Sunday, January 12, 2014

Bouncing nails 

I hung a TV in my kitchen. The idea of cooking and watching TV in your charming New York apartment has always appealed to me. Of course having the TV doesn't mean you'll do it that often, but at least then you could.

Putting it up, I wanted it screwed directly into a wall stud. Let me tell you, I tried every possible way to find the studs until I used the only method that actually works: nail into the wall every two inches until you hit something. While doing this I encountered an annoyance I always forget about until I try to hang something on my walls: I pound in nails only to have them bounce back at me. This is accompanied by the sound of falling material inside the wall. Pound all you want, it'll just bounce and bounce and fall and rain inside the wall.

Here the map of the wall I made, showing where the nails bounced and gave way and just plain did nothing:


I spent a lot of time googling "nails bouncing" trying to figure this out. This post is written for me, for another version of myself, for a younger me, who's getting bouncy nails and googling and not finding the answer. Well, here it is.

This apartment is pre-war, and has plaster walls. That's your problem. Plaster walls are based on either wood laths or a metal screen inside the wall. Whichever it is, it is an insubstantial material that gives way, and nails won't stick in it. That's why it bounces. The plaster is slathered on the laths (or screen), and that's what you're hearing raining down inside the wall.

The solution: screws go right into the lath. Screws yes, nails no. Don't use nails for anything. Unless you find a solid wood stud.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The bookends of my life 

I have never noticed this apartment building before, but there you go: the bookends of my life. Waverly TN was then, and Astoria NY is now.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Looking forward to warmer weather 

the king of queens

Thursday, January 27, 2011

email, 1999 

I had a yuck McDonald's burger as a night snack, somehow suddenly convinced I would die from lack of red meat. Or maybe I would die without stale bread. That would have taken care of that too. Sometimes gross is otherworldly. And sometimes otherworldly is only 99 cents, 1.08 with tax. Eternal damnation should be so cheap... Hmm, the McD's ad campaign: Eat it or be damned in hell forever. Those guys should hire me. It's the millennia, and we need old testament consequences to our advertising. Taco Bell: buy a grande combonation meal and get forty days and forty nights of pepsi, free. Gosh.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Most Likely to Succeed 

On December 2 a friend from high school emailed me to say Jana Duncan Cullum had just died. I was sitting in a convention center in Boston in a suit with a lanyard around my neck and my laptop on my knees. The wi-fi was spotty, so as I was replying and we were covering the details, I was getting up and walking around holding the computer up on my palm, hunting for a signal.

Jana and Leslie
Jana and Leslie, on a band trip to East Tennessee, 1989 (age 15)

I knew Jana as Jana Duncan. We had gone to school together, both from the same small town. Although we hadn't spoken in ages, there had been a time when we were good friends. At least I think we were. Memories are notoriously faulty, and after a while you might have trouble distinguishing between actual occurrences and ideas you had. Sticking to the concrete is the only way to be foolproof.

Concrete: in 8th grade Jana and I were voted "Most Intelligent" boy and girl in that unhealthy poll junior high school kids are forced to participate in. Those things are awful. In 12th grade we were voted "Most Likely to Succeed." Why the pair of us, always together? This means both our junior high and high school yearbooks have a picture of us together, under the heading MOST SOMETHING. We thought it was funny. Jana signed my high school yearbook: "I'll never forget you, because you're in all my pictures." I haven't seen those pictures in a long time, but I have them in my head: as 13-year-olds we look like children. At 18 we are essentially grown-ups.

Gatlinburg, 1989
Stacey, Lori, Leslie, and Jana

Friends from high school have died before. Jason Halliburton, a preacher's son whom I used to steal street signs with, was shot and killed when we were 19. Jerry Curtis, a friend who could draw really well, was hit by a car a decade ago. But those were both dramatic, violent deaths. Jana died of cancer, far too young for such a thing to seem fair.

Jana was a good person. So much so that I can't imagine a single person on Earth would disagree with that statement. Me, I'm certainly not the devil incarnate, but I'm also not nearly so good. Yet here I sit on a Monday night, drinking a beer and typing. Life'll kill you, it's true. The cruelest part is who knows when, and for no reason whatsoever.

Stacey and Lori
On the freshman bus

Stories are the best part of life, so I've tried to remember stories. The one that sticks in my head the best was a party at Lori Wiseman's house, maybe when we're all about 14. The garage was full of stuff, like garages tend to be, and we were playing darts in there. My friend Chris and I were singing Anthrax all night. Someone had the idea: let's play the game where you draw names and a guy and a girl have to go in the closet for five minutes together. No one objected, so names were drawn--it was Ronald and Jana.

Oooo, everyone said. Ronald was laughing. Jana kept saying "I don't know what you think's going to happen, Ronald." But the game must go on, because those are the rules. We hadn't secured a closet yet. Through the house, we are searching, what closet can we use?

"What closet can we use? We can't use that one." "I hope you don't think anything is going to happen, Ronald." "Ha ha ha." "How about that one?"

Our plans come to a halt, because Lori's sister--a senior in high school I think--is suddenly there. "What's this about a closet? Why do you all need a closet??" She is furious. The gig is up.

