Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vocabula Phantasma

Close friends and associates often hear me lamenting (ranting) about the deteriorating state of communication skills among Americans. Well, I've been attending faculty meetings all this week, and I must say that academic dialogue could USE a little deterioration. Aiming primarily to impress one another, academics often speak in a curious language unintelligable to even the most brilliant, well-read, articulate non-academic. I have also attended numerous scholarly presentations over the years, and I can assure you I'm not alone in typically feeling, barely halfway through such an event, that either my yawn reflex is abnormally sensitive, or that my brain was about to explode.

When I was younger, I felt a secret guilt for not embracing academe-ese more wholeheartedly, for not intentionally boosting my stress level to hyper-fried in the practice of these verbal gymnastics. But I'm older now, and I can freely admit using & loving words like "blab" to mean "academic discourse." Still, I feel a compulsion as a college teacher to OWN the vocabulary of scholarship, so I've written this poem in order to get the lion's share of the required vocabulary out of the way in one fell swoop (at one fell swoop, for you Shakespeare scholars). Hope you like it.


There are certain things you must say
in any academic presentation
meant to stir the philosophical
fervor of a circumscribed audience.
In this postmodern conservative
hegemony, tacitly agreed-upon
ideas must be carefully expanded
and articulated vis-à-vis the resurrected
scholarship, indexed and archived,
of any reliable postcolonial ethnocritic
negating the Eurocentric socio-historic
interpretation and incorporating
the semiotics of interpretive punctuation,
then vetted against any known ideas
in the same or similar literary traditions;
hence, a satisfactory Q & A.
Be sure to interject the plausibility
of linguistic fluidity as a rationale
for using words like buttwad or dang.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fruit Jam as Metaphor for a Sweet, Troubled Life

One night last week, Ray and I canned 17 jars of Jalapeach Jam. That’s peach and jalapeno combined. It’s the perfect dichotomy of pleasure & pain, with its pairings of diced freestone peaches & minced jalapenos, sugar & vinegar, butter & lemon juice. The jam is both irresistible and torture. Will yourself through that first instant of tongue-searing pepperiness, and you’re almost instantly rewarded with the sweetest, lingering peachiness, until you’re no longer meek, trembling, afraid.

This is not unlike raising children. The laborious (sorry) childbirth to foggy, forgetful joy metaphor is clear. But it’s also like surviving child/teenhood. You’ve heard the comparisons between teens and The Exorcist, and trust me, they’re not far off. I am perpetually baffled by parents who manage to slide blissfully through with obedient, soft-spoken children and without numerous surprise phone calls from (a) the angry/offended parents of another child/teen; (b) the principal, on duty at the junior-senior prom; (c) the chaperone of a school trip; or, my favorite, (d) the police.

The reprimands, accidentally drowned hamsters, groundings, bailouts, middle-of-the-night trackdowns, public humiliation, court dates, late-night weeping, worry, screaming matches—they’re the jalapenos. And as we all know, humans can’t live for long on jalapenos alone. The compassionate, intelligent, hilarious (all in a fairly warped way), independently-minded human beings my kids are becoming as adults—that’s the peaches. But even peaches, splendid as they are, can lead to diabetic coma if that’s all you get. You need both.

Jalapeach Jam also makes a good metaphor for other kinds of relationships. It works for conversation, friendships, dating, living together, sex: if the jars don’t seal, you’d better take what you can, fast. And although sweetness is so good, every now & then, you just need to go up in flames.

So I’ll take my peaches with a little jalapeno, thank you, on a bagel spread with cream cheese—I’ve learned to appreciate that pleasantly painful balance.

Friday, August 22, 2008

How I feel about domestic chores...

General cleaning. Hate it. All of it. However, if I have a stack of essays to grade, I’ll clean anything. Twice. With a toothbrush.

Vacuuming. Never touch the stuff. Seems too much like the “E” word (exercise…don’t make me say this word ever again). Ray does all the vacuuming, or we’d be armpit-deep in Australian Shepherd hairballs and African Grey bird dander.

Dusting. Hate it. I’m with the theorists who suggest that exposure to dust toughens one up, encourages immunity to disease, and gives everything a pleasant matte sheen. I give in and dust when I can write my name on the surface of the buffet.

Cooking. Love it. Hence, my lifetime membership in Weight Watchers. My favorite things to cook are bulgoki (Korean stir-fried beef), linguini with homemade pesto, roast chicken and root veggies, burritos of all kinds, almond chicken and brown rice. Cooking is meditation, communing with Earth, consorting with the gods Chemistry & Fire. Pearl Bailey nailed it when she said, “My kitchen is a mystical place, a kind of temple for me.”

