Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bale-full woes

Our kid learns to roll pastry. Eating pastry while rolling is optional.

Not much time these last few weeks for posting, I'm afraid. Some folks, relatives of a former student, want to move into our straw bale house in Monroe, and I've been over there repairing the various systems.

This old house, which could be termed one of the greatest mistakes of my life, was built in 2002 and 2003 when I was ostensibly a single man, although I started dating Aimee before I began building. I was also very poor. Assistant professor salaries at Unity College were never very great, and my student loans kicked in six months after I graduated with my PhD (in May, 20002). Later, Aimee got employed and we both got promoted, and I could afford proper hardware and wotnot, but the Bale House is built with recycled trash of various kinds, as well as straw bale for insulation.

The main problem is, we don't own the land. if we did, I'd have sold the place long ago and made some money for our family by doing so. But we have a lease instead, on land owned by some other folks we know. As a result, we're stuck with a hosue we don't need, but which we need to repair and keep up.

Despite this, it has been a refuge for numerous people over the years. It may be the western equivalent of a shanty house, but it is surprisingly large, and the architecture kind of "works", in that there's a spacious mock Tudor kind of feel to the interior.

I've been over there almost every day cleaning and fixing, including some very heavy and dirty jobs, all done with absolutely no help because someone has to watch our kid. It's been miserable work. I hope to be done with it shortly.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are potatoes.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

On the road again!

After nearly thirteen years sitting in the woods, my old VW camper is mobile and almost street legal again!

I finished the bodywork and paint a couple-three weeks ago, refitted the engine, newly rebuilt, and a new steering beam, and have been puttering more or less daily on the small stuff like lights, door seals, and interior. It's now insured and registered.

I've taken it for a few test drives. I'd forgotten how much fun these are to drive. The driver sits up high with good visibility, the steering is responsive and has a tight turning circle, and the engine drives from the back, so the vehicle powers around corners.

Our kid seems to like it too, mostly because we sing "The wheels on the bus go round and round" whenever we get in. But it has carpet in back, and a big floor to play on, and will soon have a bench seat that folds into a bed, and a table for eating picnics.

Here she is the other day when I had the seats out for cleaning.

Next stop, a nice family picnic, and when she's old enough, a fishing trip!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The thick of it

Loading the lambs in the Land Rover

Summer is well under way at Womerlippi acres, with the farm and garden work proceeding apace, as are all our projects, and the days are blending into one another nicely in the way they do when you no longer have to go away to work every day. There's something very satisfying about not knowing what day of the week it is, and I certainly don't miss weekends. Nor do I miss the daily commute. I much prefer getting up, walking out of my door, and picking up whatever tools I need to do whatever job I have to do.

Most people lived like this at one time, and I think our bodies and minds are probably built for this more continuous kind of rhythm to our days. I sleep better in the summers, usually, perhaps because I get more exercise, but more likely because there just isn't any stress. If you think about it, one of the reasons work is so stressful for many people is that you have to get there, and on time.

We still get to go places, of course, mostly for farm chores, as well as to shop for food, and for any family outings we plan. Our first farm sale of the year is always that of two lambs to our friend John Mac and his partner Nancy. Pictured above, I take them in the Land Rover because their driveway is very narrow and it's hard to turn the truck around. These two will graze the lawns and other unused spaces around their home for the summer, and then become dinner in the fall.

Roo was investigating the situation for herself. She likes to scramble around in the cars when they're parked for some reason, investigating the controls and of course any cargo. This activity occupies her for hours, another reason why I think having a nice big VW camper bus is going to be a big hit.

Our most recent family outing was to the new kids play room in Belfast. This is a combination of gym and rumpus room for kids to run around in, and the grand opening was Saturday. We went along to see what all the fuss was about. Roo had fun, while we watched carefully from the sidelines. Most of the other kids were much bigger and fast, so we expected her to get knocked over at any point, but she stayed on her feet pretty much the whole time.

We've also discovered that our daughter likes to "cook".

What this really means, of course, is that Roo likes to make a mess in the kitchen while we're cooking.

This is some rice and flour, mixed with food color, that mommy used as a distraction. Roo had a fine time using her hands to mess with the colorful grains.

