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: , | 1 Comment

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

Time Travel With a Beat

Bopping back and forth with the preset buttons on my car radio the other day, I switched from classical music on NPR to classic country music on an oldies station just in time to catch a song that transported me back in time.

The song was “Bop,” performed by Dan Seals, written by Paul Davis and Jennifer Kimball. (Here’s a video if you want to hear it. Warning: put your dancing shoes on first.)

This is the song I learned to jitterbug to. Just a few notes of it take me right back to dance classes, circa 1985. Seals and his baby bopped all night long, over and over, while earnest couples practiced on a well-used hardwood floor. First the basic step (one-and, two-and, back-step) and then the spins and twirls and moves—some of which, my late husband and I discovered, are a challenge when one partner is a foot taller than the other.

Music is one of the most powerful evokers of memory that we have. I don’t know enough about the brain to know why this is so, but I know from my own experience how well it works. A song pops up randomly on the radio or TV (or even, with unsettling frequency in recent years, in an elevator), and the memories associated with it promptly unroll with full color and vivid emotion. It happens often, with a great many songs, but here are just a few examples:

“Pomp and Circumstance.” I’m sure I can’t be the only one who responds to its first stately notes with an impulse to stand up straight, make sure our mortarboards are level, and process slowly toward the stage with that step-pause, step-pause gait peculiar to graduates and bridesmaids.

When the long-time band director at my kids’ high school retired, I was disappointed that his final concert didn’t include “Hot Cross Buns.” The simple little tune would have taken every student in the band and every parent in the audience back to those first days of clarinet or flute or oboe lessons. We’d have been hearing it in our minds as it sounded then, played with the hesitant, excruciating exactness of beginners just trying to figure out their instruments. Maybe the band director didn’t want to bring back that much emotion. Or maybe, after 40-some years, he simply couldn’t stand to hear it one more time.

And when I hear “The Marines’ Hymn,” it doesn’t evoke mental images of marching soldiers. Instead, it takes me back to a handful of kids in a one-room country school house, singing with gusto while one of them (me) plunks out the melody on an old upright piano. Most of us had only the vaguest idea where the “shores of Tripoli” were and probably couldn’t have told you whether Montezuma was a person or a place, but the song was in our battered old songbooks and we liked the tune.

Outside of science fiction, no one has been able yet to build a time-travel machine. At least so we think. We don’t realize that most of us already have time machines right in our own homes. They might be mp3 players, sophisticated audio systems, simple CD players, or even outdated tape players. Whatever technology they use, they all have amazing, almost magical power. With them, we can time-travel whenever we want to. All it takes is music.

Categories: Remembering When, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Calendars, Done Well

One of the pleasures of a new year is starting a fresh calendar. It’s easy to think of calendars as restrictive, as ways we schedule and limit ourselves and put our lives into boxes. I prefer to think of them as holders of opportunities, filled with promise and possibility. All those days are just waiting to be filled, not merely with appointments and anniversaries, but with people and experiences.

Calendars can serve as daily journals, not just reminders of what we need to do but as records of what we’ve done. The calendar in our kitchen when I was growing up, for example, had notes like “.65 in. rain” and tracked the births of calves with the numbers of their mothers’ ear tags.

Calendars can be educational—and I don’t mean “Miss July,” either. The first book my son ever read, at age two or three, was a calendar. He went through it page by page, reading all the numbers out loud to his father, who patiently listened through all 12 months.

A calendar, done well, is a perfect combination of utility and beauty. I’m particular about the meaning of “done well.” Wall calendars, for example, need not only great pictures, but also daily squares with both readable numbers and room to write stuff. And I prefer a certain brand and style of spiral-bound planner for my desk, where Monday is always on the left-hand page so I never confuse it with Tuesday and risk missing something exciting like a dental appointment.

I know a paper planner isn’t necessarily the most efficient way to keep my daily to-do list and record my billable hours. If I did it electronically, the computer could alert me to appointments with alarms and pop-up notices and would probably even do the math for me. But I don’t want to give up the emotional and tactile satisfaction of taking my pen and crossing something off my list when I’ve finished it. Sometimes I even write items on the to-do list after I’ve done them, just for the pleasure of crossing them off.

This is a great year for wall calendars; we have three that are definitely done well. They offer an assortment of wonderful photos, all of which allow us to see our local area in new ways. The dilemma now is deciding which one to hang where.

One will go in my office to help me remember an ever-increasing database of birthdays. I finally got smart enough to write in birth years as well as names, since I’m reasonably good at tracking the dates but fuzzy about ages.

One will hang in the kitchen to keep track of scheduled events like concerts and plays. (January 16, for example: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. Another chance to see my son-in-law on stage in a dress.)

And the third, with duplicate entries for at least the most significant dates, will go downstairs in my partner’s office. After all, for a happy relationship it’s a good idea to be sure you’re both on the same page. Or at least in the same month.

Categories: Living Consciously | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

I Could Quit Any Time

They’re everywhere this time of year. Christmas cookies. Pie. Hot cocoa. Gift boxes of chocolates. Stockings full of sweets.

