Monday, December 30, 2013

Winter wonderland

Some nice photos of the farm so far this winter. Click on one to see all as a slideshow. I've been enjoying the outdoors, mostly clearing snow and ice, but also walking the dogs and looking after the animals. Indoors, it's time for crafts. Aimee is knitting by hand, and I'm using the knitting machine.

A sparkly day just after the ice storm. Sheep are happy in their barn.

Down trees on the snowmobile trail.

Pine needles seem to attract more than their fair share of ice!

The neighbors very hungry cows wait for a hay bale. They're eating frozen tree tips from the down tree above, after the neighbor sawed it up and heaved the branches over the fence. The bale will come eventually, but only after the access road is plowed and the neighbor brings a truckload over. Must be hard to keep warm with an empty belly.

Flamey stops running for a second to contemplate the cows. She's not sure what to make of them, but as they seem big and scary and don't seem to want to play, she'll soon lose interest.

Ernie breaks the snowshoe trail. If only he'd stay on it and stop deviating into the woods, he'd be a help.

The cows follow me home, saying, "Can we come how with you and stay with the sheep? We like barns and oats and  hay and sweet feed too! We'll be nice to the sheep, promise!"

One of these days they'll realize they can just hop across that silly bit of hot wire and show up in our dooryard to ask for for a handout.

Snoeshows in various states of experiment and repair. I long ago switched out the bindings on the traditional ones for some heavy-duty plastic ski-mountaineering bindings from the seventies or eighties, and they work well, but the cheap aluminum and plastic snowshoes can't handle the cold. The plastic long ago began to crack, so I fixed it up with some duct tape. I like the metal ones for certain snow conditions --- they're lightweight and have good crampons -- but I think they're going to have to be replaced with some better ones.

A child's hat I knitted up on the machine. The machine itself in the background.

"Selfie" with smurf hat, also knitted up on the machine this year.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scruffy husband sets dessert on fire

Aimee said I shouldn't post this because it shows me in my food-stained lounging-around-the-house sweat pants, albeit after cooking and eating Christmas dinner yesterday, but I'm not proud and have never been a fashion plate, so I doubt it will come as a shock to readers that we like to be comfy here at Womerlippi Farm.

I was hankering after a proper Christmas pud, literally like mum used to make. I didn't have her recipe -- sister Carol probably has that in one of mum's cookbooks -- so I had to find one. I used a BBC recipe from here. The Beeb has a great online recipe system, and each one comes with how-to pictures and videos.

In the past I've used a microwave recipe, but I wanted to try a proper steam-it-for-hours-and-hours pudding. Mum used to make Christmas pudding like this, as well as chocolate and treacle pudding, all very traditional British stick-to-yer-ribs stuff. This, and the fact that I grew up in a sweet shop ( a candy shop for you Americans) may explain why I was a fat kid.

Of course, once said pud was done, it had to be lit with flaming brandy, to the tune of "God rest ye merry gentlemen." Look closely to see the flame. The kitchen is actually in the dark while we're doing this, but you can't tell from the camera's flash. All very festive, except we needed a few more pudding eaters.

Aimee of course didn't partake. She thinks this is all very silly, hates cooked raisins in pretty much anything, and, to boot, can't understand the British use of the word "pudding," mostly because its traditional usage for savories as well as sweets has been lost to American idiom.

Most Americans who were not otherwise familiar with the concept would think "black" pudding, or Yorkshire pudding, were a dessert.

That's a whole realm of global cuisine that's been cut off to them, just by semantics. Poor old yanks.

For the record, Aimee hates black pudding even more than raisins in dessert. She thinks it "stinks."

Doesn't know what she's missing, is what I think. But at least she took the shufties without complaint.

The pud was good, but needed a tad more sugar next time. And that is definitely some very cheap brandy. We could have used some proper cognac. Not five star, but not gut-rot either.

Never mind. All is well on the farm and we have time and power for such frivolities. Lots of our neighbors don't.

That's what counts.

Happy Boxing Day!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hunkering down for the holidays?

Here are a few photos of our various efforts yesterday to thaw and chip our way out of the ice that has encased central Maine. The actual ice storm itself occurred in our absence -- we were down in Virginia to see Aimee's family for the holidays.

Although I like my in-laws and most of Aimee's relatives, and enjoy the food and fun we have there, I can't help but deeply dislike leaving home and hearth in the middle of the bad weather season, and driving eight hundred miles away from everything and everyone I'm most responsible for looking after.

It just seems too much like asking for trouble. But Aimee has to see her folks, so all you can do is prepare.

Accordingly, our house-sitters get very long lists of instructions and careful training. Aimee feels much the same, and contributes considerably to the list, particularly where the dogs and cats are concerned. But house-sitters are, by definition, people that don't have their own house and farm to look after and so are not necessarily switched on to all the dangers, while some of the difficulties that might ensue can be hard to predict and prepare for, and so even with the most painstaking of preparations, bad things may still happen.

