Thursday, June 13, 2019

Still Insanely Local

I try to avoid all big-box stores though I'm not immune: Home Depot stocks a store-brand Behr wood stain that I find superior to more expensive brands. Lowes is a good place to find Rustoleum paint and cheap, mediocre-quality lumber for projects (though I found that a local mill, Siewers, beat Lowes on prices for trim...they make it themselves and it is superior). I hit the big boxes for good prices on things like cement board that I use occasionally.

In the end, however, nothing beats a small local firm, Pleasants Hardware. Their midtown store closed, a tragedy for those with old homes seeking obscure hardware. I recall how it opened, on generator power, and endured thefts of saws and generators, during the craziness after Hurricane Isabel. I bought my first Stihl saw from them that day, using it while living in town; my mom had a huge elm come down in her yard and it needed clearing before the power came on; it pulled down the power company's main service line!

Some Pleasants' alums opened Anthony's Decorative Hardware, a place I can still get wrought-iron details like shutter dogs and hooks, since Nan and I make our own working shutters for our house.
 
Though that great old midtown store is gone, a cooperative (Do it Best) kept the branch stores and the Pleasants ethos alive: you'll find well staffed locations where the folks know tools, supplies, and other products. Unlike a big box, an employee will come up and help you find what you need. Look around and you'll find True-Value and Ace hardwares. Go in.

Lots of folks shop online; I do, too when I cannot find what I need locally. Shipping is often free. Yet recently on two occasions, Pleasants had something I could not verify online and would have cost me to pay shipping. Just yesterday, I discovered that I'd stupidly over-tightened the bolts holding the bar on my larger Sthil chainsaw. The studs are set in heavy-duty plastic, not steel, and the threads stripped out. Stihl, knowing about dunces like this writer, makes larger-sized studs, but they cannot be had anywhere online. Finally I found a Web site, but then I decided to call Pleasants: they will have the parts for me, for the same price in a week, perhaps two. The same thing happened recently when I needed new bars for both saws. Pleasants actually beat the price from several online dealers!

If brick-and-mortar retail wants to survive in the age of Amazon, merchants need to provide something the giants cannot: bespoke service, deep knowledge, and instant advice. They need to remember you with more than an algorithm based upon your past purchases and some cookies stored in your browser's cache.

Some locals don't get this: there's a NAPA nearby with a notoriously grumpy staff, unless you have lived here all your life. They get a bit nicer when you pay them in cash (I always do). But usually I order what I need online or at a big-chain auto store. Some of them are franchises of Car Quest or NAPA, and I fast learned which have the best staff. They get my money.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Early Season "Pesto"

Why wait for the basil? Though we have a lot frozen from last year, I wanted something fresh on my pasta this week. I need the treat: 30 pounds lighter than I was at the turn of the year, I remain on a low-carb, doctor-ordered diet to combat high blood sugar. I found a chickpea-based pasta, however, that lets me enjoy pesto, one of my garden favorites, once per week.

Back to the basil. We usually harvest the first batch in early June, so I've a few weeks to wait. Meanwhile, my chard, lettuce, kale, collards, and mustard greens are so tempting. Here's the recipe, based on my old-school Waring blender, but a food processor will get the job done. The color of the resulting sauce is stunning, an emerald green that keeps its color better than basil-based pesto, especially when refrigerated. The extra garlic punches up the flavor profile, too, since the greens have a milder bite (save for the Mustard!) than basil.

The recipe:

  • Fill a blender's bowl with 2 cups olive oil. Add more as needed to achieve the right consistency as you blend.
  • Peel and process 7 (yes, SEVEN) cloves of garlic in the oil. Use more if you dare.
  • Wash and chop a LOT of greens. I filled  gallon bowl tonight, removing big stems. A surprise delight was mustard greens, as they add a real punch to the "pesto"
  • Add 1/2 cup nuts and process. My recent pick was unsalted pecans, but I've used walnuts, pine nuts, even peanuts! I'd prefer the unsalted.
  • Add 1/2 cup or more grated Romano or Parmesan and process. The better the grade of the cheese, the better the pesto. 
Serve over pasta. This recipe freezes very well. I sprinkle my plate with flaked hot pepper, adding salt and pepper to taste.

