Wednesday, August 10, 2016

My Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion 2016

Lilly of the Lake and Her Escort
I can finally answer that question that’s been nagging at you: How many Bohunks does it take to build a deck during a blackout?

I found the answer to the question at the 2016 Big Bohunk Family Reunion (BBFR). This year, there were 51 of us (4 generations out of 5, counting from Grandpa and Grandma as #1). We come from three related “clans.” The companion animal count this year was 12 dogs and a macaw. We humans ranged in age from 3 months to 80 years. Mom was the Grand Matriarch. She had an escort (some young cousin) helping her everywhere she went (and a grapefruit margarita in her hand most of the time). The 3-month-old was the newest baby cousin at the 2016 BBFR, though we have an even newer one, too new to come, who will be debuted/initiated next year.

A Dingo Ate My Macaw
We are all the offspring (by blood, marriage, adoption, etc.) of my paternal Czech grandma, Viola, and her German husband, my grandpa Adolph. Viola and Adolph had three children, my dad and his older sister and brother. Way back when, Grandma and Grandpa bought a small cabin by a lake in north-central Minnesota, where family gathered each summer. I can still remember when I was a little kid, sneaking out to the dock at night to free the poor frogs “caught” on a wire stringer (Grandpa’s catfish bait), or stealing spoonfuls of peanut butter late at night while Grandma, the inventory police, slept. Grandma and Grandpa eventually passed the cabin along to their daughter, who passed it along to her kids. Then sometime later, the kids (my cousins) added another cabin on the property and started up the summer gatherings again.

Loons...SO Appropriate
So now there’s the “old cabin” and the “new cabin.” The new cabin has a fully-stocked bar, the kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, and the camp’s only flush toilet. The old cabin is now bedrooms (bedrooms in both cabins are auctioned off each year for the following year) and a living room for games – jigsaw puzzles, poker, etc. Between the two cabins, there’s a picnic table, hammock, fire pit, recycling barrels, trash barrels, outhouse, and rope swing. During the reunion, there may also be beer kegs, pig roasters, grills, an auction table, various campers, and a small tent city. There’s a long flight of stone steps and an alternate dirt path down a hill from the old cabin to the lake, where there’s a dock, another picnic table, another fire pit, and during the reunion, various water toys, floats, & boats. Most people stay on-site, and some of us wimp out and stay in the motel in the nearest town.

One interesting bump in the road this year was a major thunderstorm with straight-line winds that hit the area just before the Bohunks started arriving. The storm drove trees through the roofs of several houses in town (and one room of our motel), and it knocked out the power to the cabins for the first three days of the reunion. This meant cooking on the grill, flashlights after dark, and hauling water up from the lake in order to flush the toilet—a million blessings upon everyone who lugged those buckets!

The Big Build
In spite of the blackout, the cousins pulled off this year’s project: the Big Build. One cousin gathered donations ahead of time to buy materials for new sliding doors and a deck on the lake side of the old cabin. Not to be deterred by a sissy storm, the cousins fired up generators, table saws, and other power tools and got most of the work done—from nothing to deck & doors—on the first full day of the reunion (with a few food, beer, and bloody Mary breaks). It’s a Bohunk miracle that (a) it got done, and (b) no one got hurt (although there may have been one hammered thumb, pun intended). On day 2, they added the steps on the deck and a handrail down the dirt path. By reunion’s end, they’d also added a handrail to the stone steps. It was an amazing feat of determination and cooperation. So…how many Bohunks does it take to build a deck? As many as you can get: Builders, feeders, bartenders, entertainers, and many, many, many  supervisors.

The Grand Matriarch's Halo
The 2016 BBFR also included a pontoon cruise, paddle boarding and jet skiing, and I understand there were late-night hootenannies (past my bedtime), featuring the song stylings of my oldest bro, Blind Lemon Pledge. Ray and I paddleboated every day, peddling to a small bay to check out the lilipads, the turtles, and two fledgling bald eagles, or we peddled around the lake after a family of very patient loons.

Because the Big Build had highest priority this year, we skipped the Esther Williams Invitational Lake Swim, and, unless it happened after my bedtime, Casino Night in town was also canceled.

