Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Little Screen

I have just seen the finished DVD of The Power of Snoqualmie Falls, an hour-long documentary for which I did the research and wrote the starting script. It's beautiful! Puget Sound Energy, the underwriter, will release it this spring. Stay tooned.

As I say, I wrote the starting script and I located many of the historical photos. From that, Director Stephen Sadis adapted it to his needs and wove into the story the narration of local historians, two of whom I recruited to the project. Here is a little movie I made out of clips I shot while doing research. The Sadis DVD is much, much better. Remember, this equipment is as it was installed 110 years ago.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Good Wood

One of my distractions is the construction of furniture for me, my family, and friends. I have a small-but-respectable wood shop in what would be our garage/basement. My current project is two benches for my sister. These are designed to compliment a dining table I built for her several years ago. Sally moved to a new house with a smaller dining room. Benches make more sense than chairs and they stow out of the way.

I have always enjoyed working with wood and, over the years, I built a diaper changing table, a small stool (still in use), and a couple of train sets (for myself). This was all facilitated by a used radial-arm saw that I got on long-term loan from my dad. He bought it from a laid-off Boeing employee in 1970. When I moved from Seattle in 1983, the saw went back to his house. For more than fifteen years in two states my woodworking was limited to what I could accomplish with a hand-held power saw. My son Matt was better with the saw than I was and he crafted a rather decent set of speaker boxes for his car stereo system.

When I returned to Seattle and took up writing, I needed a table for my office. I reborrowed the radial arm saw and found a set of do-it-yourself plans. I had not a clue as to the relative merits of wood species so this table was a combination of fir, poplar, and pine. No matter, it just had to be functional and fit the space. I took the trouble of fitting it with corbels and slats to match the mission-style computer desk I bought retail. The new table didn’t turn out too badly and I am writing this from that first project.

Next my ambition turned to a stereo cabinet for the living room. From commercial plans I built a cabinet out of oak and oak plywood to match other pieces. Never mind that I didn’t have a proper router to finish the edges or to make rabbets. And never mind that I did the project in a tiny one-car garage.

Imagine my amazement when I had the saw blade sharpened. Cutting wood no longer threw off clouds of smoke and the cuts were nice and free of burns. A sharp blade – what a concept.

A pen pal on the web was in the process of upgrading his woodworking equipment. I scored many tools from him including the key to any good shop, a table saw. Add to that his joiner, his thickness planer, and a chop saw abandoned by our remodeling contractor. I was in business. All my birthday and Christmas wishes included either tools or gift certificates. The big breakthrough came after we remodeled and my tiny garage became a proper-if-low-ceilinged, shop with lights and plentiful electrical outlets.

I made tables and stools and bookcases and things I can’t remember. Outdoors is a garden shed and an arbor. My most consistent client is my sister-in-law who needs specific kinds of cabinetry for her pet boutique and grooming salon. She designs specific pieces that have to go into very tight places and I get to build them and she pays for the lumber. If you are going to have a distraction, find someone to buy you lumber. Naturally the earlier pieces for the store are not as good as later versions.

The shop itself is a showcase of my work. I have a router table, a workshop hutch, a unit on wheels for two tools, and, the centerpiece, a solid-maple workbench. My only limitation now is room in the homes of everyone who has commissioned pieces.

I still have all my fingers although one slip with a chisel did require several stitches.

I am largely self taught with credit to Norm Abrams and The New Yankee Workshop. I bet I have built twenty-five of Norm’s projects. The benches and dining table mentioned above are his. I taped dozens of his programs when they came on at 4 a.m. on cable and I have every one of his books, even the ones out of print.

There are two areas I hope yet to master. One is turning things like table legs on the lathe, and the other is building chairs, particularly Windsor chairs. Chairs are challenging in that all the angles are not 90 degrees (unless you are Frank Lloyd Wright) and they use lots of mortises and tenons that must be very precise. The Windsor chair requires lots of turnings and carvings plus steaming some pieces.

Here is an album of things I have done.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A series I missed the first time around

Thanks to Netflix I found Over There, a 2005 series produced by Steven Bochco about the war in Iraq. I gave the pilot episode a try and I was hooked. As with all good war dramas we follow an infantry squad --technically a "fire team" I think -- five guys. De rigueur for war dramas we see the hard-bitten good sergeant, the cynical LA black man, the college dropout, the religious marksman, and the Arab American who translates. Add to that two women who drive them around or fix their Humvee, and three of the families back home including a husband. The 21st Century allows for female soldiers, an angry beauty from West Virginia (her ex is in prison) and an Hispanic mechanic pining for her a husband and child.

