We are into week 12 of the chicken-life and have seen 38% of our forces cross the Kenmore Bridge into oblivion; they were fine lads and true. Which is to say that just before T-day I girded my farmboy loins and sent the ten cockerels to the freezer. Now I had helped a neighbor butcher a calf many years ago, and I had skinned several animals in my day as a road-kill-tanner, but I had not dispatched and then eaten anything, not even an inert escargot. Was I up to it?
Pat thought definitely not. It is not that I am by nature squeamish; I used to take the absolutely bloodiest cases as a nurse because I am fairly dispassionate when it comes to life's one reality: we all die. Her thinking was that since I don't particularly like most meat, pork is an exception, and don't like any chicken if there is a hint of a bone in sight, that I was not one to chop and dismember birds with an eye toward haute cuisine. I knew I was just the guy - or hoped so.
It went well. I figured out how to get cleaver to neck without fuss or much panic. Skinning them isn't quite like skinning a mammal, but close enough. (Let me just add here from my days as a roadside skinner of fresh kill, don't ever try skinning a porcupine. Bad idea.) A website, out of Vermont, I think, spoke of boning the bird without eviscerating it, and that appealed to me. Little chance of any fecal contamination and what was lost, heart, gizzard, liver, is of little interest to me. I really did butcher the first couple of guys as I tried to figure out what I was after - unrecognizable parts would have been a fair guess, but pretty soon I was peeling off breasts and removing thighs with a fairly good result. Pat was willing to enter the project far enough to bone the thighs as I brought them in; her view of the entire project was pretty bleak initially. Stone carnivores with roots in the jungle should not be allowed the comfort of squeamishness. But soon we had bags of very lean meat and a pot of bits and pieces and such on simmer. We were cooking; the pot was the base for stock.
Ara and Zoe were arriving in a couple of days and we would need a big pot of stock for him to make the T-day stuffing. Ara is, from another life, a chef. He has never really cooked for us; I was generally loathe to ask him as I was sure others went so far as to demand it. He took off his bookkeeping hat and put on his chef's cap in Maine. Dinner was great. We ate that meal again and again for days after Ara and Zoe had gone home to distant places, and each time it was better. I asked about securing the recipe for the butternut squash soup; there was none - it was art.
So, now I have gone from all my immediate family close by to being solo in mid-December. Pat left on the Big Dog this A.M. for Boston to get the train for the left coast. Xmas with blood kin. Last phone call she was on a siding just outside Albany, N.Y., but pointed west. In three weeks she will come home, having by then absolutely had her fill of grandkids - why am I, who have none, thinking of leeches? You're right; I don't have an overabundance of fondness for kids. My own have only improved with age. It pleases me no end to see them turn into independent, strong adults. I would have been a terrible mother, prodding them with sharp sticks to grow up and get it right, unconditional love seeming poor-soup thin some days. Much better to be a father and have strong opinions which will irrevocably color your relations with your closest kin to the end of your days. I must say Pat's daughters aren't bad; though she might bridle at my lack of keen enthusiasm. Better that she should go to California than that 'we' should; leave me in the snowy woods to tend chickens, boxers and a torty-cat. I have strong opinions on all three sorts and am presently receiving neither veiled threats nor reproachful looks from any.
I recall reading something by an Indian Swami-guy years and years ago, and the gist of it was that he felt a great joy in crowds, the god-spirit being so evident as it emanated from people, so the bigger the crowd the better the rush. There can probably be no better proof that I am the devil's spawn than the horror, almost terror, I have of crowds. I am surprised people in large cities don't just drop dead from 'compression by life force'.
In a bit over 48 hours we will solsticsize. I think of this with some relief; it is just past 1600 and getting dark. Short days lean perceptibly against my Prozac-insulated grief, but the far turn is in the offing. I stay productively employed. The walkway to the chickens is shoveled clear, a couple of feet of snow on the ground now after three or four storms, and the day's pay of 3 brown eggs is collected by the well-wrapped worker.
When I arrived from the great outside everyone was clucking, head-tilting for the best view, crowding up to my feet, glad to see me; these simple souls always are. They needed water. It was duly delivered, warm and clear, to the approbation of all. The solstice is coming I announced. The boxers and I plan to bring it in with a drop of grog and an extra dog biscuit or two. It is the hinge into summer. Empirically I can buy it, believe in it and celebrate it. The Jesus-child? Too much myth for my bones. And his practitioners can be so dismal. I never had a solstice-lover dismiss me to the torments of hell. Just can't get excited about siding with the glad-handers. To be fair, some of the best people I have known were Christians, but aberrant sorts, I think.
