Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The end of the decade?

Articles filling the papers and wrap-up shows on TV as we come to the end of 2009 indicate we're not only ending a year, we're also finishing a decade. Which leads to the question I consider at times like this - When does a decade really start and end?

Since we start counting with one and not zero, it's a good argument to say a decade begins with the year one and ends at the end of the year 10 - not at the beginning. But common use shows that we talk about 'the 50s,' 'the 60s,' 'the 70s,' giving the nod to keeping everything tidy based on the initial number of the decade.

I was struck by something the Wizard said in Wicked. I am paraphrasing, but the gist was this: The truth has nothing to do with facts. The truth is what we all agree on.

In this case, it appears the media agree the new decade begins on January 1, 2010, so we're all carried along. And it really isn't worth fighting over, I don't think. Time being an arbitrary function created by humans to bring some order to our lives and to make us think we have some control over something.

But the Wizard's comment was funny at the moment, thought provoking over time, and a tad scary upon reflection. How often do we succumb to group think? When we start down the slippery slope of ignoring the facts, where do we land when we stop sliding? What really are the facts?

Something to think about as we finish another year. And maybe another decade.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Listening to winter quiet

I returned from a pre-dawn walk through three inches of new powder, breathless from the exertion, warm in spite of frigid temperatures, the sound of snow crunching with every step.  The snowplows hadn't passed yet, so the snow was clean and fresh. Christmas lights left on all night twinkled in the untrampled crystals. This was as pretty as a winter morning gets.

Reluctant to bring my morning journey to an end, I stopped outside our door. The crunch under my shoes echoed, then faded. My breathing calmed. The air settled around me, and I listened. Nothing. I heard nothing. There can be nothing so quiet as a winter morning under a snowy blanket. Even the sound of a passing car is muted. Dawn would not break for a few minutes and I soaked in this deep silence.

Seldom do we experience complete silence. Radios, TVs, traffic, phones, lawn mowers, the furnace blowing, the dishwasher cycling, devices of all sorts plugged into our ears. We are wired with sound. And even when everything external is turned off, it's hard to escape the internal noise  - a remembered tense conversation, a project gone off track, a looming deadline, the mounting 'to do' list, a calendar teeming with meetings - all clamoring for mental space. When can we ever just be quiet?

Winter night is so different than summer evenings when crickets and frogs and cicadas fill the dark with their cacophony. When wind ruffles leaves. When windows and doors are flung open and everyone's sounds fill the night air.

This morning, in spite of a temperature that hovered in the teens, the quiet invited me to stay outside to revel in clean, pure, sweet, quiet. Then to wait and wonder when something would break the silence of the black and white morning.

Finally it came, the clear call of a cardinal.  I looked around, following the sound. There he was, a tiny dot of blood red on a distant limb. Not long after, a junco flitted by. The birds do not sing in the winter as they do during the summer when the competition is on to attract mates, but just as surely, the birds are here, giving voice to the morning.

As the sun rose, so did the birds. Blue jays. Crows. Gold finches turned winter gray. Their calls brought life to the winter morning. Following the lead of the birds, getting busy with the day, I grabbed the snow shovel and went to work clearing the sidewalk.

Those few minutes of pure quiet calmed my mind, refreshed my body, raised my spirits. Pure quiet. What a gift.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden on a windswept plain

My intent has been to write about my prairie at least once every month. But sitting here in my office, looking out across the area where I so hopefully planted a prairie last spring, all I could see was snow. White, windswept, barren. What's to write about there?

Last week's blizzard threw a white blanket over everything. From several hundred yards away, my prairie looked no different than the lawn that surrounded it.

Landscape designers talk about including plants that add 'architectural interest' even in the winter. I've planted bushes - Brilliant Red Chokeberries and Royal Star Magnolias - in my gardens to do just that. And I leave the blackened seed heads of Purple Coneflowers and Blackeyed Susans standing through the winter both to feed the birds and provide interest against the snow. In the prairie? Well, it was apparently just too early for there to be architectural interest on the prairie. But I miss my walks in the prairie, so I pulled on my boots and waded through the drifts to take a closer look.

Turns out there was more going on than I could see from my office. I found a single sunflower that had been blooming right up until the snow. Less than a foot tall, it braved the wind and cold. A hint to the tall plants that will mark the prairie in future years. Tiny grasses reached above the snow. Probably crabgrass! But I was remarkably glad to see them anyway.

Because crisscrossing the prairie, invisible until I was right on top of them, were tracks of rabbits and squirrels and even smaller animals - field mice? voles? The tracks reminded me that even in its early stages, the prairie is hideaway and home and food store to animals and birds. Who knows what is going on underneath the drifts?

I'll walk across the prairie again this winter. Often, because even in the winter, my prairie is teaching me to look close.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The real deal

Nature dumped 15+ inches of snow on Des Moines this week. Fifteen inches of snow followed by winds gusting to 50 miles per hour. Snow swirled in whiteout waves. Drifts mounded up to window ledges. Temperatures dropped to bitter lows. A blizzard for the history books. And boy was it cool to watch!

So often we get hype. The forecast promises something big. Weathermen warn us off the roads. Reality is often so much less impressive. But this time, we got the real deal.

This blizzard brought to mind a blizzard that swept the Plains States on January 12, 1888, one that came to be called the Children's Blizzard. Unexpected, fast and furious, that blizzard caught people unaware and unprepared, particularly the children in one-room schoolhouses. Many set out to walk home, often without coats because the weather had been so warm up to that point. Stumbling through snow drifts, lost in whiteout conditions, unable to make it to shelter, hundreds died of hypothermia.

Our modern weather forecasting systems, our good roads and powerful vehicles, compounded by our NEED to go out, give us confidence. Surely we can make it.

Farmers used to run a rope between the house and barn so they didn't get lost in a snowstorm when they went out to take care of the livestock. My husband and I joked about tying a rope to the door and holding on while I walked to the mailbox. It's almost a quarter mile out and back. I didn't. Of course I could make it. I was shocked when I returned to the house exhausted from wading through the drifts.

Sitting in the warmth of our home, wrapped in a blanket in front of the fireplace, sipping a cup of tea, watching the blizzard rage and the snow pile up, brought back memories of the big storms or my childhood. And I love a good snowstorm. But I realize it's easy to enjoy a blizzard when you're safe in a warm home.

It's worth remembering: Sometimes you get the real deal.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gamboling through life

Our next-door neighbors breed dogs. A fact we did not know when we bought our acreage four years ago, but of which we were soon aware. The barking was incessant and loud every time we stepped out our back door. Every walk across our lawn required navigating an obstacle course of dog droppings. Their dogs treated out yard as their own, particularly when it came to bathroom duty.

The fact that the dogs are white German shepherds, a breed that is simultaneously beautiful, graceful and eerie when seen loping across our front yard in the early morning mist did not change our desire to have them stay home. It took several increasingly blunt visits to get the owners to finally take steps to keep their dogs in their own yard.

This is a prelude to stating what is no doubt obvious – we have never been fond of these canine neighbors.

So it surprised me that I laughed when I looked up from my breakfast coffee this weekend to see the latest litter of pups exploring our back yard. Gambol is an old fashioned word but it fit exactly the spirit with which these four pups played. They chased, they tumbled, they sprang, they romped. They Gamboled.

They ran across the garden, their white paws turning brown with every step. They chased in and out amongst the sunflower stalks, pausing from time to time to chew one to the ground. Through the grape arbor. Around the edge of the raspberry patch. From their yard to ours and back again.

Their parents were restrained by the invisible fence, but the pups suffered no such restriction. It lifted my spirits to see such irrepressible, free-spirited living. It helped, I’m sure, to know that there was nothing growing at the moment that they could damage.

