Aspiring Artist


Ethiopian Style Cross on our barn
Ethiopian Style Cross on our barn

Yesterday, I painted and mounted this cross on our barn. I don’t let the fact that I have next to no artistic talent stop me from attempting to make beautiful things with paint. This cross was originally made last year as a temporary marker for Ressom Asfaha’s grave. Memory eternal! Our priests had been given small, hand-carved, wood crosses from Ethiopia by one of the Ethiopians in our church. I photocopied them and chose one for the design of this cross.

I had to guess at the colors, as the wood cross was unpainted. I did some research on-line into Ethiopian art and chose my colors. I did it entirely freehand, as the artwork I saw all seemed to be fairly organic and not absolutely symmetrical. In hindsight, I should have measured and marked some guidelines. This is what I did when I repainted it to coordinate with our barn.

The Ethiopian Cross in African Colors
The Ethiopian Cross in African Colors

I knew from my research that the five blossoms should be red, as these represent the wounds of Christ: his hands, his feet, his head and his side. Ressom’s family told me that I had chosen the colors well. I made the cross out of a two foot square of 3/4″ plywood. It was one of many that the former owner of our house had used to cover holes in the floor in the second story of the barn. To make the shape, I measured equal distances from the corners and made a mark. Then I traced around a five quart sauce pan (that I use for candle-making) while holding the sides lined up with these marks. Then I cut them out with a sabre saw.

This was the third cemetery cross that I have made. I also made a three bar cross for dedication of ground for a mission. Each one is a little different, as I figure out better ways to do things with each go. They each were fastened to a metal fence post. The kind you can pick up for about $5 at Home Depot’s garden section. That way the wood does not come in contact with the ground, so no rot. Ressom’s brother-in-law wrote his name in his native language. That is what is painted above his name in English.

A Georgian St. Nina's Cross
A Georgian St. Nina's Cross

I made a St. Nina’s Cross out of cherry. The “droop” on the cross bar was limited by the width of my board. The brown twining is stylized grapevine and the black crisscrossing the middle represents the Theotokos’s hair. Ksenia’s name is painted in English and Georgian in green; the dates of her birth and her repose are in red.

The picture of the cross on the barn also captured more of my work. The barn is over 150 years old, as far as we can tell. For many years, it had not been maintained, so the tongue and groove siding had shrunken to expose gaps for the wind to blow through. I added battens out of roughsawn pine to correct this. The first thing I did, however was to replace the old windows with modern, vinyl, insulated glass windows. (I didn’t know about how non-eco-friendly vinyl is at the time.) I fastened the flanges to the outside of the barnboards, then caulked and trimmed over the flanges as shown with roughsawn pine.


Cross on barn
Cross on barn


Upper level barn front
Upper level barn front

“How Green Was My Valley”?

About 40.5 million acres of land are used for lawns in the United Sates. About 300 million acres of land are used for harvested crops each year in the United States. American homeowners spent about $2.1 billion in 2001 for over 30,000 tons of herbicides (i.e., Roundup), insecticides, fungicides, etc., for their lawns. Lawn care pesticides kill about 7 million birds in the US each year. American farmers spent about $7.4 billion on the same in 2001. This is according to EPA estimates. (2001 is the last year for which they have published stats.) The lion’s share of the difference is that farmers use a lot more herbicide. Farmers have an additional 140 million acres in fallow and out of rotation cropland for a total of about 440 million acres. So US homeowners spent an average of about four times as much per acre on these toxins than did farmers. US residential use of these chemicals alone accounts for nearly 7% of the world market. This is more than a little out of proportion, just to have a patch of green around our castles. 

