Flying

Early on a spectacularly sunny Friday morning in July of 1991, I steered onto eastbound I-90 and officially put Seattle in my rear view mirror. My heart raced, and I think I let out a little whoop.

The whole thing still seemed unreal. My first real car, the trunk jammed to the gills with all my worldly possessions (including my just-minted college diploma), a couple of pillows on the back seat (so I could just pull over and sleep at rest stops), a Rand McNally atlas spread out on the seat next to me, and 2,300 miles of open roadway ahead to my first real job, in suburban Detroit.

And all across the country, as radio stations faded to static and I rolled the dial to find new ones, one song played more than any other: Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly, one of the biggest hits of the summer. I loved the tune, and every one of the lyrics seemed to resonate with the enormous leap I was taking into adult life.

To this day, Learning to Fly is one of the few songs that always makes me stop scanning on the car stereo. From the opening chords, it never fails to take me back to that sunny July weekend when I watched the whole country roll by. As the music swells, my mind fills with the breathtaking view cresting Lookout Pass into Montana (the moment I finally understood why they call it “Big Sky Country”). With the lyrics and chord progressions, all my hopes and dreams return in a flood, blurring into the memories of Wyoming and South Dakota landscapes. I’m back in that magical weekend, when all of life was still open ahead of me. That magical weekend, when no dream seemed impossible.

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So, as I raise a glass and mourn the passing of the great Tom Petty, you know which song will be looped on my Spotify account tonight.

Timber

Fall has officially arrived, but you’d never know it from the temperatures. After a cold snap earlier this month (we actually ran the furnace a couple of times), we’ve been in the upper 80s / low 90s for several days now. The local high school cross country team even moved their practice to 6am yesterday, so the kids wouldn’t have to run in the afternoon heat.

We’ve been taking advantage of the nice weather to chip away at all the little projects that need to get done before things turn nasty. For example, a week ago, we butchered a young goat. And that reminds me: I need to start butchering the old, burned-out laying hens, so we can have soup all winter.

The biggest project, however, involves taking down dead limbs and trees. About a month ago, I finally invested in a really good chainsaw: a Stihl Farm Boss, with a 20″ bar. The price was about double what we’d spent in the past, for cheap chainsaws at Walmart. Those saws never seemed to last for long, however. And we now have an enormous amount of firewood to cut: in addition to dead trees on our property, we also have several other large trees to cut up — road crews took them down earlier this year, as part of a repaving project, and left them in the pasture for us.

I started with the trees that’d fallen along the pasture fences, and gradually got the chainsaw broken in. I’ve been extremely pleased with the Stihl so far; it’s very reliable, has lots of power, and runs forever on a tank of fuel.

I’ve since moved on to the dead trees that are still standing in the pasture; I wanted to get this done early, while of most of the foliage is still on the branches, so it’s easy to remember which trees are alive and which are dead. I’ve taken down several, and have just one or two remaining.

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Taking a break from the pasture, this weekend I turned my attention to something Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has wanted taken care of for a long time: a large branch on an enormous maple tree in the front yard. The branch was very much still alive, but in a precarious spot. It was growing straight back over our nice chain link fence, and then it took a sharp 90-degree turn straight upwards. We could see clear hollow spots near the base of the branch, which made us wonder just how secure that branch was. If an ice storm were to come roaring through, and take that branch down, it would crush the chain link fence.

Now, feeling empowered with an excellent chainsaw, I felt ready to take it on. I first got a ladder, and tied a rope as high as possible on the vertical portion of the branch. Then, with the oldest three Yeoman Farm Children pulling on the rope, I began cutting through the horizontal portion of the branch. I picked a spot safely on the other side of the chain link fence – so, even if the kids couldn’t pull the branch hard enough, it wouldn’t crush the fence. (How embarrassing would that have been? Talk about defeating the whole purpose of taking preemptive action…)

It’s sometimes hard to get kids to do chores on a farm. The exception, I’ve found, is anything related to bringing down trees. At least with our kids, few things get them as excited or ready to come outside and be part of what’s going on. The Yeoman Farm Children cheered enthusiastically as they pulled the cut branch, and it smashed into the front yard. (Yes, well clear of the fence.)

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Immediately, a fat, gray mouse scampered from the hollow section of the branch and staggered onto the lawn. He looked disoriented, and the kids offered to kill it. Without realizing this mouse may take up residence in our own house, I let mercy prevail and allowed the mouse to escape. (Only later did I realize we probably should’ve dispatched it while we had a chance. Oh, well.)

