The Quest for Fire, and Other Stories

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Hello, blog followers. It’s been awhile. For someone who spent much of the summer lying in a hammock and thinking about the future, I have been reluctant to take action, and the months since my last series of posts have been full of self-induced stress.

A Summer of Renovation Projects and Small Disasters

My beloved seven-year-old poodle, Hazy, suffered a gastric hemorrhage on the drive from Austin to Maine, setting the stage for a season of emotional burn out and self-doubt. IMG_3106One minute I was taking photos of a quaint mountain town in North Carolina, the next minute I was looking at a mess of raspberry colored blood and tissue that my dog squirted out all over the sidewalk, sighing politely, unable to wait a second longer. The next day, after many frantic phone calls, I found a veterinarian who was willing to examine my dog and take him for the day to give intravenous fluids. Apparently dogs die not from shedding out a layer of their intestine, as horrible as that sounds, but from the severe dehydration that follows.

The dog returned the next morning for evaluation and was pronounced good to go; in the photo above, he is resting with the IV port still in his leg. I highly recommend Riversong Vet Clinic in Brevard, North Carolina, by the way. They are skilled and compassionate people who did not hesitate to help an unknown animal in need despite having a heavy case load that day.

The road trip was rife with other annoyances, such as a flat tire on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a power outage that shut down the entire city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, forcing me to seeking lodgings elsewhere, but the dog and I also enjoyed views like these as we inched our way toward the Shenandoah Valley.

IMG_3138 Our arrival to the property was presaged by many messages and photos from Dave Simmons, the handyman I hired a few months earlier to take care of the place. Ben Webb, the excavator, postponed work on the septic system through an unseasonably warm autumn, the entire winter, and into the spring. IMG_20170511_154446Dave sent a photos of the property in April showing the complete upheaval of the front yard and removal of the stairs leading to the porch. It was a mess for a long time, something my neighbors let me know about whenever I spoke with them that summer.

Finally, in late April, Ben smoothed dirt over the concrete tubes of the leach field and planted grass seed. He was not done with the project; the lines connecting the two septic tanks still needed to be buried in the side yard. That part of the project was incomplete until July, when the first Airbnb guests of the season arrived.

Meanwhile, the handyman and my new carpenter, Henry Borntraeger IV, convinced me that I needed to roof much of the Estemeer (or north wing) of the house, mostly to get rid of a deep swale on the west side of the building caused by a quick structural fix some years back. The swale wasn’t causing damage — structurally, the whole building is pretty sound — but no one could be convinced of that fact, and since the whole roof really needs to be replaced anyhow, I let them go at it.

Generally speaking, when contractors look at this section of the building, the advice is to tear it down. I understand. It is a hodgepodge of pig sheds and outhouses creatively grafted to what was once, perhaps, the summer kitchen. But it’s my favorite part of the house, and rather than destroy it, I am going to restore, insulate, and turn the Estemere into a workable year-round apartment for some young couple who wants to live on my place and help with chores. At least, that is the goal at this writing.

About That Fire?

A while back, I wrote about my misadventures with a certain chimney sweep. Since that time, I’ve lost another chimney stack and found out that none of my existing fireplaces are safe, though occasional use of the Franklin stove in the Anchorage kitchen was deemed acceptable. A hole directly over where former occupants stacked the firewood in the garage off the barn led to some extremely smoky and disappointing fires in that uncomfortable hearth, making me all the more eager to roof that part of the barn before too much damage sets in. In the meanwhile, I had the roofers cover the affected areas with plastic tarp.

This autumn’s goal is to get at least one fireplace — namely the fieldstone hearth in the great room of the Cabin — in working order. This one structure has already cost me nearly $5,000 since it had to be cut around when we lifted the Cabin last summer in order to put in a solid foundation. The carpenters had to saw through two main beams that may or may not provide structural support; since the room seems to have been built along the classic principles of pier and beam architecture, one would assume that they are, but on the other hand, the left side of the chimney was built right into a beam, which feels more decorative than supportive.

