Yanking My Way Through the Jungle

About three weeks ago my friend Fred came for a visit. I don’t know what you do with your friends but sometimes with mine we end up at Lowe’s. Among other useful things, we bought a three-pack of hot pink garden gloves (for me, not for Fred). The palm side is coated with a waterproof layer of some kind of plastic and the back-of-the-hand side is a stretchy cloth to breathe and flex with your movements. They were shiny and clean, but not for long. This is what they look like today. You can see I used one pair for painting the bench.

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The same thing happens to me when I get rubber gloves for cleaning with detergent water. I end up blowing through the right fingertips. At this very moment there are at least three perfectly good left-hand rubber gloves in my cleaning supply cabinet.

I need gloves. My hands would be torn to pieces without them. Last week I found myself yanking my way through this jungle in the back corner of my garden. This is how it looked when I just got started.

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In the very back corner there is a wooden box that my boys built years ago as a compost box. Trust me. Guess what I will find hiding next to it when I get there.

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When you have a job like this in front of you, there is nothing for it but to Just Do It. Yank, yank, breathe. Yank, yank, breathe. I felt like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner must have when they hacked their way through the Columbian jungle after (one of the times) they got away from the bad guys in Romancing the Stone. At least I’m fairly certain I will not come upon a downed airplane with a rotting corpse inside!

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I’m aware it is the middle of July. Had I done this section sooner, it would not be so dense and high. But there was the chicken coop and the viewing deck and the strawberry patch and the bench with my uncle…

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You just have to keep going. By this point the wheelbarrow was so full it would hardly hold more. But I was like Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel – he had quite forgotten to leave a way out, and I had quite forgotten to make one! There’s a door at the back of the garden. Go through that and you come to Weed Mountain. The size of this mountain stays remarkably the same over time no matter how many weeds you add to it. Rain and decomposition counterbalance the additions.

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I had to make a path to the door. One side of the door anyway. One side would serve (best to be expedient here). Those are blackberry and raspberry bushes gone crazy on the left. I’ll get to them another day when I have way thicker gloves. The thorns in those off-shoots are nasty.

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I used my (isn’t it beautiful?) newly created path to get to Weed Mountain, emptied my load, then turned my attention toward the compost box in the corner – look at the next picture and you see it now, don’t you? (I didn’t think so.) Surely though, you can see that I do not get every single weed. A few survive my yanking. I return for a second pass later, and will get most of the stragglers then. We all have a style and I have mine, thank you.

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Yank, yank, breathe. Yank, yank, breathe. As I slowly revealed the box, I found a little fellow.

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He had had the right idea, and I commend his choice of location along the right side as close to the deer fencing as he could get. No way, he had said to himself, no way is anyone going to find me way back here. Foiled!

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That’s the box. I told you it was there. Almost done, just keep going…

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The little fellow had been in the shady weeds before I came along, so I moved him into the shadow to the left of the box:

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See him back there? It was a good idea I thought, but he didn’t like it. Either that or he was so traumatized by being found and then moved, he had to find a more private place, and of his own choosing. (Damn humans.) I got busy with the next section and didn’t see him again.

Finally the area was decent. I didn’t say perfect. Fred had to tell me several times when he was here that “Perfection is the enemy of good.” I wonder what prompted him to tell me that. It reminds me of a saying I got from Claudia when she was here from Germany in the fall: Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, literally Too much takes away from enough. I.e. leave it alone, it’s enough. When it comes to weeding, you have to know when enough is enough. This is enough, don’t you agree?

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Someday I might plant something back here, but in the meantime I’m just going to mulch over it and forget about it.

You already knew that my gloves are shot. And for some reason my fingers are sore. But oh, the jungle is tamed! And you see I also pulled those beetle-eaten Brussels sprouts from the last planter box. It all looks much neater now. Almost civilized.

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And did I mention the bench is finished?

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Water Runs Downstream!

Everybody knows that water runs downstream. So why should I get so excited to see it?

A bit of a recap first for those who missed the earlier post on this. Some weeks ago, during a bad rainstorm, I noticed that water was running from the level of my driveway downward. The problem was that it ran all through my chicken coop area. That was fixed with a small retaining wall, plus a berm along the driveway, which did the job of keeping the water away from the chickens. But in the next storm it flowed through the mulch in the area next to the chickens, making a mess of the mulch. Long term, this was not a good plan. In my head I see a woodland garden in this area (someday!), and I can’t have water running willy nilly.

I could see generally where the water had flowed because of how the mulch had been moved – curve here, curve there, according to the lay of the land. I raked it back to the banks of what looked like a natural path for the water to go, and sure enough, in the next rainstorm, the water followed the path. It looked like this:

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Those are some beautiful curves, but I wanted to make them more beautiful and feel a bit more certain that the water would go where I wanted it to go. I decided to make a stream bed with rocks following that same path. It was a lot of work finding, hauling and laying the rocks. It took a long time.

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I laid down white landscape fabric under the rocks to keep the weeds at bay and dug out the bed somewhat to make it easier for the water to obey.

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That’s Fred, who helped me with the first third or so of the total length. You can tell he was thrilled about digging dirt and laying rocks. Who wouldn’t be? Look what’s coming! Pretty soon it looked like this:

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And pretty soon after that it looked like this:

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I say pretty soon because in retrospect it seems like it took no time at all. How quickly we forget pain and hardship when there is a favorable outcome! It reminds me of the lady in labor in the room next to mine when I was giving birth for the first time (or maybe the third time or the fourth time, I forget that too). She screamed in pain, let me tell you. There was no question that she was not having a good time, no question that it hurt! Well, I had my baby and she had her baby, and coincidentally she and I were placed in the same recovery room. We were both resting when her phone rang. The person evidently asked how things had gone, and she said, just as cheerfully as anything, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad!” Lady, I thought, it was that bad! I was there!

Yes, we forget. I forget the digging (the hacking at Virginia concrete soil, more like) and the tree roots and the bug bites and the hot sun and the heavy rocks and my aching body at the end of the day. Did I mention the heavy rocks? They are heavier when you put a bunch of them in a bucket and carry them back to the work site, a trek which more often than not included an uphill climb. But no matter. In the end I had a beautiful stream bed. And then, of course, we had a dry spell.

