green grass field near houses
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I have an idyllic notion of life on a farm: waking up before the sun to milk cows, sow crops, mend fences, and a hundred other chores. It’s a nice dream, but there are two reasons I know it is nothing more. For one thing, there are many reports, like Daniel Immerwahr’s “Beyond the Myth of Rural America” in a recent issue of The New Yorker, that wipe away the fog of nostalgia from rural life. For another, more practical reason, I think about how much tinkering I do in our house, and can only imagine how that would be magnified on a farm.

We bought this house four and a half years ago with the idea that there were a few things we wanted to do once we had it. First, there was the shed that we wanted to put in the backyard to give us some extra storage space. We got that taken care of pretty early. On the other hand, the French doors we1 wanted to put between my office and the living room have been hanging fire ever since we had the idea to put them in.

Our house was originally built in the 1950s, but has since been completely gutted and rebuilt from the inside out. It has an open floor plan, and it had fairly new appliances when we moved it. And yet, there has still be a lot of tinkering. We’ve had to replace three-fifths of the kitchen appliances: new microwave, new dishwasher, and new disposal. I tried fixing the disposal myself when it would only hum, and it seemed I managed to fix it, only to discover later that I’d cracked the casing and water had been leaking from the disposal into a basin under the sink. We were lucky to discover this before the basin overflowed.

We have good-sized storage room downstairs that contains the furnace and water heater, and from the day we moved in, that storage room has been so full-to-the-brim that was impossible to go into the room without first taking stuff out. For years, I’d wanted to clear out that room and move stuff into the attic. But we had attic boards in the attic. Recently, while Kelly was in Europe, I put in a dozen or so attic boards and then spent a weekend purging the storage room, and moving stuff up into the attic. And not in any haphazard way, but I created a nice little aisle up there and sketched out a map of where things were located. When the job was done I needed a day just to recover from the soreness.

I put in nice metal shelving on both sides of the storage room and we now have a usable walk-in pantry on one side, and place to store tools and other miscellany on the other side, and there is plenty of space to move about.

We’ve made small replacements in every bathroom in the house, from flappers to flush values to fill levers so that in any given bathroom, we have a toilet of Theseus.

I’ve added more and more bookshelves to my office, replacing older, smaller ones with larger ones so that no wall is left out. I’ve replaced countless lightbulbs, and smoke detector batteries, the latter almost exclusively during the middle of the night.

Our refrigerator stopped refrigerating recently and so I cleaned out the coils and removed the accumulated dust. Grateful for the spa day, our refrigerator started refrigerating once again.

After the gas company shut off the gas to make some repairs to the gas meters on our street, our furnace failed to start up after the gas was turned back on. It was 22 years old and after some deliberation, we decided to replace it and the air conditioner (also 22 years old) with new models. This was a relief, albeit an expensive one. I knew from the day we bought the house we were going to eventually need to replace the HVAC system, it was just a matter of when.

At present there are five–make that, six light bulbs that need replacing and I’ve just been too busy tinkering with other things to replace them. There is a tented-in area on our deck, but the tent and frame were damaged in a wind storm and I haven’t had a chance to replace and repair them, respectively.

For a year now, I’ve been tinkering with our Kia, which doesn’t want to start on cold weather days. I’ve ruled out just about everything, even paying to have a perfectly good battery replaced just to prove that it wasn’t the culprit (it wasn’t). The car will always start, but sometimes, I have to press the start button 20 times before it decides to light up. Once started, the car runs fine and starts fine for the rest of the day. It never happens when the weather is above 50 degrees, and it is intermittent when it is below 50. This morning, when the temperature was 39, the car started right up. The dealer can never reproduce the problem, but I am determined to find the root cause.

Our other car, which turned 20 years old this year, needed a new starter and some other work as well. It now runs fine, thanks to some tinkering.

Some of this tinkering is spread out, separated by months of smooth sailing. Others come in waves. We had issues with the old car, refrigerator, water heater and furnace all in the span of about one month.

In his monthly One Man’s Meat column for Harper’s December 1941 issue2, E.B. White details about 200 chores he has to do around his farm in Maine. I suspect that a White essay on a getting a root canal could make it seem like a joy, but when I consider the list of things, it is an awful lot of tinkering, and makes the tinkering we’ve done around the house these last four-and-a-half-years look like warm-up exercises. My farming daydreams will remain just that–daydreams. They are among my favorite daydreams and I wouldn’t tinker with them in the least.

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  1. When I say “we” I mean “I.”
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