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Archive for October, 2013

The Poop Factor

The farm is no place for a hypochondriac. The barn is a collection of generations of dust, moldy hay, forgotten trash, rusty equipment, abandoned nests, old poop, fresh poop, composted poop, petrified poop, barn swallow poop decorating the posts and beams and corners. The pigs delight in being filthy. They make pig-sized depressions in the mud and roll, snouts first, until they look as though they’re wearing wetsuits. They smile their pig smile, proud of their improvised swimming pool. When they’re thirsty, they dive into the water bucket with both arms, immersing the entire front half of their bodies.

The house, despite our best efforts, is an old farmhouse. The mudroom is our storage for dirty barn boots and overalls. There are an inordinate number of resident spiders, filling the place with cobwebs within hours of a deep clean. The windows are perpetually fly-speckled, the plywood kitchen floor abused. The basement is dank and suspicious, the sort of place Indiana Jones might investigate. It seems to provide the upstairs with a constant supply of moldy air, hungry mice and a musty odor.

And so, for a person predisposed to worry, there is ample opportunity for discomfort. All of my distrust of germs comes from my father, who inherited his distrust from his father. He demands antibacterial hand soap, brushes his teeth for fifteen minutes at a time, and keeps his fingernails impossibly short.

When my family comes to visit the farm, my father stiffens. He steps from the truck and immediately into tall “mud” boots, which are spotless. He looks toward the barn suspiciously. My family always brings too much. My mother will have packed a cooler full of dinner, and another full of appetizers. They’ll bring armloads of pillows and blankets. They bring tools. My father brings his box full of paper towels, Dial soap and bottled water. It is as if they believe I need rescuing.

In the morning, they’ll wake up with me to come out for chores. My mom and brothers are good sports, bundling up and eager to help carry buckets of grain and water. My father tags along reluctantly, sulking like a child at having been woken too early. He brings along his mug of coffee, then thinks better of drinking from it after standing in the dusty barn. My brother grabs the bucket of feed from me and climbs bravely into where the pigs wait. They are on him in an instant, snouts smearing across his shorts and knees. He laughs, amazed at how quickly they’ve made a mess.

Back in the house, as they pack, my father is uneasy. “DON’T get in the car with those shit-covered shorts on!” He tells my brother. “I’ve got a clean pair in my bag, in the living room.” My father goes nowhere without his canvas bag full of spare clothing.

It’s getting better with time. I’ve given in to the fact that the pigs will muck up my shorts, that the eggs are sometimes dirty, and that it’s okay to touch the chickens. Still, I keep my fingernails short.

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On my way out for a jog, I always check the mail. I walk from the house and down the gravel driveway, warming up my legs. The mailbox is oversized and was painted blue by the last tenants. Carefully-drawn branches along one side frame the green numbers 5 and 0.

When we first moved in, the mailbox looked like it had been beaten up by high school kids: the post sagged with missing nails, and the box leaned out over the road as if about to puke onto the dirt. It didn’t have a door, and its angle helped protect our letters from the rain, but it took just the right touch to keep everything from sliding out. After living here for over a year, we finally got a notice from the Postmaster informing us that our mailbox was not up to par; an image of an “incorrect” box, which had the exact pitch and sag of ours, was circled in red pen. Beside it was an image of a “correct” mailbox, which stood erect and clearly the superior choice. Afraid we wouldn’t receive our bills, Jacob cut a door from a length of firewood and nailed the post back into place.

I pause to pull down the slab of wood and look into the cavernous mailbox, the size of a small trunk, because it buys time before I have to start huffing and bouncing up the road. Depending on what I find, I may be able to delay five minutes or more, standing at the end of the driveway reading letters from friends in faraway places, recipes from Cook’s Illustrated, or stories from a brand new issue of The Sun. There is almost no traffic on my “road,” which dead ends and leads to two other houses, both owned by old men who have lived on the hill their entire lives and mow their lawns every day of the summer. I can stand there at my leisure, pretending to stretch, and procrastinate all I want.

We’ve lived here for twenty months, on this farm in the northern Vermont mountains, and we count ourselves blessed to have the view, the quiet and privacy, the birdsong all year and the empty woods. We keep company with the cows and chickens, the pigs and the dog, and with each other. We have friends for dinner, and visits from our families, and cars to drive us too far down winding roads to our workplaces. We have Internet access and, sometimes, all four bars on our cell phones. Still, I relish my daily trip to the mailbox.

I like to see my mom’s cursive and the corny cards she sends to the dog on Valentine’s Day. I like the images on postcards from Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains, and Italy. I read books on pages, and I tear into the packages whose senders I recognize from Amazon. Bills come on time, every time, and despite how quickly they seem to follow one another, they come with a certain satisfaction. Our mailbox is big enough to accommodate shoeboxes, and when my new sneakers arrive I put them on right away, surprised by such whiteness, and take off down the road to scuff them up.

I get a letter from my uncle, who read my letter, and who wants to visit. We get a Save the Date from Jacob’s childhood neighbor, and a wedding invitation from friends on a dairy farm in Idaho. We get a small package from North Carolina, with a handmade mug and a recording of our friends playing bluegrass tunes together. We get a letter from Alaska, birthday cards, and our retail license for selling pre-packaged meat.

Sometimes I stand at the mailbox in the sunshine, feeling as though I have plenty of time. Sometimes it is howling and sleeting, and I want to have my run over with and be back at the woodstove, but I am eager for news. On rainy days, and when the wind blows, and when sloppy snowflakes fill the driveway, I hunch over the door of the mailbox while I read. When I am particularly reluctant to run, I save something: a letter from home, a paycheck, a package with my best friend’s tall handwriting. I like to make a little reward for myself, a treat to collect on my way back up the driveway.

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