Happy Geese

August 30, 2018

I currently have few brain cells to rub together, but I share this photo of my geese, John Adams, Abigail, and Grandma Kay. Each to his own bath, refilled fresh daily. With a step to make it easier to get in.

Yep, I indulge my animals.

Still, in their minds it barely makes up for the indignity of being fenced close to the barn to keep them safe from the coyote.

Summer is Over

August 29, 2018

Today I report for meetings to start my new school year. Given DH’s impending retirement, it may be my last year at this school I’ve been part of for thirty-five years. Though the uncertainty is wearing I try not to focus on it. I do, however, read the slate of jobs delivered to my email every day. Since we live in a tourist town, there are lots of openings for line cooks, hotel housekeepers, and laundry managers. I am willing to turn my hand to anything but none of the prospects feel as fun as teaching U.S. history to 45 twelve to fourteen year olds. Ah, well.

Yesterday I was in Burlington for a cardiology appointment. Driving down Route 2 with traffic lights, cars jammed, and trucks dieseling, I realized again how very lucky I am to spend so much of my life on my farm where crickets jump away from my boots as I walk through the grass of the pasture. Burlington is a tiny, very manageable city and I still felt oppressed. However, I had a happy lunch with a friend and a positive stress test with the cardiologist.

Summer is over. I accomplished maybe a quarter of the items on my summer list. However, in my world such things simply carry over. Particularly tough chores have been known to sit on my list for several years before I can cross them off. On the ferry, I made notes for a new iteration: the Fall 2018 To-Do List.

I’ll start on it after work today.

Marching through the Week

August 28, 2018

Yesterday I drove Lucy to college and carried her things into her new dorm. Her room is worn but decent and slightly larger than usual, so required no sleight of hand with furniture to make things fit. That was lucky because I was so tired that I forgot the bag of tools that I usually bring to engineer a workable situation.

It turned out that the slaughterhouse is closed on Mondays so I will need to make another four-hour trip later this week to pick up the meat. Today I have to go to Vermont for a cardiology appointment. Tomorrow meetings start for my school year.

Last night another hot and humid front blew in. At 1 AM doors were slamming, the gas grill skittered across the deck, metal stovepipe stored on the front porch for months rolled around, rattling ominously. Half asleep, barefoot in pajamas, I made my way downstairs, unhooked the hammock and used it to tie the grill to the balusters, and dropped a blanket over the stovepipe. It was an hour or two before I got back to sleep again. As I lay in bed, my mind raced.

A lot going on this week — many chores to accomplish as the time gets shorter. The need to make another long drive for the meat is a blow. Someone is coming after work tomorrow to buy a ram; but before I can bring the sheep in to sort out the ram lambs, I have to take down the anti-coyote fencing in front of the barn. Yesterday I was scribbling a list on the back of a receipt at the gas station. Today I will make a clearer list while on the ferry.

I can get most of it done if I don’t panic and just keep marching through week.

Toiling On

August 27, 2018

Note to self: when you’re feeling a little melancholy, dealing with stacks of bursting boxes and bags of your unsorted past will not cheer you. On the other hand, it has to be done.

Yesterday when my mind whimpered, But I’m tired! I told it: Shut up, mind.

I mucked the barn, brought the cows in, filled the goose water, moved the sheep fencing, filled the sheep water, took trash to the local recycling, spread manure, and then worked for hours in the garage and basement. For a mental break I drove into town and did the grocery shopping before barn chores and cooking dinner.

It’s hard to see much improvement when you glance into either the garage or the basement, both of which look as higgledy-piggledy as ever, but there is now a plan. I will eventually get it all sorted and dealt with.

It appears we’ve never thrown anything away, much less held a yard sale. No one needs fifty plastic containers and their lids… or half a set of Great Aunt Edith’s china… or horse show ribbons from when I was sixteen… or every art project the children have ever made. I have Jon’s tetherball from age twelve. His boogie board. His ski boots. A pair of runner sleds. Lucy has even kept all her spiral notebooks from school — every single year.

I’ve decided my goal is to finish the basement by Christmas and the garage by next June. I foresee many trips to the dump in my future.

Today I drive Lucy to college and then drive to pick up beef for customers.

One Down

August 25, 2018

Got the basement sheetrocking done yesterday — or at least as much as I need to finish for now. There is still three sheets’ worth of wall that is inaccessible behind stacked materials. However, the plumber can now return at any time. A great relief to cross off that big chore.

