About Me

Twenty years ago I asked a Tarot card reader what would I be doing when I was 50. She replied, “I see you doing something so wildly creative, it defies a job title.” Only recently did I realize that was a slick way of saying, “I have no idea of what you’ll be doing.” But that prediction kept me charging ahead to the fifties with zeal and anticipation. Now that the future is today, I’m ready for anything!

Ruminating in the Pasture

From August 2009:

Our 1950s Sears incubator.
Our neighbor had better luck with it
than we had.
Growth is occurring despite the drought, and it’s encouraging. The barn swallow chicks have left their nest and are flying in figure eights overhead. The young roosters are crowing with the tentativeness of someone still learning how to operate the sound equipment. Over in Duquette, our neighbor Dennis had 100% success in hatching out chicken eggs using our 1950s Sears incubator.

I was on vacation last week, if anyone wondered why I was in town so frequently. Since vacation is about doing exactly what you want to do, no matter how mundane the activity, I cleared the milkweeds from our back pasture. 

I’ve been feeling guilty since admitting that the pasture was lost to milkweeds: an invasive plant that monarch butterflies love but is toxic to livestock. To give up on the pasture was the same as giving up on any long-term goal I might have in life. So with a week off from work and Wyatt away at camp, there was no time like the present.

Molly, pre-milkweed days.
I studied the two-acre parcel of overgrown pasture, wondering how and where I should start. Wyatt has seen Molly, our tiniest pygmy goat, jump straight up on all fours so she could see over the weeds. 

I started with damage control, removing all plants in sight that had sprouted seed pods and were ready to propagate. 

Next came the milkweeds which had caterpillars on the leaves, the caterpillars safely transplanted to canning jars which Mike had prepared. Next up, the milkweeds with seed pods directly outside of the pasture, ready to send in their unwelcome reinforcements.

Eventually, my line of vision cleared so I could see milkweeds with seed pods in the center of the pasture. I made my way toward them, pulling out smaller plants along the way. 
It was work that was deliberate, repetitive, and methodical—and thoroughly rewarding. Feeling a whopper of a root race through the dirt and seeing the pile of pulled weeds grow larger were tangible benchmarks of accomplishment. 
My friend David Spohn, who is an artist and author of children’s books, has worked many diverse jobs such as a pig farmer and a day laborer. One of those jobs involved unloading a boxcar filled with lumber of random sizes and lengths. He worked with two older men, who gloated over the fact that they got this college kid to unload the entire car by himself. But Dave tells me that those days of sorting and stacking resulted in the most satisfying series of illustrations he had created to date.

Spending the week removing milkweeds made me think of migrant workers who pick produce for a living, and the idea that immigrants “do the jobs that Americans won’t do.” I’m not sure if it’s true, but a lot of people think it is. Even mainstream newscasters have repeated that statement as fact. I’d pick milkweeds for a living. For $20 an hour, yes, but not for $2 an hour.

The immigration question reminds me of a time back in the early 1960s when I wasn’t much more than five years old. (I know, I’m really dating myself.) Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace was in the news. The word going around was that Wallace would, using the vernacular of the time, send the coloreds back to Africa. In our blue-collar suburban Detroit neighborhood, the black man was the boogeyman.

I remember a group of friends and I racing from door to door to spread the news: Didja hear what George Wallace is gonna do? Why this was important to children who had never met a person of color, how the people in question felt about the move, and how Wallace planned to implement the move, none of this mattered. We just took the news and ran with it.

An informed public is never a bad thing. The next time you hear an idea that you question, including ideas from sources you trust, question it. Is that idea true? How do you know it’s true? Can you give an example to prove it?
By Saturday afternoon, I surveyed my work with satisfaction. The pasture was no more than gray, dusty soil and patches of brownish-green stubble. But not one milkweed could be found. With regular attention it will stay that way. Despite the sad condition of the grass the goats had no trouble finding browse, and Molly could keep her flockmates in sight without jumping. Inside the house, monarch chrysalises hung from the lids inside two canning jars.

Pulling weeds isn’t the kind of vacation activity that you can wow your coworkers with on Monday morning. But accomplishing this seemingly hopeless task gave me hope for greater goals and greener tomorrows. 

The original version of this post was published in the Askov American and appears here with their permission. 