I had to water all the plants in the berm and elsewhere it was so dry, so one day when I had the hose out there I stood at the head of the stream bed and let ‘er rip. It took a good bit of water but it flowed the way it was supposed to. My bed passed a small test, but the real deal would come when the skies opened.

I waited and waited. It poured in the night once or twice but I slept through. Today was my lucky day. The wind kicked up in the late afternoon, the gigantic trees outside my windows started to sway and I heard the first drops fall. This was not a tease of a storm, this was real. It started pouring at about 430pm, I mean pouring! Picture time!

I did remember to put on a hat before running outside, my wide brimmed sun hat, which sort of helped. It was raining so hard I was drenched before I even got to the head of the stream. It took a minute or so for the level of the water to build enough to start flowing over the rocks. I stood there cheering it on… c’mon, you can do it, oh yes, up and over, whoo-hoo, and flow it did! Look at that water flow! It works!

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That’s water flowing over the rocks! See? Water! A lot of water but mainly where it is supposed to be! Yes!

I know it’s a still photo (wish I knew how to upload the video) but hopefully you get the idea how fast it’s going:

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I could hardly stop laughing and giggling and whoo-hooing the whole time I was out there (I’m sure the chickens were wondering Who is that kooky human?) – it works! That’s why water running downstream is so exciting! My stream bed did its job! I was soaked through and still laughing when I came back inside. The poor dog, who had scooted out there with me – she never wants to miss anything but I think she regretted this decision – she was drenched too. But she ran all over, found her toy, ran some more, wanted to play. Something really fun is happening, she is thinking, I don’t know what, but something!

Oh, what a beautiful day!

A Firefly Show, Lightning in its Own Time and Other Wonders

Last week at my friend Wendy’s house, her 17-year-old former student, Mackie, suddenly stood up from the dinner we were enjoying, went out from the screen porch and walked slowly along the edge of the woods that border the yard. What was she doing? Wendy, her roommate and I were momentarily unsure. “Fireflies,” her father Mitch said. “She has never seen fireflies.”

Mackie was like a young woman entranced. She stepped softly this way and that toward every firefly that lit up, following as if obedient to a silent call. She said nothing, just followed. We watched, smiling. I didn’t know that fireflies are not commonplace in California, where Mackie and Mitch live. I didn’t know that it’s extremely unusual to see one west of Kansas. I tried to imagine never having seen a firefly.

Several years ago, one of my first Airbnb guests was from San Diego. The same thing happened. This time I didn’t witness the discovery. I read about it the next day. He left me a note that could have described how Mackie felt:

In the middle of the night, I awoke to a ballet of light. Four fireflies were shining bright, darting back and forth. It was a magic and wondrous moment. I’ve never seen real fireflies before.

Mitch and Mackie needed a place to stay for two weeks and, lucky for me, decided to stay at my cottage. One of the first days, a storm was in the forecast. “I’m hoping for it,” Mitch said. “Mackie has never seen lightning either.” Never seen lightning? Surely there is lightning in California, I said. “Heat lightning in the mountains,” he said, “Not the bolts that come in a rainstorm.”

We really should be careful about what we take for granted. I have many times marveled at both fireflies and lightning. But they have always been a part of my world, whether my childhood in New Jersey, my early adulthood in Vermont, or the last 13 years in Virginia. Now that I think of it though, we didn’t have 100-foot-tall oak trees in Vermont. When I first came here, I thought How can oak trees be that tall? I stared at them the way Mackie stared at the fireflies. I still do, especially when the moon is full and the sky is sparkling with stars. The way the trees frame out the celestial map on a clear night never ceases to enthrall me.

Wherever you are, you can find something beautiful and amazing. In Vermont it gets so cold that the snow that squeaks under your boots as you walk through it.  We had moose that walked through the backyard, maple trees a breathtaking red in the fall such as you don’t see anywhere else, summers so pleasant you think about air conditioning maybe twice.

I once walked on the dunes of Lake Michigan and was surprised to hear them “singing” under my feet. I’ve seen a field full of bluebells in Texas, loons on a lake in Maine, seals in the water of the San Francisco Bay. An alligator walked across the road in front of us in South Carolina. A huge alligator! In the woods of Pennsylvania, a black bear crossed the path not 50 feet from where we hiked. The waterfalls in Yosemite and its magnificent sequoias (!) are spectacular beyond words. I’ve seen a white deer not half a mile from my house. He ran off as soon as my camera clicked:

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There are lots of marvels in this world that I have not seen in person. The cliffs of the British coast come to mind, the mountains of New Zealand, the expanse of Wyoming, the crashing waves of Australia. Someday I’d like to go see those places (and just get close to the big waves, not go in them!). I want to see for myself, to have all my senses involved in 3D, real time – sight, sound, smell, even tasting the salt in the air. The way a loon laughs or a bear lumbers or a salmon jumps – you can see these things on TV and it’s far better than not seeing them at all, but oh, for the real thing. What will please me more though, if I ever get to any of those faraway places, and what I love every day at my home in Virginia, is to encounter the things that I don’t already know about, the things I didn’t expect. I want my wonder and delight to always be just like Mackie with the fireflies.

By the way, the storm last week passed us by, and I’m guessing Mackie was disappointed. But today, as the rain poured down, the sky gave her a large and wonderful lightning show, followed by sunshine sparkling on the wet leaves….

The Departure of the Roosters

Until recently I had never had roosters before. I had hens, only hens, and they gave me eggs. That’s all I wanted, that’s all I got. I was happy and the hens were happy. A lot of people ask me: Don’t you need roosters to get eggs from hens? No. You need roosters if you want more little chicks (which I don’t). Hens lay eggs whether there is a rooster around or not. I prefer my eggs unfertilized, thank you.

I had always said I didn’t want roosters. This was because 1. My neighbor had them a few years ago and I could hear their annoying crowing all day long, all the way from his coop, which is way farther than a stone’s throw from my house. It’s at least ten stones. 2. I don’t want a major chicken operation. All I want are eggs. Hens clucking softly works for me as a background noise. They are a bit of entertainment too. Watching chickens go to town on mealy worms makes me smile. Oh boy, mealy worms!

