Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Making a Nest - Step 1

Five months ago I purchased a one-half acre wooded lot in Salem, Virginia


     My lot is a five-minute walk to Main Street where a city bus stops every hour except Sundays. Why is this important? Because someday in my more senior years, I will have to relinquish La Lair and my driver license. I'm prepared for that day; already purchased my senior discount metro card. Also, La Lair and other newer diesel engines don't like short city trips (the emissions system flashes clogged filter warnings if the engine never exceeds 50 mph for several miles), so catching a cheap public bus ride to run errands is a good transportation alternative, in addition to my electric bike.


     I hired Mike an excavator to uproot and remove the unhealthy mostly ugly trees and brush (his long boom is yellow, see upper left of photo below). Mike is well-known among the neighbors; he cleared many of their lots.


You're looking at my future home-site (center of photos above and below). My neighbors told me a dozen deer showed up one night to nibble on the downed tree leaves before Mike hauled them away.


Almost done!


     Next project was cutting and sawing off stubborn roots (see my back support in photo below?). Good neighbors Phil and Judy also loaned me their loppers and other tools. I was surprised how many Black and White mostly retired neighbors on my street came over to introduce themselves as I worked on my lot. They're wonderfully friendly and interesting conversationalists. I hope the neighborhood stays this way.


     My sister Vicki took pity on me and volunteered to come down to help for a week. She and I are used to hard work. Our family poultry farm depended on our child labor, raising about 3,000 laying hens from 1-day old peeps. I hated being "a farm kid" -- dirty farm work at 5 AM and again at 4 PM for several hours. 
     The photographer couldn't even force us to smile (photo below of Vicki and me with peeps). We didn't volunteer for farm work, it was required. Although we got an allowance of a couple dollars weekly, there was a 5-cents penalty deduction for doing something bad or disobedient. At the end of the week when it was time to pay our allowance, my mom would look at the family wall calendar to count my demerits -  under my name, there were tally marks in groups of five for all to see.  My sister's record was clean of course; totally obedient and subservient. When my mom counted and subtracted my demerits, my allowance was often down to almost nothing. I was determined not to be rehabilitated by dangling money in front of me as a reward for "good behavior according to mom" so I continued to rack-up those demerits and refused to be bought. When I was 14 years old, I finally had enough money saved-up to buy my first bicycle, a one-speed with a simple coaster-brake. With my bike, I could escape Cruella de Vil and go to daily swim-team practice three miles away during the summer months.
     One day while gathering and washing eggs, Vicki and I had a dispute about something forgettable and I threw an egg at her. Little Miss Perfect with a clean record did something totally out of character, she threw an egg back at me! At the sound of two broken eggs, numerous farm cats came running (dinner bell!) to lick-up the damage. Surprisingly broken eggs didn't happen very often despite gathering, washing, grading and packing thousands of eggs manually, no automation! But I digress . . . 



     Vicki (in photo below) and I laid and staked about 7,000 square feet of weed control fabric after first cutting/sawing away the many protruding roots (rocks will eventually be dumped on top of the fabric). The wonderful thing about teaming-up with my hardworking and hard-playing adult sister is that we now have respectful disagreements without throwing eggs at each other. I explain step-by-step why and how, she adds her two-cents worth, and if she has a better idea, we do it her way.


     The beautiful Appalachian Mountains over yonder create a gusty wind on my high-elevation lot. The weed control fabric almost became a 7,000 square foot parachute (lifting the 6-inch stakes with it), so I had to get those rocks delivered ASAP!  My neighbor Phil has a Wunderground weather station 100 feet from my future home which recorded wind gusts from 27 to 33 mph most of this past year (less gusty from July to September). I made an addition to my homebuilder notebook; use thicker plywood on the roof and use screws, not nails, consider go-bolts — long, threaded rods that connect roof beams to foundation.


I hired King's Hauling and Excavating to dump about 80 tons of rocks from a local quarry on the fabric.


     The purpose of the lot's perimeter of rock landscaping is to serve as a permanent "bed" for Norway Spruce seedlings that need 16 feet spacing. I'll pick up the seedlings and plant them zig-zag style next April as a future wind-blocker and privacy screen. Hopefully I'll never have to mow under and around two dozen Spruce trees that will eventually surround my little nest. In the middle of my lot, I'll plant clover to entice the deer back.


