As you may know, even though my book has been out for almost a year, I haven’t really been able to do book signings due to Covid. But next week my mom is flying east for a wedding, and she and I are doing a mini book tour in Lancaster PA and Harrisonburg VA.
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
10 am to noon
Goods Store, 1338 Main St, East Earl, PA
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Rotary Pavilion, East Lampeter Township Community Park
2330 Hobson Road, Lancaster, PA
Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021
10 am to noon
Shenandoah Heritage Market
121 Carpenter Lane, Harrisonburg, VA
Feel free to stop by, bring books you already own for me to sign, whatever! The PA events will be outside. If you’d like us to wear a mask for your sake, just ask!
Frankly, I’ve never really enjoyed cooking. I’ve always secretly hoped that I’d marry someone who loved to cook and never have to bother.
Well, we all know how that worked out for me.
Here are some things I’ve noticed about people who love cooking, as well as some theories about why I’ve never taken to it:
People who love cooking often also love eating. I enjoy good food but mostly see eating as kind-of a bother that takes a lot of time and often doesn’t agree with me.
People who love cooking often take one recipe and make it multiple times until they can make it just so. I get bored of this and always try to tackle fancy new recipes.
People who love cooking understand the craft so well they don’t get lost if the recipe leaves out a step. I always get lost. I also have a hard time holding numbers in my head, so I’m constantly checking and re-checking to see if it’s two or three tsp. Or was it Tbsp?
People who love cooking can whip things up, things like stir-fry or pasta sauce, without a recipe. I’m too scared to try. What if everyone hates what I made for them?
So you see, there are plenty of perfectly good reasons why I’m not great at cooking. But cooking is kinda like, I don’t know, driving. An essential skill, which you pretty much have to learn unless you have lots of money or a Very Devoted Spouse.
Neither of which I currently possess.
For a while I’ve been wanting to have a growth mindset about cooking. Even before I left Oregon I was learning how to solicit feedback from my family without feeling insecure, improvise based on what we had on hand, and ask people-who-love-cooking for their advice.
However, moving really provided the ideal scenario for some good old-fashioned cooking practice.
First of all, being alone in the kitchen is everything. Sorry, family whom I dearly love. I enjoy an occasional Sunday morning you-make-the-salad-and-I’ll-make-the-pie situation, but. Trying to get food on the table by 6pm while someone is talking loudly on the phone in the next room, someone else is walking through with their laundry, someone is leaving before supper so they’re just gonna make themselves a quick sandwich sorry if I’m in your way, and someone else wants to ask you about your day while you’re trying to remember if it’s 3 tsp or 4 Tbsp, is nightmarish and I hate it and I’m sorry but that’s the facts.
Besides mostly being alone in the kitchen, I’m also cooking mostly for myself, on mostly limited ingredients. So I’ve very quickly been picking up on the dump-things-into-a-pan-and-call-it-cooking method that’s seemed so magical and elusive when other cooks do it. It’s easier to innovate when you don’t have a lot in the fridge to begin with, and so much less pressure when no one is eating it but you.
I should add, though, that I do cook for Jenny sometimes. Particularly on Monday and Tuesday nights when she works until 9pm and is starvingly hungry by the time she gets home. And I must say that there is great satisfaction in feeding a Very Hungry Person.
Anyway. Since I don’t have much of a social life in Blacksburg yet, I’ve been using my extra time to read books. I live so close to the library I feel like I won the jackpot. So besides silly books and fun books I’m learning all the ins and outs of self-publishing, starting a small business, and now, cooking.
I really just checked out one book on cooking, and you’ve probably already heard of it because it’s rather famous. It’s called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, by Samin Nosrat. I became fascinated by the idea of this book several years ago when I heard Nosrat on NPR talking about how she randomly learned to cook by begging to bus tables at a fancy restaurant and then begging the cooks to teach her, and about how there are all these women around the world who have spent countless hours cooking, becoming these unrecognized experts. She was super interesting.
I don’t have Netflix though, so I haven’t seen her cooking show. And I couldn’t really afford the book. But now here I am, with a library next door, so here I go! I’m gonna learn.
The basic premise of Salt Fat Acid Heat is that, instead of just blindly following recipes, you can teach yourself the basic chemistry of what makes food taste good. So if you have a pork chop, some potatoes, and a few random veggies on hand, you don’t have to try and find a recipe that tells you exactly how to cook them. If you know the correct ways to apply salt, fat, acid, and heat to those types of food, you can come up with several delicious ways to cook them, no recipes needed.
Or if you find a recipe, you can adjust it to fit your exact ingredients, and you can use your own skills and taste buds to ensure it comes out delicious even if it means deviating from the recipe.
I haven’t finished the book yet. I’m still in the “fat” section. But did I use the book to make my own mayo the other day, so that was cool. Much more delicious than store-bought mayo, I would say.
Then on Wednesday I was at the farmer’s market when I saw a strange vegetable that looked like a snozzcumber from The BFG. “What is this?” I asked the lady behind the counter.
“It’s a bitter melon,” she said.
“How do you cook it?” I asked.
So she started explaining the various ways you can cook it, including the Chinese way (she was Chinese), and I whipped out a notebook and started writing down her directions.
I mean, look. The problem with me is that I still get bored with cooking and if someone is selling snozzcumbers and telling me the authentic Chinese way to cook them, you better believe I’m gonna try it.
So today I cooked the bitter melon the Chinese way, and then I realized that I had to taste the food before serving it because Salt Fat Acid Heat told me too. Over and over again.
I took one bite and started laughing. “You’re not gonna like this, Jenny.”
“Really?” said Jenny.
“Yep. It’s bitter.”
Jenny took a bite and made a face. “Yeah, I think I’m just gonna have the pork.”
I’ll confess though, I ate the bitter melon. Because first of all, food is food. And second of all, I get kind-of fascinated sometimes by weird food even if it’s kinda gross. Part of me wonders if I just cooked it wrong, but part of me is like, I mean, it’s literally called “bitter melon.” So, like, no one should be surprised that it’s…bitter.
Now I just need to learn how to make frobscottle I guess.
Anyway, if you enjoy cooking, please tell me your advice. Especially if you’re someone who used to not enjoy it, but learned how.
When I got the notice that my library books were due in three days, I started reading them extra-ardently. Then I ran out of books to read. I was going to walk down to the library, but then Jenny’s friend Tatiane came over and we walked to Gucci Kroger instead.
I’ll just go tomorrow, I said to myself. The library is extremely close.
Not quite as close, though, as the church I went to the next day. Jenny went to Sunday School at the little nearby church she’d decided to check out the previous week, and I debated about whether or not I wanted to go to church at all. (Finding a church has been an ongoing struggle for me, which I wrote in detail about over on Patreon.)
But then I decided to just go, whatever. I walked over and everyone was extremely friendly.
One of the weirdest things about Blacksburg is that it feels like the town only exists to be a college town. At least from my vantage point, living so near campus and constantly surrounded by students.
No one seems to realize that I’m 31. Everyone here mistakes me for a student. Sometimes I wish I were a student, just so I could say, “I’m a student,” and not have to explain what I’m doing here.
I slipped in near the back of church and saw Jenny up front with the other college students. Afterwards I joined her and she introduced me to her pals. “So, how are you liking Blacksburg?” one of them asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. “Well…not as much as Jenny is,” I said.
“It grows on you,” she said. “Like a fungus. I hated my first year here but now I love it.”
