Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Why we shouldn't have read all those Cormack McCarthy novels...

Ray and I have been reading McCarthy novels lately, and the author may have inadvertently given us the wrong impression of Mexico. I know this based on Ray’s reaction to the trip I’m taking with Mom. We’re leaving tomorrow for Merida, Mexico, in the Yucatan, to spend a week with my oldest brother and sister-in-law, who live there.

Ray thinks one or more of the following will happen: (1) I’ll end up a mule for the drug cartels (‘cause pudgy redhaired pasty-white women blend in so well); (2) I’ll contract swine flu (which the media now say originated in Asia, not Mexico…gosh we’re awfully sorry about your ruined Mexican tourist industry); (3) I’ll be kidnapped by horse-thieving banditos and forced into topless servitude in a remote desert cantina (the McCarthy effect).

What will really happen is we’ll spend our mornings having coffee on the back patio or touring, and our afternoons reading by the pool. My brother thinks I may be intimidated by Merida’s hot weather, humidity, and mosquitoes, but he’s never lived in South Dakota. Bring it, I say. It can’t possibly be worse than picking and canning wild prairie plums in late July, and we do that for FUN around here.

After a few days in Merida, we’ll head for Tulum, where we’ll lie around on the beach, reading and listening to the Caribbean tide wash in (you should be hearing Enya in your head about now). The resort website says they serve fresh fruit on the beach every morning. It sounds pretty rough, but I’m willing to take one for the team.

Lest you think it’ll all be surf & sand, I’ll probably also get to experience the Mexican healthcare system when I’m rushed to the ER with severe sunburn. I’m taking SPF gazillion “for babies” with me, since some of my lily-white skin has never seen the light of day, but a recent NPR story suggested those SPF numbers are only accurate if you paste the stuff ¼” thick on every centimeter of exposed skin. Proper sunscreen application may depend on whether or not they serve rum on the beach, too.

I’m planning to blog at least once from Mexico, also depending on the sunburn & rum. Don’t read any McCarthy while I’m gone, and take care of each other till I get home…

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Squeezing in Summer Fun

By this time of year, I usually remember one of the reasons I teach for a living—summer. South Dakota summer is an annual celebration of sunlight & nature, a brief release from Jack Blizzard’s deepfreeze and the perpetual browns and greys of winter. Prairie folk can squeeze an amazing amount of temperate joy (both literally and philosophically, ‘cause we don’t cotton to that loud, wild kind) out of a relatively short season, maybe because the winters here make us so grateful for warmth & color.

Over the past couple of weeks, Ray and I have finally been getting the flower gardens cleaned up and mulched, deciding to settle for the “wild prairie gardens” look, since lambsquarter sprouts up instantly behind us as we go along pulling and hacking at weeds.

The peaflock is in summer mode, too. Our three adult males (Ramon, Francoise, and Junior) have split the farmyard into small kingdoms, and all three are parading, dancing, and fluttering for all they’re worth, in spite of the fact that the hens too young to nest would rather eat bugs than pitch woo. The big boys occasionally take time out from strutting to run at breakneck speed after the three young males (Zorro, Zarathustra, and Zachariah), who evade by flying up on the pyramid roof. It’s not unlike college kids on a Friday night at Carey’s (our favorite hometown bar).

Two of the older hens (Wanda and Mitzi) have been skirting the farmyard with three new chicks each. Ike, who is either sexually flexible or is really Izetta, made a nest this year but soon abandoned the responsibility in favor of sticking closer to She Who Gives Corn (me). Ike’s the tamest of the bunch and she follows me when I mow or ambles around the patio when I sit outside. At least one hen is still nesting, although a loud pea-ruckus yesterday makes me think her eggs were hatching—often a hen will give a certain honk when eggs are hatching, then the flock will raise cain as if to draw predatory attention away from the nest. If we end up with 18 surviving peas this summer, we will have tripled the pea-population in the three years we’ve been here. We may have to buy up a few more acres and plant them in corn.

