Cow Weather

June 16, 2019

Many days over the past week have been cool and rainy, often with wind. The dark skies have been gloomy, reflecting my mood as I seek estimates for the remaining work on the house.

My builder, Nick, broke his contract and never completed the work he was paid for in June 2017.  When he left in the fall of 2017, he promised to return in May, 2018. In May he wrote angrily that he “had to make money” and would return in August. In August he returned for a few days, had me order $800 worth of brick for the chimney, and then never came back. He wrote in October that he would re-pay the money he owed (in reality, less than half the real total). He made a first payment but then… silence. Finally in January 2019 I sent him a registered letter, asking him politely to send the promised payments so we could end his contract on a reasonable note. He responded with an emailed bill to me for $7500, claiming we should pay for all the time he “wasted” having to work around us (because he missed his finish date by many months, a responsibility he has never acknowledged). He sent a post-script: “Non-payment of invoice after 30 days will result in 5% interest charge for unpaid balance.”

I was shocked at a deep, deep level. This dishonesty came on the heels of multiple other blows falling last winter until it seemed there was not an honorable person left in the world. I fell sick with bronchitis and didn’t shake it for eight weeks. My friend Tom died, another disorienting shock. There was a beautiful goodbye party for my husband’s retirement. It felt like everything was ending.

A few weeks ago I finally consulted a lawyer. She told me that I could take Nick to court, and I would win. “But all you would win would be a judgment, a piece of paper saying he cheated you and owes you money. You already know that.” It wasn’t fair, she agreed, but she advised me to move on.

I have been trying. A first job is to make a list of all the unfinished work. My distress is so great, I have told myself I will make the punch list room by room, only trying to write out details for one room a day. I hired a plumber to install the long-promised hose spigots in the basement. This week I have had a team here to measure the exterior for a painting estimate. Yesterday I toured an interior painter. (It is likely that I will have to do the latter myself.) I am calling to find someone to install the cookstove insulated pipe through the chimney stack. I have made inquiries to masons for the chimney brickwork. I am looking for a roofer to fix the leaking porch flashing. I have investigated how to build porch stairs and will build them. I am going to research the screen porch materials Nick left in a heap last August and I will build that, too.

It’s all manageable, and I will manage. But it has been gloomy as the various contractors shake their heads and talk about big dollars. I have not been sleeping. Tired and blue, it’s been hard to stay motivated.

The dark skies have not been helping my mood but it has been a happy time for the cows. Cold and drizzle! Wind and rain! No bugs — how nice!

I am trying to think like a cow.

Tough Day

November 11, 2018

I wrote this entry ten days ago, but then a tsunami of work for my job swept over me before I could post it.

On Friday I had a parent conference after school so I was late getting to barn chores. With snow in the forecast I was determined to finish removing the final load of bedding from the inner sheep stall, dump it in the back field, and return Larry’s trailer before it was snowed in at my farm for the winter.

At last! Bare floor! Last year I had covered the sheep stall with rubber mats in an effort to make mucking easier. I’m not sure anything makes prying out the heavy, foot-deep bedding easier, but it is satisfying to see the rubber again.

Since the mats trap urine, I cover them with a thick layer of shavings.

Because shavings are problematic for fleeces, I then cover the shavings with mulch hay.

This rich mix of hay, manure, and urine is hard to remove but a tonic for my fields.

Yesterday morning Larry arrived at 7:30 to pick up his trailer. I showed him the pile of gravel on top of my septic tank. “You need to get that moved right away!” he exclaimed. I agreed glumly. He tried the key of my tractor. “Dead!” He scolded me for not having built a garage for it. “Just sittin’ here rustin’ and losin’ value.”

I could feel tears behind my eyes but I nodded and thanked him for the use of his trailer.

After Larry left I called Damon, who did not answer. As I fed the cows I’d had a brainwave. I was trying to remember the last name of Leon, an older gentleman who worked for me briefly years ago when Allen was sick. Maybe if I could get the tractor started, Leon could move the gravel off the septic tank. I called Mike, who was planning to help me drain all my mowers for the season. Mike couldn’t remember Leon’s last name either.

