Summer, well done

This has been a wonderful summer, at least as far as the weather is concerned. It almost the end of August and I have yet to put any air conditioners in the windows. At this point, barring a crazy September, I have no internation of doing so. Even the third floor bedrooms, with all of their sun exposure, have remained reasonably comfortable all summer.

You see, Glenbogle West, not surprisingly, has no air conditioning. It’s a big old stone house and adding air conditioning would be both difficult and expensive, so it hasn’t (and likely won’t ever) be done. That means last summer I had to deal with the bane of my existence – window air conditioners. We didn’t use them much, but even using them once means the whole effort of getting them out of the basement, lugging them up to the rooms, getting them situated in the windows (without dropping them three stories to the ground) and then making sure there’s some semblance of weatherstripping around them. It’s all very complicated and, frankly, not all that effective anyway, although the rooms cool down enough to make sleeping reasonably comfortable.

Oddly enough, the air itself is the least of my worries. Because the house’s exterior is made up of thick stone walls, the temperature in the house (and the ability to change it) depends more on the average of temps over time than it does the heat for a particular evening. If we have a hot spell, the walls warm up and all of the cooling in the world will only reduce the temp so much. It’s like a brick oven, losing heat into the rooms (and warming them) even as the outside temperatures drop. The need for air conditioning, therefore, is somewhat proportionate to the number of warm days in a row more than the temprature for a particular day.

This year, the hot days have been largely one-offs, with unusually cool interludes in between, so the house simply hasn’t warmed up all that much. Our battery of window fans has been more than enough most nights to keep things comfortable, and in some instances cool enough to require an extra blanket. Summer junkies may be unhappy, but I’m thrilled.

Of course, the converse of this is also true, and the house is both difficult and expensive to heat. We’ll deal with that when the time comes but, for now, I’m enjoying our cooler-than-normal summer.

 

Living Off The Land

We had some serious ambitions when we moved here about turning it into a bit of a gentleman’s farm, since it had been a real farm in the past. Not really a gentleman’s farm, since that implies a level of farming we weren’t really willing to tackle, but at least a serious vegetable patch with an herb garden, maybe a few hop and grape vines (for homebrew and wine respectively,) and at one point I had even harbored some visions of a small field of barley, also for homebrew. There was talk of chickens, maybe goats, and the girls were even making noise about horses. The goat talk was quickly quieted by friends who had goats and regretted it, and the horses by the amount of money and work which goes into it. Oh, and the fact that of the family members I’m the only one who can really claims to have ever ridden, and I have no intention of mucking out stalls.

As I sit here after more than a year in the house, there are two ragged little grape vines struggling to survive on the yard behind me, and next to me is our overgrown former vegetable patch, which never exceeded ten feet long in any one direction. There’s a tomato plant fighting its way through the underbrush, but that’s due to its own personal initiative, not any planting on our part. On the stone wall near the hog pen some dead plants await the ground they’ll never see, and there’s complete silence from the barn and anywhere else on the property where one might otherwise keep an animal. Our failure to farm is not complete, with a nice-sized kitchen herb patch flourishing on the side of the house, but when compared with our ambitions the reality has paled.

There are a number of reasons for that, not least of which is that our ambitions were maybe a bit too ambitious, and outstripped our energy and equipment. Because this place clearly had a number of very nice, managed flower beds at one point, most of which were overgrown when we got here, merely resuscitating those has taken a significant amount of time, and we’re nowhere near done. Mowing the lawn takes a significant period of time on its own, and that doesn’t even include the parts we’ve contracted out for lack of a lawn tractor. That and a vegetable patch of the size I envisioned requires a tiller or a lot of digging, and we’ve not had time for either in between multiple jobs and schlepping kids to sports, music, and God knows what else every week.

Equally important, plants and animals require care, and we enjoy travel. Granted, we don’t travel as much as we’d like, but for a farming lifestyle (or serious hobby farm) you either have to check your wanderlust at the door or pay someone to take care of things while you’re gone. We’ve not been willing to do either.

