Lady Jane

IMG_3841.jpg

From Jane’s World

Recently, while hiking with fourteen women and four dogs, I noticed that only the dogs and I stopped to pee. Twice for me, every tree for the dogs. Normally, I’d never give peeing outside a second thought, but since I was the only one, I worried that maybe my fellow hikers considered it unladylike.

On the drive home and all that evening, my mind stuck on the word “feminine.”

In the morning, still sleepy and in my PJs, I stepped into my oversized Sorrel boots, slipped on my Carhartt knock-off barn jacket, and shoved my filthy Kinco gloves into my pocket. I mixed a container of warm water, bananas, plain yogurt and olive oil for Louisa, my pig, and headed out the door.

My valley was so thick with fog that my headlamp was useless. I walked with my head down, trying to avoid the slick patches of ice. Cold rain seeped down my neck, making me shiver. I wondered if, when dawn came, we’d have any more light. I also wondered if maybe I’d lost my feminine side from living like this, alone in a rural area with my critters, where I couldn’t care less how I look or act.

I wedged the toe of my boot under the goat pen gate and pushed up while wiggling the latch. I dumped Louisa’s mash into her bowl and slip-slided over to the Goat Palace to let Louisa and my two goats out. The latch was frozen and I wasn’t able to get it open, even after removing my heavy gloves.

Working my tongue around the inside of my mouth, I brought up saliva from deep in my throat and, with perfect aim, gobbed on the latch—instantly effective at thawing the mechanism, but not very ladylike.

An old tape started playing in my head:

“Sit up straight, Jane Ann. Don’t slouch. Ladies don’t slouch.”

“Lower your voice, Janie. Act like a girl.”

“She’s a tomboy.”

When I was younger, my siblings and I belonged to the Good Medicine Dancers, led by Ben Hunt, an outdoor educator who wrote books on Native American arts. For years, I took the part of a boy in Ben’s group because I wanted to. When I asked my dad if I could be a boy, he said, “Fine by me. Go ask your mother.” I was a boy for our club meetings, outings, and performances. I wore boy’s clothes—red breechcloth, a breastplate, and soft, beaded deerskin moccasins—all made as authentically as possible under Ben’s guidance.

Even though my mother approved of me being a boy in the dance troupe, I suspect she had concerns about unladylike behaviors. When I was barely a teen, she enrolled me in Rosemary Bischoff’s Modeling School. I loved going to the “finishing” school in downtown Milwaukee, where I flourished. My posture improved. I learned how to walk down a runway. I discovered where the fork went on a table and how to stick my pinky out when drinking tea.

But clearly, Mrs. Bischoff’s lessons didn’t stick. Last winter when Raime, my faithful border collie, was still alive, Dane and I hiked to an ice cave with my three pups. The hike was treacherous, with steep snow-covered gullies and ridges. Every breath added more frost to the scarf wrapped around my mouth and nose. Raime kept stopping to try to pick out the ice balls that were forming between his paw pads. After his third meticulous attempt to nibble the ice out from his paw, I handed Dane my gloves and knelt down by his side, my knees sinking into the new snow. I picked up his front paw, whispered to him to trust me, pulled apart his pad and took a huge bite of the ice that was causing him grief. Snap! It came off clean in my mouth. I leaned over and spit it out and we continued on our way.

I’m also proud to say I’ve perfected my farmer’s blow, after eighteen years of living in the country. Well, perfect 85% of the time. Fifteen percent of the time you wouldn’t want to be downwind of me.

Am I still a lady?

My dress-up days, except for special occasions, are long gone. A touch of mascara means a very special occasion. And although I’m currently trying to grow my hair long, short hair is more practical for my lifestyle.

I enjoy being self-sufficient and not overtaxing my bladder trying to hold it. I love all kinds of weather and being surrounded by nature—and knowing that when nature calls, there is no need to wait.

I’ve been known to say that the art of being a woman is knowing when not to be a lady. It’s not about short hair versus long, makeup or natural, fancy clothes or barn boots. It’s about how we feel about ourselves. And I feel like a lady: Lady Jane!

IMG_3847.jpg

Originally Published March 14th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Whiteout

IMG_3332.jpg

From Jane’s World

Holding tightly to a rope tied to my front door, I make my way into the whiteout. My mittened hands are quickly covered with chunks of ice and snow, my cheeks red from the stinging wind. I keep my eyes half shut to protect them from the blowing snow.

One red-mittened hand after the other, hanging on to the rope for dear life, I make my way to the barn that is half buried in snow. I have to get to the animals—and be able to find my way back.

But I don’t have a barn, or a rope tied to my door! My mind replays stories I heard during childhood, of people lost in blizzards and never found until spring. I do have outbuildings: the Snake Shed, the Duck Hall, the Goat Palace, and the donkeys’ three-sided shelter that somehow has remained nameless. This bleak image of winter survival came from my dad’s farming side of the family and has stayed with me.

