This October marks our second year of living on a farm* outside Chapel Hill, which is the longest my husband and I have ever lived anywhere since we left our parents' homes. We had a string of mediocre rentals in Maryland, so we moved around a lot during graduate school. And then there was that whole nonsense with the dog in Durham, but it all worked out in the end because we moved out here as a result.
We've loved living here. I think I do even more so than my husband because I like having this kind of space to roam around outside and I really don't miss living close to restaurants or bars. I kind of grew up this way in a somewhat rural part of Maryland where our house was situated in the midst of horse farms, near a river. I spent a lot of my childhood wandering around the woods and fields, wading through the streams, canoeing, etc. (basically trespassing), and there's just something special about knowing what all the plants and animals are up to year round.
But since living out here, I've found a darker side to the country-life that I didn't know existed before. Because for all the days the farm looks like the above picture, it also can look like this:
Beyond the the gloominess and the isolation (and the spiders), there's also this sense that we're intruding. The animals that live out here are wild and sometimes a little dangerous, and it's their land, not ours.
We have coyotes and they run around in packs in the early evening and at night during the fall/winter. Mostly, we hear their high-pitched yipping a ways off through the forest, but sometimes we hear them circling around the house late at night. Seriously, they come to our house and investigate.
I almost stepped on a copperhead the other day. Like really, almost put my foot right on it. I see snakes all the time out here and most of them are harmless. But there's also a sizable population of copperheads, which are poisonous. If my husband is around, he's strong enough to kill them with a rock. I'm not that strong, so I always have to run back to the house to grab a hoe, but most of the time the snake just slithers off somewhere before I can kill it, and that's almost worse, because now you know there's a poisonous animal lurking somewhere nearby, but you can't see it.
And then just the other day, I took our dog for a walk in the morning, and then again a few hours later after lunch. At some point during those few hours, an animal, probably a coyote or a fox, left behind a long, thick piece of intestine on the path where we walk. It must have killed a small deer, maybe a fawn, or maybe even a dog or cat. Whatever it was, both the animal that was killed and the thing that killed it had to have been fairly large. And we're quietly sharing the same space with it, whatever it was, which can be a little disconcerting.
And then of course there's the more subtle dangers, like the ticks that carry Lyme's disease. My husband is a very outdoorsy person, and never thinks twice about exploring in the woods. But since he got bit by that tick and has been really suffering from the effects of Lyme's disease (and struggling with doctors** who don't want to prescribe any more antibiotics even though his symptoms haven't completely gone away...), he's admitted to feeling much more uneasy about living on the farm than he ever had before. I can understand that when it feels like there's danger lurking beneath every leaf.
Anyway, happy two-year anniversary to us and all the wildlife that's puts up with us while we're here. It's a privilege to live out in the country, but it's not a petting-zoo.
*Technically, it's not a farm, but I don't know how else to describe it so you'd understand. It's a very strange place that's more like a semi-public park, though it has a specialized farming purpose.
**Don't worry, we're going to find a better doctor.
Hope my American friends had a good Labor Day! I had a really nice long weekend that I mostly spent working in my garden. I meant to write more, but the ground was calling me. It felt like the right thing to do. Every hour or so as I weeded or mulched, I’d say to myself, “I really should go work on other things,” but then another voice would say, “Just another hour. I really want to finish this.”
Big thanks to T for helping me dig out a raised bed that a previous tenant had converted to a sandbox (don’t even get me started). It was a small enough box that I decided to use the new space for a compost pile, which got me on the topic of soil, which got me into reading this book, Weedless Gardening, which got me into a nice chat with my horticulturist landlord about manure and where to get it from the horse farm on the hill. If ever there was a moment of “Do What You Love,” then this was one of those weekends that made me question my current career track.
I've been really struggling lately with an urge to go back to school. I can't help it. I wouldn't have stuck around in academia for this long if I weren't a perpetual student at heart, but I have to remind myself that school is not necessarily the answer to every problem.
