Siding the Garage

December 31, 2011

In October I gathered bids from carpenters to install the clapboard siding on the garage. The bids ranged from reasonable all the way up to a breathtaking 21,000 dollars. (My elderly friend Allen grunted, “Do they think they’re buildin’ the damn thing all over again?”) This would have meant that for this simple job I was paying $1800 a day! When I spoke to that contractor he explained, “I know it’s a bit high, but — I’ll be providing my own Porta-potties.” I had a moment of nostalgia for the hundreds of days I have worked with guys on this wide open property and we’ve all ducked behind parked trucks to pee.

I signed a contract with Dennis, the lowest bidder, who has fine references and whose daughter is in Lucy’s class. I’m aware Dennis probably gave me a low bid in hopes that I will give him the job of the house itself in the new year. However that seems good business sense to me, and if things work out I would be very relieved to have found a contractor who is both talented and reliable. Dennis’s crew was originally due to start the job three weeks ago, but he has been very good about communicating with me through the delays caused by weather and sickness. I have my fingers crossed.

It is exciting to see the siding go up after so long. I was staining those pine clapboards in the fall of 2009. Allen drove in one day to pick up milk, looked at my Dickies coveralls, now covered with white stripes, and inquired, “Get any on the boards?”

The boards have been stacked and re-stacked a half dozen times in the past two years to move them out of the way of the ongoing project. Just two weeks ago, when I was preparing for my surgery, Luke kindly came in after work and stained the reverse sides as an additional protection against weathering.

Dennis seems friendly and professional. He also has a quiet, twinkly sense of humor. Obviously he has my measure. The last line of his contract proposal read, “Special attention to the Anne of Green Gables theme will be taken!”

The Vault of Winter

December 30, 2011

It was -6° F yesterday morning. I am not a fan of deep cold but as I looked at the temperature reading I was aware of something between my shoulder blades that relaxed. That’s it. Winter is here.

I think what I was feeling was the shedding of the burden of my Shoulds and Oughts, or as DH (a Catholic) calls it, my Protestant guilt.

Though the endless mild weather this fall has been painful for snow fans, on the farm there were relatively few obvious downsides. Mud, yes. A longer parasite season (in a normal year I don’t need to worm any creature between November 1 and March). And some danger to my young planted trees, a danger Robert Frost memorialized in his famous poem, Goodbye and Keep Cold. However, in general, the long, tiptoeing season gave me at least six extra weeks to work outside.

It took me a while to realize that I did not like this at all.

Spring is always hectic on the farm. Clean-up from winter, animals giving birth, new projects. Then summer kicks everything into even higher gear. The days are longer. Lucy is in camp. DH is often away on the road for weeks. Free of the structure of family responsibilities, I can labor outside from 6 AM to 8 PM, seven days a week — and often do. By September I am fried to a blackened crisp.

Though in autumn I’m racing the cold, lists in hand, in my heart I am ready for the killing frosts. I am ready for the days to shorten. I am ready for the lambs, pigs, and young cattle to leave for the slaughterhouse. And finally I am ready for the ground to freeze to iron and the snow to fall. With the arrival of winter, a heavy vault door swings shut. No more outside work is possible.

What a relief!

This fall I have missed that. I tore the rotator cuff in my left shoulder shoveling tons of sand and gravel, but still the ground remained soft (and the livestock dug fresh craters in their stalls and new potholes appeared in the driveway). The job went on and on.

With the warm temperatures and light snow cover, I could also continue using my manure spreader. Spreading on the thin snow was easy.

However, hitching to my manure spreader was never easy. I had bought the manure spreader used; the jack had seized with rust. I have never been able to adjust the height of the spreader tongue up or down to meet the hitch on my truck. This means that my truck has to be on exactly the same level when I hitch up as when I unhitched two days earlier. Given my uneven ground, this rarely happens.

As the loaded spreader is much too heavy for me to lift, every attempt to hitch up usually requires twenty minutes of puffing, using a steel post as a lever to pry things into position. On several miserable occasions, I backed slightly too far and tapped the spreader with my truck, causing the jack to fall off its block or even to collapse entirely. Twice when the latter occurred I had to resort to chaining the tongue to my truck and dragging the whole apparatus around the pasture, digging a furrow with the dragging tongue, until the spreader emptied itself enough for me to lift it into the proper position.

