Archives for posts with tag: hard working man

It’s About Time

A.V. Walters–

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Lately, my job has been sanding. It gives me a lot of time to think. I work in a bubble—face mask, ear protection, hat and eye glasses—for safety, but it keeps me in my own head. Of course, there’s always the day job, so my attention is split, part to regular work and part to building. While I sand, Rick has been busy working the site, rough wiring, and building, installing the boards that I’ve finished sanding.

In the Zone

In the Zone

I learned sanding from my Dad. I think I earned that chore as a little kid because I was observant and, well, anal. I have a constitutional tolerance for the tedious. Now as I sand, I hear my Dad’s voice—and it’s a comfort.

“No, go with the grain. There, that’s it.”

The task of sanding is so integrated with my childhood memories that the sandpaper, the smell of sawdust, and the feel of sanding are enough to bring my Dad back. His voice and advice is a part of the physicality of the job. I’m using the sander he advised me to buy. I’d burned through two Black & Deckers, prepping my house for a paint job, when he said I needed better tools. So here I am, twenty-six years later, still using the Porter Cable he’d recommended.

We’ve had a lot of trouble with lumber on this project. We’ve rejected nearly a third of what we’ve ordered from local building supply houses. We even tried the local “specialty” builders’ outfit—and paid a significant premium for what was supposed to be custom picked lots. You can get quality lumber from the discount guys, but you’ll have to spend a ton of time picking through it. So, we swallowed hard and tried a “pro-builder custom order.”

It was a more than a disappointment. It was just as junky as if we’d picked from the top of the rejects pile at the discount stores. For this we paid an extra 25%? I called to complain. Rick and I sorted the pile into junk, usable and good. The sales guy lives not far away; he said he’d drop by. When he did, he looked at the pile and shook his head. “Yeah, that’s just not right.” Even then, it took two more deliveries to get it right. Another delay.

Every glitch just burns daylight. We’ve had snow flurries already so the delays are really a problem. We want to achieve a “defendable” enclosure before any serious snow accumulation. As for lumber, we’re back to hand picking on our own—it’s cheaper and, if you get junk, you know who to blame.

“Check your sand paper. See, if it clogs up like that, it’s time to change the paper.   Here, let me show you.”

“Daddy, how will I know when it’s done?”

“You’ll know, honey, your fingers will know.”

My dad had a belief that sometime, in our past, there was a Golden Age of Tools and Materials. Even when I was little he would curse the shoddy workmanship in building supplies. When materials fell short of the mark it was the fault of some national disgrace. I grew up to the litany of, “Goddamn Canadian nails!” or “How can they sell this shit!” He cursed like a trucker.

Rick shares this creed. He’ll eye a 2 X 6, shake his head and throw it back in the pile. “You just can’t get quality materials anymore!” (Another kind of echo from my Dad.) Picking up yet another bowed or twisted 2 X 10, he points out the wide soft wood between the growth rings, “See that, plantation lumber, grown fast and weak.”

Was there really ever a NeverNeverLand of strong nails and straight lumber?

I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s an argument about quality that’s been going on at least since the Industrial Revolution—and probably back beyond that—to the woodworking guilds of the Middle Ages. Wood is an agricultural product. Trees are not perfect. What makes lumber true, is time. Time and effort. Somewhere in the chain of commerce someone has to care enough, or make enough money, to make it worthwhile to spend the time to do it right. It’s the same for building and for any craft. In a world of mass production, suppliers will produce any product that will sell. Unfortunately that means that the quality will be as marginal as the market will bear.

As my father aged he became more and more of a fine craftsman. He complained less about milled lumber, not because it got any better, but because he bought raw, and milled and finished it himself. Towards the very end of his life the furniture he built was more art than craft. He was not fast. He certainly couldn’t have made a living at it. But he knew the work was good and it gave him great satisfaction. He reached the point where he’d select wood for its “flaws,” knots or whorls, and then fashion the piece to highlight these natural features.

In the months before he passed away he and I were enjoying morning coffee at a walnut table he’d made. “See this?” he tapped a spot where the grain swirled and rippled, catching the light. “That’s where I let the sun out.” He smiled and ran his hand along its smooth edge.

