Monday, August 6, 2018

Be Here (Knitting) Now.

I used to crochet until a bit of arthritis in my thumb joints made it unpleasant. So I took up knitting. I’m now SO into knitting that my daughter and I decided to make and sell handmade, adorable knitting needles:

And here’s my obligatory Ravelry scrapbook of projects:

But this post isn’t about tools, stitches, projects, patterns, etc. etc. etc. Rather, it’s a meditation, a philosophical exploration, a self-reflective hypothesis sounding board, on WHY I knit.

Prairie folk often attribute their craftiness to pragmatism: we make things because we need them. But trust me, NO ONE I KNOW NEEDS ANOTHER KNIT HAT. EVER. Admit it…you’ve got a Rubbermaid tub in your hall closet overflowing with hats, mittens, and scarves. Your drawer is stuffed with untouched handknit socks you’ll re-gift as soon as the knitter has forgotten she/he gave them to you. So no, it isn’t about need. It’s something more…

1. “Idle Hands” Knitting. My grandma, a fairly stoic Presbyterian, reminded me often that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” When she sat to watch TV, she was also knitting an afghan, mending (including socks…people used to mend and keep wearing holey socks!!), folding laundry, or writing letters. I’m not religious myself and don’t believe in devils, but I have to admit that when my hands aren’t busy, I’m twitchy, and I watch around corners.

2. Knitting as Mindfulness Practice. Though I’ve been practicing for years, I admit to having a hard time with meditation ( I’ve heard the mind compared to a willful horse that’s always distracted by sounds & sights, and that constantly wants to turn back to the barn. So for me, mindful knitting helps me rein in the horse, instead of letting the horse take me astray. It’s a chance to PAY ATTENTION to each stitch, to the feel of the yarn, to the sound of the needles, to the rhythm of the rows. It’s a chance to stay in the present moment. I’m pretty much Type A+++, so knitting helps me slow my breathing & heart, lower my BP, and let go of the day/plans/regrets/schedule/lists for a time.

3. Cheap Gift Knitting. I’m a perpetually poor teacher. Ray is a printer (he runs a Heidelberg press). We live in South Dakota, where K-12 teachers are the lowest paid in the nation. IN THE NATION. And where post-secondary teachers don’t do much better and sometimes do much worse. And where wages in general are woeful. So yes, kids & siblings, you’re getting another funky knit hat and more fingerless gloves for Christmas.

4. Social Anxiety Knitting. You might not know this about me, but I’m an introvert. I do well in small groups of intimate friends, but put me in a large group, or any group of folks I don’t know, and the outer me will be charming and all smiles. But inner me might be bug-eyed, quaking, and hanging by her fingernails from a wall sconce. I’ve discovered that taking knitting everywhere I go can help in several ways: (a) some people will stay away because they think I’m “busy”; (2) some people will approach and ask about the knitting, which breaks the ice; and (III) I can effectively “time out” when I need to by concentrating on the knitting for a bit.

5. “Ignorance is Bliss” Knitting. I have a LOT of responsibilities and stress. A lot. A shit-ton, as the kids say. Knitting can sometimes signal others to steer clear because, dangit, I’m “busy” doing something constructive and important. And trust me, EVERYONE I KNOW NEEDS ANOTHER KNIT HAT. RIGHT NOW.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

At Last!

In October, I’ll celebrate my 6th re-birthday. It will be 6 years since an ischemic right pontine stroke blasted me in my sleep, a stroke I’ve affectionately nicknamed BS (Bastard Stroke). I won’t go into the gory details here, but if you want them, they’re here:

Anyhoo, this is about a recent milestone. I am SO AMAZINGLY LUCKY for many reasons, but one of them is that I’m surrounded by a community of world-class musicians and music lovers. And once every week or two, I get to sit in with the band and sing. One of my most memorable moments singing was at the wedding of a friend’s daughter. I got to sing “At Last” with a stellar band. It was one of those moments for me when all the stars align—band is hot, voice is in fine form, you’re feeling it down to your bones, not just singing it—and I almost cried, it all felt so good. Then along came BS. 

