Monthly Archives: January 2010

In the Woods

I like to walk in the woods in the winter. You don’t have to worry about ticks and chiggers, and it isn’t good for you to sit in the house all day. Sometimes you might come across something scary, like this steer head:

I took this picture near the river by my house, and at first I was a little alarmed. Why would someone hang a steer head on a tree? Was it a warning not to walk there? I was reminded of being a kid, worrying about “No Trespassing” signs, and having to wear blaze orange all the time so that a hunter wouldn’t shoot you.

But Chatham County is very different from King William County. Most people where we live don’t post “No Trespassing” signs; they consider it sort of rude. Our neighbor down the hill wanted to do some target-shooting on his property with his dad and was politely asking everyone who lived near him if that was okay. I said “fine with me,” because I was pretty sure someone else would say no. And they did.

I was glad to find out from a neighbor that the steer head was just an aesthetic experiment–the woman who hung the head from the tree wants the skull. We were even assured, without asking for this detail, that the steer had a good life on an organic farm. 

Here’s another photo of the head, taken with my flash after it had gotten a little darker:

And here it is in the snow:

Today I noticed that it has started to smell.


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Bedside Reading

These are the books I’m reading right now. From the bottom: The End by Salvatore Scibona, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka, The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.

I actually finished The End a while ago, but I keep going back to it because it’s so original and beautifully written. I am particularly enamored of Costanza Marini, one of my favorite characters in a long time.

I’m about halfway through the Raymond Carver (thank you, Sky!), and so far a lot of the narrative has been spent dramatizing something that is more anguished than dramatic: the slow climb to what counts as success to writers but would not be very satisfying to a lot of people. If you want to discourage someone from writerly ambition, this might be a good book to recommend. Then again, so would a lot of writers’ biographies.

The Yasmina Reza is a play my family saw last year for Father’s Day.  My mom and I are working on our own one-act play, inspired by God of Carnage. I won’t say what it’s called, but it is based on our extended family and the set is very simple: an artificial Christmas Tree with an Easter balloon tied to it.

And Lydia Davis, she is like Arnold Lobel for grown-ups. This FSG edition is a good example of why the Kindle or iPad can never really replace real books that you can hold in your hand: the perfect size and weight, the plain, orange-creamsicle cover, the way the book will fall open to a perfect little story, like this:

Getting to Know Your Body

If your eyeballs move, this means that you’re thinking, or about to start thinking.

If you don’t want to be thinking at this particular moment, try to keep your eyeball still.

(Lydia Davis, from Varieties of Disturbance)

I don’t ever feel guilty about buying books. You shouldn’t either.


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Under the House

Loretta, who actually enjoys going under the house

Winter, the season for putting up with things. In the suburbs, people shovel their driveways. In the country, they may be snowed in behind a long dirt driveway for days. Cars seem to break down more often in winter. Pipes freeze. Ice-clad branches break and snap a power line. A dog falls through the surface of a frozen lake and has to be rescued.

Virginia is not known for especially cold winters, but for about eight years my family rented a drafty, 100-year-old log cabin with only a wood stove for heat. My brother and I hauled wood for the stove three or four times a day. My mom fed the stove during the day, and my dad kept it going at night. One winter, when it was really cold, my dad had to pour antifreeze into the toilet in the bathroom next to my room. If you held your hand next to the casement window above my bed, you could feel the outside temperature like a pulse. 

I remember hunkering down with my mom and brother under quilts on the sofa, eating cinnamon toast while my dad crawled under the house with a blowtorch. We had been away at my grandparents’ for Christmas, and we came home to snow and the silent, still cold of a stove-heated house that had been left. (In cold weather, an untended woodstove can make you cry, almost. Except your dad is not crying, he’s under the house unfreezing the pipes.) The stove was finally going, and I think the cold water worked, because my mom had a cast-iron pan and kettles heating on the stove for our baths. We anticipated the freezing-hot sensation of warm water on our cold toes and thought about our dad under the house, where none of us had to go.

Last night, Richard crawled under our house in North Carolina, where it has been unseasonably cold. It’s probably as weird a house as the log cabin—it’s tiny, handbuilt, with lots of cold-emanating windows—and we own it. Little about it is up to code; it was built before this county had a building code. It sits at the top of a long, steep driveway that is the bane of propane dealers and UPS drivers. Bees try to eat holes in it every spring. But we love this house. Richard loves this house, and he grew up in very, very different houses—houses with no leaks or heat problems or drafty windows. He grew up in suburban winters, where the main challenge was shoveling a stubby little cement drive. But he loves our house enough to crawl under it on an 18-degree night looking for a leak in the pipes, which may or may not be causing our low-producing wells to run dry.

He came in from under the house with dirt and leaves and fiberglass stuck to his coat, and he was pretty cheerful about it as we ate supper, talking about what we’d investigate next and whether there was enough water to take a shower. We’ve been in touch with a lot of well guys and plumbers lately; we’re getting to know our neighbors through the typical problems people have around here—hard-to-insure property, driveways that need regrading, rock wells that should be drilled deeper. I’d prefer that everything worked fine (and for it to be about ten degrees warmer), but as I close off our bedroom and make a bed in the loft (it’s warmer up there), and as Richard cuts a hole in the flooring in the shed above our well (don’t ask), I’m reminded how putting up with things is part of every winter I’ve ever spent in the country, and I wouldn’t trade it for a different kind of life.

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Snow on the banks of the Mattaponi River













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