Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A change in plans.

Our Christmas plans have been totally upset.  We were going to be traveling to Middle Child's home; they were going to be hosting our little family gathering for the first time.

What happened was a good dose of strep throat; both Spice and Smidgen got the formal diagnosis yesterday.  In the middle of last night, Smidgen had a fever of 103.2°F.  The tylenol eventually brought it down; but all parents know what it's like, holding a burning child in your arms.

Between the stress of travel, the work associated with shutting down the Little House so it could freeze without permanent damage; getting a local friend to feed the guineas and chickens, and the extremely high probability that the strep will jump to anybody nearby, it was mutually decided that we'd really better not make the trip.

So.  One day before Christmas, we've got to re-figure everything.

To a large extent, it's easier on us than on Middle Child.  We've got to do some fast shuffling, but they were planning on a full house- and now will have just two.  "We" includes oldest son Beelar, who is here with us in the Little House.

Christmas for us is a pretty big deal- more about family than anything else; and the change of the year.

 Smidgen was disappointed not to be seeing her other brother; she'd been talking about it for weeks.  But we're managing.

We've got beautiful Christmas snow here; both on the ground and falling, right now.  And strep, coughs, and fevers notwithstanding; we're cozy in the Little House, and Smidgen has refocused.  She's cheerfully humming and singing Christmas songs, between coughs.

It helps to be able to change directions with a minimum of drama.  Taking it all in stride is an important skill; and likely to be even more important in the coming years.

Hope your Solstice Celebration, in whatever form, is a good one.

We have each other.  That includes you.

Time to go make cookies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Walking an Icy Path

This is a guest post by Spice, not the addition to the Shed parable (that's still coming).  This morning, in 3 minutes, she told me several nice stories about her shopping trip the day before.  Seemed relevant- so I said "you should write that up, I'll put it on the blog."  6 hours later...


Parking lots in the winter are minefields. Most of the time they’re relatively safe, with just the soot blackened slush that soaks the bottom of your jeans to worry about. It’s not a problem to hang your pants above the wood stove, listening to the drip and sizzle as the ice thaws and drops onto the the stove top. You prop your feet on the open oven door, cup of cocoa warming your hands, until the red spots on the bottoms of your calves warm up from the “frozen so cold that it burns” to a nice toasty pink.

You also have to worry a bit about the people driving too fast. You watch them with a weather eye, mentally shaking your head at their stupidity. Do they think they’re in the Indy 500 as they whip around the last car in line, or cut through a diagonal space to troll up the lane the wrong way? You send them a mental “go kill yourself away from me” and continue with your life.

However there are those rare winter days when walking from your parking space to the wooshing doors of a store is literally playing dice with fate.  

Yesterday was just such a day. We had two days in the 30’s and 40’s F and then it dropped to -10 F (ten below). Everything melted, then froze in a sheet of ice.

December here is usually mild as winter goes. Average temperature usually hangs around 20 F.  People who have never been here in the winter have images of a frozen wasteland where your eyeballs freeze in their sockets and every breath feels like knives in your throat.  That’s January (historical average temp of 4°below)... And February... sometimes March.

December snow is fluffy flakes that stick to your eyelashes and make you want to laugh out loud. Some nights Jack Frost is a busy boy, painting the trees with hoarfrost, so when the sun shines in an icy blue sky, for just a few moments you live in an enchanted forest and wouldn’t be surprised to see mythical creatures moving like shadows among the trees. Eat your heart out Currier and Ives.

With the “financial crisis” right now Greenpa and I have cut trips to the City to bare bones. It’s about fifty miles away, which means a day-long trip. We used to get there once a month to stock up on items we couldn’t get as easilly or cheaply locally. Now there has to be a major incentive to go that far. More so after the Sam’s Incident. A 99 cent day at Savers is such an incentive, especially when you have a 3 year-old (oops a 3 and 3/4 year old thank you very much!).

