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A Spare House

Monday, August 31st, 2020

In the world of breakfasts, there is one clear winner for me. POEC, or hash brown potatoes, plenty of onions, eggs, and Cholula ™. This favorite breakfast of mine is so far in the favorite column that I have to ration it. If I have POEC one morning, I make myself have some sort of cereal the next morning. Otherwise I would weigh many more pounds than would be healthy for me. On oatmeal mornings, I resign myself to the fact that I’ll likely be hungry again by 10:30. That is ok though, because today’s mediocre breakfast in an investment in the potential for a great breakfast tomorrow. I’ve learned I can wait for a day if I need to.

Living the rural life has its drawbacks. One is the reliability of the electrical grid. Our provider is the Rural Electrification Association, or REA. We fondly joke with one another that REA really stands for Repair Every Afternoon 🙂 We pay some of the highest rates for electricity in the country, and for good reason. The densely (in every sense of the word) packed one mile section of the road we live on has exactly 3 houses on it. This means the REA has to maintain a mile of poles and wires for 3 customers. It amazes me that they are able to pull this off at all.

The other morning dawned bright in terms of breakfast prospects, but overcast in terms of the weather. Then it began to rain hard. I do like the rain, even when it causes me to have to readjust my work outside sometimes. This morning’s rain brought with it a power outage. I was just getting organized to put together a POEC breakfast when the lights went out. It dawned on me in a horrified realization that I depended on electricity for my cherished and hard won breakfast. Nooooooo! Power outages can take hours to turn around, and I was poised to make my breakfast right now.

As I contemplated the horror of a cereal morning, I realized I had a spare house, and one that was particularly designed to be self sustaining in situations just like this one. Our motorhome. Hope rose in my soul. We can yet pull this one off. I gathered my ingredients and utensils, and slipped out the door. I did notice a puzzled look on Alice’s face, but there was no time to explain. The clock was ticking, and my stomach was demanding relief.

Once out there, putting the breakfast together on our propane stove top was a snap. After all, I’ve been practicing this particular chore for some decades now. After disappearing out the door with odds and ends, I reappeared about 20 minutes later with a skillet of piping hot POEC. Sometimes when you have to work for something the results taste all the sweeter.

Last night during another stormy time, the power went out yet again. The sauna was lit and I was darned if I was going to miss that weekly ritual. So I got myself ready and entered our lovely attached sauna room. After sweating for a while, I started wishing I had some water to throw on the rocks, but also to rinse off the sweat pouring off my body. What to do? Aha, the spare house to the rescue. Walking outside without the benefit of clothes (not as unusual as one might think in this neighborhood), I carried the sauna bucket into the RV, turned on the pump, and filled up with lovely clean water. The steam for that sauna was especially sweet, although the shower at the end was a bit on the cold side. Still, it was once again the spare house to the rescue. I think everyone should have one.

Grace

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

Most every morning, rain or shine, I slip a fleece over the shoulders of my pajamas and take a 1 mile hike down the road. It is one of the best parts of my day. I started this habit when the dogs were with us, because they too seem intoxicated with the magic of the morning (they also hadn’t peed all night).

Just a few mornings ago I was on my walk when a coyote crossed the road perhaps 75′ in front if me. The coyote was trotting on its toe tips as they are wont to do. It looked my direction, and briefly galloped, and was gone. The whole event was over in an eye blink. I imagine the coyote told its compatriots about the ungainly creature seen that morning. But the story I have to tell is of amazing grace. I’m told they can trot all day like that and just chew up the miles. I could meander for a while, but would soon need a sip of iced tea to keep the furnace running.

Besides being dancers, they can also sing, and we are often treated to their music, especially in the evenings.

The world of humans seems more polarized now than I remember it being. It will likely get worse before it gets better. I don’t see humans as right or wrong in their thinking, just different. Somehow switches get set in our brains, and heaven and earth need to be moved before those switches can be adjusted. So it is in nature. Some creatures have grace oozing our their ears, and some of us are clumsy. We all have a combination of skills that seem to get us through our complicated lives.