Rick and I are building a log cabin. The purveyors of the materials would prefer we call it a log home, but ours will be a modest dwelling that fits within the cannons of the design’s history. It’s suited to the simple lines of its primitive forebears. There is a lot of natural wood. Rick is taking the time to position the beams to their best advantage, even to straighten them with weird clamps and strapping devices of his own invention. I don’t think a builder could afford that level of care on a paying gig. This will be our home.

A traditional log cabin would have beams across the log perimeter, with a heavy plank ceiling that served as both the ceiling above and the floor for the second level. We searched for the right material that would work, and be in the spirit of a log cabin. We settled on kiln dried, southern yellow pine, beveled, tongue and groove, 2 X 6s. It was a special order so we had to take the quality on faith and wait several weeks for it to arrive.

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When it did, it was a huge disappointment. The wood was much more knotty than the catalogue description. It was not “finish-milled” and ready, as described. Rustic shouldn’t be synonymous with slivers. This wood bore the deep mill markings, chatter and the “tear-out” that you get when the mill’s blades are not sharp. Worse yet, the wood arrived moldy. And I’m not talking about the ubiquitous blue stain that comes with some pine. This wood was alive with green and orange colonies of mold. (Again, I can hear my Dad’s voice, “Kiln dried, my ass!”) Our expensive special order was a bust. We had to decide whether to reject it (and pay the chunky restocking fee AND wait for new wood) or whether to roll up our sleeves and solve the problem, which brings me to sanding.

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I am neither as strong, nor as skilled as Rick in building. I am really just a knowledgeable gopher, but I can sand. And that’s what we did. We bleach treated all the areas of mold and then sanded it all to remove any sign of mold or mill markings. All 150, 12-foot lengths, both sides. (There I was, sanding pine, a wood my father didn’t think was worth burning!) It took me an extra two weeks—while Rick worked on site grading and electrical. It’s up now, and looks really good. A silk purse from a sow’s ear.

I have my hands on my hips now. “Really Daddy, how will I know, how will my fingers know?”

“You’ll know it’s done, honey, when it’s as smooth as a baby’s ass. You just keep sanding ‘til then.”

 

My Dad's Sandpaper Box

My Dad’s Sandpaper Box

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Territory, New Toys…
A.V. Walters

In the early days...

In the early days…

No! Did I say toys? Tools, tools, really it’s new tools! It’s a whole new world of what one needs to do—snow, building, planting. First, after carefully reviewing the used market for almost a year, we got the Kubota tractor—which we we’ve needed for road grading, excavation, and will certainly need for snow clearing. Rick cut in the driveway and dug out the foundation for the cabin with it—it’s no toy.

Then, I saw a good deal on a log splitter, on craigslist. In Two Rock we heated with wood and we split it all by hand—both of us. Of course, Northern California doesn’t pack nearly as much of a winter punch as Michigan. We used to use about two cords of wood a year to keep toasty. Here we figure we’ll need about five. The log splitter was a good call. I used it, feeling like a bit of a traitor to my trusty maul and wedge. But in an afternoon, without breaking too much of a sweat, (though it is still work) I split about a cord. Wow. We already had chainsaws (when we met, Rick and I owned the same brand and model of chainsaw. Kismet!)

The generator/inverter was a no-brainer. So far, there still isn’t any power to the site. (Though it looks like next week the electric company will bring in the underground lines for power—with phone and internet piggybacking in the trench.) Everything needs power—nailers, sanders, lights, saws. So the generator can’t be considered a toy by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in the spring, we were looking at the costs of excavation—road, foundation, well line, septic. It was daunting. We’d already bought what’s called a back-blade (it’s like a big scraper) so, my next job was to look for a used backhoe attachment for the Kubota. It took awhile—It was my job to make it work financially—to make any purchase pay for itself with savings from what we’d otherwise be paying others. I also had to learn about what implements would fit on our tractor. There’s a whole culture of tractordom—sub-frames, hydraulic kits, three-point attachments and PTOs. Things need to match—and I’m not talking about accessorizing. I found one—and we finally hooked it up. It was quite a feat—first, installing a sub-frame, and then uniting two pieces of equipment that weigh tons. The conjoined parts look like a large, prehistoric insect. Usually, I’m not one much for mechanized things, but horsepower does have its advantages.