As I was getting out of the car, ready to tackle the shopping madness, I watched the march of shoppers. A march that was more like the waddle, slide of penguins than the usual purposeful stride. They gingerly held on to luggage racks and car fenders as they eased from the sheeted ice to the narrow lines of safety dug by snow tires.

I opened the car door and sat sideways on the seat so I could slip my YakTrax onto my boots. I buttoned up my coat, pulled a snow cap over my ears and slipped on my cow hide gloves with their faux lamb’s wool lining. I was off, trudging safely across the uneven ice.

I noticed a woman. With her red hat pulled low over her nordic blonde hair and a matching red scarf and man’s coat, she was a spot of color in the grey. Her belly bulged under the coat in those last weeks of pregnancy that make women, even ones who never had children, wince in sympathy and men feel the cold sweat of nerves on their spines. In one hand, she clutched the pink, sparkly mitten of a blonde girl not much older than Smidgen. The other gripped the fender of a station wagon.

“Do you need help?” I asked. “I’m not going to fall, and I can get you to the door.”
I proudly showed her my YakTrax.

“Thank you. I slipped in the Sam’s lot the other day and was scared to death of hurting the baby.” She answered, breathlessly.

“No problem. I’ve been there too.” I wrapped an arm around her waist and took her daughter’s hand in mine and we walked safely into Savers.  I slipped off the Trax inside the store, warning her that they will slip on linoleum.

She asked me if I could wait for her and help her back to her to her car after we were done shopping. I said sure, that it wouldn’t be a problem.

As I was leading her out across the lot I told her about Yak Trax and that she could pick up a simpler pair for street use for $20 at the outdoor store.   We’ve used them for several years and they’re tons better than anything else on the market.

“That’ll be my next stop,” she answered happily.

I stowed my bags and went into the dollar store next door to Savers, where the cashiers and some customers had noticed us through the plate-glass windows.

“A friend of yours?” The cashier asked.

She was a lovely woman with the blue-black skin of deep Africa and the speech patterns of Chicago. Her hair was woven into tight corn-rows with tiny bells at the ends, tinkling merrily.

“Nope. A complete stranger.” I smiled. “I didn’t want her to slip.”

She looked at me strangely as I slipped the Trax off my shoes again.

I picked up the few things Smidgeon needed for a school Christmas (We’re too rural to worry about PC) project and a toy for her gift exchange. And walked over to the cashier.

 Bells In Her Hair smiled at me as she started to ring up my purchase.

“I’m freezing,” she said cheerfully. It's a typical northern conversation starter.

I looked at her thin poly-cotton slacks and pullover. “Layers work miracles.”

“Whaddya mean?”

I was a little surprised at the question. It may be naive, but I was pretty sure layers had been pounded into the heads of every child born north of the Mason-Dixon line since the land bridge.  

“Do you have longies on?” I asked.


“You can get a good pair at the farm store.”

“I don’t have a car.”

“Oh. I’m pretty sure the bus goes out there. If not get a friend to take you, it’s important to stay warm.”

By this time most of the people in my line and the line next to us were listening to our conversation.

“Why do you have to stay warm?” Asked a woman with styled grey hair and a gorgeous London Fog coat that looked about as warm as a, let’s face it, a rain coat.

I was surprised once again. “Didn’t you ever hear about layering before you leave so you can retain heat? You put on thermals, two pairs of socks, thick jeans, a pull over and a sweater. It’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm.”

Almost everyone listening shook their heads no. I was flabbergasted. Didn’t they know how to take care of themselves in cold weather? These are adults here.

“Well you lose 10% of your body heat from each of your head, hands and feet. So I’m wearing a cap, got some gloves and have two pairs of socks on. Plus I don’t take my coat off inside even if it’s seventy, because I know I’m going back out. I also run my house cooler than normal. Preserve heat with clothes and winter’s a breeze.”

“I’ve never heard that,” she admitted.