     I'm done in Salem for awhile. Won't bore you with the irksome ($$$) and time-consuming details of getting a land-disturbance permit from the city to do this project. But in a nutshell, instead of hiring a licensed engineer to draw a plan, I drew it myself (with ideas from other plans posted on the Internet). The city code folks said my unacceptable amateur plan was "shocking" because it wasn't done with auto-CAD. So I burned the midnight-oil for many nights until 2 AM, reading Virginia's Erosion and Sediment Control regs, looking for loop-holes and found a magic wand called "requesting a variance".  It portends perhaps as the first of many more irksome ($$$) and time-consuming permit applications. When I return next April to plant my seedlings, I'll interview a couple more builders. Like everything else in my life, my senior home will be unorthodox. It will have an extra large attached garage with about 800 square feet of living space (600 square feet is the city minimum). I'll spend the winter drawing measurements for walls, windows, doors, closets, etc. Not sure if I'll build next year or 2022. Make plans and God laughs!
 
     Next month I'll be in Northern Virginia doing a farm-sit for a young family that's taking advantage of "no-school" with their three teenagers. They're going skiing all winter; making the most of a very strange year. My childhood farm experience got me this gig. I'll be gathering their organic free-range eggs (including duck eggs) twice a day with an attentive dog and three farm cats. They have weekly customers on an honor system with private access so I won't need to mingle with customers. Seems like a good rent-free place to be isolated this winter and yet not be bored.

     I learned a new word this COVID year . . . vertiginous . . . as in "our vertiginous times of feeling whirled around and in danger of falling." To get through these head-whirling days, I put my headphones on and listen to Jewel's soothing lullaby songs for kids. Rarely read or listen to adult news anymore . . .  I'm with the kid below.


     I'm indulging in nonfiction books; my latest book which gives an excellent glimpse into America's vertiginous times 100 years ago is Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes by Adam Hochschild. And Jewel the singer by the way, is another rags to riches story (Never Broken). I'm also catching-up on years-ago Academy Award-nominated movies that I've never seen. The movies are free DVDs from the Salem public library. I choose and reserve DVDs online and call to request pickup; library is closed but staff puts books/DVDs in a bag with my name on a folding picnic table in the foyer area. 

     I'm actually enjoying the solitude of all the COVID restrictions that negate crowds. Being alone has been soothing to my soul. And the mask is no big deal when I do have to mingle somewhere. When I swim at the YMCA four times weekly (they check everyone's temperature at the front door), I often share that large beautiful pool with only one other swimmer. It's wonderful! And grocery store shopping at 7 AM is wonderful too. No lines! Michael Harris explains it well in his article written three years ago "When being alone will improve your life."

     I'll close with a soothing poem from Ecclesiastes (a song too from Pete Seeger and the Byrds, yes I'm just an old hippy) that reflects on the vertiginous times of earthlings for hundreds of centuries . . . 

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”



Monday, June 1, 2020

"Staying-home" with a twist

     One month into Maryland’s stay-home mandate, I re-homed myself from my sister and her husband’s Maryland home in the DC area (high contagion rate) to another home in Salem, Virginia (low contagion rate).

     The little town of Salem, population 25,000, is a smidgen west of Roanoke, population 100,000. This area of southwestern Virginia is nestled in the Appalachian Mountain range which runs from Georgia to Maine (the popular A.T. runs through it). Two great books by the way about the A.T. are David Miller’s “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” and Jennifer Pharr Davis’ “Becoming Odyssa”. These two books don’t sugar-coat the grueling trail. And no, I'm not hiking the Appalachian Trail anytime soon although many will despite the virus.



     Virginia has a stay-home mandate too, but I had no problems re-homing myself. No one pulled me over to inquire about my Texas license plate. Enroute to Salem, I slept one night at a Walmart parking lot in Staunton, Virginia, where my favorite east coast Dodge/Ram dealer changed my diesel oil and filter. Only two other customers were there. I also visited my “stuff” placed in a storage unit last July -- one dead mouse was stuck on the sticky paper I left inside. Left the decomposing mouse there as a warning to her cousins and siblings. Retrieved my ebike, charger and helmet.     Instead of being a “van-camper” this year, I’m now a “boarder”. I moved-in with homeowner Walter who’s 86 years old in his 3-bedroom home in Salem. He mows his grass regularly. And he's high-tech too; Alexa is at his beck and call.

