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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Recapitating St. Francis

[written in 2007]

It always happens that something I love gets broken.
So it was with St. Francis.

I had wanted one for years,
and finally our daughter Anna made me a
ceramic St. Francis with a wolf and two birds.
She glazed them all in glossy pewter, like shiny metal.

An hour after I set St. Francis outside, Mike knocked him over,
breaking off half an arm –
so many pieces, impossible to glue.
Yet I kept St. Francis in our rock garden,
jagged arm stump jutting,
rationalizing: the break is symbolic –
we must be the arm of St. Francis.

(Mike said the wolf bit off the arm and
we should paint the edge red.
I said no.)

For years the one-armed St. Francis stood amid
grape hyacinths or impatiens.
In time, both birds fell off and
only the wolf remained his companion.
then last week Mike toppled him again.
This time when St. Francis fell, his head broke off.

For a couple of weeks, the saint’s body lay in the dirt near his rolled-away head,
until a friend visited and noticed,
and I was ashamed enough to grab
St. Francis and his head
and bring them into the house.

Last night I said to Mike, “Do you want to recapitate St. Francis?”
Mike said sure. So I got the Krazy Glue
and ran to the basement to fetch the de-antlered buck
that Brian, our son, made so long ago,
carefully glazed to look real.
The buck’s place was my flower bed,
but somehow he too got broken.
I couldn’t display him that way,
and I hate to glue things,
so for years the deer remained on my laundry table,
his fawn beside him.

“Can you glue this too?” I asked Mike,
holding out a hand full of ear and antler pieces.
“Sure,” he said.
“I’ll help,” I told him,
hoping he wouldn’t need me,
because I don’t like to glue things.

But I did hold pieces together after Mike glued them.
While they dried, we talked about how
he made models when he was a boy.
He used rubber bands to hold pieces together,
or held them with his fingers,
reading assembly directions while the glue dried.

I thought about my dad telling me how
when he was a boy
he walked around town so he could listen to his corduroy knickers rub together.
He called them “whistle britches” because they squeaked like a whistle.

Kids used to have a lot of patience, I thought.
Kids entertained themselves.

Then I realized I had glued my fingers together
with the Krazy Glue.
Mike pulled them apart without blood, but
it hurt and left a horrible glue residue
like dead skin.
I said, “I should stay away from glue.”

Today, for some reason,
I worked by myself on the buck
and didn’t glue my fingers together,
but soon realized we’re missing one whole antler.
After all our work,
the buck might have to resume laundry duty.
I can’t rationalize a one-antler buck in the flower bed,
even though antlers drop off in real life –
it just looks odd.

St. Francis was fine this morning, totally recapitated.
I used a black marker to color the white chips
on his forehead and cowl.
After wrestling all the ear and antler pieces,
I was glad St. Francis had only one head
and it was in one piece.

I might hang a little flower basket on his half-arm to hide the jagged edge;
I bet the real St. Francis liked flowers.

Normally I don’t like lawn knick-knacks,
and I hate gluing,
but Anna made St. Francis when she was a little girl
and Brian made the buck when he was a little boy.

            [This story-poem will be included in my
                    new book, Dessert First, out soon on

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The True Hardy-Lifers

[first published in 1999, and sounding awfully familiar]
     Once again Mike’s Prediction has held true. Some folks may have their doubts, but it’s been our experience that you can set your calendar by Mike’s Prediction.
     You see, according to my husband, we have only two weeks of below-zero weather in Southeast Wisconsin. Around these parts, that weather rolled in around January 2 and out around the 16th. So the nay-sayers must admit that for this year at least, Mike had a pretty accurate prediction.
     Living in below-zero weather is something we Wisconsinites tolerate but never quite get used to. We need to know there’s an end in sight.
     But I’ve lived other places – Norfolk, Virginia, and Rome, Italy – where people would laugh if they heard that you could tolerate even two days of below-zero weather, much less two weeks.
     I saw snow in both places, and some bone-chilling damp weather, although never the teeth-freezing bitterness we know in Wisconsin. And when snow comes to places like Virginia and Italy, we Wisconsinites have to laugh.
     There they are, those Italian or Virginian hardy-lifers, out in their apr├Ęs-ski boots and garden hoes, trying to clear their walks. There are no snow plows, so a three-inch snowfall can mean school is closed for days. It’s best to stay off the roads, because what warm-weather motorists don’t know is that you must learn to drive all over again each winter! They drive way too fast and way too close. They build snowmen immediately because they’re so excited about the snowfall. Here in Wisconsin, if our family hasn’t built a snowman by February, we figure we’ll still get a chance in March.
     It must be true what they say about warm weather thinning the blood, because after we had lived in Virginia for a year, our friend Mark Metscher came to visit. It was Thanksgiving, and we were freezing and wearing winter jackets. Mark couldn’t believe we were cold. He walked around outside in shirtsleeves, exclaiming, “Sheesh, it’s fifty degrees!”
     There’s something special about really, really cold weather. It’s so dangerous that it’s exciting. I realize again what a thin thread we hang from. If I were a survivalist, I don’t think I’d live in Wisconsin.
     Come summer, it’s all a memory. Then it’s time for Mike’s Prediction about above-ninety-degree weather. You guessed it: two weeks.
“Bloom where you’re planted” is a hard directive during the winter when you’re planted in Wisconsin.
[This selection will be included in Desssert First, my new book to be released soon.]

