Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Passing the Time in Pandem[onium]

We’re a little over two months into quarantine/social distancing now, and it’s starting to feel a little like our new normal, which is kind of scary-comforting—I was a tad hermity before this all started, and it’s a pretty short hop across the line to recluse. But we’re keeping busy, and I’m still showering for now…

Semester, usually determined to kick me off a cliff by the end, sort of fizzled out this spring. In the Pandem[onium], a few students just disappeared without turning in final work. This made me aware that in face-to-face classrooms, these are the students whose hands I would hold, for whom I would make every class an opportunity to be accountable, and who I would try to drag over the finish line. But that wasn’t possible this semester. The most I could do was email and text numerous pesky reminders, which today’s tech-savvy  students are accustomed to screening and ignoring. Alas, my grades are turned in, and I hope the disappeared students are okay.

My summer class.
I’m teaching a summer class (online) that started this week, and it was restorative to meet a new crop of nervous, excited, and/or confident students, even if they were all in 2” windows and our class looked like an episode of Hollywood Squares.

Another thing I’ve been doing to make quarantine more bearable is something I call “a good old Irish walk.” When I was in Ireland last summer, sans car, Irish folks would tell me that whatever I was looking for was “just a short walk” away, which could mean anywhere from 1 to 25 miles. I did a LOT of walking. So lately I’ve been taking long walks whenever I can, exploring Little Town’s nooks & crannies.

Luck o' the good old Irish walk.

Above the Missouri River
One of the side effects of quarantine is projectitis, a sudden need to start, or get back to, completely random projects. For the past two weekends, Ray has been hauling cartloads of the 7 cubic yards (that’s about 6 TONS) of black dirt we ordered into the garden. I bought 8 brackets on clearance about 5 years ago, and each holds the ends of 2x12’s to make raised garden beds.

I’ll also be painting the 4 unfinished wren houses I ordered from the Audubon Society, because I LOVE those bossy little wrens, and they raise babies each year in a broken frog head hanging from a shepherd’s hook in my back yard. They deserve better. A robin built a gorgeous nest on top of a wreath hanging just outside our front door, where she sits on 6 blue eggs. When we drive her off occasionally because WE HAVE TO USE OUR FRONT DOOR, she and Mr. Robin flit around the yard chirping robin obscenities until it’s safe for her to return.

Shhhh! Babies sleeping!
Speaking of babies, I’m also knitting babies. It’s part of an Ireland project to commemorate the approximately 6000 babies who died in Ireland’s “mother and baby” homes: https://www.thebabogproject.com/2020/02/15/the-babog-project-needs-you/. I’m making simple little babies while watching Curiosity Stream documentaries, usually on stuff like native forests of Mongolia, mapping the human brain, or tool use in scrub jays.

Babies for babies.
Like probably half of the world right now, I’m also teaching myself to make sourdough bread. Maintaining the starter is a cross between The Blob and a horrid junior high chemistry class, and our house always smells like yeast. So far, I’ve made one beautiful loaf and several discuses, doorstops, and patio umbrella stands for the Christmas gift stockpile.

The one we could actually eat.
Isolated at home, I’m also confronted by the tapestry wall hanging I started when I was 21…shouldn’t I get back to that? And wasn’t I going to make something out of that Rubbermaid tub full of old band t-shirts? What about the pasta maker I bought, loaned out for a few years, got back, and have stored in the basement ever since? Shouldn’t I be making homemade ravioli? Now would be a great time to teach Yogi (dog) to use those speech buttons I bought a decade ago. 2020: The Year to Get Shite Done. (Double entendre intended.)

People are finding other ways to pass the pandemic. Our local businesses are re-opening, but they’ve been mostly doing curbside/pickup, and Little Town folk are turning out to support them. A local balloon business is keeping spirits up with scavenger hunts. The owner makes ingenious balloon sculptures each week and places them around town, then posts when the hunt is on. We have occasional short, socially-distanced, masked porch visits. We have a weekly family Zoom that gets bigger and wilder every week.

I see your true colors, Poppy.
Sadly, the CDC just predicted that over 100,000 people in the U.S. alone could die by June 1, and that we should start serious planning for a worse “2nd wave” in the fall. Worse? Really? Whenever someone suggests Covid is a hoax, or it’s no worse than the flu, or blahblahblah, I ask them to tell it to the 90,000 dead Americans. Many re-open and/or die people are out and about, without masks, oblivious to social distancing. Going for supplies is an obstacle course, dodging and weaving around unconcerned “not me” Covid targets who ignore my 6’ bubble. And like many universities, Little Town U is planning to be back on campus in the fall.