Everyone gathered outside to eat, and I sat with Jenny at the college student table. I felt a bit out of place as they discussed dorms, teachers, and welcome week, but they were nice. Everyone at that church was friendly, old and young alike, and several expressed interest in my book so I guess I have to go back at least one more time.
Later, at home with the hot afternoon wind filling the apartment with humid air, I put my almost-due books into my backpack and headed for the library.
It looked pretty closed. Were they closed on Sundays? I looked at the times: open 1pm-5pm Sunday. It was 2pm. So what…
“The library is closed on Sunday,” said a man sitting on a bench to my left.
“Really?” I asked. And then I saw it… “closed on Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”
I headed to the book drop slot, and as I returned my books I made a little dejected comment about having no more books to read.
The man on the bench, whose name ended up being “Bruce,” told me that I should just borrow some e-books. “I have the Libby app,” he said. “I’m legally blind, so I can’t read normal books anyway. With an e-book I can read it on my phone and make the words bigger.”
That’s how I ended up in a conversation with Bruce. He’d come to Blacksburg two years previously, he said, because the Holy Spirit told him to come here.
“Where do you go to church?” I asked.
He listed several he went to, and when I explained to him that I was still figuring out where I wanted to go, he recommended one to me. But I’m pretty sure he, too, assumed I was a college student, because when I looked it up later I saw that the service he’d recommended was the collegiate service. He also told me I should get involved with Cru.
Anyway. I told him I was jealous that the Holy Spirit told him exactly where to live. And he said, “just pray about it!” which I guess is good advice.
But it does feel, sometimes, like the Holy Spirit doesn’t always give super-specific directions. Or He’ll give super-specific directions in one area, but not others. Like, I’m very confident that I’m supposed to be a writer, and that I’m not supposed to be a traditional missionary like I intended when I first started college. At least, not right now.
But as to where I’m supposed to live? That remains unclear. Obviously I’m living in Blacksburg for at least a year, but I currently don’t feel any sort of perminance or sense of belonging.
I like to think I can fit in anywhere, but this first month in Blacksburg has been a struggle. I’ve never lived in a place where I was so expected to be something I am clearly not. And it’s hard to know, in that context, where I fit in.
I just realized I intended to focus this post on abundance, and instead went off about fitting in. Oops. Let’s get back to abundance.
So, I didn’t have a book to read that night. And not having a book to read is a very weird feeling. At home in Oregon I always have unread books on my bookshelf. If I don’t feel like reading any of them, I mine the bookshelves in the upstairs hallway, or Mom’s bookshelf in the office, or Amy’s bookshelf, or Jenny’s, or the piles of books on the coffee table in the living room.
Having an abundance of books is something I never thought about much until I didn’t have it anymore.
Right now our home is sparsly furnished. In my room I have an armoire that the previous tenants left behind, and a bed. That’s all.
I don’t mind the lack of a desk as much as you’d think. In college my desk was a little rolltop and my open laptop didn’t quite fit inside, so I did almost everything from my bed. A bad habit, probably, that’s supposed to make insomnia even worse, but nevertheless I’ve gone back to it.
But in college I had two tools I don’t have now: a nightstand, and a tray.
Now, every day my bed becomes littered with multiple books, notebooks, pens, my planner, and my laptop. Then I grab some tea and, where am I supposed to set it? If you set a mug on your bed it will tip over. So I put it on a notebook which is still precarious and will potentially leave rings or tip over and ruin it. Or I grab the lid from the big plastic bin where I store my skirts since I don’t have skirt hangers yet. (The bin also doubles as a laundry basket. We are very innovative over here.)
Come bedtime, it’s all just kind-of a mess.
What in the house can I use to solve my problems? I think over the options. We only have one little tray, and it’s mesh, so spilled tea would go straight through. Also we’re using it as a dish drainer.
And we really have nothing that can be used as a nightstand. My plastic tote already serves three functions and needs to be constantly moved around, opened, and closed. We have one metal rack in the kitchen, but if we move it we’ll have nowhere to put the microwave, not to mention the blender, crock pot, and toaster. And if we did have an extra metal rack it would go in the hall closet, which is a mess.
So I’m left with the options of shopping, keeping an eye on the dumpster, or doing without. Which is not what I’m used to. I’m used to abundance. In Oregon, if I needed a nightstand I would have so many options. I could fashion one from a crate I found on the porch, or go out to the playhouse and rescue the little set of shelves that used to hold towels above the toilet. I could dig into Mom’s abundant stash of trays. With enough creativity, I can find everything I need lying around the house somewhere. No need to make purchases.
I find it so interesting how the way one grows up affects how one views “stuff.” Mom and Aunt Margaret grew up in a family that was poor but super creative, and they both learned how to get everything one needed either free or cheap. This trait was also passed along to me. If I find a suit jacket lying in the middle of the street, I will rescue it and make something useful out of it. No shame.
However, they also grew up in a home where their needs were not always met. In consequence, they gather stuff around them, hanging on to things they may need in the future. In this way they have enough to not only meet their own needs, but meet other people’s needs as well.
I, on the other hand, grew up in a home where my needs were always met. Too much stuff stresses me out, so I try to keep as few things around as possible. I like to travel with only a backpack, and move across the country with only my little Toyota, leaving enough space to still see out the back window.
It works for me, because I always assume that the world is full of abundance. Someone will leave what I need in the dumpster, or I’ll find it cheap at a garage sale, and I can survive without a nightstand until I find one for free on the Facebook buy nothing page. But I only think this way because my needs have always been met.
Even moving here, we didn’t have much, and it was Aunt Margaret’s abundance that saved the day.
Spending money has always been a struggle for me, although I have gotten better in this area. I work hard to avoid being stingy if anyone besides myself is affected, but when it’s just me, figuring out how to do without is a fun adventure. But sometimes it leads to slightly ridiculous situations.
For instance: Last September, I was camping with my siblings in southern Oregon, and as I camped I began to wish that I could work in beautiful places like this. But I wasn’t about to drag a heavy fragile laptop up a mountain with me. Besides, my laptop battery only lasts a few hours. And it’s extremely hard to see the screen in bright daylight. You have to turn your brightness up 100% and squint, and that drains your battery even faster.
So I googled for a solution, and that’s how I found out about the AlphaSmart. It was perfect–basically a keyboard with the sort of screen you typically find on calculators. It was lightweight, sturdy, had batteries that lasted for months and maybe years, and you could use it in bright daylight.
I knew that I wanted to buy it. I wrote “buy an AlphaSmart” on my to-do list for October. But it was August before I bought one. Yep–I waited almost a year. I don’t know why. It’s silly. If I feel like I can do without something I have a really hard time actually buying it, even if I want it.
The AlphaSmart showed up just in time, though, because my computer cord finally gave up the ghost. It had been sketchy for a while, but I’d always been able to make it work. But last Thursday I thought, “you know, I really should get a new cord before I end up in a sticky situation.” So I bought one, and then the old cord promptly died for good.
Amazon takes forever to ship to Blacksburg for some reason. (I just think of the poor overworked Amazon drivers pooping in plastic bags and try not to mind the delays.) But in the meantime I’ve been writing on the AlphaSmart. Friday I wrote a Patreon post (the one about church), and then Jenny let me borrow her laptop to transfer and post it. I also at times used the library computers to transfer stuff to my Google Drive.
There’s an area near campus where the street is closed off, and they’ve set up picnic tables and tents. It’s quite nice, kind-of like a town square. I went there to write on Monday, and as I was composing this blog post, pontificating about abundance, a guy stopped and looked at me with delighted recognition.
