Friday, February 27, 2009

Jack Blizzard's Misguided Mischief

For the past two months, I’ve been getting ready for the student literary organization’s annual poetry festival. We bring in visiting writers to conduct writing workshops, give readings, and host an evening poetry slam. Participants from around the region sign up for the one-day festival of poetic profundity.

Last year, on the morning of the festival, on his way to work in the Big City, Ray was sideswiped on I-29 and his pickup (with Ray clinging to the steering wheel) rolled into the ditch. His pickup was a gonner. Thankfully, Ray was unhurt, though shaken and stirred.

This year, on the morning of the festival, Jack Blizzard came up with a funny practical joke. After a week of temps in the 50’s and 60’s, robins returning in droves (flocks…whatever), peacocks fanning spectacular spring trains at restless peahens, and students trekking to classes in cutoffs & flip-flops, Jack turned a cold shoulder and crusted us all with ice in a late winter Midwestern storm.

I slalomed into Little Town at 7 a.m. A half-inch glaze covered everything. But, in spite of numerous cancellations, the festival went on. All four brave poets made it to town, poured their hearts & souls into workshops with only a few hearty participants, and gave stellar readings for sparse but eager audiences. And the slam at the end of the night was a chaotic, wildly entertaining “hoot,” to use the South Dakota jargon. I tobogganned back home again at 10 p.m., exhausted but happy.

I should have known it was coming. It may be partly Jack’s Festival Curse, but Ray says there’s always one more blizzard after the robins return. And, I was getting too complacent, too spring-minded. I let down my guard. I wore short sleeves. I leafed through seed catalogues. I turned on the outside water.

Maybe the true meaning of “spring fever” is this sudden illness where South Dakotans go blindly out, mole-like after long winter months knitting in the dark under a blankie. We go out uncoated, shield our eyes from the unfamiliar brightness, rake the yard with overgrown fingernails, searching for signs of life. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight.

This morning, I walked outside and found the prayer flags stiff, coated in an icy sheen. Tiny icicles shimmered along the strings of lights over the patio. The peahens were waking up, perched in a jeweled tree that cast rainbow refractions in the sunlit air. So Jack might have tripped us up again, but prairie people don’t stay down. I like to think Jack's off sulking somewhere today, annoyed as hell that I’m GRATEFUL for his mischief, and for the brief, breathtaking beauty it left behind. Take that, Jack.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I LOVE teaching, but I have a patholgical aversion to grading papers. Really “seek professional help now” pathological. I think it's the whole judgment thing, and who am I to judge? So these are the things I’ve done so far today to avoid grading:

1. I baked parrot bread. This is cornbread, with loads of grated veggies, blueberry baby food, whole eggs (crushed shells too), peanut butter, and olive oil. When it’s cool, I cut it in little squares and freeze it in baggies. Our two parrots each get a square every day. Stella can say, “Mmmm…good bread.” She likes it warmed up in the microwave. No sunflower seeds for these spoiled parrots—they also get organic parrot kibble, whole almonds (shells on), and table food.

2. I scrubbed the George Forman grill.

3. I repotted a burro tail succulent that Yogi knocked off a plant stand. I haven’t met an animal yet that doesn’t LOVE munching on burro tail if given the chance.

4. I gave the peacrew some corn. They’ll come RUNNING for corn. Then, of course, I have to stand around and watch, laugh, maybe take pictures, while they leapfrog trying to hog the food. And while I was there, I took a census: it looks like 6 males, 6 females, and Ike, who’s a pied (mostly white with irregular black and tan markings). I can’t tell with Ike. I try not to think about how many peacocks we’ll have by this fall, and after watching a National Geographic special about how turkeys (closely related to peacocks) are the evolutionary descendents of raptor dinosaurs (a la velociraptors in Jurassic Park), I’m getting nervous…

5. I sorted my knitting into “needs loose ends woven in” and “done” piles.

6. I transferred my marimo, Japanese lake moss balls, from a quart canning jar to a bigger glass cookie jar my daughter gave me. I dumped in some glass rocks to cover an airstone hooked to a tiny aquarium pump. I wanted some bubbles in the jar, because the circulating water helps keep the marimo moving, which keeps them nice and round.

7. I rearranged pictures hanging in the living room and dining room when I noticed one picture was slightly lower than the others.

8. I did a couple loads of laundry.

9. I fixed Solar Mary. I have a hollow plastic statue of Mary in the yard that my friend found in a dumpster on Hwy 50 west of town and gave to me for my birthday last year. I stuffed her full of white solar lights, which keep falling to the bottom of the statue. So today, I brought her in and, using clear packing tape, distributed the lights evenly inside so that at night Mary wouldn’t look quite so much like her arse was lit up.

10. I arranged my yarn and wool stash by weight, color and tone (just kidding…but I WANTED to…).

Okay, I think things are in order. Now I can grade papers, just as soon as they’re stapled, sorted by class and assignment, and alphabetized by student name…

Thursday, February 12, 2009

No Sissy Cupids in South Dakota

If Cupid roamed the prairie, he’d have feedsack wings, tiny feet wrapped in plastic tarp, a bow made of plum sapling, and cornstalk arrows dipped in creeping charlie.

