Monday, November 29, 2010

I have decided to address in my blog how I have ended up staying over 15 years in my hollow, but first I would like to first share a humorous essay I wrote (hopefully part of a book of humorous pieces) I composed several years ago which deals with how I ended up in my present house.

Finding the right home, a permanent place that is comfortable to your psyche and wallet, can be an arduous and challenging process. You can end up looking at hundreds of listings online and then spend endless weekends inspecting various properties for water damage or windows that actually open. The choice could also be to have a house built for you, and that undertaking can be even more ambitious, having to choose designs and contractors, cabinets and color schemes. Not long ago my partner and I completed the latter process, one which had a multitude of comical moments.
For eight years I lived in a small cabin deep in a southwestern Virginia hollow. Without running water, an outhouse served my bathroom needs, and on icy February mornings my visits were quicker than Nascar pitstops. I washed in a large plastic tub sold to mix concrete in, though I usually used shampoo. My cookstove was a two burner Coleman, and few could boil water for spaghetti as well as I. It was a relatively Thoreauvian existence, the nearest house more than a mile away, though I doubt Emerson would have seen me as “Man Thinking,” more like “Man Fumbling.”
Two years ago, however, my life took a major turn. I had reunited with my partner and she decided she wanted to build a log dwelling on some acreage she would purchase. She owned a comfortable if somewhat crooked old house in Christiansburg (the kitchen floor was so slanted we could have used it as a climbing wall), but she wanted to live away from town. We had talked about building in my hollow, but my partner felt there would be too many problems with electricity and access—and me being there--so we began to search for a dozen acres or so, well removed from any populated area. We eventually found a lovely ten acres that bordered Jefferson National Forest and by late winter she had a contract on the land, though in retrospect a contract on the realtor would have served her better.
As the closing date approached in February, things began to fall apart. The fellow who was to prepare the site informed us that there was a lot of rock, which might even include some expensive blasting, though he quickly ruled out the need for an atomic device. Since the land was steep, Bob (not his real name) advised us to put in a full basement, appealing in terms of space, but costing as much as my entire cabin, and my truck. Then we found out that the original septic permit had expired right after Lincoln had been shot. The realtor guaranteed us that a new one would be quickly approved, but the closest site that would perk was somewhere near Chicago. We were faced with putting in a costly drip irrigation system in addition to enough backhoe and bulldozer work for Bob to retire on. We ripped up the contract.
At this point I brought up the hollow again, and now building there seemed the right thing to do. We would save 8 million dollars and we even figured we could stay on schedule with the April delivery of the log house package my partner had ordered.
We hired a soil scientist to help us choose a building site, and things began to get complicated. Because of the poor soil quality, we would need a drip irrigation system anyway. Then, after deciding, at Bob’s suggestion, to place the log house on a flat area between two small streams, things virtually stopped. Early on it was too wet to bring any heavy equipment in and when it dried out enough, Bob would fail to appear. We shifted the delivery date of the logs to August 19, and considered getting another backhoe man. Finally, however, Bob got to work in late May and started clearing around the house site. We thought we could be ready for the logs in August then the weather turned against us. That summer was one of the wettest on record, and by the time things finally dried out, our logs had arrived, but Bob seemed to have left the earthly plane. We waited day after day, week after week, until Bob finally returned, smiling and ready to get back to work. I was livid but my partner’s ability to deal with thieves and murderers—after all she was a lawyer—proved valuable and in by mid-September we had a level area where the house would go. However, Bob now discovered that there were several underground springs cutting right across the site. It would never dry out in this or any other geological era. We considered another location, but fortunately brought out an engineer who thought a long and deep French drain and a series of subdrains would cure the problem. Excited and elated, we talked to Bob and pretty soon he had the work done.
The logs had been covered and according to our contractor Mark, they would be fine for at least six months, but I worried about them getting ruined. My concerns deepened as the weather turned mostly wet again and Bob seemed to have left North America.
Our housing situation made things even worse. My partner had put her house up for sale in early spring, assuming that we would have a new and luxurious log house by fall. By May she had a contract on it, and by June it was sold, leaving us with the expectations of living in my cabin for a couple of easy summer months. With the delays, however, it became clear that we would have to spend the winter in my cabin—and perhaps the rest of our lives. It was very close and very tense. My partner started searching the internet for hit men and I began to peruse blow gun catalogs. We didn’t argue much but when we finished, instead of being able to go off to another room, we could hardly get ten feet away from one another. Privacy on those nights was a pushed blanket between us, and a silence as cold as the wintry wind blowing just outside.
