June 30, 2005

Middle of the Night

All last week, when I was on the west coast, my body remained on east coast time. I would wake up at 4 am, ready for the day. I got hungry at all the wrong times. Then the last day, just before it was time to come home, my body switched over. So this week, my body has been on west coast time, which means lying awake at night, not able to sleep. It's an unusual situation for me. I can usually sleep anywhere, anytime. Caffeine and jet lag can cause exceptions to the norm.

My favorite thing to do when I am lying awake at night on a dark humid night, when the air in the house is well over 90 degrees and the electric fan in the window is making that horrible whirring noise, is to think about every mistake I've ever made and dwell on every fault I have. Okay, I'm lying. It's not my favorite thing. But it happens from time to time - all the brother issues come to the surface and the feeling of rejection is just overwhelming, and all I can do is cry.

I think these crying jags are normal, part of some kind of grieving process, and I don't try to stop them. But after two nights, I decided that I'd really had enough. There's a limit to how much time even someone like me, a born drama queen, can possibly spend moping around and feeling sorry for herself.

Last night, I decided to make a top ten list of the nicest things people had ever said to me. The rule was that they could not be straightforward compliments. They had to be nice things people said when they did not even realize they were being nice to me. I snuggled up to my down pillow and spent hours in the dark, thinking about all the wonderful people in my life who have been supportive at all kinds of times. I came up with way more than ten, and when I finally fell asleep, I had that cool flying dream that lets me know that things are okay.

Here are a few of the things from my list:

Years ago, I went to a conference in Atlanta with PoetFriend. We travelled together and spent most of the conference together. I was on some kind of hormone/adrenaline rush and spend hours talking to him, giving him stories from my life and coming up with all kinds of plans for when I was dictator of the universe. I made him stay up late every night listening to my ideas. At the end of the trip, I figured he was probably sick of listening to me. I was even sick of listening to me. But when we got to the airport, and they had to switch us to a different plane because of a mechanical failure, and they gave us seats that weren't together, he looked at his seat assignment and said, in complete sincerity, "We aren't sitting together?" He was actually disappointed that he wouldn't have to hear more of my plans for ruling the world.

A couple years ago, I had a difficult summer, dealing with all the emotions surrounding my relationship with my brother. Artist Friend spent hours reading my long rambling emails or talking to me on the phone. That was the summer I listened to Joni Mitchell's Blue over and over again. I'd call Artist Friend and he would listen to me patiently, and then he'd tell me stuff like, "Okay, go buy some blueberries and make a pie." Or he told me to build a kite and go fly kites at the beach. The funny thing is that his advice, crazy as it seemed, worked most of the time. When I saw him last fall, I felt bad that he'd had to put up with all my whining. "I know it's not fair," I said, "I am asking you to heal pain that you didn't cause. That is completely unfair." He looked at me and smiled. "But that is how healing works."

A while ago, I was working through some kind of issue in my life, and I start picking a fight with a friend, being kind of a jerk. When eventually, I apologized, he sent me an email that said, basically: "Yeah, you were being a jerk, but I love you anyhow." And that is really one of the nicest things anyone can say. I expect people to like me when I am being nice to them. It takes a real friend to like me when I am acting my worst.

Yesterday morning, I finally got around to dumping out the bag of stuff my youngest child brought home when he cleaned out his desk at school. One of the items was a crumpled chain, with each link representing a different member of his family. Each link had one phrase written on it, such things as helps me with piano or fun to be with. Blonde Sister, who babysat With-a-Why when he was young got the phrase loving. On my link he wrote: could not live without her.

June 28, 2005

Into the River

I love going to academic conferences. Maybe I'm a nerd. I like to hear papers and presentations. I love talking about books and ideas. I make it to just about every plenary speaker and as many concurrent sessions as I can. The roundtable I had planned for this conference attracted a good crowd, and many of us went out to dinner later that night to continue talking about the ideas. It's wonderful to escape for a week from all the pressures of raising kids and teaching students, and spend seven days with colleagues, talking about ideas and goals and dreams.

The conference I just came from has an additional benefit, beyond the intellectual stimulation that an academic conference can offer: cool field trips.

Saturday, I went with a group of colleagues on a conference-sponsored raft trip. It was a cool sunny day, and we travelled by bus to the put-in spot, all of us eager to get onto the swiftly flowing river. This part of Oregon is overwhelmingly beautiful, lush and green, curving with mountains. We could hear the river as we got close, a shallow river tumbling over rocks, churning, dancing, calling to us.

It was late in the conference so most of us had dispensed with the name tags, but there was a certain camaraderie present as we all climbed onto the blue and white rafts, calling to each other, joking around. Often on these field trips, there is a certain reversal in power: the young fit grad students have a decided edge over the old famous tenured professors. And by this point in the conference, everyone is sleep-deprived from way too many nights at the pub, so an informality born of exhaustion presides.

I sat next to Artist Friend, who kept pointing out butterflies and birds, and who always knows the names of trees and plants. Not long into the trip, we got into a water fight with another raft. After five days of sitting still in classrooms, listening to presentations, it felt great to slap at the water with my paddle, splashing everyone in sight. I'm not sure who started the water fight. It may have been me. But once started, there was no turning back. And soon we were all sopping wet.

It was mainly a float trip, but we did go through a few stretches of white water. Oh, I love how it feels to crash into big waves! Maybe it's because I've been a water rat my whole life but this motion did not make me motion sick in the least. