Monday, July 27, 2009

Sisters of Perpetual Disorder

The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder met Saturday night at Uncannery Row. This group of middle-aged women gathers semi-monthly (or as often as we can pull it off), rotating to each others’ homes, for themed potluck dinners. We eat, laugh, gossip, exchange stories about our lives, polish off a few bottles of wine, slug down after-dinner coffee, divvy up the leftovers into yogurt containers, and go home stuffed & contented. Since Mom and I had recently returned from our trek across the Yucatan, the theme this month was Mexican.

Ray worked like a dog helping me clean house in preparation for the dinner. When I brought the card table up from the basement, he suggested I seat several women at the old formica diner table down in the greenhouse, and the rest in the dining room. I explained that women like to be all in one bunch where they can talk over & around each other, finish each others’ sentences, embellish each others’ stories, and bust out all together in infectious laughter. This seems to me in contrast to a group of men, who speak in fits & starts (note to self: add “fits & starts” to Grandma’s list of extinct expressions), take polite turns speaking, and leave pregnant (harhar) pauses between speakers.

When the guests arrived, Ray retreated to his anti-estrogen fortress, his upstairs music room, and spent the evening working on CD’s—he’s transferring an enormous, lifelong collection of vinyl to CD then to iPod—appearing only occasionally to fill a plate.

Typically, women start showing up for Sisters’ dinners around 5, and it can take an hour or more for all of us to straggle in. Then there’s often cooling, carving, re-heating or finish-baking to do while we greet, catch up, and sip apertifs. When all the potluck dishes are finally spread out on kitchen counters, they represent the most amazing labor of love and an unbelievable work of art. In this case, “Still Life with Sombrero.”

Themes are loosely interpreted, and the menu is always as eclectic as the group of women themselves. This month’s dinner included two kinds of enchiladas, posole (a wonderfully spicy pork soup), tacos al pastor (pork & pineapple tacos), quesadillas, salsa ribs, fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, basil & olive oil, sopapilla cheesecake, key lime pie, cherry popsicles, and after-dinner sips, “para digestión,” of xtabentun (anise/honey liqueur we brought back from Mexico) and licor de cacao (also lugged back from Mexico—you can’t have a women’s dinner without some sort of chocolate).

As usual, the dinner conversation was a rambling patchwork of relationships, travel, surgeries, kids, and Bohunk grandmas who swore like sailors (September’s dinner theme will be Czech/Serbian). But what I love most about the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder dinners is that for a while, disorder is okay. The dinners are a blessed break from trying to juggle & closely manage (as women are wont to do) work, family, global issues, retirement planning, and the particular menopausal mêlée of forgetfulness, hot flashes, night sweats, sags, bags, wrinkies, and midriff poundage. For a while at least, we can all let our thinning hair down and do the things women our age love to do best: enjoy each others’ company and eat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

More Then & Now

Then: You hike all day and half the night through Fontanelle Forest, barefoot, in a spaghetti-strap sundress, following the creek and eating wild berries. Mosquitoes follow you but don’t bite, and you’re sure they’re humming “Kum Bah Ya.”

Now: You walk out to the garden in your mosquito-netting hat, long sleeve workshirt, stretchy long pants, and steel-toed work boots. You’re dripping Deep Woods Off and SPF 100 sunscreen. You’re out only long enough to pick a cucumber.

Then: You’re attracted to artists and musicians named “Jupiter” or “Cloud,” who spook around folk festivals, look like they could be homeless, have hair to their waists, and who carry Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine and a week’s supply of sunflower seeds in their backpacks.

Now: You’re attracted to artists and musicians who have day jobs, homes, hair, and comprehensive health & dental plans.

Then: You and seven friends take an impromptu cross-state road trip, and you sleep naked that night in a farmer’s field in the middle of Nebraska, your jean shorts & halter tops hung on cornstalks. You have earth for bed & pillow, and you have each other for blanket.

Now: You spend three months planning a camping trip to a State Park, where you made a reservation six months earlier. You take three more months to pack your supplies, which include an impenetrable tent, an inflatable bed, enough bedding to stock a Girl Scout troop, and a campfire espresso maker. You sit by the fire at night, playing your guitar and being “spontaneous.” When you get home, you take three months to unload, de-bug, and launder everything, and you don’t camp again for two years.

Then: You drive a 1971 VW bug with a crank sunroof, two windows held in place with duct tape, a roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror, old wool horse blankets where the backseat used to be, and blue and purple maple leaves airbrushed on the hood. You can drive for a week on $1.50.

Now: You drive a [insert current year] Toyota minivan with front & side airbags, a hair clip hanging from the rearview mirror, clean folded blankets and neck-massaging travel pillows on the back seats, a toolbox and first-aid kit in the cargo area, and an AAA sticker on the back bumper. You need TARP money to fill the tank.

Then: You sometimes wish you were older, you can be unkind or thoughtless and you take things for granted, believing you have all the time in the world and you’ll get it right next time.