A summer favorite on the prairie is the potluck. I’ve been to several so far, including our semi-monthly Sisters of Perpetual Disorder women’s dinners, a wedding shower at Carey’s, a wedding dance, and going-away gatherings for Little Town U. faculty. At potlucks, one can sample a variety of traditional SD foods: “loose meat sandwiches” or “barbecues” (any meat-on-bun combo), “bars” (we called them “brownies” growing up in NE, regardless of color/flavor), and hot dishes (we called these “casseroles”). I know...it took me a while to learn South Dakotanese, too.

My friend Millie and I head for the beach when we can work it into our busy summer schedules. We go to Lewis & Clark state park, an impressive recreation area on a dammed section of the Missouri River in Yankton, SD. The river & river bluffs, dam, lake, aquarium, and campgrounds always surprise people who picture eastern SD as merely a waterless expanse of flat cornfields. Millie and I are casual beachgoers, mostly laying out (although with red hair and freckles, I’m usually slathered in SPF 9000—not sure you can really call that laying out). When we get too hot, we laze in the water on our floaties.

Another SD summer favorite is the street dance. Small town downtown streets are roped off, someone hauls in a flatbed for a stage, the street is lined with picnic tables, and a great time is had by all. We went to our first summer street dance last night to hear two Norfolk, NE bands (pronounced “nor-fork” for reasons as mysterious as the SD pronunciation of state capital Pierre as “peer”). Jim Casey and the Lightning Band played old rock and country, and Smoke Ring, a horn band, played old R & B. We danced, a special treat for me since my dance partner is usually the band’s drummer (for those old enough to remember, I believe the woman in the white shirt was a former Shindig dancer).

In Little Town, Fridays mean Happy Hour at Carey’s. Two or three of Ray’s band mates play old standards, and in the summer, they’re out on the patio. It’s a great time, and the 5-7-ish time slot gets us midlife partiers home in plenty of time to doze peacefully in our Lazygirls after all the sun, wind, dark beer, singing along, visiting and laughing.

Today, summer is cranking up the heat again, and the recent rains left swirling clouds of newly-hatched mosquitoes, driving us inside. So this will be a knitting day (I’m knitting a lace scarf out of soy silk), grocery shopping later, something on the grill for dinner, and a nice wine, one that complements Deep Woods Off.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Heat is On

In his poem “The Cutting Prow,” beat poet Ed Sanders wrote, The last blue iris blooms at / the top of its stalk. Sanders was writing about painter Henri Matisse, but he could have been writing about Uncannery Row.

Spring was merely a fleeting tease at the Row this year, just enough to trigger our urge to plant enough jalapenos to supply the upper Midwest. The iris and climbing roses are a fading memory, and although Solstice/Father’s Day is barely past, Sweltering Summer is already visiting her pent-up wrath upon us. It’s been in the upper-90’s for the past couple of days and has “cooled off” to the upper 80’s today. And after the rain and storms of the last couple weeks, I could throw sage on the patio and the Row would be one big sweat lodge.

The heat is good training for Mom’s and my upcoming July trip to the Yucatan in Mexico. We’ll spend about 10 days visiting my expat brother, exploring ruins, and dipping our pasty-white feet in the Caribbean. Their daily temps can be in triple digits this time of year, so we may do a lot more dipping than exploring. As part of my training, I’ve also been brushing up on essential Spanish: Quiero una cerveza oscura, por favor. Donde está el baño? Lléveme al aire acondicionado, ahora.

The peacocks are feeling the heat, too. They find a shady spot of bare dirt, usually in one of my gardens, and hunker down for most of the day. They will sometimes head for the dirt floor of the loafing shed and kick up a nice dust bath, which probably helps them fend off our new gnat population. Two of the three nesting hens are spooking around the edges of the farmyard with brand new baby chicks, so now we are 19. We named the new babies (two groups of three) Wynken, Blynken and Nod, and Larry, Moe, and Curly. Any minute now, “crazy peacock lady” pinfeathers will start poking out of my ample armflaps.

