Sunday, August 22, 2010

A huge mess

Photo of the house, in happier times.

I've been over at our old house, the Bale House, a lot lately, trying to make sense of things.

It hasn't been easy. The Bale House never did make very much sense. It was always a very conditioned rationality that led to the house's existence in the first place.

We built this other house beginning in 2002, as a response to the high price of rental housing in Maine and our own inability, at the start of our teaching careers, to get a mortgage on anything worth owning. It was also an experiment in green building and self-reliance, and, I think, my own romanticism.

I have always wanted very badly, since I was a small boy in fact, to build my own cabin in the woods and live in it. With the Bale House I got to actually do this. That might be the biggest single reason it exists at all.

The second reason it exists is poverty. Before Aimee was working, before I had won a promotion, but after my student loans had kicked in, we could afford to choose between a home-built like the Bale House, a trailer, or a modest apartment in one of the more modest local towns like Waterville.

Aimee of course eventually began to earn too, but then her student loans kicked in. We were better off, but not by much.

We could have course had done what most other young professors would have done, which is give up on working at the modest, frugal institution that was paying us so little, and climb the socio-economic ladders (and chutes) of higher education.

But we decided to stick with Unity College.

In my case this isn't such a bad thing. I like Unity College. It may not pay so very well, but it's green and frugal itself, which suits, and I enjoy the students. Aimee is a much better scientist than I am, which career is not particularly being developed, but she's now an administrator, which she seems to like, and since she's also an expert husbander and developer of things, the sort of person that sorts things out, she's good at being an administrator.

And although I like to think have a very vibrant intellectual life, I'm such a very idiosyncratic thinker, so unorthodox and even just plain hornery, that I wouldn't fit in well at too many other programs. Part of this is my self-contradictory background. As an ex-serviceman, I'm too conservative and too disciplined and demanding for the liberal intellectuals. I hate all the pseudo-caring, the politically correct side of the green movement. I detest the weak science and non-science and New Age fakery and all that other mush which pervades liberal intellectualism. But as a former ex-environmental activist and a back-to-the-lander I'm way too green for the conservatives. I'm not American enough for Americans to be comfortable around me, and not European enough to go back to Europe and teach. I don't like to socialize or schmooze hardly at all. And, to be honest, neither does Aimee.

There are just a wealth of reasons that we couldn't easily work at, say Harvard, or even East Overshoe State.

So, perhaps not able at the time to realize all this, but certainly worried about money and wanting a rural lifestyle, we built a house for as little money as we possibly could and lived in it for three years while Aimee got hired first temporarily, then permanently, then was promoted. I was promoted too. Then we bought this house, which itself was an experiment in self-reliance and frugality, but one that looks more normal on the outside.

But when we began the Bale House we had only been dating for a few weeks, and the plans for it were all in my head. That was possibly my first and biggest mistake, because when we did eventually get married, Aimee wasn't willing for very long to put up with living in such a faulty dwelling. I had thought up (designed being too positive a word) a building that was heated primarily with wood, with only a seasonal well for water, at the end of a very long and very bad road, terribly isolated without grid power or Internet, without closets or properly finished walls on which to hang pictures, rough cut lumber and other rough surfaces everywhere, very hard to keep clean, etc, etc.

Aimee helped from the very first day, and in fact the beautiful shingled siding on the building is all her own work. But the design, if there was one, was all my own. And that was the problem.

I could go on and on and on about the dozens of ways that the Bale House as designed failed to pass muster as a dwelling, at least by normal American standards. I made my poor wife put up with this for a couple of years, but the minute the opportunity presented itself to buy a better house, or at least one that I could see was capable of being brought up to a normal standard, I grasped it.

That was a leap of faith for Aimee too. This Great Farm farmhouse was falling down when we bought it, and a lot of people didn't think it could be saved. But it could, although it took a couple years, and now it's a very nice house. Not your average American McMansion by any means, but by our standards, pleasant and quiet and definitely agriculturally productive.