Today I have to take everything out of the garage and restack it. Both bays of the garage, and 1/4 of the basement, are stacked with stuff that I never had a chance to sort when I moved us after 16 years. It was such a time of stress, I just threw everything into boxes and trucked it. I’m going to try to pull things out, weed a bit (just the obvious… books ruined by flooded storage), and consolidate. The real weeding will come later.

My dream is to get everything in the garage into one bay, but even that won’t happen today. Many of the items are too big for me to move alone (freezer, wood cookstove, giant desk) but I’ll do my best. I have to plug in the freezer in order to pick up beef on Monday.

DH has been working long days at an alumni reunion. I go over in the evenings for cocktails and dinner. So many people in their thirties and forties whom we remember as children! This is DH’s last reunion as head. A lot of nostalgia.

Melancholy creeps in to tug at my elbow but I keep busy with my list.

Looking Ahead

August 24, 2018

It is dark at 5 AM now. Most of our song birds have left. The fields are turning brown. The summer is nearly over. Meanwhile with DH’s looming retirement next June, there is a lot of looking back. I am feeling nostalgic… and old. It is also becoming clear that my job will likely end when his does. I know endings make way for new beginnings, but as I look ahead I am uncertain and a bit wobbly. I applied for a part-time job this week (to supplement my teaching this year) and did not get it.

How lucky I am to have so much physical, tiring work to keep my hands busy and brain occupied!

While I was away in Connecticut the cows indeed turned up their noses at the poor hay I had bought with such struggle, and went through the fences in search of grass. Lucy was a resourceful cattle wrangler and kept them contained in the south field until I returned. On Monday I enticed them back to the barn, and then weedwhacked the blackberries that had shorted the barn paddock fence. Halfway through the job, the shaft of the weedwhacker snapped. “This weedwhacker is not meant for blackberries,” said the man at the Stihl dealership as he replaced the shaft. To get the cows out on the back field again I have about five more hours of weedwhacking ahead —mostly raspberries. I’m crossing my fingers.

The sheep must be moved every day.

I have to finish sheetrocking the basement for the plumber; I’ve put up nailers on the concrete wall but each sheet of drywall must be cut to fit and coaxed into place.

I have to finish repairs for my tenant.

I have to clean out one bay of our garage and set up a freezer.

I have to arrange a hay delivery.

Monday I drive Lucy to college and pick up beef at the slaughterhouse.

Tuesday I go to Vermont for a cardiology appointment.

Wednesday I start my school year.

I haven’t had time to mow for a fortnight, and not only is the place shaggy with weeds but I miss the peaceful hours. Maybe in another week. This one is already full.

Ready, set, go!

Lung Surgery for Our Baby

August 21, 2018

Last Wednesday I was not able to leave the north country until almost 6 PM, and didn’t reach Connecticut until 10. Nevertheless, Jon, Amanda, Ami, and Judy (Amanda’s mother) were all still awake. Amanda had organized and packed everything for the hospital stay like a field marshal, and now they were attempting to keep Ami awake and feed her solids until the last moment she could have anything by mouth. Amanda set an alarm for a final nursing at 3 AM.

We rose early Thursday morning, drove to the city, and had checked into the children’s hospital by 7. Judy would mind the fort and the animals at home.

Jon and Amanda were called into the pre-op with Ami, and I settled into the family waiting room to wait. After an hour, they joined me. It was a long, long day. The surgery began at 8:30 AM and was finished slightly after 1 PM. Ami was on the operating table under general anesthesia for almost five hours. She would be in recovery for another two.

It turned out that the non-malignant mass was inside the lower lobe of the lung, not outside, and had numerous large feeder veins. The doctor had had no choice but to remove the entire lobe, and it was difficult, delicate work to close off all the feeders.

Amanda and Jon were finally allowed in to see Ami. She looked like a limp rag doll.

It was nearly 4 PM when we were allowed to go to a private room. The nurse pushed Ami in the rolling crib, Jon and Amanda brought bags and stroller, and I pulled the giant suitcase. As we made our way to the 8th floor, the crib bumped over joints in the flooring and in and out of the elevator. Ami opened her eyes in confusion. She was “on planet Morphine,” Amanda joked, but even then Ami did not cry. Her lips wobbled as if she were trying to smile but was too tired and bewildered.

At last she was in her own room. The surgeon had warned Jon and Amanda it might be a four-day stay. They would stay with her, sleeping in a chair and on a cot beside her. I would drive back and forth to the city to deliver meals cooked by Judy.

