Saturday, May 30, 2009

Summer Suffering

It’s early summer at Uncannery Row, and Ray and I worked on the yard all last weekend, our own memorial to anyone who’s ever loved & tended a little piece of land. We got the vegetable garden mostly in and mulched it with landscape fabric and straw. We planted new perennials, yellow’s to offset my propensity toward a monochromatic purplish-blue. We mowed, weed-whacked, trimmed, pruned. We cleared brush by the Tower, and Ray cut down a few trees to improve the meditation/mower paths. Finally, Ray put together the new patio furniture, so we could sit and survey our labors on Monday.

After we’d surveyed for a bit with a nice glass of Malbec, I discovered I was no longer able to move. It was as if a mysterious force had, while I sipped my wine, replaced everything under my skin with cement. I was a cement sausage.

I used to think “hamstring” was cotton twine wrapped around a nice honey-glazed chunk of smoked pork. Apparently, hamstrings are muscles, angry and spiteful, that I had rudely awakened. Who’d’a thunk. So I spent most of last week downing Advil, sitting on a heating pad, and playing ring-toss with dog food, trying to fill the dishes without bending over.

In addition to suffering this muscle-revenge pain, I’m always a little anxious this time of year about the Peeling Off of Layers. This is a South Dakota phenomenon whereby people, signaled by the appearance of annuals in the Hy-Vee parking lot, start to strip. First it’s the parka (seriously…we had snow in early June last year), then the jacket, then the sweater, then the long pants, then the shoes & socks, etc., until most folks are wearing a tiny sundress, cargo shorts and a muscle shirt, teensy little hotpants and a spaghetti-strap tank, or just a strip of cloth and an expensive tan.

The annual Peeling makes me anxious on two counts: (1) no part of me will ever again fit into anything described as “teensy”, “little” or “mini”. Clothing that looks adorable and chic on hangers, magically transforms into oddly-angled rippling, bulging distortions of color and pattern on my body; and (2) I am a white girl. By that I mean that I am not just pale or not-tan, I am glow-in-the-dark white. And I have freckles that sharpen, darken, and multiply in the sun until I look like an aging Opie Taylor, if Opie was overweight, had long braids, and occasionally wore a skirt.

Ray and I will be back at it again this weekend, mowing, weeding, and planting bleeding heart, black raspberries, and trumpet vines. I’m starting the Advil and Tiger Balm now, and I’ll be mowing later, smeared with SPF 10,000, in my long-sleeved flannel shirt, overalls, a safari sunblocking hat, work boots, and garden gloves. If you drive by, please, try not to honk & disturbs the nesting peahens.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Rorschach Gardens II: OCG

My mom and I both suffer from OCG—Optimistic Cosmic Gardening. It’s a rare syndrome, easily identified by the hoarding and display of perennial flowers and certain categories of yard art.

My mom has a garden that takes up most of her front yard on one side of the porch, with clusters of perennials in every color, interspersed with an astounding collection of fairy sculptures. She has so many fairies, that she’s grouping them in “scenes” now—one reading to another, several with musical instruments grouped into a fairy band, and a small village of crystal-ball fairies. And the entire garden lights up at night with solid, twinkling, or color-changing solar lights, which gives it a spooky resemblance to Mr. C’s (sans plastic grapes; see post 12/11/08). In the advanced stages of OCG, she’ll have elaborate fairy dioramas propped up against the siding and she’ll start charging admission for the “tour.”

Mom has another garden on the other side of her front porch. This “space” garden, as she calls it, has red perennials and two unusual sculptures her good friend Sue bought her at a sidewalk art fair: an obelisk of old red glass dishes and milk glass vases glued together, and a huge, red, concrete ball. My son dug the ball into the ground, so it looks like a fallen meteor. This garden makes the older neighborhood women say, “Hmmm. Isn’t that…interesting.”

Mom’s back yard is fenced, and the yard & fence are decorated with every kind of star imaginable: metal sculpture, twinkling/flashing/color-changing solar stars, enameled, hung, strung, propped or posted.

In the Rorschach interpretation of gardens, Mom’s gardens make perfect sense. Hers has been a life of hard work, sacrifice, and always, always, caring for others. So it isn’t surprising that now, when she can finally do what SHE wants, she’s nesting among wishful stars, a rainbow of flowers, and the whimsy of fairies (makes my mom sound like a Care Bear, I know). And practical woman that she is, the gardens are also a convenient mapping tool when they’re all lit up at night and visible from space.

I’m in the early stages of OCG. My gardens are an unkempt, wild mix of mostly blue, purple, or red perennials, with iconic statuary tucked into every available space (see post 9/28/08). And scattered in the trees and gardens are blue & green solar orbs. At night they float above the ground with a soft glow, my own private galaxy. In the Rorschach analysis, maybe the flowers (and weeds) keep me grounded, while the statuary and orbs remind me there’s more out there. There’s mystery, magic, things unexplained and unexplainable. Or maybe they remind me that without the grounding of dirt & rooted things, I’d drift off into the ether.

