Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
And a river runs through it
Published 4:44 pm, Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Don't knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn't start a conversation if it didn't change once in a while. -- Kin Hubbard
I have a home that rests on the neck of a gentle slope in the deep New England winter woods. Its length faces north while its soft shoulders fall to the east and west. A master bedroom window stands as a sentinel spying to the southwest across a fenced garden and a rectangle of boxwoods. Inside, an east/west beige wall separates the master from a living room that is warmed by soft, winter light. The wall stretches from a pinewood floor to an arching sapphire blue ceiling -- and a river runs through it.
The Eskimo People have more than 50 terms to describe "snow." I am now fairly certain that 30 of them are curse words. The past 30 days have conspired to entomb my entire world in a brittle, frozen coffin of ice. My holiday Dickens village needs to be updated to include new figurines of elderly who have fallen on skate rink sidewalks, roof ice and water removal men and unwitting commuters whose shoes have been eaten away by the leprosy of winter sidewalk salt.
As a native Californian, my eighth New England winter has been an arctic blast of humiliating reality. When I first considered relocating to rural life, I envisioned low rock walls, ponds and Thoreau self-sufficiency. Instead I was forced to dig wells, manage septic tanks and depend on a fragile 220V kite string of electrical line. I recall Fairfield County friends lamenting to us that global warming had robbed Connecticut of its Currier and Ives winters and left in its wake a mild province of wintry mix nights and endless springtime mud.
On Feb. 1, while my basement ceiling was leaching water through the taped edges of its drywall edifice, I began to understand why northern longitude cultures have the highest suicide rate. At the exact moment that a 3-foot ice dam was redirecting snow melt under my roof shingles, through the attic, down my living room wall, through the ceiling to create a new tributary of the Rowayton River, I was worrying more of an oncoming Ice Age than a hot, flat and crowded world.
It is in these rare times of Man versus Wild I am reminded that I am the useless descendent of a more self-reliant and practical line of survivalists and self-sufficient laborers. I hail from a generation molded out of Play Dough, not forged from rich metal alloy. I can barely replace a smoke alarm battery. I am a member of a soft-palmed, latter stage service-based Boomer Generation with a penchant for outsourcing everything -- including manual and menial labor. When catastrophe strikes, I keep dialing until I can get through to someone who knows what the hell is going on at my house.
Ours is a demographic that throws its back out while sitting at desks, sneezing or putting on socks. After a childhood indentured to Silent Generation Sergeants who dealt out punitive chores and "because you live here" hard labor, many of us rebelled and purposely atrophied our fledgling do-it-yourself muscles. In doing so, we revived the handyman industry. We secretly loathe household crises as they reveal our limitations. Despite a garage filled with power tools and promise, we simply cannot "git 'er done." In a rare moment of reverse discrimination, women expect men to intuitively know how to battle Mother nature. We are expected to vanquish the monsters of leaks, creaks and cracks. "You are a guy -- you are supposed to know how to fix stuff."
OK, you are a woman, where is my chicken cordon bleu and my chocolate souffle? For God's sake I got a C+ in wood shop!
I glance up at a seething frozen mass the size of the Khombu Ice Fall. My wife suggests that I grab the ladder and chip away at the 12-foot serpent of blue-gray glacier. I would rather french kiss a cannibal than risk assaulting this Hillary Step of ice. "Sure. Just grab me the flame thrower from the basement." For a nanosecond, she believes me to be in earnest. She catches herself, briefly breaking eye contact with this icy sword of Damocles, smirking at my eye roll and crooked, half smile. Yes, I am a modern day disappointment.
I long to drill holes in these ice jams, insert M80 quarter sticks of dynamite and blow up the whole mess. I secretly want to stand on the home's prominent cupola -- hands on my hips, head back and project a deep manly laugh to the neighborhood as I display by snow-free roof. Instead I skulk inside pacing -- waiting like an expectant father for the snow removal guy with his legion of strong backs and canary yellow snow shovel attached to his 12-cylinder, 400hp truck.
Later in the day, insult is heaped upon injury. In a haunted mansion moment, our electricity begins to flicker in perpetual brown out. With only 120V powering our home, we have no heat, water or appliances. Yet, half power is just enough to preclude our expensive generator from kicking in. We are in a twilight purgatory. I stare at the tangled guts of a fuse box. My wife yells downstairs, asking me if I checked the circuit breaker. I lie and shout back "of course!" I am too embarrassed to admit to having no clue where the breaker rests on this circuit board of confusion. I shake my head. How ironic that I should have a river in my walls but no water from my faucets.
I am stuck in a bad Ingmar Bergman film. The stark white landscape, the nihilistic monotony of slate gray days and the slow erosion of our sanity from delays, disruptions and the creaking weight of 3 feet of ice and snow squatting on our home like a fat man, has me perpetually uneasy.
In the last 30 days my entire property has transformed into the Lake Placid Olympics complex. To the east, there is an exciting luge run where one can buckle into one of three multi-ton automotive sleds and course out of control down a 30-degree pitch of ice hill. The passengers often scream but are hard to hear over the drone of the nearby generator and industrial drying equipment perpetually blowing air into my now broken walls. The front yard is a world-class skating rink. I must now hire a phalanx of workers to clear my roof, chisel ice, open up walls, replace saturated insulation, aerate narrow spaces and dry out the soaked carpet and wood flooring.
Massive 8-foot icicles hang like dragon's fangs from fragile drains. Ice dams have formed between gabled windows and along the edges of the roof. They loom -- sapphire blue clots that are pushing my home toward cardiac arrest. As is often the case, I leave it to my spouse to administer CPR and sneak away earlier than normal to an office with running water, adults and electricity.
We are not alone in our winter distress. It has been a thankless month in Fairfield County. After sending my spouse flowers for supervising a lifetime's worth of repairs, I made dinner reservations. It was my fatted calf offering to my life partner and an Old Testament God who had chosen to test us with a biblical trifecta of ice storms, snow days and power outages.
At dinner, we run into Kathy and Kevin. Kevin has also sent flowers and is now treating his better half to an evening out. Kathy related the bitter epiphany of her week as she sat outside on battered knees chiseling frozen poopsicles that were conspicuously placed like Easter Island statues across a deck of snow. As her children and animals watched her from a warm inside with blank, insouciant stares, she had her moment of clarity. "I have a freaking MBA and I am out here in a snow storm chipping dog poop out of ice with a screwdriver. I kept wondering, `where exactly did my train leave its tracks'?"
She went on to describe an all too familiar set of January indignities -- a frigorific month of logistical chaos, icy roads and a house full of snow day teens that seemed to believe life was someone else's responsibility.
It is a familiar prologue. In the southwest corner of her home, a warm, inviting living room looks across a southern frozen front lawn. Yet its brow is furrowed. The ceiling is clearly sagging under the weight of winter. There is a narrow corridor between the roofline -- a crawl space that rests above this popular common room -- and a river runs through it.