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But all that time when I didn’t have roosters I wondered if I would change my mind if I actually had them. Would they somehow endear themselves to me? With this latest batch of 33 chicks, I had the chance to find out. (33, I know I’m crazy, you don’t have to remind me.)

It’s very hard to tell males from females when chicks first hatch. Hardly anyone can do it. You take your chances, and you don’t even really know for sure until you hear their crowing, which happens at about three months. Five of my birds started crowing a month or so ago. Three brahma roosters were “relocated,” one found his way back, leaving him plus two little (but loud) d’uccle roosters. Or so I thought.

It turns out there are other reasons not to want roosters. The crowing is, yes, every bit as obnoxious as I remembered. But roosters are also, shall we say, virile? Additionally, they want what they want regardless of how the hens feel about it. A rooster picks one pretty girl, chases her around the enclosure while she squawks like mad, and soon manages to have his way. It’s fast, and it’s the way of the world, but it riles up the hens. Understandably. I prefer a calmer flock.

Finally, someone answered my craigslist ad. God bless Pablo. Imagine that a person would drive more than an hour to come get a brahma rooster. He said he would come Saturday morning. Great!

First the Roundup. Let’s just say chickens don’t like to be captured. Perhaps there is a trick to this, but we are amateurs. The blurriness of the bird in this photo makes it clear that he is moving very fast to get away from Sandy. The job is harder than it looks.

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Perseverance paid off, as it usually does. The brahma big boy was actually easier to nab. Look at the size of him!

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Before too long, three roosters were corralled and placed in the coop that they have been avoiding. The sliding egg door came in very handy.

Trapped! Oh, I mean ready for pick-up. Pablo, where are you?

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The roosters calmed down after they realized that the chase was over. So did we. Did I mention how happy I am that Pablo wants them?

What does he want them for? I had no idea, and I admit I didn’t care. You may recall the three general purposes for a rooster: dinner, lawn ornament and the fertilization of eggs. There is another and it is awful to think about: cockfighting. That people could get pleasure from this confounds me. If I let myself, I could even get angry about it, but I know you can’t stop all the evil in the world. Still, I didn’t want that to be my roosters’ fate. The only clue I got from Pablo as to his intentions was that he said he was coming with cages.

He also said he was coming in the morning and would let me know what time. In my world, the morning ends at noon. No Pablo by noon. No word from Pablo. Roosters were content in the coop, cluelessly awaiting their fate, but I was worried.

I breathed a great big sigh of relief when he drove in at about 230pm. His yellow truck did have cages in the bed – turned out he and his wife Andrea and their little boy had been to a chicken auction and already had some chickens in those cages. Pablo took one look at my brahma and said, “Whoa.” Yes, I know. He’s a big boy.

I breathed my second big sigh of relief when he told me he planned to use the roosters for stud. Andrea said she wondered if there were different strains of brahmas, big and small, because the brahma hens they had in the back of the truck were smaller than my brahma hens, and gigantic Mr. Brahma dwarfed them all. Thankfully size didn’t matter (you can save your size jokes). A brahma is a brahma after all and God bless Pablo for wanting mine.

The joyful transfer (joyful because I am soooo joyful that they are leaving) from my coop to their cages started with me getting into the coop with the roosters. What I will do to get rid of these birds!

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I was enough of a presence to make the birds run toward the door (make for the door! make for the door!) which Sandy blocked. He then got hold of them as they tried to get past. He turned them calmly around and handed them to Pablo.

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The last rooster put up more of a fuss than the others, but this little fellow had no more choice than the others had had.

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Pablo and Andrea and their son posed for me …

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… just before that glorious moment when the third rooster joined the other two in Pablo’s cage.

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Happy smiles. Everyone is happy. All the humans anyway. No one is happier than I am!

A long time ago, a woman I knew said, “I don’t believe a thing will happen until it’s all over and I can speak about it in the past tense.”

Thus my moment of greatest joy: watching Pablo’s truck drive away with my roosters in the back, off to their new studly life. It’s over! The roosters are gone!

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Off they go! Bye-bye, roosters! Good riddance! Yay!!!!!

Until Sunday morning. Say it isn’t so!

It is true. We missed one. I heard the incriminating crow early, before dawn, fainter and weaker than the d’uccles had been. How did we miss him?! Possibly the other roosters had drowned him out or intimidated him. With them gone, he was free to let loose. All right, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I could get used to a little crowing…

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But the rascal sealed his fate when he couldn’t help it and had to fast-chase a squawking hen around. Her racket got my attention while Sandy and I were moving plants in the late morning sun. I marched in there, caught him pronto (you are out of here, buddy!) and put him in the woods outside the enclosure. He soon walked back, curious to find himself on the other side of the fence from his beloved girls. Back and forth he walked along the outside of the enclosure. There must be a way back in…

I didn’t care. The image of him chasing an unwilling female meant I had no mercy at that point and would have relocated him to the bottom of the hill to be a fox’s lunch if I had not been so busy with the plants. But Sandy couldn’t stand it. He has a soft spot and hated to see this half silkie, half black copper maran become a snack. This rooster, despite his less-than-charming face,  has rather interesting features like blue ears and iridescent tail feathers. Sandy cornered him pretty easily and put him in the coop, away from the girls, awaiting a new life somewhere else.

Pablo, oh Pablo! Want another rooster?

Domination, Pug Style

Last night when I took Coco out for her nightly, she didn’t make it past the brick walk because a toad was sitting there next to the planter box, just minding its own business. This was not the first time I saw this toad (I assume this same toad) on the bricks like that. It was nighttime, just like the times I saw it before, dark enough to need a flashlight. Maybe the bricks retain the heat of the day and the toad likes it. Whatever its reason, if it has reason, it sits there. From my height I might easily overlook it or mistake it for a leaf blown in or a rock that got kicked there. We are outside for one purpose only. Toads are not on the agenda.

Coco instantly fixated on it. Neither dog nor toad moved a muscle.

Toad: If I just sit here, maybe that gigantic creature will go away.

Coco: Now what am I supposed to do?

