Sunday, January 31, 2010

Creepy Guy Sets Me Straight

In the summer of 1975, when I was but a teen, my friend Steve and I were on our way to a YES concert in Lincoln, NE. We came upon a motorcycle accident on O Street. The bike was lying in the right-hand driver’s lane, and the driver, a young man in his early 20’s maybe, was lying half in the street and half up the curb. I muscled my way into the crowd, nosy thing that I am and aspiring Florence Nightengale (I was still planning on a nursing career at that point). The kid was unconscious, lying on his back, and his shoulder-length dark hair was matted against the sidewalk in a small pool of blood. He gurgled and rasped, and I could see blood in his mouth rising up and going back in with every breath. I yelled for someone to call the ambulance (pre-911/cell phone days), but no one moved. I yelled again, and finally, someone went in the O Street Motel to call.

Meanwhile, a crowd of 20-30 people had gathered but kept a very cautious distance from the kid. No one would touch him. So (and here’s the part that makes people wince), I did two things: (1) I took off my poncho, balled it up, and put it gently under his feet; somewhere in my Dr. Kildare/General Hospital viewing I had heard about elevating feet to prevent shock. And (2) I gently, slowly, tilted his head slightly to the side so the blood would run out, not back in, and wiped out his mouth out with my sweater.

This is the clearest memory of the incident for me: A man leaned over my shoulder as I knelt beside the kid, and he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Give it up. The guy’s dead, man.” My teen blood boiled. I gave Creepy Guy a pointy elbow-jab, held the kid’s limp hand, got down in his face, and semi-shouted one long run-on sentence until the ambulance showed up: “You’re not dead I’m right here with you I’ll stay here until the ambulance comes stay with me you’ll be okay help is on its way that’s my hand you’re feeling don’t let go…” The ambulance came, I left my poncho behind, and Steve and I went on to the concert.

I never found out if the kid lived or died. I never knew his name. I didn’t wait around to give my contact info to the ambulance guys. I didn’t try checking the papers, calling the hospitals, or digging for police reports until a few years ago, and by then it was too late; any records going back that far are long gone.

Part of me knows that I didn’t follow up because I knew even then, while I was gingerly moving that kid, that I could have been hastening him to his death. Still, I believed then, and I believe today, that it’s
ALWAYS better to do something, to care enough to act—even if that action is bungling, inept, inadequate, wrong—than to do NOTHING. I tried; I hooked up my will and human compassion to that unconscious kid like a mountaineer’s rope, and I held on, dammit.

I tell this story now because I had a sudden insight into Creepy Guy’s outburst when the news of the Haiti quake broke: Bystanders feel powerless in the face of disaster. We don’t know what to do, we can’t imagine anything powerful enough to fix the damage, so we do nothing. We’re forced to confront our own weak puniness in the face of problems that seem overwhelming. So I privately thanked Creepy Guy for teaching me this lesson, and I did something. I gave a few bucks to Helping Hands for Haiti. I gave a bit to Doctors Without Borders. I gave some to the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, left without water & power in this brutal cold after a recent ice storm.

I don't think I’m fixing anything, and I'll bet there are a bazillion other overwhelming problems I haven’t even thought about. But I'm shaking up and embracing my inner Good Samaritan. I’m holding on to my belief that the smallest acts of kindness work together to keep in motion an amazing tidalwave of human energy and compassion. And I'm doing what I can because I know only this for sure: It’s better to do something—
anything—than to do nothing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

All Dressed in White

The arctic deepfreeze finally let up here at the Row, and we’ve been getting out & about in the balmy 20- or 30-degree days, inching our way back to normal. There are mountains of snow everywhere, with ribbons carved out of gravel roads and county highways just wide enough for cars to pass. School started last Wednesday, and driving into Little Town in the early morning is like crossing the tundra. The scene is breathtaking in its stark black & white contrast, with vast empty pasture & fields blown into oceanscapes of snow tides frozen mid-wave. Dense overnight fog gives us mornings flocked in fuzzy white hoarfrost, quite a spectacle if you’ve never seen it. A couple of mornings, as if it all wasn’t stunning enough, I drove to town in heavy swirling fog; I’m pretty sure Merlin was thumbing a ride on the Greenfield Road.

