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Monthly Archives: May 2007

Wine and roses

When you first read wine making books, you get the impression that you need a degree in chemistry to undertake the task. Above is the display my weekend class put out for others to see after our course. Now I know wine making is remarkably easy and there’s a great deal of room for creativity. It is like all forms of cooking. All you need is the basics and a voracious appetite for experimentation and you are ready to go.
This weekend, I learned about making country wines, which are blends made with fruits, vegetables and herbs. The only difficulty I imagine from this point on is remembering the details about how to proceed successfully, because the class started sampling wines in different stages of fermentation at 9am, and we kept at it until five, which does not bode well for an academic mindset or clear memory.  I was shocked by how good homemade country wines can be, such as dandelion-chamomile, or kiwi, or strawberry sweetened with fresh lemonade before the final racking. My teacher was wonderfully prepared, and had set things up in advance so we could sample batches of wine right after we made them, then taste what they should be like six days later, then six months. He then gave us a tasting of what those same recipes would taste like in one year. This gave us the full gamete of the process and helps us to know what to look for. Can’t imagine how to cover the subject in a single weekend any other way.

Nearly everyone in the class had made wine before, mostly from kits. I’ve considered starting with a kit, but held off be cause I felt they were cheating somehow. In a kit, all the ingredients are given you in little pre-measured packets and you are guided day by day in what to do to make what will turn out to be foolproof wine. Sort of a no-brainer. Seemed to me as if this would be going through the motions, but not really learning to make wine from scratch. But I feel differently now, because I realize kits allow people to go through the motions to learn basics, and afterwords, they are prepared to strike out on their own to try a different recipes without the pre-measured ingredients or day to day instructions, but at least an idea of what to expect and how to proceed (and some basic tools).

We made strawberry wine and kiwi chardonnay in the class, learned how to bottle it, and make fancy personalized labels. We learned how to cork those bottles and put spiffy gold seal locks on top for a pretty presentation.

We learned all about fermentation and how to sweeten wine and how one batch can deliver bottles of dry wine, as well as sweeter wines if you have a taste for them.  Someone had brought in 10 gallons of wine gone bad, and we learned how to fix it. That was a great “extra” beyond the syllabus, thanks to the fellow with the cloudy, tangy wine who was not too proud to bring it in and withstand jokes about his questionable wine making talent.

Here are the bottles I came away with this weekend. One was designated for Denver, because yesterday was her 21st birthday. What better way to make the day than by giving her a (now) legal beverage made to honor her adulthood?

If you look closely, you can see I put “Hendry Private Reserve” on the lable. La-ti-da!

By around 3:00 in the afternoon, we had finished most of the wine making, and were in sampling mode. This was our designated happy hour, and my teacher had invited friends in from his band (he plays in a bluegrass band and is a songwriter too.) They did a rip-roaring stand up comedy act for us filed with backcountry wine jokes, then played music while we all sampled wine. It was great, casual fun. Two of the friends he invited make mead, so they gave a short lecture on that division of wine making too and let us sample different flavored meads. I was fascinated, because as a beekeeper, I’m already looking for special ways to use the honey I will harvest next year (mead is made with honey).

I must say that learning to make wine hit a hot note deep inside me. I thought, “This is my calling” because there is something so lovely about taking natural ingredients and working with them for a year or so to create something to special to share with friends. My teacher said the greatest thing about homemade wine is the fact that people rarely turn it down. Even non-drinkers will visit will say, “Well, if it is homemade, I guess I’ll try some.” As if homemade wine doesn’t count as drinking. Ha.

As we sampled wines, we kept categorizing them by use . . .”I’d call this a luncheon wine,” we’d say as we samples something fruity and light. “This is definitely a campfire wine,” we’d say about something with a raw kick. And in my mind, I started thinking about what I really like and what kind of wines I would enjoy serving at home adhering to our lifestyle and taste preferences. I love the idea that there is no right or wrong, you can develop wine to your personal idea of what tastes good. 
Here is my teacher. Although he has won some awards for his country wines and meads, he had this great down to earth attitude. He said, “What I want all you to think after this class is not what a great wine maker I am, but that if this simple guy can make wine, anyone can!” 

One of the best wines we tried was wild blackberry. Dave (the teacher) said the problem about making blackberry wine was that it takes so long to pick the amount of blackberries needed. Ha. No problem. I looked at his 4 pounds of blackberries and thought it was nary a morning’s work for Neva and I. We are a blackberry-picking machine in July.

On the way home from the class, Mark took me to see a local wine supply store nestled in a small stone cottage out in the middle of nowhere. Funny how he discovers these kinds of places and stores them in the back of his mind for just when you need them. We went in and met this burly old man who growled that all homemade wine tastes like gasoline . . . then he said, “What do I need to get started?” Yes, he was quite the salesman. We bought all the basic supplies, and I threw in a kit for Pinot Grigio too. I am planning to make some strawberry wine while the strawberries are still in season and get it racked in time for blackberry in a few months. But I will make a sure proven, name brand white wine too for those who are wine palate snobs and will turn up their noses at the idea of country wines. (I will woo them with my kit wine and having won their confidence, I’ll seduce them into trying my experimental lowbrow country wines. I have a plan, you see.) 

Once I was home, I went on line to pick up some basic acid blends and tannins and other wine making ingredients so I can springboard off from the basics and start experimenting with fruit, flower and herb recipes. I also bought a book on homemade vinegars and cordials and I plan to start making those as well. Yes, it is only a matter of time until I have a liquor still hidden back behind my barn.  I even have a hankering to make beer, even though no one in this family drinks it. Nevertheless, hey, I have friends I can use as beer-ginnie-pigs. At this rate, I’ll be all ready to move to a quiet village in Italy to buy that wine vineyard in the next stage of life (a secret destiny Mark and I always joke about when we are stressed out and wish we could disappear where no one could find us.)

The most poignant thing about this weekend was laughing and talking with people who take the time to pursue an interest, whatever it may be. The world is filled with fascinating people who are full of life, a sense of adventure, and who are simply dang interesting, if you pause long enough to ask them questions and let conversation roll naturally. I think my world has been filled with one-dimensional people for way too long. Not that they were not interesting people in their own way, but they were not necessarily diversified and so many years of conversations centered only on theater and dance began to feel like I was living the movie Groundhog day. It made me feel an awful lot of living was passing everyone by, due to his or her tunnel (dance) vision. 
Here are my wine-making friends, all trying something new with a vengeance and such humor it made the experience quite a hoot.

Since sharing my interest in making wine, I’ve discovered many friends have tried it (even my sister – who knew?) Our friend, Vicki, always gave us Kaluaha for Christmas, and I knew she made it herself, but I never paused to consider just how this represented her diverse interest as a person. There were other things she did (ride a motorcycle etc…) which reminded me she was (is) more than a dancer. How many others kept dance in perspective and lived a life beyond? I wouldn’t know, because in my presence, they rarely brought up anything else, forever picking my brain and returning to the subject of dance no matter how I tried to discover who these people were. Perhaps, everyone ‘s life was diversified but mine. Sad reality.

Anyway, I’m very grateful now that I have the time to be more than a dancer myself and  I can see now that the only way to do that was to leave the obsessive environment we had created. Not that I didn’t have interests beyond dance before, or that I didn’t secretly pursue them. I’ve always been a voracious cook, a runner, a crafter, a reader, etc… And although I didn’t share this fact with others, I was writing historical romance novels while running the dance empire for some time. However, there was always this guilt that spending time on anything other than work was cheating someone of something – as if I was not allowed to be anything other than the dance person.  And time was so precious that rarely could we invest it in anything non dance oriented. Even weekends were reserved for rehearsals or competitions as we strove to meet the needs of group after group of dancers. But now,  I feel I have permission to dive head first into any interest that calls to me, and I don’t fret that a weekend playing is taking away from my (self-appointed) role as dance guru. This fills me with a profound sense of freedom. 

Some days, I feel like a blind person who suddenly was given their sight. Because of the path we’ve taken, I am meeting people from all walks of life who have crazy, fascinating interests and who in midlife, have chosen non-traditional paths to pursue, with priorities centered on self-fulfillment and their personal description of happiness. We are not unique in this choice we’ve made, and everyday we meet other couples who one day just up and decided to leave the rat race to seek a more meaningful life. I feel blessed to meet people like this because the siren’s call of work and hanging on to security and making as much money as you can (because that is what we are taught is practical and right) is hard to resist – habit and ingrained social training, I’m afraid. But sitting around that folk school class drinking homemade wine and listening to my teacher sing a song called “Take me away from concrete and greed” while playing his homemade percussion instrument (complete with a tin can, plunger, washboard, bicycle horn and other fine music making instruments attached to a walking stick) reminded me that true joy isn’t found when you are always trying to meet other’s expectations. Happiness is something often found in solitude, where you can discover calm moments of your true self, uninfluenced by others or even your own self-imposed self-definition and/or self-appointed obligations to others.

But then again, maybe all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo is just because I was drinking all day! Ha. I must have polished off several bottles, and lying under a table does make you see things upside down- life takes on a different perspective when you have a lampshade on your head.

