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learning to “mud” with habitat for humanity

Me and four of my students spent this Friday morning and early afternoon with the kind folks from Habitat for Humanity renovating a home in Park Forest, IL. It was just a small crew–five of us plus the Habitat folks Kevin, Rebecca, and Dean. It was really a good time. We swept, patched, painted, sanded, taped and “mudded” drywall, and removed the exterior siding. All in all, it was light work as the site was waiting on supplies before it could [singlepic=1190,300,300] Hangin’ with Habitatreally push on to the next phase of renovation, but we did the best we could and enjoyed one another’s company and the luxury of not having to rush the job.

Kevin–Habitat site supervisor–greeted us when we arrive, and he was great. He took his time and taught us everything we needed to know to do the tasks for the day. He didn’t assume any previous knowledge on our part and he was super patient and encouraging. Heck, I even learned how to “mud” drywall–a job that has always intimidated me to be honest. It really wasn’t that bad. (Some sanding is certainly in order, but I think I could have done worse.)

As the work day drew to a close, we took some group pictures, and talked for a bit more, lingering on even after the work was done, as we were still enjoying getting to know one another better. While dragging my butt out of bed early Friday morning (my usual day off) honestly wasn’t something I was looking forward to, I’m really glad I did it. I hope to meet more friends at the next building day with Habitat. Kevin and the rest of the folks tell me we’re welcome back anytime.

a footbridge and a red picnic table

Went north again this week. I feel myself drawn there more than ever lately. There is something about being just out of reach. Life moves more slowly. Cell phones seldom work. There’s nothing to plug in and nowhere to plug it.[singlepic=1143,330,330] So much depends upon a red picnic table… Staying connected means parking pickups side by side in the middle of the road for a spell to shoot the breeze with a passing neighbor. I like it this way–in the woods.

This week our plans included building a footbridge across our creek, clearing some dead wood, and finishing our picnic table. You’ve got to start with the basics after all. So this is what we did. First, I had to fall a dead leaning tree that was hung up in the trees across the creek and right in the way of our proposed bridge crossing. I was a bit nervous about this, having heard and read plenty about how folks have gotten killed messing with trees in this situation–not to the mention the fact that I don’t exactly know my way around a chainsaw. I didn’t let this discourage me. You’ve got to start somewhere after all. So, I purchased my Husqvarna 455 Rancher (along with all requisite safety clothing–including the Kevlar saw-resistant chaps, and forester’s helmet and face screen); I read the safety manual, watched countless instructional videos online, observed a couple experienced chainsaw users, and then pulled the starter cord. With a healthy bit of fear, caution, and respect for the destructive machine I was wielding, I successfully downed the troublesome tree and cleared away a lot of deadwood laying about our site. I survived the first wave of this week’s work.

As for the bridge building, the hardest part was by far getting the 250 pound stringers across the creek. We managed inch-by-inch with a little creative physics and a whole lot of sweat and patience. Our good neighbor George showed up just in time to lend a hand–just after we had gotten them across ;-) Seriously, we’re lucky to have such a good neighbor. He’s always willing to lend a hand it seems–to anyone along the three-mile stretch of forest road whom he calls neighbor. I suspect he considers most people in his life to be his neighbor.

Once we got the behemoth stringers across, the ordeal was far from over. Leveling, shifting, balancing–were all far more difficult tasks than I would have imagined. Eventually we got them close enough to where they needed to be and nailed them up. Add a bunch of blocking, cross braces, and decking and there you go–a genuine rickety footbridge in the woods. As long as no one decides the bounce in the middle makes for a nice trampoline, I think it will serve its purpose for a few years anyway. Time will tell, but that’s okay with me.

While I plunked away at the details of the footbridge, Chris and Aidan got to painting our new picnic table–classic red. It took a couple of days to prime and get three or four coats of paint on it, but it looks great now, and offers us the comfort of a home–a place to break bread together by the camp fire, to talk about our adventures, and to listen to the serenade of the ever-present creek.

We worked hard this week, but accomplished a lot and had the joy of working hard with our bodies outside in nature to meet some fundamental needs. When one strips away the complexities of life that we seem so eager at times to layer on, when we have to deal with attending to fundamental needs, using our hands and simple tools, things seem to make much more sense. There’s more work to do on our little spot in the woods. We’ll return soon to stoke another campfire and get back to the elemental aspects of our lives.

every kid needs a norwegian cabin

Having completed the deck–the largest (and first major) building project of my life–last summer, I thought it would be a while since I picked up a hammer again. But I was wrong. When Chris said to me one evening, “Should we have something in the yard for Aidan to play with–like a playhouse or something,” I knew I was in for another project. Don’t get me wrong, Chris (and Aidan too) would have certainly been happy with a couple sheets of plywood leaned up against each other–or one of those large cardboard appliance boxes. But that would be far too easy for me.

After browsing the book aisle at the home improvement store, I found an idea for a “Norwegian Cabin Playhouse.” It was in one of those books that are more ideas than building plans, if you know what I mean. Sure, there were a few photos on how to make the thing, but it certainly assumed a decent amount of building knowledge, as the plans were not very detailed. Perfect! I have very little knowledge but always enjoy a project far more challenging than it needs to be. (What’s wrong with me?)

I set to work, buying materials, thinking things through–all the while Chris and Aidan looking at me like I was a little crazy. (Remember, I’m a bookish English teacher type turned amateur builder. Could I pull it off?) As I began, it seemed that it actually wasn’t too difficult. I think after digging nearly forty 42-inch deep holes by myself for the deck last year, nothing seems too difficult by comparison. In the end, the project may have been a little time-consuming because I work kind of slow, but it really wasn’t that tough–again, not like the deck where there were some days I was nearly praying for death or just wanting to abandon the whole thing and move.

The little cabin actually turned out pretty well. It’s got an interior dimension of 6×8 plus a little 2×6 deck, has a green roof which is very cool, three large screened windows, a screened door, and a secret “jump-through window” for Aidan to escape out the back of the house if need be ;-) Aidan loves it. In fact, I like hanging out inside. It’s big enough for an adult and is the perfect retreat for all. I wonder what I’ll build next year. (There’s not much room left in the yard, though.) We’ll see. Check out the photos above.

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