Sunday, July 27, 2008


When four menopausal women go camping in a remote, rustic cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota, certain fundamental precepts of polite society are bound to be trampled. There’s just no way around it.

Too many cooks spoil the broth. This no longer applies when four women, all used to complete control of the kitchen, come together. However cramped the quarters, all four women will attempt to occupy even the tiniest kitchen space simultaneously. There is an occasional brandishing of knives and other sharp instruments one must watch out for. Collisions are inevitable and are best turned into impromptu dances.

Always keep the comfort of others in mind. Poo, I say. A woman plagued by daily hot flashes and/or night sweats will open windows, leave doors ajar (ignoring the threat of renegade bats or coyotes), crowd in front of an open refrigerator, stick her feet in a nearby stream or (if no stream is available) cold toilet water, hog fans, throw blankets across the room or steal them from compadres, or strip down to indecency with total disregard for anyone else, as her haywire internal thermostat demands.

Be patient, compassionate, considerate. This sounds great in theory, but when HELL hits (hormone-enhanced lethargy or lunacy), manners go bye-bye. Expect a woman under this hellish influence to rant one minute and weep the next, drone on with a litany of complaints, eat something high-fat and salty, then fall into a deep, stuporous nap. Wake and repeat. Wake and repeat.

Be mindful of proper modesty and decorum. Nope, won’t happen. In fact, menopausal women will sometimes test the effectiveness of kegels and the weakness of bladders by intentionally making each other laugh until semi-hysterical, with seemingly innocuous pantomimes in their underwear and/or incredibly lame puns. NM’s (non-menopausers) would not understand what’s so funny. This raucous and often baseless laughter can be counted as one’s daily aerobic exercise.

Leave the driver alone. Impossible. The laws of physics suggest that four women in an enclosed moving space will each attempt to direct the timing and direction of movement until navigational volume reaches the limits of human comfort, when the four must stop in Rochford and split a beer. Drive and repeat. Drive and repeat.

All life in balance. This is the prime directive in menopausal camping and, in spite of HELL, is eventually observed. The lunacy and lethargy are counterbalanced by blissful moments of solitary reflection, peaceful conversational examination of spiritual ideals, generous sharing of relationship and/or parenting observations, quiet perusing of self-help books or trashy novels, collective identification of native flora & fauna, and an open expression of gratitude for one another’s continuing friendship & company.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Down from the Mountains

We’re back from the Black Hills, and one almost needs a vacation after a vacation. Ray, his son Jasper, Yogi and I drove out last Thursday, pausing to meander through the Badlands. With the unusually heavy snow last winter and rain this spring, the Badlands are the greenest they’ll be for another 100 years, according to park rangers. We saw prairie dogs bob up and down in their holes like an arcade game, turkey vultures and maybe an eagle circling the cliffs, and a couple of antelope rams squaring off for a round of head butting.

There were 15 of us in Ray’s extended family group, staying in two cabins near Silver City. It was an ideal vacation, where we either hung out together or split into groups to wander the Hills. Ray and I got to visit friends in Deadwood and Spearfish, and various groups fished, golfed, did horseback trail rides, hiked, or went sight-seeing. We checked out the progress at Crazy Horse monument, and we wandered through Hill City. Yogi obsessively stalked Ray’s one-year-old great niece, and we had to maneuver to keep Yogi away from Ray’s niece’s Shiba Inu, Presley, who’s not so fond of pesky pups.

Ray dropped me off in Spearfish Sunday evening, where I met up with Deirdre, Gloria, and Millie. Then on Monday morning as Ray and his family all headed home, the four of us women drove up to a cabin near O’Neill Pass. The cabin sits at the end of a long drive, in the middle of a meadow at around 6500 feet. No TV, no phone service, no computers—just elk, deer, and at night, bats & coyotes. We walked, read books, talked, played guitars & sang, and toured old haunts in the Hills. One night we aimed a flashlight at a treeline at the edge of the meadow and discovered glowing coyote eyes blinking back at us. It makes one wonder, who are the watchers and who are the watched?

It’s good to be home. It took me a couple days of driving in the Hills to shed my flatlander equilibrium and get over my up-turn-down-turn queasiness. And although I could get used to the spectacular topography of the Hills, I know I would miss the magical peace & the perspective--the sheer vastness of earth & sky--I marvel at here on the prairie.

