Thursday, December 30, 2010

Moving snow

Here's our front lawn and mailbox after the recent storm and snow clearing efforts.

Yes, that snowbank is five feet high.

It took about three hours hard labor to get out from under all that snow. The garage was drifted in up to my shoulders, and there was a lot of snow between the driveway and our firewood pile. I felt glad that I'd bought some in the other week, and so had some on hand.

It's best to get the snow moved when you can, because you never know when you will get more, or worse, a thaw. We will get the latter starting tomorrow. It's supposed to be up to 46 F. Luckily, there won't be much rain.

Unlikely that all this snow will melt, but some of it will. Then what doesn't melt, will re-freeze, making it very much more difficult to move.

Apologies for not posting recently. I was having camera difficulty, and busy with the holiday visiting.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Our tree and the upcoming solstice

One of the best things about winter in Maine is the clear cold sky we get much of the time, mostly in January and February, but also in December sometimes. The Canadian high pressure systems that dominate our weather about half the time may bring cold, but they also bring clear, deep blue skies and abundant sunshine.

Yesterday and the day before were like that. It was the weekend after Final Exams at college and we had grading, but Aimee also wanted to visit her beech tree study plots out in the woods behind the house, while I wanted to get our Christmas tree.

This meant that Mary-dog and Haggis both got a good walk with Aimee, while Haggis got two, because he came, as he always does, with me to find the tree.

The annual Womerlippi Christmas tree is an occasion for ritual. It always follows the same ten important steps:

  1. The husband announces he's off to get the tree.
  2. The wife groans and complains "not again!"
  3. The husband must then say "Only a little one."
  4. The husband then takes Haggis the dog out, with a saw or some other tool, disappears into the deep forest for a very long time, where he finds a suitable tree, cuts it, and drags it into the garage to trim. The tree must be malformed, lopsided, and at least two feet longer than the ceiling height of the house.
  5. The tree, suitably trimmed, covered in snow and dead leaves, is erected in the house. The top must be bent over by the ceiling. The wife must look at it and shake her head theatrically. The husband drags the tree back out, trims enough off the base to make it fit, and brings it back in.
  6. Now the tree is really deformed.
  7. The husband must now be unable to find the ornaments, even though he put them away last year. Then ensues the ritual 'hunt for the ornament box."
  8. Finding the ornaments and lights, the husband trims the tree.
  9. The husband lights the tree and stands back, rapt, to admire his handiwork.
  10. The wife inspects the husband's handiwork, and smiles just a little tiny bit.
This important ritual, apart from the Removal of the Tree procedure scheduled for Twelfth Night, is now complete for another year.

This year I failed utterly to complete the ritual as it should have been done. The tree was not big enough. It fit in the room the first time!

Better luck next year.

In other important news, the winter solstice occurs tomorrow around 7pm Maine time.

It's always a good feeling, when you live in a northern place, to see the days begin to get longer again. The coldest weather is still to come, but the sunshine and blue skies we begin to get more and more after the solstice make up for the colder temperatures.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Singing songs of the hills and dales

(Youtube embed from Ed Arnold or "Breakdubber", playing The Mist Covered Mountains of Home on the small pipes.)

Aimee was away this morning doing the weekly shopping, so I hooked up my computer to the speakers and listened to some BBC Radio shows while cleaning up around here, and plastering the bathroom. You can now get pretty much every show there is on all the various BBC Radio stations streamed online, a boon for ex-pats. One of these days we'll be able to get BBC iPlayer too, possibly for paying the license fee.

The day that happens, I'll be glad to drop our current satellite service, with four hundred channels of absolutely nothing worth watching, and send my money to the Beeb. British folks at home who complain about the license fee? It's a bargain. In this country you need to pay hundreds for cable or satellite service, to just get a handful of shows you might like, out of thousands you don't.

So I like the BBC Radio. But Aimee thinks it's silly.

She was out, so today, I listened to a new show out of BBC Radio Scotland, hosted by Barbara Dickson, called Scotland on Song. A nice accompaniment to scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees.

(It needed it very badly, having been neglected since our last vacation. And I wore my carpenters knee pads, because my knees are still sore from my spills the other week.)

The show made me quite homesick for the north country of England, where I come from, as well as the Highlands of Scotland where I lived for a few years while in the RAF and just after demob.

Once upon a time, I was a British traditional music singer. This was nothing fancy, nor was it the more "stagey" performance art of a kind done here in America by folk musicians. It was just what you did. We all were singers, in the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service. It's hard for Americans to imagine this subculture, military folksingers, of all things, but we were, and good at it too. We spent long hours driving all over the country in our Land Rover and Bedford truck convoys, and more long hours in quiet rural pubs, and so we sang songs in male voice harmony to entertain ourselves.

