Archive for July, 2011

Building Catfish Pond

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

“In a home, it’s the site that matters.”
-Lao Tzu

How we built a ten bedroom, two story house on Saturdays, with a little help from our friends.

It was getting on late summer of 1977 when it began to collectively dawn on us, the residents of Catfish Pond, that winter was going to come again. We were living in the oldest surviving army tent on the Farm. Between it and the two shacks next to it we needed 4 wood stoves. We had no money, of course, no carpenters, and about a dozen little kids among us. It was clear we should build a house.

The crew consisted of two farmers, a printer, a truck driver, and a couple of poets. Michael, one of the farmers, had hung sheet rock in Colorado once, so he was put in charge. The plan was to move in by Thanksgiving. Not knowing what we were doing made it easy to be optimistic. We actually moved in a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving of 1978. It took a little over a year of Saturdays, during which time we earned the money, wrecked the materials, learned the skills, and built the house.

In accordance with the teaching of Lao Tzu, we began by picking the site. That was easy, and fun, walking around in the woods, arguing with your friends. The important thing about the site is to remember where the sun is. Our house is 62 feet long, built lengthwise on an exact east-west axis. Our long south wall, filled with windows, fills the house with sunlight all day in the winter. On a sunny day, with the temperature below freezing, we can heat the whole house just by opening the curtains. No need to build a fire until evening.

The next step was to dig the footer. It was all pick and shovel work in a mixture of rocks, clay, and tree roots, but it was something we knew we could do. So we measured and strung a few strings, and dug the ditches.

Pouring the footer was likewise well within our ken. The hardest part was helping the driver get the cement mixer unstuck from the mud. Once the footer was poured, the house began to feel more real. It gave us the impetus to get some jobs wrecking cinder block. People were glad to let us haul it away. All we had to do was knock it loose, load it in a truck, bring it home, and chip the mortar off of it. Lucky for us, Rodney, the mason, lived across the street. He showed us how to set it up, and taught us how to lay block. A bunch of the block had come from a pool hall, and was painted on one side, some pink, some blue, as I recall. So when we laid the block, we made a geometric pattern out of the different colored blocks.

One of the many Saturday jobs we got, to earn money and wreck materials, was rebuilding part of a stone wall foundation for a huge barn on this old woman’s Tennessee farm. Ruby was in her 70’s, as thin and mean as a snake. We jacked up the barn, hauled boulders and mortared them into place. It was quite beautiful when it was done. Then she cheated us out of some of our money. But, with what we had learned, we got a couple more stone wall building jobs.

Once the foundation was up, all we had to do was deck it and frame it. We already had a lot of the lumber from a house we had wrecked. By the time Thanksgiving came, the foundation was built, the first floor was decked and framed, and we were broke again.

During the winter all work on the house came to a stop. Caught up in the exigencies of our last winter in the tent, we almost forgot the house was there.

When spring came, we remembered. By now we had learned enough building the house and working off the Farm on Saturdays, that Michael figured we could take on something more challenging, so he got us a job building a one room addition on a house in Columbia. We contracted to do the whole thing, foundation, framing, roofing, siding, insulation, dry wall, wiring, painting, all for $5,000. Since we could only work on it on Saturdays, we split the job with the farming crew, who did some work during the week. We all learned a lot of stuff, made a little money, and built a nice addition.

Now we were in a position to do something. We collected all our lumber and roof tin, bought some more lumber, and talked to the construction crew. Charles and Sam came over with a crew and in one week, framed the second floor, raised the roof, and tacked on most of the silver board. We were broke again, but, in our back yard, was a huge, silver house.

The next big project was insulation. The Farm made a deal with a factory in Nashville, who just threw away all their loose fiber glass scraps. Free fiber glass! So one of the truckers filled a semi with fiber glass and parked it in front of our house. Three of us, one hot summer day, put on long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and bandanas over our faces and unloaded the truck. We filled three rooms up to the ceiling with fiber glass. To put it in the walls, I brought home some 4X3 book cover stock from the print shop, stapled it to the studs, and stuffed the fiber glass behind it. We also filled the attic a foot deep in fiber glass.

Thomas, one of the Farm electricians, came over one day and helped us wire the upstairs. I learned enough helping him that I could finish wiring the rest of the house by myself. Willie, the Farm plumber, and a guy who was here with his old lady to have a baby, put in all the plumbing, PVC for the drains, and copper for the running water.

Everyone had the same experience of seeing most of the house get built by somebody else. In the end it was hard to say who had built the house. Although we had all worked hard, it seemed to have happened by magic. Synergy is the hand of God.


This is what it looks like now

Cults and Politics

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

I was a member of a cult, back in the 70s and early 80s. I understand how the cult mentality works. There are many cults, some more subtle than others. Don’t be too sure that you are not a member.

I left the hippie commune cult in 1984. It took awhile longer to leave the left, liberal, progressive cult. One way that you can tell a cult is, if you stray at all from the cult orthodoxy, you are risking your connections to friends and family.

