Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Considerations

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I figure life doles out plenty of challenges for each of us without having to heap disappointment on ourselves. And hey, if you don’t MAKE them, you can’t BREAK them, right? But I will keep in mind a few New Year’s Considerations this year…

1. I might try to lose more weight this year. I’ve been on every diet known to the modern world: grapefruit, cabbage soup, South Beach, Atkins, pictures of yourself in a bikini at 16 on the fridge (really more torture than diet), Fit for Life, Pritikin, Christmas Cookie (a recent diet invention of my own), macrobiotic, probiotic, Korean rice, soybean sprouts & hot bean paste, wine & cheese (another original), and many more. I’m now on my second go-round with Weight Watchers, which is really just group therapy for folks who, after years of vehemently defending the “big boned,” “slow metabolism,” or “laying on of fat is a geographical survival adaptation of northern climate female populations” defenses, have finally had to suck it up and admit they need to eat fewer calories than they burn.

2. It’s possible I could recycle more, turn the compost, eat more locally grown foods, set up rain barrels, drive less, investigate grey water recycling, figure out one new way to cook tofu, consume less, and reduce my carbon footprint. I’d like to convert my car to burn discarded cooking oil, but I’m afraid the french-fry smell would attract teenagers. I’ll try doing these things not because Al Gore says so or because cute polar bears are stuck on ice floes, but because it’s the right thing to do, dangit.

3. I might try to move a little more this year. I have a deep-seated and probably pathological aversion to the E word…the Total Gym, Sweatin’ to the Oldies, no-pain-no-gain word. Still, I may swim a bit so I can have a sauna afterward, I may briskly walk down the road to visit the neighbor’s horses with apples, I will definitely dance like a fool tonight when Ray’s band plays, and I may gyrate along with a “Bellydancing 101” DVD when no one’s around. But I’ll be doing these things because I feel like it, not because they’re…you know…the E word…

4. I’ll try to remember, in spite of a long, proud, and sometimes amusing family history of verbal sparring & heated debate, that sarcasm is NOT humor, and I may work at curbing my evil sarcastic tongue.

5. I might try harder to give more and take less, knowing how wealthy I am in all the ways that count.

6. I will try to get Stella, my African Grey parrot, to say something witty and profound. Her current favorites (which she repeats ad nauseum until she has new favorites) are: a one-sided phone conversation complete with dialing beeps, laughs, perfectly inflected but muffled conversation, and a hang-up beep; a small puppy whine (her newest); a large dog barking at a distance; the sound of tapping on the side of a coffee grinder; her favorite request, “Want some pasta?”; and a tuberculin cough that sometimes turns into a coughing jag lasting several minutes (she picked this up when Ray had a cold a couple years back).

7. Maybe I’ll give meditation another serious go believing, as I do, that it’s THE key to direct experience of the Divine, whatever that turns out to be. I think somewhere in the Bible (and the Koran, Talmud, Pali canon, and every other sacred text) it says, “Thou shalt shut up and let Me get a word in edgewise.”

8. I could try to knit a sweater. A whole sweater. I have several half-sweaters, a back and one sleeve, say, or a front and a hood, in a Rubbermaid tub. I consider these “done” and am just waiting for the right person to whom I can give them.

9. If I get the chance, I’ll remind my grown children that when they lived at home, their clean clothes were always folded, not balled up on the living room floor where they ended up as dog beds, cat toys, or foot paths. I may explain to them, again, that clean dishes are one of life’s little luxuries, and that having a full-time job with health insurance does not make one a “flunkie sell-out patsy for the Man.”

10. I might make every effort to be kinder and more universally compassionate, open-minded, honest, and spiritually centered. I may try each day to do the RIGHT THING (in spite of constant human bickering, we all know what the RIGHT THING is).

So I’ll give each of these considerations some serious…considering. After all, tomorrow—January 1, 2009—is the first day of the rest of…well…2009. Then again, I may spend the year snarling, pouting, lazing in a lawn chair, and eating chocolate oranges. We’ll see.

Monday, December 29, 2008

You look smashing in your John Wayne pajama pants...

I haven’t had time yet to indulge in the post-holiday blahs. Semester grades were due last night at midnight, and I finished my 48-hour grading marathon at 10 p.m. It’s pure procrastination, of which I am the reigning Queen.

So this morning, in order to work out the “teacher’s neck” from hunching over my pile of portfolios for two days, I went out and wandered the yard. Ray had alerted me early this morning to a downed peacock on the road. It was one of the ABBA quads, a male. He had gone to that Great Roost in the Ether. I didn’t see any obvious signs of trauma, so I’m assuming this is the boy who’s been moping around since Christmas, apparently ill. I scooped him off the road, said good-bye, and left him as a tribute meal for the coyote Ray saw dart across the mile road last Friday. Corn-fed peacock. I noticed this morning that the other ABBA boy is lame, one foot curled under, forcing him to limp along on the back of the foot. Frostbite? Varmint bite? Battle wound? Two decades of inbreeding? Whatever the problem, injury, disease, or tired genes, he managed to make his way into the yard for corn and bird seed this morning, and the rest of the flock seems very patient with him.

The baby possum Ray found hunkered down in the loafing shed yesterday morning is gone, although I saw Shadow, the black barn cat, working intently on something near the shed yesterday afternoon. I haven’t seen Snowball, the white cat, for days, but the cat food in the pyramid shed keeps disappearing.

Jack Blizzard can drive even the most passive among us to hunt, I guess. Which reminds me, I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses) The Road. It reminded me of my favorite American novelist, my buddy Bill Faulkner—the writer we love to hate—in terms of intensity and poetic rhythm of language. It occurs to me that the current and future generations not only won’t CHOOSE to read Faulkner, they won’t have the vocabulary for it. Sad. The Road is a beautifully written post-apocalyptic survival (or not) story, which I recommend without reservation, but don’t read it before bed if you’re hoping for fluffy, happy dreams.

Christmas was wonderful. After a flurry of last-minute arranging, Ray’s family was able to come for dinner on Christmas Eve. His oldest son was here from the Cities, so it was a warm surprise to have the family together (and his niece gave me the highly-coveted Kopi Luwak coffee beans). On Christmas Day, we had a smallish gathering at Mom’s, just Mom, Ray, the kids, and the dogs. There was no Jell-O salad (although Mom snuck her ubiquitous redhot candies onto the otherwise perfect sugar cookies), Mom made every kind of comfort food imaginable, and we played Catch Phrase, men against women. The women rocked. Mom has a tradition of getting all the men in the family identical gifts, and this year it was flannel John Wayne cowboy pajama pants. I suggested they all model the pants for a holiday picture, but no dice. Ray got me the perfect present--a Nintendo DS--my new procrastination tool.

Today, the sun is shining, it’s 30+ degrees, and Mom and I are going to ward off the blahs (and my urge to weep over the dead pea-boy) with shoe shopping in the City. There’s nothing like a new pair of shoes to shuffle out from under Jack’s heavy hand.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The REAL Christmas Miracles

Tiny Tim finally getting the help he needs…ha! Even Scrooge’s melting heart is nada y pues nada compared to the miracles we’ve seen in this season of…well…miraculous stuff.

1. After a post-op infection and/or botched procedure and/or hitherto unknown secondary condition leading to a perforated bowel, our friend was rushed to the VA hospital and spent the next many, many weeks in a drug-induced coma, teetering on the proverbial edge. That he came out of it is miraculous enough. That he came out of it with his humor & compassion intact, and that he’s now gadding about town delivering his homemade fruitcakes is almost enough to get me to church.

2. There will be no Jell-O desserts at our Christmas dinner this year. My mom calls these “salads,” but c’mon—nothing made with Jell-O should ever be called salad. There isn’t even a meal category appropriate for things made with Jell-O or its predecessor, aspic. It’s a miracle anyone my age survived childhood, with its obligatory “salad” squares of grated carrot and/or crushed pineapple suspended in lemon Jell-O, like bizarre Jurassic fossils-in-amber wedges.

3. I mentioned this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. Our friend, on a routine checkup at Mayo, learned there were two healthy lungs available, had a transplant the next day, and is now happily getting to know her new Self.

4. My youngest son who, at 21, only has 4 more years until he has a fully-formed brain capable of long-term consequential thinking, offered—actually offered well before I made any shrieking demands—to pay his own cell phone bill from now on. That doesn't mean he'll pay it, but I consider the offer a hopeful sign of progress.