Thankfully, Bob reappeared in early December, having either finished his stint with the CIA or gotten an okay from his parole officer. In a couple of days he had the foundation dug and Mark had it framed. My partner and I held hands one evening and several days later looked at one another. Had we grown old? I wondered if, like Prufrock, I should wear my trousers rolled. We were actually going to have a foundation. I thought of canceling my blow gun order, and we both dreamt sensuously of flowing concrete. And it came to pass the next day. We had our foundation and our love had survived. The Bible was right about building on sand: concrete is much better. My partner and I felt like singing the night away, but fortunately for the forest creatures we simply talked together, and slept with Lincoln logs clutched in our hands.
With the foundation in, Mark took over and by early January the subflooring was in and we were ready for the logs. My partner and I had spent a long five months caring for them. The wind shredded the heavy black plastic, and we had to purchase a long and expensive tarp meant to cover the space shuttle. Of course the tarp would never stay in place, despite tying it carefully enough to hold a maximum security prisoner, so every few days saw me on top of the somewhat shaky log bundles, worried that one of them might tip over and crush me, often cold and sometimes wet.
But Mark was moving along and by early January the logs were placed and by early March we were ready for the rough-in inspection. When late March finally arrived, we felt like astronauts back from the space station. The warming weather brought us outside more and more and hepaticas and coltsfoot began to flower. The house looked more and more livable, and each evening when we returned, we would notice the new work done—or left undone. Mark’s workers were affable and decent, but some days they must have spent their time reading Moby-Dick or War and Peace. They also liked to take long lunches, driving the twenty minutes into town and perhaps attending a college course or two before they returned with the waning sun. Still, the work proceeded, and in early May we were able to spend the first night in our lovely new home. Technically, since we didn’t have a Certificate of Occupancy, we shouldn’t have, but it was impossible not to after ten months in the tiny cabin. I told my partner she would sneak up sometimes to use the plastic tub instead of the new bath and shower, but I must admit I haven’t caught her yet.
We quickly settled in, and then we got the bad news: our state of the art, twenty two thousand dollar septic system—with a peat moss filtering tank that produces almost drinkable water and a pump tank with a control panel that NASA would have envied—did not pass inspection. It turned out that the designer of the system, a high priced engineer called, say, Ned had not taken into account the simple fact that all three of the tanks had to be at least 50 feet from the stream. I guess his equivalency degree from the University of Phoenix hadn’t included the class in numbers. We were stuck. Now we had to apply for a variance, and it quickly became clear that variances were as hard to get as a fair vote count in Florida.
Ned submitted another plan, but when the health inspector came out he found that Ned’s sketch didn’t correspond to our system, and our application failed. We thought of appealing to the Supreme Court, but Florida came to mind again, and we decided to think of other options. Ned thought we might get away with peeing less, but I was doubtful. Instead, I thought of moving the tiny stream to behind the house, which would give us 50 feet from all the tanks. Ned considered the idea, but decided that he would resubmit another plan, this time using the correct numbers and leaving out his sketch of Mickey.
To add to our concerns, as winter approached, we found that our brand new Munchkin boiler wouldn’t work for more than a few hours before turning off and sending us, from its digital control panel, an error message such as, “Judgment Day is near” or “Do you know where your children are?” We had no children so we were safe on that one and I just hoped that Bob and Ned would find themselves in the down elevator, and that it would be an express.
While we waited for the contractor who had installed the boiler to come fix it—he seemed to respond only to the calls of certain Pacific whales--we began to use the vent-free furnace in the living room for heating the entire house. This worked okay, with a few small problems. First, to warm the bedroom to a reasonably comfortable temperature, the expensive remote control thermostat in the living room had to be set high enough to melt lead. Since both of us fish, our split shot supply increased rapidly, but wearing asbestos suits while sitting on the couch quickly became tiresome. The second problem was that the remote control unit was defective and even after the dealer replaced it, it seemed to be controlled by sunspot activity although I must admit I never fully proved the correlation.
However, I talked to the Munchkin folks, and their field representative explained to me over the phone, after I told him that we had a solar system, that it was probably due to a grounding problem with the furnace. He began to jabber away in what I thought was Munchkin—perhaps it was just technical jargon—but what I got out of it was that we had to sacrifice three goats and hang cannonballs on the furnace. I asked him to clarify his instructions and it was clear I had misunderstood: he wanted me to drive in a ground rod and connect it to a green screw in the electrical box. With that accomplished, the furnace worked fine and we could turn off the vent-free furnace.