Rick immediately started digging the line for the well. He’s far more mechanically inclined than I am, within an hour, he had the levers and controls figured out, and he was trenching like a pro. I’m a little jealous. I want to dig, too. (Don’t worry, my turn will come.) In the meantime, I’ve become quite the craigslist maven. Hey, there’s still a snow-blower to consider. A 3 point snow-blower is a thing to behold—throwing a veritable fountain of snow 20-30 feet in the air. Winter is coming… they’re tools, after all, not toys.

Bunker Mentality–

A.V. Walters–

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We’re building. It’s a small footprint, our cabin at the edge of the woods. We picked the site for its view across the valley, and so that we’d get sheltering shade in the summer. We are months behind schedule. If I were the type, I’d be getting close to panicky. On our walks, I note that we’re seeing the occasional flash of early color in the trees

Initially, we had weather delays—frost well into May, administrative delays—title and permitting problems and then, a comedy of errors on the foundation.

This county requires that building plans be prepared by an architect or a licensed “building designer.” Since we’d already drawn up our plans, we went with the building designer method—to check for technical and structural details, and to make the plans look professional. We informed the designer that there was a slope to the property—but he wasn’t concerned—I guess he figured it wasn’t his department.

When the approvals were finally complete, we hired a local mason to build the foundation. Though Rick is a builder, there are very good reasons to hire out parts of the job to those with greater experience. Most of our building proficiency is from California, where foundations are usually poured concrete (with lots of rebar reinforcement.) California has earthquakes, and they take their foundations seriously. Michigan foundations are often built with concrete block—especially for smaller buildings like our little cabin. It’s heavy work and we are not young.

The plans called for a crawlspace—just enough of a foundation to meet the frost requirements for local code. It’s a cabin, nestled into the gently sloping hillside, with a cozy, low profile. We knew we might have some adjustments because of the slope. We consulted with the mason. He didn’t see a problem, maybe a couple of extra courses of block. He instructed Rick on exactly how he wanted the excavation to be done. Rick did the digging, per instructions, with the Kubota. As he did so, it started to look like the back-side of the hole was a lot deeper than the mason had described.

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On the mason’s return, he too, was surprised by the depth of the hole. He accused Rick of not digging level and true. Measurement proved that it was almost perfect, (a little less than a half inch off, across a forty-foot run.) The mason shrugged. He’d have to go at least an extra two courses of block—and he submitted a revised bid. We nodded. The price seemed fair. After all, what do we know from masonry?

A day or so later, he advised that the wall sill wasn’t high enough, to address issues of drainage and slope, he’d have to go yet higher. This crawlspace was exceeding crawl (except in timing.) We’d gone past duck walk to homo-erectus—though still not a legal height basement. I ran down to the County permits department to advise of the change. The clerk asked me why we didn’t just go all the way, for a full basement. Oh no, it’s just a little cabin. That would be thousands of dollars more and we didn’t really need a basement. It’s a cabin—and with the extra height, we’d be giving up on that snuggled-into-the-hillside look.

It was a Friday night. I went into town for milk and beer. I ran into our buddy, Linus, from up the road. He was picking up a pizza. Linus works at one of the cherry farms, but used to be in heavy-equipment and construction. During cherry harvest he works long days—and pizza-to-go is part of the equation.

“How’s it going with the foundation?”

“Well, it’s a lot deeper than we thought. We’re up to ten courses.”

He nodded. “So you’ll be pouring a floor, then?”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll still keep it to a crawl space—now, it’s just a tall one.”

“No, you’ll be pouring a floor… a four-inch slab.” It wasn’t a question.

I looked up at him. “We really weren’t planning on a full basement, it’s too high.”

“I doesn’t matter. At ten courses, you pour a floor for stability.” He was nodding his head with certainty. He doesn’t talk much, and, for him, this was pushy.

“Yeah? You think so?”

“Four inches—no less.” His pizza was up. He nodded at me, “Tell Rick I said so.”