But their puppy antics – their gamboling – made me laugh. And now I am in the spirit to gambol. Our neighbors’ dogs finally left me a gift I was delighted to receive.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Holiday Story

I have always believed that Thanksgiving dinner is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult meal to make. Easiest because there is no wondering what will be on the menu. At least at our house, the meal is always exactly the same, from homemade pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cranberry sauce cooked up and cooled in an aluminum mold used only for that purpose to the dinner rolls my aunt bakes on Thanksgiving morning. A turkey with sage dressing is the centerpiece.

At the same time, the meal is difficult because of the high level of expectation attached to all holiday family gatherings. For me, sage dressing is the food I desire most. I can pass on potatoes and gravy, forgo cranberries, even skip the turkey. Fill my plate with the sage dressing that I wait all year to taste.

So it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the phone conversation my mom was having with her granddaughter in Pennsylvania about Thanksgiving dressing.

"Say, Clorinda," Mom said. "Your mom says you do a great job making dressing. If you want to make it when you're here for Thanksgiving, I'll get everything around so it's ready when you are."

Mom cradled the telephone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for a pencil and paper. "Okay, I'm ready," she said, pencil poised to write. I knew she anticipated a list beginning with dried bread and progressing through sage seasoning.

Watching from across the table, I could see the list as Mom wrote down the ingredients Clorinda detailed: Stove ... Top ... Stuffing. Mom hesitated as she took in the words and glanced up at me. I couldn't stifle a laugh.

For nearly 60 years, my mother had put three square meals a day on the table, all made from scratch, mostly using produce grown in her own garden. The very idea of making a Thanksgiving dish so basic and so traditional as dressing out of a box nearly made her go into shock.

But she's quick on her feet, my mother. "How many boxes do you think we need?" she asked Clorinda.

Though Mom takes justifiable pride in the meals she prepares, she has her priorities in order. If her granddaughter wants to help make the meal, and that help comes out of a box, she won't bat an eye. But don't underestimate what a mental shift that took.

From the time my sisters and I were 10 years old. Mom taught us not only to grow the food we'd eat but also to cook it. She guided us through the basics of growing and canning peas and beans, tomatoes and corn. From there we explored the complexities of meal planning and cooking. Mom made cooking easy, measuring out ingredients before we knew what we needed, cleaning up every drip and spill as we made it. We knew no failures in her kitchen.

When 15-year-old Clorinda arrived in Iowa that November, Mom swept her granddaughter off into the kitchen as her newest apprentice. Some lessons were a snap. To make eggs over easy without flipping them, for instance, Mom shared the trick of putting a lid on the frying pan, drizzling a few drops of water at the edge, and letting steam cook the egg top. Some lessons were more challenging. Gravy without lumps took two tries. These cooking experiences continued throughout the week up until Thanksgiving Day.

By 5 a.m. the kitchen was a hive of activity directed by Mom and guaranteed to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving meal we all knew and loved. As noon approached, I watched in amusement as Clorinda opened the Stove Top stuffing mix and under Mom's watchful eye completed a cooking task in five minutes that done in the traditional way would have taken a good two hours.

When the turkey came out of the oven at precisely 11:30 a.m. and a parade of heaping dishes made it to the dining room table at exactly noon, among them was a large t)owl of Stove Top Stuffing. We all ate it. And it was good. Grandma agreed.

Would stuffing from a box ever replace homemade sage dressing and become the new tradition at our holiday table? Probably not. But Mom keeps Stove Top stuffing mix on her pantry shelf, ready for the day her granddaughter comes for another holiday visit.

This essay was originally published in The Iowan, Nov/Dec 2006

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Comfort Food - Home Memories

Heading toward the holidays, the media bombard us with new ways to cook the old standards. While I'm sure many enjoy the adventure of new foods on the holidays, for me these meals are all about 'going home.' Enjoying family and friends surrounded by the aromas of the old standard comfort foods.

CBS Sunday Morning took the memory of comfort food one step further last weekend with an homage to macaroni and cheese. They showcased trendy restaurants that serve nothing other than variations on this home and childhood favorite. One New York restaurant serves mac and cheese with shaved white truffles and charges $95! My mother would be appalled.

Macaroni and cheese was one of Mom's signature dishes. She took it to church potlucks, school picnics, family reunions. We had it for supper on a regular basis. I can still see her heavy blue casserole filled to the brim with macaroni and cheese, the cheese burned just slightly on the top from spending a little too long in the oven.

After watching that show, I fixed mac and cheese for supper on Sunday night. How could I not? Homemade, using Mom's recipe. As I stood at the stove stirring in the cheese, I realized mac and cheese from scratch is every bit as easy as making mac and cheese out of a box. And a whole lot better.

Mom's Macaroni & Cheese

Elbow macaroni - cooked al dente - drained
Sprinkle a tablespoon or two of flour on the macaroni
Add enough milk to make a sauce, return to heat, stirring constantly so milk thickens
Add Velveeta cheese - cubed - and keep stirring until cheese is melted
Salt and pepper to taste

Don't bother adding a shaved white truffle. This is as good as it gets.

Home memories. Comfort food. What a great start to the holidays.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Strands of gold

The trees outside my office window are devoid of leaves. Even our sugar maple finally gave up. It's brilliant yellow leaves turned brown and now cover the ground with an ankle-deep, brittle blanket.

No denying it. We're marching steadily toward the inevitable black and white of winter.

The only tree on our property still wearing fall color is our weeping willow. It, too, is losing leaves fast, but for now it glitters yellow in the sun. Having never had a willow tree before, I don't really know what constitutes a 'branch' or a 'leaf.' Is each long, weeping thread one leaf? With each leaflet part of a larger whole? Or are the threads branches in training and the leaflets true leaves?

The willow tree has been an ongoing source of thought-provoking lessons. I'll probably look up the answer to this leaf question sometime over the winter. When the landscape is black and white. I may even draw some larger life lesson from the answer.

Right now, I'm enjoying the idea that the willow tree looks as though it is dripping with strands of gold, each leaf a link in the multitude of chains that hang from the branches. So much jewelry on a human would be gaudy, an ostentatious display. On our willow tree, though, the display is a last colorful fall display carrying me into winter.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A day like today

When I was in 8th grade, my teacher had us memorize a poem each week. One week it was Helen Hunt Jackson's "October's Bright Blue Weather." I still remember the first stanza:

O SUNS and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weathe

Every year when October's cerulean skies reflect autumn sun, I think of that poem. To me there is nothing better than October skies. Until this year. Cold. Wind. Rain. That was October.

But today - in November - we saw an October sky and enjoyed October weather. With temperatures in the 60s, the wind in my face, the sun kissing my cheeks, I headed out for a walk. Who could be anything but cheerful on a day like today?

The yellow leaves clinging steadfastly to the sugar maple flashed against the brilliant blue sky. Plump red crab apples begged to be appreciated. The laughs of children charging out of the school for recess floated on the breeze. People passing in cars smiled and waved.

It's easy to be cheerful on a day like today. And thankful. An October day in November is a special blessing.

On a day like today, run outside, lift your arms to the sky, laugh, and yell, Thank You!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Seeds that last

The prairie is brown now. As my county extension agent promised, the crab grass died with the first hard frost. Dropping millions of seeds before letting go. A gift for future years.

I mowed off most of the plant residue on the prairie, leaving only one swath of tall crab grass. A ground cover experiment for the winter.