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The toad appeared to rely on its ability to camouflage itself here the way it does when it sits in the dirt. Very often you pass by such creatures and never see them at all. Dogs, even pugs with a comical faces, need no lessons, no direction, no encouragement. Dogs have dog noses. They know a toad when they smell one.

“No,” I said matter-of-factly, “this is not why we are out here.” It was late and I was tired. Coming out here so she could do her business was the last thing before bed. Coco, however, does not understand English beyond five simple words, including her favorite, “treat!” At that moment, except for this toad, nothing else in the world existed for her. (I’m sure I could have said “treat!” and she would not have moved.)

I picked her up — we don’t need a leash where I live, and she wasn’t about to come of her own accord — and relocated her to the fallen leaves at the edge of the yard, this apparently being enough of a signal and change of scenery to remind her of the purpose of the outing. She obliged, good dog. Off she trotted back toward the front door.

Lo and behold, the toad!

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It’s a toad all right. Not a very smart one. Clearly it did not realize that I had removed a much larger creature with teeth. It had not used the window of opportunity to find a hiding place.

Instantly Coco fixated on it again. I wonder: Did she forget about the toad when I physically removed her from its presence (“oh, look, leaves, I know what to do in leaves”)? Did she refocus her energy to the business we went out there for and then discover the toad anew when we came back toward the porch? Or did she acquiesce when I picked her up (“fine, I’ll go do my thing, that toad isn’t going anywhere”)? Did she humor me knowing she’d get no peace to enjoy her prize until and unless she obliged?

I have evidence of the toad’s intelligence, but just how smart is the dog?

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Whether she thought she was lucky enough to discover a toad twice in one night or was simply glad to get back to it after humoring me, this was an unexpected thrill for her. I grant that. I gave her a moment to relish the domination or fascination or whatever might be in her pug brain. I see it from both sides.

Toad: Uh… this is a rather dangerous situation.

Coco: It’s my turn to be the big, strong one.

I let the toad feel its vulnerability. I let Coco feel her power. I watched as she moved closer. One could rightly say she towered over the little toad.

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Those paws remembered their ancient job. Harass the object of domination. See if you can get it to move. Sure enough, one little tap and the toad jumped. I gave this game about ten seconds to play out, watched the toad (finally!) hop to a safe spot under the porch, then had had enough. I was tired. It was time for bed. “C’mon, Coco.” She knew she was beaten and followed me in.

This morning it was still dark at 530. Once again I needed the flashlight to take Coco out. Don’t you know, there was that toad again. The bricks couldn’t still be warm, so perhaps there is another reason it goes there. The same scene played out: Coco fixated, the toad froze, I got impatient and relocated Coco to do her business, she obliged, we walked back to the house, same toad still there, Coco assumed domination stance.

This could be interesting, I said to myself. I left the flashlight on the railing pointing toward the dog towering over the toad and went inside to get my camera. It didn’t take me more than 30 seconds to do this.

When I got back, no toad. Slobber hanging from Coco’s mouth — not her prettiest moment. Considerable licking going on. Pugs do that sometimes. They stick their too-long tongues out over and over again. Like a broken record they repeat the curling motion. The unique sound that accompanies this habit sometimes gets annoying. It’s gross even when you aren’t wondering if they just ate something they shouldn’t.

What just happened?

She is not, as a rule, a slobbering dog. The licking did not make the slobber go away. I used a paper towel and wiped it off. She did her where’s-breakfast dance as usual and I made her sit and stay as usual. Still the licking. More slobber. Another paper towel. Should I feed her? Did she already have breakfast? Outside? In the form of a toad? Could she really have eaten it that fast? Toads have bones. Did she swallow them too? Toads have blood. The slobber didn’t. Do I want to think about this?

I gave Coco a little less food than usual. She inhaled it as usual and found her spot against the pillows on the couch as usual.

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I decided that this comes into that category of things we don’t know, we can’t know and maybe, sometimes, we don’t want to know. If there is a toad on the walk when we go out tonight, I’ll assume I saw the slobber of hope, the slobber of anticipation, the slobber of disappointment. If there’s not, well, what would you assume?

My son Samuel said to me just last night – on a completely different subject – that to him, a person’s ability to know the limits of their intelligence, their understanding, their abilities is an impressive marker of their development. To know that you don’t know everything, to be able to admit this, to be open to learning something new – these things set you apart. They indicate humility, a far more admirable trait than arrogance. They portend success because people who see themselves realistically and who are willing to see a new perspective or try a new approach are going to be nicer to be around and going to stretch and strengthen their intelligence, understanding and abilities, i.e. going to know more in the long run.

Did the dog eat the toad? I don’t know!

Somehow  I don’t think this kind of not knowing is what he had in mind. I don’t think it qualifies as impressive.

Uh-oh. More licking is happening…

Mermaids Live!

Imagine if there really were mermaids. The myth is ancient, the allure unending. Imagine moving through water effortlessly, changing direction gracefully, thrilling the audience thoroughly. Oops, did I say audience?

Yes, my mom and I (Mom with her eye patch, note coordinating color) were part of the audience at ACAC Four Seasons in Charlottesville. It isn’t every day you get to go to a mermaid show, but today was our lucky day.

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On this hot July afternoon we watched a dozen or so young ladies twist and flip and splash and do underwater acrobatics in as much synch as they could manage after (believe this or not) only one week of half-day lessons. It has to be hard enough to twist and flip and splash and do underwater acrobatics all by yourself, but to do it in synch with others, following the music and the instructions of your coach, that’s quite something.

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As with any performance, each player plays a part but cannot see the overall picture the way the audience does. I wish they could see how amazing they were. Imagine coordinating leg splits! No wonder they used to call this a swim ballet.

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Look at the pointed toes, the nine swimmers all upside down and doing their thing at the same time. And yes, that’s a tailfin you see on the edge of the pool. Part of the fun, surely, is not only getting into the water with other girls who want to swim gracefully together, not only learning to do things you’ve never done before, but also being able to enter that surreal, make-believe world where you are something you usually can be only in your dreams.

Yes, to be a mermaid just for a little while!

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To feel the water all around, to get a little idea of what it’s like to be a fish (a really pretty fish!), to feel sleek and strong and otherworldly, to be an elegant creature just long enough to know that you can, to feel a thrill like no other – this is a portion of what sustains us when such days have passed.