If you can stand the violence and the language, you will find good Bochco here. The sergeant could be Andy Sipowicz. The characters have room to develop and make their bad decisions, and you care about them. The kid from Compton bonds in an odd way with the one from Cornell. A wife falls into a bottle. A husband is distracted by another war widow. One regular is subtracted from the squad in the first episode when he loses his leg to an IED (in the 60s this was a booby trap). He and his wife take a journey through the Army system and into life after a war. The people are completely engaging and I'm reminded of The Wire or The Shield. I think the writing is exquisite.

I understand that Iraq veterans trashed the series for its accuracy ("you don't take your helmet off!" "You don't pull off to the side of the road!"), but they missed the point. Drama is a story about people in a situation, not a training film. The principle character is war -- insane and cruel, always -- and particularly this war. There is no discussion of policies. Every day is Ground Hog Day, always the same. But the people don't stay the same and I want to be there to see how they turn out. Alas we know how it turns out for them.
Over There lasted one season, 13 episodes, and I can see why. It's very graphic and very intense. American viewers in 2005 probably didn't care to be reminded of the mire they were stuck in. The mournful score contributes to the sense of hopelessness. But there is hope as the characters do the best that they can. Perhaps on the verge of a new administration and some prospect of an end, Over There might find a new following. It's available at Netflix.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Small Victory

The year end produced some good news, but I didn't learn of it until just the other day. One of my foster kids was adopted by her grandmother after two and a half years in care. The case showed the complexities and glitches in even the most straightforward dependency cases.

N***'s 17-year-old mother was homeless when she gave birth and the biological father was one of two teenagers with gang affiliations. The mom picked one as the dad for the birth certificate. Mom (in dependency cases we always describe adults by their relationship to the child) had been adopted at the age of eight by a professional woman (the grandmother) along with other adopted children. The teen became a truant and runaway and at 16 became pregnant. N*** was born in March 2006.

Because the mom was homeless and the baby was not receiving proper medical care, social workers obtained a pickup order for the mother as a Youth In Need of Services. When they finally got the mom to court, she was ordered to live with a friend. On their way to the friend's house, the mom jumped from the car with the baby and ran off.

Social workers finally picked up baby N*** and placed her with the grandmother whose older adopted children were out of the home. N*** settled in. Mom, still homeless, was ordered by the court into certain services and refused to live with the grandmother. In official parlance Mom had "no fixed address."

In the meantime the social workers did a paternity test on N***. Paternity tests are easy nowadays requiring just a swab of cells from inside the mouth. The results demonstrated that the young man on the birth certificate was not the father. Workers went after the other candidate and when N*** was about a year old he was brought into court (still recovering from a gunshot wound) as a respondant to the dependency. The court ordered him into services that including a drug and alcohol evaluation.

N*** thrived (throve?) in her grandmother's care and even attended the same day care as Mom did.

When baby mama and baby daddy failed to show up for their services the social workers filed a petition to terminate parental rights. Then someone discovered that the wrong dad was on the paperwork. So they had to refile the petition, track down the right dad, bring him to court, and order him into services. That delayed the process some months. By last June, N*** had been in her grandmother's care for two years and grandmother was the only parent she knew. Then the state went to trial to terminate the parental rights of the father who said he wanted to take N*** with him.

That's when I came in. I had to investigate the case, look at the social worker's files, try to contact the dad and other witnesses, interview the grandmother, and write reports. The trial started in July and the dad showed up with his court appointed counsel.

The judge discovered (from my report) that the dad was the subject of an arrest warrant. The judge called the police and two uniforms took the guy out of court in handcuffs. The next day of trial (a week later) he didn't even show up. After testimony, including mine, the judge terminated rights. Of my testimony the assistant attorney general commented, "Awesome." I give good court.

That left N*** legally free and available for adoption. The grandmother applied and was accepted. Then someone noticed that the wrong dad's name was still on the birth certificate so the state had to file a motion to order the name to be changed. The adoption was finalized in December and N*** has a new mom.

For the CASA it was a pretty simple case. All I had to do was gather information on the one parent whose record of compliance was so dismal that the trial was a no brainer. But I had to dress up three different days, drive 25 miles to court, and sit through the formalities.

That frees up my plate for another case and I should get that in a week or two.