Saturday, January 30, 2010

Purple poppy mallow and other reminders

So this is webdings? Funny, it doesn't look anything like what I picture a webding being. No matter. Just a chance of scenery in fontland.

On the other hand, a purple poppy mallow is a perfectly descriptive name, appearance-wise if not accurate taxonomically. Yes, the flower could be called purple; not the dull dark mournful violet, but rather in-your-face, I will never blend in, magenta. It is silky, evanescent and fragile like a California poppy. And the leaves are fingered as if it were a mallow relative.

But appearances are famously and tediously deceiving. A purple poppy mallow has roots the circumference of your wrist, carrot shaped and reaching down to grab the subsoil or bedrock, whatever comes first. It has long ropy fibrous stems growing as far as 4 feet from the parent plant. It spreads by seed; it spreads by root. It is tenacious, flat, impossible to pull, hardy through all extremes; it is a native of the Great Plains.

I first saw the purple poppy mallow blooming merrily on a limy outcroppin way out in western Nebraska on a road cut. Its not a color invited into the polite company of a cultivated coordinated flower bed. I don't know what evolutionary signal a blazing magenta is sending on a grey slope with grey grass, grey dust and other grey companions. But that native appearance is the one time I saw it...attempts to order the plant, seed, or find it in the local garden centers went for naught. Finally a friend at Earl May went out of his way to get me some....I think it was two plants, but it might have been more. I pried them loose of the confining plastic pack, took heed of the growing conditions I'd observed, and parked them in an ugly baking southwest corner of the garden. Then, in a stunning psychological move, I pretended not to care if they lived or died.

It worked. The purple poppy mallow duked it out with the ground ivy and won. It crawled over the landscape timber and overflowed into the yard. When I sprinkled an occasional seed head over the daylily bed, a few adventurous seedlings rewarded me. Some carrot shaped children wandered over to the compost pile.

Then we moved. I got the longest spade I owned and dug up as big a chunk of mallow as I could. It wasn't easy; it was the end of a drought year and the soil wouldn't separate from the plants. But that giant carrot of a root was firm and white and soon I had chunks of creeping mallow in three different flower beds. It begins to bloom in June; I can see a spreading fountain of that unmistakable indescribable hue way far away in the back border. Underneath the foliage I know there is a clump of brome, possibly some renegade clover, but I know the mallow will clamber over the top and I can pretend that part of the bed is tidy. Even the mower thinks twice about severing an arm of a purple poppy mallow.

Many years ago we took a load of plants on a midnight run to Wichita. It was a long dark quixotic trip down the Kansas Turnpike. We cruised through the dark silhouettes of the surrounding hills, not a security light nor a farmstead for perspective; no exit ramps or commerce, just cattle crossings and pens. I felt we were on a road to some 19th century past and would face the sunrise without a barbed wire in sight. The magic of the Flint Hills works even in the dark. I read all about Chase county in William Least Heat Moon's book Prairy Erth. On other travels west, we made sure our routes took us through Cottonwood Falls, to visit the historic ranch and its limestone outbuildings and picnic with the bluegrass whispering nearby. The idea of all that grass basking in the sun, bathed with 3o some inches of rain, made me long for a patch of bluestem myself. So I bought a mix of prairie grass seed for the newly made terrace behind the greenhouses. Side oats grama, big bluestem, a little Indiangrass and some ratibida (Mexican hats) for accent. I hand sowed the seed and was rewarded with the perfect conditions for germination and growth; like any proud mama, I checked on the turf's progress often.
That grass still carpets our terrace; however, my husband did not share my vision of Flint Hills' grasses of two to four feet and my prairie grasses are as neatly cropped as any Hereford would keep them.

Not all my prairie plants mingle, mix and flourish. The roadsides of central Missouri are bright with Indian paintbrush and butterfly weed during the summer, adding swatches of orange to the background of black eyed susies. Despite repeated attempts, my butterfly weeds came up weak kneed and puny, succumbing most winters despite their reputed hardiness. What's the problem? I can only assume they need gravel and clay, not because they prefer poor soil, but because the poor soil cuts down on the competition. Sigh, guess I'll have to visit those wildflowers during the summer. However, traveling just a little ways west, you can see liatris poking up in road borders and pastureland. I lost liatris after liatris out at the farm, but for some reason, the front bed here in town seems like home to them. The white ones have largely disappeared, but their purple progeny bring to mind the roadcuts of the grasslands. The converse of the soil conundrum is the proliferation of echinacea. Neither my mother's garden in central Missouri, nor my sister's in the brickyard of St. Louis soil can support a happy coneflower. But the old pasture behind my house that masquerades as a lawn probably supports more coneflowers than blades of grass. In my case, they probably are getting a little carried away and I'll try to rein them in this summer. But even if too many have come to the party, its difficult to turn away such an easy to please guest, one that makes few demands on one's attention, that looks pretty well into the hottest part of the summer. And brings happiness to the finches as well.

Finally, I look forward to my little patches of buffalo grass. Our friends in Oklahoma pasture their cattle on shortgrass prairie. It would be such a major and time consuming undertaking to switch my cool season grass to its warm blooded blue compatriot. But the patches are making progress down by the street and are another reminder of Plains vegetation out towards the 100th meridian.

