Working for the Work Ahead

 

It’s a simple set of tasks, an annual ritual that signifies the changing of seasons, a reconfiguration of habits, and the compression of our living space back into the modest square footage of our 1880s farmhouse. Still, every fall when we pack away our porch furniture and winterize the wraparound porch, it’s a reluctant exercise that we avoid for as long as possible. Some of the work, like picking up leaves in the front yard, is pleasantly autumnal. I’m alone with my thoughts while raking and vacuuming up the browns, yellows, oranges, and reds that have made our lawn an earthy carpet for the past few weeks.

Together, Jaxon and I hang sheets of plastic over the porch screens and tack in glass window panels (actually a massive supply of cabinet doors he found in Ikea’s as-is section several years ago), a move that closes in our cabin-like summer retreat but drastically reduces the edge from icy northern winds. Our summer porch bed- a cozy full-sized box spring and mattress that somehow holds two adult men, two grown dogs, and an occasional visit by the cat – will be leaned against the shingled inside wall until we bring it inside for use by holiday guests. The cabin, as we call it, will go dormant until springtime.

In eight years of homeownership, we’ve made these rituals into central markers of the passage of time. It’s not as as nostalgic as Thanksgiving (my Super Bowl for cooking the big feast) or Christmas (our lowkey day of dog park visiting, leftovers for lunch, napping, and homemade soup). But, wrapping the porch and putting away the yard furniture represents a ritual of work, anticipating the dark and frozen winter to come while looking forward to the days when we can walk outside in shirtsleeves and drop the top on Jaxon’s convertible. We do our work so that we can repeat the cycle, fulfilling the patterns we’ve established that keep us connected to our home.  Continue reading

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From the Wayback Machine, Part I

To get myself back in the habit of posting regular content, I’m adding some occasional work that comes from the past. The first of these is a spoken word piece from 2006.

Performed in August, 2006, as a guest artist for “Two Queers and a Chubby,” a spoken word entry in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

This sounds funny to say out loud, and forgive me if I seem a bit embarrassed to admit it… but I think my “best friend” when I was a child was actually Doctor Who. Do you remember him? The British guy with the curly hair and the scarf! I am starting to think I wasn’t alone in this fascination, that for other young males who were lonely, awkward, and outcast, he was someone we could relate to and embrace. He was enigmatic, clever, outspoken, intelligent, and abhorred violence if he could avoid it. He traveled on his own, outside of society’s structures, a loner even to his own people. The companions who traveled with him were fond of him, but still even to them he was a bit of a mystery.

That was how childhood felt to me—the boy who was singled out for “using big words,” the smart fat kid whose most athletic extra-curricular activity was marching band. I was a child with many, many emotions, and few role models for how to really—authentically—express them. Did you see BrokeBack Mountain? Those men were about the age of my father, and they exemplified his generation of men—especially rural white men—to near perfection. So how, when you’re an imaginative, over-sensitive kid with a big vocabulary and few friends, do you learn to be who you really are, when all the men and boys around look at you like you’re speaking a different language completely from the English you think is pouring out of your throat?  Continue reading

Reflective Thinking

I feel unsettled, not necessarily by anything occurring around me, but by the amount of time I let pass before deciding to write something new for the blog. Part of my purpose in creating this space was to challenge myself to keep up on my writing and reflections, even as I have managed the multiplicity of tasks surrounding my Ph.D. work. It’s been easier said than done. I last wrote a piece in June, not far removed from a winter season that seemed to drag me (and everyone around me) into the depths of a frozen ennui. Today – heh – Jaxon and I could barely bring ourselves to walk the dogs on this frigid November Monday, when I can’t help but wonder if summer really happened.

Yet, I know it did. On multiple occasions, I meant to write about some key occurrences, each hitting an existential note in some way. To sum up:  Continue reading

Summer’s Labors Lost (and Won)

With the pride and satisfaction that comes with homeownership, there are also those inevitable moments of despair, self-doubt, and trepidation at the mountain of work that accompanies a disaster. During the summer of 2013, in the midst of what I had proclaimed would be “the good year,” Jaxon and I were tested twice—“consecutively” might be the better term—by our 1886 farmhouse, a home that has always been more a source of joy than vexation. But, this summer almost tipped those scales. As the year comes to a close, and as I kick myself a bit for not writing more on this blog, memories like this are important for reminding myself what, exactly, I was doing other than writing.

