On the Gentle Art of Giving Advice

We bought the farm in 2002, and moved up from the ‘far suburbs’ of Baltimore. The farm came with a bunch of stuff in mostly-workable condition: baler, rake, hay cutter/bind, and a 1974 Belarus MtZ572 tractor. We had horses to feed, so there was hay to cut, and the place had been going to seed for a decade – there was a great deal of bushhogging to be done, and the tractor came with a 10′ deck bush hog.

When we moved in, the sellers suggested, “people around here don’t come forward much, so if you need help you’ve got to ask. If you’re stuck, you might want to talk to Bob N., up the street, he’s good people.” [stderr]

cutting hay, summer 2003

The big tractor had a front-end loader with a huge bucket, that came in very handy for moving horse poop, of which there was a very great deal. The former owners had allowed it to pile up into a sort of stinky matterhorn. There were days spent driving back and forth with bucket-loads of poop, making an entire poop-zone out of many. It’s all composted down now.

Anyhow, I met Bob within a couple weeks of moving in, and I was still at the point where I was figuring out how not to destroy myself with the tractor. That process, like the process I am doing with the forge-work and every other process, is a system of trying something, seeing if it worked, researching it, thinking about its implications and failure modes, and then moving forward or back depending. At any point where I hit a branch that suggests I can improve my set-up’s safety and reliability I usually stop operations until I can do that. In my head, the way it feels is as though I am building a gridded map, with behaviors marked on a decision-tree, and some of the behaviors are colored RED. Those branches of the decision tree are the ones that are not good, like: “making any kind of spark or flame while the bottle of ether is open.” (but that’s another story) So I sit and think about things that could go wrong, and decide if they are worrisome or not, and then I set warnings down those paths that say “no” or “proceed with extreme caution.”

If you think about it, you’ll see there’s a flaw in that process, but it’s an inherent flaw: hypothesizing things that can go wrong is limited by my creative imagination. That’s why I listen when my subconscious is working on a problem and gives me a dream to warn me “hey bud, your propane lines are inauspiciously situated and Lao Tze said something about how much better the sage’s life is if they worry about the feng shui of their propane.” [stderr] If my imagination fails, or my experience in a certain area is not broad enough, I read up on how things go wrong. Seriously, I do a lot of googling for “${thing} fail.”

Bob dropped by casual-like, as is his wont, and introduced himself and we stood talking a bit. One thing I said was, “I’m new to this” and he nodded, then I said, “if you ever have any suggestions or advice, please don’t hesitate to tell me – I think it’s stupid to be egotistical and not ask for suggestions out of pride.” Nowadays I probably would have framed it, to myself, as “toxic masculinity can also mean not asking for advice or directions.”

Then Bob tugged on his hat-brim, and said, “you mean that?”

I said, “yes, why?”

He reached out and gently shooed me away from where I was standing. “You don’t want to stand under hydraulics. They don’t blow up often, but when they do…” My foot was under the loader bucket, which was about 3 feet up.

I thanked him with all the heartfelt sincerity. Two years later, one of the hydraulic lines on the Belarus blew while I was cutting hay, and the bucket dropped, caught dirt, and everything stopped very fast. Instantly I went from “mowing hay” to “sitting in the field immobile, perched on the steering wheel” and the bucket made a 6 foot long 8 inch deep hammer-mark in the field. Hydraulic oil makes rainbows in the summer sun. Of course I didn’t get to see the hammer-mark until after Bob and I repaired the hydraulic line and got the tractor running again.

“I see what you meant about the hydraulics,” I told him, as an oblique way of thanking him again.

“Yeah, they’re like that.”

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“We” being exwife and I. Since I did all the paying, and she did most of the picking out, and we decided together, I’ll designate it as a “we” operation.

Belarus tractors are made in Ukraine at the reconstructed Dzerzinski tractor works, which was the site of the greatest street-fighting of World War II. I will say this: they make a hell of a tractor. I used to hang out on some of the Belarus mailing lists (the only way to locate parts) and there was one guy up in Saskatchewan who operated an entire fleet of them and said they were the only thing that consistently ran in the winter. Since mine inconsistently ran any time of year, I was skeptical, but he had a great collection of parts and really knew the machines.

A few years ago I gave away the horses, and then I no longer needed the tractor so I thought someone else should get the value of it (it had a great engine, not so great an electrical system) and I gave it to a guy who uses it to power a wood chipper. It’s still running strong and will probably out-last us all.

One of the “proceed with extreme caution” lines I drew was simply never to get out of the cab of the tractor when the motor was running. It eliminates a gigantic tree of possible errors. Bob mentioned that I wouldn’t want to do that if I was professionally operating heavy equipment, but then he said, “starters are cheap.”

…” Stop operations until I can do that” – I am currently waiting for a truckload of 300lbs of steel from metalsdepot, which will be awkwardly welded into a sand-frame. By the way, doing this sort of infrastructure stuff is a great way to practice welding long lines.


