Thursday, December 31, 2009

Jack Blizzard Kicks Some Prairie Butt

Jack Blizzard was feeling petulant, so like a naughty teenager, he had a spiteful tantrum. Starting just before Christmas Eve, Jack dumped enough snow on us to effectively postpone Christmas. We’re hearty prairie people, and 20” of snow usually wouldn’t even slow us down, but Jack enlisted his peeps the North Wind and Bare Fields, so it wasn’t just one surly teen—it was a nasty weather gang, and there IS power in numbers.

We ended up snowed in for four days. At one point, Ray got out the Big Blower, and as Jack snickered from behind a spired drift, Ray carved a wee path round about the farmyard. So the dogs could get a run, and I could trek to the loafing shed to feed the peacocks, who were huddled in the rafters near the brooder lamp. But even the Big Blower cowered at the folly of trying to dig out our driveway, buried under one long 7’ drift. Our power blinked out a couple of times but stayed on, although our Internet was kaput for five days. I-29, which we can see from our back yard, was closed down for two days, and with no traffic and a hefty cushion of snow as far as the eye could see, it was eerily quiet, as well.

This was my first ever—I’m talking over 50 years—quiet Christmas, sans the chaos of a houseful of family & friends. It was like Little House on the Prairie, if the Ing
alls had Dish network, an electric stove, and hot running water. Days one and two were delightfully peaceful; after the stress of a brutal semester and the crunch of getting grades calculated and submitted on time, the down time was a little slice of heaven. Santa came in spite of Jack, bringing Ray a make-it-yourself djembe drum kit, and dropping off a make-it-yourself winemaking kit for me—things to keep us busy, to keep us from strangling each other. Smart Santa.

Moving into day three I discovered there are only so many B movies you can watch (Fido, Tremors III, A Plumm Summer, etc.), only so many empty carbs you can eat, only so much knitting you can do, before you devolve into a whiny puffball of self-pity. I spent most of day four pasted to the greenhouse windows, feeling for vibrations that would
signal a county plow, and praying for mercy, because once the road was clear, Mini Pearl, our trusty minivan, still wouldn’t make it through the 100’-long snow sculpture Jack left in our driveway.

The county plow came finally on Sunday, and that night a kindly neighbor showed up with a tractor to dig us out. We literally ran to his tractor with all the cash in the house plus two jars of homemade jam. We finally made it to Mom’s on Monday to have Christmas with Mom and the two kids who could get there. Tonight
we have overnight guests coming and three parties to drop in on, and Ray’s band is playing in Little Town, so there will be dancing & merriment galore in celebration of the New Year. Ray and I will also be celebrating the gift of our first Christmas alone together, the lesson in just how much togetherness we can stand, and the amazing generosity of our little rural community.

All snow from here on out will be mere pittance. I will scoff when relatives talk about their 5” dusting of snow. And as tough as I think we plains folk are, I gotta give props to Jack: his Christmas blizzard of ought-nine kicked our hearty prairie arses. But only momentarily.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Proper Perspective

Until recently, I had been obsessing over things that seemed, at the time, vitally important to me...

-- Like why a painter boldly asks $4000 for a painting, while a poet, whose book may represent months or years of sweat, struggle and precision, for whom each poem is a carefully-constructed word painting, feels sheepish asking $10.
-- Like whether the inventor of “Chia Obama” truly considers her/his creation a “tribute to America” as the commercial suggests.
-- Like where I’ll find the time to grade 3 stacks of papers, write 2 exams, conduct 2 productive revision workshops, and evaluate 16 research projects.
-- Like whether to paint my living room/dining room buttercup or sandstone.
-- Like the perfect proportions of French onion soup and glazed apricots in which to stew a pot roast.

Then, something miraculous happened. As is her wont, the Universe gave me two swift kicks in the arse (because one is never quite enough) to realign my priorities.

First, She delivered mo
st of our two families safely to South Dakota for Thanksgiving. Ray and I got together at his oldest sister’s with both of his sisters, their spouses, his nephew, niece, and niece’s spouse equivalent for a lovely, warm, evening of stories, laughter, amazing food, and excellent company. Then the next night, Ray, Mom, all three of my brothers, two of our four children, various spouse-equivalents, nieces and nephews, friends, and a pack of doggie cousins, all converged at the Row for a potluck that would have made Martha Stewart prison-green with envy. I was especially thankful my brother and nephew hadn't brought the Nerf rifles (we're still finding Nerf darts in unexpected places, from last year). And the next night, both families gathered at the bar in Little Town for a night of joyous music provided by Ray’s band, and some incredible interpretive dance (including my little brother’s agile PeeWee Stomp).

Next (and this was the BIG kick), the Universe let me witness the birth of my daughter’s first baby. She gently walked my daughter through a brief, routine, drug-free labor & delivery—not quite like going off into the trees to drop the baby out, but pert near. She gave my daughter a patient man as in love with the baby as she is. New babies are always miraculous…nay, stupefying. But I was right there for this one, mere inches away, when the new little human literally popped out. And Mom was there, too--we had four generations of sturdy determination at work in the room. In the face of that feat of human endurance, that sheer will to life, that instant of pure radiant love when my daughter first held her son, everything else fell away in utter insignificance. There IS nothing else.

So, thanks to the Universe and Her perfect order, I am calm and grateful again. I have put things back in their proper perspective, at least for now. I will sit this evening and finish knitting a baby sweater without so much as a twinge of paper-grading remorse. I will stare out the greenhouse windows at the eight spring peachicks who, despite the odds, are now full-grown. I will buy a Chia Obama. I will keep toiling over poems because poetry is beautiful and graceful and because, as Native Americans once believed, words have the power to make things happen. I will leave my walls ecru. And, when I start to slip back into my obsessions with trivia, I will pause and recall the perfect wisdom of the human body, the unstoppable creative power of love, and the jaw-dropping, indescribable spectacle of a brand new human being emerging into the world.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Letter to My Children

Dear Collective Child,

I was a pretty intense parent, I know that. I took the job seriously (maybe too seriously at times from your perspective). And I know that you and I have different language to express my parenting style: You say strict, I say attentive; you say enabler, I say unfailingly supportive; you say nosy, I say involved; you say unreasonable, I say wise. But let's not quibble over semantics.

I know, too, that some of you (maybe all of you at one time or another) think that parenting has been nothing but misery, trouble, and heartache for me. There were times…plenty of times…when it was all of the above. I cried more than you know. I felt like giving up sometimes. And hard work? Seriously, birthing you—breeched, too early, really late—was a day at the beach compared to raising you.