I was almost checked out, so I pulled my Trax out of my pocket and slipped them on my shoes.

“What are them things?” the cashier asked.

“YakTrax. They're like chains for your feet. So you don’t slip.”

“Really. I’ve never seen such a thing. I was walkin’ home the other day and was so cold and slipped so much that I called a cab.”

“Well there’s no cabs on a farm, so I’ve gotta know how to stay warm and in one piece,” I said with a laugh. “You can get these at the outdoor store.”

I pulled my gloves out of my pocket, and the London Fog lady goggled.
“Those are huge,” she breathed.

“And warm,” I answered cheerfully. “You can find them at the farm store. It’s worth the price not to have icicles instead of fingers. Farmers seem to know how chuck style for warmth.”

After getting geared back up, I took my bag and trudged back out to the car. As I was backing out, I saw London Fog get into her nice Mercedes with heated seats. She had no gloves on her hands.

She, and the other people I spoke to really started my brain whirling. Why didn’t they know how to stay warm? Has the knowledge really been lost? Every year people complain about the cold. They belly ache, but seem to feel smug and superior when talking to someone from another place and can drop “it got to -10 last night” into the conversation.

I know that many city dwellers go from a heated house to a heated garage, where their car is already warmed up. They spend a few minutes between buildings and cars facing the bite of winter and then are in blessed warmth again. But what happens when they need warmth and have no idea how to get it?

Have we really lost skills that are so vital for five months out of every year? In the current economic climate these skills are going to be more and more important as people choose to heat their house and feed their family instead of buying a car with heated seats or heating their garage.

Trust me Smidgen the aspiring nudist hears... Put on your mittens, hat, coat, snow pants, boots, sweater, etc on... You need to stay warm... Where are your slippers?... In stereo every day from Greenpa and myself.  And once a day- why.

Later I saw the Mercedes in the farm store parking lot. It made me smile.


Greenpa: ok, full disclosure, we do NOT own stock in YakTrax.  But I/we really do recommend them for frozen snow and ice- they're life savers, and vastly superior to the 4 or 5 other "shoe-chain" type things I've tried over the centuries.

One other point I wanted to make here- in fact, Spice passed on a lot of good information- to a bunch of people who needed and appreciated it- in a painless fashion; just by living it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Parable of The Shed: Why 30 years is not forever.

One useful aspect to all of us forcibly attending Camp TEOTWAWKI now, is that many people truly are starting to be more mindful of their choices.   Think before you invest.  Look before you leap off your burning bridges.  That sort of thing.

Guidance in making long term decisions though, is hard to come by, and harder to judge.  Does this expert advisor actually have a clue, or ...  have I wound up with Alfred E. Neuman,  yet again?

Not long after Spouse and I built the Little House, and actually started living here, it became quite clear that we needed more space.  15' x 20'; including a wood stove, piano, and kitchen sink, and dining room table, just does not leave a lot of room for projects, like building a set of shelves.  No place left to walk, while that is under way.

Virtually all farm type operations include outbuildings; a barn, a shed- a workshop.  So it wasn't too difficult to decide that we did, indeed, need a multipurpose shed, not too far from the house.  We figured it should serve as a: work shop, bad-weather wood shed, seasonal storage space (eg. storm windows and skis in summer), materials storage (eg. boards, plywood), tool storage, empty mason jar storage.  You know.  A shed.

So quickly, you get to "where, exactly"; "how big", and "how".  "Where" was pretty limited; by the need to be close; "how big", it turns out, was partly determined by "how".

Standard construction around here would be a "pole barn" - treated wood poles, gravel or concrete floor, pre-fab roof trusses, and sheet metal sides and roof.  You just go the lumber yard, and order the stuff.  And there are loads of experienced construction teams who can zip it up for you in a couple days.

It was very easy to decide not to go that route- we had no money whatsoever.  Which meant- materials out of our 40 acres of oak/maple woods, and/or scrounged materials, and a "barn-raising" party for labor.