On the day before BS, I was sitting at a singing & healing workshop offered by a friend and former Little Town’er, and one of the things she said was that it doesn’t matter if you sing offkey, if your voice is shaky, if you think you can’t sing, etc. What matters is just to open up and sing. I had already had three or four TIA’s (mini strokes) in the previous two days (which I wrote off to stress and grading fatigue), so I was crabby and just feeling off. Right, I thought, whatEVER. It would take me six stubborn years to understand how right she was.

Among the “deficits” (seriously, that’s what the med/pharma complex calls the aftershocks of stroke) I was left with after BS, was a mucked-up throat: right stroke means left vocal cord can be “sluggish,” post-stroke BP drugs and CPAP mean that my throat is perpetually dry, which can cause some swelling, which means my tone can be pinched, and, worst of all, I don’t have the vocal control I had pre-BS; my voice can sometimes be…well…wobbly and willfully independent.

It took me about two years of checking things out with a vocal rehab ENT, rehab exercises put together for me by my friend C, a vocal teacher, and practicepracticepainfulpractice before I felt comfortable singing in public again. Even then, I stuck to “safe” songs—limited range, no challenging vocal frills, so familiar I could sing them in my sleep.

Then this week, I screwed up my courage and ASKED the band if I could sing “At Last.” I hadn’t tried it since BS, except by myself, shut in my home office, when no one was home. And I did it. It wasn’t great, I missed a few notes here and there, it didn’t come out quite as good as it had when I practiced it, but DAMN, it felt FINE! I can’t quite put this in words, but for me, singing that song was some sort of threshold I’d been terrified to cross.

And that’s the real milestone…not that I sang the song, but that I remembered what a loving, forgiving, accepting, supportive community I get to live in, and that I don’t need to be afraid. I just need to open up and sing. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

A marriage made in ???

The back of the monastery, outside of the chapel
 NOTE: You can click on the pictures to see larger versions.

A friend and I made a “retreat” trip last year to Our Lady of the Mississippi Benedictine monastery, a cloistered (little contact with the outside world) convent in Iowa, and we decided to do it again this year. So we recently returned from a few days at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration monastery in Missouri. There are 24 sisters at the monastery, down from about 200 at its most active point (attracting young people to the “vocation” is increasingly hard). Most monasteries try to be as self-sustaining as possible, so the Missouri sisters have businesses making and selling altar bread, soap, and candles. They produce much of their own food, and they receive donations from guests and others.

Part of the Benedictine mission is hospitality, so both places provide apartments in guest houses. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sister in charge of guests. We were given simple staple food for our stay—bread, cheese, milk, fruit, etc.—and towels, bedding; really, everything we needed. In Iowa, we remained “apart” from the sisters, though we could attend offices (times of prayer) with a wall separating us from seeing, but not from hearing, the sisters. In Missouri, we could join the sisters for offices, and even for a meal or two during their daily routine. Our lodging and provisions at both monasteries were simple, but we were definitely NOT roughing it.

Back of monastery, one of the sisters' gardens.
Our guest kitchen

Our living room...never turned that TV on.

Inside the chapel. We sat in the stalls with the sisters for Vespers.
Statue of Mary inside the chapel.
Monastery cemetery.
Cemetery centerpiece.
The Relic Chapel. Each cubby along the walls holds relics (bone, fabric, hair) of saints.
That dot in the middle is bone, size of the head of a pin. I wrote a poem about St. Dymphna, and now I got to meet her.

My friend, a retired Methodist pastor who makes frequent retreats, likes to visit and eat with the sisters, walk and photograph the picturesque settings, architecture, and art. The silence and solitude provides time and space for contemplation and prayer. I do some of those things too, but I also spend a lot of time alone, writing. This year, we went to Vespers (evening prayer, which is sung verses from Psalms and a canticle to Mary) every day. There’s something about the singing/chanting voices of 24 women in a giant echo chamber (the chapel) that moves me beyond words.

I’ve always had a strange sort of marriage to the Catholic Church. We love each other, fight, make up, fight some more, make up again, and go on vacation. Like any fraught marriage, it’s a mystery why we stay/split/come back together.

