Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Improvements at the ranch

I may be able to water the garden this summer. The S.O. succeeded in pulling the old point for our shallow well. In the photo he has succeeded in jacking the pipe up to where he's been able to remove two 5-foot sections and is close to having another section almost high enough to remove. 

The well is close to the Woman Cave and provided our drinking water back when we had a mobile home. It's also one of those wells that the Health Department freaks out over -- not particularly deep so could be prone to contamination. Never viewed it as an issue for us, though, not when we're perched close to the highest point around here and are sitting on glacial till. 

Even better, that glacial till was beachfront a few thousand years ago. What is now wetland on the lower half of our property is the remnant of a pothole lake formed when the glaciers retreated. Over millennia a whole lot of water soaked into the gravel under us. Our place has never lacked for water. The problem has been getting it out of the ground. Glacial till tends to have a lot of sand in it. Sand has a nasty habit of clogging the screens on well points as well as shredding the working parts of pumps. 

Which is what happened to the most recent well a couple years ago. The sand content in the water that made it through the pump seemed to get worse until it was more like the pump was sucking mud -- the last load of laundry done using that well water had so much sand in it for all intents it wasn't clean at all. We brilliantly figured out it was time to pull the point, clean the sand out or replace it, and hope the problem was solved for awhile.

Except the point did not want to come out of the ground. The well consisted of (as far as the S.O. could recall) four 5-foot lengths of drive pipe and the 3-foot point. One of the couplings on the pipe must have gotten wedged under a rock because it would come up maybe 6 inches and stop. He tried multiple times a couple summers ago, even had help in the attempt, and the pipe would not move. We did talk about simply buying more pipe and driving a point in a few inches away from where the old pipe was sticking out of the ground, but we'd already done that once. The sand has been an ongoing issue for decades. When we put the new point in this time it's going to be, as best I can recall, the fourth one since 1973. 

The original well on the property was a dug well, really shallow, farther down the hill and close to the sauna. It hadn't been used in years so when the S.O. and I set up housekeeping in the Shoebox in 1973 he decided to do a new well a few feet away from the old dug well. He excavated a hole so the pumphouse would be basically underground and protected from freezing in the winter, and then drove a point. I think that one went down maybe 15 feet. Only problem was that in the spring, the pumphouse tended to fill with water as the snow around it melted. So then he drove another point farther up the hill and built an above-ground pumphouse. That point worked fine for a few years, had amazing water pressure, and then things began slowing to a trickle. 

We brilliantly figured out the screen on the point was getting blocked. We tried a couple remedies, he tried pulling it with no luck, and then he drove Point Number 3. Which worked fine for a few years. . . and here we are getting ready to finish pushing Point Number 4 into the ground. At least this time it's a little easier getting the point back in -- he's just shoving it into the hole the Point Number 3 came out of. It had about two feet left to go when he quit for the day. Once it's down far enough to reconnect the pump, all  we have to do is hope the old pump still works after having humongous amounts of sand pass through it for a decade or two.    

Photo is of the point following its removal. It had a long split down one side and was packed two-thirds full of sand. Not much of a mystery any more just why it was pumping mud. 

I didn't bother with a garden last year because I figured out a long time ago I can not count on rain keeping things growing. This year, of course, when I will be able to run a sprinkler it'll turn out to be the wettest summer in 50 years. 

This well also supplies water to the guest cabin so if all goes the way it should, the next guest in the cabin will have cold water on tap again.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Book Review: Educated, A Memoir

I am not a huge fan of memoirs, especially memoirs that detail someone's sad experiences with a religious cult or particularly harrowing circumstances, but for some reason Tara Westover's Educated caught my eye. Maybe pickings were slim on the New Books shelf. 