The mown area reveals little flashes of green. Prairie forbs that took hold in spite of the crab grass and continue to thrive in spite of the frost. And dandelions. The dandelions can yet be treated with glyphosate, though dandelion seeds are as persistent as crab grass. The common sunflowers that began blooming at the start of October, continue to push forth new blossoms, tiny flashes of yellow against the brown.

In mid October, my husband and I visited a prairie 'remnant' that is part of the Honey Creek Resort on Rathbun Lake. A remnant is a bit of Iowa's original prairie that somehow escaped the plow all these years - amazing since 99% of Iowa's original prairie has given way to agricultural production.

As we walked the trail through this original bit of Iowa landscape, I watched birds soaring high over the trees, felt the breeze that rippled through the Big Bluestem, listened hard for the echo of bygone horses, buffalo, Native Americans and pioneer settlers.

I could not help myself. I gathered a few of the seeds from this remnant prairie - grasses and flowers. Is this legal? I expect not. But I just had to bring some seeds - descendants from Iowa's original prairie - home with me.

Scattering those seeds, I imagine years from now walking through Big Bluestem, watching birds soar over head, listening for the echo of Iowa's bygone prairie right in my own front yard.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Be brave!

Be Brave - And mighty forces will come to your aid.

Several years ago, a friend and I had coffee with Barbara Robinette Moss. This would not be so remarkable except that Moss did not know us and at the time she was recovering from a serious injury that made it difficult for her get around. Still, she graciously made time for us - two unpublished, aspiring writers - spending more time than simple politeness may have dictated.

I was in awe of her, an artist and accomplished writer. Yet, Moss was genuinely interested in what we were writing, asking questions, offering encouragement. My book club had read her memoir Change Me into Zeus's Daughter. Before we parted, I shyly asked her if she would sign my copy. She thought for a moment and then inscribed this line - Be Brave - and mighty forces will come to your aid.

Some years later, Ms. Moss spoke at a luncheon I attended. By then, I was close to publishing my own memoir. I had returned to her inscription in my copy of her book many times. Her words had given me courage. I asked if this was a standard inscription she used. No, she said, it was something that came to her out of our conversation.

How she knew I needed courage, I don't know. But she was right. I did. I am grateful she agreed to have coffee. She came to that meeting with her whole heart, just as she did to her writing. I remember her lessons when I meet with other aspiring writers.

Barbara Robinette Moss died on October 9. She had cancer. She was a talented artist and writer. More than that, she was a good person. One of the many 'mighty forces' to come to my aid as a writer.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Snow on the prairie

Snow on October 10. This was unexpected. When a weather occurrence is out of the ordinary, I always think, 'Do I remember this happening before?' Though I do not remember snow as early as October 10, I'm sure it has.

What I can remember is the snow/ice storm Des Moines experienced on Halloween weekend 15 or more years ago. Sitting in my kitchen, I watched as limbs - big limbs - fell to the ground, as mature trees split. Each time a limb or tree gave in to the weight, the sound was unexpected, startling, frightening. It cracked like rifle shots, exploded like canon fire. I was grateful to already be home, grateful I was not skating I-235 with other downtown workers on the evening commute. The clean up was heart and back breaking. All those trees damaged or gone entirely.

This early snow is causing none of that devastation. At least here in Des Moines. In fact, it's already melting. The cold that is predicted to follow tonight will likely kill my impatiens even though they're covered. Oh, well. We try to hold on to summer for one more day, knowing this is not something we can actually control.

Generally, I enjoy the first snow of the season. This was just a little early. But I get to see the first snow on my prairie and enjoy it. A gentle snow on Saturday that will melt by Monday. And I know to be grateful.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Prairie paths and wildlife

A friend asked if I planned to mow the prairie off. It hadn't occurred to me until she said something. I had been thinking to let the snow and rain mat the grass down to mulch. The prairie plants appear to push through no matter what, though it takes longer with grass competition.

Once she planted the idea, though, it took root and grew until I found myself on the tractor headed for the prairie. Not to mow it all off. More to see what I'd find if I mowed some.

My first swath followed a curving line that approximated the line of a path I imagined walking while Big Bluestem wave over my head and Gray-headed Coneflowers blink in the sun (three years from now). It took two swipes to get the long tendrils of wiry crab grass clipped off. Sure enough, small prairie plants were hidden under all that shade.

I grew braver, mowing swaths in other directions, each time making sure to cut around the still-blooming Partridge Peas and avoiding by a wide margin my newly blooming Common Sunflower.

At one point, I looked back over my shoulder. There in an area I'd just mowed was a rabbit. Not injured, but scared out into the open by the tractor. I stopped at the edge of the prairie, got off the tractor and walked back, to within a few feet of the rabbit. It never moved. Just huddled still, looking at me with its black eyes. I walked all around that rabbit and it never moved. I had anticipated prairie plants under the crab grass. I had not been thinking of prairie animals.

To be honest, I'm not a fan of rabbits. More often than not, they're nibbling at some plant I'd rather keep - like the broccoli and kohlrabi in my spring garden. I have no doubt this was not the only rabbit in my prairie. It occurred to me it might be a mama with a late-season nest of babies hidden elsewhere.

After considering that rabbit for quite some time, I stopped mowing all together. After a hard freeze, I may go back and finish the task. But for now, I'll just let nature take it course. My prairie should have diversity of flora and fauna. Even if it means rabbits.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

It's not too late

At this time of the year, I think of the end of the garden, the end of flowers. Roll up the hose, clean off the spent flower stems, bring house plants back inside. Fall coming on. Even winter. Who would not think this way after the cold, wet, wind of the past few days?

Most of the prairie has turned brown. The crab grass has sown its millions of seeds. The barnyard grass, too. But my prairie is full of surprises and not ready to give up yet.

This flower popped open just in time for my October prairie update. It is, to the best of my flower identification ability, a Common Sunflower. When I am so eager for, and excited by, each new flower, I am dismayed to find someone has labeled my latest pleasure 'common.' To me, it is anything but, coming as it does when I am chomping at the bit for each new plant, each colorful bloom.

Speaking of chomping, this plant has several buds. It had even more before some foraging night creature nibbled a few stems. Ah well. All God's creatures have to eat.

Remarkably to me - most likely because I don't know any better - the Partridge Peas, those first yellow flowers on fern-like stems to appear in my prairie back in June, are still putting out new blossoms. A pretty delight.

Though I may be moving along in my mind to the next seasons, fall and winter, it is fun to see that my prairie does not think it is too late for flowers. Yet another prairie reminder not to rush ahead too quickly. It's not too late to enjoy this moment.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Keep asking

"Failure is the path of least persistence."

Yesterday I shopped at a little Valley Junction store that specializes in Iowa-themed items. When my book was first published, this store was near the top of my list of logical places to carry it. I called. I e-mailed. I took my book in to share in person. For whatever reason, the buyer did not think so. I let it go. Obviously, not everybody will think my ideas are great.

So here we are at the same store, more than a year later. As I picked up my packages, I said, "This store would be the perfect place for my book,' and I handed the clerk one of my bookmarks. She said, "Tell me more." I did. I left a copy for her to share with the store owner. By the time I got home, there was an order in my e-mail!

Different day. Different time. Different economy. Woke up on the other side of the bed. I feel like one of my little prairie seeds, given enough time to persist in spite of opposition.

I thank Heart of Iowa Market Place for carrying my book. They're a great store whether they did or not. I just needed to be persistent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Having faith, sowing hope

Four years ago, some friends began to restore several acres of prairie near their country home. This summer, as we walked the paths they'd cut through their prairie, Big Bluestem waved above our heads, the alien-looking seedpods of Rattlesnake Master peeked out closer to the ground, Yellow and Purple Coneflowers, and Wild Bergamot added bright color to the landscape. My friends urged me to come back this fall and gather seeds to spread in my own prairie. At the time, they didn't know that they would be leaving their prairie behind.

