Ella’s Promise

This past week, as the anniversary of its conclusion rolled around again, you no doubt heard a great deal about the First World War. Most of the commentary and retrospectives focused on the decisive (or not so decisive) battles, and the soldiers who served. But there’s a fascinating other layer to the events of World War I, and one that we seldom hear much about: the medical personnel staffing the field hospitals, many of whom were young volunteers.

Ellen Gable’s excellent new historical romance novel, Ella’s Promise, takes us inside that world. It’s the third and final installment in her “Great War-Great Love” series (here is my review of the first novel in that series). It’s a wonderful story, and an engrossing read. I began reading it at the start of a four hour flight, and couldn’t put it down; I finished it shortly before landing. As soon as I was allowed to use my phone, I dashed off a note to the author telling her how much I enjoyed it.

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And this is coming from someone who doesn’t even like romance novels! That’s in part due to this story being so much more than a romance. Yes, boy meets girl. Yes, boy loses girl. And, yes, boy gets girl back. But all of these plot points and developments are tied up with events unfolding in connection with the war, including Allied espionage operations. Ella’s love interest, Garrett, is a Canadian intelligence officer. He’s of German descent, and speaks German fluently, so is a natural for the role. We get to follow him as he infiltrates the enemy ranks, risks getting exposed, and finds himself in a position of great peril.

Ella herself is an American, and had significant medical training before the war. She spends much of the early part of the story frustrated that she isn’t allowed to put these skills to greater use. The way she ultimately “proves herself,” and manages to turn the tables on those who were trying to keep her locked in a lower level role, makes for some truly wonderful reading.

Like Garrett, Ella is also of German descent, and also fluent in the language. Interestingly, her family expressed some qualms about her going to France and working against their mother country. She insists she’s not there to support the war efforts of any particular country, or even of any particular side. She volunteers for one reason only: to help persons who need it, regardless of nationality. She’s determined to stay out of the Allies’ larger strategic operations, refusing even to use her language skills to listen in on (and report back about) the conversations of enemy soldiers in her care. Her challenge is to remain true to herself, while assuring others that she’s not an enemy sympathizer. As the story unfolds, and her relationship with Garrett grows deeper, she is forced to make more difficult decisions about her role, and what she is willing to do to support the Allied effort.

As an avid cyclist, I was fascinated by one smallish detail in the plot: the use of an innovative, folding bicycle captured from the Germans. (Being able to fold it up made it easier for transport on a vehicle.) I’d never heard of these bicycles before, so I enjoyed learning about how they operated and were put to use. I’m hoping I get to see one in a museum someday.

I should mention that Ella’s Promise is a clean and wholesome story. The courtship is chaste, with the characters observing the social conventions of the time about appropriate behavior.

One other thing I should note: although the book is part of a series, it stands on its own as a story. You don’t need to have read the other two novels to appreciate this one (and I haven’t even been able to read the second one yet). Each novel focuses on a different female volunteer, with the “non focus” volunteers playing supporting roles. For example, Ella appeared in Julia’s Gifts, as one of Julia’s friends, but there’s nothing critical about her from that story that you need to know for this one. Likewise, you’ll appreciate Julia’s appearance in the current story more if you’ve read the first novel, but there is nothing from that novel which is essential to the plot of this one.

The bottom line is that Ella’s Promise is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it very much. I can’t believe I missed the second book in the series. I’m going to have to go back and rectify that as soon as I can.

Stopping Traffic

This past summer, I described my experience with an overzealous TSA officer at the Detroit airport. It seems someone has decided that soft goat cheese is a dangerous substance that cannot be allowed on board an aircraft, and the officer had been on the verge of confiscating the stuff in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, after my explanation of its origin (and a chat with his supervisor), they agreed to make an exception. By way of update: My cousins thoroughly enjoyed the cheese when I shared it at our family gathering in Seattle, and we all got a good laugh from the story.

I had a different, and probably more memorable, encounter with a TSA officer last weekend. This one had nothing to do with cheese, goat or otherwise.

