Free at last!

There comes a time when you realize that you're really starting to be financially stable.  I have bought and sold two houses, I have built (am building) retirement accounts, and I'm putting money into a 529 account for my son's education.

But today I did something that makes me incredibly happy, and points to that financially stable thing.  I paid off my highest interest credit card and cancelled that sorry sonofab***ch!  Now, I'm not debt free yet... but I should be in the next two or three years (not counting my law school loans - but that's a separate story).  But I can't tell you how nice it is to be rid of the worst credit card with the worst customer service I've ever had.  I mean - I'm free of this bank even earlier than I would have been because they lost a pissing match with the FDIC and had to refund to me (and many, many others) several hundred dollars because of their unethical practices.  Yes, Discover, I'm looking directly at you.

Never, never, again will I have a Discover card in my wallet.


HBTM! Or С Днем Рождения!



Not a particularly auspicious number, but we work with what we have.

I meant to write this on my birthday, but I had friends from Canada down and we were celebrating.  That wins over online-ness everytime.

What is 43?  43 is pretty awesome.  I am, currently, being paid to learn a foreign language.  I will then be sent to a foreign country to represent the U.S.  I am a diplomat.  That's a pretty cool career.  Much cooler than any I'd planned.  Though tympanist for the New York Philharmonic is still up there...

I have a law degree from a top 20 law school.  Even made law review.  That's not too shabby.  10 years ago I'd have never believed that would happen.

I married a pretty damned awesome woman.  She is a graduate of one of the top liberal arts schools in the U.S.  Same one as two former Secretaries of State.  Brilliant chick.  Pretty hot too.  I don't think I'm biased.  Am I biased?  Nah.  Nah, I'm not.  She's hot.  And brilliant.  Kinda short, though.

I have a really cool son.  He's a blast to have around.  I miss him when he's not.

And here's the kicker:  I am currently in the best condition I've ever been in.  I think I'm in the best health as well, but I need to have a blood work up to verify that.  I'll get back to you when that happens.  I may even have before and after pics.  Though that might short-circuit the internet.

So 8 months ago I weighed 195 lbs and had an estimated 24% body fat.  On the morning of my birthday a week ago, I was 171 lbs and under 18% body fat.  I feel better and can move better than I have in years.  It actually only took 5 months to get to that weight/% ratio, but I've held it pretty effortlessly since then, and I'm working to increase my body mass a little now.  Hopefully in a few month's time I'll still be around 170, but with a lower % body fat.  My resting heart rate is in the low 40s (I've measured it at 40 bpm a couple of times).  All of my stomach issues are gone.  I can (and do most days) run up the escalator at the Rosslyn Metro station with my 20-30 lb backpack on.  (that's a pretty good trick, people - it's longer than most stadiums I've been in)

This is all from a combination of eating correctly and exercising correctly (and less than 3 hours per week).  I'll go into details if anyone asks, but I've already discussed it with many of my friends.

Anyway... things are good.

Sure I wish I had more free time right now.  I have several things I've been wanting to finish and start.  But first thing's first.  Gotta get to the point where I can converse in a foreign language.  Namely, Russian.  Everything else takes a back seat to that.

It's kinda strange.  When I was in high school we were given a choice of languages to take.  In my school we had French, Spanish, and Russian.  This was in the 80s, so the cold war was still waging.  Russians were still the enemy.  They were out to take over the world and movies were still being made about what would happen if they did.  So I chose Russian.  Duh.  Then on the first day of class my teacher came in and announced that she was pregnant and taking a leave of absence.  I know, right?  So I moved to French.  Did terrible.  Years later, in college, I took two years of Japanese.  I did OK.  But I never had to use it, so it's long gone.