Then there is the whole issue of fertilizers. We use over 3 million tons annually on lawns. Over $5 billion per year is spent on fossil fuel derived fertilizers. Then there is the problem of gas powered mowers. The average gas powered mower emits as much pollution while mowing an acre of grass as driving a car 50 miles. Lawn mowers accounts for 7% smog causing particulate; and you are walking right behind it. 800 million gallons of gas are used each year for mowing lawns, of which an estimated 17 million gallons are spilled on the ground. (The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons, just for comparison.) According to the EPA, America uses an average of 7 billion gallons of water each day to water its lawns; over half of which is wasted due to overwatering and overspray. It always frustrated me, as a kid growing up in Golden Valley, that the more we would fertilize and water the lawn, the more we would have to mow it. It seemed to me that we could save all kinds of time by not fertilizing and watering. 

How about the dangers to life and limb? A number of these pesticides and fertilizers have been shown to increase risk of asthma, childhood leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer, birth defects, fetal death, etc., according to the Ontario College of Family Physicians: Pesticides Literature Review. Every year, about 75,000 people are seriously injured in lawn mower accidents in the US, including 10,000 children. 25,000 accidents result in an amputation. OK. Have I scared you enough? Just leave the lawn alone for a while.

I’ll get back to it with some positive, greener alternatives. I promise.

Rosalie, Pete, Jerome & Pops

Rosalie was born about two weeks before me in 1955. We’re both partially of Irish descent. We grew up at the same time in different parts of the same country in two very different worlds.

I first met Rosalie in 1985 when she was an inmate in the Women’s Detention Facility at the Philadelphia House of Corrections. We were both just exiting out twenties. She was a wild thing with a head of thick, curly, frizzy, red hair. I had a lot more brown than white in my beard and hair, wore no moustache and had aviator wireframe glasses. (They were the closest thing I could find to round at the time.) 

Rosie told me her sad story of abuse and love. This was the first time I had heard this sort of tale, which by now has became all too familiar, of a woman who is physically abused by her mate, yet loves him still, to the point of endangering their children. Rosie was vivacious, persuasive, irrepressibly happy and a tease.

I saw her on and off through my four years as a chaplain in the Philadelphia prisons. She was one of our first students in the tutoring program I started in the WDF. She always was telling the tutors and the guards what a great guy I was, followed by some kind of left-handed compliment.

It was sometime in 1990, about the time we were turning 35, while I was serving sandwiches, iced tea and goodies at the wall of the “Love Park”, I heard this woman holler: “Hey Rev! How ya been?” Rosie ran up to me and gave me a big hug.

Since then, we have seen Rosie from time to time. Sometimes she was a regular customer. Other times, she would just stop by to say hello and catch up on the news.

We met her brother, Pete. Rosie had a couple of different boyfriends that she introduced to us. Then she got serious about Jerome several years ago. Pete befriended an older man whom he would look out for and help out. We only ever knew him as Pops. Pops got housing assistance. So Pete and Rosie and Jerome moved in with him. It was a way of surviving off the street by pooling their resources. Some nights we would take them all home after we were done serving.

Rosalie and Jerome got married several years ago by Judge Valentine on Valentine’s Day at City Hall. They all got evicted from the house. Rosie and Jerome ended up getting violent with each other. Jerome was arrested. There was a restraining order. Jerome says it was a horse apiece, that Rosie gave as good as she got, and I can believe it. She was feisty. They divorced.

For a time Rosie lived in New Jersey with relatives, but she still came over about once a month to see us and let us know she was all right. Her relatives moved and she was back on the street.

In 2005, about the time we were turning 50, Rosalie was diagnosed with leukemia. She went through one round of chemo. It seemed she was doing better, then not so much. She went through another round in the Spring of 2006. This is while living on the street. Her brother and Pops and a few other guys were looking out for her and trying to provide protection and moral support. Finally some health worker was able to figure out a way for her to get a room in a group home, as she was about to start her third round of chemo.

Pops passed away last year. Pete got a good job and a place of his own. Jerome spent most of the last year in jail. He just got out. Rosalie passed away sometime around our 53rd birthdays.