You'll almost forget that basil. ¡Buen provecho!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Putting Like with Like

I have a Type-A, OCD personality. Clutter drives me wild with anxiety. It can keep me awake, nights, just as lack of social capital or "FOMO" (fear of missing out) keep my anxious students glued to phones all day and sleep deprived.

Yet in a barn, let's get real: Entropy is more than a Law of Physics. It's a way of life. My wife jokes that I can tolerate dirt, making a space merely "guy clean," as long as nothing but the unstoppable cats are on our counters.

Yet gradually, ever so gradually, I've come to accept if not love the inevitable clutter of rural life and DIY projects.  At the same time, why waste half an hour looking for a tool or the right-sized board when that time could be spent making, fixing, planning? One way to reduce wasted time comes, as with my last post, from a common-sense saying. My mom was always fighting a long delaying action with chaos; with six kids, what else could she do? She would fold clothes as I watched, in wonder. How could that jumble get into such a neat pattern?

"Put like with like, Joey!" And ever since, that has been my rule.

On one occasion, with 20 bored undergraduates unable to hammer nails at a Habitat for Humanity build, and certainly not capable of doing roofing or running a miter saw, I put them in teams, each with a pair of buckets, while a kid with skills and I got on a roof to put down tar paper. My charge: "Go pick up every nail you find, put it in bucket A. All the screws go in bucket B. We'll be saving them hundreds of bucks!" For a few hours, the kids stayed busy. The Habitat folks were amazed when we trudged up with pounds and pounds of dropped fasteners.

This can be overdone.  My habits drove my friend Jeff, a talented carpenter, insane when I helped him. I'd clean up the site before he'd finished, and at least once I saw him reach back for some fasteners but he hand closed on empty air.

Cussing ensued. I learned to delay my compulsions.


Now I have a more subtle way of approaching the mess made by projects. Every week an empty hour or two opens up, time enough for something small but not a big item from my to-do list around our property. Sometimes I load up a hundred rounds of ammo, or check a small box off as I restore my old car. Increasingly, however, I turn that spare time sorting tools and materials--there are acres and acres of time, if you refuse to watch TV or whatever movie is now popular, except on your own schedule. And if you prepare extra food on the weekend, then freeze it? You save more hours and money not eating out.

My like-with-like method is simple. I :
  • Tidy at least one square foot of space every time I clean up. 
  • Sort items waiting for their final home into boxes I find (plastic or wood, not cardboard. Need to see what is inside!)
  • Move sorted items to the spot where they'll be used. So blades for my two miter-box saws, scattered between two buildings, went to a spot nearest the saw they fit. Same with the arbor saw; all those blades will not fit the other saws.  Warning: this can be an endless process if you have lots of tools.
  • Put things away, ASAP, when I'm sure (thanks, Jeff) I'm done.
  • Toss or recycle anything broken beyond further use. I do scrounge usable bits for later use before I toss the rest.
  • Sort small parts (springs, fasteners, etc) into labeled carpenter chests, using that old Dymo label maker to know what is what.
  • Stage things: I keep a tool tray out for frequently used tools like my impact driver, fencing pliers, and batteries plus a plastic jar of a few dozen decking screws in a plastic jar. Grab and go! This aligns with the Roman philosophy of making haste, slowly, or festina lente.
  • Buy multiple copies of common items and stage them. We have flashlights near the chicken coops, socket sets, screwdrivers, wrenches, and screwdrivers in tool boxes around the place. I keep a wrench and a hammer on the tractor for dealing with balky three-point-hitch fittings or cotter pins.
  • Keep the floors clean. This keeps things from vanishing in dust, wood shavings, mouse droppings, snake skins, and more. I now rarely trip on cords or grab a snake (did that once with a black racer on a cold morning; he was torpid but not happy with me).
Do I still waste time looking for stuff? YES. But not as I once did. Try it in the house, too!

Meanwhile, back to work.

Friday, February 15, 2019

If it Burns...BURN IT


Thank you, farmer-friend Dominic, for the title of this post. He puts on his fake Western Hanover County accent and declares this whenever I'm a bit short of firewood.

Which, at present, I am. It's my own damned fault.  If you heat with wood as I do, you may still want a backup for those cold nights when you don't want to go downstairs to fill the stove at 4am.  Of course, you may have to get up anyhow for other reasons, a consequence of reaching middle age.

