Fences

Our subdivision used to be farmland.  I have a copy of an early 20th-century parcels map, and if I squint hard enough, I can almost make out the owner’s name.  The last owner used the land as horse pasture, and she still lives in her Minimal Traditional farmhouse at the north end of the development.  An artist and her husband live two houses up from us, and they were the very first residents of this subdivision.  They were vintners before they relocated, and she told me she wanted to be able to see and touch her neighbors.  She can just about do that: we are all about 6 feet from each other — and that might be a generous estimate.

One year on, we also have fences, some more obnoxious than others.  Fences define, separate, protect, tantalize.  The “best” sort veils the house, giving the curious a carefully calibrated glimpse of the house and the property in much the same way as a half-drawn curtain at a window.  And of course, the inhabitants, for their part, get a properly filtered view of the world.  A small tour of the fences in our neighborhood:

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This house is on a corner, and they do have a toddler and a yappy dog, so perhaps all good reasons for a solid fence.

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Open metal fencing that matches the balcony railing.  The renters do not have a dog, but the Wyoming owners do.  Someday we may even meet them (the owners, that is).

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The split-personality fence: the rustic post-and-rail fencing matches those along the bike trail, but the solid wood fencing along the front is an odd choice.

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The Moat Fence (not quite finished), because this house is The Fort and it guards the entrance from the bike path into the subdivision.  This is the biggest house in the subdivision, and is on the biggest lot.  The owners, being friends of the developer, did not have to follow any of the standard house plans.  Apparently they also did not have to follow any HOA guidelines — not that there are any right now, but even if there were, they would not have had to follow them.  They are that special.  The Moat shields the owners from prying hoi polloi eyes, but only partially.  I guess if they had actually completed the perimeter fence, they would lose the view that originally prompted them to build on this piece of land.

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And the award for the most practical fence goes to The Shed Fence.  One dog, one child, and apparently Many Belongings requiring more space than provided by 4 bedrooms and a basement.  The mellow HOA didn’t know anything about this one either.  The neighbors’ view from the other side:

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I really think we need clotheslines.   Continue reading

My Mom, the Pope, and Me

I have been reading the Pope’s encyclical letter Laudato si´: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am not Catholic (nor do I subscribe to any particular faith or religion), but this particular document is one for this age.  I have not read all of it.  It is slow going because in true historian fashion, I write margin notes as I read.  And as I read, I realize how very privileged I am:

45. In some places, rural and urban alike, the privatization of certain spaces has restricted people’s access to places of particular beauty. In others, “ecological” neighbourhoods have been created which are closed to outsiders in order to ensure an artificial tranquillity. Frequently, we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called “safer” areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.

We moved to a house next to a multi-use trail that runs along a natural creek.  The city owns much of the open space, and property owners observe an easement  along the creek itself.  It is a natural area, or as natural as is possible in middle of a small city.  A couple of months ago, I watched a hawk eat his meal on the roof of a not-quite-finished house in our very small subdivision.  Earlier in the winter, we followed a tail-less fox on our bikes: he ambled along looking like a rather large corgi from behind, and we were happy to note that he looked healthy.  I am delighted by the many dragonflies zooming through our neighborhood; I am hopeful that they (or even better, their larval stage) are doing their best to control the mosquitoes.

The real estate agents tout the wonderful location of our neighborhood, and it is indeed wonderful.  From a historic point of view, it is also a surprisingly diverse area.  Within a 1/2 square mile of our house are wood-framed 1890s to 1920s farm houses, minimal traditional 1930s and 1940s cottages, tiny brick post-war houses, expansive mid-century architect-designed ranches, less interesting 1970s and 1980s condominium complexes, and late 20th-century and early 21st-century post-modern homes.  Many of the houses verge on the decrepit, but gentrification marches on.  Even run-down shacks start at $300 thousand, and people are apparently quite happy to snap them up and turn them into their “open concept hardwood floors granite countertops stainless steel appliances minimum 3 bedrooms 2 bathroom large yard” dream home.

