Saturday, March 28, 2009

The [Absurd] Circle of Life

Sometimes we get nostalgic, almost to the point of pining, for the thrill, the adventure, the excitement of our younger days. Fortunately, one advantage of age is hindsight, which lets us look more objectively at life in our 20’s compared to life in our 50’s. For example…


20’s – You sling burgers at Bronco’s until you have exactly enough money to buy an Epiphone 12-string guitar. You quit your job, buy the guitar, and stay home writing songs about heartbreak, despair, and how work is a copout.

50’s – You work at a profession you sometimes love and sometimes can barely tolerate. You worry about your 401K and health insurance. You bring work home. You work in the evenings at your dining room table. You catch up on work-related paperwork most weekends. You think about work whenever you’re not working. While you’re working at home, you listen on your brand new 120-gig iPod to songs about heartbreak, despair, and how work is a copout.


20’s – You can eat your weight in French Fries, which you wash down with Coke or butterscotch malts. You like your butter with a side of mashed potatoes. You go barefoot all months of the year except January. You drink ½-gallon of whole milk daily. You ingest things not meant for human consumption on the advice of your trusted friend Arnie, who’s anemic and has a chronic cough. You spend long periods sitting motionless, wearing headphones cranked loud enough to be heard one floor below. You sleep an average of 4 hours a night, sometimes on the living room floors of strangers. You haven’t been to the doctor since 7th grade. You don’t drink water because it might be polluted. You are thin as a rail and healthy as a really healthy horse.

50’s – You count Weight Watchers points. You live on whole grains, lean chicken or fish, and leafy greens. You whittle away at your life’s savings to buy organic. You take Centrum Silver, Spirulina, Vitamins C, E, and D, fish oil, calcium, and nutritional yeast. You drink 6 oz. of skim milk daily with your vitamins. You exercise regularly. You wear sensible shoes. You drink 3 quarts of filtered water daily. You get checkups, bloodwork, mammograms, colonoscopies, pelvic exams, and eye exams. You have arthritis, bad joints, heart palpitations, a mysterious skin discoloration on one arm, and you’re 30 pounds overweight.


20’s – You worry that you’re too (short/tall/fat/skinny/pale/dark/smart/stupid/loud/quiet), and you’re sure people don’t like you that much.

50’s – You worry that you’re too (short/tall/fat/skinny/pale/dark/smart/stupid/loud/quiet), and you’re sure people don’t like you that much.


20’s – A girl who goes by the name “Butterfly” you met once at a chakra-clearing workshop in New Mexico shows up at your house at 4 a.m. with her old man Carl, her cousin Franco, Franco’s pregnant girlfriend ChiChi, and a Rottweiler named Little Bit. They raid your fridge, crash on your living room floor for a couple hours, pack up several of your albums, and head for Montana. You never wake up. The next day, the milk, beer, winter coats, leftover spaghetti (the albums, though you won’t notice that for a couple weeks), and toilet paper are gone. Little Bit is on the couch and won’t let you in your living room. You go back to bed.

50’s – Your good friends from Minnesota tell you 3 weeks in advance that they’re coming to visit. You immediately put clean sheets on the guest room bed and set out decorative dishes of potpourri. They email 2 weeks later telling you they’re still planning to come. You develop a diabetic-conscious meal plan. They email 1 week later telling you they’re still planning to come. The night before they arrive, you put an organic free-range chicken and parsnips in the crockpot. They call you twice the next day to give you ETA’s from the road. You have a wonderful dinner and all stay up laughing and drinking coffee till at least 10 p.m. You discuss reckless youth, multiple vitamins, and failing memory. You discuss reckless youth, multiple vitamins, and failing memory. You make blueberry pancakes in the morning. They leave, you load the dishwasher, go back to bed.


20’s – You go to someone’s house to party, go to the bar at 10 p.m. to hear a band, leave the bar at 2:30 a.m., go to IHOP for coffee and waffles, go to someone’s house to party, go home at 10 a.m., sleep till 2 p.m., shower, rinse, repeat.

50’s – You go to someone’s house for one glass of red wine (antioxidants), go to the bar at 5:30 p.m. to hear a trio and have a dark beer (B vitamins and antioxidants), leave the bar at 7:30 p.m., go home and eat a salad with bean sprouts and avocado, watch TV for an hour, go to bed with a book, fall asleep after 3 paragraphs, don’t go out again for at least a month.

What’s it all mean? Maybe part of getting older is stripping the rosy glaze off the trifocals so we can stop clinging to a romanticized past. These looks back help us see that we were absurd & extremely lucky at 20 and really, nothing has changed.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Midlife Memory

Memory is such a fickle friend. My mom, in her early 70’s, worries about hers. She worries that things & people are disappearing from her internal scrapbook. I don’t worry about my memory blinking off, but it’s certainly trying out some new midlife tricks.