I should have said up front that I’m not Catholic. I was raised (loosely) Presbyterian, though I no longer consider myself a Christian. I do consider myself a spiritual person, much to the chagrin of my atheist friends, who would like me to be yea/nay, just as my “religious” friends would. 
My odd relationship with the Catholic church goes waaaaay back. When I was growing up, our neighborhood Catholic church and Presbyterian church were ½-block apart. My best friend was Catholic. So I would often go to mass with her then go to the Presbyterian service (and sing in the choir) with my grandma, who lived with us, and who was the only “religious” member of our family. I did this so often that I learned to be a good Catholic: to genuflect & kneel, bless myself with holy water, recite the mass, make my friend go to confession when she picked flowers in the cemetery (the sign clearly said DO NOT PICK THE FLOWERS), etc. I even took communion until I was finally “caught”—I didn't understand catechism and the “rules” about who could and couldn’t take communion, and at that age, I was sure God would be happy I did it.

Neighboring Conception Abbey chapel.
For my junior year of high school, due to racial tensions and upheaval in my public school in those days (we had armed police stationed outside the bathrooms in my sophomore year), I transferred to a Catholic girls’ school run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. I felt right at home with the sisters, the religion classes, the uniforms, the prayer services. My senior year of high school was one religion class and five literature classes at a Jesuit high school.

Conception Abbey pipe organ. The big pipes were 10" across and 17' tall.
Conception Abbey 15th-century Italian marble Madonna with child.
It’s a chicken-egg conundrum: Do I love the Catholic church because of my youthful introductions, or did I gravitate toward those youthful experiences because of some innate love of the church or some need it fulfilled? Pretty sure I’ll never know which. But I do know I love the ritual of Catholicism, which I find soothing, comforting. The smell of frankincense and myrrh can still make me swoon. A shadowy, echo-y chapel, with its smells, its silence, its vaulted ceilings, dark woods and stone, and breathy, haunting pipe organs, can bring me to tears and make my heart ache. And I’m both fascinated and inspired by a group of sisters or brothers completely devoting their lives to a common cause.

HOWEVER...the church and I occasionally hit the skids when I think about the amassed wealth of a church whose sisters and brothers take as one of their most sacred vows the vow of poverty. Or when I think about the poor—a primary focus of most monastic orders—and how much less poor they could be if the church cashed in some of their hidden and not-so-hidden cache. Or when I think about the Inquisition. Or the “conversion” of indigenous people around the world. Or the church’s historical and continuing suppression of women. Or the sexual abuse of children. Or what happened (and is still happening, if one includes the church's refusal to contribute to a reparations fund) to the Magdelene girls under the sisters’ “care” ( Or so many other hypocrisies. Gha.

As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” So yeah, I’ll continue to examine my strange relationship with the Catholic church, because I know somehow we’re stuck together for life. Maybe we need a good (non-Catholic) marriage counselor...

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Another teacher with the summer off.

It's summer in the Dakotas at last, and as a teacher, of course I have the whole summer off to lounge and eat bonbons. 

SERIOUSLY?!? That has NEVER been true for ANY teacher EVER. In my case, Ray, my mom (who has a slowly progressing form of blood cancer), and I all live together. Sure, I could lounge for minute between trips to the store/pharmacy, doc visits for any one of us, occasional grandkid snuggling/sitting, and gardening/canning. Or maybe I could toss down bonbons while I WORK (catch up on the last semester's unfinished To-Do list, or work on next semester's list, already piling up; put together a student journal the editor bailed on; facilitate a bimonthly Little Town writer's group, etc.)? Even when I'm on "vacation," you can bet your non-contractual working arse that I've got my laptop, and that at least in the mornings, I'm swilling hotel coffee while I'm typing/scheduling/planning/updating away. (Did I mention before that the "teachers have the summer off" excuse for sheit pay and lack of respect is one of my pet peeves?)

Anyhoo...I guess we’re down to two seasons here on the SoDak prairie: blizzard and boiler. In April, we thought for a minute that we might have spring. Temps got up to the 60s, migratory birds/fowl started coming back, our leftover snow melted, and those stalwart hyacinth and iris pushed up. Then we had a blizzard. Now it’s in the 90’s with 8,000 % humidity. South Dakota likes to keep our population limited to only acquiescing, layer-donning/offing, hearty, fatalistic folk.