Amanda changed Ami into her own clothes (homemade hospital gowns with shoulder snaps) with her own blanket and stuffed toys. The first night she mostly slept off the morphine.

Nursing was difficult and painful for Ami, with the chest tube and so many other wires and monitors, but Amanda managed it. It took both parents to lift Ami out of the crib and keep everything safely untangled.

When awake, at first Ami was so groggy she just wanted to watch Sesame Street. Jon held the screen.

However, by morning when I arrived with coffee, Ami was already looking more like her normal self…

… despite all the wires and tubes.

She had yogurt for breakfast…

… and opened her mouth like an eager baby bird for some mashed black beans.

I would bring Judy to the hospital in the evenings. Judy broke her back this spring and is not yet back to full strength. Ami gave the typical Ami beam of delight when she saw her.

Now Ami was alert enough to be distracted by the television on the wall. The only thing that soothed her was the movie Zootopia. The film played on a loop almost 24/7.

Jon and Amanda may never be able to see it again without a shudder.

Gradually as the days passed Ami was weaned off machines and monitors and IVs, one by one. The most painful, the chest tube, was finally removed Saturday afternoon. Daddy was happy to be able to hold his baby girl again.

All Saturday as we waited for this crucial milestone, I had been working at the house. Judy and I had bought Jon a used basketball hoop early in the summer and I had brought a bag of tools to Connecticut to put it together. The directions said assembly required two people but I had dismissed that. I stood on a ladder all day, sweating in the humidity, then being drenched in a downpour. Judy went out for a couple of hours and returned to exclaim, “Are you still on that ladder?”

When Jon called in the late afternoon to say they were being discharged, I changed into dry clothes and drove into Hartford to pick them up. After things settled down again, I got Jon to help me with the last two steps (lifting the backboard into place does require two people) and we tightened the last bolts just before dark.

I’m not sure why I fixated on the basketball hoop at such a stressful time. Perhaps it was just that it was something tangible I could accomplish when everything else was out of my control.

Ami is home. The scary surgery is now safely in our rear-view mirror. Hooray! Though more complicated than we hoped, it was a complete success. The incisions are healing and she will be checked in a month. The remaining upper lobe of the lung should expand to fill the space in her chest and she is expected to have perfectly normal breathing capacity. We could not ask for more.

Though tense and frightening, this time was also in many ways a blessing. I was able to watch Jon and Amanda as a strong team and as devoted, indefatigable parents. Judy and I had dinners out each night after leaving the hospital and enjoyed long conversations. And I got to know my granddaughter, Ami, who even in these less than ideal circumstances proved to be one of the sunniest babies I’ve ever encountered.

Thank you, God!

Sanity Returns

August 15, 2018

I slept last night, and with rest, some of my brain cells resumed functioning.

It doesn’t matter how hard you work if the list is too long.

Last week, moving on from my state of rage when my builder decreed that exterior water spigots were not part of “plumbing the house” in our contract and he would not install them, I called another plumber. I’ve known Bob for more than thirty years. He’s kind and reliable. In a few hours, Bob snaked new pipe through the basement ceiling. He installed one spigot but the other two required me to first sheetrock the walls. I bought the sheetrock and carried the six big 4’x8′ sheets into the basement, but I haven’t had time to cut them and put them up. Bob planned to return tomorrow.

Yesterday as I wailed over my list, DH said calmly, “Bob’s a reasonable person. Why don’t you call him and see if he can come back next week instead?”

Wow! How logical. Done.

Similarly I have been working on the apartment deck while my tenant is gone. Due to weather damage of the wood, a job I thought would take three hours morphed into one consuming three days. It’s not finished yet. Now it really will only take three hours, but I don’t have those hours. I will put up a board to make it safe should anyone venture onto it and will finish it on my return.

This morning I have to arrange the farm for me to be away. I have to set up the cabin pasture for the cows and the north pasture for the sheep. I have to move several truckloads of lumber and make the mudroom porch ready for the builder, if he returns. (I haven’t heard from him again, so I have no idea if, in fact, he will return while I am in Connecticut.) Given the latter uncertainty, I crossed off moving the cookstove, yet another big chore. Next week.

I still have hours of work ahead, but it’s a reasonable list and now I can begin thinking about my grandbaby’s surgery tomorrow and packing to leave by 2 PM.