A quick inspection revealed the branch was even more hollowed-out than I’d initially thought. I was immediately glad we’d taken it down before it could cause trouble.

I set to work slicing the fallen branch into fireplace-length pieces, starting at the point farthest from the base. As I worked my way backwards, the pieces of course got increasingly thick. But then, as we got close to the base, we discovered something really interesting: an enormous infestation of wood-eating insects. I’d been cutting, and cutting, and then suddenly…when the saw went across the branch, a stream of bugs came pouring out. I cut again, and the volume of insects was even larger. And again. Larger.

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As these insects continued streaming all over the lawn, I regretted that we didn’t have any chickens handy. The flock could’ve feasted on all these things. We did run to the barn and try to grab a few, but most of the flock scattered. The handful of chickens we did manage to catch and release in the front yard were too flustered and disoriented to notice the bugs. They instead wandered off, and browsed the windfall pears under another tree. Note to self: next time, have a cage of chickens in the yard and ready to go before starting.

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Some animals did end up feasting on what came down from the tree: our goats. The Yeoman Farm Children dragged the most heavily leaf-laden branches off to the goat enclosure near the barn, where we’ve been isolating the males during the day. They ate their fill that afternoon.

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Then, when the rest of the herd returned that evening, every leaf disappeared within minutes. Next thing I knew, there were nothing but bare branches littering the goat area.

Much as I enjoyed watching the goats devour the leaves, I was especially glad we’d gotten that hollow branch down before Mother Nature took care of it herself.

Here’s hoping the weather stays nice enough, long enough, so I can get everything else checked off my list …

 

Car Culture

What good is a farm without a classic car hiding in one of the outbuildings?

We’re blessed to have just such a vehicle: a 1975 Fiat 124 Spider. My father bought it from the original owner (a close family friend), around 1980. My siblings and I had a blast riding around in it, crammed in the tiny back seat, on gloriously sunny Pacific Northwest summer afternoons. It’s amazing the three of us actually fit in there. I still remember things like stopping and getting a bag of cherries from a roadside stand, then eating them and tossing the pits as we cruised on rural roads.

Once I got my license, and learned to operate the manual transmission, getting to drive it myself was a very special treat. It was the ultimate “date night” car.

As my folks began downsizing and preparing for retirement, in the late 1990s, Dad finally started thinking about parting with the Fiat. I managed to get it from him, and arranged to have it shipped to the Los Angeles area (where I was finishing grad school), toward the end of 2000.

For years, I simply enjoyed driving it and keeping it in good running shape. I did hire a neighbor, who was laid off from his job in a body shop, to fix all the little dents and do the prep work for a basic paint job. I then took it to Maaco for a simple respray. Otherwise, I didn’t do much restoration work. As the years went by, there was so much to be done (seats were trashed, the dash was badly cracked, carpets were worn out, paint from the simple re-spray was getting chipped, etc.), I felt too overwhelmed to start on anything in particular.

That changed a few years ago. Just for fun, I took the Fiat to a car show I was planning to attend as just a spectator. It was kind of embarrassing, parking it alongside all the perfectly restored vehicles. But then I started looking around, and was heartened by the number of other “cool but rough around the edges” cars. In the wake of that show, I decided to begin chipping away at making my Fiat more presentable.

Among other things, I’ve:

  • Had all the seats reupholstered;
  • Replaced the dash, all the dash wood paneling, the dead clock, and added chrome bezels to all the gauges;
  • Replaced all the carpets, repainted the center console, and repainted most of the interior panels;
  • Replaced both mirrors;
  • Repainted the steel wheels; and
  • Replaced the front and rear stainless steel bumper bars, and repainted all the black rubber bumper inserts.

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The Spider is now to the point where it draws a fair amount of attention wherever it goes. Even at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon for strangers to call out “Nice car!”

The only problem is that, with every improvement I make, the remaining faults seem to stand out all the more! I now see how easy it is to dump way more money into a restoration project than a car is worth.

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The biggest thing I’m holding off on is a new paint job. It looks good now from about ten feet away; much closer than that, and all the chips and dings become apparent. Getting it done right will cost a small fortune, and once it’s done … I know I’ll be paranoid about picking up even the smallest scratch. I’ll be afraid to drive the car. And when I am driving it, I’ll be too worried to enjoy the drive.