But I digress. Here’s what I want you to know. I would absolutely do it all again in a heartbeat.

All the mistakes you fret over, feel guilty about, regret—they’re now some of the best stories in the Big Book of my life...
  • Like the time you locked yourself in the trophy case in the high school hallway.
  • Like the time I had to pick you up at the senior dance, where I found you half-crocked, in the principal’s face, debating the unreliability and inadequate testing of the school’s new breathalyzer.
  • Like the times we had to rendezvous in restaurant parking lots, like kidnappers, to pick you up from the other parent.
  • Like the time you were arrested. Or that other time you were arrested. Or that one other time. Or those other two times.
  • Like the time they took you to jail at 3 a.m. for “operating a suspicious skateboard.”
  • Like the time I had to haul you out of some boy’s house at 1 a.m.
  • Like the time when you were 4 and you called the neighbor boy “asshole” with his mother standing in our living room.
  • Like the time you hid behind a chair and cut all your sister’s hair off.
  • Like the time you called from Boulder to say you were living in your car. In January.
  • Like the time I had to help you move and clean up a trashed bachelor[ette] pad. Or the other time. Or the two other times.
And though you sometimes think I regret all the money/time/energy/sleepless nights I’ve spent hauling you around, defending you to teachers & principals, getting you out of jams, crying, worrying, apologizing to other kids’ parents, I want you to know I seldom think about any of that today.

THIS is what I think about, and I think about it EVERY day: How incredibly grateful, proud, full of love, amazed & in awe I am to witness the generous, intelligent, independent, compassionate, fiercely loyal, creative, gentle people you’ve all become.

You are all angels to me, though definately not the fluffy, wish-granting, TV sitcom kind. You are the fierce, unfathomable creatures of wisdom & light kind. So this Thanksgiving, the thing I am MOST thankful for is that in the cosmic, universal scheme of parents & children, we chose each other.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

End of the Semester Slide

About this time in the semester—only two or three weeks to go—I turn into Gollum. I’ve been cloistered in an office, either at home or at school, grading papers pretty much non-stop. My skin is hanging in dehydrated bags and has paled to a milky-grey, my eyes are bugged out, only the muscles in my pen hand are still functioning, and I’m referring to myself in the third-person: “Shall we make a fourth pot of Italian roast, Precious? Those crème brule truffles will keeps us awake, darling.”

By 3 a.m., the comments I make on essays have gone from “I love the way you relate the story’s setting to its exploration of existential angst,” to “No clear connection between this paragraph and your thesis idea” to “verb tenses shift here” to “nice font” to “your paper is a rectangle.” In those wee hours, I can hear my synapses crackling as they sizzle and burst into flame.

In addition to my typical end-of-semester anxiety over the whole idea of judgment (grading), I’m also battling guilt over all that goes undone while I’m sequestered—laundry, dusting, Thanksgiving dinner prep (we’re having 15 for dinner at the Row this year), Christmas decorating, knitting & shopping, a holiday letter, attention to spouse, children, friends, parrots, dogs and peacocks, and my own writing. Imagine June Cleaver (picture Gollum in an apron) at the dining room table, dustballs drifting in the drape-filtered light, s/he’s strung out on coffee, doing Beaver’s and Wally’s homework day & night, with nary a pot roast or game hen in the oven for Ward—that’s me.

This weekend, I have 2 stacks of revised essays and 3 stacks of quizzes to grade, 2 stacks of first drafts to comment on, 2 extremely late papers to comment on (what WAS that assignment again?), 2 databases to retrieve student information from for scoring, and woefully behind gradebooks to update.

So how will I spend this gorgeous November day? Maybe I’ll clean parrot cages while Ray hauls up the Christmas stuff from the basement. Maybe I’ll put up the tree, lights and decorations, so the family (most of whom won’t make it back to SD for Christmas), can share in the cheer. Maybe I’ll blog. Maybe I’ll venture outside into the sunlight (with dark glasses, skin slathered in SPF 150), to see if the world’s still turning. Maybe I’ll bake some ginger cookies. Maybe I’ll rearrange my stacks of papers, sorting them numerically by student ID #. Maybe I’ll dust. Maybe I’ll practice my gee-tar.

At least we’s got our priorities, straight. Hasn’t we, Precious?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Our Little Darwinian Hothouse

It’s late fall at Uncannery Row. The ground is covered with leaves in that perfect late stage of crunchiness. Farmers are combining late into the night, and the corn and soybean fields are shaved almost bare. Squirrels, when they aren’t running from Yogi, the Great Hunting Schnoodle, are carting off black walnuts as fast as their fat legs can carry them. No sign of barn cats for a while now; they may have gotten tired of Yogi’s pestering and skulked off to find a more cat-friendly acreage. But something’s eating the cat food I keep putting out in the pyramid shed…

Speaking of food, the repercussions of my meddling in Nature have come home to roost this fall, so to speak. I may have mentioned before that there were 6 peacocks here when we moved in a little over three years ago—they came with the house. When we bought the place, I asked the previous owners how to care for the peas. She said, “Oh, they take care of themselves. I toss a little cat food out once in a great while when I’m feeding the cats.” So, that’s what I did. Toss a little cat food out, maybe a little too often. Then I noticed the peas would saunter into the yard ju
st after I filled the feeders, to catch the spillage. I thought to myself, “Self? Why not toss a little bird food on the ground every now and then, so the peas can have their own?” Then one day I noticed the peas gorging on spilled field corn in the road. I thought, “Self? Why not add a little cracked corn to the bird food, since the peas like it so much?”

Yesterday, I counted 22 peacocks in the yard. They’d heard me take the metal lid off the bird food can, and they came RUNNING. Watching 22 peacocks run at you is like starring in your own Roadrunner cartoon, in fly-lens perspective. And if I so much as turn in the direction of the pyramid, where the cat food is stored, the peas FLY in, a honking aerial assault.

Peacocks aren’t supposed to get their train feathers, those “eye” tail feathers for which they’re famous, until they’re around 3 years old. And although they can breed in their second year, the boys can’t usually attract the mostly stuck-up hens until they have that swanky train (the pea-quivalent of a red 1975 Camaro). And breeding season is usually Feb-Sept or so. But we now have three 1-year-old black-shouldered males, each with a sprinkling of teeny tiny eye feathers they shouldn’t have yet, high-stepping back and forth on the back patio daily. In mid-November! It’s evolutionary hyperdrive, I tell you, probably resulting from excessive protein (cat food and corn), or Gore-bal warming (no seasonal cues to signal breeding seasons), or both. Directly or indirectly, it’s my pesky meddling in Nature. I might as well be out in the yard stocking an all-you-can-eat Atkins/South Beach pea-buffet while firing off a dozen aerosol cans.