In this case, a major ice storm appeared several days into our visit. Maine gets ice storms every year, and usually they aren't a big deal. You stay off the roads for a day or two, the ice melts or is scraped away, and life goes on. A weather event that would bring Washington DC or New York (or for that matter, Harrisonburg, Virginia) to their knees, snarling traffic and stopping services, is just a normal Maine winter's day. But every once in a while, the great ice storm of 1998 being the most recent example, enough ice falls to coat trees and power lines with enough weight of frozen water to bring them crashing down. If this happens after a major snow fall, the weight of ice and snow combined can bring down a roof or flatten an outbuilding. And, while the power is out, your house and water pipes will freeze.

This storm was forecast to be one such storm, possibly as bad as the 1998 epic. In the end it wasn't quite so bad, but it was bad enough.

So it was with some urgency and trepidation that we began our long drive home very early Monday morning in Virginia, where the highs had been in the sixties and seventies over the weekend -- weather so ridiculously warm we almost couldn't grasp it mentally.

Despite a warm start, the drive back was no picnic, with torrential rain and spray and the usual horrible and dangerous traffic on Connecticut's crowded freeways. But we made it home after one and a half days of sheer nasty slow 50-60 mph slog, down to 30 mph, 20 mph, and even a dead stop in many places. The closest shave occurred courtesy of a careless Manchester, CT, Christmas shopper, whose last-minute lane change tested the poor old Camry's brakes, as well as my reflexes, which after ten hours of driving were none too good. Whoever you are, Ms. Ultimate Shopper, get some therapy. Whatever holiday pressure you're under, it isn't worth an accident.

But eventually, and several hours early thanks to our worry, we pulled into our own driveway. I'm always deeply grateful to finally be safe at home after these holiday treks across the country. In this particular case, however, some hard work would be required to make everything safe. The first storm-related task, after greeting the house-sitter and the dogs, and checking on the livestock, and after the car was unloaded and the holiday haul of gifts and of that compensatory kind of shopping rural people do when on a urban "spree" was all brought in, was to reduce the weight of ice and snow on various roofs. 

I started by watering the livestock, then turned my attention to the hoophouse. Each section of cover between the rafters was supporting about two or three hundred pounds of unwanted snow and ice, and the whole flimsy structure was groaning under the strain. I was able to shake it off a little at a time, from the inside, first punching hard to break the skin of ice, then pushing and shaking to clear the snow. The cover was damaged badly in three places where the rafters rub against it, and will eventually need to be replaced, but I think I can get another year or two out of it using some patches and glue.

The next job was the porch roof. With some difficulty I broke out the ladder, chipping off the two inches of ice on the rungs, moved it into the right position and climbed up there to evaluate the damage. Several hundred pounds of snow and ice had already torn away part of the gutter and was threatening the rest, hanging off the edge of the roof in giant heavy icicles. Not one to mess around with fine detail when it comes to something like this, I broke this material off with the sharp end of a claw hammer. (On my RAF fitters course and thereafter on various squadrons we techies were repeatedly told, "Always use the correct tool for the job!") Then I used the roof rake and claw hammer to remove about two thirds of the material on the roof itself. I couldn't get up there to get the rest because the metal porch roof we fitted several years ago is too slippy to walk on, so I had to be content with removing what I could from top of the the ladder. Although it's Christmas, I may go back up there today and try to get some more. Even though there isn't that much weight left up there, the danger is that we get another heavy snowfall later and add to the load. Better safe than sorry.

Here's the finished result. You can see about two hundred pounds of ice and snow left where the two roofs meet on the right. That would be the material I need to remove today.

The next job was to "exercise" the generator. Our house-sitter had experienced about a three-hour outage Monday, and at one point more than a hundred thousand households were without power in the state. Although ours was soon back on, much of Maine's power was still out, and with the wind getting up, adding to the existing stress on the trees and power lines, it seemed like a good idea to make sure this machine was ready.

This is a brand new genny but it runs on propane and the last time I'd tried to start it, at about -10 F, it had balked and I had to stop pulling the cord before I threw out my "trick" shoulder again. Propane doesn't like really cold weather. Yesterday, at a positively tropical 22 F, it started right up.

I'm going to have to work out a system for warming this thing in really cold weather. They must make a block heater or something like that for small engines. I'll look online.

The Land Rover was covered in hard ice and needed to be thawed out. Rather than idle the engine for the several hours it would have taken, I simply placed the kerosene heater in the back and lit it. This is what that looked like, except of course I closed the door while the operation was underway. This simple procedure worked a treat, and, accordingly, will have to be stored away in the long list of memorized ideas for dealing with winter I keep in my head.

Once the Rover was ready, I needed to go get some salt for the walkways. The house-sitter had used what we had, which wasn't much. Aimee also wanted some cream cheese for mashed potatoes to go with Christmas dinner. Thinking that there might have been a bit of a run on salt lately, I called ahead to our local store and was pleasantly surprised when the lady said they had some. Accordingly I carefully drove the 3.5 miles there in the Rover, weaving between the sagging birch trees on Great Farm Road, the dogs coming along for the ride as they often do, only to discover there was no salt. The lady who answered the phone had bad information. That ticked me off a little, but at least Aimee got her cream cheese, and at least the Rover was in good shape in case we needed it.