My son (almost ten) and I had traveled to Arizona for a few days, to visit my folks. It’s getting more challenging for them to come out to see us, so bringing the grandkid to them seemed like a natural solution. He got to experience all kinds of things he doesn’t usually get to see and do here in Michigan, like a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an attraction I cannot recommend highly enough, BTW), attending All Saints Day Mass at his grandparents’ parish, riding around in Grandpa’s golf cart, and swimming outdoors in November. (Not to mention riding on an airplane, with a window seat.) Most of all, I enjoyed watching him get to spend a lot of solid one-on-one with his grandparents (as his siblings had been able to do more often, when they were younger). We made some wonderful memories; he doesn’t know it yet, but he will carry these memories with him the rest of his life.

There is one detail, however, that I will probably remember for much longer than he will: our interaction with a TSA officer in the Phoenix airport on our way home. We’d just dropped our luggage, and were making our way to the security checkpoint. To my relief, it was wide open and virtually empty. (Early Saturday morning is a great time to travel.) I presented my ID and our boarding passes to the first agent, a youngish and friendly-looking woman, expecting the usual cursory inspection like we’d had at DTW.

To my surprise, the agent did more than just compare me to the photo and check the names. Turning to my son, she clutched the boarding passes and said, “Okay, I have a few questions for you. Alright?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“What is your name?” she asked.

My son smiled and told her.

“And what’s your dad’s name?”

He hesitated for a second, like sometimes happens when you’re asked a question that is too obvious (and that no one has ever asked you before). My heart skipped a beat. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Then it came to him. “Chris Blunt,” he said, to my great relief.

“And where are you and your dad going?” she asked.

Again, a moment’s hesitation (or so it seemed to anxious me), before he told her “Detroit!”

The TSA agent returned my documents with a smile, saying something about how we can’t be too careful these days.

“Trafficking?” I asked.

She nodded, and related a couple of quick examples of terrible things that’d happened in the area recently. We were in no hurry, and the checkpoint was still empty, so she and I chatted for a moment. I asked if it was a special problem for Phoenix, perhaps due to their proximity to the border. She replied that, unfortunately, it was becoming a problem in every place.

I mentioned that the agent in Detroit hadn’t given us any extra attention on our way out. She shrugged and replied, “I always ask. You never know.”

I thanked her, and told her I appreciated her vigilance. My son and I sailed through the rest of the checkpoint, boarded our plane, and enjoyed a completely uneventful flight home.

The flight gave me a lot of time to think, however. Human trafficking is an issue I’d heard about and read about, but I hadn’t previously met anyone on the front lines of it. Was I a bit annoyed about being questioned, and treated (if only for a minute, and only by implication) with suspicion that I could be a trafficker? Of course. But this annoyance faded quickly. She had no way of knowing he was really my son, or if he was really the boy whose name appeared on the boarding pass. He doesn’t have a photo ID (but I’ll probably get him one before he takes his next flight). What if he, or one of my other kids, had been taken and moved somewhere against his or her will? Wouldn’t I be grateful for an alert officer, on the lookout for something that seemed out of place?

Which gets us to something obvious (but that hadn’t occurred to me immediately): my son does look out of place with me. We look absolutely nothing alike. Longtime readers know that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is of African descent, so all five of our kids are melanin enhanced. Some more than others, but none more than Kid Number Four. It wouldn’t surprise me if this had something to do with why we were asked a few additional questions. Not to mention the fact that he and I were traveling alone.

But here’s the thing: the racial aspect doesn’t bother me in the least. MYF and I actually find this sort of confusion a bit amusing. We compare stories, and laugh. She used to get asked if she was Kid Number One’s nanny. I was once asked if Kid Number Two (almost as melanin enhanced as Kid Number Four) was my foster child. And so on. Families like ours are more common than they used to be, but still unusual enough for people to have questions. I get it. I simply choose to be understanding, and not to be surprised or taken aback when confusion arises. But I will say this: we actually draw a lot less attention than I initially thought we would. My classic car probably gets more “looks” and turned heads in one trip to the grocery store than our family has in all the years we’ve lived here.

