Friday, March 30, 2012

The Skinny on Skinnies

I have a hard time with skinny people. And by “skinny people,” I mean ANYONE who doesn’t struggle with their weight. But I’m mostly talking about people who always look good because of some anomalous combination of lovely, perfect-weight genes. Men who live on chitlins and deep-fried cheeseballs but look like J.C. Penney models. Women who’d look stunning in a burlap potato sack tied at the waist with a length of baling wire.

For one thing, skinny people all secretly believe (some say it right out loud) that we could ALL be that lovely if we just had more willpower. It’s eeeeeasy! If “we” (not them) would just eat less and exercise more and be more disciplined and not be so lazy and get off our fat asses and quit stuffing our fat faces, we’d not only maintain a more sensible weight, we’d be better human beings—more deserving of our fat little splotch in the universe. Often, they make these comments while sucking down a butterscotch malt and brushing French fry crumbs off their perfectly skinny little form-hugging shirts. Sometimes they’re tall and leggy—I have an even harder time with these folks.

I know a guy, for example (who shall remain nameless but to whom I am married) who “struggles” with the terrible yo-yo of gaining or losing the 5 pounds he’s put on since high school. Whaa. On the other hand, I have in my closet every size pants ever made for women. One can tell where I’m at in my weight roller-coaster by the relative elasticity of my pants. And yes, I have a muumuu.

For another thing, skinny people like to hang out with fluffy people because it makes them look even skinnier. They use us like hideous beached-whale backdrops, to make themselves seem even more glowing, healthy, beautiful. You KNOW it’s true, Skinny People.

So lemme clue you in, Skinny People. For some of us, losing weight isn’t that simple. We’re big-boned. We’re densely packed. We’re genetic “keepers.” We have that “store & survive” gene (quite common in the upper Midwest, where, like bears, we sometimes must live off our fat stores during winter). For us, losing weight means deprivation, sacrifice, and Herculean effort.

For example, to lose ONE pound, I need to eat no more than a teaspoon of tabouli and a celery stalk per day, and I need to, with my bad knees and weak ankles, run oh, about 25 miles a day and/or spend 10 hours sweating with Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda. Do you know how hard it is to grade a paper or do your laundry while you’re sweatin’ to the oldies? Then, to keep the weight off, I would have to live for the rest of my natural life on an indulgent 6 Triscuits, 2 celery stalks, and ¼ cup of tabouli daily. On holidays, I could splurge by adding two Greek olives and a 1/3 glass of wine.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m on yet another diet and feeling a wee bit crabby about it. This one is called “Game On” and is designed like a team sport. Our team is called the Victorious Secrets, and we’re totally gonna kick the Fab Fems’ butts. But I am so hungry right now, I could eat…a skinny person (lightly sautéed in olive oil, with a side of garlic mashed potatoes, and a pint of the darkest beer I can find). I have hope, though, that THIS diet will be more successful than the 29 others I’ve tried. Because while my survival gene drives me toward bags of Doritos, entire blueberry cheesecakes, and enough pasta with pesto to choke a horse, I’ve also got an insidious and fairly strong competition gene.

So three more weeks to go, then we’ll see which gene is dominant. In the meantime, Skinny People, you might wanna steer clear…

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

More Teaching: Then & Now

I teach English courses at a liberal arts university. As I buttoned up my tweed jacket for class the other day, I flashed back to my early years of teaching. I still like my job, don’t get me wrong, but I find my days (and nights) more and more consumed by standards and bureaucratic busywork, and less and less filled with “liberal” and the sheer joy of learning & teaching. So I thought I’d try and analyze the differences between then and now…

THEN: I wander into class 5 minutes late, and engage students in a 15-minute discussion of the relative merits of Joan Armatrading’s new CD. I play Joan’s new CD in class.

NOW: I get to class 10 minutes early. Before students ever arrive, I’ve got my perfectly organized outline of a research essay—with highlighting and occasional red type for emphasis—up on the overhead screen. I’ve got my 3 color-coded handouts laid out in neat piles on my desk, in the order in which they will be handed out. I start going over the outline—which includes detailed goals and outcomes—2 minutes before class should really begin.

THEN: I assign my students a brief essay about whether or not all government documents, especially those of the DMV, should be written in verse.

NOW: I assign my students 17 standardized exercises on comma splices and run-on sentences, in order to prep them for the twice-a-semester standardized grammar test.

