A Rat in the Woodpile

I will admit to having a deep fear of rats. I’ve never been bitten, thank God, but I’ve had enough close encounters in the crappy places we’ve rented to feed that fear. And, yes, the rat scene in “1984” sent me over the top. Now we have a rat in the woodpile, a packrat to be specific.

(This post is off the track from the ones I’ve been writing about my novel, The Sweet Spot, set for a Feb. 20 release. But I was inspired. Look for a Sweet Spot post this weekend.)

rats nest

Spiny cactus at the nest’s top

We had a packrat in the woodpile two years ago, and Hank reported that when he dismantled the remaining stacks, it was a healthy little creature, nothing like the city rats he’s seen.

We figured the packrat was feeding off the compost pile encased by wire mesh a few feet way. So, we bought metal trashcans with holes to contain the compost — they’re actually burning barrels. There were no rats last winter.

But I was rather foolish this fall when I cleaned the garden. I put the stalks and other garden remnants in a wire bin although no kitchen scraps except corncobs. That was really dumb. It was like ringing a dinner bell.

The first sign this fall were the pieces of spiny cactus I saw in the woodpile’s two neat stacks and on the ground near its bottom edge. Spiny cactus is the rat’s best defense. I found also stalks and corncobs, of course, dragged over from the wire bin yards away.

I dismantled one nest but discovered another, as the neat rows of firewood I stacked this fall got shorter. Large rat droppings were scattered among the logs. (I make sure to wear gloves and give the logs a good, hard shake outside.)

And I know it is still in there because every other day I go outside for logs, fresh cactus will be on the ground. Probably the noise I make removing the tarp and logs worries it. I also sing or talk out loud.

I’ll give packrats credit for their ingenuity. We don’t have spiny cactus anywhere close to our house of yard. That rat has to travel a long way to bite off a chunk, and then haul it back to its nest. And the spines are long and sharp as hell.

I just wish the rat found another place to live for the winter.

I feel a sense of trepidation when I go outside to bring in logs. I avoid the spot to the left of the stacks where I see the collection of spiny cactus. It creeps me out to know there’s a rat, healthy creature or not, hiding down there.

Yes, I could ask Hank, but he injured his hand in a woodshop accident, so he’s on the DL these days.

Back East we had cats who were ferocious hunters, so rats or mice weren’t ever a problem. We have a cat, but she came from the rescue outfit without front claws. Besides, she’s not allowed outside without close supervision because of the coyotes.

Yesterday, I took off the tarp protecting the firewood. I gave that nest a good look. There’s no way I am dismantling that part of the woodpile, and come face-to-face with the rat. And I can’t bring myself to poison the animal or kill it some other way.

So I guess I will let it be for now.

After all there’s plenty of wood where the rat isn’t, and that’s what I will take for now.

But it still creeps me out.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s our woodpile.



Breaking Bad Habits

I am going solo for the next six weeks or so. That means I can be a selfish writer. I can tackle those home projects I’ve put off. And I can watch what I want to watch, which in this case is the entire series of Breaking Bad.

I wrote in December I was starting with the first episode and working my way through. Like a lot of hit TV shows, I missed being a part of this one. But I didn’t get too far, only midway into the second season. I got too busy and Hank didn’t buy into the show. 

So I decided to return to the second season and see Breaking Bad to the end. I’m now on the second half of season four. I average one or two episodes a night. I get home, make dinner, write, treat myself to some Breaking Bad, and then write again.

I read recently Breaking Bad tops the list for binge-watchers. I can see why.

Of course, the show is set in my state of New Mexico, but south in Albuquerque, a much bigger and badder city it would appear than Taos. That has a lot of appeal.

I am taken with the characters, Walter, Jesse, Gus, etc. and the plot. I am an astute reader and movie/TV watcher. I can usually see what’s going to happen next but I’ve been delightfully surprised, such as the death of Combo and how that was resolved story wise. Or brother-in-law Hank’s near-demise. Resolution. That’s another good attribute of this show. Story lines come around. Characters change, or for those who don’t, their circumstances do.

And, there are no commercials.

So far there has only been one stinker, the episode called The Fly. Walter White is obsessed about a fly in the lab. Frankly, I didn’t care and fast-forwarded to the next episode.

Like a zillion other TV viewers, I watched the show’s final episode so I know what’s coming for Walter and Jesse. But it doesn’t matter. I have a lot of good Breaking Bad still ahead.


Okie From You Know Where

Neighbors. Sometimes you have good ones, like I do now, and sometimes you have bad ones and can’t do anything about it, especially when you are renting and your upstairs neighbor is the landlady’s brother.

