It’s a biannual rite–every spring and autumn, as soon as the temperature enters that 55-75 degree range that makes it bearable to go outside, I head out onto the balcony with my computer, a pot of sugary, butterscotch-schnapps-fortified tea, and my tennis ball. That period is tragically brief each year, so I’m always determined to make the most of it.
It’s here now, wonderfully. Over the weekend, summer made one of its periodic, much-unwelcome attempts at returning, but by Monday it had given up, and the thermostat failed to get over 65.
You know how San Diego is 80 degrees all year long? I need to find the autumn version of San Diego.
This weekend we drove up to a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Carolina to visit a smattering of my in-laws. We hemmed and hawed about whether or not to go, because starting Wednesday, Boy came down with a stomach bug that left him alternating between lying on the couch dozing, lying on the bed dozing, and vomiting, all day long. By the time we left Friday afternoon, the vomiting had petered out, and Boy was gutted at the prospect of not going. So we elected to go, and I’ve got to say, if you ever need to take your child on a road trip, do it when he’s just getting over a stomach bug–he slept for the entire nine hour drive.
All of nature is indescribably beautiful; I love looking at the world. Lisa and I have been wanting for the past few weeks to get out and go camping or hiking somewhere. And the Blue Ridge Mountains are such a perfect place for that.
On Saturday we went out for a little while. I was told we’d be driving out to a park and walking some trails, though in light of some of the membership of the group I was suspicious of how much walking we’d get to do. My suspicions got heightened when I saw the number of people heading out to the car wearing shorts and flipflops for a walk through the woods. And then, inevitably, it started raining as soon as we pulled into the parking area.
Nevertheless, we were determined to get at least a little walking in, and so we did–even if it was just about five hundred feet and then back again. We hiked up to the bridge over where a stream and some large rocks combined to make a series of very pretty cascades, and Lisa’s brother–who’s lost something like fifty pounds in the past few months–scaled down the hill to stand on the (probably dangerously slippery) rocks. Then we headed back to the car.
And really, it was for the best that we did, as a few minutes afterward, the heavens really opened up. The rainstorms that were in DC yesterday and Pennsylvania today? On Saturday they were in North Carolina, and they were much, much stronger–I’d have been really worried about getting washed away if we’d been out on the trails in that.
So we went driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we saw some beautiful, breathtaking views. The rain might have been bad for walking, and it made driving rather trickier, but it should did make the views even prettier.
Lisa’s godmother lives just a few miles away in Boone. Both Lisa and I were disappointed at how little time we spent on the trails, and Boy–despite being thoroughly exhausted from not having eaten anything–had a great time during the ten-minute walk. We’re definitely hoping to get back again pretty soon.
Words last two days: 1008
Words total: 27,468
Time spent writing: Noon-4pm
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: “I was fourteen or fifteen by then, and enough of a woman that I could–” She gave me a significant look. “–that I could provide for myself using those qualities by which a woman can most easily earn what she needs to live on.”
New words today: princess, windowpanes
The past two months have been beautiful. Today, the truth of that has inspired me to whinge.
Apart from a four-day heat wave in the middle, for eight weeks the high temperature has been somewhere between fifty and seventy degrees Fahrenheit every day. I have spent most of every day sat out on the balcony–recently, I’ve spent that time writing.
And out here on the balcony is where I’d like to spend every day. Whether it’s this specific balcony, or the porch behind our apartment in Gainesville where I wrote A Traitor’s Loyalty, or the solarium at my aunt’s house in West Berkshire. It’s … good for me. It’s good for my state of mind; it’s very good for my writing productivity.
Today, though, that all changes. Today spring ends, and summer begins. Today’s forecast high is 84 degrees; tomorrow, it’s 88. On Sunday it’s 91. The sweltering heat is about to chase me back inside, where my choices will be either to sit in the living room at one of those collapsible TV-dinner tables while a pair of small children use me as their personal Swiss Alp, or to retreat to my desk in our bedroom–after carefully clearing from it the parts to my half-assembled model Spitfire–where I would have no way to keep an eye on the kids.
