Sunday, January 6, 2008


“Sausages,” my husband is saying softly to himself. “Sausages.”

Of course that is what he is saying, because it is January 4, and we are in the middle of the three-day Storm Of The Century, and the shrieking hurricane winds are bending our two-hundred-foot redwoods double, and the rain is slamming sideways against every window, especially those that are really old and leak ever so slightly in the gentlest spring showers, and now it is thundering AND hailing all at the same time which is truly special....oh and did I mention the power has been out for two days and we are stumbling around in the pitch dark?

Sausages. Just what we need.

Now to be fair to my husband, he really likes sausages. And when the rain started – in fact when it ramped up to its absolute worst two days ago – My Hero flung on his (new, for Christmas, to replace the twenty-seven old ones he already had that he uses to do things like muck out the pig stalls and repair gutters clogged with six tons of rotting leaves, you know, dirty, wet, messy chores) gold sweatshirt and red sweatpants and green rainjacket and hurled himself into the howling deluge with a shovel to see whether or not the culvert was working. You see, if it isn’t, water can’t sluice down the entire hillside of which we live at the bottom, funnel into our culvert, and explode back out again into the little creek that winds through our back yard, jumping its banks and flooding the lawn which is already flooded with....well, let’s just say the leach field underneath the lawn is not exactly new. And NO, I don’t want to discuss it.

Yep – what we need around here is a good sausage. Which said husband, who arguably deserves one, is now determined to cook six of for himself for dinner. “After all,” he explains, “They’ll go bad in the fridge if we don’t eat them.”

This is because we keep turning off the refrigerator to conserve what trickling power we do have, because the little black box on the wall in my office, the one that tells us how many amps or watts or volts each of our household devices uses when we turn it on (we’re not actually sure what the device is measuring, so we just call it “points”), tells us the refrigerator, especially when its little motor kicks in, which it does every few minutes for no discernible reason, uses lots and lots of points. And when we use lots and lots of points, the “percentage” of battery power we have left, which our little black box also measures and tells us about, goes down. Way down. Fast. Which is why we are creeping around in the dark, mostly, and using only the woodstove for heat, and have unplugged every conceivable appliance, even small ones, and are arguing with each other over whether or not a person could just eat a perfectly good bowl of cold cereal for dinner and be done with it.

Let me explain about the little black box. We don’t exactly have no power. What we have is an exciting new battery and generator system installed by Carl roughly a year ago for us to use if and when the power goes out – a system, due to the record-breaking mildness of last winter, which we’ve yet to use. A system that is dangerous and complicated and could kill us if we make a mistake, and which we are testing for the first time during The Storm Of The Century. Which may mean that even if we turn on the stove and the kitchen explodes the house won't actually burn down because it’s raining too hard to do anything but sizzle.

So – the generator, which has been sitting in a pool of water by my husband’s office door and which he has now dragged to a spot two feet from the front door under the leak in the eaves, braced with four bricks, and plugged into an enormous black extension cord, when turned on (so that a person could, for example, make sausages using the ancient electric stove, which would otherwise use an insane number of points, plunging the battery percentage into the negative numbers) sends power to the inverter which sends power to the eight batteries lying in the mud under the house which will make it possible to turn on a light and fry a sausage using lots of points BUT without losing percentage...maybe. Simple, right? Only we cannot find the manuals for the generator, inverter or batteries despite rooting around in my husband’s office in the dark for the past two hours.

So instead, we are stumbling around in the house with flashlights, one of us flipping appliances on and off while the other trains a light on the little black box and screams out number of points used as a result. “I’m turning on the fluorescent light in the kitchen!” my husband yells. “Six points!” I yell back. “Other light!” he yells. “Four points!” I yell back (which is odd, since it’s exactly the same kind of light, but whatever). “Microwave!” yells my husband. “Yikes! Fifty-two points!” I tell him. “Turn it off!!”

My turn, I say, switching on My Favorite Appliance. “Fiber optic Christmas tree in living room!” I yell. “Two points!” he yells back. “I told you it didn’t take any power!” I yell. “Living room light!”