5. Another woman we know, a woman who has lullabyed folks in these parts with her beautiful singing over the years at folk fests and holiday concerts, went into remission from Stage 4 lung cancer.

6. NPR did a story on Kopi Luwak coffee. Apparently, cat-like civets in Indonesia eat coffee cherries. The cherries are digested, but the beans pass through the civet system unharmed, although the coffee’s bitter oils are broken down in the digestive process. The Kopi Luwak “farmers” wander through the forest collecting civet scat, which contains the coffee beans, which are cleaned, roasted, and sold. It’s supposed to be the smoothest, most distinctive coffee in the world, selling for up to $1000 per kilo. And I got some for Christmas. I brewed it immediately, and it does have a very unique smoky flavor. This gift represents a miraculous and essential leap in my java apprenticeship.

7. I finished my Christmas knitting. Three pairs of arm warmers, felted coasters, small alpaca drawstring satchels, and many goofy winter hats. My youngest son (pictured) laid claim to an experimental hood/hat I had just finished, because he thought it would be cool to wear at the skateboard park (see #4 re: brain formation).

8. We don’t have to drive out of town for Christmas. Because Mom moved to Vermillion, we only have to go a few miles. You’ll recall I LOVE road trips, but it’s December…in the Midwest. Over the years of annual holiday treks to Omaha, I’ve been stuck in a blizzard in Sioux City for Christmas; I’ve careened on black ice & shot down a ravine, through a fence and into a tree, with two adults, three kids, and a parrot in the car; I’ve sweated bullets worrying over kids driving in on snow & ice from wherever they were living at the time; and I’ve broken down on I-29 in the middle of a long nowhere stretch, in subzero winds, more times than I care to count.

So today, Christmas, I’ll be at Mom’s in record time. I will offer a silent prayer of gratitude to the Universe—for the wonders listed here and for the miracles of family, peace, the amazing possibilities of a new year, and for the brave soul who accidentally spills the Jell-O salad on the floor, right where the dogs happen to be watching & waiting.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The county plow guy finally went down the road yesterday morning around 10. Ray had been shoveling and snow-blowing drifts in the driveway for a couple hours when, in an amazing gesture of holiday generosity, the plow guy came back and scooped all the way down the driveway. I felt like crying. But instead, I got out of here as fast as I could and went shopping. Civilization. Whew. Ray doesn’t know how close he came to being forced to make flour & salt dough ornamental knitting needle toppers...I was seriously stir-crazy.

So today, with my winter demons released, I’d like to get some writing done. I write mostly poetry because there’s still something mysterious and inexpressible and (because I share the masochism of the sporadically insecure) painful about the process of writing poems. And I can flog myself even more knowing that 9.9 people out of 10 (that poor .9 guy) won’t ever read a poem that isn’t funny, filthy, or rhymey. But I haven’t finished a poem since I published a book in November, and I’m feeling sluggish, bloated, lazy. I’d rather bake something.

I write other stuff, too. I thought in this season of overeating I’d use my favorite metaphor—food—to explain how I think about different kinds of writing.

Blogging is like a Butterfinger (chilled, not frozen). It’s pure pleasure, a secret indulgence you really shouldn’t overdo. It’s sweet, chocolaty & peanut-buttery, and has virtually no nutritional value except the gazillion calories that migrate instantly to your thighs.

Letter-writing is like penuche. Penuche-making is a dying art that was once practiced regularly, especially at holidays. It takes a little time, patience, and a Martha Stewart candy thermometer. Not much nutrition here either, but it doesn’t matter, since penuche is a labor of love meant to be given away.

Short story writing is like biscuits & gravy. Roll up your sleeves. You need some muscle to knead the dough, and the process can really mess up your kitchen. It isn’t complicated, but without the right ingredients in the proper proportions, you’ll have flat, rock-hard biscuits and lumpy gravy that no one will touch. There’s some nutritional value, maybe a few carbs for energy and some protein in the gravy to keep you digesting for a while.

Poetry is a delicacy, petit foie gras in saffron truffle sauce, made from the rarest, finest, freshest ingredients, rooted out by pigs named Sarah or Maude, and gathered by hand in the most unexpected and unadulterated places on earth (or elsewhere). These ingredients have little-known and poorly-understood nutritional, medicinal, maybe even metaphysical properties that somehow feed the body and support the spirit. But this stuff is labor-intensive. Boy howdy, you’d better have an apron on, and you can plan on spending many long hours tethered to the stove, sweating like a racehorse. And when, after starting, stirring, feeding the concoction to the dogs, then starting over again you finally get it right, you’re still not done. You have to make it LOOK good, perfectly elegant and effortless, a Monet en plat. This stuff can make you laugh & cry if it all comes together in the kitchen, and its serving presentation can make grown men run for the coat room to weep in secret.

Today we’re supposed to have a bonafide warmup, with temps in the 10-15 above range. The peacocks will come down from the rafters and forage in the snow, the dogs will want to stay out longer and play, and the barn cats will head to the grain shed for a hand or two of poker with the mice. Still, any delicacy worth gathering is buried deep under Jack Blizzard’s frozen feet, so I’ll whip up some cinnamon scones topped, of course, with crushed Butterfingers. I owe my Aunt Daisy a letter…

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow blind & stir crazy...

The high today was -3 degrees, with wind chills about -30-35. We went out Friday night to hear friends play in the annual Acoustic Christmas concert in Sioux Falls, and by Saturday morning we were snowed in.

We haven’t had that much snow, maybe 6-10”, but the relentless winds have blown a cornfield full of the white stuff onto our road and into the yard. Our long driveway and the 1/8-mile of road immediately at the end of the drive, going in both directions from the mailbox, are now an amazing landscape of hills, valleys, and incredible cutaways, with drifts 3-4’ high in diagonals that cut across the road. It’s too much snow to move with the snow blower, and the county plow, usually very prompt, still hasn’t come down our road since this all started last Thursday. The peacocks are tucked up on rafters in the loafing shed, and even the dogs won’t stay out for more than a minute or two.

From my back porch, I can see traffic moving steadily on I-29, increasing my yearning for a passable way out. Not that I want to leave, just that I want to be able to leave. There’s something about being stuck that makes one want to go. And I don’t care how many square feet you have, how in love you are…when you’re snowed in with another human, 2 dogs, 2 parrots, no chocolate, and the best thing on TV is a 1980’s David Bowie vampire movie, it can get ugly fast.

So I’ve kept busy wrapping presents, baking cookies, experimenting with Japanese noodles and bean sprouts, cleaning parrot cages, putting glittery touches on last-minute homemade gifts, and knitting 3 pairs of arm warmers. And we won’t get out tomorrow morning, either, without a Christmas miracle snow plow during the night.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a high of 3 above—a heat wave—and I’ll try a new butterscotch scone recipe. I’ll stay cozy, look out longingly at the Interstate traffic, and wait patiently for the plow. Unless the coffee runs low. Then, drifts or no, I’ll layer on the longies, snowsuit, parka, Uggs, six hats, a scarf and leather work gloves, and I’ll walk to town.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Look Who's Looking...

I’m all for overturning the Patriot Act. Weighing the potential useful information Big Brother might get from eavesdropping on Joe Schmoe’s phone calls to Aunt Rhoda or LuLu Librarian’s Internet dating progress, against Americans’ rights to speak, write, worship, talk, correspond, and assemble, & gripe freely & unmonitored, I’ll take freedom. I heard that’s what America is supposed to be all about—freedom—although I’m not naïve enough to believe this is as true in practice as it might be in principle.

But this IS true: People DIE on the prairie in weather like we’re having today, and Big Brother can sometimes be the only savior.

Yesterday, it was in the upper 30’s and Ray, Mom and I fought city traffic in search of last-minute holiday bargains. Today, the wind chill is -20, and a steady haze of snows blows in from the corn field to the west, on a north wind that could peel away your skin in no time. The peacocks are huddled in the loafing shed rafters, as close as they can get to the brooder lamp without setting feathers aflame. There is no figuring the sudden shift, short of the plains waking up in a seriously foul mood.