Our ambitions aren’t completely checked, I’m just guessing it will take us a lot longer to get started than it might have earlier in life, with fewer kids and fewer responsibilities. It’s a good thing we have supermarkets close by or we’d be in real trouble.

 

A Wee Dram Of Mystery

One of the challenges of living in this odd house is figuring out what all of the various and sundry buildings are. Some were easy – the barn, for example, is a barn. Stalls, trough, the whole nine yards – a barn. Others were not quite as easy.

One mystery was the long, low white building in front of the house. It had at one point been broken up into stalls, about ten on either side, with knee-high doors leading out from each stall and dormer windows above. There was a drain in the middle of each stall, most of which were rusted but still functional. One stall had been converted to a clearly more modern use, since it held the pump and filter for the swimming pool. It resembled a really tiny whisky distillery, only without the little cupolas on top.

We struggled to figure out what it was. One guess, from the local pest control, was that it was a milking barn, so that’s what we called it for a while. Somehow, I couldn’t shake the idea that the stall wasn’t really for cows, maybe because those knee high doors wouldn’t really have fit even the smallest of cows.

At some point I decided it had to be a pig stall, shortly after one of our other discoveries, a large smoke house built into the hill beside the house. More on that later, but the smoke house was clearly intended for something larger than just a slab of bacon, so I went with pig stall until more experienced hands assured me that even a long-empty pig stall would still smell to high heaven. I was a bit skeptical, but we went back to the drawing board – goats? Sheep? Really ill-behaved children? It was hard to tell.

Or not. One day, when a circuit breaker tripped I made my way down to the basement to find, among other things, a large panel with a few switches clearly related to the various outbuildings. In big letters next to one of the switches was the answer – Hog Pen.

Pigs it is then.

Laird Of The Glen

As I’ve mentioned we live on a gentleman’s farm of sorts, only not. It was clearly a large farm in its heyday and, at some point in the 60s, we know it was the home of a very well-to-do family who renovated it to the then-top standards of the day. For a 200 year old farm house, it was pretty fancy, with outlets everywhere, water heat, lots of closets with lights which trigger when you open the door, built-in laundry bins in the bathrooms, and even little buttons all over the house to call the help.

There’s only one problem – there’s no help to call, and in the ensuing 50 years or so many things have changed. Ok, so that’s really two problems, but hear me out. All of those outlets? Two prongs. The closet lights? Well, some of them work, but many don’t, which can be said of many of the outdoor lights as well. The basement leaks and sometimes other parts of the house do too. There’s no air-conditioning and the heater slurps oil, costing a small fortune while heating only moderately.

The gardens and other landscaping which surround the house were clearly laid out for someone with a staff (or, at the very least, a whole lot of time on their hands). We’ve weeded, dug, mulched and moved three houses worth of weeds and yet there are years of garden work left to be done. The pool remains a puzzle, although with enough chemicals it appears to be safe for use.

In short, it’s a house with an absolutely stunning view, wonderful outdoor spaces, and incredible indoor spaces, but some burning needs. We, in turn, are woefully ill-equipped to keep up with the place. Sitting in the house one day I was reminded of Archie, the protagonist in BBC’s Monarch of the Glen, who was called away from his slick urban life to return to the aging, dilapidated mansion they called Glenbogle. The house was spectacular but falling down in places, and the family had neither the means nor the staff to keep up with it.

I may be no laird of the glen, but I herewith christen this old pile of stone Glenbogle West.

Back to School, Back to Reality

Next Tuesday, the kids will gear up and head to the bus to start a fresh new year of school.

For seven Septembers now, I’ve started the month in a complete panic, expecting everything to go wrong, mentally counting how many ways that I am not prepared. I’ve worried about forms and school lunches and uniforms and school supplies. I’ve struggled with who the new teachers might be and how my kids will react. I worried about the other kids at school and some of the not so nice things that sometimes come out of the mouths in front of my kids, some targeted and others completely random. I have been a bowl of jelly at the end of practically every summer.