Rosie was a joy to know. She always gave thanks to God for even the smallest acts of kindness. I consider it a privilege and blessing to have been counted among her friends. May her memory be eternal.

Are Lawns Green?

From the time I was six until I was twenty, we lived in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Golden Valley is a suburb of Minneapolis. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was home to General Mills, Honeywell’s MIRV control plant (making it the #16 strategic nuclear target for the Russians), Carl Sandburg Junior High (right across the street), Glenwood Hills Hospital, Theodore Wirth Park and Golden Valley Country Club. We were told that the village took its name from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. This was Steinbeck’s journal of the time he bummed around the country with his standard poodle, Charley. They sat down in a field of amber grain and John said: “Now this truly is a golden valley!” I now know this is not true, but this is the myth of the place that we were taught at Carl Sandburg. Poetry apparently trumped science. Travels With Charley happened in 1960; the village was incorporated in 1886. By the way, Carl Sandburg attended the dedication of the school in 1959 and our family was there and we met him. I don’t remember. I was only four at the time and wasn’t that interested in poet/historians yet.

At any rate, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The point of this whole ramble through Golden Valley is that the valley still had some golden fields when Steinbeck may or may not have travelled through with his poodle in 1960. By the summer of 1961 my dad had built our house in a subdivision of the last one. The fields of wheat were gone. We had a clean, new suburb with lots of green lawns.

But how green are lawns?

Before we get into the whole chemical fertilizer, gas power mower, crabgrass killer end of things; let’s take a look at just the idea and physical presence of lawns and see how things add up.

Why do we have lawns, anyway? Years ago, in a magazine called Country Journal, there was an essay on lawns on the next to the last page. From it I learned that the idea of the individual lawn came from English and northern European aristocracy. It was a sign of great wealth. It indicated that you had so much land that you could afford to mow some of it. You already had more than enough for your crops, more than enough for your livestock, more than enough, even, than for your herbs and flowers. You had so much land, in fact, that you could afford to intentionally waste some of it. It was the epitome of conspicuous consumption. This idea was carried forward to American farmers. It was a sign of prosperity and overabundance to have a small lawn around the farmhouse.

Then came the mechanization of farming with its accompanying great migration into cities. Those who managed to benefit from industrialization and centralization chose the same sign to advertise their prosperity. They had enough wealth to have a piece of ground that they could mow without even having to farm at all. On top of that, came the expanding middle class with the idea of a consumer society. Then came the cold war with its xenophobia which led people to want to have a buffer zone between themselves and their neighbors, as well as enough space to build a bomb shelter in the backyard. Then came the urban race riots of 1965 and 1968 that caused more people to be afraid of cities and flee to the perceived safety of the suburbs. Television evening news with its “If it bleeds it leads” policy combined with the economy of showing all the news that is convenient (i.e., urban) only reinforced these fears. White flight from the cities has caused so much urban sprawl that on a night time flight from Philadelphia to Minneapolis in 2000, I saw only suburbs below.

Just the fact of lawns existing, increase the need for transportation, because they increase the distance between us. Paradoxically, lawns cause more land to be paved as we need more and longer roads to get around them all to get anywhere. The more paved land there is, the higher the incidence of flash floods with its damage to life and property, not to mention the accompanying erosion. Lawns take land out of agricultural production and deplete wildlife habitat.  By the lawns being clipped short, they do not produce as much oxygen and sequester as much carbon as would a farm, pasture, meadow or woods with undergrowth.

By taking land out of possible agricultural production, we have limited our opportunities for energy independence by means of biofuels. Although I have looked into the possibility of replacing my lawn with switchgrass or poplar trees to produce home heating fuel.

The bottom line is: No matter how green they appear to be, lawns are not green.

Next time, I’ll talk about the effects of lawn maintenance and some greener options.