All that said, despite the scruffy paint, I’m now getting a bigger kick out of car shows than ever. What’s struck me most about these shows, however, is the contrast with what I experienced in California — and what that says about regional differences in car culture.

In Los Angeles, there were certainly plenty of American muscle cars at every general-interest show, but there were always a great many imports as well. And there were so many enthusiasts devoted to particular types of imports, it wasn’t unusual to have a large car show exclusively for (say) French / Italian makes.

By contrast, at a big show I went to over the weekend here in Michigan, among the 113 total entries there were (drum roll, please) … five-and-a-half imports:

  • A 1967 Ferrari Dino
  • My 1975 Fiat 124 Spider
  • A 1974 MGB GT (hardtop, hatchback)
  • Two VW Beetles; and
  • A 1973 De Tomaso Pantera, an Italian car built with Ford components (thus the “half”)

The 1967 VW Beetle won Best Import, and definitely deserved it. It was beautiful, and flawless down to the last detail. Unsurprisingly, it was sporting a California black front plate.

Tonight, at an even bigger show (122 vehicles, at the Jackson County fairgrounds), there were — believe it or not — even fewer imports. And, most remarkably, my Fiat was the oldest of the three. The other two were a 1984 Jaguar sedan, and a 1994 Honda Del Sol. Both were pretty typical daily drivers. Had there been formal judging, in specific categories, my car actually would’ve had a strong claim for being the best import. Yes, it would’ve been largely by default; until I get the car repainted, it won’t be a contender against any real competition. (This show had an informal “everybody just cast a vote for whichever car you like best” kind of judging, which is fun as well.)

I’m not complaining about the few imports at these shows — just pointing out that these regional differences in car culture are really interesting to observe. And it’s actually a blast being part of a small fraternity at these gatherings. While everyone else at the weekend show was talking “Mopar” this, and “Edelbrock” that, the MGB owner and I were discussing the challenges of finding good, reasonably-priced, wheels and tires that even fit our cars!

I especially appreciated that Mr. MGB seemed to be taking the same attitude toward his GT as I am toward my Fiat: wanting to make it look nicer, and to perform better, but without dumping so much money into it that we’re afraid to take the car out on the road.

Because what fun is a classic car if you can’t relax and enjoy driving it? There is no joy quite like that of steering a vintage Italian convertible along meandering country roads, soaking in the late-afternoon sunshine, and admiring the emerging fall colors.

Here’s hoping that the cold weather holds off for many more weeks!

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Almost Made It

She gave it her very best shot, but she didn’t quite make it.

A couple of months ago, I put up a post about our oldest ewe, Licorice. She turned twelve this spring, which is quite old for a sheep. Despite her wavering health, we were hoping she’d make it through to fall butchering. The plan was to take her in with the lambs, the first week of November or so.

Unfortunately, she came up about six weeks short. This afternoon was the end of the line.

She’d seemed to have been holding her own until very recently – which is pretty surprising, given the effects age was having on her. She’d gone almost completely blind, and was finding her food by smell and feel. However, there was an even bigger problem (and one we didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the previous post): she had lost all her teeth. Every single one. I don’t know how she was managing to chew the grain we gave her, or the windfall apples she enjoyed so much.

We’d never had a sheep lose all her teeth to old age, so this was new territory for us. It’s something we’re going to need to be keeping a close eye on with our next-oldest sheep, Pachelbelle. She’s now the last remaining animal we brought with us in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois at the end of 2007; she was born in the spring of that year, so made the trip as a lamb. I think we’ll let her go one more winter, at the most. It’s looking like letting these sheep go all the way to twelve is just asking for trouble.

Back to Licorice: this morning, she was very unsteady on her feet. The rest of the flock was actually starting to trample her. I managed to get her up, and lead her out to the back yard, but it was clear she didn’t have the energy or fight left to keep going much longer. I made her comfortable under the apple tree, with some grain and a water bucket. She did gladly eat the grain, and took some water. Later, she even got on her feet and walked around a bit. The Yeoman Farm Children cut up an apple for her, and fed it to her in pieces.

Thinking about her toothless mouth, I suggested we try feeding applesauce. That was a flop. She didn’t like it.

As the afternoon wore on, we got busy with other things. At around 3:30 or so, one of the kids found me and reported that it looked like Licorice had died. I jogged out to the apple tree, and confirmed it.

