Preparing To Plant A Pepper Plant ~ I Wonder How I Can Over-Complexify It?

PART I ~ A Very Long-winded Introduction To A Significant Project

Sorry, no pictures this post.

Time sensitive note: I’ve wanted to write this post for some time, but the COVID-19 pandemic kinda knocked the wind out of my sails. But today I determined to sit down and write. I hope you are all well. We are watching the world change in front of our eyes.

For some years now, I have wanted to grow our own veges. But our soil is rock hard and would need significant augmentation to be successful soil. And if the bugs flying in the air and/or the leaf cutter ants marching on the ground don’t eat the leaves, then the grubs underground will eat the roots. And then there are the rabbits. And the windy season would leave the leaves in tatters. And the dry season requires constant watering as the soil turns to stone. And the torrential flooding in the rainy season is no help either. And who wants to bend over and work the soil at 70+ years old anyway. The only dastardly thing we are missing here is deer! So I tabled the desire. Continue reading

Front Columns Tiled And Much Ado About Zero

Today Armando and I finished grouting the tile on the electric service entry column and on the columns on either side of the front gate. It all looks good, but I think it can look better yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

To start the project of tiling the columns, I planned the layout of the tiles by moving a sample tile around on the three columns and making a few marks. Then I set up the laser level and marked all three columns, front and back, with a level line that I could set the first tiles against.

I wanted to nail a board, right at the laser line, on to each of the wall sections to set the tiles on. But my scrap wood selection is getting thin and I couldn’t find a straight board in the bunch. So I spent a week designing an intricate tool that would hold each tile in place while the mortar set. The Tool had springs, calibrating levers and locking knobs, leveling bubbles, braces and counterweights, and wide feet to keep The Tool from settling into the mud. I figured that I would need a dozen of them, and estimated the cost at just under $500, plus another week or two to locate materials and fabricate them.

I showed my plan to Armando and he said, “Give me a few tiles and some mortar.” This is what he came up with to hold the tiles in place:

Okay, I made a joke. It is true that I didn’t have a straight board, but I came up with the stick idea myself. Living here in Panama, I have learned that a lot can be done with a little, and I don’t need to make nearly as many trips to hardware stores to buy as much stuff as I think I need to.

Here are some more of the first tiles in place. I’ve filed a patent application for the sticks Tile Placement and Holding Device:

Here’s a photo of the tile saw that I use. With the diamond blade, it slices through the porcelain tile like butter. Here I am making a cutout for one of the tiles to go around the light fixture wiring box:

With all the rain recently it has been a real challenge to get this project done. Even with the tarp overhead it has been tough slogging. But now and again up will pop a spectacular day. Like this one:

Here are the three columns, all tiled and grouted:

It was raining when I took the above photo, and the tiles look pale and flat in color. We really had to rush the grout due to impending rain; there is more cleaning to be done so that a lot more green can come out of the tiles. Additionally there is some mortar hard-stuck to the tiles here and there, so I plan to clean them with muriatic acid. I’ll do a test first to make sure that the acid doesn’t damage the tile, turn them sky-blue-pink or something. Ultimately I’d like them to look like the ones I showed you in an earlier post, and I think this can happen with a bit more polishing:

You may also have noticed that the front gate is no longer black. Rust was already breaking through the enamel paint, so Armando spent a couple days sanding and re-priming with the better quality polyurethane red oil primer.

House Paint Color: A while back I showed a picture of some blue house paint that didn’t look that blue on the paint chip. We decided that it was a no go from the get go:

Back at the paint store, I looked for a similar color only with more green. The one I chose turned out way too bright, way too yellow-green (left side of next photo). But I added some black to it (right side of the next photo) and darned if we don’t like it. We may have a winner.

Our house will be about 2,500 square feet when it is done. This is a big house for the neighborhood, and a light, bright color such as white or yellow or bright green would make the house just scream, “Huge!” But the subdued green will help the house nestle into its natural tropical surroundings. And kind of like the cloaking device on Star Trek, I like the idea that the house will be more and more revealed to visitors as they approach the house.

Now The Nonsense News ~ What’s A Zero Among Friends? It is time for me to renew my Panamanian driver’s license. One day last week I drove the hour-and-a-half to Penonome, the closest city with a licensing office. The pleasant attendant asked if I have a motor vehicle registered in my name. “Why yes,” I responded. She then checked the records and said there was a PROBLEM. A BIG PROBLEM. For expats living in Panama, your foreign passport number must match your motor vehicle identification number as well as your driver’s license number.

My passport number is 0123456789. Well not really, but close enough for demonstration purposes. The number on my driver’s license is the same, 0123456789. But the number on my motor vehicle registration is 0000123456789. Because a leading zero(s) has no numerical value, the numbers all look the same to me.

But no, they must match. Like a photograph. Someone might become confused and there might be a problem in the future. I said I’d chance it, but she gave me a piece of paper and explained that I would have to go to Panama City, three hours in the other direction, and have the numbers all made the same. In my mind I would be paying to change 123456789 to 123456789.


I explained that they were the same. One plus one equals two, just as zero-one and zero-one equals two. But no, a public functionarie’s duties are clear (even if the thinking isn’t). The zeros are vitally important when it comes to identifying me and my papers, and the paperwork mistake by the motor vehicle department must be corrected.


I hired Sven, our local errand guru, to make the run to Panama and sort this all out. It actually took him two days (a two-zero-per-day limit perhaps?). But now I have a brand spanking new title for the Honda, the proper 0123456789 clearly displayed. With filing fees and gas for Sven, the damage was $55.

Now with the new title in hand, I can again drive to Penonome and try this again.

Wish me luck.

I’m not really angry about all of this. Not any more, anyway. But I did want to illustrate one of the little ways that life is different here, and it is the expat’s job to adjust and to assimilate. “Resistance is futile” (short version) (long version). Some can’t adjust and go back “home.” But here is home for us and we try to adjust, even while shaking our heads. So much ado over a zero.

That’s all for now.