“Four points!” he yells back. it’s cheaper, in electrical terms, to run the fiber optic Christmas tree, a beautiful and useful light source if ever I saw one, than it is the living room lights. I smell a deal in the works. One microwaved sausage – four thousand hours of Christmas. I love my little black box.

“Hall light!” I yell. “Twelve points!” he yells back. A terrible waste of power – except I’ve just found The Generator Manual, right here in the hallway, on the floor, in the corner. Good place for it.

Ah, The Generator Manual – an unassuming little booklet with a HUGE WARNING IN RED on every page that tells you how you’re going to electrocute yourself if you don’t do everything EXACTLY AS INSTRUCTED IN THE MANUAL. If I can please get my husband to read past page one...

“You just turn it on,” he says, heading outside as I am frantically scanning the section on how stale gasoline will absolutely, positively ruin the generator and may even cause IT to explode. CHANGE YOUR GASOLINE EVERY TWO MONTHS, screams Page Seven. “Uh....when did you last put gas in the generator?” I call out to my husband in a sweet, calm voice. “Last March!” he yells back over the roar of the generator, which he has just turned on, and which is belching gasoline fumes in through the front door. “Why?”

I know if I tell him he will yell back “Don’t be ridiculous!” which I do and he does. The generator is making strange grinding sounds as though it’s eating a pile of rocks. I wonder if that’s what they mean by “pinging and knocking” on Page 26, which if the generator is doing, you must IMMEDIATELY SHUT IT OFF!!

“I’ve put it on Eco-Throttle!” my husband yells proudly, fiddling with a knob on the front of the spewing, grinding machine. “What’s that?” I yell back. “I don’t know!” yells my husband.

A huge crash shakes the house. “WHAT WAS THAT????” I shriek, abandoning all pretense of calm and tearing outside in my pajamas. “I don’t know,” says my husband, who is visibly not dead, though quite wet – did I mention it’s raining? – and is looking around puzzled. “Wind, I guess.”


“The house is constructed,” he explains, in the patient voice one might use with a small, not-very-bright child, “So that when wind comes, it flows up under the eaves and they lift a little and the house can shake. It’s called ‘loft.’”

“Oh,” I say. “Interesting.” Suddenly, the neighbor sticks his head over our fence. “You guys ok in there?” he yells. “What’s that awful noise?”

“The generator!” we yell back. “We’re fine, thanks. Why?”

“Just saw that tree come down on your roof is all,” he says. “Wondered if it came through the ceiling or anything.”

There is indeed a very very large branch of a very very tall cedar that has slammed down onto our roof across half the house and doubtless explains the large crashing sound I just heard, loft notwithstanding. And which might also explain why there is now a leak in the living room ceiling right over the woodstove so that a steady drip is pattering down onto the broiling stovetop and making hissing and spitting sounds. “That’s just rain blowing sideways into the flu,” says my husband. “It’s designed that way.”

“To leak in rainstorms?” I ask him. “Only really bad ones,” he says. I notice he has said nothing more about loft.

“Sausage time!” he announces to the cats, who look up blinking from their chairs by the woodstove (the only remotely warm spot in the house, over which we have been fighting them for the last three days) and sink immediately back to sleep. “Wonder if I should turn on the stove while the generator’s still running.”

“Does the manual say to do that?” I am asking him, as he switches on both fluorescent kitchen lights (ten points!!), plunks our largest frying pan on the biggest stove burner, and turns on the stove. “Sausages!!” he says, gleefully, and the generator lets out a truly terrible roar like a washing machine coming apart.

“Overload!” yells my husband. “DO something!!” yells the farmwife.

.....My husband did, indeed, make sausages. All six of them. On the woodstove. In the dark. Well, not exactly – by the light of the fiber optic Christmas tree.

I don’t like sausages. I microwaved a very large cup of coffee and a huge slice of pumpkin pie. Total points used? Don’t even ask.

The cats even let us sit in their chairs while we ate.

Happy New Year!

(first published in Western North Carolina Woman Magazine)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tuesday Morning

Ever have one of those days where from the minute you dare to get up in the morning, little things start happening that taken all together (say, by quarter past nine) add up to something that makes you think: I knew I should never have gotten up today. Or: Well, just because I’m up doesn’t mean I can’t go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. NOW.