  1. says

    Your Bob is a great neighbor to have.

    He is a truly great human being. Humble, kind, helpful, incredibly resourceful – there was one time I was replacing the alternator on my 1945 Ford 2N and it wasn’t starting right so I called Bob and he said, “I can’t come over right now, but can you hit the starter for me?” So I did, and he said, “you need to turn the distributor about 10 degrees more to the right.” No kidding, it started and ran perfectly for a year or two after that.

    Bob’s dad died when he was a teenager, so he suddenly inherited the family man-role. He worked every heavy equipment operation and repair job that there was at the mines and the strip mines and now he’s in his 70s. In his head is all the knowledge of a world that is very different from mine. Sometimes I ask him random questions, and he always thinks, and kindly and carefully answers. The other day I mentioned that I was getting an oxy/acetylene torch to keep heat on billets that I’m twisting and he said, “you should know something. A lot of the time if someone accidentally cuts their feed-hose, they try to turn the valve off at the tank and sometimes they’re not fast enough. Just fold the hose and crimp it.” Yeah, he’s the best neighbor ever.

  2. says

    One thing I said was, “I’m new to this” and he nodded, then I said, “if you ever have any suggestions or advice, please don’t hesitate to tell me

    Yep, that’s a smart thing to say.

    I’m generally happy to receive advice from people who know more about whatever I’m trying to do. There’s one exception thought—“advice” that’s actually thinly veiled sexism. For example, once I went to a shop to buy some silicone weather strip seals for my windows. Whenever I enter a shop catering to mostly male buyers, the nearest shop assistant always comes to me to offer assistance (do they think I have gotten lost and need help getting back to the cleaning solutions shelves?), and on that occasion I got a particularly annoying shop assistant. When I said that I need window seals, he had to make a stupid joke asking me about whether I intend to use silicone seals or paper stickers. I know about antique wooden windows and their restoration a lot more than 99% of the male population. Yet somehow I’m the only one who has to listen to these kinds of stupid jokes. Shop assistants don’t treat their male customers like this. Advice is welcome, but I do want people not to behave like jerks.

    I think it’s stupid to be egotistical and not ask for suggestions out of pride.” Nowadays I probably would have framed it, to myself, as “toxic masculinity can also mean not asking for advice or directions.”

    When I encounter a problem, I generally try to figure out the solution on my own. I try various things, google for answers, consult a map, etc. I ask for help only when it becomes clear that I’m really stuck and cannot fix the problem on my own. I’m pretty certain that my problem isn’t toxic masculinity, it’s just that I don’t want to unnecessary disturb others and bother them with my problems.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    I do a lot of googling for “${thing} fail.”

    So Google probably has you tagged as a failure.

    … the reconstructed Dzerzinski tractor works…

    Did Felix the dungeon-master have a sideline, or is this another name-coincidence like the FBI & vacuum-cleaner empire-builders?

  4. Sunday Afternoon says

    @Pierce R. Butler #5:

    Google probably have me (correctly) pegged as a terrible python coder who doesn’t know how to use Django.


    Belarus tractors are made in Ukraine at the reconstructed Dzerzinski tractor works

    Thanks for the clarification – I had sort of assumed that the name was suggesting the origin…

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 Pierce R. Butler
    The wiki says it was called Сталинградский тракторный завод им. Ф. Э. Дзержинского, Stalingradski traktorni zavod im. F.E. Dzerzhinskogo,

    Felix’s initials were Ф. Э. (F. E ) so apparently his day job was really building tractors, the Cheka was a hobby.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 Sunday Afternoon
    Wiki puts the renamed Dzerzinski tractor works now the Volgograd Tractor Plant in Volgograd Russia formerly Stalingrad USSR.

    It certainly looks like it was named after Felix

  7. cvoinescu says

    jkrideau @ #9:
    Ah, it looks like the Volgograd Tractor Plant is in the business of manufacturing armed vehicles.

    Of course it is. Mixed military and civilian factories (where the military bit was an open secret) were common in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Here are a couple of typical jokes:

    “You know I work at the Tohan Bicycle Factory, right? For the last few months, I’ve been stealing parts and giving them to my son to assemble into a bicycle of his own.”
    “How’s it going?”
    “No matter how many times he tries, he still ends up with a machine gun.”

    “Hello, is this the Bicycle Factory?”
    “Hello. Yes it is.”
    “I’d like to speak with Elena from the fuzes department.”

  8. Raucous Indignation says

    On a related topic, I taught my children to never stand under a car lift.

  9. says

    Raucous Indignation@#11:
    On a related topic, I taught my children to never stand under a car lift.

    I’d generalize that to “anything where the only thing holding it up is hydraulics”

    Shop car lifts have an inertial safety lock (I do not understand how it works, though!) that engages if the lift drops quickly. I do not understand how it is tested. So I do not stand under car lifts, either.

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