Screens and Circling the Square

As promised, I made and installed the screen on Saturday. I found a helpful person at Home Depot who actually listened to my description of what I wanted for a track for the screens and knew where the channel aluminum was. I say I made the screen, but I should add, it isn’t pretty. It is functional. I managed to bend the frame because I didn’t have it sandwiched properly when cutting it with a saber saw. I managed to straighten it enough to work. When I attached the aluminum screen to the frame, it ended up not uniformly tight. 

This is where the weakness of the premise of “If you can read …” comes to bear. If the written instructions are not complete or clear, there can be trouble. Or if the activity requires a knack or natural or intuitive skill somehow, instructions will only get you so far. Also you need to have a good idea of what the final result is supposed to be to properly interpret the instructions.

I am very good at reading and following step by step instructions. I clearly remember when I was in kindergarten and Miss Richardson gave each student a square piece of paper. She told us that to make it into a circle shape, all we had to do was take a scissors and round the corners. I followed her instructions with precision. I ended up with a square shape with neatly rounded corners. It looked like a television screen, not a circle. Just about everyone else in the class made something more like a circle. It was obvious to me that they had not followed Miss Richardson’s instructions. I informed Miss Richardson that her instructions were deficient.

Miss Richardson had a lengthy absence that year, so we had Mrs. Carlson for a substitute. I don’t know why she was gone for so long. Perhaps it was a nervous breakdown. Later in my school career, I came to learn that they were fairly common among teachers in the schools I attended.

At any rate, for the rest of the screens, I asked my daughter Rosalie to make them. She is an excellent screenmaker.

Installed my first Window Sash Replacement Kit

Old window interior   

Old window interior

Last month we turned off cable TV. Comcast’s digital on demand was costing us about $85/month. There was nothing on. Well, almost nothing. We will miss Keith Olbermann and some of the DIY programs, but $85?! 

The new part of our house was built around 1845 and most of the windows are original construction. They are all single pane. Most are pretty drafty, rattle in the wind and need to be propped open. Fifteen of the windows are just slightly larger than 28″ x 46″. I didn’t want to replace them with the typical replacement windows, because we would lose too much glass area and damage the look of the house. So I researched sash replacement kits. In the reasonable price range there are two choices. Jeld-Wen Zap Pack sells at Home Depot for between $200 and $300 per window, depending on options, and comes in custom sizes. MW sells at Lowe’s, 84 Lumber and some independents and sells for $80 to $120 depending on options, but only comes in “standard” sizes.

Fifteen of our windows are close enough to the 28″ x 46″ standard size to use the MW kit. I ordered the basic wood window for $80.88. I am planning on replacing a window a month until the job is done. Wood is the better environmental choice. Vinyl or vinyl clad utilize some pretty toxic production processes. Wood looks better on this old house. And I figure some of the existing wood windows lasted more than 200 years and still look OK. No one knows what 200 year old vinyl looks like.

sash kit in boxes
sash kit in boxes

The sash kit came in two boxes. I had failed to specify low-E, argon glass, and I didn’t order it exterior primed, but it came with all of those options. I am not complaining. The instructions were thorough, with the exception of trimming the excess off the foam strips. I had to move both the exterior and interior sash stops. Nowhere in the literature or instructions did it mention that the sash tracks are 3-3/8″ deep. This is much deeper than our antique sashes. Thankfully, the sill lip was shallow enough I was able to finesse this. I had to add 1/2″ plywood filler to either side of the opening. I still have to shave down one side of the window sill a bit so that it will seal across the bottom.

MW only offers a full screen option at a pretty hefty price. We prefer a half screen, since we don’t like to strain our vision. I hope to add that myself on Saturday. It took a total of about three hours to install. I haven’t painted or varnished it yet. The next one should go faster, since I won’t have to spend so much time scratching my head over how to solve the thickness difference.

old window exteriior
old window exterior


demolition complete
demolition complete
new window
new window
new window exterior
new window exterior

 The cardboard packing and instructions will be recycled. The old sashes will be used as part of a room divider in the barn. The plywood spacers were made from salvaged scrap. Well that’s one more thing I can no longer say I never did before.