The recent deepfreeze forced us t
o conjure prairie ingenuity and took me back to my 70’s Earth Mother roots. I made oat bread and parmesan-caper bread, thick Greek-style yogurt, and a splendid granola with 5 grains and 5 kinds of dried fruit. When Mom and I were in the Yucatan last summer, the pretty Italian boys who ran Posada Margherita in Tulum served us breakfasts of Greek yogurt topped with homemade granola and fresh fruit. So Ray and I have been living lately on yogurt, granola and blueberries for breakfast, and hearty soups and parmie caper bread for dinner. Wonderful, though quite different from breakfast under a thatched palapa with the Caribbean surf as a backdrop.

Winter tragedy found its way to the Row yesterday. Returning home from a day of shopping in Sioux City, Ray and I were stopped on our road by two hun
ters in a pickup, letting us know that “someone” had run over three of our peacocks just in front of our house. Maybe these two hunters were the culprits, we’ll never know, but we do know the peas have gotten far too comfortable with traffic. The snow is so deep here that the peas spend a lot of time walking single-file up and down the plowed drive and road—the only open spaces they can navigate right now—and they like to spend sunny afternoons on the narrow plowed road, scratching for gravel and spilled corn. They recognize my van, Mini Pearl, and are often reluctant to budge when I drive in or out of the yard. So it wasn’t surprising that someone barreling down our road might have come suddenly on too-tame, stubborn peacocks, but it was very sad to see the carnage. And now we are 17. This is probably still enough peacocks to qualify me as a Crazy Peacock Woman (one peahen, desperate last week to beat her flockmates to the corn bucket, actually flew up and tried to land on my head), but we’ll have to do some serious horn-honking, shrieking, get-out-of-way-NOW car conditioning lest we lose more of our flock before thaws open up the safer yard and pastures for the peas. It’ll thaw one day, right?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Jack Blizzard, Round Two

I’ll never again speak of “cabin fever” with my former flippant, tongue-in-frozen-cheek humor. After 4 days stuck inside, at the mercy of the Christmas of Ought-Nine Blizzard, Ray and I got out for a week or so to renew our connections with humanity, celebrate our postponed family Christmas, and let our hair down at several New Year’s Eve galas in Little Town. Our temporary freedom, though, makes all the more dismal the fact that today we’re going on Day 4 of Jack Blizzard’s Round Two. Our frustration is heightened by the knowledge that the county road grater hasn’t been able to plow our road, and our neighbor the tractor fairy, who will have to wait on the plow before he can dig out our drifted driveway, can’t get his tractor started. It was -20 overnight, so maybe if it warms up to a balmy -5 today, the tractor will turn over.

In this recent arctic blast (nighttime wind chills of -35), our furnace can’t get our drafty old farmhouse warmer than 59 degrees. We’re running out of wood for the stove that keeps our fingers from freezing into fists, and I’m now talking literary theory to the one remaining African underwater frog (I couldn’t get to town for an aquarium heater).

Ray, who is a peaceful, contented hermit by nature, has been happy as a clam. He has busied himself archiving his phenomenal LP collection, recording albums onto CD, recreating liner notes and album art for CD jackets, and downloading the CD’s into iTunes. He was up to 15,000 songs last I checked. But even Ray has had enough. He’s eyeing the fenceposts and barn siding now as visions of cord wood dance through his head.

Me, I’m a people person. I grew up in a full, noisy household (in the bustling city, no less) and spent the next twenty years or so raising my own chatty children. I do love occasional silence, and I adore the first 48 hours of solitude. At three days, however, I start to get a little tense. I pace just a little. I bake bread and make yogurt. I knit pointy wool hats much too tightly, until they curl at odd angles. By day four, conversational deprivation makes me hunt for someone to strangle.

These are trying times indeed. The parrots have learned to say, “It’s frickin’ freezing!” I’m sick of the word “hearty.” The dogs are stir-crazy. The peacocks are addicted to Meow Mix. I can see traffic on the Interstate a half-mile away, so I know people are out there, moving. I’m about ready to don the parka and start trekking through the corn stubble until I can flag down a passing truck and make a beeline for town. Groceries. Happy Hour. Civilization.