I foresaw that I would have this issue way back in high school when I read The Bell Jar. I don't know what everyone else got out of that book, but I identified with the narrator's anxiety of being just a talented student with no more promise then that. She struggles to see the next step or her value beyond school, a despair that compounded with mental illness propels her on a path towards suicide (which to be clear, I don’t identify with the suicidal part). The scene I always remember is when she compares herself to the Russian translator; I could so understand that sense of inadequacy. Some people have real skills! And what do I have, an ability to get A's?
I’m having a low phase at work (frustrated with some projects), and it makes me want to start over. Go back to school. Go back to where I seem to belong.
It doesn't help that I've gotten more interested in gardening and horticulture at the same time. I'm from a gardening family and this year is the first time I've been in charge of my own full sized garden (I've always had little gardens whenever I've had some space). I keep catching myself reading up on the subject at work and listening to these awesome gardening podcasts. I daydream in the car about what I'll plant next year. How I'll do it better. And of course I've been spending as much time as I can caring for my plants (trying to nurse my bumper crop of tomatoes past a mystery illness right now).
It doesn't help that NC State, one of the three universities near where we live, has a well-respected Horticulture department that I keep hearing about again and again in my podcasts. Now I have this vague itch to get a Ph.D. in Horticulture, or at least a Masters - which is insane. One Ph.D. in Chemistry should be enough; a Ph.D that I am not entirely sure what to do with. I don't want to work in industry. I don't want to be a professor. I'd like to do lab research for the rest of my life, which suggests maybe I should work at one of the national labs, but I've got a two-body problem that gets in the way of that and frankly, no one gets to work in the lab forever anyway. They move up to middle-management and hate it.
So why would a Ph.D. in Horticulture help me any better? Surely there are even fewer jobs?
Because my brain isn't thinking about what would be good me. It's thinking about what I'd enjoy. I'd like to learn more about gardening and farming, and my instinct is to go back to school to do this because I know I would enjoy it - just like I loved going to back to school for Chemistry. I really do enjoy research, and doing research on plants sounds amazing.
But I must resist! I can't even stomach the idea of going back to a grad student's salary. And I know my husband wouldn't be on board with that either. Plus, there's the fact that what I'd really like to do is publish fiction! But there'll always be a part of me that doubts that I'll ever really be able to support myself, thus the need for day-job decisions.
I hear conflicting advice these days about doing what you love vs. doing what you can tolerate and keeping what you love as a hobby. There seems to be backlash right now against doing what you love (this article makes great, great points), but it’s one thing to espouse practical jobs in theory, it’s another thing entirely to live that life day in and day out. I’m sure many (most?) of you can identify with that.
There's no perfect job, I know that. And school isn't always the best solution. I can learn by doing and reading. But it doesn't change the fact that my funding runs out in one year anyway, so no matter what I need to find another job.
So do I find another one in Chemistry? Do the safe path? But how safe is it really when I can’t even figure out how to transition from a postdoctoral position to something more permanent?
Or do I branch out and see if I can find something really different? Maybe I should talk to my landlord about job options if I’m interested in gardening and horticulture. Or I could take one year to do nothing but write and really push myself to publication, edit science publications on the side for money.
I wish it weren’t so terrifying to choose a path and stick with it.
Do you do what you love?
The mulch isn't just for aesthetics, though it does look good. It actually helps quite a bit with the weeds. Before, I was spending a lot of my time just weeding the paths to prevent the vines and creepers from growing up and over the short sides of the boxes.When it was raining a lot, the weeds were thriving so that a lot of my weekends were spent in a rescue weeding operation to keep my vegetable plants from being taken over. I lost my cucumbers that way after getting back from a business trip and finding that my husband had not been quite so vigilant while I was gone. That's ok, it happens.
Why do I bother with all this sweaty, bug-bitey work? For this, dear readers: the most delicious tomato sandwiches you could possibly imagine. If you don't like tomatoes, well, you've just never had a Better Boy still warm from the sunshine on a piece of toast with mayonnaise and cheese. This is a summer highlight for me. We planted so many tomatoes this year that I've practically been eating these sandwiches for dinner every night since the end of June.