Don't get me wrong. I want to have a garden all summer. I'm glad we have humidity, gully washers, and an annual rainfall over fourteen inches. But I can visualize cattle grazing in the heat and haze of the Sandhills; I can hear the cottonwoods in the ditches of the Flint Hills; I am gladdened by compass plants, leadwort, and other prairie denizens even while living in the shadow of ten foot tall corn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gone to Texas

"Where's Grandma?"
"She's gone to Texas?" This is a corollary to the conversation Blake used to have with the kids when I'd be in the basement with a load of laundry or out in the garden or somewhere similarly near but invisible. Sometimes, Lizzie says 'I want to go to pink (or purple) Texas'. I don't know why Texas has a color. More recently, such a declaration produces tears, 'I don't want you to go to Texas!'
Imagine my delight at finding that very phrase within the first few chapters of Fredrick Law Olmsted's book...not only as a commonplace description, but of such routine use that it became an acronym back in the mid 19th century. If a person ran out of money, deceived, cheated, wanted out: whatever the shady occurrence and or misfortune, he could be assumed to have headed south, 'GTT'.
Fredrick Law Olmsted and his brother floated south to Louisiana before acquiring animals and supplies.The river towns of the great interior impressed them with their energy, disorder and filth. The Southern planters in Eastern Texas dominate the first part of the book. Without fail, their homes are ill constructed, their diets one dimensional (pone and pork), their company lacking in culture and conversation. Olmsted has traveled south to observe and report on the people and their agriculture but it doesn't take him long to reach one mighty conclusion: that plantation agriculture and its society degrades the white land and slaveholders. The plantation farms he describes work their slaves intensely, but still leave cotton unpicked when the winter weather strikes. The travelers sometimes have a difficult time finding feed for their animals from these stops, much less hay because the plantations use all their land growing cotton. Corn is purchased for people and animal use. The travelers are aghast at the poor condition of fields and farm homes; no caulking, no doors, no windows. The first chapters about eastern Texas are so depressing one gets the impression Mr. Olmsted and brother might not be tough enough, or be just too Eastern for the rough and tumble of the frontier. As a solid member of the great unwashed of interior, I was beginning to think I might leave him to his sensitivities despite his occasional self deprecating anecdotes and the appealing descriptions of his four legged companions.
But then the Olmsteds reached the German part of Texas, where the immigrants had constructed tidy communities with white washed homes, inns with actual bread on the tables, fresh butter, private rooms, and no slaves. These farmers raised their own corn, had fenced gardens, and impressed the Olmsteds again and again with their newspapers, their conversations, their cultures. Those with no land described themselves as 'mechanics', and it is obvious from the book that the immigrants and pioneers of western Texas were more than able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and hand labor; a journeyman with one tool had a means to earn a living.
What is most obvious to a reader of the twenty-first century is the complete reliance and focus on the soil and climate. Olmsted spends pages describing the lands in the bottoms of the many rivers, both constant and ephemeral. He summarily dismisses what cannot be cultivated as good 'just for grazing lands'. He waxes eloquent about the characteristics of the various grasses....mesquite grass is the creme de la creme. He also proclaims the climatic changes brought about by increasing cultivation in Texas; more rain according to some measurement, reminding us that 'rain follows the plow' got an early start among our forefathers.
At that time, one railroad comprised the ground transport for all Texas and that was way east near Galveston. All the cotton grown had to be hauled on wagons, behind oxen, on unimproved trails that might be constructed by man, or might just be cow paths. The plantations were plowed, sowed to cotton, but without access to fertilizer, the land wore out in a few years and was abandoned while the growers moved on.
Except for one mention of some bituminous tars used for construction of adobes, not an intimation of the mineral wealth waiting underground.
I love travelogues; I love Western history, both natural and manmade. My sister gets the credit for pointing me in the direction of this type of book written in the past. I recognize Fredrick Law Olmsted as the designer responsible for Central Park as well as many other landscape achievements. But, like many of our forebears, he was rather a polymath, fancying himself a 'scientific' farmer but having the time and wherewithal to spend a year traveling and writing. He made it easy to visualize the endless wet spring coasts of eastern Texas, the northers coming down from the endless span of the Great Plains, and most of all, the hills, rivers and grasslands of what he called 'western Texas'. To listen to F.Olmsted, Texas was bound for greatness because of its soils and beauty. I doubt many Texans would disagree!!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Start 'em young