Baking. Hate it because I suck at it. I have a long sordid history of foisting lopsided cupcakes, 12-pound unrisen loaves of anadama bread, cakes with sunken, gooey uncooked holes in the center, and burnt cookies on my patient family & friends. Although I make a mean gooseberry pie.

Laundry. Love it. I inherited from my mother an obsessive need to launder any article of clothing that’s touched human skin or the floor, however briefly. That means trying on several items before selecting something to wear results in a heavy washday. Lord knows I try not to toss clothing around carelessly. I’ve learned to leave the sheets on the bed for a week at a time, although I’m sure this is causing my somnambular tooth-grinding. Ray does his own laundry, misguidedly believing his clothes will last longer that way. I don’t have a clothesline here at Uncannery Row yet, and I miss terribly the smell of clean, sun-baked and windblown t-shirts and bedding. Must put a posthole digger on my shopping list…

Gardening. Love the results, hate the work. Mom put me to shame this month when she was awarded “yard of the Month” honors by the Vermillion Garden Club for her fairy garden. I tend to go great guns in the spring, taper off over the summer, and give it all up to Nature, wringing my hands, by mid-August. Any little slice of land I try to manage & manicure, Nature takes back by the end of summer. I’m powerless in the face of her unbeatable weapons, creeping charley and mosquitoes.

Lawn mowing. Love it. I get (a) to be the Pied Piper of Peacocks, and (b) the temporary illusion that I can manage & manicure.

Animal chores. Love them all, more joy than chore. These include feeding, watering, nail trimming, bathing, cleaning bird cages, hanging heatlamps in the loafing shed for the peacocks (Ray), rescuing babies, tending to injured foundlings, hauling to the vet, brushing (Ray), etc. In addition, I periodically make huge batches of a special egg & veggie cornbread and a special 13-bean & pasta mixture for the parrots, or all-natural dog treats. See “Cooking” above. Unlike humans with their insecurities, pretense, and hidden motives, animals, furred or feathered, are unabashedly themselves, and they love (or at least tolerate) unconditionally. Enough said. Except, see earlier posts for animal chores that result in inadvertently drop-kicking the perfect balance of Nature.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Peafowl Primer - Chapter One: Feathers

When we inherited a flock of six adult peacocks last summer (they came with the house…actually written into the contract), I did what any former city girl and novice peaherder would do—I went to the Internet. I was startled at how little information is out there. I emailed the former homeowners relentlessly, but once the restraining order was in place, I turned to Amazon and ordered the only book on peacock care I could find. I was disappointed to find out it was a slim tome written by a guy who’d once had a few birds, about how much he “liked ‘em.” There were a couple of websites, but nothing I found seemed complete—for example, I couldn’t find anything that told me typical peachick color/feather markings, and whether that indicated the chicks’ sex.

So I’ve decided to blog my own peafowl primer. Granted, it’s anecdotal, but I’m dangerously obsessive about closely observing our little flock—the neighborhood’s abuzz with rumors of “that weirdo” with the binoculars and bag of Funyums who crouches in the spirea bushes. And hey, I figure if I was a total pea-gnoramus, then whatever I can offer will help other pea-gnoramuses (pea-gnorami?).

Peafowl come originally from India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. In the wild, they’re forest-dwellers, with a dominant male having a harem of females. In the barnyards of South Dakota, males will take whatever they can get.

The most common peafowl is the India Blue, the bird with which most of us are familiar. There are also greens, pieds (mottled with white), albino whites, and other varieties. Males have that amazing “train” of tail feathers that includes long, wispy iridescent “eye” and “sword” feathers, held up when they display by a fan of shorter, stiff, dull-brown feathers (see Francoise in the picture, shown from behind, displaying for a lawn chair, poor dear). Wing feathers are brown or white with black bars, and they have a bank of russet feathers on their lower sides, which they beat rapidly when displaying—more crazy peafowl percussion. Their long necks are iridescent blue-green. Legs are featherless, beige, with heavy-duty nails and a bony “spur” on the inside of each leg a few inches above the foot, used for mid-air sword-fighting with other males.

