Opposites Attract

November 26, 2016

On the surface, DH and I have very little in common. He is an athlete and mountaineer; I play no sports and am afraid of heights. He is invariably calm and steady; I am quick to anger or tears. He is reserved, even aloof; I pull the world into my lap for a hug. What we have in common is that we are both decent people who read a lot and have the same sense of humor. Over thirty-odd years, like most married couples, we have come to depend on each other for the skills we lack. Usually, these skills are abstract: DH supports my patience and control; I lend him warmth. However, sometimes the skills are concrete.

On Friday DH asked for my help changing some bindings on a pair of old skis. Now, DH grew up in apartments as the son of a man with zero hands-on skills, and has close to zero himself. Though he is by nature an imperturbable person, on this one subject DH can be a little touchy. He knows that competence with tools is considered a feature of masculinity. (A couple of years ago, he learned the concept of a “Honey Do” list, and was charmed by the phrase. In our family, any such lists are for me.)

dewrdc970k-2rDH was working in the basement, and planned to use my DeWalt screw gun. I wasn’t exactly sure what help he needed, but I followed him downstairs.

He was standing at the table holding the DeWalt, looking worried. “How do you work it?” he asked. When I started to smile, he said defensively, “I’ve never used one of these.”

I showed him how to snap the forward and reverse gears, and handed the gun back to him. DH took it gingerly. He removed his glasses so he could see better for the operation. Picking up a screw, he attempted to balance it on the upturned point of the Phillips head bit. Seeing him bent over as if in prayer, his nose two inches from the wobbling screw, I unfortunately began to giggle.

DH straightened up immediately and handed me the screw gun. We put his new bindings on together.

*   *   *   *

Yesterday morning, Stash was so wired before barn chores, he took off at a gallop. I was terrified he would run onto the highway. Clearly he was not getting enough exercise. I asked DH to set me up with an old pair of cross-country skis. I would take Stash for a few circuits of the back pasture to tire him out.

DH is an expert skier. I have not skied for many years. I skied with both our children as toddlers, but by seven years old, they had each surpassed me. I have no particular aptitude for or interest in skiing. I always say, “I learned to walk at a very young age,” and stick to walking. However, trudging through deep snow is no fun and very, very slow. Stash needed something speedier. Thus the request for skis.

DH throws nothing sports-related away, so we have cross-country skis dating back to the 1970s. He found an old pair with three-pin bindings, and a pair of inexpensive poles that came up to my ears. “These are a little tall for you,” he acknowledged, “but at your level of skiing, they will really be walking sticks.”

I laughed. It’s good to be known. I piled the skis, poles, and Stash into my truck and drove to the farm.

Out by the cabin, I tried to put on the skis. Oh dear. The bindings would not close over the tip of the boot. I knew DH would surely be disgusted if I drove home and said I could not put on a simple pair of skis. I sweated and puffed, leaning all my weight on the ski pole pressing the binding, until I thought the pole might snap. After twenty minutes of struggle, I finally succeeded in attaching both feet to the skis.

Stash was in heaven, bouncing through the snow as I glided (laboriously, thrashing) behind him.

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By the second circuit of the field, Stash was sufficiently winded that he took the easy way and ran along the trail I’d broken. I realized that one reason I have never skied with dogs is that before my pasture was cleared, there was no place to do so. Dogs are not allowed on ski trails. Real skiers are made cross by paw prints ruining the tracks. However, I am not a real skier and I was not cross.

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After three trips, I was damp with sweat and ready to quit. (Stash could have continued for another hour.) I skied back to the truck, and Stash hopped up on the seat. Then I addressed the Problem of the Skis.

I was able to pop the latches easily. However, the boots would not come out of either binding. Stash jumped down to see what I was doing. My skis slid in all directions as I attempted to lure him back into the truck. Finally I got him back in and leaned against the door, the slipping skis barely under control and my brain going 100 mph. This entire skiing experience had been quite pleasant, except for the problem of taking on and off the skis. Obviously, I should just untie my boots and step out of them. I could leave the boots permanently attached to the skis! Of course, this might be a little unusual, but then I am a well-known eccentric. Sure, that would work!

I drove home. Later, DH asked me about my ski. I told him how much fun I’d had with Stash, the slight problem with the boots and bindings, and my elegant solution.

