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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stairway




Could a dying man's last wish be a new set of steps? In his slow decay is it trying or comforting to see rotten and skewed rebuilt upright? Is time best spent fixing the things that can be fixed? Our answer was yes, so Betsy and I spent the last ten days or so in Minnesota rebuilding the porch legs and constructing a new staircase with Rex's blessing. He and his aide sat porch side, observing, while we took to our work.


The porch was sinking in the northeast corner, evident at the junction of house and porch where a gap had formed over the years. It wasn't until we removed the porch steps and it's stock standard, 45 degree, three step stringer that we could begin to see the whole of the problem. The house architectural drawings indicated below the frost-line 12 inch concrete piers and 4x4 treated posts. The problem was that these posts were to some degree covered at the base with wet clay soil, not at all elevated above the moisture-holding concrete, and not at all anchored in any way to the concrete piers.  They simply rotted and moved from their original position allowing the porch to slowly pull downward. Although our intention was only to replace the staircase, and as is so often the case, when you look into it you realize the full extent of the work before you.


First, remove the old staircase, the lattice work under deck, then the fascia boards.


Old, rotten-bottom posts removed as we jack up the porch with a very old school jack. 


New treated posts installed with steel post-header ties (the old were toe-nailed).


Not choice, but available: plastic post bottoms to separate the new post from the concrete pier. Each is said to be good for five thousand pounds.


We also compromised on the anchor -galvanized steel angles at the back of each post, then each post backfilled with course gravel.


I found this blue-spotted salamander, Ambystoma laterale, under the plastic near one of the posts. Trying to get it out, it only climbed in deeper, so I let it be. I wonder how it keeps dirt out of those bulging black eyes.


After the posts were set and anchored we set about doing the staircase. The main complaint about the old steps was their steep incline and rickety railings (they had rotten) so we stretched the run to five feet from the porch. This changed the configuration from four, eleven-inch treads with eight-inch risers to six, twelve-inch treads with five and three quarter-inch risers.  The longer run had the structure landing on the concrete pad, adding concern about frost heave (which every one else was less concerned with). We compromised by designing the railings so that they are integral to the staircase structure but do not attach at all to the posts holding up the porch roof. This allowed us to remove the chance that frost heave pressure would be applied to the porch posts.


I reused as much of the original cedar risers as I could, but this also meant that I was limited by their length. We had wanted to overshoot the stringer sides by an inch or so but the old boards wouldn't allow it. We compromised by bringing the riser board to the top of the tread instead of behind it, and extended the tread board just a half inch on either side.


The treads were notched around the posts.


I fitted the post notch with a small piece of cedar to fill.


The different shades of cedar on a cloudy day.


While it was a marathon effort for him, Rex made the journey out to see the finished staircase. The following afternoon, I found him sitting on them.  I don't think I will get as much joy out of doing these projects without him there to appreciate it. Things need to be done, to be sure, but his glowing appraisal makes it worth the extra effort. As I had to leave to get back to work in NYC, not two days after I wrapped up the work on the staircase, I knew I could be seeing him for the last time. He said to me "you have value, remember that." Seems like such a simple thing, but it chokes me up. Rex was motivated to get the staircase rebuilt because his elderly friends were having trouble climbing the old set when they came to visit. I suppose, then, that a staircase could be a last wish. It's a way to extend oneself beyond the boundaries of life and death, a courtesy to those friends who will thank me for the effort and good work, at his house, soon enough.



Thursday, August 14, 2014

Farm Park




Minneapolis has a farm within its park system, Gale Woods Farm.



They raise cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens, in addition to a number of crops. They expose school groups to farming and offer volunteer opportunities. The park is about 15 minutes from our place.



You can buy pastured meats at a fraction of the NYC price (5 lb leg of lamb -$36). As far as I know this is unique to the region, is hardly known even to locals, and is a great resource in a region that has not quite made pastured meats accessible to the urban population. Food is generally more expensive in the Minneapolis region than it is in NYC, variety is dismal, international foods are harder to come by, and produce is not well-stocked or good looking. There is a grand farmers' market in Minneapolis, but it's a drive into downtown. Fortunately, smaller markets are popping up including one in our town despite the fairly short season.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Lily Pad



 You might find a frog on the side of the porch. It happens.



