In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Summers off

Oh, middle of August, you’ve arrived too soon again.  You do this to me every stinkin’ year.

Last Spring, when I posted my grades, you seemed so far away that I had a hard time imagining you’d ever come back around. That’s how it is every year for teachers, I suppose. Even ones like me who really, really, like teaching.You finish one academic year and have this span of time that feels like it will last and last so you diddle around for at LEAST the first month reading dumb stuff you don’t read the rest of the year and staying up much too late and sitting in the sun when you could be getting ready for the next semester. Besides, you have all these people in your life who keep telling you that you are lucky because you have summers “off” so how can you NOT take a little vacay, right? Can I get an Amen, Teachers?

And you have PLENTY of time to get ready, you assure yourself. After all, you’ve just finished grading about a million essays and your mind needs to rest. So you take a little break from thinking about anything even remotely related to the teaching of other human beings for at least the first month. Then, before you know it, the 4th of July has come and gone. And again, you say to yourself (only this time, with a little less conviction) that there’s still time to do All the Things you need to do before a shiny new semester begins. You aren’t quite as sure as you were in June, though. So you get a little jumpy and start prepping and rearranging and re-tooling what you’ve done in the past. You plan where you want your students to go in the sixteen weeks you have to meet course objectives. If you’re smart, you have your ducks in a row before August ever arrives.

At least this is how it is supposed to work.  And most years, it does, for most teachers. Because teachers know, without a doubt, that this sweet last month of summer that looks long on the calendar, this month of warm days and cool nights so perfect for sleeping, is over in a snap. A snap, I tell you. So a teacher had  better make sure her ducks are lined up nice and straight by the second week of August when workshops and inservices start for most teachers.

My ducks are looking pretty good for the most part considering that this is my nineteenth year teaching college freshmen who incidentally, just happen to be the most interesting humans in the world. A lot has changed in those nineteen years, and a lot hasn’t. One of the very best things about teaching is the fresh start every fall semester. New names and faces make the same classes and curriculum come alive for me each year. This is true even after nearly two decades of teaching some of the classes. I wonder what it will be like when I retire and no longer measure time in terms of sixteen week semesters.

Luckily, that’s still a few years off. This year, I will learn their names and come to know their strengths and work with them to learn how to write with purpose and skill. This August,  I still believe that teaching is a calling. That it is holy, sacred work. If an August ever arrives that I don’t feel that way, I’ll know it will be time to leave. Stay at the lake a few weeks longer into the fall. Maybe hire myself out to paint a kitchen or something. Who knows? Time will tell.

But not this August. Nope. This August, I still believe it with all my heart.

Gus

He was a giant of a man, as I recall.  A giant.

Okay, well maybe not physically, in the ways that people often think a “giant” might be. In fact, in terms of his physical appearance, he was fairly average in height and build.

But that voice that echoed through the high school hallway down by the locker rooms or shouted plays from the bench or side line was deep and loud. He was quick to raise it with the boys he taught in Phy Ed or coached who didn’t listen to his directions. His favorite expression, when dealing with such boys was “Bean Head.” Sometimes that was preceded by an expletive.  I read in his obituary that, as a young man, he’d served in the Navy. This, more than anything else, would explain why he spent all of those years trying to pound discipline into the young men he taught. He made it his mission to turn them into people who were not Bean Heads.

It was the mid 1970’s, a time when teachers could still call a student a (insert expletive) Bean Head. Back then, if a boy came home and told his father that his teacher or coach had called him a Bean Head in front of his friends, the father would most likely have shrugged and said, “Gus is absolutely right. You ARE a Bean Head. So stop acting like one.” This is because nobody’s parents had time for fragile egos in those days.

Gus coached junior high girls basketball the first year that girls playing basketball competitively became a reality, thanks to Title 9. This was decades before feeder programs, clinics, and camps had little girls learning the basics of the game in elementary school, the way they do now. As the coach, it was his job to teach a bunch of hormonal teen girls the fundamentals of a sport we’d, up to that point, spent our childhoods only watching from the bleachers unless you count the games of HORSE or PIG we played with our brothers.

Gus had coached a lot of boys, but we were a whole new ball game. We had a lot to learn that first year. A few of us were naturals. The rest of us tried to make up in enthusiasm what we lacked in basic skills. Some of us only lasted a season before we went on to activities that involved less running and sweating. I was in that third group, but it was nice to have the choice. Many of the women I know from that first team went on to raise daughters  who have grown up taking for granted the fact that they could choose to be basketball, volleyball, softball, and soccer players. Really good ones. We’ve come a long way when it comes to girls and athletics, haven’t we?

A giant of a man with a whistle and a bark that was worse than his bite helped make that happen for a group of pep club girls and cheerleaders in a small town in the 1970’s. We are better people, stronger women, for having been coached by him.  I hope he knew that.