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school days

I didn't go to kindergarten; not for two years would our school district find a place to hold a kindergarten class. I was a child of the baby boom; a long one story addition was built on the old two story brick and stone eight room school in town. Another school building dating from about 1960 was built about 2 miles outside of town next to the old one room schoolhouse. One school was called Orland Park and the other Orland Center. For the whole time I was in grade school, we shuffled between schools from grade to grade.
But for first grade, my mom put me on the bus at the corner right by our house. I was still five years old and didn't know a soul on the bus and somehow managed to miss the start of school. I couldn't find where I was supposed to be and wandered outside the school sobbing until someone in a classroom saw me out the window and squired me to my classroom. Things did look up after that. I made it into my class the second day and settled into the school routine of big lined paper, pencils, and Dick and Jane. Phonics was a new word to me; my dad and mom had been teaching me words by having me draw pictures to accompany the words they wrote. I can still see my father's tidy precise printing 'CAT' and 'BOY' in my mind's eye. I loved to draw. We didn't have a special art teacher that I can recall, but one period of the day was devoted to different activities in small groups. While one group of five or six students was reading out loud, or listening to a library book, another group might be playing with clay, or, best of all in my mind, painting with the temperas. At home, we had the use of watercolors, but my folks did some painting with oils and I was well aware that my watercolors were but a pale excuse for the multiple and mixable tubes of oil paints they used. The bright temperas seemed a step up in the world.
I can remember several of the books I loved back then because I brought them home twenty years later for my own kids. Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel and The Little House were illustrated in black and white and red. They anthropomorphized machinery and houses and appealed to a very sentimental little girl.
Our teachers were always getting married and changing their names. I know my first grade teacher went from being Miss ?something? to Mrs. Brown. My second grade teacher was about 4 foot tall (she seemed short even to a seven year old) and she became Mrs. Erdman during my second grade year. She was young and not in control of her large class. Being part of the baby boom meant our classes were always bigger than our class room and always splitting as soon as the school could find an empty classroom and a warm body to teach it. The boy who sat in front of me was a terrible troublemaker; it seemed that way to me at the time, and made Mrs. Erdman cry on at least a weekly basis. I clearly and completely remember the morning we heard President Kennedy had been shot. I was hanging my coat on the hook in the hallway when the word came down. We were attending Orland Center school then and for the next two years as well. I really cannot tell you what I learned in second grade at all.
My third grade teacher had a real reputation as a hard customer and reportedly, she got all the troublemakers in each grade and made them mind. She was a dumpy squat Italian lady whose maiden name was Miss Lagulla. She had lank black hair and a moustache. That being said, before the year was out, she also got married. I don't think it mellowed her disposition at all. She had a wicked sense of irony. Because of my upbringing, even at age 8 I could recognize sarcasm when I heard it.
My fourth grade teacher was an "older" lady named Mrs. Thompson. The same bunch of unruly kids who were part of my third grade class matriculated to Mrs. Thompson's class and it probably drove her out of teaching altogether. I don't remember an hour of sitting or an hour of quiet. I do remember her sobbing and screaming. I also remember our principal at the time. I think of him looking like Dick Van Dyke but that could be because the original version of Mary Poppins came out about that time and I loved Bert the Chimney Sweep. We got to see Mary Poppins in an indoor theater in LaGrange. Before that, we had gone to the Drive-in up there and were sternly enjoined to go to sleep during the James Bond movies my folks went to see. I know I peeked though and had nightmares about Oddjob and being painted gold.
During fourth grade I decided to write a book. I had two friends and the book was about a time machine and our adventures. I wrote it on all different sizes and shapes of paper over the course of probably a year and a half. Don't know what happened to it...I never showed it to anyone. We also played "Man from U.N.C.L.E. at recess. It tickles me that David McCallum still has a job on NCIS. He was certainly the heartthrob of the little girls as Ilya Kuryakin back in the 60s.
That would also have been the year that everyone else went gaga over the Beatles. I lived in a household that played music that was centuries old so I didn't even see the Beatles until we watched an Ed Sullivan show at my grandparent's house. I don't think we got our own radio until I was perhaps in the fifth and sixth grade. Sometime around there I got one of my mother's old Bakelite tube radios. It was my favorite possession. It had a light up orange dial and a curvy ivory silhouette. I'd listen to the Cardinals after dark and WLS during the evening hours. I finally burned the tubes out in that radio after several years. The replacement was also a tube radio, but made of plastic and I never could love it as much. And, practically, it didn't tune as well.
The best teacher I had in elementary school was Mrs. Broderick in fifth grade. She was stern and ruled the classroom and the same large set of rowdy kids with an iron hand. She also got all the goody there was to get out of our class. We had projects and written reports every three weeks or so; we had reading class and wrote book reports. We did hours of math homework. And we thrived. I remember her classroom being quiet all through reading time. We had library time. I remember several of the projects; I made dioramas of a Blackfoot Indian village and one of a Revolutionary War scene. We colored maps. I wrote a report on the Civil War battle of Antietam, but I think the whole subject was more than a little past me at that time. It was long though and I shudder to picture Mrs. Broderick working her way through it.
That was 1967 or so and even at age 10 and 11, I was aware of the structure of society raveling. It was readily apparent in the form of my sixth grade teacher, a six foot eight man by the name of Mr. Swanson. I believed then and still do, that he was, if not a Communist, then at least an anarchist. He showed us Russian propaganda films in class. He taught us Russian words. He allowed my two girl friends and I to "teach ourselves" math in the cloakroom of our old classroom. We watched some of the baseball games in class. He was a man who seemed perfectly happy to cede all authority to the kids of the class. And, by that time, we students were old enough to recognize a lack of authority when we saw it, and to take advantage of the situation. Our social studies class was with another teacher and that was the only organized class time I can recall.
Now, I don't want to make light of current school dissatisfaction and unrest. I spent plenty of time crossways of today's theories and ideas about the way to make a well rounded citizen out of the undifferentiated mass of brains and energy that is a young child. But, after looking back at my own school experience, I don't know if the situation is much worse than it was thirty years ago. I learned to love learning from a couple of really excellent teachers and my parents, not necessarily in that order. I learned discipline from my parents and a couple of excellent that order. I observed and remember the well meaning but ineffective teachers that were the majority in my childhood classrooms.
If I could distill all this into one observation, I would say that order trumps all. Without it, no one learns, not the kids who want to and not the kids who don't.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Bathroom humor

I remember my first potty chair. My folks had a '57 Chevy BelAir and I remember sitting on the floor of the front seat on a red and white striped potty chair shaped something like a bongo drum. It had a lid and traveled in the car on the long trip to Jeff City. I can't have been very old and I have no idea why that memory survives after 50 some years. When you see photographs from your youth, one can never be sure one isn't remembering the image, not the event. But I am sure no photos exist of that potty chair. So the memory must be true.