But we mustn’t give in to Jack’s little temper tantrums. So today, while we wait for impatiently for rescue, I’ll finish knitting a red paperback book jacket (Mom says I’ll be knitting ottomans and small appliances if I don’t get out soon). I’ll make olive Parmesan bread. I’ll eat the dark chocolate oranges I have stashed in the freezer. I’ll plow through another bottle of Malbec. I’ll dismantle the broken dining room chairs for firewood. I’ll pretend Pa’s on his way home with a rabbit to stew. Good work, Jack Blizzard, but you haven’t licked these prairie people just yet.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Things You Need When You're Snowed In

Jack Blizzard is stewing out west, planning to dump another 3-6" of snow on us over the next couple days. On top of the mountains already on the ground, that should make for a fine mess and will put us, again, at the mercy of kindly neighbors and their tractors. But I won't be caught off-guard this time. The Christmas Ought-Nine Blizzard taught me what to have on hand when the next round buries us...

1. Food. When you’re stocking up, know that after a day or two of being snowed in, you will crave only empty carbs. Pioneer spirit kicks in. By day two or three, you will cut imported Nan bread or whole grain tortillas into small triangles, deep-fry them in olive oil, and sprinkle with nacho cheese popcorn salt, just to have some chips. Then you’ll stir French onion soup mix or Cajun seasoning into cream cheese for dip. Isolation will make you feed all the baby carrots and apple wedges to the dogs.

2. Water. You’ll give up bathing after a couple days because, well, why bother, but you’ll want plenty of fresh drinking water. When you’re stuck inside, with the wood stove cranking and the furnace pickin
g up the slack, staying hydrated will prevent your dry, freckled, northern European skin from flaking off in sheets.

3. Comfort Bevvies. Stock up on coffee, cream, eggnog, Bailey’s Irish Cream, and red wine. We all know you’ll die without coffee--nuff said about that. “Beggnog” (Bailey’s & eggnog) will create the illusion of merriment. And alternating Beggnog with red wine will (a) keep your blood pressure within normal limits; (b) provide enough sedation to keep you from delusional wandering out into the blizzard; and (c) prevent domestic
disputes caused by extreme close proximity.

4. Vitamin D & Full-Spectrum Lightbulbs. Being snowed in means even less sunlight than prairie people typically get over a long winter. The lightbulbs will simulate sunlight as you skim your way through yet another wretched pulp murder mystery novel. And scientists are now discovering that large daily doses of D, say 1000-3000 IU’s, can prevent winter depression, the flaking off of dry freckled skin, and an odd ancestral longing for furry horned hats and lutefisk.

5. Internet. Symptoms of Internet withdrawal include twitching, delusions, waking several time
s a night to list things you must Google, talking to your spouse in clipped Facebook wall-post speech, involuntary rapid finger movements, and more twitching. Trying to open Firefox every 60 seconds will not restore a lost Internet connection and will only exacerbate withdrawal symptoms.

6. Layered Clothes. You’ll ne
ed a snowsuit at least 3 sizes larger than you normally wear. This will accommodate the six layers you’ll wear under it, including: (1) regular underwear, preferably heavy cotton; (2) thermal long johns, preferably silk; (3) wool socks worn on the outside of the long johns; (4) wool leggings worn over the socks to keep your bad knees warm; (5) a fleece vest (skip the bra--"perky" is undetectable under the layers); (6) railroad overalls and a wool turtleneck. Once you’re dressed, you’ll be too exhausted to pull on your mukluks, so strip back down to your long johns, make coffee, and find a bad movie to watch.

7. Bad Movies. Don’t watch good movies. You can’t risk the emotional tinderbox of two adults stuck in the same house, both questioning the nature or existence of God/compassion/civility/love/mortality. Stick with films about zombies, cheerleaders, alien slime monsters, poorly edited martial arts, or anything starring David Hasselhoff.

8. A Boat. Snow-in’s are a good time to build that small boat in your basement. It gives you something to do, lets you vent your pent-up frustrations with power tools, and ensures that in April, when the snow finally melts and your 7 acres turns into Uncannery Lake, you'll have a way out to the road.

9. Hope. Call people who live in town. Watch only TV shows/films set in sunny, warm locations. Turn your calendar ahead to June. Know that somewhere in the world, people are moving about, visiting each other, and carrying on as usual. Know that someday you’ll be back out there, too. But do a good, slow job on the boat, just in case.