Building a backyard chicken coop: A tale of marriage, compromise and the art of butting out

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Take our leaky refrigerator. As soon as we discovered the problem, Kevin began looking into bigger, better refrigerators, while I just put a bowl on the top shelf to catch the drips. The leak got worse, and Kevin suggested that, since we were replacing the refrigerator, perhaps we should remodel the kitchen. I got a bigger bowl.

The bigger the project, the more apparent the difference becomes, and our first major construction project was a chicken coop. Not skyscraper major, but definitely backyard major, and our temperamental difference was an issue from the beginning.

I believe this difference has a strong genetic component. In part, this is because I believe most things have a strong genetic component, but it is also because my mother, in this regard, is just like me. Possibly worse. Take, for example, the mailbox incident.

I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., a town about 80 miles north of New York City, on the Hudson. We lived in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, in a very unattractive raised ranch with four bedrooms and a two-car garage, on a quarter acre with a lawn, driveway, and mailbox.

We were the neighborhood weirdos, a designation I thought a little unfair given that the Wilsons, right across the street from us, let their grass grow waist-high and kept their 10 children locked indoors. But I guess their isolation kept them under the radar, and it was our family that was the target of occasional neighborhood vandalism.

When the top of our mailbox loosened enough so it could be detached from its post, our rather unimaginative neighborhood vandals started to make a habit of detaching it and depositing it somewhere nearby, where we would eventually find and recover it. When the post came loose from its concrete mooring, and you could lift the whole assembly right out of its hole, someone did. After we found the mailbox in a neighbor’s yard and brought it home, my mother decided she’d had enough. She didn’t put it back in its hole. She put it in the garage.

If Kevin had lived with us then, he would undoubtedly have gotten a new mailbox, poured a solid concrete anchorage and installed it in such a way that, come Armageddon, it would be the last mailbox standing.

My mother put the mailbox out every morning and took it in with the mail.

This wasn’t a terrible system, except for the mornings when we didn’t get the mailbox out in time. On those days, we would hear the letter carrier coming, dash down to the garage, and then run out to the end of the driveway carrying the mailbox. There were mornings when we didn’t even have to put the thing in its hole — we just held it out to the letter carrier, and then brought it back to the garage with the mail inside.

My affinity for such solutions — let’s call it the mailbox gene — governed my idea of what a chicken coop should be. Kevin had plans for a coop for all time, a veritable chicken Parthenon, encased in a covered run furnished with all conceivable chicken luxuries. I kept thinking about that refrigerator box in the garage.

When my mailbox gene crosses Kevin’s Parthenon gene, we often finesse the issue by invoking one of the bedrock principles of a successful marriage: nonoverlapping magisteria.

The term was coined by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay about reconciling science and religion. In it, he made the case that they didn’t need to be reconciled, because each covers territory outside the domain of the other — i.e. nonoverlapping magisteria. “Magisterium” is most often used to mean the teaching authority of the church (from the Latin magister, or teacher, as Google informed me), but it can also mean the office of a person in charge of something, and that is the sense in which I use it.

Every marriage has its magisteria, and it’s better for all parties if some of them are nonoverlapping. If, for example, one spouse — let’s go out on a limb and say it’s a woman — stays home, keeps house and raises children while the other goes to work and makes money, you have large, well-defined nonoverlapping magisteria.

Most modern marriages have less clearly defined magisteria. Kevin and I both work, and we work together to keep our household running. Even so, it shakes out so that some jobs are exclusively mine, to do as I see fit, while others are his. I do the laundry. He string-trims the grass. I am Vice President of Cat Puke Stain Removal, while Kevin is Director of Chainsaw Acquisition. Our different temperaments make themselves known in these jobs. Our clothes are indifferently laundered, but we have a top-of-the-line Husqvarna.

Nonoverlapping magisteria do an end-run around potential causes of friction, but they are sometimes hard to maintain because they require one party or the other to butt out.

Butting out is not my long suit. Which brings us back to the chicken coop.

I knew that Kevin’s philosophy, born of his Parthenon gene, was the better way to go for our chicken coop. Chickens have to be protected from predators. They need a house that will last at least as long as they will. You can’t do it with chewing gum and sealing wax. Besides, Kevin had much more experience building things, and it made a great deal of sense to let this be his job.

That is what I was determined to do, knowing that, in the long run, I would be very happy with the result. But my mailbox gene would not be quelled. I couldn’t help myself. I trespassed on his magisterium. Maybe it could be 6 feet tall instead of 8, I suggested? Or maybe we could use fiberglass as the roof of the run? Wouldn’t three nest boxes be plenty?

I’d like to think I did it because I believed that the potential improvement my ideas could bring outweighed the disadvantage of violating the boundary of his domain — after all, there are situations where the thoughtful input of both of us yields better results than either of us could achieve independently. The reality, though, is that I did it because butting out is not my long suit.

Kevin, to his infinite credit, didn’t say, “Butt out of my magisterium,” but instead gave my suggestions due consideration — he even adopted one or two. If this were Kevin’s subtle strategy for getting my buy-in for the Parthenon, it was genius; there’s nothing like having skin in the game to commit you to a project.

The process of designing and building the coop — it ended up being 87 percent Kevin, 6 percent Tamar, 7 percent accident — was a lesson in the importance of firsts. You learn way more the first time you try something than in any other iteration. Sure, if we built a second one, we could make it a bit better, but it would never top the increment of going from knowing nothing to having built a chicken coop.

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