The first setback, though worse than we had expected, had been anticipated. Last year, we noticed water seeping in underneath the French doors that open out onto the backyard from our bedroom. Exploring things a little further, Jaxon found that the back deck, which had been attached by a previous owner, was pulling away from the house. We planned accordingly, knowing that we wouldn’t see the full extent of the damage until the entire wooden structure—deck and pergola—had been dismantled. But, the warning signs were pretty glaring, including a steady stream of carpenter ants into our kitchen during a very wet spring.

What we found

What we found

After the fix

After the fix

In mid-summer, we started the arduous task. On weekends, we began pulling off the lumber, discovering to our annoyance that it had been tacked together with an assortment of different screws and nails, most of which had begun to corrode since they were apparently not galvanized. Flush against the limestone foundation sat a pile of leftover hardy board side, left to rot and thus seep moisture into the basement walls. When it was all stripped away, we gazed in silent horror at a small, soggy gash in the side of our house—the rotted flesh of 300 year old redwood, with ants pouring out onto the sunbaked dirt on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon in July. The immediate tears and sagging shoulders gave way, though, to a plan of action. A contractor friend helped us with the work—replacing the damaged rim joist, installed a new sliding door, and adding a support beam in the basement that, inexplicably, had been removed at some point in the house’s past. The worst was over within a matter of a few weeks, and by mid-August we actually were excited about the prospect of re-imagining our backyard before snowfall. Not so fast.

The second disaster was a total surprise, and a demoralizing one at that. Just a few days after the sliding door had been installed, we both arrived home late in the afternoon, another high heat day when we planned to do some cleanup in the backyard and maybe grab a swim at the beach before nightfall. Instead, we were greeted by a cascade in the basement, a gushing stream of water that actually didn’t show a trace of damage behind the wall where it originated—everything just poured straight down through the floor.

What could we do? In short order, we tore out the wall, removed the sink and toilet, and found a plumber in the neighborhood who would repair the damaged piping. It was clear, though, that if we just patched the leak, we would be doomed to future recurrences, given the age of the galvanized pipes behind the wall. So—although exhausted already from the backyard and having spent most of our reserves already—we had little choice but to plunge into rebuilding and remodeling the bathroom. Another two months passed, but thanks to Jaxon and our plumber’s due diligence, the job was done right and the wall was rebuilt. Jaxon took his time to beautifully tile the bathtub and shower walls, and we hung a new sink (replacing the ancient fixture with a wobbly hot water tap that liked to splash our crotches). The wooden floor, slightly worn and burnt from the soldering of the pipes, was stained to look like planks from an old barn. In mid-October, with much relief, we moved back into our bathroom. I had no idea that such a displacement—sharing the upstairs facilities with our housemates and seeing our dining room filled with various toiletries for week after week—could have such a psychological effect. And, as is true with everything my beloved partner does, the end result was far better than what we’d had before the damage.

On that glorious August day...

On that glorious August day…

Better than before

Better than before

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

With new paint, lighting, and sink fixture to boot

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

Did I mention the exquisite flooring?

As for the backyard, we piled up the leftover lumber, shored up our temporary back steps, and let it sit until next spring. We’ll take the time to think through a more complete vision for the space, and then we’ll do it the right way. (I still want a hot tub.) I can’t help but love this house even more than before. Despite the best efforts of the shortsighted humans who have owned it over the years, this old structure—with bones of redwood—continues to endure and survive these slights. Part of why we both want to grow old here is the sense of obligation we feel toward this humble but grand old house. According to the abstract, the original structure was classified as a barn in 1886. In 1894, it was completed as a homestead. In 1897, the foundation and basement were added. Plumbing and electrical wiring were installed in 1907. A great deal of the original woodwork remains intact, and it’s beautiful. Moreover, our relationship to the house, and to each other, continues to grow richer both from the work we put in (especially Jaxon), and by the stories we gain from taking what was left to us and turning it into something better than we had before.