Looking for an operator

August 31, 2010

I have been looking for someone to run the excavator for me. Well, sort of looking.

Last spring I paid to rent the excavator for a month. We only used it two weeks. Our original plan had been that we would use the remaining time in the fall, when the last of the back acres would be stumped and last bits of rough ground cleared.

Fall is here. My old friend’s health is poor and he can’t come back. I know this, but it’s been hard for me to accept. Somehow in the back of my mind I keep hoping for a different outcome. My DH knows exactly how I feel, but he is also practical and not given to magical thinking.

“He’s not coming back. You need to move on and hire someone new.”

A deep sigh from me.

For the past couple of weeks the school has been excavating all around our apartment. The sound of the excavator has been so familiar. The grind of the bucket on rock. The pulsing alarm when the machine is traveling. The silly horn. (All heavy machines have high-pitched horns that sound like Fisher-Price toys. Perhaps because only something so light and ridiculous would grab your attention on a noisy construction site.) But I know that high beep! from so many jobs. It means: Wake up, dopey! Or: I’m done; your turn to shovel!

Once Jon and I were sitting in our car in the school driveway, waiting for the excavator to finish digging and get out of our way. Having watched a number of men at the controls over the years, and having then worked with someone gifted, I have developed a bit of a connoisseur’s eye.

“He’s not very good,” I said, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.

“He’s young,” Jon observed patiently.

I know I need to find someone. My friend’s son, who has a lot of his father’s talent, is not available. I asked Fred, who operated a bulldozer for me this spring, if he could operate an excavator.

“I can get by running the machine,”” he replied, “but I am no Allen, by no means.”

I’m sure.

DH broached the subject at a party with someone we know.  This man has worked many large machines. He is a nice guy. I should have been pleased. Instead I was slightly grouchy with DH afterward.

I know change is going to happen. I also know change can be positive.  But in my present mood I am not looking forward to it.

First fire down

August 30, 2010

Yesterday I got the big brush pile burned. I moved sheep at Betty’s, mucked the barn, brought in the animals for breakfast, milked, fed the pigs, and then called the fire department to alert them at 9:30 AM. The air seemed still.

Of course, the minute I set the match I felt a breeze and — whoosh! the fire was 15 feet high. There is always a moment with me, with fires, when my belly clutches. It feels exactly as if I have loosed a dangerous animal. Will I be able to control it?

But after half an hour the brush had burned down to a steady low blaze. I fed it all day with sticks I gathered on the knoll. To find the sticks I spent hours weedwhacking. Weedwhacking became the real task of the day.

DH is having a party at the cabin this afternoon. Last week he had said, “Sel, there are all these plants growing all around —”

The “plants” are poplar and black cherry saplings, raspberries, and briar. On my land, these are the Four Horsemen of forest reclamation. I always remember the lines in Gone with the Wind:

The image of whispering trees is perfect.

Our surrounding forest isn’t sinister to me (perhaps because I’ve walked those woods so often, or perhaps because there is no Spanish moss in the Adirondacks). But it is relentless. It will steal back cleared land in the blink of an eye. In only one summer some of the saplings were breast high and thicker than my thumb.

Knocking back young trees is an age-old farm task. In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes of Pa, who in the 1870s “grubbed so many sprouts from his clearing in the Big Woods, every summer.”

I imagine Pa used a hoe. I use a Stihl FS 36. This weedwhacker is eleven years old but still snarls at its job reliably. For these “sprouts” I have fitted it with plastic blades rather than string. If the saplings get any larger I will have to rent a brush cutter with a steel saw blade.

“You really love weedwhacking, don’t you?” O.B. said to me last week. No, but it has to be done and I’m good at it. That is, if one can said to be good at anything that really just requires persistence and slog. More than half of my land is much too rough for a lawnmower. Instead I will walk over each acre with the weedwhacker, scything down the brush.

I often think longingly of a tractor and brush hog, but then I remember Pa with his hoe and I hush the internal whining.

Still, it is slow work. My arms and shoulders soon grow tired. Yesterday in the 83° heat, sweat was running down my face, gluing my shirt to my back, and dampening my Carhartts. Every twenty minutes I stopped the machine, picked up sticks, and fed the fire. By the end of the day, when I put out the embers, I’d only cleared and cleaned the half acre immediately around the cabin. I was dirty, sunburned, smeared with soot, and flecked with leaf clippings. I stank of sweat, smoke, and gasoline exhaust.