But by the time I went to gather seeds, they were packing their house for a move into town. As I walked through their prairie this time, capturing the seed heads of Sideoats Grama, Compass Plants, and a number of plants I liked but could not identify, I was overtaken, stopped in my tracks, by what I can only describe as homesickness.

My friends leaving their beautiful prairie. The coming winter. The inevitable march of time. I wanted to grab hold and keep it all in place. Hold on to what I know instead of facing the uncertainty of the future. I couldn't, of course, and I walked on, gathering seeds until my hands could hold no more.

This week, I took the seeds from my friends' established prairie and scattered them throughout my beginning prairie. Even with only a few months of prairie restoration experience to my credit, I have faith that some of those seeds will take hold - maybe next year, maybe the year after - and fight their way through the crabgrass to sunlight. My friends' prairie gives me hope for what mine may look like years down the road.

In sowing those seeds, I did what humans have done since the beginning of time, having faith that some action taken now will bear fruit in the future. I am satisfied knowing that a little piece of my friends' prairie will live on in mine.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I geek libraries

I love the new library site that lets you share your passion and lets you see what sends others to their local libraries.

I'm thinking more about libraries because I take to the road again this week - after a summer break - to share stories from and about my memoir. I've been fortunate to have so many libraries ask me to do programs for them. As I've traveled the state, I've seen first hand what vibrant community centers our libraries are.

Libraries are under budget pressure - like everyone else - but they're a community resource that deserves our support. Libraries offer computers and Internet access when many have had to give up that luxury at home. They provide entertainment for free - books and movies you don't have to pay to enjoy. They are a community gathering place, a place for social interaction that may be just what someone who's lost their job needs. All this and more at your local library.

So what do you geek? Log on, have a little fun, share your passion, and find out how you can support your local library.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Here at last!

It was a strange year in our vegetable garden. It didn't help that my husband - the one who usually does the planting - broke his ankle in April, so planting was left to me. This is a task I'm completely capable of, having planted garden every year of my life from age 2 to age 18, and many years since. But that's another story. Then there was the cold weather and the constant rain.

The result was extremes on both ends. Excellent string beans. And wilt that killed the melons, cucumbers and summer squash almost overnight. In the next rows, grew the tastiest sweet corn we've ever eaten. A real roller coaster ride, our garden.

But what we wait every year for - can hardly bear to live another day without - is tomatoes. They just did not mature. Even the cherry tomatoes held off giving us a tiny sweet taste until after August 1.

But they are here now and we are ecstatic. We eat bacon and tomato or peanut butter and tomato sandwiches several times a week. I cut up tomatoes as a side dish to scrambled eggs for breakfast. I canned 36 pints of salsa. Enough, we hope, to last two years. So far, I've canned two dozen quarts of tomatoes. We give tomatoes away.

Tomatoes are Iowa summer for us. And we are in heaven. The tomatoes are here at last!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Even when it's a mess

September 1, another month past in my prairie restoration. The battle against crab grass is lost. In some areas, the seed heads are knee deep. It is quite the mess.

During August, I sought to photograph and identify each new plant I spotted. Most of them were weeds: woolly cupgrass, foxtail, lambsquarter. The partridge peas have been a ray of sunshine. They grow throughout the prairie; the one plant I actually planted in my new space that made it to bloom.

As I've said before, the prairie has caused me to slow down and look close. And this past month, I've looked both close and more widely around our property, identifying prairie plants that exist with no input from me whatsoever. A massive goldenrod dominates a patch of blackeyed susans, a smattering of Greater Lobelia came out of nowhere in an area east of the prairie that turned into a wetland with all the summer rains.

The wetland area is a tangled messy mass of grasses and weeds. But the Greater Lobelia stand out, a beautiful, delicate blue. I can't help but think that's the message of the prairie to me this month. Even though things look like a mess, when I have patience, maybe even when I just leave things alone, something beautiful will come through.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another lie, another black eye

This week "Stars & Stripes" ran a story about media ratings prepared by public relations firm The Rendon Group and used by the military to vet reporters embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "Files prove Pentagon is profiling reporters"

My initial reaction to hearing about the story was 'what's the big deal'? You'd be hard pressed to find a public relations firm that hasn't profiled media for a client. And then recommended strategies for working with each reporter based on those profiles. It makes sense to understand as much as you can about a reporter before you meet, just as you would do your research before meeting with a prospective client or a job applicant or a new boss.

But the devil is in the details. Reading the story, I found two larger issues. One is the unfortunately perennial problem of people lying, apparently believing no one will ever find out. In this case, both the Pentagon and Rendon claimed such a profiling system did not exist when they knew it did. Here's one quote: “They are not doing that [rating reporters], that’s not been a practice for some time — actually since the creation of U.S. Forces–Afghanistan” in October 2008, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters Monday. And then, of course, numerous sources stepped up to prove the contrary.

The second, and potentially larger, problem is what the Pentagon is doing with the profiling system. They were reported to be choosing - based on the profile - whether to approve reporters for embedded assignments with the troops. This is bothersome because the implication is that only reporters who will report positively on U.S. military actions would be approved. Appalling. We all need - and should be able to get - the most accurate information possible.

In a story datelined tomorrow morning, we learn that The Rendon Group has lost the Pentagon contract. On the one hand, I applaud the Pentagon for acting quickly and decisively. On the other hand, I believe they could have avoided the entire situation if they'd acted appropriately and told the truth in the first place.

I hate it when the public relations industry gets an undeserved black eye. I hate it more that the black eye comes because people who should know better think they can get away with acting inappropriately and then compound the problem by lying. I love it that we live in a country where media can and do keep digging for the truth.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sunflower playhouse

I tried an experiment this spring, planting sunflowers in a circle large enough to be a playhouse for my new granddaughter. Since Hannah was just born on Christmas Day, she is too young to appreciate my efforts, but that's just as well. The playhouse did not turn out exactly as I had hoped.

For one thing, my desire was for sunflowers eight feet tall with blooms as big as dinner plates. What I actually brought home was a mixed package of seed that resulted in plants anywhere from four to seven feet high bearing flowers not much bigger than my outstretched hand.

To give the playhouse even more color, I interspersed sweet peas and morning glories amongst the sunflowers. The morning glories are coming along, climbing the sunflower stalks just as I'd intended. But, not a sweet pea to be seen.

As I waited for the flowers to germinate and grow, I came upon a piece of yard art - a sculpture of a large bird we came to call "The Roadrunner" - that found its home inside the playhouse. Though the flowers were slow in coming in our cold, wet summer, The Roadrunner was impressive, bobbing in the wind and serving as a landing spot for robins.

Now the five-foot Roadrunner is mostly hidden. The sunflowers are beginning to come on - and they are beautiful as sunflowers will be on a sunny, blue sky day - and I am not at all disappointed in my experiment. It was, after all, an experiment.

Next year, I'll choose different sunflowers and be ready to invite Hannah for tea in a playhouse she'll be old enough to enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fair, Food & a new Friend

The Iowa State Fair is full of the familiar. But it's the surprises I look forward to. My husband and I made our annual Fair trip yesterday, taking in the usual: new farm equipment, the quilt exhibit (that's my sister-in-law Anita's quilt in the picture), giant pumpkins, and the butter cow. We never miss them.

But the most memorable moment came when we joined a young black man on a bench next to a group of Marines challenging passersby to do pull ups. I settled down to eat my personal Fair Food Favorite - a gyro. I expected to enjoy the gyro; I didn't know I'd meet such an interesting person at the same time.