Then, you have to work out the details.
Something you pretty quickly find out, when you're living this kind of do-it-yourself life; the details are NOT "important".  The details are EVERYTHING.

Oddly, we teach our children the opposite, these days.  "Sure, teacher, I got the answer to the question wrong, but you can tell I understood it!" - will often get you a pity-pass in schools, even in universities.  But not in real life.  My father pounded this one in when he was an engineering prof, and I was in High School; and I got to listen to him gripe about his students.

  "But Professor, yes, I got the math wrong, but it's just a decimal point!  You can tell I totally understood the problem!"  "I don't give a good goddam if you 'understood' the problem!  Your goddam building FELL DOWN; and 370 people died!!  The only thing that matters is the right answer.  The F stands. "  And he would shake his head in amazement at their incomprehension.

So, I was well trained to do my homework regarding construction, and I'd adsorbed quite a bit of information via osmosis- and from helping my father re-build most of the houses we'd lived in (many).  Looking around at the old homesteads here, I found quite a few old chicken coops and corn cribs that were made with just white oak posts for their basic support; planted in the ground; and easily 50 years old.  Obviously, white oak can last a long time in our soils; the stated lifespan for chemically treated poles in direct soil contact is usually 30-40 years.

Doing more homework- the expected lifespan for white oak fenceposts around here is less; 20-30 years.  The difference is attributed mostly to the roof- poles under a roof should spend more of their life dry.

Most of my available poles are not exactly "white oak" - Quercus alba; but burr oak; Q. macrocarpa.  The textbooks say, though, that in this case, they're pretty much the same in regard to rot resistance.

So, using my own oak poles, we should be able to put up a shed that will last 30 years; no sweat.  We had a good supply of 12"-8" diameter red pine poles for rafters and plates; pine boards and 2/4's for other structure- and we helped a friend tear down a local railroad station for windows and siding.  We did buy metal for the roof.

When you're 30 years old- 30 years into the future looks indistinguishable from "forever", or "until we die."  And, guess what?  It isn't.  Here I am- 30 odd years later-

And sure as heck; the time has run out on some of my burr oak poles.

This is the SW corner pole.  And, as you can see- it's entirely rotted off- the bottom of the pole is now a good 6" above the ground.  Hm.

We just discovered it, absurdly enough.  The shed had gone through a phase where it got increasingly cluttered and useless, to the point where I only referred to it as "The Dread Shed"; and it got to the point where Middle Child and his wife decided to totally overhaul it, bless them.  Unburying the corner- where we already knew a woodchuck had chewed through the outer wall (and wrought havoc inside for months); we discovered the rotted off pole.  Oh, so that's why the windows have been breaking.

The shed is not falling down.  One of the advantages of using big logs for plates and rafters- they're enormously strong, and well secured on the other poles- most of which are not rotted off.  This corner is the wettest one.  But- the building is sagging, putting stress on everything.  

So now what?  Fix it?  Tear the shed down and rebuild?  I don't want to.

Dammit, I'm 60 years old now, busy, and I want the bloody shed to be in usable shape; I don't want to be building, or fixing.

Why didn't I build it to last in the first place?


That turns out to be a complex, and highly significant question.  Lissen up; and maybe you can avoid my mistakes.

A)  I was young (30) and stupid.  I thought 30 years was forever.  It really really isn't.

B)  Everybody I asked thought 30 years was forever, too.  Or plenty long enough.

C)  The entire construction industry is built around the idea that structures should not last more than 50 years; even homes.  Then you should build a new one.  You want to benefit from the constant improvements in modern materials and design, don't you?  Well then.  They really like that- so if you read their text books, or go to them for advice- that's what they'll tell you.


D) Building structures with longer life-spans is quite a lot more expensive.  Like double.

