Marshmallow

June 30, 2010

Monday morning I finally had a meeting with Dean. Dean is the carpenter who worked with Luke and me to build the garage last summer. He is a very charming, personable guy. His work is good. He has a serious dependability problem, however.

He was late so often that by the end of the summer even Luke, the most reserved and polite of boys, would raise an eyebrow when Dean said, “We’ll start at 7 AM tomorrow.” Luke would whisper under his breath to me, “That means 8:30, right?” Dean also would be called away from work for days at a time by various emergencies on other jobs he was juggling or by his son (needing help with a windsurfer? “I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” he’d say, and return two hours later). Then our plans would be up-ended when Dean departed unexpectedly on sudden vacations.

In short, a good man, and a fine carpenter, but unreliable.

Last fall, I was so discouraged by an episode with Dean installing a door that I had to withdraw my attention from the garage project, and just stop work on it entirely, because I felt so beaten and depressed.

Even setting up a meeting with Dean this spring proved challenging, probably because I mentioned in my message that I wanted to discuss some problems. Dean said in April he would “meet me on Friday,” but that Friday came and went. No Dean. So when I finally mustered the fortitude to call him again and we made a new appointment for this Monday, I had no particular faith I would actually see him.

Still, I said to my family as I left, “I’m supposed to meet with Dean this morning. If he comes, pray for me that I can be tough!”

Dean and me building last summer

He was late, but he did come. I walked up to the garage from the barn reminding myself, “Tough! Tough! Tough!”

Dean grinned. He is Italian, very warm and expressive. “Sel! How are you?!” he cried. He threw his arms around me. He is much shorter so this meant essentially hugging me around the waist.

Oh dear. Sel is my childhood name and instantly breaches my defenses. Tough, tough, tough. I schooled my face to look stern.

Dean and I walked around the garage. I pointed out the mis-installed roof cap that led to leaking. He promised to fix it. We began talking about what remained to be done.

Remember: tough. “I’ve got calls in to other carpenters,” I said, hoping I sounded businesslike.

“That’s fine,” Dean agreed cheerfully, and went on listing what “we” needed to do. Plumbing, then electric, then insulating, then sheetrock… The calls he would make, the people he would line up.

Feebly I said, “Dean, I know how busy you are with other jobs —”

“Busy? I’m not busy, what made you think I’m busy?”

Maybe because you didn’t meet with me in April. But I’m a terminally polite WASP and I didn’t say anything. In fact I barely kept myself from apologizing.

“Dean, I can’t have a repeat of last summer and you leaving —” I tried again.

He ignored the first part and smiled happily. “I’m not going anywhere!”

By the end of our meeting I knew I’d been steamrollered. I was grasping at straws.

“I’ll try you with the plumbing piece and see how that goes,” I said finally.  “Last summer—”

“—Great! I’ll get back to you with some numbers A.S.A.P. Wonderful to see you!”

Tough? I was not tough. I was a marshmallow.

My friends Allen and Gary, who both watched my slow burn last year, will be disgusted with me. DH is completely uninvolved but even he shook his head. When I told Luke, he started to laugh. He knows exactly how persuasive and charming Dean can be. And how maddening.

Supposedly it was Einstein who offered this definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I know this is nuts. I’m going to call the other carpenter again this morning. I may even call a plumber, too.


Rainy Day Chores

June 29, 2010

Today was supposed to be sunny, but instead it blew rain most of the day. Since Luke was with me anyway I decided to use his time to tackle some of the chores that niggle in the back of my mind every day but I can never get to.

One of the problems of farming — even on my extremely micro scale — is that just covering the daily basics eats up several hours. Mucking stalls, milking, picking hooves, feeding, driving to Betty’s and moving the sheep, carrying water. When one adds in the wifely home chores of cooking and cleaning, the schedule feels so crowded that it seems hard to squeeze in one more thing. But if you don’t, you make no progress.

So the rain was a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to use Luke’s time to do things I could do, and planned to do, but just haven’t had the time to accomplish. Now they are done.

Fixing the drip on the water hydrant. Hanging Mom and Dad’s old hose reel on the wall and reconnecting the hose. Lining the roof of the grain shed with hardware cloth to keep out mice. Installing new screening in the tack room door. Juggling the tack room furniture to use the small space better. Trimming out the tack room floor to make it mouseproof.