Turns out our bench companion was from Uganda. He had arrived in Iowa just four days before, (via Addis Ababa, Brussels and Atlanta). A graduate student who will study horticulture at Iowa State Univ., Denis was having great fun at our Fair.

I learned a lot about Uganda during our visit. Crops his father grew on their farm - food crops such as bananas and mangos; that their tourist season is May - August with weather similar to our summers; that they have several significant mountains, including volcanoes, but they also have beaches. He was quite an ambassador for Uganda and Africa. And he spoke English - something else I couldn't have said for sure I knew about Uganda.

We joked about meeting next year at noon on the same bench. We forgot to pick a day. But if he shows up, I expect he'll make another friend. And next year, I'll be back at the Fair, looking for the familiar and another surprise.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Writer's Block

A writing buddy and I just spent four days sequestered at LaCorsette Maison Inn, a wonderful bed and breakfast in Newton, Iowa. Our intent was to write, and write we did.

After an early morning walk and breakfast provided by our hosts, we applied 'butt glue' (one of my favorite terms picked up at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and also known as dedicated effort) and consigned ourselves to our computers for the rest of the morning.

Endless cups of coffee later - long about noon - we printed out the fruits of our labor, read each others' work, and provided feedback. Then we went back to the computers to continue writing through the afternoon, until 'the sun was over the yardarm,' as my friend who spent years sailing said, and it was time for cocktails. Which we usually drank as we continued to write, throw out plot challenges, and work through possible solutions.

The outcome of this concentrated block of time was that we each brought home greater understanding of our characters and the stories we are creating, in addition to several chapters of new writing.

Our hosts joked that they could market retreats like ours as 'Writer's Blocks.' I like it! Instead of viewing writer's block as a problem, now I will think about writer's block as the solution. It's all in the perspective.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Alaska!

Alaska became our 49th State 50 years ago in January this year. I'm a little late sending them greetings, but I was reminded of the event when my brother-in-law in Anchorage sent me this picture.

This garden is planted with a new design each year and this year celebrates this milestone birthday. In addition to 'Alaska' and '50' clearly visible in white on red, Ken tells me the center of the garden is the Alaskan flag: the Big Dipper and North Star on a blue background.

It is such a coincidence that he sent this picture yesterday since I was just doing research into flower gardens. The planting style this garden uses originated in the 19th Century - the Victorian Era. Using annuals of similar heights, the Victorian gardeners used a planting technique called carpet bedding to create their floral designs.

This post could also fall into the category 'you know you're getting old when ...' I remember when Alaska came into the Union. I was 10 years old and adding a state and another star to the flag was so exciting.

Then, of course, we got to do it all again 50 years ago this month. Happy Birthday, Hawaii!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who's in control?

I just spent an hour and a half in the prairie, pulling seed heads off the crabgrass. I've been doing this for a couple of hours every day. It is a futile, exercise, I know. The prairie has turned a hazy brown - the color of crabgrass going to seed. My efforts have created little islands of green, but there is no way I can remove all the stems before they burst open to spread a new crop of seeds. Even so, I do not consider my efforts a waste.

My time in the prairie has given me new appreciation for the persistence of these native plants. Even though the crabgrass appears to have the upper hand, spreading like a thick carpet across the ground, hogging all the sunlight, coneflowers, Partridge Peas, Big Bluestem push their way through. Were I only to pass the prairie at a clip on my morning walk, I would not see these tiny plants.

When I spot a seedling, I clear away as much of the crabgrass as I can, hoping to encourage the newest plant by allowing it a full day of sun. I was rewarded this week when the Partridge Peas began to bloom. Hurrah! My first native flower blossoms.

Today, I also began to appreciate the persistence of the crabgrass. Did you know that every single crabgrass leaf produces a seed head? It does. I observed this as I pull off one after another until every leaf is stripped. And each seed head has a million seeds. Okay, I haven't become so obsessed that I actually counted, but it sure looks like it. Crabgrass would only go to this length if many of those seeds were destined never to germinate. All those seeds by one plant just to ensure survival of one.

Leaving the prairie today, I took a look back at the tiny green area resulting from my hour and a half of labor. I chuckled as I thought, 'I am NOT in control here.' I am doing what I can. Enjoying the effort. Hoping to make a tiny difference. But, I am not in control. And remarkably, that feels okay.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Prairie - By any other name

This weekend marked the second month for my prairie. In spite of the crabgrass and barnyard grass, I have begun to spot native plants: Big Bluestem, Partridge Pea, many coneflowers. That's a Partridge Pea in the photo, surrounded by crabgrass before the crabgrass really took off.

People tease me - Isn't crabgrass a native plant? What about nutsedge? And how about that fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolia)? All native, but considered weeds. Which reminds me that the definition of a weed is any plant where you don't want it.

As I look back on the last two months, I marvel at the roller coaster of emotions I've been through in such a short time. Now I've adopted a longer view, wait and see, attitude. My efforts with Roundup were futile. The crabgrass is going to seed. My efforts to rip off the seed heads before they scatter are futile. Which doesn't mean I don't spend hours each day out there trying. It gives me something to do and in the process I build a personal relationship with my prairie.

Getting 'up close and personal' with the crabgrass opens my eyes to the prairie seedlings that are taking root and pushing through in spite of the competition. I put my faith in their prairie ruggedness, trusting that they will keep on and in another month claim their own space.

This weekend, I had the pleasure of walking in a four-year-old prairie established by some friends. I have seen the future and it is beautiful.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A week spent writing

I just returned from a week at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Reveling in the energy and inspiration of spending an entire week with people who think about writing, talk about writing, love writing, and actually write.

The workshop I attended was provocatively titled, "I met my old lover on the street last night." This fiction workshop channeled the tensions of interpersonal relationships to create scenes that hold the reader's interest. Using prompts provided by our workshop leader, we wrote every night and read our writing in the next day's class.

Another treat of the week was hearing my writing buddy Mary Gottschalk read from her memoir Sailing Down the Moonbeam at Prairie Lights bookstore.

The opportunity to focus on my writing for an entire week is an amazing gift. In addition to adding chapters to my novel, I came away with starts on several essays to work up. What a great week.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Bounty of the Moment

"Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone ..." Joni Mitchell captured the universal truth in "Big Yellow Taxi."

I found myself humming the tune as I looked with longing at our plum tree. Last year loaded with plums. We ate them. We gave them away. I canned quart after quart. There were just too many. Or so I thought.

I did not know, as I blithely gave away bags of plums, that this year there would be none.

The winter was too cold. Plums only produce every other year. Who knows why? We are new to plum trees. This one was on the acreage when we moved here and we don't have enough experience to know its patterns, its rhythms. I just know we will not experience that luscious, purple fruit this year.

Every year, there are moments when I am swept away by the abundance of our garden. Colanders of green beans. Bushels of tomatoes. Quarts of raspberries. All fantastic, amazing, delicious. All requiring me to cook, to can, to freeze. Anything, so we do not lose, do not waste, such precious bounty. By the end of the summer, our shelves are lined with jars, our freezer packed with containers of produce - enough to last until the next summer.

As overwhelmed as I may be at the annual onslaught of produce, I count on the garden to 'do it again' each year. And the garden does not disappoint. But not so with plums, apparently.

One jar of plums remains in my pantry. I am hoarding it. For what special occasion, I am not sure. Truthfully, I did not know how much I would love the canned plums. But I do. Isn't that always the way? "You don't know what you've got til it's gone ..."

It seems I have to learn again and again to appreciate what I have, in the moment. This time, plums.