For example, I walked in the bathroom at work yesterday as a woman was leaving. She passed me, and I suddenly got a whiff of something…what was that? I know that that smell…Breck shampoo? I hadn’t smelled that since I was a kid! The Breck smell made me remember the green wooden cupboard above my grandma’s clawfoot tub, where she kept the Breck, Prell, and Tame Creme Rinse. And that made me remember playing mermaid with swim goggles and a turkey baster in the tub. And that made me remember the big square kitchen next to the bathroom, and the smell of potroast cooking. And that made me remember my grandma’s stained aprons. And that made me remember her coming to get me out of the tub, wrapping me in a big towel, and giving me a sugar cube to suck on. And that made me miss my grandma. And that made me cry just a little.

This entire memory tsunami rolled through in mere seconds and left me standing there, pretending I had something in my eye, a weepy idiot. Midlife memories can do that—flip emotional (and even physical) switches to hyper-ON. And as I get older, certain things fade—dates, numbers, names—while other things become almost too clear—smells, sounds, textures, impressions, regrets, losses, joys. It’s as if my brain is tossing out the facts, but stirring my responses to those facts into a concentrated sensory stew. Hearing the Monkees “Daydream Believer” makes me stop wherever I am and do the Jerk. That sorta thing. And with the details disappearing, I have to keep lists to help me remember things I must remember.

Maybe it’s a gift that as we age we can still feel our lives, but we aren’t bogged down in detail anymore. Maybe fading memory is perfectly-timed—a necessary step in the delicate process of letting go, which can take some of us decades. Ray says I just need more spirulina. I’ll write that on my list so I don’t forget. Now where did I put that list…

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Little Dog on the Prairie

I know dogs are considered carnivores. But our dogs, Jada, an 8-year-old Australian Shepherd, and Yogi, a 9-month-old Schnoodle (don’t you dare say “mutt”), didn’t get the memo. This morning I was making Thai peanut-ginger sauce and chopping veggies for a spring pasta salad, and Yogi begged, literally sat up and begged, for red pepper.

Jada spent her first year or two on the trendy RFB diet (raw food & bones). Because I got tired of grinding up 40-pound boxes of chicken wings, necks, and gizzards, slopping them together with pulverized raw veggies, then freezing the resulting goo in billions of baggies, we switched her in her second year to Dick Van Patten’s New Balance kibble (didn’t you wonder what happened to Van Patten after Eight is Enough?). It’s made with organic meat, brown rice and veggies, with no meat meals or by-products (slaughterhouse floor sweepings). Maybe because of her wolf-like raw meat beginning, Jada’s pickier; she likes raw broccoli but snubs red, white, or orange veggies.

Yogi’s grown up on New Balance. He’s been known to snack on peacock poo. He’s dragged possums into the yard and might have sampled those, too, if we hadn’t rescued the poor catatonic things. He’ll eat pine needles and cardboard. Yogi likes all raw veggies except carrots and celery. He adores red pepper. Both dogs positively swoon for snow peas.

Maybe all dogs in the wild are opportunistic omnivores—the raw food gurus swear that wolves and wild dogs will eat anything except grains. I think it’s just that Jada & Yogi are South Dakota farm dogs who adapt to the sparseness of winter and the sudden abundance of spring by eating dang near anything. (On a side note, Stella Faye, our African Grey parrot, will ask—in English—for chicken. I try not to think about the implications of that.) So I will plant red peppers and snow peas in the garden this year, and we will all feast like the hounds we are.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beware the Ides of March

Plains people aren’t easily fooled by a little “pretty.” Maybe it’s because we can see so far across the flatlands, especially in winter, that we see trouble & bad weather coming long before they arrive.

So when a flock of redwing blackbirds gathered yesterday for a quick migratory meeting in the farmyard, I wasn’t fooled by their cantata of clicks, trills, and multi-note whistles, by their tawdry red and yellow wing bars, or by their jovial flitting about. I know, like most South Dakotans, that you can’t trust avian choirs, 70-degree days, or even the sudden greening of road ditches. Not in March. Maybe not in April either. So here’s a cautionary poem, a reminder to keep the Uggs & parka handy by the back door…


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It’s a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We’ve weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We’re tired
of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bodhisattvas in Love

The spring farmyard is an Indian tapestry,
“Bodhisattvas in Love.” Yesterday, I looked out the kitchen window to see all three adult peacocks fanning spectacular trains, shaking feathery castanets, and sending their “Hey! Hey!” mating song out across the prairie. Even last summer’s three baby boys were strutting, fanning stubby feathered tails like little turkeys, sans the trains they won’t grow until their third year.

