The week between Christmas and New Year is probably my favorite sneaky week of the year. It’s sneaky because I forget how much I like it until it rolls around again, all quiet and peaceful after the frenzy of trying to get ready for the holiday and the big day itself. I’m doubly fortunate because my employer, a university, closes its administrative offices for two weeks surrounding Christmas, so I can loaf almost guilt-free.
This year is quiet, too, because our New Yorker daughter, who spent a nice long break with us last year, realized that New Year’s Eve in the city was going to be more fun than New Year’s Eve in Franklin County. (Can’t blame her for that.) Her younger brother, our Kentuckian son, is going to mosey back to Lexington early next week.
It’s so quiet that I almost welcomed the tooth I broke last week that occasioned a trip to the dentist this morning.
We have a good dentist, but he’s a solid 45 minutes away, on the other side of Roanoke. I saw him at the beginning of December for my regular check-up, which was uneventful except for Tammy the hygienist loudly announcing, “She’s doing MUCH BETTER on her flossing this time, Dr. ______,” when Dr. ________ came in to poke around my teeth. That’s judgy, Tammy. There is nothing wrong with my flossing, nor was there anything (all that) wrong back in June.
This visit was uneventful, too, with just a little bit of filing on the chipped corner of the rebellious tooth. I was out of the office with plenty of time to stop in to Target, Barrel Chest, and Starbuck’s (which are also 45 minutes from our house) and home before the Lexingtonian woke up.
After a wonderful May and June when it felt like we were bounding into a wide-open summer, here came that obnoxious Delta variant to move the goalposts on getting back to “normal.” At Smith Mountain Lake, we saw that play out last week over the SML Wine Festival.
The wine festival has been going on for over 30 years, a very popular event held annually on the last weekend of September. In 2019, it took place at Crazy Horse Marina and Jim and I got to enjoy the event with our friends the Marstons, chauffeured by boat by their son, Luke (thanks, Luke!). There were loads of wineries represented, a variety of food options, live music, some interesting artwork for sale, and a crowd of happy wine-sippers.
Last September, of course, it was cancelled for Covid.
This July, the local chamber of commerce made big waves by changing it up. No longer would it be at the Crazy Horse, but at a new venue, Mariners Landing, a golf community perched at the end of one of the lake’s creeks. But what really rocked the boat were the prices: individual tickets were now going to start at $65 per person (more than double the previous price), with VIP options and boat slips raised accordingly. The chamber explained that “the timing was right to elevate the experience,” and stressed that some popular musical acts would be playing in the new, “more intimate” setting.
This change did not go over well with my neighbors.
The residents’ Facebook page got so heated that the admin turned off the comments. An alternative event was set up for the same day, called the Knot-A-Festival, where individual tickets are $15 and everyone brings their own wine.
In the end, though, the festival announced last week that they would postpone for a year because of the Delta variant. Some in the residents’ page are surmising that it’s because they couldn’t sell those pricey tickets, but the Mariners Landing community is also very mindful of masking and distancing in the face of the new Covid threat.
While I wouldn’t think such measures would be controversial, a trip to the local Kroger (or any other lake-local business) proves that we mask wearers are very much in the minority. Sigh, here we go again (and without our Virginia wine).
This summer is better than last summer, can we agree?
We had houseguests last weekend – two sets! This is not an unusual state of affairs for most of our neighbors; if you’re lucky enough to live on the shore of a lake, you’re lucky enough to have some folks want to visit.
But what a change from last summer.
When we moved to southwest Virginia, we shrugged off our former suburban existence and bought a home on Smith Mountain Lake. Every morning when I wake up and see that water, I can’t believe we’re here.
The folks who sold us the house also sold us their tiny boat (we call it the Tempest because it’s about the size of a teapot). It’s a perfect boat for us, since neither Jim nor I knew anything about boats or boating. We do not fish. We do not ride on wakeboards. As soon as we moved down here, though, I took an online boating safety course and then we ignored the Tempest for, well, almost two years, while we did other things.
But then Covid hit and we were faced with a locked down 2020 summer. So I called up Bittinger Marine Center, recommended by our neighbors, and Jahleel and Luke came out to look at our boat, which by now wouldn’t start. They towed it to their shop and brought it back spiffy a week or so later. “When you bring it back,” I asked, “could you all hang out for a minute and give me some pointers?”