The tradition was inherited from the rural and coastal people the service mixed with in the villages, as well as from the British rambler's fraternity, and it was all jumbled in with the folk music revival of the 1960s and 1970s. By the time I became part of this tradition in the RAF, it was forty years old already, but the songs in some cases were much older and would have been sung in those very same ancient pubs by fishermen, farmers, drovers and even soldiers in times past.

My family sang songs too, when I was a kid, to while away the time on driving vacations to Scotland. Mostly we sang Scottish traditionals and old favorites like Loch Lomond, that my father probably learned from my grandfather.

There were many popular lines of songs for the RAF MR Teams. Climbing and rambling songs were old standards: The Climber's Clementine and Ewan McColl's The Manchester Rambler, which I always loved, my grandfather having been part of the Kinder Trespass. We also sang several Ewan McColl songs, including Shoals of Herring. Other favorites included Scottish music of Jacobite or nationalist vein, including the entirety of the Corries' work (Peggy Gordon, The Rose of Alladale, and a dozen or two bloodthirsty rebel rants), and a good deal of the Dubliners' too. (Black Velvet Band, The Leaving of Liverpool, etc.)

Paradoxically, we didn't draw the line at Irish nationalist songs like We're off to Dublin in the Green, although they were never favorites, nor the proto-feminist Maids When You're Young Never Wed an Old Man, another odd choice but very popular.

That one, I sing a verse or two of to Aimee whenever she flaunts her more youthful age at me!

Some of the really traditional pieces we sang were Burns songs, or collected by Burns, and we could all recite several of these, as well as some poetry, if only the Ode to a Haggis or Scots Wha Hae.

One song I will never forget and haunts me still, because it is so beautiful was Show me Airigh, from the Poolewe area of the northern Highlands, which sounds traditional but is actually quite young, written by a local gamekeeper from those parts in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, and then given to the teams, probably the Kinloss Team, at some piss-up or ceilidh or another. I first heard it while drinking cheap whisky in a bothy in Easter Ross, a suitable location.

Funny thing is, I learned this hunter's song long before I ever came to America and learned to hunt deer. But, a lilting song, it needs a soft, lilting west coast accent, with the soft 's" sound, to sound right.

Give to me a rifle and set me on the trail
High hills before me, the early sunshine pale
Rising o`er the maiden and reflecting on Firemore
High on the hillside the royal rivals roar.


Show me Airigh `n Eilean, below me Loch Maree,
Leave me to my solitude and let me wander free
To climb the rocky mountains and search the glen below
For a fine ten pointer or a royal `o`.

Take me where the falcon and the wild eagle soar
One mile north from the bothy at Carnmore.
On lofty Beinn a Chaisgein I will stalk the royal stag
And thrill to the call of the wild grey lag.

Over heather moorland a wandering I will go
Slioch in the distance beneath a vale of snow
Forever standing guard over bonny Loch Maree
Home of the wild deer so beautiful and free.

Take me where I faintly see the distant Isle of Lewis
Show me all this world and there`s one place I would choose
To represent the beauty of my homeland fair
The Loch Maree islands from the heights of Ardlair.

When the light is fading and the day is wearing through
You`ll find me heading west to the village of Poolewe
Farewell to bonny Kernsary my wandering footsteps guide
Through the pale woods of Inveran by the riverside.

Another Scottish song that still has the power to make me weep is The Mist Covered Mountains. The tune is above, in the YouTube embed at the top of this post.

The words, well suited for any homesick northern British person, are below:

Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I visit the place of my birth
And they'll give me a welcome the warmest on earth
All so loving and kind full of music and mirth,
In the sweet sounding language of home.

There shall I gaze on the mountains again,
On the fields and the woods and the burns and the glens,
Away 'mong the corries beyond human ken
In the haunts of the deer I will roam

Hail to the mountains with summits of blue,
To the glens with their meadows of sunshine and dew.
To the women and men ever constant and true,
Ever ready to welcome one home.

I miss this music. But my time for it may come again. With retirement one day not so very far off, and possibly enough money to spend more time in Britain, I think I shall want to sing again. I will certainly want to hike those hills again.

All I ask out of life at this point, is that I get some more time to spend in these northern and highland places before I go. I'm fifty years old next year, and getting fat and grizzled and gray around the edges and very curmudgeon-ish, and although I love my wife and this small farm, sometimes I just want to take a walk through the dusk of the British countryside to a pub and sing some songs and drink some beer. Americans left all those traditions behind long ago, and even those folks who are musicians here are very, well, professional at it.

