Sunday, August 25, 2013

The forms of success

Today's photo -- the new extension in the dawn light. Lots of natural lighting, even before the sun is up.

Fall semester work started for me last Monday, when I put on a clean shirt and pants and shoes not bespattered with one or another building-related compound for the first time in quite a while, got into me trusty old Land Rover jalopy, and drove to the college.

I normally would not have chosen to be driving the Rover, whose precious miles we are supposed to save for when we really need them, for hauling cargo and animals and for when the snow is deep, but this ancient wagon was the only vehicle I owned that had both a) a working transmission and b) gas in the tank. Since I had systematically spent every last penny of salary received all summer, a substantial amount of Aimee's salary, and quite a bit we have yet to earn, all on this new extension, there wasn't any money for gas until another paycheck arrived, and so the Rover was pressed into service, at least until Aimee took pity on me and slipped me forty bucks for pocket and gas money.

At work there were lots of new experiences, or at least experiences that felt new. Talking to people, for instance. Other than Aimee and various denizens of hardware stores, lumber yards, and the staff of the nearest Home Depot, I haven't really talked to too many people since May. It was surprisingly pleasant to have lots of conversations with friends and colleagues, instead of, well, cursing at inanimate objects and the uncooperative weather.

Writing felt rather new, too. My job requires a lot of this kind of writing. Although I have blogged along with the construction of the extension, I haven't really written very much in the way of formal, technical writing all summer, and so it was new or at least felt new to be writing again.

Training too felt very new. Normally we have quite regular training -- in the rapidly changing world of higher education there's always some new device or software or system to think about. But the only training I've had for most of the summer were those nice fellers on You-Tube that taught me more about drywall mud -- more than I ever wanted to learn.

All this felt rather strange and I thought it would take a bit of getting used to.

But once the place of work was arrived at, things began to fall into place well enough, with all the meetings and trainings and syllabus-writing and wotnot. By the end of the week I was feeling like I knew what I was supposed to do in that first classroom tomorrow. I enjoy teaching, so this was a pleasant surprise.

There was also the matter of a nice, new, larger office -- a corner office, no less, with two windows and a view of the lake -- that was scored, thanks to the departure of a colleague.

It was all, to repeat myself, surprisingly pleasing, this resurrection of a career and vocation after a long break doing something completely different.

While all this was going on, Aimee had her birthday. She obviously is NOT getting any birthday present this year, considering that she was the one who wanted the extension in the first place. The extension will be her present. But I did make her a carrot cake -- which I proceeded to ruin by trying to carve it into the form of the extension and applying frosting in appropriate colors (green for the roof and white for the Tyvek'ed walls). More successfully, I made fresh salsa and guacamole, two of her favorite foods. The guacamole, it turned out, had too much sour cream. Aimee thinks any sour cream in guacamole is too much, but I like it, and so still tried to sneak a couple tablespoons in. That was a mistake, like the frosting. But the salsa was a hit, as was the espresso martini she made for herself.

Two out of four isn't too bad, I don't think, when it comes to success in spousal gifting.

So Aimee got salsa and a house extension for her 38th birthday. That was Wednesday.

But even a birthday week and the first week of work has a weekend, and so, when Friday afternoon came around, where was I to be found? In the new extension, of course, nervously wielding a drywall sanding machine (another new experience).

Aimee, who has a sabbatical this fall, had been scratching away at the third coat of drywall mud with plain old sandpaper most of the morning while I was at work moving into my new digs.

She had managed to do most of the bedroom walls as high as she could comfortably reach, which was about six feet.

(Although she has plenty of attitude, she is a bit challenged in the altitude department.)

That left all the ceilings in both rooms to do, as well the last foot of wall in the bedroom. I scratched away with Aimee for a while, but ran into diminishing returns, especially with the hard setting-type compound in the corners, and so I made the executive decision to go rent the sander.

It was a twenty-four hour rental, but the machine proved so potent that only a couple hours of use was needed. By dinner time I was doing touch-ups, which dried overnight and by next morning on inspection could obviously be sanded easily later, and so by first thing Saturday I was taking the sander back to the store with a load of unused sandpaper discs for a refund, and a list of primer and painting and electrical second fix supplies to pick up.

