Saturday, December 31, 2011

Get thee behind me, cookies. (Oh wait...)

It’s New Year’s Eve, and I’m still in R & R (rest & recovery) mode after Semester kicked my sorry arse to the curb. By early November, I felt weighted down by concrete debris. By mid-November, I was praying cadaver dogs would find me under the rubble in time to gradegradegrade whilst preparing for Thanksgiving. Then, as soon as I was breathing again, it was time to do end-of-semester test writing, student org wrap-up, anxious student calming, and gradegradegrading, whilst simultaneously getting ready for eleven people at the Row for Christmas. This meant also finding time to put up the tree, decorate, and tackle my half-finished pile of homemade gifts: Wine to label, knit hats and malas to finish, cookies & granola to bake, and jam jars to wash and wrap in festive holiday fabric.

Whiny, I know. But it’s all just to explain that from November on, stress led me directly to near-total hermitting and my typical end-of-year CC diet (carbs and coffee). By December, I had a much fluffier silhouette and mild but alarming tachycardia.  Then came the cookies: Chocolate Espresso Spritz, molasses gingersnaps, my mom’s famous sugar cookies, and her delightful cornflake holly cookies (with red hots for berries, of course). Add to that Mom’s gallons of Chex Mix, a little Bailey’s and eggnog to soothe the nerves, and various kinds of nacho cheese doodles & chips, and one can see why, since late December, I’ve been glued to my Lazy-Girl in a carb-induced, heart-skipping near-coma.
To make matters worse, I had a long list of things I’d hoped to accomplish over break. But I’ve mostly been watching Finding Bigfoot or Ancient Aliens (that guy’s gotta know his hair makes it impossible to take him seriously, right?), mechanically moving Chex Mix from bag to mouth. Just a big ‘ole furry blanket-covered slug.
But hope springs eternal. Tonight, when Ray’s band cuts loose at our Little Town watering hole, I’ll be there with bells on—literally. I will not be making resolutions. I will not be turning over any new leaves. I will gratefully be letting go of stress & anxiety by celebrating, laughing and singing with dear friends. I will be seriously shaking my lumpy, ever-expanding money-maker. I will pry loose the evil adipose from its home on my thighs and offer it up to the dancing goddess of the New Year. 

Tomorrow? Maybe I'll eat a salad. And I’ll bet there’s an episode of Wicked Attraction I haven’t seen yet…

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Very Untidy Christmas to You All!

My favorite Christmas tradition is the total chaos and disorder I remember from my youth—anxious kids up at dawn, shrieking and cajoling to get started, while bleary-eyed grownups stand around in their pajamas, cups of coffee glued to their hands. No breakfast, no ceremony. As soon as everyone's in the vicinity, it happens—that ancient, mystical ram's horn signal audible only to children—and the mayhem begins.

Imagine a cross between a Brazilian soccer stadium riot and a prairie bison stampede. Paper, ribbon, cards & envelopes shoot like projectile shrapnel across the room. Kids turn into circus contortionists as they climb over each other to get at packages on the other side of the tree. Grownups step further and further back from the Circle of Destruction, dumbstruck, still not fully comprehending that they're out of bed. And almost as suddenly as it begins, it's over. Each child retreats to her or his own spot in the living room to pile, sort, stack, count, and start ripping open their booty. The grownups, whose still-wrapped presents now lie scattered in undignified heaps around the room, retreat to the kitchen for more coffee.

One Christmas my older brother and I got up in the middle of the night and pried each of our presents open, then carefully re-sealed them. Our fake surprise the next morning was Oscar-worthy. (The next year, Mom used her own secret code on the gift tags and wrapped all our presents in Knox gelatin and saltine boxes. Touché, Mom.) Another Christmas, when I was living in Lincoln, my friend and I drove to Omaha in the wee hours, then woke my family up at 4 a.m., singing loud, off-key carols. I'm pretty sure most of them have forgiven me.

