Monday, June 22, 2015

Exorcising the Past

When Roger bought the house in Flaxton, the former owner had left behind things he couldn't--or wouldn't--haul with him to his new home.

Charles reminded me of the actor Ray Walston, circa OF MICE AND MEN era. His dilapidated clothing actually could have served as his character Candy's wardrobe for the film. Charles' personality, however, was not as sweet as the old swamper's; it could best be described as curmudgeonly. The man's stated views on politics and people, as well as his implied ideas of housekeeping, made me cringe. The elderly widower had lived here alone with his dog, an old german shorthair who left behind enough of his wiry fur to reassemble a new beast. His dog also left behind many blankets and pieces of furniture on which his tired, unwashed body had lain. Furthermore, his old dog incontinence had caused him to leak urine throughout the house. Charles, too, had left behind sundry remnants of his tenancy. He'd collected scrap metal, and rumor had it that he used to root through the local dump grounds to add to his hoard. Roger discovered Charles' personal dumping grounds for household rubbish on the northwest corner of the property in back of the outhouse, where he deposited personal material of an organic nature. Most of this detritus has been eliminated, repurposed or rehomed or is in the process of being dealt with properly.

Inside the house, complete matching bedroom sets filled the attic rooms--these most likely were left by the Bensons, who owned the place for many years before Charles. Among the items left on the house's main floor was a gas stove whose flames baptized the bottom of each pan with a thick layer of soot. Through trial and error, we found that if the flames were not on high or even medium, the amount of emitted soot could be mitigated. To clean these pots and pans, however, had always been an unholy mess. Soot on the counter, soot on the sponge, soot on your hands and under your nails, soot in the dishwater...yuck.

Yesterday was Sunday, the day on which I washed my last blackened pan. Hallelujah.

The day before, I'd helped Roger haul in an electric stove that had been in storage for ten years. I'd promised Roger to christen the oven by making baking powder  biscuits for him. As I scrubbed and shined the inside and outside of our new-to-the-home appliance, I rejoiced in our future of soot-free countertops and pots and pans and hands and water. Oh my, nothing could have prepared me for this baptism.

When we'd brought in the appliance, Roger had suggested that I run the empty oven first for a bit to burn off any cleaning chemicals. I cranked the oven up to 550 and let 'er buck while I assembled the dough. After the chemical smell abated, I decreased the oven temperature, popped the biscuits into the oven, set the timer, and cleaned up the kitchen. While I cleaned, I noticed a new smell...and it wasn't the smell of biscuits baking. Naturally, this was the moment Roger came inside and asked what was burning. He said he could smell it from outside while he was working.

"It's the cleaning chemicals, I think," I replied as I turned around to look at the oven...and noticed smoke wafting from the back of the appliance's right side.

The biscuits were done, so I hurriedly took them out and turned off the oven as Roger set to work diagnosing the cause of the smoke, which was steadily thickening. Phoebe, the golden retriever with the nose of a bloodhound, proceeded to run to the back door and anxiously paw at the welcome mat. Then she raced to the livingroom to cower beneath the coffee table. From the front porch, I grabbed the fan I'd bought for us a couple of summers ago and set it up in the kitchen window to blow the smoke outside. I returned to the front of the house and opened the door.  Then I walked to the back door and raised the storm window to invite more fresh air into the house. Armed with a bottle of Febreeze, I strode through the house, leaving a lavender-scented mist in my wake. I likened my purification rite to that of a Catholic priest waving a thurible and praying for the help of the saints. This demonic smoky stench had to go.

As I raced around the house, Roger coolly peered down the vents beneath the stovetop. While Roger sleuthed out the appliance's problem, I stopped to sample one of the freshly baked biscuits. The consistency of the biscuit was okay--not as flaky as those made with shortening,  but at least the inside was soft and the exterior wasn't as hard as a hockey puck. The flavor, however, was off. "This biscuit tastes like crap," I said and took another nibble to ascertain the source of the flavor foible. Indeed, the biscuits had a bitter taste, not the sweet, buttery flavor of biscuits I'd baked in the past.

"Come here--look at this," Roger said and waved me over to the stove.

First, he shined the light down the left-hand vent, which looked fairly clean for a used stove. Then he shined the light down the right-hand one, illuminating the cause of the smolder: mouse droppings and the makings of a nest.