“If you can read, you can cook.”

My mom was a great cook. When anyone would compliment her cooking, especially one of her new, more adventurous dishes, she would reply, “If you can read, you can cook.” Both of my parents taught the four of us kids that if we could read, we could do just about anything we set our minds to. They taught us that each of us is ultimately responsible for our own education. I took this to heart. Through the years, I have had many different jobs and have attempted many different do-it-yourself projects and crafts.

These blog entries will try to document some of my experiences trying new things. They will explore both the truth of and the limitations of my mom’s maxim. This category will be part memoir, part current project reports, part cautionary tale. Taken together they will describe the explorations, accomplishments and misadventures of a restless mind; the confessions of a renaissance man.

Several years ago I attempted to recall and write down all of the jobs I have done in my life so far. I kept having to go back to that list and add more that I had forgotten to include. I lost that document in a computer meltdown a few years ago. I will make an attempt to reconstruct it now. These are only jobs that I did for money. They do not include the volunteer work, hobbies, crafts or DIY home repairs.

Before age 16: snow shoveling, garden weeding, bartending, babysitting, newspaper delivery, data entry, filing

Age 16 – 20: landscape nursery yardman (got to tip over a Bobcat), busboy in a lobster restaurant, grocery carryout, bicycle mechanic, bike store manager, sewing machine & vacuum cleaner salesman, door-to-door Bible salesman, janitor

Age 20 – 30: housekeeping in a hospital surgery suite, floor waxer, painter, wallpaper hanger, machine operator in a machine shop, just about every job possible in a poultry processing plant from grinding bones to running the ovens and chillers to QC lab work, inspection & sanitation, aerial photographer, real estate salesman, computer & electronics salesman/instructor, prison chaplain, apple picker

Since age 30: prison chaplain and volunteer director for over 500 volunteers serving 8 different populations in three jurisdictions, blueprint printer, architectural office manager, project architect, purchasing agent, archivist, receptionist, landscape worker, lawnmower, newspaper ad salesman, roof inspector, roof designer/specifier, architectural specification typist/proofreader, furniture mover, warehouse organizer, scaffold builder, picker/packer, floor waxer, house detailer, painter, electrician, cement laborer, inventory taker, chocolate candy maker, home addition/renovation designer, floor refinisher, security system salesman, printshop worker, graphic designer, writer, icon installer, website builder, entrepreneur, icon maker, woodworker

I’m pretty sure I forgot some of them. No matter. You get the idea. I hope to add blogger and author to the list of paying gigs, but they have yet to come to fruition. I have never worked in fast food, but I’m only 53. There will be opportunities yet.

I will list the hobbies, crafts, volunteer jobs, DIY projects and other miscellaneous skills in another entry. Tomorrow I hope to install my first set of replacement window sashes. I’ll file a report, if I live to tell the tale.

The Transfiguration of Christ

August 6thThe Transfiguration
Troparion (Tone 7)
When Thou wast transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God, Thou didst show Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Thy everlasting light illumine also us sinners through the intercessions of the Mother of God. Giver of Light, glory to Thee.

Like at His Baptism, all three Persons of the Trinity were revealed. The voice of the Father spoke to the disciples saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.” The Holy Spirit appeared as the dazzling Uncreated Light. Christ is shown on top of the mountain surrounded by a huge sun-like design representing the Uncreated and Great Light. Moses, to Christ’s left, is holding the Law showing that Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of the Law. Elijah, to Christ’s right, is supplicating God. Below the disciples, Peter, James and John fall to the ground in amazement. They too will be transfigured by God and granted to gaze upon the Light of all. This should be our hope as well.  

God used earthly things to reveal the Trinity to us, thus reminding us that the earth is still holy.  Despite man’s corruption, the earth remains as good as the day He created it.  We must remember that and care for the earth, preserving the earth and the air that contains the light. 

