Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Will Work for Food

This summer has been an exploration of new ways to trick myself into exercise. Like my snowshoes before it, my birthday kayak has turned out to be one of my favorite gifts ever. Both activities get me out of the house and enjoying a beautiful day of some sort. Whether it's snowy or sunny, I have myself covered.

This morning was yet another gentle and beautiful ride on Lake Mendota with my kayaking buddy, Amy. We yak yak yak in time with our paddling , exploring both the open water and the rocky shores filled with nesting swallows, while the fish of Lakes Mendota and Wingra flip flop around our boats in the early morning quiet. We wave to the many fishermen who don't see much recreational boating during fisherman's hours and Amy hollers inquiries about what they're catching. Sometimes Amy casts for sport with her barbless hook while I float nearby with just the occasional drag of my paddle to keep myself facing the right way for continued chatting. The kayak's simplicity and maneuvering ease, like the snowshoes, are its magic. One push and your out on the trailer, no motor, no fuss and no muss.

Cycling has also been part of my "Getting Fatter with Exercise in 60 Days" cross-training regimen this summer. Chip and I tackled a local bike trail last weekend with real cyclists who dress in colorful nylon shirts and black biking shorts and yell "ON YOUR LEFT" a lot. We chatted and gossiped, often using our hands to emphasize a point and rode two abreast, a complete and utter "tell" that we were so completely unfit for trail riding and should be driven off by serious riders wearing flags around their shoulders and wielding torches and pitchforks and chanting for our blood. Maybe it was the Tour de France that had everybody looking so serious last weekend along the trail, but I would say Chip and I were dressed more for browsing at Home Depot or perhaps paying our utility bill in person. I was sporting yoga pants and a misshapen Limited Express tank top and seriously, a loop of potholder nylon from a child's potholder-making kit to hold my ponytail. God love him, Chip is as fit as any rider out there, but was sitting rather erectly, like a guy from the twenties with a handlebar mustache on a bike with a giant front wheel, dressed for a Jimmy Buffett concert with t-shirt, khaki shorts and TEVAs. No serious riders show their toes while riding, do they? Like dogs, we Hunters always work better toward some type of food reward and made it our goal to finish at a breakfast joint where we scarfed down two giant plates full of eggs, bacon, hollandaise and hashbrowns, negating any health benefits of the ride. Embarrassingly, we ate so much and racked up such a bill that we didn't have enough money to tip the waitress and had to drive back and drop off the tip later. That last piece of information sent Allison into a serious eye roll as she spit out the word that describes her parents' adventures best... "Typical."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Animal Vegetable Madison

I'm not a lifelong reader but since showing up to Madison and joining a book club, I've trained myself to read for fun. I'm reminded of Olivia's kindergarten classmate, Frankie, who showed up to school not knowing his letters or his numbers. And his mom, after the first parent teacher conference, telling me, "I thought that's what starting school was for. He's been out climbing trees for four years." I think I might have been a Frankie. My mom and dad were readers but it never interested me much beyond Tiger Beat and the occasional smutty book in junior high. When I could get away with it for homework, I read book jackets to do book reports. I was so jealous and baffled by my pleasure reading friends. TV was way more interesting and still is.

I do read quite a lot now but it's still not easy for me. I read slowly. I lose track and have to go back a few pages regularly to find where I started thinking about Lindsay Lohan or the rattle in the car engine or Swedish Fish and stopped paying attention to the story. So listening to Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver on CD, a book whose length daunted me everytime I grabbed for it, was the perfect choice.

I'm about halfway through the book and already I've been moved to write her a letter thanking her... but for what? Getting the attention of a bad reader, maybe? I wouldn't say I've been transformed by this book, because it's almost a work of fiction just to think about living all year on food that's locally grown or made, especially in this climate. That's a lot of moldy potatoes and squash come January. Furthermore, how much Wollersheim Prairie Fume can a woman drink before succumbing to madness? Yes, it's the little crucial things like booze and cigs that will forever keep me addicted to Big Oil. But can I reduce my addiction by just a little bit? I have been enlightened to the fact that eating foods out of region and out of season enables the oil industry to keep itself indispensable to our country and also that trucked-in food makes for a real crapshoot where food flavor is concerned. Every time I eat a tasteless kiwi, I recognize now that there was a truck and an airplane churning out diesel fumes and enlarging my carbon footprint just so I could be exotic for a minute. Not to be preachy because I do hate preachiness more than I hate a tasteless kiwi, but didn't Al Gore and Sesame Street charge us with doing what we can to save the Earth's dwindling resources? And since it's the high growing season in southern Wisconsin, there is no better time to try this little experiment of Barbara's. Is food grown locally and recently for that matter more tasty? Can I reconnect with some tastes of yore like carrots that taste like, well, carrot?