But now I have to get to at least a S2/R2 out of S5/R5 in 9 months of Russian in order to keep my job and go on to my next assignment.  This after not having studied a foreign language in 20 years.  So essentially I ALSO have to learn how to learn a language.  Which isn't easy.  Oh, what's a S2/R2, you ask?  Well it's a measurement of how well I can Speak/Read in a language.  In the judgement of the State Department:
Speaking 2 - Limited working proficiency.
The individual can ask and answer predictable questions and give straightforward instructions to subordinates.
The individual can give and understand complicated, detailed, and extensive directions and make non-routine changes in travel plans.
Simple structures and basic grammatical relations are typically controlled.
So basically I can interview people and discuss basic factual issues and information.

Reading 2 - Limited working proficiency.
Able to read, with some misunderstandings, straightforward, familiar, factual material, but not experienced enough to consistently draw inferences from the text.
Can locate and understand the main ideas and details in materials written for the general reader (of the target language).
I can read a newspaper and give a general gist of most articles.

A 5/5 is a highly educated native speaker.  It's very uncommon for a foreigner to reach that level.  In fact, many/most native speakers wouldn't be judged a 5/5 (note the highly educated part).  Most native speakers are in the 4 - 4+ range, as I understand it.  Some days I think I'm a 3 in English, personally.

Oh - and I have my second progress evaluation this Monday.  Wish me luck.  Yeah, that's right, I'm spending the weekend talking to myself!  Go me!  (Моя кошка не понимает русский.)

I WANT to reach a 3/3 in Russian, but that's not likely to happen for me in 9 months of training.  Some can do it.  I don't think I'll be able to.  At this juncture, I'll be happy with the required 2/2, and thrilled if I manage a 2+ in either speaking or reading.  When I get to my next post, I'll sign up for continuing training and go at my own pace with a 1-on-1 instructor.  Things should be both more challenging and better once I move overseas.  I'm sooooooo ready to be there!  At the very least, coming home to an empty place just to sit down and *sigh* keep studying Russian is getting O-L-D.  But like I said before law school, I can do anything for 9 months.  Right?  Uh, right?  Hello?

Look what I made! (Part 6)

This is a simple desk, but it can serve multiple purposes.  I built two of these to take with me to law school.  It's completely riffed from a medieval table design - the very early trestle tables.

table SM

Basically you have two (or more) trestles and the table top.  My innovation, if you can call it that, was to create this out of wood available at Home Depot/Lowes and to make it stupid simple to build.  The trestles are made by cutting a board into certain sized pieces and gluing them up into a main body and an "a-frame" leg.  Then you cut a tenon into a piece made from the same board as the body for the straight leg.

Legs SM

As you can see in the two images below, the body of the legs is simply one board glued up in three layers (kinda sloppy too, but it works).  Instead of cutting the joints into a solid piece of lumber, like they'd have done, I just left gaps as I glued up the body.

leg tops

leg tops 2

The "A-frame" leg I had to dowel and glue at an angle and cut the joint a little, but it's not rocket science.  Leave the gap narrow and then fit it as you go.  It's always easier to remove wood than to add it.


For the desk top I took a solid birch ply board (3/4 inch) and glued supports underneath.  Really the supports are only there to slide the trestles against.

table top

They are more guides than supports.

table under SM

One of the reasons I designed the table this way was so that I could use it when I go camping and do the historical recreation thing.  It easily passes the 10 foot test, especially if I replace the top with some random lumber, as they'd have done historically.

Anyway, there you go.  Desk/Table!

Look what I made! (Part 5)

Wooooo!  Got interrupted there for a couple months, didn't I?

So since I've last posted to this here journal, we packed up and moved back to the 'states, I started Russian language training (which, BTW, is an intensive 3 or so years of language classes packed into 9 months), S moved to her new assignment overseas, and... and  other things that I'm forgetting right now because my head's so full of Russian and such.

Also?  I survived Sandy just fine, thanks.

BUT - I promised certain people that I'd put up images of the harps I'm trying to complete (yeah, that too), so here they are.

