my year in cities and towns, 2021

a bed which is really just a piece of plywood up on milk crates in the middle of an entirely empty room
Slightly more exciting than last year, but not a lot more. I stayed at my mother’s house as we were cleaning it out a LOT this summer. Most weekends for two months. And I stayed at my sister’s place a few times. And I stayed at my dad’s place twice. That’s the report. Compared to last year–zero days stayed anywhere else–it felt like a lot, but still no weird hotels, quirky AirBnBs, or any other fun travel. I have a tentative plan to go give a live talk, pandemic willing, in New York this summer, will be interesting to see how close I get to it.

Past years: 2020, 2019 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 2007, 2006, 2005.

cheerful not happy redux

a plate with a bunch of pinkish orange flower petals that rests on an orange and yellow striped placemat
This is not a post talking about how I am not happy, things are actually pretty much fine. I’ve been walking a lot, went down to MA a few times for Thanksgiving and JIMSMAS, and have managed some doctor and dentist appointments that always flip me out a little beforehand. Jim is good, Kate is good, other folks seem mostly good. I remember when I wrote that original post on this topic and we were thinking vaccinations might be the wrap-up to this pandemic thing and now that’s not seeming like the case so much. I got my booster. I still mostly don’t go anywhere. It’s not bad. I enjoy my walks around the neighborhood because I run into a lot of people I know and get little updates on what’s going on. When I was walking out by the post office, I met a new-to-me woman who asked me a question and this is a post about that. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have heard this one.

She said “Can I ask you something? You always look so cheery when I see you walking around. What’s your secret?” I’ve heard this from a lot of people and it surprises me somewhat because my internal monologue is… not great. But that’s a terrible reply and this woman was clearly friendly and legit curious so I thought about it. I decided it was three things.

  1. I work in libraries. It’s good to have a vaguely pleasant and not too-busy-looking resting face so people feel okay approaching you.
  2. My actual resting face is a little dour, my eyes turn down a little and so do the corners of my mouth. This was a thing when I was a kid, people constantly hassling me to… I don’t know, look better? Not be sad? My childhood was fine, but not always great, so having people tell you to smile was a thing when I was little as it is for many women of any age. Also, my eyes drip a lot when I am out walking in the cold, or the pollen or… just the air. I got tired of people asking me “What’s wrong?” or making “Why are you crying?” jokes, so I try to look pleasant.
  3. Lastly, I live with a lot of anxiety. My brain is frequently telling me stories I don’t like that much. So, I am so happy to be in the now and not in my certainly-doomed future that it shows on my face. Listen to a podcast, put one foot in front of the other. Release some endorphins. I can say that with a bit of humor but it’s also true, it’s good to be in an intermediate space where something’s going on.

We had a nice chat after that and I got to know her a little and I hope she got to know me. She had a really interesting tattoo that I’d like to know more about (on her forehead) and maybe I’ll feel okay asking about it next time I see her.

Thanks to….

two people walking outside with a big cedar chest

This weekend Kate and I are both home. She’s making pasta sauce, I am waiting for Jim to arrive after we lost a day of visiting to his shingles shot (over-50 folks, get that vaccination too!). The Magic Castle is basically empty and there’s probably one more day of trash removal that needs to happen in the barn and the underbarn. Gotta pay someone to clean the place proper and then go through the long thankless task of replacing the septic and then this place can finally belong to someone else. Then we have the much smaller and less awful task of unpacking the things that we moved to Westport and moving on with one less house. I am HERE FOR IT.

So this is just a gratitude post about the weird and wonderful ways that people and organizations have been helpful. I’m sure I am forgetting some, but here are the ones I am remembering.

