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Dust the Pheasant

The indicator of a good family reunion is the satisfaction and positive feelings the participants experience as they head back to their daily lives. A very good family reunion generates meaningful themes that shape the experiences of those who attend. An utterly excellent family reunion results in the emergence of a useful mantra, a simple phrase that can carry that which was excellent into the daily lives of the family members gathered. Our family reunion was utterly excellent, and our Mantra is “Dust the Pheasant”.

As we gathered, we found time to remember our past and share some stories. Recalling early life experiences, my older sister Rita and I were recounting our recollections of being individually “farmed out” by our mother to help relatives. We were usually primarily tasked with cleaning though when actually on a farm, the options expanded. We did this as preschoolers, and recall the experiences with that level of sophistication. One destination was the home of our paternal grandparents.

They had been farmers, had encountered difficulties and had sold the farm and moved into “town”, a euphemism referring to Waterloo, Iowa. They preferred farm living so this was a difficult move. Their home was something of a farm house transplanted. Indeed, my grandfather turned the entire long deep back yard into a vegetable garden.

Our job was to help our grandmother clean her house. I admired her, even found her enchanting. She had gone blind in her 40s due to undiagnosed glaucoma, but was committed to maximizing her functionality. She was fun to work with and had a great sense of humor. Her husband, my grandfather, was another story. When he completed the course in how to be a German Patriarch, he liked the content so much he embodied every lesson taught. I found him bossy, critical and scary.

Our relationship was complex, however. His name was Phillip and he was my godfather, hence the name Phyllis. Since none of the other grandkids were named after him, I had the unique burden. He would take me out to the back yard and lecture me on the vegetables he had growing. I paid attention, terrified he might ask me to say what I had learned. I was lucky to know most of the vegetables, knew nothing about how to grow them. I think he saw this ritual as a gesture of care and concern. I never contradicted him.

The second floor of my grandparent’s home had one bedroom altered to serve as a “sewing room” for my grandmother, though it also housed other pieces of furniture. Vintage sewing machines appeared to be a wooden table and chest of drawers. The sewing machine was essentially the piece of furniture that you first saw when you opened the door. On the sewing machine were two stuffed birds, an owl and a pheasant that my grandfather had shot while on the farm and then taken to a taxidermist to have them mounted.

These two immobilized birds absolutely terrified me. They had beady eyes and would stare at me when I opened the door to go in and clean the sewing room. When I would check them out as I nervously cleaned the room, I was convinced that they were watching me. The owl was somewhat compact and seemed less ominous to me. The pheasant, with its long tail feathers, was close to a yard long. This bird I knew was dangerous!

I think my grandfather knew that the birds frightened me, and in his attempt at humor (not his strong suit) he would ask me whenever I was cleaning upstairs “Did you dust the pheasant?” I was simply trying to make sure the pheasant didn’t kill me; dusting was a bridge too far. I would waffle as I recall, and a few times he would go upstairs with me and take me to the sewing room to watch me try to “dust the pheasant”.

My brothers Leon and Ken are our most accomplished humorists. Leon has to carry double duty as a humorist that includes filling the shoes of our brother Ken who died. Ken was our creative genius as a humorist and we miss him, so we appreciate Leon’s double duty. Hearing my story of the dangerous stuffed birds, Leon announced that he thought we had yet another theme for our family reunion: “Dust the Pheasant”! It caught on, and as the day progressed, it became clear that “Dust the Pheasant!” had the potential to become a Mantra, was becoming a Mantra.

So much in life presents itself as the call to “Dust the Pheasant”. Some people like to harass others with reminders about their responsibility to “Dust the Pheasant”. People who suffer from bouts of guilt when they fail to meet obligations or meet their own standards of performance believe, deep down, that that they have failed to “Dust the Pheasant”. I imagine people reading this right now, and thinking of the many ways they have failed to “Dust the Pheasant” or alternately, thinking of the people they know who are unspeakably awful in their failed responsibility to “Dust the Pheasant”.

The fact is that life asks a lot of us, minute to minute and day to day. We know we never quite achieve the level of excellence we imagine ourselves capable of, and even elect to not let that knowledge lurk in our consciousness. We notice the failures or missteps of others, and see the human condition with a drift toward a jaundiced perspective.

Now what this new mantra provides is a way of diluting all this performance focus and anxiety. We are all going to do stuff imperfectly all the time. If we have a nice mantra to describe this truth, and one that makes us laugh, perhaps we can ease our way into a more comfortable space and place of self-acceptance and self-affirmation.

You come home from work, and realize that you did not answer an important email or complete a task you said you would complete: Invoke the Mantra! “Damn, I forgot to Dust the Pheasant”. You realize that the project you hoped to complete is now done and you want to take a moment to acknowledge this success: Invoke the Mantra! “Damn, I was able to brilliantly Dust the Pheasant”. You are bored and not sure what could draw your interest: Invoke the Mantra! “Damn, I need some new initiatives so I can Dust the Pheasant.” The options abound.

For the literal thinkers among us, there is a YouTube video you can watch called “Cleaning Your Bird Mounts” which includes using Windex and a q-tip to clean your bird’s eyes. You can make this metaphor go wherever you wish. Imagine if Grandpa had provided q-tips and Windex.

As is obvious, I am offering every reader a new Mantra to make moving through life both smoother and funnier. Because the Beck family, my siblings and I, are generous humans, we are willing to share this useful Mantra and encourage you to adopt it today: “Dust the Pheasant”!

“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” - Hannah Arendt -

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