She’s Here!

June 9, 2019

I wrote most of this post December 16, 2018. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but then life rolled over me. Now I can finish it.

When I walked back to the barn yesterday morning after posting here, I discovered the calf had just been born. Wonderful Moxie, choosing our single warm (15°) day! (You can see my black wool hat resting on the rail behind Moxie’s head. I had taken it off when I broke a sweat as I toweled the calf, dipped her navel, and tried to get her to nurse.)

The calf is a heifer. Though 3/4 Jersey and 1/4 milking shorthorn, she is red like her father. As she is a Christmas calf, and red, I called her Holly Berry, Holly for short. (I posted her picture on Facebook and got many congratulations on the “clever” name. I finally realized people thought I was playing on the name Halle Berry. It had not occurred to me. I am far more knowledgeable about Ilex than about modern actresses.)

Once dry, Holly needed some milk. I have started many a calf nursing. Newborn calves are as clueless as any babies — the only difference is that they are bigger. I have been bashed in the face more times than I can count by a confused calf throwing up his head in protest. So I was sweating, squirting milk on my fingers to make them enticing, letting Holly suck on my fingers as I drew her toward the teat… but nothing. Moxie’s udder has dropped so low that Holly did not recognize the teat below knee level as a potential food source.

I ate a quick breakfast and returned to the barn with a calf bottle. I milked Moxie into it and fed Holly a pint. In the photo I’m holding the bottle between my knees to give her neck the proper angle so the milk drops in the correct one of four stomachs.

(Notice the spikes on my boots. DH bought us mini-crampons for the driveway late last winter, after both of us had wiped out in bad falls. I keep mine on my barn boots for the entire winter and feel much safer.)

While I fed Holly, Moxie munched doggedly on the afterbirth. I let her have a bit but then took the rest and put it on the compost pile.

I tried last year’s trick of using a girth and stirrup leather as a sling around Moxie’s midsection to hoist her udder higher. This year it had zero effect. it was like trying to hoist a boulder. Milking her would not work, either. Moxie’s rear teats are very short. With edema they become like buttons on a hot beach ball.

Since I couldn’t lift her udder, I decided to build a platform to lift Moxie herself. Luckily I had a couple of extra 6x6s left over from the house. I dug them out of the snow and brought them to the barn. I also collected all the cut-off ends that I had lying around (one always finds a use for a chunk of 6×6), and an old piece of plywood from the garage.

Back in 2009, Allen had helped me trim a rubber mat to cover the dirt floor in front of the stanchion. I peeled it back, talking to him in my mind.

6x6s are too thick for most saws so I used my Sawz-all.

I laid out all the 6x6s and leftover chunks.

The dirt floor had a slope but I did not worry about it. I scraped the frozen ground outside for a bit of dirt to build up the worst spots, and then called it good. Next I laid out my scrap of 5/8″ plywood and cut it to width. I measured nothing. I screwed the plywood to all the 6x6s.

Next I took the cut off piece and cut a small panel to fit around the post at the doorway. I realized at this point that my platform was not square, but — “custom cutting will take care of it,” I told myself.

Huffing and blowing, I rolled the very heavy, awkward stall mat back on top of the platform. The cuts Allen and I had made in 2009 still fit around the post. Using a jigsaw, I cut off the extra foot of width.

I threw some bedding hay on top, to make it look less unusual. Using a long line, I coaxed a suspicious Moxie toward the grain in the stanchion. After her head was in the catch, I leaned my back against her hindquarters and pushed. “Over, Mox. Over and up!”

She obligingly stepped up. Holly staggered over. Mama’s udder was now seven inches higher. This is more like it! Holly latched on. Success!

I love when problem-solving leads to a happy ending.

My only worries now were milk fever and ketosis. I checked Moxie carefully through the night for three days. She was fine; when I rolled open the barn door and snapped on the lights, she would lift her big dark eyes to look at me calmly. Yay!


A Few Licks on the Lockers

September 24, 2018

My friend Tom has a six-day-a-week summer job so it’s been months since we’ve worked together. However yesterday afternoon he came by and we put in some more hours on the locker project, building the top shelf and hat and glove shelves. We would have finished but we were short one ten-foot 1×4 board. I’ll buy it next Saturday and we’ll put it up on Sunday.