Carport Roof ~ Part 1

The heavy rains of a week ago turned out to be just a passing storm. We are back in a dry pattern and were able to get a lot done this week even though Armando only worked four days. In my most previous post, I said that we were going to erect part of the carport roof. Here’s what we have done so far:

We started by digging a footing for a column. The footing is one meter by one meter by one meter deep. We filled the hole with rebar, concrete, and large rocks. This mass will keep the roof rooted to the ground during heavy winds:

Then it was time to form the column. A friend had given us some plastic sewer pipe to use as a form for round columns, but this didn’t seem to have the look that I wanted.

We could make a square box column out of M2 panels (2″x4’x8′ Styrofoam sheets with a wire mesh on each side). We could leave a hole in the center of the box for the rebar to go up through, then pour concrete into the center of the form, embedding the rebar and making a good strong column. It would look like this:

To join the M2 panels at the corners, pieces of wire mesh bent at right angles are clipped to both panels. This makes a unit that is not likely to crack at the corners.

But wait. A plain round or square box column would certainly do the job, but these columns are just plain static. They don’t add much of a design element to the entire project because there is no sense of motion or tension or even something being comfortably at rest.

I’ve been playing with shapes and forms in my head for months, and one design kept pushing the others aside. This shape is the wedge, or flying buttress. This isn’t an original idea of course, and it can be seen throughout history and throughout Panama today. Most of the concrete block bus stops have the shape, as well as the gas station in the center of El Valle. So I laid two sheets of M2 on my shop floor and drew a diagonal line on them. I cut the metal mesh with the angle grinder and sliced through the Styrofoam with my pocket knife. When I snapped the panels on the cut line, I was left with four pieces; two for the front and two for the back side of the column. I think that this design gives a nice counterbalance and motion to the static mass of the shipping containers. My design looks like this:

You can see three pieces of rebar extending from the top of the form. We welded these pieces to the beam above the column. Now the roof is connected all the way through the column and into the concrete footing.

Armando and I clip the corner mesh pieces to the column. All totaled, the column took just three sheets of the M2 panel.

Cynthia thought I should include a picture of the clips that connect the corners together. Here they are. I think I look as if I am auditioning for a new character on The Simpsons.

Here Armando trowels on a first coat of repello (stucco):

If I move just a few more inches to the right, you can see the alignment of the flying buttress column with my shop. This is the effect, the optical illusion if you will, I was aiming for:

You can also see that it aligns perfectly when viewed from the front gate and the right side of the driveway curbing:

Did you notice in the photo above that Armando was performing his incredible “white bucket floating in mid air” trick? I would swear on a stack of Popular Mechanics magazines that this photo has not been manipulated and that there were no strings attached. Here is a closeup:

Floating a bucket in mid air. Look ma, no hands, no strings, no wires. Armando seems nonchalant as he reaches for more mortar to spread on the wall. You can see Sammy looking on in amazement. Such is the craft of the magician.

In the next photo, Armando applies the finish coat of repello to the column. You can also see that we have been busy welding beams and joists (2″x4″ carriolas) into place. We’ll put the roof metal on next week after we pour concrete into the center of the column form:

The long shadows give a clue as to the length of the day. Armando is tired.

That’s it for progress this week. Here are some odds and ends:

While welding up in the air, it is always a quandary where to keep extra welding rods. I solved the problem for myself by looking in the junk pile. An empty urethane tube (aluminum) and a piece of string made a perfect welding rod quiver to sling over my shoulder:

When we put the polymer sealer on the interior walls in my shop I got the idea to use the walls as a chalk board. It works perfectly; here I show Armando my plans for the column:

I checked my math twice. It's been many years since I did long division by hand!

The month of April holds one of the negatives of living in Panama. Just before the anticipated start of the rainy season, all the farmers and large landowners burn their fields and all the accumulated dry vegetable matter. Sometimes old tires will find their way into the piles, too. Here’s a view to the mountains. Note the smoke haze has nearly obscured the normally visible antenna towers:

Outtake (Cheap) Shot: Cynthia thought it would be an “art shot” to take this photo of me on the ladder. Reminded her of the book, Under the Bleachers by Seymour Butts:

That’s all for now. More next week.

Hurricanes I Have Known

With Hurricane Irene disrupting the East Coast of the States and heading toward my brother’s house and my girl cousin’s house in New England, I’ve been thinking about my experiences with hurricanes. Commentee Bob H. asked me in an email if I’d experienced hurricanes in New England. Here’s the story, Bob.

I’ll have a construction post soon. Promise.

Here in Panama, we live at about eight degrees north of the equator. I have read that hurricanes historically haven’t come below twelve degrees, so other than some extra rain from the big low pressure of Irene, we are sitting this one out.

But I do know what hurricanes can do. I grew up in New England, and was about six years old when on August 31st, 1954, hurricane Carol passed through our small town. Carol was a CAT-3 storm and I remember it very well. I remember the power going off, and I remember my father making a fire in the fireplace and I remember making s’mores as the wind howled. My mother had a way with emergency preparedness; got sugar? I especially remember scouting the beach after the storm, and dragging home an enormous amount of junk, treasure, and building material for my tree house.

My tree house was in a big swamp maple in the back yard right next to our garage. I must have had a bazillion eight-penny common nails in that casa. I remember taking my allowance every week and riding my bicycle to the lumber yard. I always asked for Eddie because he knew my father. “I’d like two pounds of eight-penny common nails, Eddie,” I would exclaim. He would always ask, “Are these for your father or for your tree fort?” “They are for my tree house, Eddie,” and I would ride my bike home with a “heavy” two pounds, more like 5 pounds as I now know. Eddie was a saint. Anyway, with all those nails, my tree house weathered the storm with nary a board blown off. Meanwhile, our old garage was gone with the wind, not a board left standing. And so started my building career of overbuilding.

I had a big rope hanging from the maple just below my tree house and I would swing past the garage like Tarzan. My father took this photo of me before hurricane Carol (click the photo for clearer view ~ use back arrow to return).

Here’s a photo of my tree house above the garage debris after Carol. You can see the rope I was swinging on in the previous photo. My tree house is still standing!

