Friday, September 10, 2021

September Squirreling

Recently, the nights here in eastern South Dakota have been dipping below 50 degrees. We throw open the windows, happy to hear the owls and breathe in non-air-conditioned night air. But these cooler nights of early fall also trigger a strange annual phenomenon in many prairie people: September Squirreling.

It might start with something really innocuous—you make two lasagnas instead of one, and you freeze the extra “in case of company.” Or, you impulse-buy 5 lbs. of steel cut oats at the food co-op. You order three bottles of high-potency Vitamin D. Then, before you’re really aware of it, things ramp up—you freeze 12 ice cube trays of pesto; you buy lugs of peaches and spend a long, messy day making and canning jam; you can 60 quarts of every conceivable tomato product—roasted tomato and veggie sauce, raw-pack tomatoes, whole roasted Romas and Sunsweet cherries; you dehydrate a gallon bag of basil. You’ve turned your home into an industrial kitchen, and you might be speaking a little street Italian under your breath.

But wait. You’re also freezer-stashing gifts: loaves of lemon poppyseed bread, apple pies, birthday cheesecakes, chocolate chip cookies, Chubby Chipmunk truffles. When you open the freezer door to find room for another 4 loaves of zucchini bread your brilliant baker friend brought over, you notice 1 lb bags of Vietnamese cinnamon and ground cardamom, a 12-pack of 6” unscented beeswax candles, bags of holy basil and minced onion flakes, and 5 lb each of regular and decaf CafĂ© Altura coffee beans. Who the heck ordered all this stuff? Oh wait…YOU did.

Winter chili, spaghetti, shrimp creole...

Peppers the size of a quart jar.

Peach preserves for winter toast.

Stocking the larder.

If you read literature set in the 1800’s on the prairie (I highly recommend a short story called “Winter” by Kit Reed), you’ll discover the hereditary, maybe genetic, origins of September Squirreling: As Jon Snow says, winter is coming. Every hardy plains dweller worth her salt (Note to Self: Order 5 lbs of Celtic salt ASAP) knows you need to STOCK THE LARDER NOW!! You’ll need provisions for when the snow is piled higher than your doors & windows, cutting off all light and your access to the outside world.

Nevermind that you live in town, in the 21st century, where the city plows keep your streets clear all winter, and that your snowblower gives you unfettered access to everything year-round, 24/7. Nevermind that you can have curbside delivery of groceries, hardware, lumber, or anything Walmart sells, all winter long. Nevermind. Because you’re really just a higher-order squirrel, burying nuts and seeds in the yard. “Putting by” is in your pioneer, homesteader DNA.

So today, in early September when the high will be 88, I’ll be divvying up 20 lb bags of canary and parrot food into gallon bags for the freezer, so we’ll have plenty of avian antics for entertainment during “the dark time.” And if I make waaaaay too much goulash for dinner, well, I know what to do with the leftovers.

Wendel worries, will there be enough?


Friday, August 13, 2021

Don't worry. Be happy (as the Bhutanese).

Death. It’s not something we talk about in the U.S. We don’t even like the word, so we use metaphors that imply fun travel and/or a little extra sleep: rest in peace, the long sleep, gone home, left for her great reward, even dirt nap. We often don’t talk with those who are dying about the inevitable death that’s coming, and often, our own “death plans” (funerals or memorials, body disposition, wills, etc.) are made in private – almost in secret – if at all.

But I’ve been thinking a LOT about death lately. In our immediate family and circle of friends, seven people have either died, or we’ve only just learned about their deaths, since the beginning of this year. I also think Covid and the newer Delta threat act like annoying floats that won’t let thoughts of death sink to the deep waters of my denial mind, as they normally would, so death feels scary, sad, and ever present.

Recently, my youngest son sent me an interesting BBC article about how the Bhutanese people attribute at least some of their happiness to living with and thinking about death on a daily basis (https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20150408-bhutans-dark-secret-to-happiness). They have a tradition of thinking about death at least 5 times a day, and the Himalayan country is considered one of the happiest on earth. Images and icons of death are everywhere in the country, so even kids are exposed to the idea of death from the time they’re born. Of course, Bhutan is a mainly Buddhist country, so the Buddhist belief in samsara, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, might also soften any fear of dying.