This is my neighborhood.  If I congratulate myself on being “green” because I can (and do) walk/bike everywhere, the Pope reminds me it is because I can choose to be green.  I have the economic wherewithal to choose to walk, to bike, to have expensive LED bulbs, to have high-efficiency plumbing and mechanics, to have solar panels, to have environmentally sustainable wood floors, to have a finished basement to escape the worst of the summer heat because I also choose not to have air conditioning.  And outside my door, I can enjoy a protected green space.  I use the trail everyday, and while I see the low-income apartment complex a couple hundred yards down the trail from my house, I also know its days are numbered.  The diversity that interests me on my walks is disappearing, and I am of course a contributor.  It is all very safe, very sanitized, very middle-class, and I am guilty of complaining that I still do not have the promised landscaping around my new house.  Luckily, I have the Holy Father and Mom (who would be appalled to know she had anything in common with a celibate white man who lives in a marble palace) to chastise me.  Who knew she would be the Pope’s enforcer in reminding me to be humble?

I sweep the (sustainable bamboo) floors everyday, and because I am compulsive, I do it on my hands and knees.  It is how Mom used to clean her floors, so it is how I do it.  It is actually quite efficient, and I can wipe down pretty much the entire house in about 20 minutes.  I hear Mom telling me not to be afraid of manual labor: “Do it right,” she says, “and no shirking.”  And she reminds me that our fortunes were built, quite literally, on the back of her grandfather, the day laborer who started the upward mobility of his family by hauling salt for a living.  I may have three degrees, but the floors still need to be cleaned.

I clean the floors, and most days I cry.  “Don’t cry,” Mom says.  “If you keep crying, Ah-ma is going to lecture me on how I didn’t raise you correctly to appreciate and understand the cycle of life.”  Remember your roots, remember your privileges, remember to be humble.

Saturday Morning Bike Ride

Saturday morning bike ride with DH on our tandem:

Our subdivision, still under construction.

Our subdivision, still under construction.

I had my DSLR camera with me, and decided to shoot from the shoulder.  Literally.  It was an interesting experiment in seeing what the camera captures.  Image stabilization goes only so far, but I rather like the blurriness, a reminder of DH and I in motion.

Old Fort Collins High School

Old Fort Collins High School

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This is one of my favorite houses on the route.  This blur reminds me of those dream (or nightmare) sequences in movies.

Togetherness, it's beautiful :-)

“Togetherness, it’s beautiful.”  Thank you, Laura.  

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This time of year, lots of abandoned sofas and chairs curbside.

Gravel works

Gravel works

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Cache la Poudre

Cache la Poudre

We have had rain for six weeks, and the river is at its highest since the floods in September 2013.

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Laporte

Old Feed Store, Laporte

Laporte

Laporte

Vern's Restaurant, Laporte

Vern’s Restaurant, Laporte

Now with a fancy new deck, but still too cold this early in the morning to breakfast outside.

Cache La Poudre Middle School, Laporte

Cache La Poudre Middle School, Laporte

Poudre River Trail

On the Poudre River Trail

Farmhouse

Farmhouse

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Behind the farm buildings is a cell phone tower, pretending to be a really big tree.

Why yes, we can make the house as big as you want!

Why yes, we can make your historic brick house as big as you want!

I have balcony envy.

I have balcony envy.

Converted grocery store.

As well as converted grocery store envy.  

Brought to you by our favorite farmers of Native Hill Farm.

Brought to you by our favorite farmers at Native Hill Farm.

Owned by a total coffee geek.

Owned by a total coffee geek.

Off-campus student housing.

Off-campus student housing.

Spring Creek Trail, and lots of water here too.

Spring Creek Trail, and lots of water here too.

An artist lives here, and her landscaping puts the rest of us to shame.

An artist lives here, and her landscaping puts the rest of us to shame.

I pretend I do not see the mound of dirt.

I pretend I do not see the mound of dirt.

Reduce Reuse Recycle Project: Part 4

When we remodelled the kitchen at our old house, the designer made a measurement mistake that made it impossible for us to reuse the old island top on top of the new island base.  We put the countertop in the garage and every once in a while, I would call up our favorite contractor (whose heart is in carpentry) and ask him to build us a base of some sort.  A few years later, we now have a repurposed quartz countertop coffee table!

Basement sitting room

Basement sitting room

He built the base from maple scraps he found at our local Habitat store, and I think it goes beautifully with the dark table top.

We found the auditorium chairs at Wool Hat; the store owners got them from an elementary school somewhere on the eastern plains.  I recovered the seats with fabric from old curtains, and to prevent the chairs from tipping, our contractor gave us some teak slats (saved from a remodelling job at a 1970s house) that we screwed to the base.  The chairs are remarkably comfortable if you are the right size, say a child or a small adult 🙂

And now, the basement really is finished!