The first is based on a 15th-century harp found in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.  (Now there's some controversy about whether that harp is actually that old or a more recent recreation.  But nonetheless, it's in the same style and design as the 14th-15th century harps and I have the technical drawings of it, so... yeah.)  It's of the "clamshell" type design, which means I took a maple board, split it, hollowed out the insides, and glued it back together, then shaped it and drilled it and etc.  Hopefully when it's done you'll have a hard time seeing the seam between the top and bottom, because the grain matches well (because they're the same log).  The image below is after I'd planed down the sides - thus the curls.  You can barely see the seam where the two boards were rejoined.


The neck and pillar I did in a similar fashion to my other harps - glued up in three layers so I could alter the grain in the middle, making it stronger.  This is NOT historically accurate, mind you.  But what I want out of this harp is one that looks and sounds reasonably in the ballpark of a historical harp (it'll be strung with gut) but that will hold up a bit better - I hope.

IMG_4574 SM

The strings will be tied and lowered into the holes, because there's no way to insert then and tie them off.  There's no sound hole in the back.  They will be pulled into small grooves at the top of each string hole, and held in place by buttons that are fitted (tapered) into each hole.  Eventually I'll make bray pins, but for now I have buttons turned from fossilized walrus ivory.  (see below?  no holes in the back)

IMG_4575 SM

I also need to make or have made some brass staples that will sit across the top of each string hole, keeping the strings from eating into the wood.  It's what the original has.  But those things, final routing, final sanding, finishing and the peg holes is all that's left, really.


Next, here are two of my Mark IIIs in progress.  One is pear and maple, the other is canarywood and maple.  Nothing much to say about these that I haven't said in a previous post.  I need to make the soundboards and backboards and glue the bodies up.  Then it's a matter of fitting the necks and pillars to the bodies and final shtuff.  Oh - I still need to drill the peg holes and ream them.  But that's next.

IMG_4579 SM

IMG_4580 SM

IMG_4581 SM

IMG_4584 SM

Sorry these images are all so overwhelmingly... red.  I need to adjust my white balance when I take pictures on this very red floor.

Hope you like 'em!


Look what I made! (Part 4)

A (quick and easy) table!


When I was prepping to head off to law school, I had already found a place to rent and was thinking through what I might want to take with me furniture-wise.  I decided I needed a desk and I needed a hall table.  You know - a place to throw your keys so the gnomes will know where to find them to hide them from you when you aren't looking because you KNOW you put them on that damn table since you ALWAYS put them on that damn table when you walk through the door?  Yeah, one of those tables.  So I designed some simple but very effective versions.  I'll show you the desk another time.  

This table is made from two boards I bought at either Lowe's or Home Depot.  Can't remember which and frankly, they're the same store.  One board was cut in three pieces to make up the legs/sides and the shelf/stretcher.  The picture below was taken after I drilled the basic holes where the wedges go into the stretcher and one side where the stretcher goes into the side.  I hadn't drilled the other side or squared and cleaned the slots.


The other board is a little wider and makes up the top.  I kinda like the fact that the knots are almost dead-center on this top piece - it makes it visually interesting.  But the board is flatsawn, so it has warped a little.  Basically it now has a curve in it the length of the top that you can see in one of the images below.  


I have a 1/2" piece of douglas fir running down the top as well, which helps secure it to the sides.  Note the small notches in the tops of the sides (in the two images above).  The douglas fir piece has a matching notch that allows it to set right down on the sides and keep them from moving (if you look closely at the image below you can see it).  It does NOT, however, keep the table together if you try to pick it up by the top.  So if I were to make this again I'd modify that notch joint to lock the top on.


Finally I also have the wedges (you can see one in the top image).  I love using wedges in trestle tables of various designs.  They're fantastic joinery.  

The joy in this table is that it took me longer to apply a protective finish than to build it, and like my other stuff there are no nails or screws holding it together.  I mean seriously - this took me an hour, tops.  (It's hard to judge because I made it and the desk at the same time)


"Simple Gifts" is one of my favorite pieces of music, no matter who plays it.  Just sayin' - it's playing right now.

So there you go!  Table!


Look what I made! (Part 3)

A (nother) harp!