I've encountered this turtle before. He was actually trying to squeeze through my garden fence to get inside. I just let him in. I figured why not. The other day I found him again, chomping away at one of the tomatoes that had rotted and fallen off the plant onto the ground. He looked like he was in heaven.
Can anyone help me identify what species he is? I guess native to North Carolina. I've only ever seen box and snapping turtles around here. The spotted pattern on his head, legs, and shell look new to me. I guess I could google it, but where's the fun in that?
I hope everyone gets to do whatever their version of gardening is this weekend. Maybe you like to go for a long run? Play a good video game? Watch a good movie? What's the thing you do that makes you the happiest? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Talk to you soon.
I also just like seeing things grow and thrive because of the care I've put into them. After I weed the garden each week and harvest the produce, I feel good. It makes me happy in that indelible way. And I get to hang out with critters like this guy:
Rarely do I get to Friday and think, "Man, I just owned that week! I was totally awesome!"
In fact, I'm more prone to getting the Friday blues. What am I doing with my life? Is this the direction I want to be going? Am I even getting anywhere? It's the sort of existential introspection that I find benefits me in no way. Mondays are their own trials, but at least they hold the promise of a new week, full of potential. Fridays, in my mind anyway, lend themselves to unsatisfactory review of the previous days. I've talked this over with some of my friends and we've decided that women are more prone to this pattern than men.
Anyway, I can usually pretend I don't have any of these worries from 4 p.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, and I am just one hour away from that golden threshold. I'm not even sure what we're going to do this weekend. Maybe get a drink at Mystery Brewing like I've been promising myself. Or try out the new ramen noodle restaurant, Dashi, in Durham. I may try and finish this book of short stories if I'm feeling ambitious. There will undoubtedly be some gardening involved as well.
For the last few weeks, entirely while my husband was out of town, I've been fixing up our garden to prevent the paths between our raised beds from becoming overwhelmed with weeds. This has meant hours of cutting and pinning landscaping fabric, followed by more bags of mulch than I care to admit. But I think the results have been worth it. Check out the before and after.
Recently, I stopped by Pittsboro, NC to get a new library card. Pittsboro is such a classic example of Mainstreet, USA that I felt it deserved a brief spotlight so I could share a few things I really enjoy there.
Pittsboro is located about 45 minutes west of Raleigh, not far from Jordan Lake. It’s not a large town, but there’s a nice collection of small, family owned businesses. If you’re in the market for reasonably priced antiques that make good hipster home décor (e.g. wire bird-cages, typewriters, rococo mirrors, etc.), then you should visit Pittsboro. I like Reclamation Home Furnishings and while I was there I nearly bought a set of bar glasses that had this fun fox pattern, but I’m trying really hard to not fill my house with too many “things,” books not withstanding…
The Phoenix Bakery is on the main drag (Hillsboro St.) in Pittsoboro, actually right across the street from Circle City Books & Music. The doughnuts are baked, not fried, but the dough tastes more akin to croissant than cake. They are chewy and snappy and usually filled with some delicious crème. They’re not completely glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut, so it’s not a sodden bite of corn syrup. There’s just the right amount of icing or ganache on top. The Phoenix Bakery has a lot of options as you can see below. There are also cupcakes and bread, and I believe they bake cakes for special occasions, but I’ve only tried the doughnuts so far.
…because there’s also an excellent used bookstore in Pittsboro, called Circle City Books & Music. This is a classic used bookstore. You walk in without any expectations and walk out with three or four books you had no idea you wanted to read until you saw them sitting there on the shelf. I love used book stores. They break you out of reading ruts and expand your sphere of influences. The last time I visited I picked up Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, two classics I've always wanted to read.
Books and hipster-ware aside, the thing I may like the most about Pittsboro is the doughnuts. My god, these doughnuts. I’m not even a real fan of doughnuts, but these are just so good that I’ll make an exception. If you are in the area, you must go to the Phoenix Bakery.