The idea that just a bunch of ordinary folks in a pub, a rugby team or a rescue team or a choir or folk club, or just some people, would just sing for the love of it, well, that doesn't happen here.

Our dog Haggis might like that, too. He'd be allowed in a British pub, and folks would fuss over him. He's not allowed anywhere here except for walks and the vets!

And you never know, it might grow on Aimee. Perhaps not the singing, but the walking and pubs and green countryside.

A few years ago I took her to Martindale, one of the quietest spots in the north, and a favorite place of mine for scenery and Norse history. She loved it, and I think began to see what it's all about.

It's hard to imagine staying in Britain, though. We both love the fact that we own this place, these few precious acres, which would be expensive in Britain, probably out of our reach.

But the other thing is, this Maine land grows stuff. It's productive. We have meat and fleece and yarn, vegetables and fruits in abundance, but above all, we have fuel just for the taking.

The reason Englishmen came to New England in the first place was for the fish and the forest trees. The reason this Englishman will stay is because here he can own his own part of the forest, and use the trees to keep him warm in his old age, as well as grow food, and hunt deer.

We're too practical to leave all that behind for the Highlands and what Sir Frank Fraser Darling called their "wet desert."

But I still miss the music.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Snowyness and coldness

Here's a snap I took yesterday of one of our local Amish "schoolbus" adaptions. This one, a "four door" model made of plywood and two by fours and plastic over a cart chassis, was spotted in a very gloomy snowstorm, just ready to turn right on the busy highway from Knox to Unity.

Spotted just in time, I might add.

After it made the turn, several modern four-wheel drive vehicles barreling through the snow on said highway were of course forced to slow to a one-horsepower pace quite abruptly. We've become used to such things in Unity, but I was glad I saw the horse prints in the snow before I saw the vehicle itself, and doubly glad I was driving the four-wheel drive truck, not one of the cars. Had I been coming down Ward Hill in a car without snow tires and not seen this contraption until the last minute, I might have been faced with a choice of the ditch or hitting the thing.

Having been around the Amish on and off for many years now, I long ago lost any propensity to romanticize their way of life. They do some very smart things, and some very silly things, for the sake of religious doctrine. Sending kids off to school in blinding snowstorms in rickety old horse carts might be admirable fortitude and independence from the military-industrial complex, if done only on quiet back roads!

It's only a matter of time on Route 137, I'm afraid to say.

There's a whole industry of romanticizing the Amish in America, with knick-knacks and "Belva Plain" novels and other tat sold by "English" businesses, although sometimes the Amish are themselves involved. I'm immune to this stuff, and so is Aimee, although we do buy Amish and Mennonite food stuffs when the prices are not inflated by tourists. Rarely do the romanticizers and profiteers mention the mounting road deaths that the Amish suffer in their attempts to live their old-fashioned lifestyle side-by-side with the "English."

In other news, we just had about 8 inches of rain Sunday and Monday and the basement flooded, but then the jet stream took a very rare meander to the northwest, and a tongue of very cold Canadian air slopped over the mid-west and licked all the way down into Maine.

It was only supposed to get to 10 F (-12 C) last night, but when I looked at the outside thermometer this morning it was 0 F (- 17 C).

I thought it was a little snappy when I stepped out to let Haggis piddle.

Actually, what was the dead giveaway was that the trees were popping. They only do that when it gets below zero.

That means it was pretty cold in the house this morning, about 58 F, because I haven't been running the oil heat. Instead, cheap bugger that I am, I'm running some trash wood though the outside wood furnace. This was almost my downfall, since when I ran the tap for my morning coffee water, it ran very slowly to begin, a good sign of icing. The kitchen pipes live in a crawl space that has it's own small hot air duct from the oil furnace, just for the sake of the pipes. They're also routed right under the wood stove, and the floor isn't insulated at all. When the wood stove is flat out, that floor is 80 - 90 F inside, and easily 50-60 F underneath, so as long as the stove is running, the pipes can't freeze.

If in doubt that the wood stove will keep running hot enough overnight, or if you leave for any length of time, you turn on the oil heat.

But I only turn the oil heat on when I'm expecting very cold weather overnight. I wasn't expecting such very cold weather last night.

I have the stove cranked now, as well as the outside furnace and the little electrical heater that sits by my armchair. We'll be fine. But I'll be more careful next time.

