Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Frozen Assets

Sorry I was away for a while -- a short trip, and sudden winter shifted my focus from this blog.

Last week was the first hard freeze… that’s when you really find out what you’re up against in the country. I was up against the pump house door at 10pm one night, frantically trying to check on whether the pipe insulation would be sufficient! This is when Jack Frost stops painting little ferns on your window and throws pipe bombs into your plumbing bill.

The “pump house” is actually an extension on the garage. It had been snugged in with six inches of fiberglass when I got here, but the exterminator discovered that this was the Marriott of carpenter ants, and that all got torn out in a hurry. As he commented wryly, “It’s not a good idea to insulate where there‘s lots of moisture.” No, really? A pump house? Who’d’a thunk it? So I had gone back and insulated around the pipes, as soon as I could breathe after he’d sprayed with industrial Raid. But lack of expertise and a need to breathe more deeply kept me from finishing the job -- until the thermometer dropped to 17 degrees.

With a “doorway” that is two feet off the ground on both sides, and “ground” that differs by several inches on either side, the pump house is Terra BananaPeela, meaning that unless I want to break a leg, I have to step very carefully as I’m going in and out. There are about four inches of “pipe-free” ground inside the pump house to stand on, and -- due to the movers helpfully stacking boxes five deep in front of the pump house -- no inches on the outside. I had removed a few layers and was standing on one of the boxes to get in, until it collapsed and threw me sideways into a Jenga-stack of other boxes… I managed to keep from being crushed, but there’s another Trophy bruise on my leg -- something akin to those little German plane-stamps that the Allied pilots stenciled on their nose caps. No matter. With the little flashlight firmly in my mouth, I examined the few inches of pipe that I had failed to cover up (because -- of course -- it was the trickiest part), and tried to see how I could quickly (ie: before my fingertips froze) seal them up enough. The foam pipe insulation had run out, and the bubblewrap had tip-toed off to visit the shipping boxes or somesuch… I was left with wads of newspaper and tape. Even with my “third hand” holding the flashlight, I found myself fumbling and thrashing with the tape and paper -- you can‘t tear the tape with your teeth when you‘re swallowing a flashlight. I couldn’t get paper wads close enough to that little elbow pipe to keep its damn toesies warm all night without getting paper jammed against the motor, which -- I feared -- could catch fire. About halfway through, I recalled what the exterminator had said about the wolf spiders (“Always wear gloves in there”), but I was hoping they were sensibly hibernating in their mini wolf-dens. There was no way I could add gloves to this equation and succeed before my insulation failed and my pipes froze. I cobbled something together, propped the pump house door open, propped the garage door open, and left the studio oil heater on all night… hoping that those warm, lively molecules of heated air would wander out to see what was jumping in the pump house. Had I been twenty years younger, I might have camped out and spent the evening wafting the air through the doorways, but the concept of Adventure transformed somewhat as I hit fifty.

Next step was to do the usual precautions inside the house, since I had no idea how the pipes in the crawlspace were covered. I was stunned to discover that I couldn’t get my kitchen sink faucet to drip! In an old house, that was not a problem I had anticipated. But somehow it’s torqued such that trying to open it just a bit causes it to spring back and stop dripping. Normally I’d be ecstatic about that… but now, as I tried to keep the pipes from freezing, I had to actually leave it running rather than dripping… and that kicks the pump motor on and off, which I’m told can burn out the motor. At that point I gambled that it was too cold in there to burn kerosene, let alone a small motor.

Now the temperatures have warmed up to freezing, and my pipes have survived, and I’ve added three or four to the army of post-it notes on my fridge (the Honey-Do list without any Honey to do them). I still don’t know if all that was truly necessary (how does one find out except the hard way?) but I have my fingers crossed that we have passed the Winter portion of the year (hey - if Summer is only four days, then Winter should be, too!) and we are well into the next phase, which involves the grass growing in the rain, faster and thicker than we have any hope of mowing. That’s Spring in these parts. Or will be, once the snow has melted.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

I have not lost my mind... I know exactly where I left it...

It’s possible I evolved into a writer simply because I had to write everything down in order to remember it… I don’t remember, since that was sometime before 4th grade, when I remember getting in big trouble with the nun because I was writing funny limericks to amuse my classmates. During catechism. I also remember getting into trouble in my first job in high school because I hadn’t punched my timecard for the day before and couldn’t remember if I’d actually been at work (had to ask workmates if they‘d seen me).