More rain while we were gone, so things are looking a little tropical, including the foot-high lawn. In peacock news, now we are thirteen—Debbie’s only child is still around, but Wanda’s down from 6 babies to 4. The big boys have dropped most of their train feathers, which are now woven into our wire fence like fringe. No sign of the cats lately. My brother and his family from KS are coming through tonight on their way to MN for the reunion of my dad's side of the family, so we’ll go for dinner at Mom’s. Mom’s having minor surgery on Tuesday, so we’ll miss my family’s reunion this year. I’ll have to start working in earnest soon, getting ready for a new, busy semester, but it is still summer, and Ray calls me the Queen of Procrastination, so for today at least, I’m planning to uphold my office…

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

[Evil] Mother Nature

We’re off tomorrow to the Black Hills for a little R & R and camping with Ray’s extended family, so this will be my last blog till I’m back next week.

It’ll be a challenge camping with Yogi (time for a puppy backpack?), but we’re looking forward to it. We’re also lucky to have family members coming from SD, TN, MN, and MD, so it’s quite a gathering of Remundites. Then Ray and Yogi will come back, and I’ll stay out there to for even more R & R with women friends for our annual Wimmin’s Campout.

The Wimmin’s Campouts have been fairly comedic in the recent past. We’re usually a group of 3-5. Our intention is always relaxation and camaraderie, but you know what they say about the road to hell…

In 2003, for example, we camped in Ponca, NE, in a little state park cabin. We sat by an evening fire listening to the beautiful, plaintive song of the whippoorwill. Several hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, we were four women desperately searching for a slingshot to silence the hideous bird’s obsessive, non-stop trilling. In the morning, Millie came screaming out of the shower, dog-sized cockroaches hot on her heels. You can go to
to read an amusing story about our adventures.

In 2004 we camped in Yankton, SD. There were six of us, we had an official mascot—a rubber rat we named Bonnie Rat—and we dealt nightly with a troop of marauding raccoons whose hostile midnight takeovers of our screenhouse (their initial aim was marshmallows) included noisy raccoon bickering. In 2006, we were back in Yankton, and the day we set up camp, the mercury climbed to a record-setting 108. It was all we could do to remain motionless until dark, when the temp dropped to a lovely 90+. After a sleepless night, we slid out of our tents on our own Wet Bananas of sweat, packed up, and went home to the AC. Last year, we cancelled due to bad knees, remodeling projects, moving, and the persistent, traumatic memories of the year before.

This year, Ray and I will be camping in cabins with the Remunds (thanks to Ray’s sister). The Wimmin’s Campout will be higher up in the Hills, also in a cabin (thanks to Dora). We had hoped to do some tent camping, too, but juggled schedules & plans got in our way. And although we’re all a little disappointed that we won’t have our amazing Wimmin’s tent city this year, perhaps the story of this year’s camping experience will be more about family, friendship & mirth, and less about Nature sending us home whiny, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, and with our prehensile tails tucked.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Birthday Bliss

July 11 was my birthday—Cancer in western astrology, Gemini in my Vedic chart. I haven’t sensed any bad natal juju, and so far, 52 feels just fine. Some birthdays can be hell. There was my 10th, when I didn’t get the pony. Or my 15th, when I didn’t get the VW Bug. Or my 35th, when I sank into a depression caused by the strange “laying on of fat” in my new post-childbirth years (three kids cooked up and/or nursed between the ages of 21 and 31), horrifying new wrinkies around my eyes and mouth, and the fear that I would never accomplish anything substantial. At 52, though, I’ve smartened up. The tendency to “run to fat,” as my mom calls it, keeps us delicate northern-Europeanish flowers cozy in even the most brutal South Dakota winters. My wrinkies, I’ve decided, are a beautiful testament to the ease with which I smile. And I understand now that anything else I do in this lifetime will pale in comparison to the world-altering achievement of raising kids who are compassionate, funny, intelligent, generous human beings. Ah, the power of positive thinking.

But this was a good one, starting with a truly blissful day at Uncannery Row. All three peahens skulked about, Debbie just off the nest for her daily visit in the yard, the other two with chicks in tow—after all the commotion, Wanda has six chicks, Mimi has one left. The peacocks are molting now. Our three adult males will shed their trains, the long tail feathers, entirely in the space of a couple weeks, so each day we cruise the grounds for feathers. Then they’ll eat eat eat (they don’t eat much during breeding/display season) and over winter, they’ll grow bigger, better trains for next spring. This was Junior’s first year to grow train feathers (males mature at 2-3 years), and he had a pitiful excuse for a train, with an odd eye feather poking out here & there. But he’s scrappy, and I’ve witnessed some fantastic mid-air kickboxing between Junior and the other two males as they’ve jockeyed for position.