Last news is, we're done with the semester Friday. I got done teaching the day before yesterday and am walking around in the drifty rosy glow that comes of having had a nice nap Tuesday afternoon, ten hours' sleep Tuesday night and nine hours' sleep Wednesday night.

How much easier and pleasant it is, to work an 8am to 5pm shift, than a 5am to 3.30pm one?

(5am, or sometimes 4am is when I generally start work if I'm teaching classes at 8am. I get my correspondence out of the way before I leave the house, get to my classroom by 7am, or 7.30am, and then do an hour of prep.)

Who knew? I've got 8am classes next semester too, but only three days a week, not five.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Driving Miss Aimee

We spent yesterday in the truck, more or less. But I still managed to put my back and knees out again.

Let me explain.

There's a big road trip that happens each fall to get our ram back to his home farm. For several years now we've used a ram from a small farm like ours over in the western mountains of Maine. It's a two-hour drive there, two hours back.

But the occupant of our Bale House needed a new generator. We took the old, rather expensive one away several years ago after the former occupants tried their best to destroy it. I repaired it and got it running, and bought a cheaper more throw-away one for the Bale House. But that was stolen. So we weren't going to buy another. Whoever was using the Bale House would have to either buy their own or do without.

After struggling for several months to do without, the current occupant decided she wanted a genny, and I agreed to go pick one out and get it for her if she would pay. So before we could drive to the mountains with the ram, we needed to drive to Sam's Club in Bangor, Maine to get the genny. And we needed to do that anyway since I needed studded snow tires for the Ford and I like to get those from Sam's Club, where we have a business account.

I didn't want to buy a full set of four because the Ford has 135,000 miles on it. Who knows how long it will last? I still have some studded snow tires in the basement left over from the Mazda. You can get around pretty well with snow tires on your drive wheels. You don't need them on the other two wheels. But to do this, you have to bring in the wheels. If you bring in the car you have to get four, which would have been another $180.

So Friday evening I pulled the Ford into the garage, jacked it up with the floor jack, pulled the front wheels, put jack stands under the car, and threw the two wheels in the back of the truck.

Saturday morning we rose early and fed animals and climbed in the trucks and drove to Bangor. We dropped off the wheels at the tire shop, picked up the genny and a few other things, then went to the supermarket to drop Aimee off to get some groceries. Then I drove over to Home Despot to get a gas can for genny gas, some small engine oil, and a new light/fan unit for our own bathroom.

I then wanted coffee, so stopped by Starbucks. Finally, with about fifteen minutes to go before picking Aimee back up at the supermarket, I went to gas-up the truck and fill the new gas can for the new generator. As I switched from the truck to the gas can I absent-mindedly laid the gas cap on the ground. I forgot to replace the gas cap on the truck, and ran over it while driving away. So then we had to go the VIP auto parts to get a new gas cap for the truck. Which didn't fit to begin and thus required an ad-hoc alteration to the gas cap surround, which itself is ad-hoc since I rebuilt the truck bed. This crude alteration was achieved with an iron bar I happened to have left over from some random wind research job, while Aimee looked on in mild amusement.

So then we picked up the wheels and the two take-off tires, and drove home. Aimee unloaded the groceries while I fitted the Ford wheels back on, and then moved the car out of the garage to make way for the new genny.

My next job was to get the sheep crate put on the back of the truck. The sheep crate was covered in, and laying in, a snow drift. OK. Right. I pulled it out of the drift with the tractor. But not before I put my back out trying to lift the stupid thing.

(Regular readers will remember last weekend's whiplash incident.)

Then we he had to load the ram. He weighs about two hundred pounds and was not willing to help very much, but he didn't fight very much either. I probably overdid the ropes securing his crate to the truck, but you can never be too careful transporting livestock. Lifting a two-hundred pound struggling ram into a crate on the back of a truck didn't do much for my back, either.

Then we motored over to the Farmington, Maine region, Aimee listening to her favorite Saturday radio shows, me driving. It wasn't an unpleasant outing, and we dropped the ram off on time with little fuss. We did however, forget the meat. We "pay" for the services of this ram with a few pounds of lamb and pork from our stash in the freezer, which is substantial at this time of year and so the terms of this trade are good for us, but also good for the other farmers who prefer to sell live animals than slaughter them, and don't keep pigs at all. We made an arrangement o transfer the meat at a later date, convenient to both families, and went on our merry way, stopping for hot cocoa and donuts in Farmington.