These things terrify me, here in our household of three high-risk, medically-compromised, but still vital and valuable human beings. So for the foreseeable future, we'll be tucked in here. Time to queue up another episode of Ballykissangel while I make paper mache molds of Ray’s feet…where’s the tempera paint…

Monday, April 27, 2020

Pandem-onium Week 7

We started our social distancing on March 13, so we’re heading into our 7th week. In addition, we’re having our house painted (something we’d contracted for last fall, pre-Covid). All the windows and doors are covered in plastic, taped, and painted over right now, so we are truly cocooning in our isolation. We do curbside pickup for groceries, we mask up to ride our bikes or walk the dogs, and a non-contact pizza delivery is a “festive night.” The U.S. president, who I like to call -45, is telling people to drink the Kool-Aid (ingest disinfectant, open the economy, go to the beach). Somehow, we’ve all been transported to an alternate universe.

Cocooning in the kitchen.

Gifts: Letter from granddaughter, grading-pen holder from Annie.

Here in South Dakota, which is somewhat sparsely populated, we’ve had 2212 cases of Covid-19 infection so far. This number seems low, until you learn that over a thousand of these cases (and 3 of the state’s 11 deaths) are workers and their contacts from one Smithfield meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls. This is made even more tragic by the fact that so many Smithfield workers are immigrants and working poor, and that Smithfield was paying employees a $500 “incentive” bonus to keep working after the first employees were testing positive for the virus. Sadly (and preventably perhaps), we’re seeing this situation play out now in meatpacking plants elsewhere in the state and in adjacent states.

It’s really hard to stay positive in this Pandem-onium. I watch the news in a sort of deer-in-the-headlights trance, knowing all the while that I should run for the trees. I have a hard time concentrating. I worry constantly about our little household, all of us at high risk. We’re all over 60 (my mom, who lives with us, is 84), and between the three of us, we have all the textbook “comorbidity factors” (oooh…I’m getting so pathology savvy): heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and prior strokes.

However, Pollyanna that I am, I’m trying to re-focus my thinking and appreciate the astonishing changes I’ve made in my life as a result of quarantine:

1.     I have a significantly expanded collection of recipes and cooking/baking/grilling/nutrition ideas from the Interwebs—praise be the Al Gore and his Interwebs!
2.     I’ve made several important kitchen upgrades: I got a mixer out I haven’t used since I got it last Christmas, I correctly seasoned all my cast iron, and I found my FoodSaver and pasta machine, both still packed away from the last move five years ago.
3.     I’m cleaning out my pantry and freezers in the service of culinary exploration. I have quite a collection of rare, exotic, and unknown (labels long since lost or faded) items, most of which I bought for that one dish I was determined to make and never got around to. Things like whole Bonita fish. Five lbs. of falafel. 25 lbs. of wild whole plums (my winemaking days). Tobiko (flying fish roe). Puff pastry. Sweet potato noodles. Nori. Cauliflower rice. Peri peri. Guava paste.
4.     Believe me, I am the LAST person who needs to be holed up with FOOD and new recipes. However, my haphazard experimenting (see #3) means that at least some of the dishes I’ve made are inedible by weak-toothed or finicky humans and must be either (a) fed to the dogs, or (b) ground up for the birds, so the calories don’t add up as fast as one might imagine.
5.     I now have an alternative-medicine/personal care storehouse: a fairly comprehensive collection of homeopathics; heating pads; OTC medications for mucus, phlegm, congestion, diarrhea, and assorted other grossities; a steamer, nebulizer, glucose monitor, blood pressure cuff, digital thermometer, and oximeter; herbs and herbal syrups; Epsom salt soaks. I already have a massage table and a footbath. I’ll be opening a wellness spa post-pandem-onium.

Socially-distant bike ride.

6.     I’m not a fan of exercise. Motivation and a self-replicating pile of work are usually the sticking points for me, but given the choice lately of a walk or bike ride vs. ONE MORE MINUTE IN THIS DARK HOUSE, I’m moving a bit more.
7.     I’ve had plenty of time in the house to procrastinate…er…conduct research. I know a LOT now about singers’ throats and paralytic vocal cords, the benefits of tonic water, Magdalene laundries in the Netherlands, fortifying the immune system, sound-triggered anxiety in dogs, and the art & science of sourdough bread.
8.     I’ve revived the personal barter system, thanks to my daughter’s overload of farm-fresh eggs: eggs for elderberry syrup, eggs for TP, eggs for parsley and mint. Eggs are the new currency.