The Poverty Blues: or, Why Your
Blues Ain't Necessarily Like Mine

Image from www.vivaboo.com: Blue Wins Out As The
Most Popular Crayon and Colored Pencil.

Open up a 120-crayon box of Crayolas – you know, the deluxe kind with the built-in sharpener – and you’ll find over 40 shades of blue. There’s Cornflower and Indigo and Midnight Blue and Navy Blue and Wild Blue Yonder, and of course, just plain old Blue.

This analogy comes to mind after reading the responses to a post by Linda Tirado, a/k/a KillerMartinis. Unless you’ve been living under a rock or have gone off the grid, Linda wrote a post in Gawker about what it’s like to live at the poverty level. Why people make bad decisions, the connection between poverty and mental health, the loss of ability to think long term.

The post went absolutely viral, with the most surprised person of all being the author. Readers wanted more. They asked how they could help. After receiving offers of cash, Tirado set up a gofundme account so she could take care of needed surgery and expand her poverty thoughts into a book.

Many of the commenters have lauded her for having the guts to speak up about a taboo topic. For giving voice to struggles they face daily. And for her clear, Studs Terkel–style of writing. Others decried her as being a fraud for setting up a gofundme account and having a LinkedIn profile and for being an alumna of an illustrious private school.

A Reader’s Digest version of those comments:
  • You had this planned all along.
  • You wouldn’t be poor if you didn’t smoke cigarettes.
  • You can’t be poor if you attended Cranbrook.
  • There are people who are poorer than you.
  • For someone who works and goes to school, you sure spend a lot of time on the internet.
  • You’re a fraud and a shyster (and words so foul I won’t repeat them here).
The gist of many comments: anger because what Tirado called poverty didn’t match the commenter’s definition of poverty. But there are as many shades of poverty as there are shades of blue. To some, the definition of poverty is settling for a $2,000 refrigerator instead of a $3,000 refrigerator. To others, it means buying your refrigerator from Craigslist. To still others, it means living in a refrigerator box.

It’s not easy to define poverty and even harder to write about it -- to put yourself out there and to face the judgmental comments you’ll get. But Linda Tirado has pulled it off, starting a conversation that’s long past due.  Her book, which many believed would not materialize, is due for release this fall. 

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The Haunted House and Mrs. Haines

Every neighborhood had a haunted house when I grew up. In order to be haunted, a house had to meet these requirements:

It had to be a fair distance from you, whether "distance" meant across town or down the block. It had to be much larger or much smaller than the other houses on the block. It had to be shabbier than the other houses on the block. And the owner had to be more reclusive than the other owners on the block.

In my neighborhood, a blue-collar suburb of Detroit, the haunted house was big and white with peeling paint and a blue shingled roof and a sagging gray porch. Kids dared each other to go up and ring the bell, then run away.

People who managed to catch a glimpse of the owner said her name was Mrs. Haines. She was young and wore pedal pushers and had long strawberry blonde hair. Thinking back, she was quite lovely. The other moms on the block were nice people, but "willowy free spirit" doesn't describe any of them. It did Mrs. Haines.

I never did see a Mr. Haines. Maybe he worked nights. Maybe Mrs. Haines was a widow or divorcée. In the early 1960s both were rare in our neighborhood. It was another reason why we saw her as mysterious.

There aren't any haunted houses today. Kids have it drummed into them not to ring strangers' doorbells and to respect other people. No argument, both are good things. But I have to wonder how much imagination is stifled in the process. Kids can read about haunted houses in Goosebumps. Or go to Halloween extravaganzas at amusement parks, the ticket prices scaring the bejabbers out of their parents. But prepaid, prefabricated fright isn't as powerful as the fright that children conjure in their own imagination.

Today I would probably be the Mrs. Haines if I lived on a city block. House smaller than others, no shortage of things to be fixed, making excursions to town only rarely.

I don't know the circumstances of Mrs. Haines's life, but she still haunts me today. I hope the silly behavior of neighborhood children didn't haunt her.

Frugal Foodies Will Favor This Frosty Cake

This weekend I had a chance to try out a cake I’d wanted to try for a long time. A Frosty Snowberry Cake, from a 1950s-era Pillsbury Bake-Off book. The “snowberries” are actually cubes of jellied cranberry sauce that are folded into the batter. The ingredients were the most basic of staples: flour, sugar, egg whites, shortening, and baking powder. By a happy coincidence, I even had the ingredients that I don’t have every day: light corn syrup and cream of tartar for the boiled frosting.  Vintage kitchen implements that have gone unused in the time we’ve been here were finally pressed into service. A glass double boiler. Cake pans with metal slider releases.

