staining the cabin

Posted October 17, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , ,

My wife and I, plus our two canine helpers, spent the weekend at our little cabin on the edge of the Missouri Ozarks with the goal of beginning to stain the freshly pressure-washed exterior.

I mentioned here before that when the man who built it handed me the key to the door (ten years ago next month!) he said I should stain it every three years. And so a decade passed without me doing this big chore. Fortunately, the pressure washing mostly restored the wood (or washed away the dirt and stripped the original stain so at least it looked restored).

They photo above, with one of many large walking sticks we found on the cabin — this one was about four inches long without its front legs extended — shows the “logs” under the porch roof. These were the least dirty and best retained the original stain, but after mastering the mad skillz of deploying a pressure washer, you see how I got down to basics. I loved the look of the wood, and I half wished I didn’t have to stain it, but I needed to protect it, and I organized a three-day weekend at the cabin to get started.

We brought along three gallons of the stain that Craig and his father-in-law recommended. I had calculated the square footage I needed to cover (about 750 square feet of logs and soffits and ceiling), read the greatly varying coverage reported on the cans (anywhere from 200 to 400 square feet), and figured that we could make a good start of the job, and then I could determine how much more stain we would need.

I had brought a ladder from home to reach the high spots, and my wife would work on the window frames then the lower logs. We had our brushes, our masking tape, and our drop cloths, plus we had just about perfect weather, with an unbroken vault of blue sky above us. (You could set a novel in a place like this!)

And so, we began. The wood was thirsty. My biggest worry was overlapping brush work. I really didn’t want the stain to be marbled with darker and lighter spots due to double application. I needn’t have worried. The cedar logs took the stain evenly despite the number of passes my brush made over it. (The only place where there was even the slightest bit of obvious overlapping was on the finer grained tongue-and-groove soffits and porch ceiling, but even then it was only noticeable because I was looking for it.)

With this worry out of the way, I was able to work more quickly, and in less than an hour I had all of the ladder work done (except for the entirety of the porch). My wife had moved at a similar pace, finishing the window frames and staining the lower log siding swiftly and smoothly. Having made much faster progress than I expected, we broke for lunch (sandwiches and cold, refreshing beverages).

After lunch we returned to the work. Each of us had a separate gallon to work from, and it seemed to me that we were actually going to have enuf stain in the three gallons to finish the entire cabin.

I think we spent 4.5 to 5 hours working that Saturday, and in that time we stained three sides of the cabin. We still had about a half gallon of stain left besides the whole unopened gallon. All that was left for us was the porch, which was actually the hardest part because of the ceiling and the extra soffit and the support posts and the desire not to get any stain on the concrete floor there.

But we’d done enuf for our first day, so we cleaned up as well as we could and put our gear away. Then it was time to build a one-match fire to cook our burgers over. It happened that only two days before the area had received nearly three inches of rain. I feared that the tinder would be too wet to catch, but that wasn’t the case. I soon had a fire roaring, and we added logs as well as the last of the scrap lumber I had brought from home to get enuf coals to shovel under the grill for our (and the dogs’) burgers. All of this happened in daylight (since my wife hates to cook in the dark for some reason), and after we’d finished eating our food and drinking our cold beverages, we continued to stoke the fire as the sun set.

A barred owl hooted occasionally, and far-off farm dogs barked, plus what sounded like fireworks came from well to the southwest, but it was too late in the season to hear a whippoorwill. Still, the fire burned and crackled, and the crickets chirped, and the full moon rose through the trees to the east. There is a point with a campfire when you have to decide whether to add more wood and stay with it longer as it burns or stop stoking it and let what’s there burn to ash. We reached that point and decided to stop stoking. We still had work to do the next day. I eventually quenched the few remaining coals with a gallon of water, and we retreated to the cabin.

Of course it smelled like wood stain inside the cabin, and despite repeated washings with soap and water, I’m sure my hands were part of the reason. But rest came easily after a day of work, and even the dogs let me have most of my bed this time.

I woke as I habitually do sometime after 3:00 a.m. and stepped outside. The forest was quiet, which is something I rarely experience except in winter visits. But then I crawled back into my warm bed, the approximately 44 degrees outside on the porch was not so wonderful to someone with barely anything on. Somehow I managed to fall back to sleep for another two hours, but the sun was preparing to peek over the trees to the east, and there was breakfast to be had as we waited for the temperature to rise enuf to apply more stain to more wood.

Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal (pretty much a staple at the cabin) prepared on a propane stove. There was also fruit, and my wife made herself some instant coffee that she declared acceptable. I had my iced tea (unsweetened, of course). The dogs disdained their kibble and would only eat their soft treats (and any of our food they could cadge).