In spite of the recent rain and 100% humidity, the heat means I have to water almost daily, while the dogs stand like garden statues in their patio baby pool. And I need to tackle the flower beds, which have turned into tropical jungles of lambs quarters and creeping whatever. It was too dry to weed for a while, then too wet. But now it’s too hot. So really, I only have two choices: Hide in the AC and knit up something wonderful with the luscious white alpace yarn I’ve been saving, or turn on Animal Planet for the dogs & parrots, and head to the beach with frozen water bottles, SPF 9000, and a floaty. Ah, Summer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Real Irish Blessing: Love, Food, Diapers

We went to a wedding in Minnesota this weekend, 50-something friends whose magnetic Irish genes, love of music, and appreciation for a good yarn (the blarney kind, not the spun wool kind) pulled them together.

During the wedding, I got to hold the couple’s newborn granddaughter, Layla because, well, I’m pushy and just took her, and because I ADORE babies. The sheer miracle of a baby makes me weepy and weak-kneed, and I would probably be popping out #13 or #14 of my own by now had I not discovered shortly after after my third was already here that ALL humans turn 16 eventually.

Off-topic: Looking for fool-proof planned parenthood education & motivation? Instead of having junior high kids carry around little mechanical dolls to babysit for 24 hours, have them be totally responsible—physically, morally, financially—for a real 16-year-old for a week. Voila.

As I jiggled baby Layla, I had an epiphany about the simplicity of the human condition: we all just want food, someone to love us, and someone willing to change our diaper (the most intimate expression of love).

Think about it. Wars over land? Food. Religious wars? Someone to love us (god/God) and possibly someone willing to change our diaper (god/God). Marital strife? Jealousy? Greed? Lust? Fear of old age? Love, food, food, love, diaper. Facebook? Sex? Petty crime? Love, diaper, food.

I could see this triad at work the next day at the wedding dance, too. At least six groups of musicians played over the course of the day. These men (and a couple of women) in their 50’s and 60’s rocked, polka’d, or reeled out, some reliving memories of their glory days, some musically reconnecting with old friends they hadn’t seen in ages. And I know it’s about the music, but that little craving to perform seems also to be a craving for love.

While the bands played, we party-goers were busy worker ants, marching single file to and from an endless supply of amazingly delicious cakes—table to chocolate cake to table to white cake to table to carrot cake. Food. Okay, maybe love too—it IS cake, after all.

On this joyous occasion of two human beings finding each other amid the chaos, it became clear to me that the happy couple had, like Ray and I, been blessed with a social arrangement that provides each partner with the basic three: FOOD (income, cooking skill, the good sense to come home with take-out every now & then), SOMEONE TO LOVE US, and SOMEONE WILLING TO CHANGE A DIAPER (our baby’s initially and, more importantly, our own eventually).

Off-topic: If life really comes to down to these three basic needs, we should be thrilled and grateful for any adult—straight, crooked, gay, lesbian, mentally challenged, transgendered, gender-reassigned, old wrinkly women, ancient crotchety men, even English teachers—lucky enough to find another human being willing to help provide for those needs. Thinking we can dictate who provides for whom is really just jockeying for power & control, which is really just fear & insecurity that maybe we won't find enough love for ourselves.

Off-topic note to young people: Roll your eyes, snicker, and pooh-pooh the old geezers while you can. But know that Depends are in your future, too, and then, lemme tell you, it won’t be about career, philosophy, politics, religion, or technology. It won’t matter how fast you can text or how you look in a tube top. When you’re old (or middle aged, cuz I already FEEL like this some days), it’ll be all about whether or not you can lie back, look up at the ceiling, and smile & coo like baby Layla. And THAT will all depend (yuk yuk) on love. And food. And a clean diaper.

(art by Jane Duke, http://www.janeduke.com/)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sisters of Perpetual Disorder

I attended the June meeting of the Sisters of Perpetual Disorder last night. These are monthly (mostly) gatherings of midlife women (including two mother/daughter sets last night!). We rotate to a different member’s house each time (so no one will have to clean two months in a row), and we have a loosely-themed potluck dinner, drink a few bottles of wine, chat, laugh a LOT, drink a couple pots of coffee, divvy up the leftovers in recycled yogurt containers, and adjourn.