This is the last thing I finished before truckin' off to law school in 2006.  Actually - no, I made a couple of knock-down furniture pieces to take to school with me, which I'll try to put in a following post, cause they're kinda cool in their simplicity.  But this was the last substantial and complex thing I made before law school.  Yeah.  That.  Anywhoo, I made the body a few years before and it was sitting around staring at me accusingly, so I built it a neck and pillar to go with it.  Something that's really cool that you can't see in these pictures is that the soundboard is flamed birch.  It has a great ripple all over it!


The story of the body is this - one of my dearest friends had an apprentice who gifted him with a huge board of nice mahogany just before he (the apprentice) passed away.  (wow - two harp posts in a row with death involved.  That's odd)  I cut the big board into usable pieces for him and he gave me some.  I made it into one 26 string harp and the body for a 22 string.  I still have the 26 string downstairs and unfinished.  I'll get to it!  Sheesh!

Anyway, I built the neck and pillar for the 22 string to be my own harp, but then another friend in Houston wanted a harp, and I decided since I'm still building the 26 string, I'll just keep it for my own and finish the other for my friend.  So I did.


If you compare this harp with the previous one I posted about (which is actually an older body but newer neck and pillar) you'll see that the pillar in this older design was waaaay more curved.  I stopped doing that with the maple and bubinga harp mainly because I couldn't fit that big curve onto the wood I had available, but now I think I like it better.  So I'll keep doing it.  Or not doing it.  Or - yeah.

Note also that the head to neck joint is flat.  I'm a big fan of the new radiused idea that I incorporated into the maple and bubinga harp.


Here's a crappy picture of the dovetailed pillar support I was talking about earlier.  The support is far less likely to pull away from the base.  It's all done by hand, so it's a little time consuming (because I'm not yet great at dovetails), but in this case it worked well.  I'll also continue doing that in future harps.


Anyway, so there you have it.  This is essentially a transitional model.  It's mostly a mark 2 design, but the dovetail and the way I attached the neck and pillar are definitely mark 3.

(for the curious, the joint to the neck and pillar have always been a bit of a problem.  Attaching them and getting clamping pressure on such a weird shaped joint was difficult and I tried many things.  Then all at once two ideas hit me - one was that I saw a picture of Dusty Strings necks and pillars, and they were all oddly shaped.  Then I realized that they had the same problem and they just cut them out with essentially parts jutting out that allowed for clamping.  Then they cut the neck and pillar to final shape after the joint was solid.  But the other idea was that instead of a simple doweled tenon holding the neck and pillar together, I could use a draw bore tenon to actually DRAW the two together and hold them tightly as they dried.  So I'm using both ideas - I'm only finishing the mating surfaces of the joint, and then I'm gluing and pegging and draw boring the thing together.  Then I trim the neck and pillar as one piece and final sand from there.)

Double Yum

Look what (she) made! (Gluten Free!)

This is a pan of brownies:

This is not something I made, but it's something S made.  Since it's gluten free, I thought it might interest a few among you who are limiting such things.  

The coolest thing is - they're really quite good!  Yet there is no sugar or flour in this recipe.  (Well - ok, the Godiva dark chocolate chips I threw on top as the brownies baked have some sugar, I am quite certain.  But other than that...) No grains at all.  

What you do is use almond meal and honey (or maple syrup), though it's about half the amount of sweetner that would be put in other brownies (1/2 cup of honey vs. 1 cup sugar).  The recipe actually calls for walnut meal, which would change the taste a little.  We'll try that soon.  Also it contains:
Dutch cocoa powder
baking powder
baking soda
sea salt
coconut milk
vanilla extract
coconut oil (extra virgin)

Lemme know if you want the full recipe.  
gettin laid

Look what I made! (Part 2)

A harp!

If you scroll down a little you'll see these same pictures in a former post, but here I'll talk a little more about the harp in question.

I built a harp back in 1997 for the daughter of my mom's boss.  She grew up and apparently stopped playing it, and while I was in law school it found its way back to mom.  Mom had it sitting proudly on her piano until she passed away in 2009.  