Our new house had two bathrooms, the pink one and the yellow one. Laura and I had the pink one in the hallway; the yellow one was in the master bedroom. I never have been able to sleep through the night and I dreaded the visit to the pink bathroom at night because of the spiders. I tried with all my might to avoid looking at the bathtub drain because I knew a spider would be there and then I would feel duty bound to cope with it. Washing it down the drain was a touch me not procedure, but there was always the chance the spider would leap out of the tub in panic mode and run up my arm.

Laura and I were tasked from a young age with cleaning the bathrooms as our part of housework. I always cleaned the yellow one because she didn't want to clean the scum from the soap dishes. I could be both careless and forgetful of my chores as a kid, but that was my father's bathroom and I never skimped on the attention I paid to cleaning the soap dishes or anything else for his sake.

My parents shot target practice at a gun range not far away. It must have been a very male place. There was not only a paucity of plumbing, but not even an outhouse.

The public restrooms at Marshall Field and Carson Pirie Scott in downtown Chicago were luxurious with black marble stalls.

The public restrooms at the bus station or at Union Station had pay stalls and free stalls. We always took our chances with the free stalls. Up to a few years ago, there were also pay stalls at KCI. We also saw public pay toilets in Ireland. Without getting into a discussion of rights and privileges, it seems strange to me that price discrimination is still allowed to exist in the toilet market.

The toilets on the passenger trains opened right onto the tracks. It was impossible not to look. For years, I assumed the same procedure applied to planes.

I have been at events where, as Lyle Lovett says, 'they were handing out towels in the washroom for a quarter.'

Our friends in South Dakota had no indoor plumbing at their cabin in the Black Hills, but they had the most charmingly painted clean little outhouse I had ever encountered.

We are probably fortunate. I don't know where the "dirty water" went from our little house in the bottom. However, I do know the pump for our well sat right under the back porch with the washing machine. They could hardly have avoided each other.

On a similar note, guests at my granny and grandpa's house frequently got sick while visiting. Granny and Grandpa had a cistern for their drinking water and finally, years later, got around to testing it for cleanliness. It wasn't. None of us ever got sick. Maybe we were tough; maybe we never drank the water! My grandparents were obviously acclimated.

We stayed in a motel in Utah with a shower that was the size of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was hard to leave. I have no desire to possess one of those sybaritic retreats the size of Olympic training facilities in my real life. However, this experience was akin to standing under a temperature controlled waterfall in some isolated forest glade.

The day we were to take Ben home from the hospital, I got my very first experience with changing a little boy's diaper. It was another kind of shower and I was such a happy mom, I laughed when it happened. After that I got more coordinated whipping the new diaper into place. Before Lee was born, I toyed with the notion of using the "real thing" instead of disposable diapers. HA! One change of newborn poopie and all that inclination went by the wayside. Never looked back either.

Is this an appropriate subject for a blog? Well, considering the amount of time spent and the universality of the focus, I think so. We choose our homes, our theaters, our rest stops with the bathrooms in mind. Sometimes I think Ann quit accompanying us on family vacations out West due to the lack of water based plumbing. I know the seasoned truckers at Hurst Greenery make their stops based on coffee and the men's restroom. Some bathrooms have phones, some great smelling hand lotion. Bathrooms in the British Virgin Islands have trash cans. Amenities are one thing; toilet paper and hand soap are civilization. But if you could throw in a heated towel rack?....

Coneflowers that grow themselves

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What Happens when the Seed Catalogs Arrive