That’s the sort of day when you pray no Real Farmer is around to see what you’re doing.

There was more torture involved. The hitch itself is a pin hitch. This is the simplest hitch there is. Just line up the holes on truck and spreader, drop your pin in the holes, secure it with a cotter clip, and you’re done.

A pin hitch is often used on farm equipment. The assumption is that you are high on the seat of a tractor, looking down directly at the holes, and able to see when they line up. It is not expected that you are backing blind in a truck (much less one with a stake rack on the back), popping in and out of a cab and scrambling over rocks to peer at the hitch, moving forward and back inches at a time. If the holes are even a half inch out of alignment, the pin will not fit. It is very hard to move a truck only half an inch and park it. On good days I could hammer the pin home in under thirty minutes. On bad days it took over an hour of sweaty frustration.

In mid-December my friend D came out to the farm to take down his hunting camp. That morning I had struggled for forty-five minutes to hitch the spreader and had given up, my temper badly frayed. With D giving me hand signals and then standing on the truck bumper to lower the hitch with his weight, we had it done in a flash.

Though I had told D previously about my issues with the spreader I don’t think he had fully grasped the extent of the problem. Now his eyebrows snapped together in his familiar scowl. For Chrissake. What was I messin’ around with this crap for? I needed a new jack. I needed a pintle hitch — much easier, goddammit.

I listened humbly. I hadn’t realized that a simple, wheeled jack could be purchased for under $30, and though I could spell pintle hitch I had no idea what it was. All I understood was that next year it might be easier.

But for now, I decided, I was finished for the season. I had no more energy. I wanted this job taken off my list. I emptied the manure spreader and parked it next to the barn. Well done, good and faithful servant, I thought. I will see you in the spring.

I told myself I was fine with giving up. But as mild, muddy day followed mild, muddy day I would look at the manure spreader furtively, trying to beat back my guilt. I really should be spreading. In the same way, I regarded the small hillock of unleveled sand in the barn paddock. I should be shoveling. The re-opened craters in the stalls, the new potholes in the driveway. I should fix those.

But now the ground is solid ice. The spreader chains and beaters, the sand and gravel piles are all frozen. The vaulted door of winter has swung closed.

It’s too late. At least for now, anything undone will have to be left undone.


It Was Rain, *Sigh*

December 28, 2011

Conditions started out favorably — it was snowing hard at evening chores last night — but soon disintegrated into sleet and, finally, rain. DH and Lucy listened gloomily to the downpour drumming on the skylights after supper. It rained all night. By dawn the ground was bare.

However this morning the temperature plummeted like a stone, from 38° F to 16° F, the change accompanied by more stinging sleet and high winds. Here’s Fee nursing Katika in the blowing ice at 8 AM.

You could see the wind carrying curtains of tiny pellets, an undulating frozen mist.

Now the sleet has turned to snow. We are not expected to get much. The temperature is still dropping and it is due to fall below zero tonight. However DH, my mountain man, is so desperate for snow on his brief vacation that he stands at the windows, gazing out hopefully.

He says, “Maybe we’ll get a half inch and I can ski.”

Where is the Snow?

December 27, 2011

All of northern New England is suffering from the lack of snow this winter. The Adirondacks, Vermont, New Hampshire, and parts of Maine depend on ski tourism to survive, and this fall we’ve not only had little snow, it’s been too warm for most ski areas to make it. The small rural towns are scrambling. DH and Lucy have been disconsolate.

Here in the High Peaks we had two inches just before Christmas, barely enough to cover the short dead grass in the pastures. DH and Lucy have been out every day possible on their oldest cross-country skis — battered relics known as “rock skis,” kept around just for such scratchy conditions. They’ve dodged mud, skied endless short loops on shoveled snow, and skied up the Olympic mountain half an hour away. But the real ski experience has eluded them. Every morning one or the other presses a nose to the window, peering hopefully into the dark, praying that the snow gods have dumped a thick blanket overnight. Nothing.