Getting back to the Phoenix airport: I didn’t catch the name of the TSA officer, but I do want to give her a shout-out for being on the ball and bringing a sense of mission to her job. I’ve done my best not to think about human trafficking, or to worry that one of my kids could fall victim to it. It’s certainly never occurred to me that one of the adults on a flight with me might be trafficking a child. I’m just glad somebody is thinking about it, and doing something to interrupt it. If that means my son and I have our trip interrupted for a moment, to answer a few questions, I don’t mind the inconvenience.

Just leave my goat cheese out of it!

Gather Ye Pumpkins

For us, this year’s Black Friday deals don’t start on November 29th — they kicked off four Fridays earlier than that. On November 1st, the price of pumpkins at our local farm market dropped to just about zero.

Well, technically not “zero.” It’s actually ten bucks for as many pumpkins as you can load in your vehicle at a time. If that’s not the most amazing, screaming good deal … I don’t know what is. (Besides the absolutely free Christmas trees that Walmart unloads on December 26th.)

All you have to do is put your $10 in the unattended coffee can (it’s the honor system), drive onto the field, and start loading. I pulled most of the seats out of our old minivan, laid down a tarp, and let her rip.

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Note the “volunteer” corn stalks. This field was planted in corn last year, and several kernels must’ve spilled during harvest.

I suppose I could’ve managed to cram a few more in there, but the suspension (and the tires) were starting to protest. As it is, with this kind of load, a Chrysler Town & Country’s handling characteristics are … interesting. I didn’t want to get greedy. I don’t mind leaving  a little open space, and coming back for additional loads. It’s only about ten minutes away.

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I included the second picture so you could get a sense of how many pumpkins are out there. I think it’s a five acre field, and most of it is still covered in orange gourds. I’ve made three trips in the last few days, and have barely made a dent.

However (and this is a big “however”), there’s a problem: not all of those pumpkins are still sound. Some are clearly rotting, or at least starting to turn (such as the one in the first picture, on the ground near the car – there’s a reason I left that one). With freezing nights getting more common, the pumpkins sitting in that open field will only deteriorate more rapidly. So, the race is on to gather the pumpkins while we may.

Meanwhile, back home, we’re piling up an impressive orange mountain downstairs in the barn. The sheep and goats are absolutely loving these things, and the chickens are doing their part to clean up any scraps the ruminants miss.

Speaking of chickens: sadly, Crazy Mama Hen lost one of the two chicks yesterday. The little black one is still hanging tough, though. I’ve already helped them into the barn tonight, so they should be safe for now.

Here’s hoping that all the pumpkin pieces inside the barn give Mama Hen one less reason to venture out into the cold!

Crazy Hen Broods On!

I didn’t really expect Sunday’s surprise, totally-out-of-season chicks to survive more than a day. So, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that they’re still going strong on Wednesday morning.

One of Henny Penny’s big challenges was getting her chicks over the curb and into the warmth / safety of the barn. She couldn’t do it alone, and she wouldn’t let me catch her in the open field. My solution: I waited until Sunday evening, and checked behind the barn. Sure enough, she was huddled against the outside wall, close to the door that most chickens use to come in for the night. From her clucking, and the way her wings were slightly poofed, I deduced that she was keeping one chick warm under each wing.

It was very easy to grab her, pressing each wing firmly against her body so as to keep the chicks in place. As I carefully carried this bundle deep into the barn, she clucked her disapproval – but didn’t struggle at all. Only when I set her down did she throw a hissy fit and charge my legs. Wanting her to turn her attention to her chicks, rather than me, I hightailed it out of the barn.

When I returned an hour or so later, there was no sign of her or the chicks. I took this as an encouraging sign; she’d clearly found a good hiding place. I turned off the lights, and called it a night.

