Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The End [of Summer] is Near!

yellow tomatoes and basil
more tomatoes, and jalapenos to stuff
Apparently, Ray and I are prepping for the End Times.

This thought occurs to me as I look over some of the un-done chores on today’s to-do list (lesson-planning and grading are a given on EVERY list, so I never need to write them down):

(1) find space for another 14 quarts of canned tomatoes in the pantry;
butterflies are stocking up, too
(2) inventory and rearrange items in two freezers (one small chest freezer is full to the brim with parrot food and gooseberries), to see if we need a third small freezer for the 50 lbs. of local grass-fed beef we’re picking up this weekend;
(3) roast a bucket of Roma tomatoes and blend them into sauce for the freezer (see #2); and

Just in time for my first enormous pile of papers to grade, our garden is easing up. The cuke vines are dying back, and the acorn squash is hardening. There are still plenty of tomatoes out there, and today’s high 80’s should help them ripen. I’ve already put up enough pesto and basil cubes ( to supply the Upper Midwest for the winter, but it keeps coming, so I’ll have to dry some this weekend. I hope to get one more big meal of cream cheese and venison stuffed jalapenos before the peppers are done. And the guy with the amazing grass-fed lamb will be at the farmer’s market tomorrow—what’s a crazy [food] prepper girl to do?

we'll soon be knee-deep in these
roasted veggies to blend into sauce
Except for a brief warm up today, the weather here at the Row has been coolish and damp, in the 60’s. Soybean fields are yellowing, the apples are ripe, and our honey locust tree is a gorgeous disaster of a bajillion pods. These subtle signals trigger obsessive gathering and “putting by” here on the SoDakian tundra, because there’s only one thing prairie folk truly trust, and that’s a full larder. By the time we get our first whiff of autumn—a mixture of late-lingering dew, turned earth from a farmer’s early harvest, smoke from someone’s first wood-stove fire, and a delicious hint of decay—we’re already tacking plastic on the windows. We’re stockpiling canned tomatoes and Colorado peaches, Trader Joe’s mixed nuts, CafĂ© Altura Italian Roast beans, crossword puzzles, longjohns, and good toilet paper. We’re hanging the down jackets on the line to air.

It’s survival, plain & simple. These signs of brief, beautiful autumn remind us that we’ve been living in the Happy Bubble since last May. But it can’t last. Winter is just out of sight, waiting, with his pointy little icicle.

pickled whatever's-still-growing
we could live on peaches
Ray & I aren’t prepping to the point where we’re putting up rooftop sniper perches or razor wire, but I WILL rearrange the venison and coffee beans in the freezer today. And we’ll need a few more wool hats and fingerless gloves in the 30-gallon Rubbermaid tub o’ knitted outerwear.  And maybe I’ll haul some wood up to the back porch. But right now, while the low-carb venison chili is simmering in the crockpot, I’ll take a nap. Because if the End Times are coming, I need to rest up.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Grandma's Manifesto

My baby daughter.
Ray and I have four kids—his oldest son, my son and daughter, and our youngest son. Ray’s oldest claims to be a confirmed bachelor, though I’m not giving up yet. I’m trusting the Universe to blindside him with his true love, though it will be just fine if he ultimately chooses bachelorhood. My oldest son gave us grandkids #1 and #2, 15-year-old granddaughter and 13-year-old grandson. My daughter gave us #3, 3-year-old grandson. Our #4 (our daughter’s) is due any second, and #5 (our youngest son’s first) is due next week. Both new babies are supposedly girls, though I won’t be completely convinced till they’re here. (Clearly, the children weren’t thinking of ME when they timed these births to coincide with the start of Semester’s rampage.)

