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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