Lucy came down to the farm with us after lunch and was a tremendous help, carrying buckets, grain bins, and tools in and out of the tack room as Luke and I grunted the heavy items. (I hope to consolidate all the tools and fencing materials in the garage — yes, I know it’s under construction and they’ll have to be moved again eventually, but having them scattered between garage, barn, back seat of the truck, and my kitchen has been driving me crazy.) The farrier came and Lucy held the horses for him. After Luke left, I was milking and looked up to see her putting out the evening hay in the rain, her hair plastered to her head, her raincoat streaming with water. I felt so proud of her.

Still three or four hours of work ahead organizing, but the basic bones are done. That feels good.


The Driftway

June 28, 2010

I grew up on “Driftway Lane” in Connecticut. I was seven or eight years old when my father explained to me that a driftway was a path for driving cattle from one grazing area to another. I was a romantic devoted to history, just like Dad, and thereafter I rarely walked the family dogs on our lane without thinking of an 18th century cattle drover, possibly barefoot, walking behind his cows.

It is only now that I stop to consider that the road was cut in 1953.

Nevertheless, I currently own an upper pasture and a lower barn paddock, with a bit of rough wasteland in between, plus a bullock and a steer calf who do not lead — and I was delighted to realize I needed a driftway. Because my land borders a 55-mph highway, my driftway would have to be fenced. I finally got this fencing up yesterday.

If you click on the photo, and then click again on the new window, you can see the horses in the upper pasture. I lead them up the farm driveway every night and back down every morning. However this pasture will soon be the cattle pasture, accessible through the driftway — as soon as I can hang the gate on the wooden posts visible, and spend a day wiring all the connections so the mile or so of electric rope is hot. The horses will not touch the fence, hot or not, nor will Katika, but it’s probably not safe to risk it with a bull.

The land in the driftway is so rough it took me two days to set all the steel T-posts and hang the electric tape.

Not too long ago, the entire farm was a tangle of balsam forest. When my friend Tommy cleared the two acres for the upper pasture back in 2004, we burned the slash and stumps in a giant bonfire. But when ten more acres were cleared in 2005, burning was no longer feasible (even in 2004 we had been buzzed by a police helicopter). Instead, my friend Allen on the excavator pulled stumps and rocks, and his son Damon, on a bulldozer, pushed them down the slope to this narrow stretch of bottom land. It was originally a ravine, apparently an ancient stream bed, already strewn with boulders. Damon filled it with broken logs and rocks. Though the surface now appears flat, in places the bumpy fill is six feet deep.

The only thing that will grow on this mash of rocks and rotting wood is wild raspberries and cat briar. This makes walking on its treacherous surface less than enticing. Your foot will suddenly jolt down into a hole between logs, landing your face in a pricker bush. The same holes could break a horse’s or cow’s leg, so when fencing I had to avoid these areas, keeping the driftway on solid soil.

I spent hours wading through waist-high brambles, swinging my weedwhacker to clear the thorns so I could see the ground. It has been close and muggy. The deerflies buzzed my head and landed on my shoulders. As I set and plumbed the posts they followed me. Lucy came down to the farm one day to help me snap plastic insulators on the posts. The prospect of her sweet 12-year-old blood sent the deerflies into such a frenzy I had to drive her home after an hour.

I wanted to include Allen’s tiny pond in the driftway, as a back-up drinking spot for the animals, which meant clambering over boulders and sliding in the mud. A frog floated on the surface, watching me. You wouldn’t think that any livestock would try to venture past the pond, but last summer Katika, my cow, forged through the woods and almost ended up joining the Ironman triathlon on the highway. So I pounded posts between the rocks.

I love this ragged little pond, both for what it is and what I imagine it will become, and I will write more about it another day.

For now I’m filled with satisfaction to have the driftway fenced (though not yet connected to the charger). At the end of the second day I was hot, tired, bug-bitten, and scratched by thorns. My hair jammed under my baseball cap was wet with sweat. My hands stung from a dozen tiny prickers under the skin. I had slipped and fallen into the pond so my boots squelched. But just as I was packing up my tools, my eye was caught by a flash of blue and rust. A bluebird! The first one of the season. It drank at the edge of the pond and then flew up to rest on a just-erected T-post. I grinned to myself.  Thanks, God!

I turned the cows out into the new driftway after evening chores. They were thrilled to have access to juicy green stuff, even raspberry canes, after a winter on dry lot and hay. I only let them eat for two hours, driving down to the farm again after supper to bring them back into the barn paddock. Food changes have to be accomplished slowly. But with careful management, by the end of the week I should be able to have them out on grass at night.

