Monday, April 3, 2017

Farm Mechanics

My friends Festus and Rosalita, who I have written about before, are farmers. They have a small scale, intensive organic farm that sells to local restaurants, farm markets, and the Willimantic Food Coop. I once spent a day as a volunteer farmhand just to get an idea of what the life is like.

We spent a good part of the day wrestling with equipment. He had a manure spreader that was originally horse drawn, believe it or not. It had a steel chain system that was originally driven by the wheels as the thing rolled along, but had been modified to run off the tractor's PTO. That way you could control the speed of manure distribution independent of the speed of travel. Some of the chain links needed replacing. We also installed a tiller on a tractor and did some other wrenching. Festus told me that his job consisted mostly of mechanics. It occurred to me that in the old days, growers must have spent as much time taking care of horses as they did growing plants.

I do my snowplowing with my tractor, which I hope not to do next winter because it means I have to take the loader off, and it would be useful to have the loader as well as a snowplow. They each have their own utility for moving snow around, and I might have firewood to transport in winter as well. Actually most of this past winter was so mild the ground wasn't frozen and I could have done some landscaping.

Anyway, the time has come for the annual Royal PITA of getting the loader reinstalled. It inevitably involves scraped knuckles and needing help from a neighbor. (Don't believe the alternative facts in the owner's manual about how simple it is.) Part of the process is connecting four hydraulic fittings. Yesterday I struggled for half an hour and I couldn't get one of them to click on. Three went on just fine, but that fourth one was impossible. I tried all the tricks -- pressing on the button to bleed off pressure, moving the stick around. It was hopeless. But there is one bit of lore I learned a few years ago. I went back first thing in the morning, when the temperature was around freezing, and it slipped right on. That's the story -- when I removed the loader back in the fall, it was cold. Yesterday afternoon was warm, which meant the pressure in the system was so high the fitting would not seat. Wait for the cold morning, and there's no problem.

The point of this story is that we all have odd bits of knowledge and expertise that are specific to our ways of life. The Bushmen of the Kalahari know just as much as a college professor, they just know different stuff.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Time has come today

There were two 19th century mantel clocks in my mother's house, family heirlooms, that had stopped working. So I took them to the only person for miles around who fixes old clocks. Such people are called horologists, in  case you didn't know.

It turns out this common style is called an ogee clock, named after the molding around the door. They are weight driven (although one of my mother's clocks had a replacement spring driven movement), and they chime the hour. 

The horologist told me that these were first mass produced in the 1830s, making it possible for the first time in history for families of moderate means to own clocks. He said the inventor of this weight driven brass clockwork sent a shipload to England, where they sold out instantly. The Brits impounded the next shipment because they were putting British clockmakers our of business.

Anyway, this got me to thinking. The typical family's experience of time must have changed radically. Before, if you lived near enough to a church, you might hear the steeple clock chime the hours, and perhaps the quarter hours, but you never had a more precise sense of time than that. People outside of the village would have measured time only by the passage of the sun. Now suddenly we lived in a world of minutes. We could make punctual appointments. We could measure the speed with which we accomplished tasks. We could time cooking processes.

But people must also have developed a new sense of urgency, of guilt about being late, of the need for discipline in the use of time. Time was necessary for factory work. Of course the factory could and did blow a whistle to let people know when the shift started and ended, but workers needed to keep track of time so they could be ready.

I expect the 19th century clocks chimed the hour because people were accustomed to the steeple clock doing that and they expected it. By the 20th, however, we had gotten used to seeing clock faces everywhere, quite likely on our wrists, and the chime was obviously pointless and was abandoned.

I took one of the clocks, so now I live with the tick tock and the hourly chime. I have to wind it every day. So I have a new connection to my ancestors.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The wisdom of Solomon

I can't be too specific about the tale I am about to tell, because there is pending litigation and the parties are actually following social media to harvest evidence. They won't likely find this post because of no names but still . . .

A young relative of mine broke up with his girlfriend and became engaged to another woman. Four months later girlfriend A showed up six months pregnant. There is a hypothesis popular within the family that she got pregnant accidentally on purpose in order to hold on to young relative, but that seems inconsistent with the delay. Anyway, whatever the truth of that it turns out young relative wants the baby, but not girlfriend A. Interestingly, the fiancee also wants the baby.