After all that, everything and everyone safe and sound, tried and tested, it was time for a well-earned nap.

Here's the "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree that the house-sitter left for us, along with some Christmas cookies. We're lucky to have power to light our little tree, and that the only damage was to a gutter and the hoophouse, and relatively minor. A lot of Mainers are going to be spending Christmas without power this year. There are warming shelters set up in the main towns, and the linesmen are out hard at work, for which we're all grateful, but there's nothing like Christmas in your own warm home. I feel bad for our neighbors.

I think Gaelin, our youthful house-sitter, did very well to survive the ice storm and power cut without help, a proper Maine girl, but even so it must have been a bit bleak from time to time. Hopefully her tree cheered her up!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cold and snow, pipes and frost

On Friday night the thermometer dropped well below zero. We're not sure how far below because all our outside thermometers have stopped working. Then late Saturday it began a cold fine powder snow, until we had a good solid foot on the ground.

Maine can be like that. Thermometer-breaking.

I've been making regular trips to our various basements. Since we moved the on-demand hot water heater to the new extension's bathroom, and re-routed the main water supply so that it first enters the house at said bathroom, I've been concerned to get all the frost protection right.

I had thought that the new basement crawl space might be cold, because the concrete foundation wall there is only a foot deep at its shallowest point, where it hits bedrock very close to the surface. But I tested the temperature in there Thursday, after several days of very cold weather. It was still 43 degrees F over by the entrance, which is forty feet from the nearest source of man-made heat, the kitchen wood stove, and isolated from said source by two inches of foam board. The conclusion was, the temperature down there is the soil temperature, and it's just not going to freeze this winter. I had wired a light bulb to the joists, just in case, and was ready to turn it on and leave it on for the winter, but there was no need. The high level of insulation and air sealing I'd used was working very well indeed. Score one for building design success.

Here's what it looked like before we built a building on top of it:

The rest of the news is less good. From the new crawl space the water supply now enters the new bathroom, where the on-demand hot water heater is located in a chase in one corner, along with the various stop valves (nb: stop "cocks" in British English). It then runs inside the walls, which are very well insulated, until it reaches the kitchen sink. Here's what that looked like before the drywall went in:

That's when the problem starts. From the kitchen sink to the old bathroom the water supply runs through the old kitchen crawl space to the old basement. The old kitchen crawl space is heated by the uninsulated floorboards, which themselves are heated by the wood stove. There is also an eight-inch uninsulated hot air duct running along down there.

But the old basement is another story. We've insulated all the heat ducts and removed a propane hot water tank-type heater. It's now about ten degrees colder than it was when we had an active propane burner down there. I tested the temperature with my handy dandy little ray-gun "laser" thermometer. In one spot where there was an air leak through the old wall it was 12 F. Over by the pipes it was only 36 F.

Ouch. Too close for comfort, that!

Off I went to get a heat lamp, which after a quick installation, rapidly brought the temperature up ten-fifteen degrees in that corner. If I get time later today, I'll wander around down there with a can of spray foam and block off some more holes. I've been blocking off holes down there for years, but it's a very old building, and the rubble foundation wall wasn't particularly well-made when it was new. The old stones shift and move with the frost. Blocking of holes never ends. You can see why I was anxious to get the water supply entrance to the house out of this space.

This is the Maine life. You spend a lot of time worrying about home sealing, insulation, and heat. Even in the mid-summer, when we built that extension crawl space, we were worrying about frozen pipes. But, for once, all the worry paid off. the new water entrance to the house is a lot more protected, and fail-safe, than the old.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The cold begins

It's probably about 11 or 12 degrees F outside right now, which is not that cold for around here, but cold enough that we can begin to get the idea. Winter is here. Friday night is supposed to be around zero F.

I already plowed snow once, too. Another sign.

The new extension, as yet unused and unheated, is acting as a bit of a heat sink, but not as bad as I thought it might. When we finally finish the unending finish work, and finally can afford to buy some furniture to go in it, then we'll probably also add a small electrical heater in the far corner, to take the chill off and even out the cold gradient.

I'd rather not do this, of course. Running an electrical heater much of the winter can be expensive. But the shape of the house is all wrong for that. If our house had properly designed, instead of being built in stages over 114 years, we'd have made it as square as possible and put an efficient wood stove right smack in the middle of the square. But back when it was first built, it appears the main house was built first and the kitchen added as an extension. Part of the intent with the original kitchen design was probably to provide a place to cook in summer that was cooler than the rest of the house. It's essentially a separate wing. Now we've added another separate wing. The wood stove is not really in a central position, and so you either heat the kitchen to 85 degrees to get the corners up to a comfortable 68, or you add a little boost. We use little electrical baseboard-type heaters to take the chill off in the corners, and I don't have one yet for the extension. I need to pick one up, which means a run to town, something I won't have time for until school gets out Friday.