I’m so fascinated by the peaflock that I sometimes get stuck in a crazy Twilight [ornith]Zone—I’ll suddenly discover that hours have passed, and I’ve been leaning on a shed wall, staring mutely, every muscle slack, drooling the whole time. It could be a brain anomaly, but I think it’s these birds…what IS it about these birds?

I don’t think it’s the Greek thing. Hera chopped off Argus’ many-eyed head and stuck it on a peacock tail. No, the decapitation image doesn’t do much for me, and the “thousand eyes watching” is right up there on the creepiness scale.

I don’t think it’s the Muslim thing, where the eyes of the peacock’s train represent the stars. I like the celestial symbolism, but I’m just not making the eye/star connection.

Peacocks represent immortality in the Christian tradition and are sometimes associated with the Phoenix. I like this one—a gorgeous bird AND fire—but I’m troubled by the vague association without explanation.

Maybe it's the Buddhist thing. Because peacocks can eat poisonous plants without harm, Buddhists say they represent the wisdom and immortality of the bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who skip Nirvana in order to stick around and help out unenlightened humans.

Yeah. I like this one. So I have 13 bodhisattvas releasing me daily, temporarily, from the heaviness of living—stress, worry (kids, the economy, the planet, how to make a greywater recycling setup out of fishline and a garden hose), the incessant tick-tick-ticking of my demon companion Time, the deep bruise of losing friends & family. Let go. Walking around the farmyard among the peafowl, I transcend all that in brief, illuminated moments of merely being. And drooling.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Road Trip Reverie 2009

Driving across the state of South Dakota on I-90, it’s misleading to think you’re pretty near anything.

If you’re wearing the visor of a new Detroit Tigers cap pulled low over your eyes, you can look like you’re grading papers when you’re really napping.

A raucus shuffle of YES, Jimi Hendrix, Howard Jones, Pink Floyd, and Steppenwolf,
cranked loud enough to make the windows rattle, makes good road music and entertains over-the-road truckers.

Jimi Hendrix was hot.

Gyoto Monks Gregorian chant does not make good road music and can result in sleepy cross-lane drifting.

I was hot at 20. If Jimi Hendrix and I had met, let’s say a chance encounter in Omaha where his rig broke down and the part wouldn’t come in for three days, and we’d fallen in love then ran off to get married in Vegas, we would have had a troubled, volatile life and gorgeous children. Super-hot.

Wall Drug is a must-see. Once.

Time is a phenomenon of layers. At any given mile marker I pass on I-90, someone I know will be sleeping, directing a choir, dying, falling in love, giving birth, dancing, walking a dog, shoveling snow, planning a parade, eating truffles, moving a piano, playing a piano, driving north out of Louisiana, recording a new song, writing a new poem, choosing a college, or facing divorce.

At home on the range, the deer and the antelope do not play. They hang out in the shade, comparing antlers.

I wonder where my old scrapbook of concert tickets is…in a Rubbermaid tub in the basement? Did I see YES 4 or 5 times? Did I see It’s a Beautiful Day, or only dream I saw them?

Car clutter expands in direct proportion to the number of Interstate miles traversed.

I’m grateful for my job, my friends, my minivan mobile sofa, Mini Pearl. I’m grateful for Ray, my mom, our kids, dogs, parrots, peacocks, barn cats, even my three brothers. I’m grateful for shifting clouds of migrating snow geese. I’m grateful that sometimes love is so big it splits the heart like too much water in a ripe plum.

Dorothy was right…there’s no place like home.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Crossing the Corpus Calossum

South Dakota has a split personality. The state is divided vertically down the middle by the Missouri River. Take whatever bridge you want across the river or back—you’re really crossing a geographical corpus calossum. That’s the strip of white matter down the middle of the mammalian brain, which regulates activity & communication between the two halves. Exactly like the I-90 bridge at Chamberlain, SD. Exactly.

We all know the general left brain/right brain stuff—left is analytical, practical, linear, and best symbolized by an expensive pinstriped Ital
ian suit; right is creative, visual, circular, and best symbolized by a pull-on broomstick skirt, gauzy peasant blouse, and LOTS of patchouli.