But that left us with a second home, the Bale House, which we definitely didn't need and probably couldn't afford and couldn't sell because, well, it's not a very normal house.

But almost right away, we heard of some people we knew that were in a pretty poor fix, about to become homeless. They had a kid and animals. We have a soft spot for kids and animals. So we let them move in.

And so began the next passage in the history of the Bale House. Long story short, they trashed it. Just about every system that is needed to run the house is broken, while the previously tidy yard with gardens and a gravel driveway is a trash-strewn wasteland.

I would say that 90% or more of the responsibility for this was the guy. This is an individual who can't really look after anything. It's probably beyond him to even take his own beer cans to the redemption center. The girl was mostly just overwhelmed, another American mother about to be homeless with a husband who couldn't hold a job or keep a house working.

There's no point trying to sue or get any money from either. Their marriage is long gone at this point. I'm not sure the ex-husband even has a job, while the ex-wife still has a kid.

Whatever we might think, none of this is the kid's fault.

And there's another person we know that would like to live there. A much better-suited person, all round, for the place, an organic gardener and adjunct professor. Neither position pays well, so frugality is needed.

The Bale House is very, very frugal. Since we pay the taxes, land rent and insurance, whoever lives there must only pay for firewood, phone, and propane.

But first everything must be made to work and made decent again.

So, where to start, with such a bomb zone?

When Aimee saw, for the first time, the damage that had been done, she was speechless and close to tears.

First I took the downed popple tree off the driveway. That allowed me to get the farm truck in there. I cut the grass enough to be able to get in and out without tripping up on three-feet long weeds and grass. Then I picked up enough yard trash to get a load of tools and equipment up to the house. Than I moved all of the remaining stuff that was in the house into one corner and swept up the big bits of trash. I moved the filthy appliances out of the kitchen, or shifted them aside. I tore down the broken solar power systems and plumbing systems, taking non-functional parts, pumps, the charge controller, the inverter, home to my shop, to be stripped and repaired if possible.

I wrecked out the part of the kitchen's straw bale wall that had composted (because the former male occupant had made a hole in the roof which shoveling). I put on a new (recycled) metal roof on this part of the house to prevent further water incursion.

As I was doing this part, the former female occupant came by with her new boyfriend, a local businessman that I quite like, and with a little encouragement successfully removed the last of her stuff. The dead truck with four flat tires on the driveway was towed, apparently to be taken the house of the former male occupant, where no doubt it will rot for another three years. I took the opportunity to add some of the nastier pieces of garbage to the truck bed: The full compost bucket that was in the kitchen for months, all the glass that littered the yard, a filthy couch, the cans of food that had been frozen and thawed, frozen and thawed, etc, etc.

(Go on, sue me, make my day! Imagine the counter suit!)

I will go back today and put in new insulation to replace the straw, using recycled fiberglass because, funnily enough, that doesn't compost, and seal the wall up again.

(I'm no longer such a big fan of straw bale construction. Another New Age idea?)

I may try to cut some more grass too today.

There's lots more to do. More stuff in the yard to pick up, although not garbage, just piles of lumber and firewood scattered randomly. The kitchen floor will have to be refinished somehow. There's some drywall that needs to go on the living room ceiling. The appliances need to be cleaned and checked out. The chimneys need to be properly cleaned and checked for safety. The parts for the water and electrical systems are on order. The smoke alarms need new batteries, the phone line needs to be hooked up and tested.

And on and on. A lot of work.

But at least the trash is gone. And I don't mind construction work, or solar tinkering, or yard work. I never have minded work, which is I suppose how I come to have two houses, while the so-called husband that used to live here doesn't own his own pot to piss in.

The place is starting to look like someone cares about it. And it will be a nice quiet place to live again soon for someone that needs a place to live.

We'll make sense of this house again, after all the former senselessness.


An old fashioned ideal, but one that makes sense to me.

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