Early Monday morning, soon after I turned the lights back on, I heard the distinctive mix of mother hen clucks and baby chick peeps. The three of them emerged from under an old milking stanchion – probably the best hiding place she could’ve selected.

Henny Penny led her chicks toward the place where we feed the birds. Here they encountered a problem: the four enormous turkeys I haven’t gotten around to butchering. All four were totally puffed up, strutting, and blocking her path to the grain. This didn’t deter her in the least. Remember the hissy fit she threw on Sunday night? She threw another one — this time directed against the turkeys.

I don’t usually post blurry photos, but there was no other way to capture what happened. She was a whirlwind of motion (and noise), all directed toward the giants she perceived as threatening her babies.

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Needless to say, the turkeys let her through.

I checked back later in the morning. I hoped she’d simply lay low and keep her chicks in the barn. No such luck; she clearly has a mind of her own. They were already back out in the grassy area behind the barn.

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Monday night and Tuesday night followed the same routine as Sunday night: I found her huddled against the outside wall of the barn, clucking reassuringly to her chicks, and then I carefully carried this bundle into the barn. And then hightailed it out.

This morning, we had really cold temperatures move in. Surprisingly (or maybe not), she again had them out in the grassy area behind the barn. I watched her for a while, and she did seem to be stopping and huddling more often, so the chicks could warm back up.

I still think she’s crazy, but I’m having an awful lot of fun watching her try to pull this off.

Our Crazy Hen

Earlier this year, I put up a post about how much fun it is when our hens hatch their own eggs and then raise the chicks themselves. By way of update: some time later, one of the three chicks disappeared. We don’t know what happened to it, but the other two chicks did just fine. They grew to full maturity, and still stick together as a pair — and sometimes still tag along with the mother hen. That’s actually kind of unusual, in our experience. Typically, once the chicks hit a certain age, the mother hen “signs off,” and then the chicks go their separate ways.

These particular birds may be sticking together because their mother repeatedly took them foraging in parts of the property that other chickens don’t tend to visit. (Such as the back yard and front yard near our house.) They are continuing to frequent these areas, as if they are a private domain. Regardless of the reason for their remaining together, it’s a charming reminder of their special origin.

It’s one thing when a hen goes broody and hatches her own eggs in the summer. It’s quite another when she waits until the THIRD OF FREAKING NOVEMBER to do so. When I was out behind the barn early this morning, feeding sheep, I heard a mix of familiar sounds behind me: the deep, reassuring clucks of a mother hen … harmonizing with the “Peep! Peep! Peep!” of newly-hatched chicks.

“No way,” I thought. But turning my attention to the goat area, I realized my ears weren’t fooling me. One of our Barred Rock hens had somehow managed to make a nest and hatch a pair of little ones — despite the recent Halloween Winter Weather Advisory, snow, rain, and other assorted nastiness. Even more remarkable, she’d probably made the nest outside someplace (most likely under a bush, where we hadn’t been able to find her).

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We need to get the hen and her brood inside, if the chicks are to have any chance of surviving (sorry, but I’m not running a heat lamp in a brooder for the several weeks it would take to get them big enough to hold their own with the full flock in the barn when the dead of winter sinks in). The problem is, the barn entrances are too high off the ground for them to go in by themselves. Mother Hen could clear the curb with no problem. Her chicks could not. They needed help.

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Even the goats seem incredulous that this is happening.

Trying to chase down a hen by oneself in an open area is a fool’s errand, so I called a couple of the Yeoman Farm Children out to help. The idea was to catch her, and then get the chicks, and move all of them deep inside the barn (where they would hopefully be content to stay).

Mother Hen had other ideas. She bolted, scolding us at the top of her lungs as she evaded our efforts to trap her in a corner of the sheep fence. She scooted through a couple of small open areas, circled around the other side of the barn and garage, and slipped back into the pasture before disappearing in the barn. We gave up the chase, and returned to where she’d left the chicks. Unfortunately, there was now no sign of them. I scoured the whole area behind the barn, listening carefully. No peeps. With hopes that they were simply hiding under thick weeds, waiting for a chance to come out, I went inside for a while.

