Blog :: 2012

Septic Systems: A Personal Voyage of Discovery

I recently sat in on the seminar that Barrett & Company held for its agents on septic systems and Massachusetts Title 5 requirements. Knowledge is power, and as the septic professional said, "When you are selling your house, you are also selling its septic system." The session was informative and technical but it got me thinking of all the fond memories my family has about septic systems. Yes, I am experiencing "septic nostalgia".

You Never Know When Luck will Strike My husband likes to share a thrilling story from his childhood in New Hampshire. When he was eight years old, he entered a raffle at the local hardware store and he won! Imagine the thrill of winning a store raffle as a child. To this day, he says it is the only thing that he has ever won. The problem was that he won a free bottle of bacteria. It was an additive intended to enhance the health of a home septic system. What a bitter disappointment to a small boy. Who wants to brag about winning a bottle of bacteria? The added insult was that his family's house was on town sewer. Helpful Hint:  The presenter on septic systems said that most additives are unnecessary and can even be harmful to systems. In most cases, they should be avoided.

A Surprising Environmental Impact I had never lived in a house with a septic system until we moved out of the city. The first time I was home for a septic clean out/inspection, I was a little nervous. Would it be gross? Would we fail? The man arrived and pulled off the cover that led to the septic tank. I peered nervously in and saw...a second cover about three feet below the first one. That creates a sort of buffer chamber called a riser. But before he could remove the second metal cover, we saw the yellow-spotted salamander. It was just sitting in the riser.

"Oh, those are endangered," the man said. He shook his head. "We can't harm those."

We both marveled at why the salamander had set up housekeeping in the riser. But the man needed to get the second manhole cover off to actually peer into the septic tank. So I grabbed a bucket, and we carefully put Mr. Salamander in it. "Spotty" seemed calm.

The man removed the second cover and I finally got a full view of my household waste now layered as scum, waste water, and sludge. Actually it wasn't that bad. The man pointed out some frothy stuff floating around. "See those," he said. "Those are floating islands of bacteria. That is a sign of a very healthy system. You have terrific bacteria."

He said this with such excitement that I actually puffed up with pride. No bacteria additives needed here! The words "very healthy" and "terrific" kept repeating in my brain. It was as if I had won a contest. It was the same feeling as hearing great news from a doctor. I wondered if I should call my mom to tell her. I came back to reality and decided to go inside the house while he and his crew did the real work (which my dad who grew up in western Pennsylvania quaintly referred to as "honey dipping.")

But what about the salamander? When the cleanout was complete, we put him back in the riser chamber. I hoped we did the right thing environmentally.

Four years later, when we sold our house and moved, we did our Title 5 inspection. A different company came out (just because we'd forgotten the name of the first company). The man again removed the cover to the riser, and there was the spotted salamander, alive and well -- four years later. The lesson I learned between the bacteria islands and the salamander habitat is that a well-functioning septic system is definitely a world unto itself.

Out and About: Minute Man National Historical Park

Minute Man National Historical Park, in Concord, Massachusetts, is one of the best places around to escape for a nice, calm and soothing lunch break. (Parts of Minute Man National Historical Park are also located in Lexington and Lincoln, Massachusetts and the park commemorates the opening battles of the American Revolution on April 19, 1775.) The Concord site is home to the famed North Bridge and the North Bridge Visitor Center.

One of the first things I noticed on a recent visit to the park was the sweet aroma from the abundance of flowers in bloom. As I made my way down to the bridge, I took notice of the small amphitheater off to the right hand side. This was a great place to stop and take it all in—the bridge; the slow lapping of the Concord River; the field leading to the Visitor Center; the giant oak trees that tower over everything, and of course, the lunch that I packed for the trip.

I would recommend taking a stroll along the dirt path that leads up to the North Bridge Visitor center. Along this path there are plenty of benches to take a seat and admire the beauty that is the Minute Man National Historical Park. However, that is not really my style. Towards the top of the path I noticed a nice oak tree with branches low enough to the ground that I could just picture leisurely laying back and looking up through the tree's canopy to the blue sky above or looking out over the bridge below. I decided to climb up into the tree to do just that and had this thought in mi nd all the while -- back in 1775 there very well could have been a revolutionary soldier sitting in the exact spot, possibly waiting for the Red Coats to make their approach, or simply taking a break from their daily activities. Either way, that's a thought that is a reminder of and a connection to the past.

One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure

Renovation of Lincoln Mass. Town Offices

So I had just finished my Insanity® exercise workout at 8 o'clock on a recent Saturday morning. I popped out the dvd and the Channel 8 local access station came on. A notice appeared telling interested Lincoln, Massachusetts residents that they could come to the Lincoln Town Offices building (which is about to be seriously renovated) and salvage anything from the building. I wished that I hadn't just finished a workout because my work for the day was about to begin.

I gathered up the family and we all drove over to the building that was originally built in 1909 as Lincoln's Center School. Over the years it was repurposed into the Town Offices, but it still retained its "old-school" flavor, including blackboards, old oak doors, and boys' and girls' matching staircases.

The notice about the Lincoln town offices renovation said that the first-come, first-served giveaway would last from 8:00 a.m. until noon and items had to be taken away during that time. When we arrived, the junker dash was well underway. People had already stuck claim stickers on many items, including a great 1940's Steelcase desk, almost all the blackboards, most window air conditioners, a safe, and even the brass handles on windows.

It must be noted that this really was leftover stuff -- the town was not giving away all its office furniture and equipment, by any means - but it brought out people's acquisitive nature. A town worker had volunteered to help people unscrew hardware and move items. The rule was "no private toolboxes." The poor man bit off more than he could chew with this crowd. People tagged doors, wanted shelving pried off walls, and asked for Venetian blinds to be removed from 15-foot high windows. (That last one was my request!)