When we moved from Columbia back to the farm, we took everything we owned in the back of a Ford Torino and a 1974 Ford grain truck. The Torino made it about one more year but the Ford trucks didn't retire until after our third child was born in the mid 80s. Then, like other old machinery on the farm, they quietly subsided out by the bins, each year yielding a piece of their bodywork or grain box to the elements. What was most memorable about our move was the proportions of our possessions. Like other young marrieds, our furniture was a combination of cheap new stuff and worn out hand me downs. We had a new LazyBoy (Blake's wedding gift) and a Lane cedar chest (my wedding gift). And at least one hundred house plants.
You think I exaggerate? Not a chance.....the back seat of the Torino carried fragile green things in pots; maybe our dishes got the honor of the trunk, but I don't remember that. The back of the truck was half full of milk crates (our other main furniture group serving as book cases and lamp tables) of plants and boxes of plants. Clearly my husband was deeply in love; I would never get away with anything like that now! Or, if I did, it would not be without comment.
The plants didn't settle into life at the farm as well as they had in the duplex we rented in Columbia. The old windows had narrow sills. Before too long, I'd picked up a shelf made of spools and plywood at a garage sale and outfitted it with two little fluorescent plant lights.
I planted a garden at the little house that first year but the combination of a dry summer and new sod proved detrimental to my first attempts. I was much better indoors, clipping African violet leaves and rhizomatous begonia leaves and rooting them under my growlights. The easy stuff got a haircut and clogged dozens of florist vases on every window sill. What we lacked in decor, we made up for in humidity and organic matter. I didn't have a job job but liked to be busy so the plant population grew and grew. The winter before Lee was born was so cold, we moved the television to the kitchen; we moved all the plants to a table of plywood and two sawhorses in our previous living room and hung blanket in the doorway separating the two rooms. The plants survived and so did we but the whole set up was pretty primitive even for young folks just starting out.
That spring, Blake bought me our first greenhouse, a little 8x8 affair that cost about five times more per square foot than our eminently more plant friendly commercial structures now.
Way back then, winter meant the arrival of seed catalogs. All year long I read my copies of 'Flower and Garden' and 'Horticulture'. I would buy the special gardening issues of Better Homes at the HyVee. During January, the magazines all contained tearout postcards offering "FREE" glossy seed catalogs from points all over the country. Over time, the Park Seed catalog became my favorite because of its wide selection of odd perennials and part time houseplants and I ordered lots of ten and twenty seed packets of seeds, many arriving in little gold foil sealed envelopes labeled with the cautionary advice, 'seeds are small!' I'd fill little two inch white pots with about two tablespoons of potting mix, cover them with plastic wrap, and wait for life and roots.
Thompson and Morgan became my other main source for seeds. They carried an even larger assortment of perennials, many not available in the garden centers I visited. Eventually, I read enough that I found out why....all those beautiful annual sweet peas, or the pages of campanulas, or the two foot long spikes of delphiniums were staples of British gardens and not likely to survive beyond sprouthood in rural Atchison county. Nonetheless, I proved I could grow seeds, even if gardening itself was a tougher cookie to crack.
Finally we moved our little but growing family to town to the house on 4th street with the giant basement...with sump pumps in both corners. Too wet for occupation, but the washer and dryer lived there; our wood stove moved there; and it was the perfect place for the houseplants. For $10 I could put up a four foot long 40 shop light and I did....lots of times! The tables were old lumber from the farm set on rinsed out Lasso cans. I grew tropical begonias by the dozens, ordered from Logees as a 2 inch pot plant or as single leaves from assorted hobbyists. I grew African violets, also rooted from leaves purchased for 50 cents from a little old lady who lived in the country near my folks. I wasn't a serious hobbyist though at the time I did stick name labels in the flower pots I grew. And in the spring, I ordered coleus seeds and columbine seeds, begonia seeds and petunia seeds, marigolds and four o'clocks and assorted daisies. I don't remember what worked and what didn't, but I do know peeking under the plastic wrap on a daily basis and watching for those first tiny leaves was entertainment of the first order. I look at pictures now of those first flats of seedlings, the first flats of annuals and the first baskets we grew and I blanch because they were not pretty. Its a little embarrassing to have evidence on record of these pretty substandard plants. But we didn't start out of a burning desire to sell something, anything, to somebody. To broaden our agriculture base and diversify certainly made sense and to have a business we grew ourselves is a source of quiet pride. But the bottom line is that I was going to keep growing flowers in any available space for love if not money. And Blake was a smart enough man to see the writing on the wall and kick all those plants out of his living room and into a greenhouse.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This corn farmer does Oxford debate

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What is adventure?

Next week Blake will head off to the airport and get on a Delta flight to Atlanta. If you've flown Delta lately, you may throw up your hands, and agree, "Indeed, Adventure enough!" Nonetheless, braving the security line is not what I had in mind. No, Blake is getting ready to speak to the International Poultry Exposition next week, an event that will bring 18,000 folks from that industry to Atlanta. And some number of them will get a chance to hear a corn farmer from Tarkio speak. Its a step out of the comfort zone; the prototypical "first time for everything", and, surely, an occasion for butterflies, too much coffee, extra trips to the bathroom. It might be the first of many or the first of few. But it will be something unfamiliar without the burden of life or limb, and that makes it an adventure.
What is adventure? Obvious examples abound in magazines with long distance solitary sailors, bikers, climbers. Folks set themselves impossible tasks so they can achieve them and why? That sort of adventure seems self serving, but perhaps that's one defining characteristic. Do we take on an adventure if we don't really want to? If a task is hard, uncertain, unpleasant, and we still take it on, surely it is elevated to duty and sacrifice, several planes above mere adventure.
Travel is my favorite adventure, no surprise to anyone reading this. But how to carry it off? I got the road atlas out tonight, just for a teasing glimpse, not for serious perusal. Is travel a theoretical economic decision, one of unlimited needs and scarce resources? Is time the limiting factor? If I delve deeply into a place I've already traveled, am I in a rut? Is the full potential of travel to plan ahead? Or to throw a dart at the map? Fly seat of the pants? Or go for the soul? If I don't take a chance on something new in order to revisit a time or place of great intrigue or beauty or significance, am I in serious danger of becoming a fuddy-duddy?
This awareness and even dread of the easy slide into a familiar rut is what drives my philosophical search for adventure's essence. 'Wer rastet, rustet', and while I am adequately reminded each morning of the rusting of some joints, I have no desire to stagnate either physically or mentally. How can my day be different, then; what makes this week a challenge and a fascination when the baseline has to be the same old-same old.
In Blake's case, its communication optimism; simply put, he has "high hopes" that someone will call, or something will be in the mail that will be, in our parlance, exciting. We have a cartoon on our refrigerator that one of the girls cut out long ago: its Beetle Bailey and the General asks whether there has been mail, or phone, etc., etc. His aide replies no, and no, and no again, but adds, "but I think I saw some smoke signals". Well, to be fair, Blake keeps his hopes high with low expectations. The magazines we subscribe to count as "exciting" mail. Blake is a supply sider; a supply of emails, phone calls, texts, Facebook posts creates its own demand, but never boredom.
Gabe makes life exciting. "you come to my HOUSE", he tells me most mornings, in a tone that expresses happiness in my appearance. I can hear Lizzie shrieking most mornings when she sees me from the window. If I don't watch out, Aaron will knock me over and Abbie will tell me to take my hat off. Two year olds and six year olds are adventures!!
Every time I catch myself complaining about some snafu, I remind myself that I don't really want life to be easy or too smooth. My prayers are filled each night with those who face serious trials and difficult decisions, so I am cautioned daily to bite my proverbial tongue when I stumble and to be grateful for problems that can be solved. How can we ever measure progress or feel accomplishment if we get all we ask for? If we do not expend effort, how are we in the race? How will we bore our children with tales of derring-do and hardship if we never take that step from our comfort zone and try something we don't know anything about?
I'll never be good enough at anything to label it "finished". I'll never get to set a task aside because I'm an expert. I hope I can keep all my fingers limber enough to stick them in lots of pies; hope I continue to juggle the balls, keep the plates spinning. That's an adventure for you.
Put me in, coach. I'm ready to play today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Order, order!