Back home I sanded the touch-ups, vacuumed the corners, swept the walls and floors, and started applying primer.

By evening the whole extension except for the bathroom had been primed and was looking very official and very much more finished (although there remains a lot to do still).

It looks pretty good, even if I do say so myself, and there's a lot of nice natural light in there now that wasn't there before.

It's been very interesting, this incremental opening of the building to light since the roof went on and brighter and brighter layers were added to the interior surfaces. I knew theoretically that much of the light that came through the windows would be reflected and enhanced from these interior surfaces, but hadn't experienced it directly before. None of the other buildings I've built, even the house I built a few years ago, were finished with drywall and paint like this one is.

Aimee, for her part, making good use of her birthday present, is more or less happily planning a bathroom, has picked out a vanity and decided on a shower stall type, and is working on tile styles and colors for said shower stall. Those farm blog readers who also are her FaceBook friends are getting chapter and verse. There are frustrations, of course, since she can't spend as much money as she might like. But she does seem to be really getting "into" it, as Americans would say.

Which, I would say, is the proof of the pudding, isn't it. As we British would say.

A successful gift, in other words.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A vacation day

Having declared a husband holiday, I was admittedly at something of a loss to know just exactly what to do with one. But Aimee came to the rescue and suggested some tourist-type activities, a trip to the Penobscot Bridge Observatory, and to the Penobscot Marine Musuem.

For those of you who don't know, the Penobscot is the river system that divides Maine in two, separating the midcoast and southern Maine from "downeast." It's a huge river, with a large salt bay that has many big inhabited islands and hundreds of little ones.

The Penobscot Narrows are down by Bucksport, and a bridge on US Highway 1 there has been recently replaced. The old iron suspension bridge rusted out and was replaced with a spectacular concrete and steel structure, built by the same firm that makes many of our wind turbine foundations.

There's an observatory at the top, over four hundred feet in the air. The view as you step off the elevator is vertiginous, even for an old mountain climber like me. 

This is the site of a famous Revolutionary War sea action between the US and British navies, the Penebscot Expedition. One of the ships sunk in that encounter, the Defense, was owned by the same man who owned our property in the early 1800s, Israel Thorndike.

I expect that ordinarily there would be a lot of tourists up there, but we got there early and beat the crowds and enjoyed a great view across Waldo, Penobscot and Lincoln counties.

There was even a pirate ship (or at least a passing yawl) flying the Jolly Roger.

We topped off our tour with the museum, and then some clothes shopping at Renys. I needed pants (trousers) and shoes for work. I could only bring myself to get the former. The shoes seemed too dear.

All in all, a nice change from building work. It seems like only yesterday we broke up for the summer.

Declaring "victory"

I'm doing an "Aiken."

He was the famous US Senator for the New England state of Vermont that said we should "declare victory and get out" of Viet Nam.

For me, it's time to declare victory over the grand Womerlippi Farmhouse Extension Project of the summer of '13, get out, and go back to work. Students will be here in just a week and I need to get my head into a different game if I'm going to be useful to their education. I'll make a start tomorrow, a day before I am strictly required to do, but the extra time will help make the transition less stressful.

Today we're declaring a husband holiday. I did take the trash to the transfer station, fed the sheep and puttered for exactly five minutes in the extension. That was all it took to declare yesterday's drywall mud still too wet to sand and that sealed the deal.

Here's the state of play on VE (Victory over the Extension) Day:

The living room drywall has the third coat of mud done on the walls and the second coat on the ceiling. I like this picture because it gives you an idea of how much nice natural light there will be in this room

The bedroom is about the same status, drywall-wise.

I'm liking the general feel of these new rooms. They are light and airy and roomy.

Not Grand Designs or Restoration Home material, but not bad for an amateur with very little money to spend.

Now, what am I going to do with the rest of my holiday?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Fall, soon.

It's a quiet Sunday morning here in Maine, where the fall climate is just starting to kick in, and very welcome it is too, after a long humid, hot summer. Here the sheep are enjoying apple 'drops" from the Macintosh-type apple tree in our dooryard.  I say Macintosh-type because that's what they look like, but we don't really know, the tree being perhaps 100 years old. The apples are big and red this year, and they make the sheep very happy.