Friends, generally – everyone who showed up with food, who offered to show up with food, who took a thing, who accepted a thing that was given (it’s ok if you don’t keep it), who offered to take away a thing that was causing a problem, who offered to help unpack, who helped me load and unload my car, who went on a tour and said encouraging things, who connected us with a person or service or something useful, who listened when we just needed to complain a little. Shown above are former tenants Josh and Shannon taking home a cedar chest that had been in the barn since god knows when.
Habitat For Humanity (and associates) – they have a service in the Boxboro area that will pick up first-floor furniture for free, but will also, for a fee, take other things that they might not otherwise accept and will take them down flights of stairs. Two not-very-large men came and cleaned out some things we weren’t sure how to get rid of.
My local liquor store – for the endless boxes
My local thrift store – for being willing to cheerily accept these boxes once filled with various random things, week after week
The movers (John Palmer) – except for a timing snafu, the three guys who moved the things we had from Boxborough to Westport couldn’t have been better or nicer
Internet Archive – for taking a lot of books that we weren’t otherwise sure what to do with and making it all super easy
The well guys (Skillings) – they found the well! No one ever knew where that damned thing was. And they didn’t have to tear up too much of the lawn to do it.
The water filter guys (Premier) – we installed a full-house water filter system after my Mom died because the water was icky (she never minded, we did) and then it broke when we started using the water in the house more. So we got it fixed.
Lonnie the septic guy – you get the feeling that this house has had a lot of water issues. Lonnie was a nice laid-back guy, sort of half-retired who did our septic inspection. The news wasn’t good but he was as nice about it as he could be.
The metal guys – we had a lot, a LOT, of random trash metal in the basement including a huge motor that was so heavy we couldn’t budge it much less lift it. Mauricio and his crew came and got rid of it with good cheer.
The Hazmat people (Devens HHW) – We drove our hazmat stuff in two cars to Devens’ Hazmat day. Kate knew the woman who worked there and she was incredibly nice
The dumpster guy (HiHo) – Not the easiest to communicate with but reasonably priced and good with timing, depite the Yelp reviews to the contrary. Nice to be able to pay someone local for this kind of service.
Boxborough historical society (BHS) – they took a lot of things (old newspapers, old t-shirts) which we felt weird disposing of
Steele Farm (town link) – they took a lot of farm stuff including the old windmill, a lot of weird metal implements, a few huge ladders, and an old plow
Schoolhouse #2 (details) – they took the old school desks which otherwise I am not sure Kate would have been able to get rid of it
Susan and Bob – while the house is being sold AS IS we had a few minor things that needed fixing just so people could walk around the place. Bob did the fixing, Susan did the communicating and it all got taken care of.
Local eateries – Bravo, Smack Noodle, Oscar’s, Minuteman Grille, and Nan’s kept us fortified
Internet cheering squads – Every nice well-wish or other nice comment or thumbs up or commiseration or whatever has helped us feel not so alone in all of this.

the thirteen people who came by today

a blue tractor with the bucket holding two apple baskets and a sled

As many of you know, I am cleaning out my mom’s house, aka the Magic Castle with my sister and sometimes Jim. What you may not know is just how many people this kind of thing involves. I’ve been here all day today and I think we spoke to thirteen people all of whom came by the house at some point today and were in a small way part of the process. Here’s a list.

– I woke up in the house and texted Kate who came over with coffee.
– While we were having coffee the septic inspector, Lonnie, showed up with the terrible news that the septic will not pass inspection. This was expected, it’s ancient, but still a hassle because you need the system inspected to sell it to anyone who wants to get a mortgage. And there’s nothing wrong with it, it works, but needs to pass nonetheless. Fixing it is lengthy and costly. Oh well.
– We decided to work out our frustrations by continuing to clean out the barn and while we were in there Bob came by. He was my mom’s carpenter and has built or fixed a lot of things around here. He had replaced some stair treads earlier in the week and gave us his opinion on fixing another iffy step on another staircase. When we first inherited this place, he fixed all the six-over-six windows that had cracked glass panes. Good man to know!
– Nancy came by with her grandkids in the car to pick up two old school desks that we’re donating to Boxboro’s old historic schoolhouse. Her car was full of grandkids so her husband showed up with his truck. Nancy also had a friend with her who was our elementary school janitor’s daughter.
– Shannon and Josh stopped by. They had lived in the apartment (this house is a two-family) and were running numbers to see if they could afford to buy this place (not exactly and they had some reasons to stay where they’re living in Littleton) but they had seen an old cedar chest in the barn that we said they could have, and came by to pick it up. Shannon had gone to school with Nancy’s friend (or her kids? I never know how old anyone is.)
– Jim arrived with burritos and we had lunch. (he is part of the clean-out crew so does not count for the purposes of this list)
– As we’re putting more stuff out on the FREE pile out front, two of the up-the-road neighbors showed up, Scott and his wife, and took all the apple baskets we’d left there, and one of the sleds. Said they’d use them for the holiday fair at the local church (the one Kate and I used to go to when we were kids). Tried to sell them on taking a 24′ apple picking ladder (we have one left!) and they may come back tomorrow for one.
– Jamie was a pal of my mom’s, and she helped him with a lot of things. He sometimes works on his truck in her driveway and stores a lot of stuff under the barn. He has some challenges and we were a little concerned about telling him we were selling the house, but he came by to move some stuff and we broke the news to him and it went okay.
– I’m still by the FREE pile and Ray walks by. He lives on Pine Hill Road (a few roads away) and doesn’t know us but vaguely knew our mom or some other older lady who lived at this house who he talked to once while walking by. He was full of random history bits, appreciated the house for a bit (there is a lot to love) and mentioned some story about the woman he spoke with telling him that this house had been a stop on the Underground Railroad which was news to me so very unlikely to be true.
– Last visitor of the day was Bill, our mom’s backyard neighbor who came by with his tractor to give us some plans his surveyor drew up. We’re giving him some of the wetlands in the backyard (our properties abut) so that he can preserve his view and in exchange he’s been helping us with various things like putting new gravel on the driveway and other TBD stuff. He’s paying all the costs but has been keeping us in the loop. It’s been a really nice relationship–he was also good friends with our mom–and we sent him home with two apple baskets and… another sled.

