Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Considerations

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I figure life doles out plenty of challenges for each of us without having to heap disappointment on ourselves. And hey, if you don’t MAKE them, you can’t BREAK them, right? But I will keep in mind a few New Year’s Considerations this year…

1. I might try to lose more weight this year. I’ve been on every diet known to the modern world: grapefruit, cabbage soup, South Beach, Atkins, pictures of yourself in a bikini at 16 on the fridge (really more torture than diet), Fit for Life, Pritikin, Christmas Cookie (a recent diet invention of my own), macrobiotic, probiotic, Korean rice, soybean sprouts & hot bean paste, wine & cheese (another original), and many more. I’m now on my second go-round with Weight Watchers, which is really just group therapy for folks who, after years of vehemently defending the “big boned,” “slow metabolism,” or “laying on of fat is a geographical survival adaptation of northern climate female populations” defenses, have finally had to suck it up and admit they need to eat fewer calories than they burn.

2. It’s possible I could recycle more, turn the compost, eat more locally grown foods, set up rain barrels, drive less, investigate grey water recycling, figure out one new way to cook tofu, consume less, and reduce my carbon footprint. I’d like to convert my car to burn discarded cooking oil, but I’m afraid the french-fry smell would attract teenagers. I’ll try doing these things not because Al Gore says so or because cute polar bears are stuck on ice floes, but because it’s the right thing to do, dangit.

3. I might try to move a little more this year. I have a deep-seated and probably pathological aversion to the E word…the Total Gym, Sweatin’ to the Oldies, no-pain-no-gain word. Still, I may swim a bit so I can have a sauna afterward, I may briskly walk down the road to visit the neighbor’s horses with apples, I will definitely dance like a fool tonight when Ray’s band plays, and I may gyrate along with a “Bellydancing 101” DVD when no one’s around. But I’ll be doing these things because I feel like it, not because they’re…you know…the E word…

4. I’ll try to remember, in spite of a long, proud, and sometimes amusing family history of verbal sparring & heated debate, that sarcasm is NOT humor, and I may work at curbing my evil sarcastic tongue.

5. I might try harder to give more and take less, knowing how wealthy I am in all the ways that count.

6. I will try to get Stella, my African Grey parrot, to say something witty and profound. Her current favorites (which she repeats ad nauseum until she has new favorites) are: a one-sided phone conversation complete with dialing beeps, laughs, perfectly inflected but muffled conversation, and a hang-up beep; a small puppy whine (her newest); a large dog barking at a distance; the sound of tapping on the side of a coffee grinder; her favorite request, “Want some pasta?”; and a tuberculin cough that sometimes turns into a coughing jag lasting several minutes (she picked this up when Ray had a cold a couple years back).

7. Maybe I’ll give meditation another serious go believing, as I do, that it’s THE key to direct experience of the Divine, whatever that turns out to be. I think somewhere in the Bible (and the Koran, Talmud, Pali canon, and every other sacred text) it says, “Thou shalt shut up and let Me get a word in edgewise.”

8. I could try to knit a sweater. A whole sweater. I have several half-sweaters, a back and one sleeve, say, or a front and a hood, in a Rubbermaid tub. I consider these “done” and am just waiting for the right person to whom I can give them.

9. If I get the chance, I’ll remind my grown children that when they lived at home, their clean clothes were always folded, not balled up on the living room floor where they ended up as dog beds, cat toys, or foot paths. I may explain to them, again, that clean dishes are one of life’s little luxuries, and that having a full-time job with health insurance does not make one a “flunkie sell-out patsy for the Man.”

10. I might make every effort to be kinder and more universally compassionate, open-minded, honest, and spiritually centered. I may try each day to do the RIGHT THING (in spite of constant human bickering, we all know what the RIGHT THING is).

So I’ll give each of these considerations some serious…considering. After all, tomorrow—January 1, 2009—is the first day of the rest of…well…2009. Then again, I may spend the year snarling, pouting, lazing in a lawn chair, and eating chocolate oranges. We’ll see.