I told Mike about the septic problem and the non-starting tractor. Mike is a small engine man, not a heavy equipment operator, but he’s a friend. “Sis, I’ll do whatever I can.” We agreed to meet at 11. I drove to town for groceries, eating a sandwich for breakfast as I drove. I stopped at the carpet store. A man had been supposed to come to measure our stairs for an estimate on installing a carpet runner, and naturally had never showed. (At this point I am surprised when anyone does arrive.) I made a new appointment, picked up groceries, and brought them home.

Mike came and together we addressed the tractor. It would turn over but would not catch. “She’s tryin’,” Mike observed, mystified, “but she’s not gettin’ fuel!” I looked at the innards of the engine and had no idea what could be wrong.

We abandoned the tractor and moved on to draining all the mowers. Mike left and I called Damon again. Still no answer. I left him a message about the fuel line mystery.

It seemed there was nothing to do but begin moving the gravel with a shovel. Earlier, on hearing of the gravel crisis, my wonderful friends Alison and Tom had volunteered to help, but I had been sure that Mike and I could start the tractor so I had thanked them and declined.

First I had to cover the basement window. The last thing I wanted to do was accidentally break the glass. I found a heavy scrap of 3/4″ plywood at the barn and, fighting a high wind, screwed it in. It immediately blew off. I caught it and screwed it in again all the way around.

Next there was the problem of the stairs. In 2017 the builder had installed a set of temporary porch stairs, cut down from interior construction stairs, to meet code for our inspection. The plan had been that he would build permanent stairs later. (That job has moved to my list.) But now the temporary stairs were not only in my way for moving gravel, but partially buried under the stone.

Even when I unscrewed all the supports, the stairs would not budge. I trudged through the rising wind to get my sledgehammer from the garden shed. After a dozen crashing swings at the stairs, the old sledgehammer broke in half — and still the stairs were stuck. By this time I was so discouraged, I simply picked up the heavy head of the sledgehammer in my gloves and used it like a primitive stone tool. After ten minutes of bashing and pulling and digging, at last the stairs were out of the way.

I was cold and wet and the wind was starting to howl. I went inside for dry boots and gloves. Damon called. No fuel to the tractor? “Did Mike push the fuckin’ throttle forward?” “Oh, dear,” I said, defeated. Could he come out?

No, his back was hurting, the weather was terrible. “Can’t use it anyway. Pushin’ it off, your tractor would be on the tank same time as the stone.”

“Oh, right, OK.” My voice was starting to tremble. “Thanks anyway.”

I hung up and went back to my shovel. Looking at the stone, it occurred to me belatedly that the giant pile completely blocked the expensive drainage I’d paid to have sculpted in 2017. If I did not move it, the basement would flood again.

I rarely cry when I’m alone but I do find my breath coming in strange tearless sobs. I began shoveling. The whipping wind blew stinging snow in my face and flattened my coveralls against my legs. My bad elbow protested with every heavy load. I could not use my bad leg to force the shovel into the pile, so I tried to perfect a skimming technique over the surface of the stones.

In a couple of hours I had the area under the window covered with a scant two inches of stone.

It needed another inch. The other 9/10 of the 20-ton pile had been meant for other projects around the farm. I had planned to have it dumped where Damon could reach it next summer to repair the driveway, line our culvert entries and exits, build up wet spots in the barn paddock, etc. Not sitting on my septic tank, breaking my septic system, blocking my drainage, and flooding my basement!

My nose was running in the cold and I was still shoveling hopelessly when Damon’s truck drove in through the wind and snow. He drove down past the barn and up around the house. He rolled down his window and nodded at the stone.

“Right on the fuckin’ tank! I’m surprised he didn’t fall in, backin’ over it!”

It was such a relief to see his gruff, unshaven face, to know someone smart was going to help me problem-solve, that now the tears came to my eyes. I put down my shovel. “Damon, thank you so much for coming out! I’ve been pretty close to losing it.”

“I noticed.”

“It’s blocking my drainage! The basement will flood again!”

He nodded again. “Yup. Fuckin’ stupid bastard.”

We discussed what to do. It would require an excavator to shift the stone. Damon no longer owned a trailer so we could not use his machine. He had a friend I might be able to hire. But really the excavation company should do it. They had caused the problem. I should call and be tough.