Farmers and animal lovers have had their hands full this winter with blizzard-like conditions, ice storms, and temperatures reaching 40 below zero. Such weather can be life-threatening for the animals as well as the people who care for them.

I began making outdoor checks at three-hour intervals when the temperature dropped to –20. Each time, I’d refresh the animals’ drinking water, which meant smashing my boot into the heated water bowls to crack the ice that had formed on top; for the donkeys, it meant chopping a hole in the creek ice. I’d give the animals plenty of hay, too many treats, and a visual check before heading back indoors.

The night before our record-breaking coldest day here in the valley, chores became intense with the start of the blizzard.

I geared up and went out to put everyone to bed about 5:30 p.m., hoping to complete chores before the last of the daylight was gone.

I called Louisa, Luna, and Peepers and got them settled inside the Palace with bananas as a treat, but then I couldn’t shut the door to keep them in. While I scraped, shoveled, and kicked at the snow and ice, the pig and goats finished their bananas and came back out. Soon it was fully dark. I trudged back up to the house to find my headlamp, then out to the Snake Shed to fetch a piece of baler twine.

After luring Louisa and the goats back into the Palace with another banana, I held the door closed with one Sorel boot and removed my filthy Kinco gloves, tucking them between my legs so as not to lose them in the snow. My fingers quickly became numb and clumsy as I struggled to pull the twine through the door’s latch.

Louisa polished off the second banana and began pushing on the door. I leaned on it hard to keep her inside as I wove the twine back and forth, cursing softly, and stopping to blow on my fingers to warm them into functioning. I needed to get this door closed to keep the animals safe. I needed to get my cold, tired body back up to the house to keep myself safe, thaw my fingers and get under the covers.

I couldn’t get the twine to function properly, but it looked like it would hold. I whispered “Good night” through partially frozen lips and retreated to the safety of my house.

Crack! Pop! Snap! In the morning the porch deck groaned with every step I took into the deadly cold. I glanced at the thermometer. It read –40. My heart raced as I headed out to the donkeys, who are the most vulnerable in their open shelter.

Diego and Carlos tried to bray but their voices were hoarse and choppy. Icicles hung from the sides of their bodies, chins, and noses. I brought them warm, fresh water, more hay, and apples.

The ducks and geese wouldn’t budge when I opened their little door. Smart birds.

Before I reached the Goat Palace, I could see that my handiwork of the night before had held. But now I couldn’t get it untied, and my fingers burned within seconds of taking off my gloves. Louisa began squealing from inside as though someone was trying to kill her, and rammed her body into the door as I struggled to get it open. I stopped to warm my hands between my legs, envisioning a loss of my digits.

Hurrying back to the house, I grabbed my only serrated knife and a pair of scissors and headed out again. With sheer force, the scissors cut through the twine just enough to allow the two goats to squeeze out.

This infuriated Louisa and transformed her from a sweet pig into a raging, deranged hog, butting, slamming, and screeching without pause. In the commotion, I dropped the serrated knife and had to run to the house to look for my pocket knife.

Racing back as quickly as I could, I lowered my head against the wind, took off my gloves, and focused on slicing through the knotted twine. It gave way just as Louisa thrust her 250-pound body against the door, which slammed into my forehead.

While I felt brain-dead and fingerless, Louisa rushed past me to her mash. As I stumbled to the gate, I saw the missing knife hanging out of Luna’s mouth. My hands were barely capable of any movement but I managed to pry the handle out of her stubborn jaw. Fortunately there was no blood.

Heading back up the incline to the house, I marveled at my dad’s family and all the generations of farmers now and before my time. My head was bruised and sore to the touch, but I still had all my fingers. And I couldn’t help imagining, somewhere, someone frozen solid, one red-mittened hand still clutching a rope.

IMG_4205.jpg

Originally Published March 7th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Stigma

27024037_1658895724166626_2527301657367020977_o.jpg

From Jane’s World

Bipolar. ADHD. Depression. Addiction. Asperger's syndrome. Schizophrenia. Eating disorders. Autism spectrum. Post-traumatic stress. Personality disorder. Social anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Did you flinch or nod as you read those words? Perhaps you nodded in recognition. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), In any given year, one in five adults in the United States has a diagnosable mental disorder. One in twenty-four has a serious mental illness. One in twelve has a substance use disorder.

These statistics are staggering, suggesting that many of us will either have a mental health challenge or have a family member or friend who does. Yet many of us flinch at the very mention of those words.

People who struggle with mental illness often experience the additional burden of feeling judged or shunned by others. I wonder what we can do to prevent such discrimination and provide encouragement instead.

Part of the problem is that mental illness isn’t always visible. When someone is walking with a white cane we rush to offer assistance. When someone who appears “normal” is standing in line at the post office talking nonsense to themselves, we hurry to get away. We fear what we don’t understand—and we often mock what we fear.