As we siblings were sorting through the stuff, the harp came back to live with us and S found out that SURPRISE! you can actually, like, play MUSIC on a harp with fewer than 42 strings.  Changed her life.  (this is an inside joke/jab at S, who made fun of the "cute little harps" I make because they aren't, you know, REAL harps!)  You can read a little about what she does with it at

So we're living in Madison, innocently eating dinner one night, when *SPRANG!* the neck and pillar implode (my harps are pulling hundreds of pounds of pressure, and the original neck and pillar for this one had a flaw in it that took 12 years to kill it).

I guess, then, TECHNICALLY, designing a new neck and pillar for this Maple body was the first woodworking I did after law school.  I borrowed a friend's shop and bought some quarter-sawn Maple and Bubinga and set to work.  

I also took this opportunity to incorporate a new radiused pillar-to-body joint, which I like Muy Mucho!  It'll go into all subsequent harps of this general design.

This design is the third generation of my original design, which I sat down and sketched out back in 1995.  The only thing I wish this harp had is a dovetailed pillar support on the base of the body.  I included one in the last harp I finished before law school (2006) and I think it works well (I'll show you that in my next post).  This one is just rabbet-jointed and pegged at an angle perpendicular to the strings.  It's holding, but it's pulled a little away from flush, and I don't like that.  One of the things I incorporated into the second generation and I've carried into this one is that there are no metal fasteners in this harp (besides the brass guide pins and the tuning pegs, of course).  

Everything is created with wood joints, and the neck and pillar section is free-floating.  The only thing keeping the neck and pillar connected to the body are a couple of guide dowels and the strings.  If you take the strings off, you can lift the neck and pillar section off as well.  (which made it much easier to design and replace a new one)

SO - I'm currently making two new harps for S - A Gothic-style harp (existed in the 14th-15th centuries in Europe) and another of this design, but made from Pear and Maple - and another in Canarywood for a diplomat friend.  Stay tuned and I'll show you those in progress.

Look what I made! (Part 1)

I will, in due time, write a "highlights" post about my time here in Ottawa.  But for now, I'm going to start a new series called "look what I made!"

I missed woodworking while I was in law school, so it's been good to get to design and create stuff again.  And unfortunately, it's unlikely that I'll be able to do much of it at my next post since we'll be in an apartment.  So I'm going to try to post once a week for the next few weeks about some of the things I've made.  Today - SHELVES!

I created these shelves mainly as a way to get my head back into woodworking.  I adapted this design from one I saw years ago in Fine Woodworking magazine.  The shelves slide together without any hardware so that I can take it down and take it apart in less than a minute (assuming they're empty).  When disassembled, what you have is ten boards with notches in them and nothing else.  There are no screws or brackets involved in this set of shelves. 

The uprights are made from wood called "Brazilian Cherry" (which I believe is a relative of either mahogany or rosewood) and the shelves are pine boards I picked up at Home Depot - thus easy to replace in the future if necessary.  The unit is designed so that it leans against the wall, and the more weight you add the more it secures itself.  I cut a notch in the base of the uprights to accommodate baseboards in any place we may live.  The uprights get narrower as they rise, and the shelves get narrower and closer together.  I didn't follow the golden mean, but it's not too bad - it lightens it up a bit.

I finished the uprights with tung oil and the shelves with a couple of coats of lacquer.  


(no subject)

I have a new laptop, so I'll hopefully be posting more frequently to this journal again.  Time will tell...

So anyway, people think the craziest things about the embassy.  I've been asked if there's a nuclear missile silo in the middle of it, people who have visited inside have asked to see the holding cells or the situation room with the wall of video screens and the direct line to the president where the Ambassador goes during crisis situations, and many people seem to think that everyone who works inside is a spy and that we have an army of soldiers just waiting for a good firefight.  

S and I were strolling along across the street from the embassy the other day and we passed a guy who was talking on his cell phone.  As we passed we heard " front of the U.S. embassy.  Yeah.  I wonder if they're listening to me right now."

It was all S could do to keep herself from looking at the guy and saying "yes, we are."