Notice Anything New?
Can you see it? It’s transformational! It changes everything.
This isn’t smoke and mirrors. (Well, maybe smoke.)
I’ll give you a hint. It’s about heat.
Notice Anything New?
Can you see it? It’s transformational! It changes everything.
This isn’t smoke and mirrors. (Well, maybe smoke.)
I’ll give you a hint. It’s about heat.
In our minds, our little house—our work in progress—is picturesque. All winter, we could hardly wait for spring to get back to work on it, in earnest. I’ve been asked to send photos of our progress. Then, earlier this month, the snow finally melted. It was like waking up after a bad drunk.
Construction is a messy thing. Just before the snow, we finished up the septic system, and sealed the log exterior. Somehow, in my minds eye, things under that snow were peachy. Spring has been an awakening.
Installing your own septic system is like buying new underwear. You’re happy to have it, maybe even proud of it. But it isn’t something you show off. It is, in fact, an ugly scar on the scenery. It was time to do some reconstructive landscaping. With any luck, after an enormous amount of work, you won’t be able to tell that we dug there at all.
We added this to our annual spring planting schedule. We take a fervent approach to diversity, adding dozens, if not hundreds of new trees and plants, every year, to fill in what climate change takes. I don’t mean that lightly. The forest is suffering. We are losing our ash trees to the Emerald Ash Borer, and the beech trees to Beech Bark Disease. Last summer’s “freak” wind-storm took out over 35 trees. Changes in the environment are accelerating. We have to hustle just to keep pace. We select our plants emphasizing climate tolerance, and, hopefully, outguessing the next blight. At least diversity should serve us there.
So, every year we purchase baby trees of many varieties to diversify the forest. This year, in trees, we will plant white oaks, hemlock, tulip poplars, witch hazel, dogwood, and redbud. We’re also planting shrubs and bushes for soil conservation and wildlife habitat (a hazelnut windrow and a mixed berry hedge.) To the forest trees, we add 100 hazelnuts, red osier, elderberry, serviceberry, blueberry and high bush cranberry. And then, to fix the scar over the new septic we have clover, native knapweed and various wildflower mixes. Needless to say, we are not putting in a lawn.
So far, the 27 white oaks are in, and we’ve prepped and seeded the front with a mix of clover and over 3,500 square feet of wildflower mix for the bees. I’m trying to keep them closer to home with a delicious variety of safe blooms that haven’t seen pesticides. (I can’t account for what the neighbors, or local farmers, plant.) Rick says the bees will go wherever they want, but I’m like the frantic parent, putting in a swimming pool so the teenagers will stay home. (Rick says that just means you have to feed their ill-mannered friends, too.) That’s not lost on me because I know we may lose many of the new wildflowers to the deer and the bunnies. Bambi and Thumper are no longer cute to me.
By this time next month, we’ll have used all of the 45 tons of composted manure that we purchased last year. Rick can hardly believe it. He thought I was crazy.
I’m exhausted and we still have 158 plants and trees to go. Until the front area heals, there’s no point in pictures, it’s just sorry looking. The next few weeks will be all about planting. The first waves, fruit trees and oaks, are in. Next week the big shipment will arrive. And after that, we should be frost free enough to put in the garden. Ah, Spring.
I’m sorry that I haven’t been posting. I have been busy with everyone’s favorite task in home building. I’m insulating.
For good reason, Michigan takes insulation seriously. Back in California I remember building inspectors glancing at insulation, with a nod and a wink. Not so here. Normally, we have winters that warrant a rigorous inspection. Without insulation, we’d spend a fortune (and a lot of natural resources) to keep the place habitable in the winter.
Because there’s little you can do to insulate log walls, the remaining areas get extra scrutiny. In part because the default—fiberglass–is such a miserable job, we considered all of our options. Rigid, closed-cell board, which is not itchy at all, was time consuming and expensive. We secured bids on foam spray installation. They were outrageous—especially because of the manual labor to install the cold-roof baffles, before the spray. Ultimately we opted for the tried and true, the fiberglass, do-it-yourself option.
We have to meet R 49 in the roof and ceilings. When you include the cold-roof baffles, there’s not enough depth between the rafters to get R49’s worth of insulation. So, we found a company that made sturdy R5 baffles AND we firred-out the rafters with 2X2s for extra depth. Then we used high-density fiberglass batts. Of course, they don’t make such things in the depths we needed, so we opted for three layers of R-15 batts to get to the R-value we needed. It has been an amazing amount of work, most of it overhead, unpleasant and itchy (on a ladder, in protective layers and mask.) With three layers, it means dozens of times up and down the ladder to fill each bay. The first two layers are “friction fit,” that is, they are held up by their sheer orneriness. The last, faced, layer is stapled.