My favorite is the boston crème. The filling is not like the usual syrupy custard you usually find. Phoenix’s uses more of a whipped crème filling, so it is super light and fluffy. I bought this doughnut ($2.75, totally worth it) after checking out my library books. I wasn’t actually that hungry at the time, but I still wanted a taste. So I had two bites of this boston crème and was originally planning to throw the rest away. But then those two bites turned into half the doughnut. And then I couldn’t help it, I ate the rest. That may sound a little gluttonous, because as I said I really wasn’t that hungry, but the flavor and texture was so good that I just focused completely on it and enjoyed every bite. I finished it without any guilt because it was such a high quality pastry. Normally, I tend to engorge myself on food without really tasting it. This was the totally opposite, mindful experience.
For the past three weeks my husband has been working out of state. I knew it would be difficult to take care of our home and our animals by myself while also working full-time and commuting two hours a day, but I also knew I could do it. It just meant giving up (for a finite period) most of my own personal time, and particularly my writing time, to accommodate the added responsibilities that my husband and I normally divide. In addition to all of this extra work, I’ve been pet-sitting for one of my husband’s labmates who was going on the same trip. I probably shouldn’t have said I could do it, because I knew I would be pretty overwhelmed as it was, but I wanted to help our friend and his two cats.
I wish I could say the pet-sitting went well, but pretty much the worst thing that could happen, actually happened. Just a few days after my husband and his lab left for their trip, one of the two cats I was pet-sitting became incredibly sick. I walked into the apartment and found the poor thing panting in pain and dragging her hind legs. I knew she was dying, but I had no idea what to do. My instinct was to take her to the vet where I was positive they would counsel euthanasia, but I couldn’t do that without first contacting my friend. He hadn’t left any instructions about what to do in that situation. It took several hours, but eventually I got a hold of him and he made the appointment for that afternoon. I left work early and raced back to get the cat to the vet. They took one look at her and said she was dying and there was nothing they could do. The owner was called, tearful permission was granted, and the cat was put to sleep.
It was awful. After returning that sad empty cat-carrier to my friend’s apartment, I went back home to my own pets. And instead of being sweet and loving with them, I found myself getting super annoyed. One of my cats wouldn’t stop smelling my hand. Maybe he smelt death. I yelled at him and pushed him away. Then I yelled at my dog for wanting to play, which is what puppies generally want to do. I was wrung out, I guess. It was just totally draining and upsetting to have to bring someone else’s loved animal to the vet to be put to sleep. But it was even harder to watch the cat struggle in pain.
Then, the next evening, this happened.
I was outside weeding the garden when I heard a little thunder in the distance. When you’re gardening, you’re very focused on the soil, so I had no idea until then that a storm was approaching. And then I saw these fingers of clouds reaching down. I’ve grown up on the East Coast for most of my life. I’ve never seen a cloud move vertically or twist like this one was doing. It seemed incredibly close. In no time at all, it was reaching down over the woods that surround our house. I ran inside and threw my dog and cats into our bathroom, because they don’t build houses with basements in North Carolina for some reason. I ran back outside and saw the funnel cloud, pictured above, twisting right over the field in front of our house. Those woods that are behind it make up one of the borders of our property. So the funnel cloud was literally in my front yard, just hanging there, hovering. It seemed almost alive and cognizant of where it was and what it was doing. Full of intention. I know that’s silly, but that’s what it looked like. It reminded me of this old Disney cartoon:
I took a picture, because I’m a millennial idiot, and ran back inside into the bathroom with my very confused animals. My little grey cat, Hans, took one look at the rest of us (me, his brother, Bunbun, and the dog, Ham), and was like, “Nope!” He opened the cabinet beneath the sink and slipped inside. The cabinet door closed behind him and he stayed there for the rest of the storm.
It started pouring rain. The wind, oddly, for a storm that was moving so fast right over my house didn’t seem that bad. I mean, it was blowing hard for sure, but not what I was expecting for a storm with so much rotation. I kept waiting for that “train” sound my mother always told me a tornado makes. In fact, when I called and told her this story, the very first thing she asked was, “Did it sound like a train?" It didn't. Now I’m wondering if this train sound is just part of my mother’s lore. Readers, can anyone who’s ever heard a tornado confirm or deny whether it sounds like a train?