This Christmas, we had a smallish gathering, since none of my brothers—in Kansas, Ohio and Ecuador—could make it. Foolishly overconfident due to our small numbers, we decided to try polite & tidy. We managed 1½ circuits of round-robin present opening before the confetti started flying. It quickly devolved into a 5-minute shredding frenzy that I watched, agog, from a safe distance. When it was over, the house looked like it had been hit with a Wal-Mart carpet bomb. Perfect! And I lovedlovedloved the soundtrack—squeals, shrieks of surprise, belly laughs, oh-my-goshes, a little knife-sharp familial sarcasm, and occasional spontaneous outbursts of goofy singing.
So as I sit in my quiet, post-Christmas cookie & Chex Mix stupor, I can't put into words how grateful I am. Believe me, I know how lucky we are to have gathered—four generations of us—for another loud, messy celebration overflowing with love--the REAL blessing of this and every season.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recent Revelations

  1. New math:
    hours needed to grade the current stack of research papers x
    pots of coffee ÷
    Icy Hot neck patches –
    trips outside to scream =
    chocolate martinis you get when you're done.
  2. Yes, Mr. Brown; it is STILL a man's world.
  3. Going to bed at dark is a sign that in a beautifully Zen-like way, you've become one with the cycles of the earth and sun. It is a sign of your complete harmony with the cosmos and the enlightened understanding of the non-existence of time. It is a sign of your total surrender to the instinctual Inner You. It is certainly NOT a sign of aging.
  4. It's one of life's little blessings that when I'm doing my best interpretive dance at Ray's gigs, I can't see what the people behind me see.
  5. The venison in my freezer tastes slightly less good since the friend who shot the deer described its size as “Bambi's Mother.”
  6. Your 57 houseplants are NOT your children. They are just another symptom of your aberrant hyper-nurturing gene.
  7. We need to bring back the salon: gatherings in friends' homes, with live music, poetry readings, weighty discussion & debate, no TV, and wine (do you sense my end-of-semester-salvation theme?)
  8. Capitalism has replaced religion as the purveyor of guilt; i.e., you wouldn't seriously consider NOT buying your poor devoted partner/spouse/girlfriend/grandma/sports fan that _____________, would you?
  9. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without Mom sneaking red hot candies into every dish.
  10. I now regret getting my son a rubber chicken head mask and bacon-flavored toothpicks for his birthday. But only a little.
  11. Knitting IS meditation.
  12. Secret Dream Job: Black backup chick singer, with a body MADE for a red sequined dress and red stilettos.
  13. You can deny the approach of winter & Jack Blizzard all you want, but that stocked wine cellar and that freezer full of fancy pastas, coffee beans, pesto and dark chocolates says you know it's coming.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Academically Adrift: Throw Me a Lifeline, Willya?!?

Higher Ed in the U.S. is increasingly under scrutiny and attack. And the latest fuel on the fire is a book called Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum, professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.

Arum and Roksa’s study suggests that college students aren’t much better at critical thinking by the time they graduate with a four-year degree, than they were as college fresh-persons.

I admit I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read excerpts and second-hand articles about the book, many of which cite the study’s most shocking statistics. The book appears to put most of the blame on academe for having low expectations of students and for not being “rigorous” enough.

As a college instructor of mostly first- and second-year undergrads, I’m wondering if Arum and Roksa factored in the following:

1. The New Business Model – Most public higher ed institutions are under the budget knife. And students in seats = $$$. This means that for many instructors, department chairs, administrators, etc., the pressure’s on to ensure student recruiting and retention. And the unspoken maxim is that a “happy” student (aka a “customer/consumer,” one who isn’t asked to do too much, one for whom instructors bend over backwards and do loads of hand-holding, one whose grades are, perhaps, a wee bit inflated) is more likely to stick around.

2. The Time Crunch – Instructors (and administrators) in this era of budget cutting and “accountability” are increasingly being asked to do more and more with less and less. For example, in addition to my normal fairly heavy teaching load (four classes this semester requiring lesson plans, in-class teaching time, grading), I now manage a student organization (my service requirement), manage three on-line “tools” associated with my classes (tools that need constant updating), manage my e-gradebooks (more updates), document everything I do in an online faculty evaluation “tool” (more updates), and complete a monthly online “time sheet.”  Don’t get me wrong—I love the actual teaching part of my job. But teaching + the additional demands = no ttime to improve my teaching skills, to do the research that would make my classes more interesting/fulfilling (or more rigorous), or to do my own writing/research. And, at most institutions, class caps creep up year after year (more grading, more documenting, more measuring).

3. The Student Contribution – This is the big one for me…where does student accountability and responsibility fit into this picture? Arum and Roksa’s study appears to be based on student surveys and transcripts. If students aren’t finding classes “rigorous,” perhaps it’s because they aren’t taking the rigorous classes. Perhaps they’re not making much of an effort. Perhaps they aren’t going to class. Perhaps they’re texting in class instead of paying attention. Perhaps the rigorous teachers are discouraged by a growing emphasis on student evaluations, which tend to bash rigorous classes as “too complicated” or “too demanding”, while bashing rigorous teachers as “uncaring” or “too hard” (comments I’ve seen on my own student evals). It’s as if students and budget-conscious Boards of Regents share this misconception: that an instructor’s job is to flip the lid on a student’s head and—quickly and measurably—dump in a bunch of knowledge. But learning, and even critical thinking in college, is a collaborative process between students and teachers—both have to participate.