We then drove back, getting home at around 4pm having spent all day from 7am to 4pm, more or less, in the truck. Aimee is not always the most patient person for big messy days like this, but she kept her cool, and we got the whole job done without incident: snow tires, genny, groceries, and ram-removal. I did, however, slip on the snow in the driveway carrying the firewood in for the wood-stove once we made it home.

It's not always that such a huge to-do list of big ticket jobs gets done without incident around here, and things could have been a heck of a lot worse. The ram might have escaped his crate in downtown Farmington, for instance. Giving father-in-law Dick another topic for his satirical wood carvings, no doubt. A study in black walnut of Mick chasing Nattick through the campus of the University of Maine at Farmington?

The possibilities are endless.

I do now have a sore back, and a sore knee. But I was pleased it all went off rather well.

Today we have a big mid-western storm barreling in, snow first, then rain, and lots of it. With a foot of snow on the ground it's going to flood around here, and then be difficult getting around. The tenant wants the genny pretty badly, but she'll have to come get it herself! I need to spend the morning doing farm chores I didn't get done yesterday, and I need to get them done before the storm hits, and then there's a Steeler's game that starts at 1pm, just as the storm begins.

I guess this generator is not going to get delivered today.

A man has to draw the line somewhere!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Snow scenes around the farm today

Here's your first Womerlippi Farm winter postcard.

First, Nattick and his ewes in the snow. They don't mind the weather at all.

We finished up with a little more than a foot of snow, not a big deal really, but a decent start.

The propane is restored after Aimee and I took part of the day off. I got to work and got the hot water and cook
stove working again. Aimee had a hot shower this morning -- the water in the hot tank hadn't yet cooled down.

Here's Haggis out for a walk today.

Finally, look at all the whitetail deer tracks under this old apple tree. Before the deer realized we had dogs, they used to wander all around our dooryard and the neighbors, eating the apples. Now the sheep get all the apples that fall on our land, and quite a few of the ones on the neighbors' land, but neighbor Hamilton keeps this tree clear of the long grass just to attract deer.

Lastly, you can see the snowed up barnyard.

Two more papers to grade, put the chickens to bed and I'm done for the day.

Snow day

Yesterday was more fun than your average Monday. We got our first official snow day of the year.


Snow cancellations are a part of life in the northern tier of American states, and the Canadian provinces. When snow comes in regular, more or less predictable storms, every three to four weeks, a foot or several at a time, and then needs to be moved before regular life can proceed, you don't want extraneous people on the road. You certainly don't want schoolkids and students trying to get to school in their school buses and private jalopies in the dark and snow at 6.30 am, which is when the school buses and the high school students have to get moving in this part of Maine, but also when the plows and salt spreaders have to work the hardest.

And when the schools close, Unity College also closes. Mostly to avoid death and injury in road accidents from students, faculty, and staff trying to hard too get to work.

Which accidents are after all fairly inevitable, if you think about it.

You can see the results of a snow day policy fairly quickly in reduced accidents. It's a very sensible policy, and has the particular psychological benefit of making adults who work in education, state government, and other sectors where workplaces close for snow, feel like happy schoolchildren for a day, because, well, we don't have to go to work that day.

Our first snow day didn't get called until the late morning, which was a bit of a pain. That meant we had to struggle through the storm to get to school, then struggle back home again later. No benefit to driving safety from this snow day.

But we did get the afternoon off. Not entirely, because I spent about five hours of the afternoon and evening grading. But I was able to concentrate on the grading and get it done properly, for which I was grateful.

And I was able to get my tractor out and move all the snow in our driveway and barn access, a vital chore, but one that requires daylight.

The sheep were all pretty stoic about the snow. The outside ewes, the ones in with the ram, hung out in their little shelter or just slept in the snow, emerging with several inches on their backs to eat hay when I went to feed. The barren ewes with last year's ewe-lambs stayed in the barn and ate lots of hay, twice as much as usual.

They must have been bored, poor lambs.

The hens and rooster, for the most part also stayed in the barn, although one enterprising hen came out and dodged around the tractor while I was plowing, looking for bits of grit in the snow. Cheryl Roethlisburger Crow, the rooster, was subdued for once. There's one benefit to the snow -- it shuts the durn rooster up!

The dogs came out to play a little, and Haggis got rolled in the snow, making a doggy-snow-angel, which made him deliriously happy, and so he ran up and down the driveway just for the fun of it.

Back at college, before we left, the first and second-year students had reverted to their childhoods, which after all is not so far back, and were sledding on bits of cardboard, stolen meal trays, trash can lids, and snowboards down the small sled hill next to the main dorm.

I wasn't up for too much of this larking about, except to give Haggis his roll in the snow. I was way too sore for playing in the snow.