The storm passed over us in ten minutes. It stopped raining and the cicadas started buzzing again en masse. It was like the funnel cloud had never been there. I don’t think it ever touched down, thank goodness, but it was still very frightening for me. I let the animals out and then I went back out to the garden to finish my work.
So do you see what I mean? Draining, right? Normal life is hard enough, especially when you’re all alone. But when you add events like these it can feel like everything is on the edge of out of control.
I’m just glad my husband is coming home. So glad. I’ll get my writing time back, for one thing, and a little more help with the dog walks and the gardening. And of course, I missed my husband’s company. The first thing we’re going to do (he doesn’t know this yet) is get a beer at Mystery Brewing in Hillsboro, NC. That’s been my goal these last three weeks. I’d tell myself I could make it. I’ve gotten past all these animal troubles and all those trash hauls to the dump; past the non-weather related power outages, and the weeds that never stopped growing, all in anticipation of the future reward of beer and BBQ with T.
My boss gave me an 8/9 on every job rating for my performance review this year because, as he told me, “There’s always room for improvement!” The one item he gave me a 9/9 for was integrity. “You’re about as integral as they come,” he said.
Inwardly, I was squirming because I knew all the things I’ve done that would prove him wrong. The Friday afternoons I’ve snuck out 3:30. Or the time wasted on Facebook and blogs when I’m ostensibly working. And other stuff that I don’t even want to write here (stuff that is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I’m excessively honest with at least myself). I’m not perfect. I certainly don’t deserve a 9/9 for integrity.
Last month, for example, I told the Chapel Hill librarian that I wasn’t sure what county I lived in, which was a bold-faced lie. I live in Chatham County, although I also live in Chapel Hill, which is mostly in Orange County. It’s a bizarre quirk of geography that one town can preside over two counties. To be fair, when I walked into the library, I really believed that since I was a resident of Chapel Hill that I would be welcomed into the Chapel Hill library, but I was wrong. It’s all about the county and I suppose that makes sense, since it’s your county taxes that support the library.
The librarian, rightfully, didn’t trust me. She pulled out a map and tables of addresses to figure out whether I lived in Orange or Chatham County. It was ambiguous because I almost live on the border itself. I stood there playing dumb. The library looked so nice. I really, really wanted a library card.
The building is modern with a faux-wood veneer on white wall construction that sort of works because there’s so much light, but more importantly, so many books. Stacks and stacks of books. And there was such a nice community feeling to the place. Families entering the building together and then dispersing in total comfort to their favorite sections. Kids quietly roaming, holding books to their chest, asking their parents to read to them. These were my people, my tribe.
The librarian eventually decided that I did indeed live in Orange County as I said, and issued me a library card. I tried to play it cool but I was feeling pretty relieved. I was in the system. There was nothing they could do to kick me out now. I picked out my next Patrick O’Brian book and checked out. I really thought it was all over, but clearly I underestimated the perseverance of county employees.
When I went to sign up for my new library card, the librarian handed me a form that was written in Spanish.
“I…don’t speak or read Spanish,” I told him. He apologized for the mix-up and got me one written in English. We had a good laugh. I made a joke about feeling inadequate for not speaking Spanish. He made a joke about the high standards for getting a library card, you know, since you have to be fluent in Spanish. Ha ha.
Even though I’m still working through my remaining books from the Chapel Hill library, I went ahead and chose a few more from Chatham just to complete the experience. I chose two books of short stories and a graphic novel.
I returned to the library two weeks later to exchange The H.M.S. Surprise for The Mauritius Command. I also picked out a few gardening books. I had zero fear when I went to check out. In fact, I felt really good, like I’d finally made a home of Chapel Hill. If nothing else, this whole experience has helped me realize that I crave a sense of community, which I get at libraries. Wherever we move next the very first thing I should do is get my library card instead of waiting years to do it. I suspect I’ll feel happier from start with where we live instead of the usual depression that establishes itself for a few months. I resist change.