Monday, December 29, 2008

You look smashing in your John Wayne pajama pants...

I haven’t had time yet to indulge in the post-holiday blahs. Semester grades were due last night at midnight, and I finished my 48-hour grading marathon at 10 p.m. It’s pure procrastination, of which I am the reigning Queen.

So this morning, in order to work out the “teacher’s neck” from hunching over my pile of portfolios for two days, I went out and wandered the yard. Ray had alerted me early this morning to a downed peacock on the road. It was one of the ABBA quads, a male. He had gone to that Great Roost in the Ether. I didn’t see any obvious signs of trauma, so I’m assuming this is the boy who’s been moping around since Christmas, apparently ill. I scooped him off the road, said good-bye, and left him as a tribute meal for the coyote Ray saw dart across the mile road last Friday. Corn-fed peacock. I noticed this morning that the other ABBA boy is lame, one foot curled under, forcing him to limp along on the back of the foot. Frostbite? Varmint bite? Battle wound? Two decades of inbreeding? Whatever the problem, injury, disease, or tired genes, he managed to make his way into the yard for corn and bird seed this morning, and the rest of the flock seems very patient with him.

The baby possum Ray found hunkered down in the loafing shed yesterday morning is gone, although I saw Shadow, the black barn cat, working intently on something near the shed yesterday afternoon. I haven’t seen Snowball, the white cat, for days, but the cat food in the pyramid shed keeps disappearing.

Jack Blizzard can drive even the most passive among us to hunt, I guess. Which reminds me, I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses) The Road. It reminded me of my favorite American novelist, my buddy Bill Faulkner—the writer we love to hate—in terms of intensity and poetic rhythm of language. It occurs to me that the current and future generations not only won’t CHOOSE to read Faulkner, they won’t have the vocabulary for it. Sad. The Road is a beautifully written post-apocalyptic survival (or not) story, which I recommend without reservation, but don’t read it before bed if you’re hoping for fluffy, happy dreams.

Christmas was wonderful. After a flurry of last-minute arranging, Ray’s family was able to come for dinner on Christmas Eve. His oldest son was here from the Cities, so it was a warm surprise to have the family together (and his niece gave me the highly-coveted Kopi Luwak coffee beans). On Christmas Day, we had a smallish gathering at Mom’s, just Mom, Ray, the kids, and the dogs. There was no Jell-O salad (although Mom snuck her ubiquitous redhot candies onto the otherwise perfect sugar cookies), Mom made every kind of comfort food imaginable, and we played Catch Phrase, men against women. The women rocked. Mom has a tradition of getting all the men in the family identical gifts, and this year it was flannel John Wayne cowboy pajama pants. I suggested they all model the pants for a holiday picture, but no dice. Ray got me the perfect present--a Nintendo DS--my new procrastination tool.

Today, the sun is shining, it’s 30+ degrees, and Mom and I are going to ward off the blahs (and my urge to weep over the dead pea-boy) with shoe shopping in the City. There’s nothing like a new pair of shoes to shuffle out from under Jack’s heavy hand.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The REAL Christmas Miracles

Tiny Tim finally getting the help he needs…ha! Even Scrooge’s melting heart is nada y pues nada compared to the miracles we’ve seen in this season of…well…miraculous stuff.

1. After a post-op infection and/or botched procedure and/or hitherto unknown secondary condition leading to a perforated bowel, our friend was rushed to the VA hospital and spent the next many, many weeks in a drug-induced coma, teetering on the proverbial edge. That he came out of it is miraculous enough. That he came out of it with his humor & compassion intact, and that he’s now gadding about town delivering his homemade fruitcakes is almost enough to get me to church.

2. There will be no Jell-O desserts at our Christmas dinner this year. My mom calls these “salads,” but c’mon—nothing made with Jell-O should ever be called salad. There isn’t even a meal category appropriate for things made with Jell-O or its predecessor, aspic. It’s a miracle anyone my age survived childhood, with its obligatory “salad” squares of grated carrot and/or crushed pineapple suspended in lemon Jell-O, like bizarre Jurassic fossils-in-amber wedges.