And therein lies a winter's tale...

Sunday evening, as the storm was getting going, while it was still a cold miserable rain, I was struggling to get back from the statewide search and rescue quarterly in Bangor, which had me crossing the Mount Harris pass between Dixmont and Jackson (900 feet above sea level), when I started to slide on the way up the mountain. This doesn't happen often, but I quickly threw the truck into four wheel drive and continued at a more subdued pace.

When I got to the top, I saw a half-dozen cars pulled over and a truck in the ditch. I too pulled over, to see what was wrong. As I was doing this, another four-wheel drive truck passed me and lost control, sliding right away into the front of the truck already in the ditch. I got out to see if anyone was injured, but as I was crossing the road I discovered how slick it was -- I fell flat on my butt.

To begin, I couldn't even stand, and had to crawl to the shoulder to stand up. The road was beautifully covered in three eights of an inch of hard, wet black ice: really, really slick. It was obvious that we were not going down that pass. Bruised and tender, I started working my way back through the row of waiting vehicles to tell them what was up, and several drivers turned around to take the western route, through Unity, which is not nearly as high. You need studded tires to handle slick black ice like that, especially on a steep hill, even with four wheel drive.

A few cars, oblivious, sped past me as I was doubling back, including a couple of neighbors. I hope they didn't try the pass.

I didn't feel like going forty miles around to get home, so I doubled back then took the eastern route over dirt roads and through Jackson village, a fifteen-mile, thirty-minute detour. The dirt roads were bad too, but a four wheel drive truck can handle mud.

Driving the long way back home, hurt, on the bouncy dirt roads was pretty poor fun, but sitting down to do grading Sunday evening was pure misery. Not only were the papers pretty bad, which always makes me upset, but my back was whip-lashed and very stiff and sore. Three Aleve tablets reduced the pain sufficient to get a good night's sleep, but I was still fairly upset about it this morning, and so extra happy to get home early.

Then, to cap it all, I'd forgotten to move my tractor into the barn before the ice storm, and so had a very cold bum after my hour's work moving snow yesterday.

Insult to injury.

Eventually I got wise and chipped the ice off with a hammer, but not before the numb-butt effect took hold.

Is a numb bum better than a sore bum? A silly question. Any Mainer can tell you, what you need to last the winter nicely is a warm dry bum, preferably unbruised.

That tractor is now safely in the barn, where it will stay all winter when it's not being used. I run it on kerosene in the winter, to make sure it will start, and keep it in the barn.

Now we're out of propane, and there's been more snow. Aimee will not be a happy camper this morning when she finds out, especially if she doesn't get a hot shower. With the Camry out of action until the part arrives, we'll need to drive to work together in the truck today, and then come home early so I can get propane and plow snow again.

Oh well. It's winter. Time to struggle a little again. Can't be helped.

You get used to it, and quickly begin to remember all your precautions, like never running out of gas, keeping firewood well-covered, shoveling, plowing and moving snow when you can, or putting the tractor away every time.

Keeping it under control and civilized.

Snow days make life a lot easier. If I couldn't have that extra time, I'd be doing a lot of plowing and other chores in the dark, and we'd have a lot more accidents around here.

As for my slight accident, well, I dislike driving in the dark at the best of times, but driving in the dark with a sore butt and whiplash over dirt roads in freezing rain, that I can really do without.

I hope I don't let that happen again this winter.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

If it ain't broke....

Aimee has been complaining now for some weeks that the Camry is giving her starting problems. The first time she complained, I went out the next day and started the car and could find nothing wrong. This happened a couple more times.

Aimee said she thought the problem was occurring when the car was parked on the lawn instead of the driveway, intimating that damp grass and humidity in general might have something to do with it. This made sense. I've had any number of cars that had distributor cap problems that acted up like this, the problems going away once the engine was warm. I tried a couple of first stage diagnostic tests, such as spraying the engine with a mist of water and looking for the sparks that would mean there were ground leaks in the HT wires, to no avail.

Aimee is enough of a scientist to understand that diagnosis of intermittent problems requires time and patience and the good luck to have the problem occur when you have time, daylight, and other conditions are ripe. And the check engine light wasn't on, so there would be no computer diagnostic code to pull, even if I were to wire up my handy-dandy code-puller thingy.

Put simply, the car just wasn't helping at all with the diagnostic process. Poor starting and an intermittent idle can be caused by at least half a dozen common engine problems.