Not Much is Wasted

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

Earlier this spring, we were hitting the garden hard. After tilling the soil until it is as much like chocolate cake mix as we can make it, the next step is planting. I remember it was pretty warm and sunny outside, which makes it really hot in the greenhouse. I was working on squash. I have a lot of earth sculpting to do to make the squash hills. Down on my knees in the dirt, I produced hill after hill. Besides being hot and dirty, the mosquitoes were feasting. Yet, gardening is one of the more satisfying things I do.

I got so warm that I decided to take a break and have a sit on the watering dock with my feet in the cool water. The pond minnows are curious little creatures, and if you don’t make any quick movements, they’ll wiggle over to your feet and check you out. They’ll even take a tickly little nip now and then. A mosquito landed on my leg, and it fell into the water after a good swat. Instantly, one of the little bugs that fly in arcs just over the surface of the pond grabbed it and flew away. I don’t think more than a few seconds had elapsed. Intrigued, I waited for another mosquito to land (it wasn’t a long wait) and swatted her into the pond. One of the arc flies made a quick grab, but missed. As the bug circled around for another try, a minnow arose from the deep and swallowed the mosquito. This was literally happening in just seconds.

It kind of makes me feel a little guilty about my wasteful life. If I had to compete with the bugs and minnows, I think I’d weigh a lot less.

Thank-you President Trump

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

I recently read a piece on Facebook that helped my understanding of myself. It was written by Nate White, originally published on Quora, and was an answer to the question, “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” If you haven’t read it, a quick internet search will put it on your screen. It is short and quite funny.

As I read through the piece, there was a picture of President Trump embedded in it, and I found myself scrolling my screen so I could read to the bottom of the text that preceded the picture, and then quickly scrolling past the picture so I wouldn’t have to look at it. It is that bad for me. Pictures of this man honestly turn my stomach.

A half dozen paragraphs in, I came across this sentence, “And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.” When that sentence smacked me between the eyes, I finally understood what it is that has always made President Trump repulsive to me. Nat White nailed it… a bully.

In my junior high and high school days, I was bullied. There were two guys that shouldered the lion’s share of the burden, but there were several others that chipped in when bullying opportunities presented themselves. From the time I arrived at school until I made it home, I did not feel safe. In those days, bullying was in the form of punches and humiliation. It hurt, and it also established dominance. I was pleased to confirm that dominance over me if it would postpone the abuse. I fought back seldom, and shouldered daily humiliation because I felt it was my lot in life.

But one skill I picked up as a result of all this was the ability to spot a bully, Once spotted, I tried to stay out of the way, because bullies always got the best of me. Always.

As the years have gone by for me, I’ve spent some time and effort attempting to decipher this behavior. What is underneath the makeup of a person that they get pleasure from a weaker person’s pain? I had no knowledge of sociopaths in those days. And I have to admit that as the years went by, I encountered that behavior over and over again, and most of the time I was unprepared and shocked when I realized how I’d once again been fooled into trusting someone that took pleasure in the pain my misplaced trust cost me.

With President Trump, I saw the unmistakable signs early in my acquaintance with his persona. The braggadocio, lack of grace and style, and the need to be surrounded by people that publicly adored him, all rubbed me the wrong way. But until recently, I didn’t realize that his mannerisms reminded me of the bullies that took such pleasure in my discomfort all those years ago. Just a look at a picture of him brings back long buried feelings.

Lots of folks wish they were younger, but I wouldn’t want to go back. Sometimes I wonder how I ever made it through those terrible years. I guess when you are in the middle of it all, you develop techniques to avoid the danger, and a good day would be when someone other than me was bullied. For me, forgetting about those times is easier when I don’t have to look at the faces of bullies, so I tend to avoid it. It saves on stomach aches.

A Visitor

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

When you are thinking about committing to a lifetime with another person, and working out which qualities will be harmonious with a long relationship, you could do a lot worse than looking for a good pie maker. Many, if not most of life’s travails can be buffered or eliminated by that first forkful of warm flaky crust sandwiched around some recently molten sugared fruit. If the blues are so bad that pie fresh from the oven doesn’t perk you up, then I’m afraid I’ve run out of advice for you.