THEN: I leave home wearing a navy blue thermal underwear shirt, a flowered chiffon knee-length skirt, white silk long john bottoms, purple wool socks, and Army surplus boots. I forget to look at my hair. I sit on the front of my desk in class, swinging my wee short legs. I can’t figure out why students are grinning all through class.

NOW: I leave home wearing neutral trousers, a neutral vest or sweater over a neutral blouse, black socks and black dress shoes, and my hair is washed, combed, and smoothed with product into a tidy conservative bob. I stand at a podium in class. I can’t figure out why students are sleeping all through class.

THEN: I take my students outside for class. Because we’re sitting on the ground, we spend the entire class reading poems that use the word “grass.”

NOW: I never take my students outside for class. It would wreak havoc on my piles of handouts, and there’s no overhead screen.

THEN: I hug my students. We sometimes hold class in a local coffee shop. A couple times a semester, I invite my students over for guac & chips.

NOW: I am deathly afraid of lawsuits and privacy/harassment/appropriate conduct violations. I avoid touching my students at all cost. I do not share anything about my personal life with students.

THEN: I have an office phone with no voice mail and no answering service, so students never call. I have no computer at home. Except for occasional “Guac Sundays,” students expect to see me in class. Period.

NOW: Students expect to see me in class. They expect to be able to reach me on my cell days, nights, weekends, and holidays. They email me at 3:42 a.m. on St. Patrick’s Day night and expect me to answer immediately. I can’t touch them, but they expect to be e-tethered to me 24/7. They are probably Google-satelliting my house as I type this.

THEN: I LOVE my job, my students do amazingly well, and my student evaluations are always glowing.

NOW: I often feel BURIED by my job, my students constantly struggle, and my student evaluations are mediocre, including occasional vicious, personal attacks.

I’m not sure what all this means, and yeah, some of it may be slightly exaggerated. But I think in my imaginary, perfect teaching world, there’s less measurement, accountability, and uniformity, and more Socratic dialogue, inspiration, and creativity. And hugs. Way more hugs.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Since the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, and in the current wave of vitriolic, often senseless shrieking from folks on dang near EVERY side of this issue, the bloom is coming off my rosy idealism. I’m so attracted to the Buddhist notion of opening the mind (and heart) to compassion, but I’m beginning to wonder if humans aren’t simply programmed to club each other.

At times like this, it seems clear to me we didn’t flower in some sacred garden. Surely we evolved from blind, bottom-feeding fish, because we’re still not much smarter than, say, bird-brained peacocks. I mean, think about the parallels: even though the big males in our flock have PLENTY to eat, seven gorgeous acres to wander, safe nighttime roosts out of the elements, and roughly 1.3 hens each (try not to picture a 1/3 hen), the males still chase each other around trees. And they still square off for sudden mid-air collisions, where they try to stab each other with their sharp, bony leg-barbs. Sound like anyone you know?

We may THINK we’re higher-order animals now, but we sure don’t act like it most of the time. The arts, intellectual & technological advances, genteel patio parties, laws, and peace-promoting (at least in theory) religions…they’re just fancy skins over our tiny, hard muscles, wound tight by instinct, and ready to spring. It seems the truth is, I want your cave, you want my woman, and we both want Gluk’s dead squirrel. And his awesome dinosaur-bone xylophone.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope there’s hope for us. Because Ray & I have had three sons Trayvon’s age, and every time I see a picture of that child, it splits me right down the middle. I don’t know what garden we started out in people, but I don’t much like the one we’re in now…


Another hot day in the Garden.

Your people lean on sawed-off hoes,
guard a flimsy pea line. Our people
don’t eat peas, but we want them
anyway. We hang back
from the line with blunt spades
stolen from a dig—prehistoric 
settlement built of hoes and spades.
Both sides have time to kill.
We skim the same manual:

            Verily I say unto you,
            Blood won’t make it grow, etc. etc.

But who follows directions?
Yours and mine, we pour it on,
plow it under, plow it under,
two thousand layers deep,
a rich compost of elbows,
inner thighs, backs of necks,
schoolboy ankles.

One of yours slips in the muck.
In a clamor of implements he’s pinned,
verdigris sundial nailed through his ribs.
For a time he waters your dead peas,
our dry seeds, until
he’s just another mud-hard stepping stone
in our crooked Garden path.

We’re all just ticking gardeners—
time and time and time again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Erin Go Bragh[less]!