Last night I went out to walk the dogs and was surprised by how cold it was. Although I couldn't see Orion yet, the stars were bright and the Milky Way clearly visible. I didn't see any Perseids, but the night before I saw three! And the nice cool night! Probably it was only around 50 F, but that's definitely chilly when for several weeks now it hasn't dropped below 60.

I'm looking forward to First Frost. After that it gets much easier to do yard, garden and sheep work, because the bugs are then long gone and the humidity drops away. Snow will be here soon enough, and there's plenty to do to get ready, so I wouldn't be upset if we had an early frost. We're starting to get tomatoes, so that's the main worry -- a frost before we get tomatoes -- over and done with.

Our average First Frost is August 27th, but we've seen one as early as August 22nd.

Our barn cleanings were steaming in the cool weather yesterday morning, while the garden has the distinct look of early fall, with the onion tops already fallen over and the potato vines dying back.

While the extension project continues apace, now we've gotten in a supply of new materials for me to work with.

We'll need to take a brief hiatus from drywalling today to get some plumbing done. The pipes need to be rerouted, since I plan to get our on-demand hot water heater out of the basement and into the extension today if I can. Some of the pipes need to go under some drywall, and then we'll need a partial plumbing inspection, before we go back and finish up the drywall.

This heater will last several years longer, I'm sure, if I get it out of the damp basement and into the new "laundry room."

This space, about four by seven feet, carved out of the new bathroom, is really a laundry closet, not a room. We got the idea from Aimee;s mum and dad's home, which has such a closet. It will have louver doors and shelves for towels and wotnot. It also has an exterior wall very suitable for the vent/air intake to the propane fired hot water heater. Not only will the unit last longer, but we'll also solve the problem of the snow covering the vent. Last winter I had to "suit up" in my insulated coveralls, go out back and shovel the snow away on several occasions, all before my morning shower.

Not very sensible.

I guess I'd better get on with it, then.

Wittering away on the Internet is not very productive, especially when the weather is cool and dry enough to get a lot of work done today..

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tidy up and regroup

After a brush with death on a hot tin roof (a few clich├ęs with breakfast, anyone?), some very frustrating truck and yard machine problems (see recent posts), and two-and-a-half months of heavy labor and sweat, it's very nearly time to stop building, at least Monday-to-Friday, and go back to work.

I have about another week and a half of official summer left, and already my obligations to show up at the college for a meeting here or a planning session there are increasing. I'm not on contract officially until the middle of the week after next, but it's best to be ready.

While the cash flow available for materials for the new extension has temporarily dried up. Payday is Friday, so this is not a very long wait. But I think I'd still be knocking out the drywall, if I had money to buy any.

So. Transition time is here.

When the going changes, the tough get changing.

I can see my way clear to finishing the extension project. The remaining work -- insulation, drywall, plumbing, wiring, and a tiny bit of framing left to cover the temporary access door in the rear -- won't take that long. Probably, we'll be able to knock it all out easily enough on the weekends, evenings, and during the October and Thanksgiving Breaks.

What I probably won't have enough time for is other stuff -- mechanical work on our numerous and aging vehicles and equipment, harvesting the garden, the sheep care, the landscaping around the new extension, and so on. Snow will come soon enough. Everything will have to be ready.

So, in the absence of money for drywall, and the presence of a growing honey-do list of other things, I switched gears and started on those other things.

I began by tinkering a little with the truck, hoping for some miraculous reprieve with the transmission problems. I double checked the oil level, and took it for a test drive or two. Maybe the "snake oil" additive had gone to work on the clutches and bands and server piston seals. No such luck. The thing drives well enough and doesn't slip in first gear, and so can be used for very small trips, such as to our local builder's yard, or to the transfer station. But it still slips badly between second and third. Most automatic vehicles, unless they are moving very heavy loads, spend their road time transitioning between those two gears. This truck has probably made it's last trip to Bangor or anywhere like that, unless I rebuild this transmission, or get a replacement. Both are possible, as is just scrapping the thing or selling it on, but there's time to make that decision later this year.

For now, the Land Rover can fetch and carry cargo, and even act as our winter 4WD. I may look around for a larger trailer, to help in this new mission for the Rover.