About a half hour later, I returned to give some hay to the goats. And wouldn’t you know it … mother hen had somehow called the chicks out of whatever hiding place they’d vanished into. All three of them were roving the goat area, totally oblivious to the forty degree temperatures. Just another day to learn from Mom how to forage.

Is our hen completely crazy? Probably. And I’m not going to give up trying to move the three of them into the shelter of the barn. But maybe, just maybe, she’ll continue to shock us … and manage to raise the first set of winter chicks we’ve ever had.

If a Tree Falls in the Pasture

If a tree falls in the pasture, and the farmer isn’t there, does it make a sound? I’m sure it does, but it can also do a whole lot more. And the farmer had better be ready.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that a goat or two was regularly getting out of the pasture. Pretty much every afternoon, we would look out in the hay field and see the main breeding buck and one other member of the herd. It wasn’t a real shocker, because he’s the master of escape … and wherever he goes, some other goat (or goats) figure out how to join him. Because the escapees were limiting themselves to munching the high weeds along the fence, and because it was just a goat or two each day, I sort of shrugged my shoulders.

As time passed, however, a larger number of goats would show up in the hay field. What’s more, they started showing up a lot earlier in the day. I asked the Yeoman Farm Children to walk the fence between the hay field and the pasture, and figure out what was going on.

They reported back that it appeared the fence was sagging between two T-posts, most likely because one of the fence ties had come loose. They re-tied it, thinking this had solved the problem.

It didn’t. The next day, the goats were back in the hay field.

The YFCs observed that some of the T-posts were kind of far apart, which can also lead to a sagging fence. They added some posts, and even tied an old tomato cage to the top of the fence in one place, to further discourage jumping.

The next morning, pretty much the whole goat herd was in the hay field. And they’d long stopped limiting themselves to browsing the fence line. They were moving like a roving mob, getting uncomfortably close to the road. I asked our oldest daughter to lock the goats into their enclosure near the barn, and walk the entire fence line of the goat pasture (not just the stretch that borders the hay field), and find the problem.

About an hour later, she reported on her findings. Along the back part of the property, near the ridge, a large chunk of a large tree had come down on the fence. But that wasn’t the worst part of it. “You’re not going to like this, Daddy,” she said. The tree hadn’t just taken out the fence. It had also landed on a goat, which had been right there at the fence. It was a smallish one, and one we’re not milking, so nobody had missed it. But it’d been tangled up with the fence, under that tree, in the sweltering summer sun, for a while. My daughter warned me that “You’ll smell it before you see it,” and that the tree would not be easy to move. We would definitely need the chainsaw.

The chainsaw. A couple of years ago, I invested in a really good Stihl Farm Boss. We’d had a succession of cheap chainsaws over the years, and each one had failed us at a critical juncture. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition, is for a farm. When you really need a chainsaw, as in the our current situation, you really need it to get the job done.

When shopping for the saw, I knew I wanted a Stihl (because of their reputation for quality). I was tired of messing around with bargain saws. Even within the Stihl line, I was willing to spend a little extra to get a more powerful model. And when it came to the option of spending a few more dollars to get the 20″ bar rather than the 18″, I didn’t hesitate. I imagined myself trying to clear an especially large fallen tree, and not having quite enough length to do it. How much would those extra inches be worth to me then? I must say, I have not been the least bit disappointed in this saw. I highly recommend it.

The one downside to a powerful chainsaw with a long bar? It’s heavy. Getting a vehicle to where the tree had fallen was a bit tricky, so I set out across the pasture on foot. With the afternoon sun beating down, the saw seemed to grow heavier with each step.

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Note the fence, to the left. Goat (not visible) was alongside that fence, at the base of the tree, when it came down.

Okay, fair warning. This next part is a little (or more than a little) disgusting. I include it to dispel the notion anyone out there might have about small farm life being all romantic, with sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. Sometimes, there are extremely unpleasant tasks that simply must be addressed no matter what.