DH has a poker face but I could see an expression of something like concern creep into his eyes. He asked to see the skis and the boots. I brought them into the kitchen. He laid a ski on the table and tried to insert the boot. It was very difficult. He tried to close the binding; DH has a climber’s very strong hands and he had to use all his weight to snap it.

My boots do not fit these bindings.

I felt vindicated. I wasn’t an idiot! In my relief I poured out the story of spending twenty minutes trying to get the skis on, including my contortions with the bending pole, and then trying to get them off, my feet sliding out from under me, the dog leaping between my legs, my decision to leave the boots on the skis — DH’s brow furrowed and furrowed as he listened until suddenly he burst into guffaws. I was startled and then I started to laugh also. We both laughed until we cried.

A little later I heard DH dictating a text to our daughter, Lucy, who is also an expert skier. “So you know Mom hasn’t skied in 15 years, and today she had a little trouble with her bindings. So she decided she would leave her boots permanently mounted on her skis!” 

  *    *   *   *

Luckily, DH has another set of bindings that will fit these boots … and I have a DeWalt and know how to use it.

 


A Quiet Day

November 25, 2016

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Yesterday was a darkly beautiful day. It snowed off and on. Although I felt wistful not to have my family around me, I knew that this year, a day of no pressure was what this part-time farmer needed. I slept until 5:30, the latest I’ve stayed in bed in months. With no deadlines, it was a relaxed day of puttering through my list. I baked a pie. I peeled sweet potatoes. I washed and seasoned the turkey.

DH celebrated his rare day off with a Thanksgiving sauna. (The sauna was once my toolshed. I insulated and paneled it and Allen helped me install a little woodstove.) Here is DH scrubbing off in the snow.

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While the turkey roasted, I walked the dogs in the back field. The snow has collapsed and compressed but is still over the tops of my boots. I may hunt up an old pair of cross-country skis today, to give Stash a better workout. He bounds through the deep snow with joy, and a tired poodle is a happy poodle.

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Little Toby is game …
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but challenged by the deeper drifts. Whenever he looked too miserable, I picked him up to carry him.

The snowstorm has closed the door on many fall chores I had hoped to accomplish during this week of vacation. I won’t be cutting and installing the rafters for the run-in shed in the south pasture. The horse trailer will not be put away in my neighbor’s barn. The treated 4×4 fence posts and wire panels I bought (with dollars from the sale of beef) for a sheep paddock, a project repeatedly put on hold due to Damon’s tricky health, will now wait for spring.

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It is easy to be frustrated when I look around at everything I did not accomplish this summer. I did not transplant any balsams. I didn’t paint the barn addition. I didn’t sell my heifer or four of my goslings. I didn’t build the missing doors on the sheep stall or the garden shed. I spent many sweaty hours on my future flower garden, but then turned my back to get Lucy off to college and start my own school year, and it got away from me again.

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In my mind’s ear, I hear the prayer of contrition from my earliest childhood:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.

Luckily I know I did do a few positive things. I drew up plans for our house. I taught Lucy to drive. I fenced the back field. I kept the sheep home to improve our own land. I sold my entire crop of lambs to buyers eager for my flock’s good genetics. All seventeen open acres were grazed and mowed.

Moreover, I am basically healthy and, God willing, there’s always next year.


Fencing with a Story Stick

June 30, 2016

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I was pulled into paperwork and carpooling yesterday. After getting the sheep onto fresh grass, the barn mucked, the cattle in, and the water troughs refilled, I ended up having only a couple of hours to work on the back field. However, I did finish putting up all the insulators.

When I am fencing, I use something I call a “story stick.” Historically, builders put up houses and barns (and pyramids) without access to rulers and measuring tapes. They realized that what mattered wasn’t exact dimension but uniformity. Therefore they would cut and peel a tall, thin sapling and carve notches in it to mark the length of rafters, the height of walls, the width of doorways, etc. Everything would be measured and cut according to the marks. These carved poles, idiosyncratic to each project, were known as “story poles,” and even into the 1930s could be found in the attics of old New England farmhouses.

When I’m fencing, I mark a scrap of wood (sadly for romance, with an indelible pen rather than a knife) with the height of all the insulators for each post. This is my story stick. I’ve had story sticks for each pasture — the height and number of the insulators depending on the animals I was hoping to enclose at the time. The back field will only have cattle, and so will only need three electric lines around the perimeter. Cattle typically do not jump fences like horses, nor get down on their knees and wriggle under like sheep. They are generally easy to confine.