I don’t know if I was distracted, or blinked, or turned my head for a moment, but suddenly, my babies started having babies. It’s the greatest gift I can imagine to watch our children turn into wise and loving parents. But they’re still my kids, by gum, and they don’t know EVERYTHING yet. So, I’m offering a few things passed down to me by my mother, that I tried (and still try) to pass along to them, and that I’d like them to pass along to our grandchildren:

My baby daughter's newest baby.
1.     As long as you’re not cooking meth, turning tricks, running guns, selling stuffed jackalopes at Wall Drug, or otherwise bringing harm to yourself or others, it doesn’t matter what you do to make a living. It only matters who you are.
2.     Only fresh-ground organic Sumatran beans brewed in a Chemex pot qualify as real coffee.
3.     Sarcasm is NOT the same as humor. Learn the difference. Sarcasm is a defense mechanism that often just makes you mean. But a sense of humor will save your life, over and over and over.
4.     Money does NOT “make the world go ‘round.” Angular momentum does.
5.     Of all the desirable human traits you can develop—intelligence, sincerity, integrity, honesty, etc.—COMPASSION (empathy for the suffering of others) is the most important. In fact, none of the rest matters without compassion.
6.     Folks will try to tell you about “sin” or money being the root of all evil, but in truth, the only devil is SUGAR.
7.     If I die today, not a soul will remember how well I taught restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. They will only remember what kind of human being I am. Don’t get stuck thinking you ARE what you DO (see #1).
Our baby son, with his oldest brother.
8.     Sometimes, your heart will feel like it’s breaking. This is not the end. Sadness can be beautiful, too. Broken hearts remind you that you’re a good and decent human being. If your heart never breaks, THEN you should worry.
9.     Sing every day. Dance often. Always have at least two books going. Write letters and mail them. Stop texting and TALK to people. Learn to make a good pie crust.
10.   Love whomever you want. As long as they’re of consenting age and not your immediate family (we want MOVING water in the gene pool), don’t worry about what others think. And don’t be a doormat—you deserve to be loved back and treated well.
11.   Be nice to your parents. They’re humans, too. They’ve been through a lot.
12.   There are a few things in life you should NEVER skimp on: socks, shoes, coffee, cheese, and toilet paper.
13.   FAMILY comes first. Before boyfriends. Before girlfriends. Before parties or concerts or sleepovers or shopping. FAMILY comes first.
14.   TV and videogames probably won’t hurt you. But they won’t help you, either.
15.   This planet is a wondrous, miraculous, generous, fierce, gently rocking cradle. It can bring you to your knees. It can make you weep with joy. It can take your breath away. See as much of it as you can. And PLEASE take good care of it.

Our baby son and his new baby.
And finally, if you hear conflicting advice (even from your parents, because I’m still their mother, dangit), remember: always trust Grandma.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Paleo Procrastinator

Semester turns my dining room table into an office.
I cannot believe Semester is already circling me like the rabid hyena he is. Classes start Monday, and not only am I not ready, I’m already way behind. This will be my first semester back full time since BS, and while I had good intentions of prepping non-stop over the summer, I mostly recuperated from last spring’s half-time semester and continued my post-stroke recovery. 

I’m headed back to class with a sharp mind (though my brain’s processing speed is definitely slower and has occasional momentary “brown-outs”), impaired short-term memory (I now make notes for everything), some vocal damage that gives me a hushed, breathy, sometimes croaky voice, and a body that is clumsier, slightly off-balance, and easily fatigued. I will sit down to teach this semester, though I am, by nature, a pacer.
Parmesan "crackers" with tuna.

Mini cheesecakes are saving my life.
I’ll be teaching one combined composition/remedial writing class and two intro to literature classes, and I’ll serve as the fearless leader for the U’s literary & creative writing student organization, the Vermillion Literary Project (VLP - In all-day meetings yesterday, I was introduced to two more (as-yet non-functional) crumpled wads of confusing technology I’ll be required to use, which doesn’t do a thing for my ballooning pre-semester anxiety, and which will probably leave me no time to actually TEACH.

Tuna salad lettuce wraps.
So am I madly prepping today? Yes and no. Because just in case I’m not torturing myself quite enough with pre-semester jitters, I’ve also been on a no-carb diet for almost three weeks. I’m eating so much meat, poultry and fish, I’m developing fangs & fur. I’d rather starve than eat one more Brussels sprout (which I used to love). I love, follow, and admire every low-carb blogger out there, like they were my children. I eat things called “fat bombs.” I’ve nixed bread, pasta, rice, noodles, potatoes, and anything sweet that isn’t made with stevia. I hope I don’t accidentally eat my students.