The sheep are feeling the cold a little too, but what they want isn't heat but more food. They've been going through two bales a day on the coldest days, which is too much, plus about half a scoop of oats mixed with a little sweet feed each. New hay comes Thursday, organized through the Unity College Woodsman club because we're too busy to get it and because the truck is on the fritz still. The sheep will be more economical to feed once we get them out of their mating season and back into the barn. They'll eat a little less, and waste less hay because feeding will be centralized.

I'm pretty toasty right now, though, with a cup of hot coffee, and the oil heater running. The woodstove had died down overnight, and I knew I needed to run the furnace a little to test it out -- it get used very little -- so this was a good opportunity. And it might be a good day for oatmeal. Or maybe pancakes. High carbs. That's what we need.

Winter hasn't changed much for country folk over the centuries. The antidote to cold is still to burn things, inside and out.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Nag order and other pictures for Turkey Day

Aimee was sternly correcting my husbandly behavior this morning (for some reason already forgotten -- just how effective is this particular form of marital discourse anyway). I had the camera in my hand, so this may have been a mistake on her part. She realized I was taking her picture in mid-nag, and took evasive action. Unfortunately for her, I'm taller, so we settled for a high angle shot. She used her hands to block the shot, reminiscent of basketball action.

Meanwhile, just to show what a good husband I actually am, here is the fine extension I built, now almost finished with proper trim and doors. There's some quarter-round molding to go along the baseboard (AKA "skirting board" in the English version of English), and then she'll be done.

"T' job's a good un," as they say in Yorkshire. Almost.

I really do think that it's good too. Very good. I really like the light in these rooms. I also enjoy the view of our main sheep paddock/woodlot.

Here's Aimee's spectacular marine-themed color scheme in the bedroom. It will need some colorful organisms to set it off, a few floating jellyfish, or some sea squirts, in honor of her marine science specialty.

And here's the finish work from the other direction.

It hasn't been all trim work this vacation. There was the small problem of vehicle and yard winterization. I also had to put the garden to bed. Here's all our carrots in our outside fridge. Three large boxes, about fifty pounds.

The sheep had to put up with inclement weather yesterday, about three inches of rain, followed by a hard freeze. I was worried that their fleeces would freeze and that they'd get cold. We considered bringing them into the barn, but that would have involved some difficulty with the ram. The barn is open to the North Paddock, the fence of which would not have been ram-proof.

In the end they were fine. I checked their fleeces this morning and they were warm and dry, just a little frosty on the tips. Amazing animals, sheep. They can stand almost any weather.

While I was working on the carrot patch, the sheep got lots of damaged carrots, and all the left-over beets. They were very happy.

Here's what we have left of a garden. A few leeks, the Brussel sprouts, most of which will get eaten today for Thanksgiving Dinner, some cabbage stalks that were left after the cabbage harvest and that grew back, and three-quarters of a row of parsnips, which will be very good in the spring. The digging fork also marks a few carrots I left in the ground in case there's a thaw before Christmas.

And here's our compost heap, the largest we've ever had. All that moisture yesterday should set it off nicely.

All things to be Thankful for. (Even the slightly naggy wifey.)

But now it's time to get ready for a good dinner. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Slower daze and first snow

We're now on Thanksgiving Break, a holiday that in previous years would have been a kind of mid-term, but because of this year's advanced end-of-term, on December 13th, becomes a kind of pre-end-of-term holiday. There will only be a week and a half of classes left after the break.

Accordingly, this isn't a complete holiday, since I have a stack of grading and a list of committee-work must-dos, but I decided that could all wait until so-called "Black Friday" just so I could feel the benefit. This is probably akin to not putting on your warmest winter coat until January, until it really gets cold, and something that was drilled into me as a child living in Yorkshire. The benefit you feel may be mostly in your head. But it's warm and cosy here in my den, with my cup of coffee and laptop, and I'm happy and grateful to not have to think about work until Friday.

There's also a vast list of pre-winter must-dos for the house and farm, but I'm whittling that down slowly. Items on this list include finding winter tires for all the vehicles, picking up the equipment from the dooryard and taking down the hot-wire fences and moving them out of the way of the various snowplows and other winter machinery, putting the tank heaters in the sheeps' water, "banking" up the kitchen crawl space, putting the hoophouse "to bed", and putting most of the garden machinery in said hoophouse, getting in the five gallons of kerosene that the tractor uses each winter, and so on.

All are jobs required to keep us safe and the sheep fed and things moving around here.

And not a moment too soon. Winter is clearly here. The sun is now about as low in the sky as it's going to get, the "racing days" have long stopped racing, and we have only about nine hours' daylight. It gets full light at seven and you can work outside in full light until about four in the afternoon. On a gloomy day, there's less than that.

We're forecast a wet and windy rainstorm for tomorrow, but it's snowing out there right now. The snow is mostly that thin windy stuff you get whenever the sky isn't that serious about snowing, but with a stiff breeze to spin it along nicely, it certainly counts as "inclement".

I'm glad I was able to get the snow tires sorted on Aimee's Camry already.