Then came the second day of work. Once again, I did the ladder work, which involved the eaves and the entire ceiling plus the first three logs from the top. My wife did the rest. By careful maneuvering of the drop cloths, and some additional taping, we managed to make our way across the porch, staining as we went, and barely getting any drops on the floor. Because the ground slopes away from the front of the cabin more steeply than elsewhere, some of the ladder placement was sketchy and challenging. But by then I had been up and down the ladder dozens of times, and I was so near the end that I didn’t let myself worry about things like falling to my death.

By lunch time, reader, we had finished. I had taken Monday off at work so we would have a three-day weekend to do as much work as we could, and we managed to do all of it in less than two days. (Yes, I found that I could have been more thorough about pressure washing some parts of the porch, but it’s all so much better than it was.) Plus we still had about a third of a gallon of stain left. And here is the result of our labors:

It’s actually a little darker than I had hoped, but it may lighten as it dries. Even if it doesn’t, it’s fine. It looks good, and I feel that the wood in protected (for another three-to-ten years). Next up is repainting the door and frame. The critters have chewed up much of the lower door frame, and I doubt they’ll respect a fresh coat of paint, but it will look good.

So on Sunday afternoon we packed up and headed home, leaving ourselves an entire Monday free to do with what we would. (And what we did was tend a barfy three-year-old as his mother coped with her own stomach cold and her infant daughter.)


My cabin sits about a hundred feet uphill from my lake. Much of the cabin is surrounded by gravel, and it’s been a ten-year job to keep the weeds from overtaking the gravel. Part of the solution is to have four inches of gravel on the ground, but even that’s not enuf sometimes. I also have begun experimenting with landscaping fabric under the gravel, to prevent weeds from finding light. I don’t want to use herbicides on the weeds since I’m so close to the lake, so I also use the old tarp you see above, moving it to various gravely places to sit for weeks or months to starve the weeds of sunlight. The best time to do this is during the growing season, and the move I made last weekend (just to the east of the fire ring) will probably remain there all winter.

This old tarp was our original shelter in the days before we had the cabin. It did a pretty good job, trussed in various ways to stay taut and shed water and snow. Where the cabin now sits there was once this:

“Sweet Affton” is now up at Bending Genres

Posted October 16, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: short stories

Tags: , , ,

My short short “Sweet Affton” is now up at Bending Genres. It’s an anti-pastoral, mocking or smirking at the Robert Burns poem “Sweet Afton.”

Be warned: I drop the F-bomb in this story, and not as an expletive.

When I was first married, we lived in the unincorporated community of Affton in south St. Louis County. Many of the place names in the story actually exist, including the shark.

radical rewrite

Posted October 7, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Fathers and Sons

So I wrote a story some months back, and I knew at the time it was thin. I saw that I was trying to tease more out of my idea than it had in it. The story involved two characters from my One-Match Fire universe (no surprise there), and it had to do with how people inhabit the names they are given.

That’s a lofty idea to work with, but what I didn’t have was a story for it. I had a conversation, set on the porch of a certain Ozark cabin, that brought up various thoughts about the names people had, but the beginning-middle-end construct I wrapped it in was weak and mostly pointless. The story framing really had no connection to the story theme.

And all along I was nagged by the thought that it could be better. I suppose as occupational hazards go, knowing you can do better at something is a good one to have, even if it is frustrating when it’s mysterious. When I was running, I knew I could run better if I trained harder. But with a story, with this story, the solution was not so obvious. The story’s not good. It could be better. But how, exactly, to make it better?

The inklings of how it might be done came to me when I was last at a certain Ozark cabin, and I made feverish notes about this as I recounted in this post. At the time, I knew I had my solution, and it was merely a matter of sitting down with my thin story and muscling it into better shape. Yet the fever has subsided, and the solution is not so clear.

I know what I need to do to rewrite the story. It’s pretty much a complete overhaul, wholly scrapping what I had written. (I don’t even want to read what I’ve already done lest it “taint” my rewrite effort.) But that’s where the hard work comes in. I’m trying something radically different. It is shaping up as a nontraditional narrative, mostly just conversation scraps between the two characters and not even in chronological order. Only the last conversation will bring a unifying point to the plot of the story. I’ve not done anything like this before, so I’m more unsure of my ability than I normally am. But it feels better, it feels to me that I can create the story better. So I persist.


The story I had mentioned before that I wanted to write based on the monomyth of the hero’s journey has been an experience much like what I recount above. It, too, nagged me as one that could be done better. And I’ve been working on it in fits and starts, trying to make it become something a whole lot more than what it began as. It retains a more or less conventional narrative approach, but what I do within that framework is getting refined. I don’t know when I’ll consider it finished (nor the one above), but at least I know it’s not there yet.

wet words

Posted October 1, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Humble efforts

It wasn’t all physical labor at my cabin over the weekend. I also used the solitude to make copious notes for one of my stories. (A story I wrote some months ago and knew was not very good.)

