The Purpose of a Dropcloth and What Dogs Do Well

You thought I was kidding about the bench, right? Nope. Just yesterday morning, my Airbnb guests – on their own – went out to visit the chickens and take their own photos of the ridiculous birds. Can’t you just imagine the smaller one on the left saying to the one front and center: Hey, sister, I wouldn’t say this in front of the others but I need to tell you, that spikey look really isn’t working for you. Maybe try a new a shampoo?


It thrills me to see people having fun and admiring the chickens. (Perhaps they are not admiring, perhaps they are pooh-poohing. That woman thinks these birds are interesting? Pretty starved for good entertainment, wouldn’t you say?) Well, you think what you want to think and I will think what I want to think. Guests from Ohio earlier this week left a note that said, “We loved being secluded in the woods, watching the trees sway in the wind and admiring the beautiful chickens.” See? Admiring.

Some admirers will stand and stare, or walk all around the perimeter, or scooch down and get face to face. I found guests earlier this week standing right in the coop with them. She held one of the pretty ones, smiled hugely (the woman, not the chicken), while he took her picture. They left a note behind that said, “We love your feathered friends in the coop next door.” The one before that said, “So nice meeting you and hanging with the chickens!”

Some guests will want to sit, to admire from a fixed spot, to ponder the multiple ways a simple egg-laying bird can move and contort its funny little body or peck at a bug, or they might imagine the chickens’ conversations with each other, their hierarchies, their vanities, their grooming techniques (how will she get those spikes clean?).

The sitters would want a bench for all that. Maybe they would even bring their coffee out there with them in the morning, and sip and stare at the same time. The more I thought of this, the more I thought that a 4×6 on its side as the top of the retaining wall, practical and unobtrusive as that is, might not fit the bill entirely. A bench would be better.

My Uncle Ernie and Aunt Vivian called a few weeks ago to plan a visit. I had not seen them in a few years and was very much looking forward to the visit. Ernie is an extraordinary woodworker, and I mean fine woodworking. The craftsmanship and expertise behind his own beautiful kitchen cabinetry, and what he has made for his children, to say nothing of his wood carvings, leaves no doubt. He has the right tools, he knows how to use them, and he has been practicing for years. I think he easily fits Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from the book Outliers: Over the course of time, if you been passionately engaged for a total of 10,000 hours or more honing a skill or developing a craft or being deeply, technically and seriously involved in a specific subject, you are likely in the upper echelon of experts in that field. This applies to playing the violin, writing computer code and fine woodworking just the same. You don’t get to be an expert unless you put in the time.

You see where I’m going, right? By contrast, when it comes to woodworking, I am almost completely a novice. I know what a router does, I understand the value of built things being square, level and plumb, I have a healthy respect for any tool with sharp teeth that rotates at 30,000 rpm’s. But as my guests from this past week will tell you, there is a difference between watching the chickens from outside the fence and getting in there and picking them up. Other than being the gopher, the tidy-upper, the drink-fetcher, the supply-orderer and the holder of things in place while someone else uses the power tool to secure it, I have not been as involved in construction projects. All right, I’ve dug a lot of dirt, moved a lot of rocks, and sanded and painted and stained. I’ve even zip-stripped – which is not as exotic as it sounds!

So my expert woodworker uncle is coming to visit for two days. I want a bench for my chicken coop viewing area. Now surely you see where I’m going. I asked him if he would guide me through the building of a simple one, at least to the point where it is together and all that remains is the finish sanding and painting, which I can confidently do. I told him I would follow his instructions, do what he said. If your uncle looked like this, you would do what he said too.


Just kidding, Ernie. He really is a great guy. Some people can reinforce how amateurish you feel or make you feel like the subject at hand is overwhelmingly difficult and you really should leave it to the experts. Just buy a bench, right? But Ernie didn’t do either of those unhelpful things. He walked me (he didn’t rush me) through every step and couched all of his technique demonstrations with: Let me show you why this way is better, or What you need to remember is… or Look how easy this makes it. He was patient with my ignorance but kept things moving all day. Goofy is also in his repertoire.


Before they left, the base was together and the top slats were ripped. I learned how to use the table saw and a biscuit joiner and how to get the same exact length of board as many times as I need. (You want the legs to all be the exact same length, think about it.) I glued in the biscuits per his instructions using the right amount of glue and a cheap tiny paint brush and he showed me how to make two shorter bar clamps do the work of one longer one. I understand better how to allow for the width of the saw blade when using the chop saw.


In the end, the vertical pieces are strongly secured to the horizontal ones. We flipped the base right side up, put the slats on it loosely and made sure that three people will be able to sit on this bench and watch chickens. Or sit in the basement and pose for the camera.


That’s Aunt Vivian, an artist in her own right. She kindly brought me this beautiful painting she did herself. There’s a lot of talent in that family!