Eggs for sourdough starter.

My first sourdough doorstop...er...bread.

So hang in there, everyone. Take good care of each other. Social distance and wear a mask to keep your elders and other vulnerable people safe—you could be carrying the virus and not know. We may have to do this a while, but humans have survived this long because we ADAPT. Remember that no matter what you see on TV, there are sane, smart people working on a vaccine. We’re learning that ventilators may not be the best option. We learned that antibodies may not equal immunity. We’ll figure this out. Until then, I need parsley and cilantro, and I’ve got eggs…

Bucket 'O Chicken (hen finds the food and dives in)

Hazel named this chick Victoria,
because the chick "victoriously stood on my arm without falling."

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Post from Pandem-onia

I’m pretty good at putting a Pollyanna veneer on dang near anything, but I gotta admit…this Covid-19 has me positively spin-less. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a Ray Bradbury novel, and sometimes all I can do is sit with my hands in my lap, mouth agape, thoughts spinning like a 45 (that’s a tiny record for you young’uns). We're only on Week 1 of XSD (Xtreme Social Distancing), but right now there are already 7000+ cases in the U.S., all 50 states, 11 in South Dakota, and that number could jump by the time I finish typing this. It was 5000+ YESTERDAY.

Here are some observations I’ve made so far in Pandem-onia:

1.     Teaching – The next time you think teachers are overpaid or lollygag on their “summers off,” remember that right now, teachers who’ve had two week’s notice or less to reinvent the wheel are working almost non-stop to transition classes to completely online. They’re prepping for two, four, fifty-two, seventy-five weeks online—no one really knows how long. I’m incredibly grateful to have taught online before, so the transition is less daunting for me than for countless colleagues across the country, now working long hours at kitchen tables, on their third pot of coffee, as they learn new software, revamp lesson plans, modify activities, keep in contact with scared students, and remain calm.

2.     Working – Ray is still going to work, a good reminder that not everyone has the option of working from home. He works in an in-house print shop for a large healthcare system. He is careful. He doesn’t touch anyone. He maintains his personal space. He comes in at night and washes. If we had a futuristic disinfecting shower at the back door, he’d be using it.
3.     Risk – Did I mention that Ray and I are BOTH in the at-risk category? We’re both over 60, and we have a smorgasbord of “underlying medical issues” between us. I’m not visiting with my kids, both because Ray is still “on the outside” and we don’t want to infect them, and because they are young and healthy, and we have no way of knowing if they’re infected—life was normal until it wasn’t: slobbery kids at birthday parties, long, lazy dinners at busy Burger Kings, K-12 schools (those petri dishes of childhood togetherness)…
4.     Economics – In spite of the obvious risks, I’m thankful Ray can still go to work and I can work from home. This pandemic will surely deal a near-fatal or fatal economic blow to people who can least afford it—people who will lose their jobs as a result of social distancing’s impact on the small businesses they work for, or because their kids are home from school and they must choose between work and watching their kids, or small business owners who will have to shut. Bernie Sanders’ redistribution of wealth will happen in spite of his campaign probably ending, because we will have to feed each other.
5.     Hermiting – I’m a hermit anyway, so working from home is comfortable for me. But we’re human primates, which means—think of troops of chimps—we need each other. In spite of my love/hate relationship with technology, I’m grateful for the many ways we can keep in touch with each other, check on each other, and reach out to buoy spirits and ease fears. And we need to keep doing that.
6.     Chefery – I’m getting pretty creative with food. Like curried stockpiled beans and carrots over stockpiled brown rice. Or Cajun stockpiled lentils and stockpiled vegetable pasta. The 35-year-old dehydrated mixed veggies in my freezer, the ones you all laughed at me about, from my Earth Mother hippie days, are gonna make some fabulous Pandemic Pilaf.