White Nights

August 14, 2018

I have not been sleeping more than a few hours a night. I wake up and my mind starts racing. There are so many chores to accomplish before I leave tomorrow for Connecticut to be with Jon and Amanda during Ami’s lung surgery. The news that my builder “might” return while I am gone has added a host of work to a slate already crowded. I try not to let myself panic during the daylight hours — just stick to the list and go on to the next thing! — but at night I sit bolt upright, wide-eyed.

In the drought, my pastures are mostly brown weeds gone to seed. My hayloft is nearly empty, I’ve heard nothing from my hay man, so I thought I’d buy some round bales to feed the cows while I am gone. This plan would have the additional advantage that Lucy would not have to do anything for the cows except keep their water trough full. I made multiple calls and finally was able to reach a cattle farmer who hays a large local historic farm. I’ve bought round bales from this man in the past, and now he agreed to sell me a couple. Damon and I made plans to truck the hay and ran into one problem after another. Finally yesterday was the day. DH’s car was in the shop, but I picked him up from work at 10 AM and rushed him home to help me lift the cap off my truck, then drove him back. Rush, rush, rush. It was so humid that my clothes and hair were wet with sweat.

I met Damon at the hay farm. We looked in the barn.

All the bales were last year’s hay, yellow and dusty. The hired hand pulling the big bales out with a tractor explained that this year’s good hay had been trucked to the cattle man’s farm. I had not been told I was buying last year’s hay, but then, it had not occurred to me to ask. Instead of big, sweet-smelling bales, I had these that appeared to be only a step up from mulch.

I sagged against a post, damp, tired, and discouraged.

Damon pulled stalks from the yellow bale. “I bet it’s still good inside.”

I hope so. I hope the cows will eat it. I have no other options. One bale went in my truck, one in Damon’s, and we drove them slowly home and out to the back field, knee-high in browning weeds and goldenrod, trying to avoid hidden rocks.

Damon scowled. “How come you ain’t got this mowed?”

“I meant to, but the mower is broken and Mike is trying to fix it —”

He laughed. He was only needling me.

Round bales. On to the next chore.

Thirty-two hours before I leave.


August 12, 2018

Almost ten months ago, back in November, I put up concrete backer board in the mudroom to go behind my wood cookstove. (Projects here take a long time.) I planned to cover the backer board with brick veneer, and slowly over the months had bought the necessary boxes of Old Mill “brickweb,” bricks sliced in half and glued to sheets of webbing. Reviews said the brick was super easy to install. The very heavy boxes had been delivered and were stacked in a corner of the mudroom.

I am always nervous when faced with a project that requires skills I don’t have. However, I couldn’t put this one off any longer. My builder had emailed that he was going to return, and one of the things on his list was connecting my cookstove. I had to put up the brick and move the cookstove into the house.

I began by putting up temporary trim on each side of the backer board to guide my edges. The right side was easy, just a straight 2×4. For the left I had to get creative in the narrow space. Finally I used the cut-off tongue of a piece of my wall paneling.

To cut the bricks, I bought on sale a grinder with a diamond blade (and also bought eye protection and a mask). Putting the blade on the grinder was tricky. Though I’m accustomed to reading directions, I could not find anything in the directions that looked like the tool in my hand. Finally I drove it back to the hardware store and threw myself on the mercy of the boys behind the counter, who have known me for years. They laughed. Apparently this is a common problem with Makita directions. To have a tool that looks like the drawings, the tool must first be disassembled. Five minutes later I was in business and heading home.

Now I had to mix my thin-set mortar. I had inquired of the company what product I should use if the bricks were not simply decorative but subject to heat behind a cookstove. Their tech person replied, “Modified thin-set.” I bought a bag and mixed it carefully in a five-gallon pail according to directions on the package. While the mortar set up, I rewatched the installation video on the Old Mill Brick website. Start at the top, and work your way down the wall so the bricks stay clean. The process seemed almost as easy as press-on lettering. This would be a snap!

It was only after I watched my first section of bricks slide down my wall that I realized all the videos show installation with mastic adhesive, not mortar.

Sweating in the humid heat, covered with sloppy mortar, and near tears (what expensive disaster have I created now?) I forced myself to stop and think. OK, I’ll start from the bottom. Since I had to have an air gap, I found a piece of wood to use as a shim under the bottom row. I found my drill, a fistful of screws, and my four-foot level. And I started over.

With my spatula trowel I threw mortar on the hawk, and with the smooth side of the tiling trowel I smeared mortar onto the wall. I raked it with the notched side. Then I pressed the brick into the mud. I put screws into each sheet to hold it level while it dried. As the sheets still had a distressing tendency to sag, eventually I cut a 3/8″ shim and used screws and shim together to hold things in place.