Mark joined me at the Campbell school for the weekend, and this time, since there were no other classes that appealed to him; he registered for a class that was entirely different from anything he has ever tried. He usually takes classes working with wood. This time he took blacksmithing and worked with copper.

He liked it more than he expected, and plans to return to learn to make an iron lamp and other metal art. I happen to adore sculpture and I’ve hoped he would venture into the blacksmith shop one of these days, so I was delighted. The Campbell school is renowned for its blacksmithing courses and people come from all over the country to study here.  The problem with that is everyone is so experienced that it makes you feel like a bumpkin to be a beginner. But Mark was willing to try his hand at it.  I myself am quite intimidated by the workshop, because there are huge roaring fires inside and men dunking hot red iron trinkets in buckets where steam rises and hisses. People are in there pounding hammers against anvils so there is noise and heat and loud machinery creating nothing that could be construed as a meditative environment. Everything is covered with black dust – but the most beautiful things come out of there. Blacksmithing done well is such a remarkable art.  
Since this was just a weekend class, they were focusing on flowers made from copper. Mark made a gorgeous rose for Denver (wine and roses for her big 21!). It was so realistic, it was as if he dunked a real rose into a vat of copper and it hardened rahter than being cut from flat copper, fired and pounded into shape. He also made a tabletop sculpture for us with two other flowers. I think it is exquisite for a first attempt. Heck, it is exquisite for any attempt.

He hopes to go back for a week long class to learn more. I am now dreaming of future gift sculptures made from my own horses horseshoes. Talk about something meaningful yet interesting to rest on a desk! It’s a dirty hobby, to be sure. Mark’s hands were black, soot turned the white hair at his temples back to black. When I saw him at lunch, my first thought was to hose him down before giving him the wifely kiss. But hey, I’ve always liked men best when they are dirty and far be it from me to throw a stick at a blacksmith in the bedroom. Call me crazy, but that beats the man in a uniform or any other secret female fantasy, in my humble opinion. 

It was a lovely weekend – and for a moment or two we even got our mind off of the current FLEX crisis. Truthfully, even though we registered for these classes months ago, we almost didn’t go, do to depression. But when you are upset, sometime a change of environment is a very good thing (and a good stiff drink doesn’t hurt either). I think, in this case, spending our weekend in the positive, creative atmosphere of the Campbell Folk School with kind, enthusiastic people was just what we needed.
I’ll drink a toast to that in a few months when I crack open those bottles I made. 


Bee Prepared

“Better Safe than Sorry”
“Always be prepare for the worse.”
I’m not talking about dance school management. I’m talking about bees.

Today, I went to check on my bees for the first time. It was to be a maintenance check to be sure the bees are still there, building up their home appropriately. I figured I’d go out there in jeans and long sleeve shirt, maybe with my gloves and veil, because I was planning only a quick peek. I ordered a few additional things from the bee company after my class, and they arrived yesterday, so this morning, I spent an hour putting together a cedar hive stand and preparing another style of feeder with sugar syrup “just in case”. I would set these up too.

I put on shorts this morning, but didn’t feel comfortable dressing that lightly. As I go to change, I think it’ll be just as easy to slip on the bee suit. While this makes me seem like a nervous weenie, I figure it can’t hurt to suit up and pretend I’m a big time beekeeper (not as if anyone was around to make fun of me.)

I load up the car with the stuff I need, because the beehive is far from the house. I bring a second hive box with ten wax frames to expand living quarters. I also bring my bee brush to sweep bees out of the way, my hive tool to open the box just in case it is sealed shut with sticky goo, and my smoker, thinking I might as well light ‘er up just to practice. I’m convinced none of this is necessary, but it is fun to play with new toys.

I’m disappointed that no one is around so I can shout, “I’m going in . . .” like they did in the movie Tornado when the heroes bravely ventured into the path of danger.
I’m feeling like Rambo.

However, I’m also feeling silly; because I know I will probably do a spot check for five minutes, throw the new hive box on top, and be good to go. No big deal.

I light up the smoker using pine needles for fuel. It is oozing smoke rapidly, and I laugh because I feel like this is true overkill. I mean, I only have a few bees to peek in on this early in the game. No need to act so concerned about controlling them.

When I pick up the hive top feeder (remember, it had ants in it last week and was full of syrup) I see only dead ants and not a spec of sugar water. That’s good. My bees have eaten my entire starter snack. Sure didn’t take long.

I’m surprised because I actually do have to pry the top unit off. Wow, they’ve already begun sealing things shut. Good work. This almost feels like a real beehive check.

I lift up the top.

Holly Shit! There are about a million bees inside and every one of them stops what they are doing to turn around to stare at me with distain and an expression that reveals their intent to do me in.  (Well, that is what it felt like to this beginner.)

I slam the lid back on and reach for the smoker. I puff little whiffs of smoke inside under the lid and stand back to wait a few seconds the way my teacher demonstrated. When I go back in, the bees have all crawled down into the hive, making it easy for me to maneuver about the top. OK. Smoke is good. I love smoke.

I see that Aunt Bea has been making lots of babies and they are growing fast and working hard, because many of the inner frames are filled with comb. I want to lift one up, but can’t figure out how to wedge it out, especially since every inch of the surface is swarming with bees. I grab my trusty hive tool and use the edge to pry up a corner, then gingerly lift the piece. It has about 2000 bees on it, and thankfully, they are busy working and eating their honey (which is a natural reaction to smoke). The frame is heavy, dripping with honey. Remarkable! I wish I could dip a finger in and get a taste, but now is not the time for sampling. I set it aside carefully. Now, with the space made by removing one frame, I can shift things about to look at the others. Each frame is filled with a gazillion bees. I know I should lift each one to inspect it, and look for the queen, but decide not to, because I’m concerned I’ll crush her like many dopey inexperienced beginners do.

I then remember I came to put the new hive stand under the box, so I move the entire unit to the ground, crushing a handful of bees. Opps. Sorry. Then, when I try to set up the stand, it doesn’t fit on the concrete blocks supporting the hive. Mark promised to build me a stable, outdoor table for the hive, but he was called to Sarasota unexpectedly the day after I set up the hive, and face it, hobby projects are very low on our priority list right now.  I decide to wait for another day to set up the stand and put the box back the way it was, crushed bees and all. I next try to put the new feeder in place. It leaks all over making a huge mess. It will be empty in a few minutes at this rate. For the first time, I notice my hive is on a slant, and clearly, this feeder only works when balanced straight. Crap. So I pour the sugar water (which I can tell is unnecessary anyway, but what the heck, I have it with me now) into the hive top feeder. I’ve been in here about ten minutes now, and opening a hive for fifteen minutes is the suggested max. I’m clumsy and slow.

Lastly, I want to put an entrance block in the front of the hive to keep out hive robbers, since now it is now clear my bee family is making something worth robbing. However, the entrance is swarming with active, annoyed bees. I try to put the device in place, but two bees land on me and try to sting my arm (love that bee suit and I’m glad I wore it now!) Then, I remember the smoke. I grab the smoker and puff at it, but it has burned out. Eeek. I can hear the bees buzzing, as if they are spreading the word that I am without my weapon. Quickly, I bend down and stuff some pine straw inside, squeeze the air vent and smoke rears up. OK, now I’ve learned to keep on top of the smoker status and keep it full of fuel “just in case”.

Finally, I get the hive put back in order and I load my car with my tools. I take off my veil and gloves, pausing to say good-by to the bees. They are swarming all over in the air now, obviously agitated over my tampering with their home. They are probably evaluating the new changes and this puts them in a bad mood. Sorry, friends.

I am not afraid, but only because I’m standing ten feet away now and out of their flying path. It is comforting having some textbook knowledge of bee behavior, but at the same time, I imagine how I will soon have two boxes stacked together and both will be filled with bees outnumbering me by the thousands. It is intimidating and I think perhaps I’ll do some more reading. Clearly, this bee project is going to get harder and more involved as things progress.

Wildflowers have been blooming all week. Usually I pick them for my centerpieces, but this year, I’ve let them be, thinking the bees will make better use of them than I. Glancing around, I see blackberry bushes in bloom, daisies, dandelion, and some other colorful wild blooms. I imagine my bees flying in a two-mile range, returning to this very box to do their dance to communicate where each flower is. Those that were out foraging today will come home to a taller house and hear the gossip about the big redhead who moved things around for no reason and how everybody is hoping she won’t be back. She will be, of course, but not for a few weeks.  You can bet, when she comes, she will be fully suited with a full smoker blasting. She learns fast.

Today, while I wasn’t too graceful or brave about it, I was a beekeeper.  It was exhilarating. Fascinating. And most importantly, it made me feel like I can do anything if I am willing to face my fears. Last but not least, it never hurts to go into something new prepared for the worse. 

Important revelation.   
Now, I must go get ready for orientation at the Campbell school. This weekend is my home wine making course. Gee, I hope we get lots of samples. I could use a glass of wine after my harrowing bee adventure. With my first glass, you can bet I’ll make a silent toast. . . “Here’s to the fact that grapes don’t sting!”