Watching tonight's offering from Netflix: Dirty Deeds - Aussie gangsters, Sydney awash in gore. For the past few years two sorts of films seem to have grown enormously in popularity: serial killers and hitmen - or girls. Each is essentially cut of the same cloth. These genres no doubt appeal to me for the same reason as they do to many others. Some refraction occurs; the bent mind gets a bent message from a bent bolt of light and recognizes the content as 'possibly self'. Between what the eye perceives and the brain translates a darker portion of our internal workings is vaguely illuminated. Most of us, I am guessing, house both these - archetypes? Men moreso than women. I can't really see it as the breakdown of society's moral fiber. Moral fiber is a fragile construct, an overlay which we have carefully crafted via religion and law to allow us all to live together. Is it breaking down or are we simply reaching some limit to its effectiveness? Peace within the tribe is quite necessary. Is peace between the tribes even possible? In some cases it would seem it is; this country works relatively well. That recalls to mind a current TV ad where the barcode scanner at the supermarket shows a can of soup as chicken, then as carrots, then as celery, much to the consternation of the clerk. The ad touts the manifold elements that go into this superlative soup-in-a-can that makes it the most wonderful of all. We are soup, American soup, but we are all too often distressingly also chicken, carrot and celery, and the ingredients are prone to be at war within the can. Our success at either legislating or sermonizing our differences into a bland mix has been rather limited and the result ever tenuous.
This brings me back, in some hideous fashion, to serial killers and hitfolk. How are they different? The serial killer is a monster, most likely bent on the satisfaction of unusual sexual desires thru violence. We abhor the serial killer. This person is beyond the pale - but still very interesting to us.... The hitfolk are either tribal, or commercial. This establishes that in some sense they are, or are close-to, 'ok'. Their crimes against life are in the service of loyalties, tribal bandings, or to the business ethic, also a well-received reason. Everybody needs a job - right?
If the above couple of paragraphs seem just too bizarre, then think about chickens again: let round, bubbly little clucking noises well up from deep in your belly, calmly let them float across your lips. This discursive tangent just floated into my head and and curled down to nest; it need have nothing to do with the neatness that is your life. And surely other, much brighter people, have already expounded endlessly on these themes, and done it with greater elan. But I still feel like this evening I discovered something. Don't be put off if you discover something and others tell you that you are late to the party. If you wake up one morning and realize, actually "realize" that the earth circles the sun, then tell someone. So what if Galileo talked about it centuries ago? Discoveries are made and remade and made concurrently. Why do you think they give Nobel prizes to scientist from disparate parts of the globe who had never even spoken to each other, and for the very same discovery? Concurrent cogitation. No one has a patent on discovery.
When I was 20 and hitchhiking around Thailand I had a small epiphany one day and had to tell someone. The fellow I was traveling with was an American I had met somewhere along the road, name of Sweeney. We were on one of those quiet, dusty roads that go endlessly thru green banana plantations; the timeless cocoon that hitchhikers know so well, and I said to Sweeney - "You know, we are all pretty much alike. I mean everyone is a lot like everyone else. What we think and feel." I was an articulate devil at twenty. This revelation was stunning news to me, but Sweeney laughed it off and told me that 'everyone knows that'. Well, everyone didn't. That was the point. I continued to peel and eat very odd tiny bananas with strange flavors and watch for a truck. Sweeney had shut me right up.
I grew up very shy. Many do. But what does that mean? For me I discovered it meant that I thought I was so innately different from others, had shards of such alien flotsam in my head, that if others found out they would probably kill me. This might be the burden that shyness generally dwells beneath. Shy people, maybe especially children, are in hiding, because they know about the mob. They have intuited the tidal swell in human relations that leads to the anhilation of those that are 'different'. Running feet, hoarse voice, a scene lit by fire, the rope or the knife.
Ok, this isn't always the case, I am sure. It was for me. And to realize we are all approximately the same in our needs, fears, desires was astounding for me. It is a discovery made time and again and always worth its weight in gold. Nobody has a patent on discovery. And now I just call myself 'quiet'. The mob is still there, but if I have my weird edges, they have much, much weirder ones.