Our nature here is to slip into that same bad temper and complain about the weather, and I do. But I also appreciate the raw power of the north wind to strip the linden pods in a shower of thready black, and the willingness of barn cats to tolerate my presence if it means Wal-Mart cat food on a makeshift ledge, out of the icy blast.

I’m not sure folks from more temperate climates really get the gravity of inside/outside. Days like this can make going outside, even a simple trip to town for groceries, unbearable. And if you get to town, the truck with all that glorious California (or Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, etc.) produce may have stalled out near Kadoka, or Bessie may have frozen to a fencepost overnight. So most of us stay inside, happy enough with a hearty “freezer stew” and powdered milk.

I remember a couple winters ago, a woman traveling alone on South Dakota highways got caught in a blizzard. She was missing for 2 or 3 days, her car buried somewhere in a drift. They finally found her, alive, by homing in on her cell phone. So when Jack Blizzard unleashes his shenanigans in the Heartland, I try to curb my railing against Big Brother’s constant nosing into my business, because given a choice between BB’s buttinsky meddling, and having someone find a Marlene-sicle on a gravel road near Irene, I’m glad to be trackable.

So if you have to venture out and Jack’s afoot, remember to wear clean underwear in case you high-center on a snowbank in the hinderland. But pay a little attention, too, to your hair & makeup—you’ll wanna look your best in the satellite video, which will most likely be on YouTube by midweek, doctored to look like you’re lip-syncing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Suddenly, Seasonal Spirit

I have been moved to new heights of gaudiness by this holiday season and by my stubborn procrastination.

A little background. Near the neighborhood in Omaha where I grew up, there was a restaurant called “Mr. C’s,” known far & wide for excellent, authentic Italian food and stunning décor. And by stunning, I don’t mean gorgeous. Mr. C’s was surrounded by a brick half-wall with wrought iron grating at the top. The entire perimeter wall/fence was covered with a gazillion twinkling lights, and inside the restaurant, diners were surrounded by lights, vining plastic grapes, odd statuary, and gilt-framed Old-World prints of gaunt, rail-thin saints, staring at us all droopy-eyed while we fine-tuned our gluttony. Anyway, in our family, Mr. C’s became synonymous with near-criminal decorative overkill.

So last weekend, with a huge stack of research and literary analysis papers taunting me from the dining room table, I decided it was absolutely imperative that I put off grading and decorate for the holidays immediately. Ray got in the spirit, too, and by nightfall, our country home was totally, unabashedly, Mr. C’d.

We swapped our full-size fake tree for a table-top version this year in the interest of puppy-proofing, but you’d be amazed how many decorations, strings of lights (all on twice-a-day timers), candles, ceramic angel choirs, Mary statues, nativities, and pottery bowls of potpourri one can fit in a four-square farmhouse, all above waist level. Now imagine you knew our home was already full of little stone pyramids, alabaster buddhas, Tibetan singing bowls, brass bells, crystals strung on ribbon in every window, urns full of peacock feathers, and you’ll start to get a picture of the sheer museum-storehouse clutter of eclecticism that is our holiday home. Festive, I tell you. Add Ray’s Christmas mix tunes wafting from our many, many, many speakers, and it is freakishly festive.

I’m finally working my way through the paper stack, but at least now I can happily grade with the soft glow of blue twinkling LED lights reflecting off the sentence fragments, shifting verb tenses, comma splices, and misplaced modifiers. So I take it all back, Mr. C. Thank you, and happy holidays.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Some things for which I'm grateful...

1. Miracles. Our friend, on a lung transplant list, went for a regular checkup this past week. In the most sobering and yet beautiful example of the circle of life (the real circle, not the Disney version) I can imagine, while she was there two healthy lungs became available. So, on the day before Thanksgiving, she had a double lung transplant. She may well be the only genuinely optimistic person I know, and she’s a necessary spark of light in our community, so we are all walking around with happy idiot grins over this amazing turn of events, which our friend absolutely trusted would come.

2. Food. I have a lifelong love/hate/love-too-much relationship with food. I forget that it’s only fuel and more often think of it as reward, comfort, confidant, friend. And on holidays, I can’t help but think of it as bounty, too—when the table is spread and the candles are lit, some prehistoric part of my brain sends the message that we’ll survive until the next dinosaur kill, which makes happy-to-be-alive endorphins kick in, which reinforces my twisted relationship with food. It’s a vicious cycle, one I’ll gladly analyze over another bowl of my Mom’s corn and macaroni casserole.

3. Dancing. On the night after Thanksgiving, we gathered at Our Lady of Perpetual Dancing Bar & Grille, where Ray’s band was playing their traditional post-turkey gig. We had a large contingent of family & friends, good dark beer, exceptional music that included a friend from the Hills sitting in with the band, and much freakish, loose-jointed, sweaty dancing. It’s quite purging, really, to dance with wild abandon. Women at Our Lady don’t wait around for men to ask us to dance; we just head for the floor, alone or in gaggles. Some of the dancers—me, maybe—look a lot like that Seinfeld episode where Elaine tried to dance, but it’s such a comfortable hometown scene that no one cares. And I think I threw out a hip at some point, but it’s nothing Advil and a walk around the pasture can’t whip back into shape. Well worth it.

4. Dogs. We had six at our house for Thanksgiving, three puppies and three adults. They established a pack order right away. We had one minor skirmish between the big older Aussie and the Chessie pup, but order was quickly restored. The peacocks, not as grateful for dogs as I am, disappeared into the grove almost as soon as company started arriving, and they didn’t come back into the yard until late Friday.

5. Coffee. The older I get, the harder it is to get moving after a night of song & dance. So bless the goatherder who first noticed his goats gaily frolicking after eating coffee cherries. And bless the Turkish nomads who thought to roast the beans over a desert fire until they were dark & greasy.

6. Time off work. I’m sure there’s an algebraic formula for how long it takes me to recover from festive holiday celebrating: something like X/Y=Z, where X is my current age, Y is the number of hours I spend celebrating, and Z is the number of days it will take me to feel human again. Today it’s snowing and grey, the peacocks are tucked up against the greenhouse windows, and the leftover turkey will soon be turkey noodle soup. So, what’s one to do but watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and doze under a fuzzy blankie with a dog in one's lap?

7. Family. We had twelve people from four states for Thanksgiving dinner. In spite of individual quirks and mutual dysfunctions, I love family gatherings. If you pay attention, you can see how well kids are growing up, how relationships bend & shift, how bonds deepen, how life paradoxically moves us forward together, but along divergent paths. And, if you’re really lucky, you can wing your little brother with a Nerf dart in retribution for the day in 1971 when he found and bit the head off of the chocolate Easter bunny (your friend & confidant) you had stashed in Grandpa’s red toolbox on the back porch. is good. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A clean home, shaken, not stirred...

I have these brass hooks made for displaying decorative plates. They were my grandmother’s. They’re dangling from a wire shelf in my laundry room because, well, you never know when you’ll get the urge to hang a decorative plate. So one day, I was hanging underwear on these brass plate hooks so our delicates could air dry, when it hit me like a bolt of Thor’s own lightning: prairie people are ingenious. My revelation was soon affirmed by Ray.

There are some domestic chores I’ve sworn off for life, and vacuuming is one of them. So in our household, Ray does all the vacuuming. He doesn’t like it, but he does it because he knows I won’t. For my part, I know to steer clear of him when he gets out the Rainbow. He curses cords that pull out of the wall, kicks half-chewed dog biscuits under the computer desk, and mutters as he sucks up the fine layer of dog hair and bird dander that settles on everything in our house. So I stay out of sight, where I won’t have to witness the soft-spoken We Are the World pre-vacuum man I love, morphing into maniacal, wall-crashing, spitting, fuming VACUUM MAN. But today, in a flash of pure prairie ingenuity, Ray discovered the secret to keeping Mr. Hyde hidden—gin martinis.

That’s right. Gin martinis. He vacuumed for FOUR hours, upstairs and down, while sipping gin & olive martinis. He was patient, amused by the cobwebs in the bathroom doorway, and I thought I heard him whistling once. I actually walked through the room just to test. He didn’t glare. He didn’t swear. He smiled at me. If he’d been wearing a tuxedo and cocked an eyebrow once or twice, my knees would have buckled, I would have swooned—I’d have been in James Bond Meets Hazel heaven (you gotta be my age to get that one).

