Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Lovestory

If you've read this blog for more than a minute, you've likely realized that we live in Texas (nice detective work!).  This means lots of both wonderful and miserable things.  It means that the weather will change in biblical extremes from one moment to the next.  The atmosphere will inevitably rise to inhuman temperatures, roasting the ground and cracking the earth like overbaked bread.  In the spring, (and winter too, apparently) the sky will inexplicably open and spew forth basketball sized balls of ice, drop twisters with the girth of small towns, and electrify entire neighborhoods.  We're either achingly, bone-dry here, or drowning in violent storm-induced waters.  It's either stifling heat or wiltingly humid.  There's no middle ground when it comes to Texas and weather.  The only extreme we rarely experience is cold.  Sure, sure - once every year we wake up to an "ice day" when temperatures hover just under freezing after a drizzly night and the streets become lightly coated in an ice that slushes by noon.  Of course, these rare days cause apocalyptic responses from the natives.  Roads close, schools shut down, work is cancelled, and lines form at the neighborhood Walgreens for water and canned goods.  In short: we get lots and lots of things here.  But we rarely get true, Northern cold. 

This reality makes our purchase of the wood stove a tad extravagant.  Originally we considered installing a more expensive fireplace, the cost of which led to serious discussions like, "We'll have to choose between a fireplace or a kitchen," followed by long moments of soul-searching silence.  That's how much we like fire around here.  Of course, by "we" I am very specifically referring to Jeremy.  Jeremy, God bless him, is a fire worshipping pyromaniac.  It's not his fault really.  He is a man and its inherent in his (their) nature to alternately set things afire or blow them to pieces.  I've embraced this biological truth.  And I've moved on.  So it's no surprise really that, although the temperatures have risen into the 80's during this mild January, the wood stove is constantly lit.  It's only been in our lives for a month, but the wood stove has become a firmly rooted, permanent fixture in our lives, and our life is divided into two distinct epochs: Pre-stove and Stove.  I really don't remember a time without it.  Jeremy approached his ownership of the stove with priest-like sanctity and levity.  He pored over the owner's manual for hours before setting the first bits of kindling ablaze.  He has purchased boxloads of indescribable gadgets and doo-dads for the thing.  UPS arrives almost every day at 5pm with a new box which Jer quickly scoops up and disappears with into his office.  "What's in the box?" I shout after him as he heads down the hallway.  But all I can ever discern is, "(mumble, mumble)...for wood stove....(mumble)." 

Note the unfinished (non-functioning) electrical next to the stove.  Yep.

In the evenings when the stove's lit, I roll out the sheepskin rug and sit with my back to the fire so I can face Jeremy who always sits on the couch in front of me.  We've had some really excellent, deep discussions on nights like this - or I've talked a lot while Jer appears to be watching me.  In my usual fashion, I tell long, drawn out stories about whatever I find titillating and revel in Jer's deep concentration on my storytelling.  His seriousness and interest always seem so genuine until he suddenly (and inevitably) leaps up and moves straight past me in order to tend to the stove or fire, then sits back down and says, "Sorry - I was worried about how the flames were getting higher on the right side but not the left.  Were you saying something?"  Sigh.

Pre-wood pile logs

This isn't a complaint, mind you.  The stove really has been a valuable investment aesthetically but also with our heating bill.  Although we really have had a mild winter, some nights have dipped below freezing and yet the heater still hasn't come on more than once throughout the season.  I'm not going to claim that the thing will "pay for itself" by reducing our electricity bill, but its coziness and boundless joy its brought to Jer are priceless.  Also, the happiness the stove elicits has caused Jer to create beautiful woodpiles of hand chopped logs, the sight of which make me feel scrappy and homestead-y in a very charming way.  The woodpiles sit in only a few corners of the property, but they look neat, tidy, and rustic, and anything that brings "neat and tidy" to our lives right now is most welcome. 

I'd be lying if I said I don't miss my husband who I've clearly lost to the sexy stove, in all her red-enameled, high heat glory.  But of one thing I am certain.  Her beauty and novelty will fade, and eventually he'll see that she's just a cast iron box that emits heat.  And, through boredom or disinterest, he will finally find his way back to me: his non-cooking, non-cleaning, non-heating, over-talking wife.  Just plain old me.  'Til then, it's a no-competition situation.    

Friday, January 20, 2012

Coffee Table

Night Driving

I hit a cow once on a country road.  It was 3:30 a.m.; an ill-advised time for country road driving, as it turns out.  The cow was a black Angus, and it was a moonless night.  We had just driven over a low water crossing where a thin fog had settled, and as the road climbed upward and the fog cleared, the outline of fences and road I expected to appear before me were not there.  Instead there was only a dense black mass.  Then impact. 