India Blue peahens are mostly brown with barred or plain brown wing feathers, white chest feathers, an iridescent greenish sheen on their upper necks, and short dull-brown tails (see pic of Junior, an immature male with no train, and Debbie on the fence).
Peachicks can be a variety of colors, I'm learning, but in the two seasons we've had chicks, the females have ended up looking identical to adult hens by the end of the first summer, while male chicks remain a variety of colors (see Ike, Tina, and Wilke in the greenhouse window—Ike is a yearling now and still mostly white; Tina is identical to all the other females; Wilke, colored like Ike, met an untimely predatory end). Ike is a year old now and still white, although we don’t know yet if that means he's a male or that he’s a mutant and will stay white. Of Wanda’s four new babies, two already look like adult females, and two are cream, rust and brown, although again, we don't know if that means they're males. Debbie and Mitzi's chicks are clearly females. All peafowl have a topknot that consists of a cluster of erect, bare feather shafts tipped by tiny iridescent blue fan feathers.
Peacocks are sexually mature at 2-3 years, although males have a comical train the first year, with a few scraggly eye feathers sticking up here & there. The hens gather around the birdbath, point and snicker. The mature males kick sand at the poor guy. Peacocks drop all of their long tail feathers in a week or two in late July when the breeding season is over, so we make daily rounds to gather the feathers. They grow a new train over the winter and are ready to go again in early spring. Each year the train is more impressive, fuller and with bigger “eyes,” until the peacock is in his prime.

Both males and females can raise their tails. Without a train, this looks a lot like a turkey spreading its tail fan, and peacocks will fan when startled or to threaten small, delinquent puppies.

When the boys do their courtship thing, which they’ll do for just about anything—females, yard art, dogs, wind, lawn mowers (see Ramon’s ironic wooing of the Virgin Mary)—they fan their train and vibrate the feathers, making a sound like a soft drum roll, which they alternate with the rapid staccato beating of the russet side feathers. When they really get going, they’ll high-step in a halting march toward the object of their affection with neck erect, head bowed, and train fluttering. They also do a fancy back-stepping dance, and if a hen ventures really close, they charge. The whole process is remarkably similar to the courtship behavior of first-year college students with fake IDs in a downtown bar. Only waaaay prettier.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Summer Swan Song

Summer’s winding down. Wanda and Debbie’s chicks are getting big (Mitzi’s, hatched later than usual, are still dangerously small for this late in the season), Snowball’s been out in the pasture teaching kitten Snowflake to hunt baby rabbits, Yogi’s 3 months old now and a very naughty toddler, Jada’s busy herding her delinquent canine brother, and the hollyhocks are withering.

Speaking of withering, I worked all week at a workshop to assess freshman writing, and I can tell you, the English language is down on the ground, battered & bleeding, calling out for Mama. Big Brother had better quash this texting and emailing debacle, or soon we’ll all be reduced to grunts and clicks.

Speaking of guttural language, I was out mowing one morning on the rider, when a passel of peacocks fell in formation behind, feasting on cut grass and displaced bugs. Peahens teach their young what to eat (grass, flowers, grains, and occasional insects) by picking at something delicious while making a hollow clicking sound deep in their throats that sounds like hitting a wood block with a rubber mallet. So there I was, twisted Pied Piper, with Ike & Tina, Junior, Ramon, Wanda, Mitzi, Debbie and all seven chicks stringing along. When the engine killed in wet grass by the windmill, the click click clicking hens sounded like a Latin percussion section.

Speaking of hot percussion, I went out last night to hear Ray’s band (he’s the drummer and STILL won’t oil up & wear a torn black muscle shirt when he plays, in spite of my incessant begging), and to dance off some thigh poundage. Vermillion has an odd and wonderful cast of characters, and the oddest among us (myself and practically everyone I know included) come crawling out of the crevices when the band plays. It’s a musical tribal gathering of friends, relatives, enemies, secret lovers, exes, and a small contingent of folks who are mentally floating away from the rest of us, though we try to hold on. Millie had a prefunct (a function before a function) with wine/whine & cheese, then we headed downtown to the bar. Mom showed up, Millie danced in spite of her soon-to-be-replaced knee, Janine said she was only staying an hour then danced all night long, the Wild Girls put the Shindig dancers to shame, and Glenda and I got to sit in and be band chicks on a few songs. And although I adore these occasions, my recovery time from a late night out is getting longer and longer and longer…

Speaking of wild things, our first garden here, which went unplanted last year and was quickly overrun with sunflowers, is lush. We’ve picked asparagus, tomatoes, cukes, dill, four kinds of peppers, fennel, and basil. I’m making kosher dills today (what’s that slice of rye bread in the jar for??), and sometime this week I’ll freeze as much pesto—food of the garden gods—as I can manage. Tomatoes were once called “love apples”; they were also once believed to be poisonous. Anyone who’s had trouble ending a bad relationship can readily see how the two might be connected.