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Difference Between Cold and REALLY Cold

with my brother Dan and sister Sally in Milwaukee circa 1959
[This blog is a re-post from last winter. With the season we've been having, it seemed appropriate.] 

     When you live in Wisconsin, you understand the difference between cold and really cold.     
Cold is when you wear gloves. Really cold is when you wear mittens so your fingers can keep each other warm – or better yet, you wear mittens-over-gloves.

     Cold is when you wear a hat and scarf. Really cold is when your teeth freeze no matter what you wear.

     Cold is when it takes ten minutes for your car heater to warm up. Really cold is when your tires freeze flat on one side and go ka-chunk, ka-chunk as you limp along at ten miles per hour until they return to round.

     Cold is when water freezes in the birdbath on your lawn. Really cold is when you see your breath in your home’s front entry.

     Cold is when the world turns white as snow blankets the trees. Really cold is when the world turns to glass as ice coats the trees.

     Cold is when there’s no sound outdoors. Really cold is when the wind howls.

     Cold is when snow wafts to the ground. Really cold is when snow goes sideways.

     Cold is when the outdoor thermometer reads thirty degrees. Really cold is when you can’t read the thermometer because it’s coated with icy snow.

     Cold is when your morning walk outfit is long underwear, sweatpants, a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, a heavy coat, hat, scarf, mittens, socks and boots. Really cold is when you add snow pants and a second pair of socks to that outfit.

     Cold is when the deer come to the feeder at dusk. Really cold is when they come in broad daylight.

     Cold is when your snowshoes slide. Really cold is when they crunch.

     Cold is when the sky is grey and you feel grey. Really cold is when the sky is sunny and you feel alive.

     Cold is when you take a walk on a lake. Really cold is when you drive your truck on it.

     Cold is when you gasp when the air hits your lungs. Really cold is when the air makes you cough.

     Cold is when you come home from walking and the house feels warm. Really cold is when you come home from walking and the house feels hot.

     Cold is when it’s nice to build a fire in the fireplace. Really cold is when it’s hard to start a fire because the wind is blowing down the chimney.

     Cold is when it’s a pain to go grocery shopping. Really cold is when you learn to invent from what’s on hand.
[This post is included in my new book, Dessert First, out soon on]

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Capture the Available Minute

Playing in the sand in The Domes, Milwaukee, with my "borrowed" grand-daughter Alaina, 2013
[Essay first written and published in 1988] 

     All busy people are philosophers about time. I used to think I was the busiest person in the U.S. of A. But now that I know more people (and maybe now that I’ve grown up a little), I’ve come to realize that most people in this country are busy – or at least they feel busy, which amounts to the same thing. I’m no longer busier than thou.

     Jogging around the rim of a perpetually spinning top is rough on relationships. Because I believe that love is spelled T-I-M-E, I’ve become ferocious about guarding moments with my mate and with my children. The early deaths of my parents and younger brother seared a lesson onto my brain: “Life and time are our only true possessions.”

     The problem with feeling this way is that it takes me skipping right down the path of guilt. For years I’ve said to my friends and myself, as a rejoinder to “I don’t have any time”: “No one has any time; you have to make time.”

     I still believe that we create our own lives from the chunks we carve out of time. However, I used to lecture myself to a tune that went something like this: “You’re not spending enough time with your children, Gail.” Or: “You should talk more with Mike.”

     Should, should, should. Pressure and guilt. I felt burdened with nagging doubts about the time (love) I was giving.