Our role in Sarasota Dance

Someone wrote to say that obviously “the twist” I implied a few weeks ago was that we were going to pull the rug out from under everyone’s feet to purposely ruin the FLEX recital. Well, at least people are consistent. They immediately think the worst of us. (That makes sense, considering we were such ogres for eighteen years and ran such an awful school . . . And they wonder why we left and moved so far away to live a simpler life.)
I really didn’t want to address these issues before end of year performances had been wrapped up, because in all fairness, I didn’t want to increase anyone’s discomfort. But it seems I have to address events now to help people understand what is happening. 

Let me say first that we certainly don’t want to interfere with FLEX having their show, and have no idea why people are reacting as if we are, because classes leaving the building six days earlier than planned should have no bearing on events. The timing of this eviction was out of our hands once the FLEX management did not meet court-established obligations. That is unfortunate, but at this point, one group rehearsal for the finale can take place as a final class. In fact, Mark and I had to do this one year when we moved the business during the recital season. We scheduled a group rehearsal at a community center and things worked out fine. This is part of the creative solution personality trait all dance studio owners rely on when plans go awry.

If FLEX does not have a recital, it won’t be because of us. There are many costs associated to pulling off a big performance, so the determent would more likely be whether the school has met their obligations in these areas. I happen to know teachers and others are planning to do what it takes to assure a show takes place. The concern about recital should be alleviated in light of this. I even know someone in the wings standing by to step in, should everyone be left in a lurch. Enough said.

Nevertheless, here are some facts about the fate of the building and what will happen beyond the show: Several businesses made offers to purchase the Sarasota building, but “the twist” I alluded to was that we arranged for the building to continue to be a dance school. I thought this would be good news, because all those people who have written me asking for advice on where to train next season now have a perfect solution. SRQ Dance will not be just any school, but one that will be run by a student we trained and mentored. To assure the new school has a sound foundation, Mark and I are giving them guidance, consultation, our expertise in teacher’s training, and we plan to come back in the fall to choreograph. These are all things we offered FLEX management after we left, but our involvement was declined. Things will be different this time around.

Whether or not the owners of FLEX re-open under a new name with entirely new staff and entirely new resources is anyone’s guess. We don’t know how this will be financially feasible, considering they cannot meet the minimum obligations agreed upon in settlement, but that is not for us to say. If the Mendisons do open a new school, we wish them luck with it. We think they are fine people with good intentions, despite what has transpired between us. We don’t understand their business choices, but differences are what makes the world go round.
Meanwhile, under the assumption that FLEX would not survive, we have worked with the Boyas’ on their business plan and poked holes in their ideas, testing their organization and intentions. After weeks of this back and forth, I can attest that they have more than a fancy website and promises to offer everyone. SRQ dance is set up to DELIVER what they advertise. I am so tired of dance studio’s bragging about the future- because anyone with any experience or understanding of the complexities of the dance business knows the reality will fall short of the grand promises being made. There is also an inexplicable attitude that the school with the advanced dancers WE trained somehow validates the studio’s worth. How ludicrous. The fact is, a school is only as good as the students THEY train and it will be years (ten or so) until anyone can judge which teacher or institution really knows what they are doing by evaluating the dance student’s skills. Everyone’s focus now is on competitions, choreography, and advanced dance numbers, but the true focus of a good school should be on devising progressive educational programs. The obsession with a plastic trophy as a measurable result to wave around doesn’t point to a very good future for these schools in our opinion.   But then, we are dinosaurs and with old-school attitudes about what makes a quality dance school. Perhaps we were put to pasture just in time.

Nevertheless, assuming we know something about dance education, we are excited about the school Cory and Sharon Boyas will be opening, SRQ dance. Here’s why.

Cory can run a dance school “as only a lifelong dancer can” who happens to have professional dance experience as well as management training in business. Cory was trained by us and like most of our former students, had his glory years as the winner of competitions (Mr. Dance of Florida and others) and as a soloist with the West Coast Dance Project. This makes a fine little bio to give customers confidence, but after this, the important qualifications begin. Cory went on to study in New York. There, he worked with dance companies and for theatrical productions. He was on scholarship with a few of the best schools in New York and went on to tour Europe. His expertise goes far deeper than growing up with FLEX as his single source of knowledge. He has professional associations and connections that will help him to devise a great dance curriculum – not to mention his positive association to us- which means we are an ongoing resource for the school too. On top of this, he is customer service oriented. Thanks to his background, working in management for two of the most prestigious service companies (Starbucks and The Hyatt) for several years, he is very professional and can handle the business side of running a school.  Dance knowledge is important, of course, but to be an effective director you need to be very skilled at the business end too. This is what establishes security and longevity for a school. Cory has impressive computer skills, marketing experience and great instincts, all necessary for his future role as dance school owner.

His wife,  Sharon happens to be a preschool teacher, soon to be certified as a director. This, along with her great organizational skills, makes her highly qualified to manage the preschool and youth education aspect of the school. This couple has noble aspirations to expand SRQ  to become a credited performing arts school one day, and I suspect they could pull it off. But they know to go slow and make changes sparingly with great care. Sharon’s parents are principals of a school as well, so teaching comes naturally to the family. (Cory has also worked on staff at a school).  The relatives are going to be involved too, which brings maturity and experience to the educational divisions of SRQ. As a graduate of the theater department of Booker, Sharon has experience as a theater techie too – which means she has training in backstage management, costuming and lights. As anyone can see, this couple is well qualified to run recitals and other performing events too.  They hope to serve  mostly as directors and office management, but they are fully qualified to sub classes, manage artistic programs and hire terrific staff. They have invited past FLEX staff to join the school, should the teachers find themselves looking for work, but we have made ourselves available to help train new staff if those dance teachers we trained previously make other choices. I can’t see how SRQ can fail to have a good program considering the attention being paid to future staffing issues.

Frankly, I can’t think of a single element of managing a kick-butt school that the Boyas couple are not qualified for. They also happen to have four kids, so they have the parent’s perspective on what really counts in regards to the kind of environment a parent would feel comfortable entrusting their children in. They are investing their life savings on a dream, and for a couple with four kids to educate and raise, that speaks of their serious intentions and commitment as well.

But what really sold me on this couple was not their compiled list of attributes. It was attitude. In talking to Cory, I’ve learned just how decent and earnest he’s become as an adult. Like many of the teens we trained, he had his difficult moments as a young man. But he has hard-earned wisdom and humility now and a great attitude. He and Sharon want foremost to have a high caliber school. They don’t seem nearly as interested in getting rich or being a dance superpower, as they want to influence young people to develop into great artists and great people. They hope to enrich lives through the arts. That is what it is all about, and anyone who operates from this place is bound to build a fantastic school. Most importantly, they despise personal drama and are devoted to diffusing emotional upheavel believing it is non-productive in an arts school. I think people will appreciate that. 

Cory wrote us a few weeks ago, explaining what he thought were his strengths and weaknesses as a dance teacher. He certainly has no delusions about his value or unexplainable arrogance regarding his skill, and that is refreshing. He asked our opinion about how he could improve in the area’s that needed improvement, and wanted our opinion about how to best utilize his strengths. He asks all the right questions and is so open to personal growth.

Mark and I don’t ever intend to shoot down anyone’s dream when we play devil’s advocate or point out weaknesses in a concept, but we did hit Cory with all kinds of questions and obstacles to see what his plans included. We have done this to each other for years, which is how we avoid many pitfalls. Planning is everything.  And every time, he and Sharon came back with carefully researched and well-thought out answers. They are solution oriented, always with an eye on what is ethical, and best for the students in the long term. Their lack of ego is key.  And they have showed us true respect, which is the mark of a generous artist. Most impressive of all is the hard work they have invested already in this, the formative period of their enterprise. They are tireless, enthusiastic and very positive people. In fact, the way they go above and beyond, never delegating the work to others but diving in to do it themselves, reminds us of us in the early years. Mark and I think they will be very, very successful, and it won’t depend on enrolling current FLEX students. This couple will train great dancers on their own, and they will have a progressive school that will appeal to many, many people. They don’t need other people’s students to make it work. But if other dance school options don’t manifest, students will at least have a wonderful new alternative to consider in SRQ.

We are happy because this solution gives closure to our years in dance. In a perfect world, FLEX would have thrived and been successful, and we wish it were so, but in light of the fact that this didn’t happen, what is the next best thing? I think a new school whose vision is an evolution of our past is perfect. It won’t be the same school, nor should it be. A copy of our school would be only that. A bad copy. Better, a school built on the foundation of all that was good before, with a changed and evolved definition to meet the needs of the current dancers in Sarasota. The FLEX of everyone’s past was wonderful – but that was because it met the needs of the dancers of the past. Today, our culture is different, and so should be the school servicing them.

We feel horrible about how things ended with FLEX and wish things had worked out differently. It has been a very painful two years for us. All I can say is, until you are the one forced to unplug the life support on something you deeply love, I suggest people stop passing judgment. Everyone has strong opinions, but they lack the  facts required to understand all that has truly transpired.

Before I close, I’ll tell you what compelled me most to help make SRQ a reality.  In one of our conversations, Cory said to me, “We sure would love to get that building, but if I told you why, you’d laugh at me.” Of course, I made him confess.