At last night’s meeting, we were joined at the table by our constant midlife companions, Nostalgia and Confession. But these are not the sappy, sentimental pals one might expect, because one of the best things about middle-aged women is that if you get a bunch of them together, all pretense of propriety and dignity (at least in terms of storytelling), goes out the window.

For example, there’s one well-traveled woman’s story of two ex-lovers—one with whom she’d dallied in the Midwest, one with whom she’d cavorted in South America—and how the two men happened to meet at a base camp in the Himalayas and, over dinner later, discovered they had HER in common. Take that, Kevin Bacon.

Or another woman’s story of drinking too many dirty martinis at a wedding reception because Jennifer Aniston said they were her favorite drink, so she wanted to try them for herself. A few tries later, she missed her chair to find herself on the floor, carried on conversations she only knew of from reports she got much later, and eventually snuck off to the kitchen to beg a lobster from the chef. She packed the lobster in her suitcase among her clothes, and the next morning, she and her crustacean leftovers flew home.

Or another woman’s story of digging her scrapbook out of a box one day to discover that she’d been to a Grateful Dead concert in the 1970’s. There were hand-written comments in the margins of the scrapbook next to the ticket stub—who she’d gone with, what she thought of the opening band, how the Dead boys sounded, etc.—and she recognized the handwriting as her own. She was both thrilled to know she’d seen the Dead play live, and utterly disappointed to have no memory whatsoever of having been at the concert.

Or another woman’s stories about dating a cockeyed Missouri hillbilly guitar player until she took up with the Irish bartender. No kidding.

Or another woman’s story about waitressing in the 1970’s. She’d stopped to pick up glasses from a booth table and found the occupants of the booth had not, in fact, left the building. They were under the table, on the floor, naked, engaged in boisterous carnal “discovery.” Talk about last call.

Young people, if they could listen at the keyholes, would be shocked & horrified to learn that these delightful, sensible and wise, gracefully aging women were once (and still are occasionally) wild young people, too.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Why I Love the Dark

1. The Big Secret. Out here in the country, we don’t have streetlights, and there’s rarely traffic after 8 p.m. So when I’m up late at night, and Ray and the dogs are softly snoring, I am the only human on the planet listening to the call of these frogs, owls and coyotes. Or watching a grey blur, which must be Snowball, slinking low to the ground toward the barn. Or smelling the plum blossoms on the night wind. Or hearing the peacocks flutter in the Tree, their communal roost. Or feeling the subtle shift and groan of the house or the earth. It reminds me of the childhood taunt, I know something you don’t know, except we all know I’m way too mature for that.

2. Stillness. Okay, I can’t believe I’m quoting Bruce Lee, who said, “Only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest.” In the still dark, the illusion falls away, and I get a glimpse, briefly, of the peaceful real world.

3. Magic. The strange elixir of darkness sometimes gives me a drop or two of youth, enabling me to stay up past 10 p.m. It sometimes makes me howl at the moon. It sometimes makes me dance in the pasture in my nightgown. Boy howdy, if I could bottle this stuff, I could quit my job and open my fantasy yarn/coffee/pastry shop…

4. Night-blooming Cereus. Peniocereus greggii. Queen of the Night. About 25 years ago, my grandma carried home from Georgia on a plane a tiny cutting of this desert cactus relative for me. The cereus is now about 7 feet tall. Every once in while in June or July, it blesses us with a blossom or two. The milky-white flowers, which can be 6-8” across, start to open around 10 p.m. We can literally watch them tremble and open. The subtle sweet perfume is hypnotic. Whenever it blooms, I want to call the neighbors, make popcorn, install theatre seating, charge admission. By midnight the bloom is fully open, and by dawn it’s closed and dropping off. One night. That’s it. Only in the dark, only if we’re paying attention. I have foisted cuttings, rare & precious gifts, on many people over the years, but the plant itself is so homely and spindly—Mom calls it the “ugly plant”—that they often look at me askew. You wait, I say. You just wait.

5. Rest. I don’t mean sleep. I mean that in the dead of night, I don’t clean house, pull weeds, do laundry, answer the phone, check my email, etc. The deepest darkness is my permission to simply watch, listen, think, breathe, be.