My feeling is that higher ed will continue to decline (and I do agree with Arum and Roksa that we’re in real trouble) as long as we keep shifting away from a belief in intrinsic value of liberal arts learning and ever more toward a business model of job-market preparedness—the student-as-consumer and instructor-as-service-provider model. It's all about SEATS & SATISFACTION surveys. And if the burgeoning number of online “college” degree programs is any indication, I’m pretty sure drive-up window diplomas are next.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In a Bristol state of mind...

Marty Stewart - dig those purple suits
I have stacks of papers to grade, so of course, I’m daydreaming about music. In September, Ray’s sister and brother-in-law treated us (and “treated” is putting it mildly) to a trip to Bristol TN for the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion music festival. Check it out:

The Greencards
State Street, Bristol TN
I LOVE traveling and couldn’t wait to go, although I’m not a fan of bluegrass or “roots” or “Americana” or whatever you wanna call THAT kind of music, so I was sure I’d be people-watching and ignoring the music. Silly, silly me.
Darrell Scott
Our digs at Flo's
Flo's sitting room
We stayed in Bristol at Flo’s Hideaway (, an amazing Victorian B & B run by a Parisian woman and her East Coast husband, Carl. Our suite was like a doll house museum, and Flo & Carl were the epitome of delightful, welcoming hosts. Breakfast each morning was good strong coffee, yogurt, fruit, and home-baked croissants or crepes. If we got back in at a decent hour, there was wine and conversation on the back veranda. Seriously, people, I wanted to grab the doorframe and make them DRAG me out when it was time to leave.

The festival was three days of music, with 20+ venues lining State Street in Bristol. And yeah, the place was eyeball-deep in fiddles, pedal steel, and twangy gee-tar, but I also heard some of the best, most fun, interesting and innovative music I’d ever seen gathered in one spot. I had to chew on my misguided preconceptions of THAT kind of music and try not to embarrass my family by leaping out of my seat in a fit of wild interpretive South Dakota dance.

crazy NASCAR fan
The trip also included a wonderful afternoon boat ride (and a bat rescue - the bat had been sleeping under the boat tarp), and a trip to the NASCAR track because, well, it's in Bristol, and you just gotta see it.

So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to Ray’s kin for the amazing time, the incredible memories, and the tasty, tasty humble pie…

My BRRR faves:

The Greencards – I want to BE this woman -

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Constantly-Breaking Heart

Because of my familial HHN-i (Human Hyper-Nurturer-insoluble) gene (see previous blog post:, I grew up believing that if I mustered enough love, good will, and maybe a home-cooked pot roast, I could “fix” anyone. I’ve learned this isn’t the case. As Mu Sen Peng said, “We’re ALL walking around with broken hearts…the trick is to keep walking.” 

A few people in my life didn’t keep walking. For example, this past week, I inadvertently (thanks to FB) learned of my friend Rex’s death. My old high school BFF’s, Patty and Debbie, have come back from California a couple of times so the three of us could cruise our old Omaha stomping grounds. On each of their trips back, we picked up Rex. Once, we got much of the old gang back together for dinner at the Spaghetti Works in the Old Market, then headed to West O to hear our other friend, George, play some music. Another trip back, we picked up Rex and the four of us hiked the woods of North Omaha, took pictures, and stopped for ice cream. Each time we saw Rex, it was a joy. He was chatty, laughed, showed us all his favorite woodland photo spots, chauffeured us around town, showed off his home studio (he was an amazing bass player), and we reconnected.
The last time we saw Rex was the summer of 2006. I figured he’d always be there—I guess we all did—and that the next time the BFF’s came back to the Midwest, we’d pick up where we left off. But around Christmas in 2008, Rex killed himself in a church parking lot.