Now, thanks to a friend, I learned about an app for my iPhone (and watch) called WeCroak. It sends me 5 meditations or contemplations about death every day. When a new contemplation comes through, I first see a screen that says, “Don't forget, you’re doing to die,” and then I get the little quote or statement about death. When the first couple of reminders came through, the initial screen gave me a wee jolt, I’ll admit. I talked back. “Nuh uh,” I said. “Shut up.” But now, it makes me laugh, sometimes out loud and at inappropriate times, like the Walmart checkout or the dentist’s waiting room.

Someone in the BBC article said that living with death by thinking about it daily, made her “seize the moment.” I get that. Our time is limited. We should learn to use it more wisely.

This doesn't mean we don't cry, grieve, or miss someone, or that we should run around being giddy about someone's death. It just means that we could learn to see death as a natural part of the life cycle of all beings - like being born, going through puberty, getting wrinkies - and not as the Big, Personal, Final, Lossity-Loss and Permanent Horrific End so many Americans (and others) FEAR.

We have another “celebration of life” to attend this weekend, and I feel like (in my Pollyanna brain at least) my 5 daily reminders will help me to truly celebrate that life, and to embrace our friend's death as a passage and a shared part of our humanity. I’m not sure the 5 daily reminders have made me happy as a Bhutanese yet, but we’ll see…



Saturday, July 24, 2021

I don't quite get this retirement thing...yet.

I officially retired at the end of May, and boy, do I have BIG PLANS for a retirement of bliss! But so far, we’ve put in our garden, gone to visit kids in the Black Hills, I’m working on a new manuscript of my own and sending off the last one to try and find a publisher. I finished one book review and I have a manuscript to mull over for a friend, and I’m ALWAYS planning another trip to Ireland in my mind. I’ve taught a week-long online poetry class to grade school kids, and I’ve also been gathering materials, schedules, and knowledge (most of it in my head) to hand off to the person taking over the student organization I’ve shepherded for the past 11+ years. Oh, and our youngest son got married in a beautiful country wedding, and our youngest grandchild (grandkid #6) was born, both in June.


In other words, I haven’t figured out yet how to hit the brakes. Anyone who teaches, knows that during the school year there is NO TIME when there’s nothing to do—watching TV, spending time with family, gardening, etc., are all and always done at the expense of something work related you’re PUTTING OFF and about which you feel extremely guilty. And that’s been my pace for 25 years. So the idea that I don’t have at least a dozen work-related tasks hanging over my head, is foreign to me.

By way of remedy, I got out my MUSE (https://choosemuse.com/muse-2/), which is a cool meditation aide that works on the principle of biofeedback (biofeedback was popular in the 70s so the idea felt familiar to me). I haven’t “Mused” yet since my retirement, but I got it out, and that’s a step, right?

Other ideas for slowing to a sprint are bubbling up, and they mostly involve some version of camping. We don’t have a camper, but we have a big SUV, and I slept in plenty of cars and vans in my hippie youth, so if I take enough Advil, I’m pretty sure I could do it again. And we have a tent. Accommodating our dogs might be a trick, but we’ve got four human kids between us, so we’ve both slept many nights pummeled by little heads, feet, and elbows. How much worse could dogs in a tent be?

We started kayaking last summer, and so far, we’ve been out on the water once this summer. Right now, we shove the kayaks in the back of our old pickup in an awesome rack Ray built. We’d like to travel with them, and once we figure out a way for two mid-age people with various arthritic joints to get the rack and kayaks on top of the SUV, we’ll be golden.