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The mermaid in this photo is Mackie, who came from California for two weeks to demonstrate techniques and to encourage and help train young swimmers. (Behind her you see the shadow of her dad, Mitch, who not only brought her here but also films the mermaids under the water while wearing scuba gear. Hats off to you too, Mitch!) Ten years ago, when Mackie was seven, she met and started training under Wendy Carter, Coach Extraordinaire, and kept on swimming in synch even after Wendy moved to Virginia. She swims with joy, passion and great skill. She also has a beautiful smile!

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Wendy directs mermaids any chance she gets — that is, when she isn’t on her way to the Pan-Am games herself to be compete with her masters team! I hope ACAC knows how extremely fortunate they are to have her on staff.

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Wendy gives these kids so many gifts every day, not the least of which is confidence. She wants them to go home and think and share and maybe shout from the rooftop (okay, maybe not the rooftop), “Wow, I did that!” And doing the next challenging thing because of having done this challenging thing will be that much easier.

We live in a world where the stories about what other people are doing are continually in front of us. Every day on the news it’s so-and-so did this fantastic thing and her brother did that unbelievable thing and this other person in some other random place did this other truly amazing thing. I think it’s great that those people are doing those great things and I don’t mean anything against them or their achievements.Watching people do their thing (and do it well) is all fine and good, especially when you can’t get out and do a thing yourself, and it’s inspirational and instructional no doubt, to say nothing of fun. We all do it sometimes, like Mom and I and a whole bunch of other people at ACAC did today.

But watching other people do their thing is a quite different than doing your own. Watching other people make their own story too much, instead of making your own, when you could be making your own, is kind of a shame. You get only so many hours each day, only so many days each year, and you don’t know how many days you have, let alone years.

The kids Wendy coaches are not watching videos about synchronized swimming. They are in the water doing it. I love that Wendy is giving them a chance to make their own stories. It doesn’t matter one single bit if any of them makes the news or ends up competing at the master’s level. What matters is that sometime down the road, they get to tell their own story, own their own memories, recall their own experiences. Not someone else’s. Theirs.

Similarly, I love that my sister read a book about straw bale gardening and decided to try it herself. Her vegetables are growing like crazy! I love that my son, who had a dream of building his own unique house, is building it. His pentagonal foundation is in! I love that my neighbor is raising her own pigs, moveable fence and all, so that she can have her own pork. I love that my aunt is going to a workshop to learn to paint pictures even better than she already does.

I love it when people make their own stories, follow their own interests, ignite their own passion, walk their own unboring path. I don’t need to see it on the news. Nearly everyone I know is doing a thing they love whenever they can, within their means, within their ability, inspiring me in different ways, in multiple ways, in spectacular ways. Today I saw mermaids in the water, daring to do something they couldn’t have done last week. What did you see? What did you do?

Funky Eye Patch Makes the Day

There are distinct advantages to growing older. For one thing, you become wise and can dispense your wisdom at will. More so than when you were younger, you can say what you want to say (regardless of how wise it is), you can wear what you want to wear, butter your bread any way you want, disregard consequences, abandon caution, go for broke. As you wish. Let the world think what it wants.

Of course there are downsides to aging as well. Last week while making a bench in the basement with my 80-year-old Uncle Ernie, he said several times (usually after trying to move without the full cooperation of his body), “Don’t get old.”

“What is the alternative?” I said.

Nevertheless he didn’t stay in this chair very long.

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It’s true that in later years the body stops cooperating as well (if it ever did! some would argue). Ernie’s legs don’t necessarily go in the direction he intends. Older people will sometimes tell you about other non-cooperative bodily functions that are best not discussed at the dinner table. (Feel free to tell them when they cross this line.) Sometimes the non-cooperation is gradual as in, “This pan seems heavier than it used to be.” Sometimes the shift is a little more sudden, as in, “Whoa, where did the subtitles go?”

That’s what happened to my mom last week. On Tuesday her vision seemed a little off. She thought maybe her glasses were smudged. She cleaned them and carried on, but felt her vision was still a little off. So she cleaned her glasses again. She played the ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away game. The next day she was watching a movie and noticed that if she covered her right eye, the subtitles were there as they should be. When she covered her left, they disappeared.

This is a problem. Need to call the eye doctor pronto. The tech to whom she described the situation on Thursday morning advised that she come to the office to be checked. A few hours later the doctor said the words “ophthalmic vein occlusion” in practically the same breath as “I hate it when I see this.” Basically, an important vein in Mom’s eye burst. Then further hemorrhaging happened, and some swelling. Vision was 20/200 in that eye.

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The image on the right is what the wall of the retina should look like (Mom’s left eye). The mountain on the left is the swelling that resulted from this event (right eye).

Not pleasant or comfortable. Definitely scary. We appreciate having good eyes. We want our eyes healthy. The good news is that this is not a disease nor anything degenerative. Sometimes the veins can heal themselves, the doctor said. Sometimes not. In a year your vision could be back to what it was. Or not. Best to see a retina specialist. An appointment was made for Monday morning.

The time between Thursday and Monday was long. Mom experienced disorientation, fatigue, and no small measure of anxiety about the long term prognosis, as would anyone. She slept a lot and mostly stayed in. To help combat the challenge of seeing normally with one eye and very weirdly with the other, her dear friend Jerry got her an eye patch at the local drug store. He got the kind you get at a drug store, black and somewhat conical, presumably to allow you to blink more easily. Mom described it as a falsie. A what? You know, the thing that in other settings has another one next to it and tassels hanging from the points…

The falsie idea sounds good except when you want to wear your glasses. The point sticks out too far. (Some women would kill for this problem, I mean, uh, when the falsie is in its usual place….) After Mom mentioned this problem to me on the phone, I pawed through my scrap fabric boxes and got to work. A few hours later I texted her and asked if I could stop by quickly. I’m sure she was not expecting what I brought, but in the middle of a tough day, it had exactly the effect I hoped for: She laughed and laughed.

I want the world to see how genuine her smile is, how bravely and positively she faced this challenge, how game she was! I tell you, when my mom gets out of the box, she gets out of the box!