Now Barbara was paid to take her family off the food grid. She wrote a book about it and I assume got a nice juicy advance in order to do so. I still have Kraft Mac and Cheese in the cupboard, Ore Idas in the freezer and I can see the Jif jar from where I'm sitting. (Organic peanut butter eaters are just lonely attention seekers--oh, yes I did just go there) But can I make some small changes that might help my family's tastebuds as well as good old Earth? Being unemployed of course makes this pursuit so much easier and of course if anybody wanted to pay me to keep going with this smashup of Barbara Kingsolver's idea, I might consider giving up everything but the Jif.

Last week we tried swiss chard for the first time... with enough butter, garlic and onion, those leafy greens can really satisfy. This week, I've taken the plunge on the purchase of beets. I have also bought plenty of mint for mojitos in case the beets are yucky.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer berries

While the calendar might have said midsummer a few weeks ago, we live by a different timetable in this house. The height of summer is when the raspberries ripen and explode on the vine--a short growing season in Wisconsin so it stands to reason that when your one and only crop comes in, it's summer. I'm not a canner (yet....but one day I will be, along with being a quilter ) so the berries are for eating right here and right now.

" The berries are in! Put them on your cereal, on your ice cream, on your steak! "
" But Mommy, we're full."
" You ungrateful children. I don't care how full you are, there's always room for berries."

I don't really know if other people love berries as much as Chip does. He has not one but two berry washers, made by my good friend Leslie and her wonderful potter's hands, that sit patiently in a high cabinet ten months a year before becoming kitchen counter staples during the summer. First the straws, then the rasps and finally the blues. BerryBoy stands poised and ready, a berry washer in each holster.

These bushes are kind of special to me because they were a secret gift from the previous owners, like the hollyhocks, the peonies and the magnolia. We moved in mid August, and the foliage was green and fried at that point and the raspberries were nothing but a browning bramble by then. I had previously managed a postage stamp sized plot of annuals in Philadelphia and was overwhelmed by the many and varied garden beds left to my care. A near brush with disaster that first fall. My dad was helping me get all the garden beds cleaned up and in order in advance of winter, and we happened upon a summer's neglected vegetable bed on the south side of the house. I suggested just wiping out the lot so I could start from scratch the following spring. We weeded a bit, and then he stood up abruptly and said, "Wait, stop. You know Jul, I think these might be something. We better leave this as is." The following summer, like walking in on a surprise party in my honor, I blundered on to 12,000 berries screaming "Surprise! Pick us!" Since then, we've been ready for our annual crop and we prime our psyches and our taste buds for a bounty of our own homegrown berries for three weeks. I wish I could take credit for the fruitful gifts of our land but I can only claim that neglect is a powerful fertilizer in this case.

My summer perennial garden also coming along and I intend to leave a note to any future owners about not pulling any "weeds" for at least one growing season.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Fleeting memories of toddlers

As I adjust to my progressive lenses, I keep returning to the store for minor tweaks. The other day as I left the store yet again, I bore witness to the classic "toddler wanting to walk unassisted to the car in busy parking lot hissy fit." This oldie but goodie tantrum is just so unbelievably funny and classic. I don't imagine there's a parent in the U.S. who hasn't had this wrangle with his/her toddler at some point.

What is it about new walkers and talkers that they insist on freedom in the most precarious of places? I think they do this around bodies of water as well. Is it a rite of passage? Is it an evolutionary test? If your parents are too stupid not to hold your hand, well, maybe it's just better to get it over with because surely their neglect will lead to your early demise anyway. I could hear the mama impatiently explaining why running to the car without holding an adult's hand was prohibited and briefly giving him a choice between two safe alternatives, obviously rejected, before hauling him kicking and screaming to the car on her hip. I remember those toddler negotiations, in my case fairly mild by some stroke of luck as I was blessed with easy going and handholding children. But I think that might have been a whim of nature and that most kids are not in a consensus building mood for about two years of their lives. And so adults grab at little wrists and hands and torsos if necessary, squirming and screaming, and we insist on safe choices, although really we're fairly irritated that we even have to explain ourselves to the a 3 year old ready to bolt bowleggedly for the car at full speed upon exiting any retail establishment.