Rest in Peace, Gus.

 

Home to roost

The bats at the lake were just getting ready to call it a night.

I was up before dawn drinking coffee and watching as several swooped around on the other side of the screen, catching mosquitoes in the yard. When I went to bed last night, there was a strong breeze. This morning, it was completely still and misty right before the sun peeked over the trees across the river.

The bats live in the attic of the addition my grandparents had built onto the house in the late 60’s when it became clear that the number of grandchildren who wanted to stay overnight had exceeded the number of beds in the house.  In their later years, they slept in the “back bedroom” themselves, often sharing two double beds in the cramped room with a grandchild or two who would lie awake listening to old people snoring in stereo and night sounds on the river, feeling safe and snug.

This morning, at first light, the bats flew back into the attic one by one. I listened to the rustling and scratching above me as they settled in to sleep. The birds began morning songs in the meadow. A cool breeze came through the screen door and I could see silver ripples on the water. It is my favorite time of day here at the cabin in July. That moment when another day begins. It never gets old.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about where creatures tend to roost, and why. Whether it is habit or instinct or convenience. My dearest friend and her husband have recently come home to roost, too. This is good. It feels natural to grow older with the people who knew you when you were young. People who loved your parents and remember your grandparents. It closes up the circle in profound and simple ways.

The bats in the attic only know that they have found a warm, safe, place to roost. That’s all they need to know.  It’s good to know where you feel snug.

Maybe we are not so very different.

 

Trees and other beings

I am writing at my desk this morning, which is odd. I spend the academic year with my butt plastered to my office chair teaching online so it is pretty rare to find me in this room at this desk in July. It is much nicer to curl up cross-legged on the futon in the back porch with my computer balanced on my lap, listening to birds and looking for words. I save my desk for the long, dark, winter months of work. It’s my system.

There are four trees in the yard outside my window. A pair of scrawny apple trees that have never produced a single blossom or apple and two pine trees. One, a prickly gray-green spruce. The other, a balsam fir.  I yanked them up from the damp moss off my grandfather’s grave in July of 2009 right after we’d uprooted our two teenagers and moved back here. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that everybody would thrive and be okay when I did it. Seven years later, the evergreens are as tall as I am and the kids are fine. So, yeah. Sometimes we’re right. And sometimes, we keep buying apples at the grocery store.

It’s been a disturbing few weeks globally, nationally, and locally. Every time I turn on the news, it seems like the fabric of society has unraveled another row. Nice, Turkey, South Sudan. Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights. Flooding around the state and wind damage right here at home. And if this wasn’t enough for one month, we still have to endure two political conventions this summer. Candidates will trash their opponents and pretend that they,alone, have the solutions to complex problems. That will be the biggest lie they tell us. It’ll be a whopper.

Men drive semi trucks into crowds. Wives bury police officers. Girlfriends live stream a death. Toddlers are shot riding in minivans. The obscene senselessness of all of it is too much to bear some months.

Meanwhile, the world keeps turning and my trees keep reaching toward the sun. Barring any strong winds that take them down in the prime of their lives, they’ll be here long after I’m sleeping under my own blanket of moss near my grandfather. This, I can accept. This, I understand. It makes sense.

The rest of it?  Not so much.

 

A little fire in the belly

“Hey! Where are the bratwursts?”  It seemed like a simple enough question.

On Friday, while my back was turned and I thought that at least one of our four young adult visitors was watching the dog, Lilly the beagle vanished. It was the strangest thing. One minute she was playing with my son’s friends and the next, she was gone like she’d been Raptured or something. We called her name. We checked every room in the house. We walked around outside, thinking maybe she’d managed to sneak out when my son went out to light the grill. It was a real mystery. Dogs in houses do not just disappear without a trace.

As it turns out, she was only missing long enough to steal and eat four raw bratwursts while hiding under the sofa in the family room. We aren’t talking about cheap vacuum packed pretend bratwursts from the grocery store,either. These were the good kind from the meat market. Nice, plump, fresh ones with fancy ingredients like goat cheese. Enormous tubes of wonderfulness, too fragrant for a hound dog to resist.

A certain someone (who shall remain nameless…Ahem…) left a bag of sausages within swiping distance of a small beagle with no soul. The clues? An extremely guilty looking dog and a pile of greasy butcher paper under the green sofa. Oh, and beagle breath that smelled a lot like bratwurst.

The sneaky little culprit has been digesting her find for the past two days. There has been a lot of beagle belching but thankfully, no explosions thus far. At least one of the brats was filled with jalapeno peppers so things have been a little tense around here as we wait to see how that one, um…comes out. Oddly, she doesn’t seem any the worse for wear after her sausage heist and is even back to begging for treats.

