Friday, June 29, 2018

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

"I almost died and it's all your fault!"

Harlan Ellison's phone calls are legendary. For a brief period, I received them on a regular basis. Some went well, some, like the one the quote above came from, went not-so-well. But they were always interesting. Harlan died yesterday at the age of 84. There will never be another Harlan phone call.

I never knew him well enough to call him a friend, but I think he might allow me to claim acquaintanceship. There are a lot of strong opinions about the man held by many. I experienced a bit of his cantankerous side. I never witnessed the boorish behavior he could be accused of. I did witness a masterful amount of self-control on his part when attendees at a convention one time went out of their way to attempt to provoke him. I once saw him instantly become gentlemanly and deferential when Ardath Mayhar walked into the room. That was nice. I'll never forget the respect he showed Ardath.

I first fell into Harlan's orbit in 1997. I'd published my first story or two, and casting about for a way to keep my name in print as the rejection slips continued to pile up, I hit upon the idea of conducting interviews. Worldcon was coming up in San Antonio that year, so I went down the list of author guests and fired off letters asking if Writer X might find an hour of their time to sit down with me for a conversation. A week later, my phone rang.

"Jayme? Harlan Ellison here..."

That was the first of many times I'd hear that phrase. The Wife heard it quite a bit, too. Turns out, Harlan wouldn't be in San Antonio. He'd had a falling out with the convention.

"Tell ya what, kiddo," he said. "Think up some questions I haven't been asked a million times before, and call me back in a week. I'll talk to you then."

It had not been my intention that Harlan be my first professional interview. I was terrified. Intimidated would be a huge understatement. But in the interim I read every interview of his I could get my hands on, and vowed not to ask any of those questions. Which meant no "Last Dangerous Visions" questions, of course. I called him back a week later, and we started slowly, with... maybe not questions he'd never been asked before, but variations on certain themes, coming at them from different angles. Then I hit him with the following, which stopped him dead in his tracks. The pause doesn't come through in print, but he hadn't been asked this before, and it made him think:

What's the worst thing you've ever done?

There are things that I have done that would stun a police dog if I spoke of them, so obviously I'm not going to speak of them. My friends know, and my wife knows, and they seem to forgive me. That's the interesting thing. The things that I would pillory myself for having done, where I would say "Shit, I never really should have done that," they will all say "But you had to do that because blah blah blah..."
Yes, I put him on the spot. Made him uncomfortable, for just a little bit. But it made for a distinctive interview. Still, he'd challenged me, hadn't he? Put me on the spot? So I played dirty. That question, good as it was, still fell within Harlan's wheelhouse. My follow-up, he outright stumbled over: Let's balance the karma: What's the best thing you've ever done?

By then, I knew I had control of the interview. It wasn't going south, it was going where I wanted. I had Harlan's buy-in. He wasn't bored. This was huge for me--I'd interviewed hundreds of people as a journalist for newspaper stories, but this was different. It gave me a shot of much-needed confidence that resulted in 40-plus additional interviews over the ensuing decade. By the time we approached the end of the interview, I was ready with the question that, I believe, encapsulates the interview overall:

When did Harlan Ellison the writer become Harlan Ellison the event?

I don't know. I've studied the lives of a number of different writers -- Emile Zola, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. These were people who wrote important things, but when you talk about them, people know that Scott Fitzgerald sort of was the king of the Roaring 20s and danced his way through that whole period of bootleg gin and his wife wound up in a madhouse. People know Hemingway was a great adventurer who lived at the peak of his macho ability and then finally blew his brains out with an over-and-under shotgun in Wyoming. And Zola is only known for the Dreyfuss case. But and I think there are some writers, as there are some politicians there are some adventurers there are some scientists whose lives apart from their achievements, their lives themselves are eventful. They live life more fully, they live life with a greater commitment. Now I am not extending that to me. Please be careful when you write this. I do not want people to think I am demonstrating that kind of hubris. I'm trying to answer your question as honestly as I can, and I don't think I can get any closer to it than that.

Harlan Ellison was very much like a singularity in our field. His presence and influence was undeniable. Even people who'd never met him, or didn't like him, still felt his pull. He was massive. And now he's gone, just like that. A sudden void that was once so intensely, ferociously occupied. The universe is a little smaller today.

My complete interview with Harlan Ellison may be read at

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Tiki build-along, pt. 21

Time for some Lagoon of Mystery updates. I haven't launched any major initiatives to share, but there are a number of smaller projects you may or may not find interesting. Firstly, with the completion of the Hula Stage and some landscaping, the Lagoon is now suitable for The Wife to use as a set for her various photo shoots. Our friend Taylor came over the other week for an underwater mermaid shoot.