At an early age, my friend Chuck (not his real name) was depressed and had an eating disorder. At thirteen he attempted suicide. (The APA points out: Half of all chronic mental illness begins before the age of 14.) When Chuck returned to school his classmates avoided him and wouldn’t be friends. Chuck tells me the other children were sensitive enough, but scared of him. Without any knowledge or understanding of mental health, who could blame them?

In 1996 Chuck had his first manic episode. He was 21. Four years later, after a second manic period, he was diagnosed with manic depression, now termed bipolar disorder. It took him a while to accept and finally understand his illness, and even longer to realize he needed to adhere to the schedule of medication that helped stabilize his brain chemistry.

Chuck’s delusional behavior, subsequent hospitalizations, and treatment were hard on him and his family. Physical and mental health challenges are similar in that way—but we understand better, and are more comfortable, when we can see the physical cause and effect.

If you’re throwing up, I can place my hand on your back to let you know I’m there and that I care. I can comfort you by placing a warm washcloth on your forehead. If you’re having a manic episode that may include rage or thinking you are Jesus, it gets scary. And yet, says the APA, People with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than those without a mental health disorder. In fact, those with mental illnesses are ten times more likely to be the victims of violent crime.

The stigma around mental illness has gained press lately because of celebrities who have died by suicide. Famous people who appeared happy and healthy shocked the world by ending their lives. Later we discovered they had battled depression and other mental illness all their lives. The APA informs us: Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death for all ages. It is more common than homicide.

The definition of stigma is “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” We all have images and thoughts triggered by words that relate to mental illness, which can cause us to be prejudiced toward someone diagnosed with these conditions. No wonder no one knew those celebrities were sick—they were afraid to talk openly about their mental health.

So what can we do? How can we help create a more supportive environment for people struggling with mental health challenges?

We can start by educating ourselves and others about mental illness and not treat it like a dirty word. As the APA says, Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.

We can also choose our words carefully when talking about mental health. Saying that Chuck is bipolar doesn't do justice to the many other characteristics that define him—his zany sense of humor, his love for dogs, or his compassion for others. Being bipolar is only one aspect of Chuck’s life. It is manageable with medications, regular exercise, healthy eating, volunteering, and journaling.

We can also be honest about treatments. Some people will benefit greatly from medications, others from talk and holistic therapies. Not everyone responds the same, regardless of their diagnosis.

We can speak up when we feel that the media, a school principal, or even a neighbor is stigmatizing or discriminating by their actions or words. We can advocate for equal regard and treatment for people suffering from mental or physical ailments; there shouldn’t be a difference.

We can also show compassion for people who have mental illnesses. As Chuck recently shared with me, “It's hard enough being diagnosed with a mental illness, but worse is the worry about possibly losing my dearest friends if I become manic again.”

Next time we read or hear about mental health issues, or someone we know (perhaps even ourselves) is diagnosed with mental illness, let’s refrain from flinching and nod in compassion and understanding. It would be a good start.

Originally Published February 28th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Heaven

From Jane’s World

As soon as I managed to push my way through my brothers and sisters for mama’s warm milk, she’d stand up. For a nanosecond, I’d swing from her long, worn-out nipple and then drop. There was never enough milk for me.

I’d lie in a heap with my siblings, wondering when or if our mom would come back. We were wet and cold, our eyes still shut. My swollen belly ached.

One day when my head felt too heavy to lift, I stirred at the sound of a soft voice. Someone with warm, gentle hands was listening to my insides, her ear on my chest. She wrapped us in a fuzzy blanket that reminded me of my mom.

I was lifted, prodded, and poked. Eventually, there was sweet milk! Not from my mom’s large, doughy belly, but from an inflexible nipple. I could hear my brothers and sisters slurping and sucking, too.

A few days later, we were all moved again. We bumped around in that same blanket until we stopped in a place that smelled salty. It was quieter, with fewer people, and there was a new gentle voice.

In the new place, I was drinking as much as my tiny belly could hold but my stomach writhed in agony. The milk would come burning out of my other end. My sisters and brothers had the same problem. We were miserable. The pain was too big for our little bodies.

Three of my brothers and one of my sisters died. I overheard the words “parvo,” and “poor babies,” and “sleep.” My eyes were beginning to open.

I thought of the lady that would feed my sister and me as Mama Voice. She’d hold us, feed us, and wipe our mouths and butts. She was always there for us. My sister squawked and squirmed. It hurt to be held and we no longer wanted to drink. We just wanted to be left alone. We wanted to join our other siblings, but Mama Voice wouldn’t let us. She’d stick syringes in our throats and squirt water down.

I wanted to help my sister, but I could hardly take care of myself. The same people who took my brothers and sisters were back. They had my sister in a box and when they picked me up I used all the energy I had to thump my tail just once.

Mama Voice noticed my tail thump and asked to keep me with her. Now Mama Voice and I were alone. She became my whole world. I would drink and take long naps. Then I’d hear her voice, sometimes other voices, and we’d do it all over again. Mama Voice kept whispering to me, “Hang on. Keep fighting. Be strong.”