      We found each other through SeniorHomeShares.Com and this month-to-month home-sharing without a lease is beneficial to both of us. He provides me a stable place to reside for minimal rent and I’m his spotter, help-mate and go-for (grocery store is a short ebike ride away). We’re politically and culturally different; sort of like an aging Johnny Cash meets an aging Annie Lennox. But we share interests; Walter had an RV and motorhome (traveled to Alaska with his family several times), and he has an impressive workshop full of tools for any DIY projects. Plus he's a movie buff with a choice of three large-screen televisions (Netflx and Amazon Prime Video memberships). 
     One TV room has a great sound system and a reclining pair of Lazy-Boys -- a comfy personal theater! I brought my silicone popcorn popper, powdered cheese and chopsticks so eating popcorn with company and watching a big-screen is a luxurious escapism for me.


     Photo below shows the two of us discussing recently-planted tomato plants in the flower bed.

     My goal next year is to build a senior home near Main Street, Salem, within walking distance from a city bus stop that can take me everywhere -- to the Roanoke Amtrak station, the Roanoke Regional airport, Walmart, Home Depot, grocery stores, farmers’ market, hospital and dental and medical clinics. I also want to be near Salem’s YMCA pool (heated indoor lap lanes, see their promotional photo below). I'm a new member, just waiting for opening day to use this beautiful pool. 

     Someday, hopefully not soon, someone will take my vehicle keys away from me.  I’ve seen it all too often with other seniors when they lose their license - there’s precious few friends left who are physically able to chauffeur them for routine errands and appointments. When that happens to me, I want to live somewhere busable, walkable and bikeable to all the town’s amenities plus be centrally located for at-home care. It’s a concept called “aging in place”, sort of what Walter is doing for as long as possible.

     Why build, why not buy an existing house? Because most existing homes are ugly, too big and inappropriate for an aging-in-place senior, plus the location isn’t near a bus stop, thereby requiring reliance on family or friends to be chauffeurs. Or if the homes are little and cute near a bus stop, they’re a throw-back to the 30s and 40s architecture; super-tiny bathrooms, two stories high, dangerous stairs down to a damp basement, no attached garage, and maintenance head-aches (click here for such a home). Been there, done that. Sadly, there’s not much choice out there for solo senior homeowners who want to age-in-place with handicap-accessible features in maintenance-free small homes with an attached garage all under 1,000 square feet. Don’t want a rental unit either. My biggest fear is living in a senior multi-family rental community of The Stepford Grandmas.
     
     So I’ve been studying small home designs. One article about ugly new homes inside city limits states “The rules and systems that have produced this standardized architecture—financial ones, largely determined by banks and property appraisers, as well as political ones—create a kind of socioeconomic standardization, determining who can afford to live in the neighborhoods experiencing rapid gentrification.” So true! Last winter when I home-doggie sat for Pamela in Rockville, Maryland, the sales prices of 1980-ish townhomes in her neighborhood were astronomical in my opinion. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, in Pamela’s county, Montgomery County, an affluent suburb of Washington D.C., fully 44 percent of its employees live in other counties because they can’t afford homes in the county they serve. Some lots for sale inside town limits have zones or covenants requiring multi-family units or a single family home in excess of 2,000 square feet. I don’t want to live in a three-bedroom home designed for millennials (click here for a Salem listing of such a new home, near Main Street, it’s 3-levels and pricey with monthly HOA fees). Nor do I want a mortgage or HOA where someone else calls the shots on what I can’t or can build. All I want is just a simple Icelandic home . . . in Virginia. While touring Iceland almost two years ago for a couple of weeks, I was smitten by their simple practical low-maintenance architecture (click here for that previous post I wrote, and for another travel blogger's post about Iceland's architecture click here). My Icelandic home will sorta-kinda look like the design below, with one 10x10 foot garage door instead of two little ones, and vertical metal-siding instead of horizontal Hardieboard, plus a covered porch with outside dining and a grill in the rear.


     The good news is, I found a lot inside the town limits of Salem that meets all my location requirements (see Google map street view below showing my lot between two fairly new houses). Yes, that's a fire hydrant on my lot (far right).

     The neighborhood around this lot includes both Black and White homeowners, a college frat house, a light industrial warehouse about one-quarter mile away and a neighborhood bar with pool tables three blocks down the street on Main Street (bus stop is there too). But the rear view on this small-town lot is bucolic and woodsy. To the west and north, there are views of mountains in the distance. I closed on the lot purchase May 29 with a frail 80-year old seller who asked me to chauffeur him to our real estate closing by the way. This vacant lot is now officially mine . . . somewhat unnerving, never done this before!
     The challenge begins; familiarize myself with the city codes folks, find contractors and builders for estimates, and pay all the permit fees for every little step in this long complicated process. My scattered notebooks are full of scribbly notes, names and phone numbers. The first step is to clear the scrubby trees; only one mature oak tree at the rear is worth saving. I’ll plant evergreens eventually as I don't want fall leaves from deciduous trees.


So head's up - the focus here is changing from traveling in La Lair to building a one-story Icelandic home. Someday I'll travel extensively again in La Lair, worry-free as a butterfly. Until then, local excursions . . .  hikes on mountain trails such as the nearby Poor Mountain trail where songbirds and pileated woodpeckers keep me company . . .

. . . enjoyed a recent bike ride with new friends in the area who corrected my Yankee pronunciation of Appalachian.


I'm excited about visiting horse farms and stables in the area like the one in photo above. Below photo shows Annie, Basil and Kay on manual bikes trying to keep up with me on my ebike . . . these mountainous roads are better-suited for electric bikes in my opinion :)


. . . and perhaps this summer (after my upcoming knee cartilage surgery postponed since last March) I'll enjoy horse rides, Roanoke River trips, Smith Mountain Lake adventures . . . . and until my knee mends, amuse myself with library e-books such as "The Moth Presents Occasional Magic: true stories about defying the impossible" compiled by Catherine Burns from fifty storytellers of the hit podcast The Moth. I'm also on the waiting list for "The Black Swan" written by Nassim Taleb; its central idea being to jump wholeheartedly into exploiting positive events when negative unpredictable events surprise and overwhelm us, hopefully a good read for our unique times. And I'll thump my good leg to Juzzie Smith's one-man band who plays a mouth harmonica and a three-string cigar-box guitar, and read hilarious reader comments about Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica invention as played by William Zeitler, click here for a listen.
     Be safe dear readers, and don't go insane if you listen to the glass armonica!

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Waiting for the Virus to End . . .

     On the first day of Spring I arrived at my sister's townhouse in Laurel, Maryland for presumably a short visit before heading further south to camp near Roanoke, Virginia.  But a couple days later we were all mandated to stay "home" . . .


. . . and to keep six feet apart.


     My sister Vicki (center) and her husband Barry live a short walk away from the Oxbow Nature Preserve which was donated to the Nature Conservancy by the developers of her home owners association. If this is "living in a bubble" it's a good bubble to be in! The entrance/exit to a trail isn't marked, nor is there a parking lot, making it all the more intriguing.


This little hike has become my favorite walk . . . 


and today the sky was azure blue, perfect cool weather too.


     Little green leaves are finally bursting out, and puffy little clouds are scattered everywhere.


The preserve is 250 acres, 70 of it is wetland . . . 


. . . . and it includes a "naturally occurring" body of fresh water.


I think that's "spatterdock" (water plants in above photo). See the pair of terns?


Tall Barry goes over a downed tree, short Vicki goes under it.


Someone built a treehouse . . . . 


The trail skirts a pond and meanders . . .


. . . up a challenging hill.


Signs of beaver activity . . .


Fiddlehead ferns?


Pretty yellow stone about as big as a tangerine . . .


Lots of big ole snags . . . 


     When I got "home", I warmed a bowl of my favorite "experimental" soup --  while waiting for the virus to end I've tried several experimental soups, this is the best one. Soak and then cook a bunch of pinto beans in water on low heat in a big pot or crockpot, along with a bunch of Italian seasoning and chicken bouillon to taste. When beans are soft, blend most of the beans (leave a few beans for identification purpose) with a small can of tomato paste, and voila! the perfect bowl of soup! Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and grated cheese if you got it. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Life is like a roll of toilet paper . . .

     Andy Rooney was my favorite humorist. Click here for explanation of a humorist versus a comedian. I remember chuckling years ago when he said "Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes." But now that I'm almost as old as Andy when he made that analogy, it's not as funny. No disease (yet), just reminders from aging joints and tendons that I'm mortal.