She also did some out of the water as well. I think they turned out quite nice.

I also continued my experimentation with interesting cocktail flavors. Picked up a couple pounds of tamarinds at a local Mexican grocery to try my hand at syrup and/or infused rum.

After peeling a half pound of tamarinds, I simmered them in a simple syrup for about 20 minutes or so then set it aside for an hour before bottling. The flavor's nice, but I'd like it to be a bit more intense to stand out stronger in cocktails. To get an acceptable level of tamarind flavor means the drinks are overly-sweetened. Infused rum may solve this problem. We shall see. I also realized that the native honey locust tree is a fairly close relative of the tamarind, and was once widely cultivated in the U.S. for it's sweet, flavorful seed pods. I mean, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? I can be so dense sometimes. Tamarinds can't survive our Texas winters, but honey locust has no such problem. Guess what I've been researching?

But enough about tangential stuff--what bar work have I been doing? Well first up, I tackled a project I was supposed to do last summer--build a table/housing for the projector we use during our Dive-In Movies. Being near the pool, we have to constantly scold the kids not to splash in that area. This adds another layer of protection for the equipment (which isn't terribly high end, but I still don't want to buy a new one). It's weather-proofed for outdoor use. It was built almost entirely out of scrap left over from other projects. The dowel I cut up for the legs is the only new purchase I made. Happily, once I added the bamboo tambour panel to the side (again, more scrap) it suddenly took on a Mid-Century Modern vibe. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. It debuted this past weekend, and the height was perfect for projecting Blue Hawaii and protected the equipment from any random splashes. So I'll chalk this one up as a success. When it's not in use for the projector, it can serve as a side table or somesuch.

Back during the Luau at the Lagoon, The Wife observed that our guests congregated and stood talking in certain areas, but had no place to set their drinks whilst doing so. "We need some of those tall cocktail tables," she said. She photographs a lot of weddings, so knows the utility of cocktail tables. I search online turned up none that were affordable, which is fine, because none of the commercially-available ones were thematically appropriate. That left me with the same option I always end up with--build it myself. I'd never built furniture before, so this would be a new one. Unfortunately, I couldn't really find any suitable plans, either, so I poked around online, grabbing elements from various builds to Frankenstein it together. I started with an 8' 4x4 piece of... spruce? I forget. One of those northern conifers that don't grow around here. Not pressure-treated. I cut it into two 38" lengths with a 20" length left over.

I used the same template from the deck rail posts to stencil that alternating triangle pattern onto the wood. Then I routered out the pattern. We're going to skip forward a lot here--it took me weeks to just do one post. I thought it would go more quickly than the earlier posts. I was wrong. It took me a couple hours to do each side of the post. I don't know why. I'm not good enough to freehand it, so I use wood guides. Regardless, it took a lot longer than planned. I'd entertained the notion of making four tall cocktail tables, but I'm having second thoughts.

From scrap 1x6 boards used to make the baseboard and center trim on the walls, I cut triangular buttresses for the table top. I drilled makeshift pocket holes on each end. Then I scorched these and the post with my propane torch. Every time I've scorched wood in the past, I've followed up with a wire brush to peel away the carbonized wood and create a dramatic raised texture. This time I left the wood intact, no wire brush. Let's see how that works out.

I bought a 24" circular table top from Lowe's. At $17, it's the most expensive component in my table. Obviously, the clean, smooth wood was not appropriate. I wanted something that looked like it came out of a Trader Vic's. I pulled out my cheap grinder and set to work distressing the wood. Initially I toyed with the idea of making the round, beveled edge of the table top appear to be faux bamboo. Then I took a closer look at the prominent grain and realized that absolutely would not work for faux bamboo. Rather than waste a month trying to seal the grain, I used the grinder to gouge a zig-zag pattern into the edge. It looks suitably tribal, I think.

Then I distressed the surface of the table.

I followed up with flame treatment. This time, I wire brushed the surface of the table top to bring out that dramatic texture. I didn't scorch it too deeply, so the texture is modest, but it's there. After that, I stained everything with Minwax Special Walnut. Yeah, that's my go-to. That ties the cocktail table in with the trim on the walls. I wanted a little more drama for the table top, so I applied a secondary coat of Minwax Dark Walnut. That enhanced the tonal range of the table top significantly.

Nest up, attaching the base/feet to the pedestal. First up, I apply a decent amount of Titebond III. This will help reenforce the screws that are to come.

I clamped the first of two legs to the pedestal to keep it steady (the glue results in a bit of slipping).