We waited for several months for our variance application to be approved and then this stunner: we were apologetically told by the Health Department supervisor that we weren’t supposed to have filed for a variance—that is done before you build something—so we needed to file for a consent order. Septica wrote the order up herself and in six weeks we had an approved document. We wildly celebrated our good fortune—until we actually understood the entire order. The provisions of an underground wall and a thousand gallon overflow tank with an alarm seemed a little excessive, but it was how this alarm had to work that chilled our enthusiasm, and Ned’s.
He didn’t see the need for the alarm since the present pump tank had one, but an alarm that had to be connected to a phone in order to contact the health department if it went off was literally impossible for us to achieve. Our cell phones wouldn’t work at the septic site, and we were at least a mile from any telephone poles. The whole point of our house was to be off the grid, so bringing in a phone line would be incredibly expensive and would defeat the entire purpose. Ned contacted Septica and she said that there was no revising a consent order, except though the death of the applicants. My partner and I started to choose lots but then I again brought up my idea of moving the stream.
We talked to our new excavator—we had given up on Bob—and he thought he could do it for less money than the consent order provisions. We probably should have contacted some state or federal or intergalactic agency, but we had learned our lesson. After my partner found a Supreme Court decision that said a landowner could divert a stream from its banks as long as it returned to its original channel before it left the owner’s property, we told Ronnie to start digging. I didn’t have the heart to ask my partner if it was a U. S. Supreme Court decision.
Once Ronnie began, almost all our admittedly scrawny grass disappeared, then the mulch and flowers on one side of the house. It seemed a rebirth, but we were both looking to retirement. However, after three days, we had a new stream bed around the back of the house and at least fifty feet from the septic tanks. It looked raw and more like a ditch, but as we began to fill it with erosion control stones and shape the banks a little, it began to have a more riverine feel. Then Ronnie opened up the last section and the old current took to its new course. Well, almost. Because of the steep and rocky slope behind the house, Ronnie had to stay exactly fifty feet from the tanks or face some formidable and costly extra excavating. In doing so, he grazed the gravel at the edge of the French drain. He hadn’t been worried but the next morning, we had a stream that disappeared when it passed the French drain—and reappeared in the middle of our driveway. We thought of a fountain there, but being rather traditional, we decided that a driveway should not include any trappings from the Bellagio casino. More digging, more gravel and drain pipe, more wheelbarrows of money, but three more days left us with a truncated French drain and a stable stream that ended in a lovely little waterfall.
We were readying ourselves for a return to the Health Department by purchasing body armor and crossbows when our luck finally changed. In the mail, we received our C of O. We were stunned since we hadn’t yet informed the Health Department about the stream diversion, but a C of O is a C of O, and that was the last thing we needed before we could legally inhabit our log home. We had survived and that night we slept like pinecones, having put the body armor and crossbows up on E-bay.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving break is almost over, but I had a great visit to New York. I saw Julian and Gabe and Francesca, my Aunt Rose, my Aunt Marie, my friend John and his mother, and Herb and Susan. I did a lot of walking around Manhattan, up to Times Square and down to 14th Street, around the World Trade Center, where you can see the unfilled reflecting pools. I also walked around Park Slope on 5th, 6th and 7th avenues. I really would like to live in the city for a few months. I also took two long walks with my Aunt Marie through Bayonne park and through the bird sanctuary.
Today I drove back from Harrisonburg and the solar system is working well (all settings met) with the old hydrometer reading 1230 in battery 1 and 1240 in battery 2. The house was in good shape and after unloading the truck, I fed the trout and checked out the greenhouse, which was in good shape. I am going to redesign the drip endings so they will work more consistently, though the old ones worked well enough during the break.
Before I left, at Bryan’s behest, I had unplugged the refrigerator and when I got home with some perishable groceries and a bag of ice, I realized that my cooler was still in my office. I figured that I could put the ice in a big bucket and that would work for the day, but instead I put the bag of ice in the lower part of the refrigerator and placed the perishables in there also. It was at 50 degrees when I left, and it will surely get down into the 40s. I am going to put ice trays out at night so I won’t have to buy too much ice.
My friend who lost her baby is doing better according to her mother, but I haven’t talked to her in at least a week and I will wait until she wants to talk.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Finally the Thanksgiving break has begun.