Yes, I know you’ve had those days, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably human. Then again, the ants I just slaughtered in my bathroom are probably having one of those days, too, and maybe the survivors (damn them) are brooding about it this very minute.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I am, among other things, a farmwife. My husband is, among other things, out of town. Of course. I say of course because the minute he left, the cat got sick, the rain started falling (for the first time in eight months), the winds howled, the deadly poisonous spiders came out and the ants came in. Oh, and I threw my back out - wonder why.

And the house, which had been if anything too warm for months, got cold. Very, very cold. Now, I could turn on the heat, because we do actually have central heating here in this old farmhouse, something I begged, cajoled, threatened us into getting some years ago, and something which, when I turn it on, my husband takes as a major act of betrayal. “It’s not actually cold,” he will tell me. “The thermostat says it’s forty-five degrees in the living room, and that’s the warmest room in the house,” I will reply. “.....I’ll make a fire,” he will offer, turning off the heat. “Good,” I will answer, turning the heat back on and smiling sweetly. “That would be wonderful.”

Said husband is two thousand miles away in the wilds of Canada. I could turn on the heat and leave it on, twenty-four hours a day, and he would never know until he gets the bill for the replacement propane which I will be forced to order by about next Wednesday. But I am a farmwife. I can make a fire. I like the way it looks and smells, crackling in the old woodstove, and the cats love to lie in their chairs - I say their chairs, god forbid my husband or I should actually try to sit in one - by the fire, dreaming of all the half-dead gophers they will present me with the minute the weather turns warm again.

So....I get out of bed. The house is cold. I check the thermostat just to make sure. I am even more right than I thought I was. So I open the stove door, and shovel out half of the ashes from yesterday’s round-the-clock fire, because too many ashes in the stove make it difficult or impossible to get a new fire going. Some of the ashes are still warm, glowing red, even, and I am shoveling them into the only thing I can find to take them outside in, which is a large paper grocery bag, which is starting to smolder. This is mildly alarming, as I’m not sure what I would do if the bag suddenly burst into flames in the middle of my living room. But it doesn’t, and I manage to dump the ashes outside into the metal garbage pail we use for this purpose, and crumple up the still smoldering bag and place it in the stove as fire starter, which it is obviously trying to be.

Time for kindling. We don’t actually have any kindling. What we have are splintery logs from the diseased trees we were forced to cut down last spring. “You just pull little bits off the logs,” my husband explains, yanking mightily and sending a shower of splinters all over us, including several into his finger. “Ow,” he says. “You could use the ax instead.”

Right. And chop off my finger and drive myself half an hour to the emergency room. That sounds smart. Instead I scour the house for old newspapers (of which we have stacks in July and exactly one now that I need them) and the woodpile for small bits of bark and twigs.

Soon, after I blow what’s left of the ashes all over the living room floor to fan the blaze, a little fire is merrily burning. Whew. Time to add actual logs, selecting ones of just the right and increasing size to encourage steady, even burning. Oh, and checking for spiders while I do it.

Not just any spiders. Black widow spiders. Deadly poisonous black widow spiders. The kind that probably won’t kill you, but might if you’re very young, very old, or very unlucky, the kind we have swarms of, that supposedly love woodpiles above all other places to call home. The kind that are probably clinging to the underside of the log I’ve just selected, so that as I slide my finger carefully underneath....

Except that our black widow spiders, of which we have so many that I’ve killed dozens in a single hideous rampage, do not seem to like woodpiles. I’ve never actually seen one in or near a piece of wood. Our black widow spiders like the undersides of chairs I’m just about to sit in, the legs of tables on which I’m serving my elderly relatives tea, and the outside walls of the house, where they poke fetchingly out from under the approximately five million shingles, just enough so that I know they’re there, but not enough so that they can’t beat a retreat the instant I come at them with the can of spray which says it only kills on actual contact.

It adds a special thrill to making a fire when there’s just the tiniest possibility you will be bitten by something that will have you rigid with excruciating pain by the time you’ve had a chance to drive yourself to the hospital where they don’t always have a supply of the antidote that they’re not really sure will work.