Then I securely attached the piece with four 3" outdoor screws. I repeated the process with the second piece at a 90 degree angle, to form an X.

This is not easy to visualize here, but it will become clear. The 2x4 X that makes up the base is tiered, and at this point does not make a stable base. So I measured and cut pieces to fill in the gaps. Once they were cut and verified by positioning them on the base itself, I then flame-treated each one and stained with Minwax special walnut.

To ensure I didn't mix the various pieces up and attach them to the wrong location (there were slight variations with each one) I penciled in corresponding numbers with position on each piece. Simple and relatively fool proof.

I slathered on the Titebond III.

Then I clamped the piece into place and secured with four outdoor screws. It should be clear now how these smaller pieces are evening out the base as a whole.

The finished base, with all the pieces of the legs in place. It's finally starting to look like something.

Now, the tricky part: Attaching the table top. I start out the same as always, with a layer of Titebond III.

When I position the pedestal on the table top, I drill screws through those pocket holes I cut earlier. My angles were a bit shallow, so some of my screws overlapped at the opposite end, forcing me to redirect said screws. Under ideal circumstances, this step would be sufficient to secure the table top. Needless to say, my execution wasn't ideal, and I need more support.

That's where the buttresses I made earlier come in. Simple and straightforward, each interior edge of a buttress gets a coat of Titebond, then a screw through the pocket hole to attach first to the table top and then to the pedestal. The buttress hides the original pocket hole drilled into the pedestal. The result is a solid table top, although I would not recommend anyone sitting on this thing. That'd be a bit much. I'm sure there's a better way to mate the top with the pedestal, but I wasn't able to suss that out.

I added adjustable table levelers to the base, because nobody likes a wobbly cocktail table.

For weatherproofing, I went with the Flood UV on the pedestal, but for the table top, I wanted a little more gloss and substance. I applied several coats of boiled linseed oil, and am happy with the result. It's brought out the tonal richness in the wood color, and dried into a nice, smooth surface. When it wears down in a few years, it will be easy enough to reapply. I like the fact that the oil penetrates the wood to protect it internally, whereas a coat of urethane would essentially form a shell. I still use urethanes, don't get me wrong, but for this I like the option a drying oil gives me.

And here is the finished product. Or rather, the mostly-finished product. I took this photo before I remembered I'd planned for one final tweak.

I wrapped a length of Manila rope around the base as the finishing touch on the table. It doesn't do anything for the table in a structural sense, but aesthetically, I think it works well. And with tiki, presentation is everything.

I'd originally intended to make four of these, but after the insane amount of hours I put into this one, I'm seriously rethinking that. I absolutely love the way it turned out--it could almost, sort of pass for professional world. I like to think it could've come from an old Trader Vic's somewhere. But I'm not likely to start producing these things on a commercial scale any time soon.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

This week has been so insanely busy. Summer's supposed to be the time I catch up at work, but not this year. The weekend cannot get her fast enough. I think Elvis has the right idea with "Rock-a-Hula Baby"-- ditch the formality and skedaddle with friends, preferably to someplace tropical with lots of rum drinks!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Clash.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Back in the day, I never really appreciated the Clash. They were staples on MTV, and "Rock the Casbah" was a video I could pretty much count on seeing any time I turned on the tube. That random armadillo always amused me. These days I appreciate the influence the band had much more. I'm still not a huge fan, but I get a hankering for them every so often, and their music never disappoints.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Police.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tiki build-along, pt. 20

Way back when I made the decision to build a full-on tiki lounge, I knew that ultimately it had to become a wetbar, with a sink and running water. Because that's how all the cool home bars rolled, right? But I couldn't just go down to Lowe's and pick up a sink--that wouldn't be tiki enough. I had to have a themed sink. A sea shell would be perfect! Unfortunately, actual giant clam shells have been banned from import to the U.S. since the 1980s because of over-fishing. Those already in the U.S. can cost thousands. There are decorator sinks in the shape of clam shells, but these are more abstract and the fake marble looks like something out of a 1990s restaurant bathroom. They're expensive as well. So I looked around for fake shells. I found some that looked good, but they were mostly plaster that wouldn't hold up to water. Resin types looked great and were more durable, but always seemed to be out of stock or out of production. Eventually, I settled on a concrete shell purchased online on Amazon for about $50.

This was last summer, when I thought I'd have the whole tiki bar finished before October. That didn't happen. So the shell sat unused between then and now. The irony is that now this same shell is readily available at Home Depot. Cutting through concrete isn't a simple task, though, and I had to order a 1.5 inch masonry borer for my drill to make a suitable hole.