The weekend was a running debate. We had to have a serious discussion with the mason. Could this be true? Why hadn’t he said anything? Rick reconfigured the plans for a full basement, just in case. If you have to pour a floor, you might just as well go the full twelve courses for a legal basement. And, if you’re putting in a full basement on a slope, you should put in a door on the downslope for a walkout, and, yeah, maybe a window, for light. We tried to imagine our little cabin, perched up on an eight-foot high, block foundation. A bunker. An eyesore! “Don’t worry,” Rick assured me, “If we have to go this route, we’ll bury as much as we can. We’ll landscape it.”

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Monday morning was telling. Rick put it direct to the mason. “A friend said we should be pouring a four-inch, slab floor—for structural reasons—any truth to that?”

The mason didn’t meet his eyes. He scuffed his boot in the sand. After a long silence, he offered, “Well, it is a good idea.” Why hadn’t he said anything before? That made the decision. I zipped up to the county offices with Rick’s revised plans. The clerk nodded.

“You won’t regret it, a basement is really handy.” She smiled, a little smug. But, she’d been right.

For the next couple of days we watched as the courses of concrete block grew, towering above us. We looked for the bright side. You can always use extra storage… right? Rick could have a shop downstairs. We could move the laundry down there, too. And, we told ourselves, the added height gave us a hell of a view from the front porch. The foundation price was now double the original bid. We sighed and wrote progress payments.

During the foundation work the mason’s little daughter took ill. Really ill. She was hospitalized for over a week. Though we only lost one “official” day of work, the family’s trials cost in “attention” time. Who could blame him? If I had a little one at risk, I’d be glued to her. These are the important things in life. We were happy to accommodate.

We did have a little tiff over the details of the floor. We wanted a vapor barrier under the slab. The mason didn’t want to deal with it. We insisted. It wasn’t the norm, he said. He got more than a little grumpy about it. In the end, we’re the owners—we insisted and prevailed.

With the block work and floor complete, the only remaining thing was to insert the rebar and pour concrete into the wall cores. We were anxious for completion—because then the project would be ours again. With us at the helm, we could make up for some lost time. Rick asked the mason about the rebar placement. Given his California roots, Rick was concerned about what looked to be sparse reinforcement. After all, we’d doubled the wall height, so for structural reasons, now was not the time to go light on strength.

The mason threw a fit. Was Rick questioning his professional integrity? He was almost yelling now. The mason went to his truck and took out his copy of the Michigan Code Book. He shook it in Rick’s face. “It’s all in here. I don’t go by California code. I go by Michigan rules. We don’t have earthquakes here!” He threw the book back into the cab of his truck and left for the day.

Tired of being at a disadvantage, Rick came home, went online, and purchased his own copy of the Michigan Code book. But, in the meantime, we had little choice but to trust the mason. He came the next day for the “final pour.” It was a relief. After our inspection, scheduled for the following Monday, we’d finally be able to start our building process. I paid the mason.

Well, “we” failed the inspection. California, Michigan, it doesn’t matter. The code is pretty much the same, no matter, and the amount of rebar in our foundation didn’t meet code. (So much for “professional integrity.”)

I emailed the mason. He called, livid, like it was our fault—accused us of pissing-off the building inspector. We told him to speak to the Inspector, himself. Apparently, that conversation set him straight. We didn’t even have to say that he should read his own Code Book, instead of shaking it in our faces. He was whipped and compliant.

It took another week to get it finished. The inspector told him exactly what he expected in reinforcement—even more than what code would have required, but by this time, the mason was cowed and obedient. We helped with the final pour. Now we have the strongest foundation in the county, a literal bunker. If there’s ever a tornado or a hurricane, we know where to go. Oh yeah, and turns out the vapor barrier, we fought over, is Code, too!

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The foundation took a little over a month. Not too bad, considering all the changes and hiccoughs. It’ll be nice to have a basement, and there’ll be that incredible view from the front porch.