Hey, speaking of movies - which I wasn't really, let me offer you a fascinating double bill that will show you what real acting is about, and our polarities. The actor is Ben Kingsley. First I would put on Gandhi. You will feel to your marrow that you are really watching the Mahatma. It is a fabulous performance. Now, take a break, pop some corn, let the Mahatma's peace coat all your little neurons, and then go back and put on Sexy Beast. Same actor, but what a difference. You don't hear about this film much, but Kingsley's portrayal of sociopathy is probably the most chilling performance ever put to film. His mouth and eyes spew a soul-severing force that is terrifying. Mitchum was pretty good in Night of the Hunter; Kingsley makes him look like a first year apprentice. If you liked Gandhi you may find this second film almost impossible to watch. Don't play it for the kids, and do watch it with the English subtitles on if you have any problem with the accents. I always do.
Well, it's time we got to the title. Back before snow fell in the balmy days of autumn and Shay was the chicken-mom a problem developed. She discovered chicken bonbons. Delightful little tidbits with just a touch of white frosting on top. So yummy! But they gave her a terrible hacking cough. We could not dissuade her from her quest. Munch, munch, cough, cough. No more Shay with the chickens. A second effect was rather in keeping with a boxer's natural tendency to flatulence. Chicken bonbons produce the most astounding 'angel breath' - an euphemism worthy of a church social. When the dog at your feet of an evening begins to disappear in a miasmic cloud big people leave the room gasping.
On a greener note, my glued-together baseboard heating system began to leak soon after I bragged on it in the last missive. It has now been completely replaced. We had Pex, a plastic tubing designed for hot water, put in to replace the old copper. And as of tomorrow the Kerr Titan Model 101T wood-fired boiler will be completely installed in line with our existing oil-fired boiler. This movement has gained tremendous momentum in the North East as the price of heating oil has risen. Our neighbor, Buddy, is doing the work for us and the 30 year old furnace he scored for us was acquired nip and tuck. The owner told Buddy he'd had over 30 calls and the first one there with money got it. Buddy got up to Augusta first. Cost was $800 delivered to my basement. Parts and labor will be that much again.
Of the four houses around us three have old Titans installed. Buddy has had a lot of experience with them. All of these houses are, or were, in the family. The furnace is fairly simple. A fire box that will hold 12 hours of wood heats a tank of water via twenty tubes. The system is electrically tied in to the oil furnace and set up so that the oil furnace will not come on while the wood furnace is supplying hot water. The really neat thing about it all is that if the power goes out, as it did for 19 days here in the 'great ice storm' you can still heat your house with just wood. It would not work as well without the electric circulating pump, but work it will. So, while we are not exactly off the grid we are halfway ready to be kicked off.
Just up from the basement with gritty black knuckles and smoky hair and in good humor. Three of the original panel firebricks in the furnace were broken or missing. They are about ten by eighteen inches and cannot be purchased. Went to a local refractory business and got all the info needed and a thirty pound bag of refractory cement, came home, set up my forms and cast my bricks. Let them set 72 hours and popped them into place in the firebox. They came out fine and fit nicely and I now have a small fire going in the box to get the moisture out slowly. Should be heating with wood this time tomorrow.
If I recall rightly, not that you can depend on that, each of my kids independently came up with "Tweakers Suck" bumper stickers at around the same time. After working several years with blown-out speed freaks I can handily concur. But right now we are in serious, not yet desperate, need of Dr. Tweaky. Buddy is my Dr. Tweaky; he says 'tweaking' is the technical term used when setting up two furnaces to work in tandem. He lives across the road, out there in the snow. I coat-up and begin the walk toward further illumination.
It is my intention - ever looking for the vanishing bon mot, to announce my visit by saying that I come bearing the most feared words a woman can utter: "We need to talk." He is not home. I am stymied and leave a message with his daughter. "A minor Chernobyl" I tell her, "but as you can see the house is still standing." She nods duly and we part.
Buddy vanished yesterday. We were in the basement tweaking the two furnaces toward a cooperative effort. I went upstairs and when I came back he had gone. For a part, I figured, and decided he had no doubt meant me to keep the home fires burning even though the tweaking was not complete. Wires were hanging from boxes; controls not fully functional. So many pipes. So many valves. Gauges to peer into. A beast with two hearts and a scattered grid of brains. But I had it in hand; I checked the temps and pressures on the two boilers, added some wood and went back upstairs.
