Over-driving Over I-90

Signs that you’ve made a lot of trips across western South Dakota on Interstate 90 in the past few months:

1. You notice when Reptile Gardens updates one of its billboards or Cosmos puts up a new one, and you consider either one an addition to the scenery.

2. You always use your “own” habitual bathroom stall when you stop at a rest area.

3. You have the preset buttons on your car radio set to three different South Dakota public radio stations and know exactly where one will fade out and you need to switch to another. You also schedule your travel time around your preferred programming.

4. You recognize individual horses in pastures along I-90, and you’re starting to imagine you can recognize individual cows.

5. You’ve considered getting preferred customer cards for the truck stops at Murdo and Vivian.

6. If you play the billboard alphabet game, you know exactly where to start it in order to take advantage of the J’s and Q’s on certain specific signs.

7. You remember when that deer carcass near Belvidere, now a bit of dried skin over a few bones, was fresh road kill.

8. You don’t bother to bring an audio book to listen to while you drive, because you don’t consider 275 miles a long trip.

9. You can estimate your gas mileage quite accurately based on the direction and velocity of the wind, including an automatic adjustment for driving east (downhill) versus west (uphill). You’ve learned to assume that the wind will blow from the southeast when you’re driving east and from the northwest when you’re driving west. If the wind isn’t blowing at all, you consider it an unexpected gift. If you happen to get a tailwind, you consider it a minor miracle.

10. Despite all the tricks and gimmicks to make the miles go faster, you still don’t take the view for granted. You notice and appreciate, not just the glorious splendor of sunsets that spread across half the sky, but also the subtle beauty of light and shadow across low hills. For someone who grew up there, a trip across the prairie and a chance to see miles of it reaching to the far horizon isn’t a long and boring drive. It’s refreshment for the soul.

Categories: Living Consciously, Travel | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Finger Bowling

Finger bowls. I’ve always associated them with formal dining, elegant place settings, and fine china. This impression, based on extensive reading of historical novels, was confirmed when I did a little research. I accidentally wandered into the thickets of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette and found it such fascinating reading that I very nearly didn’t come out again. (Just in case you need to know the correct precedence for seating guests, the appropriate division of responsibilities between the butler and the housekeeper, or the proper way to address an envelope or a Duke, you can find the book here.)

Emily (I suppose I should call her Mrs. Post, but after half an hour of browsing through her crisp prose I feel as if we know each other) seems to assume finger bowls are standard at formal dinners, merely describing two different ways of presenting them with the dessert course. She mentions as a matter of course that the finger bowl is always placed on a doily, which may be round or square but “must always be cream or white.” She also says, “the finger bowl is less than half filled with cold water; and at dinner parties, a few violets, sweet peas, or occasionally a gardenia, is put in it. (A slice of lemon is never seen outside of a chop-house where eating with the fingers may necessitate the lemon in removing grease. Pretty thought!)”

Emily’s parenthetical shudder notwithstanding, in the circumstances recently where I used a finger bowl for the first time, the lemon might have been useful.

We were invited to dinner at the home of a couple who have lived abroad and are familiar with a variety of dining styles. I was slightly intimidated at first to see, at each plate, a pretty little blue-and-white finger bowl. Then the hostess informed us that the main course was barbequed pork ribs. She encouraged us by both word and example to eat them with her fingers, making full use of the finger bowls.

I’m not sure Emily would have approved, but the finger bowls in this instance were utterly practical. The process went like this:
• Pick up rib with fingers and eat the meat, making sure to gnaw the last delicious bites off of the bone.
• Lick fingers (optional, but highly recommended—the sauce was tasty).
• Paddle fingers gently in finger bowl.
• Wipe clean fingers on napkin.
• Pick up fork with sauce-free fingers and take a few bites of veggies and rice.
• While fingers are still clean, pick up serving fork and stab another pair of ribs.
• Repeat and rinse, as often as appropriate—but not too often, since there were chocolate brownies for dessert.