In spite of global climate change (my Republican brother calls it Gore-bal Warming), Ray and I got our garden in. We’ve cut back this year to only tomatoes, cukes, one pepper plant, and herbs. I had ambitions for two new raised beds (asparagus and strawberries) gooseberry bushes, and a fenceline of honeysuckle, but life foiled my plans (life often knows best, I find, and understands exactly how much area I’m able/willing to weed).

Spearfish Creek is COLD.
We’ve already been quite the travelers this year. First, Mom and I went to Grand Isle, Louisiana, so Mom could stick her toes in the Big Water. Then we went inland to soak up the southern spring with my two Louisiana nieces and their beautiful families, and to meet our newest little Cajun great-nephew. We barely got home when we left for the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Flint Hills, like the Black Hills of South Dakota, are quite a surprise for folks who think both states are all Little House on the Prairie. The Flint Hills are beautiful rolling hills, home to sweet little lakes, astounding mortarless hand-built stone fences, and (I’m not even kidding) the historical Beecher Bible and Rifle Church. There, we had more family/friend gatherings and a little lake recreation, and I left Mom to spend her twice-yearly month at the lake with a rotation of brothers. The we came back home, another quick turnaround, and we were all off for the Black Hills, where we got to celebrate a grandson’s graduation with more friends & family, and where Ray and I did our traditional annual baptism in Spearfish Creek.

New babies all look like Mr. Magoo.
This week, I kayaked for the first time ever, thanks to several friends who loaned me a kayak, hauled me to a calm little lake, showed me the ropes, and put up with me for the first several minutes when I was terrified to paddle. Or move at all. Or breathe. I did get a wee bit burnt (the Ginger Danger) in spite of several coats of SPF 100 (I’m not even exaggerating), but I definitely have the bug now and will go again as soon as I can pester my friends into taking me.

Soon, I'll be able to paddle, too!
Soon, my friend and I will leave for our annual “Get Thee to a Nunnery” road trip. Last year, in lieu of my annual birthday hermitage, my friend and I went to a convent in eastern Iowa. The trip itself was lovely, and once we were there, we spent a few days exploring the property (a working farm), enjoying our own individual contemplation time, and visiting a nearby monastery, where, over 40 years ago, I was part of a trio that played music for a Trappist brother’s Silver Jubilee. This year, we’ll be staying at a Benedictine convent in Missouri. There’s a monastery nearby, too, and between the two, they have some incredible religious art/sculpture. Although I’m not Catholic and have my own non-Christian sort of spirituality, these getaways gift me with invaluable time for writing, a spot of work, re-centering, and unwinding in what I feel are sacred spaces. Ohm...

Also this summer, I'll be working on the Magdalene poems (, so any dedicated writing time I can find will be especially precious. Just this week, Dublin hosted the first-ever reunion of Magdalene laundry survivors. It was an incredibly moving scene. I'm hoping, as one survivor suggested, that this becomes and annual event, and that I can plan my laundry research trip to Ireland around the next reunion.

On July 20, my first legit published book (a chapbook, but a fat one) comes out from Finishing Line Press. It's called The Sea is My Ugly Twin. It's a mythical, wishful little tome of watery poems, for which my youngest brother ( did the cover illlustration--the most wonderful, haggard mermaid EVER. You can pre-order the book online for $15, and read what some much finer poets than myself have to say about the book here Finishing Line will send books out on July 20 to those who pre-order.

My trouble-making sidekick, Doris.
I also have a full slate of school work to do this summer, including teach myself the software I need to put together that student literary journal before fall, complete three online English course templates, write two presentations' worth of material for a fall conference, and get ready for regular fall classes.

I'm not a whinging Negative Nelly, honest. I’m incredibly grateful for my good health, for Mom's stable health and good humor, for Ray's limitless love & patience, and for the summer schedule to combine work and adventure. Today’s adventure is hiding out in my home office while Mom and the Fearless Foursome play bridge downstairs. This could be one of the most dangerous, unpredictable adventures of them all...