Some years later I had a different kind of fort. But I won’t get into that.

Hurricane Carol was the easy one.

Just before the previous photo was taken in Vietnam, I was stationed in Gulfport, Mississippi. I was due to leave for Vietnam that day, but hurricane Camille was due to make landfall right in our back yard, so the flight was cancelled. I was single at the time and had been standing night watch for some of the married guys who needed extra time with their families. I was dog tired and at about noon I went home to my apartment on the beach in Pass Christian and went to bed. I had been sharing the apartment with three other guys, but they had already deployed to Vietnam. I was to close up the apartment and turn in the keys. The apartment was directly across the highway from the beach.

I slept soundly and long. Some time after dark, I woke to the sound of wind and rain. Apparently, I had slept through the evacuation call.  The lamp on the bedside table wouldn’t turn on; the power was off. I swung my legs off the bed and put my feet on the floor. I was ankle deep in water.

Wearing only my olive drab service issue skivvies, I made my way in the dark to the front door. The knob was difficult to turn, but I finally got it. WHAM! The door was ripped out of my hand by the force of waist deep water that entered the apartment.

Oh expletive deleted. I had to get to higher ground. I started to move away from the door, but in the wind, and the rain, and the sea, I was immediately disoriented. No, I would not try to make my way up the street. Ah, the second floor. I inched my way along the outside wall until I found the outside staircase to the second floor. Up the stairs, and at the first door I found, I put my shoulder to the door and forced it open. The apartment was vacant.

Still only in my skivvie bottoms and now quite cold, I crawled on my hands and knees to the far wall of the living room. The layout was exactly like my apartment below. In the pitch-black dark I found what seemed to be a towel, probably left over from cleaning who knows what off the toilet. But I wrapped it around me and felt a bit warmer. Ever try to get a towel to cover your entire body?

Cynthia said that she tried once. She was at a private girls’ college. The bathroom in her suite wasn’t working and no one was around so she walked naked to the bathroom down the hall to shower. After her shower, as she was leaving the bathroom, she heard the call, “Man on the floor.” Well, her towel wasn’t large enough to cover both her top and um, her bottom, so she did the only thing she could. She draped the towel over her head so she wouldn’t be recognized and walked back to her room. Nice save, Cynthia.

Back to Camille, some time passed and all of a sudden over the din of the wind and rain, there was an enormous crash. I was covered in water, glass from the window, and who knows what else. Fortunately I was covered with the who knows what towel. I felt around in the dark and figured out that a large tree had blown through the wall and window of the apartment. Oh expletive deleted. Close call.

I made my way to the back bedroom and again sat on the floor. More time passed. I was shivering cold and wet and, um, scared. This was nothing like Carol. Where were the s’mores? Then, again in the darkest starry night only without the stars, there was another crash. Chunks of drywall (I recognized the taste) and glass and who knows what came at me and another something came through the wall. I moved a foot or two and felt a large metal object. It was a car bumper. You know, the big, old, triple chromed kind. And the car was still attached! Oh expletive deleted. Close call.

So after I gathered what I could of my composure, I turned tail and crawled to the center of the apartment and got into the bathtub. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy hadn’t yet been published, but I was nonetheless happy to have my towel. I sat in the cold porcelain tub for what seemed like an eternity.

The walls and roof were creaking and being torn off around me. I know because I was being pelted with rain and blown by the wind. I hunkered down real low.

Eventually the eye of the storm passed directly over Pass Christian and everything became calm. But it was too dark to move anywhere else in the apartment, and as I discovered in the morning, there was no more apartment other than my tub.

I wish I could go on telling about the second half of the storm, but honest to Biloxi, I don’t remember another thing until dawn.

At dawn I woke up. Or returned to my body. Whatever. I could almost make out forms in the retreating darkness. As it got slowly lighter, I could see, well, everything. The walls, roof, and floors were completely gone. As were the other neighboring apartments and apartment complexes and the supermarket next door. The only thing on the beach near me was an ocean-going freighter of some sort, beached on high ground beyond my bathtub. Nothing was recognizable. I had lost everything except my life. Not a bad deal I guess.

After I gained my composure and finished wondering how my bathtub remained above high water, I slowly picked my way down the pyramid pile of rubble that supported my second floor porcelain sanctuary. Barefooted, skivvied, and toweled, at sunrise I made my way maybe eight blocks up what was left of the street to a friend’s house. I knocked on his door and when he answered, I said, “What’s for breakfast?”

I never did return the keys to the apartment manager.

Hurricane Camille: August 17, 1969. CAT-5. Winds 190 mph (at the time, I heard 212 mph. Felt like 500 mph). Camille was the strongest landfalling tropical cyclone ever recorded worldwide.
YouTube Video

That’s all for now.

Welding Frenzy ~ Welding On Shipping Containers

With the tilebacker walls in place, it was finally time to haul the welder up onto the roof of container four. The four-foot high wall that holds up the high end of the roof over the space between three and four was only tacked in place. I am now faced with the task of welding a forty-foot long bead, welding the wall to the roof of the shipping container.

Armando and I tried first to lift the welder with pulleys and a rope, but we were getting exhausted and the welder wasn’t budging far off the ground. When I bought the pulleys I wanted double-block (two wheels per unit) pulleys but could only find less mechanically-advantaged single-block pulleys. So we rigged an electric winch (thank you for the loan of the winch, Ivan) and effortlessly lifted the heavy welder to the roof. Once up on the roof, with the new ATW wheelbarrow wheels, the welding rig no longer bumps and bangs, but rolls across the corrugated roof very easily.

The wall to be welded is made up of metal siding cut from the wall of the container below. Here’s how the siding sits on the container. You can see that I have some significant gaps to fill while welding. White is the wall, red is the container roof.

This is the largest gap, about a quarter of an inch. Most of the spaces are about a sixteenth of an inch or the metals are kiss-fitting.