The pressure washing of the cabin left the interior dry (aside from a few places where water trickled in under the sill), so the brain work I did on Friday night and Saturday morning was safe from the elements.

My jeans, unfortunately, were not. Both the spray of the pressure washer and the rain that began once that work was done had pretty much soaked my clothes. I’d brought a change, but I was so eager to get in the truck and get home that I didn’t bother with that.

I tore the pages of my notes from the little book I keep at the cabin for that purpose, folded the bundle, and slipped it into my pocket. Then I got about packing up and otherwise closing the freshly bathed cabin.

By the time I had this done — not much more than fifteen minutes — the pages of notes in my (apparently wetter-than-I-thought) pocket were a sodden mess. I sat in my truck, out of the rain, and gently teased the pages apart , noting that though the printed ink on the page had run, my pencilled notes had not. I laid out the pages on the seat beside me to let them dry, then I drove home.

Above is what I had when I sat down to transcribe them into my laptop. I was able to squint and read all of it, though I think there is a page missing.

So along with learning how to use a pressure washer, I also learned how to better care for my precious notes.

wet weekend at Roundrock

Posted September 30, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock

Tags: , ,

I made a solo trip to my little cabin on Friday for an overnight, with the promise of chores and the threat of rain.

My little cabin has stood mostly neglected for more than a decade. When the man who built it handed me the key to the door, he said that I must remember to stain the exterior every three years. Somehow, “next season” was always the time I was going to get to that job.

Well, I’m getting to it finally.

The eastern-facing side, which is what you see when you arrive or fool around by the fire ring, was showing some of its age. Much of the original stain had faded out of some of the “logs” there and a few near the bottom were specked with mildew (or is it mold?). I had once tried spraying the mildew (or mold) with a bleach/water mixture, but that didn’t seem to make a difference. And one other time — likely years later — I tried scrubbing away the mildew (or mold) with a stiff brush, but that accomplished about the same.

The log siding under the porch, protected from rain and sun as they are by the roof above them, showed the least age, and since that is where we spend most of our time — siting in comfy chairs overlooking the sparkling lake — the chore of re-staining the cabin somehow never seemed urgent. Plus there was the mud nest that the phoebe had built on the wall under the porch roof. That had been there for years, and we watched each summer as she successfully raised several broods. It seemed wrong to destroy that.

But a few conversations with my neighbor Craig, and a little gentle but insistent prodding from me, lead to him agreeing that I could use his pressure washer to clean the “logs” of my cabin prior to staining them. And the stars aligned last weekend for this to happen.

I had asked at the hardware store in town about renting one of theirs, and the price was right, but the problem was having a sufficient supply of water to do the job. Sure, I had a 2.5 acre lake just down the hill, but lake water, the man at the hardware store assured me, was too dirty to use in a pressure washer. Fortunately, along with a pressure washer, my good neighbor Craig also had a big old truck with several large stock tanks on the back and a deep well that provided plenty of water to fill them.

When I got to my cabin late Friday afternoon, Craig’s big old truck was already parked beside it, ready for the next day’s big old task.

From the left that’s the east-facing exterior of the cabin, Craig’s big old truck, and my red Prolechariot. (Also, you can see the slowly diminishing mineral block in the foreground that doesn’t seem to be doing anything to prevent the critters from eating my cabin.)

We agreed that they (Craig and his father-in-law, Tom) would come by my cabin on Saturday at 11:00 with the rest of the equipment and show me how to use it. And promptly at 11:30 they arrived. Tom has more or less lived at his own cabin (a little over a mile and half from mine) for a long time. (It helps that he has heating/air conditioning as well as a full kitchen, television, and a flush toilet!) Yet in all of his years, Tom professes that he’d never visited my cabin. I appreciate that he respects private property, but I think he is fibbing. More than once in the past he commented about how beautiful my lake is, which, of course, he couldn’t know unless he visited it. (Also, this man is building his own ultralight airplane!)

I had never used a pressure washer before, but more than ever I understand having the right tool for the job! Craig got all of the attachments made and the flow going while Tom held the wand and pulled the trigger, test spraying two logs on the east-facing wall.

I was immediately surprised and impressed by what a few seconds of pressure washing did to the two-foot section of a couple of logs on the side of the cabin. What had looked like a pretty good patch of cedar showed itself to be filthy but then suddenly clean. I had no idea. (Also, gone instantly, was my wife’s original suggestion that we just stain the cabin without washing it first.)