Gypsies and Win-Win

A.V. Walters

Cozy kitchen

Cozy kitchen

I have a sister who moves all the time. She’s not an economic refugee; she has a comfortable life. It’s just that she and her husband seem to have itchy feet. They buy a house, fix it up, and then, when even a faint whiff of opportunity calls them elsewhere, they are gone like the wind and the process starts anew. I used to say that her middle name was “never-in-ink,” based on the damage that her peripatetic ways did to my address book. At one point she had three homes (and an orchard with a pole barn) in three different countries! We joke that some people go on vacation and send postcards—my sister buys real estate. Her defense? Well, they needed somewhere to park. The process has slowed some, maybe it’s age. More likely, the real estate juggling has diminished because they bought a big boat that now takes them from place to place, to satisfy some of that wanderlust.

Rick and I are not like that. We are homebodies, gardeners and people of roots. So it’s surprising that in the past eight months we’ve moved three times—with another planned before the end of the year.

We did love our little honeymoon cottage in Empire, but it was, after all, a “vacation” rental and that means that we had to move on once the “season” started, or pay the steep hotel-like rates that tourists pay. In a vacation area, the season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Some people extend a little beyond that, for a second-wind season that we call “color.” So, we packed up and moved again.

The problem with living somewhere this beautiful is that, if you’re not a grower (cherries, apples or wine grapes), the most lucrative business for locals is the tourism industry. The county is chockablock with cottages, B&Bs and little hideaway granny units that are rented to tourists by the day, or week. It’s almost impossible to find a longer term rental because everyone is cashing in on the vacation market. Rick and I are building, this summer, and we needed a place to stay—somewhere near the building site—until it’s ready to occupy. We’re getting a late start because of the heavy winter and delays in permitting. That put us smack-dab in the middle of the vacation season—no reasonably priced housing. We checked with our soon-to-be neighbors (two of whom have vacation rentals) but they needed the tourist rates. We considered buying a trailer, or even a heavy duty tent—though that’s a tough transition with cats. Then we stumbled on what looked like a win-win.

 

An old-fashioned look.

An old-fashioned look.

Back in Petaluma, each year in April, we volunteered for an organization, Rebuilding Together, that helps to renovate homes for elderly or low income owners. Often the services are critical to letting them stay in, and maintain, their homes. It’s a great organization—and it was where we met, Rick a volunteer builder and me—volunteer grunt labor. This year, April came and we noted that it was the first time in a long while that we weren’t on a Rebuilding crew.

In preparation for our impending relocation to Cedar, I went around introducing myself to all the neighbors. Some of them I’d known for years. I bought this property over two decades ago, and so I was that absentee owner from California. I thought we should re-connect in more of a, “Hi, we’re moving in,” kind of way. At each stop there were the usual discussions—“we’ll be building, yes, my husband is a builder… no, it’s not a summer/vacation home, we’ll be living here….” One neighbor in particular took interest—“Does he do work on the side?” Apparently some years ago she considered renovating her walk-out basement into a rental. She hired some fly-by-night-guy and it went badly from there. After a considerable investment (and some bad blood) she fired the guy and the job sat, unfinished—in fact, it had barely been started. Though I’d only just knocked on her door, technically I’d been her neighbor for years. Maybe that’s why she felt so comfortable telling me her life story and all her woes, though it seems to be a common thread in my life. People tell me stuff.

It didn’t take long before I thought—hmmmm, she needs renovation work, we need a place to stay… I connected the dots. I suggested it to Rick, before I approached the neighbor. It would be a big undertaking—not to be entered into lightly. Oddly enough, it was an alternative to our usual, April volunteer gig. This was a win-win—there was something in it for us, and it could work for her, too. When we approached the neighbor, she was intrigued, but wary. It took her weeks to decide (and we even had to interview with her priest!)

So that’s where we’ve been for the past month, or so. We’ve been building a little apartment. We were running on a short time frame—after all we had to be out of Empire by June 1. And, as usual, it was on a shoe-string budget. Another project brought to you by Craigslist. We pulled many 10 hour (and a few 15 hour) days until we reached the point of “habitable.” We still have trim-work (baseboards and window trim, etc) to do, but we moved into this little pied-à-terre the first of June. It’s just across the road from our building site. As soon as our permit is approved (which is taking longer than we thought) we’ll be building, yet again, only this time (for the first time) for us.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

Still work to do, but a comfortable way-station to home.