We said good-bye and I routed the long edges of the slats and legs and any other part of the put-together bench base where the edge of the wood needed softer corners, then hauled it all up to the deck on the back of the house for finish sanding and painting. The sawhorses and drop cloth were still there from when I had given all the boards a first coat before Ernie and Vivian came.

What I did not anticipate was the involvement of the dog.

Coco misses Samuel, who went off to San Francisco to seek his future, so she sticks to me. Where I go, she goes. Last week I set things up to spray paint a metal table base. I set up a cloth out to the side, special for her, away from the work area. Heaven forbid she should have to lay on the mulch.


Next thing I knew, she was off her designated spot, nearer my work space, not a good place for her. You see how close to my space I had placed her space? But no, come closer, be under foot. That’s a thing dogs do well.


She did the same when it came to the bench on the deck. All that deck to lay on (not even mulch under her delicate little limbs!). But no, under foot again.


The drop cloth laying on the deck under the saw horses has a piece of plastic under it because (you may recall) my friend Fred recently power washed the deck. Let us safeguard our assets. I now have a clean deck and want to keep it that way. Someone else (a smarter person) would have put down (and would have advised anyone else to put down) a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger drop cloth, covering more surface area against the possibility of paint randomly flying off the brush and landing outside the protected area, but I am a risk-taker as well as a careful painter, and was impatient to get going, and did not do this. (This scenario is not as risky as it looks. That bench was more to the left when I painted it and was moved to the right when I was not painting it. Slats also came more toward the center for the actual painting. When they are drying I don’t care. I did work over top the cloth, really I did!)

Now look carefully, kitty-corner behind Coco’s right shoulder. That is a drop of red paint from the bench above. (I know, I know, it could have so landed easily on the deck instead, and I have such a pathetically small drop cloth under that work area. Do not chide me. This is about the dog now.)


This drop of paint is a problem why? Here’s what happens when the dog goes to move to another underfoot spot:


Do you envision little red marks all over my deck? I do. I did. So I cleaned up that paw and my deck was saved. This time. I know, I could put her in the house. I should put her in the house. Why can’t I just put her in the house? Take a look at her face again. That’s why.

Habits of Good

My cousins Matt and Austin grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey incessantly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Every time I visited, one or both of them had to be at practice at 5 in the morning or some other crazy time, and the next day the same thing. I wondered if they were training for the Olympics. But no. When I asked my aunt about all the practices, she simply said, “If they are busy doing something fun, and it makes them tired, they won’t have time or energy for getting into trouble.”

This reminds me of CJ, the washroom attendant I admire so, who occupied his time so fully with doing his job and so consistently with being the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, that he didn’t have time to complain.

The holiday season that’s fast approaching will, as usual, cause people fill their time with lots of fun activities and lots of good works, and on the surface this seems above reproach. We will not only be buying presents for our loved ones and going to special parties and dinners, we will also be singing carols at nursing homes, giving turkeys to the needy, deciding what to do about the Salvation Army Santas collecting on the street corners — pass them by altogether, give a few dollars to each one, tell the next one you gave to the last one?

When we were homeschooling for all those years, we were not the homestead-on-the-mountaintop sort. It was important to me that my kids develop a sense of community. Besides attending local theater, watching local crafters in their studios do their glassblowing or basketweaving or woodworking, and being part of Little League and other sports, we  made it our business to serve and interact with people in other situations.  Together we prepared and delivered meals for the emergency shelter, attended events that included a wide swath of culture and characters, and visited the elderly. I didn’t want my children to think that everyone lived the same way and I didn’t want them to get the idea that the world revolved around them.

One year in November I called a local nursing home to set up a time for our little coop group of kids to come in December to visit the residents and maybe sing some Christmas songs. The woman who answered the phone made me think about the frenzied few weeks of the holidays — and giving in general — in a different light.

She graciously said, “Your offer to come is much appreciated, but frankly we are inundated at this time of year. When January comes, the residents can feel like everyone did their good deeds and can now forget about them for another year. Really, the better thing for you to do is come at random times when they don’t expect anyone to be thinking about them. That’s what really makes them smile.”

Spread out the good, she was saying, and it will do more good than if a lot of good is crammed in all together. Too much good all at once can be counterproductive, and maintaining a balance is healthier for many reasons. My aunt didn’t send her boys to a hockey camp for a week or two and then leave them to their own devices for the rest of the year. CJ doesn’t speak kindly some of the time. Both of them developed what could be called Habits of Good

When I see the word “habit,” I think of nuns. What they wear is called a habit. They wear it every day. The woman on the phone at the nursing home was suggesting the same for us — that visiting the residents would be not a sometimes-thing, but instead, a habit, sure and steady. For us, her suggestion turned into a relationship with one individual who ended up spending his last days on earth at our home. We became his family.

Time is short. We all know that. We all know that something could happen later today that utterly changes our world. Therefore it’s a good question: In the time we have each day, do we wisely allocate time for ourselves, time for others, time for good? Might we want to rethink how we divvy up our days, perhaps shift our energy to something that matters more, consider developing some habits of good?