     Then last December I was privileged to hear a short talk in Brookfield given by Mary Linsmeier that freed me from that stifling guilt (well, most of it). Mary is the mother of eight, a marriage and family therapist, and founder of Linsmeier preschools in the Milwaukee area. I had invited her to speak to a group of single mothers with whom I work through HOPE Network. If we married mothers feel bad about being spread too thin, imagine how single mothers feel!

     The question of “quality time” came up during Mary’s presentation. She almost laughed.

     “No one ever has enough time,” she said. “Instead of feeling guilty about the quality hour that never happens, capture the available minute or two that you have with your child.” She went on to explain how you can have a great heart-to-heart talk with your children while you do mundane kitchen chores together, for example.

     Mary Linsmeier made me think in a new way about capturing the available minute.

     I feel okay now if I get a bunch of phone calls in a morning; my preschool daughter and I color together while I attend to whatever telephone business is necessary. I’ve found that waiting rooms provide a great opportunity for me to read books to her. And although I love to read while I eat lunch (a bad “fat habit,” according to experts), I’ve tried to make a practice of talking with Anna while we munch our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

     A heck of a lot of “minute-capturing” goes on in the car. Mike and I have some of our best conversations as we drive places (usually the children are involved in their own talking, squabbling, or nonsense in the back seat). Many of our conversations are catch-up talk, where Mike and I bring each other up to date on what’s happening in our lives. That isn’t exactly gripping dialog, but it frees up our quiet time, after the kids are in bed, for the important stuff.     

     When I’m driving the boys here and there, I try to catch up with their lives too. Maybe it’s sacrilegious, but we’ve had at least two prayer meetings as a family in the car. I don’t think God minds. You see, we have a tradition of prayer meetings each Sunday. But sometimes the day slips away. Then Sunday evening we’re coming home from somewhere and it dawns on me that we’ve missed our meeting. I know it’s not only a meeting with God but also a meeting with each other, and we need it. If by the time we get home it’s going to be bedtime (or past bedtime), we have our prayer meeting right there. I tell a story from the Bible; we talk about our goals for the coming week and discuss how we did last week; we say prayers together. Thus sometimes our car is a cathedral.

     Work projects are also a great time for minute-grabbing. My son Brian and I were painting the basement floor the other day, and I asked him to tell me all about the Charlie Chaplin film we had rented but which I didn’t have a chance to see. My question got a conversation going, but my big togetherness plan sort of backfired on me. Every time Brian talked, he stopped painting.

     Whenever I feel that I have no time, I remind myself that we’re all given twenty-four hours each day. And I try to catch those minutes as they fall.

[Included in my book, Dessert First, soon on]

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Smaug and Me

Years ago, my dad told me that an old question on personality tests was, "Do you like Alice in Wonderland?" Pop worked for Loewi & Co., a small Milwaukee-based stock brokerage, and he told me that Loewi required psychological screening for every potential broker. 

The idea behind the question was this: those who liked "Alice" like fantasy. Those who didn't like "Alice" didn't like fantasy. I have no idea what one's fantasy preferences might mean to a potential employer.

But Pop's little tidbit helped me put one of those little dividers in my mind: "The world is made up of those who ---- and those who ----." In this case, the dividing line was fantasy. And I was definitely on the don't like side.

I read The Hobbit and I liked it, although I wasn't interested in reading any more of the adventures. But Mike, my husband, read both The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. My mother also devoured the books, including one Mike didn't read, The Silmarillion.

Mum was funny. As she read the books, which are long quests on foot, she'd say, "Oh, my feet are so tired."

Mike and I had seen all the Peter Jackson movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's books, and now there is a new one: "The Desolation of Smaug." I didn't want to go, but I didn't know exactly why.

Mike wanted to go, so we went. The dragon was cool. But now I know the real reason these movies are not my favorites...and it's not just that I don't prefer fantasy. It also has nothing to do with the fact that director Peter Jackson tampered with the plot of the original book. 

My aversion is simple: the movie is too physically dark. It's the same reason I dislike the Batman movies. Darkness depresses me...especially in the middle of January!

So although I went to the movie for Mike and for my mother, who art in heaven, I don't think I'll be going to the other films in the series. Besides darkness, Smaug made it clear that a gigantic war is on the way. Darkness + images of war = a movie I don't want to watch. Futility, all futility.

Maybe that theme of war's futility was why Tolkien's books were so big in the 1970s when I went to Marquette University. We were embroiled in the horrible Vietnam war and also the war at home created by the Southeast Asian conflict. Marquette is home to Tolkien archives and original manuscripts, and I do believe the author has become a classic.

Just not for me.