ultimately a rewarding one.

The Entertaining

 

The Niceville Trilogy, Carsten Stroud

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I admit to being unfavorably disposed to a writer whose bio on his own website describes his own intellect using the adjective “staggering.” And each book in this trilogy is worse than the one that preceded it. All of that being said, this is an entertaining series which keeps horror, organized crime and bank job plots moving along at a reasonable pace, with each intermingling every so often. And from the bizarre set up to the conclusion, the series is original. The characters become more like cardboard cutouts as you go along, but in the beginning the series is several ticks above your usual thriller fare. If you treat these as pure entertainment – books for your next flight – you’re likely to enjoy them.

The Deep, Nick Cutter

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A post-apocalyptic book that has nothing to do with the apocalypse, The Deep is equal parts Event Horizon, The Thing and The Abyss. It’s not exactly great art, but for purposes of entertainment it’s got just enough flesh on the characters to hold your interest. It also avoids some of the more obvious monster movie cliches in ways that books such as The Ruins didn’t, so as a horror read it gets the job done.

Ghost Fleet, P. W. Singer and August Cole

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Picked this up before vacation following a recommendation from Tim Bray. As he acknowledged, it’s certainly not a great book – the characters in particular are cribbed liberally from your favorite war movie of choice. It’s no different, in that respect, from your average Tom Clancy novel, and Ghost Fleet is perhaps best described as an updated Red Storm Rising. With a few exceptions, the technical descriptions are plausible and the underlying assumption that the next war will be played out over networks seems certain, so the novel works and the pace is good. The book was of particular interest to me because one of the vessels playing a starring role, the USS Zumwalt, was built right here in Maine by Bath Iron Works, not ten minutes from where my parents live. It is just as weird looking as they describe. Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is a beach read, shallow from a character development and geopolitical standpoint but heavy on technical detail. If that’s your thing, it’s a quick read.

The Meh

 

Little, Big, John Crowley

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This book is virtually impossible to characterize. It’s most commonly treated as fantasy, but in many respects it’s fantasy in the way that One Hundred Years of Solitude or Corelli’s Mandolin are fantasy. It’s not in the class of either of those novels, but Crowley is a writer of impressive ability. The book is reminiscent of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale in both setting and plot, but remains an entirely distinct and unique work. For that alone, I had a tough time keeping it out of the Good section. But as impressive as the writing is at times, it’s a difficult to follow work that didn’t ultimately deliver on its promise for me. Be aware, however, that there are many reasonable, well-regarded readers on Goodreads who consider this one of the best books they have ever read, so this rating could simply be a failure on my part as the reader.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

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I really want to like Shirley Jackson. Gaiman, King, Matheson and others all consider her a major influence. But something about her work just doesn’t click for me, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was unfortunately not an exception. Novels that have a loose relationship with reality are fine in my book, but there has to be underlying framework to support the suspension of disbelief. I didn’t find that here. Apparently this book was influenced by Jackson’s own agoraphobia, a perspective that is alien to me, so this may read very differently to different audiences. But apart from the obvious talent of the writer, this didn’t do much for me.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick

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The set up for this made the novel sound perfect: an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the second World War, including a novel within the novel casting doubt on the reality of the alternative reality. Dick-style questions about the nature of perception and reality combined with the author’s vision of a victorious Third Reich would seem to be a solid foundation to build from. Amazon certainly seems to think so, as they’re turning the novel into a dramatic series. For me, however, The Man in the High Castle was undone by characters that were shallow, two-dimensional and rarely worth investing in. The ending attempted to cover for the fact that the ambition and scope of the novel may have been a bit too broad to begin with, but only partially succeeds. This is worth reading, because of the topic and the writer, but keep your expectations muted.

Bird Box, Josh Malerman

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This book was buoyed by one of the more unique post-apocalyptic scenarios you’ll ever read, and it understands implicitly that what cannot be seen is always more frightening than what can be. That being said, I felt like I’d read the story arc of the protagonist, her children and the other characters many times over the past few years as post-apocalyptic fiction has gone mainstream. Couple that with a lack of any real answers or payoff, and the result is a well written genre book with a unique twist but not much substance.