She Flunks "Holding Power Tools 101"
The 6th annual These-Cabins-Don’t-Pay-For-Themselves auction, however, was another stellar success. The big seller this year was one cousin’s (our family pastry chef) homemade crème brulees, which our auctioneer caramelized on the spot with a full-sized blow torch for each lucky winner. It was quite a spectacle, and in a genius marketing move, the auctioneer was careful never to say exactly how many crème brulees were left to be auctioned, thereby driving the price up each time.

Blow Torch Brûlée  
In the 2016 Golfathon, generation 3 handily beat generation 4. The whipper-snappers are schooled again.

Cabin Cuisine: This year’s menus included a Mexifeed (with homemade guac and pico de gallo), shrimp & steak kabobs, burgers, cheesy potatoes, baked pasta, pastries (cupcakes, a torte, macarons), zucchini-chocolate chip sweet bread, and much more. We did not suffer.

Christening the Deck
As my little contingent left the BBFR this year, the remaining cousins were hard at work again, this time at the cabin next door, helping our reunion neighbor Bob cut up and haul away the enormous trees he’d lost in the storm. Because that’s just what kind-hearted Bohunks do. (Sidenote: I believe Bob may have called the sheriff once or twice before he got used to us—and built a fence. So another thing about Bohunks? We don’t hold grudges!)

Bob's Tree Removal

The Youngest Cousin
Once again, the BBFR reminds me how lucky I am to be part of this big, loud, zany, messy family that can and will gather each year into its own wonderful village. We are carpenters, salespeople, accountants, doctors, teachers, pharmacists, retirees, Democrats, Republicans, Christians, atheists, Buddhists, rednecks, peaceniks. We love each other in spite of (or because of) our differences, we help and take care of each other. We’re already cranking up the auction knitting and stockpiling Deep Woods Off for next year’s Big Bohunk Family Reunion, and as a very special treat, here’s an amazing compilation video put together by talented cousin Nick:

A Room with a View

Monday, August 1, 2016

Sixty & Silent

I turned 60 this year, and for the past two years, I have given myself a very special gift—a few days of my birthday week in a hermitage at a Benedictine monastery.

Home Sweet Hermitage
Window to the World
The hermitage cabin I stay in has one room, furnished simply with a single bed, table and chair, and a rocking chair. There is a tiny fridge, microwave, hotplate, and sink with cold running water. There is a window air conditioner, a fan, and several lamps. A picture window looks out over a small lake. There is an outhouse shared by the monastery’s two hermitages. The Abbey provides bedding, towels (sink baths in the cabin, showers in the Abbey if you want), and a continental breakfast each morning, which means coffee and whatever else you can scrounge up in the Abbey kitchen.

The Abbey itself is an architectural masterpiece, and I try to spend at least a little time in the sanctuary, bathed in the light coming through floor-to-ceiling stained glass. If no one’s around (which is usually), I sing in the sanctuary to hear the music reverberate off glass and granite. I walk the Abbey trails. I avoid other people and may go for a day or two  without talking. This year, I was the only guest during my stay, so I spent lots of time exploring the recesses of the Abbey.

Lady of the North
I bring my laptop to write, I bring a book and my knitting, and I bring a guitar. There’s no internet, TV, or radio, and I spend a great deal of time simply sitting. I sit looking out the cabin’s picture window, or I sit outside on a wooden bench overlooking the lake. This time, I spent a LOT of time on the lake bench with my eyes closed, listening.

O, the echo...
I think some people have a hard time imagining why I love the hermitage. I’m not trying to escape or “get away” from anyone or anything. I’m using the quiet to GO TOWARD something. I think the separation and solitude of the hermitage serve other necessary functions for me:

1.     Contemplation. Since I was a kid of 6 or 7 and wanted to be a nun (before I knew I’d have to be Catholic…and celibate…and obedient), I’ve been drawn to a contemplative life. I often “hole up,” even at home, for days at a time when I’m having a hard time being social or my brain is “full.” The hermitage lets me, for a brief moment, be a wholly dedicated “monk” and live a rich, beautiful, quiet moment apart.
2.     Decompression. Often, we don’t recognize the stress in our lives. We call it “busy,” “fast-paced,” “multitasking,” or “competitive.” The hermitage gives me a chance to STOP and see the perpetual gear-spinning for what it is, and for what meaning (or lack thereof) it will all have had in the Big Picture. It gives me a chance to re-direct and reboot.
Stained Light
3.     Silence. This is a BIG one for me. I need silence sometimes like other people need cheeseburgers and Diet Pepsi. Most of us today are beyond avoiding silence; we’re at the point where we FEAR silence. We don’t want or feel a need to be self-reflective. We want a constant incoming stream of stimuli, and most of us EXPECT other people to partake in our non-silence 24/7 via email, text, Facebook, etc.—we’re downright miffed if someone goes off the grid, even temporarily. Everything in us looks outward; we fight tooth & nail against looking inward. Maybe we’re afraid of ourselves. Afraid of “nothing,” “dull,” and “boring.” Afraid of what will happen, what we’ll learn, who we’ll be (or who we’ll turn out NOT to be) if we stop, even for a moment. But for me, the great gifts (I don’t know who/what gives them…that’s another blog post, or book, or monumental journey) of insight, inspiration, revelation, spontaneous joy, and personal evolution happen in and because of the spaces—moments of solitude and silence.
4.     Meditation. It’s a chance to keep the “monkey mind” busy for a bit in a distraction-free zone, and to let True Mind be what it is (see
5.     Discovery. I’m pretty sure I figured out the Loch Ness monster for y’all. When the wind blows ripples, all moving in one direction, on the surface of a lake, then occasional gusts swirl the ripples in various spots from another direction, the resulting crosshatching is CLEARLY Nessie just under the surface, skimming & diving, undulating, swimming in snaky curves from one part of the lake to another, and sticking her head up to say howdy (okay, that last one I made up).

German theologian Paul Tillich said, “Language…has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” Maybe the difference between the two is only our intention and attitude? Heck, I don’t have the answers, but a few days apart is a good place to start looking for them. And I got a poem out of the deal…
A Place Apart...Was that Nessie?


Day 1.

You can’t breathe. In the stillness, terror.
Like a flock of birds, you trust noise.

You hear each rapid ka-thump of your heart.
It makes you cry, shiver, imagine dying.

You don’t unpack. You study a road map, look
for a busy corner where you could hide.

You plan your story: Yes, it was pleasant
and all, but really, who needs it?

You play your iPod till the batteries go.
A spider weaves. You try to sleep.

Day 2.

You make coffee, stand in the doorway, one foot
on the threshold. Grey rabbit crouches under sumac.

Midmorning, your teeth unclench, shoulders drop.
You sweep, dust, arrange pen, paper, teacup & spoon

on the cabin table, like a map. You stare at the pond—
ripples, rings, oil slick on the green-black deep.

Time lets you go. You sit on the crumbling dock, watch
swallows dip and skim, dip and skim, as if that’s all.

Day 3.

Before dawn, you walk to the water, each step
threading you to earth’s core. You sing Shaker

hymns. Songs come back across the water,
echoed, altered. You write about halcyon’s nest.

Diurnal instinct lulls you into unfurled sleep
at dark, your breathing deep as water.

Map of cabin, pond, valley, sky, stillness
imprints on your dreams.

Day 4.

Wind frills a still pond’s
glass into embossed scallops,
beads of turtle snout.

Today’s map unfolds—
flycatcher wing, frog rumble,
long cattail shadows.

Day 5.

Light, water, map, silence.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Word to Young Women about Roughing It

This kitchen is deceptively large.
I just got back from our sort-of-annual Women’s Campout. Our original intention was for several women friends to go somewhere camping each summer and spend a few days unwinding, reconnecting, and generally, having fun. We’ve missed a few summers here & there, but we made it this summer. Gracious friends of one of us let us use their cabin for the week, a hand-built cabin perched in a pass at 6800 feet in the Black Hills National Forest.