With that settled, “Let’s go start the tractor.” At the barn, Damon limped over to the tractor and pulled himself up. He shifted levers, turned the key, and the tractor coughed to life. He flashed me a sardonic smile. So much for Larry and Mike!

He drove off in the dark. I did barn chores, exhausted and aching in every joint.

I called the excavation company. No answer. I felt defeated, but Alison told me firmly, “Call him again.” This time the owner answered. He was at a hockey game. “What do you expect me to do?” It was almost a whine.

I told him that he needed to bring an excavator and move the stone. Though it wouldn’t be ideal for my purposes, he could park the excavator next to the pile and simply pivot the bucket to drop it on the other side, making a new pile uphill, off the tank. He said he would meet me at 2 PM on Monday to take a look at the problem.

Now I still had to deal with our well issue. After canceling twice, the well man had been supposed to come Friday but had emailed Friday morning to cancel again, saying he would “probably” be at our house Monday. The temperature was due to drop to 15° F. Unless I did something, the faulty switch would freeze again and we would be without water. Meanwhile, as we had talked in the blowing snow near the giant gravel pile, Damon had asked me about the pressure tank the man planned to install in our basement. “Does he know you got three separate water lines? I don’t think that’s gonna work.” What? Really?!? Another insurmountable problem? I felt near hysteria, except that I was too tired to cry. I begged Damon to speak to the well man and explain our underground pipes.

I came inside and called the well company. As it was Saturday night I could only leave messages. I trudged out again in the dark to wrap the well head in a heat tape, covered by a giant trash can. I buried the bottom of the can in snow to keep it from blowing away. I found scraps of boards to cover the lead cord that ran across my tenant’s walk so he wouldn’t trip over it.

By the time I was cooking dinner, I was in a slightly altered state. Though I was physically tired, my real exhaustion was mental. My ability to think seemed entirely gone. The well man called and agreed to talk to Damon. He called back half an hour later to assure me that everything would be fine and he’d be at our house Monday morning.

If the two contractors keep their word and show up, it appears that with the help of my friends, I may have found a solution to both overwhelming house problems. If they show up. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Last night I woke at 1:15 with another episode of atrial fibrillation. Too much anxiety, too little sleep. I’m fine now, just tired, but the school week ahead, ending with parent weekend, promises to be long.

NB: Made it to the finish line. I’ll update soon.

A Bit Overwhelmed

November 10, 2018

The painting above is of me searching for an honest workman.

The well company I hired to fix our well problem has given me changing stories about costs, rattling my confidence, and has not yet returned to do the work, currently priced at $1500 (from $800) and originally scheduled for last Monday, then Tuesday, then Friday. “Probably next Monday or Tuesday,” the man now writes. It is due to be 15°F tonight and tomorrow night, so undoubtedly the faulty pump switch (replaced this summer) will freeze again. I’m going into town today to buy a heat tape to wrap around the well casing. I hate to spend $35 but on the other hand I would happily pay $35 not to be without water for three days.

There is an outdoor outlet not far from the well, into which I could plug a line to the heat tape, but there is no power to that outlet. Of course not! The electrician said he would come back to do it in September. I will run multiple cords to the front of the garage.

Meanwhile, in the fall of 2017 I had hired an excavation contractor to do the grading around the house (something actually in my builder’s contract, but as we were already incurring fines from the bank for delaying the mortgage inspection, and as I was reshaping the front lawn, I covered the entire cost without comment). Before the excavation contractor left, he promised to return with a load of stone. You guessed it: he never returned. This fall I emailed his wife to ask if I could get that stone. She wrote that it would be delivered ten days ago, on Thursday or Friday. On both days I waited, fruitlessly.

When DH and I reached our hotel this Wednesday, I found two emails from the contractor’s wife. The first said that she was sorry for the delay, but it would be delivered this Thursday or Friday. Half an hour later, the second email said, actually, it would be delivered at 3 o’clock that day. That is, it had been delivered while I was away. I was beside myself, but with iron self-control I wrote to her politely, expressing my concern. She was airy in her response. She was sure it was fine.

I was equally sure it was not. I did not sleep that night, worrying.