While they wait for the judge to rule on final arrangements, they're swapping the baby back and forth every week, with extra special complications for the holidays. And young relative and his fiancee are talking really nasty trash about how their case is the only right one. The acrimony is thick and sour.

Now, looking at this from pretty much the outside, I'm thinking that the people involved are not noticing that they are punching groins and gouging eyes over a baby. When the day comes that she starts to understand what's going on, if her parents are still hating on each other and trying to pull her apart like a wishbone that's probably not going to be best for her. But Solomon's trick of proposing to split the baby won't work here, because all involved believe unflinchingly that they are fighting for her sake, not for their own, and they don't seem to realize that they are on the path of yes, splitting the baby.

In the old days, custody would pretty much go to the mother with few questions asked. That may have been wrong 45% of the time or whatever. But at least we had an answer, over and done. In fact the biggest challenge was getting Dad to pay child support and show up for graduation. I'm glad that my young relative is committed to fatherhood and wants to accept much more than his basic responsibility in this situation. I have to call that progress. But I sure hope everybody accepts the outcome graciously in the end.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


It always takes me a couple of weeks after the cold weather sets in to get over my impulse to hibernate and get my ass out of the house. But we don't often reflect on the way life changed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

I heat my house with wood -- and so far there's been plenty of deadfall in the neighborhood, along with trees felled for other reasons, that I haven't had to kill anything just so I could burn it. It's quite a lot of work but it's good for me -- otherwise I suppose I could join my neighbor's gym in Norwich. But I have a log splitter, two chainsaws, a tractor and a pickup truck. So yeah, there's some fossil fuel in there but there's still a big energy return on investment. However, most people just turn a knob and presto, their house is warm. Of course they send a check every month for the privilege.

Also, I turn a knob and get water. I push a lever and my excrement disappears. I turn another knob and my food cooks. I flip a tiny lever and it's bright as day at night.

None of this was true for even the wealthiest people until a little more than 100 years ago. In winter, you were cold. With immense effort using handsaws and hammering steel wedges and loading horse-drawn wagons vigorous young men could lay in the 8 or 10 cords of wood or more they needed to keep one room of a drafty house reasonably warm all winter. When the sun went down people sat in the dark with maybe a couple of candles. You had to go outside to get water, and to relieve yourself. Alternatively you could use a container and carry it outside later.

This was everybody -- including the most prosperous farmers and merchants. This was how Thomas Jefferson lived. Of course he had slaves to do the firewood, but that didn't mean his bedroom wasn't cold in January. There is a great deal more that was very different. I don't think we allow our imaginations to encompass what an astonishing change in the condition of human existence has happened, certainly in the wealthiest parts of the world.

So now, think about the people who feel deprivation, who feel their life circumstances are bleak and who are deeply disappointed and anxious -- people right here in the U.S. who have jobs, who have average incomes of about $70,000 a year, who live in warm houses with indoor plumbing and electric lights. Those are Trump voters -- yes, they have average incomes higher than Clinton voters, higher than the general population. There were plenty of Trump yard signs out here and they weren't in the trailer parks. They were in front of big houses with expensively landscaped and beautifully kept grounds. Swimming pools. Outbuildings. And they feel oppressed.

Friday, November 25, 2016


My mother is 85. There's plenty of variation in how vigorous and healthy people are at that age, but she's not at the top of the distribution. She has a problem with feeling unsteady on her feet, that doctors have been unable to diagnose for years. This limits her physical activity and that's bad both physically and psychologically. She also complains of chronic malaise, insomnia, frequent urination. Basically she doesn't do anything. She's also increasingly having difficulty finding words and otherwise showing strange cognitive lapses.

The thing is, I'm the closest child, and I live an hour away. My brother is a 2 1/2 hour drive away and my sister lives in Manhattan and doesn't own a car, meaning she has to rent one to get to deepest Connecticut. My father died about 8 years ago, BTW, but he'd been in a nursing home before then so she's been living alone for quite a while. His terminal illness depleted all of their money so she has nothing but her teacher's pension, which is basically equal to social security.