We’re not like my sister. We’re not gypsies. We’re itinerant builders, looking for a spot to call home.

Of course, there is next April…

 

 

 

 

Breaking Just the Rules

A.V. Walters

It was hot today, hotter in town. Sometimes it might just be better to set hard work aside on so hot a day. But we had committed to prune and thin the oak trees at Rick’s house. (Sounds funny, because I think of this as Rick’s house, but I have to remember that he has a house, a family and a former life.) That house is listed for sale right now, so there’s a flurry of sprucing up going on. Rick is doing his part, too.

That yard is graced with elegant mature oak trees—a lovely canopy against the heat of the summer sun. It hasn’t been pruned in years, so the understory has a lot of dead branches. It makes the yard look a little like a haunted forest, so it really did need some help. We arrived, ladder, chainsaw, Japanese pruning saw and loppers, ready to bring shape, air and light back to these gracious oaks.

I’ve been an avid tree pruner for years and I grew up heating with wood, so chainsaw protocol is in my blood. There isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t comfortable with the working end of a splitting maul or a chainsaw. Rick is newer to the lumberjack world, but he’s a professional handy guy, a bricoleur by trade. So he’s no stranger to tools and safety. I don’t know how things all went so wrong, so quickly. But, we broke all the rules.

First, there’s ladder safety. The area where we were working was sloped. We started out right, I was spotting Rick, holding the ladder when he was working on high. Later, perhaps eager to finish on such a hot day, we split up. I started on the ladder, but climbed up into the tree and was limbing from above, using the pruning saw. Rick took the ladder, and was working, not far from me, using a chainsaw. He was watching me, because I have a reputation for being clumsy. He wasn’t crazy about me climbing around in that tree. But it was going well. In no time, our work area, the driveway beneath the trees, was littered with branches.

Maybe because I’m female, and never as strong as the guys, I’ve always felt pressed to do the same work—but my way. Instead of lobbing off a big branch, I make a series of small cuts. It takes me longer, but it’s safer. I’m always careful to first make scoring cuts so that a severed limb can’t swing uncontrolled on a bark tag. I always work well ‘inboard’ from my cuts. A big branch can swing – and especially if you’re on a ladder—it can be dangerous. Years ago, I did a short stint as a park ranger—the guys all laughed at my ponderous progress.

Though Rick takes bigger ‘bites” (lobs off more at one whack) than me, I’ve always observed him taking all due care. He’s usually better than me—ear-plugs for power equipment—gloves—I could learn from him.

So, maybe it was the heat.

There I was, in my perch in the tree. I looked over to ask Rick if he could spare the loppers. He was at the top of the ladder, just finishing a cut when the long, severed end of the branch twisted as it fell. I called out to warn him, but, with the earplugs and the chainsaw, he couldn’t hear me. The wider, spreading end of the branch swung slowly, towards the base of the ladder. I held my breath, but my worst expectation bore out as the branches swept the feet of the ladder sideways, and my Rick was in the air with the chainsaw. It was in slow motion, and if I close my eyes, I can still see it. He pushed the chainsaw away as he curled for the fall. It would have been a “good” fall, too if the ladder wasn’t on its side on the ground below him. He hit directly across the ladder’s legs, on one end of him, the back of his head cracked against the aluminum frame, bending it. In the next second, the backs of his legs hit, angled across the other side of the frame.

There was Rick, sprawled over the mangled ladder and I was stuck in the tree. I called out to him, but still he couldn’t hear me. I screamed for help. Rick couldn’t hear that, either. In that moment I realized how fundamental he has become to me, to my view of life, as we know it. It’s all about not giving up, and second chances.

Every male in my family has had some kind of accident having to do with chainsaws, or wood splitting or cutting. All have survived—though in a couple of cases, it was close. Mostly we learn from them—thankful that travesty didn’t turn to tragedy. Rick has just joined that “prestigious” club

I was getting ready to jump down, (Rick, now hogging the ladder with his body) when one of the house’s co-owners ran out to the driveway to see about the screaming. Rick was getting up and brushing himself off—looking dazed. He removed the earplugs and ordered her to stop right where she was—his glasses were missing and he didn’t want anyone to step on them. I knew he must be okay.