Now that I understand the practical value of finger bowls in non-formal settings, I may just have to try this at home. They could be especially useful for family dinners with small children at the table. Just image the convenience of having finger bowls at hand for toddlers to use after they finish eating spaghetti with their fingers, scooping up applesauce with their forks, dipping their green beans in ketchup, or dredging the noodles out of their soup by hand. They could rinse off their sticky little fingers before wiping them on their own pants, the tablecloth, or their grandmother’s new sweater. This could be the most useful dinner-table accessory for little ones since the unabridged dictionary.

It wouldn’t even be necessary to put violets or sweet peas in toddlers’ finger bowls. They would decorate their own—not only with peas, but with other attractive accents like lumps of mashed potatoes, rejected bites of chicken, stray strings of spaghetti, and the entire contents of the salt shaker.

Of course, being creative little souls, no doubt they would also find alternative uses for the water in the bowls: drinking it, using it to finger paint on the table, spitting it at one another, or pouring it onto their plates, the table, their laps, their heads, or the floor.

Oops. Maybe this idea needs a bit of refining. Besides, I just remembered one more thing about those historical novels that refer to finger bowls. All the elegantly dressed people at those formal multi-course dinners, making refined conversation while the maids and footmen serve them so correctly, are adults. The children, duly supervised by nurses and nannies, eat in the nursery.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Mr. Fox Joins the Circus

Long before Queen Elsa’s song in Disney’s “Frozen” added the phrase “let it go” to every four-year-old’s vocabulary, the concept of giving up control over what isn’t yours to manage has been important for living with balance and serenity. Twelve-Step programs call this “detaching with love.” It can also be described as plain old “minding your own business.” (The hard part, of course, is figuring out what is your business and what isn’t.)

A while ago I came across a saying that’s become one of my favorite ways of reminding myself to let go of things that aren’t my responsibility: “Not my circus; not my monkeys.” The image it conjures up makes me smile and helps me avoid stressing over things I can’t or shouldn’t do anything about.

Except, of course, that sometimes it is my circus and sometimes those are undeniably my monkeys.

Like the three-ring family extravaganza that took up most of last week. Ring One contained the usual local suspects: my daughter and son-in-law with their two-year-old, plus my stepson and his wife with their three kids, who are three, two, and seven months. Ring Two was my stepdaughter, visiting for the week with her three children, aged six, four, and ten months. That, ordinarily, would be quite enough circus for anyone.

To illustrate: one evening we celebrated the seventh birthday of the oldest grandkid in this particular bunch. It was fun, it was noisy, it was delightful, and it was surprisingly free from conflict. Until 7:23 p.m., when ice cream intersected with bedtime. Suddenly four children were in tears, one child was throwing a hissy fit and demanding to leave, and the adults unanimously agreed that the party was over.

But wait—there’s more! Last week we added one more act in Ring Three. The feature attraction, right there in the center of the Big Top (well, actually, in the maternity wing of the hospital), was the birth of my daughter’s second child.

My own participation in this particular circus was a balancing act—dividing time, attention, and energy among taking care of my daughter’s two-year-old, spending time with the visiting grandkids, having meaningful conversations with my stepdaughter in 27-second increments, helping provide a couple of family dinners, and being with my daughter and her husband for part of the 30-something hours they spent at the hospital waiting for their new son to show up.

More by luck than planning, his arrival was timed so I was able to be there when he made his grand entrance. Cue the trumpet fanfare and the spotlight for Fox Reed!

Fox is grandchild number 16, and I am thrilled that in part he’s named after me. He is a beautiful baby with the proper number of fingers and toes, he has brown eyes like his mother and grandmother, and he seems to be settling into his life quite nicely. So far his big brother seems to think he’s pretty special, although it’s possible that big brother assumes Fox is just another visiting cousin who hasn’t gone home with the rest of them yet.

As he grows up, I’m sure Fox will learn to appreciate the fabulous troupe he’s been born into. As one of the founders of this particular circus, I feel a certain amount of responsibility for him and all the rest of those incredible, amazing monkeys. I also am pleased and relieved to understand clearly that I’m not the ringmaster here. The next generation of performers have taken over, and they are doing a wonderful job. Their skills at balancing, juggling, and keeping the show on the road are superb.