More recently, I’ve been trying to keep a list of things that needs to be fixed or improved around this house and yard… it’s like an amateur trying to keep up at a hotdog eating contest! They just keep coming!! One of my friends, who’d also bought a fixer-upper, suggested a series of post-it notes on a wall, in order to keep track of everything and also have flexibility in prioritizing. In theory, it’s a wonderful system: I’ve got 30 or so little squares on the side of the fridge, in four columns (contractor work, my construction, painting, sewing & misc) that stretches down to three-year-old level… and I haven’t looked at it in over two weeks. Instead, I look at something askew on the wall, decide it has to be done this minute, and proceed to create a three-week project in the middle of the living room. But wait -- what has this to do with memory? I’d forgotten my topic.

This morning was a great example of memory-in-inaction: as the sun came up, the freezing temps caused the river mist to rise, so that there was a pinkish swirl of fog around the yard, thin enough that the sun was also casting a glow on nearby trees. It seemed just too lovely to resist, so I decided to go for a walk. Simple enough in theory. I gathered my keys, my walking shoes, a heavy sweater, remembered to use the bathroom, remembered to wait in the bathroom for the toilet to stop filling so I could lift the toilet ball and stop it from running indefinitely while I was away thus burning out the well pump, remembered to turn off the lights, remembered to turn off the coffeemaker, got into the coat, hat, scarf and white gloves (white gloves! In the country! but that’s another topic), locked the first of three doors, got through the second door, remembered I’d forgotten the camera, unlocked the first door, retrieved the camera (remembered to look for batteries), back through and locked the three doors (oh, remembered to take the piece of mail that had been mis-delivered), made it all the way up the gravel road to the street, turned toward the hills -- and realized I’d forgotten my glasses!

These are distance glasses, obviously, and without them the hills were a smear that had nothing to do with the mist. As the cold leached into my legs (I’d forgotten long-johns, too) I decided the hell with it, I could take pictures and look at them more clearly later. So I continued the walk, squinting at the frost-covered vines, noting the brown blurs that were some kind of thrush, seeing the white blurs that hopefully were sheep on the hillside and not evidence of cataracts…. not seeing the black ice underfoot until my gait suddenly widened like Paul Bunyan’s! I slowed as quickly as I could, and tested the ground. It had a greasy, slimy feel underneath my track shoes, suggesting a thin coating of ice rather than solid sheets of it. I slowed down and decide that I could walk to the foothills, take my dramatic photos and then come home.

The not-so-brisk walk continued, until I approached the curve, and there was a huge telephone line truck barreling down from the other direction. Did it know about the black ice? Was there enough room in the ditch for me to dive and it to fly over me? I stopped, stepped onto the gravel shoulder so that at least I’d have traction to dive, and waiting to see what might transpire (or expire). The truck eased a bit over to the left as it saw me, and the road beneath held tight as it whipped around at half again the speed limit (on these country roads, the speed limit is considered a sort of competitive minimum). I breathed out, and continued down to the fork in the road, treading carefully since I didn’t have studded tires. When I got to a clear (relatively) view of the foothills, saw that the snow of two days ago had vanished and that the only breathtaking views were hidden by a bank of clouds, I gave it up and turned around. I’d just remembered a pressing engagement with a hot breakfast.

Some friends suggest that I’d do better if I slowed down, and gave memory a chance. Somehow this doesn’t work for me… all I get is slow and fuzzy rather than fast and fuzzy. I just forgot about the fire as I was writing this; the silence tells me that I let it get too forgotten. That is a handicap for an absent-minded writer: I get involved in the writing, then suddenly it’s two hours later and the house is cold, the coffee is cold, and -- mid-brilliance -- I have to jump up and get some warmth into the place. The fire takes hold, and the memory takes flight. It seems an impossible juggling act. Of course, if I’d remembered to chop enough wood so I’d only have to feed the fire (but I do the “gourmet fire”: each piece lovingly hand-cut -- see earlier postings) it’s possible that the thoughts wouldn’t get so far away that they’d be impossible to corral. It’s not like I haven’t tried. I chopped wood for at least 30 minutes yesterday… but fires seem to be like five-year-olds: they know exactly how much you have to feed them, and demand one more than that! Anyway, it’s time to get my wood-chopping clothes on again. Excuse me.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I’ve Got the Power…?

I’ve used power tools before, but mostly with “live advice” nearby (invited or not). The situation of being alone (as in “miles from anyone”) with a two-page manual that was mostly legal backside-covering and a brand new -- sharp -- circular saw was a bit intimidating. That, and the fact that this saw was so heavy that I was bracing my knees against a chair in order to lift it, made me wonder if there isn’t a market niche for “tools for women and small home owners”. If they can make computers fit in your pocket, they can come up with a lightweight circular saw that can be lifted by someone whose hands can’t palm a gallon of milk! But I digress.