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She tried on one after the next and kept on laughing. Jerry got into the act and played right along. They are quite the duo!

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Those are little watermelons on Mom’s – perfect for July, right?

The specialist on Monday was as encouraging as the situation allowed him to be. He gave her a shot to reduce the swelling so the veins can more easily regrow, and explained what she can expect.

On Tuesday we went to Sam’s Club together. Mom wore a patch with no qualms, finding one-eyed navigation easier than the disorientation of using both eyes. Her glasses fit easily over it. She sported the orange flower-power patch on the right. It went with her outfit the best.

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When we returned to her apartment building, we ran into some of her friends in the hallway. They got the story, expressed concern very kindly (“Why do these things have to happen to the good people?”) and then said, “Leave it to you to be so stylish with your patch!” Leave it to Mom to face a difficult situation with humor, grace and determination.

Go, Mom!

Parallels in the Weed World

When I was a kid, my mother used to say she loved gardening because after she got all dirty, she could get all clean. Going from very icky to fresh as a daisy is more thrilling than going from almost fresh to fresh. The same is true for weeding.

Weeding a bed that is overrun (why don’t we call it de-weeding?) has a different, greater level of satisfaction for the weeder once it is decent again. This morning did not turn out to include a train ride to DC and a day with friends as I had hoped, so at 7am I hit the strawberry bed. It was in great need. It was bad.

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Do you see strawberry plants in there among those rotten (but thriving!) tall things? See the spikey grass trying to get some sun? This photo doesn’t reveal the half of what was trying to crowd out my precious fruit-bearing plants. The following photo reveals even less, but I am trying to capture the scope of the situation. The strawberry bed is eight 8-foot fencepost-widths long, or about 64 feet.

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Before it got too hot, I went to town on the mess. See all that fuzz toward the other end. That’s the really bad part.

While pulling out the Bad, I thought about a few parallels to human life.

  1. The Bad tries to push out the Good. That’s the first thing you notice. I had a lovely strawberry bed earlier this summer which produced lovely strawberries which turned into lovely jam.

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The weeds weren’t there then (though now that I think of it I found numerous half-eaten berries out there when I picked them – surely the work of hungry squirrels). Why can’t the weeds just find somewhere else to grow? Why can’t the squirrels eat the gazillion other edible seeds and nuts on this property? Why can’t bad people leave good people alone?

2. The Bad tries to masquerade as the Good, tries to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, tries to fool you as counterfeit among the genuine. The tall, overachiever weeds are obvious, as is the spikey grass, but hidden among the strawberry plants are various weeds trying to look like strawberry plants, trying to infiltrate and blend in – playing their can’t-catch-me game. They think I can’t tell the difference, but pretty doesn’t always win (some of the nasty ones are pretty – does that sound like real life or what?). I’m smarter than that, but they are robust intruders with determined roots that get a foothold in an area by wrapping their strong tentacle-like roots around the (supposed-to-be-there) strawberry roots. I am ruthless. However…

3. You don’t always get all the Bad out. See these horrid little roots?

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You can’t get all that. Insidious is the word. The next time they get water from rain or the sprinkler, they will begin to come to life once again, you can bet on it. They keep their agents hidden but ready to pounce at the first opportunity. Sound like anything else in this world?

But someone has to get the bad guys. Whether you are part of crime dramas in real life or you watch them on a screen in your living room, you notice that the detectives and the police have unrelenting obstacles and are perpetually short on time, facts and help. They bumble, they see false clues, they have their own issues that trip them up. Yet they are determined to expose the wrong, get the bad guys and make it right. They keep going. Our military, God bless them, also keep going despite the danger and setbacks. Strong fights strong. What if it didn’t? What if it just said We’ll never obliterate the Bad altogether so why try? But it is also true that…

4. You can’t save all the Good. Some of the good, healthy, wonderful strawberry plants ended up in the wheelbarrow because they were just too entwined with the Bad. In the bigger world, the innocent are often victims for lots of reasons, and you don’t have to look far for examples. Watched The Eichmann Show on Netflix last week – unspeakably horrendous. Follow the news every day and there are always new, sad images. But just because there will be loss, terrible, sorrowful loss sometimes, doesn’t mean you don’t do what you can. The Good has to keep going…

5. Let the exposed part lead you. With some of these weeds, especially where the situation at ground level is rather thick, I start where I can see and work my way down to the base. Then I pull. If you pull too soon, you just break it midway and that’s pointless — the thing will be back in no time. Same for our everyday. Take care of what you can see in front of you as best as you can, and then move on to the next thing. As you make headway, you can see what you couldn’t see before and you have some experience and can do a better job with the next thing. I like how Jordan Peterson puts it: “Clean up your room.” Clean up your own room before you start addressing the ills of the world at large. Do what’s in front of you first. If you can’t get a small thing under control, if you are inept at the small things, what makes you think you can tackle the big things? If you don’t get the weed you can see out of the way, the situation is overwhelming. One thing at a time.

Along the way, surely…

6. You sometimes encounter nice surprises. Some people would say this fellow is a pest and I should relocate him to the woods. I think he’s nice (to say nothing of funny-looking) and I don’t mind him a bit. For the most part my garden plants are in raised beds which he cannot possibly get to. Then again, maybe he is the one who left all the half-eaten (ground-level) strawberries behind!

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I went to the garden to weed the strawberry bed. I moved slowly from one end of the bed to the other, mostly on my knees, mostly looking down as the job requires. Sometimes though, you have to stand up to stretch or move to a new space, and then you see things from a different angle, you see the big picture a little better, you see things you didn’t realize were there.  Once when I stood up I saw that the lilies had opened! Just yesterday they were still preparing for their grand show. What a nice surprise!

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Do stand up and look at things from a different angle sometimes. It’s amazing what another perspective will reveal!

7. Reuse and recycle has all kinds of applications. What did I do with the wheelbarrow full of weeds? Gave it to the chickens! If the chickens could get in my garden (how they would love this!), they would eat a variety of greens – and mostly not the ones I want them to eat of course. But they do love greens. And they are discerning enough to pass by the less desirables. So I gave it all to them, and I expect they quickly found the good stuff, including forfeit strawberry plants, the ones that were growing in the path or too entangled with weeds. And they have something to play around with for a while. Maybe a worm or two got transferred as well. Happy, happy chickens!

