Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sanding Away the Old

During the last three weeks I’ve had the opportunity to use several techniques, materials, and processes from the “home improvement” inventory. Linda and I have been helping our friends Steve and Sandi work on Sandi’s mother’s house preparing it for sale. Her mom passed away a couple of months ago and most people my age have experienced the issue of preparing the “parent’s home” for sale.

My father was and is an excellent craftsman. He built our first home in Lewistown, and I mean “built” as it was with his own hands. He’s always been a craftsman and an expert at many building trades including installing tile and building cabinets. If I had inherited only 1% of his skills in this area, I could have my own home improvement show. I did learn a few things from him as a child while I was busy losing his tools. I’ve had to refresh several of those memories and skills these last few weeks.

I’ve never done much painting, unless you count the motorcycles we refinished back forty years ago here in this very area of Tidewater, Virginia. With a son who is a skilled professional painter, I’ve always contracted even the simplest paint jobs to him. This time he wasn’t here to help, so I spent some time behind the brush and roller, but mostly I worked on other tasks.

There was considerable electrical work, installation of new switches, outlets, and even lights to be installed. I replaced a couple of electrical boxes and even did a little rewiring. I put new locks on the front door and painted the handle to match the new hardware. There was some plastering and spackling to be done to close all the holes not covered by switch and receptacle plates or to hide where curtains once hung. Mirrors and cabinets needed hanging in bathrooms and the living room and a large bay window had a shelf with water damage that I completely refinished in a three day orgy of sanding and applying new polyurethane. I’ve done so much sanding that I think my arms are going to fall off.

The last four days were spent refinishing the kitchen cabinets, although I haven’t completed that job. We leave tomorrow, so that task will be left unfinished for Steve and Sandi to complete. I’ve prepared all the cabinet faces and most of the doors and drawers are ready, although there is a little more detail sanding to be done on some doors. I bought 36 new nickel plated knobs for the cabinets, and I’m sad I will not see the finished project.

A lot of the sanding was by hand … I also refinished seven window sills. I resorted to power tools for the bulk of the cabinet refinishing. You should see me with my protective ear covers, dust mask, and googles. I look like an alien visiting the Earth. Plus, all that stuff is hot and I sweat a lot just watching an exercise program on TV, so you should see me when I actually do physical work.

Still, there is little to compare to the satisfaction of taking something worn and old and making it look fresh and new. There’s still plenty to do, and some choices will be made by budget restrictions. For example, there are louvered doors into the pantry that are a dark and ancient finish. I’d love to replace them with brand new doors freshly sprayed a nice white color. Ditto for the dark trim on the kitchen doorway. Whether Steve and Sandi will do that remains to be seen. Still it is satisfying to see the rebirth and restoration that a little sandpaper and sweat can do to wood … nature’s purest product. No plastic, steel or glass can equal the warmth and comfort of wood. I prefer natural finish, but paint is good too and can cover a wealth of wear. Sort of like makeup for the soul.

One can make comparisons to life and how we are gouged and scratched by the “slings and arrows of outraged fortune.” We could all use a little sanding, wood putty, and refinishing as we grow older. (Plus a little hair restoration … but I digress.)

I keep thinking philosophically while growing callouss on my hands. The ancient Greeks were great thinkers, but they eschewed physical labor. That’s their loss. The mind works better when the hands are busy.

I’ve been busy thinking while the repetitive and monotonous work is being done. Hard work is good for the mind as well as for the soul and the body. I’ve even come up with some new insights into physics during the repetitive, Karate Kid, “wax on, wax off.” I think the path to deeper understanding of quantum physics, relativity, and string theory lies in the basics of classical, Newtonian understanding. A good house, and a good finish, must have a good foundation. Preparation is the key to the final coat being smooth and glossy.

If I get lost in the manifold twisting of 29 dimensions of rolled-up-space, it may be because I don’t know the simple field of F = mA. I spent one whole day sanding and listening to “the greatest hits of the ‘60s, ’70’s, and 80’s,” and thinking about these basic concepts. (I had no choice but to think about basic concepts, since my grasp of the advanced subjects is lacking … after all, that’s the issue … isn’t it?)

The object of my “a-ha” was Lagrangian Mechanics. The "Lagrangian formulation" of Newtonian mechanics is based on an alternate form of Newton's laws which is applicable in cases where the forces are conservative. (Note that, in nonclassical physics, the forces may not be conservative. They may be “liberal.” — just a little political humor. ) Lagrangian mechanics adds no new "semantics" to Newton — it's just a mathematical change, not a change in the physics.

You see, Newtonian mechanics has a problem: It works very nicely in Cartesian coordinates, but it's difficult to switch to a different coordinate system. Something as simple as changing to polar coordinates is cumbersome; finding the equations of motion of a particle acting under a "central force" in polar coordinates is tedious. The Lagrangian formulation, in contrast, is independent of the coordinates, and the equations of motion for a non-Cartesian coordinate system can typically be found immediately using it. That's (most of) the point in "Lagrangian mechanics".

Before we go on I should hasten to add that the Lagrangian formulation also generalizes very nicely to handle situations which are outside the realm of basic Newtonian mechanics, including electromagnetism and relativity. I actually was thinking about the most fundamental equation of all time … at least in my opinion. That is Pythagorus’ famous equation for a right triangle. You know, the one about squares and hypotenuses. It is at the foundation of coordinate systems and measuring the curvature of non-Euclidean, Riemann space that is the basis of the General Theory of Relativity. If you have trouble understanding the complex stuff, it can often be traced to a root cause of failure to really, REALLY understanding the simple, basic, fundamental stuff it is all based on.

That was my epiphany as I repeatedly rubbed the wood, always with the grain, into its natural basic beauty found underneath all the dirt and worn finish from sixty years of wear and tear. They built houses well back in the fifties. Time and wear has added scars and wounds, but the underlying structure is still sound. It just takes a little elbow grease and 120 grit sandpaper, plus — maybe — a little help from electricity and Black and Decker.

I am going to miss the hard work and transformational effort, but I won’t miss the sore back and arms that hang helpless at my side from exhaustion. I’ll heal. The house will be beautiful. Happy memories will merge with fresh paint and polyurethane to start new memories for the next home owners. And my new insights will be applied as I get back into study mode. It is hard work to renovate a 60 or 70 year-old home. It’s much harder work to stuff knowledge and concepts into a 66 year-old brain. I need a Black and Decker brain sander.

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