For the XP

Garage sales and yard sales are curious attractions. You walk several miles within a small and contained plot of land. The items you think will sell don't while other items you doubt anyone would ever buy are the first to go. And people show up with odd requests, looking for items completely unrelated to anything visibly available for purchase as if there’s a secret stash somewhere.

We held a yard sale this weekend. Unloaded stuff that had been cluttering the garage for months. Made some money that will help fund a home construction project. We still need to take the unsold items to Goodwill for donations. Our best profits came from the coffee stand the kids staffed. Chickens visited. And Frosty decided to graze his way through the merchandise.

Less stuff and extra money are nice benefits, but even if we didn't sell a single item, we were visited by a party that made the whole yard sale worth having. Early on Saturday afternoon, an SUV pulled into our driveway. An older man, roughly my dad's age, stepped out of the driver's seat and explained their situation.

His elderly mother was sitting in the front passenger seat. He and his wife took her out for a drive, showing her the area. They planned on cruising around Newman Lake before heading up to Greenbluff. They had no intention of stopping at any yard sales, but as they drove by our house they saw the animals and knew they had to stop. The two geese and all five goats were hanging out by the garage, chickens were scattered all over the yard, and Zu was riding one of our horses in the back pasture. The old man explained his mom grew up on a farm. It had been several years since she was near a bunch of barnyard creatures and he wanted to reconnect her with memories of her youth.

I invited them out to walk around, but the man said his mom wasn't very mobile any more. So instead, I picked up Kazoo, one of our goats, and carried her to their car where the mom could see Kazoo up close. We discussed the animals for a while, and I provided driving directions to their remaining destinations. As we talked, it became clear the man's mom was in the twilight of her life; her health was failing and she was non-verbal - communicated through nodding or shaking her head. By the time her son climbed back into the driver's seat, tears began to well in the corners of her eyes and a faint smile lit up her face.

Their visit reminded me of my dad and his mom. Grandma Casey is in a similar stage in her life. These strangers helping their mom navigate old age is like the traveling my dad has done to spend as much time with his mom as he possibly can. I recalled phone conversations with my grandma, each time I wonder if it will be the last time I hear her voice. They reinforced lessons of wisdom older generations have given me since I was a kid: at the end of your life, you will value your memories more than your money. Your experiences will always be of greater worth than the stuff you accumulate.

In video games, you are rewarded with XP or experience points for completing missions, defeating opponents, and performing specific tasks. Gaining more XP increases your character's health, strength, and abilities. Life is much the same. Our experiences affect our health. They can improve our strength and knowledge. They give us wisdom. The things we do and the relationships we build propel us through this world, it is the foundation for the memories we treasure when our lives come to an end.

This summer, Annie and I came to a realization. We have a small house for a family of seven. Storage space is minimal. It's obvious we don't need more stuff, so we decided we're not giving the kids big gifts for birthdays and Christmas. Instead, we're giving them adventures. No more toys and gadgets that will sit unused after the kids play with it once. We're going to take them out for a fun activity, something that will build memories to last a lifetime. It's real world XP. Giving them something that will build better bonds between them as siblings and with us as parents. Giving them a wonderous and exciting life. Giving them stories to tell their friends. Giving them a foundation to build upon as they grow up. Letting them know our time with them is the most important thing in the world.

Our first attempt at the adventure birthday gift was a success. We took the boys to Silverwood and filled the day with thrills and laughter. My oldest son will always remember being braver than Dad after riding Aftershock, the roller coaster that I refused to board. My youngest son will always remember sitting next to me for his first three roller coasters and how I helped him overcome his fear. The expressions on their faces as they watched Nick Norton's magic show are images I will carry with me through the rest of my days. Hearing Christian announce over and over how the trip was the best gift anyone ever got him made every penny worth spending. They both gained XP and leveled up.

As caretakers, whether as parents raising children, or grown adults caring for the parents who raised us, creating these memorable moments are our most important tasks. It could be as elaborate as a day at a theme park or as simple as visiting a farm. The XP we gain in life will become the memories we cherish for years to come. The old lady's smile and tears were enough to convince me: Annie and I made the right choice.