3. I mentioned this in an earlier post, but it bears repeating. Our friend, on a routine checkup at Mayo, learned there were two healthy lungs available, had a transplant the next day, and is now happily getting to know her new Self.

4. My youngest son who, at 21, only has 4 more years until he has a fully-formed brain capable of long-term consequential thinking, offered—actually offered well before I made any shrieking demands—to pay his own cell phone bill from now on. That doesn't mean he'll pay it, but I consider the offer a hopeful sign of progress.

5. Another woman we know, a woman who has lullabyed folks in these parts with her beautiful singing over the years at folk fests and holiday concerts, went into remission from Stage 4 lung cancer.

6. NPR did a story on Kopi Luwak coffee. Apparently, cat-like civets in Indonesia eat coffee cherries. The cherries are digested, but the beans pass through the civet system unharmed, although the coffee’s bitter oils are broken down in the digestive process. The Kopi Luwak “farmers” wander through the forest collecting civet scat, which contains the coffee beans, which are cleaned, roasted, and sold. It’s supposed to be the smoothest, most distinctive coffee in the world, selling for up to $1000 per kilo. And I got some for Christmas. I brewed it immediately, and it does have a very unique smoky flavor. This gift represents a miraculous and essential leap in my java apprenticeship.

7. I finished my Christmas knitting. Three pairs of arm warmers, felted coasters, small alpaca drawstring satchels, and many goofy winter hats. My youngest son (pictured) laid claim to an experimental hood/hat I had just finished, because he thought it would be cool to wear at the skateboard park (see #4 re: brain formation).

8. We don’t have to drive out of town for Christmas. Because Mom moved to Vermillion, we only have to go a few miles. You’ll recall I LOVE road trips, but it’s December…in the Midwest. Over the years of annual holiday treks to Omaha, I’ve been stuck in a blizzard in Sioux City for Christmas; I’ve careened on black ice & shot down a ravine, through a fence and into a tree, with two adults, three kids, and a parrot in the car; I’ve sweated bullets worrying over kids driving in on snow & ice from wherever they were living at the time; and I’ve broken down on I-29 in the middle of a long nowhere stretch, in subzero winds, more times than I care to count.

So today, Christmas, I’ll be at Mom’s in record time. I will offer a silent prayer of gratitude to the Universe—for the wonders listed here and for the miracles of family, peace, the amazing possibilities of a new year, and for the brave soul who accidentally spills the Jell-O salad on the floor, right where the dogs happen to be watching & waiting.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The county plow guy finally went down the road yesterday morning around 10. Ray had been shoveling and snow-blowing drifts in the driveway for a couple hours when, in an amazing gesture of holiday generosity, the plow guy came back and scooped all the way down the driveway. I felt like crying. But instead, I got out of here as fast as I could and went shopping. Civilization. Whew. Ray doesn’t know how close he came to being forced to make flour & salt dough ornamental knitting needle toppers...I was seriously stir-crazy.

So today, with my winter demons released, I’d like to get some writing done. I write mostly poetry because there’s still something mysterious and inexpressible and (because I share the masochism of the sporadically insecure) painful about the process of writing poems. And I can flog myself even more knowing that 9.9 people out of 10 (that poor .9 guy) won’t ever read a poem that isn’t funny, filthy, or rhymey. But I haven’t finished a poem since I published a book in November, and I’m feeling sluggish, bloated, lazy. I’d rather bake something.

I write other stuff, too. I thought in this season of overeating I’d use my favorite metaphor—food—to explain how I think about different kinds of writing.

Blogging is like a Butterfinger (chilled, not frozen). It’s pure pleasure, a secret indulgence you really shouldn’t overdo. It’s sweet, chocolaty & peanut-buttery, and has virtually no nutritional value except the gazillion calories that migrate instantly to your thighs.

Letter-writing is like penuche. Penuche-making is a dying art that was once practiced regularly, especially at holidays. It takes a little time, patience, and a Martha Stewart candy thermometer. Not much nutrition here either, but it doesn’t matter, since penuche is a labor of love meant to be given away.