Do I know him? I thought. Maybe he’s friends with Jenny?
Then he said, “Is that an AlphaSmart?!”
“Yes!” I said.
He’d had an AlphaSmart when he was a kid, he said, and hadn’t thought about it in years. So I told him that they’re becoming popular with writers. He asked what I was writing. I said, a blog post about moving to Blacksburg. “No way!” he said. “I also just moved here!”
I asked his name, and he said something that sounded like “Zhan Flip.” I repeated, questioning, feeling like I’d missed something. “It’s French, I’m from Quebec,” he said.
“Oh cool, I’m also Canadian,” I said. “But I don’t know French.” (As if that wasn’t obvious.)(His name, for the record, was actually Jean-Philippe.)
I asked if he’s a student, and he tried to explain his situation. He’d graduated a while back and now worked remotely. But his brother was going to Virginia Tech. So he thought he might as well come live with his brother in Blacksburg.
I. Kid. You. Not. “No way!” I said. “Me too! My sister’s a student and I work as a writer so I moved here too!”
Of course after that series of remarkable similarities we were instantly friends. He set his laptop down and we just sat there and worked for a while. Like we were co-workers. It was very nice.
I think, after all, that the mushroom girl was right. Blacksburg is growing on me, like a fungus.
As I recounted last week, Jenny and I arrived in Blacksburg on Saturday, August 7, and our Aunt Margaret was here to help us settle in. We were caught in a flurry of activity–buying furniture, cleaning, putting things in the correct cupboards, and trying to figure out why the hot water wouldn’t work. When Margaret left late Sunday morning, Jenny and I were too worn out to do much of anything, frankly.
Still, the “to do” list was growing. There was a leak under the sink. The check engine light came on in my car. The laundry was piling up. And we were basically out of food, subsisting on pepperoni, Oreos, grapes, and corn.
Because of this I barely had any breakfast Monday morning before heading to Walmart for groceries. And you know how miserable shopping for groceries while hungry is. I found most of the things on the list, but there were a few things, like vinegar, that I couldn’t find anywhere. We wanted vinegar, not just for cooking, but also for pre-soaking laundry. Our couch cushions smelled a little funny, so I planned to soak the covers in vinegar and wash them.
But I couldn’t find vinegar, and I was hungry and grumpy and couldn’t find anyone helpful. So I just said “whatever” and checked out.
I put all the groceries in the trunk, then returned my cart, and then…I was going to get in my car, but where were my keys?
I also am extremely paranoid now, and triple check my keys before I lock my car.
My trunk, though, is another story. I guess I wasn’t paranoid enough yet. Because after scrutinizing my purse, my cart, and the keyhole on my trunk, I concluded that my keys were locked inside, with the groceries.
I called Jenny. “Um, I am so sorry, but I need you to get my spare key and figure out the bus system.”
Poor Jenny had never ridden the bus before. Also it would be about an hour before she’d get here, because I was actually in the next town over. Meanwhile, I was so hungry it wasn’t funny. I went inside again and bought some obscenely sweet dairy-free cherry turnovers, and scarfed down half of them.
Also bought a book for Jenny. Because I felt bad.
And then after a while I was thirsty, so I went through the line a third time to buy a case of sparkling water. Also a large jug of vinegar, because I finally found it when I was looking for sparkling water.
So my arms were quite full when Jenny showed up. She’d navigated the bus system beautifully, but was quite hungry, and maybe annoyed at me. But I gave her the rest of the cherry turnovers and the book, and she forgave me.
When I got home I wanted nothing more than a nap, but I had a mechanic appointment.
That, not gonna lie, was a bit of a bummer. My car needed a not-cheap repair. I’d had to replace the battery before I left Oregon, and was starting to feel like my car was crumbling beneath me.
That wasn’t going to be done until 5:30 or so, so I had the bright idea to walk to Starbucks while I wanted. Um. Maybe not the brightest idea when you’re in an area of town that has no sidewalks. Oh well. Walked through the yards of a bunch of random business. I hope they don’t mind.
Anyway. When I finally got home it had already been Quite. The. Day. But then I had a brilliant idea. I’d had to tell the mechanics my address, and it was printed on my bill. Could I use that to get a library card?
I walked down to the library, and guess what! It did work!
And not only did I check out a large stack of books, but I also checked out a hotspot. Yes, the Blacksburg library has hotspots that you can borrow for two weeks at a time. Which has proved fantastic, because our WiFi is still not set up.
Over the next few days Jenny and I had a few domestic issues to deal with: The last of the cleaning, the maintenance man showing up to fix the leak under the sink, learning to deal with the fact that it takes FOREVER for the hot water to show up and we might as well just wash our dishes with cold, and finally, dealing with the laundry. And our couch.
There are some coin-operated washers and dryers in the basement of the next building, as well as a clothesline out back. Of course I wanted to make use of the clothesline and save money, but that was a bit tricky, as there have been random rain showers nearly every day.
The summer rain has been kinda hard to get used to, actually, but it keeps things green in August, as well as decreasing fire danger and keeping the air smoke-free.
Wouldn’t want to get married here, though.
Anyway. Everything went well with the laundry until it came time to wash the couch cushion covers.
I may have said this before but I’ll say it again–the covers were a bit pilly, and the whole thing smelled faintly, but I thought we could just run it through the wash, maybe give the pilly parts a shave, and we’d be good to go. And we always had the option of re-covering the whole thing in the future.
To get rid of the smell, I soaked the covers in vinegar water overnight, along with the smelly rags from our apartment cleaning venture.
Now, as soon as I took the covers off the cushions, I knew where the smell had come from. The previous owners had a dog. A dog with an abundance of thick black hairs. A dog who had apparently loved this couch.
The foam beneath the covers was coated with this hair.
At first I didn’t think it was a big deal. We’d just buy some lint rollers. Maybe run the vacuum cleaner over it. It would be fine.
So I washed the covers, and it made a terrible mess. Dog hair coated the washer. Dog hair coated the rags I’d washed with the covers. Lint from the rags, meanwhile, now coated the emerald green couch cushion covers. And the pilling was twice as bad as before.
I dealt with this issue the best I could, wiping out the washer with a paper towel and giving everything a good shake before and after I hung it on the line. Then I went upstairs and tried to tackle the cushions themselves. But when I ran the vacuum cleaner over them, it barely made a dent.
We went to dollar tree that evening to buy lint rollers, but they were all sold out. The whole town is alive with College Students Moving In right now, and sometimes it’s hard to get what you need. So we went home and used masking tape and one lint roller that Jenny happened to have.
But honestly, it didn’t help much. Because the hairs weren’t on the foam, they were in the foam. Sprouting out like it was skin. So we grabbed our tweezers, and we plucked.
I mean, it was a process: Pick a section of cushion to work on. Stick masking tape on it to get the loosest hairs. Wrap some tape around your finger and pick out the more firmly-lodged hairs. Then grab your tweezers for the most egregiously embedded.
Our lives were rather lonely that first week, but Sunday we were going to see actual people. First we were off to church where we met some of our cousin Keith’s friends, from when he used to live in Blacksburg. In the late afternoon I was going to go meet a friend in Roanoke, and then some of Mom’s friends texted us, wanting to swing by early Sunday evening. Well, I wasn’t going to be here, at least for a bit. But Jenny thought she was up for some hosting.
Hosting, however, meant that we need a usable couch.
So as soon as we got home from church we went into overdrive. Pick the hairs. Shave the pills off the cushion covers. Pick more hairs. Shave more cushion covers. Shove the cushions back into the covers. Sniff them.