My friend, sister-in-law, and niece are also doing no-carb, so we commiserate and trade recipes. My favorites so far are these:

My new hangout.
As if to thumb his nose at me even more, Semester is arriving with 92-degree temps, after a long stretch of too-cold-for-the-beach days, as if to say, “Here’s your summer at last. Now get to work.” Okay, fine. I’ll whip up a little tuna salad on a lettuce leaf wraps, then I promise I’ll finish that homework schedule and update the VLP promo materials. Or I’ll take a nap. Or I’ll knit. Or I'll blog. Or I’ll write a poem…about sugar & Doritos.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


It begins: digging the hole
What really makes us one big human family? We come from different ethnic, economic, social, religious, and political backgrounds. Except for multiple identical siblings, we don’t look alike. Our voices, finger/footprints, irises are distinctive. We each react, respond, and feel differently. We know different stuff. We like/dislike different stuff. We each have our own pesky baggage. But I’ll tell you what makes us all the same: Shit, that’s what.

Almost deep enough
Pardon my potty-mouth (hehehe...I crack myself up), but Ray and I have just been on a week-long adventure stemming from this most basic—nay, elemental—activity. We just put in a new septic system.

For you urbanites who still believe your non-smelly poo-poo is carried away by the “magic river” to Perfectland, where it’s purified, crystalized, and eventually becomes the dew or the sparkle in newfallen snow, stop reading now. Who am I to burst your sanitized bubble?

The tank is in!
For the rest of us, a septic system is like a tiny, self-contained, home version of a city sewer system. I’ll spare you the goriest details, but let’s just say it was a week of de/construction—digging up most of our yard, tearing down a garden fence, plowing through two gardens, pulling out pasture fence rails, caving in and filling with dirt the old 500 gal non-functioning septic tank, dropping in a new 1500-gallon tank (thanks to a giant crane and a guy with a joystick, like he was playing a videogame), and digging in two new 65-foot lines of drainfield pipe—just so we can, as my grandson says, do our "doodie."
65' drain field trenches

Now that it’s almost done, we can honestly say that we have SEEN our humanity, and it isn’t pretty. And seeing close up (too, too close up) the stuff of which we’re made, we will now humbly OWN our humanity (in seven years when the loan’s paid off). We have a new, healthy (ahem) respect for the lengths humans will go just to…well…go.

This "road" used to be an antique wire fence and two gardens.
I try hard not to freak out or take to my bed over the major fence repair, re-seeding and re-gardening ahead. I try not to cry when I see the 40-year-old iris and daylilies shredded in the new dirt pile out back. And I offer the poem below by Maxine Kumin as a way to remind us all that the “bowels” of humanity (or at least poems about them) can also be beautiful:
This sandlot used to be my back yard.
The Excrement Poem

It is done by us all, as God disposes, from
the least cast of worm to what must have been
in the case of the brontosaur, say, spoor
of considerable heft, something awesome.

We eat, we evacuate, survivors that we are.
I think these things each morning with shovel
and rake, drawing the risen brown buns
toward me, fresh from the horse oven, as it were,

or culling the alfalfa-green ones, expelled
in a state of ooze, through the sawdust bed
to take a serviceable form, as putty does,
so as to lift out entire from the stall.

And wheeling to it, storming up the slope,
I think of the angle of repose the manure
pile assumes, how sparrows come to pick
the redelivered grain, how inky-cap

coprinous mushrooms spring up in a downpour.
I think of what drops from us and must then
be moved to make way for the next and next.
However much we stain the world, spatter

it with our leavings, make stenches, defile
the great formal oceans with what leaks down,
trundling off today’s last barrowful,
I honor shit for saying: We go on.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Song in My Heart

There’s a song in my heart. Unfortunately, it’s stuck there.

Me and my boyfriend,  pre-BS
One of the most infuriating aftereffects of last October's brainstem stroke (BS for short. And I’m no longer saying “my” stroke, like it was some lovely, autumnal gift) is a wacked-out larynx (voice box). Inflammation behind the larynx, probably from reflux caused by a weakened esophagus, gives me perpetual hoarseness that gets more pronounced as the day goes on and fatigue sets in. 