I hung on. I fought. And I became stronger. One day, Mama Voice offered me wet food on her finger and I licked it. Mama Voice wept. I didn’t think she’d ever stop crying.

Every day my stomach hurt less. Every day I loved Mama Voice more. Before long I was running around Mama Voice’s yard, playing with her cats, and stealing her flip-flops.

Mama Voice has a big heart and home. There were three cats and eight dogs for me to play with. But she said it was time for me to find my forever home. Mama Voice sounded sad as she explained it would be best for me.

On a clear Tuesday morning, Mama Voice said goodbye to me and slipped me into a soft, red crate. She introduced me to Kristin and Tony and told me they would help me find my new mom. I had to travel over 2,947 miles.

I rode in taxis, on a ferry, in a van, on an airplane, and finally ended up in Milwaukee at General Mitchell Field. Kristin and Tony were taking me for a walk in the airport when we heard, “There he is!” and a lady came running towards us.

Kristin said, “We found her, Ruben. That’s your forever mom!” My goodness, it was a lot of excitement for a puppy who had traveled all day.

It turned out I wasn’t home yet. But Mom and Papa knew I’d be tired and we stayed together in a big room with a giant bed for all of us. The next day, we traveled from Milwaukee to rural Viola.

I have a brother and a sister again, and all sorts of cats and barnyard animals. My house is warm and Mom loves to go for walks and spoil me. I wish you could see me right now—I haven’t stopped thumping my tail.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve died and gone to heaven.  

Thank you to Isla Animals, Mama Voice; Michelle, Anna, Kristin, Tony, Erica, and John, Lea, and all the others who gave of their time and heart. At Isla Animals Dog Rescue they like to say, “Caring Is Global.” It sure is!

Love, Ruben (I was named after the owner of Mom’s favorite restaurant in Isla Mujeres to get a burrito!)

Originally Published February 21st, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Storytelling

IMG_2217.jpg

From Jane’s World

I used to tell people that Roger, my old neighbor, had better stories than I did. Roger moved to Illinois a few years ago, but I check in with him often.

Yesterday, as I was driving to work, I called to see how he was faring farther south, in light of the cold spell we’re having here. Within minutes we were talking over each other about the weather, cars, and a planned visit that had been postponed due to both weather and cars.

I began telling Roger about my morning. My new neighbor, Tom, who bought both Roger’s home here and his snowplow, had come over earlier to plow out my driveway. Later I discovered my car wouldn’t start. I called Tom and explained I had an appointment in town and asked if he’d be willing to come jump my car.

Before Tom made it to my house, my car miraculously started. Roger laughed as I explained how I had driven toward Tom’s house while trying to call him back to save him a needless trip.

When I was about a mile down the road, Tom finally answered. “Where are you?” I asked.

“Coming to your house. I just got to the bottom of my driveway.”

"Turn around. It started! I’m glad I caught you before you went too far.”

“What was wrong with it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I just got lucky and it started!”

“Maybe it wasn’t in park.”

“Maybe,” I answered, but I knew that Tom had solved the mystery. I’d had the car in reverse.

Roger had a good chuckle and said he had also done this. Once, he even had a tow truck on the way before he noticed the car wasn’t in park.

Roger and I have a lot in common.

Roger’s wife, Pat, was a good friend to me. She died unexpectedly and left a huge hole in my life. Pat was Roger’s everything. But Roger got lucky and has recently made friends with a wonderful lady who lives near him. He has been blessed twice, once with Pat, and now with Joanne.

“Well, I have a good one for you,” Roger said.

He told me about going to Joanne’s house the week before to pick her up for dinner. He went to the door to get her and as they came back out Joanne said, “Roger, where’s your car?”

Roger said, “In the driveway.”

Joanne exclaimed, “No, it’s not.”

Roger looked all around. The car was across the street, cockeyed in someone else’s driveway. Roger had left it in neutral and Joanne’s driveway has enough of a hill that it rolled. Thankfully, no one, nor the car, was injured!

I laughed until tears were rolling down my cheeks and my hound dog, Tete, began barking from the back seat.

I countered with the story of the time I had a neighbor, a sheriff’s deputy, and Ronnie, my favorite tow truck man, all trying to start my car, which had stalled a hundred yards from my driveway one frigid, snowy night.

After many attempts to start the car, and much work in the blinding snow to secure it to the back of Ronnie’s truck with an assortment of chains, they discovered the tailpipe was packed with snow. I had backed into a snowbank!

Roger and I both cackled at the memory and how mad I made Ronnie, who is usually as sweet as cherry pie.

But Roger had one more: He prefaced the story by explaining that he’s now driving the car that used to be Pat’s, and he’s not familiar with it.

Roger had taken Joanne out to eat. While they were in the restaurant, it started snowing. After their meal, Roger helped Joanne into the car and proceeded to clear off the front and back windows. When he got to Joanne’s house, he reached up to turn on the dome light, but accidentally opened the skylight instead, dumping about four inches of snow on Joanne.