I really wasn’t looking forward to this welding task. If it rains, the gig is off. If it is sunny, working in a hot welding hood on the hot metal roof, body crouched so as to reach the area to be welded but avoiding flying sparks and splatter, legs falling asleep; no, I wasn’t looking forward to this task. But it had to be done, and afterwards no more water will enter the container below.

I also wasn’t looking forward to the job because I have been using number 6011 welding rods. These are the standard welding rod here in Panama and can be found in any hardware store and even some grocery stores right next to the duct tape. They burn paint away easily and work in any position. But they stick easily and this can be frustrating.

If you don’t know, the idea of welding is to touch the welding rod to the metal you want to weld, create a short circuit if you will, get sparks flying, then pull away slightly and maintain a gap that the fire jumps across, heating and fusing the metals. It is during this initial getting-the-sparks-flying stage that the welding rod can fuse itself (or stick) to the metal to be welded. If it sticks you have to wiggle the rod back and forth until it breaks free then start the process all over again. When I tacked the wall in place, there was a whole lot of sticking going on and I wasn’t looking forward to forty feet of frustration.

I have to declare here that welding is new to me. Previously my work life involved wood, glue, screws and nails. I learned a little bit about welding from Bob H. back in the States, just enough to get me going and make me dangerous as they say. I guess you could call me a back yard welder. I don’t know squat about the coefficient of this or that, or the temperature that bronze-molybdenum-strontium 90 alloy melts at. I only know to get the spark going and keep it going. So to all the professional welders who fall across this blog by mistake, those with multiple certifications in underwater welding and welding in deep space on the Space Station while holding a wet cat, please have pity on me for what I am attempting to do at this stage of my life, and maybe remember those first not-so-pretty welds that you made so many years ago. Thank you.

So for my birthday, friend Les gave me about ten pounds of not 6011 rods, but instead 6013 rods. I thought I would give them a try on this project. How bad could it be? As it turns out, not bad at all.

The ubiquitous 6011s burn real hot. They burn paint real quick. Lots of slag flies everywhere, the rods stick easily, and if you are thinking about last night’s fight with your wife and not paying 100% attention to counting the number of seconds that are passing, you can burn a hole in the metal the size of Texas.

Even though technically in the same family (I don’t really know this for sure, I’m making this up), the 6013s are a real pleasure to work with. If the 6011s are a stay-out-all-night rebellious teenager, the 6013s are their stay-at-home studious twin. Rod sticking is much, much less with the 6013s. They burn hot enough to eat through the numerous layers of paint on the container roof, but the burn is more surgical if you will. There is less flaming slag flying over the top of my welding helmet, thereby burning fewer holes my scalp. Both rods seem to want to burn well for me with 60-amps set on the dial of the welder:

The new (to me) 6013s also don’t burn big holes in the metal nearly as easily. And if I do burn a hole, I can close the doughnut hole much more easily. A blob of the 6013 seems to stay in place as it cools making closing the hole quite easy, whereas the 6011 blob shrinks as it cools, leaving the hole almost as large as when I started. And if I switch the amps down from 60 to 40, the holes close quite rapidly.

To weld, you have to keep the welding rod moving. There are numerous techniques: the back and forth wiggle, the circle swoop, etc. The technique that I found to work best for me is this: working in the general form of a backwards letter C, maybe something like this:  ]  , I start at the bottom left of the backward C.  I get the spark going and sit in one place on the roof of the container for a second-and-a-half to two seconds, burning paint and making a small puddle of molten metal. Then in the next second I sweep to the right and up, then over to the left. Then to prevent creating a hole, I get the heck out of Dodge, wait for the new metal to cool for a second, then repeat. I’m left handed and am working from right to left. So if you are right handed maybe you will find a forward C and left to right easier. Your mileage may vary.  If you figure that I move about an eighth-of-an-inch at a time, that makes only 3,840 repetitions in the forty-foot long stretch. It goes like this: weld, weld, weld, move, stretch, drink water, repeat. Simple.

Here is a photo of the mess I am making:

A lot of the mess is paint that has burned and flaked, and the weld cleans up fairly well with a wire brush. It looks to me like it will keep water from leaking into the house. Here is the weld all wire brushed but not prime painted. The roof was too hot and the paint probably would have boiled. Hey, maybe Monday I’ll fry some eggs for lunch.

I got to the half-way point today before I sensed the blisters on my knees from the hot roof. I quit about 2:00. Monday weather permitting I will be back at the second half. With my new knowledge of the 6013 rods and my experience today, I’m not dreading the second half at all. Still, it will be good to be done with this part of the job. I will have to repeat this process when I erect the wall over container two. Stairs will lead up to this wall, and a door will take us out to the roof deck. I am anticipating the hammock swinging in the breeze.

Thanks for the swell welding rods Les! That’s all for now. Happy welding!

About Time

This post: Clocks, time, and memories. This entry is a complete time waster. No real news, no house progress, only one photo.

Clocks have been in the news in our household lately. Neither Cynthia nor I wear wristwatches. We have one clock in the bedroom and one on the wall in the kitchen. And of course, the time is displayed on our cell phones, computers, and on the radio display in the car. The cell phones, computers, and the car clock are not easy to glance at unless you are working with them at the time.

So in effect, only the bedroom and kitchen clocks keep their faces in our faces, giving information to us even if we aren’t needing it at the moment. A few weeks ago, time ran out for these two clocks and they kicked the bucket. Simultaneously, right on time. True, they were still correct twice a day as they say. But life was a different experience without these two time pieces.

I noticed that I really didn’t need to check the time when I got up in the morning. Daylight happens about 5:30 to 6:00 and I wake up. Armando arrives about 8:00 most days, and I found that the morning routine of shower, dress, blow on my oatmeal to cool it and eat it, clean the cat box, and activate the walkie talkies pretty much gives me a few minutes to spare until Jabo announces the arrival of Armando’s bus. After some initial adjustment, punctuality and clock-fixation-angst became moot.