Calculating the possible future pea-population is dizzying. The cost of corn. The hopsc
otch over pea-droppings. The no-room-at-the-inn Roosting Tree. The “Crazy Pea-lady” sniggers at the Co-op elevator. So today, while Yogi conserves hunting energy in Ray’s lap, I’ll be in the greenhouse grading papers, watching our bulked-up peas clumsily leapfrog in the yard, bickering over leftover bird seed. I will try to tone down my interference. I will try to appreciate and let alone the beautiful balance of Nature. I will sit on my hands if I have to. From now on, I will only feed the peas, cats, dogs, little birds (and occasional wild turkeys) on days ending in “-day.” Honest.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why I'm the kind of woman who keeps a parrot...

Mark Twain said, “She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.” I’m not sure Twain meant this as a compliment, but that’s how I’m taking it. I live with two parrots—Stella Faye and Polly Hester.

A little history. I bought Stella, a Congo grey parrot (often called African grey parrot), from a breeder in Ohio who treats her companion parrots like the precious children they are. I bought Stella before she was hatched—that is, I was on a list, waiting for a baby, after making it through a rigorous application & approval process. Stella was a domestically bred, handfed baby, and the breeder sent her to me on a plane when Stella was 4 months old. She came with a baby book, toys, a Congo grey stained glass suncatcher, and a kilogram scale to track Stella’s weight (the best way to monitor a bird’s daily health). Stella is tame and will be 13 this Christm

Polly Hester is a lilac crown Amazon parrot, a rescue bird. She was given to me by a woman whose daughter had kept Polly shut in a back room for a year before giving her to the mom, who then gave her to me when her husband took sick and she didn’t have time to care for Polly too. Polly isn’t tame but tolerates my affection, and our best guess is that she is 17 or 18.

Parrots can live 50 years or more, so believe me, I study my human kids’ interactions with the parrots, gauging the kids’ potential as possible godparents for our feathered girls.

Now I’ll tell you why I’m THAT kind of woman.

1. Duh. Parrots can fly. Because Stella is an occasional feather chewer, her wings are not clipped. She adores spending time out of her cage, and watching her fly lets me fulfill, at least vicariously, my own secret desire to fly. I was the little girl who jumped off porch railings, shed roofs, tree branches, etc., believing that gossamer wings would magically sprout from my shoulder blades. I am not startled by the sight of a 1+-pound grey parrot flying directly at me, her head down and back flattened out, then making a pinpoint landing on my shoulder. I am in AWE (and envious as hell).

2. Parrots can talk. Parrots are such social creatures that they will learn a skill totally unnatural for their species in order to engage with their human “flock.” That would be like Americans traveling in Paris actually learning French…not too likely. Stella refuses to be “taught” language and only learns what she likes. I have been singing a little ditty to her since the day I brought her home, and she has never sung a single note of it. But she’ll whistle “Popeye the Sailor Man,” by gum. She has an amazing repertoire of sound effects, including the microwave, phone beeps, smoke alarm, dog barking at a distance, tapping on a coffee grinder, clapping, and after our recent bout with flu, a tuberculin cough she practices ad nauseum. She can call out “Marlene?” in Ray’s voice, then answer “What?” in mine. She can do a long one-sided phone conversation, complete with “Hello” at the beginning, occasional laughter, rising & falling inflections, and “Bye” at the end. When she wants water, she makes the sound of a bubbling fish aquarium. She reminds me daily that she’s a good girl and a goofy bird. She can ask for pasta, chips, cheese, TV, or time out from her cage. In English.

3. Parrots can FLY.

A poet friend of mine in Canberra, Australia, S. K. Kelen, had a poem accepted for publication recently, a poem inspired by my fascination with birds. He's published a half dozen books of poetry and gave me, in one of his poems, my nickname for the South Dakota winter—Jack Blizzard. You can see his "Jack Blizzard" poem at This was my first foray as poetic muse, and I’m incredibly honored, so here’s the poem, reprinted here with the poet’s permission…


One Dakota woman calls the river’s
Bluff and drives to the Badlands.
On the back seat of her car
Is a caged Sulphur-crested
Cockatoo—a dream come true.
‘Oh, those crazy Aussies...’
And the glossy photographs of galahs!
Back home her attic is full
Of budgerigars and finches
A tame woodpecker
This big white parrot
Will rule them all.
Clouds curl like open hands,
She sees the river
And a hawk dip its wing.

S. K. Kelen

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sisters of Perpetual Disorder: How to Make an Egg Roll

Put 16 women (and several bottles of plum wine) in one room, and a strange kind of music happens. It’s the sound of a half-dozen simultaneous conversations and a chorus of responsive interjections—Oh no…Really?...Oh my lord…You’ve GOT to be kidding—all punctuated with bursts of laughter, coughing jags, even snorts. Women drift easily, effortlessly between conversations, ducking out of one, joining another, returning to the first, adding a single note to a third. If you step back, close your eyes and just listen, you’ll hear a lilting, rolling song.

That’s what I noticed at a recent installment of the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder potluck movable feast. Sixteen of us (see totally candid shot of our feet) cooked up an oriental storm for the dinner’s Asian
theme. The food, as usual, was incredible and included rice, spring rolls, bean curd, curried shrimp, two chicken dishes, Asian ribs, a tartlet tower, lemon tart, coconut pie and much more. No fortune cookies—we make our own fortunes, thank you very much. Potluck leftovers for all. But those songs, that music women make when they’re together, that’s the real sustenance of the Sisters dinners. SPD “greatest hits” moment: one woman, after finishing a bite-sized white chocolate tartlet, rolled her eyes, sat back, and said, “Mmm…I think I need a cigarette.” And she’s a non-smoker.

The dinners so far have been mostly women over 50, but we’re hoping some of our younger women friends will come next time. The Sisters could use a few young recruits to keep the Order going and to add some thrilling spiky crescendos to our song. The novices could learn a thing or two from our sage femme life experience. Plus, they could give us an elbow jab before we doze off face-first in our mu gu gai pan.

