The Economics of Fraternity

Several weeks ago right before the weather changed for good I got a call from my friend asking if I’d help him with a dock. He property manages a few of the big lake homes for people who come up in the Summer and he’d just picked up a new client who wanted him to get on the job immediately. I showed up early after chores and a couple of other guys were there with a mini excavator to handle the extraction from the rocky shores of the lake. The wind was blowing in hard from the northeast, bank after bank of low gray clouds rolling across the surface of the water and hardly a break of blue sky worth mentioning. The water was choppy and already turning cold and we set to work removing the canopies from the elaborate Shore Master shells above the berths. There were three slips, and four long decks that projected from the main dock. They’d been built in place and the new owner wanted to pull the entire set up and install something new in the Spring, something that could be left in place with bubblers to break the surface tension and abatis set to the front to break the big ice floes that would mound up in the thaw come April. When we work together there are a few conversations at the outset, how to approach the demo, staging and storage of the pulled section, who does what. This usually lasts about as long as a factory coffee break but once we’ve settled on a plan we set to work and keep at it until we’re done. My friend needed help getting into his wetsuit because it had either shrunk since last Autumn or he had packed on a few more pounds in the places where scuba gear won’t go and we laughed most of the time until he was suited up and ready to get in. Using impact tools and ratchets, chain and steel cable, two or three box floats to support the section, a dozen plastic pails for the hardware we had disassembled and a stocking yard up the shore under the big pines where each section was placed for storage we set to work. There was a big orange cooler we’d filled with warm water to use for our hands when they got numb and a case of water the owner had dropped off for refreshment, but that was it and so we worked, grunting, lifting, reaching, carrying as if this were the only thing that the four of us ever did under a sky that raced across the horizon as if it had somewhere to be.

The word friend is a poor word to define something specific. You can ascertain only two absolutes from its use; not family and not a threat. It must be one of the oldest words in every language because it has always been important to distinguish between those who would do you harm and those who would not, especially in a world where cooperation was the key to survival. Since then we’ve come up with the modifiers that help us narrow things down — best friend, oldest friend, family friend, etc. Younger people refer to BFF, something that usually isn’t, but we do it to remind ourselves of the important role that these people play in our lives. When a phone call comes in at 3 am from a parent, child or sibling we rarely turn back over and go to sleep. Instead our systems kick into high gear and we put rest aside and do whatever we need to at that very moment for whoever has called us in distress or need. People outside of our genetic line rarely get the same degree of response unless they have proven themselves over time, and we to them until they have come to be an adopted member of our extended family in a friendship that ranks much higher on our scale of relationships. There is a great scene in a movie called The Town, a heist flick directed by Ben Affleck that was otherwise inconsequential. In it the main character, played by Affleck comes to his closest friend, played by Jeremy Renner and says, “You can’t ask me any questions and I’m not going to tell you anything about it but I have to hurt some people and I need your help, are you in?” Renner turns his head to the side and replies, “Are we taking your car or mine?” That was about as close to the truth about a genuine friendships I have ever seen because it hits on the central issue that serves as its foundation; trust.

We finished taking the dock out before dark. When you looked back across the sloping lawn to the water, the mountain rising from the far shore and the back end of the front breaking long enough to let the sun throw brilliant rays of gold across the surface of the water, it made you wonder if it had ever been there. The owner came down in his pressed slacks and windbreaker, face ruddy and a red solo cup that gave off the faint scent of bourbon and beamed at the stacked dock sections, the aluminum frames and folded canvases. My friend went up to talk with him while I brought the totes and carry-all bags with our tools and fitting back up to the cobblestone driveway. The other guys, two brothers we’ve worked with a dozen times or more on similar jobs loaded their excavator on the trailer and asked if I’d like to join them at their quarry for beers but I still had another job I had put aside waiting for me at the farm that wasn’t going to do itself and we said our good-byes. My friend finally came back up to the truck and I helped him load up his floats and compressor we fist-bumped our chapped red hands and drove our separate ways. There was no money exchanged, although I am sure he was paid well for the job and it turned out he signed not one, but two new clients based on that days work, so it benefited him financially. It means, of course, that come ice-out in late April we will be installing whatever state of the art dock system the client has in mind in a reversal of our job that day, something that takes at least three times as long to install as it does to remove. Somewhere in the back of my mind I file that piece of information away as I drive back up along the lake shore with the last of the fallen leaves spinning in cyclones behind me as I go.