That was a chore. Tire operations around here get very busy when snow tire season comes about. For various reasons (a long story), I had to take the Camry to two tire places on Sunday, waiting an hour at the first one, and five hours at the second, with an hour's drive in between. Essentially, I lost a whole day of my vacation to this job. Sometimes I think that Aimee weighs the benefits of marriage in terms of not having to get her own snow tires, along with freedom from a long list of other such unpleasant chores.

She did make me a nice pie while all this was happening, so at least I came home to a warm house full of enticing pie-y smells. My warm cosy feeling didn't last that long, though. After a nice dinner, I made the mistake of looking at the weather forecast. Thirty mile-an-hour winds and 12 degrees F! Ouch. That much cold and wind wasn't expected for a few weeks. I was quickly out back with insulation board, wooden battens, and a cordless screwdriver, banking up the crawl space so the kitchen pipes wouldn't freeze. Luckily this job is a good deal easier now that the extension is built. There's only about ten running feet of wall to be banked, not the twenty-four feet there were before, and there's a nice big beam there now, all along the wall, to accept the screws for the battens.

As for the rest of the snow tire chore, there remained the Escort, my trusty, rusty old battle-wagon, now nicknamed the "Super Duty" Escort on the grounds of all the heavy lifting it's had to do since the truck's transmission was burned up. The beads on the Escort's snow tires were damaged by one of our local mechanics last year, totally trashing about $200 worth of very expensive synthetic rubber. I should have know better than to take it to this particular shop, a chaos of dirt and grease, with hoses flying and OSHA violations by the minute and second, but I was trying to save time and money. Had I been thinking when I first saw the damage, I should have said something and asked for compensation, and I certainly would have said something if it was one of the chain operations in Bangor, but it doesn't do to be too pushy with people you actually know, and the guy in question has helped me out with one or two things before. I had to decide to just "eat" the damage.

How much I have to eat is the question. I'm trying to decide between 1) a work-about, jerry-rigged kind of fix involving lots of bead sealer and some gasket cement, 2) getting new snow tires, and 3) just relying on the Land Rover whenever it snows.

Using the Land Rover would be fine except for the fact that it is slightly more expensive in gas, and I'd need to worry about road salt. Last year was of course the first year in which the Rover was an winter driving option for us, and a fine option it was too whenever there was more than a few inches of snow on the road. But it's a bit of a waste of money and precious Land Rover road life if there isn't that much snow, especially if that means there's lots of road salt about. I know that eventually I'll need to strip this old vehicle down to nothing and put in a new frame and bulkhead, but I want to make the current frame last a few years yet, hopefully into my own retirement, when I'd have all the time in the world to do the job properly. I'd much rather wear out the Escort, which will have to be scrapped come June in any case, as it probably can't pass inspection again.

Anyway, dear reader, by the time you have gotten this far down my tedious accounting of all these winter preparations, you should either a) be bored to tears, or b) be aware that winter is serious business around here, or c) both. It doesn't matter much, since in any case what I have to do now is go out in the spin-drift and feed the hungry sheep.

Winter is here, whether we're ready or not!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Primed for action -- after a sad week

We've had an easier week or two since I last had time to post. The level of craziness at work -- the periodic high grading load, extra meetings, and gratuitous weekend events that are all part of the job at a residential college -- has tailed off just a little, allowing me to make plans during the week for work on the weekends. This strange feeling of relative ease was tempered by sadness, as we learned of the death of my aunt Rita Womersley in Britain, and then that of our faculty colleague, Lois Ongley here in maine.

Rita married my father's brother Stan, pictured in this post here. They had two children, my cousins David and Ann. My mum and dad kept a chocolate business which went through several iterations, and in the last and most permanent, mum and Rita were the real business "heads," working together to figure out a sustainable and profitable cost structure which would support both families as they staged into retirement. After retirement, mum and dad moved down to the Welsh valleys area to be close to my sister Carol, but as cousin David, now married to Beverly and a Captain in the Salvation Army, was stationed in the valleys too, mum and dad and Rita and Stan saw plenty of each other. I liked Rita a good deal, mostly because she had what Americans call a "feisty" nature, and was compassionate and willing to lend an ear. This was helpful, especially later, when things grew difficult for Carol and I caring for mum and dad, by then both suffering terribly from Alzheimer's Disease. Aimee only met her once, at my other aunt Barbara's wedding (her third -- at age seventy!), but Rita's feisty nature made a great impression on her, and she often commentated on it.

I wasn't able to afford the air ticket to go home to Sheffield for Rita's funeral, which was Thursday, so sister Carol went "for" both of us. 

The last time I saw Rita was at my mother's funeral. I can't help but get the impression that if I don't get done with this extension and to a level plateau with this farm-building project in the next year, to a point where Aimee and I have enough time and money for some proper vacation-length family visits, I won't have very many of my immediate family left in the UK to go visit! That's not entirely true, since Carol and I have a myriad of cousins with a plethora of offspring, some of whom I don't know very well. But of the family crowds I grew up with, the large numbers of immediate aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts and great uncles that could fill a house for a slightly boozy Christmas party in Dronfield or a lively game of Newmarket in Crooks, well, there are hardly any of those folk left alive now. 