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Crazy Bee in My Bonnet

I have a GIANT, angry bee in bonnet: I need to get to Ireland. Check out my gofundme page:

I’m working on a book of poems about Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, workhouses run by the Catholic Church in Ireland from the mid-1700’s to 1996 (!), and in which girls and young women were incarcerated and used as unpaid labor in an effort to “reform” them. If you’ve never heard of the laundries, you can read more about them on my gofundme page, and more here:

Because I need to go to Ireland to do research and meet laundry survivors, and because I’m a perpetually broke teacher, I’ve started the gofundme page to help me get there. (If you feel like sharing my gofundme link on social media or email, I’d be most sincerely grateful.)

I feel sheepish about asking for help (something I’m not good at) when there is so much need out there, and it’s mostly so much greater than mine. I’m not even sure why this project is so important, so consuming for me at this time in my life, but it sure is.

·      Maybe I WAS a Magdalene (what laundry girls/women are called) in a past life.

·      Maybe it’s because I had two DNA tests done, and they both showed I’m basically Irish with a smattering of Bohunk (Czech). My family had always maintained, in spite of a passel of redheads, that we had no Irish ancestry, so this was a bit of a surprise. Maybe my Irish DNA is calling me back to the land of my peeps, and to speak out. 

·      Maybe it’s because I went to Catholic mass religiously (hahaha) as a kid—though I’m not Catholic—and I went to a Catholic girls’ school, and I have a profound love for and fascination with Catholicism’s deep traditions and mythologies, saints, rituals, art, and architecture (although like so many devout and sincere Catholics, I’m horrified by the Church’s abuses past and present).

·      Maybe it’s because I can’t get these babies out of my head… (

·      Maybe it’s because in my youth, I was the kind of girl/teen who would have ended up in a laundry if I hadn’t been blessed to grow up in America in the 1970’s, when practically every girl I knew would have been likely laundry fodder. There but for the grace

Ray looks at me like, “Uh-oh…here we go again…” and tries hard not to roll his eyes or sigh too loud. I don’t know if he’ll go with me (he’s one of those rare homebodies who doesn’t care for traveling), but he’s my biggest writing fan and supports me in all writerly things, so I know he’ll be with me either way.

Whatever my deep-seated reason is for needing to write this book, and however long it takes me, I’m going to Ireland. In my own mysterious poet-y way, I’m trusting the Universe to make it happen, and I’ll be sure to blog the trip, whenever it happens. Éirinn go Brách(less)!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Jack Blizzard's Final Fit

It’s Sunday, the day after Snowmageddon ’18, Jack Blizzard’s Last Tantrum (, the Great April Blizzard. Tucked in our Little Town corner of South Dakota, our magic vortex protected us from the worst of it. We only got, oh, about 10”. Surrounding areas had white-out blizzard conditions and up to 18” of snow. In 24 hours. 

Northern prairie people expect blizzards. When we hear it’s coming, we stock our larders (Friday was mayhem at Hy-Vee; amid cart races and elbow jabs, bread, milk, butter, peanut butter, and beer flew off the shelves), rinse out our woolies, fill bird feeders for the hapless migrators, start new knitting projects, set our mukluks by the back door. What made this blizzard unusual is that it happened mid-April, one day after a stretch of sunny 60+-degree weather. It had been lovely for long enough that people were foolishly raking flower beds (the iris and columbine are up), climbing into garage rafters to get out patio furniture, and swapping out storm windows for screens. Ah, that persistent prairie optimism…
Pre-storm: even squirrels stock their larders.

SD rancher Bryce Teveldal snaps his brother on calf-rescue duty.
Outside our little hamlet and our “pretty spring snow,” things got a little more dicey. Long stretches of I-29 and I-90 were closed due to 40-50 mph winds and ZERO visibility. Stuck drivers had to be plucked from cars that slid into ditches. People were quite literally snowed in their houses by drifts against doors and high as windows. Parked cars were buried. Cows were lost, frozen to death by driving wind and snow-ice, or had to be rescued by determined ranchers.

It’s mostly over now, a few flakes in the air, and the shoveling out commences. The forecast is for 40’s and 50’s by the end of this week, and our memories of Snowmageddon will, as they always do, quickly melt away.


Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dear Ides of March: You Don't Scare Me.