He’s pretty banged up—but it’s a miracle that he didn’t split his head open (or didn’t break something!) That’ll be the joke in the future—hard-headed. We actually stuck around and finished the job. I think I’m more rattled by the whole thing than him—but then, I saw it. We’ve both learned, and clearly, safety has just become more important. (I think my family needs to find a better initiation than chainsaws.)

And, maybe it was just the heat, but I’m feeling lucky.

Playing Possum on the Bell Curve

A.V. Walters

It’s about nine miles into town and, at certain times of the year, it’s carnage. This is that time of the year. The hills are verdant. Our seasonal rains have started and the wild critters have come out, in force, to take advantage of the return of resources. That means they’re moving about and, unfortunately, they don’t understand the rules of the road. The only rule that should concern them (besides, RUN!!!) is that they cannot win in a faceoff with a motorized vehicle.

About a month ago, I noticed (what my partner calls) the annual, ‘Running of the skunks.’ All of a sudden, for just a couple of weeks, the skunks decide that they need to cross the road, now (and often fail.) Yes, of course, they’re trying to get to the other side, but why the sudden, yearly mass-migration, just to get there?

The steel-verses-fur imbalance is especially true of the possums. There were four of them on the shoulder today and they weren’t playing possum. Possums have an unusual survival strategy. When confronted with extreme stress—a life or death choice—they lose consciousness. That age old technique was a winner when their primary opponent was a predator. Some time ago, (say, a millennia) there was a survival advantage to fainting in the face of danger. (It worked for Victorian era women, too. Go figure!) Those oddball possums who developed this strategy, lived to see another day, and bred like rabbits.) It worked because many predators will only eat live prey, so the ‘play-dead’ strategy fooled them. Embedded deep in the predator instincts is the caution not to eat carrion—to protect them from illness borne by rotted or poisoned meat. (Oddly enough, that’s the strategy my partner used, growing up, while foraging through the family refrigerator.) But the possums don’t just ‘play’ dead, they actually go into a neurological overload, and completely shut down. They are literally, out cold.

When the threat at hand is a three-thousand pound, multi-wheeled projectile, hurtling directly at you, this passing out thing doesn’t quite cut it. Possums have failed to make the evolutionary connection to address this kind of threat. (On the other hand, they are such prodigious breeders, their niche in the ecosystem is safe— unfortunately, the predators don’t fare as well.)

In most species, a variety of coping mechanisms falls pretty evenly on a bell curve—some are aggressive, some passive (and in our species, some are passive-aggressive, but that’s another blog.) Someone once explained it to me this way: in an earthquake, some people will seize the moment and run outside the building at the first sign of a tremor. Others will hunker down in that “triangle-zone of safety” next to the kitchen counter or behind the sofa (or the I-beam tee-pee they had welded, ‘just in case.’) Nature can’t choose who will survive so she takes a Darwinian approach, and provides a range of personality types to address life’s risks. Maybe the guy who gets out, by running into the street, will be the lucky one (or maybe he’ll be crushed (inexplicably) by an I-beam tee-pee or cut to ribbons by the tons of falling glass from the skyscrapers above.) Perhaps the building won’t fall and the guy curled up behind a well-built sofa will brush himself off and go about his business. (Or, maybe he’ll die, trapped in his Ikea-built ‘cocoon of safety,’ before the rescue dogs can find him.) Since survival of the species appears to be nature’s objective, (okay, sometimes it‘s just a crap-shoot) she relies on variety to ensure that at least part of the team will make it to see another day.

Possums are failing that strategic variety test, and driving down the road, past the possums, makes me wonder how we’re doing in the strategic variety department. I wonder how the Walmart mentality of endless consumption ranks next to the possum’s self-induced anesthesia. Are we failing to diversify our options? From overreliance on fossil fuels, to the loss of species diversity, and the loss of knowledge of “the old ways,” (gardening, canning, cooking, building, animal husbandry and such) in the general populace, I worry that our culture is failing in its obligations to future generations (not to mention ourselves.) Politicians rail about preserving “the American way of life” without noting that it’s a recent phenomenon—and potentially unsustainable. What’s truly needed in our culture is a renewed diversification of talents , interests and, well, thinking.