 But would you expect to find one inside a day lily?



Hiding spot, feeding hole, great place to meet the opposite sex?



 Do you leap in a single bound or climb the stalk, waiting for the flower to open it's doors?






And do they know the doors close after dark?



Friday, August 8, 2014

Dissolution


We arrived in Minnesota early Sunday afternoon after two days of driving and two nights of miserable lodging. It's hard to imagine making this drive anymore after a dozen years of doing so, twice annually, and it's quite possible this will be our last. Rex's ability to take in oxygen is at its limit as is the machine's ability to provide it. He is slowly suffocating to death. We like to imagine his lungs will finally give out under the influence of morphine and heavy sleep, but one can't know. 

His days are filled with an anxiety of breathlessness and jokes mustered around such a condition and a general disposition lighter than one might expect. Every now and then he makes it to his Estonia grand, orchestrating his nimble, digital memory. We cook and although he passes on most lunches, he eagerly takes in dinners under the magical influence of prednisone. We are lucky for his nine to five caregiver, Patsy, whom he listens to as much as she patiently listens to him. The dissolution of age will come for us all, gradually or quite suddenly. It is best to have a plan.



The best indicator of Rex's declining health was the gradual but evident retaking of the trails by plants and fallen timber. Many have become impassable with tangled windfalls and occasional widow-makers, the soft padding of chips disintegrated into soil, the buckthorn and even trillium growing center trail. There was considerable flooding this spring and the smaller marsh became the smaller pond, it's overflow draining underneath this bridge. The rain fell so long and heavy that pond waters rose high enough to float the bridge, dismantling it, and nearly over washing the driveway forty feet beyond. In other words, the woods is a mess and in need of a chainsaw samaritan who will work for cord upon cord of wood. Do you know one in the Twin Cities area? Email me.



The moisture and cool, darkened understory has produced a good crop of mushrooms, like these corals and those below.









Ductifera pululahuana or the White Jelly (Roll)



Last year's unharvested chicken, the ghost chicken.



Right alongside the driveway, growing on a strategically placed, chainsawed oak stool, is this summer's small but wanted chicken.



A day later it looked like this.




And the day after that, we harvested.




Saturday, January 5, 2013

Last Day


We flew in from Orlando early Friday. Lucky, flying standby, we got bumped up to first class. Nothing too special, it appears to me to be the way flying was when it first appeared on the commercial carrier scene -more comfortable, more service, smoother ride, but I could hardly imagine paying the premium for it unless my wallet was well endowed.

Days before leaving are solemn, made more so by a memorial service for Betsy's aunt that we attended once we landed yesterday. I did get to meet her great aunt Margaret, a woman with lots of spark at nearly 101. I have never met much of Betsy's extended family on her mother's side, mostly because her mother is no longer with us. I never met her mom, regrettably, because she died years before Betsy and I met.

There is snow on the ground and the light is brilliant. The temperature a pleasant 18 degrees, far better than the 4 or 5 while we were wearing shorts in Florida. It's tough to leave Rex behind, more so these days due to his declining health. There is always the chance that this could be the last time we see him. We won't be able to return, in any meaningful way, until late July. I'll be wrapped up in the garlic harvest at that point, plus school, so scheduling will be tricky.

Travel is a luxury, like so many others, that requires agency of time. There are so many places we haven't been, that we would like to experience, but our responsibility to family is powerful, and instead of using our time off to travel to exotic locations, we dutifully truck to see family.

There's no need to complain about this, one day it'll be different. We will soak up our last day here in the frozen woods of Minnesota. Tomorrow, by noon, we will warm up the van and trek east toward Madison, Wisconsin. The cats will mew in discomfort. We will stop in Menominee (ba dada bop) for our usual cup of better road coffee. Eyes will glaze over as numbing vibrations of interstate travel permeate the fingers and bums of being while our van unceremoniously rolls over two hundred thousand miles somewhere in Ohio.



Terrarium


Now that the ant food has sprouted, the ant farm is becoming little bit more of a terrarium.