Yesterday, Mom cooked fried chicken, and Ray, Mom and I had a lovely dinner followed by martinis and wine—temporary relief from our collective symptoms—around the new patio table, oohing and ahhing over the flowers, the lawn, the peacocks calling from the trees. It occurred to me, listening to the conversation, that OCG is most common in people who garden as a sign of eternal hope. We tend to be caretakers—planting, mulching, mowing or pruning in FAITH that what we create today will one day enrich lives or, maybe, rarify the planet just a little.

I know I shouldn’t wish maladies on my children, but I want my kids to have this optimism, too, to be grounded but always aware of the infinite puzzle of the Universe. I want them to believe that what they plant today will still be growing & spreading, like South Dakota Creeping Jenny, generations from now.

And I don’t think I’ll need to browbeat the kids with these lessons. Judging from my yard and Mom’s, OCG is genetic.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sprung by Spring

Semester, my blind & belching tormentor at Little Town U, finally drop-kicked me out of the dungeon when it became apparent he couldn’t get another drop of blood from me. But no matter that I’m an anemic, jittery, puffball of my former self, having put on 50 malnutritive pounds from living on high-test java and Doritos dipped in peanut butter while sitting at the computer for 12 to 15-hour stretches. Never mind that I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since January, or that my language skills have been reduced to “Really, a sentence needs a subject AND a verb” and “Text me.”

None of this matters, because Uncannery Row is in its pre-summer splendor, and I can already feel the pink coming back into my cheeks. Today I planted seven hanging baskets with blue lobelia and red & purple petunias (the dark purple are the only petunias that smell, and they smell wonderful). Three hens are out in the tall grass somewhere, sitting on nests, so we’ll have peachicks in about a month. Spring rain is filling up the dog pond by the meditation tower, and the frogs are singing. In the greenhouse, the jasmine vine is blooming, filling the house with a perfume that I swear is a tranquilizer, and my mom bought us patio furniture for our anniversary.

So although I’m already teaching a four-week summer class, I have only eight students, and I can grade papers (eight only) outside under the umbrella, with a glass of wine, a couple of naughty dogs, a skulking barn cat or two, and curious meandering peafowl.

And tomorrow night, Ray’s band is playing in Little Town, so I will get these nearly-atrophied muscles back in shape and my sluggish peanutty blood thinned & moving again. It’ll be a night of fine music, the company of many, many wandering souls recently released from Semester’s cold & clammy grip, good dark beer (for the B vitamins, you know), and impromptu interpretive dance.

An 85-year-old Kentucky woman, Nadine Stair said, “If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.” Ditto. I’ve been holed-up long enough, and spring has finally sprung me. Tomorrow night, I’m gonna take off my shoes, drag my pasty self out onto the dance floor, and whirl like a merry-go-round.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day Invocation

When my only daughter was born, I lived in my family’s huge old former boarding house, the Tucker Hotel, in Omaha. We lived with my mother and grandmother, my oldest son, and my youngest brother. And for a short time, there were four generations of powerhouse Tucker women under one roof.

My mom and daughter both live in Little Town now, about 20 minutes from me, and my daughter just found out she’ll be a first-time mom herself around Thanksgiving. So if she has a girl, there will once again be four generations of Tucker women under one [slightly bigger] roof. What an amazing, comforting continuity.

So here’s to grandmas, moms, daughters and granddaughters everywhere—the powerhouses that keep this wonky planet wobbling…


If you were any more alive in me, Mother,
my heart would burst, split open
like a ripe peach soaked in holy water.

Whisper from every corner of this clapboard
cathedral, Our Lady of Perpetual Chores,
your small and powerful prayers:

white coral bells
itsy bitsy spider
battle hymn of the republic

Chant caramel pudding and corn casserole
recipes, ancient sacred texts handed down
from your own mother, that dark marble saint

atop the bell tower, one arm wrapped around
a gilded laundry basket, a silver pressure cooker
cradled in the other. Her heart, too, burst open.

Keep me, I ask, in your blessing of trying, failing,
laughing about failure. Grant me the grace
of history, repeated mistakes, promises.