Well, the dog smell disappeared at least, though we both knew good and well there were more hairs lurking deep within. It felt impossible to get everything. We’d settled for a decent 80%.
This week felt a bit like settling into a new normal. With most of the disasters taken care of, I’ve been able to focus more on my writing. For a while I just went to Starbucks as usual, because hello free refills. Also the familiarity of the space is comforting to me. But on Monday I discovered a random coffee shop with truly excellent and remarkably inexpensive tea. Today I discovered that they also give a free refill if you order your tea in a house mug. So win-win-win.
I mean, it does have its quirks. Today I sat down at a table, and there was a bit of water on it but oh well, I just grabbed a napkin and wiped it up.
Then, “plop!” a large raindrop plunked down in front of me, splattering across the table. Only I was indoors. Huh?
I looked up, squinting at the pipes in the exposed ceiling above me. “Is the pipe leaking again?” asked the tired-sounding barista.
That seemed the only explanation, so I moved to a different table.
It’s an odd place, but full of interesting people. The first day I came to this coffee shop a man walked up and gave the barista a plant. Not flowers, a whole plant. Which I know sounds like a flirtatious gesture, and perhaps he intended it to be, but his voice was so matter-of-fact you’d have thought he was passing on an informational brochure.
It’s also near campus, so one day I decided to go to the campus bookstore and shop for notebooks. The Oregon State University bookstore seriously has the best notebook selection I’ve ever found, so I figured the Virginia Tech bookstore would be the same way.
As I was crossing a parking lot I thought, “wait, is that a camel-colored skirt I see?” I came closer. There was Jenny, wearing the skirt she made out of Austin’s pants, walking toward me with a friend.
“Oh, hey!” “Wow!” “Didn’t expect to see you here!” “Where are you headed?” “The bookstore.” “Oh, you don’t want to go there. We just came from there. It’s a madhouse.”
The friend was Tatiane who I’d heard about, as she’s another first-year math grad student who lives near us. Jenny and Tatiane have been doing orientation meetings all this week and often walk to campus together.
So we all headed home together. On main street, as we waited for the red hand to turn into a white little man, a blonde woman behind me said “excuse me, have we met?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, because I feel like I haven’t met anyone. Then I remembered her. “Oh, yes! I showed you where the laundry room was!”
It was Mave. She lives below us. And she’s apparently a first-year grad student too, studying philosophy.
So we all walked home together, chattering about our lives and where we were from. It was nice. Probably the first time I felt like I sort-of fit in here. It’s really weird, though, being in the midst of this back-to-university flurry but not going back to university.
In other news, we found the farmer’s market and Aldi, so we probably won’t be going back to Walmart for groceries. Also, there’s a Kroger just down the street. “This one is called the Gucci Kroger, and there’s another Kroger in town called the Ghetto Kroger,” Jenny informed me.
Jenny has a math cohort that tells her how things are in Blacksburg.
Anyway, that’s our settling-in life so far.
And after the ordeal we just went through, I don’t think we’ll be getting a dog any time soon, maybe ever.
Yesterday I wrote part 2 of our trip, ending with the Bed and Breakfast in Huntington, West Virginia, on Friday night. We woke up early Saturday morning and left before our hosts even got up. Turns out, 6 AM in West Virginia is darker than 6 AM in Oregon and Colorado. We’d had many early starts, but this was the first time it was truly still night.
But we had a four hour drive ahead of us, and we were anxious to get there while it still felt like morning.
We’d set our Google Maps route to “avoid tolls,” which probably also contributed to our whole journey being extra-long. I’m very much a toll avoider, partly because I don’t like spending money, and partly because I’m just not used to them. Oregon doesn’t have toll roads. Or if it does, they’re not anywhere I’ve driven.
Although to be honest, I5 is getting so overcrowded these days I can kind-of see why toll roads are a thing.
The point is, we drove some random roads through West Virginia.
I never knew much about West Virginia until I lived in Virginia briefly ten or so years ago, and everyone told West Virginia jokes. “Isn’t West Virginia basically like Virginia?” I asked. I’d always thought of them as like, you know, North Dakota and South Dakota. Basically the same place.
“Oh no,” I was informed by the shocked youth group. Apparently there was a whole history here. Different sides of the Civil War and everything.
Based on what they told me and various things I’ve read since, I’ve learned that West Virginia is known as a strange place. But I’ve never really seen that strangeness. I’ve driven through corners of it, but never through the heart of it.
Never, that is, until this trip.
Jenny was driving and I was navigating. We were on US-60, but then had to cross a bridge and get on WV-61. That, I would say, is when the bulk of the weird started.
To begin with, there was that bridge.
As we approached it we saw road construction signs, orange cones, and a “one lane bridge ahead” sign. We turned right onto the bridge, and it was indeed one lane. The other lane was blocked off with orange cones and held random bridge-repairing equipment.
But there was no flagger of any kind.
That was weird, I thought. Did we approach the bridge from a weird angle? Well, surely the flagger at the other end will see us?
And then suddenly there was a line of cars coming right at us.
It was like a bad, bizarre dream.
But what can you do? Jenny just pulled onto the other side of the bridge. The blocked-off side. There was just enough room to slip between the cones, and thankfully there was no equipment right there. The line of cars passed us, and we continued on.
There was no flagger at the other end of the bridge either.
It was so bizarre. I have never ever in my life seen anything like it. Why would you have a one-lane bridge with no flagger?
I mean, with some bridges it wouldn’t be a big deal, because you could look across first and see if anyone was coming. But this bridge was not that way. Both 60 and 61 ran parallel to the river, and there were so many hills and weird corners there was no way to see if anyone was coming before you started across it.
I guess the road construction guys were just like, “oh well, we’ll just leave some space between the cones so that someone can pull over if they need to?”
Maybe that’s how they do it in West Virginia?
After all, once when the road got bad there was a yellow “rough road” sign with a suggested speed of 35 mph. So maybe the type of place that would put up a sign instead of fixing the road would also make a one-lane bridge without a flagger and expect folks to just figure it out?
Anyway. To be honest, WV-61 was probably the weirdest thing we saw on our whole trip. It wound up and down and back and forth through thick forest.
“You know, it’s actually quite pretty here,” I said.
“Yeah, pretty…sketchy,” said Jenny.
There was a double-wide trailer house with several feet of space between the two halves. Random structures made of pallets. Abandoned gas station pavilions, just there, like an umbrella for nothing. Sometimes covered in kudzu. Lots of old RVs. The sketchiest houses I’d ever seen. A sign commemorating someone who’d apparently founded grandparent’s day. I only saw one person–a man who stepped briefly onto his porch when we passed by. So often I didn’t know if the area was abandoned, or if people actually lived in these half-condemned houses.
Also. I didn’t see any Trump signs.
That seemed really weird to me, honestly. Even nine months after the election, Trump signs littered the Midwest as we drove through. But we got to West Virginia, and we didn’t see a single Trump sign in the whole state. Was it a random fluke? Or are West Virginians just not as into Trump as mid-westerners are? No clue.
Eventually we got back on a main highway again, and crossing the state line into Virginia. And then around 10 am we pulled into Blacksburg, and into the parking lot of our new home!
Now I must admit that when I stepped into the apartment I was a bit disappointed. The place, first of all, was dingier than I expected. For some reason I’d thought the floors were real hardwood, but they were the fake kind you get at Home Depot and click together. Everything looked like it had been painted over too many times.
However, the main thing that crushed my soul in those first few moments was the musty, moldy smell.