Another current possibility involves fishing. I know nothing about fishing except what I’ve seen on Alaska’s Last Frontier (I’m pretty sure I could land and process a halibut if I had to). My research so far has been Googling “best beginner rod and reel combo.” I’ll admit I don’t like baiting hooks, and I like even less taking fish off once they’re caught and then…argh…cleaning them. But I love the casting, sitting, waiting, and ultimately eating parts, so I think I could channel my Irish coastal ancestors (aka “grow up”) enough to do the not-so-fun stuff. I don’t trust my balance enough to fish from my kayak, but I have a super romantic image of myself sitting on a secluded dock in my red sunhat, slathered with SPF 250, holding my Plussino 24-ton carbon matrix telescopic pole with 12 +1 shielded bearings stainless steel BB spinning reel. You can see it, right?

Oh yeah, and I bought myself an indestructible (polycarbon/plastic) travel guitar. Ray has a djembe, a bodhran, and a set of bongos for travel drums. Those RV glampers will positively swoon when we launch into our soul-stirring “Puff the Magic Dragon/Michael Row the Boat Ashore/Kumbaya” medley. I have a plan in my head for a tip jar made from a recycled 2 lb. Folger’s can, some glitter glue, and neon orange duct tape.


So I really am planning a blissful retirement. Of course, I live in South Dakota, and I haven’t formulated my plans yet for our 9 months of winter (kidding…it’s only 6 months). AND Covid isn’t finished with us, so we may be back in quarantine hiding out from Delta if unvaccinated idiots don’t start thinking about someone besides themselves. AND if I can learn to say NO to the projects, board positions, and part-time jobs that keep popping up in my email, I’ll have this retirement thing mastered in no time!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Writerly Wrevelations


I write poems (you can find my books here: Please Buy These Books ASAP!) Over the past 14 months or so of lockdown, I’ve had an epiphany or two and faced a few come-to-jaysus moments about my own writing and process. I wish I’d realized/discovered/faced these a few decades back, so I could have gotten more done by now: 

1. Most writers I know (referred to henceforth in this piece as “writers”) are crazy insecure. We think we’re imposters. Each of us thinks we’re the BEST. WRITER. EVER. We think no one will want to read what we write. We’re not sure WE want to read what we write. We need approval. We don’t need no stinking approval. Yes, we do. You like me, right? RIGHT?!? 

2. I haven’t decided yet if writers are the “precious and private” (Bukowski) hermits of the stereotype, or we’re just the wordy, nerdy kids with masking-taped glasses no one will pick in Red Rover, so we preemptively claim loner-dom, because see #1. 

3. Writers have enormous, ponderous, stumbling egos, fragile as antique bone china. We know that a rising tide lifts all ships, but it isn’t in our nature to help/promote/mentor other writers; we’re more like frightened roller derby queens rounding a curve, elbows out and ready. Generosity is something we have to consciously work at (somewhere in the backs of our minds, we think YOU getting published means I CAN’T). 

4. I wouldn’t be here, in writerly terms, without the generosity of some amazing folks who've mastered #3. 

5. Cats are demanding, aloof, and disinterested. They dish out emotional abuse. Most writers have cats (self-abuse, see #1). A few have dogs (constant approval, see #1). 

6. What conditions do I need to write? Complete solitude. Total silence. Time. That’s why I have six full/part-time jobs and live in a house with other humans, dogs, parrots, canaries, and 75 houseplants that need watering or repotting on a perpetual, unending schedule (self-sabotage and martyrdom, see #1). 

7. I started writing when I was in elementary school. When I was in grad school, I learned “the craft” (like witchcraft, but with MLA style; poetry as technically precise as it was bloodless). After a decade of grad school recovery, I remembered how to write. 

8. It’s best not to have your desk facing a window (see #14). 

9. All writers want to be published. Some writers lie about this (see #1). 

10. Publishing is the devil. It’s a numbers game. It’s like weight loss: you really do have to burn more calories than you eat. To get something published, you have to continuously send off work in huge numbers (then cast spells, light candles, repeat incantations, and dance naked at midnight around a manual typewriter). Rinse & repeat ad infinitum. Publishing takes 25% talent and 75% stamina. 

11. A mere handful of writers (you and I are not among them) will achieve enough name recognition to improve the odds. Some will even BEAT the odds, and people will start ASKING to publish their work. They are the writerly version of the rare albino freetail bat. The rest of us boring brown bats might as well hang from the lampshade, pound down a bag of Doritos, and binge a season of Fortitude. 