Tune in next week to hear about all the guys (so far only guys) who have been helping us with aspects of the actual clean-out!


Me and Jim, outside, standing in front of an American flag

Me and Jim on the 4th

Skipped June here. Nothing was much going on. The trees filled up with leaves. I saw Jim a bunch of times and enjoyed just picking up where we left off; it made the past year’s worth of uncertainty and stress compress into something much smaller in my memory. I took down the squirrel ladder because it became, for one scary night, a bear ladder and let me tell you that story in person, it’s a good one. But really the last month for me has been a combination of some shifts in my world of work and some shifts in how I’ve been doing things since the Pandamnit Times began.

For starters, since seeing Jim is now a safe possibility, I’ve stopped working at MetaFilter on Sundays and Mondays. This was a great thing to get to be able to do during a dreary year and it was good to be back among the team there. At the same time, the same old problems are the same old problems and I was eager to get my weekends back. So I’m now just there answering questions and being my usual superfan self. At the same time, I’ve picked up some library shifts in Chelsea while they work on hiring a replacement. It’s a one-room public library, serving a community of about 1200 people and you’re the only person working when you work. It’s fun, interesting, busy, and a little frustrating all at the same time. I’ve been liking getting to do library work again.

I started working there only a week or two after the library re-opened to the public (they had window service only during COVID) so we went from masks-required to no-masks-required within about a week. Since kids come in to the library, my personal policy is I wear a mask if any patrons are wearing them. Orange County has low COVID rates even among Vermont counties (second-lowest rate in the state), so I am comfortable with this as a plan. And I went inside to a restaurant for the first time since March 2020. I might do it again. I went to an outdoor cookout. I hugged people indiscriminately. I stayed out past dark. I watched the town parade in the rain–in my bathrobe since I had spaced the actual parade starting time, it runs right by my house!–and performed a very brief wedding on the actual 4th of July.

Jim’s at home playing disc golf this weekend and I am here mulling over what to do with my first two-day Saturday-Sunday weekend since February 2020. I remember how it used to be, kind of, but also feel the possibilities of being able to do things a little differently.

bird return

red breasted nuthatch sitting on a suet cage with suet in it

It’s been a weird downside to this pandamnit time that my house–usually set up well for feeding and observing birds–had seen a huge drop off of bird visitors for no reason I was totally sure of. Could have been the ladder leaning up against the side of the house, leading to more squirrel activity (I could watch squirrels climb ladders all day). Could have been a nearby predator. Could have been that my feeders were ganky. Or maybe it was more neighbors being home and setting up their own feeders. Who knows? But this winter there just wasn’t a lot of bird activity here, though definitely lots elsewhere. So little that I didn’t even participate in Feederwatch this year because it was too depressing. But as the buds on the trees have turned into leaves, and I got some new feeders and cleaned the old ones, there’s been a little bit more feathered activity going on outside. I counted seven species one day–red breasted nuthatch (pictured), white breasted nuthatch, hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, chickadee, tufted titmouse, mourning doves–a high water mark for 2021. I’m fortunate to live above the bears, so I can keep the feeders out even as they come out of the woods and terrorize the local garbage cans.

Jim and I are both counting down the days til we’re fully vaccinated, they’re in the single digits. I don’t expect my life will change terribly much when I’ve hit that date except my life will have a lot more Jim in it. And I’ll start there.