frugality, using a pencil to its very end

The lost skill of frugality

Frugality. There’s a word you rarely hear on YouTube or see on electronic screens these days.

With the alleged booming economy, I suppose most Americans don’t have much need for frugality in 2020. But it hasn’t been that many years ago when being frugal was a way of life, and I’m not talking about The Great Depression.

Back in the 1980s, when unemployment in my home county was around 20 percent and we depended on my wife’s $2-an-hour job to purchase the groceries for our family of three, frugality was a way of life. There was a year or so when I was counted among the 20 percent, and we had to figure out how to live on less than $200 a week. When the unemployment benefits ran out, we had to scrape by on even less. Getting a job that paid $6.50 an hour and required use of my personal vehicle, compensated at a rate of 9 or 10 cents a mile, didn’t do much to relieve our dependence on frugality. But at least food stamps were not putting the meals on our table.

We became so adept at frugal living I wrote a newspaper column as “Frugal Feather.” One strategy of frugality was to use manufacturer’s coupons inserted in the Sunday paper. I kept my eyes out for those inserts that made their way into the newsroom trash and thought I’d hit the mother lode of savings when I found a stack of them discarded. I recall one time getting something like 10 bags of noodles free using the BOGO coupons. But that was back before Aldi, which is where the frugal shop. Even with coupons, national brands cost more, and these days the frugal use of manufacturer’s coupons is for lighting the wood stove.

Back in the days of frugal living, we recycled most everything, and by recycling, I mean we used it more than once. Aluminum foil used to cover a dish in the oven got reused for wrapping up leftovers and storing in the fridge. Plastic food storage bags were rinsed and reused. We had more empty butter and sour cream bowls than we could ever possibly use for leftovers, but they found secondary purposes as dog water bowls, seedling pots, sandbox toys, parts containers and paint-brush holders.

We purchased only used vehicles and, to minimize fuel usage and wear and tear on the cars, we carefully planned trips and combined errands into one journey. We saved our money rather than make car payments and went into debt for a vehicle only when necessary and interest rates were low. Double, triple payments were made to eliminate debt and reduce interest expense. My father took care of all repairs.

Our old dog went to the vet only when she was ill and got her vaccinations from a dog breeder friend. I went years without going to a doctor because of high insurance deductibles. Fortunately, I didn’t have any chronic issues that required prescriptions. A medical emergency stressed the budget for months because our health “insurance” had high deductibles, but we always paid our debts.

My wife made her own clothes and kept mine in good condition. My clothes, for the most part, came from the “men’s shop” at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. My wife cut my hair, baked most of the bread we ate and canned hundreds of jars of tomatoes and sauces. “Going out to eat” involved buying a cheap pizza and taking it to a lakefront park. We called these mini-vacations “pizza picnics” and set a place at the table for Clifford, our golden mix, who enjoyed the outings as much as we did.

Our annual vacation in September or October was always a working one for me, built around a list of four to six stories that I would do for Goldenseal Magazine while staying in West Virginia for six days. The money from the stories paid for the travel. I lived for those simple but fulfilling journeys.

Frugality gave us some latitude with our passions–cameras, slide film and multi-image gear for me, sewing machines for her. The equipment was almost always used and rarely of “professional” caliber. Our pastimes had to pay for themselves, and by the time we had made enough to buy what we needed, we were too tired to enjoy it for ourselves.

We saved our all our paper bags from the grocery store. The small bags could be re-used for packing lunches and the large ones were terrific for holding the folded bags and lining the kitchen trash can, unless coffee grounds were tossed in with the “dry” waste. I miss getting groceries and other purchases in those bags.

My frugality stopped short of recycling the envelopes in which junk mail arrived, although I’ve received more than one letter in one of these repurposed envelopes with the credit card company’s return address scratched out and a piece of paper taped over the cellophane window. And I learned that frugality is no excuse for being “penny wise and pound foolish,” as with buying bargain house paint that required three coats versus a quality product that covered with one coat.

Being “retired,” I find myself once again migrating to a life of frugality. Being thrust into early retirement was one factor; I am discovering why older folks always complain about being on a “fixed income.” It is especially difficult when you spend your life planning for things being a certain way and then a box full of monkey wrenches is tossed into those plans just a few years shy of reaching the goal. Accordingly, I’m grateful I mastered money-management tools like saving, frugality and contentment way back when. I’ve learned to appreciate the capabilities of existing technology possessions rather than focus on the latest offerings and, since I rarely leave the house, familiar clothes do just fine and the old car with 100,000 miles on it still gets me where I need to go, which is not very far. There’s a garden in the side yard and we heat with wood, supplemented with space heaters buring natural gas, the bill for which I just received and gave me sticker shock. Time to get out the sweaters.

But the real budget killers are taxes: federal, state, city and school income taxes; real estate property taxes; sales taxes. It is impossible to be frugal with these items. You owe them and they take precedence over all other expenses. It is no exaggeration when I say that we are facing a 12-percent increase in taxes this year thanks to a new school district income tax and the generous voters in our county approving a bevy of property taxes for services and amenities we don’t use.