Clearly, when I’m a rich and famous author, or Lisa is a rich and famous … um … lab analyst, we’ll have to spend our summers in England. May through August in England; springs and autumns in Northern Virginia. And the winter in–oh, I don’t know–San Diego.
Words last two days: 1173
Words total: 18,564
Time spent writing: Noon-2pm; 3.30-6pm
Reason for stopping: Went out for a walk; quota
Darling: Her voice bubbled and fizzed over the telephone line.
Words that boggled Word: fiancé
New words today: pocketbook, gilt, artillery, baseball
Of course, the area had already had a massive storm this winter, in December–an unseasonably early time for the DC area to get snow. We missed it because we were in Florida, but at the time it was the seventh-biggest snowfall DC had ever received. Now it’s the eighth.
The snows started two weeks ago, while my mother was staying with us. I don’t remember what it was–five or six inches, I think. Something that seemed impressive at the time, but now would probably just elicit a short burst of slightly hysterical-sounding laughter from the people around here. My mother’s lived in Florida for fifteen years now, so she was a bit excited to go out in the snow with Boy and me. I don’t know where he heard about making snow angels, but that was pretty much all Boy wanted to do when we went out into the snow. Though after a while of that, we ended up doing some sledding, too.
Then came Super Bowl weekend.
It started snowing Friday morning, but didn’t get heavy till mid-afternoon. There are few things I love more than sitting inside watching the snow fall all day, especially since Lisa was able to get home for the weekend before it started really disrupting the roads.
The snow kept falling.
About 8.30, the power went out. It was right after Boy had gone to bed, and though he was supposed to be lying in the dark going to sleep anyway, the loss of power nevertheless freaked him out enough that that became not an option, at least for a little while.
After we moved the milk and the contents of the freezer onto the balcony to keep them cold, I got all bundled up and went outside to see how extensive the outage was. It encompassed our whole half of the apartment complex, but as the snow was now a good foot deep and tough to walk through, I didn’t venture out of the complex to see if it had affected the rest of the street.
But what I saw outside was amazing. Everything was draped in a perfect, pristine blanket of white. Nothing had been ploughed, nothing had been walked in. And, at what had by now become 9.30 at night, it was as bright as five o’clock in the afternoon outside, presumably from the untouched snow reflecting up at the pale grey sky. It was so bright that, as you can see from the photograph of Boy to your right, I didn’t even need a flash on my camera. (Click on the picture to see more photos I took that night at Dropshots.) And so, since it was so bright and Boy was still bouncing off the walls, I got him all dressed and at ten o’clock at night, we went sledding. The snow was still coming down.
It was still coming down, heavily, when we got up on Saturday morning. The birds didn’t seem to know what to make of it.
I’d guess the snow was about two feet by this point. It was really fine, powdery stuff. Boy sank down to his waist and had a tough time wading through it. We couldn’t even go sledding anymore, as we’d just sink right into the snow.
It was still snowing when it got dark that night, though it had stopped by the time we got up the next morning. Which meant it was time for me to go out and shovel Lisa’s car, because at that point we were still operating under the belief–oh how I laugh now–that she’d be going to work the next morning.
The plough had been through our apartment complex, but he’d just cleared a big stripe down the middle of the road, pushing all the snow into a long ridge that separated the road itself from the cars parked in the parking spaces that let off it. So I had a three-foot-thick wall of snow as high as the car itself to dig out before Lisa could get her car out of its space.
So much snow had fallen that, as I cleared it off the top of Lisa’s car, I would turn back to the car to find little rivulets of water trickling down the windows, because the snow in the bottom layer had been so compacted by the weight of all the snow above it that it had melted just from pressure, not temperature.
In the event, Lisa did not go to work on Monday. She went Tuesday, and when she got home that afternoon, we discovered the parking space I had spent three or four hours shovelling had been filled with disused rolls of carpet from the maintenance people renovating an unoccupied apartment–while half the complex’s parking spaces still remained unploughed.
Tuesday night it started snowing again. We got another ten inches, and Lisa stayed home again on Wednesday.
Wednesday evening, Lee came over. We called Applebee’s to place an order, and he and I went to pick it up.
