2024-02-26 4 min read


The second floor landing of the staircase I framed in the winter of 2006-7. Photo taken 2012, Soda Springs, California.

In addition to shoveling massive quantities of snow, I spent a lot of time noodling during that first full winter I spent on Donner Lake. I was working alone; I had hired a couple of off-duty ski patrollers to swat nails with me over the previous summer, but they had gone back to the slopes when the weather turned and I was left to spend a few months walking around my jobsite, trying to figure out how I was ever going to complete it.

I was noodling, mostly, on the staircase. It was to span three floors, zig-zagging back and forth on itself twice, its first flight resting on the basement slab below and its second flight floating above the first flight. I had never built a staircase before, and this one was kind of fancy, and for a time I was paralyzed at the thought of actually erecting it. I’m sure I spent weeks on end at the jobsite, going up and down the undulating extension ladder to look at the stairwell from this or that angle. I was at work, but for a long time there was almost nothing to show for my work.

In the two years during which I was employed building robot doors, I found it calming to visit this abandoned air traffic control tower and browse through engineering ephemera of the past. Calverton, New York, 2012.

This is not the only period of my career in which I have noodled extensively. When I was designing robot doors – another activity for which I was woefully underqualified – I would often roam the building where our shop was located, looking for inspiration or distraction or just something that was more broken than whatever I was trying to fix. The building’s main feature was a yawning old airplane hanger, built by Grumman in the 1950s to build, among other things, the F14 Tomcat. Grumman moved out in the ‘90s, and by the time I got there the hanger was a full-blown window factory, but we still had access to the old air traffic control tower and a few floors’ worth of unused administrative offices. I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to roam them from time to time, but doing so still felt a little transgressive. At best I was going for a walk on company time; at worst I was both avoiding my coworkers and also potentially trespassing.

I’m trying not to noodle too much these days. For years, this newsletter was the product of me noodling on the internet – an activity which began feeling psychologically destructive sometime in the latter half of 2016, and which I’ve slowly replaced with exercise, time outdoors, and (finally) a nascent and hopefully regular writing practice. But I look forward to someday having a project which I can noodle on again: Waking up early, getting to the workshop or jobsite before anyone else, and just walking around, observing it in the quiet, and waiting for inspiration to strike me.


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