Drilling concrete isn't the same as drilling through wood. The friction creates heat, so I added splashes of water to keep the dust and friction heat down during the drilling.

It's as a slow, deliberate process. I probably could've done it more quickly, but since I'm inexperience and didn't want to ruin the shell and have to buy another one... well, I just took it slowly.


The edges of the drain hole were rough. I used a grinding bit on my drill to smooth the edges.

The underside of the sink.

I found a brass drain online, with a push-button stopper. The brass fit with the whole tiki aesthetic.

Right away, I realized I had a problem. The curvature of the underside of the shell prevented a flush mounting of the drain. I had not thought far enough ahead to see this problem in advance. Sigh.

I tried my angle grinding on it, and quickly found my grinding discs wouldn't cut it against the concrete. So I had to spring for a dedicated concrete grinding disc. Silicosis is a really nasty lung condition caused by inhaling silicate dust--that stuff produced when grinding concrete--so I did no grinding without wearing a breather mask. That moldy sawdust knocking me on my ass a while back gave me a healthy respect for not breathing in foreign dust. I wore safety goggles as well, because a chip of concrete in the eye didn't excite me either.

So, I started grinding.

And grinding. And grinding. It took quite a while to get a flat surface, then even longer to get it squared with the drain hole (a three degree angle doesn't sound like much until you try to fit a drain in it).

Much better. It's not a perfect fit, but I can work with it.

The bowl side, however, was another story.

What had seemed like a smooth, concave surface proved to have subtle undulations of its own. This was enough to prevent the drain from setting flush. This wouldn't be that big of a deal except that pooling water isn't a great thing to have in a working sink.

I corrected the problem somewhat by using a Dremel and grinder bits to carve out the high spots so the drain would set more flush.

A wet bar is not much use without water, so plumbing was the next challenge. The previous owners of our house had a refrigerator with an ice maker in the garage, and there was already a copper ice maker line tapped into a garage sink. Drilling through the fiber cement siding and drywall was pretty straightforward.

Fortunately, the long bit I'd gotten for the deck posts was the exact diameter I needed for the copper tubing. This is one of the few times I'd not had to go out and purchase a new tool to complete a particular project on this tiki build. That made me happy.

This is how it looked on the other side of the wall. Not terribly tiki, is it?

The copper tubing used pressure couplings, and these I did have to go buy new. I thought I could re-use the existing couplings, but after one use they become deformed and leak if re-used. Ah well. Live and learn.

It's been so long since I'd done any plumbing work that it took me a while to realize these new-fangled pressure coupling nuts came with a built-in compression ring. I wasted a lot of time looking for loose compression rings.

The nut slips right over the tubing.

Then comes the double-sided threaded coupling. You don't want to over-tighten the nut onto the coupling. Over-tightening will make it leak just as easily as under-tightening, then you've got to start over. Copper and brass are soft metals. It doesn't take much effort to complete the seal.

Next up: The faucet. Yes, another online find. It's brass and styled to look like bamboo, perfect for the tiki aesthetic. I purchased this last summer as well. I had an optimistic timeline.

Each bamboo node can be unscrewed. This makes it a lot easier to thread in the water lines. The faucet has hot and cold lines, but I'm probably only going to have cold water running to my bar, because tapping the hot pipe from the garage sink would involve complicated logistics I don't think I want to tackle. Plus, it's just not necessary unless I'm out to show off.

Back in my teenage years I helped my father install many, many irrigation systems over the summers. On all the threaded pipe joints (which weren't secured with PVC cement) we used "pipe dope" which was a white, waxy crayon-type stick. We rubbed the dope on the threads which served to lubricate and seal the joint. That stuff doesn't seem to be readily available, but I found this past-like substance at Lowe's. It's the same principle, only a little messier. I've dealt with enough leaks in my time to not want to take any chances.

I applied a goodly amount of pipe join compound to the thread.

Then screwed on the water line. Success! No leaks! At least, not from the join. The water happily spewed out through the hot water inlet in the faucet, so plugging that became a must.

Now, the tough part began. I used a piece of cardboard to make a cutout template of the shell's underside contour. It was an... imperfect process at best. I looked online to find any tips for such a thing, but came up empty. The interwebz failed me! I started with an oval cut-out and used an Xacto knife to trim away pieces until I got a kinda, sorta good fit. The end result was imperfect, but after spending a couple of days trying to get it right, I realized sometimes you just have to make up your mind to cut bait or fish. I positioned the template on the back bar--making sure to allow enough clearance for the shell overhang--and traced it out with a Sharpie.

I used a 3/4" bit to drill several pilot holes, then my jigsaw to cut the contour shapes. The jigsaw was an imperfect tool for this task, and I made more than a few mis-cuts.