I noticed that I reliably get hungry for lunch about noon. I don’t need a clock for supper either, as Jabo, the cats, and the chickens and our own bellies relay that information. Law and Order comes on the TV just before dark every day of the year here near the equator. Later in the evening after I’ve checked email, etc., I spend an hour or so in the dark in the hammock on the patio. Our watchdog Jabo and I bond and play, and when he has had his fill, this long-legged dog gets up in one of the plastic chairs near me, curls into a ball, and takes a cat nap. At the appropriate time, both he and I decide that it is bedtime and I head for bed and he heads for his crate.

Here’s a photo of our watchdog, Jabo:

I've got time on my hands. Go ahead. Make my day.

Who needs clocks when you are retired and living in the tropics? No one, as far as I can tell.

But the other day when we were checking out the Discovery store in the city, they had clocks. Lots and lots of clocks, nearly an entire aisle full of clocks, and they were cheap. With so many clocks, I thought that maybe they were selling the clocks cheap so that we would be lulled into paying a Time Service Provider a monthly fee for the time. If you don’t pay, they stop the clocks and then what would we do? It’s like cell phone vendors who include the phone at no cost just so you will pay monthly for the rest of your life. Nice work if you can get it.

I thought again about my idea for an invention. I would like to have a digital wristwatch that every second, or even better randomly, simply flashes “NOW.” “NOW.” “NOW.” It could be programmable in 17 fonts and 28 languages. An aqua neon display would be nice.

Still in the clock aisle of Discovery, there were round clocks, oval clocks, square clocks, and one clock where it looked like all the numbers had fallen off the face and landed at the bottom of the clock. I remember that my father said that time was circular and that clocks should be round. Period. He was an architect and also objected to front doors that didn’t fit with the architecture of the house. He called them Door Of The Month Club doors. But I digress.

So we looked at each other, Cynthia and I, and one of us, I can’t remember who, declared that something was missing and that it was time (4:19 precisely) to replace the clocks. So we did. $5.99 each.

Given those few weeks of clock freedom, I now find that clocks are somewhat of an intrusion. I think I liked not knowing for sure, depending on my own inner timekeeper and the rhythm of the natural world all around us. Now when I pass those two beacons of fleeting seconds, minutes, and hours, I do my best to avert my eyes. But it doesn’t always work, like when you rubberneck past an accident scene. Try as a you might, the magnet draws the eyes.

On another somewhat time-related theme, I recently told Cynthia a few stories from my military boot camp experience many, many years ago. I told her how I, a mid-height white kid from New England and Shelly, a very tall black kid from the south side of Chicago, hit it off. He looked out for me, but I’m not sure what I did for him. Maybe I taught him how to be superlative but invisible, to not stand out, to blend in, meld if you will. It seemed safer that way. For a long time, I had a photo of us standing together, me up to his armpit with his arm swung over my head.

One night Shelly was standing watch and the Officer of the Day (OD) started climbing the stairs to our barrack. Shelly appropriately called out, “Halt, who goes there?” The OD hollered out, “Superman,” to which Shelly snapped back, “Well fly your ass up here and get i-dentified.” I can’t remember the outcome of the exchange, although I can imagine Shelly ended up on the wrong end of that schtick.

Toward the end of our twelve weeks of boot camp, it was time for our off-base liberty. Near Chicago, Shelly invited me home to his house. Being 1967 and the recent race riots around the country, I was concerned. But Shelly told me just to stick close to him and nothing would happen to me. So I went along. His parents and family treated me well, even warning me to what chitlins were made of. I remember that the whole bunch of us packed into their car and we went to the movies. I remember that his sister and I flirted a bit and we sat next to each other.

Now here is where the topic of time comes in. I told Cynthia that we saw the movie, Shaft. I remember seeing the big poster for the movie. I remember the popcorn. I remember the family talking about wanting to see the movie. But Cynthia said to me, “Shaft didn’t come out until 1971.” (She knows that trivia.)

Dumbstruck, I had to Google it and sure enough, 1971 it was, not 1967. (She had that “I told you so” look on her face.) But it was such a crystal clear memory, just as if it had happened, well, forty-five years ago. It begs the question, “What else don’t I remember correctly?” Was I in boot camp in 1967 or 1971? If I am ever in court, should I just automatically respond, “I don’t recall, your honor.” Remember Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes? “I know nu-thinggg!” Carl Sagan might ask the question, “Did the past really happen at all or are we just hallucinating? Is the present really happening?” Greater minds than mine will have to figure that out. Maybe there’s an app for that.

I now understand how three people can witness an accident or a crime and report three different versions of what happened. “He wore a red baseball cap.” “No, it was beige.” “No, he wasn’t wearing a hat.”

I have to question even more. Did I really graduate high school as salutatorian? Did I almost die in hurricane Camille in Biloxi Mississippi? Did I really used to live in the United States of America? (Answer to this last one, “Yes.” I had to check my passport.)

I have to say that this has really shaken me. I’ve never smoked pot in my life, so I know the Shaft experience wasn’t a drug-induced fantasy. I was a real fan of The Twilight Zone; maybe I was pulled unknowingly into an episode. Who knows? Who knows?

So I’m wondering. Has this ever happened to you? (I’m looking for company and moral support here folks.) Feel free to relate your mal-memories in the comment section below. Please be cool; I’ll delete stuff I don’t like. It’s my blog.

Cynthia usually reads my posts before I publish them and does a little proofing. She said it was about time I wrote this one. Good one, Cynthia.


A Really Cool Experiment

I’m still on hiatus from container house construction, but this post kind of connects.

We’ve been thinking about the kitchen in our new container house. The kitchen will take up a space 16-feet by more or less 24-feet.

We are planning three large islands, each one about 4-feet by 8-feet. Islands make for a much more social cooking experience for the cook, as she or he isn’t always facing the wall. One island will have the sink. Turn around and the second island will have the stove/oven. The third island will have space for bread making, etc., and on the other side of this island will be a raised sit-at counter.

The lush green tropics is not a place to be closed off and holed up. One of the things I would like is more windows with views to the outside, and fewer (if any) wall mounted cabinets and appliances.