My meditation on love started this morning when I walked outside with the dogs. The peacrew was milling around the back porch, picking at green grass unveiled by recent warm days that melted most of the snow. Early morning light washed the farmyard in pink and orange. Out in the pasture, the skeleton of the homestead house leaned like an old farmwife after a hard winter. The hayloft windows blinked in the sun—eyes in a barn-red face crowned with a swirling halo of pigeons.

This Maxfield Parrish landscape was about to bring me to my knees when I heard, in the linden tree, a warbly song. There he was: the first spring robin. An answer came from the shelterbelt, and he started dancing between the linden and a Black Hills spruce. Here, he sang, let’s build a nest here. With Valentine’s Day and our 20th wedding anniversary around the corner, the timing was uncann[er]y!

So here’s a prairie love poem for Ray, for spring thaws of all kinds, for Valentine’s Day, for anniversaries, for single friends watching the horizon, and for my absolute certainty that even if we feel alone, we are surrounded by love, right now.


Shake off the glitter, don’t
be dazzled by cupidy arrows.
Love is not in the heart.
It’s in the slow, steady hands
that put things right after a
thunderstorm, in the strong
back that hoes an asparagus bed,
in the legs that stoop for dogplay
or bend to sweep up pieces
of a broken coffee cup.
It’s in stomach muscles twisted
into braids on days when you
can’t find your way, in the patient
calling, calling, calling to you
until you can breathe again.
It’s in the watching, waiting,
the unshakeable faith
that you’ll come back.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Awfully Awkward Age

Tweeners. I know this usually means kids caught between the footie jammies of childhood and the acne of teenhood. But I think it’s a better fit for people my age, caught between the pedal-to-the-metal, career-building, ladder-climbing (and, for some, parenting pitfalls) of young adulthood, and the what happened, whose wrinkled face is this, twixt kids & parents, how long till retirement?hood of midlife.

This meditation on midlife started when, at my brother’s nudging (the oldest brother, ironically), I finally took the Facebook plunge. Within days, I heard from two friends I hadn’t talked to since JUNIOR high, and another friend’s brother, who I’d forced to eat bugs when we were kids, for which I still say rosaries (I’m not Catholic, but he was back then, so I’m covering bases). Anyway, this techno-dive has had a very strange effect on me.

First, trying to negotiate the FB pages and their Dante depths-of-hell links to links of links, made me want to hurl a cinderblock at the monitor. Once I calmed down, I had a strange impulse to check my hair in the mirror every 20 minutes, buy Stridex pads, and wear hyper-coordinated outfits with matching tights. Then I got spitting mad all over again for that skanky dance party at Mike C.’s in seventh grade, when Steve S. spread lies about my virtue because I kneed him. And lastly, I identified even more strongly with Emily Dickenson—terrified recluse holed up on the prairie, observing the life cycles of domesticated peacocks, tucking little poems in a leather binder, out of touch with the gregarious, rancorous, busy world.

But there’s no going back, so I’m taking it slow…suspended somewhere in the twilight zone between my little “better-dead-than-red” pep club 7th-grade self, and my wandering wistful private poet of the prairie midlife self. Still, there’s something so wrong about having hot flashes and reliving failed cheerleading tryouts at the same time. All I can do now is hope my inner old lady will gently guide my inner angst-ridden teen—rearing her ugly (adorable, really) head and her unresolved issues—toward the light, giving her a swift kick over the line. Tweeners. It’s an awkward age.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I know spring is coming...

I know spring is coming because the snow has melted down around the solar yard light chargers, and the sun has wormed its way through the clouds for a few days now, so the farmyard is a’glow with soft halos of colored light at night.

I know spring is coming because the peacocks are starting to strut their stuff. It’s hilarious to watch last summer’s baby boys fan their itty bitty tails (they won’t get the long train feathers until their third year) and practice the peacock prance. The prance is a riot of color & sound—males fan their tail feathers and vibrate them (shake, shake, shake a tailfeather…uh huh…uh huh), along with a set of rust-colored feathers on the outer edge of each wing (the photo is Francoise from behind, doing the dance), to make a purcussive, almost purring, sound. While they’re doing this, they high-step backwards in miniscule increments. If a peahen approaches, they’ll high-step forward toward her, or, if they’re feeling lucky, charge her suddenly. All peacocks, males & females, fan their tails as an alarm or warning (like their turkey cousins) but only the randy boys do the prance. They do it very rarely in winter, and then only briefly, but I’ve seen several dancers lately, so things must be heating up peacock-wise.

I know spring is coming because Snowball, the white barn cat, has been boldly stalking the compost bucket on the back porch and is looking a bit rotund. Kitties may be in the offing, although it’s really too early in the year for kitties to have a good chance.

I know spring is coming because I’m starting to feel human again—less bear-like, less desperate to scarf carbs until I’m in a stupor, less convinced I need to let my hair grow (ALL of it) as insulation. I’m increasingly still asleep when the sun comes up and still awake when it goes down.

I know spring is coming because the barn pigeons are pairing up, and if I walk close to the barn, I hear the most amazing, echo-y pigeon music.

I know spring is coming because students are cutting class on sunny days, they’re antsy, and their attention spans have dwindled from about 11 minutes at the beginning of the semester, to a few seconds, and then only if I’m at the front of the room doing a gymnastics routine while balancing spinning glass plates on an overhead projector pointer. In a pink sequined spandex leotard and black fishnets. While singing “RESPECT.” Blindfolded.