I remember the sound of the incident more than the incident itself.  There was the dull and heavy crush of the car making contact with the animal, then the noise of glass shattering to bits, and metal snapping the thud and popping sounds of air bags deploying.  In the background of all of this was high pitched screaming.  Mine and my friend’s, I’m sure.  There was crushing and grinding and screaming and breaking looped for what felt to be minutes but was seconds.  Then suddenly it all stopped- just stopped.  The car was still and silent, save for an ominous hissing from beneath the remains of the engine.  I looked up and found that there was no road, just a forest of corn.  We’d careened into a corn field, which is disorienting enough on its own, but the impact had knocked all sense from me.  As smoke billowed from the front of the car, my friend starting yelling that it was time to abandon the thing.  She was convinced we were due for an explosion.  She clawed at the door handle, and I screamed that it was unsafe to leave the vehicle.  We were in a foreign corn field, in God knows what county, on a road whose name I’d forgotten.  And somewhere, out there, I was convinced there was a very angry cow waiting for us.  Staying inside a smoking vehicle seemed safer than facing an “angry” cow, in my blurred logic.  Despite all the crushing noise, the caved in roof, and windshield covered in animal hide, I was convinced the creature had survived.  And I was convinced it would attack us.

Because of Nadya’s urgent insistence, I finally agreed to slide out of the driver’s seat, which was her only escape since my poor friend bore the brunt of the impact and her door was obliterated beyond opening.  We scrambled up the side of the hill and flagged down the first (and only) car that we saw on that road all night.  It arrived miraculously just minutes after we crawled from the cornfield and was among the many miracles that night.  I also managed enough cell service, on a road where I’d never before had any, to squeak out a call to 911.  Then a call to my mother.  Then a call to friends in the college town we’d just left, asking that someone meet us at the hospital. 

I drove down that road hundreds of times during the day, deep in the night, in the early morning.  It was my short cut from Austin to see Jeremy in college, and I used to love the pastoral road.  When the circa 1979 ambulance finally bounced down the hill and arrived, they informed us that we were the third such accident in the same spot in a matter of weeks.  There was a hole in a pasture fence, it appeared.  The cows just kept getting out looking for greener grasses, chewing their cud in the road.  I was fairly hysterical.  Hitting a cow is disorienting in any weather or in full daylight, but at 3:30 in the morning in total darkness, it becomes dream-like.  When the sheriff arrived I begged to know “how the cow was doing.”  He took his cowboy hat off and scratched his head slowly, then peered down at me and, with a long sigh said, “The cow’s real dead, ma’am.  Have you been drinking?”  I had not. 
We were in the car that early morning after an evening of vising friends in College Station.  We had tickets to the inaugural Austin City Limits Festival and wanted to be at the gate early in the morning.  We were young.  We were stupid.  We didn’t count on black cows on black roads on moonless nights. 

After the accident, I spent a good and long time recovering from a paralyzing fear of night driving.  Even as a passenger, I was reduced to tears if any drive took the vehicle I was in down a dark country road.  I had nightmares about an angry cow glaring at me through a window.  Despite feeling absolutely grateful for the safety of myself and Nadya, I experienced the strangest, all-encompassing guilt about the cow. 

But eventually the panic subsided.  I was able to (somewhat) calmly sit in a car driving down dark roads at night, and then, years later, I was finally able to drive them myself again, too.  It’s been a long time since my dreams were punctured with the image of a cow glaring at me through the windows of my house (inexplicable, I know).

So it’s saying something that the new place now requires lots of journeys in the night down dark roads, both as passenger and driver.  I thought about this last night driving from the new house to the old.  Felt a twinge of panic rise as the car slid past a familiar pasture filled with Angus, their dark shapes moving slowly behind the fence line. 
There’s probably a moral to this story that can be applied to all aspects of life:  Stay focused.  Keep your eyes clear.  Always look for obstacles.  Plan to avoid them.  For me, the moral was a little more literal than that:  Don’t drive down country roads on dark nights unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Assume there are holes in fences.  Know that the cows will find them. 

And beyond that, the moral I guess is that no fear, no matter how mortal it may feel, is worth holding onto if it keeps you from the life you want to live.  Or the place you want to live it.    