How to make an egg roll? Give it a little shove.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


In South Dakota, there’s really no autumn. There’s only
W I N T E R, spring, summer, and a brief interim from the end of summer to the beginning of full-on winter that I call Octever, a combination of October and whatever. September is still mostly summer. We’re still harvesting, canning, cutting flowers. And we haven’t turned on the heat yet. But from October on, it’s a different story. (One Halloween—no kidding—most South Dakota towns postponed trick-or-treating for several days to wait out a blinding blizzard.) So from October until Jack Blizzard settles down over us for the long haul, it could be in the 70’s one day, in the 30’s that night, in the mid-40’s and snowing the next day, and a balmy 55 that night. It could be pouring rain, or we could have sustained winds that blow laundry off the line. Octever keeps plains people on their toes.

At Uncannery Row, we got the last of the tomatoes cooked up into pasta sauce, got the last of t
he cukes salted & dressed, and brought in the houseplants that summered in the yard. And, in homage to our Mother Earth News roots, we finally put in a wood stove. I can hear my grandma’s mumbled, under-her-breath comment in my ear: Why on earth would you WANT something we couldn’t wait to get rid of? But seriously, Grandma, there’s nothing as cozy as a warm wood fire, the smell of burning wood, and a mug of Sumatran coffee warming on the iron stovetop. In my 20’s—my previous wood-stove life—our safety precautions included love and idiot optimism. Now they include a firebrick surround, a regulation fire extinguisher, chimney brush extensions, and two smoke alarms. Funny how age can make one so cautious in some ways and absolutely reckless in others (like eating dark chocolate truffles for breakfast or spending perfectly good money on glass finials).

We had a brief snow about a week ago. Then we had a week of steady drizzle and cloudy skie
s. Oh, Octever. By the time the sun peeked out yesterday, Ray and I were about ready to climb up on the barn roof and jump—a person can only take so much gloom. On the other hand, it’s decent of Jack to give us a little pre-winter taste; it forced us to drag ourselves around in the sleyn (sleet + grey + rain) preparing for the inevitable—shovels out, parkas aired, down quilt at the ready, snow boots by the door. We’ve stocked the larder (does anybody say larder anymore?) with half a lamb and a deer our friend found already neatly packaged out in his field (I have to believe that to ward off bad Bambi flashbacks), and our summer’s garden bounty is put up in jars or in one of two freezers.

I’d put the spinning wheel by the wood stove, don my flannel cap, and work on my stash of merino and camel hair, but I’m afraid the whole prairie life scene would cause a rift in the fabric of time…

Friday, October 9, 2009

Road Trip Reverie Rewind

Whenever I take a road trip by myself I think, “Self, this would be a good chance to do some centering, to meditate, to reintegrate body, mind & spirit.” And this is always my intention. But Ram Das, 70’s guru of be-here-now-ness would be horrified at the way my mind skitters off and dances from one bizarrely random thought to another—little vignettes of mindlessness. So as the prairie rolls past and my mouth is chanting ohm nama shivaya ohm, here’s what’s going on in my brain…

Those sunflowers look like tired soldiers. Or dug-up Chinese imperial guards. Or puff pastries on sticks.

Mmmm…I’m hungry.

If Dave Matthews had come to dinner back when I invited him, we’d totally be best friends now, and he’d be stopping by once in a while for coffee and a game of cribbage. Bet he’s sorry.

Supermodels walk like Lipizzaner stallions.

I shoulda stopped to take a picture of that. I shoulda stopped to take a picture of that. I shoulda stopped to take a picture of that.

How did I miss Laura Nyro back in the 70’s? Donavan…hmm…I still don't know what to make of him.

I could live in Kennebec. Wait, no I couldn’t.

We should turn our place into a B & B. Every outbuilding could be a guest room, with names like “Barn Room,” “Grain Shed Room,” “Loafing Shed Room,” “Chicken House Room.” Ray would have to paint “don’t harass the peacocks” signs.

Deep-fried tofu: delicacy or oxymoron…

If I had it to do over again, I’d try out for Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour. Or be a Shindig dancer. Or be “best grip” on the set of Man from U.N.C.L.E.

What’s a “best grip”?

Samsara. All life is suffering, leading to cycles of birth, death, rebirth. This is a day or a lifetime or a thousand lifetimes.

Who named Pukwana? Were they just goofing around but the name stuck?

Cool. If I tilt my head and squint, that foggy bean field looks like the ocean. I shouldn’t do this while I’m driving. Cool.

Prairie dogs have feelings, too.

Jesse Winchester sings like an angel-boy. Keb Mo is hot. Bonnie Raitt is hot. Mexico is hot. I'm hot. Those mudflaps are hot. 

I don’t care what she names the new baby. I’m calling him/her Viggo/Violet.

Are we there yet?

Cormac McCarthy isn’t writing books fast enough to suit me. I should email him.

In a truly just world, pear hips & big thighs would be en vogue.

Mmmm…I’m hungry.

Are we there yet?

Monday, October 5, 2009

West Meets Beach [Party]

I just got back from the Western Literature Association annual conference in Spearfish, SD. I was one of four women poets reading on a panel. Our friend, Kathleen Breem went too, to read an honest-to-gosh scholarly paper she’d written. You can see us in the pic, L to R: Lori Roarpaff, Linda Orbatch, Peg Pearlman, me (Marlene) and Kathleen.

We had an awesome time. For one thing, the Black Hills all dressed up in their autumn frills
make me cry like a little girl. For another thing, the four-day combo of western literature and good friend silliness was delightfully surreal—imagine Willa Cather and Cormack McCarthy co-starring in Annette Funicello’s “Pajama Party,” where the crazy kids make a campfire, drink whiskey shots, and yak about western literary archetypes. And boys. And girls. AWE-some.

In addition to literary goodness, I got to meet up with friends Bob and Deardre, who live in the Hills. I got to cruise Spearfish Canyon, stick my head in Spearfish Creek at the traditional baptism rocks (Ray and I have been blessing ourselves in the creek for about 20 years now, whenever we’re in the Hills), buy truffles at Chubby Chipmunk in Deadwood (mmm…crème brule truffles), throw peanut shells on the floor at the Chop House, hear a great band & dance out a few kinks. If you wanna know what a room full of English majors (including me) looks like dancing, check this out:

As much as I love the Hills, I was glad to get back to the flatland. I’m strangely soothed being able to see to the horizon, under a sky dappled with clouds and so vast that I remember my smallness.