This Icon is by the hand of Nicholas Papas. It is from St. Philip’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Souderton, PA.

Mounted prints are available from

How to Throw a Wedding Without Breaking the Bank

I have four daughters and very little, make that no money. When two of them decided to get married exactly three months apart, several years ago, we had to be creative to send them on their way with memorable celebrations without breaking the bank. This wasn’t the first time we were involved in this. Our own wedding was a budget affair with over 300 guests. Plus we had assisted several others with their weddings and receptions through the years. I thought it would be useful to create a handbook of how to throw a great wedding on next to nothing, with options for enhancements without being fiscally irresponsible. These low budget weddings have always been our favorites, much more enjoyable than those $50 per plate, professionally produced affairs.

In recent years, even when the number of weddings was going down the wedding industry kept growing. The average cost of weddings kept increasing to more than offset any decline in numbers. According to “On average, US couples spend between $14,366 – $43,098 for their wedding, while their budget is typically 50% less. This does not include cost for a honeymoon or engagement ring.” This means that most people spend twice what they budget for their weddings. It is very easy to overspend. The pressure to be extravagant can seem overwhelming.

It seems the entertainment industry works hand in glove with the wedding industry to program our daughters to expect huge productions on their wedding day. From Disney’s Cinderella to Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride, weddings are over-the-top productions. Celebrity weddings are so popular that some famous couples have turned them into actual productions to which they sell exclusive video and photography rights. The biggest celebrity wedding of them all, Prince Charles and Lady Di, is now on DVD and you can rent it at video stores. The wedding was absolutely amazing. I remember watching it live. Too bad the marriage didn’t work out so well.

There are social pressures that bust the budget. There’s the age old problem of keeping up with the Joneses or even trying to go one up on them. One doesn’t want to appear cheap, especially when it may be perceived as an expression of the value of your love. There are customs and traditions that no one understands anymore, but must be kept to be proper. Why are wedding invitations double enveloped and have that starched tissue liner sheet? There’s the guest list that gets out of hand because it is more about business networking than it is about loving families and community. Some people expect that they will buy a gift for the couple and expect to have dinner, dancing, wine and maybe an open bar that will validate or maybe even exceed the value of their gift. These people don’t say this in so many words, but we all know some of them and they will be heard from one way or another if expectations are not met.

If we don’t have a complete list of what we need before we start spending, we won’t plan on it in the budget. There are always some things that we do not anticipate. This handbook will try to help you anticipate more. An easy way to bust the budget is by not systematically keeping track of what you are spending on what when you are ordering and paying for it. It is easy to lose track and get off track. Logistical problems come into play, especially if the groom and/or the bride does not live close to where the wedding is taking place; or any of the attendants, for that matter.

During the course of this series of articles, we will address these issues and many more. Eventually they will all be stitched together into a cohesive handbook to guide you through the joy of a wedding that will hopefully begin a wonderful marriage in which the bride and groom live happily ever after.

Automatic Dishwasher (and Car) Detergent

The recipe for a cheap, environmentally safe, effective automatic dishwashing soap is really simple.

Mix equal measures of Borax (Twenty Mule Team or not) and Washing Soda (most likely Arm and Hammer) together. Label your container. It is environmentally friendly. That doesn’t mean that you want to eat it.

Use two tablespoons per load in the dishwasher. We keep a plastic spoon in the container and put two teaspoons in the closing dispenser and two in the open one.

Use white vinegar in the rinse aid dispenser. It is much cheaper than brand name rinse aids and it does just as good a job.

Yesterday, I used this combination to wash our cars. I used one tablespoon of the Borax/Soda mix with a few drops of Ivory dish soap in a bucket of water. I scrubbed the cars with that. Then I put some white vinegar in a used Pepsi bottle; attached it to the TerraCycle sprayer instead of the bottle of worm poop, and gave the cars a spot-free rinse.