The following post is an entry into a contest hosted by Positive Writer called “You Are Enough.” For more information on the contest or to read entries from other writers, click THIS LINK. For my submission, keep reading.

It is the first blank page in an empty composition notebook, the blinking cursor at the top of the white screen in a new word processing document. Before ink meets paper or fingers push a single keystroke, you hear every imaginable whispering doubt sowing seeds of discontent. This is where you decide if you are capable of transcribing thoughts to prose and if your story is worth telling.

After publication, critique is readily available and often unavoidable. Grammatical mistakes are publicly visible, errors in logic are up for debate. You hope for praising reviews and positive feedback while bracing yourself for disparaging comments. Third party evaluation comes after the work is complete. All those external voices are heard after the most difficult labor has passed. The hardest part of writing transpires before you begin. To overcome the intimidating unstarted project, you must silence your loudest critic: you.

Those negative objections, the inner monologues you have with yourself, staring into space, filled with trepidation. The first word seems lost, a complete sentence is a daunting challenge, and a full page improbable. Instead of seeing outlines you see deadlines. The voice which should be saying "let's go," grumbles "not you, not now."

So you stare at the empty screen, the blank piece of paper in front of you, the notes application on your phone. Your thoughts diverge from your work in progress.

What if this idea isn't any good?
What if my publisher rejects it?
What if it never sells?
What if audiences mock it?
What if no one ever reads it?

What if ...

The hypothetical questions could be paralyzing. Individual doubts feed into bigger doubts, stressing over being stressed. If you are anything like me, you reach a point while gazing into the abyss where you want to expel the internal grump.

If you have had enough then you need to believe you are enough. Waking up this morning was the first word on an empty page for the story you are writing today. A hot shower and fresh cup of coffee were your opening statements. Every heartbeat is an additional keystroke contributing to your headcount goals. Your deadline is bedtime, and tomorrow is a new day with another blank page and blinking cursor waiting to begin a brand new story. You are the only capable scribe because you are enough. Your stories deserve to be told because you exist.

Your ideas are good enough to be shared, to be accepted, to be sold, to be complimented, to be read again and again and again. The world needs your voice, it needs your perspective, it needs your prose, it needs your tomorrow. So write. One word at a time. Even if it needs editing. Even if it needs revision. Even if it needs to be completely re-written. Write. Do it, because only you can compose the stories placed inside you. Do it, because you are enough.


Gone Awhat?

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. This variation of a line from a Scottish poem is one we've proven true at our farm. Plans to build fences, gone awry. Stacking hay, gone awry. Purchasing a riding lawn mower, gone awry. Veterinarian bills, a broke down truck, and a never-ending list of building projects. This is our life, we make the best of plans. Where do they go from there?

“But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be in vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!”

We get it. We make plans which don't always work out. We toil, we struggle, we sweat, we ache. Eventually, we get there. It's never easy but it's always worth it. As Annie and I frequently say, it's not perfect but it's ours.

Our best plans for this last weekend were to fix a leaking yard hydrant and get our recently repaired hot tub dropped back into our deck to be ready for use. After a full day of monkey wrenches and quick trips to North 40, Saturday ended with the old pump reinstalled including the old extension rod. We added a new plunger and gasket, but it still leaked and sprayed everywhere.

The hot tub was set in place Saturday evening, filled with water on Sunday, and powered up on Monday. However, the heating element appeared to be caput. From 8:30 Monday morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, the temperature only rose five degrees and was still far too cold to be used.

Our plans went awry. We had a strategy with our handyman to try fixing the hydrant next weekend, and a friend of mine walked me through how to replace the hot tub’s heating element. Our plans would be completed eventually, just not within the timeframe we had hoped. These are the most discouraging moments of the farm life. It can be frustrating for anyone when goals aren’t met, but when you’re hoping to have a pump that won't be a geyser come winter, these lingering failures can be disappointing.