I was howling so hard I couldn’t drive. I had to say good-bye and hang up for fear I’d drive off the road and have to call Ronnie.

I sure miss Roger. Hands down, he always has the best stories!

Originally Published February 14th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

My Older Sister

scan0014.jpg

From Jane’s World

We grew up hearing the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But what if your mind begins to waste on its own accord?

My big sister, Jill, was the smart one in our family. Labeling children isn't healthy, but there it is: Jill was the smart one. She was also pretty, and had blue eyes and long, thick, wavy blond hair.

Jill has always joked about being my older sister. And for years I’ve signed my cards to her “Love, your younger sister, Jane.”

Jill’s hair turned silver years ago. It’s still thick and wavy.

But this story isn’t about her hair color or her clear blue eyes.

Jill stopped driving at the age of 62. She voluntarily gave up her right to drive after getting lost and frightened too many times. This was the same year Jill was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Jill lives alone not far from the home where we grew up. She has a friend who stays with her when he can to help her out. She’s incredibly smart but her mind trips her up, more now than when she was diagnosed four years ago. These mistakes terrify me, even though I understand how Alzheimer’s slowly crushes one’s mind and, ultimately, one’s life.

When I called Jill today her voice lifted; there was joy. But then I had to strain to hear her speak.

She shared with me her fear about falling. She falls because her depth perception is out of whack. She counts steps to try to prevent herself from falling. She said she doesn’t get lost, but our brother Jack told me that Jill got lost last week coming out of the bathroom in my mom’s tiny apartment.

When I asked Jill what I could do for her, she said, “Tell me about your day; what have you been doing?” I struggled to come up with anything worthwhile to mention and ended up telling her a funny story about Louisa, my pig. She laughed and I said, “What do you want to do next weekend when I come to see you?”

“Anything with you, anything,” she answered softly.

“Okay, I’ll pick you up and we can be like Thelma and Louise. We’ll drive all over town and do whatever we want to do!”

“What did we used to do?”

“Remember the Fourth of July that Jack came pulling up to Mom and Dad’s house with those three-wheelers in the back of his pickup?” Jill laughs and I swear I can see her head nodding.

“Jack took those bikes off the back, a big one and a smaller one, and told us not to touch them. He went to town for gas or something. I looked at you and hopped on the big one, smiled, and said, ‘Dirt sisters, start your engines!’”

I hear Jill chuckling. “Dirt, sisters, start,” she repeats after me.

“You got on the little bike and away we raced down the driveway and straight across the street to Hales Corners Park,” I continue. “I ended up going down the hill too fast, couldn’t turn, and tipped right over into the creek. I had to wait for you to find me.”

“You were wearing an all-white outfit for Fourth of July,” Jill says. “I saw you lying under that bike and said, ‘You're going to get it!’ And left you there to go get Jack.” Her clarity startles me. She has it down pat. This is a story we have often retold.

We both laugh at how ridiculous it was for her to leave me there, how furious Jack was with me, and how lucky I was I didn’t get crushed.

Then we are quiet. Too quiet.

I tell my sister that I’ll see her Saturday morning. I also tell her that if the weather forecast suggests the drive to Milwaukee will be unmanageable, I’ll call her right away. She asks me to relay this information to her friend and calls out for him, twice. “Oh, I’m alone. He’s not here.”

My heart plummets with the pain and fear I can hear in her faint, almost childish voice. “Maybe he is outside shoveling the walk,” I say.

Later, her friend calls me to confirm my phone call with Jill and that I’ll be there next Saturday.

My niece messaged me that they set up an appointment to have Jill assessed for moving into a memory care home in February. My sister is not only falling but slipping away. Her friend is not able to be with her around the clock.

Jill’s silver hair is still thick and wavy. She’s still the smart one. She would never willingly let her mind waste. If she could outsmart this disease, she would. But no one can. It’s merciless.

 Before I hang up the phone I say, “I'll see you Saturday.” And in my mind I add, I'll be your big sister now.

IMG_3132.JPG

Originally Published February 7th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Snow Dad

775833_478275388895338_484435155_o+%281%29.jpg

From Jane’s World

I have my dad to thank for loving snow. He never did grow tired of playing with me outside in winter.

When I was still small enough not to hurt him, my dad taught me how to belly flop. He’d lie down on the red sled—the one with metal runners—and I’d lie on his back. While he held the steering bars, he encouraged me to hang on, but my legs were too short to wrap around him, so I’d end up with my wet-mittened hands snug around his neck. We were wild then, and those sled runners sharp and slick.

My cheeks would grow red, my nose would drip, but my stomach was toasty. Snow from the runners would fly up into our faces, making our eyes water and lips freeze to our teeth. Our frozen mouths made us look like those caroling angels carved out of wood. Down the hill we’d fly, soaring over a bump and landing hard. I’d topple off into the snow as our sled skidded to a stop inches from the creek, my dad still on it.

