Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Starstruck. Transported. Carried away. Enchanted.

I was very young, sitting with my mama and sister in a theater south of Chicago somewhere. My father was playing in the pit orchestra. The houselights went down, the curtain opened...and the first plaintive ethereal strands of the Carousel melody rose from the orchestra. It was my first Broadway musical, my first Broadway melody, and I have never forgotten this beginning to a life long love affair.

Show tunes were part of the cultural common core back then. We might hear 'To Dream the Impossible Dream" (Man of La Mancha, 1964) or "The Rain in Spain" (My Fair Lady, 1956, movie 1964) or "If Ever I Would Leave You" (Camelot, 1960) on the car radio en route to the grocery store. The Beatles were but part of the gossip at school; I first heard Petula Clark's iconic "Downtown" on a jukebox in Kalamazoo enroute to my aunt and uncle's wedding in Michigan.

But what Elsa is to little girls today, Julie Andrews was to little girls in the '60s. Our Girl Scout troop went to see "The Sound of Music" on the big screen in a packed Saturday afternoon matinee. We didn't know any history, but we could all sing Edelweiss and My Favorite Things in our bobbed Julie Andrews haircuts.
Even today, I would wager that most people have heard tunes like "Seventy Six Trombones"  or "Hello Dolly" even though folks who frequent the Broadway channel on xm are mere specks on the data map of popular music.  

Which is why I am always thrilled and encouraged when November comes around and it is time for Tarkio High School's fall musical production.  For an entire semester, the cast and production crew are immersed in the language of the best American theater can offer, tried and true and lasting songs and stories and melodies.  Here is music with melody and grace; dialogue with humor...and wit.  The musicals are the masterpieces of our popular art and have stood the test of time  to transcend the era for which they were written.  A cast of twenty or thirty can sing the same tunes that Irving Berlin or Richard Rodgers wrote...and perform them to a packed house, whether that crowd is at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City...or in the red padded seats at Tarkio High School. 
 Putting together a musical requires heart, hands, eyes, ears, and voice.  It stretches the imagination, exercises memory, and, at its best, makes goose bumps appear. Like a good book, the two and a half hours of song and dance and storytelling transports performer and audience alike to another world...at least until the house lights go up, but, perhaps, for days after.
If our schools don't promote and perform musical theater, a part of our heritage will be lost.  Who wants to live in a world without Nathan Detroit...or Nicely Nicely...or Marian the librarian....or Ado Annie?  These are characters as American as we are...with the enviable advantage that, when in the throes of a crisis they "they sing and they dance, which is so much more interesting than just whining about it,’’ in the immortal words of the Man in the Chair in another musical, The Drowsy Chaperone.

Is this a shameless plug for amateur theater?  You bet.  To join is to be part of our cultural fabric, woven into the seamless score of those past and present that can sing along....

Shhhhh...the lights are dimming...time for the second act.....wherever you are.....

Come on along and listen to

The lullaby of Broadway

The hip hooray and ballyhoo

The lullaby of Broadway

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Always, Always

A foretaste of winter blew through Atchison county last week...a whirling dervish of leaves and stalks, weakened tree limbs and trash cans reminding us that winter is waiting in the wings.  November has been ever so patient with us; the fields and roads have been dry as we glean the late grain from the bottom ground.  Rain is in the forecast for much of this week; the anhydrous wagons are rolling up route O like schooners on the Oregon trail as fall field work commences.  We hope for good weather to hang on so we get a head start on next spring, but the bottom line is this:  the combines are washed, the crops are hauled or in the bin, harvest 2015 is finished...there is always, always, something to be thankful for.
A trip to central Missouri yielded a double play of  pleasure: a windy afternoon at Redbarn catching up on family news, drinking tea and eating cookies, and bringing home another brown bag of Golden Russet apples, then the evening arrival of Kenzie and Levi to catch up on the wonders of the FB house and the toys there that wait patiently for his occasional visits.  His mother let him run off his six hours of carseat energy before bedtime, but promised a day of play on the morrow.  Sure enough, there was a knock, knock on our door at 6:30 Thursday a.m. and a little boy ready to hit the ground running....there is always, always, something to be thankful for.

