Thursday, January 24, 2013

Winter Work

Well-Stocked Prairie Pantry
This wacky winter in South Dakota has resourceful prairie people doing supermodel quick-changes—stripping off the down and woolies, then piling on 17 layers, then trying to coordinate Bermuda shorts with thermal turtlenecks. Last week, in the middle of January, it was 53 degrees. Over the weekend, Ray was shoveling snow and the wind chill got down to -25. My friend Bee calls it South Dakota’s “bipolar meteorological disorder.” Seriously, South Dakota…get some help.

Knit Brain Hat in Progress
Here on the Row, we’re busy with winter chores. Sinclair Lewis wrote, “Winter is not a season, it's an occupation.” Absotively true, and no one knows it better than SoDakians, except maybe Arctic tundra-dwellers. Take our wood stove, for example. It’s so romantic, right? that lovely warm glow? iron kettle of water on top—cinnamon, cloves & orange peel filling the house with steamy, spicy perfume? sleeping cat curled up on a sheepskin in front of the stove? Sigh…makes me wanna churn some butter. But I’m not sure Ray’s feeling the romance right now. Right now, mid-winter, that stove is Ray’s part-time job. Chop the wood. Split the wood. Carry the wood. Make a fire. Stoke the stove. Clean the stove. Dump the ash. Repeat. All. Winter. Long. I remember getting my first wood stove back in the 70’s. I was so thrilled. But my buzz-kill grandma said, “Why would you want something we couldn’t WAIT to get rid of?” I figured she was just too old to get it. O youthful arrogance…

Pom-Pom Hat
Stocking the pantry is another winter occupation. Hearty prairie folk know how to “put food by.” Deeply ingrained in our psyche is the primordial walrus-like instinct to pack on blubber. And in the back of our minds we know that at any moment, the grocery store might be on the other side of a blizzard, just out of reach.

So we’re doing our usual winter panicky pathological food-hoarding. My sky-high triglycerides, revealed in a recent health screening, have us eating boat-loads of fresh tuna and salmon. (New research suggests that triglycerides, more than HDL or LDL cholesterol, are a risk factor for stroke and heart disease. It now seems I had EVERY stroke risk factor known to modern medicine. Sheesh.) Our freezer is full of organic grass-fed beef, lamb, and Bambi’s cousin. I keep a giant container of cooked blackeyed peas in the fridge now, which I add to everything, since it’s the single best food for lowering tri’s. Kale is also good for lowering tri’s, so I’m making kale chips, kale smoothies, and wilted kale with blackeyed peas. I make huge batches of rainbow quinoa and bulgur tabhouli, which we snack on for days. The pantry is full of canned peaches, tomatoes, applesauce, and pickled jalapenos. We could live on nothing but homemade jam from now till spring. We have homemade wine a’plenty, and I have several pounds of decaf Sumatra beans in the freezer, so we can keep our fluids topped-off and balanced as we wait out this nasty cold. We’re not quite as obsessive about stocking our larder as the spinster sisters in Kit Reed’s short story, “Winter,” but we’re close…wandering strangers, beware.
Blackeyed Pea Salad, Tabhouli, Kale & Parsnip Chips

Another of our winter jobs is keeping our peacocks alive. We’re holding steady at two males and two females. In spite of reported sightings, the rest of the flock never returned after last summer’s drought and predator infestation. So we’re giving our micro-flock every advantage we can (short of bringing them inside and knitting them sweaters). They’re feasting on dry cat food, dried corn, black oil sunflower seed, and occasional boiled eggs (mashed, shell and all). Giving them eggs might seem cannibalistic, but they need the extra fat in this brutal cold. Ray hasn’t put brooding lights up in the loafing shed rafters yet, but I’m sure that’s coming.

Peacock Power-Nap
When I’m not grading student essays (ALWAYS a winter occupation) or having fun with food, I’m practicing another cottage industry: knitting. Two family members are cooking up new babies, so I dug out scrumptious angora yarn, and kitty hats will be underway soon. I recently sorted my yarn stash, so I’m also making colorful striped silly hats with bits of leftover texture-y yarns for next year’s Christmas stash.

Keep the Home Fires Burning!
When Sinclair Lewis said winter was an occupation, I think he was talking about the work it takes to survive the weather. But out here on the northern plains—land of vitamin D deprivation, cabin fever, and Seasonal Affective Disorder—I think we keep busy so we won’t turn on each other. Keep stoking that stove, folks, and bring in some more kindling...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Because I'm 18...and I like it.

What My Brain Thinks I Look Like

Last time I was in Omaha, stomping grounds of my youth, I didn’t see a single person I knew. Then I realized I was searching the faces of 18-year-olds. Duh. I’m in my 50’s now, and if the Universe works the way I think it does, my old cronies would be in their 50’s, too.

As it turns out, my time-warp may not be vanity or delusion. In my post-stroke research, I came across this theory: because neurons don’t “mature,” we often feel (internally, at least) younger than we really are, usually young adult-ish. This explains why we’re so shocked when we see that old person in the mirror—the one with the road-map wrinkies, the liver spots (is that one shaped like the a jackalope?), and the swinging basset-hound jowls.

What I Really Look Like
But BS was a giant bucket of ice water that woke me from my illusion of youth. I went back to work half-time last week (I teach English at our Little Town university), after being home since October. My kind and generous department Chair had bent over backward to help me ease back in—I have two back-to-back 50-minute classes on MWF and TTh at home for rest. And both classes are in the same room, so I don’t have to drag Leftie the Leg around campus. Two short hours in class, three days a week in the same room. Cake, right?