So now I’m back, further behind than ever, multitasking to the point of implosion, trying to freeze a mental picture of golden aspen in my mind’s icebox, and trying to figure out how I can make a living rambling around the country reading poems, laughing with friends, and working on my dance moves. There must be a government bailout program for that, right?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gothic Peas

Flannery O’Connor, saint foncé of southern gothic fiction, wrote brilliant, often disturbing, and frequently comical stories that combine religious themes with violent imagery. She also tended peacocks. Peacocks. I’m certainly not a brilliant writer, but I do think I understand how life with peacocks might feed a gothic spirit.

Ray and I share the Row with a 1
4 adult and 13 baby peacocks. They all have names, though they could care less. And it seems we now have a permanent resident wild turkey hen, Hedda Gobbler, and her three healthy chicks, as well.

Like all good
gothic characters, our peacocks live on the fringe. In spite of their affinity for handouts, they do not want to be touched by humans. And while they’re willing to roost in the rafters of an open-sided shed if it’s 30 below, they will not be rounded up, penned, caged, or chicken-housed. We live around them, not with them—we feed, water, and protect them, but they will never be ours.

The splendor of male peacocks belies their violence. During breeding season, adult males will face off and circle each other slowly. Then, in a sudden burst of flapping wings they’re up, diving at each other mid-air, slashing away with bony spurs on the backs of both legs. Down, circle, up, slash. Repeat to exhaustion.

Like the suddenness of O’Connor’s violent outbursts, peacock mating is violent in its explosive brevity. A male flutters his train full of eyes—spooky enough—thrums wing feathers, rattles tail feathers, and high-steps toward a hen. Then he’s suddenly on top of her, beating his wings and yelling triumphantly, for what seems like a split-second. Check out this video of the dance:

We learn gothic lessons from our peas, too, lessons that are oddly beautiful and often terribly sad. Like this morning, when Ray found one of the quints, about a month old now, dead on the ground
near the Roosting Tree. We knew something was wrong even before we found her, because the flock had been frantically calling since dawn.

So I sit sometimes in my greenhouse office, voyeur to pealife, weakly channeling Flannery. Is it any wonder that my poems are rife with tormented saints, unhappy coincidence, and the aloof or twisted faithful?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Fruits of Our Labor

I need to re-read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the intro and cantos I-V of Dante’s Inferno, his happy treatise on the special levels of hell for various kinds of sinners, for class this coming week. So what have I spent my Labor Day weekend doing? Well...

1. On Friday, Mom and I went shopping in the Big City. Ray and I are upgrading from
a full-sized mattress to a king, which should comfortably hold two adults and two dogs, though I’m not sure life will be the same without the occasional paw to the kidney and dog-sprawl suffocation. Mom and I comparison shopped, met Ray to seal the mattress deal, then ran around town looking for chair cushions and Indian curries.

2. On Saturday morning, I spent an hour on the back porch, watching a spider the size of a .50-cent piece repair a hole in her web.

3. On Saturday afternoon, Ray and I picked wild plums until he had to leave for a gig. Then a couple of friends and I spent the rest of the day (and half the night) processing the plums and a few wild grapes we found into 44 jars of gorgeou
s jam. Mom brought us a crockpot full of dinner, and by the time the jam was done and we sat down to eat, we had scraped and scrubbed plum jam from every corner, surface, and crevice of the kitchen and ourselves.

My canning method – Step 1: Drink lots of coffee. Sit on the patio and chat. Step 2: Turn up the stereo, 70’s hits. Step 3: Discover after an hour or more of steaming, stewing and cranking, that the little food mills you counted on are no match for wild plums. Step 4: Run to town for $50 worth of heavy-duty food mills. Step 4: Process plums, finally. Step 5: Drink more coffee. Step 5: Load up canners, set timer. Step 6: Switch to red wine and head for the patio. Step 7: Remove jars to counter and squeal with delight each time a jar lid pops. Step 8: Clean up. Maybe.

4. On Sunday, Ray and I made a run to to
wn for groceries and more canning supplies. Then he picked apples, and I picked cucumbers and dill. In the evening, we headed to the Big City again, this time for the wedding of two women, poets & friends from school. Since same-sex marriage is still not legal in SD, they had a commitment ceremony. It was beautiful and quite moving, with a UCC pastor officiating, vows they wrote themselves, attendants, prayers of community support, and journals on every reception table in which guests were invited to write haiku in celebration of the couple’s happiness. The bride wore a gorgeous white satin dress, and the other bride wore a lovely white suit. Everything was trimmed in rose pink and brown. There was music, dancing, family & friends, and a whole lotta love.

I know gay marriage is still a hot-button issue for many folks, but really, when I pick up a newspaper or watch more than 5 minutes of CNN, I KNOW with certainty that love is an increasingly rare and amazing gift, and we should be thrilled for anyone lucky enough to find it. Period.

5. Today, Monday, I spent the morning making Sweet Dill Medley, a concoction I dreamed up that includes cukes, white radishes, green onions, red pepper, pineapple, garlic and ginger, all pickled together in a sweet dill brine. Ray’s been processing apples all day—freezing slices for pies and canning applesauce. And I finished another knit Lyra hat (copied from Lyra’s hat in The Golden Compass), which Jada “volunteered” to model for pics.

I could find plenty more to do, but I guess I’ve put off my schoolwork about as long as I dare. Time to settle in with an iced coffee and the Inferno. And is there a special place in Hell for procrastinators? I can’t remember. I’ll look it up sometime…later.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Then & Now: Teacher's Edition

I met with three new college undergrad classes yesterday for the first time; one more starts next week. Ah, a new fall semester at Little Town U! And because I tried to pay attention, I had some “aha” moments about the contrast between walking into class in 1991-ish when I first started teaching, and walking into class yesterday...

Then: The first day of class is a happy lawn party. You get to take the class outside, sit in the grass, and wax philosophical with inquiring, like-minded friends.

Now: Your anxiety is so high by the first day of class (everything depends on student-consumer evaluations) that it causes spontaneous muscle spasms, which students confuse with clumsiness and/or senility. Your class is in the basement of the physics building. You like the dark; it hides your trembling.

Then: Wearing a calf-length paisley peasant skirt with white ankle-length silk long john bottoms sticking out, duct-taped Birkies, and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt for the first day of class helps students relax and see you as their groovy, non-threatening older sister.

Now: Your all-black skirted ensemble and sensible black pumps strike fear into new students and help them focus on the fact that learning is not for the queasy or faint of heart.

Then: You distribute your 2-page syllabus—sprinkled with hand-drawn yin/yangs, happy faces, and quotes from Jung, Adrienne Rich and Joni Mitchell—at the very end of class, telling students to call if they have questions.

