Traveling Mercies

December 4, 2016

Last night I was in my pajamas, full of cold meds, when DH called. He was on his way home from a business trip to New York City.

“Hi, Sel. Well, you’re not going to believe this. The tire came off my car.”


DH is notoriously inattentive when it comes to vehicles. He is the only person I know who has driven a car without oil until the engine seized up. Before he had a company car, overseen by a maintenance crew, I always got in his car occasionally to stay aware of various warning lights and strange behaviors that he might have overlooked. Once I exclaimed, “Your brake light is on!” He replied cheerfully, “Yes, it’s been stuck on for a while.”

Now I asked, “Did the tire blow somehow or did the whole wheel come off?”

“Let me check.” There was a pause. He came back to his phone. “The wheel is off. The axle is sitting on the road.”

That would seem to be definitive. DH uses a company car for his many trips downstate to the city and to airports. Two weeks ago, he was given a brand-new small car to replace the Ford Focus of the last decade which had finally rusted out.  Surely the wheel should not have fallen off a brand-new car.

The important thing, of course, was that DH was safe, and only a little more than an hour from home. I pulled on my jeans and sweatshirt and drove to pick him up where he was stranded at the side of the highway. It was late at night and snowing lightly. A state trooper was there, and with his flashlight showed me and the tow-truck driver that three lug nights on the wheel were missing, and the two remaining had snapped.

DH climbed into my truck. I could have come in our car but I had been so frightened for his safety that I’d wanted to take a tank to the rescue. As I drove us home through the dark, I patted his leg for reassurance.

It did occur to me that a wheel would not have come off without some warning of instability. “Did you notice anything was wrong?”

“Well, it did have sort of a shimmy at high speed but I remembered you saying that could happen if a car needed alignment.”

I pictured the wheel wobbling drunkenly back and forth on the axle before flying off entirely.

DH added, “When I got home, I was going to write an email to maintenance.”

Thank you, God, for taking care of this dear man.

Pulp Fiction

December 3, 2016

My Pilgrim geese have been on Craigslist for months. I made the mistake of holding them for a woman who promised to buy them. She later backed out and did not respond to my inquiries.

Last night I received the following email:

I have 5 geese — 4 females and one male who is the same color as the females and who is sterile. Poor females sit on their eggs and nothing happens. Will you consider selling a male to me? I had a white male goose, but a loud raccoon killed him at night. I baited the raccoon and shot him through the patio screen door from my recliner at 1:30 A.M. Thanks.


I’m not sure which detail makes this story so gripping. “From my recliner”? “Through the patio screen door”? “1:30 AM”? I can picture the whole scene, the man lying in his recliner in the dark with a gun trained on his screen door.

Phil is a pithy writer. However, I’m just as glad I have no ganders to sell.

It Will All Work Out

December 2, 2016

I am still sick, coughing, sneezing, and not sleeping. However I am calmer, which is always a good thing.

When I regained some equilibrium yesterday I remembered that my contract is not with the gentleman whose excited blustering upset me. This man works for my contractor. I am going to sit down with my contractor, who is quiet and meticulous. We will find a solution that is fair to both of us.

The older gentleman reminds me of a child who is accustomed to getting his way by loudly steamrolling over opposition. His intent is not malicious, but simply to get his way. Moreover, he did not have any idea that grading was supposed to be included in the contract, nor did he know I would be devastated by a comparison of his noisy behavior to a dear man he never met.

However, I had told my friend Damon about the encounter at the time. Damon has a volcanic temper. He is kind at heart but his exterior can be fierce and intimidating. (I was afraid of him for many years.) A great deal of his language is unprintable. Damon has been in the hospital but he was immediately prepared to go for the jugular. “Gimme the bastard’s number!” Maybe he would have his niece drive him to the site.

My task last night was to get my favorite attack dog back on the leash.

Missing My Old Friend

December 1, 2016

I know I haven’t had a chance to write about the house going up. I’ll try to do that this weekend.

