Saturday, May 15, 2010

How do you know how to do the right thing?

Well, yesterday was an almost perfectly difficult day, but those are common enough around here. What was different was that it was a day of almost complete moral ambiguity.

Only time will tell if we did the right thing.

This difficult day involved both sheep and cars, but both stories are long, so bear with me.

The first part of the day we spent car-shopping. I've mentioned before that our truck has developed a coolant leak into one of its cylinders, most likely a head gasket leak, but possibly a warped cylinder head. This truck is Aimee's daily driver and life is hell around here whenever it has to be taken out of service for repairs. Aimee and I never have matching teaching schedules, an administrative problem that costs us a small fortune since it means we have to keep and drive two vehicles constantly. One of us has to come home as early as possible to tend animals, the gardens, and in winter, the wood stove. The other, usually Aimee who has considerably more administrative duties, has to stay late. It buggers up all our house and farm systems terribly, and worst of all, animals get neglected, if I have to stay on campus to wait for Aimee to finish up.

So we drive two vehicles almost daily, all year. If we're going to do this, we really should get the most fuel efficient and cost-efficient vehicles we can. Aimee, who can't drive a stick-shift, drives the automatic truck, while I drive a manual Ford Escort wagon. If there's a snowstorm or other bad weather, we do drive together in the four wheel drive truck. We also need it for moving hay, grain, and other bulky farm inputs. But the rest of the time we drive separately unless for some strange reason that's a day we can both leave for work and come home at the same time.

So as mechanic-in-chief around here, and in consideration of the truck's essentiality and usefulness around here, my advice was for us to keep it and repair it and baby it along as long as we could, but only use it when we actually need a truck or four wheel drive, and instead get a smaller car with an automatic transmission for Aimee to drive to work. Actually, we probably made this decision last fall, or earlier, before the truck had even developed the head gasket leak. But the leak clinched it and added urgency, since a vehicle with such a deep, systemic engine problem can crap out any day, any time.

Which sent me to my budget spreadsheets and the classified ads for about the last two months, while I explored the possibilities for buying new or used small cars more or less exhaustively. We can't afford to throw money at vehicles, and while new cars are nice, they aren't necessarily the most cost-effective choices. As a fairly experienced mechanic, given enough time, I can repair almost anything on a car myself. I rarely have time for car repairs during term time, but in summer I can usually pull out several days and even weeks or work on vehicles. In fact last summer I reconditioned an old motorcycle just for fun. If I have lots of time, I even enjoy the work.

This gives us some options other folks don't have.

Long story short, we looked at new small Japanese cars, like the Fit, Yaris and Versa. We even looked at the Chevy Aveo, but Aimee, suspicious like many Americans of American car manufacturers, didn't like that much. I thought about it for a while, the appeal of a car and warranty for less than $11,000 being quite strong, but the Aveos don't hold their value at all, and I'm not sure they're good for much more than 120,000 miles, whereas the Japanese models get 200,000 or more. Aimee fell in love with the Fit. All that neat cargo room and secret compartments appealed to her organizing nature. But we couldn't imagine spending $18,000 for a tiny hatchback, even if it was likely to get 200,000 miles.

More cost-efficient in comparison were second-hand cars, but not so much the smaller Japanese ones. We actually saw secondhand Honda Fits priced for more than new ones at one or two dealers, less Fits being made than were demanded by buyers.

So after quite a bit of winnowing of ideas and back and forth, we settled on finding a small to mid-size Japanese car, preferably smaller, but not necessarily so, hopefully with less than 100,000 miles, but not necessarily so, and so on. The main criteria being overall value for money. I badly wanted to make a Prius fit this profile because of the fuel economy factor, but that rapidly showed itself to be almost impossible. There was one "little old lady" Prius that sold for $6,000 last week with only 59,200 miles on it, but after careful perusal of the ads and after looking hard and driving one car, I decided that if a Prius was priced for less than $10,000, it was either because it was approaching 200,000 miles, or because it had a dead or suspect main battery costing $3,000 to replace.

We weren't getting anywhere with all of this and we'd only looked at one car by the end of the semester.

Then Aimee spent an hour or two online one night and found a few cars she wanted to go see, and, probably because she picked them out herself, gave me absolutely no trouble in scheduling a day to go see cars. Usually she hates to go car shopping, and will avoid it like the plague, so this was progress, and hopeful.

So I made a list of cars, and planned out a route. We drove first to Lewiston, Maine, where we had scheduled a look at a '97 Toyota Camry. This car, otherwise ancient, somehow had only 44,000 miles on it, asking only $4,000 when the blue book value was $6,500, almost unbelievable, and I wanted to see if I could fault the theory somehow.

So I rolled under it, and prodded it here and there, and listened to the engine, and smelled the exhaust, and tried to find a reason not to buy it. Aimee drove it, I listened and felt with my butt for bad suspension noises. The damn thing was cherry, more or less. Original paint, bodywork, barely a scratch, and no worn seats or key-scratches or any other reason to suspect those 44,000 miles. Disbelieving, I got fixated for quite a while on the fact that there was new underseal on the frame, and I wanted to know why. There were some seams under the thickest coats of underseal on the main box members, and I wondered if it had been welded, or worse, packed with bondo. The guy who was selling the car had been a dealer but was now unemployed, and I was, I admit, a little more suspicious just because of his former occupation.

This suspicion on my part led to a ludicrous moment where we pulled into a Marden's parking lot while I rolled under someone's random Camry to compare the frame seams. Thank you for that, whoever you are, and I promise I never actually touched your car.

I was only looking, your honour, honest I was.