It’s my dad’s 85th birthday today. He’s in a nursing care facility with advanced prostate cancer. He’s had it for a long time, and he’s periodically refused treatment and defied the odds. Recently, one of the cancer’s rogue tumors ended up pressing on his spine, which left him unable to walk. Surgery relieved the pressure but didn’t restore his ability to walk. He does have sensations in his legs, though, so he pushes himself to regain his mobility, doing his own PT on the sly. He is realistic but unbelievably optimistic. Dang, I hope I inherited his determination gene. Happy birthday with love & admiration, Dad.

My dad once told me he was the reincarnation of Caesar. Kidding or not, he IS kind of like Caesar who, in spite of warnings, trusted that things were gonna be a-okay. So for my dad’s birthday, and for the spring geese flying over by the thousands right now, and for the return of the robins, here’s my annual poem about warnings, winter, realism, hope, and optimism…all things South Dakotans (and my dad) have in spades…


The seer was right to warn us,
beware the ides of March.
It’s a dangerous time, peering
through iced windows at the jeweled
tease of crocus and daffodil.
We’ve weathered another season
of deep-freeze, locked up tight
in muscle and mind. We’re tired
of winter’s grey and gritty leftovers.
But this is no time to get careless,
toss a floorboard heater through
the beveled glass and go out,
where Spring flashes her flannel petticoat
embroidered in pinks and greens,
leaves us gaping, breathless,
in air still cold as a knife blade,
stripping off the down.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Zombie Ukulele

the Zager humidifier
I’m blogging about my ukulele today because I brought it back from the dead. Well really, Ray saved its life. Well really, Dennis Zager Jr. saved it. And if you have a stringed wood instrument with buzzing strings, metal frets that feel like exposed nails when you run your fingers along the side of the neck, or a flattened or concave instrument face or back, he can probably save yours, too.

I have a beautiful Luna concert tattoo (carved) uke. (ASIDE: Luna is the only stringed instrument company I know of owned by women.) I bought it two years ago, and almost never played it. I have a Lanakai bari uke I played all the time, because the chord fingerings are exactly like guitar, and I’m generally lazy, so it was a no-brainer.

But recently, I had the opportunity to take OO-KOO-LAYLAY lessons from a pro, Joseph Ahuna (, a native Hawaiian stuck in our Little Town while his wife finishes up her music degree. The lessons are FREE and once a week at our local library. How incredibly LUCKY are we?!? Anyhoo, I had to switch brain hemispheres and finally start learning uke tunings and fingerings.

Long story short-ish, out comes the Luna. Immediately, I discovered a couple things: (1) the frets felt like railroad spikes when I moved my hands up and down the sides of the neck; and (2) I couldn’t play any chords, like C7, that involved the first fret on the A string (GoodCowsEatApples); I got only a nasty buzz and no melodic sound. Too late to exchange it, I had Ray take it to a luthier in the Big City. After a few days, the luthier reported that to fix it would involve taking off and re-setting the bridge, filing down frets, and a general overhaul that would cost more than the uke was worth or had originally cost me. So home came little Luna, and Ray thought he might try filing frets, since at that point, we had nothing to lose.

In the process of Ray’s research on filing, he came across this info from Denny Zager Jr.: (ASIDE: You old people will remember that Denny Zager Sr. had a hit song back in the day called “In the Year 2525” as part of a duo, Zager & Evans. Denny and his son are now living in Lincoln NE making and modifying geetars. I have one of their modified Zager “Easy Play” guitars, which I adore.) Ray said I needed to see the website myself, so I checked it out and watched Denny Jr.’s embedded video. Holy smokes…could humidity be my problem???

So…I made a bazillion (6 really) little homemade humidifiers a la Zager, and put one in the case of each of my stringed instruments. For more intensive treatment, I put little Luna in a garbage bag, slipped a homemade humidifier under her neck, sealed up the bag, and put the whole thing in a case. One week later (no peeking!), I checked on her. The humidifier was still damp, so she hadn’t soaked up all the water. I could still feel the frets running my fingers along the sides of the neck, but NOTHING like before. And there was still a buzz on the first fret of the A string, but I COULD HEAR A NOTE! Back in the bag Luna went, sealed in for another 72 hours. I took her out yesterday, took her to uke lessons, and she played like a dream. I can barely feel the frets at the side of the neck, and the buzz is completely gone. C7 is so sweet.