There is a man working on my house. He is older, white-haired, short, and jovial. He is talented and kindly intentioned. However he loves to get in my face and be provocative. He is teasing but he is passionate. The minute he realized our political views were different, he wanted to argue issues every day. I would answer quietly, “I don’t fight about politics.” After the election, he shouted (with a smile) that now I would see how well the country would be run, then added derogatory comments about Hillary and Obama. I put a gentle hand on his shoulder and said, “Your man won. You don’t need to yell at me any more.” He has reminded me of a bantam rooster, full of bluster, and I’ve tried to be patient and always to remember the kind intentions.

For several days I have been sick with a cold, not sleeping, coughing, my chest sore. So I’m sure I was at a low ebb yesterday when I stopped by the house site after work.

However, this man came to tell me that he needed to build some small retaining walls of boulders around my walk-out basement door. He said it could not wait until spring, when Damon planned to work on the final grading (including large retaining walls to redesign the yard) after the house was finished. I needed to hire this man to do it now, before the ground froze.


I have signed a contract for a tremendous amount of money that includes excavating, backfilling, and grading. Clearly, this man felt that the two tiny walls were not included in that contract. I said, “It sounds as if I need to hire you to put in those walls?”

Yes. And to hire his excavator.

“I pay Damon $50 an hour, plus fuel. He charges other people $60 an hour. What do you charge?”

Somehow, my mention of price brought out the rooster. The man’s voice rose as he laughed scornfully. “I charge $90 an hour! He charges you less because he works for you full-time!”

Damon does not work for me full-time but I did not quibble. I didn’t have time because the man was ranting again.

He was worth $90 an hour because he was a carpenter and an operator! He knew exactly what needed to be done! He knew just where the dirt had to be moved! He had fifty years’ experience!  As a teacher I was paid for my experience, not to be someone who stood the front of a room holding a piece of chalk!  He was an expert! And on and on and on, loudly in my face, with a big mocking smile.

I greatly dislike being browbeaten. I myself can be very loud if I choose, and am very verbal indeed. However I was raised by my parents to have good manners, and working with adolescents has taught me self-control. I said calmly, “How many hours do you think it will take?” Surely these two tiny walls were a small matter. I watched Allen build retaining walls for many years. He built the entire peninsula in less than a day.

Twelve hours.

I was sure the man was joking. “Twelve hours?

More bluster. He said loudly, more than once, “I am an artist!”

It was the use of the word “artist” that was the last straw. As an operator, Allen was an artist. He was immensely talented, truly gifted with heavy equipment, a gentle, shy, funny man who would never have bragged on and on, puffed out his chest, or yelled in my face. At that moment I missed him so much, I was almost capsized by a wave of grief. Combined with the shock of hearing there might be another, unbudgeted $1100 charge, I could barely speak. I told the man quietly that I would get back to him on the matter of the retaining walls, and I walked away.

I cried as I mucked out the barn at evening chores.

Back to Work Again

November 27, 2016

The school students return today. I have a faculty meeting at 9 AM and a meeting with a parent after lunch. Though I will try to fit in a ski to exercise the dogs and various small chores, vacation is over.

Knowing this was coming, my brain has waked me at 4 AM for the last two days. Go, go, go!

Of course I haven’t accomplished as much as I thought I would this week. I haven’t even accomplished everything I wrote on my second, edited list, which I had hopefully titled, REALISTIC WEEKEND PLAN.

It’s not that I dislike my job. I love teaching history. It is a daily joy, the ideal job for me. This year I had a t-shirt printed for my 8th graders.


The parts of the job that chafe are the administrative ones I’ve been asked to take on this year. I’m chairman of the department and must organize my peers with tact (a tough assignment for someone tactless by nature). I have new daily writing duties that commandeer 60-90 minutes every weekday morning. I was also requested to write a school blog. While I can do all these things, the result has been to feel as if I have no spare brain cells and that my part-time job has taken over my life.

I will get through it this year, and then reevaluate. In the meantime, this morning I’m taking a deep breath before I plunge back in.

*   *   *   *

My gander Andy is still drinking but not eating. I’ve been tube-feeding him 2-3 times a day since his accident. Tube-feeding an adult, biting goose is not easy. Picture me straddling him, 60 mL syringe clenched in my teeth like a mad pirate, and using my hands to thread a tube down his throat. I will know it is time to stop when he is strong enough to prevent me (or when I see him eat).