This isn't just a family sadness. The same thing is happening to millions of British families. It runs to a national loss, of character and memory and resilience. The folk I'm thinking of were the Great War and WWII generations in Britain. Rita, for instance, like uncle Stan or my father Gordon and my mother Jean, the Womersleys of Dronfield and Sheffield, were all small children during WWII; while my maternal grandparents and great-aunts and uncles, the Watsons of Fullwood and Whitley Woods, were survivors of the Great War and Great Depression. All had reserves of personality, character and resilience as a result. It was a privilege to be raised by them.

My sister reports that the Salvation Army had a brass band for my aunt's funeral, and that my cousin Beverly, who has the voice of an angel, sang the 23rd Psalm. I'm happy and glad that there are still brass bands to be found in the North, and that Salvation Army women can still sing for the funeral of a loved one.

Lois, for her part, was also a wonderful personality, one of several faculty members that I hired for the college while interim Provost in the mid-2000s. I distinctly remember her private interview with me because she made such an impression. Lois was an old school field geologist that cut her industrial teeth in the "oil patch" of Texas when there were few women in a male-dominated business. She took s**t from no-one, man or women, and I valued her deeply as a colleague for her integrity and independence of mind. According to Dilbert and in reality, the world is full of horrible leaders promoted well above their capabilities, and, from time to time, even little Unity College is no exception. Lois was a scourge to the spin-mongers and flim-flammers, a pest to Provosts, interim or otherwise, a friend for all seasons, and a one-woman hospice and den mother to stray students and stray dogs to boot. Her house on Main Street in Unity was always full of both. They just don't make them like her anymore. 

Lois died of lung cancer in a Portland hospital this weekend, and will be sorely missed. The only consolation for the loss of a valued colleague is that Lois had three bright and feisty daughters, each of which in her own way has made a contribution as helpful as their mother did, scientists and medical professionals. There couldn't be any greater tribute to the dead from the living than that.

Life is for the living, however, not the dead, and I always think that it's by going on and making progress in living that we honor them best. One thing Aimee and I badly need in order to better stay in touch with our families is some room in this small farmhouse for people to stay when they come visit. This particular weekend it was time for priming the bathroom and trimming the living room and bedroom in the new extension. 

Aimee's tiled vanity, pictured above, was finished sometime during the week, as was the tiled shower stall. She's on sabbatical, and so has some extra time for this kind of thing -- when she's not attending marine biology or conservation group meetings or finishing up her sabbatical paper on seaweed research. This nice new item of furniture remained, however, parked firmly in the middle of the living room floor, in the way of everything. I wanted it out of my way so I could clean up some pretty horrible mess on the new floor (where dollops of dripped paint and, far worse, epoxy grout were getting slowly ground into the new surface), and then get ready for baseboards ("skirting board" in British) and window trim.

Accordingly, I had Aimee order me a few hundred feet of pine, which arrived Friday. I staged it up in my workshop and ran the first coat of gloss Min Wax finish over it, sanding down any discolored or rough spots. I then ran the first coat of drywall primer over the bathroom walls. Then I ran to town for more finish, and a new finish nailer, a slightly better one to replace the many old ones I've broken over the years. Back home, it was time for a second coat on both boards and walls. We had some nice sunny weather yesterday afternoon, which allowed me to stack the drying boards outside in the sun. then I moved the vanity into the bathroom and cleaned up the new living room and, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the paint and grout spots off the living room and bedroom floors. 

Aimee for her part decided to preempt her usual workout by cleaning out the two remaining stalls in the barn. I'm sure she was pretty sore when she got done with all that, and will be even sorer today when she wakes up. But now the barn is pretty well clean and the compost heap is built and ready to go.

Last weekend we'd bought the two doors needed for the new building and I'd hung them, leaving the plastic protective sheet on the as-yet unfinished pine.

This weekend it was time to wire and hang the final, formal lighting fixtures, which I did while waiting for my baseboard to dry.

Here's Aimee's finished shower stall, in need of a good clean, as well as the final plumbing. I should be able to get both done today. It will be Aimee's job, however, to take the bathroom to the next stage, as she is in charge of finish painting, as well as picking out the flooring.

All in  all, we're making progress, and we expect to be "in" the new building by Christmas.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The sin of vanity

Here's Aimee finishing the unfinished vanity for the new bathroom, carefully supervised by the ever-earnest Ernie.

For you Brits who like me probably grew up with standard two-tap pedestal sinks, a "vanity" is what Americans call a cabinet that houses a bathroom sink. Don't ask me why it's a vanity. I long ago gave up trying to understand most American nomenclature.

This particular vanity is getting "pickled" rather than varnished. This naming is more reasonable -- the wood is protected by a slightly caustic material. Apparently this is all the rage, the new "faux" finish, a simulacrum of a traditional American craft technique originally intended to ward off termites and such. (The new finishes are actually synthetic chemicals, when lime would traditionally have been used.) Aimee is taking great care with the job -- as she always does.

