Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Letter to My Children

Dear Collective Child,

I was a pretty intense parent, I know that. I took the job seriously (maybe too seriously at times from your perspective). And I know that you and I have different language to express my parenting style: You say strict, I say attentive; you say enabler, I say unfailingly supportive; you say nosy, I say involved; you say unreasonable, I say wise. But let's not quibble over semantics.

I know, too, that some of you (maybe all of you at one time or another) think that parenting has been nothing but misery, trouble, and heartache for me. There were times…plenty of times…when it was all of the above. I cried more than you know. I felt like giving up sometimes. And hard work? Seriously, birthing you—breeched, too early, really late—was a day at the beach compared to raising you.

But I digress. Here’s what I want you to know. I would absolutely do it all again in a heartbeat.

All the mistakes you fret over, feel guilty about, regret—they’re now some of the best stories in the Big Book of my life...
  • Like the time you locked yourself in the trophy case in the high school hallway.
  • Like the time I had to pick you up at the senior dance, where I found you half-crocked, in the principal’s face, debating the unreliability and inadequate testing of the school’s new breathalyzer.
  • Like the times we had to rendezvous in restaurant parking lots, like kidnappers, to pick you up from the other parent.
  • Like the time you were arrested. Or that other time you were arrested. Or that one other time. Or those other two times.
  • Like the time they took you to jail at 3 a.m. for “operating a suspicious skateboard.”
  • Like the time I had to haul you out of some boy’s house at 1 a.m.
  • Like the time when you were 4 and you called the neighbor boy “asshole” with his mother standing in our living room.
  • Like the time you hid behind a chair and cut all your sister’s hair off.
  • Like the time you called from Boulder to say you were living in your car. In January.
  • Like the time I had to help you move and clean up a trashed bachelor[ette] pad. Or the other time. Or the two other times.
And though you sometimes think I regret all the money/time/energy/sleepless nights I’ve spent hauling you around, defending you to teachers & principals, getting you out of jams, crying, worrying, apologizing to other kids’ parents, I want you to know I seldom think about any of that today.

THIS is what I think about, and I think about it EVERY day: How incredibly grateful, proud, full of love, amazed & in awe I am to witness the generous, intelligent, independent, compassionate, fiercely loyal, creative, gentle people you’ve all become.

You are all angels to me, though definately not the fluffy, wish-granting, TV sitcom kind. You are the fierce, unfathomable creatures of wisdom & light kind. So this Thanksgiving, the thing I am MOST thankful for is that in the cosmic, universal scheme of parents & children, we chose each other.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

End of the Semester Slide

About this time in the semester—only two or three weeks to go—I turn into Gollum. I’ve been cloistered in an office, either at home or at school, grading papers pretty much non-stop. My skin is hanging in dehydrated bags and has paled to a milky-grey, my eyes are bugged out, only the muscles in my pen hand are still functioning, and I’m referring to myself in the third-person: “Shall we make a fourth pot of Italian roast, Precious? Those crème brule truffles will keeps us awake, darling.”

By 3 a.m., the comments I make on essays have gone from “I love the way you relate the story’s setting to its exploration of existential angst,” to “No clear connection between this paragraph and your thesis idea” to “verb tenses shift here” to “nice font” to “your paper is a rectangle.” In those wee hours, I can hear my synapses crackling as they sizzle and burst into flame.

In addition to my typical end-of-semester anxiety over the whole idea of judgment (grading), I’m also battling guilt over all that goes undone while I’m sequestered—laundry, dusting, Thanksgiving dinner prep (we’re having 15 for dinner at the Row this year), Christmas decorating, knitting & shopping, a holiday letter, attention to spouse, children, friends, parrots, dogs and peacocks, and my own writing. Imagine June Cleaver (picture Gollum in an apron) at the dining room table, dustballs drifting in the drape-filtered light, s/he’s strung out on coffee, doing Beaver’s and Wally’s homework day & night, with nary a pot roast or game hen in the oven for Ward—that’s me.