This flash of brilliance on Ray’s part is especially ingenious because Ray does not drink. Even when the band plays in smoky dive bars, Ray drinks Mountain Dew, and he never hunkers down in his Lazy Boy in the evening with a cold brewski. So for him to put these two disparate elements together—martinis and vacuuming—somehow intuiting that the combo would make for a productive and peaceful afternoon, was every bit as practical and ingenious as sorting nails and screws by size into Mason jelly jars, or putting a brooder lamp in the loafing shed rafters to keep the peacocks thawed on January nights.

Thanks to Ray, I’m feeling a surge of prairie pride & inspiration. I’m gonna tear up old stained dishtowels and holey socks, and piece together a quilt commemorating indigenous grasses of the Plains. But first, I think I’ll see if Ray will mix me up a martini…

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Road Trip Reverie

It’s a grey, lazy Sunday at Uncannery Row. We got a couple inches of snow Friday night, but it’s in the 30’s today and melting, a good day to load some Little Feat and Tom Waits into my iPod, catch up on laundry, cut through a layer or two of dust, and think about Thanksgiving dinner.

I can’t begin to name the things for which I’m grateful this year—the list is too long—but just today, I’m especially thankful for one thing in particular: road trips.

Ray and I went to Alejandro MN Friday night so he could play a gig with Small Howard, a band of brothers from Ray’s 20’s. The boys all lived together in an old farmhouse, and they gather every few months or years to do what we all know they really love (in spite of pledges to wives, spouse-equivalents, children, or home fires). I’ve SEEN that look of adoration for a 1970’s Gibson electric—puts stars in a man’s eyes. The boys love each other, too, but talk about it only in private to wives and spouse-equivalents. Women, even prairie women, will tell each other how much they need & enjoy each others’ company. But for men, maybe especially for prairie men, the most they can muster to each other is “good to see you” or “nice licks.”

In spite of a little Norlander stoicism, we had a great time. The boys smiled in and out of moments where the music clicked so perfectly, they were simultaneously in the Alejandro wine bar AND sitting around the living room of the Small Howard House 30 years ago, pushing their long hair out of their eyes and jamming in their holey bell bottoms.

Penelope, Artemis, and I had just as much fun. We sipped wine or Belgian beers, sampled chocol
ate genache-filled pastry, sang along, and laughed. We celebrated the happy news that Artemis and Byron will dive into the mysterious marital abyss next spring or summer. And we all kept room in our hearts for Betsy, Arnold’s wife, who is home battling cancer. No one said anything, but we were all feeling her absence and aware of the delicacy of our days, somewhere in these middle years where we begin to see the horizon at both ends of life. We did our best to surround Arnold with joy, warm friendship, and music, filling him to overflowing so he could take the extra home to Betsy.

Maybe it’s just a stray drop or two of gypsy blood on my father’s Czech side, a little mongrel wanderlust stirring somewhere, but there’s something about a road trip that restores my spiritual center, re-aligns my emotional compass. Seeing newly harvested fields roll by in black & white striped blurs, or beyond those fields, snow hanging like mist over river bluffs, or beyond the bluffs, the curve of the earth at the edge of my vision, makes me realize not just how small I am, but also that the bigness of the world is a good thing. It puts my puny fears, complaints, and troubles in their proper place, at least temporarily. So today, while I’m worrying that a new green bean recipe (sans the crunchy fake onions) might be a kind of sacrilege, or while I’m coming unhinged because I can’t find the little pilgrim salt & pepper shakers, the prairie will be resting peacefully, healing the necessary brutality of farming, highway traffic, and human need under her brief, beautiful blanket of winter.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Going All Prairie Girl

I grew up in the Omaha, spent 20-some years in a city I never had to leave and couldn’t possibly get to know. There was noise, 24-hour light, fast-moving everything, busy people everywhere. When we were tired of our own neighborhood, north Omaha, we wandered into South O, snuck downtown, or cruised out to West O. When that wasn’t exotic enough, we crossed a bridge into Council Bluffs and there we were, in the foreign land of Iowa, without once leaving the city lights.

It was perpetual motion, constant stimulation. If we wanted a cool light show, we parked just outside Eppley airfield fence, spread blankets on the hoods of our cars, laid back and braced ourselves, then waited for our bones to rattle around in our skinny little bodies as jets took off overhead. Sometimes we played chicken on the train trestle over 30th Street. Sometimes we jumped the fence at the Water Works and played balance beam on the rims of cement holding tanks. We ate Chinese at King Fong’s, where the tables were inlaid with mother-of-pearl and we had to point at pictures on the menu to order. We shared pancakes and bottomless pots of coffee at Village Inn at 2 in the morning, to watch the post-bar folks drift (or stagger) in. We hung out in the Greyhound depot in the middle of the night and smoked cigarettes, imagining peoples’ stories as they got on and off the buses.

So when I moved from the city to a little farmhouse in South Dakota, ten miles from the nearest dinky town, I felt Dorothy’s pain—lions and tigers and bears…oh my. I couldn’t imagine a more complete desolation, except maybe on the surface of Mars. I wasn’t sure how people survived the dark, the quiet, the oceans of corn. And it was summer. I hadn’t been through a South Dakota winter yet.

I have almost three decades under my prairie belt now. I’ve spent some of it in the country, some in small towns, some in smaller towns, and now back in the country. Once I knew I wouldn’t be eaten by roving wolves, I started to like the slower pace. When my friend Paul from New York came to visit and asked, on the drive from the airport to my house, “Are those real cows?” I rolled my eyes. You don’t get it, my rolled eyeballs said.

I knew I’d gone Prairie Girl all the way, knew I’d never go back to the city, when I came up over a country hill one morning at sunrise. A perfectly illuminated Maxfield Parrish landscape stretched out as far as I could see, and I actually wept, it was so beautiful.

I don’t have the lights at Eppley any more, but I can walk 30 feet out my front door on a moonless night, spread a blanket on the ground, and watch the Milky Way. And I may have to pawn a guitar amp or two for the gas it takes to get to decent Chinese food, but just out my east windows tonight is the moon, breaking over the trees in a cloudy sky. She’s half in light, half in shadow, a grinning wài pó or a bright yin yang, reminding me again why I’m out here in the dark, in the quiet, on the prairie--BALANCE.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Good Day for Snowetry

The first real, sticky snow is falling on Uncannery Row today. It looks like a Currier & Ives calendar. It makes me want to wrap presents. Mull cider. String cranberries. Sing carols. I can’t help it—I’m a hopeless, really hopeless, romantic.

We lost Snowflake, our wild barn kitty, last week after the first hard freeze. She’d always been a little wobbly, so I suspect a generally weak constitution. It’s sad, though, and I’ll admit I cried a little even though she’d never let me get closer than 5 feet to her. I haven’t seen much of her mom, Snowball, since, but she's eating the food I put out for her in the pyramid. There’s a black cat, too, we call him Spook, but I haven’t seen him for a while, either.

The flock is fine, though, still 15 strong, and this year’s babies are getting hard to pick out from the adults. They’re all roosting in the communal Tree in the yard at night, and there’s prolonged fussing & whining at night as they jockey for spots. Fifteen is a lot of big birds for one small ash tree.

I got to attend a reception in the Big City last weekend for poets and artists who collaborated on paired works of poems with paintings, drawings, or photos. The poem I selected for the exhibit is St. John of God, printed below. I wrote it when my friend Dave died alone and miserable after years of alcoholism. I wondered how the outcome might have changed—how everyone’s life would change— if we knew (& believed) how loved we’ve really been, all along.

Many good friends were at the reception, Ray, my daughter and her paramour, a friend who designed a poetry book I put together, my midlife lifelines, some of the Wild Women. These people are gifted poets themselves or amazingly talented artists in other mediums—words, counsel, hospitality, building materials & power tools, food, graphic deisgn, humor. So as this gorgeous snow drifts down, I’m grateful for every delicate flake, and for the beautiful, creative people around me. Told ya. Hopeless romantic.

for the dead

What if there is no dreaming, no dancing,
no opalescent mist in which we float
suddenly weightless or winged,
what if trumpets don’t sound
and in no distant fog
do chords come clean from harps,
what if there never were seraphim
swallowed in flames of love
so radiant we turn our heads.