But the librarian kind of paused when he scanned my card. He started to look uncomfortable. Then he asked again if there was any way I could prove I lived in Orange county. I stuttered through some story about having just moved, which was sort of true. We moved in October. He said my library account had essentially been frozen; that an employee had map-quested my house only the night before and raised a red flag when they still couldn’t confirm that I lived in Orange County. (As an aside, this level of scrutiny, kind of creeps me out. A stranger map-quested my house?)
The librarian at the counter apologized and said I could still check out my books that day, but next time I would have to bring in proof of residency. The jig was up. It was nice of him to let me check out those books anyway. I’m sure he really wasn’t supposed to. But I think he felt, as I do, that there’s just something kind of wrong and messed up about denying a person a library book. It seems undemocratic.
Sure, by the letter of the law, it’s wrong to get a library card in a county where you don’t technically live. But why do we even have county libraries? Why not state libraries? I mean, why can’t our state taxes support the library system? Then everyone could have equal access to quality books. As it stands now, libraries are like school systems. If you live in a rich county, then you get access to great schools and resources (paid for with higher taxes, of course). But if you live in a smaller or less populated county, you’re sort of screwed. I grew up that way. Our county, at the time, was fairly rural and low density compared to the other D.C. suburbs. Our libraries were under-stocked and under-resourced. I remember being so frustrated with the lack of references that I was expected to somehow magically find for schoolwork (this pre-internet ubiquity). Even my school had almost no library.
And now I was being asked to go back to Chatham County if I wanted to borrow a book. Chatham is beyond rural and assuredly poorer than Orange county. Yes, we pay less in taxes too. But I would gladly pay an extra fee to use the nicer, closer, and more convenient Chapel Hill library. But what other choice did I have?
So I went to the Chatham Community Library, today, which is located in Pittsboro. Pittsboro is the county seat of Chatham and has its own charms (one word – doughnuts). I was surprised to find that the library itself appears very modern and handsome, more so on the inside. It looks like a nice place to study or write. However, there are not many books, just a few stacks of each section. That’s ok, some books are better than no books, no matter what.
Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce
I recently read one of Pierce’s short stories that was published in The New Yorker, which was called, This is an Alert. I really liked it; absurd science fiction at its best. In summary, it’s about a family visiting their grandmother for Sunday lunch in the middle of all these constant alarms for a possible chemical weapon attack – an attack that never seems to happen, to the point where everyone isn’t sure whether to take these warnings seriously anymore. I’m sure most people read this as any allegory for today and how we deal with terrorism, but I don’t usually care for allegories so I didn’t read it that way on purpose. I mostly liked how it prepared you to read the story with a lot of irony and skepticism, but by the end, it was deadly serious. It was such a hard right-turn from where you thought the story was going. We get so cynical and feel like we know everything, it was fun to read a story about characters who exhibit those traits and then are terribly, terribly wrong about their perceived threat. I hope that doesn’t give anything away. It’s worth a read.
Philip K. Dick short stories
I’m actually reading Ubik right now and I just happened to see this anthology at the library. As usual, these little libraries have a maddening habit of choosing books from the middle of a series. So they had the collected short story anthology Volume 4, but no other volumes. I mostly wanted to read Minority Report, which was advertised on the cover. I’ve never read Minority Report. I saw the movie and remember almost nothing from it, but considering how much better I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is than its corresponding movie, Blade Runner (in some respects anyway), I thought maybe Minority Report, the short story, would similarly speak to me.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
I picked up this graphic novel because I had heard about it on another blog that I read. It sounded interesting, but nothing I would buy to own. It was surprising to see it at the Chatham library among their new books section, so I snatched it up. Perfect opportunity. The author is a regular cartoonist in the New Yorker and I like her work ok. I do love graphic novels and comic books, so I thought this could be interesting.
All right, such a long post, but I’ve been thinking about this issue for weeks. Why should I feel guilty about borrowing books? It bugs me. I’ve never lost a library book. I always return them on time. I just feel like I wouldn’t be doing any harm in Chapel Hill. What do you think? Should we change the way we support libraries? Am I the only one who cares? Possibly. I know it’s not a big deal, but it affects my reading and that’s something that matters to me.
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