Sunday, June 30, 2013

Beautiful Bayou

Crazy girls and their cut-throat Cribbage.
Mom and I recently returned from a 6-day adventure in Louisiana. We booked a package trip that included flights, hotel, and rental car, and our “home base” was the Lafayette Hilton on the banks of—ironically—the Vermilion River.

Chicken-fried critters.
Khloe's blue marker lipstick self-portrait.
One highlight of the trip was driving up to Shreveport to visit with Mom’s oldest and dearest friend, Hope, who lives with her daughter, Vanessa. It was fun to see the crazy old girls together again (and I mean that with the utmost respect and affection). They were settled into a game of cribbage within moments of our arrival. We all went out to the local favorite café, George’s, and we dragged Hope to the casino in Bossier City for a couple of hours. We had a wonderful visit, and it occurred to me that both sets of moms/daughters are more than a little Grey Gardens-ish. If I start wearing skirts on my head, call for help.

Baby Autumn, stunned by my hair color.
The other highlight was that Mom and I got to spend time with my two beautiful Cajun nieces (actually half Cajun, half Bohunk). It was my first time meeting their wonderful families, including my three gorgeous great-nieces. It was so good to see them all thriving & happy. My older niece’s husband, born and raised in Arnaudville, and his mother, Miss Margaret, showed us the Cajun ropes and kept us from seeming too much like the total nerdy northerners we are. My great-nieces are 3 weeks, 1 year, and 2 ½ years old, so I had an ample dose of baby/toddler-hogging and kissing. I miss them all already.

Here are some other, more touristy memorable moments:

·       Lafayette Airport – Smaller and more run-down than even our tiny South Dakota “Big City” airport. Everything moved at a slow, lazy pace. In fact, everything and everyone in Louisiana seemed to move at that same unhurried, lackadaisical pace. It drove me crazy at first, but as I unwound, I learned to appreciate it.

Jarred and baby Roemyn.
·       Lafayette Hilton – the outdoor pool was (according to the staff) “broken” until our last day there; the hotel’s WiFi blinked on and off constantly, only rarely giving me enough time to check email, and then it would blink off again while I was trying to answer. The hotel was full of 8-12-year old regional pageant contestants and their families.

Rip Van Winkle Gardens, Lake Peigneur
Ode to Kate Chopin's "The Storm."
Bayou Teche in New Iberia
·       Evangeline Thruway – main drag through town, splits a long ghetto in two. Many people in the ghetto live in shacks exponentially worse than my Little Town’s student slum rentals (folks in Little Town know how bad these can be). The poverty in south Louisiana is staggering, and because it’s hot (90-100 every day we were there) and incredibly humid (at least 150%, I’m sure), metal roofs are all rusted, paint is always peeling, and things look generally run-down. But the people are warm and wonderful, and there are gems in the ghetto, too: neighbors hanging out together on porches, Dad’s Blades & Fades barber shop, St. Genevieve School, and drive-thru daiquiri huts.

·       Avery Island – home of the original McIlhenny Louisiana Tabasco Sauce. Factory, store, small village of tiny houses where factory folks live. We sampled raspberry chipotle frozen yogurt. Divine. Drove past the island’s “rookery,” where dozens of egrets, rosy spoonbills, and flamingos were nesting in noisy colonies.

·       Rip Van Winkle Gardens – amazing botanical gardens on Orange Island, originally the winter home of American film actor Joseph Jefferson ( The English gardens are gorgeous & lush, with camellias, crepe myrtle, magnolia, rose gardens, fountains, a wooden walkway out over Lake Peigneur, expansive lawns, and century-old live oaks strung with Spanish moss. Some gardens feature an Oriental influence, with bamboo thickets arching over walkways, meditation benches, and Asian-inspired statuary. Peacocks and raccoons wander about the grounds, so I felt right at home.

·       Myran’s in Arnaudville – Oh. My. Word. The food. This is a little dive-y café on the bayou. Best Cajun food I had the entire trip. Since crawfish was out of season, I had the boiled shrimp bowl – large, gumbo-sized bowl with boiled, seasoned corn on the cob and potatoes on the bottom, and more than a dozen large, fresh Gulf shrimp on top, with pistolettes on the side – dinner rolls deep fried in oil used to cook shrimp. I could feel my arteries shutting down for a nap.

Steamboat House, New Iberia
·       Fezzo’s in Scott – more Cajun food. I tried my first alligator, frog legs, crawfish, and fried oysters, topped off with shrimp étouffée. The meat is all breaded and deep-fried, and seriously, everything tastes like chicken; hence, I guess, the expression “chicken fried.” Good stuff, a fancier restaurant, but it couldn’t beat Myran’s.

