Saturday, October 12, 2013

NO MOAT, NO GATORS -- but . . .

In English common law assumptions, on which much of American written law is based, a “man’s” home is his castle and a woman is simply a “man’s.”  Part of the castle.  Sod that.  In my case, I am the “man” and the castle is my little old ramshackle house in a tiny village on the Montana high prairie where the weather is harsh.  I’m here because I love it enough to survive the circumstances.

This house is one of two built side-by-side by a barber in the Thirties.  The bathroom is an add-on that came later when piped water and sewer came to Valier.  I should look up that date and see if there are stories about it, but the infrastructure systems in the early Montana settlements are all about a hundred years old now.  Electricity and piped gas, streets and street lighting, telephone and cable, are also infrastructure and now one has to think about cell phone towers (one is up next to the grain elevator but I don’t think it’s operational yet.)  Consumable basics like groceries, automobile gas, hardware, and various repair stations are scattered through the village, as are church, library, school (with buses), the sheriff, town and county road maintenance shops, a stock sorting corral, and a few other amenities.  A second village of grain bins.  The wheat fields are right at the edges of the town.

Because of the common law assumption that an owner-owned house is a territory with boundaries, the codes of state and village only apply to things that affect neighbors, specifically adjacent or through an area, or at the time of new construction.  Mostly they are justified by health and safety, but one danger in a small homogeneous population is that individuals will try to impose their notions of how people “ought” to live on everyone.  And other individuals, usually but not always old men, will hole up in substandard circumstances and just die there. Defiantly, his castle protected by law.

In urban environments people may enjoy high incomes but have no time or skill, so if anything goes wrong with their castle, they must call in specialized services.  In some California neighborhoods every house has a “pool man” who comes to skim the leaves off the top of the water, regulate the chemicals and check the pump machinery.  Even in the village of Valier, women who run businesses or have jobs will sub-contract the house cleaning or lawn maintenance because one’s status depends in part on conformity to the standards of appearance.  Less affluent people in cities tend to rent apartments which are maintained by the landlord.  In theory.

In the Sixties I was with Bob Scriver when he built his little studio home behind the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife.  They were “built stout” though the museum’s heart is recycled wood from a warehouse constructed by a mercantile store owner at the dawn of the Indian agency town of Browning.  The studio home is impossibly small by today’s wealthy standards and included a generous skylight and north window which have no benefit for non-artist residents, so have been fortified and covered with heavy wire mesh and thick drapes to keep out light.  In a world of electronic screens, darkness is an advantage.  The kitchen unit, a combined sink, fridge, stove meant for apartments, has died of old age.  The pink bathroom was at the mercy of sewer infrastructure collapse.  The huge stone fireplace persists with the addition of a fan-powered insert with glass doors.  This well-designed and built structure is no longer a jewel.  Last time I was there it had a gang-tag on the alley side, stigmatized.  A building is no better than its maintenance.  Its maintenance is no better than the reputation of the occupant.

Thoreau's cabin near Walden Pond

Ted Kaczinski's cabin near Lincoln, MT

This house of mine in Valier is flimsy, and the outbuildings at the back, which were built as temporary shelter for the reconstruction of Swift Dam after 1965, are disintegrating.  I had big plans for them when I moved in, thinking they would be useful as studio and bunkhouse.  But I’m aging quickly and economics are not going my way.

Still, I concentrate on my “castle.”  Clearly it was prepared for sale with temporary cosmetic repairs, which have come apart in the last decade.  Like a vehicle, like a computer, like an education, like a wardrobe, a house must be constantly maintained.  I’m barely staying even, which is probably a fair assessment of the village infrastructure as well.  The town cannot impose building codes on an old owner-occupied structure.  The townspeople’s favorite codes are mostly dust control, pothole elimination, and suppression of animals.  They are divided over the water requirements (They despise meters!), or issues about new trees or the elimination of trees they find inconvenient.  The wind imposes its own requirements on old and exotic trees that evolved elsewhere.

When I first moved in, I relied on a handyman who was good at improvising fixes.  The plumbing here is what I call “farmer plumbing,” meaning that the guy goes out back of the barn to see what pipe is lying around and then makes it fit the job of getting water or sewer from here to there.  He uses whatever wire or string is around to hang the pipes and estimates drain slopes by guess and by golly.  The trouble with repairs is mixing old materials and methods with new, which means that there are new stresses on the old, and new materials demand adaptions at the joinings.  This is particularly tricky with electrical infrastructure in a house.  And gas.

My new policy about plumbing is “French.”  That is, I see in the movies that big old stone structures are often piped and wired in plain sight instead of pipes and wires in hollow-walled balloon construction that can hide everything in the wall or under the floor or through the attic.  Modern plastic piping is not so ugly as old cast-iron and I want it all in plain sight so I can see whether it is leaking.  Surely we don’t have to pretend that running water and lights are “magic” these days.  And we keep having to add new wires to feed our electronic machines.

I’ve already ranted about the neighbor’s attack on the cottonwood tree which was suddenly half theirs in spite of them not watering that property for years -- just mowing it -- and alongside their total inattention to the other two trees on the lot line.  But another result of a growing congregation is that it suddenly became clear that my sewer system, just downstream of theirs, was not operating.  My old handyman had done a quick fix by propping up the bottom angle of the waste stack with a little pile of wood scraps.  It wasn’t working.  

My new handyman is a former student, Corky, a grandpa these days and veteran of many adventures.  He cheerfully sawed a hole in the floor so we could get a first-hand look at that bottom angle.  After a lot of talking, thinking, and a certain amount of internet research, we decided to replace old technology with new:  we sawed off the cast iron waste stack and will top it with an indoors pvc valve that entirely prevents the escape of sewer gas so that it doesn’t have to be outside.  That means no more ice blockage, fallen leaves, misguided animal occupancy, and rust buildup.

There are various kinds of house porn: big architectural homes in the mountains full of glass walls, log pillars, flights of stairs and corten steel roofs. 

Bozeman, Montana, summer cottage

Cute tiny abodes where there’s a desk under an elevated bed, decoration is ethnic or minimalist, and the occupant eats takeout.  Victorian castles.  I love them all in a second-hand, empathetic window-shopping way.  But they ARE porn, meaning they are a response to an image rather than a reality. 

Living in my object of interaction, is sex, if not marriage.  Hands on, responsibility, bills to pay. There’s something so satisfactory about crawling around under the floor or sawing holes or painting a room aubergine.  I find I want other people to stay out of it, unless they are people I really know.  I’m not installing a moat, but I don’t always answer the door.  

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