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Rachel B

Still Slacking After All These Years

I’m having dinner with T1 and T2. T1 is feeling human for the first time in a long time. The Big Guy is home recuperating after a trip on the lawnmower around our yard in the 90 degree heat. We’re looking out the diner window at the pouring rain, and the boys are trying to debate what kind of weather it is — swimming or Avengers movie watching. as the voice of wisdom, for some reason, I feel it is my duty to remind them that their father settled this question several years ago when we first moved into our Earth sheltered house, so I’m reposting this bit of silliness :

We found each other because we’re both a bit goofy, and that goofiness has led us all over the world. Sometimes it has led us off the deep end, or so some of our friends and family thought when we decided to build an off-grid, earth-sheltered house. In reality, it was one of the best decisions we ever made, and it has rewarded us in many unexpected ways.

When we moved to Vermont, we bought the quintessential antique farmhouse, but, after five years of paying the quintessential gargantuan wood, oil and electric bills that go along with any drafty, mouse-infested home, we decided to make a change. The stint in Germany that preceded our migration to the mountains had exposed us to new and old ideas about building with heating and electric savings in mind. We sifted through folders of clippings and evaluated any conventional and offbeat idea that popped up in the search engines.

Finally, we settled on the idea of an underground house. At the time we didn’t plan to go off-grid – it was still just a fantasy. But our site made bringing in the power more expensive than making it ourselves, and suddenly we had a new research project. Ultimately, we ended up with solar power and hot water and a backup generator. We bought the queen of wood cookstoves (my non-negotiable demand) to heat our house, food, and (in winter) our water.

We moved into the house in the fall, and, aside from having to quickly buy a much more efficient refrigerator, we noticed very few changes in our life. Like most Vermonters – we already used a clothesline 90% of the time, we already had a garden, and we already worshipped our woodstove – but we still patted ourselves on the back for being so green. The reality was we were (and are) slackers, and that was what drove most of our design and energy decisions. It still does now.

So as the Big Guy walked into the house yesterday soaking wet, wrapped in his towel and carrying a bar of soap, I was amused but hardly surprised. It was pouring out and after an afternoon fixing fences, washing off in the rain obviously seemed like a great idea to him(especially since we’re surrounded by trees and mountains and more trees), but I still couldn’t figure out exactly what had motivated it today.

“Saving water,” he announced as he sauntered across the living room, leaving sasquatch-sized puddles on the concrete floor.

Later, as we were both not volunteering to mop up the water, I tried to decide what I loved most about this house – the way it fosters zany outlets for our green and/or lazy impulses or the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere so that no one calls the cops when we indulge in them.

Training a Human

Having Lost one or two cats to the toothier beasts that inhabit our forest, i’ve made it a habit to bring Princess Jane and Jim-Bob and at night. Jean came in early this evening, but Jim was hot on the trail of a moth, and he was none too happy when I scooped him up and brought him in, telling him it was for his own good.


The cats in, I ushered Thing2 to bed and went to my study to write.  Jim-Bob joined me, and I thought all was forgiven. So I opened a notebook and started scribbling. Jim hopped up on my desk to play.


He sat on my page then stuck his head in my water glass, almost knocking it and the water over and onto my laptop. 


Then he sat on the edge of the desk, craning his head to look at what crap could be knocked off the nearby shelf. He knocked off a book and then a stuffed animal.


Play time was looking a lot like revenge.


Then he lay down on my writing pad, “nudging “ my writing hand until it was petting exactly the way he wanted. He didn’t want revenge, he wanted servitude.


Behavioral scientists may tell us that humans can’t fully understand cats, that we anthropomorphize them. lBut I think it’s safe to say that they — at least some of them— have clearly learned how to understand and train us.
Jim-bob thinks I could be just feline-o-pomorphizing my own species. 

Pie in the Sky

I went out for a treasure hunt after work, sure the entire blueberry crop would have been poached by Japanese beetles. Fortunately, the heat that every Vermonter has sworn they won’t complain about and the humidity we will gripe about seems to have produced a harvest big enough for us and the bugs. I should be happy with enough for a few desserts, but, this year, I want more.