Short story writing is like biscuits & gravy. Roll up your sleeves. You need some muscle to knead the dough, and the process can really mess up your kitchen. It isn’t complicated, but without the right ingredients in the proper proportions, you’ll have flat, rock-hard biscuits and lumpy gravy that no one will touch. There’s some nutritional value, maybe a few carbs for energy and some protein in the gravy to keep you digesting for a while.

Poetry is a delicacy, petit foie gras in saffron truffle sauce, made from the rarest, finest, freshest ingredients, rooted out by pigs named Sarah or Maude, and gathered by hand in the most unexpected and unadulterated places on earth (or elsewhere). These ingredients have little-known and poorly-understood nutritional, medicinal, maybe even metaphysical properties that somehow feed the body and support the spirit. But this stuff is labor-intensive. Boy howdy, you’d better have an apron on, and you can plan on spending many long hours tethered to the stove, sweating like a racehorse. And when, after starting, stirring, feeding the concoction to the dogs, then starting over again you finally get it right, you’re still not done. You have to make it LOOK good, perfectly elegant and effortless, a Monet en plat. This stuff can make you laugh & cry if it all comes together in the kitchen, and its serving presentation can make grown men run for the coat room to weep in secret.

Today we’re supposed to have a bonafide warmup, with temps in the 10-15 above range. The peacocks will come down from the rafters and forage in the snow, the dogs will want to stay out longer and play, and the barn cats will head to the grain shed for a hand or two of poker with the mice. Still, any delicacy worth gathering is buried deep under Jack Blizzard’s frozen feet, so I’ll whip up some cinnamon scones topped, of course, with crushed Butterfingers. I owe my Aunt Daisy a letter…

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow blind & stir crazy...

The high today was -3 degrees, with wind chills about -30-35. We went out Friday night to hear friends play in the annual Acoustic Christmas concert in Sioux Falls, and by Saturday morning we were snowed in.

We haven’t had that much snow, maybe 6-10”, but the relentless winds have blown a cornfield full of the white stuff onto our road and into the yard. Our long driveway and the 1/8-mile of road immediately at the end of the drive, going in both directions from the mailbox, are now an amazing landscape of hills, valleys, and incredible cutaways, with drifts 3-4’ high in diagonals that cut across the road. It’s too much snow to move with the snow blower, and the county plow, usually very prompt, still hasn’t come down our road since this all started last Thursday. The peacocks are tucked up on rafters in the loafing shed, and even the dogs won’t stay out for more than a minute or two.

From my back porch, I can see traffic moving steadily on I-29, increasing my yearning for a passable way out. Not that I want to leave, just that I want to be able to leave. There’s something about being stuck that makes one want to go. And I don’t care how many square feet you have, how in love you are…when you’re snowed in with another human, 2 dogs, 2 parrots, no chocolate, and the best thing on TV is a 1980’s David Bowie vampire movie, it can get ugly fast.

So I’ve kept busy wrapping presents, baking cookies, experimenting with Japanese noodles and bean sprouts, cleaning parrot cages, putting glittery touches on last-minute homemade gifts, and knitting 3 pairs of arm warmers. And we won’t get out tomorrow morning, either, without a Christmas miracle snow plow during the night.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a high of 3 above—a heat wave—and I’ll try a new butterscotch scone recipe. I’ll stay cozy, look out longingly at the Interstate traffic, and wait patiently for the plow. Unless the coffee runs low. Then, drifts or no, I’ll layer on the longies, snowsuit, parka, Uggs, six hats, a scarf and leather work gloves, and I’ll walk to town.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Look Who's Looking...

I’m all for overturning the Patriot Act. Weighing the potential useful information Big Brother might get from eavesdropping on Joe Schmoe’s phone calls to Aunt Rhoda or LuLu Librarian’s Internet dating progress, against Americans’ rights to speak, write, worship, talk, correspond, and assemble, & gripe freely & unmonitored, I’ll take freedom. I heard that’s what America is supposed to be all about—freedom—although I’m not naïve enough to believe this is as true in practice as it might be in principle.