But the frame was sound, just like every other Camry frame, only cleaner and with more underseal. And so in the end we bought the car. The paperwork took half the day, what with a bank loan and insurance and transit plates. We eventually, very eventually, had all the legalities straightened out, and Aimee, by this time just seething with frustration at how long everything had taken, more or less grabbed the keys from me and finally drove the car off the former owner's driveway.

But we had to get gas. And I'd warned Aimee over and over how there was going to be something wrong, that this was too good to be true, and that old cars that don't get use much develop their own kinds of problems, like dried-out seals and so on.

Well, we were putting the gas in and I was wondering what size gas tank a Camry had, 13 gallons, I thought aloud. Aimee said no, the pump gauge was reading more than that, and then, oh no, we saw the gas trickling onto the floor. A leaking gas tank.

All of a sudden, I actually felt better. Finally, a reason why the car was priced so low. Aimee, on the other hand, was feeling pretty low. But I looked at the leak pretty hard, and decided it was coming from the filler neck, not the tank, and that if we just drove away some of the gas in the tank, and if we were lucky, it would stop leaking, and while we might cause some air pollution, the day was warm and dry and the leaking gas would be spread pretty thin across all of Maine and would evaporate. It helped my thinking that I'd earlier bought comprehensive insurance for the car. But common sense dictated that if anyone was going to die in a blazing vehicular inferno, it would have to be the male of the species, the disposable sperm deliverer, not the female egg carrier. Plus if anyone has experience driving dangerously defective vehicles by the seat of their pants, it's me.

So we drove home, slowly, but steadily and uneventfully. And at about one-third down the gas gauge, the tank stopped leaking. And nothing else seemed particularly wrong.

So did we do the right thing? Only time will tell. The only thing I know for sure is that we have a new, and fairly new-looking car in the driveway alongside our two existing beaters. And that there's a faint whiff of gas in the Great Farm neighborhood. I will be working on the gas leak today, and if I get that fixed in a timely fashion I will do some other things like pull the wheels and check the brakes and pull the plugs and so on, anything I can do to look for wear indicative of more than 44,000 miles.

But that's not the end of the day's ambiguities. About a half an hour after we'd settled down after all this excitement, the phone rang again. Another sheep call. I'm not sure I know how I became the go-to sheep "whisperer" in the area, but that sure seems to be what has happened.

So I pulled on me dungerees and wellies and went a mile or two up the road to another sheep farm, different than the last, where another Churro ewe had been in labor all evening with a tightly packed lamb.

Where I encountered the tightest ewe's vagina and uterus I've ever seen. I could bearly get a finger past the labia, let alone the cervix. The lamb was almost certainly past saving, its tongue bloated with asphyxiation. The ewe was healthy, but in a poor fix.

I struggled for about half an hour, first as gently as I could but eventually with more and more force. I was able to get one foreleg out, but not the other. I couldn't even find it, but then I couldn't get in past the head without tearing tissue. And I couldn't push the head back at all, to reposition the lamb's legs. It wouldn't go back, and as I tried I felt the lamb's teeth breaking and jaw tissues tearing. So I just pulled, while the owner pushed on the belly. There were no contractions, although the ewe would push a little. But the lamb wouldn't budge.

Eventually, I used so much force, I pulled the foreleg right off the dead lamb. That was gruesome. But even then, the remainder stayed put, not moving at all, the lamb's shoulders jammed tight in the womb. Normally, you could pull a lamb like this out easily enough, once you got a grip on a leg or two, but not this time.

I've never had a case like this. The only solution, and probably what we should have done as soon as we realized how tight the lamb was, would have been a cesarean section. But there was no way to succeed at that without a lot of pain and risk for the ewe. Even if there had been a vet willing and available to come out, which I strongly doubt, there would have been more pain and delay.

Which was a pitiful shame, since this ewe was bright and alert and well, just lying there with a lamb that wouldn't come out. We thought about cutting her open in case there was a second lamb, but that just seemed like throwing mortal insult after mortal injury.

So the man of the house went for his pistol and I shot the ewe in the head and she died. More slowly, too, than I would have liked, for the heart kept pumping for several minutes. But I'm sure she didn't feel anything by then, with most of her brain messed up.

So, more moral ambiguity. Did I do the right thing? Should I even have offered to help? I honestly don't know. I'm not a vet, and not even really a very experienced sheep midwife, just more experienced than other folks around here fell themselves to be. The owners were somewhat out of their depth, but so was I. I just felt more comfortable being out of my depth, is all, and for no particularly good reason except I seem to have found myself out of my depth fairly often in my life and have got more used to it than perhaps I should.

The only thing I know for sure is the ewe is now feeling no more pain.

In both cases, the car which is vital for our family, and the ewe's life, vital for her, the stakes were fairly high. These settings we encounter with our rural and self-reliant way of life come with this effect: the stakes are often higher than most folks, particularly most Americans, normally come across in the developed world.

In fact, when stakes do get to be that high, or more so, such as with my elderly parents, both now in hospital in Wales, the system we live with tends to take responsibility from us and give it to specialists.

I'm not sure this is such a good thing for society, not all of the time at least. I may not feel that good about yesterday's problems, or how we muddled through in dealing with them, but at least we did deal with them, all of them. And we even resolved them, in our own fashion, for better or for worse. And we'll deal with more problems today and resolve them too.

There are plenty of problems around the world that are not being dealt with and are not likely to get resolved at all, possibly because we fail to take responsibility or to act, both individually and collectively. And so problems pile up.

Until they get to be really big problems.

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Welcome to our Farm Blog.
The purpose of this blog is for Aimee and I to communicate with friends and family, with those of our students, and other folks in general who are interested in homesteading and farming activities.

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