Eventually, after a bunch of touch-ups, I had a suitable hole cut in the back bar top. I'd forgotten how seriously thick I'd made the bar top. That's heavy-duty lumber there!

The faucet and shell testing out the space. Call it proof-of-concept.

About this time I noticed a cavity in the shell. It was an air bubble or something that had cracked through to the surface. That wouldn't be good with water in the basin, so I needed to fill it. I took some epoxy putty and packed it into the cavity, bit by bit, until I could force no more in. Then I smoothed it flush and let it cure. I don't know where the gold color in this image comes from--trust me, in real life it's creamy white.

For the basin, I didn't want the shell to be a dull white concrete. This is about illusion and presentation, correct? I found some iridescent acrylic paint additive at a craft store. I diluted it 50 percent and applied a couple of coats to the shell basin. Then I added some to the acrylic Clear-Seal (UV-resistant formula, durable for use on driveways) and applied a final coat on the shell to waterproof it. I don't know if this stuff is food-safe, but nobody's going to drink anything out of the sink, right? It's just there for rinsing. I stand by my decision. I'll probably have to recoat the shell in a few years, give or take, but that's DYI for you.

Installing the drain was pretty straightforward but also took far more time and energy than it should have. I expected this to be simple, since I was experienced in working with PVC. Alas, the drain kits sold in stores are all this very thin PVC material that doesn't really match traditional PVC pipe in size. So I had to jury-rig these off-the-shelf components to do something simple, yet simultaneously not something they were designed to do.

The drain I was tapping into was a little more than three feet from the wall. Drain extension tubes came in lengths of 12" with only about 10" of that usable length once the pieces are mated together. I could've cut one length of 1/2" PVC to fit, easy, but someone, somewhere, didn't want me to do that.

Here's the drain I was tapping into. A simple T joint was all I needed, right? It took me several hours of looking to find a piece that would fit.

Here's the T joint, and the pipe I have to splice it into.

Here is the pipe after appropriate cuttage. You'd think that after everything I've gone through on this project I'd have cut the pipe too short and been forced to start over. You'd be wrong. I actually nailed it in one, and the splice went perfectly.

Sometimes I amaze even myself. I didn't use pipe join compound on these threads because the threads themselves aren't water-tight. There's a beveled washer/o-ring thing that completes the seal on these.

Here is the drain pipe extended all the way from the wall. It looks terrible. Sloppy. Haphazard. I won't like--this inelegant mess embarrasses me. I will find something to put in front of it in the future to hide my shame.

This is how everything comes together behind the garage sink. You get a good look at the copper tubing connection here as well. It's not pretty, but it is functional.

The water inlet line to the faucet was not long enough to reach the copper tubing when the faucet was fully installed, so I added an extension, secured with pipe join compound to preclude leaks.

Next was capping the hot water inlet, using a threaded coupling and end cap.

I applied the pipe join compound.

Then the cap. I had to tighten the cap several times before completely sealing the line off, but ultimately I was successful. In the future, I might add a T joint to the line so both the hot and cold sides of the faucet produce water, even if it will just be cold.

Once everything was put together, I gave the sink a test and discovered the drain still leaked. The concrete shell simply had too many irregularities to make a solid seal. Time to break out the silicone caulk (clear, because who wants colored caulk so everyone can see your screw-ups?).

I squeezed a considerable amount into the top of the drain hole, around the brass drain insert.

I tightened the brass drain insert into place, forcing excess silicone to ooze out from the sides. I wiped this away and smoothed the bead to be flush with the basin.

Likewise, the bottom. The entire shaft is pretty much solid silicone. This will be a pain if I ever have to remove the brass drain, but how often will I have to do that? After letting the silicone cure for 24 hours, I tested the sink. I'm happy to report there are no leaks anywhere.

The finished sink, in situ.

Here's a short video of the sink in action. I had to make some adjustments to the valve in the garage, because the initial burst of water was under such pressure that it shot way past the basin. The video is of mediocre quality, which is frustrating because my phone was set to high quality, but then again my Galaxy Note is 7 years old and getting kind of wonky, so I suppose I should be grateful that it still functions enough to use as a phone.

Having used the wet bar sink for little more than three weeks at this point, I have to say that I highly recommend adding a sink to your home bar if you can swing it. The convenience for rinsing out mixing tins, tiki mugs, utensils etc. simply cannot be beat. Yes, I could still take things into the kitchen to wash, but it's so much quicker and convenient to clean up all the barware in the bar itself. I still need to figure out some way to securely fasten the sink to the back bar, but for now, gravity's doing a fine job.

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