The manual first required that I insert the saw blade. The manual was very precise about which washer went on which side of the blade, facing which direction. However, it kept talking about the “enclosed wrench” -- and I shook out the box, checked the manual for tape or a plastic bag, looked on all sides of the styrofoam padding in case it had gotten embedded, even pried apart some of the corrugated cardboard… no wrench. Out in the country, it is not such a simple thing to drive back to the store and say, “there is a part missing”… and in any case, I really wanted those shelves immediately! Fuming, I found some of my jewelry tools and managed to use a needle-nose pliers to unscrew the bolts, insert the blade (which, because you have to hold back the scimitar-shaped, spring-hinged metal safety cover, is a little like trying to stuff a 25-lb turkey with a dessert fork, or get a 4 year old hyperactive kid to sit down in a dentist‘s chair) and then re-tighten the bolts.

Then I proceeded to the page on how to actually turn it on and use it. That, too, has been redesigned with your safety and convenience in mind -- and if you believe that, I have a legal contract for you to sign. Now you can’t just squeeze the button on the handle -- you must really want to turn the saw on, as evidenced by the fact that you are willing to squeeze one button with one hand, and another button on the other side of the machine with your other hand -- all while lifting and steering a 35-pound, angrily buzzing metal saw! That is much safer… much -- and if you believe that…! In fact, as long as they’re putting safety warnings on boxes, I think they should be required to print on the outside of the box, easily readable -- before you buy it! -- that you will need to lift 35 pounds with your arms akimbo while gently pressing and holding two half-hidden buttons that cause the machine to vibrate like an insane washing machine, and then steer it across solid wood! That’s truth in advertising.

Anyway, as I looked at the operating diagram on page 8, I saw the first mention of where they’d hidden the damned wrench! It is literally tucked into the saw just below the “protrusion adjustment” (no, this wasn’t a sex manual), in the same way that staples are tucked into a stapler -- in other words, impossible to extract. Some smug male engineer had discovered a use for the two linear inches of the saw chassis that weren’t covered with screws, levers or sharp edges. Doubtless he believed -- like all engineers -- that the customers would immediately look on the only non-functional surface of the machine, knowing that it would be used for something. Either that or some manager came in one day, pointed to this blank space and said, “We’re paying two cents per inch to manufacture these -- find something to do here!”

After a few nail-bending moments, I managed to winkle out the flat, wrench-shaped scrap of metal and double-check that the saw was anchored securely. Then I dragged the saw over to the 12” shelving board, safely laid over a couple of unpacked boxes about knee-high. Of course the cord couldn’t reach to the wall, so I spent another few moment unearthing, then untangling, a 20ft. extension cord to about a 6ft length (the rest was dredlocked in a permanent snarl). I gripped the saw, tried to line it up with the pencil mark barely visible under the plate-armor carapace of the saw, felt around for the safety button -- couldn’t find it. Another few minutes with the manual, trying to match their arrow with parts of the machine that seemed to push in. Finally, tentatively, I found both buttons and squeezed. The saw leapt to life, ate a ragged line across the board, and an inch from the end, I realized the board was gonna collapse on my foot in another second. I lifted the saw so that it chomped the final inch and kept going, barely missing the paper file. The boards flew upward rather than down, but that was all to the good. One solid cut made and all my fingers and toes still attached. It was a bit of an anticlimax, really, when I discovered I’d cut the board three inches too short.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

It’s in “a better place”

When I was a child and some person or pet died, I was told “They’ve gone to a better place.” I am getting superstitious about all the items that I had -- when I first moved in -- set in “any old place” and then moved “to a better place” once I got a sense of the cupboards, etc. They have vanished as surely as those passed-over pets. And the most frustrating part is that I can recall in detail my decision to move them, and from where -- but before I get to the image of where I moved them to, it “fades to black” as the directors say. The first location is where I look again and again, as if some part of me is expecting that the item -- the jar of garlic salt, for example -- left footprints to the next spot, or I could catch it returning to visit the cumin. I know that if you go to the kitchen for water or something, then forget what you went for, you return to the spot where you first thought of getting it, in order to jog your memory (or if jogging doesn‘t work, beat it around the head and neck).

I have almost gotten to the desperation point -- sticking a Post-it on the place where I move it from, listing the “forwarding address”! Except that I’ve gotten superstitious about forwarding addresses, too: the credit card companies are now telling me my new address is that of my ex-husband… either he’s still claiming me as a dependent (as if it wasn’t the other way around!) or the fundamentalists have infiltrated and divorce is no longer an option on credit reports. Aside: I wish we could organize those damn companies like the “headline news” companies -- have them feeling embarrassed about having outdated information, rather than proud of it.

But back to the missing items. The problem is compounded because I am struggling to get an entire house in shape at once, and therefore I am pulled in a dozen directions, which makes it simpler to stop looking for something and move on to a more do-able task. But then I forget… and I’ll attempt the task again tomorrow, and go through the entire routine again! I’ve posted a list on my fridge, “AWOL: these items are missing and believed to be organizing in secret: bracket for magnifying lamp; other set of tulip curtains… REWARD for capture!” Possibly the gremlins who inhabit the house after I’m asleep will be motivated to nudge them into view.