7.     Coping – I’ve sorted my troll doll and PEZ dispenser collections. I’m repotting plants. I’m washing and dusting things I haven’t touched in months. My laundry is done, and it’s mid-week. I’ve reconnected online with old friends. I’ve learned new songs on the guitar. I write down in my journal each day, three things for which I’m grateful. I’m revising poems. I’m knitting face masks (kidding…but not). I will stay busy and NOT give in to despair.
8.     Family – My 84-year-old mother is safely tucked away and social-distancing (a surreal new verb) in Kansas with my brother. My 88-year-old father, who has prostate cancer, is home with his wife, who is 82, self-employed, and must still work. They are both at great risk. Of our four kids and their partners, one has been at least temporarily laid off when the restaurant he works for closed, one is in higher ed administration and is still going to work every day, one is a nurse still going to work, and the rest are working from home. All kids are out of school.
9.     Fear – We are all afraid. Statistics are helpful in terms of knowledge and preparation and taking this seriously, but they also generate fear. We Humans of Earth are all standing along the tracks, watching the train wreck. We can’t look away. But we can hold each other’s hands.
10.  Continuity – you know what ISN’T affected by this pandemic? Spam and solicitation, that’s what. I’m still getting a gazillion emails a day from folks offering incredible just-for-me deals on leggings, reading glasses, hair dye, human growth hormone, vacation destination, mascara, “fair trade” jewelry, and wing chairs. And trolls.
11.  Optimism – Right now, as this pandemic ramps up to its peak in the U.S. and the numbers taper off in China, I BELIEVE we will come through this. Not all of us, maybe not even me, but enough of us. And in the meantime, my 116-year-old house will be hyper-organized and cleaner than it’s EVER been. ;)

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Spring in Little Town

Every early spring, I remember why I live in South Dakota. There’s nothing like Spring in Little Town. We aren’t quite there yet, but I see the signs.

Little Town is on the river, and this morning, just after dawn, I took the dogs outside and HEARD spring. Two grackles chittered, bickering over a squirrel’s nest from last year. This year’s squirrels sat in the walnut tree, scolding the dogs. And then, from below the bluff, a chorus of honking, distant at first then louder and louder, until moments later three huge V’s of geese, and a dozen or more stragglers, flew overhead. While I was watching the geese, half a dozen pelicans, far above the low-flying geese, ambled from east to west, their white wings lit up in the early morning sun. Behind me, woodpeckers tapped at suet blocks, while goldfinches crowded our feeders, reminding me that the buffet needs restocking.

There’s something here about the SMELL of spring, too. Winter dulls the senses, covers up smells in its snow blanket or locks them in ice. But spring! The first smell is dirt, that rich top layer of humus defrosting as the snow melts. Then, the bouquet of smells on the wind, up from the river valley: water, dirt, cold, green, buds, animals, farmland.

Another sure sign of spring is shorts. When the temperatures start drifting into the 40s, then 50s, the students at Little Town U don their shorts. They wear them with boots, socks, hoodies, jackets, sometimes even parkas. My legs would turn some horrid shade of blue, but their young, high-metabolic flesh, their stubborn nose-thumb to winter, is a welcome (and pretty funny) promise of spring.

All over town, people are coming out, buzzing like bees just out of their hives. We walk dogs, clean around the edges of gardens still too frozen or muddy to work, take down bicycles from their winter garage hooks, head to the car wash, hike the bike path along the river, jog around town. And at our feet, through the greys and browns of winter lawns, sparse patches of grass hint at the explosion of greens to come. Cabin fever melts into euphoria—we’re stretching and shaking off winter’s semi-hibernation.

 I’m not sure how people manage without seasons. For me, summer is time to do play and do MY work; fall is back to school; winter is time for retreat & reflect; and spring is time for renewal & rebirth. Every spring in South Dakota is for me a time to re-create—a new garden, the yard, our little village, myself.

A friend once said we like South Dakota seasons, especially winter, because it keeps out the riff raff.
Maybe our friend is right; South Dakota is #46 for population density in the U.S. But we’re also #17 in land area, which means those few of us who make this our home have loads of room to roam, and to dig, listen, watch, smell. From my backyard, I can see across the river into Nebraska. Yes, winter means shoveling, white-outs, blizzard warnings, icy sidewalks. But spring is like childbirth—once you hold those miraculous daffodils in your hands, you forget winter’s long labor.

Friday, December 20, 2019

All the Beautiful Blessings

The EnLIGHTened One

The holiday factory floor (table).

Semester is finished, though not quite finished with me. The chokehold is now just a jab in the ribs every now and then, checking to see how steady I am. For the past three weeks, I’ve been juggling on a high wire, in high heels, with a Pilot Precise V5 (my favorite pen) in my teeth: final cram-everything-in lesson plans, writing and giving final exams, shopping, doctor appointments for two people, end-of-the-year meetings, grandkid Christmas programs and robotics tourneys, wrapping, decorating, baking, and always, gradinggradinggrading…

As for my “long winter break,”—we start up again January 13—once the grading’s done, it’s time to prep for next semester. No rest for the wicked, as my granny used to say.