But this IS true: People DIE on the prairie in weather like we’re having today, and Big Brother can sometimes be the only savior.

Yesterday, it was in the upper 30’s and Ray, Mom and I fought city traffic in search of last-minute holiday bargains. Today, the wind chill is -20, and a steady haze of snows blows in from the corn field to the west, on a north wind that could peel away your skin in no time. The peacocks are huddled in the loafing shed rafters, as close as they can get to the brooder lamp without setting feathers aflame. There is no figuring the sudden shift, short of the plains waking up in a seriously foul mood.

Our nature here is to slip into that same bad temper and complain about the weather, and I do. But I also appreciate the raw power of the north wind to strip the linden pods in a shower of thready black, and the willingness of barn cats to tolerate my presence if it means Wal-Mart cat food on a makeshift ledge, out of the icy blast.

I’m not sure folks from more temperate climates really get the gravity of inside/outside. Days like this can make going outside, even a simple trip to town for groceries, unbearable. And if you get to town, the truck with all that glorious California (or Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, etc.) produce may have stalled out near Kadoka, or Bessie may have frozen to a fencepost overnight. So most of us stay inside, happy enough with a hearty “freezer stew” and powdered milk.

I remember a couple winters ago, a woman traveling alone on South Dakota highways got caught in a blizzard. She was missing for 2 or 3 days, her car buried somewhere in a drift. They finally found her, alive, by homing in on her cell phone. So when Jack Blizzard unleashes his shenanigans in the Heartland, I try to curb my railing against Big Brother’s constant nosing into my business, because given a choice between BB’s buttinsky meddling, and having someone find a Marlene-sicle on a gravel road near Irene, I’m glad to be trackable.

So if you have to venture out and Jack’s afoot, remember to wear clean underwear in case you high-center on a snowbank in the hinderland. But pay a little attention, too, to your hair & makeup—you’ll wanna look your best in the satellite video, which will most likely be on YouTube by midweek, doctored to look like you’re lip-syncing “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Suddenly, Seasonal Spirit

I have been moved to new heights of gaudiness by this holiday season and by my stubborn procrastination.

A little background. Near the neighborhood in Omaha where I grew up, there was a restaurant called “Mr. C’s,” known far & wide for excellent, authentic Italian food and stunning décor. And by stunning, I don’t mean gorgeous. Mr. C’s was surrounded by a brick half-wall with wrought iron grating at the top. The entire perimeter wall/fence was covered with a gazillion twinkling lights, and inside the restaurant, diners were surrounded by lights, vining plastic grapes, odd statuary, and gilt-framed Old-World prints of gaunt, rail-thin saints, staring at us all droopy-eyed while we fine-tuned our gluttony. Anyway, in our family, Mr. C’s became synonymous with near-criminal decorative overkill.

So last weekend, with a huge stack of research and literary analysis papers taunting me from the dining room table, I decided it was absolutely imperative that I put off grading and decorate for the holidays immediately. Ray got in the spirit, too, and by nightfall, our country home was totally, unabashedly, Mr. C’d.

We swapped our full-size fake tree for a table-top version this year in the interest of puppy-proofing, but you’d be amazed how many decorations, strings of lights (all on twice-a-day timers), candles, ceramic angel choirs, Mary statues, nativities, and pottery bowls of potpourri one can fit in a four-square farmhouse, all above waist level. Now imagine you knew our home was already full of little stone pyramids, alabaster buddhas, Tibetan singing bowls, brass bells, crystals strung on ribbon in every window, urns full of peacock feathers, and you’ll start to get a picture of the sheer museum-storehouse clutter of eclecticism that is our holiday home. Festive, I tell you. Add Ray’s Christmas mix tunes wafting from our many, many, many speakers, and it is freakishly festive.

I’m finally working my way through the paper stack, but at least now I can happily grade with the soft glow of blue twinkling LED lights reflecting off the sentence fragments, shifting verb tenses, comma splices, and misplaced modifiers. So I take it all back, Mr. C. Thank you, and happy holidays.