Tom is a kind, quiet man with bottomless patience. These photos show the trials of our workplace. Once upon a time, both bays of the garage were neatly stacked with boxes and furniture, nearly to the ceiling. As I’ve pulled things out or dug through the stacks in search of a missing item, the remainder has grown ever more disheveled and disorganized, bags and loose miscellany tossed higgledy-piggledy. Meanwhile builders have left behind boxes of glue tubes and electrical materials, rolls of roofing, pails of joint compound, extra floor tiles, cans of paint. Scraps of lumber are everywhere. The chaos is deeply embarrassing.

I apologize to Tom. He replies calmly, “They say no one gets his shop organized until he retires.”

I can’t wait six years until I retire. The garage, the little tool room, the southwest quarter of the basement, the garden shed, and my never-unpacked clothing closet are the last bastions of mess and disorganization in the house.

I try to deal with a few boxes and bags every week.


New Apartment Deck Rails

September 23, 2018

I started this post five weeks ago.

All summer I’ve been meaning to replace the railings on the apartment deck. Gary and I built the deck in 2013, long before I’d had a plan for the house, and our only concern for the railings had been safety.

Now that the house is up, I have wanted the railings on the apartment deck to match the main house porch.

Using a credit I had at Lowe’s, on the way home from a trip to Vermont I stopped and purchased a few dozen balusters.

I figured the job would take about three hours. Since all the old rails were treated lumber, I could reuse them. I would just pull them off, cut them down, rehang them, and screw in the balusters. Easy-peasy!

[The top of the house looks so ratty because the builder scraped it last July for painting, and then never painted.]

It was very, very hot but my tenant was away and I had to get the job done. I assembled all my wrecking tools.


Just getting the old rails off, and removing all the dozens of nails, took most of the hours. Sweat poured down my face and soaked my shirt. The remaining posts wobbled in place like loose teeth.

I wasted another hour trying to cut down the old rails and reuse them. They were cupped and twisted. The 1×6 capping boards had dried into long tortilla chips that cracked across at the knots.

OK, time for Plan B! I drove into town late that day and bought fresh 2x4s for rails and 2x6s for caps.

The next day went faster. After taking down the previous day’s sad efforts, I got up the new rails on the east side, countersinking the screws.

The five-year-old posts were themselves dried and twisted, but I did not have time or energy to pull them out. I did the best I could. Allen’s voice said in my ear, We ain’t buildin’ a church.

My backyard shop for cutting the long boards had to be a bit creative.

I worked my way around the deck, drilling the countersink holes and then bracing each post plumb before drilling in the rails.

I laid out the first capping board, hiding the screws by drilling them in from below.

Next, balusters. Math is always baffling to me, but I managed to figure out equal spacing down the length of the rails, marked it top and bottom, cut the balusters to fit, and, standing on my ladder, drilled them in.

Oh dear. Something’s wrong. I squinted at the balusters with a sinking heart. I went inside to my computer to check. Yes, code baluster spacing is 4″ maximum, and mine were spaced at 4.25″.

I climbed back up the ladder, took down all the rails, rejiggered the math, re-marked the rails, and put the balusters back up at 3.75″ apart.

The next day marked Day Three of my “three-hour project.” Of course with all the other farm chores, each “day” was only a few hours, but it was still a bit discouraging.

The temperature was in the 90s. It was too hot to wear a baseball cap to shade my eyes. My t-shirt and jeans were clammy and sticking to me. Sweat ran from my hair to puddle in my glasses whenever I looked down. I took my glasses off. Better to be fuzzy-sighted than underwater.

I had already put up the capping board on the west side of the deck.

The job now was to cut and put up the capping board on the long south side. This board had a 45° angle on both ends. I could not use the old board as a template because it had shrunk almost a full two inches.

Time was running out. I was due to leave for Ami’s surgery and had a thousand chores to accomplish before then. But I had left this board to cut when I was fresh because I knew that with my difficulties with math and spatial relationships, the odds were very high that I’d reverse the angles or cut the board too short. I went over it and over it in my mind before I cut. Then, with difficulty, I levered the heavy 12′ treated board up onto the deck, climbed up, and lifted it into place.