This is a relief. However, I’m left to ponder exactly what a beagle can’t eat without getting a belly ache.  If I ate four bratwursts in one sitting, I’d need my stomach pumped. Maybe we should enter her in one of those speed eating contests you see on television. Take her mad skills on the road and turn her into a celebrity weiner eater or something.

Or maybe we just need to remind young house guests with better intentions than judgment to never, ever, trust a beagle.

Particularly when it comes to bratwursts.

 

 

 

Turtles and other parents

The mud turtles are busy along the gravel roads this month. We saw at least four laying eggs between here and Tamo last night. So are the skunks, based on the number of ruined nests and empty shells I saw along the same stretch of road.

It must be hard to be a turtle mom.  First, you have to find the right guy, which as we know, is no small task for any member of any species. Then, you have to make turtle whoopie which has to be tricky in the water. Finally, you carry a bunch of ping pong ball sized eggs around in your turtle lady parts until you find the perfect spot to dig a nest with your back feet. You put your eggs filled with hopes and dreams in a hole, pee on the whole thing, and waddle back to the lake.

But if you miscalculate and lay your eggs in the wrong place, a skunk comes along for a midnight snack and all that work was for nothing. Zip. Zilch. I mean, honestly. You’d think there would be a better way to continue a family blood line, wouldn’t you?

Sister and her college sweetheart stopped to take us on a boat ride the other night. Two couples and two very content dogs in a boat on a June evening at dusk, pointing out families of geese. We are almost old now, but not quite. Not yet. That’s what we tell each other.

It is the last week of June. Before we know it, we’ll all be sick of potato salad and grilled hot dogs and mosquito bites. First, though, there will be fireworks and then the Rice Festival and family time. Lately, I’ve found myself longing for the days when our kids and their cousins played for hours together at the lake. I miss the sound of little boy voices down by the beach and the evening “shows” the girls would put on in the lodge.  In a time long ago when they were ours and that was enough. Five happy little hostages filling our days before they acquired pesky adult things like jobs and responsibilities and other people that matter to them.

I hope those big kids of ours know how lucky they were to be worried over and pestered and hollered at and loved to distraction by the four of us. To be loved that same way, even now.

It is bittersweet, isn’t it?  This raising of humans.  Maybe the turtles have it easier. Lay the eggs. Pay no mind to the skunks. Call it good.

Maybe not.

Good fences

Lilly watched intently as her boundaries were determined for her by humans she didn’t know.

The thing about living with a beagle instead of a normal dog is that they value their freedom above everything else but food.  Not “free” as in “Let’s go for a walk! I’ll walk right next to you and when you tell me to come, I will stop whatever I’m doing and come to you immediately. This is because you are my mistress and I love you” free Nope. Free as in, “Roo-Roo! Free at last! Thank God Almighty! I’m free at last! See ya when I see ya, Sucka!”

It is just who beagles are. If you live with one, you can’t take it personally. I am amused whenever I see a “lost beagle” posting online. I always think,”Ha. That beagle’s not lost. He’s just free. If that beagle wanted to go home, he would.” That’s how beagles roll.

Hence, the new fence in our backyard.

Somehow, I raised three other dogs and two children to adulthood without any fences. But Lilly is young and very, very, fast. Two things I no longer am. In a perfect world, she could roam our five acres and we could call her name and she would actually come back. Unfortunately, this is not in her nature.  And then, there’s that “good fences make good neighbors” thing. Keeping Lilly home will make HER a much better one.

After the fence was built, I opened the back door to let her out without her leash. Now, you would think that this would be enough for a dog, wouldn’t you? You would think she ran and jumped and frolicked with wild beagle abandon? Celebrated her freedom to explore the back yard? Maybe even grinned at me and let out a little Roo! of thanks?

If you are imagining these as possible scenarios, you have never been owned by a beagle.

Here’s what she actually did. First, she looked at me like I’d lost my mind for actually letting her outside off her leash. Then, she started at one end of the fence and made her way all the way around it twice, nose to the ground. She pawed at each post, testing it. Then, she made a third pass to see if the workers had made sure the fencing was all the way to the ground. I’m pretty sure she even paused at both gates to try and figure out how the latches worked. And then, she sat down in the middle of the yard and glared at me in the way that only a ticked-off beagle can glare.

It has been a few days with the new fence. I’m still watching her when she’s outside to make sure that she doesn’t try to climb the four feet of chain link keeping her out of the glorious woods on the other side. I toss her tennis ball for her and she fetches it, but we both know that she’s just humoring me as she plots her next move to free herself from the boundaries that tall, two-legged creatures with thumbs and good intentions set for her.

It is what it is, little dog.  Might as well make the best of it, I say, as I toss the ball again.