Me, I'm somewhat relieved to be off the hook for another job. As you can see, I celebrated with a "selfie." 

What a goof.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Busy bees

It's been a busy couple of weeks for us, even busier than our normal hectic schedule.

It all began, of course, last Christmas, when Aimee made it clear that she was hoping for the long-planned extension to get built this year. The result has been that every other job has gotten short shrift. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a week. Seasonal farming activities that would normally take days have had to be trimmed to hours, sometimes short minutes.

The biggest loser turned out to be the garden, which has been, essentially, neglected since late July. But more on that later. This latest fortnight of hectic-ness started last Thursday with the preparation for the Maine Association for Search and Rescue's second annual Search Team Leader Course. I was one of the two co-founders of this event, and the primary host, and so this wasn't something that I could skip out on, even though I would much have preferred to use the weekend spent running the training on finishing up the trim work in the new extension. The course went well, and you will eventually see some pictures on the Unity College SAR team website. (I'm still waiting to get them from the official photographer.) I was limping with arthritis for several days thereafter, though the result of some very hard hiking after a fall in which I haven''t even really walked the dogs because of work on the extension. It didn't help that I'd spent much of the previous weekend on my knees laying the floor.

So I lost a whole weekend and most of my spare time in two whole work weeks to the SAR training, so nothing happened to the extension in that period except for Aimee's shower tiling job, which has proceeded very slowly. The quality, however, is very high, and we are both pretty happy with the effect so far.

My gimp went away slowly during the work week after the STL course, and by Friday I was walking more or less normally. Saturday saw us off to Scarborough, albeit not the one in Yorkshire with the famous fair of old folk songs, but the one in Maine that, with South Portland, is home to the largest shopping area in the state. There's a store that specializes in unfinished furniture, and Aimee wanted a vanity from there for the new bathroom. This was the kind of three-hundred mile round trip shopping expedition that is quite normal for Americans, but which British people simply don't understand. We had to take my battered Ford wagon because our truck is still on the fritz with a torched transmission, and Aimee doesn't drive a stick and so couldn't drive the Escort herself. Aimee compensated me for my lost time in the car, by helping me harvest and put up the spuds. We managed to get about 150 pounds lifted and into the basement root cellar before it got dark Saturday.

Next weekend is already scheduled up with a college event. Sunday, therefore, was the only day available in which we could clean up farm equipment from the dooryard to allow the snowplow to come by, finish cleaning out the barn, put the garden to bed, and put the ram in with the ewes. Normally we would have chosen to spread these chores out over the course of three or even four weekends, but that wasn't going to happen. By cutting corners and working fast, I managed all three chores in one day. We did have a little difficulty with one of the two little ewe-lambs that are too young to be bred. She did not want to go into the barn to be separated from the others and we finished up chasing her, then cajoling her, through the door.

The upshot of all this rather frantic activity is that I'm beginning to feel caught up.

But my arthritis has also flared up again, so I'll be limping around campus all week again.

Poor old man. If you'd have managed to convince me when I was young that all that running and hiking would result in this much pain when I was older, I think I might have taken it a little easier. But back then I was bulletproof.

Now I'm just bullet-headed.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Another busy weekend working on the new extension, after an equally busy week at work. We called Home Depot on Friday night, to hear that our flooring had arrived. Saturday I put the second coat of mud on the drywall tape in the bathroom, then I went to collect it.

We planned for a dark colored floor and dark colored rear walls, for passive solar effect. It was a sunny day and so all this heat absorbent surface began working well soon after I started laying the floor. I had to go get a bandana to use for a sweat band.

Altogether I laid 32 boxes at 18.5 square feet/box. Two boxes were kept in reserve in case we have a spill or some other damage. This kind of floor can be fairly easily repaired that way, one board at a time.

All the time I was doing this, Aimee was tiling the new shower stall. She's never tiled anything of this magnitude before, but she seems to be doing a fine job. The dayglo pink color is "RedGard," a waterproofing product that can be tiled over.

It won't be long now before we can move some furniture in and use this new building. 

But I'm pretty tired now, and my knees are pretty sore, from all that flooring.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Let there be light!

Saturday marked the first day of a four-day weekend, which the college calls "October Break," but is really a half-term holiday built around the federal Columbus Day weekend.

I've read some of the history of Christopher Columbus, and I'm with Indian Country Today, who published an editorial listing some of the rapine and murder he was responsible for. It's amazing and disgusting what some human males will do, if given overwhelming physical power over other people, particularly women and children, or other men whose humanity they are somehow able to abstract away as untermensch. Examples abound, from Auschwitz to Rwanda to Homs.

I wasn't in a mood to reflect on the inhumanity of humanity, however. I had some work to do, to begin to get the new extension ready for occupation.

My weekend really began Wednesday, when I was able to get the plumbing inspector in for an intermediate-level check-up of the bathroom plumbing. These kinds of inspections go in stages because the work gets permanently covered up. In this case, we needed to drywall the bathroom, covering up most of the pipes. 