Speaking of endings, we’re back to the melancholy of summer’s farewell. I didn’t get to a number of things on my summer to-do list, like mulching trails out to the meditation tower, rigging up rain barrels, or finding the actual yellow brick road (more a path, really) that someone who knows the house swears is overgrown but still out in the woods on the north side of the property. If the cicadas are telling the truth, a hard freeze is due mid-September. If they’re lying, I’ll try to get to some of these projects before winter—I figure we could all use a little more yellow brick road.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Hackers really raise my hackles...

This is what a squashed slug I am on the information superhighway. Every year or two I go to Aberdeen, SD to visit a poet friend and do a poetry reading & student workshop. I usually go in March, but this year, hoping to avoid the usual freak blizzard that hits while I’m there, I went in April. Of course, a freak blizzard hit just as I was finishing the reading. The highway east to I-29 was snowed in, and I-29 from the there to just south of Watertown was closed—a rarity, since we hearty South Dakotans will drive 75 on a iced-over deer trail. I thought, cool, I can get some grading done & catch up on my email.

Imagine my chagrin when I tried to log into my Hotmail account and was locked out. I spent the next two days stuck in an Aberdeen motel room (my friend was buried in Comp papers with a grade deadline fast approaching) with bad motel coffee and a huge bag of Cheetos, waiting for the Interstate to re-open and embroiled in non-stop email correspondence with Hotmail “security specialists.” Turns out my account had been hacked, my saved mail was gone, and Hotmail now identified me as Mu Sen Peng. Even the treacherous bobsled drive home was more fun than divulging my bra cup size, the girth of my thighs, and the pattern of freckles on my right elbow in order to get that Hotmail account restored. Good times in Aberdeen.

Then yesterday, when I tried to log into my Ebay account to replace my cracked Birkies, I was locked out. More non-stop correspondence, both by email and phone, revealed that back in April when Mu Sen hacked my account (from Portugal), her/his nefarious purpose was to hack into my Ebay account, where she/he had been selling Samsung TV’s and sticking me with the fees.

Mu Sen’s on her/his own now. I’ve bagged the Hotmail account, I’ve been reimbursed for the fees, and I’ve decided to keep Mu Sen’s name (technically mine now, since it’s on my account) as a nom de plume for anything I write that borders on lascivious or cheesy.

My brother, the network guy who’s constantly warning me about on-line security, is probably having a good yuk. I don’t have time to worry about his gloating, though; Mu Sen Peng is hard at work on a book of ebonic limericks based on the bodily functions of a 13-year-old videogame junkie boy named Fester. The book will have a well-publicized launch in Portugal, then keep an eye on the NY Times best-seller list...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mythbustin' Midwesterners

Imagine a head-on collision of Wild Kingdom, the Three Stooges, Meet the Press, and Ted Mac’s Amateur Hour. That’s my family. I always thought of my upbringing as perfectly normal until, as a young adult in the age of Homage to Dysfuntion, I realized how extraordinary my family was. Now, of course, I know there are no normal families. So when folks not familiar with the region muse that Midwesterners are all Leave-It-To-Beaver milktoast, I say, oh contrare.

My family, for example, is a bohemian blend of Bohemians—Czech on Dad’s side, English and French on Mom’s. Mom grew up in Omaha, where she worked as a medical assistant for my doctor-uncle for 35 years and, divorced when her youngest kid was five, raised us pretty much single-handedly, often while holding down an additional part-time job or two. She’s in her early 70’s now and lives in Vermillion, where her newest passion is performing at—and winning—poetry slam competitions.

My brothers and I grew up in a 17-room house (a family home that had been my great-great and my great-grandparents’ hotel) in Omaha, with Mom and our stay-at-home grandma—the aforementioned Presbyterian Pragmatist. In the pre-seatbelt days, Mom kept us from pummeling each other on car trips by forcing us to sing “White Coral Bells” and “All Things Shall Perish” in rounds. To this day, whenever I get in a moving vehicle, I break into song.

My oldest brother is the family’s suave intellectual, tanned South American Host-with-the-Most, and professed atheist (delightful fodder for lively family debates, which we all adore). He lives in Central America, where he’s a web editor and climbs trees with his cat (pictured, no small feat at 6’5” and 54 years old). He’s a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, plays guitar and sings in an acoustic duo (pictured), and he’s fairly blas√© about jetting off to meetings in Ireland, Paris, Ecuador, etc. We don’t get to see him enough.