I make the fire. I think that prick I felt mid-way was just a splintery bit of wood. I didn’t see a spider fling itself into the flames just after its final act of giving me what it thinks I deserve. It takes between a minute and twenty-four hours for the pains to set in, by which point I may be unable to drive myself to the hospital and be forced to call my neighbor for help whose phone number I can’t find and who will not be home. But enough of daydreams. The cat pan calls.

Yes, Max the cat is sick to his stomach all right. Maybe, as my husband suggests, the antibiotics I’ve been giving Max twice a day (and that’s a lot of fun, let me tell you) since this started three days ago, a few hours after my husband walked out the door, are making it worse. Maybe, as my husband suggests, the antacid is making it worse. Maybe, as my husband suggests, the fact I am keeping Max in the house for observation, which Max hates, is making it worse. Maybe the new food I switched to at my husband’s suggestion because he thought maybe Max might be having a bad reaction to the old food, is making it worse. Maybe I have a few suggestions I might like to make to my husband about how he should get home and deal with the damn cat pan himself.

As I am cleaning the inside of the pan I note with joy that Max has peed all over the outside of the pan and the wall behind it, and the resulting flood has worked its way under the pan which is what smells so good. And which I cannot clean up without dumping the entire pan out, turning it upside down, wiping it off, wiping up the wall and floor, letting it all dry, and refilling the pan. Which there is no point in doing until I find the bottle of Urine-Off we use on the all too frequent occasions when something has upset Max enough that he feels he just has to let us know about it in his own special way.

Only there is no bottle of Urine-Off anywhere to be found. Apparently my husband has drained it in a cleaning foray of his own, for which I thank him, and not replaced it, for which I do not thank him, especially not right now when I am about to pass out from the smell of cat pee which has been pooling under plastic for many hours.

I add Buy Urine-Off to the list of mental chores I’m compiling in my head, mop up what I can of Max’s statement, light a stick of the strongest incense I can find and leave it burning in the laundry room on top of the washing machine a few feet from the pan where I hope its smell will not discourage Max from using the pan at all.

Yeeeecch. Time for a shower. Except that the ants have found the shower again. A little line of them is pouring out of a teeny tiny crack way up in the farthest corner of the ceiling (it only takes me fifteen minutes of solid searching with a huge flashlight to find this), across the top of one wall where I can just barely reach to wipe them away if I stand on top of a dangerously tippy stepstool on my tiptoes, across the top of the other wall, down the wall where my towel is hung, down the towel, across the top of the tub over the bathmat and into the shower. Clever ants. I admire your ingenuity, I really do. I admire your group work ethic, your persistence, your feats of derring-do. I hate to kill you. Now where IS that can of Raid.

The special thing about these ants is that they bite. They make a point of it when you’re mopping them up with wet paper towels. They like to bite you on the fingers and hand and a few like to escape and crawl under whatever you’re wearing and continue to bite you for many hours afterwards. It’s enough to make you take off all your clothes and walk around the house itching and inspecting yourself like a maniac.

I have risked my life on the stepstool and most of the ants are now dead and I am standing sweaty, bitten, naked, itching and really, truly needing a shower except the bathroom smells like Raid and dead ants, and my towel which is dark blue is doubtless still crawling with survivors as are my pajamas I’m sure, and I really need to run a wash first since until I do there won’t be any hot water in the shower for a reason neither I, my husband, nor an ever-changing rotation of plumbers can understand....but I really do not want to go in the laundry room just now because it smells of incense and cat pee and I am tired of being in there.

I need a cup of coffee. I really do. I am not sure I can face the kitchen because I think the moths that live in the cupboard where we keep the sugar have come back. If I go out to get a cup of coffee, Max will have another episode, the ants will revive, the moths will mate, the spiders will creep into my unmade bed, and the now roaring fire will leap out of the absolutely safe woodstove and burn the house down.

I flick off a few last ants that have gotten way too intimate with places I’d forgotten were part of me, put on the purple sweatpants and green Christmas sweatshirt with cavorting reindeer I’ve been living in since my husband left, and drive away.

(first published in Western North Carolina Woman Magazine)