I spent the morning and early afternoon pulling weeds, watering, and making 13 dozen dog treats, potential holiday gifts for my dog-person friends & relatives. “Yogi’s Spoiled Dog Liver Snaps” are made with chicken liver, whole grain flours, eggs, green bean puree, chicken broth and nutritional yeast. They were taste-tested & approved by Yogi and Jada, and I’ve since learned that they induce impressively offensive flatulence in the dogs. Perhaps a disclaimer on the gift labels…

Visited at Mom’s for a bit in the late afternoon, then to Millie’s for a “prefunc” (celebration held prior to a celebration) glass of wine, then to Carey’s for “cocktail hour,” an early evening gig with music by Nick & Owen. In spite of the 90-degree heat on the bar’s back patio, Ray, Millie, and Mom surprised me with a gorgeous cake made by my daughter, cake-decorator extraordinaire, that we shared around the bar. The cake even had little frosting peacocks. I had yummy dark beers, and the boys led the crowd in a delightfully hideous, off-key “Happy Birthday to You,” a Carey’s tradition. Then it was home for knitting to Dracula 2000 (I’m working on a 2-pointed baby hat with curly-cue tassels now), and finally, off to bed with the pack.

Today, we had a family birthday dinner at Uncannery Row. Mom (and Oprah), Ray (and Yogi & Jada), our youngest son (and his Aussie Copper), our daughter & her beau (and her Cocker Cooper), and Ray’s sister and brother-in-law (cat people). Mom brought ribs and roasted veggies, my daughter brought a cheesecake, Ray’s sister brought garden flowers, and the pack ran happily until they were all exhausted. Amazing family, great friends, piles of cake, good beer, happy dogs & fine music—I couldn’t have asked for a sweeter, more perfect birthday.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Guilt-Free Knitting

Yogi (on the right) had a play date today with his sister, Oprah, my mom’s new puppy (the puppy mom is a schnauzer, the dad's a poodle--you can see which parent the pups take after). They’re only eight weeks old, but their roughhousing would put my three brothers’ glory days to shame. Yogi and Jada had a sniffathon when we got home then had to play even more, so now the're both conked out dog-skin rugs.

That gave me time to pick cukes, dill, and basil and make a cucumber salad to go with a chicken stewing in the crockpot. Since the dogs are still counting sheep (Jada, anyway), I may even get some knitting in. I’ve been making kitty-eared kids’ hats lately—they’re quick & easy, and I can watch a movie without worrying too much about dropped stitches or reading complicated patterns.

That’s the thing about knitting: it’s really an excuse to relax, unperturbed by the voice in my head that screams “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” if some part of me isn’t moving. Ray was raised Lutheran, and I went to a Catholic girls’ school for a while (both traditions think they’ve got a strangle-hold on guilt), so that would have been plenty to keep me from the sin of sloth. But the nuns’ warnings were just frilly lace added to the sturdy guilt-woven fabric of my being by my grandma, the Presbyterian Pragmatist. She was the Master. “Why honey, if I had to wait for you to get up and help, the mopboard would never get washed.” Wash mopboard? Are you kidding? What IS mopboard?!? Another favorite was, “Won’t the other girls make fun of you dressed like that?” Wow…way to tackle that tricky fifteen-year-old self-esteem building, Gram.

Don’t get me wrong. I adored my Grandma, and while my mom worked two or sometimes three thankless jobs to raise four kids on her own, my Grandma, widowed by then, taught me how to keep a house, cook, garden, and be a strong-willed, outspoken, independent woman. She’s the reason I’m having roast chicken and cucumber salad for dinner. But I gotta tell you, when I sit down to knit in a minute here, you can bet your “Old Rugged Cross” my hands will be a blur.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Peacock Roundup...YEEHAW!

I’m drawn to parenthood the way some people are drawn to cliff edges—zombie-like with an idiot grin & glassy-eyed stare. Last week, for example, we got a new puppy, Yogi, a seven-week-old Schnoodle. We got him as a companion for our seven-year-old Australian Shepherd, Jada, and we figured if Yogi ended up sprouting a few poodle-icious curls, he’d also make a decent sheep substitute for Jada. Because Jada is the smartest dog on the planet and mostly trained herself, I’d forgotten that having a new puppy is a lot like raising a human from birth to age three except condensed into a single exhausting, relentless, sleepless month—walking, running, scrubbing, washing, babytalking, unhooking household objects and/or furniture from little needle-teeth, blending, chopping, blanching, boiling…one foot over the precipice & don’t look down.

In addition to puppy chores, it’s peacock nesting season here at Uncannery Row. A crash course in peafowl parenting: males strut their stuff beginning in March or April. Hens go off to an undisclosed location in June, where they nest on the ground, well-hidden in tall grass out beyond their usual stomping grounds. Peachicks hatch 28 days later and can fly immediately. The hen doesn’t feed them—like chickens, they must learn to feed themselves from the beginning. The hen keeps them safe and warm under her wings at night, but she teaches them to roost within the first week or two by flying up in a tree near the nest and calling to the chicks until they fly up, too. She keeps them away from the farmyard, humans, and other peacocks for the first couple weeks, then only introduces them to the flock & home grounds for an increasing few minutes each day. It may be two months before she’ll let them roost in the communal tree, hang with the rest of the flock, or come without shouting distance of humans.