·       Evangeline Downs – a new casino outside of Opalousas, LA. We spent an evening losing on the penny slots, but we had a blast.

·       New Iberia – I’ve read one of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels set in Burke’s hometown of New Iberia, and Mom’s read the entire series, so we had to see the town on the banks of Bayou Teche, where Burke still spends half of each year. We saw places mentioned in the novels: main street, Mt. Carmel convent, Victor’s café. We stopped in the bookstore and bought a DVD of The Electric Mist, a film with Tommy Lee Jones adapted from a Burke novel and filmed in New Iberia. The film was disjointed and hard to follow, but I’ll watch anything with TLJ in it.

·       Acadian Cultural Center – I finally have an accurate picture of Acadian history ( It’s been a long, tough road for the Cajuns. In spite of, or because of, incredible hardships and persecution, they have a vibrant culture and rich, fascinating traditions. And the food…have I mentioned the food? C'est bon!

Downtown New Iberia
Spanish moss
Maybe the best part of the trip for me, was that I barely noticed my post-stroke gliches. I was too busy to be slowed down by a clunky leg or a few missed naps. The only hangups were the the 50 mph runs through the Chicago and Dallas airports on the trek home (30 mins each stop to change planes), my desperate need to crash by 9 p.m. every night, and the fact that neither of us could ever remember the last time one of us had taken Advil. Otherwise, it was a grand adventure, and any time I get the chance…laissez les bons temps rouler!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Stroke Recovery & Teaching: the REAL Catch 22

I am TOTALLY grateful (to the point of weeping whenever I let myself really think about it) that my stroke last October was a mild one. A mild right ischemic brainstem stroke, to be precise. My left side was affected. But 8 months, lots of doc visits, oodles of PT, and tons of rest later, I can walk, talk, think, write, cook, knit, mow my lawn, and my singing voice is finally starting to come back. In fact, anything I could do before the stroke, I can do now…just slower, clumsier, and with occasional difficulty.

In some ways, folks like me who have mild strokes are caught in a Catch 22. From outward appearances, we look fine. So people who don’t know about my stroke expect me to be my former stress-driven, obsessively perfectionist, overachiever self: Another nap?!? are you kidding? do you have the flu? are you narcoleptic or just lazy?

Even people who know about the stroke forget that outward appearances can be deceiving. What they can’t see, they forget about, like the mysterious fog that sometimes settles around my brain. My memory can be spotty, and some things my brain stored pre-stroke are probably gone for good. I sometimes momentarily forget really basic stuff, like how to brake the riding mower I’ve operated for 6 years, or why I put a spoon in the freezer.
The old me.

Most people also can’t tell that depending on how tired I am, my nervous system load, barometric pressure, planetary alignment, or my crapshoot theory of life, the left side of my body may or may not cooperate. My left foot sometimes thinks it has cleared the next step, when it really has only lifted an inch off the ground. My writing & emails can be full of supplemental “S”s, upper-case letters, or random numbers/spaces, because my left hand (for now at least) doesn’t always navigate space with the precision I used to take for granted.  Other stuff people don’t see? My constant companion fatigue, an occasional locking jaw, sore or stiff muscles (sometimes from breathing or holding myself upright), rare but annoying confusion…the list of minor gliches is long.

The Catch 22? I’m not “disabled” enough to qualify for disability (even a neurologist can’t “see” most of what’s going on in my brain); in less than 6 months, I used up 15 years’ worth of accrued sick leave, so I can’t work reduced hours anymore; I need my job benefits (O nationalized healthcare…where ARE you?) too badly now to lose them switching to part-time adjunct; I live in South Dakota, where a less rigorous, less stressful full-time job probably pays 3 live chickens and a sack of flour...per year. So, because I have a mortgage and a car, and because I must have only the darkest, oiliest decaf coffee beans on the planet, I’m going back to teaching full-time this fall—a very hard decision.

I recently asked a friend how she managed to teach 6 classes in a semester and not jump off the student union building. Her answer was an “AHA!” moment for me. She said, “I’m a good teacher, but I’m not great.” I think she’s lying, and she probably IS great, but the AHA! for me wasn’t that I need to lower my standards; it’s to be less hard on myself.

The new me.
Here's the deal: the job will not be less stressful or demanding this fall than it was before the stroke. So I will have to be different. I'll manage stress better (meditation, sleep, good nutrition, as much exercise as I can manage). I'll rest when I need to. I’ll be honest (even with myself) about my limits and occasional need for help. I'll cast out my overachiever, competitive, perfectionist, SuperWoman demons. I'll say NO when I need to. I'll focus more on my students, less on my need to exceed. I'll laugh more. I'll relax more. I'll bring my humanity back into the classroom. I'll watch this Taylor Mali vid once a week - I'll be less tired, more inspired. I'll be a good teacher.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Gardening: Happy Hobby or Prairie Penance?

