Saturday, May 28, 2011

All Hail the King: WATER

“Water is King,” I says to Ray. “Yes,” says Ray, head bowed in reverence. “Yes it is.” Then we pull down our face masks, cross our arms over our chests, and fall backwards off the steps into the depths of the…basement. But let’s back up a minute.

I used to think nicotine was king, the way it can twist you around its little finger practically before you’ve even met. But this spring on the Row has taught me that nicotine is just the naughty playboy prince. Water – covering about 71% of the earth’s surface and making up 65% of YOUR body – reigns supreme. So yeah, go ahead and redirect rivers to build your sweet little farms, but just don’t get too comfy; any time he feels like it, the King can take it all back.

Last spring and summer on the Row were unusually wet and cool. This past winter, we were buried in snow. And so far, this spring has been a delightful mix of rain, thunderstorms, wind, and more rain. The upshot is saturated ground. The water table is, oh, maybe a bazillion feet above ground level with nowhere to go. Creeks (cricks is what you get in your neck when you play Rise of Atlantis for four hours straight), streams, and rivers are brimming or overflowing. Closer to home, the dog pond out by our meditation tower has spilled into the tower yard. The shelter belt and half the pasture to the south are under water. I slog around in a daze of ancestral muscle memories of the primordial bog. I’m driven to root for cattail tubers. And we live on HIGH ground. Below and a few miles to the west of us, in the pre-dam-system river valley, the iconic Midwestern “sea of corn” is now literally the sea, whitecaps and all.

So when we got home from a lovely, restful trip to Minneapolis last weekend, we had a new basement swimming pool. Our basement isn’t finished; we use it for storage and Ray’s workshop (and storage for all our kids’ stuff, "just for a little while, honest, Mom"). There’s no sump pump – we’ve never needed one. But the King welcomed us home with about 4” of water when he discovered he could rally his troops in the flooded old stone windmill well at the east edge of the property, march along the ancient unused underground iron pipe from the well to the house, then storm – drip by gurgle by drip – our basement. (“He” is appropriate here – only a snooty monarch would do this to a woman’s sacred canning & wine cellars.) We’ve spent this past week digging a sump hole and installing a pump, burning waterlogged cardboard and elevating stuff. But thanks to Ray’s BFH (big frickin’ Thor hammer), my new boyfriends (the Campbell’s Supply & sump pump sucker guys), the tireless work of our youngest son, and our good friend who had the bad luck to stop by mid-bailing, we’ve arrived at a truce punctuated by thrice-daily wet-vac’ing.

We know it's temporary. We know the King wants his stuff back. The forecast calls for more rain. I’m sewing sequins on my Esther Williams outfit, and we’re growing gills (a plus for underwater mowing). But the iris, alium, and coral bells are gorgeous. We planted tomatoes, hot peppers and corn during a brief 2-hour sun window, and the peacocks are learning to quack. And the King has spared us the unbelievable rath dealt to Missouri, Mississippi, Minneapolis, even Pierre in South Dakota, and so many others. Some folks have lost everything. People are missing. Many have died.

We’re lucky. So we won’t whine or complain. We’ll spend this holiday weekend memorializing the dry years, wet-vac’ing in shifts, emptying dehumidifiers, and moving fans around. We’ll count our blessings and lotion up our webbed toes. We’ll pay our tithes to the King, trusting he’ll soon be distracted by that steamy vamp, Summer.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The "Crapshoot Theory" of Parenting

I had the best Mother’s Day ever this year. Mom farm/critter-sat so Ray and I could road-trip to the Black Hills, where we got to hang with my oldest kid and his family. He had a gig at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City, a benefit for the Americana Music Festival. He was on the bill with other friends of ours – Boyd Bristow & Kenny Putnam, Hank Harris & Jami Lynn, and others. At the end of Ryan’s set, he announced that he didn’t usually do un-original music, but he wanted to do a song that was a poem by his favorite poet – his mom – he’d set to music. And he said his mom was in the audience, so he’d “better not screw it up.” It was a total surprise to me, so of course, Ray and I both sat there crying like the babies we are. And before the night was through, I also got to sit in on a couple songs, singing with a stage full of jamming musicians. Could I BE any luckier?!?

On the drive back, our youngest son called just to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day – just a cheerful, non-emergency thinking-of-you call. While we were gone, my daughter and her family went out to the farm to spend Mother’s Day with Mom, and when we got back home that night, my daughter’s beautiful, delicious pink champagne cupcakes were waiting for us.