In an effort to keep the bricks below clean, I taped paper over the completed rows.

Clean was an elusive goal. I had mortar on my hands and arms, on my face, in my hair. My shirt and jeans were smeared. Thankfully I’d covered the mudroom floor with drop cloths — wet mortar regularly slid off the hawk and trowels in ugly grey blobs and then I stepped in it and tracked it. Meanwhile the porch was gritty with red brick dust and it was so hot that whenever I put on the protective glasses to cut more brick, the glasses fogged over immediately.

I had been predisposed to think I would enjoy working with brick. My early readings of the memoir Cheaper By the Dozen, which described Frank Gilbreth getting his start laying bricks in the 1880s, had made me believe that laying brick was something any reasonable person could do — even if I didn’t conduct time and motion studies or reduce my motions from 18 to 4. What I didn’t count on was the ticking clock of the setting mortar and how this pressure would unhinge my brain as I rushed back and forth outside to cut bricks.

At one point in my feverish hurry, I decided I would track less mess if I took off my shoes. (My brain was unhinged.) I promptly stepped on a tool. I registered the pain but was in too much of a rush to pay attention. I only realized that I had cut my foot when I was puzzled by bright red blotches all over the drop cloths and porch deck and finally noticed that my sock was soaked with blood.

After four hours, I had only put up a third of the small wall. The videos had suggested this much could be done in ten minutes. However I needed to stop, clean all my mortar-encrusted tools (including the drill and level), do barn chores, and fix dinner.

As work on the wall had to be fitted around many other chores, it turned out that I always worked in four-hour chunks of time.

The second day was much easier. I had no expectations that it would be a snap. I had everything ready — shims, drill, screws, paper towels for my hands — so there was no panic. I also had a tarp to keep the brick clean.

The wall slowly grew.

By the third day everything was going smoothly until I realized belatedly that I had not covered a 10-inch section of 2×4 at the top of the opening for the stove pipe. [See first photo, above.] Of course, I had thrown away all my scraps of concrete backer board back in November. I called the local lumberyard. I called the school. No one had a scrap of backer board lying around. Would I really have to buy a five-foot sheet for a 10″ x 2″ sliver? While I dithered, my bucket of mortar was hardening inexorably.

I called Damon.

“Sure, I got some in my garage behind the stove you can cut a piece off. When you comin’?”

“Right now!”

Well, he was on the road — but I was welcome to stop by his garage.

What a great friend. I threw my grinder, a square, and an extension cord in the truck, rocketed across town, let myself into his garage, and in the gloom marked and cut off a piece. I rushed home.

Of course, I had also thrown away the half-dozen extra metal spacers Larry had made for me. (“When will I ever use those?”) Now I had to think fast and improvise. I needed something non-flammable and one inch thick — what? what? I rummaged in the garage frantically. The answered turned out to be four washers and two big nuts on each screw.

Whew! I got the piece in place and the bricks mortared just in time.

The wall was finished, except for grouting and trim. I wasn’t worried about trim…

… and grouting, how hard could that be? I had bought a grout bag and an 80-lb bag of Type N mortar, as recommended in an email from the tech at Old Mill Brick.

The idea was to fill the grout bag and squirt grout in all the crevices. “Just like cake decorating!”

Again I watched the relevant Old Mill Brick instructional video. In the first moments, the demonstrator intoned, “You do not want to use Type N mortar, it is too difficult. Always use Type S.” What?

My experience with instructions for DIY projects is that they are often vague and sometimes, as in this case, contradictory. I’ve been told directly that men never read directions, so writing directions is not a high priority. Back in 2006, when I complained about the lack of clarity in the directions for building my barn, the company countered, “Have you ever built anything bigger than a breadbox?” In other words, I should already know. I thought crossly that the words “easy” and “for beginners” should be eliminated from all DIY advertising.

I drove back to the lumberyard and bought a bag of Type S mortar. I mixed it and grouted the brick. I suppose it was like cake decorating, if your cake was being decorated with mud by a crazed three-year-old.

My forearms ached from hours of twisting the bag and I would wake up the next day thinking I’d developed rheumatoid arthritis in my right hand, but the wall was done. The grouting and tooling was very far from perfect but I had no more energy.

Two days later, the wall is dry.

Now I just have to move the 400-lb. cookstove in from the garage! I’m sure it will be a snap.