What if there is only a pause
a mirrored moment in which we see,
most of us for the first time,
our selves, and in that moment know
with certainty that we have been bathed
in love since the beginning
that all along while we wept and prayed
saved unanswered letters
left the receiver on the hook

we were pure love twisted into human shapes
so, like impulse and receptor cell
we fit, and could only spark together,
blood and bone going up in a flash of love
so radiant people turned their heads.
What if that moment is all we have,
one gauzy white curtain drawn quickly
over a small dim window
then out, out, into the long night.

St. John, was it looking out
too soon that drove you mad?
Or could you bless me with that moment now,
walk me past the mirror now,
with the window still wide open,
curtain billowing like a sail
until I know love, love, love,
that sea of flame and beautiful sorrow
so radiant I turn my head?


Friday, October 31, 2008

Sage Advice, Anyone?

It’s advising time at UP (University of the Prairie), that twice-yearly time for faculty to advise students about classes they should enroll in for next semester, any gaps in their degree programs, and how best to accomplish their academic goals. I always feel a little pschizo during these times: part teacher, part counselor, part mother, part aimless sojourner myself. I sometimes want to blurt out advice that would be totally inappropriate. Shhh...don’t tell...I’m letting you in on some of this alternate advice—stuff that swirls around in my addled brain while students sit in my office considering their course options...

· Slow down. It only FEELS like you’re sick of all this. Trust me, after ten years on the job, any job, you’ll be desperately scheming to come BACK…a new major…another degree…philosophy maybe, bat husbandry, intramural sports administration…anything.

· I know you THINK those double-knit yellow hotpants are stunning with your Ugg boots and red UP hoodie, but trust me, the outfit isn’t as sharp as you imagine.

· Get your hair out of your eyes.

· You might have better luck raising your GPA if you go to class occasionally and stay awake while you’re there.

· Go back to your dorm, and don’t return until you’ve slept, put on clean clothes, and brushed your teeth.

· Employers won’t really look at that double French and Bio major or your Honor’s thesis on rural solid waste management and the life cycle of the aporrectodea turgida; they’ll be checking out your outfit. Maybe double-knit yellow hot pants and a pair of Uggs…

· Don’t let anyone kid you; fast food service is a noble profession.

· “Who’s on the train?” and “Where did Katie get those stilettos?” will never be correct answers for math story problems.

· Sit up straight.

· Quit school NOW. Party for a year or two. Hitch to Oregon with your boy/girlfriend and live on love for year until s/he leaves you for a forest ranger. Write poetry on the Greyhound as you make your way back home. Work like a dog for the next five or ten years at a job you despise. Marry an insurance agent. Have a couple of kids. Pay a mortgage. Don’t come back until you want a college degree more than anything else on the planet, and you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

· Call your mother.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

All-American Soup

There are emails circulating that suggest Obama has made slips-of-the-tongue that hint at his secret Muslimness—ignoring the fact that his father WAS a Muslim, that he lived for a time in a Muslim community, that he’s an intelligent, well-educated man who bothered to LEARN about Islam, or that there are between 4-6 million Muslim Americans, most of whom are citizens. Americans.

Some of the rumors, innuendo, whispers, and nervous talk are from well-meaning folks who are truly FEARFUL. I get it. I remember when my Presbyterian confirmation buddy Sherry told me her Uncle Kyle told her that Catholics eat Protestants. But we’ve all heard the adage: we FEAR what we don’t UNDERSTAND.

When Colin Powell recently endorsed Obama, he was asked to comment on the chatter about Obama’s rumored Muslim ties. Finally, finally…someone said to the national media, right out loud, what I’ve been thinking all this time. Here’s an excerpt of Powell’s remarks:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, “What if he is?” Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, “He’s a Muslim and he might be associated [with] terrorists.” This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

Bravo!! Still, and pardon the cheesy metaphor, I think the current administration has very successfully plunked a kettle on the stove of the American psyche, in which they’ve stirred together Islam, Muslim, Arab, Middle East, terrorism, and maybe oil and economic ruin, until many Americans see it as one big nasty soup. So while folks are right to be afraid of terrorism, buying into this general fearmongering is like avoiding an amazing Minestrone because you don’t like bay leaves, and there might be ONE in the pot.

Since I’m ignorant myself when it comes to Islamic tradition, I thought I’d check out the main tenets of the faith. Devout Muslims believe in:

1. A profession of faith – the Shehada is the Muslim creed, that there is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.
2. Prayer – Salat – Muslims pray 3-5 times a day and practice both private and public prayer.
3. Ablutions – Wudu – this is ritual cleansing with water or, when none is available, clean, fine sand, before prayer.
4. Almsgiving – Zakat – Muslims are expected to give a portion of their earnings to the poor.
5. Fasting – Siyam – Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, abstaining from food, drink, and sex, during the 29 days of Ramadan. It’s considered pious to fast at other times of the year, but these fasts must not last longer than 3 days.
6. Pilgrimage – Hajj – every Muslim is expected to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Ka’ba in Mecca at least once in her or his lifetime.

There is much more, of course, and there ARE extremists who bend EVERY religious tradition to their personal, social, or political agendas—consider the Inquisition, the European “burning time” and Salem witch trials, Jonestown. But take out the Arabic words and names above, change Mecca to Israel in #6, and we could be talking about Christianity or Judaism. I’ve always maintained that the world’s enduring religions are ALL fundamentally true & good—it’s the dogma and garbage we pile on over the years that causes trouble in Paradise. And when it comes to people of other faiths becoming president of a free nation, well, we've had plenty of Christian presidents who've stirred up their own nasty soups for us over the years, so I'm not sure that's a sure-fire qualification...

Enough of my ranting. Here’s the rest of Powell’s reply about what it means to be Muslim in America, which kind of goes to the heart of democracy:

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards—Purple Heart, Bronze Star—showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross, it didn't have the Star of David, it had a crescent and star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American.

Friday, October 24, 2008

C'mon, feel the noise...

Timothy Leary said, “Tune in, turn on, drop out,” and I believe we’ve finally managed it on a global level. With cell phones.

Not long ago, I watched two young women come into a restaurant together. They picked a booth, sat on opposite sides of the table, and started looking over the menu. Both were on cell phones the entire time. It would only have been MORE surreal if they had been talking to each other. And I catch at least 2 or 3 students a week texting under their desks during class, in spite of the grade penalties and public humiliation they know I’ll dish out.

This isn’t just the age of instant communication; it’s the age of incessant communication. Cell phones, texting, emailing, IM’ing, Facebooking, iPodding (all with the TV as background noise)…they keep us connected, tethered, CHAINED, to the outer world. Ironically, though, the ubiquitous noise keeps most people completely—and thankfully, according to most of my students—disconnected from the inner silence, from themselves.

Forget the solitude or discipline required for contemplation, meditation, or hermitage. Today, most of us have tremors if it there’s a momentary decrescendo in the din. I know scads of people who would give their right (insert your favorite body part here) to have permanently-implanted earbuds and a subcutaneous iPod. I wonder what about silence drives us to bombard our brains in a constant electronic hum?

Maybe in moments of silence, we meet ourselves. That can be downright scary. Maybe Self is a total stranger, and we all know what parents say will happen to us if we talk to strangers. Maybe Self is no day at the beach, and the noise keeps us from having to deal with a scoundrel. Maybe, it’s like William Benet said, “and now there is merely silence, silence, silence, saying all we did not know,” and THAT’S what keeps us plugged in—we don’t want to KNOW how much we don’t KNOW. Maybe when the noise stops, however briefly, big questions pound in our heads like a trunkload of subwoofers—why am I here, ba-BOOM, where did I come from, ba-BOOM, where do I go from here, ba-BOOM, why do we do what we do to each other, ba-BOOM, is there a god/goddess, ba-BOOM, is anybody really OUT there, ba-BOOM.

I know I sound curmudgeon-ish. I could have started this post, “Why, back in my day, by gum,….” But between checking my email a gazillion times a day, talking on my cell (while driving/eating/cooking/walking—no texting yet, but my thumbs itch constantly), and listening to music (CD’s, iPod, radio), I’m running just as fast from the inner world as the pre-adults I horrify in class. Maybe I should try a day unfettered by electronics. Or at least an evening. Or maybe I’ll start with a couple minutes…

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Extended Family Fun

I never want to be one of those sad middle-aged people who begin every sentence with, “Back in MY day….” For one thing, life really is short, and we need to live in the PRESENT—that requires enough energy & concentration. We shouldn’t waste precious time on regrets/nostalgia about the past or anticipation/anxiety about the future.