Now, Jenny barely noticed a smell and it didn’t bother her. So maybe it wasn’t a big deal, but I’ll admit that I’m a bit sensitive about smells. They don’t give me headaches or anything, but I can hardly stand to be in a room with a bad smell. The idea of living in a bad-smelling apartment for a year suddenly seemed overwhelming. And I have a secret fear of living someplace that makes me sick. (I have no evidence that mold makes me sick, just fear, LOL.)
We hauled all our stuff in and made piles in the middle of our respective bedrooms. Then I drove to Walmart for cleaning supplies, and Jenny started sorting through her stuff. The previous tenant had left us an armoire, a dresser, a tall lamp, and a small metal rack, but beyond that the house was unfurnished.
But then, just as we’d started cleaning with our new set of supplies, Aunt Margaret arrived to save the day.
My Aunt Margaret lives several hours south of Blacksburg, and she’d offered to help us move in. She is also, in true Yoder fashion, a Rescuer of Abandoned Things, and she somehow owns extras of just about anything you could ever possibly need. She showed up with a mattress and box spring, bedding, towels, washcloths, rags, kitchenware of all sorts and descriptions, blender, toaster, crock pot, curtains, décor, canned food, frozen food, tubs of butter because butter was on sale, shower curtains, shower mats, etc.
Also, a pot of chili, which was fantastic. We were so hungry. We sat on the floor and ate off an overturned box.
“You know, we’d better get going if we want to hit up some garage sales,” said Aunt Margaret.
So we hauled everything in from her minivan, which was probably at least three times the amount of stuff we’d brought ourselves. (I was especially grateful for the mattress…I could live without lots of things but had no desire to sleep on the hard floor if I could help it.) And then we went garage sailing.
We found a few things we needed, like a coffee maker for Jenny, some baskets, some hangers, a toothbrush holder, and a soap dish. But we were really angling for some furniture. We reasoned that today was our best chance to buy it, because we had a van to haul it in. But all the garage sale furniture had already been snatched up, in seemed.
So we went to Habitat for Humanity, and I have never in my life bought so many things at once. We purchased:
A small dining room table
A desk for Jenny’s room
A bedframe for my bed
A twin mattress for Jenny
A bedframe for Jenny’s bed
An area rug
A small couch
It was our lucky day, because everything except the rug was 20% off. All together the whole load cost us less than $400.
Then came the exciting task of getting everything into the minivan. There was a whole crew of employees trying to accomplish this feat.
And in the end they accomplished the deed! Just barely, but it all fit in.
We went back to our new home, and now we had another giant load of stuff to haul upstairs. This was tricky, as the stairs are narrow and cramped. We didn’t think we could possibly fit, say, a full-sized couch up them. But we managed with the smaller furniture we’d chosen.
We spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning. First we scrubbed our bedrooms from top to bottom and set up the beds. Then we took a break, heading to Wendy’s for supper, before coming home and scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen.
That was enough for one day. Aunt Margaret rolled out an air mattress she’d brought, and we all went to bed.
The next morning we mostly just went through everything she’d brought, deciding what we needed and what we didn’t need. I cleaned out the hall closet so I could store the extra bedding, toolbox, and ironing board in there. Aunt Margaret also went around putting pretty little homey touches here and there. She bought a quilted tablecloth at a garage sale, and she put it on the table with fresh flowers in a blue canning jar she’d saved from Grandma’s house.
That’s when it started to look like an actual home.
Best of all, the smell was slowly dissipating. Opening the windows, keeping the air flowing, and giving everything a good scrub seemed to have mostly fixed the issue.
Then it was time for Aunt Margaret to go. We thanked her and hugged her and out the door she went, taking her furniture-hauling minivan with her.
And here we were, in our new home.
In the end, we saw 6 dead deer, so Jenny’s guess of 7 was closer than my guess of 3. We also saw 2 dead watermelons and 3 dead raccoons. We found most of the states too–all but six: Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Dakota, and Massachusetts all eluded us.
Our list of weird things was long, but we still rank the poop-pumping Starbucks in the grocery store where everyone knew each other as the weirdest. Although if the whole state of West Virginia counts as a singular weird thing it was by far the weirdest.
That is the end of our story of moving from Oregon to Virginia. Next week I’ll plan to write a follow-up post, all about settling in to a new place.
At the end of Part 1 of our journey for Oregon to Virginia, Jenny and I had just arrived in Canon City, Colorado. I used to live in Canon City, if you can remember back that far. I lived next door to the Knepp family, distant relatives and old family friends, and of course that’s who we originally intended to stay with when we arrived.
However, the Knepps then had to deal with an unexpected life complication, so I told them I’d find other lodging. I then reached out to my friend Sherri, who I’d met in Alaska exactly two years ago and who is also from Canon City. “Can we stay with you?” Only, she wasn’t going to be in town that night, but she said we could stay with her parents. I barely knew Sherri’s parents, but Jenny and I went to bed so early and got up so early there was no time to socialize anyway.
Thursday morning, our first stop was the mechanic shop. Dallas Knepp had agreed to screw the muffler back on for us, so I guess we did see one familiar face before we left. Then we pulled out of town around 6:30 AM, determined that today we were going to make good time.
With no more mountains to cross, we did make slightly better time. Mileage wise it was our longest day yet, but we managed to do it in thirteen hours. That was an hour longer than the Google maps estimate, but hey, previously we’d been adding two hours every day. So it felt like improvement.
This time, Jenny planned out exactly which gas stations we’d stop at. When we started getting hungry, She noticed a Subway next to the gas station she’d added to our route, and we ordered ahead so we could just pick it up.
Now, I should mention that my car does have a small oil leak, so we’d periodically check the oil and make sure it was doing okay. This time when we checked, it was much lower than we expected it to be. We had to run inside and buy more oil, and after that I was super paranoid about the oil, checking it almost every time we stopped. So that did add some time. But it never really became an issue. I think it just used more oil going through the Colorado mountain passes?
We continued to add to our list of weird things. At one rest area, all the trash cans had legs, making them look rather like R2D2. We saw a house that looked like it belonged in a Candy Land game, painted like neapolitan ice cream, with gables and fancy candy-like trim.
We were well into Kansas by now. “You know what I didn’t anticipate about Kansas?” Jenny asked.
“What?” I said.
“I didn’t realize there was so much, ‘woohoo, Jesus!!! No abortions!!'”
Indeed, there were a great deal of pro-Jesus and anti-abortion signs and billboards. There was a popular “Jesus I trust in you!” poster we saw over and over bopped in various fields. The weirdest of all was this bizarre painting of a very white Jesus standing with some wheat. Later I googled it and found out it’s the most famous billboard in Kansas.
Our second gas stop of the day was in town, which is not my favorite. Google maps does great on Interstates and highways, but in town it always seems a bit behind, and I often get turned around and mixed up. You know. Too many times when you can accidentally turn right instead of veering right.
Jenny was driving and I was navigating, although the Voice of Google Maps was also talking to us through the speakers. He re-routed us around the block after we turned right instead of veering right.
“By the way, I farted, sorry,” said Jenny.
“Oh, I can smell it,” I said, hastily rolling down the window.
“AT THE NEXT STOP LIGHT, TURN LEFT ONTO 6TH AVENUE,” yelled Google.
“I’m going to close the window cause I don’t want everyone to know that we don’t know where we’re going…very loudly,” said Jenny.