No one can figure it out. Right before I left Maine for the season, I had the structural engineer out to meet with the carpenter in order to see what steps needed to be taken to preserve the structural integrity of that portion of the building. (I had already contracted a mason who, for just over $7,000, would rebuild the entire top of the chimney stack and remove the lead flashing, which now hung uselessly, like fish scales, about six inches shy of the new roof line.) It was a fruitless meeting in which the two men basically decided that they agreed with one another about everything, and I remained none the wiser about what, in fact, would be done.

I may not have been paying the best attention, though. I was at my wit’s end because my 80-year-old mother had just major surgery after spending months in agony from a cyst that had grown up against her spine and was pressing on the sciatic nerve. I wanted to spend time with my parents, but my father was angry at me because I was not spending enough time with my parents, and his wrath was keeping me both guilty and away. After years of worrying about what might happen if my father died first, I had an unpleasant flash forward to that alternate reality in which mom left my father on his own. I didn’t like it. My father is so anxious and set in his ways that my mother absolutely has to outlive him.

Idle thoughts like these crowded my brain, joining the series of renovation plans that needed to happen, might happen, and would probably never happen. I also had this to contend with:

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Two dogs in the backseat. Two dogs needing to be fed, taken out, driven over 2,000 miles back to Austin. One of them peed about once every 20 minutes. No wonder I was unable to concentrate. I was at the absolute maximum of what I could handle.

To Sum Things Up

The masons are still working on the chimney, and they have pointed out that I’ll need to have the firebox rebuilt as well. In case anyone has been keeping tabs, that’s close to $15,000 just to have fire in one fireplace. IMG_20171009_151126The carpenters finishing trimming the wall where the Cabin’s second chimney used to be, and somewhere along the way, they dropped a tool on the brand new lavatory sink, causing a massive chip in the porcelain finish. No one has accepted responsibility for this damage; the caretaker merely suggested that I should purchase a new sink. The old sink had to be replaced because the washer was shot, and given the age of the sink, there was no way repair it. The new sink had been installed for less than a month when this happened.

I am back in Austin. It’s been a hot and humid autumn. The puppy has grown almost to the size of my adult poodle. My mother is mending nicely. Before long, it will be Winter Break.

The Summer Prequel, Part Two: the Gordian Knot

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The state of things at the Cabin last summer.

Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

— Jean Cocteau

I got an email from my caretaker yesterday. He couldn’t figure out how to activate the electricity in the Anchorage, which I had turned off for the winter. Emera, the service provider, told me that all he needed to do was press a button underneath the meter. In the end, this turned out to be true, but it caused Dave to make several trips out to the house as we both puzzled over what it could mean — Had they activated power to the wrong house? Had they even bothered to turn on the power in the first place? Are you sure they said “a button”?

This feels like a metaphor somehow.

Restoring a historic Maine homestead is more difficult than I thought it would be.

There, I said it.

When I first walked around the place, I realized that both foundations needed work. The Anchorage needed a new roof and some paint. There was water damage on the west wall of both buildings from ridiculous gutter systems that leaked storm run off directly down the outer walls. I soon learned that no one could even locate the septic tank for the main house.

On the whole, this was not discouraging. My ex and I had basically disassembled our Austin home and put it back together. I had sanded floors and stripped acres of wallpaper on my own in various rental properties to make them more appealing. Besides, my Realtor showed me six other houses, and all of them had flaws that would require extensive remodeling. They also had impediments to water access or no way to tap into passive income once I moved up there. I didn’t want to cash out my retirement funds without having a property that paid for its own taxes and maintenance, at the very least, because then all the cash would be tied up in the house, and the only way to liquidize the equity would be to sell or refinance. I wanted a property that I could rent in the summer — and still live on. And with my budget, that meant renovation and restoration was in the cards.