Within the larynx, my vocal cords—those miraculous paired harp strings that vibrate together to produce music—are not cooperating. For most folks, speech and singing cause the vocal cords to move toward each other, meet in the center, and vibrate. My right cord, however, just doesn’t want to come out and play: It vibrates okay, but it doesn’t feel like moving, thank you very much. The result is a breathy voice without much fine control or even tone. I sound like a tone-deaf chain smoker.

I’ve been singing all my life—20+ years in bar bands—so losing my singing voice is a lot like losing an arm. I’m pretty sure I’ve gone through the five stages of grief over it, although I’ve only accepted it FOR NOW.  Yes, I know my singing voice may never come back (one oddity of stroke is that not even the “experts” can say which aftereffects will be temporary and which will be permanent). But the fat lady is not singing yet. 

My friend from junior high, Cindy Kessinger (, a voice teacher in Colorado, consulted her voice association friends. Then she came up with adduction exercises, recorded them in her own sweet voice, and emailed them to me to help strengthen my right vocal cord. Who’d a thunk when we were singing “Our Day Will Come” together in the 7th-grade talent contest, she’d be helping me heal up from BS today? Bless her heart.

Grow up...these are vocal cords.
In the mornings, when no one’s around, I do the exercises. Then I play my geetar and sing with wild abandon (good therapy for my clunky left hand, too). Then I crank up my house surround system and Joan Armatrading, my personal vocal therapist, works her magic. While I cook or do laundry & dishes, Joan and her playlist waft through the bacon-scented house (day 5 of a no-carb diet), and we sing our hearts out. Well, Joan sings (she’s the world’s most underappreciated musical genius). I croak out harmonies. And by gum, I think all the therapy is working…

Last night, I dreamed I was hanging out with friends in the storage room of a hospital (as you do). Ray played “Cajun Moon” on a geetar that appeared from nowhere, and I couldn’t help it—I started singing. To everyone’s surprise (including me), it was beautiful. I could still FEEL it when I woke up. So I’m declaring this a prophetic dream that my voice will come back. But I’m a realist, too, so I have a plan B: I’ll backcomb my hair into a giant red bouffant, get some sailor tattoos, put on my bustier, satin stretch pants, and steel-toed boots, and croak away in back-alley sleazy, smoky dives. My heart WILL let loose its songs. You may want to bring your earplugs. And some hand sanitizer.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Birthday Brain

South Dakota Peacock Museum (my dining room)
I recently had a birthday. Yes, another one. That makes well over 35 of them now. And birthdays, like everything else in my life, are different since last October’s little BS (right ischemic brainstem stroke). My birthday gave me ample proof that my brain has become a whole 'nother can-O-worms...

It used to be that on my birthday, I wanted a BIG fuss—a 60’s themed Annette Funicello-ish beach party (girls in high-rise polkadot bikinis, boys with bongo drums); non-stop sushi & sake with 25 of my loudest, closest friends; a spontaneous roadtrip to Area 51; cliff-jumping in Mexico. Okay, maybe not cliff-jumping, but something wild and memorable. This year—and this is Proof #1 of an altered brain—I wanted home, calm, low lights, no drama, peace.

The SassCam 9000
Proof #2 was my birthday wish list. Past lists included things like guitars, clothes, shoes, jewels, a winemaking kit, or a sequined princess costume. This year, I’d already gotten Mom’s gift—a fabulous trip to Louisiana to see my nieces—and the only other things I wanted were a new Kindle I could read outside in bright light, and a digital trail camera. Seriously…what midlife woman in her right mind wants a Sasquatch camera for her birthday?!

Anyhoo, Ray gave me a Kindle Paperwhite and a lovely, relaxed dinner out with good friends; my youngest son gave me a frameable work of peacock art, friends gave me bird/peacock accoutrement galore, and…ta-da! My older boys gave me a 4 MP Simmons Whitetail Night Vision trail camera—my “SassCam.” I will finally catch (on SD card, at least) that Sasquatch, wolverine, hyena pack, chupacabra, pride of lions, or pteradactyl that’s been picking off our peacocks!
Where's my pattern for knit coyote sweaters?