But the problem became less and less intermittent as the winter drew closer and my lovely wife more and more impatient with me. The problem became sufficiently consistent that almost each morning she would have trouble getting the car to idle until it was warmed up. It might even stall while being driven if the throttle was closed before the engine warmed up properly. I tried it myself a couple times and realized that the Camry could idle OK if the engine happened to catch before the throttle was touched. If you so much as tickled the throttle lever before the engine was fully warm, you would stall out.

So I set aside weekend time to diagnose it and read the Haynes manual, and the online user group list serves to determine what the problem was likely to be, narrowing it down by a process of study and elimination, without even looking at the car.

I also warned Aimee that we might find a problem that couldn't be fixed right away and so lose the use of the car for a time. Picking a weekend would give me more time, to be sure, but perhaps not enough.

We'll come back to this last point later.

This was of course all waaay too slow for Aimee's taste. She wanted her beloved Camry fixed, and fixed now! But the allotted Saturday came along and I ran the proper tests, in the right order, and everything fell into place like clockwork, albeit not on the proper wifely schedule.

The book suggested both the coolant temperature sensor or the idle air control valve could cause the symptoms we were seeing. But there were far more list serve posts on idle air control valve, and the symptoms more completely matched what we were seeing. At some point in the conversations with Aimee I had suggested the "cold start valve," an item of equipment that most fuel injected cars have. I'm still not sure if the Camry has one, but the idle air control valve has a similar kind of role, enriching the mixture for starting and also setting the starting idle speed a little higher than normal operating idle speed. So cold start valve was a good guess. The list serves confirmed it.

I can't sing the praises of these Internet Age innovations high enough. The user list serves, which can be found for almost every make and model of car, give backyard mechanics like me access to the kinds of specialized make-and-model specific knowledge that we used to have for older type cars. Take the old style British Leyland Mini, for example. When I was a kid, and an enthusiast for this great little car, there was all kinds of lore available to amateur Mini mechanics. Likewise when I came to the states and worked for the first time on popular American engines such as the old Ford "slant six" truck engine. Air-cooled Volkswagons were of course by far the best car for this kind of thing, the most accessible vehicles ever made from an amateur point of view.

But then computerized cars and trucks came along in the 1980s and 1990s and threatened to make the backyard mechanic obsolete. But these days, if you combine the online list serves with the availability of cheap code pullers, the position of the backyard mechanic is more or less restored, and possibly even better positioned than before. Of course, you have to be able to use a computer, so lots of older backyard mechanics were made obsolete, and you still hear that now-spurious compliant "I just can't understand these things any more."

But actually, "it ain't necessarily so."

The first test for a failed idle air control valve on the Camry is to short out two of the computer test plug connections to operate the valve out-of-sequence, and listen to see if the idle rises. I couldn't hear anything much in the engine note, so I asked Aimee to watch the tachometer, then, just to make sure, I asked her to short out the contacts while I watched the tacho. There was a tiny "blip" in the idle of less than 30 rpm, when a rise of a couple hundred rpm is normal.

So the valve failed the first test. Good going.

The second test is to check the resistance across the plug connection contacts of the idle air control valve. Like most solenoids, this resistance is supposed to be in the low tens of ohms. Try as I might, bent over and as low as I could, even using a flashlight, I couldn't actually see the contacts and operate the test leads at the same time.

The Haynes book is typically obtuse on this kind of thing. They just give the bare bones of each procedure and let the amateur mechanics figure it out, causing, I expect, no end of frustration and probably millions of dollars of damage and added repair bills to automobiles annually. I expect the dealers' technicians use an old connector for this, to bring the contacts that need to be tested out from within the confines of the engine compartment. But I already had enough data to go on with the first test, so I disconnected the throttle body from the engine and took it to my workbench to run the test.

This was, of course, the moment I had been trying to avoid, the point of no return. More of which later, but back to the plot.

The solenoid was showing the proper resistance of around 21 ohms.

But of course the book didn't tell you that this meant nothing much at all if the valve was stuck.

And by the time I had the whole thing on the bench I could see it was a fairly simple matter to dismantle it and see if it was or was not working. Which I did and found the valve stuck in the half-way position with a little of the kind of black sludge that builds up in fuel/air passageways. The photo above shows the idle air valve chamber dismantled, with the valve itself a tiny half-cylinder, just visible if you click on the photo to enlarge it, stuck half-way across the passageway. I was able to free the mechanics of the valve up, but, using a spare twelve volt battery I keep handy and charged up for such things, I couldn't get the solenoid to work. The coil must have burned up trying to operate the stuck valve.

So this was pretty good, I thought. Makes perfect sense, when you think about it. All aspects of data and theory lined up. Very scientific. I thought Aimee would be pleased. An almost certain diagnosis. Very little chance that any other item could be to blame.