What My Brain Thinks I Look Like
Wrong. Immediately, BS reminded me that I am not my former 18-year-old superhuman self. In fact, Day 1 of class was like having an energy suck-meter in my head: Stay upright. Tick. Keep your left leg from drifting away from your body. Tick. Focus both eyes on the same thing. Tick. What the hell is that word you just said? Tick. Don’t you dare drop these handouts. Tick. Stay awake. Tick. Act like everything’s normal. Tick. Breathe. Tick. And, while all of this is going on inside my head, I’m also trying to get 44 skeptical late-teeners excited about literature. Ticktickticktick…

Let’s do the math, shall we? Clunky muscles and body’s uncertain position in space + awkward “tipping” (BS damaged my sense of balance) + attempt to foist love of words on kids who would rather text pics of their new UGGs + a month of course prep + high anxiety over going back to work = crash & burn. I was sound asleep in my La-Z-Girl by 8 p.m. the first night of classes. I woke up at 11 to go to bed and slept till 8 the next morning. Dang near comatose.

What I Really Look Like
But yesterday, Day 2 of classes, things were a little easier. I felt a little less brain-scrambled and more relaxed in class, I didn’t drop anything, I had a decent (slow as molasses) workout after school, and I stayed awake last night till 10 p.m.! Ah, hope endureth! I just have to be patient. I have to trust I’ll get steadily stronger. I have to get better at asking for help. I have to be more honest with myself and others about the extent of BS’s malicious tinkering (yes, dammit, my speech and word recall were affected). I have to remember that I’m not 18. I have to admit it isn’t “One Toke Over the Line, sweet Jesus” anymore—it’s one stroke over the line. Sweet. Fricking. Geezus. ;)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The [K]nothingness of Knitting


Clyde's 3-corner wool hat, top
Clyde's 3-corner wool hat, front
I have crocheted since I was a kid, but I re-discovered knitting in my 40’s, when I bought a silly hand-knit dreadlock hat from a Peruvian woman in Minneapolis and wanted to copy the pattern. I love the feel of wool—I have a terribly neglected spinning wheel and a huge stash of raw silk, as well as sheep, alpaca, and even some camel wool I could be spinning into gorgeous yarns. I’ll get started on that as soon as I can fit into my Sleeping Beauty dress & gauntlets again.

Joe's & Masha's Tassel Hats
In the meantime, I have two baskets beside my chair. I keep one filled with balls/skeins of every conceivable weight, texture, and color of yarn. The other holds my current knitting projects; I usually have at least two going, so I don’t get bored. I’m already stockpiling next year’s Christmas presents. I’m also building a stash of baby hats for any family/friend new arrivals who pop out next year, and for my amazing sister-in-law, who does mission work in Haiti twice a year and takes baby hats to new Haitian moms (you can donate to this local organization by going to
BS Brain Hat, in progress

I’ve always felt like knitting allows me to sit around and watch bad TV, guilt-free, without my grandma’s “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” ringing in my slightly-addled brain (I don’t believe in the devil, but I DO believe in my grandma's ability to come back from the Great Beyond and give me SUCH a scolding). And since BS, knitting has also been providing me with two other essential functions: Occupational therapy and mindfulness practice.

Handwarmers, Tassel Hat, Dreadlock Hat
When I first got home from the hospital, knitting was painfully slow. I didn’t have much fine-motor control on my left side, so even holding a knitting needle was rough. But I stuck with it. Mom and I watched movies and knitted simple square dishrags. As my brain re-routed, knitting got easier. Shucks…I’d wager the knitting actually helped my brain forge new neural pathways. And it was waaaay more interesting than raising my arms to shoulder-level three times, which was one of the THREE exercises a therapist gave me on my ONE visit; the other two were to touch my nose with my left index finger, and to lift my left leg from a seated position (I never went back to “therapy”). In fact, everything about knitting was stimulating for my struggling brain and my clunky left side—feeling the yarn, winding skeins into balls on a nostepinde, coordinating colors, choosing needles, and the knitting itself. And finishing a project helped me see that I was making progress not just in my hat stash, but also in my stroke recovery.

Crystal's Tassel Hat
I also discovered that I could turn knitting into meditation. Sans the bad TV, I could sit in a quiet room and simply be aware of the knitting—the feel of the yarn, the clickety-clack of my bamboo needles, the repetitive motion of yarning-over, the patient progress of adding one stitch at a time to a whole. I could practice not letting my mind wander beyond the knitting itself, not running scenarios in my head of the past or possible futures, not having imaginary conversations with a bill collector, not righting imaginary wrongs. I could practice being present—just keeping my attention on the knitting. It was/is incredibly peaceful and healing...therapeutic.

Super Sunny Handwarmers
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not just idling, burning patchouli incense and developing “knitter’s spread”—that Laz-y-Girl-shaped arse with its bulgy cushion of Doritos’ fat. I’m doing other kinds of therapy, as well: Baking, cooking, dishes, laundry, Christmas prep and cleanup, dog-walking, going to the gym, and getting ready for school (I go back to teaching half-time next week). But whenever I get a chance, you’ll find me cranking out another knitting project. Because every three-cornered wool clown hat improves my hand-eye coordination, stills my racing Type-A mind, and makes this a warmer, happier world.