My protective self is at red alert today. A sick cat, probably sicker than is compatible with long life. Launching a kid traveling tomorrow to Europe with a tour group. I am unsettled because these are feelings of concern not easily fixable by grabbing a tiny hand or wrist. I think about how life always felt a little dodgy when the kids were little. Danger everywhere, constant sickness, a steady state of adrenaline coursing through my veins as I got all little mammals in my sights safely where they needed to be day in and day out. Life has settled down quite a bit since then, and so when I am having one of these high alert days, it feels foreign and I realize I'm getting too old for toddlers and sick pets.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Woman of a Certain Age needed new glasses as she hasn't been able to really see the computer screen, newspaper, a book or a menu ("What are your specials this evening?") for about five years. I asked an eye doctor once, "When do you think I'll need bifocals?" His reply, "When you can't see anymore." Everybody's a comedian.

This time I took the plunge...bifocals.

So first there's my vanity. Much too young for a line on my lenses. No-line bifocals means progressive lenses...a slippery slide in and out of sightedness gauged by the faintest of head tilts. Maybe a good idea when each lens was the size of an ashtray, say as mine were in the 1980s, but now that the Dutch Architect look is all the rage, the amount of space dedicated to each progressive zone on the lens is less than millimeters. I knew I would hate them at first. And it's still "at first". But wow, what a pain in the ass. Moving my head up down and sideways in search of the sweet spot. How utterly tedious. I'm tired from all the subtlety. I'm not known for my subtlety.

Second, there's the practicality. I'm lay-zee. Getting new glasses for me has never been easy. Wearing glasses has long been my security blanket, my superhero costume, my mask. My whole life....once I get a new pair and break them in, I want them to be my last pair. Kind of like Chip was my last boyfriend? But like my marriage, I get complacent and abusive with time and each pair of glasses eventually wears down and gives out. If my glasses could drive, they'd probably steal the car keys and leave in the middle of the night eight months into the relationship. And after each failed love affair, I hesitantly go back on the vision dating scene in search of new glasses only when all hope of reconciliation or contrition has been lost...unsure of myself and probably too hasty and needy in my search to settle back into complacency. I'll take any glasses that will have me. Adjustments, schmadjustments. I just want to see.

Today is awful. I'd like to turn my head quickly and walk without blurriness. Call me a princess. I developed a bad habit over the past few years, creating my own reading glasses by looking through all the space outside and around my frames when I needed to read. Now I must retrain myself to look through the lenses as God intended. Ugh.

Since I'm dizzy already, I think a cocktail is promptly in order. Meanwhile a dear friend in South Carolina emails me a picture of Flat Stanley getting plastered. I'm quite sure Flat Stanley is not supposed to return to the elementary school in the fall, a drunk and disorderly redneck. Truly a cockeyed world.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Fifth of July and the sixth....

Fireworks galore. Southeastern Kansas is so flat that fireworks from every yard and every town in a tight radius are visible from the drive to and from the old WalMart parking lot where we watched Parsons' fireworks display. We could have said we were almost bored by the amount of fireworks we saw by the end of the night. Only almost because nobody can EVER watch too many fireworks.

Third generation in a brief pause before returning to pattern of movement similar to electrons

We leisurely posse'd up around 4pm Sunday to return home. As one does, a stop at Big Brutus is in order before one leaves southeastern Kansas. There are no words that adequately capture the size of Big Brutus. You just have to see it in person to witness the miracle vehicle of coal strip mining in its day. Our oh so clever photo trick (I'm really not holding Big Brutus) was so amusing to the grandparents walking by that they made their grandkids stand there like idiots just like me with their hands in the air. The kids had absolutely no idea what they were doing or why but they were well behaved and did as they were told.

West Mineral, KS

The brochure indicates that you can have your wedding in the picnic pavilion next to Big Brutus. I would so go to that wedding.

A new resource not tapped until now in the family car roadtrip is the dispatching of the sleepy, useless co-pilot parent to the backseat and the replacement of said parent with a fit and energetic 14 year old girl who flips radio stations every 90 seconds and has a penchant for late night fun.