And one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight.

Irony? Coincidence? Or cause and effect? Regardless, it’s a good thing we have that week between Christmas and New Year’s to get everything eaten.

Some of us (naming no names, but you know who I am) don’t do any holiday baking. We have two options: to rely on the kindness of more culinarily ambitious friends and family members, or to buy our own goodies.

Theoretically, I suppose, there is a third choice—to go without—but that’s merely an absurd technicality.

Fortunately, when one has a reputation as a chocolate addict, friends and family can generally be counted on for gifts of one’s substance of choice. Being seen as a chocoholic is especially useful this time of year.

However, in my case, that reputation is totally undeserved.

Oh, I love chocolate. Dark chocolate, especially. I eat some almost every day. I make sure to keep a stash of the stuff. But I am not an addict.

Here’s my supporting evidence:

• This Christmas, freely and with a glad heart, I sent a bag of dark chocolate M&M’s to a family member even though I originally bought it for myself. (Yes, I bought myself another bag the next day; why would you ask?)

• A few years ago I spent several weeks in a foreign country at a geology field camp. I hardly had any chocolate the whole time, and I didn’t suffer a single pang of withdrawal. In fact, I barely noticed. By now I’ve practically forgotten all about it.

• Not all chocolate is created equal; I have standards. A Tootsie Roll (it’s a texture thing) could stay uneaten on my kitchen counter for years. S’mores are way too sweet and gooey. Chocolate ice cream is too much chocolate; vanilla with chocolate syrup is much better. Chocolate Nutella is simply disgusting. And there are some places chocolate simply does not belong, such as pecan pie, animal crackers, and baklava.

• I don’t snitch other people’s chocolate. Your stash is perfectly safe with me.

• Nor do I eat chocolate chips that are in the cupboard for the purpose of making chocolate chip cookies. Of course, I did figure out several years ago that, if one buys chocolate chips for the express purpose of eating them, that’s perfectly acceptable.

• Nearly every day, after lunch, I eat a small amount of chocolate. Then I’m done. No going back for more, no emptying the bag, no sneaking just one more piece. Enough is enough. Really.

When you look objectively at the evidence, it’s obvious. I am not an addict. I could quit eating chocolate any time I wanted to.

I’ve just never seen any reason to want to.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Tradition

“What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?”

Someone asked me that question this week, and it stopped me cold. I didn’t know what to say. In spite of thriving on routine—the phrase “rut person” may even come to mind—I don’t fill my life with a lot of rituals, holiday or otherwise. Besides, there has been a lot of upheaval over the years, and holiday traditions have shifted and evolved along with everything else.

Still, one thing has remained constant enough to be labeled “tradition.” That one thing is family. Get-togethers haven’t always been on the same date. They haven’t even always been with the same people. But no matter which members of which part of the clan get together, Christmas has always been about family.

Sometimes it’s been fun. Taking the kids to cut Christmas trees in the Black Hills National Forest. Watching little ones open gifts, then take great delight in playing with the boxes. Creating surprises that worked just the way they were supposed to.

Sometimes it’s been funny. One long-ago Christmas, a dozen or so of us were gathered at my aunt and uncle’s house on Christmas Eve. After we had eaten dinner, done dishes, and opened gifts, my aunt suddenly started to laugh. “Look at the tree!” she said.

There it sat, among the crumpled gift wrap and torn-open boxes, as bare as the Emperor without his clothes. In the midst of a busy day, she had forgotten to decorate it. And nobody noticed. (Or at least, anybody who did was too polite to say anything.)

Sometimes it’s been inadvertently adventurous. The year that my son and daughter were seven and one, we were traveling to my parents’ house on a bitterly cold December 23. The wind came up, and the beautiful snow covering the ground turned into a dangerous blizzard. We were smart enough to stop at a small town before the drifts got too deep, and we were lucky enough to get the last available motel room.

The next morning, over breakfast at the town’s single cafe, we met a man who invited us to spend the day at his house until the roads were cleared. He and his wife made us welcome, fed us lunch, and then left us in their house while they went off to their family’s Christmas Eve gathering. I remember sitting in their peaceful living room, rocking my daughter to sleep, feeling deeply blessed by the kindness and trust of these people whose Christmas spirit reached out to take in stranded strangers. In all the years since, I’ve never driven past that small town without thinking of them. And yes, the wind went down, the snowplows went by, and we did get home for Christmas.

Over the years, the dates and locations and faces have changed. We’ve had people in the hospital, people break bones at the family celebration (duct tape in the hands of a good veterinarian makes a good emergency splint), people too pregnant to travel, people too far away to travel, and of course the new arrivals that keep the family growing.

But the one constant has been family. As it will be this year. We have four different celebrations planned, with four different and sometimes overlapping parts of the family. So far, no adventures appear imminent. But then, if we knew about them in advance, they wouldn’t exactly be adventures, would they?

Merry Christmas!

Categories: Family | Tags: | 4 Comments

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