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The Case of the Missing Cow

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Princess Buttercup and Aunt Pittypat

Princess Buttercup, one of our two new heifers, disappeared without a trace the other day.  It’s not like a cow to just wander off by itself.  If one manages to bust through or hop a fence, she’ll usually follow the herd along the fence line, bawling her head off to be let back into the safety of the pasture.  We’ve been so busy with wrapping up the semester, it was a day before we noticed we were one brown cow short in Ole 29’s harem.  Besides, we’re in an enclave of farms flanked by a natural wetland area (i.e. a swamp);  there’s not a lot of options for a wayward bovine.

In other words, it’s hard for a missing cow to stay missing.  We did have one little gal emerge from the stock trailer only to be chased by that crazed Richard Marx, the meanest miniature jackass of a pony this side of Fish River.  She hoofed it the length of the pasture, hurdled the south fence like a track star, and was never seen again.  Poor Russ lost his money so fast he might as well have lit fire to it.  As for Richard Marx, his endless summer nights were soon to be found at somebody else’s farm.  Good riddance to that swoopy-maned jerk of an animal!

So, while we were both tracing the fence lines looking for evidence of a breakout, we were hoping that a disappearing cow would remain a once in a lifetime experience.  Really, what are the odds?  Even though it’s been cold and the snakes should be in torpor, I walked lightly and carried a big stick.  I’m a little leery of Ole 29 without a fence between us.  He kept his distance, but I could feel his eyes on me.  He stayed by the hay bale, but like one of those creepy portraits that appears to be staring you down wherever you stand, he let me know he is all bull.

This is the sad part.  Russ finally found Princess Buttercup wedged up under the tractor.  Somehow, she squeezed between the fence and the machinery, fell, and got trapped.  Her predicament defied logic; even idyllic farm life has its hidden dangers.  She’s busted up pretty bad and things are touch and go.  We’ve made her as comfortable as possible in our little cow hospital.  She is eating and being doctored, but if she can’t get up soon, I fear the worst.  We have been loving on her and keeping her company.  She puts her giant head in my lap and lets me stroke her, tracing the sienna tufts of her forelock.  If she pulls through, she will graduate from stock to family pet, bless that little cow’s heart.

Like I’ve said before, this farm lifestyle ain’t for sissies. It can be heart-wrenching, but I wouldn’t trade it.

 

Rocky Rates It: French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Giuliano

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Prepare for gushing, fan-girling, and mad props!  This is the most common sense, effective, simply glorious non-diet diet book I’ve ever read!  There, I’ve said it.  Now, you need to understand I’m pretty well-versed in dietary lore.  I’ve flirted with the likes of Pritikin, Atkins, and–Lord, help me–Suzanne Somers.  I’ve sweat to the oldies, boogied with Jazzercise, and pushed it to the edge of Insanity with Shaun T.

I was a lifelong runner until it came time to pay the piper with a bionic knee last summer.  Since my “good” knee is only a couple of injection cycles away from a similar fate, I decided to give up my running shoes and hop a bike.  The truth is that I never really worried about getting fat because I took for granted that I could literally outrun it if push came to shove. My eating habits reflected the same philosophy:  a thirty-mile week covers a multitude of  sins.  I didn’t really believe I could become overweight until I found myself precisely there.

Guiliano describes a similar situation of letting weight sneak up on her in the opening of the book.  Then, she explains precisely what changes she made to shed those extra pounds, not just for some event like a wedding or the upcoming swimsuit season, but forever.  The advice is practical.  The advice is doable.  The advice doesn’t involve mountain-climbers or burpees.  It most certainly doesn’t involve the requisite list of no’s we are accustomed to.  This book will transform your perspective on dieting.

If you’re ready to quit (Yes, I just said QUIT) dieting and still drop those saddlebags, read this book.  If you’re ready to stop obsessing about calories, carbs, fat content, points, etc., read this book.  If you’re ready to learn why French women don’t get fat, read this book.  It will open your eyes to a different mindset about weight management.

This is probably my 4th read of French Women Don’t Get Fat.  I love the positivity it brings.  I also love the recipe for leek soup.  Whether you incorporate the French approach to eating or not, you owe it to yourself to try this soup.  It’s THAT good!

Rocky Rates It:  5/5 Stars!  Best “diet” book I’ve ever read.  The ONLY one I’ve read multiple times.

Rocky Rates It: Silence by Shusaku Endo

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I don’t usually select a book by its cover, but the artwork depicting a priest at prayer against the backdrop of a bleeding sun was the catalyst for pulling this book off the shelf.  That, and the title, which if you’re like me and are surrounded by hundreds of teenagers every day, was rather appealing.