Thank God he was driving an SUV. I’ve never seen major, major thoroughfares in such a state. Car parks at the major plazas were fields of white, with the barest hints of paths through them. The only vehicles on the road were pickup trucks and SUVs.
Since Wednesday, things have started calming down. The sunny areas have been getting a decent amount of snowmelt every day, though of course at night that all freezes into sheets of ice. But the temperatures have remained low enough that most of the snow is still on the ground, and Boy and I have been sledding pretty much every day.
We’ve gotten some pretty huge icicles. The one on the right there was about six feet long. When we’re in bed, Lisa’s and my heads actually lie right on the other side of that wall, and I was taking a nap when the icicle broke off the day before yesterday. Well, I was taking a nap until it broke off.
One thing I was determined to do while we had the snow was sled down the giant hill at the edge of our complex, and yesterday Lisa and I headed round there:
As you can see from the video, there’s a concrete drainage ditch at the bottom of the hill, and I was pretty worried about slamming into it. What I hadn’t considered was that over the past several days, the surface of the snow has repeatedly refrozen into a top layer of ice. So it was hard. And it wasn’t particularly smooth. And immediately, I found myself being rattled against the sled as I hurtled down the slope. This was painful enough, but WAY more painful was that, in my surprise at this, I bit my tongue pretty hard.
But I did it! And it was a blast.
And finally, here’s Lisa sledding:
(Note: if you’re reading this on Facebook or somewhere else that doesn’t show the embedded video, head on over to the original post.)
It’s raining today. It’s beautiful.
Once Boy goes down for his nap–assuming Girl lets me–I’m going to brew a pot of tea and sit out on the balcony and enjoy it. Because the rain, while beautiful, means only one thing–the beauty will be gone tomorrow. It’s autumn in a nutshell, I suppose–a fleeting instant of breathless beauty, but an instant only because that beauty is itself a moment of death, of passing away. After the rains, tomorrow or the next day, all the leaves will have been washed away into a rotting carpet over the ground, and the trees will stand stark and bare, ready for the winter.
In a month or two, of course, we’ll get our first snowfall, and that too brings with it surpassing beauty. Lisa and I have at times talked about returning to Florida, and what we miss of life there. Florida’s a lovely place to live–Florida girls, in their Florida girl tank tops, are an aspect of the local climate I miss dearly–but honestly, in all the years I lived there, I don’t recall ever once looking out my window and being brought up short by the beauty I could see, like I do two or three times a year in Northern Virginia.
All nature is breathtakingly beautiful, but I really think it’s rarely as beautiful as rolling winter woodland early in a thaw. The forest of bare, stark trunks and branches, broken by the occasional frost-laden fir. Sparkling droplets of water beading along the tips of spidery twigs. A lattice of snow blanketing the ground, broken by patches of black earth, green grass or grey, upthrust rock. A small of stream of snowmelt burbling down the hillside.
The breezeway outside our front door, I should start by establishing, is covered over–it’s open at either end, but it has a roof over it. When Lisa opened the front door to head out to work at 5.30 this morning, she noticed our welcome mat had disappeared–and the welcome mat of our neighbours across the hall. It was pretty windy, so she figured the wind had probably blown them a little way up the breezeway.
Into three inches of snow.
Both our breezeway and our balcony–also covered–were blanketed in snow. And once we got out in the open, it got much, much deeper–and it was still falling, almost horizontally. Lisa walked out to the car and, apparently, turned back round, came back in and called out from work for the morning.
It’s honestly just about the most finely powdered snow I’ve ever seen. Just the slightest breeze is enough to send grains skittering and bouncing along the drifts like sand across a desert dune. Anything just a little bit stronger was enough to drive clouds of snow into the air, as you can see from the photo below that, believe it or not, is of me scraping off Lisa’s car.
About 9.40 we decided to head out for breakfast at McDonald’s before Lisa had to go in to work. Of course, I had to scrape the car off, so we didn’t actually set off till 10.25. We got to McDonald’s–right round the corner–at 10.35, five minutes after they stop serving breakfast, but they still had what we wanted left over.