The inspector’s report contained mostly good news, especially considering the age of the Anchorage. Thanks to conscientious attempts to counteract the forces of gravity, there was remarkably little structural damage. For all practical purposes, the Anchorage was move in ready.

Nevertheless, as the previous owner wryly remarked once the closing papers had been signed, the place “has a lot of moving parts.”

IMG_0274The first sign of systematic trouble came in the form of the water testing report, which showed high concentrations of arsenic and heavy metals in one spring, the one that feeds the Cabin, and lower concentrations of arsenic (but no heavy metals) in the Anchorage spring. The springs themselves are enormous; one has a cistern that is thirty feet long. Falling down “houses” in the woods cover them both, and plastic tubes run through the boggy woods to the property. These springs once fed a property up the road as well, through a system of pipes that run hundreds of feet east to what must have been a pump house.

There is no shortage of water. It flows all the way down Caterpillar Hill, through my woods and into the marshy foot of my meadow, where it inundates my neighbor Pat’s careful landscaping in the spring. The dampness below is what’s kept the wood of both houses in pristine condition all these years.IMG_0293

Thus, it was a bit ironic that the well guy, a taciturn Yankee who looked for all the world like a sea captain, had to bring in special equipment to fracture the bedrock once he got down to 400 feet and still was coming up dry. That cost a pretty penny. The well, now full, sits amidst a glorious expanse of sand that Ben Webb, the excavator, trucked in to support the weight of the concrete mixer that poured the foundation last summer. I’m set to tap it this summer when the plumbers reconnect the Cabin’s plumbing. If it contains arsenic, I’m going to cry.

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Last summer was all about the Cabin foundation. The house was sinking into a bog at the northwest corner; in another decade, the support beams would have snapped. Since this is the house I’m going to live in, I needed to act fast.

The house was in the air for almost two months, while Ben built roads and moved dirt around to create new pathways for the water to go, and the very handsome — sorry folks, no pictures of that crew — family of Joel Wilson built forms and poured the concrete in stages. Finally, it was carefully lowered back on to the new foundation with system of many hydraulic jacks jerry rigged into a control board.

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This summer is all — or mostly — about plumbing and water. Ben dug the leach field in my front yard last fall before the first frost, and sometime soon — ahem — he is going to put in the tanks and lay the connecting sewer pipes. The plumbers need to

  • divert some pipes.
  • install a pump beneath the foundation on the west wing to help the water flow.
  • install a pump in the well itself.
  • reconnect the plumbing in the Cabin.
  • insulate the pipes so that I can have water year round in the Cabin.
  • connect water to the Anchorage, either from its spring or from the new well.

Meanwhile, putting a solid foundation beneath the Cabin has led to problems of its own. The carpentry crew needed to cut around and stabilize what were then two Cabin chimneys in order to do the lift. Sadly, I lost the chimney in my bedroom in that maneuver; it had been poorly built and was cracked. No romantic fires in there for me. The silver lining will be a larger master bath, complete with skylight.

Creating clearance around the stone chimney and hearth in the Cabin’s great room cost thousands of dollars and has left structure damage that still needs to be repaired. Moreover, stabilizing the foundation, which settled all the windows down into their sashes for the first time in many years, has caused damage to the roof, last shingled when the house was crooked. A mason needs to come in and re-flash the chimney, and the whole building has to be re-roofed.

Move one thing, and two others break. It’s a Gordian knot, all right.

Fortunately, I am a poet.

I Battle the Local Telecommunication Provider, and Other Headaches

cropped-img_17751.jpgThis morning finds me at the Blue Hill Library, a comforting establishment that is hand’s down nicer than any branch of the public library that I’ve patronized in Austin. It’s a pleasant place to work, with several quiet rooms where folks with laptops and devices congregate. When my daughter was here last month, she spent many afternoons here watching movies and television on her iPad. The library also sponsors a wide variety of events — there is even an art gallery upstairs — and has things on display like the facsimile edition of a book written in calligraphy and magnificently illustrated by Carl Jung. It’s a great resource to have.