It fit!

And that’s where I had to leave the project before I drove to Connecticut. The steam in the picture is from the sweat in my pocket.

Though my tenant assured me he would not fling himself through the openings to fall off the deck, the unfinished railing has been a reproach to me ever since. Unfortunately, between work and other priorities, I’ve had no time.

However yesterday he was away hiking, and I cut and put up all the remaining balusters.

It’s not perfect, but it’s done. Yay!


Bricks!

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.

 


Update on the Mudroom

June 21, 2018

Over the past eight months, between other chores and projects, I have been working on our mudroom. Slowly I got each wall paneled. (The work was slow because many of the boards were warped, the walls are not plumb, and the floor and ceiling are not level. It was, of course, a crazy idea to put straight lines on this room.)

Nevertheless, I persevered, wall by wall.


Last summer — when I actually started this mudroom project — my friend Tom and I had begun staining some of the boards “Ipswich Pine” before I thought better of it. I now decided to use those stained boards on a single wall. The other option was to buy new boards, and I couldn’t spare the cash. “It will be an accent wall,” I told myself hopefully. In mid-February Nick came in and over several days laid the floor. On seeing the terra cotta tile (bought on deep sale the year before) against the Ipswich Pine wall, I was extremely glad I had stopped staining the paneling. The effect was very orange.

In early April the paneling was basically done and I asked Tom if he would be willing to help me finish trimming the room. I knew I had to rip the last boards near the ceiling and I was nervous at the prospect of using my table saw, a creaking behemoth. I also had no idea how to trim the windows or door frames.

Tom kindly agreed to help, and suggested I should pick up some sawhorses for the job. I planned to go to the nearby city to the big box store, but we had a snowstorm. Instead I found a plan for a pair of quick and dirty stackable sawhorses and cut up the pieces on my chop saw.

When Tom arrived we screwed together the sawhorses in about five minutes.


Total cost, $25. I immediately loved those sawhorses.

Tom also oiled my old table saw and fitted it with a sharp new blade. “It’s a nice saw,” he said kindly. Tom is a very encouraging person. (And as you can see, we were working in a tight space with stacked clutter everywhere. He never complained.)

We started to trim the doors, beginning with the back door. This door had been poorly installed by Dean back in 2009 and the only way to keep it from blowing open was to keep it locked at all times. Not only was the frame slightly racked but the strike plate was in the wrong place. Naturally, Tom fixed it.

It took us the entire morning to trim that one problematic door. One morning the following weekend, we finished the other three. (Our work sessions were generally only a few hours. Tom typically works six days a week, so it was extremely generous on his part to give me so much of his free time, week after week.) The next time we met, we cut and put up simple ceiling moulding and baseboard all the way around the room. A couple of weekends after that, we started on the windows.

These windows had been a mess of insulation, house wrap, and cobwebs for nearly nine years.

I was happy to see it all disappear under fresh clean trim.

At one point this spring Tom and I drove over to the bed and breakfast lodge belonging to our friends Tony and Nancy, to inspect their mudroom lockers. Like us, Tony has a long experience with our school, and in renovating the lodge he had copied the student lockers, while upgrading them (not only are his lockers wider, for middle-aged bottoms, but the seat is higher, for middle-aged knees). For many years, I have coveted Tony’s lockers. Now Tom and I would copy his design.

May was so busy for both of us that we were only able to spare a single morning to frame the locker bench seat. Another month flew by with all its attendant chores. This past Friday I managed to get a friendly electrician to stop in and hook up the two outlets under the lockers before they became inaccessible under the finished bench.  And yesterday Tom and I got the lockers framed.

It’s important to understand that Tom is the brains of our work partnership. I am merely his assistant. He measures to the nearest millimeter and runs the saws. I steady and catch the boards and use the nail gun. Here is Tom, ripping slats for the bench seat (in the usual disaster of the garage).

Tom showed me how to use a router to round off all the edges. I held the boards.

I nailed down the slats and slowly the bench grew.

Now we had to cut the plywood for the locker walls. Tom’s Makita is a lot nicer than my Skilsaw, so he made the cuts.

Tom is a great person to work with. He is extremely talented, quiet, kind, and patient — and so determined that it is easy to forget that he is 75 years old.

