Days of Wine and (Freedom) Noses

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.

Also, excellent souvenir glassware

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 Semi-Covid Summer

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.

Map is compliments of Laker Media.

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.

This big boi is not us. We avoid guys like him.

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.

Favorite captain with his WFH beard.

Walking Around with Famous People

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.

That’s the moon setting, you know

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.

Sunrises are pretty good here.

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.

Speeding to the Speedway on a Lucky Day

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.

Not going to lie, this is likely the closest I will get to a NASCAR race.

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.

I was good to go at 8:32 yesterday, half an hour after I got to the track.

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.

A smooth operation, staffed by extremely nice medical folks, sheriff’s department personnel, and kind volunteers.

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.

Close to Home

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.

A Morning Mess

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.

2020 took my voice (but maybe just for a while)

Back in the early spring, I started writing here and there about the things that I’ve been doing to keep myself busy and my mind off of the pandemic. I had big plans (and even an outline!) for topics centered on how COVID-19 was rolling out in the Virginia countryside.

But then, in the light of every thing that went on in 2020 (and dammit, keeps happening into 2021), I started feeling like there were so many voices out there, with so many big things to say, that I didn’t want to add mine to the pile. I drew away from social media (with one of those “Farewell Facebook!” posts) and I did even write about that here but I went on back because the truth is, you still need to keep up with stuff.

This writing blackout has continued even more intensely on my “creative” side. I took a course on writing short fiction in September and could barely bring myself to punch out a couple of stories. I started a novel for National Novel Writing Month in November but instead watched the election play out on Twitter. For hours.

And as you may have noticed, my writing here has been paltry.

So I don’t know what has brought me to toss these words up here on WordPress today. I guess I hope someone might read them and think, yeah, Anne, I feel the same way. Like the last year has wrung and twisted you to the point where you just want to curl up and regroup. Even if you know that your concerns pale in comparison to what many, many people are facing. You sure aren’t alone.

Something Happened

But I can’t put my finger on it.

What clearly happened, though, is that over the last few months, I have been unable to write anything at all. I think the last time I wrote something here was in May, about the Confederate flag, but since then, nothing.

Jim is in a pretty robust writing group and reports that some of his group members have been in the same straits (not him, though; that guy’s been writing up a storm. I wish he’d share his secrets). I’ve been wanting to write here but when the opportunity has come up, I’ve just done something else, like look at too much Twitter.

But maybe I’m coming out of it – for instance, here we are. And I took a short story course that forced me to write some short stories. That was hard, y’all! And it was all I could do to keep from jumping on Twitter to announce that, well, writing is hard.

The short story course is wrapping up tomorrow night and I am going to endeavor to keep up some creativity, especially in this next week ahead of the election. There should be plenty of things to write about, no?

In this little writing break, I hope that you’ve been well and feeling safe, and that you’ve had an outlet for some creativity of your own. If so, keep at it! If not, I get it.

Creeping Out, Creeping Back In

I first drafted this post talking about how lucky we were in our remote part of the country. Until very recently, our reported cases of Covid-19 had been very moderate. Even with the rate of people wearing masks standing at about 50-50, with the wide-open spaces in Franklin County we felt like we might miss the worst of it.

Then Memorial Day came and evidently everyone went to Myrtle Beach, including that virus. Myrtle Beach is a spot on the South Carolina shore, just about five hours south of our area. There’s a boardwalk, and golf courses, and an amusement park, and evidently lots of pent-up need for people to get out to the sand, because they opened up their businesses in June and the virus exploded.

Look, it’s the Coronavirus Highway!

People in Roanoke love Myrtle Beach! And they brought that virus back with them. The worst souvenir ever.

So now our local cases are creeping up. Mask wearing is a little better, but I’m cautious and more mindful of staying home. But for awhile there…

Jim and I went out to eat at our favorite restaurant, instead of doing take-out.

Napoli Cowboy has a nice outdoor area now! And you have to make a reservation.

I made a trip to Rocky Mount for a mammogram, which is no fun but you gotta do it. Hats off to the clinic for being extremely impressive at monitoring patients’ health and getting us in and out quickly.

I started going into Roanoke on Saturday mornings to peruse the tremendous Kolsch selection at Barrel Chest, where they remember you and what you like, with always something new and good to recommend.

I would also include a stop at Roasters Next Door so I could support a local coffee shop that happens to have delicious lavender-pancake flavored lattes.

But now it looks like all of those good things might be on hold and it’s 100% worth it if we can avoid this mess spreading any more than it is.

A Reason to Put Earrings On

I’ve started volunteering with our local Smith Mountain Arts Council (SMAC). A number of our neighbors here at the lake have hidden talents as singers, actors, writers, artists, and photographers, and SMAC is here to give them a place to shine.

Sadly, though, with Covid-19, our usual array of performances have been shuttered this season.

For me, this makes my life a little easier because I am in charge of the press releases for the arts council, and with no shows, I have very little to reveal to the local press. But we keep up our monthly meetings, and these have been switched to Zoom meetings.

Because these meetings take place on Friday mornings, it would be in bad form to morph them into a virtual happy hour (though I see nothing wrong with using a 90-minute meeting to move along a Fellowship-of-the-Ring needlework project). We still have our Zoom happy hours on Friday nights with the family, and that’s still my favorite part of the week.

The kids must love logging in to see this sight

But last night, I got involved in another meeting, this time with a book group! In the pre-Covid times, they met in Roanoke, at a nice coffee shop, but they’ve gone online for the past few months. They’re a Meet-Up group and I signed up a while ago but got to meet them last night. They’re very nice and some of them were even drinking wine. We read and discussed Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, with an hour-long discussion and plans for our next few books (Why Religion? by Elaine Pagels for July and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibrahim X. Kendi for August). We meet once a month, which leaves time for other reading.

And next month, fingers crossed, we are going to meet – properly socially distanced – outside in a Roanoke park!