“Ma’am, that’s just what we had in mind.”
Jahleel’s previous experience had been teaching boating basics to tourists at the boat rental spot, so he knew how to talk to a nautical newbie. Within a few minutes, I could work that throttle and putter semi-comfortably. We were in business.
So with few guests last summer, that boat opened up a whole new world for us. Jim and I ventured out early on weekend mornings to avoid the bigger, faster boats, with Google Maps to help us navigate the many coves and creeks that make up the lake. We learned to steer around wakes and partiers (there are some jolly pirates out here for sure), and the whole experience will make the summer of 2020, even with the election craziness and the Covid consternation, a very good memory.
It’s a big race, with 1,500 competitors who jumped into Carvins Cove and swam for a mile, then rode their bikes about 56 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway, then changed shoes and ran 13.1 miles on the Roanoke Greenway.
It’s a big deal for our region, too. When the race first announced it would be coming to Roanoke, people were very excited, not just for the athletes and their families who would be hanging out in our coffee shops, but for a chance to show off how nice and outdoorsy this place is.
So I knew I wanted to volunteer.
I also didn’t want to start my volunteer gig at 3:00 am, so I found a nice job that started at the very reasonable hour of 1:00 pm. With the environmental team. What does that mean? With a crew of about six other folks and one golf cart, I emptied and re-lined trash cans for about five hours.
I got a green technical shirt to show for my day’s work, along with the knowledge that if you are dressed like the trash person and are carrying trash bags, you can go anywhere unquestioned.
I got to see my friend John cross the finish line!
And I was extremely impressed with one young man who’d finished all that racing and still offered to help me carry a load of discarded boxes. “He’s amazingly nice,” said his young female companion. “He’s so nice he makes up for me.”
I’d say they were both charming and if this is the sort of folks who Ironman attracts, they can come back anytime.
I intended to write, write, write through the pandemic about how we “country folk” made our way through the Covid mess. Now that things are opening back up, I’m not that surprised, I suppose, that I just didn’t find the energy for to do it.
But I’ve got notes, y’all, so I’m going to spend a couple of days talking about some of the things that kept us busy when we were supposed to stay away from other people.
I’ve mentioned that one thing I like to do each morning is take a walk. It really is pretty here and getting a little air sets me up nicely for the day. I walk with my neighbor, Jane, a couple of days a week (on many weeks we made sure to walk six feet apart!), but other days, I’m on my own.
When we lived in a suburban neighborhood in busy Northern Virginia, I’d get on the road walking or jogging by 5 am so I could get home in time to bother our kids before they went off to school. The problem with that schedule here is that when it’s dark, it’s dark. We don’t have streetlights.
Our daughter prodded me out the dark door. Now a New Yorker, when she came to visit she appreciated getting out early and seeing the stars. You’re missing out, she told me, so I dusted off my old headlamp and started braving the pre-dawn roads.
The other problem, though, is critters. We have friendly creatures, like opossum, foxes, and rabbits (squee!). We have some other denizens, though, like coyotes and yes, black bears, whom I did not want to meet. The answer came from my sister and brother-in-law: podcasts.
I started with Smartless, a podcast featuring Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, Will Arnett, and a mystery guest each week. I chose this one because I walk without my earbuds in (on dark, twisty, roads, I want to be able to hear what’s coming) and I figured that the sound of men’s voices would discourage anything creeping around from coming too close. They talk to some amazing people and what I love is that they’re all really, really kind to each other.
Then Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground came along and I loved that, too. And Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us is good, though her guests tend to be doing their book tours, and I have hit up Amazon a few too many times when I get home. I am now way behind on my reading.
Lately I’m loving Adam Grant’s WorkLife – he is an organizational psychologist and talks about how we get along with each other, mostly at work but also just in general. He has great energy, is really thoughtful, and was sassy enough match wits with Malcom Gladwell when he was a guest on the show. I just saw that WorkLife is one of Apple’s most highly-rated podcasts, so here I was thinking I was discovering something but ahem, I’m just a little late to the party.
Most of all, I highly recommend Every Little Thing, where each episode answers a burning question, like how old is Winnie the Pooh (the character. Old bear? Young bear?), or whether people actually only breathe through one nostril at a time, or how the game Scrabble became so popular. The episode on Pooh had me laughing like a fool and actually crying at the end, and I dare you to listen to the episode on dog shows (are they anti-dachshund?) without cheering for the weenie dogs.