One Christmas morning I awoke to find a long piece of dark, polished wood with red cushions and a red rope attached―a toboggan! My mom had declared our sled too dangerous; she was certain my dad wouldn’t be able to control the red wooden sled and that those runners would slice me in half.

The thrill of lying on my dad’s back on our new toboggan, screaming as we flew down the sledding hill at Hales Corners Park, still warms me. Up and down the toboggan slide we’d go. My dad wore an old green winter army jacket that was too short, leaving his lower back and half of his butt exposed! Did his butt ever feel like a block of ice, or was his belly ever sore the next day?

Building a snowman took all afternoon. Dad would help roll the second ball of snow on top of the first and lift the third on top of the second. I’d raid our box of winter accessories for old scarves, stocking hats, and sometimes even mismatched mittens. Stopping to grab a carrot from the refrigerator, I’d head back outside. Dad would already have the coal in place for the snowman’s eyes.

We didn’t have a snowblower. Before my dad would start playing with me, he would shovel our long driveway—long enough to park eight cars bumper to bumper. How did he not get tired?

As I grew older, my dad would take me skating. He would pull out his beat-up brown hockey skates, sling my white figure skates over my neck, and walk with me on the path to the skating rink. I’d be all bundled up and he’d be wearing that old, too-short jacket. We held hands as we wound our way through the park to the basketball courts that, every winter, the parks department would freeze over to form a rink.

Inside the building, we would cross the linoleum laid down to protect the floors from our sharp skates, and plop down on a hard, wooden bench. Dad would help me get my skates on before putting on his own, then off we’d go. Dad skated so fast that my legs had to pump three times as hard as his just to hold on to his hand. Around and around the rink we flew! What I remember most is his boundless energy. He loved winter and loved being with me.

When I became a teen, I felt I was getting too old to go to the rink with Dad. I’d head to the rink every chance I got to play with my friends. We played endless games of pom-pom pull away, chasing each other across the rink and back again. My skates had huge, handmade pom-poms that Dad helped me make by wrapping yarn around cardboard circles.

On weekends I’d leave the house early, walk the path alone to the rink and stay there until I had to be home for lunch.

By the time I’d come home, my dad would have meticulously shoveled the driveway and the sidewalks. One time there was even a snowman in the front yard to greet me!

Dad would take my wet hat, scarf, and mittens and lay them on the fireplace mantel to dry. He always asked if I was having fun at the rink, but he never asked to come along. When lunch was over, I’d get dressed and race back to the rink until dinner.

As an adult, I love winter and snow.

Often, when hiking in the quiet, snow-filled trails of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, I think of Dad. I’m glad his love for winter was contagious, seeing as I still live in Wisconsin.

I wish he was still alive so we could fill my yard with snowmen and go sledding afterward. I wish I had never started thinking I was too old to go skating with him. He never once got too old—or too cold—to play with me.

Originally Published January 31st, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Pigs and People

IMG_2430.jpg

From Jane’s World

I can’t help but smile when I think of the number of times a reader has sidled up to me at the co-op or the post office to ask about Louisa. Louisa, my pet pig, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure last February. It’s good to know people care. She even received a get-well card in the mail.

Yesterday morning when I went out to feed the critters, I began to worry about her.

Louisa, who can’t contain her eagerness to get out of the Goat Palace in the morning and bury her face in her warm mash, didn’t come out. The goats both sauntered down the ramp and over to the hay I set out for them, but Louisa only grunted when she saw me. When I walked up to her, she lay back down with a thud. As I petted her and asked her what was wrong, my mind barreled ahead—Louisa is dying.

I surrounded her with as much straw as I could carry and then ran inside to call Dr. Solverson. I knew I’d need to leave a message; it was only 5:45 a.m. and I had to leave for work by 6.

As I drove to work, I replayed Louisa’s behavior and the message I had left for the doctor. If Louisa didn’t want to eat and was lethargic, I could assume she had a fever and was ill. Even so, my message to the doc may have been a bit dramatic: “I pray that you can come soon. I think she is dying. Having to work when your animal is sick should be illegal. Please call me as soon as you know what is wrong.”

I shared the news of Louisa’s illness with the first person I saw that morning. They responded by reminding me that Louisa was just a pig. For the rest of my work day, I kept my troubles to myself.

I’ve learned that there are animal people and non-animal people. I’ve observed for years the impact I have on some as I’ve recounted my woes about a duck with bumble-foot, a donkey with a hoof fungus, or Louisa’s congestive heart failure. I’ve watched eyes roll up inside foreheads and not come down until I’ve finished telling my sad tales. But I’ve also noticed that sharing my grief over the sudden death of a dear neighbor could elicit the same reaction. Some people have enormous reserves of empathy for all humans. Other people seem to have a better understanding of how it feels to lose a beloved dog. And then there are some people who only care about themselves and no one else, whether four-legged, feathered, or two-legged.