The Peninsula is an interesting amalgamation of wealthy summer people, writers and artists who live here year round, and locals who keep the infrastructure running. I feel that I simply could not have picked a better place to live once Jane graduates high school and I move here for good. My neighbors are friendly and welcoming. Several women are fixing up (or have fixed up) old houses on their own, just like me, and my next door neighbor is cleaning out the Anchorage for the first renters.

Yet the process I’ve stepped into is daunting.

For instance, I am here at the library, rather than drinking a cup of coffee and sitting at my laptop in the privacy of home, because Fairpoint Communications refuses to install my wireless. Well, refuses is perhaps not the right word. They can’t bring DSL to my property because they are at capacity along my phone line and need to put in some new piece of equipment to boost the signal or whatever it is they do. Speeds at the tiny Sargentville Library branch, just three doors down from the Anchorage, are considerably down from last summer, suggesting that the boost is needed already.

And yet, a simple fix that would take three days in Austin is scheduled to take three months in this neck of the woods. I have been calling the company every few days, but they are comfortable stonewalling and remain resolutely courteous, a tough nut to crack. As the only internet provider to this part of the world, they can simply do what they want. The worst part? The DSL capacity is 15 mbps. That’s not enough to watch a movie or download any documents of consequence, so it looks like I’ll be working at the Blue Hill Library some days even after the service is finally installed.

And There’s More

Complaining about the lack of a 15 mbps internet service seems ridiculous when problems are cropping up everywhere around me:

  • The foundation of the Anchorage desperately needs shoring up beneath the dining room floor. The obviousness of this problem, which I feel should have been taken care of last year, makes me doubt the carpenter’s abilities.
  • There is a serious looking drywall crack in a downstairs corridor ceiling that I hope the carpenter can fix before the renters arrive on Saturday.
  • The gardens are a mess.
  • The woman who mows my lawn quit after breaking two windows last time she was here because she kicked up rocks under the mower. (She did fix the windows. Sort of.) The rocks are there because the excavator never cleaned the site after moving earth last year. I hesitate to reprimand him because he so cheap and otherwise decent and has a huge backlog of work. Besides, I hired the woman who mows to seed those areas. That work was not really done satisfactorily. The woman’s elderly mother has wrested the account from her daughter and will be coming to do the lawns tomorrow after a day of chemo treatments. This is not confidence inspiring.
  • The tree guy I hired has completely disappeared on me.
  • There has been some sort of argument or misunderstanding between the painter and the carpenter, and some of the work I contracted never was finished. I don’t believe this is work I paid for, just work they promised to do and never did. I have spoken with them several times, and they play dumb. Very frustrating.

Looking around the cabin yesterday afternoon — one can ascend into the building from a stepladder placed on the concrete footing where the bedroom fireplace once stood — I noticed something rather alarming. The north wall of the building is a bit out of whack and seems perilously close to slipping off its support beam. This would be kind of bad. Some of the workmen will be at the house tomorrow, and I’ll have them take a look and see what can be done.

If I had internet at my place, I’d post a picture of this problem. Instead, enjoy this little video of two poodles playing at the local beach.

Taking Stock and Defining Motives

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Now that the work is finished for the season, I’ve decided to write a series of posts about the steps I took to finance this investment. Given my writerly nature, these posts will probably be pretty discursive. I’ll try to focus a couple of them on topics like using a self-directed IRA to purchase an investment property. Others are just going to ramble from one idea to the next.

I want to make clear from the onset that I’m not a financial advisor, a tax attorney, or a CPA. I’ve made some miscalculations already; some of them are dumb things I overlooked even after reading dozens of articles online and poring over the pertinent IRS documents.

Still, people think that a venture like this may be out of their reach, so I want to share my experience with you, focusing on both the emotional and economic aspects of it.