I had Bryan out today and he worked on the solar electric and explained a few things to me and showed me how to change a couple of settings which will make the solar more efficient. David, who is working on the septic system, also had some good news about the electric. He is setting up the pump differently and it should save half the electricity. The pump is a big drain on the system.
My dear friend has had to terminate her pregnancy because of all the problems the baby had. She has had a terrible three weeks but hopefully she can begin to recover soon. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about when she is going through right now. I did ceremonies the last three mornings for her baby, and as I started the first one, I realized I had to include my ex-partner’s baby, who passed away a week after he was born, also with great problems and no chance to live. I burnt some sage, then walked down to my favorite pine tree, beating my shamanic drum and chanting for the two little boys and for my friend. I invited the babies’ spirits to come visit me if they were in the area.
I got my grant to go out and research the Freda Creek situation in British Columbia, so that is a real break. My money is getting tighter and tighter and the $2900 will help a lot.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I got a lot done this morning. My knee was much better even though I took a long walk with Rob last night. I loaded up the battery container and the batteries from the old solar system. I cleaned out the leaves in the cattleguard. I fixed up the road in a couple of spots with gravel and scraped the leaves off it. I also rode the lawn tractor for a few minutes to charge it up.
I have given up on equalizing the batteries for now, at least until Brian comes out and figures out what is not working right. I found out yesterday that it makes no difference what I set the maximum ac charge at—the same amount goes in whether it is set at 1 or 30. In the past it used to kick out above 21 but no more.
The visit by my students didn’t come off because no one could find a car to drive out in after Danielle got the flu. It allowed me to do all the morning chores and go play golf. After an evil start (6, 6 on 1 and then 8 on 2), I shot a 47 for 9 with four pars, including my first par on number 6.
My performance on Friday night was first rate, and with Luke and Bobby playing we sounded quite good.
One more week before Thanksgiving break and I need it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Time is racing past. I have taught all week and I am performing later this evening. Luke will join us so that should be fun.
I have ordered a new camper top and they are going to give me a discount; how much, I don’t know. The present price is just under a thousand so it should be somewhat less.
I am working to equalize the batteries. I haven’t had to use the generator at all in over six weeks, but equalizing the batteries will require it. The batteries started at 1225 this morning and when I turned off the generator,they were at almost1240. I hope to get them to at least 1260 by Sunday.
No hike this morning because my walk at Radford yesterday caused real problems for my knee. I did a lot of stuff indoors and then I went to play golf, exactly right for resting my knee.
I still haven’t talked to my dear friend but I know her situation and it is awful. I am waiting for her to contact me and then I will try to help out if I can.
I will be having my Literature and the Environment class out on Sunday. That should be fun but I hope my knee recovers a little so I can clean up a bit before the students come.
I heard from my friend John and I should see him Thanksgiving day. I look forward to that, and to all my other visits during Thanksgiving week.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The visit last weekend from Ken and Sandy was a lot of fun, and we did some hiking, dining and watching the world series (both of them are Yankee fans). They made me a wonderful birthday dinner, the entrée being fresh striped bass that Ken caught and cooked. It was terrific.
Today I went for a morning hike and it was rather cold, but with most of the leaves down I spotted a few deer up the steep slope, and enjoyed the oak leaves which are still green. A multitude of crows, called a muster or murder, flew over me when I was watering the new grass. After they landed I started cawing and they all flew out to investigate. It was fun to watch them wheeling around. I also noticed that the yellowjacket nest that I sprayed a couple of weeks ago and then covered has been dug up. Whatever has dug it up left a couple of small sticks in the hole so it may have been a raccoon.
I checked out the attic and I can’t see any insects up there at the ridge (and it looks fine) so I am not sure what is going on up there. Something is causing some insulation to drift down so I had better put back the insulation and check further. I also found a big bag of good clothing that my ex left. I am going to drop it off at her friend's.
I haven’t heard from my friend and I know she is very sad right now. My other friend is doing a little better but she is always day to day.
I have given up on the camper top and tomorrow I am going up to Leonard to replace it. I hope they will give me a break on it since it was such a disaster.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Playing a little catch up. Things in the hollow are fine and my teaching is moving along. I could really use the thanksgiving break right now but it is still a few weeks away.
Almost everything is done with the chapbook, and I will be very glad when it is finally finished. Dealing with publishers is no fun at all.
I drove to Annapolis this weekend to see Maddie’s marching band performance and I thought they were quite good even though they finished 14th out of 15.
I have a couple of my friends that I am very worried about and there is little I can do for either one. I will keep sending some good energy from the hollow and try to be as supportive as I can.