I'm not a whit Irish, in spite of the red hair. Still, any day celebrated with parades, singing, dancing, and green beer is my kinda holiday. To kick things off, look up Saint Dymphna for a lesser known bit of Irish history. And here's my poetic tribute to to the wee lass, a little opening prayer for the day and for whatever compassion we can muster for one another...


            patron of the mentally ill

In fitful dreams I find you shivering
in rowan and ferns along the Blackwater
river, wreathed in St. John’s wort
& anointed with yellow-rattle,
half-starved and wrapped in a celtar
cinched at the waist with an oak rosary,
humming strains of your mother’s brief
lullaby. But your father was a chieftain
and knew the magic, found you anyway.
Grief or madness drove him to finger
your small bones for signs of her
in the curve of your emerging breasts,
the winged cup of your pelvis, your
silky down, and you a fugitive
child with courage enough to keep locked
that garden gate, though he found you
again, sealed the gate forever. Forsaken
daughter, in my own trembling delusion
I am your Síle na Gigh, we offer up
a novena to our Mother and for nine days
I give you this blessing too—my stone lap
cushioned with heather & moss, pillow
for your bruised and worried brow.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bee Wear...Be Ware...Beware!

It's the Ides of March, and it's been in the 70's here in South Dakota the past few days. The crocus, daylillies, and chives are coming up, the robins and redwing blackbirds are back, my grass greened practically overnight, and I saw my first cardinal today. But this ultra-spring weather isn't fooling me. Prairie people know better than to rip the Mortite putty off the windows too soon. So here's my annual cautionary "Ides of March" poem, lest we get too lax...


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It's a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We've weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We're tired
of winter's grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Young Pea's Fancy Turns to Love

It’s EXACTLY like Tennyson said here on the Row: In the Spring a young peacock's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Our pea-flock is holding steady at 13. The pea-massacre stopped (after some critter or critters took 16 birds since last fall), and I think I know why. A few weeks ago, someone nearby shot a doe. She ran into our shelterbelt to die, which makes me sad (thank the Universe I didn’t know right away, or you can bet I’d have been out there with gauze, a pillow, Polysporin, tweezers, a canteen and my surgical suture kit). But it was also a prairie kindness. Over the next couple of weeks, we watched the deer carcass disappear bit by bit. It had been dragged from the grass onto the trail, then ten feet down the trail, then another few feet into the tall grass—kinda made us think our critter may have been coyotes (plural), to drag a full-grown doe that far. Anyway, there’s hardly a sign she was ever here, except for a few bones and tufts of whitetail fur. We think this deer distracted and fed the varmints that had previously been feasting on peacocks.

So the peas are fattening up at their all-you-can-eat corn & cat food buffet, and they’re up to their spring tricks. Our yard is not unlike a giant singles bar. We have 4 breeding males (the ones with the long train feathers) divvying up the peadom into quadrants. They occasionally pick fights. Or they chase each other in circles around a tree, pump, pergola, car, etc., then face off for mid-air sparring with spurs on their legs. The hens hang back, look bored, fluff their feathers, pick lightly at the snacks, and compare notes on whether the size of a train really matters.

The boys are also doing that amazing peacock mating dance, often just outside our back door on the patio. They raise their trains and spread the feathers, vibrate their train, tail and wing feathers, bow their heads, and high-step…backwards. You can see Francoise doing his dance here, and at the very end of the vid, you can hear the fluttery feather vibrations: And, of course, the peacocks have all started doing that voodoo they do so well, the infamous mating cry that sounds like an old woman yelling, “HELP! HELP!”

The hens are wearing their “I could care less what you think” brown & buff. If a careless hen wanders too near a displaying male—maybe she’s on her way to the bathroom to check her beakstick—he’ll charge her, madly honking, with his train fully spread & quaking...much like the 20-something guys I’ve seen at our Little Town watering hole. Even our youngest male, with no long train feathers at all, will raise up his tail feathers and strut, while the girls at the birdbath roll their eyes and giggle.

At this point, the hens are smart enough to know that the weather is still too unstable to head out to nest in the tall grass—still too much danger of another heavy snow or a hard freeze. But soon, probably very soon, even their fancies will turn…

Friday, March 9, 2012

Lifting the Winter Veil

In spite of mostly mild weather and little snow, it’s been a long winter on the Row. Heart attacks, ditch adventures, crazy scheduling, and more work than I can shake a stick at (though shaking a stick at it might have felt pretty good), have kept me fairly crabby. Add to that a little northern plains SAD-ness (seasonal affective disorder), and it’s a brutal mix.