Still, I’m incredibly blessed, and I know it. I have a good job, a wonderful home with heat and indoor plumbing, plenty to eat, my first full-length poetry book, The Book of Crooked Prayer, coming out next June, Britbox AND Acorn, and happy twinkly lights everywhere I look. But my greatest blessings are my amazing husband of 32+ years, who goes about quietly, steadfastly, doing everything he can to make my life sweet and easier; my 84-year-old mother, baking Chex Mix, making that corn and macaroni casserole, and still teaching me; and kids, grandkids, and brothers popping in, calling, or coming for visits.

And there’s impeachment, maybe the best Christmas gift of all. The House, at least, stood up to lunacy and cruelty.

So today, as South Dakota hits 34 degrees with just hints of unmelted snow here & there, as finches, doves, sparrow, juncos, woodpeckers, and squirrels come to the birdie buffet, as steam pours from pipes and smoke from chimneys, I am ignoring my grading pile for a day to pay attention to and revel in my undeserved holiday gifts. Here's granddaughter Hazel wishing you a "Beautiful Christmas," and I wish you and yours SO much joy, all the love you’re able to share, and a promising new year!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

We're calling this "camping." Shut up.

For quite a few years (less regularly in the past few years), a bunch of us women have been taking an annual summer camping trip. We started out tent camping somewhere near a lake, then we mixed in campers, then, as we all got a bit more comfort-oriented, we moved up to cabins. We’d pack clothes for every kind of weather, enough food to last a month for a small village, books, board games, guitars, wine, and some fun activity—henna tattoos, hair dying, facials, etc. We’d hike, play music, tour, take turns planning and cooking meals, and stay for 4-7 days, unless the weather drove us home. The campout has always been a chance to reconnect with friends, kvetch in a “partner-free zone,” eat with wild disregard for our dietary restrictions, and unwind (and maybe let loose) without judgement.

Friends join us for brunch at the annual campout.

Return of Godzilla

This year, we were all feeling less inclined to rough it (at least for now), with our CPAPs, bad knees/hips/backs, and our recent or upcoming treatments/procedures/health crises. Fortunately, one of our clan won a gift certificate and was generous enough to share it with us, so our “campout” this year was one glorious night at one of Little Town’s best-kept secrets—our local winery and B&B, Valliant Vinyards.

The winery sits up on a hill overlooking the Missouri River valley, a quilt of woods and farmland. They make and sell their own wines and distilled liquors. The first floor is the winery dining room, tasting bar, and covered porch. The second floor has five B&B rooms, a conference room, a kitchen, and a gorgeous covered balcony. The basement is the heart of their winemaking, and the distillery is a separate building. They have a covered stage outside for “Winefest,” coming up August 24-25 (http://www.valiantvineyards.us/Home.html

We met at the winery Sunday morning for VV’s weekly “Bloody Mary Sunday.” You could call it an XTreme brunch. We had friends joining us for brunch, so we ordered three “Godzilla’s,” which is a pitcher of Bloody Mary made with the winery’s own distilled and pepper-infused vodka. Into that is added a whole roast chicken, and because it was “Perfectly Pickled” day, a plethora of speared, pickled delights—pickled asparagus wrapped in cream cheese and prosciutto, artichoke hearts and other pickled veggies, shrimp, and more.

Post-brunch Catch Phrase
After a long, leisurely brunch, our guests went home and we campers did a wine tasting to settle on wines for the afternoon and evening. We had a long afternoon of wine and games—Catchphrase, Password, Trivial Pursuit. In the evening, we headed to Spirit Mound, a local site with restored natural prairie on a hill significant to Native Americans, for a lovely short hike. Then, back to the winery, where we were lucky enough to hang out on the upstairs balcony and watch an incredible, brief thunderstorm roll in across the farmland.

Back in our room for the night, the Queen Anne Room, we got out guitars and did a little quiet playing before we all hit the hay (with our Kindles) before midnight.

The evening chip selection
The next morning, Adrienne, the winery manager, cooked us a brilliant breakfast (if she’d added a slice of grilled tomato and soda bread, it would have been the Full Irish). We all got good and coffeed up, and we headed home.

I’ll admit I miss the true camping days, and I may get back to that one day, but with Mom gone to the Bohunk Reunion for a couple more days (I’m on dog duty), and with my “travel weariness” not quite gone yet, this year’s campout (spa-cation? glampout?) was just right.  

Pre-storm hiking selfie...uh yeah...we made it to the top...yeah...