But I’ve fallen off the “Eckhart Tolle channels Ram Das” truck lately, thinking about the old tradition of keeping extended families together. Today, kids go off to college, away from family, then go even further away to begin careers. Siblings are often spread out across a region or a country. One’s childhood nuclear family rarely spends time together, except maybe during holiday gatherings or “reunions,” which become increasingly rare as kids begin having kids, and the parent-kids are pressed into cub scout, brownie, sunday school, PTA, band booster or soccer servitude.

I think there was “method to the madness” in extended families. For one thing, first-time parents are often…well…incompetent. Really, anyone with opposable thumbs can change a diaper, but things like correct baby food temperature, rashes, vaccination reactions, and total lack of sleep can give the smartest new parents that glassy-eyed zombie look. There really IS no manual for parenting, and so traditionally we learned by modeling ourselves after the parents around us—grandparents, parents, aunts & uncles, etc. Scary, if the models are horrid at parenting themselves, in which case, kids had best move far away and sign up for parent effectiveness training at their local community college.

When good models are available, extended families are a lifesaver. When my oldest son was born, I lived in a 17-room house with my younger siblings, my mom, and my grandma. Someone met my son’s every need, immediately. He was spoiled beyond belief and entertained my grandma’s church circle in a Superman cape and not much else by age two. He grew up believing he was the CU (Center of the Universe), but he also grew up listening to adults in constant conversation. Today, the kid is a golden-tongued debater and performer extraordinaire. And the MOST important thing about raising him in this extended family is that I could hand him over, or better yet nap, whenever I was overwhelmed by new motherhood.

My daughter was also born while I lived in the Big House (the family home, not prison). The first granddaughter, she didn’t touch solid ground until around age three. I’m surprised her feet didn’t atrophy, she was held so often. She too listened to adults, and she didn’t attempt a word until she had a full, complete sentence ready to go. I believe it was, “Please don’t put eggplant in the lasagna any more.” My daughter had childhood asthma, and there were many times when the extended family saved MY life and hers, staying up with her in shifts, sitting in a steamy bathroom with her, driving us to the ER, or calming my fears so I could calm hers.

My youngest son lives right now with my mom, while he makes important career choices between work, college, being a destitute European street musician, or hitching to California to skate boardwalks and live off discarded cotton candy. I’m incredibly grateful he can be there. Mom can often have meaningful discussions with him, even when he adopts his quizzical, “I don’t understand this foreign tongue you speak” look with us. And she feeds his antisocial cat and gargantuan dog when he’s off skateboarding.

Right now I’m working on getting my oldest son, with my daughter-in-law and two grandkids, back into the fold of family & Midwest, after their Northwest adventure of the past few years. I want the grandkids to have the same benefits of an extended family that my son has always had, even when he locked himself in the trophy case at school, got arrested for cruising downtown at 4 a.m. on a “suspicious skateboard,” left prank phone messages on the assistant principle’s answering machine, or called for gas money home when he found himself living in his car in Boulder. And when my children are all back in the bosom of their adoring family, and they’re raising their own families, I won’t just KNOW karma is getting them back for every fitful, sleepless night I spent during their formative years—I’ll get to WATCH.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Winter State of Mind

It smells like winter this week. The wind is cold, we have a crunchy, golden-red footpath of leaves from the house to the pyramid, the mums are blooming in fire colors, and we’re surrounded by chugging combines well into the night. We finally turned the furnace on against nights in the 30’s, although the days still warm into the 60’s. Houseplants summering on the patio have come inside and are crowded in with the year-round residents of the greenhouse. There are 64 of them now which, incidentally, is the number of hexagrams in the IChing.

I once had a life reading done by a psychic, in which I was told that at the heart of my unique “life seal,” was the IChing’s hexagram 13: Community.

Our peafowl community is holding steady at 15. Yesterday the flock was riled up and peeking out from inside the garage, all except for the one in the linden tree above my head. Suddenly, the one in the tree took flight toward the pasture to the north. Turns out it was a big redtail hawk—the prairie stealth bomber. I ran after it, clapping and yelling that there were fat, leggy chickens down the road. The hawk flew in a big arc south, then west, then north again, and probably ended up right back where she started in the linden tree. The peaflock was still jittery and huddled close to the house when I got home from work, but no casualties.

There WILL be casualties when this election business is done. We forget that whatever nasty venom we muster for the candidates we don’t like, or the friends & family with whom we disagree, or the colleagues we alienate with our rancorous blow-harding, will still be circulating in our systems after the election. We’ll all need a good cowboy or cowgirl when it’s over, someone to take the Bowie knife to our leg and then suck out the poison before it reaches heart & brain.

Speaking of brains, I think this is how the mind works in the South Dakota winter—you’re stuck inside too much, too long in the dark cave, until you begin to chase after obscure connections—drawing invisible lines from one thought to another (unrelated) thought—just to create the sense that something’s moving.

The truth is, my mind actually takes these odd, twisty back roads from one idea to another all the time, sun or snow. I’m okay with that. Because if Jack Blizzard’s inevitable siege buries me under a thick layer of snow & ice soon, I know some spark, some disjointed notion, revelation or epiphany, some thawed, crystal-clear stream of my consciousness, will be moving, moving, moving…

Sunday, October 12, 2008


My supreme weakness, and my ultimate joy, is COFFEE. I’m a complete, unabashed, elitist snob coffee junky—a SNOFFUNKY.

According to varying legends, coffee was discovered in the (Arabian Peninsula/Ethiopian Plateau) by Kaldi, an (Arabian/Ethiopian) goatherder in (500 BCE/600 CE), who noticed his goats happily frolicking after eating the red berries (coffee “cherries”) of a wild shrub. Kaldi snacked on a few berries himself and was soon dancing merrily with his flock. Noticing the euphoric goatromping, a local monk snagged a few berries and cooked up a drink for his brothers, whose hyped-up prayers could now extend well into the wee hours. Africans were soon making their own power bars out of coffee and goat fat—yummy—and kicking back with coffee-cherry wine. During the Renaissance, coffee was referred to as a “heathen liquid,” and while I don’t consider myself a heathen, it’s perhaps revealing that I call my stove an altar…

My personal coffee trek began when I was an undergrad and had to pull all-nighters writing scripts or papers for playwriting or English classes. There on the flatlands of coffeeland, I was content with a Mr. Coffee and some dried-up ground Folgers. In the foothills, I discovered the Bunn coffeemaker and fresh ground beans. But I pressed on until finally, I have reached the pinnacle of the coffee mountain—a Chemex drip coffeemaker and Chemex filters, the blackest, oiliest Sumatran or Ethiopian organic free-trade beans I can find (refrigerated, not frozen, and ground only when the water is just below boiling), and cold, filtered water.

The Chemex is partly responsible for my snofunkiness. It’s glass and looks like a lab beaker or, better yet, a woman—busty top, narrow waist, ample bottom. Water is boiled in a teakettle and poured over grounds that rest in a filter in the top half of the pot. The filters are thicker than ordinary coffee filters to slow the drip and capture more of the bitter oils. I make it STRONG.

Call me romantic, but I sometimes see a split in the world between godlessness and its utter faith in science or humans or capitalism, and anthropomorphized god-centricity, with its utter faith in faith, or in religions whose original beauty is buried and lost in layers of humanist rules, dogma, & politics. What happened to seeking after mysteries? Strangely, this rant brings me back to java. It’s the ritual of morning coffee that I love. I revere the process of coffeemaking and the miraculous transmutation from simple bean to elixir. I perform the ritual in a quasi-meditative (or not quite awake yet) state. And the resulting liquid manna isn’t nearly as important as the process, which is hymn, prayer, pilgrimage.

Okay, maybe I’m blowing my own snofunkity a wee bit out of proportion. And if it turns out that coffee can’t put me in touch with the Divine, can’t bring me to the foot of the great spiritual Mystery, can’t initiate me into the Sublime, well, at least I’ll be wide awake and bug-free, because caffeine is also a natural insecticide.

