Weakness is the Mother of Cajoling

I come to find out that concrete work is a lot like baking. The tools are bigger, the ingredients weigh more, the vessels in which you mix this with that are strictly utilitarian and practically indestructible. No pretty bowls, no hand-carved wooden spoons, no measuring in cups or grams and gently folding ingredients together with a deft wrist action. While standing outside this week, hoe in my hand, tub at my feet and bracing myself to begin combining the contents of an 80-pound bag with the appropriate quantity of fresh water, I thought: Dry ingredients (concrete mix) in the bowl (mixing tub) first, then add liquid (water from the hose) and mix until you reach the desired consistency.

Whose hair-brained idea to build stone steps was it anyway? Oh, right, mine.

Credit where credit is due, Sandy moved most of the heavy bags. My “moving” them is not like his. He lifts and carries.

I cajole. I finagle. I wiggle the bag that’s lying flat on the porch (under cover in case of rain)

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until it is separate from its compatriots and in a clear path.

I then coax it onto its side edge and gently flop it over, and over, and over. This flopping-over is more like a thudding-over, but I keep gaining ground and proceed proudly. The bag will not have power over me, will not sit there heavily, immovably, laughing at my weakness (It’s out of her league! it’s saying haughtily. Out of her league!).

When you are weak, you must be creative in the moving of heavy things. The number of flops/thuds depends on how far the bag is from the edge of the porch, i.e. how many bags were in the neat pile, and where the next victim lies in said pile.

In preparation for this careful coaxing I have strategically placed the mixing tub under the very edge of the porch (about an 18” drop). (There is no more glamorous name for this large, plastic, rectangular, masonry-trade vessel, in case you were wondering – I looked it up.) I wiggle, maneuver, jockey and ultimately outfox that haughty bag until its narrow end rests on the guillotine (over the edge of the porch I mean) by about four or five inches, awaiting its fate.  

The sharp edge of my mixing trowel slices through the skin of the neck (I mean the underside of the bag) and guts begin to spill out into my carefully placed mixing tub. Not willing to go to its rigor mortis without making a show of its doom, the powdery mix explodes in a cloud of concrete dust, coating everything in the vicinity with a layer that boldly proclaims I WAS HERE! The same teenager who fingers CLEAN ME on the rear window of a dirty van could inscribe any words anywhere on my porch. For days afterwards, indeed until you purposefully clean it off, that fine dusting stays behind, refuses to blow away like ordinary dust in the wind. No, no. This dust sticks. I WAS HERE!

It occurs to me that somehow I went from yummy home baking to gruesome public execution. What is happening to me!!?? Perhaps having been immersed this past week in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History 48 – Prophets of Doom and having spent time admiring Sarah Silvey’s #Inktober – Something for the Connoisseurs has something to do with this? I refer specifically to Dan’s telling of the crazy medieval anarchy in the German city of Munster that led to lots of split blood and human cages hanging to this day from the steeple of the city’s church, I kid you not…

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…and Sarah’s excellent drawing of Edgar Allen Poe’s coldblooded, The Cask of Amontillado protagonist using brick and mortar to wall up his victim attached to chains (behind that wall you see) in a catacomb.

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Perhaps it is not only true that Necessity is the Mother of Invention and Weakness is the Mother of Cajoling. Perhaps Immersion is the Mother of Metaphor. We are what we think. We paint mind pictures and make comparisons based on what we look at, what we listen to. We develop opinions and take positions based on what we experienced in the past combined with what we see and touch in the now. Our present thing informs the next thing in our path.

Thank God it’s raining. A good day to bake something!! The concrete, waiting for slate on top and bluestone around the base, can continue curing all by itself.

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The Guys in the Shell Department

Today we’re going to talk about shell production – the industrial-level, incessantly-cranking-‘em-out-level production of … (no, not artillery shells! been listening to a little too much Dan Carlin, have you?) … egg shells!

A little quiz today, or think of it as Some Questions for Fun:

  1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell? Last time you cracked one (or two or three) to make an omelet or some popovers, right? Duh.

Check out these beauties – that orange is what happens when you give your chickens the scraps from a lobster fest.

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Okay, clearly you need a harder question, even at this hour.