Reuse Reduce Recycle Project, Part 2

I spent my internship year at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a somewhat run-down community hospital in a not entirely salubrious part of town.  The place was old enough that most of the patient care areas did not have air conditioning, and during the summer the nurses would set up industrial-sized fans (the kind they use in gyms) at ends of hallways to help ventilate and cool the wings.  The in-patient population tended to be elderly, and there was a rumor that one of the attendings had the biggest Medicare billings amongst all private practices in the state.  The typical admissions were old, institutionalized, and usually DNR, except when they weren’t — and there were also rumors about certain families who kept Dear Old Mom/Dad/Aunt/Uncle alive in order to collect their social security benefits.   The hospital was strapped for money, so various services went home after 7PM:  phlebotomists, EKG techs, respiratory techs, unit clerks, runners who delivered radiology films (yes, these were the days before everything could be pulled up on screens).  Even the cafeteria closed down by 7, which is how I ended up eating my first, and last, White Castle burger from the vending machine.  On the usual call night  the residents would drown in scut work: drawing blood and ABGs, inserting countless IVs because the nurses were required to give up after two sticks, hunting through the stacks for radiology films, doing EKGs with machines that still used rubber suction cups and required leads to be switched between readings, figuring out settings for respirators, inserting NG tubes and various other catheters into various orifices (because nurses didn’t do those “invasive” procedures, and delivering patients from one place to the next.  I got to the point where I could do ABGs on anyone, and do them in the dark!  I spent years 2 and 3 of my residency in another Saint hospital.  This one was better-run and had money, and I was shocked to discover that all I had to do was WRITE the order, and miraculously it was done!

Anyway, I had a couple of souvenirs from my internship year: scrubs (of course, because how else would anyone know you’re a doctor unless you are wearing scrubs from another hospital), and a couple of towels.  Like everything else from the hospital, these towels were depressing, scrawny and tiny even when new.  I used these towels for years as back-up bathroom mats, and kept putting off turning them into rags.  A few weeks ago,  I attacked the linen closet as part of my R³ Project, and the towels were still there, still scrawny but usable.  And this is what I did with them:

St. Elizabeth's Hospital bath mat

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital bath mat

In my short quilting career, I have still managed to accumulate a large amount of fabric scraps.  In this case, the block was from a quilt top I was never going to turn into a quilt, and it happened to fit perfectly on the towel.  I stitched the quilt block directly on the towel, added a couple of scrap fabric to the sides, turned the towel borders in and stitched them in place.  My memories of St. E are not entirely bad, and this bath mat (and its fraternal twin) makes me smile and think more kindly of that year.

The St. E mats got me on a roll, and for three or four weeks now, I have been reducing my fabric scrap pile.  We have more bath mats!  We have mud mats!  We have kitchen floor mats:

A kitchen floor mat

A kitchen floor mat

I sewed all the strips directly on top of the batting and backing, as in strip quilting.  This small rug has scraps from just about every quilt I have ever made — not that I have made that many, but still.  The backing is leftover fabric from drapes I made years ago that I no longer have:

Reverse side of kitchen mat

Reverse side of kitchen mat

We have place mats:

DH's place mat

DH’s place mat

And the reverse, flannel fabric from one of his old shirts:

Reverse of place mat

Reverse of place mat

These sewing projects reflect my personal commitment to making something useful out of materials that were probably going to end up in the landfill.  I suppose all I have done is shift the landfill day sometime in the future, but for now, it is enough that day is NOT today, or tomorrow, or next week.

Tula's Quilt

Tula’s Quilt

Even the Guinea Pig has her own quilt!

Reuse Reduce Recycle Project

One of those silly online quizzes (you know, something along the line of what color dog were you in a previous life?) tells me I have a “philosophical mind.”  I think what that means is that for more than half my life, I have been wondering what is my purpose in life.  On the down swing of bipolar, my purpose is negative:  I am trying NOT to leave the world in worst shape than it is right now, on a grey maybe-it-will-rain August afternoon.

For the past six weeks or so, I have been on the R³ kick, although what I am actually doing is trying my damnedest to control my environment.  It began because I realized what I most wanted out of my new house is an empty house — but clearly that cannot be, because I need a bed, and clothes, and kitchen stuff, and bathroom stuff, and and and . . .  So the next best thing is to declutter.  We (this includes DH and The Teenager) have been giving away/throwing away at least one item a day, although we tend to count groups of items as one item (a set of towels, a group of figurines, that stack of technical papers from 20 years ago).  The surprise is how easy it has been.  The other surprise is that though we have reduced and recycled so much (well, we think it’s much), it is invisible.  The Teenager’s room is still cluttered, DH’s office looks about the same, I have way too many books and clothes and doodads, and we still have too much furniture.