One of my neighbors has been a supporter of our farm since we started. His wife buys eggs from us every week, chickens, pork and beef every month, syrup for gifts at Christmas. Once, several years ago she wrote to a magazine called Mother Earth News that was looking for candidates for an award called Homesteader of the Year. They submitted our family in a lovely letter that described what we had done with no background in farming and what a pleasure it was to live nearby and be able to visit us whenever they liked. The magazine told us about the latter and sent a photographer up to visit. Later they did an interview by phone and several months later — days in fact after we had suffered our biggest loss when the barn burned down in the middle of Winter — we got the call that we had won the award and would be featured in the magazine, our farm on the cover. The first person I called to share the news was my neighbor, not only to thank them, but to share the award in a way because I somehow knew it meant as much to them as it did to us. We were their farm, too, in a way and they were ecstatic. Since then we have become closer and every Fall he will stop by and ask if he can rent my woodsplitter and I always lend it to him and refuse any money because I have it, he’s always responsible with it, and more than that, he’s my friend. Invariably he will stop by to return it and without asking he will spend a couple of afternoons splitting wood for the sugarhouse whether I am able to help or not. Usually, unless I am deeply preoccupied in other chores I will break off and start blocking wood from the never depleted piles of logs we keep on hand while he splits and tosses the fresh cleaved quarters of oak, maple, ash and birch onto an ever growing pile in the barnyard. The work is too loud for conversation,except when we break to fill the gas up or sharpen the chain and then it is always little things like the weather, the bear that almost knocked me over last week in the fog, the best way to slow cook beef shanks. I enjoy his company and he enjoys mine and after a bit he gets to a point where he’s done all he can do with his replacement knees and seventy year old hands and he wipes his nose in a blue handkerchief and we say our farewells until next time. I have offered him money but he has that Yankee way of not saying anything that is the same as ‘no’ and this year I didn’t even make the offer. It goes both ways, this friendship.

Over the Summer the hot water storage tank in the basement failed. The leak, slow at first, became a constant trickle into the floor drain and eventually the water appeared at several points along the base of the 1,000 gallon cylindrical vessel. Our entire home is powered by the Sun — heat, hot water, electricity. The roof is covered with photovoltaic panels on the lower edge and two complete banks of solar thermal panels across the top, the house facing due south. The front of the house is all glass allowing for passive solar gain all day long that is trapped by the R-58 insulation. On a sunny day in the middle of Winter you have to open the doors to allow some cool air in so it doesn’t become oppressive. In the Summer the glass doors roll open and because we sit on the top of a hill, the highest point between two mountains there is a constant breeze that allows the air to circulate and cool the home no matter how much sunlight pours in. The solar thermal system is fairly simple. It is a drain back system that forces water from the storage tank in the basement up to the copper panels on the roof. As the black painted copper panels absorb the heat from the Sun they transfer it to the water that runs through the 3/4 inch pipes soldered to each sheet and then it returns to the holding tank where it remains at a constant temperature of 185 degrees. There is a copper coil inside the tank that transfers the temperature gain to the domestic hot water supply which provides all the hot water for bathing, washing, and cooking while the main tank is fitted with pumps that circulate the hot water through a series of pex lines run through the floor on each level in several zones that radiate the heat throughout the house during cold weather. In warmer weather the pumps shut down and the domestic water is stored in an insulated tank that holds more than enough for our consumption without using electric to power the rest of the system. On the coldest, shortest days of the year when there has been cloud cover for several days and the solar gain from the thermal panels is no longer adequate to provide enough hot water to both heat the house and provide hot water for our domestic needs, there is a super efficient back up propane water heater that fills the gap. In this way we use neither fuel oil or gas, supplier provided electricity or firewood. One day I’d love to build a fireplace for the pure aesthetics but as it stands our home is self sufficient in terms of generated energy and it saves us a great deal of expense that we would otherwise have to come up with if we had continued to live the way we once did. The failure of the key component of the solar thermal system was something I put off for months. I did not install the original system and the company that did no longer works on residential systems. There are few installers in our area and those who do solar work will not maintain systems they do not install. It had become increasingly clear that this was another discipline and skill set I would have to learn and while I knew I was capable of it, it seemed daunting. The tank itself is a simple construction; a single sheet of aluminum 1/8” thick, six foot in diameter, six foot in height riveted together along a single seam. It was lined with three layers of foil faced rigid foam insulation and had a floor three inches thick of the same material. This was lined with a liner made of EPDM, a synthetic rubber sheet commonly used for commercial and industrial roofing. The membrane had failed, due to the acidity of the water — something no one had ever warned me of, nor seemed to think of when it was originally designed. That and the constant high temperatures as well as several returns and outflows that had been made through the membrane and tank liner had led to the eventual breakdown of the material. To repair it I had to drain the tank completely, shut down the solar thermal pump system and switch over to the propane back up, cut the feeds and the returns, suspend the worm (the copper coil that heated the domestic hot water, four foot high and weighing at least 100 pounds empty), remove the blocks that supported it, remove the old insulation, dehumidify the chamber, relined the walls and floor and then fit the new liner and reconnect the entire system and bring it online again. I had promised my wife I would do it for months and as Winter began to set in and the first snows covered the farm and the ground froze solid it became impossible to ignore and so I finally set myself to work in the basement with only a clue of how it would go and the determination to make it happen.