This essay was published in the Des Moines Register on July 12, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My new best friend

Not quackgrass! That's the judgment of the Iowa State University Extension Service who took a look at the pictures I sent and responded in a couple of hours. Crab grass and barnyard grass. Both annuals that will die off at the first hard frost.

I just learned about the folks who dispense answers and guidance at And now they're my new best friends.

This pronouncement carries a good news/bad news aura about it. The good news you already know. The grass that has now completely overrun my prairie garden will die off with the frost. The bad news is that both of these grasses are prolific seed producers. If I let them go, they'll reseed and the problem will show up again next year. Plus the grass is so thick, I find it hard to imagine the tiny prairie seedlings competing against it and winning.

Glyphosate is still an answer. I call my afternoon garden time: 'Fun with Roundup.' Container in one hand, half-inch paint brush in the other, I head for the prairie garden and kill off the grass one blade at a time.

Perhaps I am certifiably crazy. The garden is 2,400 sq. ft., after all. Viewed in another light, I may be a great artist. I take my inspiration from Michelangelo who spent four years completing the Sistine Chapel. Native prairie takes three years to establish.

Discouraged? Who, me? No way!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Where uncommon is common

My brother-in-law Ken who lives in Anchorage sent this picture yesterday. He goes to a local cafe for coffee with friends in the morning and saw these visitors near his house. Now he doesn't see moose in the neighborhood every day, but they're not uncommon either. At least once or twice each winter, he sends pictures of moose hanging out in his own yard, knowing we in the Lower 48 will be enthralled.

What tickled me about this is that I wrote an article about Iowa's endangered species for the May/June issue of The Iowan and led with the surprising idea of sighting a moose in Iowa. Only on the rarest occasion does anyone see a moose in the wild in Iowa. Personally, I never have.

When my husband and I went to Alaska a couple of years ago, I went walking early one morning. I was looking up at the mountains, scanning for bald eagles and down at the wildflowers lining the sidewalks. Then I looked straight across the street and there was - you guessed it - a moose. My first thought was that it was a statue. My second thought was that was a silly place for a statue. This was a real, live moose having breakfast right in town. I briefly considered sneaking up close for a photo. Fortunately, discretion prevailed. I stayed on my side of the street and kept an eye on places to run in case the moose decided to come see me!

I enjoyed the unexpected excitement of seeing an animal so uncommon to me, happy that the moose is common enough in Alaska that I could see one during a morning walk. One state's endangered species is another state's common sight. Such fun.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Oh, Quack!

"Go away and come back in three years." That's what my contact at Ion Exchange told me when I shared my concern about the quack grass taking over my prairie garden. I'm sure he gets calls all the time from impatient prairie garden owners.

But really. Have they seen my quack grass problem? I sent photos. No response. It's only been a week, but the quack grass is more aggressive by the day. This photo was taken before it got bad!

I walked into the garden again today. Searching for any plant that might be one of the seeds I so optimistically scattered a month ago. Though I didn't see anything at first glance, more careful study - on my hands and knees - revealed much more. Each time I found a tiny seedling, I pinched back the quack grass, aiming to give my newest baby a bit of sunlight and breathing room. No pulling or I could pull out the prairie plant as well.

But we're talking 2,400 sq. ft. Pinching quack grass leaves over the entire area is impractical, at best. And perhaps the seedlings are stronger than the quack grass. I just don't know.

My new garden is teaching me many things - to slow down and look closely and to have more patience. It's also teaching me what a control freak I am. As if I didn't already know that. I want to DO something. Instead, I may need to just let nature do what it will do on its own.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Good News/Bad News - June Prairie Garden Update

It's been almost a month since I sowed the seeds of my prairie garden. (This picture shows the spot before planting.) The last four weeks have been a good news/bad news story.

Good news: It's rained regularly, giving the seeds a really good start.
Bad news: Most of what is growing is crab grass. Some areas are almost solid.

Good news: Crab grass is easy to pull out and can be pulled easily when it is small.
Bad news: I can't be sure each of these little plants is really crab grass and not some unfamiliar new prairie plant.
More Bad news: When/if I pull up the grass, I could at the same time dislodge a fragile prairie plant.

I am impatient by nature. As I walk by the prairie area, my inclination is to pull out one or a dozen or a hundred little grass plants. I want to pick at them like I would at a scab. This may not be the best course. Maybe this is an expected stage of prairie restoration. Maybe I just need to be calm and wait and see.

I have called my friends at Ion Exchange to get their advice. When they let me know, I'll let you know.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Great Intel Ad

I spend far more time complaining about TV ads than praising them, but I just saw a new Intel ad I must applaud. The ad spotlights Ajay Bhatt, co-inventor of the USB, and uses the tagline "Your rock stars aren't like our rock stars." For once an ad that is intelligent, subtle, funny, and thought provoking. The music doesn't overwhelm. The visuals pull you in and keep you there. And it made me think about something I use daily but no doubt under appreciate - the USB port. All while reminding me that Intel brought this technology to the party. Great job, Intel! If you haven't seen it yet, click here to see it on YouTube

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Past & The Future - An Iowa Prairie

Returning part of our acreage to native flowers and grasses has been on my mind since we moved to this acreage four years ago. Interviewing sources for the article I wrote recently on Iowa's endangered species spurred me to action.

My research led me to Ion Exchange in Harpers Ferry, Iowa. The helpful folks there walked me through site selection and preparation and choosing the right kind and quantity of seed.

Though my husband has made it clear that this is my project, I knew he would never be far away. I staked out an area 40'x80'. He moved the flags to 20x40. We compromised at an area roughly 30x60. Applications of glyphosate and several weeks later, the existing lawn and weeds were effectively dead.

We planted our prairie garden this past Memorial Day weekend. David tilled the ground. I firmed up the seedbed by running the tractor over it. The biggest task was mixing the seed in 10 times the volume of wet sand and spreading it by hand. This action was, I believe, also the most satisfying.

As I walked over my plot, broadcasting the seed/sand mixture in one direction and then another, I thought about bringing the land back to what it was 200 years ago - or trying to. Who knows which of my seeds will grow? Or if they'll be the same plants that once grew here? Regardless, this bit of prairie will be unique to our land preparation and the randomness of my seed scattering, and the vagaries of today's weather and wildlife.

I am eager to see the result, but I'll have to practice patience. Prairie gardens do not establish quickly; three years to reach maturity. I'm in it for the long haul - remembering the past and looking to the future - on my own little piece of Iowa prairie.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wild Things

"Carol! Look out in the horse pasture!" my husband yelled one morning last month. "I think that's a coyote." I scrambled to the window just in time to catch a clear glimpse of what was certainly a coyote. Before I could get the binoculars, the neighbor's dogs ran out barking, scaring our uncommon visitor back into the trees.

We talked about it for days. I had never seen a coyote 'in the wild' before. Let alone in our back yard.

Then a week ago, I looked up from my computer screen to see a wild turkey running across our front yard. Just one, running full tilt. No doubt escaping the neighbor's dogs.

Granted, wild turkeys are fairly common in the Iowa countryside these days. I see them from time to time as I drive.

But still, coyotes and turkeys are not the animals that graced the Iowa fields as I grew up here. They're quite a sight to see. What is ironic about seeing them just now is that I recently wrote an article for The Iowan about the status of threatened and endangered species in Iowa.

I learned in writing on the wild side that the 21st Century landscape of Iowa has changed more than any other state. Our agricultural bent makes that logical, but I admit I hadn't thought of that before. The folks at the DNR say we should be excited - thrilled even - to see these wild species. I know I sure was!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Playing in the sky

“You have to make your own fun,” Dad told me. His comment embodied both a life philosophy and the financial reality of our eastern Iowa dairy farm in the 1950s. So as often as not, our fun came from what we made rather than something we bought.