But I’m coming around. I've spent most of this Spring Break turning inward, doing some long-needed self-healing. I’ve been doing 20 minutes on the treadmill daily to Donovan, Todd Rundgren, Bonnie Raitt, Neko Case and Zappa, for example, and if I call it "movement therapy" instead of that "E" word, it feels okay.

I'm also doing "contemplative therapy," which includes 20 minutes of daily sitting meditation (thanks, iPhone, for the singing bowl timer app), and daily contemplation on a lojong saying. Lojong is a series of 50-some aphorisms that are part of a Tibetan mind training practice called Tonglen. Today’s saying is “Don’t be swayed by external circumstances.” Pema Chodron interprets this lojong to mean that whatever one wants (joy, love, peace, etc.), one should breathe that out for others. Whatever one doesn’t want (sorrow, misunderstanding, anxiety, etc.), one should breathe that in to acknowledge & heal both in self and in those in the same boat. A good reminder about the true nature of compassion.

I've also been getting some "solar therapy." It’s been sunny and in the 40’s here lately, which means more time outside. Fat robins have been wandering in for a couple days, and the snow is melted except for the shadows on the north side of the house, and in the tallest grass out on the pasture trails. For the past few days, huge flocks of noisy geese have been sailing over the house in lopsided V’s.

Today is "music therapy." Two women friends are coming over to play gee-tars and sing. We call ourselves the Nickerettes. We mostly play for our Sisters of Perpetual Disorder (SOPD) dinners, so no pressure--just lots of good fun and sweet harmonies. And for my "culinary therapy," I whipped up some glazed cinnamon scones and good strong coffee. There may even be "wine therapy" later at our Little Town watering hole.

It can sometimes be a slow, hard climb out of the winter doldrums. But I like to think the wait makes me even more aware of and grateful for the re-birth of everything (including myself) in the spring. Healing comes. As the poet Sara Teasdale said, “A hush is over everything, silent as women wait for love; the world is waiting for the spring.”

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Forgive me St. Frances, for I have sung...

I started playing my Ovation guitar and singing at open stages in Omaha when I was 18. By 19 I had my first gig—two little hippie chicks doing an acoustic duo in the “folk room” of a seedy bar in Council Bluffs. By age 24, I was singing in a folk duo with my ex, in a midtown hotel lounge, 5 nights a week. And I played and sang in duos, trios, or bands for the next 20 years or so. So music & me? We go waaay back.

Anyhoo, it’s the beginning of Spring Break here in Little Town, so Ray and I switched off our work minds and spent the weekend soaking up local music. On Friday night, we went to our favorite Little Town watering hole, where some of Ray’s band buddies have a standing Friday happy hour acoustic gig (check out the Public Domain Tune Band, missing their awesome bass player in this vid: These guys aren’t just fun, they’re virtuoso musicians. Then last night, Ray and I headed to the Big City to hear another stellar musical quartet (East of Westreville doing a Dennis Westphal song: These four friends play roots-ish stuff, with two guitars and string bass, and those spine-tingling tight harmonies.

I am SO grateful to know and to get to hear dozens of incredible, “undiscovered” musicians here on the prairie. But the weekend of music might also have been just a song or two too much. It’s left me in a pale blue haze I need to shake off—I think once you know how it feels to be doing it, it can break your heart just a little to only be watching it. So I’m lifting up a prayer to Saint Frances Gumm (Judy Garland), to help me over this tiny chasm and to ease me into my week-long celebration of spring…

patron of girls who must sing

Saint Frances, sixteen lifetimes of loss
spilled from you in a voice too big to hold,
echoed in the hearts of girls lost on stage,
rainbows tattooed on scooped-out pelvis
or small of the back. Nailed each night
to a marquis, you lived on spoonfed hosts
dipped in sorrow and sweat, just enough
to keep you thin, hungry, dancing at the speed
of light. Swaddled in organza and sequins,
humiliated and adored, you paved us a golden road
into the starlight—you, with hips too big,
crooked mouth made perfect in grownup red,
full lips teasing a mic, stand-in for men
who urged you on, filled you to bursting
with fairy dust until broken glass at your throat
felt like a kiss. Saint Frances, bring the house lights down
to hide my trembling joy, keep me from back alleys,
the bottle, the temptation of dreamless sleep,
the bite of a mic’s metal on my teeth.
Bless me with songs like blood, songs
that pump and clench my heart like a fist,
songs that soothe this radiant net of nerves,
songs that pulse in my heelbones,
cradled in rubies and glitter,
clicking for all they’re worth.