I attended a party, last night, where the adults stood around chatting, wine glasses in hand, and the teenagers were in the next room, glued to the video games on the TV screen. I wondered, what kind of real, survival skills do video games develop. (Here’s a test you can do at home: Shut off the power, and see which kid gets up and looks for the fuse box, and which one just sits there in the dark.) In my narrow view electronic entertainment is a sorry waste of opposable thumbs. (Not that opposable thumbs would have done the skunks much good.) Still, the party was a holiday celebration for folks who’d volunteered all year to help fix up the homes of the poor and elderly. Those in attendance were builders, architects, tradespeople and genuinely nice people who volunteer their time for others. Wait a minute, there’s a survival strategy, altruism. On balance, I guess that helps a lot. That’s one area where we are ahead of the possums.

A. V. Walters

Good Enough

Our farm foreman is a hard-working man. I admire that, but I know from my own life that there has to be more. Sometimes I think there’s a bitter edge to his efforts. He is not a stupid man, but he sometimes takes obvious pride in backwards ways. When I first moved in, Elmer instructed him to seal the new tile floor in my kitchen. To me, work is work but I guess Don thought sealing the grout on a new tile floor was not proper ‘farm’ work. He grumbled.

He also wore his grubby farm boots while doing the job. And he applied sealer over his own footprints—making them a semi-permanent part of my interior. I left it the way it was for over a year—contemplating the meaning of footprint décor. Elmer saw it and shook his head. Guests noted it. Finally I took some ammonia and Elmer’s floor-scrubbing machine and stripped and resealed the floor. So, it’s not lost on me that with Don, you need to be careful what you ask for—you might just get it. It seems Don thinks that people spend too much time on unnecessary, “fancy” extras (like sealing grout.) If you were to send him to pick up materials to do finish carpentry, he’d come back with a pile of 2x4s.

Still, if there’s a problem, this guy is there. When the water went out last week and one problem cascaded into another, Elmer and Don were out there up to their ankles in it. And he knows the rhythms of the farm and the season. Regardless of what project is cooking, Don knows as well as Elmer what needs to be done generally—that we need to be cognizant of the danger of frost till mid-May, even when they can plant earlier in town, a scant 10 miles away; and that you need to check the fences in the slow times, early in the winter, before the lambs find the little gaps. (I’ve spent some time chasing escaped lambs and sheep—the fence checking is a really good idea.) You don’t always find that level of conscientiousness in hired hands.

I mentioned that to Elmer and he nodded. He and Don are friends since their teen years when they sheared sheep together. “Yup, Don is a straight shooter, alright and a damn good farmer.” Then, it was as though a cloud passed over his face, and he looked away.

“Elmer? You okay?”

“Yeah,” He shrugged

I didn’t understand what had just happened, and, in my usual way, I couldn’t help but press further, “Well, Elmer, I figure you’re a damn good farmer, too.”

He paused, looked down and then at me, “Well, I used to be.”

I nodded, “Well, you are getting on now, I guess you get to relax some.”

“It’s not that,” he continued, “I was a good farmer and took care of business. It was always something, you know—fences, chickens, minding the sheep. Then my wife got sick.” He shook his head, “I was waiting for her to get better. There were treatments and some adjustments in our lives. I didn’t know what was really going on. I should have been there but there was always something on the farm. By the time I understood how serious it was I’d lost a lot of time, you know, with her.”

I didn’t know how to respond. He had tears in his eyes.

“When she died I was a real mess. All I could think was that there she’d been, sick and sometimes alone—and I’d been off somewhere, tending to the farm. I lost that time. I’ve still got my girls and grandkids. I have friends. Hell, I’ve lived on this farm my whole life, I know everybody around here and that’s what’s important. I realized it after she died and I decided to change what comes first. It’s my kids and grandkids. And it’s people. From then on I was proud to be a good-enough farmer.” He nodded and looked up at me, “You have a good day now.” And he was on his way, down the drive.