As Zager explains, lack of humidity makes the wood shrink away from the metal frets, exposing more of the metal and causing buzzes. Once I re-humidified the Luna, the wood expanded back around the frets.

My last step was to go on Ebay and buy 10 little humidity monitors ($2 each). I keep one in every instrument case. I keep the humidity around 45-55%, and if it slips any lower, I put a homemade humidifier back in the case for 72 hours.

Little Luna, happy in her humid case!
Best of all, this process, which cost me a few Ziploc bags, saved me a TON of money I didn’t have, because while I was on Ebay, I came across a gorgeous Kamaka tenor uke…for only $1300. I was trying to decide how badly I really need a car…

Sunday, February 18, 2018

ohm coffee mane padme ohm...

The Traditional Moka Pot
Coffee. I drink it every day. I've written poems about it. I photograph it. I ritualize it. I cook & bake with it. I’ve blogged about it before and probably will again, because, well, it’s THE ELIXER OF LIFE. As the British Museum’s earliest known coffee ad says, “It quickens the sprit and makes the heart lightsome.” The ad goes on to say that coffee can prevent consumption, and it can CURE dropsy, gout, and scurvy. Elixer. Of. Life.
Cold-brew French Press

Cut down? Never. I say, pour ANOTHER cup or three while you read this about coffee’s health benefits:

The discovery of coffee is often attributed to Abyssinian goatherd Kaldi, around 850 AD. Kaldi discovered that after eating the berries of a particular shrub, his goats got peppy and frolicked about. He chewed a few himself and felt a sense of euphoria, so he filled his pockets with berries and took them to a local monastery to share his happiness. According to

Kaldi presented the chief Monk with the berries and related his account of their miraculous effect. "Devil’s work!" exclaimed the monk, and hurled the berries in the fire. Within minutes the monastery filled with the aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. The beans were raked from the fire and crushed to extinguish the embers. The chief Monk ordered the grains to be placed in the ewer and covered with hot water to preserve their goodness. That night the monks sat up drinking the rich fragrant brew, and vowed that they would drink it daily to keep them awake during their long, nocturnal devotions.

See? Coffee is a spiritual gift.

My grandma, who lived with us when I was a kid, drank instant Folger’s or Sanka, and I grew up loving the smell. She used to call church coffee “caramel-colored water,” so I also learned stronger is  better. Then, my own full-on, coffee-fueled nocturnal devotions developed during grad school. I spent my days chasing three kids, then pulled all-nighters writing a Master’s thesis, studying for comps, or writing papers for PhD classes. Since then, I’ve tried just about every method available for coffee preparation, and I’ve amassed an impressive collection of coffee accoutrement. Oh, oui oui, mon amie.

The Nespresso and Capresso Grinder
Travel Stanley and Drip Cone
Travel French Press and SPARE Chemex
I have several options for travel rigs (depending on available space and mode of travel), a BUNN for holidays/gatherings when I need a constant supply over a long time (if you HAVE to drink auto-drip coffee, BUNN is the best), a Nespresso one-shot pod brewer for guest treats and my evening “fun cup” of decaf espresso, and a Keurig in my office at school. I don’t have a real espresso machine yet, but believe me, it's #1 on my wish list.

As for my daily grind, after a few decades of dedicated research, I have what I believe is the perfect brewing method—the yardstick by which I measure every cup of coffee and find most lacking. It involves four components:

1) the darkest, greasiest, freshest organic beans I can find. My preference is Café Altura French Roast, which I buy in 4 lb bags, then break down into 1 lb bags, 3 of which I freeze immediately. (Yes, snotty connoisseurs, there IS a little condensation loss from freezing/thawing beans, but I can’t go to the market and buy fresh beans every dang day. Geeze!);

2) ONE POT’S worth of beans (5 heaping standard coffee scoops of beans), ground fine in a quality burr grinder (NEVER a blade grinder!);

3) filtered water, heated in my Zojirushi to 208 degrees. I set the timer the night before, so the water is ready the minute I get up. (Wow, you coffee snobs are something. Yes, many of you prefer 195 degrees, but I’ve found that 208 doesn’t burn the coffee, and my cuppa stays delightfully, drinkably hot longer.); and

4) the most important component, a CHEMEX 10-cup pour-over coffee pot, with genuine CHEMEX coffee filters, which are thicker than standard filters and made from lab-grade filter paper.