Yesterday Andy stood on one leg for the first time, and immediately began worrying at the splint. A goose’s beak is very strong. I hope he cannot get it off. As imperfect as it may be, the splint should be on for three weeks. I check the leg daily for circulation.

His foot remains limp. It is always hard to know if one is doing the right thing.


*   *   *   *

The wild turkeys have grown bolder and bolder. Though they’ve been in the barnyard for weeks, scratching apart cow pies in search of undigested cracked corn, yesterday the flock braved the barn for the chicken feed! Eight turkeys flew out in a thundering rush when I arrived to muck stalls at mid-day, except this one hen which became confused and flew into the sheep stall with the geese before eventually making her way out the open door.


Opposites Attract

November 26, 2016

On the surface, DH and I have very little in common. He is an athlete and mountaineer; I play no sports and am afraid of heights. He is invariably calm and steady; I am quick to anger or tears. He is reserved, even aloof; I pull the world into my lap for a hug. What we have in common is that we are both decent people who read a lot and have the same sense of humor. Over thirty-odd years, like most married couples, we have come to depend on each other for the skills we lack. Usually, these skills are abstract: DH supports my patience and control; I lend him warmth. However, sometimes the skills are concrete.

On Friday DH asked for my help changing some bindings on a pair of old skis. Now, DH grew up in apartments as the son of a man with zero hands-on skills, and has close to zero himself. Though he is by nature an imperturbable person, on this one subject DH can be a little touchy. He knows that competence with tools is considered a feature of masculinity. (A couple of years ago, he learned the concept of a “Honey Do” list, and was charmed by the phrase. In our family, any such lists are for me.)

dewrdc970k-2rDH was working in the basement, and planned to use my DeWalt screw gun. I wasn’t exactly sure what help he needed, but I followed him downstairs.

He was standing at the table holding the DeWalt, looking worried. “How do you work it?” he asked. When I started to smile, he said defensively, “I’ve never used one of these.”

I showed him how to snap the forward and reverse gears, and handed the gun back to him. DH took it gingerly. He removed his glasses so he could see better for the operation. Picking up a screw, he attempted to balance it on the upturned point of the Phillips head bit. Seeing him bent over as if in prayer, his nose two inches from the wobbling screw, I unfortunately began to giggle.

DH straightened up immediately and handed me the screw gun. We put his new bindings on together.

*   *   *   *

Yesterday morning, Stash was so wired before barn chores, he took off at a gallop. I was terrified he would run onto the highway. Clearly he was not getting enough exercise. I asked DH to set me up with an old pair of cross-country skis. I would take Stash for a few circuits of the back pasture to tire him out.

DH is an expert skier. I have not skied for many years. I skied with both our children as toddlers, but by seven years old, they had each surpassed me. I have no particular aptitude for or interest in skiing. I always say, “I learned to walk at a very young age,” and stick to walking. However, trudging through deep snow is no fun and very, very slow. Stash needed something speedier. Thus the request for skis.

DH throws nothing sports-related away, so we have cross-country skis dating back to the 1970s. He found an old pair with three-pin bindings, and a pair of inexpensive poles that came up to my ears. “These are a little tall for you,” he acknowledged, “but at your level of skiing, they will really be walking sticks.”

I laughed. It’s good to be known. I piled the skis, poles, and Stash into my truck and drove to the farm.

Out by the cabin, I tried to put on the skis. Oh dear. The bindings would not close over the tip of the boot. I knew DH would surely be disgusted if I drove home and said I could not put on a simple pair of skis. I sweated and puffed, leaning all my weight on the ski pole pressing the binding, until I thought the pole might snap. After twenty minutes of struggle, I finally succeeded in attaching both feet to the skis.

Stash was in heaven, bouncing through the snow as I glided (laboriously, thrashing) behind him.


By the second circuit of the field, Stash was sufficiently winded that he took the easy way and ran along the trail I’d broken. I realized that one reason I have never skied with dogs is that before my pasture was cleared, there was no place to do so. Dogs are not allowed on ski trails. Real skiers are made cross by paw prints ruining the tracks. However, I am not a real skier and I was not cross.


