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.

A Bad Day for a Road Trip

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.”

Uh-oh.

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.

Here’s how it looks on the Google Maps page

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.

A beautiful sight

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.

My fellow travelers. That lumber truck hung out with us for awhile but then tried his luck down the road. I don’t know how he could have fit into the parking lot, frankly.

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 in the Mountains

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.

We exchanged thumbs up with the older gentleman driving this classic while clad in a USN flight suit and a Top Gun-looking baseball cap
We ogled an alpaca pack on the drive home

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.

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.

Time Travel: Special Edition!

I wrote yesterday about how I’d compiled a list of history-related reading generously shared from some Facebook friends. Well, that original Facebook post prompted Jim’s uncle, who is an actual history professor, y’all, to suggest a few of his favorites. I thought I’d put his list in its own category:

  • Out of this Furnace (Thomas Bell)
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics (Richard Hofstadter)
  • Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Tony Horowitz)
  • The Strange Career of William Ellis, The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (Karl Jacoby)
  • Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History (Anne Firor Scott)
  • Who Stole the American Dream? (Hedrick Smith)
  • Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self Made Man (Garry Wills)
  • The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Gordon Wood)

We are all going to come out of this pandemic smarter, my friends. Thank you, Uncle Jack!

Time Travel

Because we’re not really traveling right now, except to the couch to open up a book or catch some Netflix, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to travel in time, at least literarily. So I put the question out on Facebook: do you have a favorite history, memoir, or historical fiction. And wow, did people come through!

I tried to catch all of the responses (a few tangential threads developed and some nuggets might have gotten lost in there) and compiled them, below. The books with the asterisks were recommended by multiple people.

Histories and Memoirs

  • All but my Life (Gerda Weisserman Klein)
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Trevor Noah)
  • The Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown)*
  • Climbing the Mango Trees (Madhur Jaffrey)
  • The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (Caroline Alexander)
  • The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue (Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman)
  • Educated (Tara Westover)
  • Founding Mothers (Cokie Roberts)
  • Furiously Happy (Jenny Lawson)
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (John Heilemann, Mark Halperin)
  • Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Colin Dickey)
  • Grant (Chernow) *
  • Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law (Haben Girma)
  • Hamilton (Ron Chernow) *
  • Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st Century Memoir (Madeleine Albright)
  • How the South Won the Civil War (Heather Cox Richardson)
  • In the Garden of Beasts (Erik Larson)
  • The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science (Andrea Wulf)
  • Kent State (Deborah Wiles)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann)
  • Lab Girl (Hope Jahren)
  • Madame Secretary (Madeleine Albright)
  • Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible (David Teems)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
  • The Master Plan: my journey from life in prison to a life of purpose (Chris Wilson)
  • Mindhunter: Inside the FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit (John Douglas)
  • Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (Tim Townsend)
  • No Ordinary Time (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • One Summer: America, 1927 (Bill Bryson) *
  • In Looking (Alexandra Horowitz)
  • Radium Girls (Kate Moore) *
  • The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Men Who Brought Them Down (Colin Woodard)
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey (Candace Millard)
  • Say Nothing (Patrick Radden Keefe)
  • Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)
  • Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (Kristen Green)
  • The Splendid and the Vile (Erik Larson) *
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Anne Fadiman)
  • The Spy and the Traitor (Ben Macintyre)
  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Ibrahim X. Kendi)
  • Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer (Lynne Cox)
  • Team of Rivals (Doris Kearns Goodwin) *
  • Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates (David Cordingly)
  • Up from Slavery (Booker T. Washington) *
  • The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (Donald Morris)
  • Zealot (Reza Aslan – also others of his) *
  • Zeitoun (Dave Eggers)
  • First in His Class (David Maraniss)
  • Hillbilly Elegy (JD Vance)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot) *
  • Isaac’s Storm (Erik Larson)
  • Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit (John Douglas, Mark Olshaker)
  • My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)
  • The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Simon Prebble)