This week, I received all but a couple of the bills for work performed on the place this fall. My carpenter’s bill was the biggest; the painter, well driller, and excavator also took sizable chunks. The breakdown looks like this:

  • Clapboard replacement, foundation repair, sill damage to the Anchorage: $10,234.00
  • Painting of replaced clapboards and the other exposed wood: $3,150.00
  • Well, digging and fracking: $6,545.00
  • Consultation with structural engineer:  $291.00
  • Excavation:  $1,410
  • Chimney cleaning and staging:  $866.00
  • Plumbing, including the estimated cost to winterize:  $948.00
  • Lawn maintenance, plus reseeding and fall cleanup: $1,000.00 (estimated)

Total: $24,444.00

Of course, there are property taxes due on both the main lot and the separate parcel of land across the way; and in addition to those expenses, I had to pay the hazard insurance on both buildings, which have different accounts. I won’t count these figures in the tally because my primary interest going forward is how much it costs to repair and restore the buildings.

I have enough of my cash reserve left to fund the next big project — putting a solid foundation under the cabin — but after that I’ll have to save up for each subsequent restoration. There are two big projects that need to be done in the next couple of years: installing a new septic system for the properties, and roofing the main house.

Meanwhile, I’ll be learning how to do this:

Buying a summer house in Maine been a fantasy of mine since I was 12. I would draw elaborate pictures of how I wanted the house to look. I envisioned a drive that meandered slowly through woods richly landscaped in understory ferns and hostas. The house itself, first visible through gaps in the trees, sat overlooking a final parklike slope.

The origin of this fantasy was the cabins my paternal grandparents owned in Pembroke, Maine, a village close to the Canadian border. There were nine white-painted buildings in a row beyond the farmhouse in which my grandparents lived, each kept scrupulously neat and clean. My favorite was a small cabin with bright yellow trim and a weather cock on its peaked roof. Each one was slightly different. That was the charm of the place.

The smell of cut grass and gasoline from the riding mower is what I remember best, that and the sound of sheets churning in the zinc tubs of my grandmother’s old-fashioned washing machine. Sheets and towels, an endless supply, went through that house. I itched and begged to be allowed to feed them through the electric wringer myself, despite my grandmother’s stories about a girl like me “who lost an arm” through carelessness. I never tired of watching the water rush from one end while a flattened curl of towel emerged out of the other. It was like magic.

I was allowed to help my grandmother make and strip beds, hang towels on the line, and do the folding. My grandfather fashioned a cart for the back of his mower, and I rode on that, feeling absurd and semi-important when guests’ children watched me from the swing set at the back of the property. One whole day we spent picking blueberries at the grounds of an abandoned house with “S” shapes cut into the shutters. Saplings as thick as fingers had grown up through the foundation, and in the back was a graveyard that had jars of faded plastic flowers on the tombstones.

Without meaning to, I learned things about the hospitality business. How to prioritize a list of chores. The value of cleanliness. The importance of customer service. My grandfather took pride in what he did, charging modest rates (because he had no swimming pool) and delivering exceptional value. He didn’t just fix things as they broke. He kept a constant vigil, anticipating what might go wrong. When cars arrived, he rushed outside to greet the guests with a show of enthusiasm, often rising from the dinner table to get their keys and show them to their cabin. Sometimes I would excuse myself and run outside, mosquitos stinging my bare legs, to listen shyly to their conversations.

This reminds me of a trip my former boyfriend Paul and I took, driving down the Baja peninsula to see gray whales. Along the way, we drove through the inland desert to the Sea of Cortez and a fishing town called Bahia de Los Angeles. There, a doctor from Mexicali had bought some land for his retirement and came down every weekend to build stone cabins one by one on the beach. Like my grandfather, he didn’t care anything about the money. We paid something like seven dollars a night to camp on his land. Coyotes yipped in the distance. In the morning, a whale breeched the surface of the bay in front of us.

This was the point.