Better Homes and Gardens is as predictable as the proverbial taxman. January's issue appears, clad usually in blue and white, with crates and baskets artfully arranged. With evangelical fervor, we are encouraged not to "REPENT" but to "REORGANIZE!" Pick up, clean up, throw out, head right on down to whatever your favorite source of tubs or containers, whether WalMart or Pottery Barn or Office Max, and buy some stuff to hide your stuff in. When you're all done, you will be able to tear down those closet doors, just like the Berlin Wall, and all that has been hidden will be clear to you. Can I get an amen from those folks with the bulging file boxes, with the prospect of finding a space for 2010 among 2009s statements and Christmas greetings?
There is no doubt that New Year's does usher in yet another opportunity to organize, among other choices for self improvement. What's easier: throw out the Christmas tree, write thank you notes, lose ten pounds, or clean up the office? Surely its enough to bat .500? No? I guess not. However, I can work on my diet while hauling bag after bag out of the office, down to the burn pile. What a prospect.
Its not that I am by nature a good German forebears ensure that I straighten, I tidy, I pile. I can't really do serious bookwork without sweeping the worst of the debris from the office floor. This is not just my human nature; its also necessity. If I don't pay that bill today, then maybe the next gust of wind will pick it up like a dry leaf and waft it out the door, or under the desk. So, clean I will, clean I must.
But I hate it. Unlike the home magazines, the inside of my desk or closet will not be painted as a still life when I'm through. I'll sift through all the invoices, old bills, tickets, with high anxiety. My inclination is to throw away! But what if Blake wants that address? What if he needs to know where we got that switch? The manual for the sprayer? The date we bought the dirt machine? Sure, most of our sales are now safely ensconced on the computer and backed up to boot. But what, shudder, if the tax man needs something? I look at the stacked file boxes in the closet; I look at the new black file cabinet. I shrug, get yet another hanging file, and stick the greenhouse construction file that dates back to 1992 behind the one from 2001 behind the one from 2005 behind 2007...well, you get the picture. How much information will I need someday? I guess I never know and my natural urge to clean 'em up and throw em' out is tempered by the need to be prepared for any eventuality. At least that's how the "system" has worked for the last thirty years!!
I've made the new folders; I've consulted with the family, just in case hell freezes over and someone else decides to file this year. I think, hope, pray, that I've made logical choices about the organization of our business papers. I know what I do now will be writ in stone until the system changes...which judging from my own past performance, won't be for several years. And I know, sinking feeling in gut, that my effectiveness as a finder of lost things, is about to take a serious plunge as the learning curve for the new files commences. Self inflicted frustration. What kind of fool am I.
Ah well, the task is about done. I came, I saw, I hung new files. The piles on the floor are diminishing; the top of the desk is visible. The rented farm settlement sheets are indeed settling into their new drawer with just a touch of orange Playdoh courtesy of Abbie. Tomorrow its time to plant geranium cuttings, sweep the front room, order more plugs, print off the price sheets. Today's feeling of helplessness and inadequacy will diminish and dissipate over the spring. Eventually, we'll get so busy that filing's priority will fall off the map. And, maybe, just maybe, when I get around to the task again, the hanging files will actually slide on the runners, the drawers will open and shut. It won't be pretty and it won't burn calories, but I'll have beaten back entropy for another year

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Little Cabin on

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Playing House

How fun is this? We're perched above the street, perched above the narrow driveway, high above Puget sound as night is falling. We're staying the night in a cottage of our very own, for this night anyway with a view we couldn't afford. There are pocket doors, a tiny four burner gas range, and a fridge stocked with our breakfast needs. There's even a hot tub with robes just for us, but that perk may remain wishful thinking with the continuous Seattle drizzle. We left our week load of dirty clothes in the rental so we're also pretending to be vagabonds with our single change of clothes in plastic bags. I've opened all the drawers; cunning little built-ins of pine in the room divider. The tv swivels back from living quarters to the bedroom area. I've opened the cabinets; here's some Olympic coffee, mix for either oatmeal or pancakes, Danish, bread. In the little fridge are eggs, milk, grapefruit, juice, yogurt....I could be set for several days.
Our hosts have a steep yard with a grassy spot about the size of our dining room. But the remainder of the lot bristles with shiny shrubs with volcanic rocks. There are lots of pots with the carcasses of last summer's occupants, so I know I would be at home in this yard in the warmer seasons too.
We've shed the downtown traffic of Seattle. We have plans for this evening with friends, then will enjoy the long morning with coffee and books before heading off to the tension and crowd of the airport. This is one of my favorite things to do and always has been; playing house with my daily comforts at my fingertips in miniature. When I was growing up, traveling by Pullman car was one kind of playing house. Staying for a week or two or six in a motel with a kitchenette encouraged one to find a routine, find a place for everything, and everything for its place. If you step on your "stuff" enough times in a sailboat, the next time around, you pack lighter and lighter until the baggage becomes two towels, two swimsuits, a tshirt, a comb and a toothbrush.
I always loved the miniature dollhouses at the Art Institute in Chicago. I always envied the girls who were fortunate enough to own and furnish the giant Victorian dollhouses (clearly for the fulfillment of moms and dads; what little seven year old tells her folks, 'what I really want from Santa is a 10 room Queen Anne mansion'? I secretly hoped my folks would buy a travel trailer when I was growing up. (Fold out beds; fold down tables; lots of cubbies) . I would never promise to travel light; sorry, I DO need surplus books; I MIGHT need one more sweatshirt. But the pleasures of stepping into our little house for the night, wherever it might be, will continue to entice and encourage. Let's nest for the night...let's find Fox News for the morning. Let's pretend to be the idle rich, or at least, the idle, and drink the whole pot of coffee on the deck with the view. I'll even make an omelet.