My VW project is coming along nicely and I will probably finish it later this month. "Finish", in the sense that all the major restoration work is done. I'm not sure if I will sticker and drive it this year. We'll see. I have a mind to do the interior up really nicely, and am looking around for ideas.

I thought that getting the engine over to the lift would be a problem, but then realized that the car itself could be used as a strong point to lift the engine off the trailer. Here's the engine being lifted off the engine stand and onto the trailer, and below you see the bus rear beam used as a strong point to lift the engine off the trailer and get it in position underneath the car.

From this point it was less than twenty minute's work, six bolts and two nuts, to install the engine. The whole process was complete by nine thirty Tuesday morning, having started at eight. This was very satisfying for me.

Here's the rebuilt engine in the car. We'll try for a start late next week sometime. As I was working,I discovered that the distributor was bad and had to order a new one, so we'll have to wait a little while.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A day off from summer break

It's been nearly a week since our summer break began. What did we do with all that "free time"?

Well, we looked after our kid. Played with her, fed her, bathed her, put her down for naps. All that good stuff. Here she is. having discovered that fun stuff comes in packages, she decided to try to open one with a table knife. Luckily, not only are our knives blunt, but we caught her in time.

We also bought a new livestock trailer, to replace our old home-made one (pictured above). I have to restore the body and frame of the new one. No welding needed, just mild rust abatement, but if it's done now, it should last for twenty more years at least.

There was a gale last weekend that took out our greenhouse. Repeated gusts pulled the anchors out of the ground and bent the frame. I was able to square it up again and re-position it, but a proper repair must wait for replacement rafter tubes. Since then the weather has been better and we now have the garden planted.

Aimee made more of the new design wooden tomato cages.

Finally, we've done a lot of work on the VW project and started the repairs to the Bale House.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Nearly done -- crack that nut

Our summer break has nearly begun, but you wouldn't know it from the weather. Graduation was Saturday, and that day was nice and warm, but then some cold air spilled in and we even had snow in northern and eastern parts of Maine.

I enjoyed the commencement ceremony, mostly because of all the students and their families and how happy they were. I'm not fond of dressing up, nor of anything really that gives people the impression they are better than other people, and so I don't enjoy all the robes and pomp and circumstance. But I like seeing the smiles on all the students and parents and grandparents.

I also like the bagpipes.

We have our requisite period of "professional development" this week, our mandatory in-service teacher training, and then we're officially off work for the summer.

My grading done, I've been dividing my time between jobs around the house and farm and making progress on my Volksproject. The interesting rig you see above is my solution to the difficulty that ensues when you remove a VW engine before you crack the large nuts on the rear stub axles. Normally, you'd do this procedure with the engine in, using the engine's compression to lock the gearbox and prevent the wheels from turning. But I had removed the engine before I realized I had to remove the axle nut. I used an old clutch plate placed over the gearbox input shaft, attached to a long bar,  to make a jamming rig.

Our kid is thriving with the (mostly) warmer weather, and spends a lot of time running around the yard. We now have our feeder pigs in the barn, and with the lambs running around and baby chicks in the kitchen, there's lots to see and do if you're a few months shy of two whole years old.

The garden is about half-planted, just waiting for some warmer weather and for the risk of frost to pass. We managed to find a horse trailer to replace our pathetic home-built animal trailer, something we've complained about for years. It needs to be restored, although it's not as much work as the VW.

Mostly, this particular season of the year, I'm just anxious to get started and get some of this work done. I'll be glad when these two training days are done.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Science girl. She wanted to see what was in my magazine. Good for her. I haven't even read it yet.

Life has been busy as we get ready for the growing season. The garden has been manured -- about three tons of well-rotted pig manure mixed with sheep bedding. It has been tilled. Several varieties of veg are already planted. The sheep are now shorn. Green grass is growing and they occasionally get to eat it -- there isn't enough of it yet to let them go wild, so they have to be held back.

I was able to find two half-days to get quite a bit of the VW engine remantling done. I fitted the new cylinder heads and completed one side of the valve train. The other is waiting for a new push-rod tube. One of the eight original 1975 ones had a pin hole. This is now waiting for a rebuilt alternator before we fit the cooling fan housing. The old one still works, or was still working when removed, but the alternator change on these things is a bear when the engine is still in, and so it would be mush easier to switch it out now than later. There's also the small matter of a new clutch, also on order.