So here’s our new routine: every evening, we walk the dogs and find a new spot for the SassCam. Every morning, Ray retrieves the camera, so we can see what was slinking around the night before. So far, we’ve “captured” coyotes, raccoons (many…often), and a feral cat, all potential pea-snackers.

Hamming it up for the camera.
We’re not big on shooting things (we’re a disaster at it, actually…see, so we’ve come up with an alternate plan to protect our dwindling flock of four peacocks (possibly three…we haven’t seen our nesting hen for quite a while): Ray will “mark” our territory everywhere we’ve spotted wildlife, and I will dump cayenne pepper in any burrows we find. If that doesn’t work, I’ll knit some cozy catch & release snares. If that doesn’t work, we'll wire the pasture for sound and play Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” 24/7. If that doesn’t work, we'll give up peacocks and start raising raccoons for the pet industry. If that doesn’t work, we'll import—only as a last resort, mind you—a velociraptor. (Proof #3?)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Gooseberry Grandeur

“He could not imagine a homestead, he could not picture an idyllic nook, without gooseberries.” Anton Chekhov

This is not a food blog, but I must digress today to sing the praises of that humble fruit about which Chekhov clearly knew the score: ribes uva-crispagooseberries. Gooseberries may be the world’s most underappreciated and underutilized fruit, but they’ve always been a staple in our family life.

Gooseberries are more well-known in the UK, where gooseberry “fool,” a rich, sweet-tart pudding, is fairly common. As a Nebraska girl, I’d never heard of gooseberries until I met Ray. His mother knew the secret, and the berries had been part of her summer garden haul for decades. In fact, our original gooseberry bush came from her, and our gardens have never been without gooseberries since.

Gooseberries grow on extremely dense, head-high, very thorny bushes. Peacocks love gooseberries, too, so our bushes are in the corner of our garden, inside the fence. The berries are small, maybe ½-1 inch. They mature from firm, green and very tart to soft, blush-pink and semi-sweet. Most recipes call for green berries, and this is when most folks pick. The berries freeze well with no pre-fussing. They’re packed with Vitamin C and phytonutrients, and they’re a good source of fiber and potassium. You can buy canned gooseberries, but they’re expensive and not the same. I’ve never seen fresh gooseberries in a market or store, even though desserts and bevvies made with fresh green gooseberries might just be the perfect combo of sweet & sour. I’m drooling on the keyboard…

So apparently, last summer’s extreme drought, Ray’s irregular watering, and our total lack of pruning and weeding formed the perfect trifecta of gooseberry cultivation, because this summer, we had a bumper crop like nothing we’ve seen before. Ray did all the picking—an hour or two each evening for six evenings straight. He armed for battle: long sleeves, heavy jeans and boots, thick gloves, mosquito-netting hat, ice cream buckets (one has to pry one’s way into the thorny heart of the Thicket of Doom—the center of the bushes—to find the best berries). In spite of his armor, I would still hear occasional loud outbursts of profanity punctuating the summer calm, and I’d know he was pulling another thorn out of his hand.

While Ray picked, I made the really tough sacrifice: I suffered inside, in the air-conditioning, watching TV while I “topped & tailed” picked berries (each berry must have its stem and dried blossom removed by hand). It was meditative and excellent physical therapy, and thanks to DVR’d episodes of Mountain Man, I’m pretty sure I could field dress a squirrel now.

We ended up with about 30 quarts of berries in the freezer, and we swapped a gallon for a tray of fresh-picked strawberries. I’ll make our old standby’s: Ray’s mom’s gooseberry pie and gooseberry “pudding” (sticky cobbler). This year, I’ll also make some jam, and (best of all), I found several recipes for gooseberry wine—a light, lovely white wine. I’ll bet you can guess what everyone’s getting for Christmas this year…

Here are some classic gooseberry recipes:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dear NSA: Have a nice day.

This whole Snowden/NSA business has me pondering…did we EVER really have the presumption of privacy? I’ll tell you a funny story that explains why I’m terribly intriguing and notorious, and why the answer is NO.