Here’s a little coffee poem, just for fun…


black blood cooled in sunlight
I wake chanting to the dark beast humbled
a chicory garland twisted in my hair
walk the coals to the kitchen
where you sit
cup cradled in your hands so tenderly
time grinds to a snaked unwinding
we lick our lips while we
boil and boil and boil
hungry for that melding moment
we circle the Circle
sink to stove to table
and the linoleum crawls with lichen and fern
our cool bare feet wearing a groove
until we’re ecstatic fertile singing


and we dance the dark dance
and we drink the strong black blood
again and again and again
until we fall redeemed
into moon and moss
the big dipper spilling black
into a saucer of sky

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Education & the New CM (Commodity Model)

I’ve had this sneaking feeling that higher ed is turning into an automated business for quite a while now. The latest sign is that our university campus is converting to a “mobile computing” campus beginning next year. That means students will be required to buy & use laptops for their classes. They’ll test it as a pilot program in business and science classes, but I KNOW it’s coming to the Humanities—and to English—sooner than I care to think. How glorious that students will be able to Facebook nonstop through Comp class! Anyway, imagine you see those blurry, wavy lines that always signal a dream sequence on old sitcoms, then watch how I envision my future as a teacher...

· “Knowledge” will be referred to as PRODUCTS. My years of learning, honing, experience, my degrees, my credentials, my accomplishments, will matter only insofar as I can provide relevant products from which students can pick and choose.

· Students will now be called CONSUMERS (this transition is already in progress), who come to a public university campus to select and purchase their products.

· Titles will be changed from Instructor/Teacher/Professor to FACILITATOR. Facilitators will no longer have wisdom to impart, experience to share, or knowledge to reveal. They’ll only need to facilitate consumers who are purchasing their products. FACILITATOR may be a transitional term until CASHIER is in place.

· Classes will now be called INFOCOMS. Facilitators will no longer be teaching; they will be providing information about commercial products from which consumers may select.

· Facilitators will be required to wear an earpiece 24/7/365, so that consumers may lodge their product complaints at all times.

· Having spent their young adult lives texting, Facebooking, MySpacing, and videoing, consumers’ attention spans will be reduced from the current 11-20 minutes, to 3 minutes. Facilitators will need to shift the focus of infocoms every 3 minutes in order to maximize consumer purchases.

· The current designation of “contact hours,” the amount of time teachers spend in the classroom face-to-face with students, will be changed to BILLABLE HOURS. The number of billable hours required will increase from the current 15 contact hours per week, to 50 billable hours per week, in order to increase productivity.

· Grades will no longer be assigned, since consumers won’t really have to DO anything. All students will receive a CAREER CERTIFICATE once they have consumed 150 PRODUCT UNITS.

· The current division of 75% time spent teaching and 25% time spent completing bureaucratic paperwork will convert to the following: 75% time spent REPORTING and assessing INVENTORY; 15% fielding consumer complaints and escalating contacts; and 10% facilitating consumers in infocoms.

· Facilitators will no longer be required to expand their knowledge base, keep up-to-date in their field, publish, or provide service to the university community. They WILL be required to attend a minimum of 25 new product review and 25 technology workshops per semester, each preceded by a meeting in which FACILITATOR TEAMS establish GOALS for the workshop, and followed by a meeting in which teams evaluate and quantify OUTCOMES of the workshop.

· Facilitators will no longer be under contract; all facilitators will be hired as temporary hourly employees. Hourly wages will be established based solely on CONSUMER REVIEWS, and raised or lowered each semester according to the number of product units consumers purchase.

· Department Chairs will now be called TEAM LEADERS, and they will be required to have advanced degrees in business and motivational speaking, rather than in the team field. Team leaders will no longer attend to department concerns; they will promote the TEAM CULTURE.

· Infocom size will be limited to 250 consumers per. All infocom arenas will be fitted with drive-thru windows for consumer convenience.

· Facilitators will be required to live in FACILITATOR BARRACKS in order to provide increased access and convenience for consumers. They will not be allowed to have spouses, children, or pets. They will be sterilized, partially lobotomized, referred to only by number, and will wear identical grey uniforms so as not to distract consumers, in any way, from their shopping.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Sloppy Seconds

I heard an interview on NPR recently with David Muse, director of a production of Romeo and Juliet currently being staged in Washington DC by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In spite of the fact that in his own day, Shakespeare staged ALL his plays with all-male casts, the interviewer wondered if Muse was worried that audiences would be squeamish about the modern version, especially about the leading actors’ on-stage kisses. I LOVED Muse’s answer. He said he believed audiences would not get hung up on the actors but would “give in to the conceit” of the play, the story, which he said is really about discovery and “firsts”—first love, first betrayal, first difficult decisions, etc.—and not simply about love, and it's that sense of discovery that makes the story timeless. Boy howdy, that set my mind a’reelin’, as Sarah Palin might say.

I started thinking that maybe aging is less about time, about chronology or physical deterioration—although the bags under my eyes beg to differ—and more about whether or not we’re still experiencing “firsts.” What makes whipper-snappers so full of life, perhaps, isn’t their biological age; it’s the newness of things. In our “golden” years (which I hope refers to joy & wisdom rather than the sallow color of my skin after a looooong week), we tend to settle in for the long haul, making the haul feel a whole lot longer out of sheer boredom & fatigue.

And, if you think back to your whipper-snapper days, you’ll realize those firsts didn’t come knocking while you sat in the LazyBoy eating Cheetos and watching Boston Legal reruns. You went AFTER them. You went to New Mexico with an itinerate musician, in a 1950 Chevy pickup with no heater. Or you rode Greyhound buses for two weeks, from the Midwest to Canada, touring by day cities you’d never seen before, and sleeping across two rock-hard bus seats by night. Or you joined a band even though you only knew three chords. Or you wore all black, spray-painted yourself with silver glitter, and went to a Halloween party as “The Universe.” Or you and your two toddlers lived in an old school bus in a state park for a while. Or you fell madly, instantly in love with a non-dating, divorced father. The point is, when you stop going after those new experiences, those “firsts,” maybe you just stop.

I’m not willing to have only sloppy seconds from now on. So I’m applying for a Bush Fellowship, and if I get it, I’m going to a poetry & religion conference in Lancashire England. I’ve never traveled by myself. I’ve never crossed the Big Water. And in spite of my mother’s scolding & Ray’s scoffing, maybe I’ll get a tattoo before I go...maybe a teeny, tiny, little peacock feather…

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Knitting the Prairie

We’re supposed to have our first serious frost tonight. I have a few plants to bring into the greenhouse—geraniums in a pickle crock, a China Doll and a schefflera, and I suppose I’ll have to pull up the last of the basil and figure out what to do with the curry and fennel. The tomatoes will have to fend for themselves. The vines are so thick, they can keep each other warm.

The flock stays fairly close to the house on these cool days. They like to hang out on the south side of the house against the greenhouse windows in the afternoon, where they can soak up the heat bouncing off the windows while they admire the mysterious and magnificent creatures in the reflective glass. I modified my spoilitude and cut back on feeding them, hoping they’ll do something about these grasshoppers—peacock popcorn.

Cool autumn nights are perfect for knitting, a fuzzy blankie on my feet, and skeins of wool yarn in my lap. I just finished Yogi’s new sweater in blue cotton and bright multicolored eyelash yarns, and I must say he looks very preppie chic in it, especially with the turtleneck rolled. The colors & furriness match his naughty personality. Jada’s sweater is plain variegated wool in earthtones, with a subtle lace edging—slightly girlie but still working-dog tough. I also finished five small drawstring bags in various colors of the most luscious alpaca, which I’ll fill with fun trinkets for Christmas presents.

I’m working on a möbius scarf right now, knit in a lacy stitch out of Lamb’s Pride worsted in a rich chocolate brown. I like the seeming impossibility of the möbius pattern—a scarf that appears to be an endless twisted loop, no beginning, no end. It’s a conundrum, much like life at Uncannery Row.

The cool weather also makes me long to haul out the spinning wheel. I’ve got tubs full of fiber to spin up, including a couple bags of Jada’s fine Australian Shepherd fur, some camel, alpaca, and—best of all—raw silk. I’ve been thinking, too, about spinning in some peacock down and maybe even some milkweed fiber. Spun together, these fibers would make an amazing desert-downunder-orient-prairie yarn. Then I could knit it up into the most fabulous overalls with a matching turban…mmm…

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Rorshach Garden

I was walking around the yard with the dogs the other day, and I started wondering if yard art is a kind of Rorschach test…is it possible to gain insight into the psyche and emotional makeup of a person by studying their lawn ornaments?