We easily passed inspection, and I even won some praise -- apparently I do "good work"  -- a very male kind of affirmation, but it made me happy. This made my day Wednesday. It's amazing what even a little praise does for a fellow. I won't let it go to my head.

It would, however, be a lot easier to drywall the bathroom if there were light, so Saturday's first job was to finish up the wiring. Aimee, earlier, during a break from sabbatical research, had learned to pigtail and wire the 15 and 20 amp receptacles, so all that was left was bathroom wires, and light switches throughout the extension.

I fitted temporary light fittings with 60w incandescent bulbs. Compact florescent or CFL bulbs are not great to use in temporary construction lighting because of the mercury content. If they are broken, a toxic hazard is created, which requires special clean-up. (Newer bulbs are less toxic than older ones.)

It was nice to be able to look around the new building after dark. Previously the entranceway from the kitchen became a kind of black hole each day after the sun went down, not very welcoming. Now, when the lights are on, the new space invites exploration, perhaps even a little light work (pun unintended) after dinner.

Wiring took until Sunday, including a trip to the hardware store for parts.

The next job was drywall. The bathroom is small, only seven by ten feet, but it needed a lot of utilities. In addition to the plumbing, there were two vents needed, one for the dryer, the other for water vapor, as well as a 220 volt outlet for the dryer, and the thermostat for the hot water boiler (or what Americans would call a "tankless" hot water heater).


Once the drywall was in, the shower needed to be replumbed. The inspector made us switch out our faucet for one with an "anti-scald" valve. Apparently the simple two-handled faucet Home Depot originally sold us is illegal in Maine.

Of course, this made Aimee, the hyper-consumer rights activist of the family, hopping mad. She even consulted the plumbing code, to get the right data for her complaint. Sure enough, they've been illegal to use in Maine since 2009, but the plumbing 'expert" at Home Depot, otherwise a very bright helpful guy, did not know this. Aimee took the faulty faucet back to the store herself for a refund, succeeding easily.

Never underestimate the power of a German-American woman, even if said woman is only five feet and one-half of an inch tall.

Finally, our plumbing now correct to code, we could hang the "Durock" wallboard and tape and "mud" both it and the drywall. I'm not a "good mudder," but I will say, my mudding has improved dramatically with practice this year.

Remember, you should always be good to your mudder. Hopefully Aimee takes that to heart.

But probably not, since my efforts in this extension have so far won more praise from the plumbing inspector than from her!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Zombie sheep and jobs that won't die

AAARGGHHHH! The zombies are after us!!!!

Or maybe not. On closer inspection, it turns out to be Nellie-sheep. She, and all the others, were a little started when I opened the new sliding glass door to the as-yet non-existent deck on the extension. The flash on my camera happened to be "on" and it was just dark enough outside for the light to travel to their retinas and back.

(That what you get when you teach freshman physics -- you develop perfectly good explanations for everything, even when, with Hallow'een approaching, you might have used the picture to good effect.)

Here they are, a whole durn flock of zombies. There's even a one-eyed one at the back. Click on the photo to see.

I also got a zombie cake for my birthday -- Aimee found some old icing in the cupboard and decided to use it up, but it ran like blood! 

It was a parsnip cake, and tasted very good, like carrot cake only sweeter and denser.

The weekend -- a whole two-day weekend, for once -- began with efforts to finish up the plumbing jobs and get ready for inspection. These plumbing jobs, it seems, never end! Even after inspection there will still be more to do. 

Our local plumping inspector is in his sixties and a tad rotund, so I decided it might be best to crawl under the floor myself and get pictures of all the important details. Unfortunately, that may not work for me.

Here's the picture that supposedly shows we have a properly plumbed drain trap on the shower drain. Unfortunately, there isn't a clean-out plug on this trap. I managed to pick what was probably the only trap in the bin at the store that didn't have a plug! This particular store, the closest one to the farm at about eight miles, closes at noon every Saturday and doesn't open until 7am Monday, so I'll have to wait until next Saturday to go back and complain! In the meantime, I hope to get the inspector around one evening this week. Do you think he'll notice?

Here's the picture that's supposed to prove that we have the requisite slope on the drain. You can't really see the bubble in the level, so it proves no such thing. I may need to get back under there with a trouble light and take it again without the flash. 

Here's the exit of the pipe from the new building to the old. All very well sealed up, not a scrap of daylight anywhere, which is very satisfying. And despite all the weight we've added to it since, there isn't a single crack in the masonry. I find that very satisfying too. A much better result than my first attempt at a block-work foundation, over at the Bale House. That wall almost cracked right away. 

But that one was was built on a rubble-filled trench, not solid rock, like this one is.

Once we were done with plumbing, or at least ready for inspection, we turned our attention to the floor. I laid down two inch foam "blue board" insulation, then place 7/16ths OSB over that for a second subfloor. We'll add a layer of airtight bubble wrap and laminated flooring soon, perhaps as early as next weekend, if Aimee manages to buy the flooring and get it to the house somehow this week, while I'm working.

Finally, Her Royal Wifeliness tried her hand at wiring a receptacle, to good effect. She liked the result so much, she posted it on FaceBook.