When I returned in an hour all was well, boiler temps and pressures within parameters. Good. I added some more wood to the fire. Another hour or two passes and all still seems well. It is going on bedtime, so I decide to do what the big boys do and fill up the fire box with wood so everything will function all night sans my assistance. Very cool, I am thinking. The big-mama twelve hour load of dry, split oak.
That was last night. Right now - it is tomorrow already and today is minutely longer than fraught yesterday - I am making memory-assistant cards to post in various places around the boilers. One reads: STEAM BAD!!. In smaller letters beneath this heading it informs me that 'when the when the furnace and pipes start in knocking it's the devil at the door.'
Fortunately these boilers were actually made to produce steam, so the 220F on the oil boiler, which accepts the hot water from the wood boiler and then has nowhere to send it since the house is already nice and warm, was noisy but not seemingly impaired. The beast in the boiler was fretful only. The shuddering and banging in the copper pipes was more worrisome - would they really withstand raw steam? As all popped, clanked, banged and groaned slightly louder I hooked up a hose to the noisiest zone and drained it: nothing but steam. I noted that while the oil boiler was too hot, it shouldn't go over 200F for this type system, the pressure was fine around 25psi. The wood boiler had a sub-boiling temp, but its pressure was over 35psi. Aieeee! Don't the various pressure relief valves begin to blow here? When do we explode and sink? I moved between the two boilers comparing readings, thinking.
Yes, they do begin to blow, but not in grand explosive fashion. Water begins to seep from the wood boiler's fire box as the pressure relief pipe that would douse the fire in case of true emergency begins to drip. Steam is coming out of the air release valve above the oil boiler's pressure relief tank. BANG! BANG! POP!! I drain the other zone. I partially drain the wood boiler main holding tank next. The noises ease. The shuddering winds down to a tremble. Back upstairs I feel as if I have dodged that sort of incident in the engine room aboard ship that cooks sailors. Later I hear the distant thrum of the oil boiler coming on; it burns for a few minutes and shuts down. The system is still working fine regardless of my experimental approach to tweaking. Hot air rises from the baseboard heaters and warms the cockles of all hearts present: myself, Shay, Waldo, and Rocky. It is fortunate that Pat is not here; I can forsee how the 911 calls would have unwound 'midst recriminations to ultimately wrap me in beauracracy's nasty tape. I let the wood fire burn out. It is the solstice and we have survived to begin another circling of the sun.
How old are you? Did you grow up in one of those old apartment houses with steam radiators that clanked and banged all night long, almost shaking you out of your bed? It was like dwelling in a blacksmith's forge. We thought nothing of it. We even looked forward to the sounds as it meant heat might soon come from those cast iron frames that somehow joined us to the mysteries in the basement. The heat was always sporadic. 'None' and 'open-the-windows hot' were the two settings. The other vivid memory of heating systems that I have was at one time as ubiquitous among children as house flies. You got up sleepy-eyed and fuzzy in the morning and wandered dumbly toward the ornate, Victorian brass register set in the floor, that gentle fountain of hot air. It was the source of all warmth in the universe. Warmer than your mother's breath. You trundled toward it in absolute innocence. Without a blink you stepped into the warm exhalation and onto the register. Screams ensued. You were on the floor next to the register writhing. Wonderful crisscross and viny patterns were branded into the soles of your burning feet. You were sure you would never walk again. Did we do this more than once? Oh, yes. Many times, I fear. Mornings have always been dangerous.
I should probably get this launched into the aether. It is my equivalent of a holiday greetings card. While it doesn't have the constraint of needing to be somewhere by any given date I fear I will just keep adding to it ad nauseum. Seems I am in a very chatty mood of late. Just up from the basement. Built a small fire this aft to see how much tweaking I could manage on my own. Got to the point where I had a not-very-big fire in the box, maybe 4 logs, and now my wood furnace boiler is up over 40 psi and water is dripping from the fire box corner. No steam clanks yet. Opened up the thermostats in the house to full-on to drain the heat. Apparently this furnace wants to heat something a whole lot bigger than my house. Ah, yes, there is the greenhouse to think about. That should be fun.
all the best to all of you, don e. Oh, had a thought on the markets - how could I not comment on the sanity of holding gold. My thought includes the entire economy, actually: death is a lagging indicator.