Worrying about a pig when friends are fighting cancer might seem trivial. I assure you I also spend time worrying about friends and family members who are struggling with health, financial, or personal cares. And it feels like I spend every minute worrying about the state of affairs our country is in.

Dr. Solverson’s call came in around 2:30 p.m. I pulled over to the side of the road to listen to what he had to say. Louisa was indeed sick and had a fever. But he also had good news: “Her heart, although not great, sounds better than last year. I can tell she’s lost weight.” He had to treat her with an injectable antibiotic and assured me she wasn’t so sick that she didn’t try to run away from him when he pulled out the syringe. He had to coax Louisa back into the Palace and lie flat out on top of her to give her that shot!

By the time I got home, Louisa was acting more like herself: She was looking for food. While feeding her a few bananas, I thought about the similarities between pigs and people. Pigs and humans have mostly hairless skin, a layer of subcutaneous fat, protruding noses, and thick eyelashes. Current research suggests that pigs and primates may be closer in evolutionary terms than we once thought.

I know my animals have empathy for each other. Over the years I’ve watched my dog Tete mourn the death of her best buddy, Raime. I’ve watched my cats search for days when their fellow cat, Farley, came up missing. And I remember how Benny, my parakeet, would not sing or talk after Joon fell from her perch and never got up.

When I return home from a vacation, I can barely step in the door without both dogs jumping up on me and crying their welcome, the donkeys braying their hearts out and Louisa grunting so loudly I fear she’ll have heart failure before I can get down to her pen and say hello. I doubt I’m just a human to them.

Loving both people and animals seems normal. They go together like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. And, by the concern I’ve been shown by the people who read this column, I know I’m not alone.

As I settled into my bed, I said a thank-you prayer for Louisa’s health, and a prayer for healing for anyone struggling with health issues. I thought about the person who tried to comfort me by reminding me that Louisa is just a pig. But she’s not just a pig, she’s my pig!

Originally Published January 24th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Isla Perros

IMG_2446.JPG

From Jane’s World

Years ago, on Dane and my first trip to Isla Mujeres, I fell in love with a Mexican mutt named Prince.

We had just settled in to relax on Playa Norte when a man came by walking two adorable dogs. While we petted the puppies, he told me about Isla Animal Rescue. I knew before the day was out, we’d be visiting the shelter. Dane took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

It was love at first sight and Prince, whom I later renamed Gambo (after a character in the Isabel Allende book I was reading on the beach), came home to Wisconsin three long months later. It took determination, hard work, and many good people to get Gambo his passport and passage here.

Once home, it also took plenty of patience, medical tests and drugs to try to overcome his horrible digestion problem. At-home IV treatments became the norm, and we had three emergency trips to the vet to fix his prolapsed rectum.

His appetite was healthy and, much to my dismay, included toads and insects. But his system couldn’t handle food of any kind and later he’d suffer from bloody stools and projectile vomiting. One evening when we were giving Gambo his IV, his eyes appeared dark and empty. I called Dane at work the next day. Through tears I said, “I think it might be ...” and, before I could finish, Dane said, “Yes, I think so, too.”

I held Gambo as Dr. Bass put him to rest, and cradled his emaciated body on the way home. We buried him under a willow tree that we planted in his honor.

Each trip to Isla Mujeres thereafter has included a visit to the animal shelter, where Dane and I play with the pups and take them for walks. We keep our eyes peeled for stray pups and we’ve learned that a collar means they have a home; no collar means they are homeless. The island can be a cruel place for dogs that haven’t been lucky enough to be caught and taken to the shelter.

On our most recent trip, we petted, fed, and enjoyed the company of many stray pups. “Look at that poochie! Puppy! Oh my, there’s a little sweetie!” we’d exclaim as we lay reading on the beach, browsed the market, or enjoyed a romantic evening stroll on the square.

In the mornings, while we hunted for sea glass, a black and white mid-sized dog I named “Bella” would romp around with “Barney,” a lanky and homeless Airedale mix. The two poochies provided endless enjoyment for Dane and me as they ran in and out of the waves, scrounged for who-knows-what in the seagrass, and came to us for pets and leftover treats from our previous evening’s meal.

We could tell by her healthy coat and fancy red collar that Bella was well loved. Barney was unkempt, somewhat leery of us, and way more hungry. The two had boundless energy, but after about an hour Bella would take off and Barney would look forlorn. One afternoon Barney found a dead, bloated fish and we watched him carry it away. We only saw Barney in the evening once, sulking along the main drag. But without fail we’d see him and his Bella as the sun was rising.

At the shelter this year, we had just finished walking two dogs when a couple and their grown daughter came in. We were thrilled to discover they were there to adopt the puppy that Dane had just walked!

Visiting the shelter and playing with the pups is bittersweet for me. I always want to take at least one home with me. This year was no different and Dane convinced me it wasn’t the right time, as my girl Tete, the hound dog, may need surgery on her knee.