He said, “The night I married Sharon (they had a whirlwind romance and got married on the spur of the moment without anyone knowing- seemed risky, but four kids and years later it’s proven the right choice) we drove to FLEX and spent our first night together sleeping in our car parked on the side of the building. At sunrise, we went to take a walk on the beach and afterwords, I drove to your house to tell you and Mark that Sharon and I got hitched (they were both our students around that time). That building is sort of symbolic for us, the place we began our married life, and therefore, very special.”

Of course, FLEX was the backdrop for my marriage too, the place where Mark and I raised our children, built a future and established many wonderful memories. It occurred to me in that instant that here was a couple who would really love that facility with the same reverence and intensity we loved it. Not because they grew up there and it was a part of their childhood history, but because it was tied into their future too. While everyone is quick to say, “business is business”, the fact is, for some artistic types, “business is passion and making a difference.” ( Apparently, I think helpless romantics make good dance school owners.)

That made me think about Cory’s connection to the building. When we first bought it, he was a scholarship student and because he our only a guy, he helped Mark with remodeling construction. I remember we rented scaffolding and Cory and Mark painted the entire back room. They called me and asked me to bring them sodas and a snack. It was 2am. I remember showing up and seeing my boys all paint splattered and punchy from being so tired. They made off-color jokes just to keep awake and because it amused them to get me agitated, (I always reprimanded them like children when they made classless jokes.)  I remember the laughter and camaraderie despite the grueling work, and how much I appreciated there being someone other than me up on that scaffolding to help Mark do this awful job.

I believe in Karma. I think Cory helped us back then out of true appreciation for our tutelage and friendship. But I like thinking he was really helping himself. Perhaps fate was laying the foundation for his future. We all thought he was painting our back room, but really, he was painting what as going to be HIS back room someday, even though none of us knew it at the time. A young boy was helping us accomplish our dreams, and now, it is our time to help him realize his.
Call me a romantic, but this feels so right to me. 

It’s no secret to anyone that I am too sensitive regarding dance and FLEX. So, more than anything else, sometimes it is best to trust Mark’s instincts. He has talked to Cory, reviewed the numbers,  looked over their business plan and discussed artistic goals and how to achieve them with both Sharon and Cory. And after hanging up the phone, he turned to me the other day and said, “I swear, these two could really pull this off and have a fantastic school. I’m so impressed with all they’ve done. They’ve worked harder than anyone else we’ve witnessed so far, and in the end, it is all about hard work and innovation.”

Watching the final days of FLEX is painful, but the rising of SRQ makes closing the door easier somehow. Time to pass on the mantel of dance on to people inflamed with ambition and passion for the job at hand. And for those that speculate, it is important to know we are not selling the school or the resources to them, although that could have been arranged. No, we are giving what we can to a former student whose friendship and loyalty has meant a great deal to us. This couple has a huge head start now for building a dance empire of their own. That means a great deal to us. There was a time we supposed this would happen with another protégé, but we were mislead by her true intentions. It was painful disappointment because we always dreamed that if FLEX didn’t make it, one of our students would step forward, carry on our heritage and make us proud. 
Here he is, folks.  

So, regardless of what others may think, Mark and I are pleased that something good will rise out of all the recent dance disappointments. We have cut our losses regarding former students that chose to treat us with distain once they thought they had no use for us, but we celebrate the former students who remained close friends (many of who visit this blog regularily).
We earnestly hope for the best for everyone involved in dance in Sarasota. To those still at FLEX, to those that left to participate in a new school, and to those who quit dance altogether because the volatile nature of the fighting ruined the experience, we want to say that we hope you find what you are looking for and are happy. Keep dancing. In the end, it doesn’t mater where, because it is an internal journey.
I guess, we have all learned hard lessons, but that is something to respect too.  

Now, I am done discussing dance on this blog and I won’t revisit this issue so don’t bother checking in. I’m returning to talk of chickens, bees, literature, wine and horses, which will no doubt thin out my audience considerably. As such, everyone out there must follow their own heart and instincts in regards to dance.
The Hendry’s are old news. 

(The only way I’ll ever mention dance would be in another capacity come fall. I am totally jazzed as I listen to music for my next piece. Lots of ideas clogging up my brain after a two year sabatical. I’m thinking a square dance in beesuits with a bottle of homemade wine balanced on the kid’s heads . . . chicken feathers in the hairpiece, of course. . . Ha.  don’t panic, Cory, I’m kidding.) 



Letting go

Mark had to fly to Sarasota last night (without notice) to handle some very difficult, uncomfortable business. As many of you know by now, today the doors to our former school have closed for good. Eviction has finally taken place and foreclosure on the business is soon to follow. It has been a miserable two years for us, filled with heartache and headaches. We have flown to Sarasota nine times since December in effort to help the school, re-negotiate terms to help the new owners through the hard times, and to handle legal issues (once it became clear that the fate of FLEX was something we couldn’t fix.) We are so tired of feeling badly about things we can’t control.  We tried to hold off taking action(at our own detriment and personal expense) so they could have their recital, but when the new owners took the issue to bankruptcy court, they suddenly had to answer to a higher court – to a judge. Now, there can be no more lienency for broken promises or avoiding responsibilities. 

They are only one week from their recital, so they can still have their show if they are as prepared as they should be at this point in the season. As for the dancers, well, we sold the building over a month ago to a former student, and there will be a new, fantastic dance school, patterned off ours, come fall. In respect to FLEX and their efforts to hold on until the end, we chose not to make this announcement, but now I think it is time. (I’ll write about the exciting details tomorrow, but in the meantime, go visit for a sneak peak.)  

But that is not what I am writing about at this time. The point is, I’ve been feeling really low all day. I can work up anger or disappointment, but mostly what I feel is intense sadness. It is compounded by the fact that one of us is here taking care of family responsibilities (with no notice to prepare to leave, I had no choice but to stay) and the other one is down there dealing with the grueling, poignantly sad, task of packing up our past alone. It is a very difficult time to be apart.

But just now, Neva came in and said, “Mom, there is some huge bug in the garage. It is buzzing, and flying around really fast.  But, I’m thinking it may be a hummingbird. Only I’ve never seen one up close. Can you come look?”
Sure enough, a hummingbird was trapped, battering it’s tiny body against the glass door. So I carefully cupped my hands around it and softly lowered it into Neva’s hands. Then, I took a picture for her. This is how small a hummingbird is. Remember, this is in little Neva’s petite hands. . .

We only held it for a few moments, then we let it go. Neva marveled at how light it was, how delicate and small. She said, “It is like holding a puff of air.”
I explained that sometimes, the best thing you can do for something very special is to let it go.

I need to remember that today.

A Garden of Eden begins with the state of your mind

This is our garden. I know it just looks like a big patch of dirt, but heck, that’s what it is (was.) This is the “before” picture just after we plowed an area of the field for our future garden . I will post another picture in late July and you will see corn and peas, yellow and green beans, yellow, green and banana peppers, four types of tomato, cucumber, yellow and green squash, assorted herbs, carrots and beets (well, these will be underground, but you will see the tops) lettuce and spinach, and strawberries. That’s all we planted for our first year attempts. It will get us by. Actually, this picture was taken before we actually planted seeds and seedlings. Now, there are some starter plants, stakes and tomato cages stuck into the dirt. Very exciting.  My dogs think so too, and they won’t stop going in there to dig up our carefully nurtured plants or to pull up stakes because they think those markers are chew toys. Grrrrr…. Damn dogs.
We will be putting up a fence next week. We are pretending it’s for the deer and other wildlife, but between you and me, it’s mostly for the dogs.

Putting in a garden from scratch isn’t easy. First, a tractor is used to plow up an area. I marvel at how much work it is to tear up land that has been weed-ridden for years, and I can’t stop thinking about early settlers and how they had to do everything without modern machinery. Mankind’s innovation and determination is remarkable.
Next, we used a hand held tiller (sort of like a push lawn mower) to churn up the dirt. We then used a hoe to devise rows for planting, and I was assigned the lovely job of squatting over to toss rocks and clumps of weed over my shoulder into the field. Gee, that was backbreaking fun.

Finally, we got to plant. Neva is a good help here. She likes to lay a single seed in a small hole and push the dirt on top, then give it her famous little pat. Very cute.
Next, had to water. Of course, we can’t reach a hose this far from the house so we have to do it by hand. We pull buckets up from the creek, fill a watering can,  and carefully water the seeds – NOT the aisles, because we want to control the weeds. Yes, we are at war with weeds already, even though not a single one has peeked it’s head up from the earth as yet. We hired a plumber to put in a water source down near the garden, but it isn’t finished yet. Soon, thank goodness. Watering once is a novelty. Having to do so for a full summer, I think I’d quit.

This is our creek. I will give you a “before” and “after” picture here too. The creek picture overrun by weeds is what our creek looked like when we moved here. The nice open creek picture is the “after” shot of what things look like after Mark uses his tractor to open up the stream and hand places rocks in just such a way it gives the water a cascading effect. This is a great deal of work. He’s accomplished about 20 feet of creek so far. He only has 50 acres more to go. Check back in ten years and we may be almost done with this particular project. Of course, by then, he will have to go back to the beginning to start over.