I have a minor addiction to advice columns and to the 'Am I the Asshole' threads on Reddit. I tell the S.O. that one nice thing about reading them is our own family starts looking pretty damn sane. Well, Educated had kind of the same effect, except in mega doses. Some holy-shit-I-survived memoirs feature a person's escape from a religious cult, some highlight abusive parents, some feature mental illness, and some involve abuse by other family members. Westover's book checks all the boxes. It was like, holy wah, this woman needs to stop thinking about someday reconnecting with her incredibly toxic family. Don't fantasize about building a bridge back home; dynamite that sucker in your mind and never look back. 

I could see missing your family if you've become estranged because you no longer buy into your father's lunatic right wing conspiracy theories, but not when your parents ignored the fact you were being terribly physically abused by an older sibling and resorted to major gaslighting when you asked why they never intervened. Then when you toss in being treated like slave labor -- what type of deranged adult pressures a 12-year old into operating an industrial metal shear in the family salvage yard? -- and having real, physical life-threatening injuries treated with homeopathic remedies. . . Westover's book is a really nice illustration of how if a totally toxic environment is the only thing you've ever known no sane, safe place is ever going to feel normal.  

It probably didn't help Westover psychologically when it wasn't so much that she deliberately cut off ties with her family as it was that they disowned her. She achieved something where most parents would be doing the happy dance and bragging to the whole world about their genius daughter, but not Westover's. To her specific set of demented parents she became a sinner, possessed by a demon, and for sure a slut and a whore when she decided to go to graduate school in England after graduating from Brigham Young University. Her parents had tolerated her attending BYU as long as they believed she just wanted to study music so she could come home, get married, have kids, and give piano lessons on the side. But winning a competitive scholarship, the equivalent of a Rhodes, and then getting more education than any woman needed? Not something they could condone.

Westover's life story is definitely a strange one. She was the youngest of seven children born to a Mormon couple in Idaho. Her family apparently started off as a typical lower middle class household. Her parents met while her mother was still in high school and then got married after her father completed his two-year Mormon missionary obligation. He worked as a contractor, built up his business, and built a house on his parents' farm. They were observant but not fanatics. The oldest three kids started off attending public school. In short, nothing at all odd about the family that would make them much different than any of their neighbors. At some point, though, Westover's father slid into weirdness. 

Mormons have always promoted clean living (no stimulants like caffeine), being prepared for disasters, and emphasizing modesty in women, but most aren't fanatics about it. They may not drink Diet Coke themselves but they usually don't freak out and assume you're heading straight to Hell for sipping soft drinks. Similarly, they may have a pantry stocked with a year's supply of food, but they're not obsessed to the point of being doomsday preppers. It's just something they do, kind of like Lutherans internalizing making bland jello salads for church suppers or Catholics looking forward to Friday fish fries during Lent. Westover's parents, on the other hand. . . the family may have continued attending regular church services in town and visited a bit with various relatives, but by the time she was born her father had turned their household into a one-family cult.

Westover speculates that her father suffered from being bipolar, a condition she learned about while in college. It's possible, I suppose, but what's a bit odd is that Westover's mother totally bought into enabling the man's delusions. Maybe it made life easier for her, but end result was the parents' behavior put the kids through hell. 

Her father became convinced only he knew the true will of God and that his interpretation of the Bible and the Book of Mormon was infallible. At the same time, he started believing the U.S. government was out to get him. The younger kids were all home birthed by a midwife (a highly illegal arrangement at the time; Idaho did not license midwives or condone home births) and their births never registered. It wasn't until one of the older kids needed a birth certificate in order to get a driver's license that the family applied for delayed birth certificates. By then Westover was nine years old. Her mother couldn't remember her birthday and wasn't even sure about what month Westover was born.

No birth certificates meant, of course, no public school. The younger kids were all home schooled, more or less. No real curriculum, no actual lesson plans, and not a whole lot of reading material in the house. At some point Westover realizes her life is probably going to be like her mother's: get married, have kids, take over her mother's roles as a midwife and herbalist. She also realizes she really doesn't want to do that. One of her brother's had managed to escape the family by getting admitted to BYU -- he had learned that the university had a policy of admitting homeschooled students if they scored at least a 28 on the ACT -- and he encouraged her to do the same to study music. Her one clear talent at that time was vocal music.