Think of East River as the right brain. These inventive prairie folks have 101 uses for spring clothespins: locking in the freshne
ss of family-sized bags of potato chips, hanging re-used Ziploc bags upside-down to dry, repairing pesky wardrobe malfunctions. I once saw a mailman drive his pickup backwards around a quarter-section to avoid a small drift and help a crazy old lady stuck in her car, so he could push her off the big drift she drove around a quarter-section, forward, to plow into. Circular thinking all around. East River folks forestall the winter “seasonal straightjacket” with exceptional creativity: crafting hostess aprons out of potato chip bags and peacock feathers; planning spring pasture labyrinths with cardboard & duct tape scale models in the dining room; conducting unofficial trials of linoleum cleaners. East River folks grow crops. They’re all vegetarians.

West River (left brain) folks have the “no pussy-footin’ around” pragmatism of the Old West. They live in rangeland, badlands, or the Black Hills. They go about their business in either of their two seasons, pre-winter or winter, with total disregard for up to 200 inches of snow. They put chains across roads that disappear for the winter, then they snowmobile in. They’re carnivores. They graze cattle or run them in the forest. They clank their four-wheelers over cattle grates. Their freezers are stocked with cow, deer, elk, antelope. West River folks swim in stock ponds. They stock stock pond
s with fish then eat those, too. And in their infinite practicality, they open truffle shops in mining & gambling towns, because they know that when West River folks make it to town, you’d better have damn fine chocolate and a decent espresso.

So Ray and I are in Spearfish, SD right now, visiting friends Deirdra and Buster, trying not to stick out as the touchy-feely, patchouli-soaked flatlanders that we are. The roads were perfect on the drive out, then Spearfish got 10” of new snow over the next 24 hours. But we’re trying to exercise our West River brains while we’re here, so Tuesday, we scoffed (nervously) at the snow and headed into Spearfish Canyon. Amazing. Awesome. It makes me wonder if West River bravado is a ruse to keep the kibosh on the breathtaking finery of the Hills in winter white and keep curious East River pansies out.

Yesterday, we continued our east/west re
search by braving the icy trails to Deadwood to visit our friends Spencer, Rita, and Harvey. And to test my machisma, my West River metal, I forced myself to sample the Chubby Chipmunk’s crème brule truffle. I tell ya, it’s a rough & rugged life out west…

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dancing in the Temple

It’s Spring Break at last in Little Town. To celebrate, we went last night to Harry’s Lounge Emporium, where the infamous Whole Damn Band was playing. At home today, with no pressing appointments, classes, committee work, or meetings, I’ve had time to reflect on things one should avoid at my age:

1. Interpretive Dance. Having never learned to dance properly, and being a child of the hippie “we’re all beautiful” era of wild abandon, I dance in a style that’s a bizarre combo of Egyptian temple dancers, Elaine from Seinfeld, Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In, and someone with voluntary muscle spasms. At my age, one night of this sort of dancing can result in a week of misaligned hips, cramped calf muscles, a torqued upper torso, a strange sensation in one little toe, and several chiropractic co-pays.

2. Interpretive Dance in a lounge frequented by one’s students. This has two possible outcomes: students who create traffic hazards when they fall on the floor laughing hysterically, or students who create traffic hazards when they freeze, horrified, in the middle of a room.

3. Sambuca. This Italian anise-y, syrupy liquid, like so many things in life, is deceptively sweet and extremely dangerous. The recommended antidote is a fuzzy blankie, absolute motionlessness, 4000 mg. of Vitamin C, and a Harry Potter marathon.

4. Staying up past one’s increasingly early bedtime. This causes otherwise normal adults to growl and snarl like cornered rabid animals.

5. Thinking you know more than your mother. She was right all along about milktoast and weak tea for convalescing after a night on the town. You may think the bean burritos look good the next day, but you’ll pay, and your mother will grin.

6. Giving advice to younger colleagues. When a perky colleague says she’s just turned 39, buy her a beer and toast her youthful brilliance. Avoid saying things like, “Wait till you hit 40,” “You aint seen nothin’ yet,” “It’s all downhill from here,” or “You’re lucky they’ve made such strides in hip replacement surgery.”

Tomorrow, Ray and I leave for a few days in the Black Hills to visit friends and sneak in a little R & R. Back in the day, as the kids say, we would have thrown a clean shirt, a bag of sunflower seeds, and a few cassette tapes in a backpack and hit the road. But at our age, we’ve been making lists and packing for days: a duffel of food, treats, and fluffy toys for the dogsitter, enough clothes for both of us to change eight times daily for several months, a bag of assorted vitamins & supplements, a bag of toiletries, a backpack of papers to grade, a cooler of yogurt for digestive health, along with anything that might spoil in the fridge if we leave it, our favorite pillows, an emergency car/first-aid kit, camera, iPods, Nintendo DS (for brain age exercises), knitting, assorted chargers, and a garbage bag full of comfortable shoes. Which leads me to one more thing to avoid…

7. Traveling.