E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, wrote in 1939:

A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and he keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate. ‘Doesn’t cost a damn thing,’ he replied. ‘As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That piece of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.

Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!

What was true then of cattle is still true. They rarely test fences. However, my farm borders a busy 55 mph highway with a hill and a winding blind turn. I have had a young bullock take down a gate and lead a heifer into traffic. I was lucky: no one was killed. But I always try to keep my pastures “bull-tight” for safety.

While I was fencing I measured the old posts against my story stick. Allen and I sank these treated 6x6s several years ago. Each year I’ve found them lifted six to eight inches by frost over the winter.

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In the past, every spring Allen would patiently push them down again with the excavator bucket. Now he is gone. I tried standing on the tailgate of my truck and smacking one of the frost-heaved posts with a sledgehammer. It did not move. Yesterday, I adjusted all the old insulators to the new reality. Then I drove around the field and put in all the missing ones.

The hundreds of steel T-posts have snap-on plastic insulators. Between us, Kyle and I put most of these up last summer. This year, my main job has been to drill in the insulators for the wooden posts. These are heavy-duty, one-piece affairs. Premier calls them “TuffRings.”

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It is embarrassing to realize that I put these up for years, patiently pre-drilling the posts and winding in the insulators laboriously by hand, before discovering that Premier sells a simple metal driver that drills them in with one motion.

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The driver costs less than $5. It saves hours. (“You ain’t really dumb,” I can hear Allen saying encouragingly in my mind.)

Yesterday I made my way around the field with my drill, my bucket of insulators, and my story stick, drilling in the insulators as deer flies swarmed my head. Today I hope to get the lines up.


O-ly-Slowly

June 26, 2016

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The first day’s progress on the back field was slow. Of course, all my progress is slow, but this day seemed to be particularly poky. I’m not sure what happened, other than my usual underestimation of time required and overestimation of what I could accomplish.

I moved the sheep pen. I mucked the barn and called the cattle in (the biting flies are so bad in the heat, they were waiting, stamping, at the gate). I took the dogs for a 45-minute hike on the wilderness trails to get that chore out of the way. And then, eating breakfast, I made a short list of nine things I thought I could get done before lunch.

IMG_0594I accomplished 1.5. Hanging the gates took far too long. Just taking down the gate Kyle had hung improperly required twenty minutes in the hot sun, while fat deer flies swarmed my head. (I recently read an article on deer flies, which explained that only females give the painful bloody bites, and that you can tell females from males because the eyes of females are set widely apart while those of males are close together. I was staring intently at the flies landing on my shoulders only to realize that I couldn’t see any eyes and I didn’t want deer flies of either sex on me.)

I got the first, new gate [above] up without too much difficulty, though even that took longer than anticipated because it required all my strength to screw and unscrew the old gate pins. The second, old gate was a bear. Looking at the post Kyle had drilled [left], I found five holes. I didn’t want to drill any more and further weaken the post, so I had to move the hardware on the gate. The tight metal cuffs took forever to bang off. Several times I banged my hands instead of the cuffs. I realized at 1:30 PM that I was so dehydrated my brain was not operating properly. Shortly afterward I brushed the electric fence and that jolted me into breaking for lunch and a drink.

Half an hour later, restored by a peanut butter sandwich and two quarts of cold water, I finally got the second, difficult gate re-hung. Then I began working down the list, towing things out of the field.

BACK FIELD PREP LIST

  • Re-drill the post and hang the gate that Kyle hung too low to open
  • rake up and dispose of all small bits of metal at the burn pile site (old nails and screws from Mike’s scrap lumber, that cattle will eat out of fatal curiosity)
  • hang the back gate
  • drill insulators into all wooden posts
  • hang the fence lines
  • install a new top line all the way around the field
  • install fencing behind and in front of the cabin field
  • make six rope gates
  • bury wire in conduit under gates 1, 2, 3, 4
  • cut the large fallen poplar off the back fence (I’m afraid of chainsaws; big task with a handsaw)
  • put air in the flat water wagon tire and fill the water wagon
  • move out a water trough; fill
  • remove the Pig Palace (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the “tea cart” trailer (subject of a future post; cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the fence post trailer (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the extra sheep shelter frames (cattle will crush them)
  • remove the antique spring-tooth harrow (cattle might hurt themselves)
  • weedwhack the entire fenceline to keep weeds from shorting the fence
  • hang the new fence charger
  • wire the new fence charger

Simple work, but I didn’t even finish all of that. At 4:00 I had to drive to Tractor Supply for (believe it or not) tractor supplies, as Damon has taken my John Deere home for a tune-up. I had to shop for groceries and get gas. I had to plan dinner.