However, I've only told half of the story. Saturday ended with the broken pump reinstalled and still gushing water every time we turned in on. When I went out for the morning chores on Sunday, there was plenty water in the horse troughs and duck pools. Refills weren’t needed so I didn't turn on the hydrant. With it leaking, I didn't want to use it unless necessary. Later in the afternoon, the trough in the main pasture was low so I reconnected the hose to the hydrant and lifted the handle. To my surprise, no spray. I filled up the big trough and still no squirting. So I filled up the other trough and all three kiddie pools we use for the birds and goats. We used it a few times on Monday and still no spray. It leaked on Saturday night, and the next day it was magically fixed. We did nothing. Whatever was wrong corrected itself over night with no human intervention. We now have a fully functional yard hydrant.

Monday evening, I hung up the phone call with my friend feeling defeated. Annie and I were really looking forward to soaking in the hot tub. Even though the fix seemed simple, I knew it would be another week or two before we could get it resolved. I thanked him for his help and went on with the rest of the day. We left the farm to run some errands and go grocery shopping. We were gone for a couple hours. When we returned, I went inside to put groceries away and Annie headed out to feed the horses. When she came back in she had an unexpected update.

"Our hot tub is 85°." I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.

An hour later, the water temperature was up to 95° and it was at 99° by the end of the evening. It took seven hours to go from 54° to 59°, then it jumped up another 40 degrees in the next few hours. I don't know how it happened. There is no logical explanation. We didn't touch any of the controls or mechanical parts. We only looked at it with our phone-a-friend lifeline. He must have Doctor Stranged it because it magically started working after we disconnected the call. We now have a working hot tub.

This is the way our lives function. Things don't work until they do. Sometimes, we mess up the first try then our second attempt gets the job done. Often, nothing goes the way we planned. Sometimes we figure it out on our own and other times we get by with a little help from our friends. We know when plans go awry, they won't stay derailed forever.

We live a charmed life. It is impossible to deny this fact. I hope you can see it in every word I write, in every picture I post. Annie and I have brilliant, vibrant, and talented kids who constantly challenge and inspire us. We have a farm that isn't perfect but it's ours. And we now have a working hot tub. As I count our blessings, I also know we couldn't do everything we do without a supportive cast of characters - those friends and family members who encourage us, advise us, and cheer us on. And occasionally, all we need is a little magic.


Gone Awry

I often talk of the adventure Annie and I have as first-time farmers. This work is new to both of us. We are learning through trial and error, our mistakes often providing greater lessons and showing us which projects are most urgent on our to-do list.

You might see happy pictures of our affectionate and spirited goats; the flock of chickens, ducks, and geese who follow us around every morning until we feed them; horses and our days at the rodeo; kids playing in the yard or helping us with barn chores; the progress we make building pastures, hutches, pens and other homes for our creatures; the view from our back porch and the beautiful sunsets we enjoy night after night.

These are the happy moments. Glimpses into our lives - especially the parts that make us smile and laugh, fill our hearts with joy, or overwhelm us with gratitude. I am amazed at all Annie and I have accomplished and look forward to where our lives are headed. The times she and I have spent dreaming, scheming, and planning have been my favorite moments. These conversations have helped me envision a day in the future where I can leave the corporate world behind.

We live a charmed life. It is impossible to deny this fact. However, not everything goes according to our best laid plans. For example, the first fence we built was a mess, adequate enough to bring our horses home. Since then, we've had to replace corner posts, remove sections the horses destroyed, and added electric wire. We've abandoned field fencing completely and now use hotwire for all our new pasture fences. We came to peace with the trend of our first attempts at anything being a struggle; we'll figure it out the next time around. This labor has given us a mantra, a statement Annie and I often tell each other: it's not perfect but it's ours.

There are two broken objects we wanted to get fixed this last weekend: our yard hydrant and the hot tub. The latter should be easy. A repair man came out Thursday night to install a new manifold and we scheduled an installer to drop it back into our deck on Saturday at noon. If all went according to plan, we should have been able to use it Saturday night. The hydrant was a different issue.

A frost-free yard hydrant is the water access near the barn, a piece of equipment that supplies all the water for the animals. This is essential equipment for farms because the source is deep enough underground to prevent freezing during winter and water is fed to the surface through insulated pipes. When we moved in, the pump apparatus leaked a bit. When in the ON position, water flowed out the nozzle, but it also sprayed from the pump handle into the air. Through the summer, the spray grew higher and covered a larger ground area. We hired a farm hand with some plumbing experience; together we shut off the water supply, disassembled the pump and attempted to use a repair kit purchased to fix the leak. We started at 9am with the assumption we'd be done in an hour or two.