     Traveling in La Lair for the past four years throughout the United States and Canada made me realize how small my life has been in rural Texas. It's a state that boasts about 54 things that are bigger in Texas. But I wasn't living large in Texas.
     Twenty-eight years ago, at age 40, I moved to quiet, peaceful rural "Piney Woods of East Texas" from the capital city of Pennsylvania, happily giving up my administrative public education career and urban lifestyle due to burn-out. East Texas was a good salve career-wise and recreation-wise. My fondest memories are finishing the day at my good-paying non-stressful federal government job (7 AM to 3:30 PM office job, no congested commuter traffic, mostly rural roads). In the heat of the day after work, I'd drive a few miles north on a dirt road to swim open-water in a clear quarry, no alligators!


     And after a refreshing swim I'd stop by a neighbor's ranch to ride my chestnut Thoroughbred horse JC who was as shiny as a brand new copper penny. We'd trot and get sweaty for a couple of hours in a private forest with over 20 miles of groomed trails to choose from (hunters took real good care of this forest all year-long). No highway hum, no police or EMS sirens blasting through the neighborhood (when will Americans demand siren changes?).  All I'd hear was leaves rustling in the wind and boisterous crows and songbirds . . occasionally a herd of deer leaping through brush in the distance. I'd crow-speak, deer-speak (bleat) and sing songs to JC because my voice assured her all was well in our neck of the woods. And it truly was . . .


     When JC died, I leased and rode Topaz an Arabian for a couple years from my good friend Sally. But Topy is 28 years old with arthritic joints too, and she's enjoying a well-earned retirement with plenty of treats and kisses. Sally's taking good care of her.


      I've been a lucky woman with a handful of great Texan friends. Plus thousands of acres of private and federally-owned forests, beautiful sunsets and wonderful dinners and companionship too at my neighbor Chef Jim's lake-side home, admiring migratory White Pelicans on Lake Livingston.  


But when I retired and traveled half the year in La Lair, my cottage was neglected more and more.


     Winters were spent scraping and painting. And stuff inside my cottage was collecting dust . . . a forlorn-looking vintage cookie jar from my mom hadn't held a cookie in half a century . . .


. . . sad-looking rolling pins from both grandmothers hadn't rolled in 50 years.


     In a short amount of time, vintage stuff that brought joy now brought angst and a bit of guilt. How many sheets of toilet paper would it take to keep my ancestors' stuff dust-free and displayed for whom, and for how long? And why?  This handmade wooden sign in my living room reminded me every day of my motto for the past 40 plus years.


     So I sold 43 vintage items on Ebay.  I became "an excellent seller" with high ratings because everything started at a low asking price and was packed well. My goal was to get rid of stuff to someone appreciative, not to make money. Sold a couple things via Craigslist and Facebook's Marketplace, made a few trips to Goodwill and to second-hand consignment shops (worn old pots, matching wedding bands from my first marriage, my Grandparents' mahogany Empire chest, a primitive jelly cupboard, my great Uncle Matthew's Saratoga Steam Chest, my Grandparents' two antique mantel clocks, etc.). Dropped off old computers and tech gear at the nearest Staples. I'm now less-owned by my ancestors' stuff which is liberating.

     Sold too was my 860-square-foot "Piney Woods" cottage which I bought with cash 28 years ago. Over 40 viewers "saved" my real estate listing on Zillow because it's a cute cottage. Not surprisingly, it was popular with women like myself wanting peace and quiet in a natural forest setting with no lawn to mow. Nor is it necessary to bag fall leaves.


     My next cottage if or when that day comes, will be designed for a 99-year independent old lady. It will have exclusively acrylic flooring (easy to clean, no vacuum cleaners, no grout to clean), metal roof (no replacements in my lifetime), one-story (no stairs), built-in shelves (no bureaus or end tables), walk-in sit-down shower and grab-rails (no falls and cracked hips), and a nearby (short walk or bike ride) indoor heated lap swimming pool and jacuzzi.


I'll miss the busy deer path in my backyard; nearby there's a ravine with pools of water.


     Won't miss Texas' abundant insects.  This Giant Walking Stick was climbing up my window outside (photo below).  I was inside for an underbelly photo shot, holding a 6-inch ruler. Its' skinny double antennae (longer than its' six legs) are on the left side protruding from its' tiny minuscule head. The tail tip (far right) looks like a clamp. Very interesting insect that moves slowly to fool its predators.


     Packed a U-Haul trailer, hitched it up to La Lair and drove northeast . . . almost 1,200 miles averaging 19.7 mpg in La Lair. Fortunately no mishaps!


     . . . put my whittled-down stuff in a 10'x15' storage unit in a small mountain town in Virginia.

     Now it's just La Lair and me on a different kind of journey.