The book is a novel, but begins with a preface which reads more like a history tome.  Remember having to read The Scarlet Letter in high school and being so zombified by the sprawling preface that you ran for cover in the Cliff’s Notes?  Well, Silence is kind of like that, but my advice is to put on your big kid breeches and wade through the preface.  It’s worth it and will help you better understand the crusade of Fr. Rodrigues.  This is definitely what my kids call a “thinking book”.

We follow Fr. Rodrigues to Imperial Japan as he attempts to re-establish the former Christian stronghold stamped out by repression, torture, and the corporate apostasy of the previous priests attempting to initiate Catholicism to “the ends of the earth”.  The book is not so much about the outward adventure (yes, there’s LOTS there to mull over), but about the internal crisis of faith Rodrigues grapples with as God remains doggedly silent in the face of atrocity.

The book also parallels the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and lends perspective on their relationship.  Will Fr. Rodrigues be able to withstand the trials of faith even when it puts others in grave danger, or will he renounce Christianity altogether in the deafening silence?  I think the answer will surprise you as well as inspire you to examine your own spiritual strengths and weaknesses.

Rocky Rates It:  4/5 Stars

What the Dickens?

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Christmas Past

 

The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet To Come swirled about the classroom as the genius of Dickens wrought its magic.  Sure, the students understood allusions to Scrooge, but I was surprised by their corporate ignorance of the plot line (and, consequently, the message) of A Christmas Carol.  After using a combo of rich oral reading (of course I “do” the voices) and sheer force of cheerful will, I was bound and determined to foster some sort of appreciation for this timeless story.

This story is ingrained, etched upon my heart as indelibly as the spirits of Scout Finch, Huckleberry Finn, and the Ingalls family.  It was eye-opening to watch my students respond to the power of Fezziwig and the pathos of Want and Need clinging to the ghostly robe of their benefactor.  They gasped when Scrooge’s early words came back to haunt him, and wondered aloud as lots were cast for a dead man’s bed curtains.  I’d like to say I had them…teachable moments stacked clear to Christmas…but it was Dickens who held them in thrall, his fireside read-aloud reaching across centuries.

As capricious as teens can be, sometimes they ask questions with enough poignancy that I can almost see their intellect expanding.  Sometimes, they ask questions that teach the teacher a little something.  One student in particular was going on about the transformative nature (his phrase…insert teacher back handsprings here!) of A Christmas Carol when he asked me the title of the most influential book I’ve read.  I asked for some time to contemplate his question, explaining that our characters are not just multi-faceted but our mindsets transform as a function of life stage and maturity as well.  By the next class, I was ready to go.

Today, Gentle Reader, I’d like to share the 5 most influential books I’ve read.  These are the ones that led to transformation, for better or worse.  Please note that although The Holy Bible was my gut reaction by nature, nurture, and virtue of growing up in the Bible Belt, I chose to omit it from this list.  This is not an ordinal list, and may hold surprises.

  •  A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving  This is the one that set the bar for storytelling, made me want to be a writer, and showed me just how inadequate my own scratchings can be.
  • French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Giuliano  If nothing else, this book started my love affair with leeks.  No kidding, they are divine!  My youngest caught me reading this awhile back and said, “Face it, Mom.”  I thought, “Here it comes.”  Sure enough, her hand went on her hip as she tossed her head.  “You’ll never be French.”
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley  This book taught me how to read…really read.
  • The Total Money Makeover  by Dave Ramsey  My record with Financial Peace University is 01-02 and a forfeit, but I either bless or curse Ol’ Dave with every major purchase.  If I could keep my debt snowball from melting from the heat off those card readers, I might be alright.
  • The First Days of School by Harry Wong/ A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne  Okay, that’s two books, but these two are the ones I credit with teaching me how to teach.  That first one by Ron Clark comes in pretty handy, too.  His name was mud in our house while our first two were little!

So, now I put the question to you:  What book(s) do you consider influential?

 

Yuletide Solitude

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Selfie with a lit reindeer

I was smiling and waving to beat the band.  I had a fancy coffee in hand…one that boasted an almost Starbucksian price tag without the presumed political posturing.  I waited for the coffee to cool a bit as I pushed up the sleeves of my red shirt and pretended not to swelter as the South Alabama sun beat jollily down on the town’s Christmas parade.