I was in my senior year in college, pregnant and married to my first husband. We moved from an attic apartment in a student slum after a rat fell in the beet soup left on the stove. The next morning I discovered red footprints on the kitchen floor. Yuck. So we left.

We moved to a conservative town close to the college, where the local draft board and a chapter of the John Birch Society were once located. But the rent for the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor was cheap. 

The man who lived on the top floor didn’t like us. That was clear the evening we arrived home and he cranked the song “Okie from Muskogee” through their open windows. Full blast. In case you forgot the county standard by Merle Haggard, it begins, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee; We don’t take no trips on LSD.”

Here was a message. He thought we were hippies. He certainly wasn’t. But the joke was — outside the double negative on the second line — we didn’t smoke marijuana or take LSD. But I bet he didn’t believe it.

One time, the man, I don’t remember his name, came downstairs and knocked on our door. He was drunk. He wanted to know what we did down there. Uh, nothing mysterious.

Another time, he shot his gun out the window.

I don’t know why our neighbor felt so threatened by a couple living  below him he had to be so threatening. But it wasn’t worth finding out. We didn’t stay much longer after that.



Perfect Strangers

I was out of the car when I heard Hank yell. He accidentally shut the driver’s side door on the ring finger of his left hand. Hank was in too much pain to do it himself so I popped open the door. He was writhing in pain. The top of his finger was mangled and bleeding badly.

That’s when the woman sitting in her car in the Whole Foods parking lot in Santa Fe got out. I am a nurse and a healer, she told me. She took a look at Hank’s hand. You need to get him to urgent care, she told me. His finger will need stitches.

That’s when a man wearing a black cowboy shirt and bolo stopped. He wanted to know what happened. His advice: get some ice.

The woman asked the man: Could you do that?

Not sure if the man responded, I ran inside to the fish counter for ice, but when I returned, I found the man indeed brought a bag of ice. The woman had written directions to an urgent care office.

I thanked them both and got the car started.

I found the place although I don’t know Santa Fe very well. (I did have to stop once at a bakery to check directions when I got lost briefly.) Hank’s finger needed six stitches but thankfully no bones were broken. He felt no pain after it was numbed.

I can recall many times when I’ve been helped by perfect strangers, like when our VW camper van slipped into a ravine in the middle of nowhere in Mexico or a Vietnamese restaurant owner in Paris had no work but a free place to stay. Then, there are the more mundane experiences like someone giving up their seat on a bus in Boston or stopping to help with a flat tire.

We will likely never see those two strangers again. But I am grateful for their help. Thank you.

For more of my writing, this time on food, visit http://joanlivingstoncooks.blogspot.com/


Brick by Brick

Saturday morning I joined a crew of mostly women to help build an adobe house for Habitat for Humanity of Taos. Actually, we were building it for a single mom and her two children so they could have their own home.

The adobe home being built

The home’s exterior walls of adobe brick were up. The interior walls were framed. The crew, led by a supervisor, worked on the parapets and the roof for the porch, sanded and sealed boards, and made adobe bricks for the next house to be constructed. It was part of Habitat’s Women Build Week.

Habitat uses adobe brick in Taos rather than stick framing because the materials are cheap and the labor by volunteers is free.

Clay-rich dirt used for adobe


And so I was there with other women, using a hoe to mix the right proportion of materials in a wheelbarrow — water, clay-rich dirt, sand, and straw. I worked with the homeowner’s sister to get the right consistency, pushing and pulling the hoe together as the adobe began to thicken. Sometimes we had to add more dirt.

I decided quickly there was nothing romantic about making adobe bricks. It’s tough work and out loud I admired the people long ago who created homes and villages from the materials at hand.

Using gloved hands, we scooped the adobe into wooden frames on the ground. We pressed it down so there would be solid blocks

Adobe bricks in process

when the frames were eventually pulled and the bricks were allowed to dry in the sun.

When we used up the available frames, we found something else to do. I carried long pine boards to the women using electric sanders to smooth boards spread over saw horses. I stacked the boards in the center of the saw horses, so the women could pull them down for sanding.

In the midst of the hubbub of power tools and hammering, I was reminded of when we built our first house in Western Massachusetts. We already had a large family when we bought a piece of land and then used its equity to get a construction loan. (In all, we spent $60,000 for the land and home.)

The money went farther because Hank and I discovered people were either willing to give us a deal or work for free on the weekends because they wanted us to own a home. Hank is a skilled carpenter who worked alongside most of them.

My job was to bring coffee and pastries in the morning, and then lunch, and beer for after work. Some people confided they did it for the lunch.

On Saturday morning I admired the effort of my fellow volunteers to help a woman who wanted to own a home for her children. And as she worked alongside them, smiling, I knew how she felt.