Sure enough, the driver had driven the 20-ton load across our leach field. Thankfully, only 1/4 of the field. Still, the ruts are significant. (My gloves are there for scale.) Allen always told me never to allow anyone to drive on this section of lawn and I have been vigilant for ten years. It never occurred to me that anyone might come while I was not at home.

Then the driver dropped the heavy load directly on top of our septic tank.

This stone delivery is a huge new problem that I need to solve immediately. It is blowing snow and we are due to have winds of 50 mph this afternoon. My tractor is dead and Damon doesn’t feel well. I have shoveled at least 60 tons of gravel in my day, but I was younger then — and so was my bad elbow.

I am trying to stay calm, and think.

Let It Go

November 3, 2018

It’s been a tough week. I wrote my builder a quick note of inquiry last Saturday when I discovered that he had come to the house while I was at work and removed all his scaffolding and ladders. These have sat here since last November, when he left promising to return in May to finish the work he had been paid for the previous June. In May he wrote an angry email and promised to return in August. At the end of August he returned briefly and promised to finish the rest of the work. At that time he told me to order $800 worth of brick. The brick is stacked on our porch.

He never came back.

We had house guests over the weekend, friends and teenagers in town for the memorial of my former student who died. The memorial was beautiful … and draining. We returned home exhausted.

At this low ebb, after more than a month of silence, I found an email from the builder. In the next six weeks, he would send me a couple of checks, covering what he considered the remaining work. (He appended a short list.) But he would not return.

He wrote, “I consider this a fair and honest resolution/closure to our contract,” and (bizarrely) reassured me, “I’m not upset.”

I was shocked.

As he left for a three-day business trip DH said patiently, “Just write, I look forward to receiving your checks.”

Even hot-tempered Damon growled over the phone, “Just write OK — or you won’t get fuckin’ nothin’.”

But I couldn’t get over my sense of betrayal. The list he provided, even without all the promised work already removed, still left out a number of items. I thought the real dollar amount was quite a bit more. I wrote him a short, polite note, stating that I was sorry he would not return and listing those items.

The next morning I received a long email, attacking me as self-centered, grasping, and ungrateful. How dare I bring up those items, when he had lost so much money on my job due to having to work around us? (Because he didn’t meet his finish date, a point he has consistently failed to note.) The personal viciousness of the email made me feel sick. After trashing my character, the email closed piously, “I will pray for you.”

I have never been able to cope with anger directed at me. What a fool I had been to reply! DH was gone and I felt shaky for days. I told myself to move on but I had to flog myself into putting one foot after another, walking the dogs, doing barn chores, teaching my classes. I did not sleep.

One afternoon I was mucking the barn when a confused yellow-shafted flicker flew in and then tried to hide by stuffing himself in a crevice behind a beam. I gently pulled him down. I “knew” the bird was a message from my late mother, who taught me about flickers so many years ago.

I carried the bird carefully outside — and then I let it go.

Today I’ll start moving the brick off the porch.


Painting the Porch

October 20, 2018

Yesterday after work I painted porch railings on the north side of the house for two hours before having to go out to dinner for DH’s job. The temperature had risen to 50° and I was determined to use the brief window of warmth profitably. There was a stiff wind and paint drips blew back at my face as my coveralls snapped in the breeze. Even putting a first coat on only the front side of the rails was slow work, and a half hour into it I realized:

  1. I would never make appreciable progress in the short time available. For my builder to be able to proceed with the screen porch (requiring pre-painted rails and posts, two coats) I would need at least two full days of warm, dry weather. I thought back to our long summer of drought, and how easily I could have accomplished this job if he had ever informed me that “exterior painting” of the house did not include the porch.
  2. I should stop my efforts on this cosmetic work and start priming all the scraped wood on the second story of the garage, which has been bare since July 2017.

However there was so little time, I didn’t know where any primer might be stored, I am afraid of extension ladders, painting anything at all  requires so much mental discipline (given my loathing of painting) … so I just toiled on doggedly where I was.

The small section of painted rails looks so nice, I have to work hard not to be bitter. Waste. Of. Energy. DH says encouragingly that maybe we’ll have a week of Indian summer in November. Today it will rain with high winds and tonight it will be in the 20s with snow.

Ah well. I have plenty of other chores to keep me busy.