Only one part from the repair kit worked: the plunger for the bottom of the long pipe to the water supply. Nothing else fit the existing pump. We moved to plan B. Our farm hand replaced the old gaskets with new ones from the repair kit, re-installed the old hydrant and we turned on the water supply. When we tested the hydrant, it still sprayed everywhere. The new gaskets didn't form a good fit with the old extension rod. It had pockmarks and scarring from years of use; those gashes probably contributed to the ineffective seal.

Time for plan C. I returned to North 40, bought an extension rod and a new hydrant. The idea was to either install the new hydrant (should be easy) or use the new extension rod with the old hydrant which would be cheaper but more difficult. After returning to the farm, we began working again and quickly discovered the new hydrant wouldn't work. The internal guts were built differently and required a dissimilar style of extension rod, which was too small to fit the pipe connecting to the underground plunger. Our only available option was to use the new extension rod with the old hydrant and hope for the best. We got everything installed, turned on the water, and returned to the barn. We didn't need to test the hydrant to know the new rod failed: water was gushing from the nozzle while the pump handle was in the OFF position. With a couple adjustments to the extension rod, we were able to stop the water flow, but the screw securing the handle to the rod didn't catch; moving the handle would not turn the water on or off. The new extension rod was too short.

Plan D: we needed a longer extension rod. The one I purchased at North 40 was the longest they had in stock. Our hired help couldn't find the right length when he went to a hardware store. We reinstalled the old hydrant with the old rod and new gasket so we could restore water to the house and have water for the animals when it was time to do our night chores. Sure, the hydrant still sprayed water into the air but we'd be able to refill all the buckets and troughs until the correct part could be acquired. We created plan E to get the longer extension rod or a coupling nut to make the old piping compatible with the new hydrant, then we would reconvene next weekend to finally repair the leaky hydrant. It was nearly 4:30pm by the time we finished and we hadn't accomplished anything.

As for the hot tub, the installers were running late. They sent me a text mid-morning to let me know they'd be there closer to 1pm. At 12:59, he texted me again: "We're running behind could we come out tomorrow?" I let him know we had plans for the weekend and needed it done that day. It would be fine if he was out there closer to 2pm or even 3pm. At 2:47, I asked for an ETA and he said they were on their way. By 3:30 they still had not arrived. We were planning on attending a baseball game and needed to leave at 5pm so their absence was getting worrisome. They rolled in at the last minute, dropped the tub into the deck, and left - just in time for us to depart for the game.

We filled the tub on Sunday, excited to finally be able to use what hasn't worked since we moved in. Annie plugged it in and .... nothing happened. No power. I contacted a buddy of mine who sells hot tubs, asked him if he had any ideas what we were doing wrong, and set a plan to call him on Monday. I promised the kids we'd have a movie night so we abandoned the hot tub.

Monday morning, Annie urged me out side. The hot tub's lights were on and jets were running. She figured out what was wrong with the power supply and corrected it. The water temperature was 54° but an hour later, the temp had only gone up by one degree. My friend informed me normal tubs heat up at a rate of seven or eight degrees an hour. We didn't have time to worry about it then though because our oldest daughter had a 9:30am hair dye appointment. After a couple hours at the salon, we got lunch and drove up to Blanchard to pick up some new goats.

Our hopes for a warmer tub were spoiled when we returned home. By 4pm yesterday, the temperature had only risen to 59°. More texts with my friend, sending pictures of the power supply, display, and internal equipment. Over the phone, we concluded the heating element was damaged. The part should be an easy fix, one Annie and I could do on our own. By 4:30, we were resigned to delaying the hot tub repair just a little bit longer.

Farm life can be rewarding and discouraging. Our best laid plans often go awry. Not everything works the first time. Our lives are blessed, but we're not immune to error and folly. When you see picture of us enjoying our home, you should know we worked hard for those moments of joy.