It’s nearly finished. Some of it has to wait—to accommodate wiring and plumbing first. I don’t mind the break, though it might be hard to go back to it. Our little house will certainly be cozy when this is all done. I’m curious to see how it will fare in summer—whether the cold-roof baffles and ridge vent will really keep the roof (and thus the upstairs) cool. In that department, we are blessed that the house falls in the shade of the hill in the afternoons and that should help us keep comfortable, too. It’s important, because we’ve opted not to air-condition.
I’m happy to be nearly finished. It turns out that the only part of this task that is not friction fit, is me.
The Sum of Its Parts
We tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Both Rick and I come from families where you fixed it, before you replaced it. Sometimes, if whatever “it” was, was not within your field of expertise, you paid somebody to fix it. Sometimes, cost or convenience inspired you to do it yourself. There’s a little bit of a mantra to it, even if “it” is intimidating, “Well, how hard could it be, really?”
All the way to building a house.
That history, combined with an appreciation of older things, has led us, separately and together, to a good bit of investigative repair and reinvention. My home is filled with rescue-antiques. Rick is the mother of invention when it comes to building and repairing challenges. We have accumulated no small measure of experience in woodworking, refinishing, building, tool maintenance and repair, mechanical and electronics repair (mostly Rick), art restoration and the mending and making of things in fabrics (mostly me.) We have projects upon projects. Which brings us to the Paramount question.
In the midst of my mid-life upheaval, I decided I needed an intellectual challenge (because writing novels wasn’t enough?) I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and in so doing, to immerse myself in a participatory way, in the language that is music. I had to choose which instrument would be appropriate for a (then) solo, middle-aged woman. It had to be something I could play alone, and maybe with others. I envisioned myself playing and practicing on a big porch with a view. My first choice, violin, wasn’t a good fit—as a previous car accident had left me with neck issues. I thought about the sax—but even the idea of relearning the breathing for a wind instrument, left me winded. So, I decided on the banjo, mostly because I could not think of any banjo music that sounded sad. I picked up a cheapie banjo on craigslist and began learning and plinking. I have a long way to go.
But, as things work out, once you open the door in a particular area, opportunities step in. When my brother learned that I had an interest in the banjo, it turned out he had a contact for an old banjo with history. He sent it my way.
It is a Paramount, tenor banjo from the mid-twenties. It’s beat up and beautiful. For a number of years it’s been sitting, disassembled (thanks to a “well intentioned” friend) in its case. I’m coming very close to having that lovely long front porch, overlooking the valley, so I thought it was time to get the Paramount in shape. Rick, as is his way, raised an eyebrow.
The banjo needs a lot of work. First and foremost, it needs to be completely disassembled and cleaned. Then, a new “head”—the stretched skin that gives the banjo its distinctive sound. The choice was whether to use a synthetic head material, or the traditional calfskin head that was used when the Paramount was first manufactured. We also need to replace the tuning pegs—which raised the question,again, of new versus old. The Paramounts had ingenious Page, geared pegs, new back in the day, and no longer manufactured.
In the past, everyone had said that I need an expert to help with this banjo renovation. So, I asked around and received several referrals to a local guy, who was reputed to be both better, and less expensive, than the “ship it off to Lansing” guys used by local music stores. I called and made an appointment. First, he gave me his tour of successes—a line-up of string instruments, hanging awaiting pick up by his other customers. They were lovely—so we got to the Paramount. His eyes widened when he saw the disassembled banjo. A Paramount is an impressively machined instrument, sturdy and buttressed with all manor of hardware. The expert marveled that the parts were mostly there—you could see that he was positively itching to get to the task. He knew that I had contacted him mostly for assistance with the installation of the new head—but soon his enthusiasm overflowed to the rehabilitation of the wood and the nickel-plate parts. He pointed out the accumulated finger grime on the mother-of-pearl inlayed finger board. I hadn’t noticed how bad it was. He insisted that the entire instrument be disassembled, lovingly cleaned, then reassembled, before a new head could be stretched. He was adamant that only vintage parts should be used—and of course, a calfskin head. He explained the intricacy of the stretching of a banjo head, a process not unlike stretching the canvas for an oil painting. His enthusiasm was contagious, and I was completely on board. As he described the work necessary to restore the banjo to its former glory, the dollars were mounting. He looked up at me, but I didn’t blink. I’m a pushover for any argument favoring an antique’s original integrity. I was sucked in by his description of the painstaking task. With the vintage parts and laborious restoration, my “free” banjo was fast approaching a thousand dollar rehab.