On our last day on the island, we left our room in the dark to be seaside when the sun rose. It was a gloriously warm and calm morning. As we watched the sun lift over the water, we started combing the beach for treasures. I kept looking up, waiting to see Bella and Barney, but sadly, they never appeared. As we headed toward our room down a sand-filled lane, Bella bounded up to us at full speed, wagging her tail so fast it became a blur. I bent down to hug her, while both Dane and I looked around, expecting Barney. He never showed up.

Leaving the beauty of Isla Mujeres and the perros that need forever homes wasn’t easy. But this year our hearts were full of loving memories of Gambo. I had donated money to have a tile made of his picture and we found it on the shelter’s memorial wall. The wall commemorates pets that were adopted from the Isla shelter and have passed on. Pointing to Gambo’s tile with one hand, the other placed over my heart, I vowed to continue supporting Isla Animal Rescue. Maybe one day we’ll see Barney again and bring him home.

Originally Published January 17th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout

Feeding Frenzy

100_0319.jpg

From Jane’s World

Please tell me that you’ve been eating like a bear that just woke from a long hibernation, that it’s not just me who begins eating crappy food the first week in December and doesn’t stop until January. As soon as I start thinking “holidays,” my whole psychology changes. I go deep into a scarcity—or maybe a celebration—mode.

Worst are the cravings for foods I normally avoid: sweets, fats, and crunchy, simple, salty carbs. On recent days, I’ve polished off a pound of shrimp with cocktail sauce, an assortment of wee fudge brownie nuggets, and easily a dozen deviled eggs. I don’t even like deviled eggs!

Circling the buffet tables at friends' parties has become an event for me. I have a system. Keep moving to the right, hold a saucer in your right hand. Have a holiday-themed napkin tucked underneath to wipe away any tell-tale crumbs. Grab from the table with your left hand. Make eye contact with everyone you encounter while chit-chatting. Partygoers are bound to be focusing on your eyes, leaving your left hand free to do as it wishes. When you say, “Oh, fine. I’m fine,” casually saunter on your way around the table while slipping that delicious stuffed olive down your gullet.

The shrimp frenzy is a new one for me. It came on fast, as if I grew flippers and started clapping and barking. Maybe it’s because I’ve committed to keeping the heat down near sixty in my house. Or maybe that I just returned from a vacation by the sea. It could also be a selenium or B12 deficiency. I toss down the shrimp, throwing my head back like a seal. First, I dip them in a tiny amount of cocktail sauce (like that bit of vegetable matter justifies eating a pound at a time) and down the hatch they go. I especially like that I don't even have to mess up a plate: I take one from the bag, dip it in the bottle of sauce, and toss it into my mouth. No mess. The bonus was finding cocktail sauce in a plastic bottle. A squeeze of my left hand brings the red sauce bubbling to the top, then onto the shrimp in my right hand. Are you thinking I’d get sick from eating a whole pound of shrimp? I didn’t.

On the healthy side, I’ve become obsessed with guacamole. Everyone knows that avocados are one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods, boasting a whopping 20 different vitamins and minerals. I picture all those good nutrients celebrating like it’s 2019 in my gut. It feels good. The downside of my guacamole craze is that I enjoy a crisp, fat-fried, salty chip to use as a shovel to scoop it up. Oh, and a third of an avocado has nearly 80 calories! Still, I prefer to regard my obsession with avocados as healthy. Whatever it takes to get through January.

I understand the evolutionary reason for starting to eat more when the weather gets colder. Calories consumed help keep us warm. In Ely, Minnesota, I once participated in a dog-sledding adventure. The highlight of the workshop was sleeping on the ice in tents. Some participants chose to sleep under the stars. It was the dead of winter and well below zero. 

Once we unhooked the dogs and took care of their needs, we scavenged the shoreline forest for dead wood and dragged it into a gigantic pile that we hoped would burn through the evening. Afterward, we had dinner. It was common to add hunks of butter to hot chocolate, and before climbing into our sleeping bags the leaders had us do jumping jacks and eat a huge chocolate bar. The idea was that the fat, exercise, and calories would help raise our bodies' thermostats.

The eating frenzy continued in the morning. Breakfast was a half pound of bacon per person with a good six eggs. Once again, a stick of butter was passed around—so we could saw off slabs as big as Arctic ice floes to melt into our coffee. Mm, mm ... not good!

Seeing as it’s now January, it’s time for me to put the brakes on this outrageous appetite of mine. I’m not living in the frozen outback of Ely. I’m not burning thousands of calories a day. And I’m not eating my meals while shivering in a tent on the ice. I’m eating in my home, which, even at my frugal 60 degrees, is far from freezing. So, next time I hear those shrimp calling me from the fridge, I’ll go for a walk instead. 

Originally Published January 10th, 2019 in the Crawford County Independent & Kickapoo Scout