There have been others: Brent (suicide), Ike (suicide), Anthony (shot), Dave (decades-long suicide), and more. Then there’s the long list of family members, an even more intense kind of heartbreak. And until the last decade or so, there was always the nagging guilt, wondering what I could have done—send mittens? remember birthdays? weekly phone calls? drag them home to my guestroom? intervention?—to keep them walking.
I’m learning, finally, that people make their own choices. If they reach out, I’ll be right here for them, always. But I know now that my bandaging, cajoling, feeding, hugging, knitting, and boo-boo kissing will not keep someone walking who’s decided to stop. And I used to wait for the pain to go away, but I know now that it never does. Each loss means another hairline fracture. I’m learning to live (LIVE!) with my broken heart, and maybe that’s all any of us can do.

            for all my friends still walking
Midway along this delicate branch,
this hard walk,
we balance above a dark gulf,
the branch’s end obscured
and each day a new thorn
to creep around.
There are easier ways to go.
We could take a deep breath,
lean into the fall with eyes closed.
Or we could hug the branch, stop,
weighed down under
the broken heart of living.
But let’s you and I choose
to inch along with joy
and gratitude so light
it rains like silver glitter
through the leaves.
(thanks to the old gang for the happy pics of Rex)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Perils of Peadom

It’s tough, being a peacock in South Dakota. First of all, in your native Indonesia, you'd never have to contend with these brutal winters. Second, in your native forest habitat, you'd have excellent cover from predators. Here on the prairie, when you walk the pasture trails, it's practically a catwalk--the local coyotes, turkey buzzards, and over-eager pheasant hunters might as well be sitting at chipped tables, slurping down gin fizzes, and waving dollar bills.

Life can be pearilous here on the Row. For example, we went into the summer breeding season with 18 adult peafowl. At the high point of the summer, I counted 11 new chicks, for a total of 29 birds. Then, in late September, peas started disappearing—our neighbor says there's a female coyote living down the road, someone mentioned rogue mountain lions in South Dakota, or maybe the turkey buzzards were desperate. Whatever it was, it left two huge piles of pea feathers in the north 40 shelterbelt. So we’re down to 15 adults and 3 chicks. Maybe 18 is the critical mass threshold, the point beyond which the Row can’t sustain the pea-pulation. Maybe you really CAN’T fool Mother Nature.

Our peas know the seasons are changing—it dipped below 40 here overnight. The flock is having a harder time finding tender greens under the crunchy leaf carpet, so they literally huddle on the patio in the mornings, honking & whining, until I go out in my pajamas and toss out a bucket of mixed corn, wild bird seed, and Walmart cat food (while singing “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins…go head…just picture that). I try to feed them only every two or three days (my version of being a hardass prairie marm), but that pea-pleading breaks my tender heart.

The flock is still sleeping together in the Roosting Tree in our back yard. Ray will soon put a brooder heat lamp up in the rafters of the open-sided loafing shed (peas won’t sleep on the ground or willingly go inside an enclosed building), but the peas won’t roost in the rafters unless (1) night temps fall to around 10 below zero, (2) a blizzard blows through, or (3) wind speeds exceed 35-40. And I’ll soon start my biweekly ritual of hauling gallons of hot water out to the bird baths to thaw the ice.

This flock, now thoroughly inbred, has been here on this property for at least a quarter-century, long before we got here. They’ve left Indonesia behind. I worry constantly about them, but they’ve adapted (probably better than we have). They’re Prairie Peacocks. Pavo Crisatus Prairicus. I suspect they run out to the pasture after breakfast and roll on their backs, wings folded around their fat bellies, guffawing hysterically at what a rube I am. So Ray and I will head to town today, to watch the Quad State marching band competition, and to pick up 50-lb bags of corn, wild bird food, and Walmart cat food. Because as my friend CB likes to say, “If we don’t take care of them, they’ll die horrible, miserable deaths, right?”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Great Transition

My poor, poor blog has suffered neglect during the Great Transition, that time-warp, summer-to-fall plateau when dying tomato vines are replaced by bushels of ripe papers to grade. I usually slip into full-on denial during the GT, furiously, frantically completing summer projects I was sure I’d have plenty of time to finish. It’s also the time we squeeze in all the last-minute fun we can. Our GT adventures this year included a trip to Tennessee for the Bristol Rhythm & Roots festival (more on that later), Ray’s 60th birthday BBQ/hootenanny (more later), and my trip to Missoula, MT to read poems at the Western Literature Association annual conference with my bonitas compadres, the Girls Spicy (more later).

For much of the GT, however, I’ve been focused on food. I continue in my uneasy relationship with food, a love/hate dance that keeps me Rubenesque and a bit too fluffy. I also have a misguided, almost instinctual belief (thanks, Grandma…) that food = nurturing; this summer’s stray pregnant cat fiasco is ample evidence of my obsessive-compulsive need to nurture.