If you’ve been convinced, and nothing but the best pie-maker in the world is good enough for you, then I have some bad news. She’s already taken and lives in the same country house that I do. If there is an art to good pie, then Alice is Michelangelo.

I can prove it to you by telling you a story about a recent visitor. The other day, Alice told me she heard something unusual in the wall. I do pride myself in listening to the house and understanding the meaning of its creaks and groans. I listened with her, and hearing nothing, told her it was likely the pipes running from the water jacket in the woodstove up to the storage tank in the bathroom. I sort of forgot about it until the next morning.

Alice had made a crumb cake and left it on the kitchen counter covered in tin foil. I’m usually the first downstairs each morning, and when I came down, I noticed the foil was askew, and that a tiny bit of the topping was missing. I chalked this up to someone forgetting to close the foil before bed the night before, and moved on with my day. This must have been on a Friday, because that is the day Alice sets aside to make our weekend pie.

We’re both trying to cut down on sweets, and have found that cold turkey works poorly for us. So we allow ourselves desserts only on the weekends, hence the Friday pie.

We both had a delicious slice warm from the oven before bed that night, and as is our habit, we left the pie on the kitchen counter with a dinner plate inverted over the top. When I came down Saturday morning, this is what I found:

The plate was pushed off, and the crust was tasted lustily. The picture does not show it, but there were small footprints on the counter where a creature that had had its feet in the filling was scampering away. My first thought was a red squirrel, a consistent and destructive nemesis. I went out to the shop and dusted off my live traps, and set them Saturday night. Sunday morning brought no results. But during the day on Sunday, while both of us were in the dining room, I noticed some movement in the corner of the kitchen floor by the dishwasher:

We both stood very still and observed as our visitor walked out into the kitchen brimming with curiosity about the pie givers across the room from him. Here is a closeup of the same picture:

I’m afraid I didn’t get very good pictures because although we were very interested in this little weasel, he got bored with us very quickly. He was kind enough to show off the black tip on his tail, and then he vanished back into the corner of the kitchen. This quick view was the last we saw of him. We have changed our habits about leaving covered food on the kitchen counter, and also disabled our mouse trap just in case the little guy might accidentally get himself caught.

We both felt honored by this visit, and hopeful he’ll come back again to say hello. Not only is he a beautiful creature, but I admire his taste in pie.

Reef Lessons

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

Alice and I were lucky enough to get away for a while this past Christmas. We took a cruise ship in the Western Caribbean, where we were able to spend some quality time on the beautiful tropical beaches there. One seldom hears complaints about the sandy beaches in the tropics. Until recently, I did not know that the sand on those beaches is comprised mostly of parrotfish poop.

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According to my snorkeling guide in Belize, there are about 80 species of parrotfish world wide, and in the reefs of Belize are found around 20 of them. Parrotfish are identified by their parrot-like mouths. They make their living by cleaning algae off the coral. As coral declines, algae can invade them, causing the coral to get sicker. Parrot Fish have strong beaks that can pry up these sick sections of coral, which they chew and swallow in order to extract the nutritious algae. They then excrete the inedible parts. One large parrotfish can excrete 200# of sand per year. Multiply that by all the parrotfish in the world, and give them the millions of years they’ve been munching and pooping, and voila, you have sandy beaches.

Although I tried several times, I was unable to get a positive view of a parrotfish. My guide explained my trouble was due to my shark-like behavior. He told me that during high tide some sharks come a long way up into the coral, and looking for a meal, they can get into the shallows by turning on their sides and churning their tail fin. When my guide pointed out a parrotfish for me to look at, I looked where he was pointing and dove under water churning my fins. This behavior reminded the parrotfish of a shark attack, and they quickly scattered before I could spot them. I was not too disappointed though, because there are lots of youtubes of parrotfish available.

I tried to imagine an old parrotfish swimming around the reef looking down at the sand. It seems possible to me that one determined fish could create many hundreds of pounds of sand. Sand is his legacy. I wonder what the legacy of humans will be once we’ve been around for a while. What is our collective legacy and what will be our individual legacy? As I swim around and observe the flotsam in my wake, will any of it settle to the bottom and merge with the other flotsam? Will I manage to get out of the way when sharks swim sideways during high tide? Will I wear my teeth down chewing up the coral while sucking out the algae?