Last night DH told Lucy excitedly that we were due for 4-6 inches tonight. They almost danced with glee. I checked a different weather forecast on my computer: rain.

I hope, for their sakes, the iPad wins the day.

A Quiet, Happy Christmas

December 26, 2011

rollerboard & trolley

We had a low-key family Christmas, with only our friend Mike joining us this year. However it was all cheerful and satisfying, from the fire in the fireplace (I brought home some cherry logs I’d split last summer) to the usual feast: a roasted homegrown bird, stuffing, creamed onions, mint peas, sweet potatoes, warm bread, and homemade pecan pie with fresh ice cream.

(Maybe someday I can grow the vegetables, too. For now I was pleased, in my capacity as both butcher and chef, to be able to pluck a tiny overlooked pin feather moments before serving.)

Everyone seemed happy with their presents: for DH and me, lots of used books. For Jon, used books plus some necessities like shoes and groceries. For Lucy, assorted wool art supplies and cross-country ski gear, including a 10-foot rollerboard I built for her out of scraps. Years ago I had built one for DH. The idea is that the skier lies on his belly on a trolley and strengthens his arm muscles by pulling his weight up a slope.

Lucy’s rollerboard is built out of spare 2x4s covered by some extra backing from the apartment’s kitchen cabinets. The trolley is cushioned with a square of carpet left over from furnishing her doll house many years ago. DH supplied the handles from old climbing slings. Its always fun for me to use such “nothings” to create something.

Above is Lucy testing it in her pajamas. Later she went cross-country skiing with her dad and later still, she and Jon did another tour by head-lamp.

It was a happy, quiet, beautiful day.

Operation for Christmas

December 24, 2011

I had my operation yesterday and all is well.

I did barn chores at 4:45 AM, turned out all the animals into the fresh snow in the dark, mucked the stalls, raced home for a quick shower, and by 6 AM DH was driving me at 25 m.p.h. along the icy, unplowed highways to the hospital.

When I registered, the eagle-eyed receptionist pointed out that my married name was misspelled on our new insurance card. I have handed that card to umpteen doctor’s offices in the past month and never noticed. I shudder to think of all the rejected claims bound to come my way, but at least the surgery bills should be straightforward.

In my cubicle DH sat in a corner reading the New York Times on his iPad while all the friendly doctors and nurses came in and out to hook me up to various tubes and wires and have me sign releases, joking and smiling. I wondered if they were always this cheerful or if the lack of operating room traffic the day before Christmas Eve had them in an especially good mood.

I asked the anesthesiologist what drug he would be giving me.

“It will be general anesthesia,” he said.

“Yes, I know, but which one? Sodium Pentathol? I’ve had that before.”

“No, that’s not used any more. I’ll be administering Propofol.”

“Oh, great! The drug that killed Michael Jackson!”

The doctor made a face. “That’s right. But why the poor guy hired a cardiologist and not an anesthesiologist, I’ll never figure out. I can tell you, if I’d been taking care of Michael Jackson, he’d still be moonwalking!”

I told him I felt reassured.

Finally a pretty, young female nurse came in to push me down the hall on a rolling gurney.

“You seem too light and little to be pushing this heavy gurney,” I said.

“Oh, thank you!” she laughed. “That’s what every girl wants to hear.”

Really? I thought. I myself always wanted to beat the boys in arm-wrestling and throw a longer spiral pass.

I remember very little after that until waking up in recovery, where I discovered that the nurse was the sister-in-law of one of my former contractors. (Small town.) Under the lingering effects of anesthesia it seemed imperative to make clear to her that though I would never hire him again due to his problems with paperwork — despite not having worked for me since March, just last week he stopped by with a mislaid bill for $235 — he had done excellent carpentry. She patted my shoulder soothingly.

Back in my room another nurse fed me two Percocet for intense cramping.  “I’d say I’m about a four,” I said, studying the pain chart.

Later, DH sighed. “I think you’re about a seven.”

The Percocet had the odd effect of seeming not to help the pain much but making me so drunk that I didn’t really care.