Then I got the Bolens lawnmower running again. Regular readers may remember that I bent a pushrod on this important piece of Womerlippi Farm equipment earlier this year, and so had to do a partial engine rebuild to replace said pushrod. The machine ran well for a short while after that but then quit unexpectedly just as we were getting going with the extension. there wasn't time to diagnose it, so it was left to sit in the dooryard.

Any dead machine that has to sit in our dooryard eventually gets in the way of something. That space is where we repair vehicles, give baths to dogs, receive guests and visitors, get our mail and packages delivered, and even graze sheep. I was tired of having this otherwise useless bit of kit be so much in the way, so as soon as I ran out of drywall, repairing the lawnmower became a priority.

The sun was pretty hot Tuesday while I diagnosed the problem, so I worked slowly but deliberately. The problem was obviously in the fuel delivery. A series of tests eventually narrowed it down to a dead wire on the fuel shut-off solenoid. I sistered in a temporary wire with electrician's tape and it ran just fine. A new wire with proper connectors would have to wait for a trip to the hardware store, but we could now use the tractor.

Having the Bolens running again, with its very useful eight-foot trailer, meant we could more easily pick up all the gash siding and wood that littered my construction area behind the new extension. The waste wood was bagged up for kindling in old feed sacks and stacked to dry, adding significantly to our winter firewood resources. The siding was moved to the dooryard, preparatory to a trip to the dump.

Having the ground clear around the extension put me in mind of grass seed. You can only sprout grass seed in spring or fall in Maine. The rest of the year it's too hot or cold. So I raked and sowed. Which put me in mind of waste hay, to cover the seed, which led to me beginning the job of clearing out the barn.

Clearing out the barn reminded me that we'd need to be ready for breeding season. Our ram would need to go in with a selection of ewes. That meant the fence would need to be rebuilt behind the extension, where it was taken down earlier to facilitate access, and made ram-proof. So, I made fence, using some hemlock boards left over from framing, and our nice ram-proof welded wire cattle panels.

Making fence, and clearing the ground behind the extension, put me in view of the back wall to the shed, which had peeling paint and so needed to be repainted. So I got the pressure washer running and blasted the loose paint. Later we'll sand and rake up the paint chips and spray primer and color.

The sheep were hungry and needed to be grazed each morning while this was all going on, so we grazed them for an hour or so behind the garden where the grass had grown lush. They needed to be watched, though, because they now have long fleece and are more or less immune to hot wire. That gave me a chance to pull weeds and tidy up the garden too.

All of this was quite satisfying, as it was easy to do, made a big difference to the way things look, and required little of the truly sweaty, heavy labor that the building job needed. It all made a nice break.

And it's funny how one thing led to another, and another.

So, that's how we roll around here on a slack week when there's no building materials.

People I meet often say something like, "College professor, eh? Summers off, must be nice!"

Sure. Just a breeze.

The truth is, we work quite hard during the summer. Between our various research and farm projects, building work, and gardening, we don't really take a vacation.

We just work for ourselves, adding to our effective income by growing our own food, building our own buildings, fixing our own cars and so on.

We're self-employed in the summer, not unemployed.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Roof on -- almost -- and a fall

Yesterday was a Bad Day. It all started with the truck. The part needed to fix the transmission oil leak came in, a pipe that returns the coolant to the transmission from the transmission oil cooler in the bottom of the radiator. The old one had developed a pinhole, which led to my being stranded in Darkest Dixmont, last time I wrote.

Changing the pipe went okay, but I managed to torque the "banjo" coupling on the end where it meets the tranny. Time was when such things were welded on, solid, but this one was glued on. It didn't look like it would leak, but so I decided to goop up the seal with JB weld, just in case. I also needed some transmission fluid, so I went to Belfast, to the "big box" parts store, where both things would be available, and cheaper.

(I had tried to get the fluid on my way home from the college the day before, from our local parts store seven miles away in Thorndike, but the miserable git behind the counter had gotten surly with me again, as he often does, so I walked out, as I've done several times. I wonder how much business this place loses like this. He really is a grumpy old bugger. The only reason I still go there is because it saves me gas. If I can ever buy anything from anywhere else without wasting money on gas, I do.)