One year when the March winds were strong enough to make a skinny kid like me think I could stand on a hilltop, spread my arms and fly, Dad taught us to make kites. He brought dowel rods to the dining room table; Mom dismantled brown paper bags. He showed us how to measure and cut, fold and glue until we had a sturdy diamond-shaped kite.

We were giddy with anticipation as we carried our kite to the field south of the house. Dad coached one of us to run with the kite while another played out the string.

Time after time, the kite swooped in the air and then nosedived into the ground. It just would not fly. Dad stood perplexed. Then he remembered. “A kite needs a tail,” he proclaimed. Back to the house we trooped.

Mom dug an old sheet out of her rag drawer and we tore it into strips. We crafted one long strip, knotted smaller cloth strips down the length, and tied it to the end of the kite.

Back in the field, one good run, one solid gust of wind, and that kite took off, its fancy tail sailing in the wake. “Let out the string!” Dad urged. It was all he could do to leave the ball of string in my hands.

We played the kite out. It soared higher and higher. Swooping. Diving. As high as an airplane! We had made our own fun and it reached the sky.

This piece was published in the April 2009 "Fiftysomething" section of the Des Moines Register.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Helping the blind to read

My mother had macular degeneration, a disease that destroys straight ahead vision but leaves peripheral vision. She could no longer sew or read or see the faces of people right in front of her. But fortunately, we found the Iowa Department for the Blind. The tips they shared, including the use of puff paint to mark stove and washing machine dials, microwave buttons, and radio & TV remote controls, allowed Mom a quality of life in caring for herself in her own home that she'd have lost without them.

The biggest blessing of all, though, was Talking Books. The Department for the Blind provided the player and librarians quickly learned Mom's preferences in books and authors - biographies and Louis L'Amour. Books arrived in her mailbox and when Mom was finished, she returned them to her mailbox in the postage paid mailers. She was never without a book to 'read.' And her reading resulted in weekly book discussions between us.

When I published my book Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I was fortunate to be able to read it for the Iowa Department for the Blind Library, thereby making it available to everyone with low vision.

During the process of reading my book for their library, I learned that tens of thousands of Iowans qualify for the services of the Department but only a few thousand use them. That's a shame. The services are free. The quality of life bestowed, priceless. If you know someone with low vision, don't hesitate. Give the Department for the Blind a call.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A mature garden is like ...

I took advantage of the beautiful weather – spring at last? – yesterday to clean up one of my perennial gardens, the first I planted when we moved to this acreage four years ago. In the process I was struck by how much a mature garden is like a mature woman, in some ways like myself.

After the winter, my garden takes some time and some doing to wake up and look fresh, just as I do after a long night’s sleep. Raking away the leaves and cleaning the paths is like combing my hair. Areas to untangle. Spent foliage to remove. Mulch where it doesn’t belong. Quite the mess.

My garden wakes up in stages, sending out one plant and then another as though recognizing it is not necessary or possible or even advisable to appear in full flower all at once. First the brilliant yellows and deep purples of daffodils and hyacinths. Then the pink and purple blossoms of the pulmonaria. With last year’s foliage cleared way, the first tender shoots of the hostas emerge. I, too, wake by stages. A long walk. A cup of coffee. The newspaper, before I am ready to face the day. Though I am not so bright as spring’s first flowers!

My garden is comfortable in its predictability. I know which plants will eventually appear even if I may forget about them until they come forth, just as I know my own talents and patterns of responses to opportunities and crises. I do not have to approach every situation as though it never happened before. I do not have to learn it all for the first time. After all these years, I know myself. For the most part.

But there is still room for the ‘new,’ for surprises, even in a mature garden. It takes three years for some plants to become fully established and when they do all of a sudden you have offshoots springing up everywhere. Virginia bluebells appear like magic yards from their parent. Purple Palace hucheras and Raspberry Splash pulmonaria pop up at random.

As a result, a mature garden like a mature woman has much to share. Hostas that have overgrown the path can be divided. All those baby bluebells, huchera and pulmonaria go off to populate the gardens of my friends.

When I finished my garden work, I saw patches of bare ground, areas that were rough and wrinkled. The area was clean but looking a little tattered. But I know that in a few weeks, hostas, astilbe, huchera, sage, purple cone flowers, daisies, black-eyed susans will fill in. My garden will be dressed in all its glory. And I know the old girl will look pretty good.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Salute to Librarians

This coming week - April 12-18 - is National Library Week. An annual celebration of the contributions of our nation's libraries and librarians. The theme this year: "Worlds connect @ your library.

I am personally indebted, past and present, to libraries and librarians for connecting me to the world. As a child, I climbed the steps of the Maquoketa Public Library on many a Saturday to disappear in the stacks in search of Zane Grey and the wild west or Jack London and the northern wilderness or Tarzan in the African jungles. These days, I visit libraries state wide sharing the stories of my book, Growing Up Country. In visits with people across the state, I learn how closely the worlds of people who grew up on farms and rural communities connect, regardless of age or location.

So go check out the world at your local library this week. Thank the librarians for being there, helping us all connect with our worlds.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Our stories connect us

After taking a couple of months (the really cold, really snowy ones) off, I'm back on the road again, doing readings, discussions and signing events at Iowa libraries. Three weeks ago, Maquoketa; last week, Bettendorf, this week, Clermont and Elgin.

The more people I talk to, the more I discover how common the experiences of growing up in rural Iowa are. And the most common experiences are the ones I least expected. Chickens, for instance. The smell of wet chicken feathers. The sight of a chicken with its head cut off. The fear of being attacked by a territorial rooster. The sudden, sharp, startling peck of a setting hen defending her nest. Who would have imagined that traumatic chicken experiences would connect so many people?

Whether people are 90 or 60 or 40 or 20, someone starts to tell stories of growing up in Iowa and all of a sudden memories come flooding back. Doing laundry. Milking cows. Weeding the garden. Driving tractor. One story leads to another and all of a sudden people who didn't know each other at all are reminiscing as though they'd grown up in the same house.

Sharing stories - connecting with - people about growing up in rural Iowa is one of the great, unexpected pleasures of my life these days.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Failure worries dog life insurers

"Failure worries dog life insurers"  This was a headline in the Des Moines Register yesterday.  When I read this, I thought that with all the economic woes the country is facing, the failure of people who insure dogs just could not be high enough on the list to be the lead on the business page.  I launched into reading the article fully prepared to tsk and cluck and shake my head at a country so flush we can have dog insurance.  I also thought of the two Mastiffs my son and his wife keep and wondered if they have insurance for their animals.

Several paragraphs into the article, I couldn't find anything about dogs.  I went back to the beginning. Maybe in my haste, I had read past the point.  All the way to the end. Still nothing about dogs.

I read the headline again.  I have been known to misread headlines.  But no. It said "Failure worries dog life insurers."  

I read it again and again.  Finally. Finally. Finally, I realized dog was the verb. Worries was the subject!  I didn't exactly slap my head, but I had to laugh.  "Hey, David," I called to my husband. "Listen to this!"  We had a good laugh over my misread of the headline.  

I love a day that starts with a laugh.  And I'll take a good laugh when I can get one. Even at my own expense. That headline is a keeper.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pursuing passion

I've always admired people with passion.  People who know their passion are willing to commit time and energy and resources to advance the cause that holds their heart. 

I've never been able to point to just one thing that is my passion. I flit from one area of interest to another like a hummingbird relentlessly moving from flower to flower, drawing nectar from one bloom and then another. This may be why writing is so gratifying for me.  As a writer, I have the pleasure - the honor, I would say - of meeting people with passion, drawing in some of that passion, and then sharing it with others through my articles.