The nurse had brought an English muffin for me to eat with the pills, to buffer my empty stomach. The muffin was soaked with margarine. I grew up eating margarine but have not tasted it in thirty years. Though I know it is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils, my confused brain fastened on the idea that it was a petroleum product. I was practically weepy, thinking I was being served a good English muffin smeared with Vaseline! But I knew I couldn’t hurt the kind nurse’s feelings. I choked down half. DH had no such qualms about the other half.

The rest of the day was long and groggy. Lucy took care of me like a champion, making me toast (fresh bread, with butter!), serving homemade chicken soup for supper, rubbing my back. The intense cramping continued for much of the day, interspersed with vomiting. Finally I realized that it was the Percocet upsetting my stomach, and discontinued it. I would far rather endure belly cramps than nausea.

Today I am sore and slightly crampy but definitely on the mend. My friend Alison did my barn chores last night and my friend D is coming out to help me this morning. Lucy will help tonight, and by then I expect to be back to normal. We should have the pathology report before the New Year and then, knock wood, this tedious health episode will be over.

The great thing is that since I had to be prepared ahead of time, almost all of the holiday tasks are done. The house is clean, the presents are stashed in closets, the food is shopped for. Today I will wrap last gifts and bake pecan pies. To keep life simple and quiet, we won’t go to the usual candle-light Christmas Eve service down in the valley but will have candles lit here, a fire in the fireplace, and my parents’ recording of the Kings College, Cambridge choir singing carols on the stereo.

Merry Christmas to all!

Finally Some Snow!

December 18, 2011

For weeks my cross country skiers, DH and Lucy, have been staring out the windows gloomily at sleet and mud. In late December! They were despairing. Might we really have a brown Christmas?

Finally yesterday the temperature plunged and we have a couple of inches of snow. The surface is thin and scratchy but they are on skis and for them that is heaven. The mood is a lot lighter in our house.

On Thursday the boarding students went home for the holidays. That morning Lucy and her closest friends, all faculty children, worked in the kitchen for the farewell breakfast, and someone snapped a picture. These girls have been pals since they were in diapers. Their ages are 13, 14, 15, and 15. Here they are: the older Staff Brats (an affectionate term in this school).

Notice something? Yes, Lucy (second from left) got her braces off in Vermont this week. She is very happy.

Meanwhile I am scrambling to get my ducks in a row. It turns out I need outpatient surgery — nothing very scary, but trying to schedule being out of action for a day under general anesthesia is a challenge between the needs of the farm, the availability of the surgeon, and DH’s travel commitments.

It turns out that the easiest date of the entire winter is next Friday, December 23. For some reason no one else is electing surgery the day before Christmas Eve!

I have been madly cooking, cleaning, shopping, wrapping presents, and going in for more tests in preparation. My hope is that I’ll have everything nailed down beforehand, so that even with Major Mom down for the count for twenty-four hours, the family Christmas can unfold as usual.

Pardon the Hiatus

December 14, 2011

It’s been busy here and I’ve had a lingering infection, an unexpected side effect from a medical procedure. Between feeling punk, waiting in doctor’s offices, cooking for guests, attending special events for DH’s work, coping with sudden alarms, and trying to stay on top of chores at the farm, writing has taken a back seat. Today Lucy and I head to Vermont for the second time in ten days. I will take my various pill bottles with me.

However the family did all gather to decorate the tree last week. Too bad you can’t see the precarious tower of boxes that Jon and Lucy constructed to support the camera. In the photo we are all waiting expectantly for it to collapse again.

I love the holiday season and will be glad when the pace slows down a trifle and I can enjoy it more.

Christ the King

December 8, 2011

I have been haunted by a church. I saw it on my drive to Maine. It is a beautiful stone church in New Hampshire, shut up and deserted. Scraggly balsams were growing in the rank grass, and the roof slates were mantled with light snow. I took my foot off the pedal and craned my neck as I passed. CHRIST THE KING, read the faded sign.

On my return home, the ewe lambs in the back of the van were quiet as we listened to Christmas carols on the radio. Nat King Cole sang O Holy Night. “Fall on your knees, and hear the angel voices —”

Passing the dark church I slowed again. I suddenly realized I was in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Oh my. It’s Christmas, and Christ the King is abandoned in Bethlehem!