Back to food. This year’s garden provided asparagus, cukes, hot salsa peppers, green & red bell peppers, sweet corn, gooseberries, mint, rosemary, basil, and tomatoes tomatoes tomatoes. So the GT finds me frequently neglecting my school duties to chop, slice, boil, peel, can, dehydrate, roast and puree tomatoes. We canned and froze so many batches of tomatoes that canning & freezing Colorado peaches in September seemed like a vacation. But one can never have too many tomatoes—South Dakotans MUST maintain a full larder—so we also cut gazillions of cherry tomatoes in half, sprinkled them with course salt, pepper, and minced basil, dehydrated them into tiny savory tomaisins, and popped many bags of these in the freezer. (Splendid Salad: Romaine, grilled chicken, crumbled feta, tomaisins and dried blueberries, sprinkled with olive oil & balsamic vinegar.) In Bristol, I discovered the caprese insalata, a simple salad made by layering thick slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, roasted tomato slices, and fresh basil leaves, sprinkled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When I got home and made our own caprese salads, I added a layer of avocado. Heaven, I tells ya. 
Alas, the GT wanes, however, and it’s time to get serious about schoolwork...just after I bottle my latest batch of Luna Rossa wine. Because any good prairie person knows that once the first snow flies, only a full larder, a stash of Sumatran coffee beans, a Nerf bat and a well-stocked wine cellar can see one safely through winter.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion

(WARNING: photo of roasting pig may be offensive to some. Also, note the striking family resemblance, especially the eyes...)

I recently got back from My Big Fat Bohunk (Bohemian on my father’s side) Family Reunion. It’s an extraordinary annual gathering of relatives – the progeny of my grandpa Adolph and grandma Viola, and their offspring, and their offspring, and now, their offspring. This year, around 57 humans and 9 dogs (including my mom, dad and three brothers - first time we've all been in one place in umpteen years) reconnected at two cabins on a little wooded lot on a gorgeous little lake in Minnesota.

Our family – teachers, writers, visual artists, real estate brokers, a couple of doctors, a yoga instructor, IT geeks, a printer, a chef, a minister, salespeople, an herbalist/botanist/forager and others – are the hardest-working bunch of folks I know. And for a week or two each summer, we play hard, too. 

The reunion is a chaotic free-for-all of sun & water fun, excellent food (thanks, Cousins, for taco night, turkey night, cowboy beans, mojitos, and whatever I missed), perpetually-flowing beer, wine and other spirits, boating, fishing, and photo ops. We come from MN, NE, SD, KS, WI, CA, TX and Ecuador, including family members originally from Australia & Chile. Festivities may include a talent show, bellydancing lessons, group yoga, a kids’ quarter toss, a Wednesday trip into town for the Turtle Races, an occasional minor injury, fireworks over the lake, heated religious and/or political debates (the far right, far left, born agains, atheists, and more are represented), late-night cousins' poker games, lake volleyball, and possibly a chat with the sheriff about noise ordinances. We’ve had two weddings on the dock (one couple walked under a cousin-held archway of…yep…peacock feathers). A tent city is established between the two cabins, cabin bedrooms are assigned according to an ancient system of seniority/priority, and some of us wimpier reunitees stay in town at the motel (mere blocks from the coffee shop).

This year, Mom, Ray, my daughter & grandson, and our youngest son piled in MiniPearl (my Toyota minivan), and headed north for four days of Big Fat Bohunk fun, resulting in happy, sunny memories that will surely warm us in the prairie winter ahead, such as…

The Esther Williams Invitational Lake Swim – Collective hysteria, sunstroke, or both, caused 20 family members to set off from the dock one morning to swim across the lake and back. Spotters in boats and on jet skis saw to the safety of the swimmers. All 20 made it, including some who, with their bad hearts, arthritis, or general out-of-shapedness, stunned the rest of us, spectating from the safety of our beach chairs. The swimmers’ return to the dock was celebrated with wild cheers & applause, and yes, a beer toast or two.

First Annual Go Whole Hog Pig Roast – My oldest brother and a cousin orchestrated this feast. Mr. Squeaky McOinker (later renamed “Dinner” when I said I couldn’t eat something we’d named), spent an entire day turning slowly on a spit. At one point, there were a dozen menfolk gathered around the roaster, grunting and chest-beating. Ironically, one entire branch of the family tree is vegetarian, but with sides of tabouli, scalloped potatoes, corn casserole, coleslaw, cucumber salad, and curried beans, all were happy at the end of the day. My apologies to cousin B for someone’s warped sense of humor with the centerpiece – a red-cabbage-lined platter, Dinner’s roasted head in the center, an Italian tomato in his mouth. I’m not sure who fessed up to that.