Thankfully the gas station was just around the corner. I started filling the tank while Jenny went in to use the bathroom, and then she checked the oil. We finished up about the same time, and as she came back around the car, suddenly her face went white with horror. “Emily!” she said, “you just put diesel in the car!”
“What?” I said.
“The green one is diesel!” Jenny said.
I looked at the buttons in front of me, trying to see which one was green. “I’m pretty sure I pushed the correct button,” I said.
“No, the handle,” said Jenny. “You used the green handle! The green handle is always diesel!”
Now I need to point out that being from Oregon, where it is illegal to pump your own gas, I always have some sort of weird issue at the gas pumps in other states. I know pumping gas is not difficult, but it’s like the Oregon curse or something. But putting diesel in my car instead of gas…that was a whole ‘nother level. I mean. What the bunnyslipper.
Because while it looked like I’d pushed the correct button, I had most definitely used the green handle.
“What do I do?” I moaned.
“I guess we’ll have to go ask the people inside,” Jenny said.
Jenny maintains that she meant, “let’s ask them which handle pumps gas and which handle pumps diesel.” But I took it to mean, “let’s admit to them that I just ruined my car like an idiot and ask them to call a tow truck.” This was not a very pleasing prospect, and I ran my eyes over the gas pump once again, trying to make sense of it. I had pushed the right button. I was sure of it. It was lit up with a price, while the other buttons showed only dashes.
“Wait, Jenny…” I said. Because just then I noticed that the green handle had “10% ethanol” written above it. They don’t put ethanol in diesel, right? Then I peered closer at the black handle. “It says diesel!” I said. “See? The black handle says diesel. So the green handle was correct!”
Befuddled, Jenny googled it. Apparently at BP gas stations they switch things up, putting a green-handled pump on the regular gasoline and a black-handled pump on the diesel.
I had not put any diesel in my car after all!
All was well!
We laughed about that one for a while.
In Missouri, we stopped for the night at the home of Darlene Miller. We were friends with Darlene’s sons when they did VS work in Oregon, and then Mom became friends with Darlene, and then I stayed at Darlene’s house when her son Travis got married, so it seemed a logical place to stop. Despite our better-than-usual time, we were still dealing with a time change, so it was 8:30 PM when we arrived. Still, she had an amazing home-cooked meal waiting for us.
Oh and she had not one, but two guest rooms. I love Jenny dearly but I’m also deeply introverted and that room-to-myself was everything.
Thus ended the third day of our trip. Originally we’d planned to go straight to Blacksburg from Darlene’s house, but the idea of arriving late at night to an empty apartment with no beds was daunting. So I got an Airbnb in Huntington West Virginia, where we’d spend Friday night before getting to Blacksburg on Saturday.
This meant that Friday morning, we actually had some time to relax before starting off on the day’s drive. I made myself a mug of Earl Grey tea and sat on the porch with Darlene’s curious pets and my own thoughts.
So Friday was the last full day of driving. It was our shortest day so far, and it felt even shorter because the states started flying by. Driving east feels like playing that little dinosaur game that pops up whenever a website isn’t loading. It starts off so slow…for the first 8 hours of our journey to Virginia we were still in Oregon. Then it gets faster and faster and faster, until at the end you’re flying through five states in one day.
“We could hit six states if we take a tiny detour,” I said. “Ohio is just across the river from Huntington.”
But in the end we didn’t bother. Five states in one day was enough for us.
We continued to collect state license plate sightings, and by “we” I mean mostly Jenny.
“Mayor,” said Jenny, reading a vanity license plate out loud. “I wonder if that guy is the mayor. Wait. He’s passing me on the right. Did I just get passed on the right by the mayor?!?”
We put that on our list of weird things.
Also on the list: a small forest where someone had nailed a “Trump” poster on about every third tree.
And, later, a sign that said “Flea Amish Markets.” Which seemed to us to be the wrong adjective order. And of course I imagined someone wildly running away from an Amish market.
Our Airbnb wasn’t like most Airbnb’s…it was an actual factual bed and breakfast. A fancy house with fancy floral wallpaper. And breakfast in the morning. Well, breakfast bars and coffee, if that counts.
Our hosts were very sweet. “Are you doing anything this evening?” they asked.
“We’ll probably go get something to eat,” we said.
“Oh, well we could give you some recommendations!” They said. “Here, we have some information on the sideboard about good restaurants in the area.”
Later, while we were on our way to Taco Bell, I turned to Jenny and said, “what will we say if they ask us where we went to eat? Are we gonna admit that we just went to Taco Bell?”
“I don’t know,” Jenny said.
“We could say we got tacos,” I said, “but then maybe they’d want to know where we got tacos.”
We came up with a whole plan for what we were going to say if they asked us where we went to eat, but they never asked, so we never had to use it.
We went back to the fancy house, climbed into the fancy bed, and went to sleep. One more night and four more hours of driving, and we’d arrive at our new home. But for that story, you’ll have to come back tomorrow for Part 3.
I am a road trip person from a road trip family. When I was young we’d drive coast-to-coast for family vacations, stopping at the Grand Canyon, Washington DC, Mount Rushmore, etc. We’ve driven to Mexico and Canada multiple times. We’ve traveled for weddings, funerals, and BMA conventions.
Long intense road trips are our jam.
However, I don’t think I’ve ever done a road trip quite as long or quite as intense as the one Jenny and I just completed. Our dad and brothers like to drive along speedily for hours on end, while Jenny and I tend to be more passenger-types. But this time we had to do all the driving. Our car was too jam-packed to sleep well in, so we stopped every night, which added time.
Also my car isn’t the fastest thing ever, especially full of stuff and going over mountains.
So all-in-all it was a 52-hour trip, split up over five days. (We could have spit it into four days, but who wants to arrive late at night to an apartment with no beds?)
The journey began on Tuesday, August 3, but it really began on Monday as we attempted to pack our life into my little Toyota Corolla. Jenny packed her things neatly in boxes, put them in her half of the car, and then filled the extra spaces with garbage bags of clothes. She was done around 11 am.
In my half I put my record player, printer, serger, and a plastic bin of clothes, and then just kind of shoved everything else in around it. Night came, and I was still rushing around. But in the end we got it all in and could still see out or back window, so we counted it a success.
We left at 6am the next morning. As we passed through Brownsville, Jenny said, “I wonder what’s the weirdest thing we’ll see on this trip.”
“Good question,” I said.
“Well I know what’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen so far,” she said. “There was a dead deer in Brownsville.”
“In town??” I asked.
I’m not sure how I didn’t see it, but I didn’t.
After that we started counting all the weird things we saw. We also counted all the dead deer we saw. We made bets on how many dead deer we’d see before the trip was over. I bet three. Jenny bet seven.
I drove over the Cascades and then we switched and Jenny drove most of the rest of the way through Oregon. We saw a random guy from our parents’ church jogging beside the road, so we thought that counted as a weird thing, since he was the last familiar face we saw before leaving. In Central Oregon we saw some very strange rock formations that I don’t even know how to describe. Then in Eastern Oregon, past the vast wilderness and into the farming country that boarders Idaho, we saw a field where someone had haphazardly driven a disk around a few hay bales that were still on the field. Weird!
But then we saw multiple fields where they’d left the bales on the field and disked around the edge. Why? We couldn’t figure it out. Any smart farmers want to let us in on why someone would do that?
I drove through the last part of Oregon and all the way through the corner of Idaho. “Hey look, an Alaska license plate!” Jenny said.
“Oh wow, Alaska is rare,” I said. “Since we’ve seen Alaska, we should start keeping track of how many states we see.”