We currently own a commercial refrigerator and a commercial freezer. They are big honking things that block out the sun and block out the stars. And they contradict the open space feeling and design that we want. Yes, they are cool. There is a lot of space inside these units with racks like oven racks and none of the plastic soda can or milk or egg holding geegaws of standard residential units. These are spacious and we have enjoyed them.

Just for fun, I connected them to a Kill A Watt monitor to see how much electricity they were consuming. I did the math and found that combined they use about $130 per year at our local $0.15 per kilowatt hour cost of electricity. Not too bad, certainly a lot better than if we still had our pre-1990 refrigerator, and certainly not a big reason, or a reason at all, to retire our giants.

Still the tall-appliance phobia that I have developed niggled at me. And if I can spend a nickle to save a penny, I’m a sucker, sign me up. Most of the memories of my father are of him following everyone around from room to room, shutting off light switches that we had left on. He found second use (note cards) and third use (cat poo scooper) things to do with the cardboard separators in the Shredded Wheat cereal boxes. I think he was ahead of the curve (driven by being a tightwad) when it came to energy conservation and recycling. That being inculcated into me at an early age, it has always seemed odd to me that refrigerators lost all their cold air every time you open the door to watch hair grow on the leftovers. I probably heard him say it, but I don’t remember. Subliminal conditioning is the worst because it bypasses the guards at the brain’s front door.

Recently I came across a site on the Internet where a man had converted a chest style freezer to an energy efficient refrigerator so that he could use it in his off-grid home in Australia. I was intrigued and Googled more. I found this accessory temperature controller that would do the job of making a freezer not-so-cold. I like it because it isn’t digital and has minimal electronics, always a good thing here in power-fluctuating Panama.

I promoted my idea of having two chest style freezers, one converted to a refrigerator, to Cynthia. All kinds of bells and whistles went off in her head about how we would store and have ready access to our food. (Once Cyn thought about it and agreed, she rubbed her hands together and bought into the idea. Good for my organization-obsessed wife as there would have to be a place for everything and everything in its place.) I suggested that on our next trip to the city that we go to a Doit Center where they have chest freezers and also an excellent selection of plastic boxes.

So we did. We chose a Frigidaire model that would be a good size for either cold or frozen food. We found some plastic boxes in a selection of three sizes, each with a snap on lid and a handle in the center of the lid. To the amusement of the friendly attendant in the appliance department, we stacked and re-stacked, deciding what food could go in what container to provide the best daily access.

In the end it all seemed a reasonable way to lower the horizon in our new kitchen. We had to go to two Doit Center locations, but we came home with two freezers and a good selection of plastic boxes, all, tax included, for under a thousand bucks.

In the meantime, the temperature controller had arrived in the mail from the States, and we spent a good part of a day setting up the new units. The accessory temperature controller was a no-brainer, just plug the freezer into the controller and plug the controller into the wall. A small temperature probe slips into the cabinet.

So far we have had the units in use for 19 hours, including the initial loading of food time; much of the food, such as the condiments, had warmed significantly. The Kill A Watt indicates that the units have used 0.99, call it one, killowatt hour of electricity. I did the math and it comes out to $68 per year for both units combined. It will no doubt be less in the future because the initial start-up used more electricity. More math tells me that it will take 16 years to pay them off, but we will sell our old units and reduce it to maybe 8 years. But in the trade, we will have all the windows we want in the kitchen.

One more benefit of this experiment is that the new units are much, much quieter. The commercial units have fans to circulate the air in all the unused empty space, and they make a lot of noise. They operated more than they were off. The new units? With the thicker insulation, they hardly run at all.

Speaking of insulation, side insulation is several inches thick. But the lids on the units are only about an inch thick. We have noticed that the tops are cool (the freezer cold) and condensation forms; rust on the metal lids will soon follow. Shame on you Frigidaire and all the similar brands with one-inch thick lids. So I am planning to get another inch of rigid insulation to put on top of the lids, then make a metal cover to go over the insulation. We like the aluminum diamond plate like truck toolboxes are made from.

Here are a few photos:

Here they are in our current rental house. The blank wall is a good place for my watercolor paintings until we move. The table between the freezer (L) and the refrigerator (R) is good for staging food into or out of the units.

This is the inside of the "refrigerator." It is amazing to me (I am easily amazed) that all our food, and space for more (two blue containers are empty) fits into such a small space. It is a pleasure to open the lid and not have all the cold air fall out. The Cokes? They are for Armando and our housekeeper. Honestly, I never touch the stuff.

In an update to my last post, It Takes A Pueblo, I found out that the cement was a gift to the community by their elected government representative, the Diputado. Other times, they may fix the dirt roads or do other needed community projects.

That’s all for now. What are your kitchen phobias?

The Front Fence

Fences in Panama are very important. They indicate that, “This is my property. I am marking it and I am protecting it. I respect my stuff, and so should you.” Like the locks on trashcans in campgrounds and parks, fences keep a good bear from going bad.

We already erected fencing at the two sides and the back of the lot, but the front was postponed until the containers were placed and the well was completed. Now that the big vehicles are gone and those tasks are done and the rainy season is on its way, it seems like a good time to finish the fence. Also, our dog likes to go to work with Dad some days, and without the fence or constant attention, he is “gone fishing” in the blink of an eye. He didn’t grow up on a rope, so when he is tied up it is only a matter of a few seconds before he is in a mess of rope spaghetti.

So I have Armando working on the front fence. We have dug the foundation, placed the posts in concrete, and are working on the bottom row of concrete blocks. Hernan joined us for a day or two, and I got him going on the columns at either side of the driveway. They will mimic the electric service entrance wall at the corner of the lot.

When I’m not keeping a quality control eye on the fence progress (which needs to be done frequently), I am working on getting power to the well pump. This involves bringing power to the house, first by stringing the main utility wire from the service entrance wall, across the three tall fence posts on the east boundary, then turning toward the house. I installed a conduit through the roof on container #3 and mounted a breaker panel on the wall below the conduit. Next I need to put a sub-panel in container #2 and run the utility wire to that panel. From there, it is a short run with some #12 wire to the pump controls that I have mounted in container #1. Soon, we will have water flowing from the well. All this new wiring means not having to coil up several hundred feet of extension cord every day as we will now have power in the containers.