Mom and I are planning a trip to Lafayette LA in April, so she can meet great-grandchild #10. There are loads of arrangements and decisions to make, but of course the biggest is whether to pack the Aeropress, the stainless or Stanley travel French press, or the drip cone? Because trust me, NO ONE wants to spend their vacation with an undercaffeinated me.

The Daily Grind with Zojirushi

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to.

I’m a little sad today; more snow is on the way, a neighbor and former teacher is moving on from this life to his next adventure, and my post-stroke vocal chords aren’t working today (my friend DLB dubbed these my “Carol Channing" days). We prairie people usually stuff our feelings, especially sadness. We aren’t the only stuffers, of course, but we’re the BEST. Today, however, I’m letting sadness loose. I’ll try to explain why this isn’t just maudlin self-indulgence…

Each semester, my literature students (most of them prairie folk) ask, “Why don’t we EVER read anything happy?” This is a hard question to answer. We usually end up talking about the definition of “happy,” satisfying vs. happy, or the ways in which gross overgeneralizations like EVER distort the truth. Then I usually quote that beacon of literary sunshine & optimism, Cormac McCarthy: “The core of literature is tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.”

So maybe this is why I love sadness: It teaches us so much about ourselves and each other. I don’t mean that I wish everyone would stop smiling and suffer. I’m not itching to wear black eye shadow, write angsty poems, and take up the pipe organ. I do live with persistent depression (treated…I’m cool, thanks), and admittedly, this may color my comfort/familiarity with the non-happy side of our human emotional spectrum.

(SIDENOTE: I know that depression and sadness are not the same, believe me. Depression is wack brain chemistry, and persistent depression is NOT situational—sad things don’t make it happen. In fact, things don’t make it happen. Your brain makes it happen. You can’t “cheer up,” “get a hobby,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “think positive” to cure depression.)

Maybe this is why I love sadness: Turns out sorrow/sadness has its own peculiar language: As a writer, I find this absolutely interesting.

Maybe when I say I love sadness, what I mean is this: I have a deep and profound appreciation for it. Sadness, sorrow, grief—they’re Great Revealers. They lift the veil, cut through the noise. In times of true sorrow, a person stashes the ego, slices through the pretense, stops the show. Shit gets REAL, as the young’uns say. Maybe these are the ONLY times we get real. 

We are the most authentic, the most genuinely human, when we’re the most vulnerable. It’s all bare wires, stomach muscles, and shark brain in times of sorrow. And there’s something extraordinarily humbling about being witness to a person who, in those moments, doesn’t care what you or the rest of the world think. I believe we NEED our hearts to break open now & then in order to reconnect with compassion, to see into our core, and to remember what we’re REALLY made of.

Here’s another thing I love about sadness: Sorrow and grief are also Great Levelers. We all feel them. Let them out, stuff them if you must; they’re still there in every one of us. No amount of power, position, credentials, wealth, fame, good looks, intelligence, or single-source organic fair trade Sumatran coffee can change that.

I feel bad for stuffers, who can’t or won’t fully embrace their own sorrow for reasons of upbringing, “Stubborn Stoicism” (this should be the tagline on South Dakota license plates), fear of embarrassment, a clinging ego, a misguided need to “put on a happy face,” or the supposed propriety of finger-in-the-dam self-control. I have just enough upper Midwest Presbyterian in me to qualify as a stuffer, though I actively work at quashing my stiff upper lip.

Maybe this is the CORE, the nougaty center of why I love sadness: Sorrow gives us rare glimpses of unvarnished, raw, genuine, beautiful humanity.

On the flipside, no one wants to LIVE there, right? And this is another of sorrow’s gifts: When we face sadness, embrace it, move through it with tenderness and appreciation, we CAN move beyond it. Then, for me at least, the eventual return to wonder and joy feels a little electrified—more intense, surprising, healing, zingy—and that’s beautiful, too.

“I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” –Zora Neale Hurston