By the time the groceries were unloaded and Stash and I were watering the sheep at evening chores, I was shot. I sat on the truck tailgate in my sweaty, dirty clothes, barely able to form a thought.

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It seemed a little unbelievable that I’d worked all day and accomplished so little. However, today is a new day and I’m writing the day’s list. I remind myself that it’s all progress.


“Where I Step…”

June 20, 2016

“… a weed dies,” boasts the tarantula in archy and mehitabel, the 1916 collection of stories about a cockroach and an alley cat by Don Marquis.

Well — where I work, a machine dies.

Saturday was an insanely frustrating day. Earlier in the week I had weedwhacked for hours, only to have the weedwhacker slowly lose power. The last twenty minutes of the job, I had to tilt the machine this way and that to get it to run. Finally it coughed to a stop. When I went to restart it, the pull-cord came off in my hand. Stay calm. I took it to my friend Mike, who returned it to me Friday afternoon with a new pull-cord.

I had a long list for Saturday. First of the chores was weedwhacking. The weedwhacker started, gave out white smoke, and stopped. Four times. Clearly it was not fixed, and would not work.

However, I am accustomed to problematic tools. The trick is not to let it ruin your day. The great thing about a four-page list is that there is always something else to do. Onward!

I would collect stones and branches from the north pasture before Kyle was due to mow it on Sunday. I have an old Craftsman mower with no mowing deck that I use for pulling a cart for various farm chores. Kyle calls it the “I-Haul.” I feel particularly proud of the I-Haul because I, myself, replaced the battery this spring. I went to start the I-Haul. Nothing. Not even a click when I turned the key.

Don’t panic, I told myself. The complete lack of response: surely the cut-off button that prevents starting when the (now non-existent) blades were engaged was not firmly depressed. I spent twenty minutes under the hood, doing complicated things with zip ties to lash the gear lever firmly to the button. At last I was done. Confidently I went to start it. Nothing. Arrgh!

Shake it off, shake it off. Onto the next job. I mucked half the lambing stall. I drove Lucy to town. I spent two hours on dull paperwork. It occurred to me: was Kyle actually going to return on Sunday for the day of mowing he had promised? I texted to him. No, he replied, something had come up. I controlled my irritation (when had he planned to let me know?) and decided I would mow myself. I love mowing. It’s the job I most frequently hire out, as it’s the easiest work and thus kids are happy to do it, which leaves me free for the tough tasks. However, on this day I would mow.

I filled the Cub Cadet and Allen’s Mo-Chief pull-behind mower with gas. The Cub Cadet fired right up, and I drove to the north pasture. I went to start the mower. The mower would not start.

It was at this point that I felt the top of my head start to lift off with rage. I drove to town to pick up Lucy and shop for groceries. I called Mike. I was out of patience and done with projects for the day.

However, yesterday was a new day. I made bacon for Father’s Day breakfast. I moved the sheep. I mucked the stalls and brought the cows in. I walked the dogs for forty-five minutes on the state trails. I made the beds and started laundry. I took out steaks to thaw for Father’s Day dinner.

By 10:00 Dr. Mike arrived to examine the mower, the first of his patients.

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He showed me that the gas-intake mechanism had broken. I had inadvertently flooded the spark plug. In ten minutes he had the mower running with a healthy roar. (The I-Haul he took away with him. It needs a new starter. He’ll price the latter for me, to see if it’s worth fixing.)

Sunshine, a beautiful day, a working mower, and a pasture of weeds to mow! Heaven!

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I was so happy. Mowing always reminds me of my mother. Using Allen’s gift mower reminded me of Allen. They were great company in my mind as I cut the field in long swaths. [Double-click to have the in-the-field experience.]

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Damon called me. I burbled happily about the perfection of Allen’s mower. I hung up.

The mower would not re-start. Don’t panic, I told myself (a regular refrain for me). I inspected the engine and saw the gas-intake mechanism was now completely hanging loose. Surely that’s the problem! I went to my tool room and searched for small bolts and a screwdriver. I found a bolt that was too long but with a nut wound partly up the neck might work for the short term. I bolted the gas mechanism back into place. The mower started right up. I’m a genius!