This time most summers we’re planning a trip out to Lake Michigan for an almost annual, unofficial family reunion near South Haven, Michigan. We’re not this year.


I’ve been going to that spot in Michigan since I was a fetus. My grandparents are buried there. We’ve solved the world’s problems sitting around the table on the porch there, watching the sun set over the lake, noting how much the wind in the trees sounds like wave lapping the shore. We’ve forgotten the answers before bed and celebrated the fact of family there for almost every summer of our existences.


But It holds another meaning for me.


Eighteen years ago, the Big Guy and I missed Michigan for the first time. In April, my job had moved us to Germany while I was six months pregnant, and Thing1 was due at the end of July. There would have been no travel that summer.


Thing1 refused to vacate my womb until the last possible minute. The extended family had convened along the lake. Early in the morning the first week in August, the Big Guy phoned th gang in Michigan. They huddled around their speaker phone, as the Big Guy, Thing1 and I took turns talking, crying and babbling about the newest member of the family.


The next year we were all together along the lake.


We celebrated Thing1’s first birthday there.


We celebrated his second birthday there and, because his birthday falls smack dab in the middle of blueberry season, we celebrated with blueberries and cake.


Thing1 has celebrated almost every birthday there with his parents and grandparents and cousins, always with blueberries, and for the last four or five years, blueberry pie.

This summer when Thing1 turns eighteen, we won’t be in Michigan because the Big Guy is getting ready to get a new knee. It’s a good reason to stay home.


As I write this, however, we’re getting ready to take Thing1 back to the hospital for the second time this week to address his anemia, to talk about a new medication and possibly stronger measures to get his auto-immune disease under control.


He is barely eating. He is getting winded after short walks. He is not looking like his normal almost eighteen-year-old self, and we need for him to get at least a little of his own back before he flies our coop.


Last summer, just before we left for Michigan, Thing1 marked his birthday with a hike up the back of Equinox Mountain. He texting us updates of storms and bears on the path until his cell phone died and shortly before he home announcing that he felt truly alive.


We don’t know what the next few weeks or even months hold, but, barring a miracle in the next few weeks, there will be no 10 mile hike. There will be no blueberry festival or typical 18th birthday bash.


There will be a celebration, however. Even if it’s just our family of four cuddled on the couch, we will make sure he knows that, no matter what the circumstances, his being part of our clan for the last eighteen years, his having made us a clan, is something worth celebrating. And, if I have any say in the matter, it will be with blueberries.

They Grow Up So Fast

Four-week-old Ralph and his mom were out in the small paddock enjoying one of Vermont’s finest summer evenings. I haven’t seen him in a week or so, and the shy, wobbly little colt I’d last seen was full of new tricks.

I left the car running so I could move if any one came up the hill behind me, opened the door and, using the car as tripod and camouflage, pointed the lens at Ralph and his mom. Before I even started to zoom, Ralph looked in my direction and started to trot to the fence. Then he got a little shy and went back to his mom to nurse for a minute.

Mom was eating and swished her tail at him to give her a minute and he looked back at me. He trotted right up to the fence and then back to his mom, nuzzling her for a bit of attention. Mom looked at me and then at nuzzled Ralph and sauntered closer to my section of the fence, Ralphie trotting close behind.

With Mom close by, the last vestige of hesitation, and Ralph cantered around the paddock and came back to the fence right next to the car. He craned his neck trying to see over the top rail and then, with a quick glance at me as if to say, “Watch what I can do!” made another lap around the ring. After his third lap, he stopped at the fence and tried to poke his head below the top rail then behind it, playing an equine version of peek-a-boo with me and my camera. It was clear that Ralph had been the subject of photographic adoration from the other residents on our road.

The last week had brought a heat wave and a day off, chores and bills. It was like every other week except that while we weren’t paying attention, someone was growing up. Something about watching someone else’s kid shoot up like a weed makes you wonder what wonders in your own life you might be missing when you think you’re having a week just like all the others.

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