Sunday was Josh's number five birthday....and Charlie's five plus seventy five plus birthday.  Some years we stop to sing and eat, then go back to finish harvest.  Sometimes we have a giant party...like last year...with balloons and friends and remembrances.  But we always celebrate these two special people and the happy years of our family they enclose like parantheses.  Needless to say...a party is something to be thankful for.

I am enjoying the evenings spent working with beautiful glass at the Tarkio Glass Company.  It is never too late in life to try something new and always good to concentrate one's mind on the work of one's hands .  A new medium with new tools and new techniques waits just down the street!  A simple pleasure from a gift warmly received....

Sunday evenings mean it's time for praise and pancakes at church, time for kids to practice the songs for their Christmas program, time to enjoy the fellowship of GAs and RAs.  The fellowship hall echoes with chatter; the air is fragrant with frying sausage ; the tables are sticky with syrup and peanut butter. I take the trash out to the dumpster in the sudden silence and say a thankful prayer for the big-hearted men and women giving of their time to these little ones,  feeding Jesus' lambs and loving their neighbors.

So much thanksgiving before Thanksgiving!  Including the third grade program at school (I can attest that three of the third graders do have their parts memorized!) and an invitation to eat Thanksgiving luncheons on two different school days!  I fondly remember eating lunch at Westboro school the week before Thanksgiving; such a generous platter the Pilgrims could hardly have imagined. It is appropriate to celebrate gratitude in our schools; in a way, I am surprised that we are still able to acknowledge this not-really-secular commemoration.  Enjoy it while we can...

....I found a mouse on my kitchen floor while I was mopping up toaster crumbs.  Yes, I let out a small shriek.  But there IS always something to be thankful for...

It was dead....

Give thanks!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Prairie Perspective

Beach or lake? ....This is a parlor game we play when we are deep into the second month of harvest and plunging through the waves of an ocean of  grain. Where would we rather be? Enjoying the quiet banks of a tree rimmed lake up north or the constant music of the ocean running back and forth over the sands. We have spent pleasant hours in reading and reflection next to water; to revisit these settings in our minds and contemplate their delights is a companionable way to while the hours away.  Beach or lake?  Idle chatter of a prairie schooner, pipe dream of the landlocked.
I plead guilty to this kind of over-the-rainbow-pie-in-the-sky-view-finding. Especially in moments of weakness...or days when the wind blows over 30 mph.  But not when the sun's rays slant low and golden, casting long and deep spider web shadows of barbed wire fences...or electric lines...or windmills.
Then I take issue with those who castigate our surroundings as uninteresting, or dismiss them as man-made and artificial. We may rightly stand in awe of extreme landscapes, exceptional, one of a kind and incomparable.  But we ordinary folk don't live in places like that.  We cannot fully appreciate the landscape around us unless we not only accept, but also appreciate, the role we humans play in its order and rhythm and, yes, beauty.

On a fall day day in November when the fields have donned their harvest hues of dun and buff and weathered gray, I think the view from the hill behind the greenhouses is much what Lewis and Clark would have seen, had they been camping in Atchison county in late fall: smooth and rounded hills within a level horizon, creek banks marked by dark creases of trees and covered by a great stage of a sky, maybe gray and hovering close, maybe impossibly blue and distant.
From my hilltop, I can see the pageant of farm work proceed with the seasons.  The desolation of winter is broken only by the dark patches where cattle are fed and the graffiti of wildlife tracks.  Spring is a brown season...we often have three brown seasons up here, you know.  The wild trees venture faint bloom and leaf by May, but the green of new crops above the no till stubble won't be visible from a distance before Mother's Day most years.  Nature's calendar rules; the native warm season grasses linger in their weary clumps until the sun raises them up with warmth.
 Familiarity does not breed contempt. A volatile and unpredictable climate breeds a citizenry that wears the inhospitable nature of its chosen home as a badge of honor.  Who needs a wilderness when the weather itself is a raging beast? The domesticity of the Corn Belt is part of its attraction. An orderly landscape of crops tracing the topographical contours, the 90 degree precision of east-west, north-south section roads, the geometry of grain bins and augers, all suggest the virtuous productivity of the people and their partnership with the land.  The treasure of this place lies underground and the service of man to fellow man is in the cultivation and harvest of soil and production of grain in a place especially suited for the purpose.