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When the weeds were mostly out (I say mostly because I am not anal about such things) I went and got the old towels and sheets that would serve as a barrier between the earth and the mulch I planned to put in the path to help prevent future weeds. This was another good re-use because what else am I going to do with all those old things? (And again thank you, Bertie!) I started laying them out and guess what I discovered?

8. There’s a comedian in every bunch! As soon as I laid a towel down, Coco appeared out of nowhere.

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What? she says, Is there a problem here? I proceeded to lay out the rest of my cloths and she held her ground, snoozing happily away.

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I said to myself, How long will she stay there? How much mulch does it take for her to get the idea to move? You tell me:

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Okay, a little more. Don’t let me disturb your beauty sleep.

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Fine, then she just moves over to the next bit of soft.

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Coming closer, still no concern.

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Hey, trying to relax here!

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There really is no choice, sweetie pie. You have to move.

Of course she finally did.

9. Sometimes you are the only one who sees the difference. I know that the world is not going to come to an end if I don’t get my strawberry bed weeded. But I’m glad it is, and it’s a far sight better than it was yesterday.

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P.S. The tall plants in the foreground are rhubarb. They do belong there.

Pigs in the Backyard

First of all, not my backyard. Not my front yard. Nor my side yard. Nor my woods. To anyone who knows me: Don’t worry. I do not have pigs and I am not getting pigs. I do like pork though, and thank God some people want to raise them. There is a fabulous little breakfast place on 2nd Street in downtown Charlottesville called Bluegrass Grill. The first time I went in there I knew I’d love it because the staff wore t-shirts with “Don’t Worry, We Have Bacon” on the back. They even have bacon jam! It’s on a menu item called Smokey Joe, and available in little jars too, to take home. You want to try this, believe me.

My neighbor Tracy has pigs in her backyard, two of them this year. They are gilts, not barrows, which I learned from her means female, not male. These are fine gilts, each about 80 pounds now in early July. They will get to be about 300 pounds by the time their short but wonderful life is over.

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Pigs love acorns, and acorns make very good pork. If you are going to raise pigs for meat, you had best put them where they can eat acorns. Tracy’s pigs live on prime real estate:

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What you see is a fenced enclosure skirting the tree line. Those are mature oaks producing a feast of acorns for two constantly-eating pigs. Here, have some more, I imagine the oak trees saying to the hungry pigs during a rainstorm or a windstorm when their acorns rain down. What do I need with all these acorns? Every few days, or however often she deems it time, Tracy moves the fence along the tree line, which is not as problematic as you might think. The fencing comes in 100-foot lengths and has stiff uprights every ten feet or so with sharp points you can poke into the ground.

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The beauty of the system is that she can make the fence any shape, she can go around or in front of trees or other immovable objects in the landscape, and she can contain the pigs in one part of it while moving another part. There is a solar-powered electric zapper around the perimeter to keep them from trying to escape, but seriously, if you were these pigs, you would not want to escape.

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They have sun, shade, mud to wallow in, a terrific bath for cooling off, acorns galore, bugs, grass, leftovers. Pigs’ noses are as sensitive as our fingertips so they find the best food even among the rocks, sticks and other natural inedibles.

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I met Tracy a few years ago after she and her husband moved in. We all have our busy lives – work, family, meals, rest, projects, outings – and I hardly saw her until a month ago or so when I needed eggs. What? I needed eggs?? I have 27 chickens in my coop and I needed eggs?

Chickens don’t start laying until they are 4-6 months old and mine hatched in early March. That makes them four months old now. I know I will be inundated soon, but I’m not yet, and I wasn’t a month ago.  Tracy has 14 chickens I think, and I was happy to pay her for some. A couple weeks later she asked if I wanted some for free because she was about to be overrun. I gladly took them and gave her a jar of my homemade strawberry jam in return. She mentioned the pigs, and I said Can I come see them sometime?

There are pigs practically in my backyard! I did not see the ones she had last year, nor the previous year. I did not see this year’s until I needed eggs. I could have bought eggs at the supermarket but farm eggs are better. Most people know this. I’m so glad I needed eggs, contacted Tracy and got hers. She’s really nice, and now, besides getting great eggs,  I have met her pigs, toured her garden, borrowed a book (Edible Landscaping by Michael Judd) and lent a book (Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier – she will love the chapter with the hog). I laughed when I asked her what those tall pretty flowers in her garden were and she said, “tall pretty flowers.” (None of us have to know everything!)

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I got two bunches of wild onions for my woodland garden (aren’t they beautiful?!) and learned something about raised bed berms – and she told me I am welcome to come get rocks for my stream bed. If you had six feet of stream bed left to lay and you saw all the rocks in Tracy’s field and you could go collect them, I bet you would, just like I am going to. Right?

Maybe today is a good day to contact a neighbor of yours. Maybe you don’t need eggs, but you can connect or reconnect for some other reason. Chances are good you have a neighbor who is really nice too, maybe someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Maybe your neighbor is on the shy side or otherwise hesitant to call you but would welcome a friendly hello.

Maybe your neighbor doesn’t have pigs (okay, most likely your neighbor doesn’t have pigs), but you will find something very cool to talk about anyway. And you might learn something, or exchange funny stories, or find something in common that you didn’t know about before. And it will be a better day.

The Purpose of a Dropcloth and What Dogs Do Well

You thought I was kidding about the bench, right? Nope. Just yesterday morning, my Airbnb guests – on their own – went out to visit the chickens and take their own photos of the ridiculous birds. Can’t you just imagine the smaller one on the left saying to the one front and center: Hey, sister, I wouldn’t say this in front of the others but I need to tell you, that spikey look really isn’t working for you. Maybe try a new a shampoo?

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It thrills me to see people having fun and admiring the chickens. (Perhaps they are not admiring, perhaps they are pooh-poohing. That woman thinks these birds are interesting? Pretty starved for good entertainment, wouldn’t you say?) Well, you think what you want to think and I will think what I want to think. Guests from Ohio earlier this week left a note that said, “We loved being secluded in the woods, watching the trees sway in the wind and admiring the beautiful chickens.” See? Admiring.