I’d like to take credit for the amazing adults our kids are becoming. I’d like to say I have wise parental advice. But I know the truth: it’s a crapshoot. I learned this important life lesson back when Ray had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery at age 50. He’s a fit, lean, non-smoking, tofu-eating, hard-working man. One evening during his recovery, we were sitting in Ray’s room at the Heart Hospital when a man walked past his door, looking for a friend he meant to visit. The guy was 60-ish, had a belly like a full laundry sack dangling and swaying over his belt, smelled like bad cigars, and – seriously – was eating a cheeseburger. He was strolling around the HH in his devil-may-care oblivion, while Ray had just been cut, probed, stuck, sliced, power-sawed, and cracked open like a walnut. Ray and I looked at each other for a long minute as the guy went by, and that’s when the Crapshoot Theory hit us.

The Crapshoot Theory, as it applies to parenting, accounts for crack moms whose kids grow up to be volunteer dentists with Doctors Without Borders or theoretical physicists whose kids grow up to be serial 7-11 stickup men. We can talk about nurturing, nutrition, good karma, guidance, education and the rest all we want, but there’s simply no clear reason why some kids grow up good, some go astray, and some end up Wall Street grifters.

All I can say about my own parenting is that I did the best I could. I made LOADS of mistakes. I had TONS of help, including my mom and grandmother – the Super Women – and Ray’s patient love, tolerance, and quiet determination (crucial balance to my hyper-parenting style). I was sometimes waaaaay too intense. I was overprotective. Or I was completely in the dark.

I pushed inner stuff over outer stuff. I didn’t drive my kids to get straight A’s, dedicate themselves to sports, or go to church every Sunday. Maybe as a result of this (or planetary alignments, barometric pressure, Universal whim…), none of my kids was interested in college. They’re all artists – in music, with cakes, or on skateboards (maybe I should have drilled in some sort of ‘make a decent living’ lesson…).

Instead, I pushed (nagged, harangued, harped on) my kids to trust in family, love, and peace; to write thank-you cards; to see everyone – even big meanies – as part of the Big Community; to be grateful for the richness of their lives (even back when we were on Food Stamps & living on Kraft macaroni & cheese); and to be aware of others’ suffering. And yes, you should be visualizing me in a peasant blouse and a tiara of daisies right now, with “Get Together” playing in your head. And maybe as a result of this (or more likely the Crapshoot Theory), our kids have all become kind-hearted, affectionate, generous, compassionate human beings. And THAT’S a pretty incredible roll of the dice.

Here's the poem my son set to music...

Old Family Photo

This is the grandmother.
You see how she has dressed
the daughter in dark broadcloth,
eyelet at the sleeves, each fold pressed.

The sons on either side,
smooth and starched,
circles of cropped hair shining,
form the beginning and end of the arch.

You see how the grandfather
looms black and white
above them all, unsmiling,
hands hidden, small eyes glaring, frightened.

The seated grandmother
spreads her flowering hands,
touches them all.
Below the waist, she melts into shadow.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rescue Me

I’ve recently been diagnosed with an anomalous gene mutation – the HHN-i (Human Hyper-Nurturer-insoluble) gene. It appears to be a dominant mutation passed along familial female lines, causing an overdeveloped nurturing instinct. Carriers typically take in strays (animal and human), cook in stadium-sized quantities, cut other peoples’ food into bite-sized morsels, and tell other adults what not to wear in public. Another effect of the mutation is an invisible aura emanating from carriers – a sort of magnetic beacon – that sucks in like a wormhole any passing life form the carrier thinks would benefit from tuna casserole and a fluffed pillow. The diagnosis came as no surprise to us here at Uncannery Row Convalescent Care Facility & Home for Wayward Creatures – the evidence is everywhere.

For example, we just picked up Rickie Lee, a 7 or 8-year-old spayed, declawed cat we “inherited” from our son, from the vet. She had a $300 tumor removed from her leg. While we wait for lab results to decide on our next move, she sulks around the house in her brand new Elizabethan collar, and I try to follow an impressive list of post-operative instructions that include “no jumping or stair climbing” (she’s a CAT…they knew that, right?).

In the onion-domed dog house just outside our back door, Kitty Wells, a tiny stray calico cat someone dumped at the Row a few weeks back, tends to four 2-week-old kittens while we tend to her – organic cat food, goat’s milk, and flannel sheets to line her kitten box. I spent yesterday making a nice new box the kittens couldn’t crawl out of, and drawing up an extensive application for those brave enough to offer a home for one of the kittens – 2 orange tabbies, a grey calico, and a black “skunk” kitty with white nose & paws. Home inspections are mandatory.

Our 10-year-old Australian Shepherd, Jada (a Humane Society rescue), is now on a daily aspirin & glucosamine regimen, and our 3-year-old Schnoodle, Yogi (the dog version of Denise-the-Menace), has been bringing baby bunnies back from the pasture – lovely little offerings on the back porch, which I mourn and Kitty Wells steals.