These little drops of wisdom each morning have made the walks a lot of fun, and I’ll tell you what: I haven’t seen a bear yet.
Earlier this week, I had some business to attend to up in Fairfax, so I drove up Monday, met with some of my colleagues (face to face for the first time in more than a year!) and – the best part – hung out with my sister and brother-in-law for the first time since December 2019.
Zoom is amazing but not like this.
Work wrapped up by Tuesday at 2 pm, and since it’s a four-hour drive back to the countryside, I was motivated to get on the road before the famous northern Virginia traffic (even with so many people working from home, it’s bad, y’all). Off I went.
As I turned south onto Route 29, the road that would take me most of the way home, it occurred to me that I should stop to fill up my half-tank of gas. But oddly enough, the gas stations all seemed to have lines. I didn’t want to wait in a line; I wanted to get home. So I kept on.
Eventually I saw a little gas station without any lines, so I pulled in, only to find hand written signs that read, “No gas.”
I traveled on south, passing gas station lines so long that they pushed out into the roadway. In Charlottesville, the large-ish, busy town at the midpoint of the trip, its many gas stations featured astonishing lines. I hesitated to join any of them for fear that the station would run out of gas before my turn came, leaving me in worse shape.
My gas gauge had also crept to just below a quarter of a tank.
Once south of Charlottesville, Rt. 29 becomes really rural, really fast. I was aiming for a familiar gas and snack stop in North Garden, Virginia, just about 15 miles out of town, but when I got there, the Exxon was also out of gas. I started trying to devise a Plan B and not was coming up with any good prospects.
But three miles later, around a bend, up popped Caul’s Grocery.
Caul’s is small. It had a line. But that line was short enough that I could join it and only be one or two cars from being able to get off of Rt. 29 and into the parking lot. I turned on my hazard lights to warn the folks flying down the road that we were parked right out there in traffic, and in short order, a line formed right up behind me. Even better, I was able to pull into the parking lot and safety.
As I waited with my window rolled down, I congratulated one fellow for being able to fill his tank, and he assured me that Caul’s Grocery’s proprietor (Mr. Caul?) had reported that he’d received a large shipment of gas just the day before. Whew. Within forty minutes or so, I myself was gassed up and ready to roll home.
All of this adventure was the result of a ransomeware attack that had shut down the Colonial Pipeline, which delivers gas to much of the East Coast. And of course, people panicked and gobbled up gasoline. In a clear illustration of not putting two and two together, I had heard about the hack but had not considered how it might affect me. I guess I’m out of practice at traveling.
But I will always make a point of stopping at Caul’s on my way to and from points north.
Mother’s Day used to stress me out. When my mom was still around, there was a fancy restaurant that served brunch twice a year, Mother’s Day and Easter, and we hit them both so Mom could stroll around the buffet and urge us to try the aspic. We even did it after Jim and I started our own family, hauling our toddlers to the fancy brunch place.
I don’t need to tell you that became a day I did not eagerly anticipate.
My mom passed away in March 2004 and I really dreaded Mother’s Day that year. But Jim made some changes. He corralled our then seven-year-old and five-year-old to make breakfast in bed (!) and they filled out one of those questionnaires where kids write cute things about what they like about their mom. Over the years we went into DC to walk around, we made it to our own fair share of brunches (even a fancy one, once or twice), and have generally spent that weekend in May doing whatever I felt like doing.
Now those kids live in New York and in Lexington, Kentucky. Yesterday, Jim and I took advantage of a beautiful spring day and headed into Roanoke (there’s not a lot of action in town on Sundays, even on Mother’s Day, y’all). We had scones and coffee at Bread Craft and watched a stream of people picking up boxes of baked goods for their Mother’s Day events. We checked out the farmer’s market and bought a very cool table from a man who makes them himself in Rocky Mount. We went to Barrel Chest to pick up some lagers, and found a “beer can garden” at the Starr Hill Brewpub.
Today we’ll talk with Jim’s mom, who spends Mother’s Day in Texas with his sister, with those far-flung kids of ours, and with my own sister (who is a fabulous mom herself). I have two friends who each lost their moms in April and I’m thinking of them in particular. And the good thing is, there is no aspic in sight.