About ten more acres and probably a dozen small fires to go. Onward!

A little too tired

August 29, 2010

I picked up a permit to torch my burn pile yesterday. This is a enormous pile of brush and sticks heaped out near the cabin. The pile is unsightly and I don’t want it to get bigger. (My stumped back acres are carpeted with thousands of broken sticks waiting for me to rake them.) The permit is good until December and I’d rather burn twenty small fires than several scary whoppers.

I filled the 425-gallon water tank that sits on my old truck and drove it out. The rusty axles groaned under the weight.

I weedwhacked the tall grass and weeds around the pile.

As a light breeze whiffled past my ears, I stuffed empty paper grain bags under the edges of the brush on the windy side. (If you light it on the windy side, the wind will fan the flames and push the fire through the rest of the pile.)

But in the end I didn’t light it. It’s been so dry. I was too tired. I didn’t have any courage left. I wished my old friend were there on the excavator — just knowing he was on the property and could deal with an emergency made me feel safe. I knew the chance the fire would get away from me was small, but I didn’t have the stomach for even that much risk. Usually I can push myself through anxiety but this time I gave in.

Maybe today.

Plumbing starts!

August 28, 2010

O.B. had made steady progress while I was at the funeral and yesterday we finished all the framing, blocking, and furring out of the upstairs walls. Matt the plumber arrived after lunch.

Matt is a big, friendly young man with a little-boy smile. You would never guess that in real life he is a prison guard. He shaves his head “so there’s nothing to grab.” He works the night shift, gets home in time to make breakfast for his five children, takes on plumbing work for extra income, and averages three and a half hours of sleep a day. He’s been doing this for eight years.

“Gosh,” I exclaimed. “I’ve been getting four hours a night these past few weeks and I’m a wreck. How do you do it?”

“I don’t sit down. If I forget and sit down, sometimes I fall asleep in the chair. And maybe once a month I sleep a whole day away.”

O.B. and Matt are friends who have worked together on many jobs. The teasing between them started immediately. In deference to my presence, Matt wore his shirt untucked.  Apparently his Carhartts are usually sliding down his bottom.

“I don’t have a waist. Neither does my younger son. We always tell him, ‘Crack’s illegal! Pull up your pants!'” He laughed to himself. “Crack’s illegal!”

I like Matt a lot. In previous visits he has explained all the plumbing decisions to me patiently. The layout provided by the kit company would not work at all for plumbing in a cold climate, so Matt is having to be creative. “But as O.B. always says, Don’t stress it. We’ll figure it out.”

Yesterday Matt cut holes in the floor for pipes and installed the shower. There were a few dicey minutes when it appeared the unit would not fit in its pre-framed nook under the eave.

O.B. and Matt did not get excited. I have seen this with Allen and Damon, too. Problems arise, I panic, and the men are perfectly calm. Allen might whistle a little under his breath. I always find this composure very reassuring. And indeed, in ten minutes O.B. and Matt had solved the difficulty and the shower was in place.

“Don’t stress it, dear,” said O.B.

Tony the electrician arrived in late afternoon. He too has a “real” job, with the municipal power company, so he will work for me evenings and weekends. Unless O.B.’s baby (now overdue) finally appears, all three men will be on the job today.

I’m too overtired to react with much more than a smile, but it certainly is heartening to see progress.


August 27, 2010

I meant to add: Funeral Blues is the name of an elegiac poem written by W. H. Auden in 1936. Here are the words. The poem is probably best known today from its reading in the 1994 movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral.  John Hannah’s performance as the young gay man mourning the death of his partner won a BAFTA. Here is the film clip.

I love this poem. I will always remember the boy I taught who was so dyslexic he could barely read, who at my suggestion learned and read aloud Funeral Blues to the student body years ago.  He didn’t pick up on the gay thread, just the theme of sorrow and shock:

“Stop all the clocks —”

Doesn’t that one line capture how each of us feels when a loved one dies?

Funeral Blues

August 27, 2010

I spent the day yesterday driving to my friend Carole’s memorial mass. The big church was packed. The service was beautiful. I laughed and wept.