Until this year.

This is the first year that I’ve ever been this relaxed about the start of school. And it was so different and so new that I didn’t even know how to put my finger on it. I kept trying to sort out what was terribly wrong, why I was feeling anxious about, well, not having anything to feel anxious about. And then it hit me: I have this feeling that everything is going to be okay.

And this is the part where I feel a little guilty.

You see, last year, in a fit of completely inexplicable inertia, I proposed a move. My husband and I had discussed a move for a number of years – and by discussed, I mean argued about, generally – and had always pushed it to the back on our “to really, really talk about some other day” list. But this year, things were different.

To begin with, I was tired. I was tired of things being so hard. Due to an odd sequence of events, our office leased was terminated after eight years and our building was completely demolished – not so much as rubble remains – within months so that it can be made into something much more alluring than a 1800s Gothic Empire stone building: something with neon lights and strip mall architecture and all of the charm of a Taco Bell or a KFC.

After unsuccessfully attempting to secure two leases locally – one of which was with a case of a man with more money (thanks to his father) than sense who couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag and the other a sublease that turned into something of a bidding war (no thank you) – we opted for the sure thing: office space in the suburbs owned by my father-in-law. It was a win-win. He needed a tenant and we needed a space. And there was no funny business, no weird options, no crazy lease terms. We signed a lease and moved in within the space of a couple of weeks.

The downside was that it extended our commute. A lot. Gone were the days of walking to the office from my home. It was a now full on commute on the dreaded Schuylkill Expressway with road rage, gas prices and traffic jams. Not at all pleasant.

We toyed with moving a little closer but couldn’t bring ourselves to pull the trigger. School had already started. We were invested in our community, having lived in the same house for nearly 15 years. The kids were not on board with moving, as we had briefly discussed the idea before. It was settled, it seemed. We had a life, a routine.

But deep down, I wanted out. I felt suffocated and sad and beaten. I didn’t want to drive on the Schuylkill to work anymore. I didn’t want to have to accept the scratch marks on my car anymore as the price for parking on the street. I didn’t want to deal with surly customer service in exchange for culture (whatever that meant). I didn’t look forward to volunteering several hours per week in my child’s school because there weren’t enough aides or reaching into my pocket – yet again – to buy supplies for the classrooms, only to be belittled by other parents for doing so. It wasn’t the life that I wanted.

And so, one day, when I ran across an ad for a farmhouse in Chester County, I knew that I had to see it. I also knew that my husband would balk on principal. It would be, he would say, too expensive, too much of a stretch, too much of a change – and not the right time to do it. So I didn’t take him with me. I piled the kids into the car one day and, without making an appointment, I intended to simply drive by. Only I couldn’t just drive by.

It was, in a word, perfect. I sat in the driveway and looked at it and I knew. I knew this was where I wanted to be.

I waited for the whining in the back of the car.

“What is this place?” My oldest daughter asked the first question.

I decided to be honest, so I told her, “It’s a house I’m thinking about it. I was thinking maybe we could move.”

I braced myself. Kate, of all of my kids, was the one who had been the most vocal in years past about not wanting to move. It made sense. She had the most history in the old house. She had spent her entire life in that house, taken her first steps there, had her first birthday party there, experienced her first Christmas there.

Which is why I wasn’t prepared for her next words. “I like it,” she said. “Can we live here?”

And as crazy and surreal as it all seems, we went from that conversation to move in at our new home in less than a month.

We started at the new school the day we moved: October 22. It was a Monday. We slept over at my in-laws since the old house was completely packed. I dropped the kids off at school and drove to the old house to help the movers get everything together for the new house. It was an incredibly long day. And it was also the best day.

This year, the kids will be returning to the new school. It’s not so much the new school as their real school now. They are a bit nervous – as am I – but it’s about the things kids should be nervous about: new haircuts and what to wear, whether the backpack choice was exactly the right one. But all of that other stuff? It’s a distant memory.