Cakes seemed healthier in the 1950s than they are today. No pudding in the mix. No preservatives to give the cake the longevity of Twinkies. My son Wyatt said the cake was “chewy.” I think he meant “bready.” The cake didn’t quite look like the picture shown here, as cakes that come out of our $99 oven tend to look like the Metrodome after it collapsed. However, it scored major points for satisfaction. The cranberry sauce gave the cake the taste and texture of a jelly roll. I didn’t have food coloring to tint the frosting pink, so I added a pinch of raspberry Jell-O instead. It did the job just fine.

Here’s the recipe for Frosty Snow-berry Cake, which was the Senior Winner in the 1953 Pillsbury Bake-Off.  Mrs. Marguerite Marks of Camden, New Jersey did herself proud!

The Next Step for Poultry & Prose

Anyone who has regularly followed this blog has already figured out what I’m going to say.

I will no longer be writing Poultry & Prose.

I now live on 15 acres and the poultry are no more. So the title “Poultry & Prose, Stories from a free-range writer on a five-acre idea farm,” no longer fits.

Add to that, I didn’t renew my custom domain and have been unable to preview anything in Blogger. Not to mention I feel like I need a shower after seeing the names of Russian and Ukrainian porno sites that have taken over my stats.

During a Sunday afternoon when an electrical repair left us without power for three hours, I turned on my battery-powered Macbook and went through the contents of my  “Blog Stuff” folder. Duplicate images and beginnings of posts that went nowhere, I trashed. But in amidst the content were a few posts that I considered to be really good, three months or even three years later.

Those, I will be posting as my last entries on Poultry & Prose.

After that, until I decide whether or not to start a new blog, I will be guest posting wherever bloggers would welcome my opinion on politics or the economy or whatever else comes to mind.

So, I hope you enjoy these last few posts. Since I can’t preview, please forgive any typos that may appear in the copy. And thank you, dear readers, for reading!

MinnesotaCare: a Model for Obamacare?

As an advocate of single-payer health coverage, I like MinnesotaCare. It has a few glitches, but once they’re identified and fixed the program could be the model for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. (“Obamacare” is a term I’ve come to embrace. A one-of-a-kind program shouldn’t be known by an acronym, ACA, that is shared by millions of other organizations.)

After being on MinnesotaCare for several months, these are the benefits and challenges I’ve identified:

The benefits
• MinnesotaCare is single payer. One insurance provider covers medical, vision, and dental claims. I’m not crazy about the idea of a health insurance exchange, a central concept of Obamacare. Buying health insurance isn’t the same as window-shopping at the Mall of America for a flirty party dress and pair of peep-toe pumps. Shopping for health insurance isn’t fun – it’s tedious and frustrating.

Premium payments are based on a sliding scale. No matter how much money you make, you feel you pay too much for health insurance. In the long journey to create Obamacare, details came into focus as policymakers drilled down. Through focus groups and listening sessions, they discovered that $400 a month for health insurance was beyond the reach of many American families. There is no short-form answer for determining MinnesotaCare premiums, as you can see from this schedule. But you can still qualify with an annual income as high as $52,512 – which isn’t that much when you think about it.

The opportunities
• Sweeten the reimbursement rates. Health insurance is useless if medical providers won’t accept it. The MinnesotaCare provider I chose is South Country Health Alliance. While I’ve had no problem using South Country for medical, prescription and vision claims, I have yet to find a dentist in southeast Minnesota who accepts it. (I’m on a couple of waiting lists that stretch several weeks out.) I don’t know if nonparticipation is because of South Country in specific or MinnesotaCare in general. If providers don’t accept Obamacare because of what it is (or who created it), opponents will say, “See, it doesn’t work.” We need to find a way to make sure it does work.

• Make it easier for customers (and providers) to ask questions. When you call the MinnesotaCare information line, you get a recording suggesting that you call on Thursday or Friday because of the high volume of calls. If you have a question on Monday, and need to schedule an appointment now to avoid a long waiting list, you don’t want to wait until Thursday or Friday. And the backlog I’m talking about is just for MinnesotaCare. Can you imagine the questions people will have about Obamacare coverage? Even if there’s an email address where you can leave your question and a representative will get back to you, you feel that you’ve done something.