So what is the Big Picture?

I moved to college with five boxes of belongings.  I moved to graduate school with eight boxes in my little Toyota Corolla (back when the Corolla truly was a compact car).  We now have five dining tables.  Does anyone need five dining tables?  In our defense, three of those tables function as desks, one is a sewing table, and one actually is a dining table.  But still . . .  Then I had a moment of clarity when I was reading an article about a man who bought a 700 square foot house, and immediately started making a list of “cannot live without” things.  As it turned out, there were even more items on the “cannot live without” list that he could in fact live without.

If my purpose is what I think it is, then it should not be easy.  When our neighbor moved out, she rented a dumpster, and managed to empty it twice with all the things she needed during her life in that house.  I am trying to avoid that last-ditch dumpster dump, but not sure if I will succeed.  So everyday, I continue to look at my belongings:  Why are you in my life?  How much “stuff” do I need to remind me of who I am?

Tula, who is pretty sure she does NOT need a ribbon

Tula, who is pretty sure she does NOT need a ribbon

Red Chair Reads: Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains

Every two years, I play “literary critic” by volunteering as a preliminary reader for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Sounds grand, doesn’t it?  Actually, the long list takes all comers, which is how I ended up reading the totally execrable 33 Bits a few years back.  I may never recover from that experience.  Anyway, nothing since has even come close to being as bad as that book, but I keep thinking there must be a better mechanism for slamming the door on delusional writers.  Cross my fingers, but I have not encountered another Jane Bash since the 33 Bits debacle.

This year, my nonfiction choice was Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plainsby Craig Deutsche.  I picked this book because I think local histories can provide wonderful material for literary nonfiction works, but the genre requires someone who not only knows how to write but who also understands that organization and ruthless editing are absolutely essential when dealing with oral histories.  Oral histories provide valuable glimpses of the past, but they can be difficult to handle.  Sometimes, boring stories are just boring stories, and putting them down on paper does not make them any less boring or repetitive. This book could have benefited from an editing that asked the critical question: Does this anecdote add to, or detract from, the main narrative?  Craig Deutsche is a reasonably competent writer with a natural, folksy style that worked well with the stories in the book; unfortunately, in his eagerness to tell us how he got from point A to point B, his voice began to compete with the “voices from the Carrisa Plains.”   Somewhere near the middle of the book, he made a too-many-pages detour into a seemingly endless search for the recorder of some oral history tapes he found.  It was ultimately a fruitless search, and the person he thought had made the tapes turned out not to be the recorder after all.  This section, as well as the “pause for assessment” interlude, seemed a self-indulgent chapter that should not have been included at all.  Neither of the chapters added anything substantive to the book.

Another problem with the book is the organization.  Craig Deutsche made a point of telling us that his book is not meant to be a straight history.  Fair enough.  I admit it, the historian in me thinks the book would have been more valuable if it had foot notes or end notes, a better index, a better reference section — in other words, more rigorous documentation.  But I can overlook all that, if only he had found a better way to organize the subjects.  I understand the difficulties of artificial boundaries: cowboys, shepherds, ranchers — there are overlaps in roles, in places, in time.  But it was frustrating to be reading about a particular person or family, only to have the subject be dropped with the note that “so-and-so” will be encountered again at some later chapter.  This was particularly glaring when Deutsch embarked on the search for the Van Mastre family, and wrote about the beginning of the journey in the chapter on the search for the oral history tapes recorder.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, he dropped the family until the end of the book.  Perhaps it was meant to be suspenseful, but it just added to the impression of disorganization and the feeling that perhaps the author should have been less ambitious with the scope of work.  The Van Mastre family could indeed have been the subject of a monograph all by themselves, a lens through which to view a particular history of agriculture in California.

I quibble about the scholarship but not the intent: the book is important for shedding light on a little-known piece of California history.  The author has made a truly remarkable effort to gather in one place the stories of a people and place, stories that highlight the resilience of pioneers as well as the sometimes ephemeral nature of human settlements.   And, perhaps unintended, the book is also a celebration of the life of the land, its resilience and its ability to absorb, and cast off, the efforts of man.  Someday I will go to the Carissa Plains;  perhaps I will hear the voices, but more likely, I will feel merely my own puny mortality.