I’m a conservative. If I disagree with my very few conservative friends and relations, about abortion, or the various wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., or economic policy, or evolution, or the public school system, or Michelle Bachmann, or gay marriage, it is not a problem. My friendship or relationship is not on the line. These are gnarly subjects about which sincere, intelligent people can disagree. There is no conservative party line about any of these subjects. Conservatives believe in individualism, argument, and civility. That at least has been my experience.

On the other hand, if I disagree about any such subject with my liberal, lefty friends, of whom I have very many more than conservatives, I am very quickly brought face to face with excommunication, the loss of contact with people I love, and a decidedly cultish consciousness with which I am all too familiar. Blood is quickly up.

For example, I got into a discussion, with lefty friends, about Republican-promulgated laws that require a photo id in order to vote. This seems like a good idea to me. Anyone who is here legally can get a photo id, poor or rich, smart or stupid. You need a photo id to fly on an airplane, rent a car, get a job, get a driver’s license, cash a check, use a credit card, open a bank account, or rent an apartment. But if you have to show one in order to vote, that is voter suppression? How can anyone who is not captivated by a cult mentality believe such a thing?

There are exceptions. I do have lefty friends willing to tolerate my apostasy, just because we like each other too much to allow such nonsense to come between us.

I can’t help thinking about how it was when I was living in the unnamed cult. I shut up so good that I censored my own thoughts. Whenever the voice of common sense reared its ugly head, I dismissed it as doubt, proof of my unworthiness. Now, out here in the real world, I am sometimes being asked to once again practice self censorship in order to maintain my personal, family, and business relationships.

Ordinary people, like myself, sometimes have political opinions, sometimes don’t, but, either way, they don’t matter. How you raise your kids, conduct your business, deal with your relatives, socialize with your friends, has absolutely nothing to do with what you think about Obama, or John Maynard Keynes, or the various wars we are currently engaged in, or the health care system, or public employee unions, or the debt crisis, or abortion, or gun control, or any other such “issues”, except to the extent you need to have the correct opinions in order to maintain your relationships.

No matter what you say at parties, no matter how you vote, your politics is irrelevant. It is how you live your life that matters. I know so many people who are conservatives in their own lives, how they raise their children, manage their finances, etc., and yet are far left liberals in their politics. I don’t know anyone who is the other way around. People who are conservative in their politics, are, like most liberals, also conservative in their personal lives, out here in reality.

I believe that, to the best of my ability, as a citizen of this republic, I have a responsibility to be informed about history, especially the history of the United States of America, about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, about the political history and rhetoric of the Democratic and Republican parties, about what is really going on in the world, politically, economically, philosophically, militarily. But, I can’t help thinking that my obsession with these things is not really that different from an obsession with sports as pursued by most apolitical American men, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I know that not everyone takes that responsibility seriously, and they are not, nor should they be, required to do so. The more that do, the better off we all are, I think, I believe, as U.S. citizens, and as citizens of all the other nations of the world that depend, to one degree or another, on the U.S.A.

If we allow our political opinions to be determined by desire for acceptance in personal, familial, or economic society, or we just don’t really have independent, thoughtful political opinions, we are abrogating our responsibility as citizens of our nation and the world of nations. That is the real threat to democracy.

The New Kitchen

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

The dishwasher quit working. It would just make this horrible noise and not do anything. So we figured we’d get a new one at Home Depot and have them come and install it and take the old one away. But when we looked at their terms, they said that they wouldn’t do removal and installation if the flooring went up to, but not under, the dishwasher. Sure enough that’s what our crappy, glued down hardwood veneer floor did.

So we called up our friend and jack of all trades, Daniel, and asked if he would come help us. He came, expecting a pretty simple one day job to get the broken dishwasher out. He came and he took it out. The floor underneath was rotten. So he took out the cabinets and sink in order to replace the floor. The walls behind the cabinets were rotten, and the cabinets were too, all the walls behind all the lower cabinets, and all the cabinets. So they all came out. The walls were stripped down to the lath.

Then a friend offered to give us a bunch of pre-finished solid oak flooring that he had left over from building his house. How could we not replace the floor? So the crappy floor came up and the glue was laboriously scraped off the subfloor.

Candace had already stripped all the wallpaper off the walls, and we had a gas line put in and bought a gas stove from Scratch and Dent. Candace had also found 200 square feet of 12 inch marble tiles for $100 on Craig’s List. She painted the walls, the wainscoting, the ceiling, and all the cabinets.

Daniel had not bargained for this. He just thought he was taking out the dishwasher. Even though we were of course paying him, this was not on his schedule. Nevertheless he saw it all through, plumbing, electrical, installing cabinets, sheet rock, wainscoting, light fixtures, laying hardwood floor, tile counter tops, and aesthetic collaboration. It took a couple of weeks, all in all.

Here is a link to a slide show of the process.