My spot was well-chosen.  I sat on the backside of the parade route with the nearest onlooker a good 50 feet away.  I thought the gutter beneath my feet might discourage candy throwing and heard several mothers admonish their float-riding darlings not to toss candy my way for fear of wastefulness.  I got pelted anyway!  I do admit, many a piece of candy did make its way down to the dark infrastructure.  I didn’t try too hard to catch the starlight mints or the Halloween-wrapped toffee (C’mon, people), but I did make a rather athletic save for a Reese’s Cup and managed to juggle two rent-a-center plastic cups and a string of Mardi Gras beads without dropping them into the abyss.

The parade had everything you’d expect in a Deep South promenade:  ROTC cadets, the high school marching band, the mayor and other dignitaries, an antique tractor brigade, beauty queens, cub scouts, politicians, tiny majorettes, military vehicles from the national guard armory, tankers from the fire station, and floats from local churches and businesses.  Most of the marchers sported rosy red cheeks, not from Old Jack Frost (who was positively melting by the time he passed by me, but playing his part to the hilt) but from early onset heat exhaustion.  Trust me.  Santa hats with temperatures rising near 80  is flirting with disaster, especially since the parade route is long enough to be a good haul for even the kids.  Santa Claus himself brought up the rear, looking jolly despite his thick red coat and boots.

So there I sat on the curb, all alone, in the midst of a parade.  And, do you know what?  I wasn’t lonely at all!  I greeted and was greeted by friends as they walked or rode by.  I “Merry Christmas’d” my guts out!  I watched my own kid march with the band while the other was across town playing in a basketball tournament.  I hopped right up after waving enthusiastically to Santa and hoofed it over to the town park for the parade after-party.  The park was packed and the sounds of laughter mingled with the high school steel drum band playing holiday tunes calypso-style. Kids shouted as they hurled chunks of snow–hauled in by 18 wheelers for the occasion–at each other and any unsuspecting adult who wandered too near the cordoned snow zone.

What a content way to watch a parade!  The weather may not have been Christmassy, but it was beautiful and clear.  There was no bickering over candy or those silly plastic beads.  There was no pressure to make lasting Christmas memories (or else!).  There was no meltdown over which child Santa waved to.  Between the parade and the basketball tournament, there was no time to do my usual Saturday shopping chores.  For a couple of hours, it was just me and that was just fine.

 

 

 

 

Hamstrung, Hampered, and Ham-Handed

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Putting Thanksgiving and a little post-game frustration away

It’s November 26th and there’s still no sign of Christmas at Moore’s Creek Farm.  In Coastal Alabama, the trees don’t really change color to signal the final hurrah of fall.  The greens lose their verdancy, the oaks their acorns, and the ground becomes littered with inky pecan husks.   You are more likely to see us in flip-flops than Uggs, unless the temperature drops below seventy.  Then, it’s an all out boot and sweater parade.  The operative word there, of course, is sweat.

Our rite of passage into the Christmas season is the Iron Bowl, our longstanding college football rivalry tradition.  Like our waistbands, the Thanksgiving leftovers have been stretched to the limits of good taste.  Families gather for a few final hours of togetherness  tinged by the threat of botulism as everyone pretends that Aunt Eloise’s Crimson Jell-O Salad hasn’t separated.  Nerves have been stretched to the limits of good manners as ESPN Gameday has been playing on a continuous loop since dawn-thirty.  It was a good thing we had the 2:30 PM kickoff slot.  I’m not sure the family could have remained on speaking terms had the pressure mounted to 7PM (and we all root for the same team!).

This year it won’t be my team dashing through the SEC championship and I’m more than a little bummed. I was, after all, wearing my favorite sweatshirt and decidedly uncomfortable team underwear.  Seriously.  I’m gonna iron the team logo onto a decent pair of panties next year.  Win or lose, at least it won’t chafe.

So, when I got up this morning, I was still wallowing in the self-pity of loss.  I decided to put Thanksgiving behind me as handily as those other guys “controlled their own destiny”, according to the prognosticators’ loop reel.  I pulled the ham, already battered from previous gnashing, out of the backfield of the refrigerator and proceeded to thrash it.  Like my beloved team, it was pretty much defenseless against the determined onslaught.  There was no stopping me.  60 minutes later, ham stock for soups, ham bits for casseroles, and ham slices for future biscuits neatly lined my deep freeze.  If I were a pioneer woman, I wouldn’t have stopped there and rendered the leavings and bones into soap or something.

I still wasn’t over it all.  The deep freeze needed defrosting, so I took a hatchet to it.  Some tactful tapping and I tackled the job, unlike my beloved team.  The underside of the freezer drawer on the fridge was iced over, too, and I laid out on the kitchen floor– hatchet in hand– to do my work.  It felt good.  It felt right.   Now, all I needed was to get right with the Lord since I had thought (and maybe hollered) some pretty un-Christian things concerning the opposing team last night.