We cut the locker sidewalls, notched them, and toenailed each one to the wall.

By the end of the day the frame was in place — and Tom had to head out to his real job.

It may be another week or two before Tom can come back, but I have a list of chores to finish before then anyway (sanding, wood-puttying, putting up the rear coat hooks).

This mudroom has been a long project, and the end is not yet, but it is deeply satisfying to see it begin to come together.

Thank you, Tom!


The Slate

June 12, 2018

A number of things are making me feel particularly foolish. I get so angry at myself it’s hard to sleep. I don’t have time today to write about the problems so instead I’ll share something cheerful.

I’ve always wanted to have a chalkboard in the barn. By now you know I am comforted by lists. (I have learned that if I can remember to write something down, there’s an excellent chance I will remember to do it.) Modern whiteboard markers are frozen and useless here six months of the year, so I’ve wanted a chalkboard to mount in the entry as you walk into the barn aisle. But real chalkboards these days are hard to find, and very expensive.

Last summer I was walking through a neighborhood barn with the owner. Leaning in a corner was a giant piece of slate, about 4.5’x3′. My eyes brightened. Miss Dexter was trying to clear out her barn and would be happy to have me take it away. I picked it up just before snow blocked the barn doors for the winter.

The slate was an 70-lb potato chip, simultaneously very heavy and very fragile. With difficulty I walked the big slice of stone into my barn tack room to be stored out of traffic until I had time to address it.

In January my friend Larry routed some pine to make me a frame. Unfortunately with the frame the slate was too big to fit anywhere in the barn. The winter was long and I had no mental bandwith for extra problem-solving. The slate sat untouched, part of the general clutter.

Yesterday, however, discouraged by recent events, I decided to cheer up by cleaning the barn. I came upon the slate and frame and suddenly felt motivated to tackle the problem. I took down a broad shelf next to my milking stanchion, pulled out the frame, and measured. I realized that if I shaved the frame by 1/2 an inch all around, I could squeeze the slate vertically in the space without, as I’d believed, having to tear down the stanchion. I carried all the pieces of the frame up to the garage to my table saw and cut them down.

Then (standing on the shelf I’d just removed) I grunted the heavy slate up to rest in the bottom piece of the frame which I’d previously screwed to the wall. Though I’m tall, I’m not really very strong so it was touch and go there for a while, the heavy slate wobbling, the shelf wobbling a bit under my feet. But I got it done. I drilled in the rest of the frame, and… I now have a chalkboard in the barn! I still have to secure the power strip that controls the lights, but the slate is ready for my lists.

It’s the little things, sometimes, that lift your spirits.


Trudging

January 11, 2018

For some reason this week has seemed very long. I’m trudging through my lists.

Yesterday afternoon the temperature began to climb and after work I spent ninety minutes sweeping snow off the big stack of tongue-and-groove panel boards I had stored on the porch, shaking them clean, and carrying them into the mudroom. It has been so cold that the boards were still dry. I did not want them wet, or worse, encased in ice.

Every Sunday I look at the long-range forecast and stage all the week’s chores according to the weather. This wood-moving job had been penciled in for Tuesday, but I had the students’ stomach virus that day and barely dragged myself through classes. Thankfully, the serious thaw didn’t start until last night.

However, now — in addition to moving boxes, jackets, barn clothes, boots, dog paraphernalia, and the giant air compressor and other tools — the mudroom is crowded with stacks of boards. There is a narrow path through all the mess.

I must finish the paneling. I just haven’t had time.

I had planned the work for this Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, because DH was supposed to leave this afternoon and be away for four days on business. Just clearing a space to work on the walls will require a lot of shifting and stacking. Everything will look very much worse before it looks better. DH is a neat person by nature and living in any sort of mess is stressful for him. He has enough stress right now. So I had thought, Terrific! He’ll be away for the mess tornado! But now it appears his trip has been canceled.

Of course I’m happy to have DH home and not putting in exhausting hours on the road. However it means I have to figure out how to manage this job without the house looking like a FEMA site.

Before I can do that, today’s challenge is to dig out the buried barn paddock fence — now four feet deep in wet, heavy snow — before it refreezes into a permanent winter landscape feature.