“That grimy fret board,” I asked, “what would you use to clean it?” I expected to be drawn further into the secret and arcane world of instrument restoration.
“Oh, Windex will do it.” He said offhandedly.
My heart skipped a beat. “Windex?” I’ve done enough antique restoration to know that you minimize “wet” treatments, especially near inlay or marquetry. He noticed my alarm.
“Why, what would you use?”
“As mild a cleaner as possible. Probably Murphy’s Oil Soap, with very little water, a damp cloth to wipe it clear and then dry it immediately with a soft terry.”
He nodded, “Yeah, that’d work, too.”
But he’d now handed me the tail-end of the thread that would soon unravel the spell he’d woven.
“And the nickel-plated parts?” I asked.
“Ammonia soak—you know the Windex, and then, where needed, a little steel wool.” My eyes widened and he followed up, “Don’t worry, that steel wool wouldn’t hurt for the tough spots. Why, what would you use?”
“I like Never-Dull. It doesn’t scratch and can clean most any metal finish.”
“Never heard of that.” He pulled out a polishing compound he sometimes uses.
I had to press further. “What about the areas on the neck, and the other wood surfaces, where the finish is worn?”
He looked at me seriously. “There’s a temptation to refinish that—but it’d be a mistake. As long as the wood integrity isn’t threatened, you keep the value of a vintage instrument by maintaining the original finish. You can do that with a little Pledge.”
The bubble didn’t just burst, it imploded.
“Yeah, you know, or any polish and wax finish.” I had visions of 60s era homemaking commercials and gingham aprons. I needed an exit strategy.
“This is adding up. We really just need help with the calfskin head—the cleaning part is grunt work that we can really do ourselves.” His face fell. It wasn’t just that the fish had slipped the hook—you could tell that he had really wanted to get his hands on the banjo. There’s genuine satisfaction in the restoration of a beautiful old item. He nodded. And helped me repack the banjo parts back into the case. He was really a nice and genuine fellow. He was, after all, the person most recommended in the area.
I took the banjo home and told Rick the tale.
So, really, how hard could it be?
We went online, researched and ordered the replacement tuning machines, and the calfskin replacement head material. We even broke down and bought an original Paramount wrench to stretch the new head. (They look kind of look an old skate key.) There are You Tube videos that show the many phases of banjo restoration, including stretching a calfskin head.
Rick helped disassemble the rest of the banjo, and I started the painstaking cleaning process, starting with the inlaid fret board, using the materials of my choice. The expert was absolutely right (in part)—cleaned up, it is beautiful. The nickel plated, metal parts have been gently restored to their former gleaming glory. We have some wood repair still to do, but I’ve ordered all the replacement parts and look forward to the challenge of finishing the job.
It’s only day three and already I’ve missed a day!
In my real life, we’re backfilling over the new septic field (and I thought digging it was hard), moving dirt back over it and being mindful not to damage all the underground pipes; it’s more backbreaking and exhausting than digging the hole in the first place! Yesterday, I started my NaNoWriMo assignment, and promptly fell asleep. So today, I had to double up to try to catch up. Right now my word count stands at 4,295–I’ll need to beef it up tomorrow too, to get back on track. Phew. (And I don’t get to include this in my official word count.) NaNoWriMo–It’s not for everyone. Goodnight All.
In Time for Ladybugs
Two years ago, this week, Rick and I arrived in Leelanau. We’d loaded our truck at my brother’s on a clear, crisp autumn day. Not bothering to cover the load in such stellar weather, we then drove through three hours of mixed rain and snow, all the way to Empire. When we arrived at our little cottage rental, it was full of Ladybugs.
When autumn gives you mixed weather—a clear warning of winter to come—she delivers it with a garnish of Ladybugs. On warmer days, they descend, lighting on any surface warmed by the sun. The air is full of them. They get into the house. If they’re pests, they’re cheerful pests. It’s difficult to work up any insect-phobic reaction to excessive Ladybugs.
We’re rushing to complete some of the outdoor work before the weather turns. The air is full of Ladybugs, so we know well what’s on the way.
Our work is not specifically gender determined. We each take on those tasks for which we have experience. Gender typing does ultimately play a factor—because our respective lives and experiences have formed us along such lines. Generally Rick does the heavy lifting. I have become the expert on surfaces, sanding and architectural coatings. Rick is stronger than me, and has more experience with heavy equipment. I am not afraid of heights.