Mama’s Fan

October 16, 2018

In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, our grandmother came to live with us. Mama (as she was known) was suffering from confusion due to tiny strokes in her brain. At this time her house in Alabama was sold, and our mother brought many pieces of family furniture back to our home in Connecticut. Among these were the giant 1830s-ish bookcase now standing in our living room here in the mountains, and a ceiling fan from Mama’s enclosed porch.

I vaguely remember Mama’s porch from my childhood visits to Alabama, but as a little girl I was less focused on the ceiling fan than on the large carved parrot sitting on a swing in the corner. (I think Mom must have passed on saving the parrot.) The fan, I’m guessing from the 1930s, was installed in our Connecticut sunroom, where we had many happy times. When Mom and Dad’s house, in turn, was dismantled in 2004, I asked for and saved the fan.

Now, this was not an entirely practical move. The old fan had an alarming tendency to sway in a circular motion with its blades, while creaking. It also hung low, designed for the high ceilings of the hot and humid South. Mom and Dad had mounted it on the sloping vaulted ceiling of the sunroom. I had no vaulted ceilings. (Of course, in 2004, I had no house, either. I had taken the fan in hopes.)

For thirteen years after Mom’s death and the breaking up of her house, the body of the fan had lived in a giant box under a table in DH’s and my bedroom. Eventually the crumbling box moved to the farm garage. Last summer I brought it out and showed the fan to the electrician and the builder. Was there any possible way I could use the fan in our mudroom, with its eight-foot ceilings? They conferred, and told me that if I were willing to pay for an extra hour of labor, they would frame a recess in the sheetrock to pull the fan body higher. Done.

Last fall I emptied our storage trailer. Unbeknownst to me, it had leaked for many years. I was numb with sadness as I pulled out one ruined item after another. I opened a bursting box and found the blades to the fan. Long ago I had wrapped them carefully in blankets. The blankets were soggy and covered with black and green mold. The wet fan blades were not in good shape. I laid them out to dry, my heart heavy. Then I moved on to other, more pressing problems.

Last week I decided it was time to deal with the fan.

I inspected the blades. The iron was rusted.

The finish was entirely stripped and they were covered with a light film of mold.

One blade had broken in half.

This last was very discouraging until I realized that the crack had flecks of old glue. Aha! Once upon a time the fan blade had been broken and repaired. I wondered who had originally mended the blade. My grandfather before his death in the 1950s? His hired man? My father? Whoever he was, now I was following in his footsteps — I wasn’t the cause of the broken blade, merely another restorer! My mood immediately improved.

I set to work. First I carefully sanded off the mold and last remains of the old finish. Then I glued the fan blade back together with epoxy.

After the epoxy dried, I used a wire brush to clean the crusty rust off all the iron.

Then I stained the blades with Minwax English Chestnut. The blades didn’t take the stain perfectly — the color was much darker than expected, and the finish peculiarly shiny. Later I worked on the blades a bit more with 000 steel wool to try to remove the shine.

I repainted the iron in matte black enamel.

When everything was dry, I hung the blades.

You can see the crack if you look, and the finish remains slightly strange. (I’ll consult with Tom.) Moreover the fan can’t be turned on until the electrician returns to connect the wire to the switch. Still, I am happy.

I imagine my grandmother, born in 1894, would be perplexed, wondering why her granddaughter was monkeying with any such masculine project. But I think Mom and Dad would be pleased.

Mama’s fan lives again!


Last Grass of the Season

October 15, 2018

After a grey, wet, and windy Saturday, yesterday was beautiful. Clear and cool.

Too cool for painting the house. Between chores I raced into town to buy brushes, then waited all day for the temperature to hit the required 50° F. It rose to 49° by 3:30 pm, as the sun was sliding down the sky. Too late for paint.

Today is grey and rainy again. I have heard nothing from my builder in three weeks. I am trying to be peacefully resigned… with limited success. I wonder if he’ll ever finish anything. DH thinks probably not. I remind myself that the loss is only money. Still, it stings — partly because I worry about finances, but perhaps even more because I was a trusting fool.

The sheep are resisting the switch from grass to hay — chasing green, I always call it. At this point they would prefer the sorriest green weed to the nicest dried bale. However once we have snow (maybe this week) the fence nets will be put away for the season and hay will be their only option.