I’ve also been baking parrot bread – organic corn meal, chopped nuts, vegetable puree and organic eggs – which I cut into little squares and freeze in weekly portions. Triggered by the longer spring days, our rescued Lilac Crown Amazon parrot, Polly Hester (she’s between 15-20), does daily rainforest calls at mind-numbing volume. Meanwhile, about the time Kitty showed up, Stella Faye, our 13-year-old African grey parrot, began incessantly calling “Sophie!” followed by the whistle we use to call the dogs. Sophie, a cat we had when Stella was a baby, has been gone for 10 years or more. Spooky.

Then there are the peacocks, of course. We’re heading into nesting season with 16 adults. Our 6 adult males have been doing their loudest “HELP! HELP!” mating calls for weeks now, starting just after dawn, bless their hearts. Four hens have already gone to nest out in the tall pasture grass, and a couple younger hens are eyeing the window wells, so I need to get out there with screen. The nesting hens do a “fly in” each evening to snub the boys and to check out the buffet, which I keep stocked with corn, black oil sunflower, and a little Wal-Mart cat food for nesting calcium & protein.

Our newest victim of my HHN-i beacon is Jeremiah the invisible frog, who’s bad sense of direction led him to tunnel through the dirt and come up not out by the frog pond, but under our greenhouse boardwalk. We’ve never seen him, but his intermittent soft croaking adds to the crazy Row symphony.

There’s no shutting down the HHN-i gene (in her 70’s, my mom is STILL taking in foundlings). So the best I can do is hide inside, hoping our metal roof temporarily blocks the beacon, while Ray calculates the lumber we’ll need to build a corn crib and add on a cat wing…

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Mother of All Days

Mother’s Day Shmother’s Day. What about the other 364 days? There’s nothing tricky or particularly noble about springing for a last-minute garden gnome or potted geranium one day a year to thank your mom for…oh, I dunno…willingly pushing your bowling ball head through her own tiny, delicate passageway so she can suffer & toil through the next 20, 30, 40 or more years of this experiment that is your life. Just ask me. I KNOW what I was like as a teen (O lord), and I got my mom a garden statue for Mother’s Day this year…

I’ll try to contain my rant about how women are (as John Lennon suggested more controversially), the slaves of the world. Or how moms who work outside the home are STILL expected (often in unspoken but well-understood language) to also provide the bulk of child rearing, home care, meal planning & prep, laundry & sheet-changing, wifery and other essential services. Or how moms (because they’re typically the primary child care givers) so often bear the brunt of tantrums, ER visits, serious sass, disgusting petrified socks in the back of a closet, broken hearts, and torturous years of brooding teen angst—not to mention frangi-pangi incense and bad electric guitar. Or how Mother’s Day dinner often involves Mom in the kitchen again, sweating through another hot flash, looking for 6” of free counter space amid the piles of dirty dishes she’ll wash later, as she tries to perfectly time your baked lasagna and broccoli au gratin. And then she’d better come to the table smiling, dammit. Yikes…did I say I’d try to contain all that? Silly me.

One of the many things I love about being a midlife woman is that I now have a strange panoramic vision that lets me view at once my children, grandchildren, the Grand Matriarch (my mom), and ghost images of my grandmother. And because I can now clearly see from each of these perspectives what my mom endured, I slam my head against the fridge several times a day in penance. And I’m probably a baaad person for secretly grinning, now that I have grandkids, whenever my children run smack-dab into their own karmic dirty socks.

So this Mother’s Day, I offer a poem for my mom. And EVERY day, I honor the difficulty, sacrifices, power, sorrow and continuing beauty of her life. I offer my gratitude to the Universe that she’s still here, still patiently teaching me (clearly, I have MUCH more to learn). I apologize to her for, well, 1961 through 1985. And I bestow whatever blessings I can on my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my sisters-in-law and my granddaughter—to all mothers and mothers-in-the-making. And for those of you moms expected to cook a Mother’s Day dinner, remember that a boatload of cayenne pepper in the sauce livens up the party, and you won’t be hungry by the time it’s all on the table, anyway…


If you were any more alive in me, Mother,
my heart would burst, split open
like a ripe peach soaked in holy water.

Whisper from every corner of this clapboard
cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Chores,
your small and powerful prayers:

white coral bells
itsy bitsy spider
battle hymn of the republic

Chant caramel pudding and corn casserole
recipes, ancient sacred texts handed down
from your own mother, that dark marble saint

atop the bell tower, one arm wrapped around
a gilded laundry basket, a silver pressure cooker
cradled in the other. Her heart, too, burst open.

Keep me, I ask, in your blessing of trying, failing,
laughing about failure. Grant me the grace
of history, repeated mistakes, and promise.

Look down on me with love when they raise you
to the bell tower, at the way I sing your praises
off-key, from behind my daughter’s stove.