This weekend, I have 2 stacks of revised essays and 3 stacks of quizzes to grade, 2 stacks of first drafts to comment on, 2 extremely late papers to comment on (what WAS that assignment again?), 2 databases to retrieve student information from for scoring, and woefully behind gradebooks to update.

So how will I spend this gorgeous November day? Maybe I’ll clean parrot cages while Ray hauls up the Christmas stuff from the basement. Maybe I’ll put up the tree, lights and decorations, so the family (most of whom won’t make it back to SD for Christmas), can share in the cheer. Maybe I’ll blog. Maybe I’ll venture outside into the sunlight (with dark glasses, skin slathered in SPF 150), to see if the world’s still turning. Maybe I’ll bake some ginger cookies. Maybe I’ll rearrange my stacks of papers, sorting them numerically by student ID #. Maybe I’ll dust. Maybe I’ll practice my gee-tar.

At least we’s got our priorities, straight. Hasn’t we, Precious?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Little Darwinian Hothouse

It’s late fall at Uncannery Row. The ground is covered with leaves in that perfect late stage of crunchiness. Farmers are combining late into the night, and the corn and soybean fields are shaved almost bare. Squirrels, when they aren’t running from Yogi, the Great Hunting Schnoodle, are carting off black walnuts as fast as their fat legs can carry them. No sign of barn cats for a while now; they may have gotten tired of Yogi’s pestering and skulked off to find a more cat-friendly acreage. But something’s eating the cat food I keep putting out in the pyramid shed…

Speaking of food, the repercussions of my meddling in Nature have come home to roost this fall, so to speak. I may have mentioned before that there were 6 peacocks here when we moved in a little over three years ago—they came with the house. When we bought the place, I asked the previous owners how to care for the peas. She said, “Oh, they take care of themselves. I toss a little cat food out once in a great while when I’m feeding the cats.” So, that’s what I did. Toss a little cat food out, maybe a little too often. Then I noticed the peas would saunter into the yard ju
st after I filled the feeders, to catch the spillage. I thought to myself, “Self? Why not toss a little bird food on the ground every now and then, so the peas can have their own?” Then one day I noticed the peas gorging on spilled field corn in the road. I thought, “Self? Why not add a little cracked corn to the bird food, since the peas like it so much?”

Yesterday, I counted 22 peacocks in the yard. They’d heard me take the metal lid off the bird food can, and they came RUNNING. Watching 22 peacocks run at you is like starring in your own Roadrunner cartoon, in fly-lens perspective. And if I so much as turn in the direction of the pyramid, where the cat food is stored, the peas FLY in, a honking aerial assault.

Peacocks aren’t supposed to get their train feathers, those “eye” tail feathers for which they’re famous, until they’re around 3 years old. And although they can breed in their second year, the boys can’t usually attract the mostly stuck-up hens until they have that swanky train (the pea-quivalent of a red 1975 Camaro). And breeding season is usually Feb-Sept or so. But we now have three 1-year-old black-shouldered males, each with a sprinkling of teeny tiny eye feathers they shouldn’t have yet, high-stepping back and forth on the back patio daily. In mid-November! It’s evolutionary hyperdrive, I tell you, probably resulting from excessive protein (cat food and corn), or Gore-bal warming (no seasonal cues to signal breeding seasons), or both. Directly or indirectly, it’s my pesky meddling in Nature. I might as well be out in the yard stocking an all-you-can-eat Atkins/South Beach pea-buffet while firing off a dozen aerosol cans.

Calculating the possible future pea-population is dizzying. The cost of corn. The hopsc
otch over pea-droppings. The no-room-at-the-inn Roosting Tree. The “Crazy Pea-lady” sniggers at the Co-op elevator. So today, while Yogi conserves hunting energy in Ray’s lap, I’ll be in the greenhouse grading papers, watching our bulked-up peas clumsily leapfrog in the yard, bickering over leftover bird seed. I will try to tone down my interference. I will try to appreciate and let alone the beautiful balance of Nature. I will sit on my hands if I have to. From now on, I will only feed the peas, cats, dogs, little birds (and occasional wild turkeys) on days ending in “-day.” Honest.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why I'm the kind of woman who keeps a parrot...