Now: You appreciate the “cycle of life” business that brought you kicking & screaming to retirement planning, hot flashes, clicking knees, night sweats, cellulite, and a constant craving for Twinkies, but you sometimes wish you were younger. You try to be kind, thoughtful, and not take a single thing for granted, because you finally know you don’t have all the time in the world—you have only NOW to get it right.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Loving the Summer Lull

Breathe…breathe…breathe. This lovely post-Mexico summer life lazes on. We’re in the magic, brief lull between the end of summer teaching and the pre-fall semester rush, when we try to cram in enough travel, sun, friends, family and music to keep us warm through the cold to come.

Here on the Row, Francoise, Ramon, and Junior (our three adult male peacocks) are dropping train feathers, which will last another week or two. We go on daily feather-collecting walks. The hens gather at the birdbath for coffee, rolling their eyes at the boys, who still prance vainly about with scraggly gapped trains that look like silly grins with missing teeth. Two of the three nesting hens have chicks, three each. Wanda has already abandoned caution to sun with her brood on the back porch in the morning. I’m thinking we’ll need a government loan—let’s call it a P-ail out—to keep the peaflock in corn all winter.

It’s been an unusually wet summer. The dog pond is full, the frogs sing a groovy guttural chorus at night, flowers that should be long gone by now are still blooming, and the acreage needs mowing about every 24 hours. It’s a wild plum year, but the plums are late ripening due to the cool, wet weather. I’m getting antsy for jam day—three or four women in an all-day marathon jam production line, Little Feat blasting from all six speakers while we laugh hysterically, gossip, drink wine, and fling fire & molten jam in a rush to get jars sealed. Who says we don’t live dangerously in South Dakota?

I finally got the garden weeded and found my basil, doing well in spite of me. I also found parsley, rosemary, thyme, curry and dill that I forgot I’d planted. We had a bumper crop of asparagus, we’ve eaten the first of the cucumbers, and we’re waiting on the tomatoes and hot peppers. The gooseberries are ready to pick (gooseberry pie!), and we put in black raspberry and blueberry bushes this year. We’ll plant grape vines next spring along the old cow fence. How about Peacock Panacea for a new South Dakota red wine?

Happily, the void that would otherwise be my post-vacation funk is filled with friends & music this summer. Friday we went downtown to hear our favorite Happy Hour trio at our favorite Little Town bar, then on to the Beagles’ Club to hear Ray’s band suffer through a wedding reception dollar dance ad infinitum. My friends Gardenia and Lulu and I got to be the chick backup singers, always an amazing gift for me.

Saturday night Ray and the band played an outdoor gig for the Gayville, South Dakota Hay Days. Meanwhile, Mathilda, Gardenia and I were swooning like weak-kneed schoolgirls for Keb Mo at JazzFest, a free outdoor 2-day concert series in Sioux Falls. I probably made a fool of myself ogling and crowding in on the stage, but that wasn’t me who shot the granny panties at Keb, I swear.

Yesterday, Ray and I painted the kitchen. We wanted to get it done before this weekend’s flurry of company & activity. The quasi-monthly Sisters of Perpetual Disorder dinner is here at the Row this weekend, my Kansas brother & family are blowing through on their way to the family reunion in MN, and my oldest son & family are coming from Washington to visit and wax nostalgic in Little Town for a week or so.

Ray has to play again tonight in Sioux Falls, so while the house is quiet, I’ll sew new curtains for the kitchen cupboards (remember old farm kitchens with cupboard curtains? We have some with doors, some with curtains) to match the new color. I got batik fabric that’s all the colors of the Caribbean, and glass bead trim to sew along the bottom. I guess I STILL have Mexico on the brain, so our kitchen will be an eclectic, hippie-esque, Yuca-Prairie blend. Designed to Sell (or any HG network show) would be mortified, but I know it will be a constant reminder, especially when we're under Jack Blizzard’s thumb in December, of the sweet, drifty, dreamy summer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


1. I worry waaaaay too much about my appearance. I could barely stand to skitter my flabby white self out to the beach in a bathing suit—the skirted tankini kind that resembles a bad square dancing outfit. But peeking out from my head-to-toe swimsuit coverup, I observed unashamed young Italian women sunbathing topless, grey-haired corpulent men in Speedo’s, and happy, blubbery, 60-something French women in bikinis.

2. It is NOT a camera trick or lens filter. Caribbean water really IS blue, and the sand really IS white.

3. I need to learn another language. At one set of ruins we visited, there’s a Mayan guide who speaks Mayan, Spanish, German and French, and he’s learning Italian. I speak fluent (mostly) English and can say, “Dark beer, please,” “Where is Wal-Mart?” and “Do you have a larger size?” in Spanish. I can also say “We’re Americans and we want to dance” in Russian, and “Happy birthday” in Korean. Pitiful.

4. Note to self: Have Ray rig up an open-pit spit barbecue, so I can make tacos al pastor at home. I’m pretty sure it’s a matter of life or death.

5. Mayans are short and stocky. I felt right at home.

6. If there are pistol-packin’ banditos in Mexico, I didn’t see them. I DID, however, encounter banditos in Houston airport’s U.S. Customs/Immigration checkpoints, who hinted that my brother might be treasonous for living in Mexico, who wouldn’t let me touch a Mexican woman as I tried to help translate for her (she didn’t understand that she had to take off her shoes and put them on the conveyor), and who made us haul our bags off one carousel and walk them 20 feet to put them on another carousel for our connecting flight.