So we did, but to be honest it was mostly Jenny. I don’t tend to notice license plates much, and sometimes it’s hard to read the tiny state names. I guess Jenny has better eyes than I do.
Later, in Utah, Jenny suddenly exclaimed, “look, another Alaska plate!”
“Oh wow,” I said.
“And it’s getting off at the Snowville exit!”
We thought that was hilarious. It went on our list of weird things.
My cousin Keith and his wife Taylor live in Salt Lake City. We found their place fairly easily, but something under my car scraped ominously as we tried to drive in the steep driveway. Oh well. We’ll live if we don’t die, we thought.
Between the time change and the 14 hours of driving, it was 9 pm when we got there, but they had tacos and good conversation waiting for us. We considered getting up at 5:30 am and seeing them before they left for work, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary, as our next leg was a bit shorter and we were planning to stay with people we didn’t really know.
Jenny actually got up at 5:30 though. I woke briefly but fell asleep again.
Then I woke suddenly at 6:51. “What time is rush hour in Salt Lake City?” I asked.
Jenny googled. “It’s usually between 7:30 and 9:00 am.”
“Would you be ready to go in, like, ten minutes?” I asked.
“How about 15,” said Jenny.
It ended up being more like 20, and then we got all turned around while trying to find a gas station, but whatever. The traffic out of the city wasn’t too terrible.
We went Southeast, through Provo and into the Utah wilderness. You don’t realize quite how much wilderness is in the West until you drive through it. Jenny needed to stop to use the bathroom, and we finally saw a sign for a rest area coming up. But before we quite got to it, suddenly we heard a scraping sound.
“Pull over pull over pull over!” I mildly yelled.
Jenny pulled over.
We got out and examined the car. Oh dear. The muffler had half-fallen off and was scraping along the road.
“Do you think we jarred it loose when we went up the steep driveway last night?” I asked.
“Probably,” Jenny said.
It was hard to examine it too closely, because of course it was quite hot. But we did notice that a bolt had apparently fallen out. Was it something we could temporally fix, or should I call roadside assistance? I tried calling Dad, but he didn’t answer. So I tried calling Mom, but she didn’t answer. So I tried calling Matt, and he answered, but then Dad kept trying to call back while I was on the phone with Matt, and then sent a text saying he was worried. What a mess.
Just as Matt was telling me I needed to call roadside assistance, a pickup truck pulled up and out hopped two guys. “Looks like you’ve got a bit of a problem,” They said.
Yes. Yes we do.
They spent some time examining my problem and going to their pickup truck to get supplies. First a bolt, then a long metal pole to help lever the muffler back into place, and then some wire. “We don’t have the right size of bolt,” they told us, wiring the muffler back into place.
Then of course we enthusiastically thanked them, and climbed back into my car.
“I think they were Mormans,” I whispered to Jenny. “Did you notice how their shirts didn’t gap when they were working under our car? Because they had those white undershirts!”
“Oh, you’re right!” said Jenny. “We are in Utah after all.”
We drove off, our muffler no longer scraping. Just up the road was the rest area, but Jenny didn’t want to stop there anymore. “What if they see me pulling off and think something is still wrong with the car, and follow us to investigate?” she asked.
So we kept going.
Soon we came to an area that wasn’t quite so isolated, although the billboards were a bit odd. One was for “igotpoop.com,” and another claimed to have the “cleanest bathrooms of all time” or something of that sort. “It’s like everyone around here is obsessed with poop,” I said.
Then, up the road even further, we saw a little grocery store and pulled off. “They have Starbucks inside this grocery store!” I exclaimed. So while Jenny bolted to the bathroom, I headed for the Starbucks.
The counter was blocked by a guy kneeling on the floor with a mysterious machine. He was wearing a green-and-yellow polo shirt, and for an instant I thought it was an Oregon Ducks shirt. But no, it was an igotpoop.com shirt.
Oh! igotpoop.com, just like the billboard. This was weird. Um. Was he…pumping poop? In the middle of Starbucks?
It was very awkward because I couldn’t really stand in front of the counter. Poop guy blocked my way. So I stood off to the side and tried to order. I have a Starbucks account, you know, so I can get points and stuff when I order, but the account was almost out of money and I needed to add some $$$. So they tried to do it but then couldn’t after all and had to void my order, all while the smell of raw sewage filled my nostrils.
The guy in the igotpoop.com shirt was just there, and there was a hole in the floor, and his machine was poking into it.
Why would you pump sewage out of the floor in the middle of Starbucks? Surely that has to be some sort of health code violation?
Anyway. I got my tea, we checked the oil, and we took off again.
“That place kind-of creeped me out,” said Jenny.
“How so?” I asked.
“Everyone in there knew each other,” said Jenny. “Literally every single person. They were all greeting each other. It was bizarre.”
“You know, now that I think about it it was also very weird that someone was pumping poop in the middle of Starbucks,” I said.
So we put it on our list of weird things.
Then we got to Colorado and I started driving. Generally I’ve been doing the mountain passes on this trip, and now we had three of them. My poor little car, stuffed with stuff, was struggling. But the engine didn’t overheat and my brakes didn’t give out, so we were good.
We got to Canon City Colorado about 6:30 pm. It was a shorter day for us…just 11 hours, and no time change this time. But even with the extra evening hours, we ended up just eating some Wendy’s and going to bed. There were a number of people we could have hung out with that evening, since I used to live in Canon City and still know some folks, but after the muffler and the mountains we were exhausted.
“And we’re not even halfway done!” I moaned to Jenny.
Neither, it seems, am I even halfway done with the tale of this trip. Tune in tomorrow for part 2!
I suppose this is the time of year when you can expect the least from me, writing wise. In years past I’ve somehow managed to write blog posts during harvest, but I’m not sure how I did that. But this morning I suddenly felt like writing, so here I am.
I didn’t drive a truck into a ditch this year. The combine didn’t get plugged up. In fact, nothing went wrong, and now I can say that I’ve combined for seven summers and my biggest fear has never happened–I’ve never started a fire.
Some summers I do tractor work after combining is finished, and some summers I don’t. This summer I wasn’t going to. Because I don’t know, I still have three weeks before I leave. I might as well do something useful.
As far as writing goes, I’m kind-of having a hard time with it. Patreon is going well as usual, but I would really love to write another book. I’m just not sure what exactly that next book should be. I really, really want to write fiction, and I was sure I was finally becoming a fiction writer. I worked on one novel for an entire year, which is something I’ve never done before. But I think it’s a practice novel. It’s just so bad.
So now I’m thinking I should write another nonfiction book, and maybe then I’ll be talented enough for fiction.
But if I wrote nonfiction, what would I write about?
Or maybe I should ask, what do you want to read?
Let’s go with that. What sort of book would you love to read, written by me? Please tell me. Comment, email, DM, I want to know.
If I had more brain space right now I’d do a giveaway. It would be transactional–you tell me what sort of book I should write, and I enter you into the giveaway. But I don’t know what to give away besides another copy of my book, and those of you with the best ideas have probably already read my book by this point.
This blog post is so scattered and random it’s like I’m 19 again. Ha. Oh well. I need to go pack my lunch. Please tell me your ideas. I truly want to know.
As I was preparing to organize and/or pack up all my things for my upcoming move to Virginia, I looked at my bookshelf and thought, “I should do a bookshelf tour.” You know, just show you all my books and give brief thoughts.
I’m nosy about other people’s bookshelves, so I thought people might be nosy about mine, haha.