For example, Mom has a garden populated with every kind of fairy statue imaginable, and at night it’s a magical fairyland atwinkle with a dozen or more solar lights. The garden seems a perfect reflection of Mom's light-hearted, mischievously humorous, and optimistic character.

What does it say about Ray and I, I wonder (non-Catholic, non-churchgoing folks), that scattered around Uncannery Row are statues of Mary and St. Francis? What does the goddess figure with seashell breasts suggest? Or the plant hanger with 8 spidery arms and a glow-in-the-dark glass ball on top? Or the cement penguin in the daylilies? Hmmm…

One of our Mary’s, I call her Our Lady of the Spiders, my friend found tossed in a dumpster along a highway. Surely, this is proof of Divine Intervention—someone tossed Mary out along a highway where my friend just happened to be travelling, she just happened to remember my Marian fascination, and my birthday just happened to be around the corner. I especially like this Mary, because she has an unusually crabby face for a holy icon, accentuated by puffy bags under her droopy, tired eyes. She’s plastic, and we’ve stuffed her full of white solar LED lights, so that at night when she glows softly out by the fence, she looks eerily exhausted. Maybe that’s the point—maybe maternal weariness, long-suffering patience, and the sacrifices of love are what draw me to the Marian ideal in the first place.

Hanging on our pyramid-shaped outbuilding are giant concrete sun and moon discs my brother sculpted and gave to my daughter as a wedding present. They’re on loan to us for a while, and they seem to BELONG on the pyramid—a sort of celestial reckoning with our most ancient spiritual and mathematical roots. And if pyramids really do turn out to be communication beacons for extra-terrestrials, well, I’ve got plenty of tomatoes and jalapenos to send home with visitors.

Our Lady of the Water, the seashell woman, sits beside a beautiful mosaic tiled birdbath, both made by an artist friend whose work I have scattered around the yard and in the house. Our Lady of the Water reminds me that whatever we layer on through the years in order to divide & subdivide, sort & separate us from each other, we are all identically elemental underneath—water, air, glass bones & tendon mortar. This helps me to remember that I am my sister’s and my brother’s keeper, which includes even those in the human family I’d sometimes rather not claim as relatives.

St. Francis is a “gimme” at first glance. After all, he’s the saint who communed with animals, and Uncannery Row is one zebra short of being a wildlife sanctuary. But the fascination for me is that St. Francis, according to some religious scholars, was the first “documented” case of someone receiving the stigmata. These are the seven wounds of Christ, which have, the stories go, spontaneously appeared in some pretty unlikely people since the Crucifixion. Padre Pio is the most talked-about example, but there have been many, including several women. I don’t know if these experiences are genuine spiritual phenomena, but I find myself at times extremely moved, sometimes to tears, just thinking about the implications if they are. It’s like the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, when the Misfit, an escaped murderer, says to a grandmother he’s about to kill, that if we knew for sure whether Christ really resurrected, it would change everything. because if Christ didn’t really live, die, and rise from the dead, then all the piety and moral rules mean nothing. If he did, we would all have to drop what we’re doing, give away our stuff, and follow.

Sticking out of the fence around the back patio, there’s an interesting accoutrement we inherited from the former residents. It’s a piece of wood balanced in the fence, grown at one end around a rock, and at the other end around the fence wire. I wonder what this work of art will come to represent about US someday…

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This is a man's world...fa la la la la...

It’s just like the Godfather of Soul said: “This is a maaaaaaan’s world.” The world of live music is a good example. Even if they won’t admit it to you or me, any truly honest male musician will admit to himself, eventually, that women who play in bands are still just the “chicks” in the band.

I’m stereotyping, of course. And stereotyping even more, it seems to me that women don’t need an excuse to get together. Men do. They need to DO something if they want to hang out with each other. My take on the live music scene is that for many male musicians, music fills the “getting together with the boys” space that for other men is filled with pro sports, cars, construction/destruction, or power tools. The axe (gee-tar) replaces the axe (hunter-gatherer), so to speak.

I played music with various groups in bars, at weddings, dances, etc. for 20+ years. Musicians love playing music for different reasons. Some love to perform. Some need the acceptance of the crowd. Some want to cultivate a “bad boy [girl]” rep. Some want to cling to youth. Some need the companionship of the band.

For me, it may be all of those things, but it’s also, ironically, the only way I know of (except sleep) to get away from my Self for a while. There’s something about the vibration of singing that makes everything else go away. When I let go and really feel the song, it makes me hum—down to the bone—at an unexplainable, elemental level. Relax. Breathe deeper. Feel something not related to the intellect, the obligations, the reasoning—something pure. I hate to sound all new-agey and ookie-spookie, but nothing else can open my chakras like singing can.

And just so you know, there are women musicians out there doing amazing things, women who never generate the buzz that surrounds male musicians. So I’m doing my itty bitty part, foisting my partial list of essential womensong on the world. Any album by any of these women is great, but here are a few faves:

Joan Armatrading (Hearts & Flowers; What’s Inside)
Jane Siberry (Bound by the Beauty; When I Was a Boy)
Rickie Lee Jones (Flying Cowboys; The Magazine; Pirates; Naked Songs)
Bonnie Raitt (anything)
Joni Mitchell (the oldest stuff is the “baby” Joni, sweet & soprano, all good, but I like the
gutsiness of the older, alto Joni--Blue; Court & Spark; Miles of Aisles)
k.d. lang (Hymns of the 49th Parallel; Shadowland; Drag)
Regina Spektor (Begin to Hope--bonus CD version)
Pretenders (anything, especially the oldest stuff)
Kate Bush (The Whole Story)
Aretha (anything)
Maria Muldaur (Maria Muldaur; Waitress in a Donut Shop)
Bette Midler (Songs for the New Depression)
Phoebe Snow (Phoebe Snow; Against the Grain; Never Letting Go)
Edie Brickell (Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars--with The Bohemians; Picture Perfect Morning)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

State of the [Hiber]Nation

I’m thrilled to report that all of the peachicks somehow made their way back to the fold after last week’s scary unknown-assailant scattering. So we are, once again, 15.

The chicks—Gloria, Laverne & Shirley, and the Abba quads—are getting big, and the flock is getting pushy about food. Maybe they’re like me, and in spite of this beautiful fall weather, they’re laying on fat for Jack Blizzard, as my Aussie poet friend calls the South Dakota winter. I understand their desperation. In fact, I have an overpowering urge to curl up with a blankie, a truckload of Doritos, a gallon of red wine, and a bad Diane Mott Davidson novel until I’m in a deep, carb-induced hibernation. Sadly, however, I must stay awake...

Yesterday and this morning were grey and drizzly. The flock is hanging around the house, as if they know something’s coming and it’s best to stick close to the food. Hurricane fallout, maybe, or just a preliminary slap from Jack—cold winds or a hint of frost.

Other wildlife seem to feel it, too. Two fawns cut in front of my car just before the shelterbelt the other day, then ducked into the plum thicket where there’s plenty of grass and good tree cover. Mice are coming inside, so the traps are set. The dogs are poofing into their winter coats already. The birdroom windows are closed, and the parrots are spending more time fluffed up and sleeping. Hummingbirds usually come through around Mother’s Day on their trek north and spend a couple of weeks here eating at the feeders. Then we don’t see them again until right about now, when they stop for another couple of weeks until they blow south in late September with the autumn thunderstorms. But this year, they’ve already come & gone, at least two weeks early, and we’re just getting stragglers now; this morning, a fat male buzzed between feeders and the fire begonia. Snowball and Snowflake are fat & furry, and we’ve been seeing them more often, spooking around the pyramid or the loafing shed, staying near the cat food & shelter.

Maybe we’re not so different from the animals, whose behavior is regulated to a degree by the length and angle of shadows on the land. Since living in South Dakota, for example, I’ve developed this weird autumnal yen to line a cave with a knee-deep layer of twigs & leaves, or piece together hide robes thick enough to repel ice bullets. A general malaise creeps in, too, with the knowledge that soon we’ll be boxed in for as long as Jack decides to toy with us. But the sun is out right now, Mom and the kids are coming for dinner, and we’ll all pretend it’s just another glorious, lazy autumn day…as we sip our wine and dip our Doritos.