This evening, a couple of the kids helped me dig a grave for her out in the pasture. As the sun settled on the horizon, we brought her back out through the barn, and through the pasture gate, and into the pasture one last time. Then, at the graveside, immediately before laying her to rest, we used a saw to remove her horns. These we will dry, and keep as a reminder until we eventually sell them on Etsy.

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You’ll notice that one of the horns is slightly longer than the other. That’s because, several years back, one of the horns was growing in a dangerous direction and threatening her eye. We used a set of bolt cutters to trim that a bit, and the two sides were never again the same.

It was of course sad to lose our oldest sheep, and one of the final remaining ties to our original farm. I’ll say this, though: at least we saw it coming, and weren’t surprised. And I’m especially glad we were able to give her one last beautiful, sunny, almost-fall day with the family, under the apple tree in the back yard.

I don’t know if there’s a Rainbow Bridge for livestock, but if there is … I hope she crossed it. And is enjoying a grassy orchard of apple trees on the other side tonight.

One Week. Two Babies

I don’t simply dislike celebrity culture. I actively avoid it. Award shows, Oscar nominations, celebrity deaths, celebrity scandals … I can’t change the channel or click off the page fast enough. I even try to pick the lane at the grocery store with the fewest tabloids displayed.

That said, I confess there is one young celebrity to whom I pay attention, whenever he happens to be in the news. I became interested in him purely by an accident of timing, and in a sense against my will. But because of how that initial interest came about, I’ve subsequently found him difficult to ignore.

His name? George Alexander Louis, AKA “Prince George of Cambridge.” With the start of school this past week, he’s been back in the news — and back on my mind.

But why? Why would The Yeoman Farmer be the slightest bit interested in a toddler on the other side of the world? A toddler whom his family will never meet?

As I said, it was an accident of timing.

Our youngest daughter, “Little Miss Sweetness,” was born in mid-July of 2013. She arrived nearly six weeks early, and was immediately transferred to the NICU for observation. That afternoon, a test revealed she had several holes in her heart; these would require open heart surgery in a few months to patch. The hospital ran this test because they strongly suspected our daughter had Trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), a diagnosis which was later confirmed with further testing, and heart defects are common in newborns with DS.

As none of these issues had been detected prenatally, or even previously suspected, to say we were in shock would be an understatement.

While we were still processing these twin bombshells, the next day we learned she had an even more immediate problem: duodenal atresia, or a blockage of the connection between her stomach and intestines. As with heart defects, it’s also common in newborns with DS. She was immediately scheduled for gastrointestinal surgery the next morning.

The procedure went perfectly, but required a nearly month-long stay in the NICU for recovery. This was obviously an extremely stressful period for our whole family, with many emotional ups and downs. Longtime readers may remember the article I wrote about the experience (Stage Six: Joy), and the follow-up article (Breaking the Circle of Sadness) I wrote a year later.

That month also included even more long hours of doing nothing but waiting, and watching television. One of the biggest stories of that slow news month came when Little Miss Sweetness was just a week or so old: the birth of Prince George of Cambridge, third in line to the British throne. With nothing else in the news, coverage of the event seemed unending — particularly after the royal family returned home and this official photo was released:

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Meanwhile, back in Michigan, even being able to hold our newborn required a major assist from NICU staff (on account of all the lines she was hooked up to). On virtually the same day the above photo was taken, this was us:

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As I held my daughter in that windowless cell of a hospital room, I couldn’t help sensing the enormity of the gulf between our situation and that of the royal family half a world away. It wasn’t a feeling of sorrow at what we were going through. It was more an overwhelming sense of distance between the Perfect Royal Baby, object of the world’s interest and acclaim … and our Little Miss Sweetness, greatest shining treasure of our family, but an absolute zero in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. (Or even less than zero … as you might imagine, the recent reports about Iceland boasting of eliminating babies like our daughter hit particularly close to home.)

It would’ve been easy to have sunk into self-pity, or even jealousy. Instead, as I contemplated the gulf between “the world’s” values and the little person who was of so much value to our family, it only made me all the more fiercely devoted to that little person. I wanted to pour out all the more of myself for her, and give her all the more of my time and attention. I didn’t think it was possible to love her any more intensely than I already did. But that’s precisely where the celebrity news out of London ended up leading me.

And that’s why I still pay attention to news about this one particular London celebrity, and why I’ll probably always have a soft spot for Prince George. Every story about him takes me back to those weeks which were so critical for the life of our own family. Every story about him reminds me of that long-ago coverage, which led me to an even greater devotion to Little Miss Sweetness. And all those reminders help make me all the more devoted to her even now.