It takes a lot of frugality to make up for those increases, but since government and schools have not mastered the skill of frugality, it is up to the taxpayers to implement the frugal lifestyle. After doing all the taxes, my wife and I concluded that we can’t afford either The Feather Cottage or living in northeast Ohio much longer, but neither of us has an idea where we want to go. Ohio has some of the highest property taxes in the nation and is not particularly friendly to retirees. And the nation’s $20 trillion debt suggests to me that this un-frugal federal government is not going to be very tax friendly, regardless of your residence. I don’t see a single presidential candidate talking about reducing taxes for regular folks, and the Democratic Candy Men and Women are promising gifts that are sure to increase the tax bill until the republic collapses under the burden.

I predict, regardless of who is in the White House, that frugality will return out of necessity, although to the detriment of the Dow and amazon.com. Consumers may eventually be forced to “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” as “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge suggested when things got tight (wouldn’t it be great if we once again had a president who could earn the “silent” nickname and suggest frugality?). It would be a tough order for consumers today, for our economy is fueled by excess, wastefulness and indebtedness for things we really don’t need. We are still driving automobiles to the poor farm, and many of those “in poverty” carry their iPhone 11s in designer bags and wear team-logo jackets while waiting in line at the Social Security office (yes, I’ve been there and seen it).

A return to frugality would be good for the soul, planet and our bank accounts (do people still have savings accounts, or just lines of credit and credit cards?). And it need not mean that we reduce our standard of living, which has become woefully interconnected with excess. Both the stock market and our lives would benefit from a good purging. However, just like the task of cleaning out the garage, no one knows where to start and it is easier to close the garage door and go shopping.

Looking back on those days of 1980s frugality, I realize that we both survived and lived well. We had no shortage of problems, but also no shortage of laughter. Much of the distress we felt was driven not by our actual circumstances, but by the advertising that suggested we were unhappy because we lacked something. There was, in fact, much to keep us occupied and happy, had we only taken the time to avail ourselves of it. But we often were too busy getting the next thing that was sure to make us happy, really happy.

And that brings us today. Are we happy yet?

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not,” suggested Marcus Aurelius. “Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

‘the bible for all things Ashtabula’

“The bible for all things Ashtabula.” That’s the way veteran journalist and author Neil Zurcher describes our new book, “Ashtabula County: A field guide.”

He goes on to say “It is a compact history of a wonderful county, the people who live there and the towns, even those that no longer exist.”

That is a reference to the final chapter in the book, which highlights a few of the ghost towns that once thrived in the county. Sometimes only a building or two remains in these places that still have a place on the map and in the memories of elderly residents.

The “Field Guide” was inspired by my wife Ruth, who decided to relocate to Ashtabula County after accepting my marriage proposal. There was much for her to learn about the county, and so we set off on adventure after adventure as I introduced her newly adopted home. Along the way, a book took form.

“This is a ‘must have’ book for anyone who loves Ohio’s biggest county, or who plans to visit in the coming year.”

Neil Zurcher

At first, I was thinking 100 or so entries, but once the lists were made and research began in earnest, the book nearly tripled in content and size.

The content is categorized as natural treasures, structures, transportation, curiosities, memorials/monuments and ghost towns. Each entry includes a picture, short story and, oftentimes, trivia about the topic or site.

It is a different sort of book for me; the stories are short and to the point, but I’ve tried to tuck into each story a nugget, bit of humor or little-known fact about the topic. The first-person interviews, which are used in my other works, are absent, yet the conversations with hundreds of residents and historians underpin many of the entries.

The book is available on amazon.com as both a Kindle ($5.99) and softcover book ($21.95). The Kindle book is not indexed and, frankly, is not very reader friendly, but that is the nature of Kindle formats. The print edition is fully indexed and includes a list of attractions for each town/township/village.

“A Field Guide” is also available in our website store. We pay the shipping on books ordered from the website, and each book is signed by Carl. If it is a gift, or you want a special inscription to yourself, let us know when you order.

Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor on Bridge Street has autographed copies for sale, as will the Ashtabula Maritime Museum for its Christmas event.

The book was launched at the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival, where my frozen fingered managed to sign a couple of dozen books to folks who braved the rain and frigid temps to acquire a book from our table at the Graham Road Covered Bridge. Many of the folks commented on missing my work in the Star Beacon, which I departed more than five years ago.

And that leads me to the dedication. After I left the newspaper industry, I had the privilege of working for the three best supervisors I had in my 40-plus years of working: Ashtabula County Commissioners Joe Moroski, Peggy Carlo and Dan Claypool. They had the vision to combine a lodging tax administration and tourism special projects coordinator into a position under the county commissioners’ office. During the nearly five years of working in that job, I was part of many interesting projects that were launched with grants and private funding and have helped introduce tourists to our county’s story. Unfortunately, a new board of commissioners saw no value in the position and abruptly eliminated it … which leads me to writing books!

“I confess I have long admired the writing of Carl Feather. I have considered him one of Ohio’s secret treasures since I first became acquainted with his work at the Ashtabula Star Beacon Newspaper. He touched many lives with his stories that were filled with humanity—sometimes sad, sometimes filled with humor—but always illuminating, written in an ‘everyman’ style that was easy to read and understand.”