I think little things, details, are important. I wonder what you were thinking then, Jana. How glad were you when Lori's sister busted us? Or, who knows, maybe you weren't happy. The important thing is that you were thinking something. And no one who wonders what it was can ask you anymore. That's the tragedy of life. So many pieces of the story disappear.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hard Candy 

Monday, April 19, 2010


The old woman sat at the table, lips drawn tight, in a straight line. Her glasses, enormous and permanent, blocked most of her face. She could have been looking anywhere: straight ahead, as her head pointed, in another direction, no one would know.

“Was he your son?” the man asked.

She hesitated and then came to life. “No, no. He’s not my son. While he did grow up here in this neighborhood, he did, yes, my son’s been gone now twelve years.”

“It’s a shame,” he said.

“It was terrible news today,” she said. Her smile was a non sequitur. “My neighbors, I used to have them, oh, many years ago, next door. She’s in Vermont now, and her husband. They had a son.” She made a one with her finger and lifted it high in the air. “One son. Only one. And he went to Texas, and he married a gorgeous girl down there, and they had a big life with all the big Texas things. She called me today, and he died. He was only 30, 31.”

“Oh, that’s a tragedy.”

“Months ago, it was some time, he was in the hospital with flu-like symptoms. It must have been connected. And now he’s gone. The only son, and he’s gone.”

An old man shuffled in and sat down.

“You’re back,” she said. “You’re back. How are you feeling?”

He pointed. “I was up here, in the hospital.”

The man laughed, “And you survived that, ha, up here!”

“I’ll have a Dewars and soda.”

“That’s what I like to hear. What was wrong with you?”

“I had pneumonia! You know, it was so sudden. I was getting ready to go out—I had on my coat, my hat, and I was by the door. The fever, suddenly, it must have shot up.” He flung both hands in the air. “I didn’t feel all right, and then I felt like I was flying. My feet, they weren’t on the ground. And my arms, they were going back and forth.” He pointed at the TV, “You know the commercial, the one with the guy and he’s in the vacuum cleaner? Waving his arms and flying?” He waved his arms.

“Oh yes, that one, yes.”

He pointed to his chest. “That was me! I was that guy. So I thought, this isn’t all right, I’ll go lie down for a minute. So I lie down, half on half off the sofa. The door was knocking, the phone was ringing, my daughter, she figured it out, and the cops they came in through the window. Two days I was lying there. Two days she couldn’t reach me.”

“Oh my, now. Well that’s something.”

She shook her head. “Living alone, that’s what it’s like, that’s the chance you take. You never know. Living alone you never know.”

“What about these things, you wear them around your neck, it’s a button, and you push it and they know to come help.”

She nodded. “That’s right, those are fabulous. They are the greatest thing.”

“No, no,” the old man shook his head emphatically. “Someone’s got to have a key. You push the button, all right, but then someone’s got to have a key, you have to give one to someone, and they have to know who it is. Otherwise what are they going to do, break down the door?? They can’t do that. Nah, it doesn’t help.”

She shook her head. “You just never know. Living alone, you never know. But you have to say: Okay. Things are okay. If you’ve lived your life. If you’ve lived, well then. But this young man, he was 30, 31. That’s what’s terrible.”

Monday, March 15, 2010


So few other cars on the road this night, and hard to tell if there was wind or just the open window. The full tree branches blew both up and down, but a trick of driving motion could easily have caused this. Down an onramp they merged with an empty highway, and the yellow-lit pavement lay clean and open and so very well marked.

City highways appealed to Madeline, close to a downtown when they curved up around and under each other. They bore no relation to the ground—just ribbons on stilts. The moon pulled the clear sky higher. They were just driving. She wasn’t in love with Elliott, but she liked him.

In fact, she would have very much liked to fall in love with Elliott, but things weren’t ever that easy, at least with her. She worried if something was wrong with her. Leaning back while he drove felt like a stolen moment—as if she were driving, yet leaning back, legs stretched out on the very wrong side of the car. Were she in control, she would be crashing. The wrong side had some comfort though, and she accepted it. She had never been a good passenger.

All her life she had been an only child, and felt awkward. As a little girl, she had fallen in love (easily, unlike with Elliott) with a man in an office at her school. Her mother had a meeting in another room, and the sky grew dark outside the floor-to-ceiling window. The fluorescent lights drew comforting circles where the ceilings met the walls. Grownups lived in this opalescent world their whole lives, after the children were gone, and she liked it. The man she fell in love with wore a brown suit and smiled easily. She sat where her mother left her, at a chair beside his desk. He politely talked with her, between writing on papers. A quiet radio played on a shelf, and the man smoked a cigarette.

At unexpected times, her mind drew up the static, huge-colored images. It was the memory of a memory though. The man was crystal clear in a way, but she couldn’t have described him if you asked her.

With her face pointed to the window, the rushing air made her breathless unless she controlled her lungs perfectly. She wondered if other people had the same problem, breathing in a speeding wind. And strangely, like something stupid and Zen, controlling her lungs involved ceasing to worry, forgetting about breathing, letting her body be on its own. The night felt as good as it could feel, and turn after turn, unlikely as it could be, they were the only ones on the road. Elliott laughed. They held hands at the center of the car.

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osmium is by josh gallaway. write to osmiumblog at gmail dot com.