When she does get to BYU, she describes herself as being totally socially inept as well as totally ignorant about anything outside her very narrow range of experiences. She says, for example, that the first time she ever saw or heard the word "holocaust" was in an art history class during her first week of college classes. Similarly, once she gets to Cambridge, she's still doing the totally socially inept doofus persona.

This is where I actually do have problems with Westover's memoir. It's loaded with contradictions. She claims to have been totally naive about the world in general, but at the same time she took dance classes as a tween (although that stopped once her father realized that the girls danced in typical ballet and/or tap dance class attire (leotards and tutus). The immodesty freaked him out. As a teenager, she got involved with local amateur theater and sang the lead role in "Annie." To escape working in the family salvage yard, she sought out odd jobs in town and worked at a local supermarket. I find it totally believable that her home life was pretty damn weird (not to mention abusive) but it's not like she was being kept locked in a basement. The family had a computer and internet access. They even had cable television -- her father had a particular love for reruns of "The Honeymooners." In short, she had first hand exposure to how average people lived and how they dressed. 

This is one of those memoirs that gets touted as being inspiring, proof of the resiliency of the human spirit, because Westover managed to shape a career as a historian despite the handicap of being raised by wolves. I think she discounts the role sheer dumb luck played. At BYU a roommate could tell Westover was struggling psychologically and persuaded her to talk with her bishop. Mormon bishops have tremendous influence over their congregants. They're also as prone to being abusive patriarchal  assholes as any other religion. Westover's, however, did not push her into accepting a good, submissive, go home and get barefoot and pregnant future. She got lucky. He encouraged her to apply for scholarships and to dream big. 

 Similarly, after she was in England at Cambridge and studying for a master's in philosophy, she had another psychological crisis. She sank into major depression and totally neglected her studies. She failed classes. In most realities, she'd have been toast, booted from the program, and generally told to go back to salvaging scrap iron. Instead, her professors told her she had potential and gave her a second chance. People fail out of graduate programs all the time and no one cares. In Westover's case, someone did care and tossed her a lifeline. 

Time to wrap this up. Was the book worth reading? It's a toss-up. It was interesting but depressing as hell. I know rural communities are good at turning a blind eye to domestic and child abuse, but I am nonetheless baffled as to why in the 1990s anyone would think it was fine for a girl in her early teens to be working odd jobs instead of being in school. It's pretty clear that everyone in town knew her family so where the hell was CPS? Just how lax are Idaho's laws when it comes to home schooling? Most states at least want to see some documentation that the parents doing the teaching aren't total dolts. 

And then there's the issue of the psychotic older brother. The dude bullied all of his siblings, almost killed his much younger sister several times, and the parents just ignored it all or blamed the behavior on the smaller, weaker kids. He had a local reputation for being a prick who picked fights for no reason. The dude pretty obviously belonged in a cell somewhere, but the parents were oblivious. 

Back to is it worth reading. . . if you want to read a life story that reads as though no one would buy this as a movie plot line, go for it. Westover can write. I zipped through it pretty quickly. On the other hand, it is one of those books where I'm happy it came from the library and not a bookstore. Spending actual money on it would have felt a bit dirty, like I was subsidizing misery porn.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

A trip down Nostalgia Lane

Saw this cartoon and had instant flashbacks to academia. Every graduate seminar, every conference, had presentations where the speakers were shuffling their transparencies on to and off the overhead projector faster than a card shark dealing out hands of poker. The one that probably set the record for number of slides used was a civil engineering grad student at a Michigan Tech Sigma Xi interdisciplinary symposium. The dude gave a 5-minute summary of his research in to how quickly fecal coli form bacteria broke down in sunlight using data collected observing sewage flow from Syracuse into Lake Onondaga. I know his slides were on and off the projector a lot faster than the shit traveled across the lake. His dexterity in handling his foot-high stack of slides made such an impression that it's been well over 30 years and I still recall the talk, which is more than I can say about my own contribution to the event.