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.