Friday, January 8, 2010


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Perspective; its what's for dinner

Copious amounts of print have been expended on food recently. Shoot, Blake has shelves of books on the subject, some written by scientists, some by polemicists, some by philosophers, some by cranks and liars. For some of these folks, food is a weapon to be wielded in the service of a certain vision of society as much as a source of nourishment or pleasure. For some, it seems nearly an idol; unless your dinner is grown, purchased, prepared, and consumed in the correct manner, one is a heathen. Don't get me wrong; I have been known to thumb through Country Cook Illustrated on a search for a tasty entree. I have attempted red, white and blue desserts from Martha Stewart in honor of art and the 4th of July. I have even taken my camera into fairly classy restaurants and photographed my entree. But we are not pretentious diners and our daily table at noon will be grilled or fresh in the summer, stewed or baked in the winter, and between bread in the spring and fall. The provenance will range from our home freezer or garden to the Tarkio HyVee. Period.
But the post is only tangentially about food and its family tree. Let's skip the obeisance to a local purely elemental diet. Let's think about what we eat in social terms; let's think in action words. Let's get out of the temple of food as an art form. Haven't we all, when in good company, managed to forget completely what we are eating?
Its been so cold the last week or so...the last month. Here in northwest Missouri, we've even spent quite a few days housebound by the cold and snow. In kitchens, the reaction is universal; turn on the oven. The metal cookie sheets twist and shout from the abrupt change in temperature from cabinet to oven. The butter on my counter is harder than the oleo in my fridge. The apples I've peeled make my fingers chilled, rigid, inflexible. But the hour of cooking raises the humidity and steams the windows. Ah, warmth. Cooking as activity; food as fuel.
In the opposite season, canning takes center stage. Harvest the garden, shuck the corn, core and skin the tomatoes, snap the beans, slice the cukes. Someone washes the jars; someone watches the pressure gauge; someone labels jars and shelves them in the basement. Food in the bank; food by committee.
This is food according to the female sex. What do we do when something good happens? We cook something to celebrate. What do we do when we're depressed? We bake cookies. When someone dies, the funeral dinner committee calls and we cook. When we age, we eat cake! When we have a baby, we eat cake. When we marry, we eat cream cheese mints. That's what we do in Tarkio.
Is it gourmet? Maybe. But it might also be a Waldorf salad, or cherry fluff, or Snickers salad, or strawberry/cream cheese/ pretzel salad. For a party, how about Rotelle dip? That's classy, right? But its food for a group, made from ingredients on hand, spontaneous food. And with no redeeming nutritional value at all.
Let's keep peanut butter blossoms on the menu. Let's hail the brownies from a box that we throw together in a flash for the bake sale, for preschool treats. Let's not forget that our food is for our people, for our friends, for those who celebrate, those who mourn. Its our gift and our contribution to our fellow human beings. Its a ritual and a tradition during holidays, but its not a religion. Food is what we cook and what sustains us; its what we give our friends, our family, our church, our community.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

March anticipation

This is the first time I've been without a clothesline. I was reminded of this one blustery day in November when I visited my folks' farm and they met me at the car with their empty laundry basket and yesterday's work clothes whipping on the line. In their case the clothesline runs from one of the barns to a pretty serious antenna tower. They have another short clothes line for dish towels and washrags outside the back door. The dish clothes don't grow mold at Redbarn.
Our first little house didn't offer much in the way of amenities: no pavement, no furnace, no closets. And even though we built our first little greenhouse there, I don't remember having the pleasure of a clothes line.
Our first house in town was a solid move up. Not only were there lovely shade trees in front and back yards, but a large garden spot in one side yard, an attached garage, and a substantial t-bar clothesline with multiple wires behind the house. That was fortunate: by that time I was washing not just overalls and t shirts, but two sets of little girl clothing and all the concomitant sheets, towels, bibs, and blankies associated with small people. Hanging out clothes with children is a chore I never minded. Kids can be all kinds of help...just today Lizzie helped me put laundry away at her house. One trip up the stairs with one of Aaron's socks. A second trip up the stairs with her mommy's purple pullover. Yet another trip with her "shiny" jeans. We would all burn calories if we did chores like Lizzie does. My kids would find their clothes, would hand me clothes pins, or just use the opportunity to chase around the back yard. It was a first rate clothesline and I would duplicate it in an instant here at Spruce.
Back to the farm we went and with a dryer that was becoming a relic, a new line was extended from the back door out to the elm tree. At first I had a fancy retractable line, but it proved no match for either the weight of our denim or the force of the back door when the wind caught it. A longer lag screw higher up on the house and nylon rope with a test weight heavy enough to tow a boat made the whole set up more durable. I wasn't quite prepared for the increased wind force on the hilltop as compared to the bottom, so there were days when I scurried around the yard chasing shirts and especially sheets that ripped free. That clothesline was death to clothespins; no cheap little short clips would do, no pretty colored plastic pins and even the sturdy old fashioned pins we made dolls from would fly away. Long new pins studded the sheets and towels three per on days when the wind came scudding from the south over the corn field. At least the line was in the back of the house, away from the limy road dust on dry summer days. When the auger, trucks and combines rolled in for harvest, the season for drying clothes outdoors came to a halt.
I had more than one spring when I fought our furry friends to a draw over clothing property rights. Tommy and Holly outgrew the clothesline before they quit digging up newly planted shrubs or perennials. Charlie never showed much interest in the clothes; she would rather dig her way into the greenhouses. But Frisky, who was a gorgeous movie star of a lab, tried my patience to its limit as she grabbed the flapping towels and hauled them away. She did outgrow that sin because she was a smart animal. But someone else recognized her beauty and spirit and stole her just a quickly as she appeared at our door. I never could leave sheets out overnight; the birds roosting in the elm would leave their calling cards with their carols for the morn.
The moment that stands out the most was the spring we were expecting Ben. Someone had given me a whole basket of little green and yellow shirts, baby towels, and socks. By then it had been more than several years since I'd washed and sorted little bitty clothes. It was touching, exciting, full of portent, anticipation and hope. I've changed, dressed, and washed countless little clothes since then, but every woman counts the events she does for the final time with her growing children.
Last summer we reinstated the vegetable garden here at Spruce; hadn't had one at home since we moved. Last summer I set four posts to trellis grapes. Nothing to stop me from digging some holes, securing some treated posts, and stretching some heavy duty rope. I don't have as many little clothes to wash these days, but the grandkids come to play in the sand and potting soil so they can be hosed off. And even without basketball unis, volleyball knee pads, practice pants, and other temporal clothing, there are still lots of overalls, towels and sheets to bake to a crisp in the sun.