Oh, I have a place, too. Sometimes I can hold a safety net. Sometimes I help out behind the scenes. Sometimes I get to just sit in the front row and cheer.

And always, I can say with pride and delight if anyone asks or even if they don’t: “Yep, that’s my circus. Those are my monkeys, all right!”

Plus one brand-new fox.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Improbable Causes

A department store flyer this week included an ad for men’s “causal” pants. My first assumption, naturally, was that a proofreader, possibly on a Monday morning before his or her first cup of coffee, had been a little too “casual” about checking the copy.

But maybe not. What if the ad meant exactly what it said? This could explain so much. There is definitely a “causal” relationship between the wearing of certain styles of pants and the effects thereof. For instance:

The astonishingly long-lasting style of grossly oversized pants for young men, which causes:
a. An increase in underwear sales, at least among certain styles and brands, since the top two-thirds of it are visible to all who care to look and even more who don’t.
b. The inability to do anything, such as mowing the yard or carrying laundry downstairs, that requires both hands, because of the need to keep one hand free to continually hitch up one’s sagging britches.
c. The inability to carry anything heavier than a ten-dollar bill in the multiple pockets of those saggy pants, because even an extra half-ounce of weight will cause the jeans to end up around the wearer’s ankles.

The latest and opposite extreme style for young men of super-skinny jeans, which causes:
a. Still more of an increase in underwear sales, since the boxers that were required under (or rather, above) the baggy jeans won’t fit under the skinny jeans.
b. A decrease is impulse spending, because while it is possible to carry a limited amount of cash in the super-tight pockets of the super-skinny jeans if one puts it into the pocket before zipping up the jeans, it’s not possible to get the cash out of the pocket in public without losing one’s dignity.
c. A possible need to switch from the baritone to the tenor section of the high school chorus.

The style for women of super-skinny jeans, which causes:
a. The continued sale of large, heavy purses. (See “b” above.)

The style for young women, as well as for some women old enough to know better, of super-stretchy tights in brightly colored geometric patterns, unfortunately too often worn with too-short tops, which causes:
a. Even more sales of large, heavy purses, which if carried in appropriate positions may provide some much-needed cover.
b. The unavoidable noticing, by innocent bystanders, of dimples in places said bystanders have no business knowing about and would really prefer not to know about.
c. A presumed decrease in underwear sales, since if even the stretchiest underwear were worn under the stretchy tights it would be possible to read the size, brand name, and fiber content printed on it.

All these and similar extreme styles in pants certainly are causal of outbursts of sarcasm and hilarity from observers, particularly those who are old enough to have forgotten—or at least to hope others have forgotten—about some of their own earlier fashion excesses. The outbursts may be muted if these observers are encouraged to browse through old photo albums. Or, if they can’t remember where they’ve stored the photo albums, the hilarity can be brought to an abrupt end with one evocative phrase: plaid polyester bellbottoms.

Categories: Fashion | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Breakfast in the Driveway

There’s nothing to bring you fully awake early on a winter morning like going outside to experience nature while you walk up the driveway to get the newspaper. The brilliance of the stars in the still-dark sky to the west contrasts with the brightening of dawn in the east. The crispness of snow under your slippered feet and the freshness of the frigid air are invigorating. What really brings you to full alertness, though, is the tingling sensation on the back of your neck that suggests a mountain lion might be watching.

I’ve written about this before, but in the past couple of years I haven’t worried too much about mountain lions. This is probably due to several factors: the city’s effort to thin the urban deer population, a lion hunting season that has reduced the number of big cats in the Black Hills, the idea that familiarity breeds contempt (or at least nonchalance), and the fact that our newspaper subscription now includes full access to the online version.

Then, a few weeks ago, my partner learned something disturbing while he and our next-door neighbor were enjoying some male bonding over a problem with our shared water well. The neighbor said that twice in the past couple of years, he had found the half-eaten carcasses of deer—clearly killed by mountain lions—in the shallow gully between our houses.