7. In any Mexican grocery, the people in line at the ATM will be Canadians, Europeans or Americans.

8. When it’s 104 degrees, I’ll fork over every last peso for a cold Modelo Negra.

9. Burrito supremes, hard-shell tacos, and potato olés are NOT Mexican food.

10. Yes, Mayan kids as young as five work sometimes 10 hours a day or more hawking junk to tourists. Yes, you sometimes spot them sound asleep on a curb. No, no matter how tired or hungry or sweet they are, you cannot bring them home with you. You can offer them a fair price for the stuff they’re selling, or you can stock your backpack with granola bars to help keep them going.

11. Heat is a great leveler. When it’s 104 degrees, all human beings—rich, poor, Mexican, German, American, business traveler, day laborer—are just big balls of sticky sweat.

12. It’s hard to complain about your tired feet or your creaky knees when four old Mayan men are swinging upside-down above you, strung to a pole by their ankles, in full Mayan costume, in over 100-degree heat, for the few pesos you’re willing to toss in a hat.

13. The man playing his saw in the Plaza: “Where you from?” You: “South Dakota.” Saw-Man: “Perhaps you know this song?” (He plays "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.") Saw-Man: “Where you from?” Passerby: “Japan.” Saw-Man: “Perhaps you know this song?” (He plays "Somewhere Over the Rainbow.") Etc.

14. I write poems for artistic self-expression and work hard to avoid the word “love.” Eduardo writes poems in English for tourists on the beach in Progresso, in 10 minutes for 10 pesos (about 80 cents), and uses the word “love” in almost every line.

15. Note to self: All future narrow escapes, family luck, and happy outcomes will result in the erecting of a shrine.

16. This Earth is an incredible wonderland, I now have a passport, and the Big Door is wide open.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Prairie Girl Gets Yuca-tanned

Mom and I got home from Mexico on Friday, safe & sound. It was an amazing trip. We started in Merida at my brother and sister-in-law’s house for a few days. They live in Centro, the historic downtown district, in a house they completely refurbished. Houses in Centro look more like U.S. storefronts, with a front door opening directly onto a little sidewalk then the street, and long, narrow, rectangular house going back from there. Most homes in Centro have inner courtyards, so in this part of Merida at least, one’s yard is INSIDE. Most of the buildings are quite old, and regulations prohibit much updating of the facades, so you can’t tell by looking at the front of a house if it will be gorgeous inside or abandoned.

We spent the first few days taking day trips around Merida (a city of almost 800,000 people), to Mayan ruins at Uxmal, and to the nearby beach at Progresso on the Gulf coast. Since it was over 100 every day, we spent afternoons floating in the pool.

The heat was oppressive at first. But once I decided that I didn’t need makeup, didn’t care about my pasty-white armflaps hanging out of a sleeveless shirt, and wasn’t any more or less coated with sweat than anyone else, it was fine. There were very few places with AC, so we just got used to it. Mom occasionally pasted wet napkins to her forehead, which I thought was a nice accoutrement in lieu of makeup.

On Monday of last week, we drove across the peninsula to Tulum, a little resort town on the Caribbean coast. We stopped along the way at the Chichen Itza ruins, then for lunch at Valladolid, where we wandered around a cenote, cave-like pools caused by sinkholes in the limestone. We spent the next three days at a little beach resort called Posada Meriposa.

We toured the cliff ruins at Tulum one day, but we spent most of our time at Posada Mariposa on the beach. I didn’t know it was possible to spend so much time relaxing. I read Dead in Dallas and The Alchemist between naps on my beach lounge chair, dips in the warm turquoise water, strolls on the cool white powdered-sugar sand, and beach deliveries of fresh watermelon juice by adorable Italian boys. I have a new appreciation for the expression “beach novel.” Posada Mariposa is owned by a pack of 20-something Italians, and the place is renowned for the food in its open-air restaurant. I could have lived happily on their breads & bruschettas for the rest of my life. It was all just glorious.

We flew out of Cancun on Thursday, so on our way from Tulum to Cancun we stopped in Playa del Carmen, the “Riviera of the Yucatan,” where Caribbean cruises make shopping & dining pitstops.

I came home with a positively tropical (in a freckly sorta way) Yuca-tan, silver, hammocks, starfish, a Day of the Dead nicho, and an absolute love of the people of the Yucatan. I’ll blog more about Mexico, probably obsessively so for a while. For now, I’m just re-acclimating and settling up with these truths:

* Food, customs, and languages may differ, but people are people. They work hard, they love each other, they sometimes have troubled, fractured lives, they’ll give up almost anything for their kids, they try to find meaning.

* Poverty is universal. Anyone, in ANY country, who lives in a decent house, has electricity and fresh water, and eats every day, should be a constant sappy bucket of GRATITUDE.

* The world is a big, beautiful, fascinating place. If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel, GO. If you never leave home, it’s like looking through a pinhole and thinking the little patch of South Dakota pasque flowers you see is all there is.