On becoming a badass

I am almost 56 years old. I am overweight, I’ve never been remotely athletic, and physical work has never been my favorite thing. Exercise and I were not always on particularly friendly terms.

But this winter I’m becoming a badass, and I owe it all to firewood (and snow removal, but that’s a post for another day).

We heat our rambling, somewhat ramshackle, late-19th-century house with wood, and only wood. There’s an oil furnace in the basement, but we haven’t burned a drop of oil since 2004, when we installed an outdoor wood furnace.

Last winter, before the sap rose, Tony cut three loads of tree-length firewood and had them delivered to our yard. The pile sat there throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, until we moved home from camp and fired up the wood furnace.

Tony scrounges a certain amount of furnace wood throughout the winter—tops and limbs and the occasional dead hardwood. But the bulk of our firewood comes from the prodigious pile—about 20 cords—that gets unloaded beside our driveway every year. More than half of that pile goes into our furnace. We cut and split the rest and sell it, usually by the quarter-cord, to people who run out of dry wood in late winter.

Years ago, Tony had a firewood business that included three dump trucks of various sizes and a conveyor for loading them, and he delivered hundreds of cords of wood every season. Now that we no longer have a dump truck, all of our firewood is sold as pick-your-own. Think of it like driving to a farm to pick apples or strawberries or corn, only a whole lot less convenient.

People who don’t have trucks borrow them from friends, get friends to haul their wood, or make multiple trips with the trunks of their cars full. I once saw a subcompact car leave the driveway with a full trunk, the backseat stacked to the roof with firewood, and another sizeable pile on the front passenger seat.

All the wood we sell has to be cut into 16-inch blocks, split with the woodsplitter, loaded into our ancient and ailing garden cart, pushed across the driveway, and stacked in this specially-sized shed Tony built several years ago. Each of the six sections holds two quarter-cord stacks.


Tony does the sawing. If it’s a weekend, and Will is home, he does the splitting; otherwise that’s Tony’s job, too.

This winter, for the first time, piling the split wood into the cart, hauling it to the sheds, and unloading and stacking it has become my job. Around January, I mentioned that, once in a while, I wouldn’t mind doing something more practical for my daily exercise than walking or snowshoeing or yoga, and suddenly I had a whole new exercise program.

Here are some things I’ve learned since I became an expert firewood hauler/stacker:

I can haul 60 sticks in the cart at a time.

There are approximately 420 sticks in a half-cord.

It takes just over an hour to haul and stack half a cord, which I figure is at least the exercise equivalent of a 30-to-45-minute walk. Maybe more.

But the most important things I’ve learned confirm what Mom always said:

Hard work is its own reward.

Fresh air gives you a healthy glow (and a good appetite, not that that’s ever been a problem for me).

And it really is possible to enjoy being outside in just about any kind of weather, as long as you dress for it. (I always thought that was just her way to get me out of the house when I was a kid.)

I’ve never been a big fan of cold weather, and this winter—especially this month!—has featured a lot of the coldest weather I can remember. I’ve hauled and stacked about eight cords of wood—over 16 hours’ worth—since the beginning of February, so I’ve been out in the cold a lot.

On Monday, when the wind-chill temperature was well below zero, I stacked a full cord. On Tuesday, when it was a little warmer, but not much, I stacked a half-cord of split wood, then spent another hour helping Tony haul several loads of four-foot sticks for the furnace.

I have been well supplied with fresh air and exercise this winter, thanks to that woodpile. I have developed actual biceps muscles.

And—bonus—thanks to the fact that four-foot, unsplit logs are really, really heavy, I’ve learned the proper technique for using a pulp hook, something I never thought I’d master.

Thanks to you, firewood pile, I am now an aspiring badass.


Happy Friday-the-13th birthday, Mom

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My mom would have turned 95 today.

She was born on a Friday the 13th, and regarded 13 as her lucky number. She was always especially pleased when her birthday fell, as it does this year, on a Friday.

She also would have been pleased to reach a milestone birthday. After a certain age, all birthdays are milestones, but the ones ending in zeros and fives draw a bit of extra attention. And despite her unassuming nature—blending into the background was something of her specialty—my mom never minded having a bit of fuss made over her birthday.

Since her birthday was the day before Valentine’s Day, over the years she was feted with a lot of lopsided, garishly-frosted, heart-themed cakes. I hope there weren’t many years when she was left with a pile of messy bowls and beaters by a daughter whose interest in baking did not extend to the clean-up phase, but I’m sure there were a few.Scan_20150213 (8)

In 2000, when she turned 80, her birthday fell on a Sunday, and my siblings and I pulled off an elaborate two-day surprise event. We told her that those of us who lived nearby would take her out to dinner on Saturday evening, then surprised her at the restaurant with a small crowd that included all five of us, plus some of her grandchildren.

The next day, while she sat in church, enjoying a few birthday greetings from friends and probably thinking that it had been a nice party, if a bit understated for an 80th birthday celebration, we worked frantically just below the sanctuary. We decorated the basement function room with crepe paper and balloons, brought in platters of food and an enormous cake, and greeted out-of-town family and friends who arrived to fill the space while the church service continued upstairs.

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When she was brought downstairs after church, the party was a complete surprise to her. It was a wonderful event, blending her church family and the dozens of local children she had babysat over the years with her brothers and sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and lifelong friends.

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At the time, my mom was vigorous and healthy (she would celebrate her 81st birthday, the following year, while on a three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand with a high school friend), and none of us would have guessed that it would be her last milestone birthday—or, at least, the last one to end in a zero or five.

I’m glad we got to have that celebration, and I wish I were in the kitchen right now, making her a lop-sided, garishly-frosted, heart-themed cake to celebrate turning 95.

I’d even wash my own dishes.