That said, it's good to have backup. Our new Trane furnace had a manufacturing defect, a bent connection in the heat-exchanger, so it was blowing only cold air. This happened, of course, in the middle of a Polar Vortex. Our installer was on the job quickly, but his firm had to fight Trane for replacement parts. And the thermometer dropped.

The woodpile dropped, fast, too. My four full cords (a stack that would measure 32' x 4' x 4', stacked closely) was getting to it's final stages. I've been cutting and splitting white oak for 2019-20 since I plan to keep not four, but six cords on hand at all times. We already have plenty of green wood for next season but what to do until then?

I recalled an old run-in back in the woods, a haunt of snakes, full of really old firewood. So off I went to get it.

Surprisingly, a lot of wood was still hefty and not paperlike. I found at least one more useable cord, part of which I've pictured here. Yeah, yeah, I know that the firewood geeks (they do exist) caution against burning old wood. They also caution against pine. One imagines millions of Scandinavians freezing to death, every winter, because they don't have hardwood to burn.

The trick to any wood is to have a thermometer on the stove, to avoid two linked catastrophes that can cost you your house, maybe your life. We make sure that no matter what we burn, we avoid creosote build-up in the chimney or an overly hot stove. It's not hard, and despite popular stories about pine or cedar gumming up a flue, they won't in a hot stove. We've never had, in our annual cleanings of the chimney, reports of excess creosote.

Having seen a chimney fire once at a neighbor's house, I don't ever want to see one again. But if you are careful, if it burns, burn it!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Plan B Skills

All of us dream, right? Of that perfect job, that special place we want to live, that special someone. We know that even with those three ingredients, if we have difficulty, help is a phone-call away. And there's Internet everywhere, true?

Many times it all ends well. But not always. So what are some key skills that every person should have by, say, age 25? Here's a stab at it, without going down the Prepper rabbit hole. Some of these skills would be of NO use in an apocalypse.

I thought of this after hiring Quentin, a man in his 20s who had very good skills with a chainsaw. He impressed my taciturn, highly skilled brother-in-law, too: a real feat. We'll be hiring him again.

So here goes. No, no instructions or lessons. That's your quest. I think we should all know how to:

Build a fire, using matches: The trick is twofold, finding dry wood and building a "tipi" type fire.

Sharpen a cutting edge: Hatchet, knife, axe, shears...it doesn't matter. With a stone or a metal tool. Keeping blades sharp, paradoxically, keeps you from cutting yourself. Mom taught me that one.

Change a tire: This requires learning to use the jack in the car and understanding how to loosen, then tighten lug-nuts by hand. Not every car has run-flats. There's a thing called an "owner's manual" in nearly every car. Read yours.

Jump-start a car: How can it be so hard? Positive to positive, negative to negative. But oh, the results of crossing those wires!

Start and run a chainsaw safely: I use these a lot, as we heat with wood. No need to rehash the advice here, but a novice can learn the basics: Check for a sharp chain and tight chain. Add lubricant for the chain when you fill the other tank with gas (and knowing which tank is which). Learn to use a choke. As for how to cut up a downed tree or how to fell one, that's something I'm still learning in baby steps.

Drive a vehicle with a manual transmission: Guilty! Busted! I'm learning, however. It's been a lifelong goal to own a straight-shift vehicle other than a tractor. I'm going to have one soon.

Find directions by sun or the North Star:  If you know how to find the Big Dipper, you can find Polaris and north. And if you roughly know the time of day, you can find at least one direction by the sun, though it gets tougher at mid day.

Understand investing: Basics here, the difference between equities, bonds, cash, and precious metals. I follow Bloomberg's site regularly. Do you know the difference between the DOW and S&P? Long and short-term bonds? Trends for gold and silver? What it means when the Fed changes the money supply or interest rates?

Do simple math by hand and manage a monthly budget: Here I love it that I learned and can still do long division.  Knowing these basics lets you keep track of expenses and project where you need to be, financially, in a month or two.

Be on time & be neat: Quentin really impressed me here. When he ran a little late for an understandable reason one day, he contacted me. He smokes, and like a soldier on a five-minute break for his squad leader, he cleaned up his cigs after. Compare that to the "friend" of a house-sitter one summer, who ruined one of our watering cans with hundreds of butts. Better than putting them in our yard, but that sitter was not hired again and we docked her pay for the cost of replacing a nicotine-ruined watering can.