She also has a reverse mortgage, which means that if we sell the house she won't have enough money to last very many years in assisted living. So she's sitting around in an early 19th Century farmhouse with five bedrooms, just her and the cat.

In the old days, the family would still have been nearby, if not in the same house, and my mother's later years would have been much more manageable and probably far less unhappy. But nowadays a lot of people are in our situation. I only live out here in the last quiet corner because it's the only place that's reasonably accessible to both my mother's house and Providence, which means I'm spending two hours commuting to work and back every day and then doing it in the opposite direction many weekends. It's really bad for my carbon footprint. But I have to keep working or I won't be able to take care of myself, let alone my mother.

A lot of relatively affluent people end up in this sort of quandary. In fact it's a risk factor, I expect. Being really wealthy fixes it, and being low income means your family is probably not so dispersed. Public  policy doesn't work properly here. Medicaid will pay for a nursing home, but not for long-term home care, even though it's cheaper. Here in Connecticut they have a hybrid policy whereby if you first go into a nursing home, you can then be returned to the community and get home based services. But my mother doesn't need institutional care, and in any case she'd have to sell the house meaning she'd wind up in some sort of a senior housing complex, which is not where she wants to be. And it would cost the state more in the long run. It's basically insane.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I'm back

Not sure why it's been so hard for me to keep up this diary. Of course I have my other two blogs and my gainful employment consists largely of writing, so maybe I just haven't had enough energy to channel into it. But I have decided that the discipline will be good for me.

So here's how things are here. It's been a mild autumn so far. That was supposed to change today with some nasty cold rain and wet snow, but it hasn't happened. It's actually been a very fine fall day, partly sunny, maybe a bit chilly but pretty normal for the time of year. We'll see if they're still wrong later in the day. Anyway, believe it or not, my parsley is still just fine and I'm still cutting fresh parsley for my dinners. Maybe today is the last chance, so I think I'll make some stuffed shells and use up what I can. There's severe drought to the north and west of us, but actually right here we've had a rain deficit over the year but nothing you would notice. The corn crop, which is not irrigated, was excellent.

Now, there are bigger things going on in the world right now than the weather in Windham County. We're all trying to figure out what just happened and what will happen in the coming years. The feeling that we are about to lose a century of progress hangs over many of us. I don't think that will happen. It's one thing to whip up a frenzy at neo-fascist rallies with threats, insults and lies; it's quite another thing to govern. What little in the way of actual policy content there was in the Trump campaign was ridiculous. No, there will not be a twenty foot wall the length of the Mexican border. No, the coal mining jobs will not come back to Appalachia and the factories won't come back to Youngstown. He won't lock Hillary up (not that I understand why his fans wanted that) and as for repealing Obamacare, the Republicans in congress are suddenly realizing that actually being able to do it puts them in a very awkward position. Paul Ryan wants to phase out Medicare but the only constituency for that is a few extremist ideologues and rich people who don't want to pay taxes.

What the Trump presidency will be is a grift. He'll use it to steal everything he can as quickly as he can, and his justice department will step aside. Sooner or later the people will have to notice that whatever he meant by making America great again isn't happening, they're still living on hay, and he's sucking up the gravy. I look forward to that day.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Plague of Our Own Making

Yes, sorry for the carbon footprint, I sort of got stuck into this situation, but I drive into Providence most workdays on Route 6. The road passes through woods in Foster and Scituate. The last couple of days I said to myself, "Holy shit, the trees are all dead!" I thought it was a sign of the apocalypse -- I'm talking miles of leafless oaks and maples.

It turns out they aren't dead, they've been defoliated by the gypsy moth caterpillar. I didn't grok it at first because my part of Windham County has been spared. The trees can come back, although a second defoliation can do them in. So the woods aren't doomed, but this is a really disgusting situation for homeowners. Caterpillar shit literally falls like rain.

The gypsy moth was introduced to North America by a clown who thought he could start a silk industry with them. He claimed some sort of affiliation with Tufts University, actually, which is shameful to me since I have studied and taught there. Anyway, they're on a level with kudzu as noxious invasive species go. Here's a fun portfolio of houses that have been completely devoured by the weed from hell. 

Of course, Europeans are a noxious invasive -- well, not species, but culture -- here in the Americas. Just by way of analogy.