8515743649_7d67e9576f_z   Bahia de Los Angeles,” by Alessandro Valli

Phase One on the Facelift of “a Magical House” Is Complete

Here it is, the tail end of summer, almost time for the plumber to come and winterize my very own historic Maine homestead for the season. Since the closing in mid-July, the workmen have accomplished the following:

  • Dug a well. IMG_0443
  • Removed a chimney stack.
  • Propped the foundation of the Anchorage.
  • Repaired rot and sill damage from failed gutters.
  • Scraped and painted the worst sections of the house.

I have deferred the next big job — putting a proper foundation on the smaller back house, otherwise known as the Cabin — until I get back up there to watch what the contractors are doing.

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Speaking of contractors, Woodstock says that a check is arriving via registered mail for the work he never did. I haven’t seen it yet, but I remain hopeful. I did, however, get my tax bills. One of the siblings of the family that owned the house before me forwarded them to me with a sweet note welcoming me to the house “with open arms and an open heart.” A different sister, the one who arrived to sign papers at the closing, described the Anchorage as “a magical house.”

Some history may be useful here. The property was on the market 12 years, according to its current Realtor. Before the housing market crash in 2007, it had been listed for over twice what I paid. Apparently it was also in better shape. The family made numerous improvements to the back house, including the installation of all new plumbing. But they had given up on the foundation of both structures and let brush grow up around the Cabin. Weather beat down the roofs, and poorly installed gutters introduced rot.

They also disagreed, as siblings will, about whether the house should leave the family at all. Some prospective buyers wanted to tear down the Anchorage and finish off the Cabin. They wanted the place to remain as is.

My daughter and I choose the suite of rooms upstairs as our own apartment for June, before the seasonal rental market heats up and we have to vacate for our paying visitors. This section of the house includes a toilet at the end of a long corridor, a wash basin in the hallway, and two light-filled dormer bedrooms with a distant view of Eggemoggin Reach.Mail Attachment 2 Mail AttachmentThe fact that the water closet has an arched and paneled ceiling speaks volumes about what makes the house so special. It’s a place where nothing is ugly, and most things are whimsical and charming. My room features framed selections from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, for instance. The banisters going up the steep staircase to the second story don’t match; one is black, the other white. This eclectic touch seems random until you realize that their railings mirror the black and white finish on the stairs themselves.

Both houses are full of neat surprises like that. I was immediately smitten. I’d seen a bunch of places that had good individual features, but over the years the owners had put their mark on them in ways that made the design feel incoherent. In one early nineteenth-century house, the original ceilings on the upper floor were less than seven feet high, yet the owners had remodeled a master bedroom on the ground floor to have the prosaic feel of a 1940s bungalow. Another house had a clawfoot tub seated on a platform in the bedroom. I loved the whimsy of that, but the tub was only five feet long — not ideal for soaking my almost six foot body. And though the tub was the focal point of the room, its location beneath the eaves felt cramped and a bit sad.

The Cabin and Anchorage need repair and restoration, and yet they are complete. The Cabin has such rustic charm that from the first time I wandered its circular layout, I  imagined myself, clad in soft winter clothing, walking from the kitchen with a cup of tea and sitting by the fireplace to do some writing. My Realtor remembers how I sank into the red chair pictured below and announced, “I want to buy this place.”

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Meanwhile, another semester at Austin Community College is underway. Teaching sections of literature and composition to reluctant student writers is probably not the most efficient way to fund the restoration of a 200-year-old property, but I get to take six weeks of the summer off to go up and oversee the construction, and, for the time being, it pays my health insurance premiums.

The community college teaching also gives me enough time to supplement my income by writing ebooks and website copy. I began working this patchwork of different jobs after the divorce, so that I could continue picking up my daughter from elementary school and taking her to guitar practice and gymnastics rather than putting her in aftercare. But now I have to admit that I sort of like doing a little bit of everything: grading papers for a few hours, rushing to meet a client deadline, strategizing before administrative meeting at the College, tutoring students at a campus learning lab.

Nevertheless, it will be nice to slow down a bit. Focus on my writing. Get some goats and chickens.