Believe it or not, I’m loving this entire gardening/farming process.  Mark is delighted because he has always been a gardener, but it’s been a lone pursuit. I’ve never taken much interest other than “ooing” and “ahhing” at the lovely environment he created about our homes. I can tell it is more fun for him to have someone working along side him in the sun. Until now, while I’ve appreciated flowers as much as any girl, I’ve never been inspired to give up my precious free time to tend them. I’m not so hung up on the visual that it was worth devoting every weekend to making a pretty landscape. But a veggie garden is an entirely different thing, because this leads to kitchen fun. I am all about food.

I’ve learned that anything remotely connected to cooking interests me. Face it, the reason I am excited about bee-keeping isn’t because I like bugs. It’s the idea of harvesting my own honey and making baklava and other treats that I can’t resist. I think my chickens are cute, but I seriously doubt I’d have them if it were not for the eggs I collect and how that encourages me to find new ways to cook them. You see, for all that I love the outdoors, it is all about playing in the kitchen in the end.

Tending a food-bearing garden is a thrill, because I envision cooking and canning all the home grown product. I had such a good time last year making jelly and syrup from the berries I picked.  I bought a cook book on gourmet canning and have collected recipes for pickles, relishes and all kinds of exotic vegetable mixes. And spaghetti sauce! Mark kept complaining as I added yet another breed of tomato to our shopping cart, insisting I will never be able to use all the tomatoes I’m going to get. Ha! He underestimates me. I have big plans in the tomato department. And the fact is, if we are overrun with more vegetables than we can use, I have plenty of animals that will eat the extras -even those that are slightly bug ridden or brown about the edges. 

We’ve planted plum, pear. peach and apple trees just for the hundreds of future batches of crisps and pie I aspire to make. I snuck in a few raspberry plants, and grapes, for other dessert options. My sourdough starter sits bubbling in my fridge, beckoning me to make bread even though we are on a bread-ban thanks to diets. Well, if that is off-limits, I can lean how to dry and make tea from scratch from home-grown herbs. Can’t be hard. Might be fun.

I know what you are thinking. It would be a lot less trouble to just go to the farmer’s market and purchase homegrown product in season and I could cook whatever I wanted for allot less trouble and a relatively equal investment. But that isn’t nearly as much fun. Heck, that’s like asking why I raise angora bunnies and spin my own wool to make a scarf when I can buy synthetic yarn at Walmart. Better yet, why not just buy a scarf made in Taiwan at Walmart and avoid making anything at all?
See, the point is not that you can’t get a scarf any other way. It isn’t to avoid effort or save money, but to experience the process of creating something from start to finish – to take pride and make an art of the food I present to those I care about.
And there is also the fact that I write about these experiences. I am working on a memoir about an urbanite midlifer discovering the joy of country living now. And more importantly, I will always write historical fiction. What better way to research how my characters lived years ago than by trying my hand at a few of the former necessary life skills? Since these activities are approached as a hobby and not a part of securing our existence (or paying a farm mortgage) I can always stop anything that turns out to be too much work, no fun, or that ties us down too much. For now, it is great fun to try new things. 

This weekend I’ll be taking my three day seminar at the Campbell folk school on how to make wine. Can’t wait. Mark rolled his eyes and said, “If you like this as much as I’m afraid you will, can we at least wait until another season to put in a vineyard?”
Ha. Of course, Dear. In the meantime, I’ll play with juices and store bought grapes, and even try my hand at mead (made from fermented honey) and country wines (made from fruit like apples, peaches and mulberries.) I might even make some beer, just to see what that is all about. 

I think what I like best about
all we can do now that we no longer spend every moment obsessing on a dance school, is that life is seasonal. This summer, we can use the long lazy days to harvest and cook, work bees and enjoy our land. We can horseback ride and go kayaking or boating and really spend interesting time together. The kids and I will both be out of school, and Mark is done building the house, so we want to spend a few months celebrating our first summer of total freedom.  But in the winter, things will be different. The chickens stop laying. Imust leave the beehive dormant for months. Nothing is growing in the garden. It is too cold to boat or ride (well, you can go out on a horse if you enjoy snow and crisp wind). The kids are in school. The house is quiet and dull. That is when Mark and I will travel a bit, and when home, I will buckle down to do some serious writing. He will hole up in the workshop and crank out furniture. It is when I’ll make bees wax candles for Christmas and open up jars of homemade sauce or pickles to see how they turned out when I want to play little house on the prarie.  And there is the fact that we are seriously considering opening another business. We looked at a building to buy yesterday and got all excited and started brainstorming. But we are in no hurry. Why invite that kind of work focus into your life again any sooner than you must? It is only a matter of time until our attention shifts to the world beyond our little hobby farm.

I like having a rhythm to life, and after years in mild Florida, I look forward to every change in season with newfound appreciation. Weather and the shifts in nature’s bounty make every month different here – each season is filled with it’s own flavor and surprises.  Next summer I may not want a garden, or bees or anything else remotely connected to farming. We may be emmeshed in building a new business. But as it stands now, I feel wonderfully connected to the earth and I am enjoying every bee sting, every broken nail, and every cry for Advil after a day of hauling or digging. Nothing lasts forever. It is important to savor each moment as it comes, and to pause to appreciate what you have before it is gone.



The Art of Chicken Maintenance

I know. Too much of a good thing is too much. Nevertheless . . . Lookie at what joined us today!

Our chicken, Toodie began laying eggs in the same place everyday, and Neva and I thought we’d just leave them alone to see what happens. But another chicken kept going into the nest and laying eggs too, and before we knew it there were 21 eggs under this little chicken. (They average about 7 eggs for a one time hatching.) But dang if we didn’t keep forgetting a pencil to mark which ones that were there first, which would allow us to remove the new eggs. Since we didn’t know which ones were old and which ones were new, we ended up leaving them all – then, when it was obvious this egg explosion was never going to cease, we moved the chicken to her own pen to brood so no other eggs would be added. Now, we had eggs of different incubation timing in process. Ee-gad. 

Three weeks went by. Nothing was hatching. I worried that perhaps these eggs were not fertilized. One of my roosters was still convalescing from the dog attack, and the other is rather young. Perhaps they are not getting it on with the girls with gusto, as roosters are supposed to do. But, after the duck episode, there was no way I was going to toss possibly soon-to-hatch eggs into oblivion. Still, I worried that poor Toodie was wasting her time, hour after hour turning her eggs and sitting there with barely enough food to keep up her strength. Then, yesterday, I heard  peeping. Sure enough there was something under our chicken. I lifted her up. No babies, but I did see some hatched empty shells. Where the heck were the chicks? Then I moved Toodie’s wing, and out dropped the chicks, tucked underneath to keep warm. Talk about cute. Five eggs hatched the first day, and one the next. Only, this late-comer seems awfully tiny and weak, so it may not survive. The problem is, Toodie is now going about business caring for the five robust chicks and the newbie isn’t getting the gentle care and warmth it needs. I thought about bringing it inside to put under a heat lamp, but in the end, I’ve decided to let nature take it’s course. I am a bit overrun with birds at the moment, and fun is fun, but too much is too much. Frankly, I don’t need this many chickens. I already have more eggs than I need. The act of hatching has been remarkably cool, but the idea of being tied down to chicken maintenance isn’t exactly my idea of the good life.

There are still eggs under Toodie, but they are taking space and making it harder for the chicks to fit under Mom. I guess tomorrow I’ll toss those eggs that haven’t hatched. It will take inner strength and a stiff upper lip, but I will do the awful deed. They are being ignored anyway now, so it is unlikely they will survive. Toodie will raise her young, which is a no-brainer for me, thank God. I am finishing up my MFA and preparing to take a trip to Boston in a month, and there is only so much animal care I can thrust on poor Denver, good sport though she is. 

Our chicks are sure cute, all mottled gray and tan fuzz. They are half silkie and half cochen hen, so they will be fat and round and, when their feathers come in, probably shades of black and white. Nevertheless, I am at my Chicken max now (I hope.) It’s been fun, but there is more to life than poultry, even if Neva would disagree.

I am reading a book called, Hen and the Art of Chicken Maintenance – a funny memoir by a British man who enjoyed trying his hand at raising chickens too. Makes me laugh – at myself and his story. There are universal truths in this entire chicken raising thing. Everyone should try it once. 

Anyway, Neva is delighted. We are discussing names now. We name everything. When I got the bees I said to Mark, “Gee, it’s going to be hard remembering all 40 thousand names.” He said, “Well, I just want to name the queen. Call her Aunt Bee. We do live in Mayberry, after all.” So that is the one bee we named. 

So, this closes my chicken report for this season. I am ready to move onto different subjects (huge sigh of relief from the blog galaxy.) Of course, this doesn’t mean I won’t share a peacock report or two along the way. The point is, me and my wonderful partner in poultry crime (Neva) are having a grand ole time. It is nice to share something so simple with a little girl who reminds you what a miracle life is.



A room of past and present

I talk a great deal about my dance-afterlife. But what is great about expanding your horizons is that life is an accumulative experience, and the impact of living, both the good and bad,  stays with you . You bring what you learned from one experience to the next, and in a case like mine, you don’t easily “let go” and move on without looking back over your shoulder at the same time. Some elements of a person’s personality resonate and fester, and can’t be swept under a carpet, so they ooze out and manifest in tangible ways – sort of a reminder of who you were and deep down, probably always will be.