Also, often when I post a photo or video of the top of my sewing desk, people ask about the books. So, ta-da! This is for you, People who Ask.
For several years I’ve been part of an on-again-off-again virtual book club. Recently we read Wives and Daughters, and instead of waiting until we were finished with the book to start discussing it, we had weekly reading goals followed by weekly WhatsApp chats. It was rather a nice way to read a classic, I thought.
Wives and Daughters is about a girl named Molly Gibson who lives with her father, a widowed doctor. They get along swimmingly until Molly turns 17 and Mr. Gibson suddenly realizes that men are starting to pursue her. Panicked and unable to properly chaperone her, he sends her to live with his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Hamley, until he can find a better solution.
His “better solution,” then, is to get re-married, and in doing so, Molly not only gains a stepmother but a step-sister as well. Meanwhile, she remains friends with Mr. and Mrs. Hamley as well as their two eligible sons, Osborne and Roger.
The story is mostly about these eight people and their relationships with each other, focusing on Molly as she comes of age and falls in love.
Reading this lovely book, I realized that I really like the trope of two sisters befriending/falling in love with two brothers. I like it because there are four potential romantic relationships that can result, so you as a reader are always on your toes, not sure where the plot is going to go. Also, since they’re all close as a group, some of them will have platonic cross-gender relationships, which is always fun.
Meanwhile, the author is adding depth with the sibling relationships as well. So with only four characters, you’re looking at six different types of relationships playing out.
I’m not sure how common this trope is. Besides Wives and Daughters, it’s also present in I Capture the Castle. Most of Jane Austen’s books play with this trope too. In Pride and Prejudice it’s best friends instead of brothers, and there is no ambiguity about who will choose who. Emma and Sense and Sensibility both feature a pair of siblings marrying a pair of siblings, but one couple is already married and somewhat faded into the background of the plot. Mansfield Park does the most with this trope, keeping you on your toes about who is going to fall in love with who, although the final pairing makes me a bit uncomfortable if I’m gonna be honest.
Wives and Daughters is similar to Austen’s books, but focuses less on the romance and more on other relationships. It also explores class distinction in a deeper way than Austen does, and features characters who are slightly lower on the social ladder. Sort-of the Harriet Smiths and Robert Martins of the town.
I will warn you though…the ending is a bit unique, because Elizabeth Gaskell died before she finished the last chapter. When the book ends, you know that everything is going to end up all right, but then it abruptly stops before we get to see all the happy stuff play out.
In lieu of a last chapter, her editor wrote a note explaining how things were going to end, since Gaskell had told him as well as some of her family about how she planned to end it. So it ends nicely. However, my copy of the book was one of those sketchy cheap self-published Amazon versions, and it didn’t have that editor’s note at the end. It just ended abruptly and that was it.
No one else in my group had that problem, except one of them was mostly listening to an audiobook but sometimes reading a free Kindle version, and the free Kindle version didn’t have the ending note either.
Both the sketchy self-published classics and the free Kindle classics happen when the copyright expires on an old book, so my assumption is that the copyright expired on Wives and Daughters but it somehow didn’t include the little bit at the end written by Frederick Greenwood. Anyway, I’d say just buy your copy at a thrift store or on Thriftbooks, or borrow from the library, and you won’t have an issue.
Part 2: The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett
Amy came to me and said, “I had a book on hold at the library, and it just came in, but I don’t have time to read it before I go. Do you want to read it?”
“Sure,” I said. “You know, I think if you like a book that usually means that I’ll like it too.”
Amy laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I’d like this book or not. I just got it because I saw a lot of people talking about it.”
The book in question was The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett.
This book has a really unique, interesting premise with all these cool parallels. It begins in this little town called Mallard, Louisiana that was founded by a half-black man who inherited land from his slave-owning father. Not knowing where he fit into the world, he wanted Mallard to be a place for mixed-race and light-skinned black people.
Generations later, in the ’50s and ’60s, everyone in the town is obsessed with skin color. They are all considered “colored people,” but they try their hardest to marry people lighter than them so that their children will be even lighter. This is not because they want to be white. They all consider themselves black, even though sometimes a person on the street would never know. They just think that they’re superior to dark-skinned black people.
The book follows a set of twins, one restless and adventurous, the other quiet and studious. They are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the founder, and as teenagers they leave the town and run off to the big city. The restless adventurous twin marries the darkest man she can find and has a very dark-skinned daughter who is quiet and studious. The quiet and studious twin, on the other hand, decides to be white. She leaves her sister and family behind and marries a white man who has no idea of her past. Then she has a pale, blonde, blue-eyed daughter who is restless and adventurous.
Now that I’ve finished the book I have mixed feelings about it, but I’m going to start with the great: The premise was gripping. The idea of the town of light-skinned people who all considered themselves “black” but hated dark-skinned people was not only super interesting, but according to the author, that type of thing actually happened in the south.
Also: I feel like there’s a lot of pressure nowadays as a white person to “educate yourself” and know all these details about the history of race in America. At the same time, the stack of books you’re supposed to read is, frankly, daunting. I really would like to read them at some point, but I already dislike nonfiction so who knows.
But I have a secret opinion that fiction books written by black authors are the best–that is, the most interesting and nuanced–way to understand racial dynamics in the USA. People are complicated, and sometimes it’s easier to show it with fiction than to try to tell it with nonfiction. (Although showing it in memoir is great too.)
Here’s two things that I understood so much better after reading this book:
Colorism. It’s easy to view our racial history as “black people vs white people,” but there were/are a lot of complicated dynamics based on how dark someone is. This book explored them in an informative, nuanced, thought-provoking way.
The shift away from overt racism in the USA. This book opens in the ’60s, flashes back to the ’50s, and then ends in the late ’80s with a few notes on the early ’90s. As the book went on, I noticed a subtle, gradual shift, where there were fewer and fewer cases of people experiencing awful overt discrimination based on their race. But there was never a “yay, things are better now!” moment. It was more of a generational thing–the twins, who had witnessed a lynching in their youth, never really changed their views on race and identity. But their daughters were much more likely to form friendships and romantic relationships with people of a different race.
So with all that great stuff, I was prepared to love the book. But I didn’t. I enjoyed it, I learned from it, but I didn’t love it.
I guess it’s just a bit too basic and too literary for my taste. With Wives and Daughters I talked about one of my favorite tropes, so now I’ll talk about one of my least-favorite ones: the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has deep feelings about family and stuff” trope bores me to tears. And it’s used so often in books. I don’t understand.
And then there’s these lines like, “She could tell the truth, she thought, but there was no single truth anymore. She’d lived a life split between two women–each real, each a lie” (260). I just opened the book randomly and found that line, but some version of it is at the end of basically every chapter. Some deep thought about lies and identity and feeling “split.” That goes with the twin theme, you know. I got so tired of it. Let’s just skip ahead to the interesting part, please. When does everyone re-unite? When are the lies exposed?
And that’s where the book, ultimately, lost me. Because that big moment of cathartic reunion never happened. Well it kind-of did, but in the most stretched-out, anti-climactic, confusing, unfinished way possible. Then the book just…ended. Ended without properly reaching the end of anyone’s story. I found it odd and confusing.
I think it just had a good premise but not a fleshed-out plot. I can empathize with this because plots are incredibly difficult to construct, from my personal experience. But. Books without plots are boring. There’s a reason books need plots.
Anyway. Those are my mixed feelings. If you happen to enjoy the “so-and-so returns to her hometown and has feelings” trope, and if you don’t mind a bit of plotlessness, I think this is a book you would love.