The Great Garden Makeover of 2013
Gardening is NOT for sissies. In my usual winter-is-finally-over delirium, I forgot that, so I’m enjoying a painful reminder today.

We’re always late getting our veggie garden in. The semester doesn’t really end until the middle of May, and before that, I can forget any semblance of a life beyond grading rubrics, panicky students, deadlines and shrapnel cleanup. Then I need about a week to sit drooling in a chair, watching reruns of Alaska: The Last Frontier, and recovering. And that was BEFORE the stroke, so multiply by infinity…

This year, my usual post-semester [s]lackadaisicalness was also compounded by freaky weather. We had a mild but very late winter, with snows into late April. This was followed by near-constant rain. It’s tough to put a garden in when the ground is mush and water is pouring on your head. And today it's a balmy 88 degrees. I drove past a woman gardening in her bikini, and believe me, it was not a pretty sight. The Row is starting to look like a wild tropical rainforest. I swear I hear monkeys in the shelterbelt at night.

But we’re prairie folk, by gum. We never give up on our Better Girl tomatoes or our Bush Pickling cucumbers. Ray has gradually been dismantling old horse/cow fences around the Row and hauling huge iron fencing panels to the garden. He made an amazing perimeter fence sturdy enough for vining cukes & squash. We “skirted” the fence with chicken wire to keep bunnies out (the peacocks will eat whatever they can reach through the garden fence—they LOVE gooseberries—but they haven’t figured out that they could just fly over the fence). Finally, Ray laid ground cloth, and the garden was ready to plant.

The Row's Original Homestead House
Zorro's ImPEArsonation of a Lawn Ornament
So yesterday, Ray took a “vacation” day and, because I was feeling all Mother Earthish and clearly forgot I’d had a stroke, and because SoDakians have to “make hay while the sun shines,” we did the marathon. It was 10 hours of finishing fences, rigging a gate out of old parts we found in the homestead house, moving the herb garden, reigning in The Mint that Took Over the World, and finally, putting in tomatoes, cucumbers, hot and sweet peppers, squash, greens, basil, parsley, and dill. I had a short midday nap, one minor frustration meltdown, and I had to leave Ray to wrap things up for the last hour or so. But we got it done.

Whoodoggies! Crawling around on the ground and contorting to reach trowel, flats of tomatoes, gloves, water bottle, etc., is a whole new experience with this clunky post-stroke body. I was an idiot to let garden guilt and fear of more rain drive me like a madwoman yesterday—today, I could barely move enough to shower and go to PT. But thanks to Tiger Balm and Advil I can move my fingers, so here’s a little poem I wrote that explores the typical SoDakian philosophy of gardening:


This is no English tea garden, pal.
No fragile limp fuscia
edged in periwinkle ruffles,
no meandering crocus border,
wisteria draped over a pale trellis,
no painted wrought-iron bench
resting in the thick, damp shade.
No thin ivy dipping its compact buds
in a moss-blue wading pool,
dotted with alabaster cherubs and
creamy-white water lilies.

No sir, this is serious prairie stock.
Drought-resistant bush beans,
sixty quarts worth,
squared off in rotten railroad ties.
Screaming red Big Girl tomatoes
strung to chicken wire
with old support hose.
Hot jalapeño peppers splitting
in a sudden mud-splattering downpour—
a brief storm that somewhere washes out
a delicate, orderly flower bed.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Garden Rorschach

Shell Woman Garden – bleeding heart and chives – the beauty of sea-women, broken hearts, and spiced tears.

Three Monkeys Garden – columbine, mums, oregano, blanket flower, miniature iris, and a lovely invasive groundcover – fleeting visits, perennial admonition to see, hear, and most of all, speak no evil.

Mary’s Rose Garden – roses – eternal Maiden & Mother, the blessings of thorny passages, safety & sacrifice.

Goldfinch Corner – forsythia, trees – return & rest, shady reunions, emerald eyes/isles.

St. Francis’ Watch – hostas – gracious host, caretaker to all living things. 

Monk’s Retreat – iris, coral bells, dianthus, allium, lily – perennial bed[time] stories light the way to adventure, past & future, understanding, catharsis.

Center Garden – yarrow, hollyhock, lamb’s ears, tulips, sage, clematis, birch tree – wild but centered, all things work from & toward the Center.