There were five of us this year, all in our late 50’s or 60’s. I decided that this year, as a public service, I should prep-school my 30 & 40-something women friends about the joys (and potential hazards) of sticking five midlife women in a small dwelling together in the middle of an breathtaking (but isolated) alpine meadow…

1.     Learn to leave the room. No kitchen on the planet is big enough for five women. You could be cooking outdoors, on a campfire in the middle of Death Valley, and there still wouldn’t be room for all of you. Too much crowding in the kitchen makes nerves sizzle. DO NOT get between a sister and the coffee pot. This year on our campout, we each volunteered to take responsibility for planning and preparing one night’s dinner. This helped keep things to a slow simmer, but assigned night or no, a sister will still try to take over. As my grandma used to say, “One side or a leg off.” She had an odd sense of humor for a Presbyterian.

Still Life with Coffee and Meadow
2.     Listen. When, just after dark and while two of you are deep in conversation on the deck, two large packs of coyotes suddenly start singing and calling to each other from opposite sides of the valley, you will all completely lose your composure and turn into jumping, giggling, giddy schoolgirls. Never apologize.

3.     Just keep your OWN house clean. A midlife woman, especially one who’s (mostly) comfortable in her own skin, has serious control issues. It’s not a character flaw, it’s just a fact. She’s spent four or five decades getting the kinks ironed out, training children and/or spouses, and “fixing” situations and people, until she’s thoroughly convinced everyone else should think/feel/react/look/be like her. After all, it’s working for her, so surely it’s THE WAY that will work for everyone else, including her four sisters in this cabin. Now put five women together who EACH believe this. Stir. Stand waaaay back.

4.     Make music together. When there are no audiences to impress, no bystanders to be embarrassed in front of, no critics to please (except each other, and smart sisters just shut up and make music), and you’re singing/dancing/playing guitar or egg shaker in a “bowl” in the Black Hills, music echoes inside & out.

Wally longingly watches for other T-Rexes.
5.     Don’t worry about appearances. That Van Morrison line, “The girls walk by, dressed up for each other,” is a romantic myth once you hit 50-something. We are all grungy on this bus—too fat/thin, our butts are too wide/flat/jiggly, our breasts are too big/little/low, our skin is too oily/dry/spotted, and our hair is too short/long/frizzy/flat. In a strictly evolutionary sense, girls, we of the half-century are no longer in the mate-market (the only real reason to primp & preen), so relax and let’s enjoy our decrepitude, embrace our crone-ism.

6.     Take Catchphrase with you. This is a game where you get a word or phrase, and you have to give clues so others can guess it. The game is an acceptable form of competition among women, and it’s the perfect vehicle for airing your repressed silly humor, sexual innuendo, stupid puns, and just plain smutty jokes. It turns grown women into snorting 15-year-olds. Pair it with a nice Pinot.

7.     Know your job. If you’re spending an extended period of time with several women, your job is never to analyze, correct, confront, or figure out your sister, to help her “see the light,” or to hold some sort of emotional intervention. Your job is simply to nod sympathetically, agree with everything your sister says, and say, “You poor thing” a lot.

8.     Have a camp mascot. Ours this year was a stuffed T-Rex named Wally (from Wall Drug). One or more of you will want to post on FB during every rare moment when the Hills open their invisible dome to an Interweb/cell signal. Your other sisters will not let you post their pics (see #4), so your mascot will bear the brunt of Shamebook ridicule for you all.

Deadwood wildlife in its natural habitat.
9.     Go with women you love. Go with women with whom you have shared history, long or short. A carload of midlife women spending five days together could be a recipe for disaster: fodder for wagging tongues, dished-out dirt even Clorox can’t touch, and grudges that go to the grave. It could all go down in a fiery blaze of NEVER AGAIN! You could be lobbing grenades you can never take back. Don't be judgmental (even if your judgement is that someone else is judgmental). Laugh, leave the sarcasm at home, don't rag on a sister behind her back, take care of each other, and treat each other with tenderness and generosity. Do the dishes when it's your turn, and put TP on the roll if you use the last of it.