The beauty and the irony shook me.

When I got home I had to google it, and I found on Flickr these lovely photos by Doug, who has kindly given me permission to use them.

I know churches are being deserted everywhere, especially across rural America. A church on our town’s Main Street fell to the wrecking ball a couple of years ago. A classic white clapboard church at the foot of the mountain, where John Brown’s horse-drawn funeral cortege stopped for a rest in 1859, is on the market. During the year I drove Jon to college, we passed two boarded-up churches on the back roads every day.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that churches today are going the way of the U.S. Postal Service — bedrock institutions that simply aren’t being used any more. This makes me sad.

In Bethlehem, New Hampshire, I fantasized about doing something: flinging open the doors, turning on the lights, finding someone to play loud chords on the organ, singing hymns, baking cookies, organizing a nursery hour, bringing Christ the King back to life.

My DH is always skeptical of my fondness for large gestures. He thinks I become so fixated on big, perfect solutions that I can overlook the virtues of small, daily, imperfect striving. (How many times have I struggled to write to a friend the ideal letter of support, which in my mind is a four-page, exquisitely expressed message of love — and thus put it off, unfinished, while meanwhile DH has sent half a dozen one-line emails that actually did express that support?)

“Ninety per cent of life is just showing up,” he repeats. DH rarely says much, but for things he cares about he will always show up.

Pondering Doug’s beautiful, haunting photographs of Christ the King in Bethlehem, I realize I am already in a position to sing hymns, bake cookies, and help organize a nursery hour. I have my own church.

I haven’t actually attended in a while. It’s twenty miles away down a mountain. In winter the snowy roads are frightening. In summer I’m always working. It’s hard to make the time.

I tend to think complacently that my church will always be there, patient and waiting, when things are magically “better” — when my life is more organized, when the farm projects are tamed, when my house is clean.

But now it dawns on me that if people like me, who love it, can’t be bothered to keep our little church vital, who will?

Christ the King in Bethlehem has reminded me that I need to show up.

Freezer Score!

December 5, 2011

One of the realities of selling meat is that it is generally impossible to move it all in a couple of hours while it is flash frozen straight from the butcher.

With my friend Larry’s help, I had indeed pre-sold most of my beef and pork and was able to deliver it on my way home from the slaughterhouse. However I had not pre-sold all my lambs and two of my pork customers discovered they did not have room in their freezers for giant boxes of meat cuts. My own chest freezer at our apartment is full to the brim.

Hundreds of dollars’ worth of rapidly thawing perishable product and nowhere to put it! Panic! What to do?

What I’ve done for the past four years is to beg the school where I live for temporary space in their walk-in freezer. They’ve been very gracious but having to request permission, ask for keys whenever I make a sale, and generally impose on their patience has troubled me.

I have been watching freezer prices at Lowe’s for months, but I could never justify spending $800 on a freezer big enough to do the job.

This weekend I scored two freezers. The first was a 21.9-cu. ft. chest model on Craigslist for $100. A contractor had removed it from a house he was remodeling. I was the lucky first to respond to his ad and beat out a host of others, one of whom who was preparing to drive five hours round-trip to get it.  The freezer is older but appears to be in fine condition. It is so big we could put a couple of people in it. I picked it up on Saturday in my truck and yesterday Joanne’s sixteen-year-old son Alex helped me grunt it into the heated garage down at the farm.

Shortly after I made arrangements to pick up the first freezer, Larry called to ask if I wanted a second. He knew someone going out of a candy business who was selling four uprights for $75 each. They were only five years old. I decided to buy one of those too, and naturally Larry dickered and got it for me for $50.

So if my luck holds — knock wood! — and both machines work, for $150 I will have covered all my future freezer needs for meat sales. I am aware that older freezers are not as energy efficient, but I only plan to use them in the fall months, when meat rushes in from the butcher in a storm tide and then ebbs out again more slowly.

Today I will once again be lifting heavy frozen boxes as I move the last of my pork and lamb out of the school’s walk-in. My lower back already aches a little in anticipation.

However I am always cheered when I am able to set up a new system, defray panic, and gain another modicum of independence for my fledgling farm.