12. Winning prizes for your writing is really cool. It costs big $$$ to enter contests. Again, those odds: the more you spend…you get the idea. 

13. All writers want to be published and win cool prizes. 

14. Any writer who claims: (1) It just pours out of me in one draft; (2) It’s like I’m channeling the muse; (3) I never revise, so I can keep it honest and authentic; (4) I just write down what the voices say, or some such nonsense, is either revising in secret or writes horrid drivel. 

15. I’m a procrastiwriter. Writing is hard work. And there are dishes to do, grout to scrub, socks to darn, backyard bird feeders to watch, junk drawers to organize. If I completely rearrange my home office, I can create a more productive writing space. Maybe some candles. Aromatherapy. More plants. Maybe I should build shelves behind my desk. If I took the kayak out for paddle, it would relax and inspire me…

Friday, March 19, 2021

WARNING: WOMEN ON THE MOVE

I have to share a story about my trip to Ireland…NOT because it’s about Ireland and we just celebrated a GRAND St. Patrick’s Day, but because two things this week have been pretty triggering for me: the murders of six Asian women in Atlanta at the hands of some schmuck who was “suffering” from sexual addiction, and this meme that popped up in Facebook this week…


I was visiting a city in the south,  and a pretty well-known poet, at the behest of his uncle whom I knew, set up a poetry reading for me. Tom (not his real name) had set up this reading in a downtown pub. I can’t remember the name of the pub, so let’s call it O’Flynn’s, starting at 9 p.m. that night. I didn’t have a car in Ireland, so I was hoofing it or taking taxis everywhere.

Early in the day, I texted Tom to ask for O’Flynn’s address. Much texting back and forth ensued, and I’ll never know the story on O’Flynn’s, but Tom never did give me an address. He told me it was “right around the corner” from my hotel, inside another business, and I could easily walk there. I went downstairs to the hotel’s front desk and asked the clerk to help me locate this place. She couldn’t find it. She guessed it was one of two possible locations, but she couldn’t be sure. I texted Tom again and asked for a street address so I could GPS. He didn’t give me one and said, instead, just to “head down XX Street, and you can’t miss it.”

So (1) I was a WOMAN traveling alone not just in an unfamiliar city, but an unfamiliar country; (2) It was after dark; (3) I was supposed to meet a man I’d never met and didn’t know; (4) I was in the city centre; (5) I was walking; and (6) I had no idea where I was going – I could set out in ANY direction, so vague were the directions, and never find the place.

Finally, I texted Tom and told him thank you, but I was staying in. I didn't know if this was to have been a “featured” reading, part of an open mic, or what kind of event it was. I’ll never know because Tom no longer speaks to me, declaring me “rude” and “inconsiderate” for canceling. It still bothers me, not because Tom decided I was rude—I’m a big girl and can take not everyone liking me—but because Tom, like SO MANY MEN, couldn’t or wouldn’t try to understand WHY I canceled. He didn't GET IT.

It’s so much easier for men to move about (especially white men) that many, I think, can’t imagine feeling vulnerable or being house-bound by fear. Like almost every woman I know, I’ve been accosted, confronted, and abused (only emotionally, for me, praise the goddesses) by men throughout my life. I’m not sure Tom could see the forest for his white male privileged trees.

In spite of still being angry that Tom, a well-educated man and gifted poet who, in the age of Me Too should have known better (or should have offered to pick me up), DOESN’T know better or wasn’t sensitive enough to empathize, I hope we can meet again someday and mend that fence. I love his poetry, and I think he’s an important voice in contemporary Irish poetry. 

I also think that until MEN care about and work for the safety of women, we’d better keep the Wolverine claws (pepper spray, personal alarms, lifeguard whistles, etc.) handy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Love Letter to My Fat

Chalk it up to the pandemic (a YEAR now), quarantine, winter (it’s -9 this morning…yes, you read that right), or a complete lack of my favorite foods—carbs—because I’m 8 months into yet ANOTHER diet. Or, as diet gurus like to say nowadays, “WOE” or “way of eating.” WOE is accurate, too, as in woe is me. Whatever the cause, my patience is, as Monty Python famously said, “wafer thin.” And I realize that often, this blog is a way for me to articulate and examine my own frustrations, so…I wanna talk about FAT. AGAIN.