"Yeah, I thought we should have waited to use the oven taken until after we'd cleaned out the sides, too," Roger belatedly stated.

Prior to this little fiasco, if he would have verbalized the possibility of hidden vermin dwellings inside the stove, I wouldn't have made these craptacular baked goods. I vowed to donate the biscuits to the area's wildlife with the hope that they would eat them and my labor would not be entirely in vain. But Roger had not suggested this potential problem to me, and I did not think of it, since when I'd cleaned it, I found no evidence of the appliance serving as a mouse condominium.

As the smoke cleared, Roger sat down in the livingroom.

"Try one of these, Roger," I said as I handed him a biscuit. "Does the flavor seem off to you?"

He bit into one. As he chewed, his face wrinkled in distaste. "They're kind-of bitter," he replied.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Birdwalking in the Bush

In the mornings, birds fill the air, their lithe bodies swirling in the sky and songs ferried by the wind.

I stand, morning coffee cup in hand, and drink in the scene. Swallows with their split tails zoom overhead, occasionally lighting on a roof peak or the flag pole top. This morning, one alights on the flag pole top and lets loose a feather it had carried in its beak; this gift lands at my feet. A flock of birds similar to seagulls--minus the characteristic cry--circle high overhead, their flight suggesting concentric rings of water radiating from a disturbed surface. Mourning doves coo from their perches on telephone lines. Huge robins spar over something unbeknownst to me. A hungry owl squawks from somewhere in the trees. All the while, the wind's susurration whispers today's plan in my ear: it begins with a morning dogwalk down the gravel road in front of the house.

From the sloughs along the road, various duck breeds, red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, killdeers, and starlings will abandon their posts as we pass. Some will cry alarms. The quacking of mallards and splash of water as they fly will attract the attention of Phoebe, the olden golden retriever, whose body freezes and ears open to catch the sound. She seems to instinctively recall her breeding and the job associated with it, and I will have to wrestle her away from the stagnant water of the ditch. Rugrat will scent invisible quarry from tall grasses and dive into the undergrowth, limited by the leash. She will emerge from the grasses unfazed and trot beside us as we continue our perambulation.

The life awaiting me outside the house beckons, and it's time to get out of my head to answer the call.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Little Home On the Prairie

I'm not wearing a bonnet (yet) and neither of my dogs' names are Bandit (yet), but I'm making the move to life in North Dakota in a little house between a prairie and a farm field.

People think of NoDak as one vast, unending prairie. While that stretch on 29 between Fargo and Grand Forks seems that way, the northern part of the state is very pretty. There are rolling hills, lakes stocked with healthy fish, trees that are more than windbreaks, wide open skies, and good roads. People are friendly and kind, too.

And multitudinous new experiences await me. For example, just this morning I put some mail out for the mailman to pick up, and I raised the little red arm on the mailbox to alert him. I've never done that before. Drink coffee in the morning in my pajamas on the back porch and watch the swallows swerve around the yard. Listen to the wind blowing through the trees, the silence occasionally interrupted by a train whistle and the intermittent squawk of a hungry female owl letting her big hunter know that she's hungry (they do that when they're nesting or have a owlet to look after). Walk the dogs down dusty country roads and struggle to keep the golden retriever out of sloughs where ducks are swimming. It's peaceful and calming.

And I write. So far, a lot of it's in my head and heart and wherever else inspiration awaits incarnation. I imagine what form my life here will take, and if that form is a something with which I can live. I pray for the happiness and safety of my family, friends, and former students back in the Cities and around the world.

For all the idyllic details, there are inconveniences. No trash service, so you have to burn it, bring it to the dump, or haul it to work and surreptitiously slip it in the company dumpster. No well nor a connection to a water main, so we fill the large basement cistern from the water tower. Cheapest groceries are at least 1.5 hours away (Walmart in Minot). In other words, there is a certain mindfulness required to live here...and this is actually kinda cool. You have to ask yourself how much you really need certain things.

I'm happy here, though I miss some people in the Cities. I will see them soon, and I'm only a phone call, text, post, tweet, Skype session, road trip, train or plane ride away. Laura Ingalls didn't have that convenience or connectivity. We live in an age in which physical distance does not end relationships unless we choose to let it. I choose to stay in touch with those who are a part of my life, and I hope others choose to reciprocate.