Neil Zurcher

While browsing online for books about Ohio, check out the many volumes by Neil Zurcher, famous for his “One-Tank Trip” books, as well as “Ohio Oddities,” “Strange Tales from Ohio,” “Tales from the Road,” “Ohio Road Trips” and “Ohio Road Food.”

The “Field Guide” is our first joint effort as co-owners of The Feather Cottage, our “retirement business.” Carl is working on two more books for release next year, and Ruth, well, she’s working in Cleveland at a day job until book sales can bring her into the land of “retirement.”

 

Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.

 

Elmer Backlund

I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.

Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.

Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).

One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.

Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.

These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.

Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.

Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was  used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.

The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new  documentary.

Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.

Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”

The Feather Cottage

cottageAs 2015 comes to a close (sigh), I am reminded that we never know where life is going to take us.

A year ago, I was living in a tiny house on a dead-end street in Ashtabula. Two bedrooms, a postage-stamp sized lot. 700 square feet, two people, one dog of 100 pounds or so.

This afternoon I write from one of the four bedrooms in the Feather Cottage in Geneva, Ohio. It’s actually my study, but could qualify as a bedroom. The upstairs bedroom is as large as the two small bedrooms in the other house. And the unfinished upstairs room, which was once two bedrooms, is probably about 2/3 of the total floor space of the entire house I was in before.

I won’t go into the details of how I ended up in this stone cottage. I’ll save that for later blogs, perhaps. Stories about how people get where they are can be found elsewhere. Today, I just want to write about where it is that I am.

Geneva, Ohio. Never thought I’d live here. It was too close to the big urban county, Lake County.

But here I am, on two acres, of what is mostly oak tree-shaded land set along Cowles Creek. Most passersby don’t realize there’s a house back in there. A while ago, I stepped off the driveway and it is roughly 400 yards long. I am dreading the first big snowfall.

It is a stone house I live in. I ought to say rock house, or boulder house, for the stones, especially those of the foundation, are massive. On the first level, there is a mix of large rocks, bricks, sandstone pieces and even a big wrench that must have gotten stuck in the wall by accident.

The house is rustic and I love it that way. My study is lined in knotty pine that is probably 65 years or older. It has a lot of defects, then again, so does the resident.

Neighbors and Chuck Buck, who lived in this house some 20 to 30 years ago, tell me it was built by Clarence Helwig. Clarence ran an apple orchard on this land, and in the process of working the ground, he collected rocks and boulders — or so the story goes. And, over time, he built a foundation, a stone fireplace and a house.

A great story, but I find it hard to believe that boulders and rocks the sizes of those in this house could be found around here. The variety of the rocks also raises my suspicions about the story.

City directories confirm that Mr. Helwig, his wife and their children lived here. But there is no mention of the orchard itself. However, the orchard story is confirmed by neighbors, the few surviving, aged apple trees found along Sherman Street and the cold storage unit in the back of the garage, also built of stone.

Another neighbor tells me it was a Christmas tree farm, which explains why there are so many tall, dying evergreen trees on these lots. Such trees line a portion of my long driveway and create a tunnel to the cottage.

Perhaps I ought not worry so much about how the cottage got here, or I got here, but just focus on being here. This much I know: it feels like home. Need it be anything else?

The house feels like a pair of fuzzy slippers at the end of a difficult day at work; like a kitten curling up on your lap. It reminds me of my beloved West Virginia mountains. The tall oaks speak their own language to the wind, and the stone walls feel like a cradle, just as I feel cradled and mothered by the mountains of stone.

It is a good place to meet God and listen, gather with family and friends, slumber and dream, read and write. Nap.

It also is a consuming fire, sucking in all my available financial resources and days upon days of labor late into the evening. Prior to my purchase, the house had sat vacant for four years, a victim of the foreclosure crisis. A hole in the roof admitted the melting snow and summer thunderstorms, leaves and acorns, and untold critters, one of which died on the bedroom carpet. Black mold sprouted in the damp environment. The water trickled onto the first-floor ceiling and soaked the hardwood floor underneath. The floor buckled; the skin of the drywall separated from the body and fell off.

Thieves stole the copper water lines from the house, and the bank that owned it paid little attention to maintenance. By the time it became mine, the house was a bona fide disaster area that would contribute  some 70 cubic yards of demolition debris to the landfill.

A month into the renovation project, my other house sold and we had to move into the mess. It brought my wife to tears, and rightly so. That was the scenario I wanted to avoid. But it’s hard to argue with a cash buyer.

For months we ate and breathed sawdust, plaster dust and dirt. It has been only in the past three weeks that the living room has come together, and it still awaits the red oak trim, at that. There is much to be done upstairs, as well as in the garage and the landscaping, but smoke now goes up the chimney on chilly nights, there are Edison lamps burning in the living room windows and two hot showers. Life is good, even when incomplete.

Incomplete. That’s a good word for 2015. Something has been missing. Rest, for certain. Direction, as well. Self-discipline, the kind that facilitates one being true to oneself. And so much more.

Goodbye to the incomplete year; welcome to the year of completion.