This is why I thought I’d show you our workout room in the house. It isn’t as large as a dance studio, but it is larger than what most people have for personal use. Currently, it is filled with equipment scattered in corners awaiting better organization and storage. We need to build a rack to hold the workout balls, etc… But still, this gives you a general idea of where we spend some time.    

This is a shot from the treadmill (which is NOT a device designed to hold folded laundry, despite what my friend Cory says). As you can see, we have a TV here so we can watch a movie or show while we walk (to keep us on the machine). The cabinet below is filled with workout DVD’s – everything from yoga and pump to pilates and ball workouts. Of course, Jessica’s workout DVD has a place of honor here.
When you walk into our workout space, you encounter a wall covered with dance shots and articles that give a pictorial history of our dance life. Denver calls it the wall of fame. I think for Mark it is the wall of shame, because whenever one of the burly construction cowboys steps in and sees him in tights, they can’t help but make a joke about it.  I happen to love this wall. When I am on the treadmill, these images are right before me. My mind wanders to the wonderful people and experiences I’ve been blessed to know during my dance journey. I have pictures from my years in New York (and my first teachers/mentors – forever on the wall as a way of honoring them), pictures from FLEX and pictures of a few of the students that meant so much to us. I can see pictures of my husband back when he was only a student, long before he became my partner in life. He was such a determined, hard working artist. There is the first article I ever sold to a magazine (about dance) and articles written about us and the programs we created. And all of it deserves recognition, because every facet of dance from the beginning is a part of who we are now.
When my parents visited last week, I thought they might make a derogatory comment about this wall, because they get aggravated by the way I continue to care about what happens to our school and the dancers in the aftermath of our leaving. They say dance is no longer our problem, and something is wrong with me because I seem to need to keep one toe in the water. Mark gets annoyed too, as if the fact that I care means I’m going to drag him back into a world that was so hard for us to break free from. It’s true, I ponder creative solutions to problems more than I should. But I don’t know why that would be threatening to anyone. No rule says once I shut a door I’m required to pretend I don’t care, when I do. Frankly, It would be disturbing if it was any easier to turn my back on dance and everything I cared about for so many years. It would mean I spent an awful lot of time on something that was, in fact, dispensable. I prefer knowing that I spent all that time, energy and put an emotional investment into something that still is (and forever will be) important in the big scheme. I’ve moved on, but still, I care about dance and our role in it.
Anyway, My mom saw the wall and said “I’m really glad you did this. It is lovely to see this part of you preserved, and nice to think you have remembrances of what you loved around you.”
I appreciated her understanding of these pictures and why I wanted to hang them.
Here’s the wall: I still have Westcoast Dance Project posters to hang  somewhere (WCDP was our non-profit regional dance company from ten years ago). They are special and deserve a place of honor too.
There are other pictures around the room too, but I can’t stand back enough to take a shot of the entire room in one swoop. The poster of Mark that hung for years in the FLEX lobby has a place of significance on one wall (Don’t pay attention to the loose balls and the steps and risers – we bought six steps, which is more than one household should need, except that Mark occasionally gives a step class to Denver, Dianne, and whomever else wants to get sweaty with us. Remember – the closest health club is a 50 minute drive.) 

The collage I made way back when I first decided to open FLEX (from old unwanted pix from New York) hangs above the treadmill. This picture has been on the wall of FLEX since the first day it opened – in fact, it was the only picture I could afford to hang (made it from scraps) for about two years. I remember I put it up just so my little new school looked “dancy” way back when. I smile when I see how young I was (and how old the poses and style of dance wear). But it is nice to remember that version of me, nevertheless. I was so passionate about the art. That fire burned hot for such a long time. It still smolders. Perhaps it always will. This collage represents so much to me – my New York years, my FLEX years and my history in general.

The nicest thing about this room is that we can go here and do a warm-up or workout privately. Sometimes we play music and dance. It is a space to work on choreography too – which is something we are going to need soon (We are going to give some master classes and set some competition dances in Sarasota in the fall, for a former student and friend who is opening a new school with our help.) We will want to prepare something really dynamic, so having a mirror and open space to play with in advance will be a great help. (And for those of you who are tweaked by this tidbit, I promise to give you more exciting information about what’s to come later this week.)  

Anyway, this is our workout room. Jessica Smith will be proud (and yes, dear, you are on that wall). You too, Jamie. And this is my open invitation to friends to come up and use our treadmill. We might even stage a little class. Why not? We do have a hot tub to soak the tired, old muscles that will no doubt balk at the effort.

Perhaps someday, I’ll want to turn this room into a library or something. But I doubt it. I may be sorry we hung mirrors, because who are we kidding,  the girl looking back at me isn’t getting any younger. But she is a familuar site, and she’s earned every laugh line and sore muscle earnstly. The mirror image of me may change on the surface, but that girl and I are still friends. I have looked at myself in lots of mirrors in lots of studios in my life. This may be the last studio I ever spend time in. I savor it for that reason.      

My Lucky Life?

Some days, I wonder what the hell I am doing in my life. Like today.
I’ll see a horseshoe lying on the ground, and smile. I think, Gee Whiz. Look. It’s my lucky day.

Then I pause and wonder which horse threw the shoe. Horse one and two look great. The baby doesn’t wear shoes so I don’t bother to worry about her. Then I see it.

Goliath not only lost a shoe, he has torn half his hoof apart. And I panic because I don’t know what this means. Is this a sign of poor horse care? Is it a result of bad nutrition? Is it because I haven’t used hoof oil for awhile? Could it be punishment for having a mucky pasture? I know some horses get Lamitis, where the hoof pulls away from the leg and the animal has to be put to sleep. Does this mean my horse is going lame? Is he already lame? I rack my brain. He did have an odd gate last time I rode him. Did I push, insensitive to his growing discomfort, so that now he is in full-out pain? How long will it take to heal? Where do I start? Or is this normal, perhaps? I am a newbie at all this. I just don’t know when to worry and when to take things with a grain of salt.

He seems OK, behavoirwise. Yet still, I will worry about him all night until I have a better understanding of why his foot looks like this. Our horses have thrown shoes before, but it never looks like this. 

I will call the farrier and get him out pronto. Chris will explain what is going on and alleviate my fears. I will learn something. But that doesn’t mean these lessons are not fraught with discomfort, worry and frustration over my inadequacies. Discovery is exciting, but I also know a lack of knowledge can result in damage for others. I fret about that kind of thing – about my moral and humane responsibility as I take on new adventures.

This is my baby horse, April. She is now one year old. (Sorry for the bad Pix. You try holding a camera out for a blind shot and getting your face and a big ole horse in the frame – it is harder than it looks.)
This is her mother, Dixie.

Denver says it figures I’d pick Dixie for a horse because our hair matches so well, and it is so like me to want to be well coordinated. Ha.
Actually, the fact that we match is the best thing I can say about this horse. It seemed like a good idea to buy her in the beginning, because we had all this land and the fellow who set up our fencing had a horse for sale. Dixie was pregnant, and all I thought was how lovely it would be to see a baby horse being born. It took about 30 seconds for me to shout SOLD! But after the baby was born, we learned this horse wasn’t very good for riding, because she is not well trained. I am the only person who can manage her (And Kent on a good day.) And in the end, it costs the same to keep a poorly trained horse as a good one. Of course, I didn’t think about that in the beginning.
We could train Dixie. I’m learning how to do this in the horse clinics. But really it takes more effort and time than I am willing to commit. I want horses for pleasure riding, and if I have to devote hours and hours struggling with an animal just to make her follow basic commands, it becomes more of a chore than a joy. As result, I think we should sell her. We have too many horses as it is. Four? Frankly, we only need two. Any more is too much to feed and worm and shoe. We never saddle up all three riding horses, even when we have a handful of friends sitting around the campfire and we all decide to ride. It seems two people go out together most of the time and people take turns. At home it is usually just Neva and I riding. As result, I am burdened with this feeling that I have to go out there everyday, riding one horse after another to keep them in shape. Everything – grooming, washing, caring – it is all a huge ordeal due to the number of animals to attend to. It is too much for one person to take on. Mark is busy with his interests and Neva is still too small to be much help. With one or two horses, it would be easy to keep them trained and I’d be able to fuss over them for fun.   But four is a trial.

Unfortunately,  every time I mention selling Dixie, Neva has a fit. And we can’t sell the baby until she is old enough to be of use (can’t saddle break a horse until they are two, and they are not good for riding till they are three.) We could practically give her away, because there are people who buy young horses because they are inexpensive, but I feel badly, as if she deserves to live in her birth place. And occasionally, people buy young horses for a song only planning to sell them for meat and you can imagine how I’d feel about that. Then, there is the fact that I still feel drawn to the challenge of learning to train her from the beginning. It would be a great opportunity to develop skill in horsemanship. So, I am not finished with this baby yet – even though she does require work and expense..

The point is, I should have thought all our horse acquisitions out better from the start, but we sort of accumulated these animals as we went. We were shooting from the hip – carried away with enthusiasm for our country life. I hate when I do that. I prefer to think through things, looking forward, and making more practical, educated decisions. It is far more trouble to un-do a mistake than to go slow and avoid making them from the beginning. Lot of good it does to acknowledge that now.