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fixing Fences

Morning starts with the quiet "click, click, click" of eight paws marching through the great room, down the hall and into the bedroom.  The clicking stops long enough for two air sniffs and then usually a sneeze; Winston's version of surveying a situation.  By this time, I'm awake and know exactly the view that will greet me when I finally pop open my right eye; a dog nose shoved under the pillow and pointed at my face.  Only two weeks now that we've been staying there more than our old house and the two boys already have a solid routine.  Just when the sun starts to warm the eastern sky, they're both up and clicking down the hall to wake me for their morning constitutional.  Winston always draws the short straw, so Romeo gets to wait at the bedroom door while the oversized labrador wakes me.  There are worse ways to meet a new day. 

Despite our many nights spent in the new house, it's not yet (even close to being) finished.  As suspected, doing finish-out work is labor intensive, painful, and not for the impatient.  There's been broken tile, ill-fitting pipes, electrical disasters, and lots of bourbon.  The radio silence on our end is due to pure exhaustion since the end of each weekday is spent knee-deep in mortar and IKEA cabinetry.  We also don't have internet there yet and finding a good solution is tricky in those parts.  We're working on it. 

We're working on a lot of things at the moment.

But the rewards for this work are plenty.  What we do have is hot water, toilets, a kitchen island (with a sink!), refrigerator, some lighting, and the blessed wood stove.  On clear nights we can see the stars blink through the upper windows when sitting in the great room.  And in the morning the birds dive and swoop outside our windows onto the forest.  Free cable television at its finest.  We're learning more about the neighbors, too.  The good and the bad.  For example: You burn perished animals out here, apparently, if you don't have the money or equipment to properly haul or bury; a fact that shocked us at the sight of a dead steer laying amidst a burn pile on our property line.  We discovered that fences are mere suggestions of boundary lines when new neighbors emerged from the woods with yellow spray paint, claiming their lines a few feet past our fence.  These aren't negative realizations so much as a growing awareness of this new life that's coming, whether or not we're ready.  In some ways, it's easier to focus on tile and lights.  That's tangible stuff we understand and can manage.  The country beyond our porches has its own set of laws we're just learning.      

Last night we sat on the front porch with my in-laws, each of us covered in varying degrees of mortar dust, tile chips, and plumbing glue.  We grasped our respective glasses of drink and stared out into the pasture, lit deep blue in the cloudy night.  My mother-in law remarked how nice it will be to someday spend our evenings on this porch with nothing left to do, or nothing needed to be done.  And it occurred to me that "nothing left to do" is a luxury we left behind somewhere in 2008.  Back when we bought the parcel.  This land is no one's burden but our own, and we took it on (blindly), but willingly.  So it's not a complaint but observation that when you choose the country, you're choosing work.  Or a life filled with grit.  You're choosing three more steps for tasks that usually require one in the city.

As our Austin house slowly empties I feel a shift.  All the things that have collected here over the course of almost a decade seem like remnants of our past selves.  I look for clues among the piles of stuff we've accumulated.  Something to indicate that we were destined for this path.  Some assurance that it's worth it.  Then I spend one fine morning in a dew-dropped pasture listening to a nest of baby foxes down the hill, watching a donkey herd graze.  We signed up for a life of fixing.  Fixing the house, fixing the hay ring, fixing a mesquite thorn poked tire, and fixing fences.  Although I can't find words to articulate why, I do have every confidence: 
It's worth it. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Picking Battles

It's been almost two weeks since last we updated, this is true.  I blame some of this on the holidays.  Some of this on bad weather.  But most of it is due to very troubling situations with the project that have cast a rather dark cloud over everything. 

It's not appropriate to elaborate here, although there's much I'd like to say.  Although the house looks great and is coming together, we're just beginning a new chapter in this story, right when we thought things were going to finally, gratefully come to an end.  Lately we've been telling ourselves constantly that some things are worth fighting for.  Some things aren't.  I will share that, given what I know now, building a house was a mistake and not worth the....well...not really worth any of it.  If you're reading this blog then it's likely we read a lot of the same stories like Cold Antler, Small Measure, etc.  In a way we all wanted the same things that led us to the country: peace, space, independence, and animals.  The difference is that they were able to find land with shelter included.  That is truly the better, more economical, and less painful option.  So if you're searching for land now, I hope you'll bear our experience(s) in mind. 

I've written this before in a way that sounds like a joke:  Don't build!  But I'm writing it now in a way that should read like I'm shaking your shoulders and looking you dead in the eye.  Do not build.  You're not out there looking for a plot of land in order to build the perfect house anyway, right?  You're wanting a large garden, a spot for the hive, and room for some goats.  Don't lose sight of what led you to the country in the first place.

A less serious note will follow, complete with pictures of progress and no more talk of problems.  Promise.