After Lisa dropped us back at home and went to work, Boy finally got to break out the sledge he got from his Aunt Julie for Christmas, as he’s been asking to ever since.
(Twice since Christmas, we’ve had light dustings of snow–not even enough to cover the individual blades of grass. And twice since Christmas, an excited two-year-old has come bouncing onto the bed at seven o’clock in the morning shouting, “It’s snowing, Dad! We can go to Big Hill!”)
(Big Hill being where they go sledding in Kipper.)
So we carried the sledge up to the top of the hill and clambered aboard. For whatever reason, Boy had a bit of trouble understanding that he needed to hold tight to the handrails. And then we went down the hill. At the bottom, I asked, “Was that fun?”
Boy nodded. “Yes, dad. That was a lot of fun. Now you go alone, and I’ll stand at the top and push you.”
And so for the next few minutes Boy decided he just wanted to push me on my downhill, until we decided it was time to head inside.
If you look out of the window, as a human being, at nature, all of nature is unconditionally and absolutely beautiful, wherever it is–whether it’s a jungle, whether it’s a desert, whether it’s the arctic wastes or your own backyard. The only ugly things you’ll ever see when you look out the window are things made by man. And if from your earliest age of looking at the world you see yourself as a member of a species that can only uglify and despoil the world, it gives you what psychiatrists would call a deep sense of guilt.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve twice heard Stephen Fry express that sentiment in the past few weeks–once on a podgram and once on an old episode of Room 1o1–that I was especially attuned to noticing this.
The snow that fell throughout the night and has continued falling so far all day seems to have stirred up a small host of birds. Three separate species are flitting amongst the trees behind our flat and alighting on our balcony railing or on my writing table–cardinals, a brown bird the same size as the cardinal with a bright yellow beak, and a smaller, round bird (honestly, the size and shape of a proper English robin redbreast) with grey and black feathers.
I noticed the cardinals first, when Boy and I went out to play in the some; their red plumage made a striking sight against the pristine white of the bare, snow-laden branches. It wasn’t till after we came back in that I noticed the other species flitting about outside our window, and noticed how bloody many of them there seemed to be. Boy and I spent much of the rest of the morning watching them through the window and glass door out onto the balcony, or out his bedroom window. After I took the first few pictures, every time Boy spotted one that had just alit on the railing or on the tree just beyond it, he would demand, “Bird, dad! Camera! You have to take picture of it!”
More pictures at his Dropshots page.
One of the best things about our new place in Virginia has been how quiet and secluded the view from our balcony is. I like to go out there with the laptop when I write. Most of A Traitor’s Loyalty was written on the back patio of our flat in Gainesville (which wasn’t secluded at all but had a magnificent view of the swimming pool, surrounded by sunbathing Florida coeds), and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my productivity has shot up since I’ve once again had a pleasant, quiet balcony available to write from.
Normally when I go out to write I wear a t-shirt, boxer shorts and flip-flops. I don’t get to go out there till Boy goes down for his nap at one o’clock, so it’s right during the most sweltering part of the day, generally in the high eighties or low nineties.
At the top of this post is a picture Lisa took when she found me writing when she got home from work yesterday at 2.30. Take a look at the fellow in that picture. Take a look at the jeans; take a look at the brand new hooded sweatshirt my dad bought me. Does that look like the clothing of a man sweltering in the midday heat?
(Also, take a look at the new laptop my dad bought me while we were in Florida. It’s got nothing to do with the temperature, but look at it anyway.)
Average daily temperature seems to have dropped around fifteen degrees while we were gone. In fact, today’s estimated high is 65 degrees, which is considerably more than fifteen degrees below what we’ve been used to.
Autumn has arrived.
Words yesterday: 1053
Words total: 63,496
Time spent writing: Two hours (1.30-2.30; 11pm-midnight)
Reason for stopping: Quota
Alcohol: One part amaretto, two parts sour mix, two parts Sprite. Delicious. Don’t know what to call it. Thought about “amaretto four” (the f for fizzy), except that the textual joke doesn’t translate into an audible pun. Since the radio call sign for four is fower, maybe I’ll call it an amaretto fower. Also polished off the last of a bottle of champagne.