Beach Towel Yoga – A dozen or more family members took part in morning yoga classes in the neighbor’s yard. Even some less flexible family members got right in there to stretch & sweat (uh…I was…uh…busy…yeah…at the coffee shop in town). After much wee-hours revelry the night before, a yard full of pasty Bohunks doing Downward Facing Dog at sunrise redefines “hung over.”

Common Grounds – Did I mention that this little coffee shop was mere blocks from our motel? I stopped in each morning for my essential triple latte. I swear, celestial rays of heavenly sunlight and a choir of angelic voices singing “Halleluiah” emanated from the building each morning, drawing me, trancelike.

Campfire Hootenanny – While young’uns (and I mean “kids” in their late teens and 20’s) roasted marshmallows, my brother regaled a giant Ring ‘O Bohunks ‘round the campfire with guitar & song. My personal favorite was his emotional rendition of the Randy Newman classic, “Let’s Drop the Big One Now" ("Political Science"). Dang…brought tears to our eyes.

Mom & Dad - reunion Matriarch & Patriarch
These are just some of the highlights, and as you can see, we’re not a quiet family. We don’t have polite reunions where everyone eats a tiny piece of cake off a clean napkin and talks about rain gauges. We’re big & loud. We’re half-dressed, wet & coated with sand most of the week. Except for cousin A and her wardrobe of fashionista bikinis, we mostly wear the same pair of dirty shorts all week. Our humor is often off-color. Some of us may sing drunken show tunes in the middle of the night. But we love each other very much, and we’re all grateful to be part of this amazing Big Fat Bohunk family. We're already scheming for next year, in fact. My idea? A Close Encounters mashed potato volcano contest - prize money for the biggest, loudest, longest eruption...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Peafowl Update

I have now spotted 12 new peachicks. And this morning, when I fed the flock, I counted 15 adults. Add to that the three hens with chicks (who won't come to feed with the flock until the chicks are bigger), and that makes 18, which means we have another interloper who's arrived from who-knows-where. I'm guessing that there's now an LED sign on I-29 advertising Uncannery Row Peafowl Paradise, and that we're starting to pick up fly-by's.

Peachicks have about a 75-80% mortality rate here at the Row (cats, raccoons, redtail hawks & turkey vultures, negligent moms, storms, etc.). This is proof of Mother Universe's sublime wisdom, because without it, we'd be up to 30 peacocks right now. And that would surely signal a threshold beyond which I begin to tuck peafeathers in my belt, give up human speech in favor of loud honks and screaming calls, drop all my long hair in late summer, and wander the pasture all day, pecking at clover & grasshoppers.

But I'm TOTALLY ordering these tights from

Monday, July 25, 2011

Prairie Mandala

We live on seven acres of prairie here at the Row. A couple acres of that is house, outbuildings and lawn. The rest is wild pasture, in which we’ve mowed an elaborate system of walking trails and two tent circles (one large circle, where I hope to someday put a tipi when I’ve save enough for a kit). It’s a beautiful, meditative walk that takes one past the original 1800’s homestead house – now hunched over and leaning toward earth – around the meditation tower & dog pond (dry in the summer), and then along crisscrossing trails through an open field of mixed grasses or in the shade of a shelterbelt. In the summer, when the milkweed blooms, the monarch butterflies dance along the trail, and one can see depressions where the deer have slept the night before.

My ultimate goal is to create by mowing, with hedges or with rocks, a labyrinth big enough to walk. I’m not sure what it is about labyrinths that fascinates me so; maybe it’s the idea of walking toward the center, the heart, which seems a good metaphor for a path I think we should ALL be on – a path toward self-discovery. So I’ve got the pasture labyrinth on my 10-year plan. In the meantime, here’s a labyrinth poem…

Mandala, yantra,
map of the hidden world,
chart of the heart’s constellation,
we are born at your center
and with our first breath scrabble out
to the edges where we navigate emptiness,
pillage and expose to the sweltering sun
the nothing out here, our skin flaking like mica.
We have nowhere to go but in.
Sometimes muscle memory or despair
pulls and we creep back to you, grope
along vine-covered walls on hands and knees,
blood and bone wired together
with coaxial cable and speaker cords,
our pulse digital, our eyes a matrix
of dimming pixels. Again, we  get it wrong,
drag with us the din of signals sent or received,
echolocation of fear, manufactured fog
against our own reflection. Somnambular,
paralytic, hollowed-out, we ride shockwaves,
drift away from ourselves away
from the heart's deep metronome away
from the center's pinpoint stillness away
from Love's dark labyrinth away
from the only divine number, One.
Mandala, tantric lens through which
we could finally glimpse ourselves,
we’ve never had anywhere to go but in.
Light the way to your radiant center,
light the way to your angular private rooms
washed in cobalt, saffron, magenta,
light the way to your bed of roses
where, if God is anywhere, It is here.