Moon Dog

Friday, December 6th, 2019

For the several months that have gone by since we lost Franco, I’ve managed to maintain my morning walks. I still think about him and even talk to him on these walks. I still miss him a great deal, but not as badly as I once did. Now the walks are more joyful… a good-habit legacy of the years he and I had together.

Most evenings I also get out for a walk. This winter has been such a great one that I eagerly anticipate my evening walks. Tonight I was treated with a special event… a Moon Dog. This is a circular light around the moon that is quite rare in my experience. In order for a Moon Dog to form, the moon has to be close to full, and there have to be enough high ice crystals in the atmosphere to do their magic with the moon’s light. Tonight the moon was high enough in the sky during my walk that the Moon Dog was a complete circle around the moon.

I did try to take a picture of it, but it came out as a tiny white dot on a black background.

I’ve been thinking about good habits. One of them is owning a dog. Some others are eating right and exercising. These walks I take are enjoyable in their own right, but are also good for me. It gets me out into the real world, where the events of the seasons play out in technicolor for anyone interested in observing. It is unusual for me to encounter a car on our road while I’m walking, which is a plus as far as I’m concerned. I can be alone with my own thoughts as my heart rate ramps up to match my exertion.

One of the purposes of my blog is to extol the virtues of living in the country. Having a beautiful safe place to walk is surely one of the many. Some evenings I am even treated to coyote and/or wolf howling. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Cork Came Out of the Bottle

Saturday, November 2nd, 2019

Around 2 years ago, I bought a ShelterLogic ™ portable storage building. My old storage building was falling apart, so I reasoned it was time to replace it with something temporary until I can get my pole building built.

Well, one thing led to another, and I didn’t get the portable building put up. Last fall I ran into troubles with my bulldozer, to the point that I was reluctant to start it. I needed the dozer, because the place where the portable building was to go had a pretty good sized spruce tree right in the way. With the dozer, I can push the tree so the roots pop up a bit, then back up and hook the bucket under the roots, and lift up. I’ve unrooted some pretty big trees that way with my little dozer.

So the portable building sat in its box until this past week. With the dozer finally repaired and reliably running, I went to work on the tree. In about 5 minutes I had it pushed over and chained to the back of the dozer. I then dragged the tree to the edge of a ravine I use for disposing of these things, and pushed it in. After 2 years of waiting, the impediment to my progress was out of the way, and I could proceed.

Step one was to do a rough leveling of the footprint of the new structure. I then made 2 trips to town with the farm truck and got enough gravel for a decent floor. This got shoveled and raked until I had a pretty decent spot for the building.

Then I opened the relatively small box containing the building. Inside was the vinyl cover for the structure, and below that about a thousand pieces of steel tubing, many with legible numbers stamped on them. Included was a multi page instruction sheet with very few words written on it. I’d guessing this saves money that would otherwise go to translators.

I did my best to sort through the various pipes, then started putting the thing together. I will say that despite a few typos in the instructions, the steps were pretty clear. After about a day’s work, I had the 4 frames up and hooked together, and the end walls up.

The days being short and cold this time of year, I called it a day and went inside to warm up. The following day I got the main cover on and tightened up.

At the same time I bought the portable building, I also bought a plastic shelving unit. This was hauled out to the new building and zip tied onto one of the supports. Then I started the process of moving things out of the old building and into the new one. The biggest challenge was the riding mower and rototiller. They are used to resting all winter, and when I tried to start them, they just laughed at me. So I had to attach a block heater to their oil pans one by one, and eventually coaxed them back to life for one more trip this year.

I’m sure more things will find their way into this space, but for now I’m happy to report that the important things each have a space for the winter. I’d still like to put in some temporary supports for the ceiling before the snow load gets too heavy.

This has been yet another of those projects that are not that hard to get done, but that had one or more roadblocks to success. Once the roadblock was removed, the project progressed quickly. Now on to the next one.