After three trips, I was damp with sweat and ready to quit. (Stash could have continued for another hour.) I skied back to the truck, and Stash hopped up on the seat. Then I addressed the Problem of the Skis.

I was able to pop the latches easily. However, the boots would not come out of either binding. Stash jumped down to see what I was doing. My skis slid in all directions as I attempted to lure him back into the truck. Finally I got him back in and leaned against the door, the slipping skis barely under control and my brain going 100 mph. This entire skiing experience had been quite pleasant, except for the problem of taking on and off the skis. Obviously, I should just untie my boots and step out of them. I could leave the boots permanently attached to the skis! Of course, this might be a little unusual, but then I am a well-known eccentric. Sure, that would work!

I drove home. Later, DH asked me about my ski. I told him how much fun I’d had with Stash, the slight problem with the boots and bindings, and my elegant solution.

DH has a poker face but I could see an expression of something like concern creep into his eyes. He asked to see the skis and the boots. I brought them into the kitchen. He laid a ski on the table and tried to insert the boot. It was very difficult. He tried to close the binding; DH has a climber’s very strong hands and he had to use all his weight to snap it.

My boots do not fit these bindings.

I felt vindicated. I wasn’t an idiot! In my relief I poured out the story of spending twenty minutes trying to get the skis on, including my contortions with the bending pole, and then trying to get them off, my feet sliding out from under me, the dog leaping between my legs, my decision to leave the boots on the skis — DH’s brow furrowed and furrowed as he listened until suddenly he burst into guffaws. I was startled and then I started to laugh also. We both laughed until we cried.

A little later I heard DH dictating a text to our daughter, Lucy, who is also an expert skier. “So you know Mom hasn’t skied in 15 years, and today she had a little trouble with her bindings. So she decided she would leave her boots permanently mounted on her skis!” 

  *    *   *   *

Luckily, DH has another set of bindings that will fit these boots … and I have a DeWalt and know how to use it.


A Quiet Day

November 25, 2016


Yesterday was a darkly beautiful day. It snowed off and on. Although I felt wistful not to have my family around me, I knew that this year, a day of no pressure was what this part-time farmer needed. I slept until 5:30, the latest I’ve stayed in bed in months. With no deadlines, it was a relaxed day of puttering through my list. I baked a pie. I peeled sweet potatoes. I washed and seasoned the turkey.

DH celebrated his rare day off with a Thanksgiving sauna. (The sauna was once my toolshed. I insulated and paneled it and Allen helped me install a little woodstove.) Here is DH scrubbing off in the snow.


While the turkey roasted, I walked the dogs in the back field. The snow has collapsed and compressed but is still over the tops of my boots. I may hunt up an old pair of cross-country skis today, to give Stash a better workout. He bounds through the deep snow with joy, and a tired poodle is a happy poodle.


Little Toby is game …

but challenged by the deeper drifts. Whenever he looked too miserable, I picked him up to carry him.

The snowstorm has closed the door on many fall chores I had hoped to accomplish during this week of vacation. I won’t be cutting and installing the rafters for the run-in shed in the south pasture. The horse trailer will not be put away in my neighbor’s barn. The treated 4×4 fence posts and wire panels I bought (with dollars from the sale of beef) for a sheep paddock, a project repeatedly put on hold due to Damon’s tricky health, will now wait for spring.


It is easy to be frustrated when I look around at everything I did not accomplish this summer. I did not transplant any balsams. I didn’t paint the barn addition. I didn’t sell my heifer or four of my goslings. I didn’t build the missing doors on the sheep stall or the garden shed. I spent many sweaty hours on my future flower garden, but then turned my back to get Lucy off to college and start my own school year, and it got away from me again.


In my mind’s ear, I hear the prayer of contrition from my earliest childhood:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

Luckily I know I did do a few positive things. I drew up plans for our house. I taught Lucy to drive. I fenced the back field. I kept the sheep home to improve our own land. I sold my entire crop of lambs to buyers eager for my flock’s good genetics. All seventeen open acres were grazed and mowed.

Moreover, I am basically healthy and, God willing, there’s always next year.