2009 Marcella Remund

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Perils of Pea-wifery

This is more than anyone wants to know about peacocks, but... Our flock includes 17 undomesticated adults with free run of our seven acres. We don't pen, corral, catch, vet or mess with them except to throw food out in the backyard every couple of days (okay...Ray might also put a brooding lamp up in the loafing shed rafters in the winter for the most brutally cold nights, when the peas will forsake their Roosting Tree for the less-windy rafters).

Peacock procreation is a delicate art that begins as soon as spring crocus (crocuses? croci? crocii?) peek through the snow. Our four adult males divvied up the farmyard into peadoms: Francois by the north fence, Ramon on the patio, Junior by the south fence, and Zorro, the youngest, in front of the greenhouse windows where he could admire himself. Then the show began: They fanned, thrummed, did the backward dance. You can watch Ramon here...toward the end of the video, you'll hear the vibrating train, a sound like ocean waves:

By the first of June, half a dozen hens wandered off to nest. Peahens don’t build nests; they nest on the ground, tamping down a depression in brush or grass tall enough to hide them. They’re absolutely silent on the nest, so we only find nest locations by accident (except for silly young hens who try to nest in window wells).

One day in early June, however, all the nesting hens came back into the yard amid a loud pea-ruckus. For the next three days, the flock hunkered around the greenhouse and wouldn’t go beyond the yard. Clearly, some sort of critter had gotten all the eggs (hens won’t leave eggs except under threat of death), and whatever it was, it had scared the whole flock silly. Our neighbor down the road said he’d been having stare-downs across a field with a female coyote and had heard pups recently, so Coyote Mom could be the culprit. Raccoons will steal eggs if they get a chance, but a protective, unconfined peahen—the size of a wild turkey, with a sharp beak, talons, and horned “spurs” on their legs—can generally scare off a raccoon. Foxes will take eggs, but they’re also small enough to be intimidated by an angry hen. We found a burrow opening in the south pasture, so badger is a possibility. We don’t keep a gun here on Pacifist Acres, so I dumped cayenne in the burrow, gave the invisible critter a good talking-to, and we hoped for the best.

Apparently my scolding worked, because the males put their dancing shoes back on, and around the end of June, the hens bravely headed back out to the pasture to re-nest.

In a typical year, hatching/nestling goes like this: (1) Eggs hatch around the first of July. In the evening of about day 2, Mom goes up a tree and calls the chicks. They stumble, cry, and eventually, fly up into the tree, where Mom clucks until all the chicks are tucked under her wings and invisible to passersby. They roost like this every night for a while. (2) Around the 2nd week of July, hens begin skirting the outer farmyard fences, trailing fluffy, scurrying chicks (like chicken chicks with long necks). I stand on the patio with binoculars, swatting mosquitos. After a couple days, the hen will let curious non-nester flock members within 10 feet for a look-see before she hurries the chicks back into tall brush. She will take them back to the hatchling roosting tree every night. (3) By the end of July, Mom and chicks are foraging the farmyard, strolling through the yard, and up by the house for the pea banquets provided by She Who Gives Corn, and they’re roosting in a tree within the fenceline now. (4) By mid-August, Mom and chicks have rejoined the flock, and all are now nesting in the communal Roosting Tree 20 feet from our house, within the safe all-night glow of our yard light.

But this is not a typical year. Mystery critter threw everything off. The males are dropping feathers as usual—they drop all long train feathers at once, within a 2-week period as soon as breeding is done; next spring's new train has already started and will grow all winter. But unlike other years, they're still trying in vain to display with scraggly, gapped trains, as if the breeding cycle hasn’t ended. (Note: Like humans, females control breeding, either through invitation/initiation or through snubbery.) And there’s no sign of chicks yet, which means if they hatch now and survive the first two weeks (always the trickiest time), they'll have a rough go packing on the size/weight they’ll need to survive their first South Dakota winter.