Historical Fiction

  • The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
  • The All Girls Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  • All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
  • Alice (Stacy Cordery)
  • The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)
  • Beneath a Scarlet Sky (Mark Sullivan)*
  • The Book of Lost Friends (Lisa Wingate)
  • The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)*
  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (Kim Michele Richardson)
  • Cloudsplitter (Russell Banks)
  • Code Name Helene (Ariel Lawhon)
  • The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)
  • The Girl with No Name (Diney Costeloe)
  • The Giver of Stars (Jojo Moyes) *
  • The Good Lord Bird (James McBride) *
  • Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab) *
  • Lovely War (Julie Berry)
  • The Maggie Hope Series (Susan Elia MacNeal)
  • The Mirror and the Light (Hilary Mantel)
  • Mrs. Everything (Jennifer Weiner)
  • My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell)
  • My Dear Hamilton (Laura Kaye and Stephanie Dray)
  • Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)*
  • One Thousand White Women (Jim Fergus)
  • Outlander Series (Diana Gabaldon)
  • Pachinko (Min Jin Lee)
  • People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)
  • Refugee (Alan Gratz)
  • Sarah’s Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
  • The Secrets of Mary Bowser (Lois Leveen)
  • The Seeds of America Trilogy (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Shanghai Girls (Lisa See) *
  • Sixties Trilogy (Deborah Wiles)
  • Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See)*
  • The Sound of Things Falling (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)
  • The Stationery Shop (Marjan Kamali)
  • The Weight of Ink (Rachel Kadish)
  • Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)*
  • Year of Wonder (Geraldine Brooks) *

This project was rewarding in a few huge ways. I now have a list of books hearty enough to fill up several vacations, once we get to take them again. And because Jim is a big reader, we actually have some of these already in our possession.

I probably could have given myself a big shortcut on this exercise by just asking him for some book ideas. (He does not disagree with this sentiment.)

But the best gift was getting to peek inside the reading minds of some excellent people and not only be awed by the breadth of their interests but get to see friends from different corners of my life interacting over favorite books. That was a trip in itself!

A Little Warmth on a Cold Day

We got a bit of snow on Thursday morning, just enough to whet the appetite for the BIG, EPIC STORM that we’re supposed to get tonight.

This made for a gorgeous walk. I set out as the sun was coming up, motivated to get some pictures.

Mission accomplished.

That’s the moon setting!

I usually walk with a neighbor on Tuesdays and Thursdays but she declined out of concern for icy roads. I quickly came to appreciate her wisdom because it was a little dicey out there. And really cold. But still seriously pretty, so I kept at it.

Not far from our house, they’re putting up some new houses and as I was gingerly slipping my way down the road, one of the contractors drove by. A big guy in a big pickup. I don’t want to generalize too much, but he looked like a lot of the big guys in big pickups we have around here. We shared a wave and when I got to the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill where they’re building those houses, he was out of the truck and getting ready to start his day’s affairs.

“How you doing?” he called out.

“I’m rethinking my choices,” I said.

“Naw,” he replied, “you’re out here doing it. That’s what’s important.”

“Hey, can you do me a favor?” I asked. “If you see me wipe out and fall on my butt in this ice…” I intended to complete the phrase with a request for him to not laugh too loud because it might hurt my feelings. I was entertaining myself with my own joke when he cut me off mid-sentence.

“I’m gonna come help you up,” he said.

“No, no! I was just going to ask you not to laugh too hard!”

“I won’t,” he said. “But I’m going to help you, too.”

That was so unexpected and darned nice that it puts a smile on my face even after a couple of days. It is great to learn that someone you don’t even know is out there ready to help you up if you need it.

But enough pondering. I’m off to locate a new snow shovel so both Jim and I will be well equipped for that BIG, EPIC SNOW.

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.

Home for the Holidays

We have two kids: one attending a large university and one living in New York City. We are blessed to have them both home with us right now.

The college guy was sent home (along with many contemporaries) right before Thanksgiving, with the understanding that all of those classmates would stay put through the holiday break and into January. With our New Yorker, it’s a little more complicated.

She travels with a cat and she doesn’t care to fly (for which I don’t blame her, because there is one (1) crowded flight per day from NYC to Roanoke). Amtrak won’t let you ride the rails with a pet for more than a seven hour trip, so our system is to have her take the train to DC, where we meet her and drive her back. It’s a long day of driving but half of it is with our girl and her kitten, so it goes quickly and happily.

The New Yorker will be with us into mid-January, too, so now that we’re all here we are solidly hunkering down.

We generally spend Christmas in Massachusetts, visiting with Jim’s family. This year, like so many other people, we decided that it was safer to keep everyone here and I’ll be honest, after the long year it’s been, I appreciate foregoing the two-day drive and the coordination necessary in a family visit. Jim’s sister and her partner are up there, visiting from Texas (after negative covid tests!) with their ancient cat and a dog whose medical complications require a diaper. Our youngest is allergic to dogs. It would not have been a harmonious time.

My in-laws got me a mug with all of the places I like to visit in their town when there isn’t a pandemic!

So the point of all of that is to say that we are gratefully having a quiet holiday and this year, I’ll take it! A friend wrote on a holiday card that they hope we can find some magic this year for the holidays, but I’ll set the bar down a little lower and send you a wish that there is simply a reason for you to smile and hope.