When I was 16, I worked as a maximum-security teller, deep in the vault of a major Omaha bank. I counted, sorted, and balanced deposits of 500K to a couple million every day. I counted and sorted brand spanking new money that came from the Federal Reserve. I trained straw-brained ex-Nebraska football players so they could move upstairs into management and make 100 times my salary ([growling] another blog post someday).

Anyway, when new money came from the Fed, it came bundled between two dollar-sized pieces of pine called “fed boards” that kept the bills all nice & neat. Sometimes, the ink on bills was so fresh when the Fed bundled the money, that the impression of bills would be stamped on the boards. And when a teller unbundled bills, or took rubber bands off bundled bills in large deposits, sometimes a corner of a bill would tear off. We had a guide to show us how big the tear could be for the bill still to be usable. So the girls (all females in the vault, except the manager, of course [growling], another blog post) in MaxSec had a habit of saving fed boards and torn corners for me. I had plans to make a wonderful collage out of it all—a mushroom cloud, an atom bomb, a weeping woman…I dunno, something was the 70’s.

When I left the bank after a 1½ years, I took my garbage bag of boards & corners with me. And when I moved into a little rental house in Lincoln with my friend, I took them with me. And when I ran off with musicians to New Mexico and my roommate joined the Moonies and left town while I was gone (another blog post someday), and my mom had to move all my stuff back to Omaha, somehow the bag got left behind.

Now I’m back from New Mexico (tense shift intentional), and I get a job working as a teller at an Omaha drive-through bank ([growling] another blog post someday—I got fired for objecting to sexism on the job). One day, I get a call at work. It’s the Omaha Secret Service. They want me to come to their office. NOW.  I go downtown. They escort me into a tiny room, where two nondescript men in grey suits (seriously) are waiting. One’s sitting behind a desk, one’s sitting on the edge of the desk. They’re both young, barely older than my then 19 years. As I recall, the conversation goes something like this:

SS: Do you know why you’re here?

ME: No.

SS: (pulls a black garbage bag from behind the desk and opens it a smidgen to let me look inside) Do you recognize this?

ME: Hey! Those are my fed boards!

SS: Where did you get these? What were you planning to do with them?

ME: (long story about MaxSec, many side comments about sexist business practices, substitute “doll house” for “atom bomb,” laughing)

SS: Ms. P (me)…do you think this is funny?

ME: Yes.

SS: (pulls out an envelope from the desk, lets me peek inside) Do you recognize these?

ME: Yes. They’re torn corners of bills (started another long story, interrupted)

SS: Do you know defacing American currency is a crime? What did you plan to do with these?

ME: (various non-threatening collage ideas)

SS: Ms P, did you live at (Lincoln address) from X-date to X-date?

ME: Yes.

SS: We received a report from witnesses who claim you were engaged in counterfeiting, and that they observed you burying things in the backyard at this address.

ME: (busted out laughing so hard, I nearly fell off the chair)

SS: Ms. P…do you think this is a laughing matter?

ME: Are you kidding? Can I have my stuff back?

SS: No.

It turns out, two old wino brothers moved into the Lincoln house after my roommate and I left. They found the boards & corners, left behind in the house. They were delusional and paranoid, and they ended up reporting us to the SS. According to the brothers, in addition to counterfeiting and burying things in the yard (bodies??) while they were sleeping, we also followed them everywhere they went, although they really couldn’t say what we looked like.

Two things: (1) I totally have underworld cred from this, right? I should have a gangster name, like Mavis Moneybags or Doris the Digger. (2) I’m pretty sure I was on some “keep an eye on her” list long before the NSA started keeping their bajillion fly-eyes on us all.

I like to think the young SS guys laughed their arses off after I left that day—it was probably the most fun they had their entire careers. I also like to think the SS, NSA, or whomever is tasked with reviewing homeland spy data, is so horrendously bored by our lives that they can barely get out of bed in the morning to go to work.

I’m glad Snowden filled us in on what the NSA is up to, but I’m not worried them spying on my life. If they’re listening, they’ll find out I adore my kids, I dream about retirement, I knit like a fiend, I worry about my ailing dog, I love poetry, I don't have much patience with apathetic students, I’m slightly obsessive about coffee and wine, and like any good daughter, I call my mother. Wow. Fascinating.