  1. Eggs are so beautiful. I sometimes just stare at them. What perfectly beautiful shapes – though you have to think that middle, fattest, section is the hardest moment for the chicken, just sayin’. What lovely variation in color and size my chickens give me:

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(Yes, that’s my raccoon skin underneath them, in case you were wondering.)

Speaking of size, they do vary tremendously. Here are some measured next to coins.

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And others next to a ruler.

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Oh, right, there were questions happening here! Let’s try again.

  1. What is eggshell made of?

(You science nerds will get this in a second. The rest of us are deeply grateful that there are science nerds in the world to tell us such things.)

The code (is it called a code?), uh, formula? chemical name? is CaCO3, which in English is calcium carbonate. Well, the shell is mostly, as in 95%, calcium carbonate. You always wondered how the shell can be tough enough to protect the growing chick inside it but breakable enough for its 21-day-old beak to poke through. According to Labmate, “The remaining 5% features hundreds of different proteins that affect how calcium carbonate crystallises. It’s this perfectly balanced cocktail that allows mineral crystals and proteins to form an eggshell that’s crack-resistant, then use nanoscale adjustments to change the pliability and let a chick break free when it’s ready to hatch.” Cool.

Fun facts (these from the Exploratorium) also include: a. the eggshell is covered with as many as 17,000 tiny pores that air and moisture can pass through (so the chick can breathe while it’s developing) and b. the shell has a thin outermost coating called the bloom or cuticle that helps keep out bacteria and dust (which is why you don’t need to wash eggs and should use them quickly if you forget this rule).

Question #3!

  1. What else in nature is like an eggshell (in being made up of calcium carbonate)?

Give it a little thought before you read on…

The examples are striking. Who isn’t impressed with the stalactites and stalagmites you see in caves, like the gigantic ones at Luray Caverns?

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Also there’s

  • seashells that are the exoskeleton of snails, lobsters, clams (though NOT turtle shells, in case you were wondering – I knew you were wondering)
  • coral that you scuba divers find in reefs and the rest of us watch on Blue Planet
  • pearls that oysters and clams make, in which the individual CaCOcrystals “are laid down in such a perfect order that the result is smooth, hard, shiny, and sometimes even iridescent, as in the rainbow colors of abalone shells.” Who knew? (Thank you, again, Labmate.)
  • whole mountain chains in the form of chalk, limestone, marble and dolomite. IMA Europe says more than 4% of the earth’s crust is CaCO3, and jrank says 7%, so somewhere between 4-7% is probably right.  And you know how much we need chalk (to raise pH in soils with high acidity, clean pewter, keep screws secure and dry your hands for weightlifting, bouldering or gymnastics), limestone (to make steel, cement, fertilizer and even white paper), marble (from columns to countertops, a most gorgeous building material as is) and dolomite (to make glass, bricks and ceramics).Now back to the chicken eggshells.
    1. What happens when someone in the shell department screws up?

    Screws up? What do you mean screws up? Eggs are eggs, right? Smooth on the outside, kinda slimy (when uncooked) on the inside, invaluable in making delicious food and fabulously nutritious.

    Nope. Eggs are not just eggs. All eggs are not created equal.

    A daydreaming shell maker got a little carried away on these ends – made little warts instead the standard smooth finish because of thinking about his girl maybe (hmmm), or that new car, or those ribs for dinner? Bit too much CaCO3 in those places I’d say. Best have a little chat with this worker about focusing when in production mode. Focus, Jack. We have a job to do here.

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    The one assigned to this day’s lot was confused. Gourds on his mind perhaps?

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    This worker forgot (toward the end apparently) what shape we are aiming for in egg production.

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    Now, back to Question #1. When is the last time you saw an egg without a shell?

    Forget the omelet. How’s this? A wildly woobly egg! An intact egg with NO shell to speak of, though maybe a few granules of the calcium carbonate here and there, a spattering you could call it. The bottom flattened out and the top collapsed a bit, but this egg mostly held its shape, its membrane apparently keeping it from gooing all over the place. When we touched it, it squished in like jello. Oh yes, and whoever the shell maker was in this case tried to cover his tracks and squirted a few squirts of the CaCO at the end (see that unshapely blob sticking out toward the right?) – undoubtedly a last-ditch effort to demonstrate that it’s not a complete bomb and maybe he should not get fired. Really, HR needs to have a conversation with this employee!

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Last question: What’s really going on in the chicken coop???