One evening in the first week in March, I got a surprise email from the Southern Virginia Regional Health Care System. Anne, it said, come on down to the Martinsville Speedway next week and we’ll give you a Covid shot. After Jim and decided that it was real – we had never heard of Sovah Health – I registered and got myself an appointment.
It seems my eligibility had come up, and because we live in a relatively-uncrowded part of Virginia, shots were available. Sovah Health was planning a mass vaccination event, drive-up style, at the race track in Martinsville.
Martinsville is a real part of the NASCAR circuit (they’ve got some races April 8-10 if that’s your thing) so it was a unique experience going down there.
And it’s true, you don’t even get out of your car. You roll up, fill out a card, drive to a pop-up tent where they take your card and introduce you to an RN with a syringe. Put your car in park, open the door, and bam. Then you’re off, with an index card printed with the time you’re permitted to leave (15 minutes after the vaccination). You take a spot in another line where the staff helps you make your appointment online for the second shot. By the time you leave the racetrack, you’re set for your three-week return appointment.
That second shot, for me, was yesterday morning. I jumped in the car at 7:00 for the hour-long trip to Martinsville and the operation was as smooth as the first time around. This time I did not even need to open the door – the RN reached right in and took care of business. I told them they’re so efficient they should run the government.
On the way home I drove by redbuds (they’re popping down south in Martinsville but I think we’ll have to wait a bit longer for ours) and beat the rain that was forecast for the day. And even though I am feeling some of those side effects you might have heard about, today I am beyond grateful for the whole thing.
Here in the countryside where we live, it sometimes feels like everybody knows everybody, though of course when we moved here, I felt for a long time like I knew nobody (dude, that’s what this whole blog is about).
One person we did know right off the bat, fortunately, is our realtor, Colleen (who definitely knows everybody), and she anticipated this conundrum because during our home inspection, while the inspection guy was doing his thing, she announced, Anne, we’re going to go meet your neighbors.
There are many trees around our house, and only our next door neighbors’ house is visible through them. Colleen knows (of course) the adult son of the couple who lives there, so when she knocked on the door with me in tow and we were greeted by a bearded gentleman wearing sweatpants, she announced that she was a friend of Kevin’s and she wanted to introduce their new neighbor.
He was politely taken aback, I think, protesting that he was just doing a little writing that afternoon.
We won’t stay long, promised Colleen.
And we didn’t stay long, just long enough to ascertain that our neighbors, Richard and Kathleen, were nice folks. In fact, as I learned over the past two years, they are tremendously kind and brilliant people, generous with their knowledge about the surrounding area and a glass of rosé as well.
We lost Richard last week to Covid.
He had been in not-great health for the past year, a reminder of the infuriating way that time steals people away little by little. Both Richard and Kathleen picked up the virus over the holidays. She is still working through the lingering bits of it, he is not.
As I write this, I know that I am actually extraordinarily fortunate in this modern-day world we are walking through. Our family, so far, is healthy and safe. Most of our friends are, too. When you hear about more than 500,000 Americans losing their lives related to this disease, it’s a shocking number, but it’s really those people who are the ones in a half-million who bring the loss home.
If you want to learn about our amazing neighbor, the university where he taught for more than forty years made a beautiful tribute video. My heart is with his family.
I work from home all the time, and have done so even before the pandemic, but every once in awhile now Jim works from home too. He is doing so today since we have an ice storm going on.
He was all set up very busy this morning as I was making spare coffee to store in the fridge in case our power went out (it went out last week for a day and I sure missed my afternoon cup), and since I wanted to be busy, too, I was reading a book while making the coffee. I’m taking a social media break for Lent this year, to free up time to read more books and do things like my job.
All of a sudden, our cat who throws up all the time started doing his thing, right there in the kitchen, and I turned around too fast to see how much mess he was making, and managed to catch the rim of the cup I was using for that soon-to-be-stored coffee and splashed the whole thing all over me and my book.
Jim: You got coffee on my book!
Me: And all over myself, wah.
Cat: (Says nothing and patiently waits for the other cat to clean up the throw up by eating it.)
I should probably get Jim a new book, as this one now has pages that are cold-coffee-crispy. But I still feel lucky since our bad weather today pales compared to what most of the country is going through. Even if we lose power, we’ll have coffee. Even with coffee-scented pages, it’s nice to have a good book to read. And if I hadn’t been on a social media break, it would have been my phone that was doused with coffee and don’t even get me started on how that would have presaged a very bad day.