My daughter came out with a 6x6 foot map of the Town of Lincoln that shows every bit of conservation land and every lot in town. She wants to redecorate her room around this piece. So if anyone wants to know how much land Parcel #XXXXX has, you can call her! We ultimately came away with a birch slab door to replace one of ours, a metal chair, and the town map.

I commend the town that these things did not just end up in the landfill. But I think they underestimated how dearly Lincoln residents embrace the values of recycling and reusing!

Living the Sweet Life in Lincoln

What is more quintessentially New England than maple sugaring? It is underway right now in Lincoln, Massachusetts as the unseasonably warm weather in January and February has caused the sap to run early in the town's sugar maples.

I live in Lincoln and this first sign of spring has become a cherished family tradition. Our introduction to maple sugaring came when we first moved to town and cut down a large pine tree that was towering over our house. We immediately got a call from our neighbor: "Unlike many, we love pine trees," he began. My husband and I panicked. Uh-oh, we'd probably offended our new neighbor by cutting down the tree. But then the neighbor continued,

"We use pinewood to power our maple sugar boiler. Can we come by and cut up the tree and take the logs?"

The next day, the neighbor was sawing and removing the huge tree, saving us disposal costs and making us happy to see it go to such a good use. Soon we noticed his homemade sugar boiler smoking away. Coming from the Back Bay we found this amazingly quaint. I thanked him by baking some cookies; what a great community we had just joined.

The tradition of maple sugaring continued as another neighbor with three children set up an organized maple-sugaring operation on our road. I admired this father who took the time to embrace this long-standing New England activity even though he commuted into Boston on the train with me each day. After work he would change into some New England farmer duds and he and his wife would set the buckets out to tap the maple trees. All of the neighbors with maple trees "loaned" their trees to the effort. For added charm, the taps and buckets were the traditional tin type, not the plastic milk cartons that I had seen used in New Hampshire.

The sap only runs for a couple of weeks, and it is a window that cannot be missed. Our neighbors gathered all the kids in the area and piled them into the back of their pickup. They would drive slowly from one tree to the next on the quiet country road and we would all pick a tree and empty its sap bucket into a bigger drum. Then we returned to the truck to bounce and slosh back to their house and transfer the thin, sticky sap into the boiler. A month or so later, we all received some delicious Grade A maple syrup. Not a bad lifestyle in a town 20 minutes from downtown Boston!

Note: A great introduction to maple sugaring is found at a Sap-to-Syrup Farmer's Breakfast at Lincoln's Drumlin Farm March 17-18, 2012. They offer a pancake and maple syrup breakfast and activities and presentations outlining methods of maple syrup production.

Move That Furniture...By Hook or By Crook

I recently saw a TV commercial for EZ Moves® that hit home. EZ Moves® are little plastic cups that fit under furniture legs so a woman can single-handedly move an entire room of furniture on her own. A fast-action scene showed the woman gazing thoughtfully at a couch. She uses EZ Moves® to swiftly slide the couch across the room and once again places her hand under her chin for that thoughtful look. You have the sense that she is just beginning her furniture rearranging project.

"That's you!" my husband laughed.

It made sense to me, but actually buying the product would mean admitting that I spend entirely too much time pushing furniture around. Besides, it would also be admitting that I have no able-bodied person in my family willing to help me. And that is just wrong.

I've developed a few of my own maneuvers over the years to single-handedly move furniture. Some have been passed down through the female line in my family. My mother swears by blankets. You simply lift the corner of, say, a bookcase onto an old blanket and then pull the blanket so that the bookcase surfs across the room without scratching the floor.

Wall-to-wall carpeting can be your friend or foe. Sometimes the smooth, soft surface makes for easy dragging of pieces. It becomes the devil when moving anything with legs.

My personal favorite technique for shoving really heavy furniture is to sit down on the floor and push against the piece with both legs. As an added bonus, no need to go to the gym.

Often I do meet my match and wonder why I don't just draw out the new arrangement first. I become quite professional and whip out my tape measure and graph paper. I sharpen my pencil and perch in the corner of the room ready to act like a true interior designer.

I measure the couch and line up the ruler along the graph paper lines. Invariably, my rectangle representing the sofa goes crooked no matter how hard I try. I erase the pencil mark, discovering that the eraser only leaves black smudges. I throw the paper aside and go back to the fanny-and-leg push method once again. I just have to see the arrangement in real life.

There was one time I did successfully "visualize." That was when I decided that the living room needed a baby grand piano to be stylistically complete (even though no one in my family played the piano). I knew I couldn't have a piano delivered, push it around the room and then decide it looked bad. So I made a mock piano. I took a round table and piled miscellaneous chairs around it to create the approximate diameter of a big, hulking piano. I covered the whole pile with a brown tablecloth and then squinted at it for a long time. I lived with the "piano pile" for a few days and periodically stopped to stare and squint. Thankfully, my husband simply refused to acknowledge what was going on. I finally decided that a piano would look nice in that corner. When the real piano arrived, it looked great!

Now my son is old enough and kind enough to help me move stuff. Recently I got him to rearrange the entire family room. A perfect case for using graph paper since my goal was to make the ping-pong table, air hockey table, fish aquarium, huge leather sectional sofa, and a prehistoric rear-projection TV all become a harmonious arrangement worthy of being featured in Architectural Digest. After three hours of moving, shifting, and sweeping up weird stuff found under the furniture, the resulting new arrangement was hideous and I moved everything back. My skilled mother gave wise counsel: "You are trying to make this room into a cozy den. You have a cozy den already. Let the kids' room be a kids' room." I admitted defeat and forced my son to help me put everything back. At least the floors got cleaned.