Carole was my secretary when I was in my early thirties. She was blonde and plump and short and full of zest. Her smile lit up a room. Her heart seemed boundless. She was only about ten years older than I but she mothered me. She was a professional secretary and took me in hand like a challenging project. She tidied my desk, cleaned out my files, and had a habit of writing “F.U.!” across the top of my papers.

“Carole!” I said, aghast.

She looked at my face and burst out laughing. “It stands for Follow Up!”

My son was five years old and often played in the corner of the office. Instead of treating him as a bother, Carole greeted him as a joy. She was the best Christian I ever knew. To her, God wasn’t about piety and austerity, God was about love and action. She was always reaching out to comfort friends and strangers. The homeless man who panhandled on Main Street had Thanksgiving dinner at Carole and Bob’s.

Carole only worked for me for a year before DH and I moved away. When we returned six years later, she and her husband had moved to a new parish an hour away, where Bob was deacon. We lost touch. Still, she was one of those signpost people in life, someone who changed me and helped me grow up. She remained vivid in my heart. I loved her.

This was the third memorial service I’ve attended in the past month. Franny, Sue, Carole. My long black skirt and heels seem to stand at attention in the closet. I hold the hymnals in the different churches, try to sing the unfamiliar songs (I was raised that you always try to sing), and wonder how I suddenly got so old that everyone from my youth is dying. And I notice that we who survive are looking a little beaten up. Yesterday I met a woman whom I hadn’t seen in two decades. She’d been young, brilliant, tough, and intimidating. Now her hair was white and she had a hearing aid.

I said something to her about being unnerved by all the deaths. She agreed: “It’s like that game the kids used to play in the gym — dodge ball. It starts out with the room full, but one by one, people get hit by these random throws and, bingo, they are out of the game.”


*    *    *

I have been struggling with sadness this summer. Extremely emotional, trying to stay afloat. It has puzzled me, because there really isn’t anything “wrong.”

I think a lot of it is menopause, which hasn’t truly made its appearance but I hear offstage like an approaching train ready to rush down on me.

I think some of it is insomnia. I’ve had too many white nights. In the past week alone I don’t think I’ve slept more than four hours a night. Not sleeping plays havoc with your state of mind, I know. There is a reason why sleep deprivation is used in torture.

But I think the main problem is loneliness. Since I got laid off I don’t have enough people in my life. I’ve always been a loner, accustomed to tackling things on my own. But these days with DH so often on the road, Jon leaving the nest, and Lucy on the cusp of becoming a teen, my home ranks are thinning. Thus the losses of this summer, even just the losses of people who worked for me, have felt like blows.

I know I need to make some changes in my life.

*    *    *

I did barn chores very early before leaving for Carole’s service. The sky was dark and wet. I was moving sheep fence at the farm when I felt a presence.

I looked up. A yearling whitetail buck was standing in the pasture ten feet away, staring at me. I looked at his slender antlers and slim teenaged flanks.

I know all about the problem of deer overpopulation. In the past I’ve let a friend hunt our back acres. This year he never responded to my inquiry. O.B. has asked if he and his brother can hunt there.

The yearling and I stared at each other for a long time, unmoving.

“Go on, sweetie,” I said finally. He started. I watched as he walked gracefully through the grass, stepped over Allen’s rocks, and melted into the woods.

There will be no hunting this year. I’ve had enough death.

Raising the walls

August 25, 2010

O.B. and I have been framing the upstairs apartment walls. Actually, O.B. is the one who has carefully snapped the layout on the floor and has been nailing up the framing. I have stood at the saw and cut the pieces as he’s called out dimensions, and I’ve nailed up more blocking for sheetrock.

I enjoy the work. O.B. is very quiet. Often we work for quite a while in silence. I can tell he has a sense of humor; he just doesn’t know me well enough yet to really tease me when I’m stupid.

Still, when yesterday I suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, now I understand —” and reeled off the reason for some issue with the wall frame, he looked at me quizzically and said, “I’m glad to know you’re following!” His obviously studied patience made me laugh and I pretended to beat him up, crying, “Yes, faint but pursuing!”

Though he’s only four years younger, he seems like a kid to me. Probably because he’s such a young parent. Still, he’s a nice man and I like him. He’s very patient with explanations, and always checks to make sure I’ve grasped the task. (“You all right, dear?”)

I’m learning a lot.