I have a hard time explaining to most people why engine rebuilding is so satisfying. It's like a giant jigsaw, only much more challenging. And there is something very satisfying about taking a greasy dysfunctional mess and turning it into a gleaming, roaring beast, ready for another 100,000 miles or more. Michael Crawford, whose excellent book "Shop Class and Soulcraft" talks about gaining "power over your own stuff", and how we no longer have this in modern society, when most technology requires expert servicing. Engine rebuilding is the ultimate power over your own stuff. What could be more proof of that than driving down the road in a vehicle whose engine you built yourself.

Finally, I solved the poppy problem. This is the difficulty that arises for ex-pat Brits, especially ex-servicemen, when November comes around and you can't find a proper British Legion poppy. I discovered several solutions over the years. I've driven up to Canada (not a major trek, really, it's only 80 miles) to get one, having a nice mini-break along the way. I've had one sent from Britain. But these new permanent poppy pins solve the problem nicely, and you can get them with your own unit crest. Twenty percent goes to the British legion, which runs to the same amount of dough as about two or three years of normal poppy donations.

I expect by the time three years has passed, I'll have lost it and so need another.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Da grind

 One spring break activity was a trip to the children's science museum in Bangor. This is the flowing waters exhibit, courtesy of our local hydropower company.

 We're back to work after a glorious two-week spring break in which the weather did not cooperate, but our metabolisms did. After about nine or ten days of regular exercise and daily naps, I finally started to get the feeling I'd finally caught up on my sleep.

Considering that our child was born August 2014, that adds up to a year and a half of chronic sleeplessness. The last six months, of course, were way better than the first year, but you still don't always get enough sleep. I'm sure this is typical for most parents.

Of course this feeling didn't last long because I'm working nights, teaching economics classes on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6-7.15 pm. I generally don't mind night classes, since students are usually in a better mood than at, say, 8am or 9am. I had one such typical "youf" in my office yesterday, yawning away at 9am. Gosh knows what that kid will do when he finally gets employed and has an adult schedule to keep.

But it does take it out of you to work such long days, especially if your kid isn't sleeping and if the weather prevents exercise, and by Thursday I'm generally tuckered and ready for a break. Night checks for lambs doesn't help. It's good that lambing season went so easy this year, with such mild weather, because that reduces the worry over freezing lambs, but there were still some nights that required three or four night checks.

All semester, I've tried very hard to work from home Fridays when I don't have classes, which allows an afternoon nap. Saturday and Sunday are usually good for catching up too. It hasn't been too hard, but I doubt I'll get that wonderful feeling of having gotten enough sleep again until after graduation.

In other news, The weather finally improved for spring, and I broke out the rototiller attachment for the tractor and checked it out prior to fertilizing and tilling the garden. I also "turned" the compost heap in hopes of getting a little more decomposition before this material will need to be spread. It was a very mild winter, but this meant no warming blanket of snow, and so the top layers had hardly decomposed at all.

Spring also brings the annual round of vehicle work. Although we do have a cramped one-car garage, I don't have a proper indoor shop, so working on cars is hard in the winter. I try to fit it all in between May and November.

We began with Aimee's Matrix, which needed new summer tires and an inspection sticker. It's our newest vehicle and so requires little serious mechanic-ing from me. This is good, because my lift is still occupied by the '75 VW bus. I cleaned the lift area and inspected and tested the lift. With an outdoor lift, you need to be sure every year that there hasn't been frost damage to the concrete or anchors. Everything was fine.

My next vehicle job is to finish the engine rebuild, put the finish coat on the engine bay paint, and refit the engine. That and some brake work should get me to a "rolling chassis", which is infinitely preferable to the "lump" I have right now, since I might then use my precious lift to work on our other cars. It will take me several years to finish the bus to the standard I'm hoping for.

I could probably finish that engine rebuild on my weekends before the end of the semester, but I'm not going to. It would mean shirking at least some of my share of weekend childcare, and in addition to being unfair to Aimee, that would mean I miss parts of watching my kid grow up, which I'm not willing to do. The bus can wait until after graduation. We will still have some summer daycare, and even the most loving of fathers needs to make sure their kid plays with other kids, not just with him. She gets to do that at daycare and in fact is quite happy there and ,loves the lady in charge. I'll get my car work done while she's in daycare.