      I’m SO grateful that I got to go (again!) with women who are witty, kindhearted, compassionate, patient, thoughtful, and funny. We’re all fractured, wounded, and slightly misshapen in this life.  None of us is perfect, but with love, acceptance, a sense of humor, and plenty of room to wander off alone occasionally, our 2016 Women's Campout was perfectly wonderful.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Who Brought the Orthopedic Pillow?

Ray and I just got back from a trip to Minnesota. We attended the memorial service for a friend’s grown daughter, and I find I can’t yet process her death (she was three years younger than my daughter? she was a smart, funny, engaged young woman with unlimited potential? she had a husband and two small children, all of whom adore her?). I can’t even really think about it without being blindsided by a rolling wave of grief, and if I let those floodgates open…

So instead, I’m focusing (again, because it cracks me up how I turned into that person) on the comedy of traveling as a mid-lifer, and how different a road trip is now than the many I went on in my sometimes-misspent youth. Maybe I’m exaggerating just a skosh, but here are the basics:

Then: You run into Mark in a bar. You drink tequila shots. An hour later, you, Mark, and two other friends pile into Mark’s Falcon and head out of town.

Now: For 6-8 weeks before you leave, you and 8 friends exchange an elaborate web of emails, phone calls, and texts that work out the # of vehicles you’ll take, routes, precise departure time, seating arrangements, itinerary, supplies, and travel expenses.

Then: Mark was out of gas when you left town. Nobody checked. So you coast into a Sinclair on vapors and pool your spare change. You put $3 of Regular in the tank. You can go another day or two before you’ll have to dump the trash you’re all sitting on.

Now: In the week before you leave, you gas up, rotate the tires, change the oil, check the brakes, wash & vacuum the car, charge your iPod, and buy a new air freshener.

Then: You flip a coin to decide on a direction. Heads, you go west. Tails, you go south. You live in the Midwest, so you never go north, and east seems too “busy.” You drop the coin down a storm drain and head southwest.

Now: You look at a paper map and use a highlighter to mark the route. You have a destination and a purpose, or you wouldn’t leave home. You plug the destination address into your GPS, so your Australian friend Gordon can direct your every move. You’ve already researched and marked the map for perfectly timed/spaced rest areas and coffee shops.

Then: When you leave town, you're wearing a halter top and broom skirt. This is what you’ll wear the entire trip. If you find a lake somewhere, you’ll rinse out your clothes.

Now: You wear several sensible layers, and you have a small duffel with a change of clothes in case of spilled wine, laughing too hard (you only get this if you’re over 50), or dribbled mayo from the sandwiches.

Then: Between the lot of you, you have a pack of sunflower seeds, a smashed Little Debbie cherry pie, two packs of Newports, some old Double Bubble, and a couple joints. There’s an unopened Band-Aid on the passenger-side floor. Mark’s guitar is in the trunk.

Now: You’ve packed in a small cooler with three ice packs, sandwiches made with whole grain, high fiber bread, low-fat Vegenaise, low-fat uncured salami or low-fat grass-fed-milk provolone (for the vegetarians), whole-grain organic mustard, and organic romaine. In the cooler, you also have a bag of organic carrots, 2 organic bananas, a six-pack of protein shakes, and some homemade blueberry kombucha. You brought a thermos of organic Sumatran Chemex-drip coffee, carefully measured to last until your first well-researched coffee stop. You brought napkins, recycled paper bowls, a knife, and small enamel coffee cups. You brought a first-aid kit with supplies for a broken finger, cuts, snakebite, pain, allergic reactions, and sprains. The kit has illustrated guides for CPR and Heimlich. Everyone else brought approximately the same things.

Then: You end up in Taos, staying a few nights in the loft of an artist your friend’s cousin’s friend knows. Then you make it to Embudo, where you stay for a couple weeks in a teepee on the flats out behind an abandoned adobe ranch. Locals feel sorry for you and leave food for you at the ranch. Maybe you adopt a stray dog. Maybe you end up pregnant. Maybe you fall in love with an Indian musician you met in Taos. When you finally all get bored and/or can’t stand the sight of each other anymore, you have your moms wire gas money, and you head home.

Now: You travel four hours to an event, stay two hours, and drive four hours back home. You’re completely exhausted, and you don’t leave home again for another couple of months.