The gully right next to our woodpile. The gully where I pick chokecherries. The gully where the neighbors’ kids had a clubhouse when they were younger. The gully that parallels the driveway we walk every morning when we get the newspaper.

I’m so glad I haven’t wasted any energy worrying about mountain lions.

Not that I’m really worried even now. Honest. I have protective strategies. First, I always put up the hood of my winter coat. I know it wouldn’t really protect the back of my neck from a lion’s teeth, but it might affect his aim.

Second, when I get the paper out of the box, I always roll it up into a tight cylinder. As a defensive weapon, it’s pretty flimsy, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays when there are hardly any advertising flyers. But still, surely no cat would appreciate the humiliation of being whacked across the nose with a newspaper.

But the most important strategy is to always take my shower first thing in the morning. That way, when I go up to get the paper, I smell like soap, shampoo, and body lotion. My idea is that any lion who catches a whiff will not associate my scent with food. The reaction I’m hoping for is, “Eeew—what’s that awful smell? Can you imagine getting a mouthful of that stuff? Yuck!” Ideally, any discerning predator will sneeze, gag, and take its sensitive nose and sharp teeth somewhere else.

Of course, there is an alternative possibility. A lion might pick up my soap/shampoo/lotion aura, take a deep breath, and think, “Yum—breakfast! And somebody already washed it.”

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Lies, Damned Lies, and Sticks

What sets humans apart from other animals? That’s a question people have debated for centuries. And maybe the answer is as simple as, “We’re the only ones who ponder questions like these.”

Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, says what makes humans unique is our ability to create and believe fiction. Apparently (I haven’t read the book yet, so I might be inventing fiction here), he doesn’t mean just storytelling like novels, TV shows or lies like, “No, I didn’t eat the last three brownies.”

He’s talking about fiction in a larger sense. In the February 2015 Smithsonian magazine, Harari gives an example of one universal fiction: money. Even though money doesn’t have any inherent value, we have created and we believe in a whole system of exchange based on it.

When it comes down to creating fiction at an individual level, however, I’m not sure humans are as unique as we might like to think. As evidence, here’s a true story about a man and a dog. I promise, I am not making this up. I wasn’t there when it happened, but it was told to me by one of the participants, who—despite his behavior on this occasion—is generally ethical and trustworthy.

One summer day the man and the dog were at a lake, playing a game. The man would throw a stick out into the water, the dog would swim out and retrieve it, the dog would bring it back to the man, and the man would throw it again.

The man got tired of the game before the dog did. When the dog brought the stick back for the eleventeenth time, the man pretended to throw but didn’t let go of the stick. He created a fiction.

The dog, still full of energy and eager to play, didn’t notice the fake. He dashed out into the water to retrieve the stick, which, of course, he couldn’t find. He swam back and forth several times, searching. Eventually he swam back to shore, empty-mouthed.

But instead of coming directly back to the man, he searched along the bank until he found another stick. He picked it up, started toward the man, then stopped. He trotted back to the edge of the lake and dropped the stick into the water. Once it was wet, he grabbed it again and brought it back to the man. The fiction he created was actually more elaborate than the fiction the man created.

Without words, both the man and the dog lied to each other. You can decide for yourself which one was the better storyteller.

The larger question of the ethics of inter-species lying is perhaps a topic for another day. But, keeping in mind that the man told the first lie, I just might mention another observation on the uniqueness of humankind.

According to Mark Twain, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends, Wild Things | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Words to Live By

“Favorite Quotation.” This was one of the blanks to fill in on a bio form I had to submit recently for a presentation I’m giving in a few weeks. I assumed they wanted something uplifting and meaningful, a shining little nugget of pithy advice or witty inspiration that is a touchstone in my life.

And I couldn’t think of a thing. It probably didn’t help that the program chairman needed my response by 5:00 p.m., that I’ve read and edited so many self-help books that their wise adages tend to blur together, and that my favorite poet is Ogden Nash. He certainly is quotable—here’s one of his poems:

Reflexions on Ice-Breaking
Candy
is dandy
But liquor
is quicker

However, the inspirational value of lines like this might not be fully appreciated by someone whose goal is to help a presenter seem capable and authoritative.