I mowed for two and a half hours. It would only require another half hour to finish, but it was very hot. I needed to drink fluids and walk the dogs. I stopped, drove home, and returned in twenty minutes. How satisfying it would be to have finished the field!

I went to start the mower. The pull-cord came off in my hand.

 

 


Thinking About A House

May 23, 2016

I have been meeting with financial advisors this spring and two weeks ago they gave me a dollar figure that I could safely spend to build a house. I always thought I would build our house myself, but after last year’s struggle with depression I’ve realized I am feeling a little too fragile and battered to take on such a project. So, in late winter I’d requested and received a pair of estimates from a house panelizing company and a local builder who would erect it. Now, comparing the two figures (money to spend vs. cost to build), I see I need to cut a large chunk from the total.

I’ve been looking at the estimates, mulling over which pieces of the work I can do myself to save money. I know I could save money on the excavation. However, excavating for a foundation is an exact science that requires patience. Allen, my dear friend and excavator operator with endless patience, is no longer with us. I am not sure I want to get involved with the excavation if there is a chance I might make a mistake and cause an even more expensive delay.

So I have been looking at other potential savings areas: finished floors, kitchen cabinetry — plus, my nemesis, interior and exterior painting.

It would be hard to overstate how much I loathe painting. No matter how hard I try, I am inevitably splashed and sticky with paint long before the task is done. However, by doing this job myself I could save thousands of dollars. I had been considering re-painting the barn this summer, and already planned to strip and repaint the garage (the stain that I purchased in 2009 so that I would never have to scrape is, mysteriously, peeling and chipping). I am now thinking that I might buy an airless paint sprayer and learn to use it first on the barn, then on the garage, and then I might be ready to take on the house. At least I would know by then if the job were within my capabilities.

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I have also been looking at floor plans. I have an old floor plan that was drawn for me in 2006. [Double-click to enlarge.] My life was different ten years ago. Our needs have changed. I no longer need a giant pantry, and probably don’t need a full bath and potential bedroom on the main floor.

On Saturday I spent 2.5 hours with a team from the panelizing company: the manager of the company, the builder, and a plan designer. I listened and tried to learn — and tried not to panic at the various suggestions. Move the kitchen so the front door opens into it?

After two hours around the table we drove down to the farm. The men kindly tried to hide their contempt with the work already done, but could not help pointing out the many errors and poor craftsmanship: the sloppy siding job, the foolish placement of a mudroom door directly under a roof valley, and more. As I began to feel sick (the ultimate responsibility is all mine), I reminded myself sternly that I have the same reaction when I scan prose. My proofreader’s eye is relentless. I made myself breathe in and out and keep listening.

Meanwhile, DH has zero interest in houses or plans, and probably would be happiest if we sold the farm and bought a condo in a city. Before the men arrived on Saturday, he left for a long workout. So the decisions are all mine. This is freeing on the one hand but a heavy responsibility on the other.

Yesterday I sat down with my friends Alison and Tom. They are both cheerful and kind and endlessly practical. “Why even have a formal front door?” Alison asked. “It wastes so much space. In this climate no one ever uses a front door. You come in through the mudroom so you can drop your boots and coat.” I am having trouble imagining a farmhouse without a front door, but I’m doing my best to be open to all new ideas.

Luckily or unluckily, the next ten days are so overstuffed with work that I won’t have a lot of time to think about it.


The Bunkhouse

August 14, 2015

… is now a materials shed (and in winter, also lawn tractor storage). I imagine eventually I will have finished all the long-term building projects on this property and have no need of materials storage, but for now the repurposed bunkhouse is very satisfying.

Six weeks ago there was lumber stacked thigh-high in the farm garage, and overflow stacked in the mudroom, in addition to the various tarped piles outdoors. The mess was distressing, having to climb over it with my creaky knees was never easy, and I lost track of exactly what pieces were in the pile. Moreover, if we are to move to a furnished house in two weeks (still up in the air), I will need the heated farm garage to store most of our possessions. So I had to come up with a plan.

In between other projects, Kyle and I have chipped away at the problem, an hour at a time. We cleared out the bunkhouse — sweating in the airless space under a hot tin roof. I built simple braces to use as lumber racks, we planned the layout, and Kyle put them up.

Today we finally finished sorting and stacking the lumber and scrap plywood, and stowing away the rolls of house wrap and roof underlayment. Another big project finished!

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Kyle has become as addicted as I am to the joy of crossing things off the list.