• Remove income as an eligibility requirement. Awhile back I wrote about how I was too affluent as a Pine County resident to qualify for MinnesotaCare, but became eligible when I moved to Dodge County. Can you imagine if a similar yardstick were used for public school eligibility? “I’m sorry, but you’re too smart to qualify”? Public school is there for all who wish to use it, regardless of means level. You’re not forced to use public schools. You’re mandated to use a school, but it doesn’t have to be a public one. If you’d rather have your kids attend a private school, go forth and God love you.

MinnesotaCare isn’t Cadillac coverage care, as I discovered when I bought my latest pair of glasses. Still, less-than-Cadillac coverage is fine if you didn’t have a car in the first place. As President Obama has frequently said, if you’re happy with your private insurance coverage, you can keep it. But if you need insurance and can’t get it, you have an outlet. And Minnesota’s very own MinnesotaCare could be the model for it.

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When Is a Pond Not a Pond?
When It's a Gravel Pit

When you hear the words "gravel pit," chances are you think of Fred Flintstone operating a brontosaurus bulldozer and excavating boulders from a dry, dusty quarry. That's what I think of, anyway.

So people probably wonder why I call the pond near our house a gravel pit. That's what Mike and his parents call it. So that's what I call it.

The Story of the Gravel Pit
The pond started out as a Flintstone-like gravel pit. In the 1980s, contractors who were rebuilding State Highway 56 asked residents if they'd be willing to sell fill in order to provide a base for the road. Mike's parents, who lived on 40 acres at the time, obliged. Gravel was dug out from a five-acre area. The excavation went below the water table, creating a spring-fed gravel pit.

The spring-fed gravel pit near our house.

If you go wading in the water off the main beach, you'll follow a long, long slope where the water gradually gets knee high, then chest high, then shoulder high. That's the driveway where the trucks entered the pit to collect gravel and sand. But at any moment, the water depth can plunge to 15 feet. One old-school fisherman says some parts of the gravel pit are 65 feet deep. But the jury is still out on that one.

If Jerry can make it to the top
of the bluff, he's in good shape.
The topsoil that was taken off the sand and gravel was bulldozed and bermed into a 25-foot-high bluff. It provides a "Rocky"-type workout for my dog Jerry. If he can make it all the way up to the top, he's in good shape. Lately he's able to make it up only halfway, as he's been out of commission for a couple of weeks. He stepped on a piece of glass on a secluded trail at the pit and cut an artery in his foot. So I confine his romps to the main beach.

The Gravel Pit Changes Owners
Locals still refer to the gravel pit as "Maricles' Pond," even though the land changed hands some 30 years ago. Mike's parents sold 25 acres of their land to the DNR for $9,000 -- a decent price back in the day. The DNR was interested in turning the land into a WMA, or  Wildlife Management Area, a place to preserve wildlife and provide public access to fishing and hunting. Mike's parents sold because the gravel pit had become a headache: loud parties, drug deals, dangerous characters. Also, the DNR pointed out that Mike's parents would be liable for any injuries.

And when you mix beer and bodies of water, an accident is waiting happen.

Shortly after the sale a guy backed his pickup to the water's edge, dove off the truck bed into the water, and hit his head on a rock. He was temporarily paralyzed. Mike's parents would have been on the hook had they still owned the land.

The Gravel Pit Gets Trashed
Members of Triton High School E.A.R.T.H.:
Environmental Awareness and Responsibility at Triton High.

Broken glass and empty cans aren't the only things partiers leave behind. Over the years, people have used the WMA as an unceremonious dumping ground for flat-screen TVs and computer monitors. In June, students from Triton High School's E.A.R.T.H. Patrol  collected 12 bags of trash and a truckload of old electronics. On a recent hot dry day, a woman who brought her dog for a swim noticed the fire pit was smoldering. She doused the fire pit, then disposed of the bag of trash I had picked up. So there is hope.

Maricles' Pond Is Minnesota's Pond
The 25 acres of land no longer belongs to our family, but technically it does. It belongs to all Minnesotans. And we all have an obligation to preserve it. If I ever win the lottery, I'll buy back the land from the DNR. Until then, when I drive on State Highway 56, I'm satisfied knowing that our gravel is providing the foundation.

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