Look down on me with love when they raise you
to the bell tower, at the way I sing your praises
off-key, from behind my daughter’s stove.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Follow the NOGS

Some people think life is linear. Some think it’s circular. I think it’s a spiral, like one gigantic, infinite, quaking bedspring that vibrates you round & round till you’re spiraling off into the galaxy, all dreamy-eyed. Ray says I’m just procrastinating. I know I need to settle in and grade these 55 literary analysis research papers. But Ray doesn’t get that I’m wisely, intuitively, following the NOGS (Natural Order of the Great Spiral), so first…

I’ll make coffee. I can’t give students my most attentive, constructive comments, unless I’m fully caffeinated & alert. And because I make strong, dark, rich Italian roast in a slow-drip Chemex process (see 10/12/08 post), it could take a while. So while I’m waiting for the coffee…

I’ll clean my home office. My office is in one corner of a greenhouse on the south side of our house, and I can’t concentrate on the logic of students’ arguments amid chaos & clutter, so I’ll alphabetize my books, sort my blank paper by weight & color, shake out the lambskin on Yogi's doggy bed, clear and dust shelves, until I notice…

The windows need washing. Good light is essential for efficient grading and for the mood enhancement I’ll need to be a generous, objective grader. So I’ll mix up some ammonia water and just give the windows a quick rinse. While I’m in the kitchen putting the window-washing stuff away, I’ll pour some water over the coffee, and while the coffee’s brewing…

I’ll feed the peacocks. I’d never be able to concentrate knowing the peacocks are hungry, so I’ll just toss out some corn. But if I’m feeding the peas…

I may as well feed the cats. Snowball looks pregnant, so I’ll just leave some food out in the pyramid. And as long as I’m out here…

I should pull those weeds and mulch around the lavender. If I don’t do it now, the weeds will be harder to pull. Once I’ve got half that flower bed done…

I’ll check on the coffee. While it’s brewing, I’ll unload my backpack and bags, and sort my school stuff into piles—papers to grade, grade book and rosters, papers to return. Then, to make the grading go faster and more efficiently…

I’ll sort the research papers by class, alphabetize the pile for each class, and form three perfectly uniform piles of them on the office shelves I’ve cleared. I’m almost ready to start, so…

I’ll go back down to the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee. But I also need to put that chicken in the crockpot, and I should add sweet potatoes, parsnips, an onion, celery, and a red pepper, too, so I’ll just scrub & peel and get that going. Then…

I’ll top off my coffee, grab several colored pens & assorted highlighters from my backpack, and head back up to my office to settle in. But really…

It’s too late in the day to get a good start, so I think I’ll make a quick trip to Sioux City and check out those Keens on sale at Scheel’s. Because good arch support and heel shocks will help my posture, which I’ll need to prevent the “teacher’s neck” I could get from leaning over the desk as I grade. And you know…

Omaha’s not that far from Sioux City, and Mother’s Day’s coming, and I could just make a quick run down to the Souq in the Old Market, and then…

Saturday, May 2, 2009


It’s Peafowl Prom Week at Uncannery Row. The place is perfectly gaudy with daffodils, red tulips, hyacinth, solar plastic Mary, other assorted solar lights, Buddha statuary, and prayer flags—a sort of Night in the Iconic Garden theme. Horny little peaboys strut past the hens in an awkward high-stepping dance, decked out in their pea-tuxes, drumming their wing feathers and comparing sizes of their eyed trains. When the boys line up out by the fence, acting so cool, I can almost smell the Clearasil and Marlboros.

Ray witnessed a pea-mating recently (the back seat was full and Mom and Dad were home) that confirmed Ike, our white pea, is actually Isetta. The young stud, Junior, did the deed fast as lightning, with little ceremony or romance. I’m pretty sure I heard him say, “No really, Isetta, I love you. Honest.”

Within the next couple of weeks, the hens, their little promise rings on their pea-toes, will disappear one by one as they choose hidden nest sites out in the tall pasture grass (please, no peas in the window wells again—a disaster last summer) and begin to lay eggs. Peahens don’t build nests; they simply flatten a depression in tall grass, add a little down, and settle in. The nests are extremely well-hidden, and the hen is silent when she’s sitting on eggs. In fact, the rest of the flock will raise a ruckus whenever she takes a break, creating a diversion so predators won’t find the nest.

Once her clutch is laid—4-8 large white eggs—a hen will sit tight for about 28 days. The big boys keep singing and strutting for a while, though their job is really done. They’ll spend the rest of the summer working part-time at the Kwik-Shop and learning “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar.

Because I’ve mucked up Mother Nature’s delicate order, our peahens will leave the nest many late afternoons to come into the yard, gossip and have coffee with the girls at The Bird Bath, and stop by the Buffet Table for a bite. Then, with another loud ruckus from the flock, the girls will fly back to the nest for the night.

There was a home for “wayward” girls near where I grew up in Omaha—Uta Halee. With the possibility of seven breeding hens, I’m feeling like a Uta Halee house mother. And with the potential for another 20 baby peacocks this summer, my “crazy peacock lady” days can’t be far off. I’d better practice walking the meditation trail in my pea-feather dress…