In America at least, we’re obsessed with weight. In fact, weight has almost become a habitual conversation starter. Eavesdrop on any discussion, watch TV for an hour, go to the doctor FOR ANYTHING, and there it is—she’s gained weight…he’s lost weight…she looks better thinner/fatter…have you SEEN how much she’s gained/lost…her face looks puffy…his face is too thin…that shirt makes her/him look too fat/thin, please step on the scale IMMEDIATELY.

We don’t care, or at least not as MUCH, about a person’s soul, needs, accomplishments (unless they’re weight related), compassion, back-stabbiness, decoupage skillz, or their ability to ID sharp-shinned hawks at 350 yards. We care about their weight gain/loss ratio. Their "before" and "after." And of course, women are disproportionately targeted for fat comments and shaming, but that’s another can of vipers, and you DON’T want to get me started…

I’m someone who was thin and wispy until my child-bearing years. Then, by INTELLIGENT DESIGN, I packed on reserves: If I had to survive an Arctic blizzard, by the thunder gods I’d be able to keep my offspring warm until spring. And if the mister missed his wildebeest and couldn’t bring home the bacon, I’d still be able to nurse the babies, thanks to my body’s voluminous fat warehouse. Or, if a mastodon mashed the mister, I’d have that healthy, baby-factory bod the other men would club each other for, et voilĂ , I’d get my genes passed on.

Which Adele is happier? kinder? most compassionate?

I’m laughing a little, but I’m also noticing that the people who MAKE all these remarks—who JUDGE others by their kilos and stones—are almost always THIN, and effortlessly so. Or, they’ve worked their arses off to ACHIEVE thinness and now have the right to judge every poor fat slob who hasn’t, kind of like the way people who inherit money bitch about poor folks needing to “pull themselves up” by their fictitious bootstraps. Forget that weight is usually an amalgam of any number of 1734 contributing factors—genetics, hormones, unrelenting stress, insecurity, psychology, sexual abuse, occupation, co-conditions, illness, medications, other traumas, social and familial conditioning, weather, olfactory memories, cell memory, barometric pressure, natural Girl Scout Cookie resistance, past life experience…you name it.

Also, I DO NOT want you or anyone else feeling sorry for me. I'm avoiding carbs to keep my triglycerides and blood sugar down, and I've lost like 5 lbs, which, for you skinny people, is like not eating that ONE Dorito. I know it's hard for thin people to believe, but I LIKE my body. In fact, my lumpy, bumpy body has seen me through periods of unromantic hippie poverty, a 30+-year marriage, the births/nurturing of three of the world’s best humans, a 25-year career, and a solo tour of Ireland that yanked me out of my comfy sedentary life and forced me into moving my two feet back and forth ad infinitum as a means of propulsion (I didn’t lose a lb, BTW—probably my Celtic genes hugging that fat like a bag of Twinkies, in case of famine).

You can SAVE your “IT’S SIMPLE MATH,” too: Calories burned ≠/> calories consumed. If humans were a product of simple math and logic, we humans wouldn’t be in ANY of the messes we’re in.

So next time you see a weather man, game show host, old high school friend, person who used to check you out at Hy-Vee, or really, ANYONE, and the first thing you can think to say has something to do with weight, you are a weight-shaming bigot, and I’m gonna stuff all 15 Scottish shortbread cookies (imported from Scotland, not the cheap imitations, because butter) that I carry in my pockets, right in my BIG FAT MAW and make you watch me chew. Very politely.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Retirement: The Becoming Years

RETIREMENT. Holy buckets. Did I ever think I’d do this? No, I thought I’d teach college English till they pried the grading pen from my cold, cramped hand. But as of May of this year, I will retire from my full-time, 25-year teaching career. (I can’t even believe I’ve had a 25-year career, since Inner Me is still in her 20s.)