I made it home and glued up the banjo good with JB Weld, every mechanic's favorite adhesive, then filled the transmission with new oil, then took a test drive. The truck transmission was still slipping, meaning I'd likely done some damage to one or more of the bands or clutches.

This was a blow, since I had been hoping it would be back to normal once the leak was fixed and the oil topped off.

I still had two more chances. I could change the transmission filter, and/or I could use anti-slip additive.

The filter notion depended upon finding quite a bit of debris in the sump, but not too much. If there was enough debris blocking transmission fluid return through the filter, then the slipping could be due to effective lack of fluid at the torque converter, and it would go away once the sump was cleaned and the filer replaced.

The additive is always just a long shot, but worth a try. I'm sure a lot of this stuff is "snake oil", but I've actually had good luck with one or two such additives, in mechanical extremis. I checked online and picked the one that had the best reviews, by a company called Lucas.

So, another trip to Belfast ensued, followed by another greasy under-the-truck job as I changed to filter and cleaned the sump.

(All this extension-building is all very well, but when am I going to get to build the workshop I need, with the vehicle lift that would make all this greasy struggling under our far-too-numerous cars and trucks go away?)

I was impressed by how little debris there actually was in the transmission sump itself.

There was a fair amount of steel material on the sump magnet, which is put in there to catch steel debris from the clutch plates, and so give the mechanic an idea of the transmission's condition.

There was certainly enough debris to plausibly slow the oil return, so I cleaned it all out, changed the filter, buttoned everything up again carefully, added more oil and the additive, and took another hopeful test drive.

I was to be disappointed. Some of the slippage had gone, for sure, but there was still some slipping from second to third gear, as well as delay changing to fourth.

Still, it drove. That's better than having it blocking the garage entrance. And the additive may yet go to work chemically on the servo piston seals and clutch material. We'll see.

If not, we'd need to start thinking about another four-wheel drive vehicle, for Aimee to drive in the winter. This wouldn't be such a bad thing, as our official family plans, anticipating the eventual death of the truck (which at the current 220,000 miles would not be that premature), state that this would be the time to get rid of the rusty old Ford Escort wagon that I drive. I would instead inherit the Camry, while Aimee would get a newer, fuel efficient four-wheel, or all-wheel drive sedan or wagon. The Land Rover plus a trailer would be expected to pick up all the work that the pick up truck does.

In the meantime I was tired and hungry from my exertions under the truck. I cleaned up, made some lunch, and took a short nap to sleep off my disappointment at having probably fried my truck transmission.

Waking at three pm, still upset with myself, and tired, I then made the mistake of getting back up on the extension roof to lay the remaining sheets of metal roofing.

This job is safe enough when the roof is dry. The purlins make it easy to walk about up there. Even when the metal is down, as long as it's dry it's not slippy and you can move around safely.

But it had been raining earlier, and while the roof was dry, the mud around the work site was not.

I did fine for the first several sheets, probably because walking to and from the stack of roofing sheets over the grass had the effect of keeping my shoes clean of mud. But eventually most of the metal was down and there were no more handy purlins to walk on.

And, of course, as soon as I got to the very last pieces, which needed to be cut to size on the outdoor workbench, the ground around the workbench was just slightly muddy, and this material stuck to my workboots and got tracked up onto the roof. I could feel myself "losing it" just slightly, but paid no attention. It was the end of the workday, the sun was beating down, I was dripping sweat as usual, and just wanted to be done with this miserable job.

And so of course I lost my footing and began to slide on my bum towards the edge of the roof. I managed to catch on to a roofing screw with my right hand, and then the ladder with my right foot and stopped myself just in time, but I was shaken up and needed some time to recover. I climbed down very, very slowly, and haven't been back up there since.

There's more to do still, the last two pieces of roofing and then all the trim, but I think that stuff can wait for a while. It's humid this morning and the mud is still wet, while the roof itself is covered in condensation. And I'm stiff from taking the fall. All my muscles must have tensed up. It doesn't feel good.

I think I'll find myself a nice safe clean indoor job until it gets drier out there. Drywall, perhaps. Or plumbing.

I need a Good Day today.