Some admirers will stand and stare, or walk all around the perimeter, or scooch down and get face to face. I found guests earlier this week standing right in the coop with them. She held one of the pretty ones, smiled hugely (the woman, not the chicken), while he took her picture. They left a note behind that said, “We love your feathered friends in the coop next door.” The one before that said, “So nice meeting you and hanging with the chickens!”

Some guests will want to sit, to admire from a fixed spot, to ponder the multiple ways a simple egg-laying bird can move and contort its funny little body or peck at a bug, or they might imagine the chickens’ conversations with each other, their hierarchies, their vanities, their grooming techniques (how will she get those spikes clean?).

The sitters would want a bench for all that. Maybe they would even bring their coffee out there with them in the morning, and sip and stare at the same time. The more I thought of this, the more I thought that a 4×6 on its side as the top of the retaining wall, practical and unobtrusive as that is, might not fit the bill entirely. A bench would be better.

My Uncle Ernie and Aunt Vivian called a few weeks ago to plan a visit. I had not seen them in a few years and was very much looking forward to the visit. Ernie is an extraordinary woodworker, and I mean fine woodworking. The craftsmanship and expertise behind his own beautiful kitchen cabinetry, and what he has made for his children, to say nothing of his wood carvings, leaves no doubt. He has the right tools, he knows how to use them, and he has been practicing for years. I think he easily fits Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule from the book Outliers: Over the course of time, if you been passionately engaged for a total of 10,000 hours or more honing a skill or developing a craft or being deeply, technically and seriously involved in a specific subject, you are likely in the upper echelon of experts in that field. This applies to playing the violin, writing computer code and fine woodworking just the same. You don’t get to be an expert unless you put in the time.

You see where I’m going, right? By contrast, when it comes to woodworking, I am almost completely a novice. I know what a router does, I understand the value of built things being square, level and plumb, I have a healthy respect for any tool with sharp teeth that rotates at 30,000 rpm’s. But as my guests from this past week will tell you, there is a difference between watching the chickens from outside the fence and getting in there and picking them up. Other than being the gopher, the tidy-upper, the drink-fetcher, the supply-orderer and the holder of things in place while someone else uses the power tool to secure it, I have not been as involved in construction projects. All right, I’ve dug a lot of dirt, moved a lot of rocks, and sanded and painted and stained. I’ve even zip-stripped – which is not as exotic as it sounds!

So my expert woodworker uncle is coming to visit for two days. I want a bench for my chicken coop viewing area. Now surely you see where I’m going. I asked him if he would guide me through the building of a simple one, at least to the point where it is together and all that remains is the finish sanding and painting, which I can confidently do. I told him I would follow his instructions, do what he said. If your uncle looked like this, you would do what he said too.

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Just kidding, Ernie. He really is a great guy. Some people can reinforce how amateurish you feel or make you feel like the subject at hand is overwhelmingly difficult and you really should leave it to the experts. Just buy a bench, right? But Ernie didn’t do either of those unhelpful things. He walked me (he didn’t rush me) through every step and couched all of his technique demonstrations with: Let me show you why this way is better, or What you need to remember is… or Look how easy this makes it. He was patient with my ignorance but kept things moving all day. Goofy is also in his repertoire.

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Before they left, the base was together and the top slats were ripped. I learned how to use the table saw and a biscuit joiner and how to get the same exact length of board as many times as I need. (You want the legs to all be the exact same length, think about it.) I glued in the biscuits per his instructions using the right amount of glue and a cheap tiny paint brush and he showed me how to make two shorter bar clamps do the work of one longer one. I understand better how to allow for the width of the saw blade when using the chop saw.

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In the end, the vertical pieces are strongly secured to the horizontal ones. We flipped the base right side up, put the slats on it loosely and made sure that three people will be able to sit on this bench and watch chickens. Or sit in the basement and pose for the camera.

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That’s Aunt Vivian, an artist in her own right. She kindly brought me this beautiful painting she did herself. There’s a lot of talent in that family!

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We said good-bye and I routed the long edges of the slats and legs and any other part of the put-together bench base where the edge of the wood needed softer corners, then hauled it all up to the deck on the back of the house for finish sanding and painting. The sawhorses and drop cloth were still there from when I had given all the boards a first coat before Ernie and Vivian came.

What I did not anticipate was the involvement of the dog.

Coco misses Samuel, who went off to San Francisco to seek his future, so she sticks to me. Where I go, she goes. Last week I set things up to spray paint a metal table base. I set up a cloth out to the side, special for her, away from the work area. Heaven forbid she should have to lay on the mulch.

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Next thing I knew, she was off her designated spot, nearer my work space, not a good place for her. You see how close to my space I had placed her space? But no, come closer, be under foot. That’s a thing dogs do well.

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She did the same when it came to the bench on the deck. All that deck to lay on (not even mulch under her delicate little limbs!). But no, under foot again.

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The drop cloth laying on the deck under the saw horses has a piece of plastic under it because (you may recall) my friend Fred recently power washed the deck. Let us safeguard our assets. I now have a clean deck and want to keep it that way. Someone else (a smarter person) would have put down (and would have advised anyone else to put down) a bigger piece of plastic and a bigger drop cloth, covering more surface area against the possibility of paint randomly flying off the brush and landing outside the protected area, but I am a risk-taker as well as a careful painter, and was impatient to get going, and did not do this. (This scenario is not as risky as it looks. That bench was more to the left when I painted it and was moved to the right when I was not painting it. Slats also came more toward the center for the actual painting. When they are drying I don’t care. I did work over top the cloth, really I did!)

Now look carefully, kitty-corner behind Coco’s right shoulder. That is a drop of red paint from the bench above. (I know, I know, it could have so landed easily on the deck instead, and I have such a pathetically small drop cloth under that work area. Do not chide me. This is about the dog now.)20180707_155643

This drop of paint is a problem why? Here’s what happens when the dog goes to move to another underfoot spot:

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Do you envision little red marks all over my deck? I do. I did. So I cleaned up that paw and my deck was saved. This time. I know, I could put her in the house. I should put her in the house. Why can’t I just put her in the house? Take a look at her face again. That’s why.