I’ve been working since I was 14, when I started as an A&W carhop. For those too young to know what that is, I carried trays of food to people’s cars and hooked the trays on their rolled down car windows. In a brown and orange mini dress. I once served fried chicken and root beer to a man who jumped the parking curb, drove his Caddy through the plate glass storefront and up to the counter, then rolled down his window and ordered. When I looked wide-eyed at my boss and asked what I should do, my boss said, “Get him his chicken.” Ah…good times.

From that time on, I had brief jobless stints, but mostly I worked: waitress, fast-food counter, bartender, janitor, lunch truck driver, bank teller, retail clerk, life skills assistant for adults with disabilities, nursing assistant, surgical prep tech, Extension Office secretary, gig musician, and eventually, college instructor. Much of that time, I was also a full-time parent. Sometimes a single parent. Some of that time, I also took uni classes part- or full-time. That’s about fifty years of wearing what is now a sky-high stack of hats.

It’s scary, I’ll admit. This might surprise you, but I am NOT a relaxed person. I am a compulsive, hyper-responsible worker. I’m not good at “idle.” If I haven’t mentioned it before, I suffer from the HHN-i gene (for more on this anomaly read https://uncanneryrow.blogspot.com/2011/05/rescue-me.html), that makes it super-hard for me to CHILL. But no worries. I’m already busy compiling a TO-DO list for my retirement years (note the timing of some of these depends on our ability to finally be decent, caring human beings and do what we must to tackle the pandemic). In my ideal post-career world, here’s some of what I’ll be doing… 


1. Write. Write. Write. 
2. Read. Read. Read (stuff I WANT to read, not stuff I HAVE to read). 
3. Improve my DAILY meditation practice, my antidote to the HHN-i disorder. 
4. Sing & play guitar/ukulele every day. Work on the uke version of "Smoke on the Water."
5. Hang out with my kids and grandkids until they start dropping hints about "bad fish" or "privacy" or "how much your birds miss you."
6. Take many road trips with Ray: Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose, SD; Spam Museum, Austin, MN; an endless list. 
7. Learn Irish (already started on both Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. After almost a year, I can say “Ta tortair agam” (I have a turtle) and “Ta leabhar si an nuachtan” (she reads the newspaper). Handy. 
8. Travel with Mom, wherever/whenever she gets a hankerin’ to go. 
9. Visit out-of-town family & friends. 
10. Go camping. Camp in the Badlands, and stay up late enough to hear the coyote choir.
11. Get back to my Good Old Irish Walks. 
12. Wait…go back to Ireland! Walk THERE! Pleasepleaseplease… 
13. Knit; finish Christmas gifts by Christmas. 
14. Have long, chatty, catch-up coffees with friends. 
15. Raise canaries. Stare at them. Talk to them. Post a nauseating number of photos of them. 
16. Kayak and garden during South Dakota’s lovely three-week summer. 
17. Perfect my mad napping skilz. 
18. Get down and dirty with Ancestry.com. Find my Irish Donegal ancestors.
19. Teach an online class now & then. 
20. Really clean my house (unrealistic pipe dream). 
21. Unpack the boxes still in the basement from the last move (7 years ago…no rush). 
22. Declutter, unburden, simplify, minimize, downsize. 
23. BE instead of DO. 

It’s a pretty ambitious list, I know (Note to Self: see #23 above). I’m also one of the world’s great procrastinators, so the list could end up on a bulletin board shoved in the back of a closet, behind my senior prom dress (“Killing Me Softly” was the spotlight song), or the fringed leather jacket I lived in throughout the 70s, or the tub of PEZ dispensers (Note to Self: see #22 above). 

In my late teens and early 20s, I had a vision of myself: One day I’d become an idealistic, poor-but-happy, guitar-playing-Joni-Mitchell-singing, recluse hippie writer. Maybe it won’t work out EXACTLY as I imagined, but I feel like I’m about to bring that vision to life. And it only took me a lifetime. ;)