E) Financial advice is always- that investments in durable structures are not sensible.  The reasoning there: if you put that money in the stock market instead, it would give you better returns (no laughing, now); and, they're quite sure you will move to a better, more expensive location later in life, as you become more successful; so you won't get the benefit of the more durable structure anyway; and whoever you sell your old place to will not pay you any premiums for the better buildings; people just don't.

F)  That's the way we build stuff in the States- always have.  Ever since Europeans arrived here- they've been sure they were going to move in the next 10-20 years, to someplace better. Why build for the long term?

See any holes in any of the logic here?


I'm cogitating, pondering, and kneading all this stuff right now for a couple of specific reasons; I've got to figure out what to do about this shed; and- about future construction here.  We're in the process of building space for animals (guineas! ) - and you can check out a recent rhapsody on barns by Sharon, here.


More in the next post.   Think about it!  And think about all the stone farmhouses in Europe... and how old they are...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Once again I find myself looking at way too many urgent things; both to write about here, and to do on the farm.  Winter really really has arrived; we've got 5 inches of snow, and the temperature dropped to -3°F last night (-20°C).

So, firewood probably being more urgent than theoretical discussions about Life, The Universe, and Everything, I'm going to just do a quickie here and try to get out and get in some fuel, before the snow gets deeper.  Back seems to be essentially functional, and not feeling fragile, usually a reliable indication.

I have two cartoons for you here, and hope I am not breaking any copyright laws.  These are from "Tom the Dancing Bug" by Reuben Bolling.

They are so exactly spot on as to be scary.  How is it our humorists have more solid understanding of economics than our economists?  Really?  Don't you think that should tell us something?

The first one here predated the announcement that the Federal Reserve Bank was going to start - buying US Treasury Bonds... to prop up the market- by a full week, I think.  (click on pic for full size, if it's working.)

And this second one is from this week, and illustrates what to me is an obvious truth; that "economics" is a religion; not a science.  Really- not kidding.

Just good stuff to chew on for a while.

Coming soon:  "The Walls of The Erlenmyer Flask", and "Why 30 years is not forever."


Update 12/3; just a little more quick fun; Stuart Carlson today.  Read the banner on the bottom...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Crunchy gave me a disease.

Scary, huh?  Diseases are evolving; and Crunchy Chicken obviously gave me her Outback Disease, via the internet.  Vibes are contagious!

My back went out on me on Friday.  No question in my mind but that it's Crunchy's fault.  That would make it one of the new ITDs; Internet Transmitted Diseases.  So far, it's only the back though, I haven't caught her astonishing taste in gross-out jokes.  Thank goodness.

And, because I'm someone who believes in being prepared- I actually managed to nip this episode in the bud.  Today I'm basically back to 90% functionality, because of my amazing breadth of experience and deep wisdom.

(that's humor, guys)

I was putting on a sock.  That's all.  And Crunchy's Outback Disorder hit.  Whammo- back spasm.  I am subject to them, and they can cost a week, or two, to get over.  Boy, do I ever not have the time for this.

Luckily- I was right near the bed.  So I was able to just get right back in, as quickly as possible, and do relaxation exercises to keep the spasm from spreading or getting worse.

That's been my experience, several times.  If I'm way out in the field somewhere when the spasm hits, and I have to keep walking/driving tractor or whatever for a while to get where I can lie down, the spasm will grow, intensify, and take much longer to heal.  This time, I recognized it, and immediately got off it.

It still took two days flat in bed to really counteract it, but that's hugely cheaper than a week, or two weeks, with all that pain.  The pain is also much less the sooner you can lie down.  Also used heavy ibuprofen to knock down inflammation, and a hot water bottle to help relax muscles on the second day.

Right now I owe a bunch of folks some good replies to their comments.  I'll get there, I think.  But I also have to go out and get some firewood right quick; in the 5" of snow that fell yesterday.  Lots of fun potential for little slips and jerks there!

So, Crunch- how's YOUR back doing?  And thanks, so much, for the suggestion!  :-P