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What’s for Dinner?

When you live on a farm and butcher your own meat, and are putting that meat in the freezer for long-term storage, it’s important to label the packages clearly.

Unfortunately, try as we might, we don’t always remember to follow this rule. As a result, I’m not entirely sure what’s for dinner tonight.

Yesterday morning, I pulled a somewhat frosty Ziploc bag from the freezer. I made a quick inspection, and thought it looked like ground beef. I set the bag on the kitchen counter, to begin thawing it for lunch.

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By the time lunch rolled around, the meat was still mostly frozen — but thawed enough so I could tell it was most definitely not hamburger. Apparently, the frost had thrown me off.

But what was it?

Evidently, in the rush to get the meat cut into meal-sized portions, and off the butchering table, someone (probably me) forgot to write anything on the label. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a leg roast from a young goat that we butchered recently. But it could also be a leg roast from a deer that I butchered about three years ago. I really don’t know.

I put the bag in the fridge to continue thawing overnight, and then our eldest daughter put the meat in the Crock Pot this morning. We added some apple cider vinegar, an onion, salt, and various spices (rosemary, basil, etc).

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We then let it cook on low for a few hours, waiting for the fat to come melting off, before adding some chopped potatoes and stirring everything up. It’s been cooking together like that all afternoon now.

I’m still not positive about the meat, but it sure smells good. And with the little September snap we’re already sensing in the air, I have a feeling that this hearty roast is going to make a wonderful dinner tonight.

Whatever it is.

One More Eclipse?

How was your experience yesterday?

From where we are in Michigan, yesterday’s solar eclipse had about 80% coverage. Leading up to it, I thought that sounded like a lot. I figured it might even get dark, and the livestock could start acting funny. After all, doesn’t the image below look like just a sliver of sun sticking out from behind the moon?

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As it turned out, the sky simply dimmed a bit and turned a somewhat different color. If you hadn’t known there was an eclipse going on, you never would’ve guessed. My oldest son remarked, “It looks like there’s a weird storm coming in or something.”

Exactly. I kind of expected to hear a tornado siren in the distance.

I guess I should’ve bought some eclipse glasses. I procrastinated on that one, and after the stories came out about defective glasses that were being recalled, I wasn’t sure who I could trust. Besides, I figured the view on TV would be better than what I could get in person.

That was a big mistake. My daughter happened to be visiting someone yesterday who had glasses, and she said the view of the eclipse through them was very cool. And the images on TV? Pretty good, but the people in the zone of totality looked like they were having much more fun — and were much more impressed — than the TV images seemed to justify.

I started thinking … I’d sure like to experience that at least once in my lifetime. When I was about a month shy of my tenth birthday, the 1979 solar eclipse came very close to Seattle, and we had 99%+ coverage — but the skies were overcast, and we missed the best of the show. My memories of it are as hazy as the cloud cover. I seem to remember watching it on TV that morning at home — because I shouted “Totality!” (I loved that word) when that point came. It was a Monday, and I’m not sure why we weren’t at school. Maybe it was an in-service day or something. Or maybe we did have school, and I was watching coverage shot on the Oregon coast or something, before catching the bus. Or maybe we were watching it on TV at school. See how hazy this memory is? I do remember it getting very dark out, and the street lights coming on. But that’s about it.

Fortunately, it looks like the next total solar eclipse, on April 8, 2024, will be reasonably close to where we live. From our farm, we should get about 97% coverage. Pretty good. But looking at the map, it won’t be hard to do better. I’m thinking seriously about making a two and a half hour drive down to Ohio, to get in the center of the band of totality. Someplace between Findlay and Upper Sandusky, at around three in the afternoon, they’ll have around four minutes of total eclipse.

Studying the map and list of upcoming events, it looks like 2024 might be my last, best shot at experiencing a total solar eclipse. I hope we get a clear day (which, in April, in the upper Midwest, is no sure bet). The USA doesn’t get other ones after that until 2044 and 2045, and my chances of experiencing those are slim; not only do they go nowhere near Michigan, but … I’ll be over 75 years old.

It certainly is sobering, realizing that your supply of “somedays,” for the special, once-in-a-lifetime experiences you always thought you’d be able to have…is now dwindling.

I’m starting to think I really need to sit down and write out my personal Bucket List, so I can make sure I do have enough time to get to them all.