Now: You distribute your 18-page syllabus—sprinkled with state-required disclaimers, learning goals & outcomes, rubrics for academic writing, student services information, and state/university/department/course policies—at the beginning of class, and you spend the entire class making sure students understand their rights and responsibilities. You have them sign a “contract” documenting the fact that they’ve read and understand the syllabus.

Then: You open class by reading a poem about doing your own laundry for the first time. You spend some time laughing and chatting about the students’ lives, Japanese studies tying jumping to bone growth, and why Howard Jones is the genius king of techno-pop. Then you let class out early.

Now: You open class with the Ram Das quote, “Be here now,” explaining that being present in every moment of “our collective learning process” is worth xx participation points, but only if one’s cell phone is turned off before entering class. Then you go over the syllabus. You don’t quite finish, although class runs 5 minutes long.

Then: You hope all 30 of your students will be exuberant English majors by the end of the semester.

Now: You hope you to learn all 65 students’ names by the end of the semester.

Then: I love teaching.

Now. I love teaching.

This was yesterday’s most profound revelation—I still love teaching. In spite of the anxiety, the ever-increasing bureaucracy, heavier teaching loads, and customer-service orientation of higher ed, the sleepless weekends and nights hunched over the dining room table, and the occasional frustrations I heap on my whipping-boy, Ray (his patience is all the evidence I need of true love), I’m grateful to be doing what I do.

I do it for the occasional spark I see in a student, knowing I can fan it into an all-out brushfire. I do it for the moment a student crosses from confusion to clarity. I do it for the ex-students who still call, email, and FB me, some of them now with their own ex-students. I do it because sometimes I hear, out of the blue and many years later, from a student who suddenly realized she/he got something out of my class. I do it to sneak my fascination with language under the skin of pliant young people, where it will worm its way into their psyches. If someone else would do the grading, the job would be near-perfect.

So let the leaves turn. Let the September rains fall. Shake out the jackets. Trade the sandals for shoes. Bring on the heating pad, the coffee, and the Doritos. Come on, Semester. Let’s see what you’ve got.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking [Wood]Stock

The recent anniversary of Woodstock made me all dreamy-eyed. I fondly remember my halter tops and jeans with paisley wedges sewn in the seams…my long hair in braids laced with flowers…the experiments in expanded consciousness/enlightenment (TM, Sufism, the Bible, Catholic ritual, wicca, psychedelic music, mandalas, yoga, various herbal, chemical, or psychological shortcuts, poetry, etc.)…bumming around the country with musicians, waking up one morning in an artist’s studio in Taos, NM, where I found an invitation to a party being hosted by Joni Mitchell and Ry Cooder (I’m still kicking myself for not crashing that party)…living in an old school bus in a state park with two little long-haired toddlers…leaving all parts of my body unshaved…meeting Timothy Leary and feeling an overwhelming urge to kiss his ring.

Not long ago, my friend Paige said of someone who seemed locked in 1960, “Yeah, he never really crossed over.” That was a great way to put it. Drugs, war, or post-adolescent social anxiety took a few folks I knew right off the planet before they ever got a chance to decide. The rest of us, it seems, crossed, didn’t cross, or are still feeling our way along. Of course it’s completely anti-hippie to pigeonhole, but we do seem to have ended up in some interesting groups…

Fence Straddlers – I’m probably in this bunch. We crossed about halfway over and can’t decide if we want to go the rest of the way. One day I shaved my legs. One day I bought a TV. One day I got a full-time job. One day I rented a house and bought a bookshelf. One day I zoned out on refined carbs and CNN…oh wait…that was today.

Evolved Hippies – These folks crossed over, taking the best of the lovebead days with them. They’re still following an enlightened, slightly modified hippie path, growing their own food, not buying into the consumer imperative, being dedicated, loving stewards of both their nuclear and global families and of the earth. They’re gardeners and activists. They catch rain in barrels. They recycle. They go to town meetings. Some may even light up a joint out by the garage twice a year. They shop at the Civic Council. I both admire these people and aspire to be more like them.

Throwbacks – These folks chose not to cross. They’re stuck in 1960, living in a perpetual state of nostalgia. They have an uncann[er]y knack of working stories of their “free love days” into conversations about dietary fiber or retirement planning. They don’t have any stories dated later than 1973.

Lost Souls – A few folks, “lost souls,” never made it across because they took too many chances. They sizzled (and some continue to sizzle) brilliant minds, spending increasing amounts of time now in free clinics, bars, rehab, public defenders’ offices, or local food pantries. You’d like to help, but they’re too far back to reach.

Fence Burners – As sad as the lost souls are, it’s just as sad to see those who crossed over so completely that no trace of that hippie idealism remains. They burned the fence behind them. They’re stuck now in a quagmire of money-making, clicks, beeps, scheduling, texts and stock market updates. “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth said.

It’s playful romanticism to pretend I’m still all love-is-all-you-need as I type away, in my tie-dye and Birkies, burning Frankincense I bought from the Franciscans. But I’m typing on one of our two computers, while my “Le Femmes” iPod playlist songs waft through our house sound system (speakers in the living room, kitchen, and greenhouse). And I work more than full time in academia (in many ways one of the most rigid, “up tight” systems The Man ever dreamed up), so that I can keep myself in glorious materialistic comfort. Genuine silk underthings. Joseph Sibel shoes. HD 42” flat screen. Mmmm.

Pretty soon, though, I’m gonna get back to my braids & beads & roots and mow a labyrinth in the south pasture, where Ray and I will cosmically center ourselves each sunrise. Maybe I’ll throw away the TV and grow me some peaches, like John Prine suggested. Yeah…I’m gonna do that as soon as I comparison shop on line for a self-propelled electric mower, while streaming Neil Young wannabes on YouTube, while sending Facebook updates via my smart phone.

In the meantime…peace, man.

Friday, August 21, 2009

So Many Peas, So Little Time

Time is running out on summer here at Uncannery Row. It’s already dark when I get up in the morning, and it’s been cool enough at night to close a few windows. Weird. And it’s the middle of August, but the tomatoes and wild plums STILL aren’t ripe, corn-fused by the frequent rain and lack of heat. That means eventually juggling four classes at Little Town U and marathon canning of salsa and jam. Yikes & yum.

Although classes won’t start for another week, the workshops and meetings are already underway. I’ve been keeping my anxiety in check with copious carbs and frantic knitting. My newest knitting binge is a series of hoods—so you know what you’ll be getting for Christmas—called “Lyra Hoods,” named after the hood worn by the main character, Lyra, in The Golden Compass. Our Australian Shepherd Jada reluctantly models an unfinished hood in the picture. The hoods knit up fast and allow me to use up my chunky yarn stash, especially the bumpy wools I’ve spun up over the last couple of years. I still have at least two huge Rubbermaid tubs of wool and silk to spin up...I wonder how my brothers will look in Lyra hoods?