Our best and brightest horse is Peppy. I fell in love with this animal the moment I saw him. We were shopping for another horse. Nevertheless, I saw Peppy and knew he was just what we needed, so I begged Mark to purchase him when at the same time we bought Goliath. Now, I wish I had used this kind of instinct on every animal. We should have two of Peppy. Period. I simply didn’t know better back then.

Two horses would meet our needs and make it easier to afford having horses in general. Not like horses are our only interest. If you want to kayak and hike, to make wine and spin wool, to travel and keep bees and write books, well, drowning in horses just isn’t a bright idea. The problem is, these animals are so much a part of the family now, letting a few of them go is a hard decision to put into action.

This is Peppy, with his happy rider. I adore this animal above all others in our family. He is worth all the work, effort and expense. He is safe, personal, and a joy in every way. And look at the smile on Neva’s face. Priceless! 

But I started this blog talking about doubt.
Horse are not the only thing that make me wonder what the hell I am doing.
Let’s talk eggs.
I can’t figure out how my peacock came so early. I checked my calender. None of my peacock eggs are due to begin hatching until May 29th.  Ducks take a week less to develop, and my duck eggs arrived two days after my peacocks in the mail, so they go a later start on the entire incubation process. Yet one peacock hatched before the ducks. “Early” came almost two weeks early. That is impossible. That means he isn’t just a preemie. It is downright impossible to form a fully functioning fowl in half the time nature predicts – even if you do turn up the heat to hurry the process a tiny bit. The only answer would be that&nbs
p;this egg began incubating before it arrived at my house. But that means it survived being packed and mailed from St. Louis, and standing at room temperature for hours at my house before being settled into the warm incubator. And technically, eggs can’t develop under those conditions, and stopping incubation or heat etc… during the process will kill an embryo. 
How did this bird survive? I have no idea. Drives me crazy trying to figure it out. 
Meanwhile, I have five peacock eggs that still seem active in the incubator (they have weight and they roll back into position when I turn them, as if a bird is inside setting into position to break free.) So when they hatch (IF they hatch) I’ll have birds born a week or more apart. This means I can’t put them together right away or Early will harm the others. What a drag. But in a few weeks, they will catch up and become cage buddies.
Wish I knew what my early bird is all about. He sure is cute, and so hyper there’s no doubt that he certainly is healthy. He is like the bionic peacock or something. Amazing.

I asked donkey what he thought about all this. He just stared at me drolly as if to say, “Who cares? I am your soul-mate and the rest of these animals are just taking up space. Forget them. It should be just you and me, Kid.” Lord, some days, I think he is right.

My confusion today wasn’t confined to birds and horses. Lets add bees. A few days ago, an Indian brought me my bees and helped me set up my hive. He has over 250 hives and has been raising bees since 1974. Nice man. He also makes native American fine crafts that he sells in shows and at festivals. (I told him I’d like to see his work for our potential coffee-shop/gallery next season – but that is a different subject).  Anyway, I set up the hive-top feeder with sugar water to settle the bees as you are supposed to do when a new swarm arrives. I am not supposed to check them for ten days, which is killing me because I am so curious. But, despite my desire to mess with the bugs, I am employing discipline. I do go up everyday to watch the workers fly in and out of the hive to know they are busy settling in. I did decide to check the feeder to see if I gave them enough starter syrup. Inside, I see a million tiny ants sucking up the syrup. Now, I wonder if ants will get into the hive. Will the bees kill them if they dare go beyond the feeder? If ants get into the honey it would be ruined? But then again, if ants could invade honey comb, wouldn’t every bee hive be overrun with ants since all these hives are nestled in open fields? 
Another dilemma. Should I worry about ants in my honey? I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. We didn’t discuss ants in the class. So, tonight I’ll look up ants in my bee book. If the answer isn’t there, I’ll call the Indian. 
Another something to ponder and snort about. It never ends.

The thing is, for all that jumping into new experiences is filled with wonder and excitement, it is nerve wracking too. 
I guess that is what makes life a constant thrill ride. It is a roller coaster, like it or not. Unfortunately, I’m a gal who gets motion sick. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to get off a good ride. I’ll just squeeze my eyes shut and hope the swoops and dives don’t ruin the experience.  And I’ll wait eagerly to see where the coaster lets me off as my journey continues. 

The ABC’s of Working together

Yesterday, the director of the local college asked me if I would talk to volunteers and head a training session for new literacy tutors this summer.
My first reaction was, “Why me? I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m winging it.”
However, she and others working with the literacy commission are impressed with Kathy’s success story, and I guess, they are assigning me some degree of credit.
Honestly, I believe it is more a result of lucking out and being paired with an earnest student. I know I’ve been a good influence, but without a well-intentioned, eager person at the other end, I couldn’t have made much of a difference. As a dance school director, my motto was always “There are no bad students, only bad teachers,” which I reinforced every time I could with staff. I wanted teaches to take responsibility for their student’s progress, reminding them that if the child was not engaged, that signified that the teacher was not engaging. Nevertheless, that doesn’t account for the fact that within any given class (all subject to the same teaching) some students excelled and others were a trial. Therefore, it is fair to say that the base personality of the student does make a difference.   

The director pointed out that Kathy wasn’t much different from others in the beginning. She reminded me that Kathy landed in jail after our first four months, but I stuck by her, never giving up or judging, encouraging her in positive ways. That set a tone to our relationship, which gave Kathy the impression that this reading ordeal was really important.
I pointed put that the judge demands all people in drug court go to school to get their GED, so Kathy continued her reading lessons to meet this requirement. Nevertheless, at the same time, I never had to coax Kathy to lessons. She’s always come with a great attitude and a deep sense of gratitude, which makes it a pleasure for us to meet, talk and learn. Her attitude was (and is) key to her own success.

Looking back on it now, I believe the drug ordeal made teaching Kathy to read a different kind of challenge for me– one that intrigued me on a new level. Suddenly, it wasn’t just about helping a woman write her name on an application anymore or teaching her to read a newspaper. It became a quest to help a woman change everything about her life. I associated learning to read with her becoming a valuable member of society. I’m convinced literacy goes hand in hand with social enlightenment and I wanted proof. I wanted to see what kind of impact the act of reading could have on an individual’s life and those they encounter.  There was more at stake than introducing someone new to books now.  This one small act might have a chain reaction of positive changes for many people.

Donna said that the difference between my instruction and other peoples’ was the creative element. I do things beyond the traditional sitting down to study spelling or reading. Like the day I brought in cooking ingredients with a cooking magazine and assigned homework of following a recipe. This taught Kathy not only about reading, but practical application (and how to measure ingredients). That was a huge success.
I bought her an address book and gave her homework to collect friends and relatives addresses and numbers. Later, I brought in Christmas cards and she had to address them all. Good writing practice. We sent a card to the judge and her probation officer (Ha, can’t hurt to remind them she is hard at work to improve her situation.) That was a big hit.
I made her buy a monthly planner and we put all our lessons and her other appointments in it. Heck, she is more organized than I now.
For her birthday this week, I bought her a gift certificate to a woman’s clothing store. It is the kind that works like a credit card. I know Kathy does not have a bank account, and certainly, she has never had a credit card. As I guessed, she was delighted, but she didn’t know how to use it. So I explained how a gift card worked and sent her off after the lesson to shop. This was a birthday gift, but at the same time, a great learning opportunity. (One mistake however, I bought a birthday card and was careful to print a message inside for her to read, but I didn’t notice that the card’s message was in cursive. We haven’t tackled cursive yet, so she couldn’t read it very well. Dang.)
Kathy finds learning fascinating and she is forever marveling at the novelty of the world – things you and I take for granted are new discoveries to her. This allows me to see the world through fresh eyes and makes me appreciate everyday conveniences. That makes this project of teaching someone to read as good for me as for the student.
Unfortunately, I am one person, and the problem of illiteracy in this area is huge. More people need to be involved to make a dent in the vast need. Therefore, I agreed to do the training. In fact, I’m really looking forward to it and I’ll put in the time and research to do the job well.   
There is no doubt that I am very effective as a teacher’s teacher, for I’ve developed teacher training programs for years (in dance and the arts). I am told I’m inspirational and creative, two good traits when you are guiding others in how to share knowledge in a way that will stick. However, I don’t feel academically qualified in the way a trained teacher would be to talk about systems or how to structure a progressive reading syllabus. I thought it only fair to point that out.

Donna (the director) said the problem with reading tutors is that they volunteer with this misconception that the student will be reading Moby Dick in a few months. They give up when they discover the reality is a long, hard road where basic literacy is the most you can hope for.
Sheepishly, I told her I suffered the same delusions when I started, so I understand how people come into the program with misconceptions. Only in my case, I don’t quit anything I start, so I adjusted my expectations as I went the moment I discovered I was delusional in regards to the end goal. I simply set new goals. I also developed an appreciation for basic literacy that made the idea of reading Moby Dick seem pretty unimportant. Living well relies on so much more than being able to follow words tucked inside the pages of books.