My friend, the one I helped remove the dock with a month earlier showed up about fifteen minutes after I started. He brought a bag of tools into the basement and climbed up onto the rolling scaffold I’d assembled and looked over the edge of the tank at me, filthy with decomposed rubber and saturated, rotting foam insulation and asked if I needed a hand. It took the better part of two days to complete the tank rebuild and during that time we discovered a couple of things about why the old system had gone bad. There were the perforations through the walls of the tank, the return roof feeds came in at floor level for some reason we could not ascertain and the flanges that had been designed to hold the pipes in place were corroded and had cut into the EPDM allowing holes to develop. The same held true for the supply and return lines for the domestic hot water. There was no fill port built into the system, but rather you had to drag a hose over from a faucet on the base of the pressure tank on the other side of the basement whenever the level fell low. There was no external view gauge to actually see when you needed water and it was up to your memory to remind yourself to go down into the basement, remove the lid bands and check it visually every so often, something that’s much harder to do than you might imagine, especially when everything is working fine and there are a thousand other jobs waiting to be done. By the time we got to the point where we were ready to make the new connections we’d decided that there was no reason to put any type of penetration through the vessel itself, but to drop the supply and returns through the top leaving the liner completely intact. To this we added a new supply that could be turned on and off directly above the tank without hoses and where you could watch the level, a view port that lifted up without having to remove the entire cap and an additional layer of insulation to keep the water hotter longer. I also researched the durability of the liner material and decided to drop the temperature control point ten degrees to extend the life of the liner. By the time we were done we had not only rebuilt the tank, but improved the system to make it function better than it had before and with greater ease in maintenance going forward.

We sat in the kitchen and talked about the weather coming in, frigid arctic air and a mass of warm moist air sitting right off the coast that would almost surely make for a decent mid-December Nor’easter by Monday. We drank beers together for an hour or so and my wife made us a pizza that we ate with sore hands, the filth embedded so deep you couldn’t wash it out with just soap and hot water. After a while we both got quiet and he finally grabbed his coat from the hook and we said our good-byes, fist-bumping because it would have hurt to shake. As he went down the driveway he flashed his lights like always and we stood in the big glass window and waved, like we always do.

When economist do their thing and come up with all their theories about how things work, how people and nations and businesses all intertwine and become whatever it is that they call an economic system, they leave out huge parts of it that add up to something powerful and inestimable. There is a shadow economy that takes place in ways that dwarf black markets in illicit goods, that cannot be calculated on supercomputers regardless of the software and processing power they possess. There is, as in all other things in life, a magnificent and awesome cycle, a reality that is based not on dollars and cents or decimals and ledgers, but on unwritten and undeclared drives that we all experience and share. There is labor and material, production and consumption, installations and failures, building and collapse and all of it repeating itself over and over, again and again, one generation after another. And all of this is tied to nothing more than the natural response to our inner most drive to be what we were meant to be — not consumers as our own government calls us — but friends and neighbors, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and all the myriad connections between us that propel us to do and have things done for hour by hour, day after day for as long as we live. I wonder what the value of this cooperative exchange that takes place wherever people give of themselves must add up to. It is far more than all the paychecks generated each week because it endures longer than any job description. It pays back more than any investment because it builds capital not just interest. It has more worth than the combined accounts of every market and corporation, every tranche and future, all the commodities and inventories on Earth because it cannot be bought or sold. The laws of supply and demand have no effect on it, it cannot be seized or taxed, there are no regulatory agencies,no compliance officers and no enforcement bureaus that could do anything to limit or restrict it because it is given freely. There should be some kind of discipline or study that tries to make sense of it, this economics of fraternity, but that would be impossible because it defies that kind of understanding. That it is is all that is required and that we all participate as we are able is all that is needed for it to exist for as long as we survive.

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