Thanks to Ally for keeping me quite awake with her singing and annoyingly catchy music choices. Iowa is a very dark state at night, and although the odor of the pig farms alone might have kept me awake, it was nice to have company through those long stretches of Route 20. New found energy at Dubuque and we were home by 3am. We rolled into Madison full of great memories and a renewed commitment to family as we always do after the Hunter reunions. Love to everyone there and also to those who weren't.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Fourth of July

Summer family roadtrip. Kids are plugged in, Chip and I are listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver on CD....the sun is shining, the roads are clear. Passing through four midwest states on the way to our family reunion in Parsons, Kansas.

Parsons is where Grandma and Grandpa lived and where for many years Chip's family returned at Christmastime to celebrate en masse under Grandma and Grandpa's giant tree with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Chip has lots of wonderful memories of Parsons but one of my favorites is that of the semi-freeforall at bedtime...falling asleep in a bed only to find himself on the floor in the morning, displaced by an adult at some point in the night. That's when kids were kids and parents still ran the show.

We obviously feel a deep sense of loss this year without Chip's dad, our Grandpa. But being together with his brothers and sisters, maybe a budge and a nudge forward, like kayaks stuck on a sandbar. A wave of water or a hard paddle push jostling our bottoms to a brief moment of buoyancy. It's painstaking to push and we get stuck again and again but it feels a little functional to be moving my boat of grief gently and ever so slowly toward more open water. Olivia felt herself losing it a little bit last night at our dinner, so we went to the car for a little cry and were surprisingly okay. She's not afraid to be sad and I admire her so much for that because I sure am scared. Her kayak is already headed for the open water, while I may still be lingering back here in the reeds for a little longer.


We pass more fireworks Big Tops than we do every exit through Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, some yellow and white, some red and white but tents lining the highways all clearly in the business of selling as many fireworks as possible in the next 72 hours. A stop in Grinnell, IA to see the Grinnell College campus (future college applicants in our car look disdainfully at the empty campus and cry, "Too country!") and have some dinner. We're treated to a salsa band in the park courtesy of the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce, where a handful of people are enjoying a summer evening of dance and music on the eve of the holiday weekend. The town is pretty deserted but Pagliai's is open for pizza. The Pagliais were an Italian couple who immigrated to Iowa in the early twentieth century and introduced pizza to the midwest, so they claim.

Having spent most of my life in big cities where fireworks are an incredible no-no (a legacy of Mrs. O'Leary and her cow, I think), I feel like I'm witness to criminal activity with all these fireworks for sale in broad daylight. I suppose the reality is when the population is less dense, fireworks are not necessarily just an organized city-sponsored fire department monitored event. How many fools will blow their fingers off tonight in these flat, wide-open midwestern towns is an individual's right of freedom since it's unlikely they're capable of starting the likes of a Great Chicago Fire.

Reunion at the Parsons rec center. I have broken the rules several times tonight even before I saw the sign.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A bee's eye view

It's so cold and it's making me grouchy. Whatever air mass is sitting over WI right now is seriously disrupting an otherwise pleasant start to summer. Today it feels like a mild day in March which would be so welcome in March. July 1st, not so much.

This morning I volunteered at our local community center. The center literally hums when people are in it, and with the energy and purpose of a beehive it occurs to me. Everybody seems to be chaotically moving in different directions with different tasks, staff communicating with quick, almost shorthand interactions and then heading in different directions once again. In their chairs, out of their chairs, disrupted constantly by immediate needs of those who access the center. Momentarily pulls staff members off task and then they're right back to their work only to be interrupted again and again. Everyone's moving with a common purpose, helping our community and its people to grow and thrive. I was a happy drone in the midst of it all.

I've long held a fantasy of being a secretary as I think I would be very good at bossing someone around under the auspices of working for them and making myself officiously indispensable. My volunteerism was delightfully secretarial today, plugging in data on a spreadsheet while the center buzzed around me. It's a lively center, informal and chatty and entirely chill. I love being surrounded by the activity without having to respond to it or be responsible to anything but my little spreadsheet. Feeling part of something without responsibility for its overall operation. Data entry. Peaceful.

Unlike the second part of my day full of machinations and schemes trying to fact find and organize four women from four different cities getting together for a short vacation later this summer. Herding cats I tell you.

Time for some wine while admiring some shots of my beautiful garden from a bee's eye view.

Ok, well, these I bought.