A couple of months ago, I traveled to eastern Iowa to talk with three people who have spent the last 13 years organizing and leading volunteer efforts to restore the pioneer cemeteries in Jackson County.  Doing the research, working with land owners, acquiring the right of ways,  getting the materials, completing the heavy work in the heat of summer.  It is hard work, but rewarding.  "Because the people there are not forgotten." 

Fortunately, these people show no signs of stopping.  They have restored a handful of perhaps 100 pioneer cemeteries in the county.  You can read about them in the article I wrote for the March/April 2009 issue of The Iowan.

Just this week I spoke with a woman who is passionate about slugs. Yes, slugs. Slugs so small that for years she didn't even know they existed because they were about the size of grains of sand.  Although she is virtually a professional, she considers herself a citizen scientist, someone who is just being observant of - and caring about - our natural environment.  

Her passion is contagious. Because of her, I may find my way to participating in an Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation 'bioblitz' sometime this year.  And putting in the patch of native prairie grasses and flowers I've thought about for years. And I will write about her.

And then I will flit off to someone else with passion.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Throwing away money

Okay, visualize this.  Every day as you drive home from work, you reach in your pocket, pull out a nickel, and throw it out the car window.  Every day.  Sometimes you throw out a dime.  By the end of the work week, you've thrown out a quarter or more. By the end of the month, more than a dollar. Does this make any sense?  Of course not.  But people are doing it.  

I know this because I take a walk most mornings and along the way I see pop bottles and cans, beer bottles and cans, liquor bottles.  Each worth five cents. I know people throw these containers out their windows every day because I carry a plastic bag just so I can pick up this refuse. No sooner have I cleaned up the roadway than it is littered again.  I can pick up a dollar or more - each day.  

Lazy. Disrespectful. Flagrant. Annoying. The people who throw out trash along the road defy my understanding. For crying out loud, just put it in the waste basket when you get home! Even more astounding is people who throw away money. My husband has seen people at gas stations take bottles and cans out of their vehicles and deposit them in the trash cans just outside the convenience store door.  They could have taken those bottles and cans five steps further and collected the deposit. 

Governor Culver over reached during the last legislative session.  He had the door open to add juice and water containers to the Bottle Bill in Iowa. Then he got greedy and added a tax to the process.  As a result, the whole thing went down.  Too bad. We needed that addition. 

But I guess this proves one thing. Clearly the economy is not as bad as we're led to believe if people are still rolling down their car windows and throwing out nickels!

Monday, February 9, 2009

One New Idea Every Day

When I published my memoir, Growing Up Country, my goal was to implement one new marketing idea every day.  With marketing I was finally in my comfort zone! After 30 years in marketing, I knew that even the best product in the world wouldn't sell one unit if no one knew about it.

I was reasonably successful with that lofty goal and book sales showed it.  Now that I've had books in hand for over a year, I've backed off demanding 'one new idea every day,' but the week doesn't go by that I don't think about getting in front of people with my book somehow.

My latest marketing approach is to look for opportunities to write about childhood or farm memories. As we Boomers age, nostalgia is a natural and more media are responding to this interest. My book mention comes in the descriptive author tag.  Just last week, I wrote such a piece for the Des Moines Register's fiftysomething insert.  Titled "Playing in the sky," my recollection was about Dad and Mom helping us kids build and learn to fly kites. 

Whether this piece will result directly in book sales or not remains to be seen.  But what I do know is that having my name and book title in front of my target market pays off over time.  A gentle reminder.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Just right

Along with many millions of other residents of Planet Earth, I was glued to my TV yesterday watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  As a public relations counselor for more than 30 years, I listened to his inauguration speech with one ear tuned to my own reaction and the other ear gauging how the speech would be received by the media and the public.

As President Obama spoke, I listened to the structure, the cadence, the content, the meaning, the message.  I listened for the memorable sound bite.  President Obama is certainly capable of soaring rhetoric, he could stand toe to toe with Martin Luther King, Jr., but in this speech, he did not deliver the one phrase that stands above all else nor did he whip the crowd to a frenzied peak. Was this a mistake?  I believe not.

Our new President spoke to the world on the topics and in a manner that were most appropriate to the occasion.
  • He spoke to who he is: "I stand here today, humbled by the task ... grateful for the trust ... mindful of the sacrifices" 
  • He spoke to a new outlook: "we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord"
  • He spoke to our pride: "there are some who question the scale of our ambitions ... but their memories are short. For they have forgotten ... what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage'
  • He spoke to the world of a new America: 'we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals'
  • He spoke to our strength: "I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. ... But know this, America - they will be met.'
As I watched the faces in the crowd, I saw that people were drawing from the speech, the day, the experience, just what they needed. Each person would hear the phrase that spoke to him or her. President Obama didn't deliver one phrase for everyone, he delivered one phrase to each listener's heart.

He was presidential. He was a statesman. He was true to who he is - an intelligent, thoughtful, wise man. A leader.

On Negativity

Rush Limbaugh.  

Monday, January 19, 2009

What do you need?

Recently I stopped at a deli for lunch.  When I walked up, tray in hand, the young man at the cash register said, as they always do, "How are you today? Did you get everything you need?"  I said - as I always do - "I'm well, and yes I did."  I said this as I fished through my purse for the money to pay. Then, I hesitated, remembering my some-time vow to note and call people by name, so I looked up, caught his name from the badge, and added, "It's a nice day. And how are you, Jason? Got big plans for the weekend?"

"I'm looking forward to seeing my family. They're coming in from Colorado. Thank you for asking how I am," Jason said.  

Our little exchange lasted maybe 30 seconds.  But it was his comment, Thank you for asking how I am, that has had me thinking ever since. 

We interact with people every day, many of whom provide us some service. I value all these people who facilitate my life, I truly do. But it's easy to look past them. Easy to be in a rush. Easy to stay lost in my own thoughts, my own agenda, my own problems. Easy to overlook that another human being has just entered the sphere of my life.

It is quite likely that Jason did not see running a cash register as the job he'd most like to have in the world. Just as likely that after taking money from hand after hand, he felt more like a robot than a person. So when someone called him by name, he was pulled out of anonymity, validated as a person in some small way. 

I am glad he noted that my comment meant something to him.  Because when he did, he made me think about what I need, perhaps what any of us needs. What we really need may be for someone to take a moment to see us - and talk to us - like real people.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Using the right equipment

People tell me writing a blog should be easy. After all, they say, I'm a writer. But from my perspective, being a writer makes it all the harder. I know how much I labor over the words in the articles I write, in the book I published. To spend precious time writing something that I don't have to write ... well. At the same time, I keep tripping across little things - having these little experiences - that I just know I'm supposed to notice, and write about. Today the little thing is YakTrax.

I'm a walker. Almost every day, regardless of weather, I head outside for a walk. Mother nature has thrown down the gauntlet this winter in Iowa, rotating ice and snow on a weekly basis. But I am not deterred. If the Alaskans and Norwegians can survive and thrive in all that snow, so can I. 

My theory is it's all in being prepared, having the right equipment.  A face mask against the wind. Mittens that let me expose my fingers without freezing my hands. Still, before my husband came home with YakTrax, I resigned myself to the treadmill at winter's first sign of ice. Walking every step afraid I'd fall just wasn't worth it. But once I slipped these little gizmos made of rubber and metal coils over the soles of my shoes, I found I had traction. I could step out with confidence. I didn't worry about falling.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about how important it is for writers to have the right tools in their writing kits.  Perhaps writing a blog will be like YakTrax. One more piece of equipment I'll discover lets me step out with confidence.