When we bought our place last year, we inherited a flock of six adult India Blues. We named them (as compulsive parents do): Francoise, Mimi, Ramon, Wanda, Junior and Debbie. Wanda went to nest sometime before we moved in on June 15. All was well, Nature in perfect balance— Wanda was the only hen that nested last year, somewhere behind the barn. When the babies hatched, she kept them out of sight and taught them the enigmatic Peacock Way. Of the three chicks, two survived the winter, so now we are eight, as A. A. Milne would say, with the addition of Ike and Flannery.

We should have let Nature take Her wise & careful course. But no. Concerned about their welfare over the brutal South Dakota winter, I fed the peacocks corn, black oil sunflower, and cat food (high protein), and Ray rigged up a brooder light in the loafing shed, where the flock would roost on the bitterest winter nights. Thanks to our kindly intervention, all three adult hens nested this year. Around the last week of June, Wanda, abandoning the cautious Peacock Way, brought six healthy peachicks up to the house to say howdy and to show them where I toss the corn. Now she marches them around the yard daily (blurry pic of Wanda in the yard, six babies under her).

Then last Friday, we discovered Mimi and four hatchlings in a lovely nest in our window well. When after two days of coaxing she could only get one chick to hop out, she abandoned the nest to start teaching the lone freed chick to find food. We tried not to listen all the next day to the weakening peeping of the remaining three chicks, but finally, Ray pulled them out of the well. They’re wiggly and pop right out of your hands, so we spent an hour rounding them up in the rose bushes, then put them out by the garden in a horse tank where Mimi could hear them and easily get to them. Yesterday, we saw her stroll through the yard with two chicks in tow. I think Snowball, the healthy pregnant mama barn cat (just a little bit of cat food to get the poor kitties through the winter, for gosh sakes), “adopted” the other two.

So now we are sixteen and counting. And there’s one more hen still on a nest. Forget naming. We’ve mucked up in a single season of misguided compulsive parenting what evolution took millions of years to perfect. It’s a whole new paradigm. We’ve plunged spread-eagle off the cliff, we’re singing “Fools Rush In” as we plummet, and it’s a looooong way down…

Monday, July 7, 2008

Demystifying the Prairie

I live in South Dakota by choice, not by birth. People outside the state seem reluctant to let go of the South Dakota myths—we’re all bumpkins; we live in a desolate, unpopulated, uncivilized frontier; we wear overalls and chew straw; we’re redneck cowpokes & B-western movie Indians, or we’re all Norwegians. There are other myths, but these are the persistent biggies.

I’m Marlene, and
I share an acreage in eastern South Dakota with my husband, Ray, two parrots, two dogs, an unknown number of wild barn cats, and a growing flock of peacocks. Eastern South Dakota is mostly prairie and farmland; western South Dakota is plains, ranchland, the Badlands and the Black Hills. The dividing line is the Missouri River, and South Dakotans often use “East River” or “West River” as descriptors as in, “Did you SEE those tacky boots? She’s SO West River.”

In spite of being a pinkish, green-eyed redhead, I have nary a drop of Norwegian or other Scandinavian blood (no Irish, either). I’m originally from Omaha, NE—rah rah Huskers. Ray’s a true South Dakota boy from Milbank, a town famous for granite and cheese (appropriate, considering the impassable intestinal rock that cheese can become). We have four human kids who, through miraculous quirks of fate, powerful survival instincts, and a whole lot of parental elbow grease, grew to adulthood.

Ray’s a printer in Sioux Falls and drummer with a local band, and I’m an English teacher at the U of SD in Vermillion. Although we can’t see another human habitat from any window in our house, we are only minutes from the towns of Vermillion and Beresford, and less than an hour from Sioux Falls and Sioux City, IA, where the bookstores, import stores, ethnic restaurants, and pet superstores keep me in touch with my inner consumer. We don’t chew straw, but a nice salad of lambsquarters and nasturtiums isn’t out of the question.

It’s raining off and on again today. It’s been an unusually wet spring, so our pond is full, and the frogs cut loose at night in amazing Righteous Brothers basso profundo. It’s too wet to get into the garden, clear brush or make trails (my plan is for walking trails all around the seven acres). We have a 2-story meditation tower by the pond badly in need of repair, but it’s too close to where the peahens are sitting on nests or schooling newly-hatched chicks in the tall grass. So it’s a good day to read (just starting Jose Saramago’s Seeing), work on poems, or knit (working on a “kitty” hat for a friend’s son’s birthday). Peaceful grey day on the prairie.