In an interesting development at the Row, all four peahen mothers still have all their babies. That’s 14 peachicks darting around the yard—the Chicklettes, the Raylettes, the Popcorn Triplets, and the Quints. Little Edgar (Winter) is the only white chick of the bunch. Usually by this time, we’ve lost a few chicks to predators, but either these well-fed peas—27 in all now—have better defenses this year, or the sheer numbers wilt the confidence of even the hungriest raccoons & redtail hawks.

Yogi, our Schnoodle, discovered two kittens in the barn recently. We knew we had an all-white mama cat and an all-black tom spooking around, and now we’ve got one each white kitty and black. I’ve also spotted—twice now—a wild turkey hen and three chicks out by the meditation tower. I figure word’s getting around the neighborhood about our corn and catfood bird buffet. Gossipy peacocks!

The flower gardens have had to fend for themselves this year, so they’re tangled beds of blanket flowers, lavender, baptisia, bachelor buttons and lilies, struggling up through lambsquarters and bindweed. Ray and I did manage to wrap the windmill tower partway up with chicken wire, and we planted a dozen trumpet vines in three colors along the fence. So next year, we hope to have one gigantic hummingbird feeder out in the yard.

I really should be hard at work on syllabi, schedules and lesson plans for Comp, Lit, Honor’s English and College Reading, but the mower, a ball of brown tweed wool, and a box of Triscuits are calling my name…

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Way to a Woman's Heart...

A psychic once told me that in a past life in China around 1000 BCE, I starved to death giving away every last morsel of food I had to those in need. I’m sure I had a death wish and wasn’t really that altruistic, but I like “starved to death in a past life” as a rationale for my unnatural relationship with food in THIS life. A good past-life excuse sure lets you off the hook…

Some part of me thinks that food is at the root of all happiness. Think about it. Wars are fought over land (where food is produced), resources (food), or political ideals (if you’re not a democracy, you might take our food). Relationships, as complex as we like to make them, are really just about who's providing & preparing food for whom. And sex? Well, animals (including human animals) squabble less and reproduce more when the food supply is up.

It seems to me that food = happiness because we suffer from one or more fundamental delusions: (1) When the nacho cheese Doritos bag is empty and you have that pumpkin-colored ring around your mouth, you’re rewarded with carb-induced euphoria, at least until the ex-Catholic schoolgirl guilt sets in; (2) Family and friendship ties & loyalties have always been and must continue to be cemented with mashed potatoes; (3) The way to a man’s/woman’s heart really IS through the stomach, just ask anyone on Lipitor for the rest of her/his life; (4) You must figuratively hunt down a wild boar and stock the larder if you hope to survive the winter; and (5) You suspect you’re desperately alone in this world except for your non-judgmental, unconditionally-loving BFF, Food.

Some folks luck out and are only plagued by one or two of these misconceptions. Me, I’ve got ‘em all, leading me to obsessively hoard, prepare, consume, and foist food. My pantry shelves are jam-packed (literally…I made 32 jars of jam last week) and really, how many cans of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, capers, and artichoke hearts does one family need? I can only cook for 20, and there are only 2 of us at home now. I’ve got no time to work, play, or exercise, because I must devote that time to eating all this angel hair pasta with a good basil pesto. And, as my friend Sunbeem says, if we don't overnurture (with food of course) every living thing on the planet, they will all DIE horrible anguished deaths, and it will be our fault (see ex-Catholic schoolgirl guilt above).

I need professional help, I know. My twisted relationship with food is the reason for the 22 tomato plants in our garden. It’s the reason for the peacock population explosion (from 6 three years ago when we inherited the tiny flock, to this summer’s waddling, corn-fed, follow-the-CornWoman 27). It’s the reason I must now peel, grate, and freeze 82 of the biggest zucchinis you’ve ever seen, then spend hours on-line looking for zucchini recipes. It’s the reason I’m a Weight Watchers “don’t give up” poster girl. And, it’s the reason I must now stop this silly blogging and frantically search the cupboards for my only true friend, my exceptional listener, my devoted paramour, Mr. Twinkie.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

OCJ: Disorder or Brilliant Strategy?

I’m tenaciously clinging to summer, in spite of days that smell like back-to-school and 50-degree temps at night. I have a bit less than a month before the fall semester starts at Little Town U, and I have miles to go before I’m even ready to get ready.

Every year around this time, my anxiety level ratchets up. It’s partly school starting, with its attendant meetings, book orders, syllabi & schedule devising, juggling, balancing, tapdancing, impending gradinggradinggrading, and the possibility that if I don’t have everything perfectly prepared and exquisitely executed, I’ll be outted for the sniveling, insecure fraud I surely am. Ratchet.

It’s also a late-summer social calendar that would drag any self-respecting midlife woman through the mire—Jazz Fest, Folk Fest, open mic night downtown, Sisters of Perpetual Disorder dinners, family gatherings, road trips, etc. Because I don’t do much except work while the semester’s on, I have a desperate (probably pathological) need to cram as much fun & frolicking as possible into every single hour of every day, right up to the minute I walk into the classroom on that first day. Ratchet ratchet.

My oldest son, his beautiful wife, and my two superhumanly gorgeous & gifted grandkids have been here for the past week, visiting from WA. And because I don’t get to see them more than once or twice a year, I can’t possibly sacrifice a moment of that time for school prep or house cleaning, causing that nasty procrastination devil to whisper in my ear, “Put…ratchet…it…ratchet…off…ratchet…”

And what about all those handmade Christmas presents I was gonna get started on early this year? What kind of no-good slacker am I not to take my knitting to the Folk Fest so I could work on that alpaca baby sweater while I swill dark beer in my lawn chair? Hear that ratchety sound just under those fiddles?

And although school is still almost a month away, school-related emails
have been trickling in for several weeks now, forewarning the unmanageable flood that will soon let loose. Cl-i-i-i-i-i-ck.

Luckily, I have a built-in, self-preserving (bad canning pun) mechanism that kicks in when anxiety reaches critical mass—OCJ (Obsessive-Compulsive Jamming). That’s right, I clear everyone out of the kitchen, crank XM’s “Deep Tracks” over the kitchen speakers, and I jam, man.