I went shopping for the part.

Calling first the nearest Autozone ($150) then the dealer ($250), then looking on eBay for a salvaged unit ($35), I settled on having a new one shipped from an eBay vendor for $80, with free shipping, which turned out to be only a little more expensive than the secondhand one when shipping was taken into account.

Then I went to put everything back together so Aimee might use the car. And this is where my husbandly flag started to fall back down the mast a little.

I was pretty happy at this point. And why not? My guess was that I was at least $400 ahead over what a dealer might have charged us to fix this problem, never mind what might easily have been repeated trips to Brewer, Maine, where the dealership is located. I was definitely ahead on time and money.

And I doubt a non-dealer mechanic would have been able to diagnose such a tricky problem successfully at all. Using a private, non-dealership shop probably wasn't even an option.

This happy diagnosis was confirmed yet further when, having reassembled the whole thing again to the throttle body, and having refitted the throttle body to the engine, the car idled at 2,000 rpm.

If you think about it, this confirms the diagnosis yet further because now the idle air valve is still stuck, but stuck in the cold start position.

So I took it all apart again and set the valve to the opposite position. This time it wouldn't idle at all. Brilliant! Even more confirmation.

I was now 99% sure that I could get this car fixed completely for $80. Indeed the only thing that might reasonably go wrong would be that the new part could arrive broken or be the wrong part.

But then I made my mistake. I couldn't see the point of tinkering further to find a sweet spot in the valve setting where the car might just about run safely, when we have a spare vehicle, and the part would be here by Wednesday. I went and explained the whole thing to Aimee. I told her that she could have her choice of 1) driving the truck for a few days (I even offered to go gas up the truck) or 2) having me fiddle with the setting of the stuck cold start valve to try to find a point at which the car would idle, and continuing to drive the Camry. I explained that the Camry was now more likely to act up on her because my work to free the valve up meant that the symptoms would be even less consistent than previously. I recommended the truck, on the grounds that she would be pretty mad if stranded by the Camry.

All perfectly logical.

She agreed, but not before complaining that she wouldn't be able to drive her beloved Camry. And it was obvious that my certainty of diagnosis, which to me meant almost absolute certainty of success, as well as saved money, meant very little to her.

She was, shall we say, far less satisfied with the results of my labors than I expected her to be.

You can please some of the people some of the time.

I think this might be the difference between a scientist and an applied scientist.

Or between a wifely view of automotive misfortune and a husbandly one.

And it just goes to show you that the old American rural adage, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," has very high value even in this era of computerized cars.

Did Aimee really want me to fix the Camry?

A very good question.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Topsy turvy world

The British Isles are once again almost entirely covered in snow, creating chaos and disorder, as well as making school children inordinately happy to be let off school unexpectedly.

I like snow days too. You can't beat that feeling of utter relief and unexpected freedom, to be let off school, or in my case to not have to go to work and teach, and then you get to play in the snow! Awesome.

I tried to find this year's satellite picture of the now-white sceptered isles again to post a link, but couldn't. No matter. You've seen it before.

The UK government has ordered an audit of snow clearing capability -- a day late and a dollar short. And UK farmers have been permitted to get out on the rural roads with their off-road only pink diesel (which we have over here too) and clear snow with loaders and skid steers and the like. We do that stuff too. Just last year I had to rescue Jackson Town's number two plow truck from our own front lawn with our tiny Kubota tractor.

That was fun for me. The tractor liked it too.

Meanwhile the temperature in the yUKe has been down in the low negative twenties (Celsius) in some spots, which is around the low single negative digits on the Fahrenheit scale.

So even a Mainer would agree that's cold.

But not very cold. Just an ordinary kind of cold.

Really cold in this part of Maine is negative 20 or 25 Fahrenheit, which is -28 to -31 Celsius.

But meanwhile we expect our first "real" snowstorm soon. So far we've just had an inch or two of slush or a dusting of spindrift.

I doubt very much that, even were we to get a couple-three feet of snow this weekend, which is a medium big snowstorm in Maine, we'd see any particular headline news about it. That sort of thing happens most winters. Snow in Maine tends to come in big nor'easter storms, which occur every two to three weeks, maybe four to six storms per season. A nor'easter could dump anything from six inches to four or even five feet, but eighteen or twenty four inches is perfectly normal and may happen three or four times a year.

I'm not saying the UK has it easy. If you don't have the equipment, and you're not used to it, snow can be very difficult.

I'm just talking about snow.