I dressed neatly in a houndstooth jumper, fixed my hair with a curling iron, and applied my finest crimson lipstick.  I held my chin high and knelt shoulder to shoulder with folks decked out in victory colors.  That’s the thing about the Iron Bowl:  it’s not “a” game;  it’s “THE” game.  Whether we roll with the Tide or roll Toomer’s Corner, this rivalry is as much a Thanksgiving tradition as Aunt Eloise’s Jell-O Salad…which will be orange next fall.

 

Rocky Rates It: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

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I read Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible several years ago and decided a re-visit was in order.  I was impressed when I approached it from a reader’s perspective, but from a writer’s perspective, the sheer magnitude of Kingsolver’s craft left me–for lack of a better term–fangirling my way through the novel.

Kingsolver lays bare five souls, six if you count the Congo itself, as the baggage of a renegade Baptist missionary determined to save souls at any cost.  That price, which happens to be the surname of the transplanted family, becomes steeper and steeper as the novel progresses.

The book shifts points of view amongst Orleanna Price and her four daughters as they  chronicle their African experience and the indelible mark it leaves on each.  The reader sees each character with her triumphs and failures, both real and perceived.  They each struggle with religion, culture, and the inflexibility of the self-righteous and overbearing patriarch of the family.

On my first read so many years ago, I recall being a bit frustrated that Kingsolver didn’t put readers into the head of “Our Father”.  This time, however, with a lot more experience and presumably a more discerning eye for narrative technique, I see the wisdom in her decision.  He is close-minded, egotistical, and emotionally unapproachable.  Kingsolver reveals he has his own demons, but deals no absolution for the stiff-backed preacher just as his favorite punishment for his daughters–The Verse–offers neither forgiveness nor comfort.  Brilliant.

This is a novel that will grip you with its poignancy and mystify you with its eddying depths of family dynamics, faith, politics, and oppression.  It is the kind of story that you’ll find hard to swallow, until you realize it’s the kind of story that swallows you.

Rocky Rates It:  5/5 Stars  This one is awesome!

In Defense of Thanksgiving

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Turkey Day Aftermath

Before it’s even time to thaw the turkey, I find myself  bombarded with images of Christmas.  My daughter wants to skip Thanksgiving altogether and get on to the eggnog days.  She is a fool for eggnog.  I have to disguise it in the fridge so I can get a cup in edgewise.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love the Christmas season…just not yet.

We’ve got important business to attend to first.  The Thanksgiving Feast is a sight to behold.  Tables groaning with sumptuous foods made from treasured recipes that we pretend our grandmas didn’t just crib off the back of the semisweet chocolate chip package.  It’s the only time of the year Jello comes into play, cleverly disguised as salad.  It’s a celebration of gluttony in which we thank the Lord for four kinds of pie, three kinds of roasted meat, two kinds of dressing, and the one thing the kids will eat:  rolls.

Thanksgiving brings the family together around the table and the TV, preferably in the same room. It’s hard to digest all that turkey without the comforting smack of football helmets and the lulling roar of a crowd who “got to go to the game instead of being stuck at home with (insert name of elderly relative) snoring in the BarcaLounger”.

Thanksgiving, of course, changes according to what stage of life you’re in.  That’s what makes it so interesting and worth a looksee before rushing headlong to the Christmas tree farm.  Before I entered into the blessed state of matrimony, Thanksgiving was a sort of progressive eating event that started around 10:30 AM and ended four houses and a passel of relatives later at suppertime.  We feasted, watched football, played football, and shot every kind of gun you could think of.  The traditions took a decidedly different tack once I left home.  The dinners involved cloth napkins and round robin statements of thankfulness before the menfolk could slink away to watch the game.

What remained the same, however, was the crying. Someone always squalls at Thanksgiving.  Some years it’s out of frustration–like the year my grandma forgot the rolls and about smoked us out of the house.  Some years it’s out of the sadness of an empty place at the table, but most years somebody will get weepy over the sheer weight of family.  We’re thankful for all of it:  the good, the bad, and the just plain belongingness.

Nope, you won’t find me hauling out the holly until after the Iron Bowl.  I won’t want to deck the halls for another whole week…it won’t even be December yet, for goodness sake, but the girls will be impossible to hold back.  How can they wait with the radio station looping that gravelly “Santa Claus is comin’ to town (on a bender)” song and every TV commercial hawking some overpriced holiday wonder, or the endless lineup of crappy, sappy all’s well that ends well movies flanking yet another Harry Potter marathon?

