Fish and Chicks in the backyard

When I first got my house as a divorced dad, I worried that my house would not be fun enough. I feverishly thought of ways to make it attractive to my kids. Mom's house had a swimming pool and hot tub. How was I going to compete? Pets! We went right out and got tropical fish to put in the big tank I had dragged around for years. Placed in the backyard with a pump that would push the water up a tube draped across a wrought iron stand and pour from 6 feet to create a restful sound for relaxing in the back yard. There was an aquarium supply store on the next block and the fish were fairly inexpensive so we bought about twenty.  We got them into the tank and were quite pleased with ourselves. We noticed that one was missing an eye and we took it back for another. The next day, two were floating and the rest were listless. I ran to the aquarium store, realizing that pets are a double edged sword. My happy house of pets which the kids would love was in danger of becoming a pet mortuary. I manically spent $200 on filters, air stones and other recommended items to keep the fish alive. The shrewd aquarium store owners were not buying into my logic about inferred warrantees on the dead fish either. In the next week, the water in the tank became murky and dirty. I ran to the store and bought clarifying treatments. I bought catfish to keep the tank clean. This hobby had become a full time job. I'd race home from work at the end of the day and spend 4 hours treating the tank and trying to keep the fish alive. They kept dying one by one. One day I came home and found a dead bird floating in the tank. Somehow, a couple weeks later, I got the chemicals just right and for my birthday, May 11, the water magically cleared to a crystal sharpness and the fish could all be seen and they looked happy for the first time. I pulled a chair up to the tank alone and watched the fish for two hours with the sun beaming in to the yard. The next day, the water turned murky again and two days later Sofia looked out her window and screamed that the tank was empty and the fish were flapping on their sides in two inches of water. I ran down and saw that the iron stand had fallen over and the pump had pumped all the water up the tube and on to the ground. The remaining fish were rescued into a five gallon bucket and brought inside to the workbench where I hooked up a small filter and air stone pump motor to the light socket above the bench before we ran off to school and work for the day. With my mother arriving for her annual visit at the end of the week, the prospect of restarting the tank was overwhelming and I kept the fish in the bucket on the workbench. A week later my mother proudly told me she had saved me lots of money in electricity by turning off all the lights that had been left on. I went to the basement and the dark workbench and saw the bucket, which was now quiet. Dad's house where all the animals died. But I was no longer a slave to the fish tank!

Then came chickens. 10 sweet little cuddly chicks that grew up in few months and even started laying fresh eggs. My yard was fenced so I let them run free until I realized that no green plant was left alive or unpecked. Chickens will bulldoze any backyard until it is barren, scratching the dirt looking for anything to eat. But there is nothing so relaxing as sitting watching chickens on a pile of dirt. They will dig a chicken sized hole, get in it and kick dirt up, trying to bury themselves. It's their version of a bath. Apparently it rids them of mites and fleas. After 20 minutes of dust bath, they stand up and shake their feathers and a cloud of dust erupts around them, then off to scratch and peck at more dirt. When you buy chicks, they are "sexed", which means you get to choose whether you want males or females. I was interested in eggs so I chose the female pullets. Most hatcheries give a 97% accuracy on the sex of chicks which means if you buy 100 female chicks,  3 of them might be males. I got lucky. One of my chickens grew twice as big as the rest and in the very early morning someone in the back yard was cock-a-doodle do-ing. I wondered how long I was going to be able to cope with being woken up at 4:30 every morning. I broached the subject with the kids:"That rooster has to go." Dad's house where he kills animals. I explained that all the chicken we ate for dinner had been alive and then killed by someone. Sofia tried several gambits: "If you kill the rooster, I'll become a vegetarian." "Fine by me", I said. "If you kill the rooster I won't love you anymore." "OK but I'll still love you." She even became teary-eyed several times, saying the she had named that chick specially. I couldn't quite bring myself to go through with the deed. The rooster was on Death Row but the execution date was not set. One Friday night we had a dinner in the garden with a couple of families over and we all talked until late, the kids enjoying the freedom to stay up way past their bedtime. The next morning, the rooster crowed at the usual time and when I got out of bed at 7:30 and stuck my head into Sofia's room, she said from under the pillow "That Rooster has to go!" The time had come. On the internet, I googled How to kill a chicken. Sharp thin knife through the back of the head, scramble the brain, essentially pithing the animal. Painless, non-traumatic to the creature. But what about me? Was I able to do this? Best not to think too much about it. I think if I eat meat, I should be able to perform any of the tasks involved. Thankfully I had a bit of a hangover and could proceed on automatic if needed. Knife nearby, I picked up the rooster and held him sideways, so he relaxed. I told him he was a good creature and it was time for him to fly on and that I was grateful for his contribution to my family. As I picked up the knife, there was the macro-zooming of reality just before doing something which cannot be undone. It was a beautiful bird. Suddenly:"I LOVE-A THAT CHICKEN!" Guiseppe, my 84 year old neighbor, a retired baker from Palermo, was leaning on the fence. "WHEN I HEAR DAT CHICKEN IN DA MORNING, IT REMINDS ME OF THE OLD COUNTRY! I LOVE DAT BIRD!" I told him that the rooster was about to leave us. "WHAT? YOU GONNA KILL HIM RIGHT NOW? WHY? NO! NO! NO! LET HIM GO! DON'T DO THAT! And Guiseppe did a few circuits around his back yard, well, like a chicken with his head cut off, is the closest thing that comes to mind. "DON'T DO IT! LET HIM GO!" and he ran into his house and slammed the door. So much for the peaceful death… The heat was on. I did the deed quickly, hung the bird up, plucked the feathers and removed the guts carefully so as not to contaminate the meat. You have a whole new appreciation for your food when you have to kill and clean it yourself. It is certainly not as easy as picking a package out of the meat bin at Safeway. The soup I made was like nothing I have had before. Sofia ate some but requested no meat in her soup bowl. Guiseppe never brought up the subject of the missing rooster.