So, back to the story. My daughter was right about one thing: I did smell the goat (or, more properly, what was left of the goat) before I saw it. But, before I smelled it, a different sense told me I was getting close: I heard it. Or, more precisely, I heard the swarm of flies.

Once I had my eye and ear protection in place, I fired up the saw. I decided to start at the point farthest from the fence and work my way toward the goat. Since the whole tree would need to be cut up for firewood anyway, I figured I’d ease slowly into the most unpleasant portion.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the importance of having a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition? Yeah, about that. As I started cutting, I noticed it was taking a long time even to trim smallish branches. Getting through the trunk itself was even slower going. That’s when I realized how long it’d been since I’d used the saw. I’d forgotten how much wear this particular cutting chain had on it. I had a new chain I could put on the bar, but it was in the garage. On the other end of that very long walk across the pasture that now seemed very large.

I formulated a plan. I would use what was left of this chain to cut the tree fairly close to the fence, yielding a smallish log that could be rolled off of the goat, which would allow us to repair the fence. Once that immediate problem was solved, I could replace the chain and finish cutting up the rest of the tree at my convenience.

I thought it was a pretty good plan. I crept as close as I could to the base of the fallen tree, took a deep breath, and started cutting. The saw made it about halfway through when the log began settling. The cut portion closed in on itself, binding the bar and chain. I’d tried to avoid this by making cuts around the sides of the log, but these were apparently not effective enough. Much as I tried to rev the saw, I couldn’t overcome the binding force. I tried shaking the saw, and pushing the log; the only effect was to stir up the swarm of flies which had been busy laying eggs on what was left of the goat. I could hear the roar of their wings even with my ear protection in place. And all that movement of the log of course further stirred up the rotting smell from the carcass.

With the saw stuck firmly in the log, I was out of options. I made the long trek back to the garage, and wasted a good 15 minutes looking for any tools that could help free the saw. The kids had misplaced the long pry bar, and the sledgehammer had also vanished. After excavating a bunch of junk, I eventually found where both of them were hiding.

I trudged back across the pasture, lugging the heavy pry bar and sledgehammer, now finally understanding why so many farmers and ranchers own an ATV. I still don’t think we would use one enough to justify the cost, but I was definitely giving it more serious consideration.

It didn’t take long to work the pry bar into the partially-cut log. By whacking it a few times with the sledge, I managed to spread the log just enough to work the chainsaw free (and, of course, stir up the swarm of flies again).

The saw seemed to have survived its capture by the log, but the chain was not going to be doing any more cutting today. Not only was it too dull, but it was hanging far too loosely on the bar. Bone tired, covered with sweat and sawdust, my nostrils filled with the smell of rotting goat, I decided I was done. Back across the pasture I went, chainsaw in one hand and pry bar / sledgehammer in the other.

Once in the garage, I went to work on the chainsaw. Much as I wanted to flop down for a nap, I knew better than to leave the saw in its current condition. I pulled everything apart, cleaned it up, and fit a new chain to the bar. Once it was put back together and adjusted to the proper tension, I topped off the fuel and oil reservoirs.

Unfortunately, I could not get the saw to fire up. I hoped that the motor was simply flooded from all the struggle to free it, and that the problem would go away with the passage of time. Regardless, it was a good excuse to retreat to a couch in my air conditioned office for some much-deserved rest.

Later that evening, to satisfy my curiosity, I tried firing up the saw again. This time, it came to life almost immediately. Relieved, I put it (and the pry bar, and the sledge) away for the night.

The next afternoon, my body still aching from the previous day’s exertions, I again trudged across the pasture with the saw. This time, I took the pry bar (and chain adjustment tool) with me, just in case.