Mark Twain said, “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” I’m not sure Twain meant this as a compliment, but that’s how I’m taking it. I live with two parrots—Stella Faye and Polly Hester.

A little history. I bought Stella, a Congo grey parrot (often called African grey parrot), from a breeder in Ohio who treats her companion parrots like the precious children they are. I bought Stella before she was hatched—that is, I was on a list, waiting for a baby, after making it through a rigorous application & approval process. Stella was a domestically bred, handfed baby, and the breeder sent her to me on a plane when Stella was 4 months old. She came with a baby book, toys, a Congo grey stained glass suncatcher, and a kilogram scale to track Stella’s weight (the best way to monitor a bird’s daily health). Stella is tame and will be 13 this Christm

Polly Hester is a lilac crown Amazon parrot, a rescue bird. She was given to me by a woman whose daughter had kept Polly shut in a back room for a year before giving her to the mom, who then gave her to me when her husband took sick and she didn’t have time to care for Polly too. Polly isn’t tame but tolerates my affection, and our best guess is that she is 17 or 18.

Parrots can live 50 years or more, so believe me, I study my human kids’ interactions with the parrots, gauging the kids’ potential as possible godparents for our feathered girls.

Now I’ll tell you why I’m THAT kind of woman.

1. Duh. Parrots can fly. Because Stella is an occasional feather chewer, her wings are not clipped. She adores spending time out of her cage, and watching her fly lets me fulfill, at least vicariously, my own secret desire to fly. I was the little girl who jumped off porch railings, shed roofs, tree branches, etc., believing that gossamer wings would magically sprout from my shoulder blades. I am not startled by the sight of a 1+-pound grey parrot flying directly at me, her head down and back flattened out, then making a pinpoint landing on my shoulder. I am in AWE (and envious as hell).

2. Parrots can talk. Parrots are such social creatures that they will learn a skill totally unnatural for their species in order to engage with their human “flock.” That would be like Americans traveling in Paris actually learning French…not too likely. Stella refuses to be “taught” language and only learns what she likes. I have been singing a little ditty to her since the day I brought her home, and she has never sung a single note of it. But she’ll whistle “Popeye the Sailor Man,” by gum. She has an amazing repertoire of sound effects, including the microwave, phone beeps, smoke alarm, dog barking at a distance, tapping on a coffee grinder, clapping, and after our recent bout with flu, a tuberculin cough she practices ad nauseum. She can call out “Marlene?” in Ray’s voice, then answer “What?” in mine. She can do a long one-sided phone conversation, complete with “Hello” at the beginning, occasional laughter, rising & falling inflections, and “Bye” at the end. When she wants water, she makes the sound of a bubbling fish aquarium. She reminds me daily that she’s a good girl and a goofy bird. She can ask for pasta, chips, cheese, TV, or time out from her cage. In English.

3. Parrots can FLY.

A poet friend of mine in Canberra, Australia, S. K. Kelen, had a poem accepted for publication recently, a poem inspired by my fascination with birds. He's published a half dozen books of poetry and gave me, in one of his poems, my nickname for the South Dakota winter—Jack Blizzard. You can see his "Jack Blizzard" poem at This was my first foray as poetic muse, and I’m incredibly honored, so here’s the poem, reprinted here with the poet’s permission…


One Dakota woman calls the river’s
Bluff and drives to the Badlands.
On the back seat of her car
Is a caged Sulphur-crested
Cockatoo—a dream come true.
‘Oh, those crazy Aussies...’
And the glossy photographs of galahs!
Back home her attic is full
Of budgerigars and finches
A tame woodpecker
This big white parrot
Will rule them all.
Clouds curl like open hands,
She sees the river
And a hawk dip its wing.

S. K. Kelen