On some level, I feel a little guilt. And that’s bizarre, right? But it’s true. For awhile I carried this feeling around that it was wrong to be happy about leaving. I felt conflicted because I didn’t want to make it seem like I resented my old life or that it had been a waste: nothing could be further from the truth. For all that there were things that were tough, I did love my old house and my friends and the life that I had created in my old neighborhood. And leaving wasn’t a reflection on them, but on me: I need to move on. I needed to find my new space.

I did find my new space. Nearly a year later, I don’t regret any of it. I still feel a little guilty – as if you’d expect anything different from a middle child from the South. I couldn’t have much more of a guilt gene if I tried. I always want everyone to be happy. And I loathe the idea that someone would interpret something I did as any sort of negative commentary about their own lifestyle.

But this move, it was really all about me (and my family).

And as the start of school creeps closer, I am filled with hope and good thoughts for the coming year. I can’t ever remember feeling this way.

I Can Do This

Gulp.

I’m back. I’ve missed writing. I mean, of course, I’ve been writing. But I’ve been writing about the law and politics and tax and business.

I’ve found that I’ve missed writing about my life, my kids, those little moments that make being alive worthwhile. That, of course, begs the question: why did I stop doing it in the first place?

I can’t put my finger on why I stopped, really. A lot of it was timing. Some of it was fear. But mostly, it was that I had simply lost my voice.

In the increasingly crowded blogosphere, I felt like I didn’t fit a niche. That is, you know, the key to the internet and blogging these days: everyone needs to be sorted and labeled for easy consumption. Well, here’s my upfront disclaimer: I don’t fit into one of those little packages so easily. I don’t have a compelling back story. There’s no rags to riches story. I didn’t struggle with fertility and I am neither the product of a divorce nor have I experienced one. I don’t have a terminal disease. I’m not a foodie or an urban gardener. I’m not particularly crafty. I don’t extreme coupon or offer tips to save the environment. And perhaps, worst of all in the blogosphere: my kids are remarkably normal.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not, in any way, denigrating my fellow bloggers who have written many wonderful narratives about their own struggles or provided poignant glimpses into lives that aren’t always so very straightforward.

But I think I have a place, too, and it has taken me awhile to get back to the space where I’m ready to write about it.

This is me. And I’m glad to be back.

American Gothic redux

Since we find ourselves on what I'll generously refer to as a “gentlemans farm,” I guess it's time to report on our farming activities.

There are none.

We have no animals – no pigs, no goats, no cows, and, much to the chagrin of the children, no chickens. In fact, since the untimely demise of the beloved family dog last November, we have no domestic animals not of the species homo sapiens. We have done some limited gardening but, to date, even those activities have been fairly limited. To be fair, much of that is due to the weather rather than our will to plant, and this week saw us plant six vines which will someday be expected to result in wine grapes and a single cabbage, now tweeting as @BonnieCabbage.

No, what we have done is start the process of cleaning out the various garden beds, sweeping the driveway, and just generally straightening up the place. And here's the remarkable part – I've actually enjoyed it. I've enjoyed the slow process of sweeping up and clearing around the edging along the driveway. I've enjoyed dumping all of the leaves and other lawn detritus in a big pile off in the woods, and seeing the pile grow as the driveway and yard looked better and better.

As former city folk, our supply of outdoor tools is limited, and more suited to a smaller property (to say the very least). While the spade we found in the barn was pretty useful, the aging wheelbarrow with the flat, decomposing tire was not. That said, other than a better wheelbarrow, I've enjoyed using decidedly low-tech tools to get the job done. In fact, I do have a leaf blower given to me by my dad when we moved here, and I have yet to use it.

No, I figure the best way to work this property – for now at least – is by hand. I need the exercise and the fresh air, the walk to the barn and to the leaf pile, and even the blisters. At some point, I'll no doubt pull out the leaf blower, or succumb to the siren call of the many mechanized yard implements at Lowe's. Hopefully, when that time comes, it will be because I've moved on to other, bigger projects.