Today, Sunday, I have been working with graph paper most of the day, designing the front gate. Previously, I mentioned the design principles of C.R.A.P. and Repeating a grid from the windows to the front gate. But the more I drew front gate to scale, the more it looked, well, Boring. Or maybe like a Scottish tartan plaid. There’s nothing wrong about plaid, it just didn’t go with the program. It made the whole project look too hard, as in sharp edged, and there was just too dang much of it. And since there is no B in C.R.A.P., I had to do something.

How about C, the Contrast part of C.R.A.P.? So I worked trying to bring in a softer element, curves. Some years ago, as Neighbor Bob will remember, I was working on a gate for a swimming pool area. It was going to have stalks of flowers on it. Today as I drew, it dawned on me that I had seen this before. Years ago, my mother had a small lead crystal glass bowl that had pussy willows or cat-o’-nine-tails on it. The bowl is long gone from the family; maybe it was dropped and broken, who knows. But the memory stayed with me, and in 1999 I made from that memory a small maple wood bowl on my lathe and carved cat-o’-nine-tails on it with small chisels.

I showed my grid drawings to Cynthia, told her of my grid problem, and I made that face showing blaauuggk, I hate it. The Design Acceptance Committee agreed with my assessment. But wait. I got my wooden bowl from the display case and said, “What if I made this same design but big?” And we could no doubt carry this theme elsewhere, perhaps to a security bar somewhere.

So it appears that we have a design for the front gate. The design softens the hard corners of everything else (Contrast), but the top ends of the shoots can have a sharpened point, good for security.

Here are a couple photos:

The front fence underway.

My bowl is less than an eighth of an inch thick.

Looking at the bowl, I can see that the bottom of the gate can be more dense, and the top more open and airy.

See you later.

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A Roof In Time

In addition to getting the water well up and running, Armando and I recently worked on building the roof over the 12-foot by 40-foot open space between containers 3 and 4 (the two back containers).

This is a simple shed roof that rises up from the south (low side) to the north (high side). I framed the end triangle gable walls from metal 2×2 square tubing, and the roof itself is framed up mostly from metal 2×4 carriollas (“C” shapes that are open on one of the four-inch sides) that I welded together. I cut some side wall metal from container #4 to make the north four-foot high, 40-foot long wall under the high side of the roof, and I will do more of the same to make the two-foot high wall on the south side. These walls will keep the stiffness of the container roof when the container wall is cut out below.

This shed roof makes a high ceiling (11-feet high up to 13-feet high) in parts of the master bedroom and in my workshop. With clerestory windows above, these should be nice spaces to sleep or work in; we’ll be able to see the night sky in the bedroom, I can use less electric lighting in my shop, and any heat gain in the rooms will be whisked up and out the high windows.

Armando and I installed a simple roof sheathing of corrugated zinc roofing metal. It fit the budget and will reflect a lot of the sun’s heat. I have some six-inch thick Styrofoam panels kicking around, so I figured that I can cut them in half to make 3-inch slabs that will fit in the four-inch space of the 2×4 rafters. Underneath, for the ceiling surface, I plan to use tile backer cement board, probably 1/2-inch thick. In my opinion, drywall should be shunned in the tropics unless it is installed with an air-conditioned space on either side of the drywall. Otherwise, the paper backing on the drywall can become damp — a tasty snack for mold.

I like to design and build in a specific way. I design the broad brushstrokes of the building on paper, before buying any materials. After, when the bones of the structure are up, I stop work for a while and sit on a five-gallon bucket in the middle of the open space, pondering. It doesn’t matter if the bucket is right side up or upside down, in case you are wondering. The longer I can sit the better. I look for design elements that may already be part of the structure and see if I can use this to create a theme in the house. I look to see what shapes can be repeated to create a common element throughout.

Some years ago I read a small book on graphic design titled The Non-Designer’s Design Book, by designer Robin Williams. She has an easy-to-remember design mnemonic called, CRAP. It stands for Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, and Proximity.

  1. Contrast: differing colors, shapes, elements that take away boring swaths of area
  2. Repetition: a design element repeated to create cohesion
  3. Alignment: creating a restful feeling by aligning elements
  4. Proximity: things that belong together should be presented together

In graphic design if you are designing a business card, advertisement, or an annual report that follows CRAP, then you will have a piece that people will like to look at. Similarly, I have found that buildings can benefit from these same principles.

So while sitting on my bucket, I noticed the framework of the gable end wall of the bedroom. It is a grid. Hmmm. I was going to sheath the framework with tile backer. But it is a grid and a perfect place for windows, stars visible from the bed. I was going to weld in a section of the shipping container wall scrap to create the wall under the gable. But what if I continued downward the 2×2 metal framework of the gable, making the entire 12-foot wide wall a square or rectangular grid. Windows and pieces of 3/4-inch thick tile backer can be placed in the grid. Do I have a design element that fits the Repetition part of CRAP? I think so. I’ve been thinking about other areas of the house where this can work — windows and even the driveway front gate.

As I have mentioned, we are renting and living in a house nearby. We’ve never liked renting as you can’t count on the landlord not to change your life at any given time. Our landlady is in her 80s and we just don’t know when any of a number of things might happen. Cynthia and I, and Armando and I have been having this discussion: Is it better to build all the roofs now, in the dry season, then go back and do all the other work of creating living spaces, such as pouring the concrete floors and installing all the windows at once? Or, is it better to get one area habitable? The back two containers (numbers 3&4), for example. We would have a big bedroom that could have a temporary computer/sitting area, a full bathroom, a large closet, and my shop, all up and running. The only thing missing is a kitchen, and I could make a “camp kitchen” pretty much anywhere. It would end up being an efficiency apartment if you will.