Back in the dark ages when I was growing up, my mother never decorated squat until December.  She mellowed a bit in her later years, getting totally into themed Christmas trees and breakable ornaments.  I used to race my brother to hog the chocolate in the advent calendar. Poor Baby Jesus would be robbed blind by December 14th, and then the blame game began.  Talk about some knockdown drag-outs!  It was SO HARD to be good for three whole weeks.  It wasn’t Christmas without a complete meltdown and the threat of not only no toys from Santa, but the disappearance of the ones we had already but didn’t appreciate.  Nothing straightened me up faster than the idea of an all-clothes Christmas, which I actually got once.

That’s why I don’t really want to roast any chestnuts quite yet.  Are you kidding?  Five weeks of you better watch out, or even worse, that creepy elf on a shelf?  That’s too much pressure for even the best of kids. Instead, I’ll give them a heaping helping of family along with enough rolls to keep them from starving when they sneak their servings of casserole to the dogs.  I’ll give them lazy afternoons, football games, and by golly…some target practice.  We’ll hold off on the tinsel, glitter, and twinkling lights just long enough for them to get a good, long look at what family really is.

Christmas will keep another couple of weeks and be quite merry in the making.

Thanksgiving, that literal and metaphorical smorgasbord of love,  will not be overshadowed on my watch.

May you and yours have a very happy Thanksgiving!

 

*This post expresses the author’s opinions (it being a blog and all) on celebrating the holiday season and in no way looks down its nose at those of you who are already rocking your jingle bells.

Nut Job: Mysticism and Morality

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Shelling  Pecans

The principal’s voice reverbrated over the intercom to inform us we were about to have a fire drill–yeah, I don’t think they’re supposed to work quite that way, either, but that’s a blog post for another day– and I calmly named the pecan tree out front as our muster station.  “Wait…pecans come from a tree?” asked a particularly bright student.  No kidding, this kid will probably top a 30 on the ACT and be excising your overwrought gallbladder someday.  The student’s earnest question made me think of the relationship between education and knowledge, and whither the two shall meet.

I’d like to share (put it in a nutshell, if you will) what I’ve learned from the act of shelling pecans.  What do knowledge, a little know-how, luck, and perhaps even some wisdom have in common? That’s a hard nut to crack, and I’ll leave it up to you, Gentle Reader, to get at those sweetmeats inside.  Okay, okay.  I’ll stop with the nutty puns already.

  1.  Pecans are a microcosm of the human condition.  They look pretty much the same on the outside, but once you break through the hard exterior, results vary.  Some come already cracked; some are sleek and perfectly formed.  All are fallen-how’s that for a theological twist?  The trick is to crack the nut without damaging the meat.  Sometimes you get two intact halves; sometimes part of the interior is rotten, waterlogged, or dried up;  sometimes you crush the whole thing in your pliers.
  2. Pecans are a model of the mind.  This becomes evident on the ones you crack without damaging the interior.  The nuts consist of two grooved halves, connected on one end, with a woody hemispheric separator.  The grooves sometimes have woody bitters tracing their paths.  Those are the nuts with regrets.  That woody partition is inedible and leads one to wonder just why the two sides must be kept apart.  Is is a left-brain/right-brain thing?  A Mars/Venus thing?  An East Coast/West Coast thing?
  3. Pecans are an object lesson in work ethic, Puritanism, and yes…the American Dream.  It takes labor, patience, and a bit of panache to harvest enough pecans even for a homemade pie.   Picking up pecans is time-consuming, achy-breaky work, even with a pecan picker-upper tool.  Once you get them gathered, you have to crack them and then pick the meat out of them.  A quick Google search (my students swear that Google knows everything so they can just concentrate on their Instagram stories) reveals any number of pecan harvesting products designed to make the task less, well, task-y.  But, perhaps, the task is the point.  And perhaps, in that point, we can find a little something a freezer case confection just can’t give us.

Maybe I’m just kidding myself, but there’s something soul-satisfying about sitting on a swing cracking pecans.  You see the results of your labor piling up in the bowl in your lap and in the crunch of discarded shells underfoot. The work, both mindful and mindless simultaneously, gives you the opportunity to think, to be grateful, to find your center.  It gives you the gift of time, something fewer and fewer of us seem to value. If you’re lucky, you recognize the whispers of grandmothers long passed in the fall breeze, kissing the treetops as they sweep down from Heaven for that shared moment where the past, present, and future all congregate over a labor of love.

 

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