I’m trying to see this year as Nature’s wise & patient answer to my meddling. (Note: Regular feedings of corn, sunflower, and Walmart cat food exponentially increase pea-breeding success—there were six peacocks here when we bought the place five years ago.) Even if not a single chick survives this year, our little Row will still have peacocks a’plenty…a plethora of peas…we’ll still be a virtual pea paradise…a peadise, if you will. Or, wait a minute! I could bring the chicks inside, knit them little neckwarmers, feed them couscous and tofu…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Quasi-Annual Women's Campout

Last week, we had our 10th anniversary quasi-annual Women’s Campout. Only three of us were able to make it this year (there have been as many as 8 or 9), but we had a fabulous time. Over the past ten years, we’ve camped in Yankton, Ponca, NE, and at a cabin high up in the Black Hills. There’s nothing quite like a passel of midlife women out playing with fire & communing with nature.

I packed the essentials: tent, sleeping bag, pillows, floaties, SPF 7000 sunscreen, coffee, wine, chocolate, Kindle, cell phone, chargers, Advil and bug spray. We were roughing it a bit less than usual this year, with the addition of our friend’s camper. Laugh all you want about cushy camping, but keep this in mind: a clean, handy, middle-of-the-night bathroom.

Day 1 - We made camp:  camper (yes, we had a welcome mat, awning and flamingo lights), two tents, and a screen house dining room. We arranged & rearranged the furniture (picnic tables, folding loungers, bag chairs, clothesline, end tables, cooking table) till we had everything just so. Our camp neighbor wandered over to chat, as he would several times more over the next three days – “Do you want this leftover ice?” “Is that cowboy coffee you’re making?” “I sure enjoyed that singing last night.” I think he was trying to figure out why three women were camping alone; each visit, he’d eyeball our camp, as if looking for tell-tale man signs...

Then (Future Funny Story #1), we sat down for a rest and realized we’d locked the camper keys inside the camper. We’d been celebrating our completed compound with a bottle of wine, so we spent a few moments laughing hysterically before we called a locksmith. While we were waiting, I remembered a bazillion old keys I’d been collecting (for the mobile I WILL make someday when I learn to weld) in my van, Mini Pearl. I grabbed the keys, tried every one, and lo & behold, an old pickup topper key opened the camper! We called the locksmith back, piled into Mini, and took off for a look at the dam.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing record amounts of water along the dam system on the Missouri River, supposedly to minimize flooding caused by two unusually wet springs and Montana snow melt. I’m not sure how well the plan is working, though, as many homes, farms, businesses, a power plant or two, and some entire towns are surrounded by, in, or under water. King Water seems dead-set on taking back the Missouri River Basin.

After staring in awe at the river whitecaps and dam waterfalls, and getting soaked to the skin by the spray, we headed back to camp…just as the rain started. We played Boggle under the awning, and then in the camper, till bedtime. (Note: You’ll notice midlife women scanning the sky for the first hint of darkness, when it’s perfectly okay to go straight to bed. They will sometimes go to bed before dark, too, but only if no one else will find out.)

I hustled to my tent in the rain (coming down at a fair clip by then), where I’d already stowed my gear. As I crawled inside (FFS #2), the entire tent buckled & collapsed, sandwiching me inside. It was quite dark by then, so I groped around for my stuff and made a dash for the camper, where I slept comfortably on a bench bunk only millimeters wider than my child-birthin’, midlife-spreadin’ hips.

Day 2 – We made our morning fire and had camp-stove coffee in our jammies…for a very long time. Eventually, we made our way to the beach. The water was too rough and full of upriver tree shrapnel to swim, so we sunbathed until my lobster-pink skin was sufficiently dotted with new freckles and just short of blistering.

In the afternoon, four friends joined us at camp. We all went over to look at the dam, then one friend went birding whilst the rest of us prepared a campout BBQ. For dessert, we made s’mores (one friend made gourmet s’mores – s’mourmets, if you will – with giant marshmallows, Nutella, and Ghirardelli chocolate). After dinner, we had a campfire hootenanny complete with 3 guitars, a tambourine, and a choir of women's voices, that continued well past dark. We had a grand time, our company headed back to town, my friend with the Amazon height and long arms fixed my tent, and we hit the hay.

Day 3 – Leisurely coffee in our jammies, then we packed up and broke camp in stages punctuated by more coffee & lounge chair reading. By early afternoon, we were headed back to civilization.

I spent most of this week thoroughly exhausted. I’m now on the hunt for a teardrop camper or a pop-up motorcycle camper that I could pull with Ray’s VW bug and keep stocked for camping. Because it’s not the camping that’s hard – it’s the three days of packing and three days of unpacking, laundry & recovery that’ll do you in.