Anyway, it looks like I have to start paying attention to my lessons now so I can figure out what I’m doing right (and wrong). I have to make notes – give thought to how to pass on what I’ve learned. Eesh, so much for relaxing and winging it.

Kathy has been asked to speak to high school children in remedial classes twice now. They relate to her message when she discusses how she began using drugs, how difficult it was to break free, and how she struggles with literacy today after attending school for nine years (and not learning even the alphabet).  She is the voice of experience and hope, as she strives to save them from learning ugly life lessons the hard way. She was also asked to speak at a place called the Ester House, which is a halfway house for girls who get pregnant in their teens. Most do not have their GED and many have had problems with drugs. Kathy is someone they can ask questions of, and she is a very positive and encouraging speaker as she empathizes and supports young people, reminding them that they still have choices – now is the time to do what it takes to provide a better future for themselves (and their babies).

Last week, Donna asked Kathy if she would speak to the rotary club. Kathy said sure, but when Donna left, she turned to me and whispered. “Why the heck does she want me to talk to the rotary club? I’m sure all them can read already.”

I explained that her success wasn’t inspirational only to those who can’t read. She is a model of what everyone wishes their volunteering would do, someone who might encourage more people to choose to be tutors. It is very important that people see and hear firsthand how a life can change when someone steps forward to help. Kathy nodded and said, “I never considered that. But I’m only good because I have such a good teacher.”
She gives me credit too, and I am humbled by it. Again, I iterate, it was much more her doing than mine.

Still, I think it is fair to say we are a good team and heaven thrust us together for a greater purpose than just teaching Kathy to read a stop sign. Maybe together, we are two parts of the literacy puzzle that fit in such a way it inspires others to join in to make the big picture come together. I once wrote an article for a dance periodical (first I ever published) called “The student/teacher collaboration”. I’ve always instinctly believed that good chemistry is required between the student and the teacher for the educational experience to be truly wonderful. It has to be more than a routine task. 

I plan to write an article about Kathy for the local paper soon. I’m waiting for her to reach a slightly higher grade equivalency so the story has more impact (or those who don’t understand how big her reaching even a 2.5 grade level is).  I hope to make Kathy the poster child for literacy success. I know I can write a story in a way that will delight her, offering strong acknowledgment for her hard work, but it will also set the seed of an idea in the minds of people who read the article. Might even bring new tutors to the table. It is also a good exercise for me. I am a writer now. Might as well put the skill to good use.

I think the hardest part of leaving dance, was leaving the young people we truly influenced. Many students were at FLEX for recreational purposes, but others came from disadvantaged or dysfunctional families, many needing the discipline and/or the caring we displayed day in and day out through the artistic medium. Some students needed the scholarships. Many, many needed an adult who stood still for a moment to watch and listen to them with 110% percent of their attention, which is something we did everyday. I dreadfully miss being important to someone’s life. I think working with Kathy fulfills this horrible loss. She is only one person, and I know I should do more (I think about just what I should do, and how to go about doing it, all the time) but at least I am doing  something. We all have needs, which make our purpose on this planet make sense. For me, obviously, mentoring is important.

Anyway, Kathy gave me a gift at our last lesson, and I really want to share it. It is my first (and no doubt best) graduation gift, one I will cherish forever. This has a place of honor in my study now. Here it is – don’t snicker or I’ll pop ya.

She makes these sorts of knick knacks by walking the woods to find driftwood pieces. Then she glues flowers and little animals and such from the dollar store, moss and other finds, to the base to make a display. She said she had to look a long time to find something to represent a writer, and she was delighted when she found the bear. The bear is me, you see, scribbling away with a pad and pen, books all about. I’m sure many of my previous students would agree a bear describes me well.   Well, I’m all growl and no bite, friends. Believe it.

Kathy feels good because she has given me a gift. She has no idea how many gifts she has already bestowed.   


The early bird

This is Early. She (or he) was (as the name implies) early. It was one of the coveted white peacock eggs I ordered on line on e-bay. Actually, I think this is the egg my dog carried around (I write on the shells to track the history of the egg so I can learn from mistakes etc…)
For one month I have been hovering over my incubator, turning eggs four times a day. About a week ago, I went to turn a duck egg and it exploded in my hand. All this yucky goo came out, and I’m told the smell of rotten eggs was enough to make a person toss their cookies. Oops. I figured it was one bad egg. Then, this weekend, while I was trying to show off to my parents who were visiting, I went into the incubator and when I lifted the lid, another duck egg had exploded and there was this horrible black gunk all over the place. And again, the smell was hideous. Needlesstosay, my family shook their head at this proof of my inadequacy as a farmer in training. 
I got rather embarrassed, and I started thinking all my eggs were probably bad – at least the duck eggs.  The peacock eggs looked good, but I noticed several of the duck eggs were turning gray. The duck egg seller took her time shipping them, and didn’t lable the package correctly so I started wondering if maybe this package was x-rayed during delivery thus killing the embryos, or I over heated the eggs and they died during incubation, or they weren’t fertilized from the beginning. And I had visions of them going off like firecrackers, exploding everyday, until they definitely ruined my peacock eggs (which I was holding out hope for.)

So, I cleaned out the incubator and I made an executive decision to throw out the gray duck eggs. One wasn’t even that gray, but was so messy with rotten gunk I didn’t know how to clean it. Not like you can run it under water at this stage. So I tossed them into the woods. I noticed the weight of the one non-gray egg and that bothered me, but still, I was pretty convinced that this egg hatching thing was a failure. I thought I might try again with something easier. I kept the six, better looking duck eggs just in case.

I continued turning the eggs I had. The peacocks are due to hatch this Friday. I turned the eggs at 6am yesterday, but when I went to turn them at 1:00, I was shocked to see a little bird staring up at me through the window. I was out of my mind excited. I ran upstairs, calling to Mark as if I’d won the lottery. Together we went downstairs and watched through the window, trying to figure out what hatched. I couldn’t be sure, since I have no experience with either bird breed, but after a bit, I reached in to get the shell and confirmed that it was a white peacock. 

It was a special day. Neva was ecstatic. Then, we heard peeping inside the incubator from other eggs. About two hours later, a duckling hatched. The difference was obvious, and I felt really dumb. A duck looks nothing like a peacock, ya know – well NOW I know.  

Kent said, “Wow, Mom. You really did it. I didn’t think you were doing anything but cooking rotten eggs down here.”
Love how my family has confidence in me.
I was feeling like quite the incubator queen, but I felt that was probably it. No other sounds were coming from the incubator. But I was grateful for a bit of life from the experiment. We went to bed.

At five I went to check Early and the new duckling, and there was another duck hatched sitting up in the warmth of the incubator . Throughout the afternoon, all the other duck eggs hatched. We have six ducks. Don’t’ ya know, every egg hatched that hadn’t been tossed into the woods. That’s when the horrible guilt set in. Did I kill the others? Were there little baby ducks curled inside, only one day from entering the world, as I hurled them to their demise? This is, as you might guess, killing me. But I’ve decided to focus on the fact that those eggs were gray. Except the one that was gooey. That is the one I will lose sleep over.
Anyway, it is a happy ending for six adorable baby ducks. And I have learned from the process a bit about patience and having faith and that a month of commitement does pay off in the end.
Here are my new friends as they first entered the world. 

So, now I have one very lonely peacock baby who cheeps all day and runs around anxiously, following us when we enter the room. She sticks her beak out of the cage towards the incubator every time she hears a peep. She needs a flock, and I fear she needs buddies for body warmth too. A single chick is not a healthy situation. I put her with the ducks as an experiment, but they were aggressive, so I took her back out not wanting to risk it. The other peacock eggs are lying still. One has a small crack, but no further action. I am hoping that Early was simply early and her buddies will join her soon, arriving on their due date. In the meantime, Early has this crusty black hard thing sticking out of her backside. With regular chicks (hens), this often means they have a digestion problem and they die in a few days. I’ve tried to gently remove it, but no luck so far.  Do I have to mention how upset I will be if Early doesn’t make it? Perhaps she has problems because she is a preemie. Yet she is perky and full of energy, so who knows. I can only hope for the best. One thing is for sure, this baby peacock has imprinted on us and is remarkably friendly. I sure would love to add her to my collection of animal pals. She is very, very special considering she is our first home hatched bird, our first peacock, and a symbol that if you try something new, you may actually be successful.

I had a ball watching her those first hours. She could barely stand and her wobbly legs reminded me of  April (our horse) the first day she was born. One of Early’s clawed feet was also curved inward, and we wondered if she had a deformity (again, we are newbies at this) but in a few hours she straightened out and looked as healthy as can be. She has a loud peep – sort of a teaser of the outrageous bellowing call to come. People tell me that when peacocks cry it sounds like someone calling “help me.” Cool.
Anyway, here is Early all fluffed up and in her new temporary home. Hope she is entertaining friends soon. In the meantime, I go downstairs and stare at that incubator every half hour, praying to hear more peeping or see an egg start to rock and roll. Wish me (and Early) luck with the other five eggs.
Here’s my girl (or boy as the case may be). Made her myself from scratch. The only way I could have gotten closer was to have her inside of me, and well, that obviously wasn’t an option. This is as close to being a peacock mom as a gal can get. Sure is fun.