I finally found some adequate saying or other, sent it in, and promptly forgot about it. The next day, of course, I remembered several delightful, clever, and apt quotations that I could have used instead.

While I was on the subject, though, I started pondering some of the sayings that do influence my life. If I had been more concerned about truth-telling than pseudo-inspiration in my response, I might have cited one of the phrases (source: various semi-anonymous members of my family) that I actually use regularly. Like one of these:

“Cowgirl up.” Its better-known counterpart, “cowboy up,” means shut up, get on with it, do what needs to be done and don’t complain. “Cowgirl up” means pretty much the same thing, except you toss in a little humor while you’re at it. And wear your best red boots, except in situations where Carhartts are more appropriate.

“I just want this to be oooover!” This loud and deeply sincere bit of dramatic criticism from the back of an elementary school gym was one of the highlights of my son-in-law’s time as part of a touring children’s theatre program. My partner and I have appropriated it and find it useful in all sorts of situations. It can be muttered out of the side of one’s mouth during long-winded speeches or tedious meetings. It can be thought to oneself during dental appointments or invasive medical procedures. Said aloud with a dramatic sigh or eye-roll, it suits a variety of occasions from uphill hikes to long car trips to waiting on hold for customer service. Sometimes, the person who wasn’t quick enough to say it first gets to come back with the response my son-in-law gave from the stage: “You and me both, kid!”

Okay, I might as well admit it. When it comes to inspirational words, I’ll take a perspective-restoring chuckle over an uplifting adage any day. It’s sometimes more clever, often more useful, and always easier to remember.

Categories: Just For Fun, Living Consciously | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

You Can Get Anything You Want . . .

. . . at Alice’s Restaurant. The original restaurant under Alice’s name is long since gone, but the song that made Arlo Guthrie famous in the mid-1960’s is still a satisfying entree. All 18 1/2 minutes of it. It’s actually not a song but a funny, rambling monologue that’s clever satire and wry war protest laced with an irresistible chorus that will lodge itself in the back of your mind and stay there for days.

And it’s a true story. Or at least, as Hollywood might put it, based on true events. “Alice’s Restaurant” starts with Thanksgiving dinner at Alice’s home in a remodeled church in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, wanders off to an escapade of illegal garbage dumping, meanders through a court hearing with “8 x 10 color glossy photographs” of the evidence and a judge who is blind, and ends up with a draft physical where Arlo, with his conviction for littering, is relegated to the “Group W bench” with the other undesirables rejected for military service because of their criminal records.

A brief digression: Until recently the treasurer’s office was on the second floor of our county’s elegant old courthouse building. You could walk up the sweeping, curved marble staircase on either the right or the left side—not without a passing thought of Scarlett O’Hara in a ball gown—to get to the open hallway in front of the office. Opposite the service windows were two long wooden benches like church pews where you could sit while waiting in line to get your license plates or pay your property taxes. As the person at the end of the bench was called up to one of the windows, everyone in line would slide to the right. The benches had to be the most thoroughly polished pieces of furniture in Pennington County.

Once, when it was my turn at the window, I told the clerk I always thought of the waiting line as the “Group W bench.” He was a man about my age; I didn’t have to explain the reference.

Though I wore my hair long and straight and appliqued more than one heart-shaped patch onto more than one pair of bellbottoms, I was never a hippie. I did not protest the Viet Nam War. The only college building I ever occupied was my dorm. I never participated in a sit-in, a love-in, or a be-in. The only mood-altering plant substances that have ever passed my lips are coffee and chocolate.

But I loved the irony and humor of “Alice’s Restaurant.” Still do, actually.

So I was pleased—at first—to see a news item this week announcing a new tour by Arlo Guthrie. He looked good in the accompanying photo, quite familiar in a cowboy hat with his curly hair flowing past his shoulders. It was a bit disturbing to note that the hair was white. The real distress came, however, when I read the full article. This tour is to celebrate the anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

The 50th anniversary.