At 52, I’m the tree-hugging, tofu-eating panentheist of the bunch (pictured contemplating the nitrogen needs of timothy grass). I teach composition, literature, and creative writing to college undergrads. I’m quadrilingual—I can say “Hey baby, give me a kiss” in Czech, “We’re Americans and we want to dance” in Russian, and “Louise has a little cold” in Spanish. I herd peacocks. I’m a partner in a small business that makes anatomical jewelry – and our stuff has been given away as prizes on Public Radio’s What’D’Ya Know show and made the brunt of jokes on The Tonight Show. I write poetry, I played rhythm guitar in a folksy rock band for a decade, and I sometimes get to be the chick singer in Ray’s band (Ray’s a brilliant drummer).

My younger brother (no pics...privacy concerns) is 50 this year and the most conservative (fiscally, at least) of the bunch. We call him the family Republican, but in spite of cracks about Hillary’s bluster or Daschle’s hair, we're pretty sure he secretly votes Dem. He's an ace network specialist. He’s also the family’s computer geek and financial go-to guy, which we desperately need, since most of us are completely flaky about such things. He would do absolutely anything for family, and he’s one of those guys who really does know something about everything, compared to the rest of us, who just talk like we do. He played in a band for a while, too.

My youngest brother is the sensitive, suffering artist of the family – – living in Texas. He’s 45, has a couple of art degrees, and teaches college art classes. Peace & contentment give him the heebie-jeebies, he loves stirring up family chatter by sending cryptic emails, and he’s an extremely gifted & generous artist who makes his own and commissioned art (check the picture of him under his park gateway - those are pottery & copper birdhouses on top of the cement posts, the arch is iron). He’s currently teaching himself banjo and guitar.

Everybody knows milktoast is only good if you’re recovering from flu. Instead, toss jungle vines, granola, a safety deposit box, books of poems, a crossbow, broken guitar strings and a box of crayons in a pot, and you'll get our hearty family stew. And hey, a little grit in the stew makes for a strong constitution.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Grain Shed Conspiracies

I know this is Animal Farm. I know the barn cats, mice, possum, and possibly a couple of raccoons have meetings and play cards in the grain shed at night. I swear I’ve heard a gavel banging, bottle caps opening, and a smoker’s hack out there. The pigeons keep watch. I fear they’re just about ready for the takeover.

The booming peacock population is no doubt part of the plan. By meddling with Nature’s cruel but crucial balance, I’ve pushed our flock from eight to fifteen. There’s Francoise & Mitzi with two chicks, Ramon & Wanda with four, Junior & Debbie with one, and the yearlings, Ike & Tina (Ike’s in the picture, sunning himself near the greenhouse windows). If one calculates the future growth potential, man…I gotta stop feeding the peacocks.

Ray saw Snowball (all-white barn cat) Wednesday, sneaking around by the garden. We hadn’t seen her lately. Then yesterday, we met Snowflake in the loafing shed. She’s an all-white kitten, maybe 6-8 weeks old, extremely thin and a bit wobbly. She dashed back into the pyramid shed (where the cats live) when she saw us. Haven’t seen the black tom for a week or so. Feeding the cats hasn’t affected the cat population, but it’s only a matter of time before Snowball spreads the word to neighbor cats about the late-night conclaves and the free Wal-Mart chow.

It was in the 90’s yesterday. I weeded the garden and picked cukes, our first ripe tomatoes, and jalapenos before it got too hot and sticky to work. Went to town to work at school for a bit and visit Mom. She was supposed to have surgery Tuesday and has been a wreck anticipating it, then it was cancelled on Monday due to “misplaced” medical records and a possible EKG glitch. So now she has to see a cardiologist and start the whole pre-surgical anxiety train going again. She just moved up here last year from Omaha, and while I know lost records happen everywhere, blunders like this surely fuel the South Dakota “bumpkin” rep.

Hauled out the baby pool for Yogi in the afternoon, slave that I am. It took him 30 seconds to learn to jump in and out, then he was in in in. He walked obsessively in a circle, blowing bubbles through his nose, then sticking his face under to try and catch the bubbles, which meant blowing more bubbles, etc. He also found a rabbit nest in the garden. A baby bunny peeked out, which gave him something new to obsess over. I’d like to think we’re all living in perfect harmony here, but in truth, the bunny was probably filling Yogi in on Uncannery Row’s animal hierarchy (we’re at the bottom, obviously) and future mandatory grain shed meetings…