And perhaps the most frustrating part is that there seemed to be a cosmic mechanism whereby one of a pair could ask, “Have you seen…?” and the object magically appeared, if only to humiliate the asker. Now living alone, I have no one to ask, and before I spend $400 on a pet, I want to be sure the same cosmic mechanism works with dumb animals… but come to think of it, if it worked on my ex… but I don’t want to get back into cleaning up after something, just as a trade-off for a shortcut to locating things. Perhaps there could be a phone number to call? A kind of 911 for missing objects -- you take the cell phone, start wandering the house and call 611... and as soon as you connect to a person, you’d ask and the object would show up. Might help unemployment by giving jobs to those who have a hard time handling actual questions. Heck, it might make a nice after-school solution for grade-schoolers! Even five-year-olds know how to pick up a phone and say “hello”… and that’s all that would be needed.

Meanwhile, I continue to wander around the new house, staring into cupboards and wondering, “Was the wood polish there, or did I dream it?” and, in my eagerness to find the lost items, moving and misplacing a whole new generation of items! At this rate, I will be lost soon myself. (Hint: check under the pile of boxes in the office alcove -- I probably crawled in to hide).

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Wood'n Ya Know It...

The most difficult part about owning a house in the country are the distractions. These are not the same distractions that popped up in suburbia, where I might get distracted by a random car crash down the road, or the News 8 copters ranging overhead, making me wonder if there’s a standoff in the neighborhood. Or even the usual distractions that occur to anyone living within four walls: you use the bathroom, realize the damn toilet hasn’t been cleaned in several weeks, take a few moments on that, then realize that shining bowl makes the rest of the bathroom look dingy, and before you know it, you’ve completely forgotten that oatmeal cooking on the stove, now so burned that it can be chipped out and used to shim the uneven bookcase wobbling in the office.

No, this is where I go out to the garage for some firewood, then remember I split the axe handle yesterday chopping, so I have to take a few minutes to tape the handle with duct tape so that it can at least be used as a wedge, otherwise I will be trying to burn chunks of wood the size of the US budget, since I have gotten into a habit of making gourmet firewood: individually hand-chopping each piece as it is delivered to the stove. No shoddy bulk delivery for me! In fact, I tried chopping enough for at least a whole day, yesterday, and see where it left me -- a fractured axe and tingling in my wrists. I assume I will have to work up to this. By next winter, I should be able to manage a half cord of chopping. By next winter, I will have finally chopped the cord I’d had delivered this year. If the splinters haven’t worked their way into my bloodstream.

Woodpiles and stoves are one of the many ways that country folk are allowed to witness the great cycles of Nature: a tree falls on your truck, you pay someone to slice it up, you roll it to the woodpile and begin to pound it into fragments, you take those fragments into the woodstove and set fire to them, within hours they are ashes and you take the ashes out (waiting until they cool unless you are practicing to be a pyromaniac juggler), you put the ashes on the compost heap, and in spring you put the compost onto the garden, where you have a new seedling tree. In another hundred years, the cycle starts all over again. I realize that city dwellers aren’t as patient as “we” (after a month here, I can say that): they will likely be asking, “Why didn’t you get right to the point and just burn the tree when it broke your bloody truck?” True, it would have saved hours of labor and a hefty check to the woodsman… but on the other hand, it would have meant that instead of hauling the chunks of wood through the rain and snow to the insatiable stove, I would have had to turn up the thermostat on the baseboard heater and… now, wait. Let me think this out… oh, right -- I wouldn’t have witnessed a grand cycle of nature! And I’m looking forward to that second round, somewhere about 2108... if I’m still here….

But this brings me to a related topic, which was introduced by the exterminator as he went around drilling holes in my siding: the difference between men and woodstoves. I hadn’t actually looked at it as a comparison, but here’s what we came up with:

-- you have to feed them both
-- man usually easier to “light” than woodstove, but the stove keeps hot longer
-- both take up a lot of space in the living room and create mess that needs to be cleaned up after
-- both have to be careful their pipes don’t get clogged
-- can’t control the heat on either of them
-- eventually you have to do something with their ashes
-- you can count on the woodstove

Now - you try to get that quality of joke while sitting around your high-tech living room, watching the News 8 copters searching your neighborhood! You can‘t… though I guess there’s “men and computers”, or “men and washing machines” (think: spin cycle) or “men and cars”… okay -- I guess there’s potential enough for city and country. Now pardon me while I distract myself by dancing through the snowflakes - er -- going out for more firewood.