Apparently, you can still get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. You just have to order it off the senior menu.

Categories: Remembering When | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Jumping Jack

There I was, minding my own business, taking an innocent walk down the lane that leads to my parents’ farmhouse. Suddenly this gigantic critter erupted from the grass practically under my feet. While I stood there gasping, waiting for my heart rate to subside, it dashed off to what it apparently considered a safe distance. There it stopped and stood up on its hind legs to reconnoiter, its eyes wide, nose twitching, and ears swiveling.

Believe me, that was one impressive bunny—the biggest jack rabbit I’ve ever seen. Its winter coat was so lush and thick, it would have made Cruella De Vil forget all about Dalmatians. And standing erect, its amazing ears at attention, it looked as big as a kangaroo. (Okay, okay, so I’ve never actually seen a kangaroo. That’s still what it looked like.)

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many jack rabbits in recent years, either. Maybe they’re all that big, and I just didn’t remember because it’s been so long. The rabbit population seems to follow cycles of abundance, over-abundance, disease and die-off, scarcity, and resurgence. Since I haven’t lived on the prairie for a long time, I’ve probably missed a few cycles.

This week, however, I discovered what may be another reason why jack rabbits seem a little scarce. They’re being abducted and genetically modified into a different species. If you don’t believe me, check out this January 19 article in the Rapid City Journal. It features “the world’s foremost jackalope maker,” who provides thousands of these exotic critters to Cabela’s.

The rabbit I saw in my parents’ lane would no doubt make an impressive jackalope. I hope, instead, it enjoys a long and prosperous life as a jack rabbit. And I promise to watch out for it the next time I visit.

I wouldn’t want it to suffer the same fate as the last South Dakota jackrabbit I got close to. That time, we ran over it. On Good Friday.

I swear, it was an accident. We were driving after dark on a gravel road when the rabbit, no doubt stressed out and distracted by its seasonal duties, dashed out in front of the car. It’s a terrible feeling to realize you have just squashed the Easter Bunny.

Maybe it would have been better off as a jackalope.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

You Might Have WRSS If . . .

As character defects go, WRSS is a fairly minor one. It’s also geography-related. I assume—though I have no research to back this up—that it affects pretty much the entire populations of states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; and for Canadians it’s practically a birthright.

The full name for WRSS is Winter Related Superiority Syndrome. It is characterized by the regrettable (but understandable) tendency to feel virtuous and superior just because one happens to live in a part of the country that has severe winters.

You and I, of course, are much too stable and emotionally balanced to be affected by this trait. Or, at least, we are skilled and sneaky enough to keep it hidden. However, if you want to know whether any of your relatives or friends suffer from WRSS, here’s a diagnostic checklist:

1. Have you ever used the phrase, “Cold enough for you?” more than three times in one day? (Extra points if, when other people ask you this question, your standard answer is, “Not quite.”)

2. Do you feel a sense of pride if your home town makes national news for having the lowest temperature in the country?

3. Do you assert that shoveling snow is better exercise than yoga? (Extra points if you genuinely believe this to be true.)

4. Do you find it odd that some people don’t appreciate the beauty of words like “slush” and “thaw”?

5. Have you ever said out loud, in public, that you think insulated coveralls or long underwear are sexy?

6. Do you regard, “It took me 20 minutes to scrape off my car,” as a legitimate excuse for being late for work?

7. Have you ever practiced blowing “smoke” rings when it’s cold enough so you can see your breath?

8. Have you ever asked someone from, say, Florida, how they can stand to live in a place that doesn’t have four seasons?

9. Are you sometimes tempted to go south for the winter, but you would never actually do it because you’re afraid it would make you look like a wimp?

10. Have you ever bragged about being able to perform miracles—pointing out that, for several months of the year, it’s no big deal for you to walk on water?

And finally, here’s how to discover whether your case of WRSS is incurable: You feel acute embarrassment if you’ve made up something snarky about cold weather, only to find that the day you publish it turns out to be sunny with a high of 50 degrees.

Categories: Just For Fun | 3 Comments

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