Rick is just finishing up the installation of the septic tank and field. That’s grueling work—digging, moving stone and sand. It would be impossible without the Kubota, but even with, there’s plenty of shovel work to leave you worn and sore by the end of each day. It looks wonderful, neat and crisp. He does good work (even the inspector said so.) It’s funny to put so much care into something that you immediately bury (and with any luck, you’ll never see again!) But a good septic system is imperative if you want to do your part in keeping surface waters clean. All water flows somewhere, and in this region, everything ultimately flows into our Great Lakes. Proper rural sewage treatment is not rocket science—but it is too often overlooked as a source of contamination. Rick is seeing to it that we are on the “part of the solution” side of the equation.
Everyone likes the idea of clean water. However, whenever the state legislature, or local code authorities try to strengthen standards or enforce compliance with septic rules, the individual liberties and property rights folks go crazy. As though it were their personal right to pollute our collective drinking water.
When you think of it, sewage treatment is a sort of litmus test for civilization. If you cannot figure out how to deal with your wastes—you’ll poison yourself in your own fetid soup. Not meeting that threshold, means you don’t merit the other percs of civilization. As a culture, we should reflect further on that starting point.
I’ve just finished the exterior sealing of the log walls. First there was the inevitable prep—the critical step in any good home protection system. When paint or stain jobs fail, it’s almost always a failure in the prep process. If your prep doesn’t take twice as long as your actual application, you’re probably doing it wrong. Then, two coats of stain. This has been a stinky, messy, oil-based operation. I cringe at it, but it is necessary for the long term care of our home. I’ve painted several homes in my life, but this is my first initial staining of a raw wood exterior. Before I started, I did research.
After two days of day-end skin cleaning, with solvents and abrasives, I figured out that I could start the day with my face and hands liberally slathered with a cheap, greasy lotion—to simplify clean-up and avoid the day-end toxic ritual. I must have looked a fright. I have “paint clothes” that I’ve used repeatedly over the years. They are more paint than fabric. To this I added a neckerchief over my hair, and one around my neck (daubed in herbal bug repellant.) And then I slicked that greasy layer over the skin of my face and hands. I was unrecognizable. By the end of each day, stain speckles on my glasses made me even weirder looking—and nearly blind.
You can only apply paint or stain within a limited temperature range. Some days, it was just too cold for the materials. I really wanted to get the double coat onto the logs, so I could rest assured that the house was protected for the winter—and for winters to come. Make no mistake, winter is coming—the meaning behind the profusion of Ladybugs wasn’t lost on me. I found a good rock’n roll radio station (or, as good as it gets, in Northern Michigan) and, pumped up with oldies from my youth, powered on through.
On logs, they recommend (especially for the first coat) that you apply the stain log-by-log, the full length of any given log, before moving on to the next log. Raw logs are so thirsty that if you don’t constantly work “from a wet edge” you’ll have forever-lap-marks on the logs. And, they told me to work from bottom to top. So that any drips can be brushed out. A stain drip on a naked log becomes a permanent feature.
I didn’t argue. Even though this method maximizes the number of ladder moves, I stuck with it. And, I grew muscled with the wrestling of the ladders. My work on the last side, the north side, was confounded by the trenches Rick had dug for the septic—further complicating the ladder dance. (And, it would be the north face—the highest side of the house!) I was chugging along in my usual rhythm until I hit the north side. Then, maneuvering my ladders around the trenches I lost my nerve.
I looked for it, high and low, but I could not get my nerve back. Maybe I was tired. Maybe stiff and sore legs wouldn’t respond as they should, and it made me feel awkward and uncomfortable on high. Maybe someone snuck kryptonite into my breakfast and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was a mere mortal when working aloft. The farther up the ladder I went, the more cravenly rigid and jerky I became on the ladder. I was petrified. Only the sin of pride forced me back up there to finish that first coat (and then I vowed that I would not go back up until spring, or at least until the trenches were all filled.) I was firm in my fearful resolve, that is, until I saw the results of a second coat.
The first coat soaks into the wood. It looks flat and mottled. The second coat is the juicy, outer, protective coating. It intensifies and evens the pigment. It not only protects, it makes the house look great. And it goes on much faster. My second-coat practice on the east, south and west sides built up my confidence. Though some fear remained, I was able to grit my teeth and return to my usual ladder mobility. (It’s funny that I’m good on ladders and in climbing trees, because I’m an absolute clutz on the ground level.)
With my last brushstroke I called out to Rick (setting pipe in the rock of the septic field) and did a victory dance in front of the house. That’s one ugly job behind me. I triumphed over fear, and got the job done. Next, I need to start insulating the roof and upstairs ceiling. I hear that if you rub copious quantities of corn starch into your skin at the beginning of each insulating day, you can escape the usual “insulator’s itch. “ It’s at least worth a try (and, it couldn’t be any worse than slathering yourself with hand lotion.)
Winter is coming. I have recovered my nerve. We have Ladybugs everywhere, and my hands have never been so soft.