Load and fire a handgun, shotgun, and rifle: Controversial, but I'd claim that knowing how to operate a semi-automatic handgun or revolver is a life skill you never wish to have to use, but if so...I'd add bolt-action rifle to the mix. Semiautomatic rifles can be more complex, but the "manuals of arms" for most pistols and revolvers are similar enough. Hitting a paper target with any of them at 30 feet is also needed for basic competence.

What skills have I left out? This might become a series!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Cold, Clear Light of Day


I recall my mom's advice when frustrated or scared, "It will look better in the clear light of day."

That's great advice for anyone struggling with rural life. I didn't grow up with it and am still very much a city boy. I may always be, deep inside, despite all the skills I've slowly acquired.

Yesterday was one of those awful days. I had struggled with a large rotary mower I use several times a year. We'd had a great success clearing a large patch of Tree of Paradise, amid a jungle of vines. I wanted to mow them before the snow flies again, as it's about to do today. We are talking about enough piles of vines, cut and still attached, to overflow two 8' pickup beds.

Everything seemed aligned, cosmically, until the tractor's PTO shaft would not align with the mower's drive shaft. It's a tedious, heavy job that involves pry bars, cinder blocks, and cursing. In fact, I increasingly see why farmers have multiple tractors for multiple jobs. My dedicated bush-hog tractor, a Ford 8N, is simply too fast in reverse to trust near hills, and it lacks a seat belt or roll bar.

As I tried to connect the mower, the light faded from the sky. I put the tractor on a slope, with the loader bucket down, to increase the distance between the connections. No dice. Nothing, including adjusting all the linkages, would make something fit that has fit many times before.

As it got dark, I recalled my mom's advice. I put up the gear and then it hit me: the next day I would shorten the drive shaft about an inch. I was bone tired and needed a stiff drink.

I did that early, with a reciprocating saw. Then with my Dremel I beveled the edges. The shaft fit, the tractor cut the vines, and I was done in 45 minutes.

If you push yourself too hard when tired, a friend advised me once when chainsawing, you are going to end up in the hospital.

Good advice at twilight. Wait until the clear, cold light of day, then get back to work.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Urban Flannel? How about Chamois Cheapass?

I have long hoped to use the word "cheapass" in a blog post. Now you have it.

For as many years as I've been interested in outdoor recreation, I've sworn by chamois cloth shirts. It began in Indiana, where my former father-in-law, a dedicated hunter of deer, ducks, grouse, and geese, gave me my first L.L. Bean shirt.

It and others that followed, from Bean and a firm called Five Brother that is still around (thank God), seemed as durable as plate armor. They wore in over the years, gently, to become as comfortable as any garment you'd want.  They were cotton flannel, a type of cloth, in woolen form, that may date to the 16th Century or earlier. There's more on the history of the cloth here.

Now, however, I find that Bean has gone for a look that is outdoorsy rather than really for outdoors work. My last chamois from them, worked moderately actually chopping wood and hunting, ripped after only 10 or so wearings in two years.

Ah, but to look like a lumberjack without doing work! In the photo above, note the unused axe. Sure looks good, though, walking into the microbrewery! I suppose Lumbersexual urban men with their skinny jeans, spotless boots, and groomed beards look great in thin chamois cloth. To quote from City Pages, where I copped the image:
He's old enough to grow a beard, but not so old as to hold hints of salt in the black pepper. He longs for the days when life wasn't complicated by big-city dreams, when a man could eke out a living off the land. But the closest he's gotten to downing a tree is stuffing his face with bûche de Noël.
 That's some great writing, but these shirts are not worth a damn.

I'm chopping wood today, and it will be in a Cabela's shirt. Now that Bass Pro has acquired that firm, I expect their chamois cloth to take a dive, too.  A friend wisecracked that "if Cabelas is the redneck L.L. Bean, Bass Pro is the redneck Cabelas."

Full disclosure: beard oil really is useful. Thank you, Lumbersexuals. Now help me bring back good chamois. I've ordered a very Lumbersexual-correct plaid from Five Brother, in their "Brawny" line of shirts. Not a solid color (my preference) but it looks promising. We'll see if they have cheaped out, too. I'm hopeful that the answer is no. The company still has separate listings for "Jeans" and "Dungarees." It's also a good sign that 1) Their Web site is not fully functional and 2) They don't pick up the phone on Saturday.

Probably gone hunting.

Planet Lumberjack Oldguy, here I come.