The emigrants of Oregon Trail days bypassed this piece of prairie in search of a more hospitable clime across the mountains.  The folks that settled our hills, planting crops and orchards, building homes and fences, churches, cemeteries, and schools were justifiably proud of their industry, equated civilization with progress, and published their accomplishments for all of posterity to appreciate.

Periodically the movers and shakers far away take a look at the middle of the country, our American "Empty Quarter",
and lob long distance pot shots at how we think, what we believe, and what we do. They should peruse their own community's Biographical History and learn to appreciate the pride those who built the small towns and settled the counties took in their barns and homes, the Poland China hogs and  Buff Cochin chickens, their businesses, their politics, and their churches.

We can't offer much in the line of beaches...and our vistas are short on drama.  But this place abounds in a different quality...that of rootedness.  Human effort, persistence, and adaptability have given us a view we can appreciate for its history and hope for our future.

We can visit the beach anytime...

That's my prairie perspective....

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Comfort and Joy

“In November, the smell of food is different. It is an orange smell. A squash and pumpkin smell. It tastes like cinnamon and can fill up a house in the morning, can pull everyone from bed in a fog. Food is better in November than any other time of the year.”
― Cynthia Rylant, In November

I've lived in a lot of cold houses. The house in Orland Park with no basement, the chilled brown tiles atop the concrete foundation laid across the frozen black earth of northern Illinois. The unheated second floor of the sandstone farmhouse in Calloway where we breathed frost into the air if our noses escaped the mountain of wool blankets. Our first house on the farm with neither furnace nor basement, where the electric baseboard heaters fought a losing battle with drafts from above and below and we preheated our bed with the electric blanket every night.

We fought back. With lath and plastic, hammer and nails, Blake covered every window, shrouding us in a blurry world until spring returned. It was not a pretty sight. When we moved out to the windy hill by Deadman's Hollow, our situation improved with the comforting on and off of the furnace blower and warm air coming out of the register. But I still covered the windows...on the inside this time...and felt virtuous and smart when the plastic breathed in and out like it was alive every time the wind attempted to get in.

This old house on Spruce plays by its own set of winter rules: slippers for everyone, an electric throw for Blake's uber cold feet, the friendly hiss of the gas log in the front room. The new windows thwart the sound and fury of winter with one exception: the sun porch upstairs where the houseplants go to spend the winter. And that's where I spent part of this glorious November afternoon, swatting away sun resurrected houseflies and late season lady bugs, spreading out cellophane and double sticky tape like generations have before me. When I am finished, the sun porch is winterized and the plants as cozy as I can accomplish. One more November task put to rest.

November is full of satisfactions like this. Harvest continues, but the acres are piling up behind the combines and there is cautious talk of an end in sight. The sun greets us in the mornings for a few days after the time change and helps compensate for the long evenings of work after the sun sets when other folks are headed home. By November, the mum mess has been picked up...groundcloth piled under bricks, irrigation lines rolled up, fertilizer machines and pumps put up where they won't freeze and break.The greenhouse work revolves around emails and phone calls and web sites.

This leaves time to cook. After six weeks of harvest meals, it takes some invention to present something for dinner ála Rubbermaid that hasn't been eaten recently and "travels well". Sandwiches are so summer cold cuts. Salad days are gone to frost; time for slow cookers of chili and stew, pot pies wrapped in dish towels, baked pastas of Italian extraction. Food that can be scooped with a spoon or cut with a plastic fork. Food that can be wrapped in foil, eaten in a cab, and doesn't spill enroute. Comfort foods....garlic bread, corn bread, soaking up sauce, mopping up honey.
As the calendar days pile up in November, the days fade and the temperatures wane. There's no better way to warm chilled hands than to put them to work stirring or peeling or soaking in hot dishwater. Cold mornings are an incentive to cook. All the meals in November are just a countdown to the most splendid meal of the year: Thanksgiving.