Later: It rained today so I spent the day outlining a writing project I’ve agreed to do for DH. My “reward” at the end of the day was being able to snatch the time to install hardware and hang the gate from the upper pasture down into the driftway. Luke comes tomorrow and with luck we will be able to wire the fence and bury cable under all the gates to get a strong 6000 volts all the way around.


A New Leaf

June 25, 2010

One of my goals for the summer is to clean and organize my house, garage, and the farm. I’m tired of feeling like a failure because I can’t find a tool I know I own (is it in the back of the truck? in the apartment garage? in the farm garage? in the barn?), paperwork is leaning in towers on my office desk, or clean laundry waits to be folded for two days.

I am a naturally messy person. Having raised two children, resulting in one neat child and one messy one, I can see that some personality types are more prone to sloppiness than others. Impulsive daydreamers like me don’t really notice when or where we drop things. When I was a teenager my father sighed that he could trail me through the house. My mother used to bribe my younger sister to help me find the floor of my room under the scattered books and clothes.

Then I grew up, married a naturally neat and orderly person, and had a baby. Thus began decades of trying to get my household under control.

And indeed I was extremely organized once, for a short stretch of about five years. When I analyze what made those particular years different, I realize:

a) I worked at home as a writer, with no outside commitments,

b) my children were a preteen and an infant (rooms and wardrobes under my complete control)

c) we moved five times in seven years, resulting in pared-down possessions.

Then we stopped moving, possessions accumulated, the children grew older, and I went to work outside the home. But the biggest blow to any semblance of control was when my mother died and I had to shoehorn boxes and furniture from her house into this apartment. Six years later, though I’ve whittled away at the stacks, there are still cartons in every corner. Rolled carpets are stored under our beds. The garage hasn’t seen a car since. And then I started a major building project!

Somehow it seems as if I shop for groceries, cook, wash dishes, fold laundry, clean, vacuum, sort recyclables, and pay bills constantly, but still there are chores left undone — and muddy paw prints — everywhere I look. Well, I’m determined that this summer will see a return to order and neatness.

I’ve learned that when I’m struggling with any Sisyphean task it helps me to read about it. Thus I own several books on home organization. Funny thing — they’re all directed at women, and my friends Alison, Joanne, and Karen, all working mothers, all have similar titles on their shelves. We laugh about it. “Look, a new organization book!” By now we all know the theories inside out, but it always helps to have a supportive cheerleader on the bedside table.

Yesterday when I took Lucy to our small town library I decided to look for a new book to inspire me this summer. A search of the computer catalog revealed a dozen titles under organized — all about the Mafia. Probably all written by men. So instead I talked to the librarian, a working mom my age, who of course knew exactly where the relevant books were shelved.

I came home with this book, the only one I hadn’t yet read. I said to Lucy at the checkout desk, “Can I really read a book in which the author misspells messy?”

The librarian looked up. “I wondered the same thing myself. How smart can her advice be?”

We’ll see. I wrote to DH in New York City that I was turning over yet another new leaf. He’s heard this before — but he’s always encouraging.

“I love those new leaves turning over,” he wrote back, “you can hear them from down here!”


Hired Boy

June 23, 2010

Yesterday Luke came back to work for me. He is the son of a co-worker. I’ve known him since he was six and he’s done odd jobs for me for several years. He’s almost seventeen now, and has shot up to about 6’5″. He’s also experimenting with long hair. It’s very dear to me to see his baby face disappearing into a man’s harder facial planes, topped with this scraggly mop and Alice-in-Wonderland hairband.

Three years ago our strength was about equal. Now Luke lifts an eight-foot treated 6×6 with ease and has developed the kindly physical superiority of a lordly male.

This is helpful when it comes to setting fence posts. I have had gates on hand to connect my pastures for almost a year, ditto the 6×6 posts. However I find it harder and harder to psych myself up for digging three-foot holes through rocks.  Perhaps it’s my age and the arthritis in my hands, but the thought of hiring Luke to do it was very soothing.

Luke had hoped to have full-time work this summer, and I wrote a recommendation for him, but in today’s job market he hasn’t been able to find anything. Thus his availability for post holes. To sweeten the deal for him, I rented a post-hole auger for the day. In my experience with males, nothing improves a job more than a snarling power tool.

Luke drilled holes for two sets of gate posts. Of course he still had to dig out the rocks with a shovel. Meanwhile the horseflies and deerflies found him. They are so vicious at this time of year that my horses will start galloping around the pasture to escape them (this is why I bring the animals in during the heat of the day). Luke kept on working doggedly. He is not a complainer.