Nor did I have any idea how big the job before me was when Tom handed the wand to me and stepped back. The pressure from the nozzle was constant, but the closer I got it to the wood, the more dirt it would remove. I was learning as I was doing, and all the while I was getting wet. I had once calculated that the exterior wood of the cabin came to about 750 square feet. The pace I had to maintain to clean the logs properly — and I could easily see the difference if I did it right — meant I had several hours of work ahead of me. (Add to this six windows that needed to be worked around gingerly. I had taken out their screens so I could use the pressure washer to spray out their exterior sills, filled as they were with dead bugs.)

Tom and Craig, meanwhile admired the view of the lake from the cabin porch and then made themselves comfortable in the chairs over by the fire ring. They would answer any questions I threw at them, but otherwise they seemed content to sit under the shade of the trees.

What you see above is typical of what I saw as I worked. I truly had no idea how dirty the logs had become over the years. I’m not sure if I was merely washing away the dirt or ablating the wood itself. When I got to the porch, which has a concrete floor, I noticed a lot of cedar-colored wood fibers gelling on that floor.

You can also see the flaw in my technique. I was cleaning patches rather than swaths, as shown by those vertical contrasts on the left. I figured these would go away as the wood dried or certainly once I had fresh stain on, but Craig corrected my mistaken notion. The stain, he said, would likely enhance this contrast. But we didn’t discuss this until I was all finished (finally) and the equipment was taken apart and loaded onto his big old truck.

And so, I wasn’t finished. I now had misgivings, and I knew I would regret these markings forever, and Craig said something like “Well, the equipment you need is still here,” so we put it all back together and I took a second shot at the cabin walls. My goal was solely to smooth these vertical contrasts, and I pretty much did, but I also found on my second pass, that there were several logs under the porch roof that I was able to clean even more thoroughly. (I think I was less vigorous there on the first pass because I believed the logs were protected and thus not so dirty.) And so, just as the clouds that had gathered during the long morning finally began sending down fat raindrops, my work with the pressure washer was finished.

These three are shots Craig came back and took after the rain had stopped and I had gone home. To my jaded eye the cabin is glowing. He sent me a text saying I used about 250 gallons of water. That would have been a lot of three-gallon buckets of water hauled up from the lake!

So now I have to let the wood dry, which is going to take some time since we have rain in the forecast for the next ten days, and then get about staining it. I don’t want to darken the color; I really just want to enhance the grain and protect the wood. I am hoping to use a sprayer for most of the work rather than a brush, but I’ve never used a sprayer before either.

So the adventure continues.

regarding dialog tags

Posted September 25, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Process, Rants and ruminations

Tags: , , ,

From time to time I just can’t keep myself from shrieking into the void about this topic. I think the “rule” that one should only use some form of the word “said” as a dialog tag is ridiculous. It’s a waste of a verb.

I suspect that the notion of this quickly evolved into dogma after Elmore Leonard issued his famous 10 Rules for Writing, one of these being to never use a verb other than “said” to tag dialog. How did the writing world ever get by without this rule?

Quite well, I suspect. (I’ve noted here how Joseph Conrad has his characters “ejaculate” their words.) Some intrepid graduate student might do well to survey the use of dialog tags before and after Leonard’s rule suddenly set such a stupid standard. I suspect that before this rule, there was no reluctance using better verbs than “said.”

Anyway, as I read contemporary literature, my eye is always on alert for rule breakers in this regard. And the more “violations” I see, the more I know that this rule is bogus.

I’m currently reading Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. It’s a lot of fun. The story involves jinn (genies) who have left their world and entered ours, and the mayhem and countermayhem that goes on is relentless. Rushdie’s writing appears so effortless that it is breathtaking sometimes.

But what I want to point out is a conversation that takes place between a dead philosopher (Ghazali), so dead it’s his dust that is talking, and one of the jinn (Zumurrud). The philosopher is engaging in a bit of sophistry, but Rushdie seems to be taking the opportunity to put the “said” rule in its place:

“Just is,” Zumurrud repeated doubtfully.*
“Yes,” Ghazali confirmed.
“So God is a sort of time traveler,” Zumurrud proposed. “He moves form his kind of time to ours, and by doing so becomes infinitely powerful.”
“If you like,” Ghazali agreed. “Except that he doesn’t become. He still is. You have to be careful how you use your words.”**
“Okay,” Zumurrud said, confused again.
“Think about it,” Ghazali urged him.
“This god, Just-is,” Zumurrud said on a third occasion, after thinking about it, “he doesn’t like being argued with, right?”

*Another of Leonard’s rules is to not modify the dialog tag with an adverb.

wordless Wednesday

Posted September 18, 2019 by Paul Lamb
Categories: Roundrock