Sunday morning finds us women folk gathering after Sunday school to pool resources in the kitchen. There's a new recipe to try, a chicken enchilada casserole that promises to feed 12 people. In our line of work, a dozen is always an option, so I screw up my eyes trying to read the capacities of the largest casserole dishes in my cupboard...there it is! Found one....4.5 liters is the winner. The bean dip appetizer is partly for the meal...and partly to accompany the preparation of the meal. The cooks dip Fritos; the oven pings as it heats; the conversation warms as the kids check on dinner's progress and the dog sneaks in from the back porch to sit on someone's feet and be sociable. It's an anti-Martha kind of kitchen, crowded,noisy, busy, steamy, made more so by the growing stacks of dirty pans and the overflowing trash can.
Good news! The harvest crew is switching from corn to beans, leaving an hour free to shut down the machinery to eat while the beans dry on this November day. No paper plates today and no Tupperware! Spread out the tablecloth and count the forks...I'll make the tea. Crumbs and stains and seconds are emblems of plenty. Family AND dinner at the table...not out of a hatchback.

The new recipe is a success, even if Abbie and Josh would rather eat corn than casserole. After cake and ice cream, the guys pile into the pickup and head back to the field. There is a city skyline of dirty dishes in the kitchen. This is November's legacy, November's gift: the comforts of a busy kitchen and the abundance of a big home cooked meal for hard working people. The joy of preparing good food and the satisfying work of cleaning up afterwards.

O tidings, of comfort and joy...welcome, November....

Friday, October 30, 2015

And Visions of...Snickers Bars...Danced in Their Heads

(Cora May Preble)
I'm not afraid on Halloween
Because my Mother said
I should not fear those funny things
But laugh at them instead.

For orange faces in the night
That stare with eyes so wide,
Are only pumpkins on a porch
With candlelight inside.
And there are no such things as ghosts . . .
Those figures shining white,
Are only children just like me
Wrapped up in sheets so tight.

I do not fear a single thing
On Halloween you see,
Because I know they really are
Not what they seem to be.
For ghosts and goblins, witches, spooks,
And other scary folks
We hear about on Halloween
Are really only jokes.


We mask our faces
and wear strange hats,

and moan like witches
and screech like cats,

and jump like goblins
and thump like elves,

and almost manage
to scare ourselves!

Who Will Trick-or-Treat With Me?
The first year she was a pumpkin
and she donned a bright orange smock.
Her daddy took her trick-or-treating,
though she had not learned to walk.

The next year she was a bunny
and on one leg, she would hop
while her left ear stood up straight
and the right would swing and flop.

Then a bride costume from Grandpa;
a long skirt and lacy blouse,
but she tripped over the train . . .
so daddy carried her to each house.

The fourth year brought us Lion King
and she roared both day and night.
She was either "Simba" or was "Nala."
(I never could get that right!)

The next Halloween as she got dressed,
she just kept on asking why--
if she was indeed "Supergirl,"
why then could she not fly?

Her sixth year, she was all in pink
protecting us all from danger,
as she kicked and "karate-chopped" the air
as "Kimberly, the Power Ranger."

When she was seven, she wore a yellow gown.
She was "Beauty," to say the least,
insisting that her little sister,
by default, was the "Beast."

In my heart I knew the time would come;
and this year our walk together ends.
She said, "it's not cool for mom to go;
I want to walk with all my friends."

So, I'm figuring out what I will say;
rehearsing one excuse after another,
in case she notices the "ghost" behind her
walks a little bit like her mother!

And I still have Halloweens to come;
my other daughter is only three.
What worries me is . . . when she grows up,
who will trick or treat with me?

Aaron the froggie

Josh the froggie
Levi the froggie

Grandma Millie and a host of spooky characters!

Backward, turn backward,
O Time, in your flight
make me a child again
just for to-night!
~Elizabeth Akers Allen