Lucy and Luke’s younger sister, Naomi, are good friends and they busied themselves pulled poisonous plants up by the roots. They yanked bags of bracken fern and foxglove. I was nearby weedwhacking brambles. The deerflies left us alone.

My theory is that the flies flew down from the trees heading for the tallest target, and that Luke was our deerfly lightning rod. By the end of the day his face and arms were covered with painful welts and trickles of blood. However the posts are loosely set (we are waiting for some crusher run to pack around the bases).

Luke and Allen are the two most reliable workers I’ve ever hired. One at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Last summer, out of the multitude of people I hired in various capacities, they were the only two who came when they said they would come and did what they said they would do. An old man and a boy. Neither one much of a talker. Both dependable, cheerful, independent, and problem-solvers. I’m lucky to know them.


Craftiness for Father’s Day

June 21, 2010

Lucy with hand-dyed wool 3/10

My daughter, Lucy, 12, is craft-y. She loves doing finicky little things with her hands to make art, weave baskets, knit, or whatever. In the photo, left, she is preparing to card and spin wool from our sheep that she dyed at school with vegetable dyes.

Both my sisters are like this, too. They can knit and sew whatever they turn their hands to. My good friends Alison and Joanne also regularly turn out homemade works of art.

I missed out on the craft gene. I would like to think it’s because my hands are too big — much more suited for an 18v Dewalt drill! — but I know it’s sadly just a lack of talent.

My mother missed out on this gene, too. When my little sister and I were about 10 and 12, our parents finished the room over our garage. Mom had great plans that it would become not just a laundry room but an arts and crafts room. They put my grandmother’s sewing machine up there. They installed a large table and chairs, and built shelves for all the little craft items we would need. My mother named the new room “Kairos,” the Greek word for “right, or opportune time,” as opposed to chronos, plain old time. But although the name stuck, it really wasn’t kairos for arts and crafts in our house. Mom glued a few bean mosaics before her patience with fiddly things ran out.

I am exactly the same. And with Lucy home from camp this summer, I’ve been a bit concerned that she would miss her beloved craft shop activities too much. Shoveling manure doesn’t stack up well next to weaving or throwing pots on a wheel. However I needn’t have worried. She can create things all on her own.

For Father’s Day Lucy was out stripping birch bark from a downed tree, and cutting tiny birch twigs. We don’t have a Kairos room with an art table, but the kitchen counter works fine in a pinch.

There was lots of cutting, hot-glueing, and tapping of tiny nails. Four hours later she had made her dad a birch-bark and twig sign for the toolshed-that-will-be-a-bunkhouse. He was thrilled.

Happy Father’s Day!

Edited to add: I’ve been “lovingly called out” on my use of “finicky” and “fiddling.” Oops. I didn’t mean to be insulting! I only meant “requiring fine motor skills, talent, and patience that I sadly do not have.”


Katika update

June 20, 2010

Katika appears not to have mastitis, after all. I think she was probably kicked, probably by Punch. (The late afternoon light in this photo makes her look anorexic. She’s not; she’s tough to keep weight on but not as thin as the shadows suggest.) However you can see the swelling of her bag. Those two front teats should be on a level. Instead, the near side is dragged down with swelling. The back teat is completely hidden by the hard, hot bulge of edema.

Her milk continues to be sweet, with no clots or strings or separation into clear fluid (all indicators of mastitis). Her temperature is normal.

My internet cow group has been a godsend, giving me suggestions for diagnosis and treatment. Several members are vet students or married to vets, and I’m beginning to think their cattle experience may trump the expertise of my local vets. I’ve been feeding Katika comfrey (I can pick it around the apartment by the bushel) and hosing her warm bag with cold water. The swelling is not yet receding significantly but it is not increasing any more, and I can tell when milking three times a day that her udder is slightly less painful.

How did this happen? My pasture fences had to come down to move the buildings, so the livestock have been fed hay on dry lot in the barn paddock for the past week. The deer flies have made them all tetchy, and Punch is territorial over feed to begin with. I will get one fence fixed today so that starting tonight I can separate the horses to the upper field overnight. (When it’s hot and buggy I bring everyone into their separate stalls in the cool of the barn during the day.)

I am exasperated with Punch but I tend not to blame animals when they act according to their natures. Still, I am 98% sure I will be selling him at the end of the summer. One of my responsibilities to him will be to get him as well-trained by then as possible, so he can find a happy home.

In the meantime, Katika seems uncomfortable but safe. If all goes well and an abscess does not develop, coping with the injury will just mean extra work.