I decided to retry the original plan, and began cutting far away from the fence. Thanks to the new chain, chunks of log began dropping like I was going through butter. I only needed the pry bar once (but was I ever glad I’d thought to bring it). This time, I stopped cutting the instant I noticed the log starting to bind the saw; it required only minimal prying to free. Within a few minutes, I was down to the fence and making my final cuts (while holding my breath and trying not to smell the rotting goat or suck any flies into my throat). I was feeling such a sense of accomplishment, and was on such a roll, I began looking around for other downed trees I could cut up. The saw made short work of a nearby cottonwood trunk that I’d cut some of last fall.

The remaining task was by far the most unpleasant: putting the fence wire back in place. We would need some twine to tie the fence material to the remaining tree, all the while working around the rotting goat carcass (there’s no way it could be moved). This would be a two person job, and I unfortunately didn’t have any YFC helpers available. The goats would be staying in for at least another day, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. We have plenty of weeds from the garden to toss in for them to feast on, and they could even be let into the backyard for short periods to do additional weed control.

You may be wondering: how will we get the cut-up pieces of log back to the house, to be split and aged for firewood? It is possible to get a vehicle out there, but it’s a long and circuitous route that involves a lot of gates. (It’s significantly more direct on foot.) In the next couple of days, my plan is to drive out in an old minivan. With all the seats removed, and a tarp spread on the floor, it will be able to transport all that wood fairly easily. Between me and the 17 y.o. boy, loading it shouldn’t be much trouble. The circuitous drive out and back may even take more time than loading the wood.

Once we get these particular logs split, I think I’m going to stack them in a special place so I can keep track of them. As I toss them into the woodstove next winter, I will particularly savor the cozy heat. And remind myself why it’s so important to keep a good quality chainsaw in perfect running condition. Always.

 

 

Racing in the Rain

One week from today, the movie version of The Art of Racing in the Rain opens in theaters. I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment on the quality of the film. The TV commercials look good, as does the official trailer.

Why would I put up a post about a movie I haven’t seen, and can’t review? Simple: to encourage all who have seen the ads, and heard the buzz, and who are planning to go to the theater to watch … to read the book first. It’s been my universal experience that I appreciate a movie much more if I’ve first read the book. Movies typically include lots of references that fans of the book pick up on, and will have more meaning for those who have read the story.

And it really is an excellent novel. As you may have gathered, the book is narrated by a dog (Enzo), in the first person, which makes it particularly fun (especially the way he manages to recount events that take place in areas where dogs are not allowed, such as hospitals). I very much enjoyed the story, and thought the canine narration was well-executed and effective. It’s well-written, well-paced, funny, and emotional. I grew to really care about the characters, and about seeing the central conflict resolved satisfactorily.

I’m not at all an auto racing fan, and know next-to-nothing about it, but interpreted the sections devoted to racing as thought-provoking metaphors for “real life” and how to better react to the circumstances that get thrown our way.

Furthermore, as a Seattle native, I enjoyed reading a story set in the Pacific Northwest. Immersing myself in the novel’s narrative and setting was like taking a mini-vacation back home.

That said, I did have a couple of problems with the book — and I hope these issues don’t carry over to the movie.

First off, there’s a little too much Eastern mysticism / Zen spirituality / reincarnation for my taste in some of the themes. I was fine with this up to a point; after all, the narrator is a dog, and at first it seems he simply picked up these notions from watching television. However as the story progresses, Enzo seems infused with his own mystical knowledge and speaks with the certainty of a Zen master.

The other thing that bothered me is that one particular teenage girl — whose “bad” behavior is key to the central conflict — is said to attend Holy Names Academy, which is an actual, real-life, prestigious Catholic high school in Seattle. Her school affiliation is given in a single throw-away line, and is irrelevant to the plot. Why name the school at all (or why not invent a fictitious school with a prestigious-sounding secular name), unless it’s to take a cheap shot at a Catholic institution by associating a “bad” girl with it?

That said, I would emphasize that this an otherwise absolutely wonderful story — and one I’m looking forward to seeing on the big screen. I might even try to read the book again before I go. I hope you have the chance to read it, too.