Doing Hard Things

Saturday, October 26th, 2019

Nosing around on YouTube the other day, I came across Patti Smith singing at the 2016 Nobel awards in Stockholm. If you haven’t seen this video, I strongly recommend watching it:

What I admire about Patti is her poise when her memory failed her. She just stopped, hit the reset button, and started in again at a familiar place, and pulled the performance off with aplomb. She had the audience in the palm of her hand by the end.

So many of us are reluctant to speak or perform publicly for fear that something might happen to us like it did for Patti. That we’ll be humiliated publicly, which seems to be a great fear many of us share. I would argue that I watched this YouTube over and over precisely because of her momentary failure. Rather than thinking less of her, I admired her all the more.

It seems that I’ve lately done several hard things… things I’d just as soon have avoided, but managed to get through them, and once done, they strengthened me rather than weakened me. None have been easy, but all have been worth the effort. An example is my recently speaking at a dear friend’s memorial service. Public speaking is not a fearful thing for me, but on this occasion, I was shaking in my boots. I was feeling so emotional that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the words out, thereby not doing my job at honoring my late friend.

The speech went fine, and all the worrying was for nothing. I did challenge my thinking by getting up and standing at the podium however. And for me that was the plus. I think we all build pictures of the world in our minds, and filter experiences through that picture. If they don’t belong, we discard them. If experiences fit with our world picture, we welcome them in. This is probably healthy to a point, because allowing the world into our brains unfiltered would likely overwhelm us. My feeling is that we do need to challenge that world picture from time to time. And when it proves inadequate, it needs to be adjusted. It is easy to be lazy and stagnate, and hard to continue updating the model.

There is an arrogance we need to overcome. That picture we’ve made of the world required a lot of work, and we can believe it is perfect the way it is. But just imagine one of the crucial components of that picture, and further imagine a time in your life when that component was not part of your picture. Had you not have been open to embracing it, you might have lived your life without it. We need to stay open to new things that help us make sense of the world, while being careful to reject the poison. With the world changing so rapidly, keeping the model up to date is a full time job.

Fall Chores

Friday, October 18th, 2019

Summer and Winter are reasonably stable seasons out here. But Spring and Fall… now there are seasons of flux. In the Spring, I’m often out and about getting things ready for the coming growing season. And in the Fall, I’m putting it all away for another season.

We’ve had rain on and off quite a bit lately, but in-between, I’ve managed to get most of the Fall chores accomplished. In the picture above, I’m in the final stages of removing the big dock in our back pond. To do this, I bring a pipe wrench out to the pond, and launch myself into the pond in our small aluminum skiff. I go from pipe-to-pipe in the boat, first pulling the pin that holds the dock up, then using the pipe wrench to unscrew the pipe auger from the pond mud. Once the pipe is clear, I pull it up and insert the pin in its winter position. I do this six times until the dock is held only by one small pipe on shore.

I then wrap a nylon strap around the end of the dock, lift it off the shore pipe, and scoot it over to the side. I hook the whole thing up to my pickup and slowly drive the whole contraption out of the water onto dry land where it will wait for next Spring’s launch.

I have a similar process for my much smaller “watering dock” in the other pond. Getting these two docks out of the water is one of my most physically demanding Fall chores. Others include cleaning the chimneys, and removing the cover from the greenhouse. I still have the greenhouse cover left to do, and am waiting for just the right weather. The cover has to be dry, and the wind has to be calm when that big chore is attempted. The cover itself is 24′ x 120′, and it can turn into a very big sail if the wind decides to come up.

While I was out and about working on putting things away, I spent a few moments at the site of the reception tent for our son Steve’s wedding. It was a big job to get that site cleaned up, grass planted and watered, and ready for the big event. Since then, I’ve kept the area mowed, and I enjoy walking out there and standing in the center, lost in my thoughts about that lovely wedding day.

Fall, with its unpredictable weather, beautiful colors, and air of inevitability, seems like a good time to reflect on my good fortune. Living in such a beautiful place, with the luxury of all this water, the ability to grow a lot of our own food, and with such great friends and neighbors, makes me grateful for all the good things in life. Without family, these things wouldn’t mean much, but I also happen to be blessed with a wonderful family too.