Friday, January 1, 2010

main street 2009

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This Old Town

'This old town shoulda burned down in 1956, that's when the twister hit, And all our hopes were buried, Beneath the boards and bricks...' So goes a folk song on a Nanci Griffith recording, enumerating all the reasons why that little town and its inhabitants should pack it in, decamp, head for greener pastures. The verses record the tribulations of the twentieth century, from drought and dust to war to any of the other natural disasters we in the Midwest are subject to. And then the bridge: 'when my children's children ask me why I didn't go, I say the heart of any town are the people that you know.' I don't think the grammar is quite correct but the sentiment is one that we should print out on a big sign on our city limits in day-glo green in even larger letters than the superb records of our athletic and academic teams.
Several times over the course of holiday get togethers, I've heard the opposite opinion voiced. This person or that person is dissatisfied with our little town (another song about small towns, this by Paul Simon). These folks want to follow those city lights, I guess, assuming that the folks you know "somewhere else" will be notably better than the folks you know "here." One of the ways I've maintained sanity lo these many years is by acknowledging that people since the time of the Fall have been no better and no worse excepting One. As a result, I've never felt any particular longing to escape this home for some better home elsewhere. Even when we faced years of disheartening drought or over production or wind and hail or bugs or loss of customers, I never felt like heading down the road in a search for a better outcome. I remember one summer when the weeds began growing through the cracks of route O, the roadsides went unmowed and more and more farm houses seemed to be empty. But we drove back and forth with our water wagon and still shot off fireworks when there was a heavy dew on the 4th. I don't know if there was a more discouraging winter than the one when the college closed. Yet that March the kids rallied the whole town with an appearance in the final 4 at state basketball. This old town.....
Main Street isn't pretty. I have copies of old photos of Tarkio hanging in my house. I wish there were still storefronts of haberdashers and shoe repair and stationers. I believe brick is more picturesque than ribbed steel. On the other hand, we are not the first Main to move to the highway...if that were true, there would be no malls of any kind. Not every town takes the tough step to admit defeat on that front while attacking the problem with grass roots action by its citizenry to make the ugly stuff go away. I applaud the paradox of community improvement via creative destruction. Go Tarkio Renewal!
I'm not Pollyanna. I don't believe that every day everything is always getting better and better. Hope and change were blah, blah, blah to me even before the last election. I'm conservative about nearly everything as clearly evidenced by my daily existence. We strive to be creative enough to be able to stay just where we are. But any businessman knows, as does any physicist, that to stay put is to lose ground. I remember learning the word 'entropy' as a freshman in high school. Boy, did that explain life to me! If you aren't working, you are falling behind. My interpretation: in order to preserve 'life as you know it', you'd better be willing to accept some of that 'change'. Why do I think there might still be a Tarkio High for Aaron, Lizzie, Gabe and Abbie to attend? Because of wind and pigs. Because we have the raw materials to feed those industries. We are a smaller place than we were 40 years ago...shoot, 60 years ago. But we aren't gone yet.... this old town.
I found a firm selling cds of county histories before Christmas and bought Millie one that has lots of old county maps and a county history in great detail from 1912. It did my heart good to look at that history; you don't have to be raised in Tarkio to recognize the similarities of the names from the turn of the 20th century to the turn of this 21st. And I know that between 1912 and 2010, there have been cataclysmic events in our county on par with the draconian population loss we've experienced the last generation. But some of those old names have the staying power that only serious stubborness can impart. I have a real vested interest in 'this old town' for reasons that carry beyond children, grandchildren, parents and grandparents. We cannot expect glory days; but no one rooted to land and weather in this neck of the woods ever will. But we can continue to be stubborn and relish our small victories. 'When my children's children ask me', I want them to ask me for more chocolate milk, or to play trains, or any of those other commonplace requests that I can grant, here, in this 'old town'.