Thinking about which tack to take, I thought of the old TV sit-com, All In The Family. Archie and Meathead were having a “discussion” about whether it was better to put on both socks at once and then both shoes, or to put on one sock and then that shoe, then the other sock and the other shoe. I liked Meathead’s argument the best: one sock and the related shoe.  (paraphrasing Meathead) “At least, Archie, if you have one sock and one shoe on, you can hop out of the house over hot coals in case of a fire.” If you never saw the show or want a nostalgic jaunt, here is a classic clip: Archie Bunker meets Sammy Davis Jr. Another of my favorites is when the show opens, Archie & Edith are returning from the movies. Edith with a look of shock on her face, turns to Archie and says, “But Archie, I thought it was a religious movie, Cardinal Knowledge,” the show of course referring to the racy-for-the-time movie, Carnal Knowledge.

So from this point on in the construction, we are going to focus on one area that we can move into and call home if the unthinkable should happen and we have to vacate our rental.

Back to construction of the roof, as I said, I cut some of the siding from container #4. This stuff is heavy and floppy and has sharp edges, much like bringing a big flopping fish with gnashing teeth into a small boat. Not that I have any experience in that vein. The only time I ever fished was as a young boy. I cast the line out over my head the first time and two of the three hooks on the lure drove themselves deep into my scalp. A trip to the hospital was involved. Anyway, we used a rope on the first piece of siding, but employed a pulley system on the second panel and it raised much more easily. Since then, a neighbor has loaned me an electric winch which I can use in the future.

Once the metal pieces were on top of the container, we moved them into place and tack welded them here and there. The next day I set about welding them more securely. The panels have a mind of their own, twisting and turning out of alignment, especially if there is a dent in the corrugations. So I welded what I could easily get into place. Armando was working elsewhere that day so I was alone on the job. The question became, how to get the out-of-alignment areas into alignment and weld them into place by myself; it was a four-hand endeavor but I only have two. I worked most of my carpentry career by myself, so I called in some of my old silent partners from the firm of Rope Stick Clamp Hammer Ladder & Wedge. I created an adjustable stick and wedged it from container #3, the 12-feet over to container #4, pushing the belligerent siding into place with pressure (photo below). I welded that spot into place, then moved the rig to the next area. I like my silent partners. They work for no money beyond the initial contract (purchase) and can hold their arms up in the air without complaint even if I break for lunch.

I titled this entry A roof In Time, referring to the shift in the seasons. After a long dry spell, we have recently experienced afternoon rains, thunderstorms, and nighttime rain. Over the next month or so, the low pressure of the Intertropical Convergence Zone will move more on top of us, dropping more and heavier rain at any time day or night. Oh goodie. Break out the rubber mud boots.

Here are some photos of the new roof:

Here's the framework of 2x4 carriollas all welded together and before we put two coats of anti-corrosive paint on the weld joints.

Armando grinds an ugly weld flat. I used some flat stock and made an X brace to stiffen the roof. Armando is holding on to part of it with his left hand.

Here, Armando and Hernan haul up the first sheet of cut out siding. Without the pulley, we needed a break! In the real word, one might logically build the wall, then build the roof on top of it. But we were having some significant wind, the sheet of steel became a sail, so it was easier to frame and brace everything first, then fill in the empty wall spaces.

Here I am under the new roof, working with silent partners Stick, Wedge, and Ladder. As I pull down on the brace, the siding is moved into place for welding. The big dent at the bottom of the container? It was artfully created by the malfunctioning crane during placement on the columns. I deducted $150 from the bill and didn't hear a word about it.

Here are a couple of my welds. I will go back and fill in the rest to make the joint watertight.

Let’s talk soon.


Nearly every construction project generates trash. It might be cut off ends of 2x4s or scrap pieces of drywall or wood, plastic, and cardboard window packaging. Prefab housing is a nearly scrap-free process, but we aren’t prefabbing.

Before we moved here to Panama, we completely remodeled a 1920s Craftsman style house in Colorado. Down to the studs and more. In that project, we generated 120 cubic yards of debris (60, 2-yard dumpsters), mostly old plaster, plus an amazing amount of stuff that we put out next to a big tree. The whole town knew of the Free Tree, and some people made regular passes by the house to score the latest junk. My favorite piece placed at the Free Tree was an avocado green, 1960s style electric fireplace that hung on the wall. Very retro, and I bet it is still in service today. But when we were done, we had created an artful, very energy efficient dwelling that can be enjoyed for another 100 years. Our monthly fuel bills to heat the house went from $400 before remodel with the thermostat set at 55 (brrrrrrr), to less than $100 post remodel with the thermostat set at 68, and there had been significant energy price increases along the way. I think the significant contribution to the landfill was worth the future savings in energy costs.

At this point in construction of our shipping container house, we have four shipping containers making up the infrastructure/bones for walls, floors, and roofs, the equivalent of 1,280 square feet of living space. I have been keeping track of our current trash. So far, the sum total of our trash from this project is:

  • a couple hundred paper bags from the sacks of cement, most of which we reused to protect the fresh concrete from impending rain
  • a couple hundred welding rod 1-inch ends
  • a couple dozen angle grinder cutoff wheel stubs
  • a 5-gallon bucket full of metal cutoff scrap; I told Armando to stop the recycled metal guy that comes by in his pickup truck a couple days a week, announcing his presence over the bull horn. I told Armando he could keep the money: he got $3 for his bus fare for the week. Often, a truck will come up the mountain selling fish, and go down the mountain collecting recyclables
  • and five, one-gallon empty paint cans

Not bad so far I think.

I’m not claiming that we are building the world’s greenest house. I’m not going to go there. However, we did up-cycle four containers that were at the end of their useful lives. Part of me wishes that we had bought new containers, just for the visual harmony, but what’s green or interesting about that? Our old, beat containers are beautiful. They show a history of transport many times around the world. To me, the containers are like my friends. Old faces, wrinkles and warts and all, marks that show character and a life lead. I can make up my own stories about how each set of dents happened (in the containers, not my friends, although that could be fun, too).

Here’s a photo of our trash pile:

Like a line from the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas; Five empty paint cans... (I hope that you don't sing that in your head for for the next week...)

That’s all for now.

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