Over the past week, I’ve made 32 jars of jelly and jam, starting with grape jelly I made with grapes given to me by a neighbor, which I’ve had in the freezer for 12 years and two moves now (the grapes, not the neighbor, and I see you wincing, but I sampled the grapes and didn’t die, and you boil the stuff hard, twice,
in the jam-making process). Digging out the grapes from the freezer, I found black raspberries (probably in there as long), so black raspberry jam was next. Finally, I made strawberry-rhubarb jam, “rhuberry,” after coming across rhubarb in the freezer, too. I wonder if I could make jam out of cornmeal, pesto, and old candles, ‘cause I have loads of that stuff in the freezer, too.

OCJ is a lot like covering your ears with your hands and singing “lalalalala” when someone says they need your syllabi on file ASAP—it doesn’t really work in the long run, but you can live in blissful ignorance for as long as you can keep singing. And, with OCJ, you can sing with your mouth full of sweet, jam-laden toast.

So if you get jelly or jam by the bucketload for Christmas this year from Ray & Marlene, just know that indirectly, at least, you’ve helped me survive late-summer high anxiety. And if you could do something about global climate change and El Niño weather patterns long enough for my wild plums to ripen, I’m sure those book orders will wait a while longer...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sisters of Perpetual Disorder

The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder met Saturday night at Uncannery Row. This group of middle-aged women gathers semi-monthly (or as often as we can pull it off), rotating to each others’ homes, for themed potluck dinners. We eat, laugh, gossip, exchange stories about our lives, polish off a few bottles of wine, slug down after-dinner coffee, divvy up the leftovers into yogurt containers, and go home stuffed & contented. Since Mom and I had recently returned from our trek across the Yucatan, the theme this month was Mexican.

Ray worked like a dog helping me clean house in preparation for the dinner. When I brought the card table up from the basement, he suggested I seat several women at the old formica diner table down in the greenhouse, and the rest in the dining room. I explained that women like to be all in one bunch where they can talk over & around each other, finish each others’ sentences, embellish each others’ stories, and bust out all together in infectious laughter. This seems to me in contrast to a group of men, who speak in fits & starts (note to self: add “fits & starts” to Grandma’s list of extinct expressions), take polite turns speaking, and leave pregnant (harhar) pauses between speakers.

When the guests arrived, Ray retreated to his anti-estrogen fortress, his upstairs music room, and spent the evening working on CD’s—he’s transferring an enormous, lifelong collection of vinyl to CD then to iPod—appearing only occasionally to fill a plate.

Typically, women start showing up for Sisters’ dinners around 5, and it can take an hour or more for all of us to straggle in. Then there’s often cooling, carving, re-heating or finish-baking to do while we greet, catch up, and sip apertifs. When all the potluck dishes are finally spread out on kitchen counters, they represent the most amazing labor of love and an unbelievable work of art. In this case, “Still Life with Sombrero.”

Themes are loosely interpreted, and the menu is always as eclectic as the group of women themselves. This month’s dinner included two kinds of enchiladas, posole (a wonderfully spicy pork soup), tacos al pastor (pork & pineapple tacos), quesadillas, salsa ribs, fresh mozzarella with tomatoes, basil & olive oil, sopapilla cheesecake, key lime pie, cherry popsicles, and after-dinner sips, “para digestión,” of xtabentun (anise/honey liqueur we brought back from Mexico) and licor de cacao (also lugged back from Mexico—you can’t have a women’s dinner without some sort of chocolate).

As usual, the dinner conversation was a rambling patchwork of relationships, travel, surgeries, kids, and Bohunk grandmas who swore like sailors (September’s dinner theme will be Czech/Serbian). But what I love most about the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder dinners is that for a while, disorder is okay. The dinners are a blessed break from trying to juggle & closely manage (as women are wont to do) work, family, global issues, retirement planning, and the particular menopausal mêlée of forgetfulness, hot flashes, night sweats, sags, bags, wrinkies, and midriff poundage. For a while at least, we can all let our thinning hair down and do the things women our age love to do best: enjoy each others’ company and eat.

Friday, July 24, 2009

More Then & Now

Then: You hike all day and half the night through Fontanelle Forest, barefoot, in a spaghetti-strap sundress, following the creek and eating wild berries. Mosquitoes follow you but don’t bite, and you’re sure they’re humming “Kum Bah Ya.”

Now: You walk out to the garden in your mosquito-netting hat, long sleeve workshirt, stretchy long pants, and steel-toed work boots. You’re dripping Deep Woods Off and SPF 100 sunscreen. You’re out only long enough to pick a cucumber.

Then: You’re attracted to artists and musicians named “Jupiter” or “Cloud,” who spook around folk festivals, look like they could be homeless, have hair to their waists, and who carry Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine and a week’s supply of sunflower seeds in their backpacks.

Now: You’re attracted to artists and musicians who have day jobs, homes, hair, and comprehensive health & dental plans.

Then: You and seven friends take an impromptu cross-state road trip, and you sleep naked that night in a farmer’s field in the middle of Nebraska, your jean shorts & halter tops hung on cornstalks. You have earth for bed & pillow, and you have each other for blanket.

Now: You spend three months planning a camping trip to a State Park, where you made a reservation six months earlier. You take three more months to pack your supplies, which include an impenetrable tent, an inflatable bed, enough bedding to stock a Girl Scout troop, and a campfire espresso maker. You sit by the fire at night, playing your guitar and being “spontaneous.” When you get home, you take three months to unload, de-bug, and launder everything, and you don’t camp again for two years.

Then: You drive a 1971 VW bug with a crank sunroof, two windows held in place with duct tape, a roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror, old wool horse blankets where the backseat used to be, and blue and purple maple leaves airbrushed on the hood. You can drive for a week on $1.50.

Now: You drive a [insert current year] Toyota minivan with front & side airbags, a hair clip hanging from the rearview mirror, clean folded blankets and neck-massaging travel pillows on the back seats, a toolbox and first-aid kit in the cargo area, and an AAA sticker on the back bumper. You need TARP money to fill the tank.

Then: You sometimes wish you were older, you can be unkind or thoughtless and you take things for granted, believing you have all the time in the world and you’ll get it right next time.

Now: You appreciate the “cycle of life” business that brought you kicking & screaming to retirement planning, hot flashes, clicking knees, night sweats, cellulite, and a constant craving for Twinkies, but you sometimes wish you were younger. You try to be kind, thoughtful, and not take a single thing for granted, because you finally know you don’t have all the time in the world—you have only NOW to get it right.