Summer Camp

4/7/12 Spent the weekend in Vacaville at Soul Food Farm laying out the deck foundation for the BIG TENT.

Every city dweller has a the dream of a place in the country for weekend unwinding and I was no different. If you can scrape together $150K, you can buy land near Ukiah and get to spend 8-10 hours per weekend on the road to get there and back. Then you have to spend the other 40 hours of the weekend building and maintaining the place with some sleeping and relaxing squeezed in somewhere. Not to mention the Friday you arrive and find the entire place trashed by vandals or actually removed completely by thieves.

I had polled my friends with houses in the country and found they used them once every 2 months because it was such a schlep.

I thought here had to be a simpler way and then I saw the Montana canvas wall tents like they had in Out of Africa, like the ones in Ralph Lauren advertisements-Glamorous camping or "Glamping".

The concept was to find someone with some land within 60 miles of SF and convince them to let me set up a semi-permanent campsite. They could use it as a guest house when I wasn't there.

Eric & Alexis at Soul Food Farm were new friends and I helped them rebuild after their farm caught on fire a few years ago. They were excited to have me set up the tent and I finally got around to it last Sept 3, exactly two years to the day of the 2009 fire.

The 20 X 16 foot tent had been shipped from Idaho. I had all the right equipment to cut the metal conduit for the frame: Generator, chop saw, nail gun, compressor etc.

We drove up the hill and unloaded the equipment in the dry brown grass and started measuring and cutting. Down below at the house, Alexis was hosting a party for twenty of her girlfriends and Eric and I were instructed to stay away. Fine, we'll build a fort up on the hill.

Grown men turn into young boys when building a fort, drinking beer and blowing things up. All caution goes out the window. Women, too, revert to young girls sometimes, but it doesn't seem to be as dangerous. A chop saw makes sparks and the grass burns quickly in California in early Sept. The fire department comes with planes dropping orange powder and helicopters dumping bags full of water. Big off-road fire trucks arrive and drive all around, crushing the culvert at the creek crossing and adding to the festive party mood.

I managed to drag the tent onto my truck and drive it down the hill before the flames swept across our work site. At that moment, I seriously considered continuing to SFO, leaving the truck in the white zone and getting on a plane to Asia to start a new life as a monk.

It was a point of honor to get the tent up the next morning, albeit at a location other than the nice overlook above, which was now charred black.

We got six weekends of use out of the tent before the cold weather. We furnished the tent with a bed that I made, table, chairs and kitchen island. In November, I had a shipping container dropped in the pasture to store the tent and the furniture until spring.

Seven months later, the hill is a verdant green, fertilized and renewed by the fire. Soul Food friendship retained with gifts of steel I-beams for a new bridge over the creek and promises of home improvement and hand-forged chandeliers.

I sited the tent deck just below a sheltering rise in the hill to block the wind that comes through periodically. I laid out 18 pier blocks and leveled them with bags of cement. 4 X 6 sleepers across the blocks and 2 X 6 floor joists for the deck.

I slept in the container last night and didn't see the light of day until I opened the door at 9 am. It was a three dog night. Remember that old rock group? It was named after a really cold night where you needed three dogs sleeping with you to stay warm.

Next weekend back up with Peter to nail the joists, lay down the deck ply and hopefully set up the tent.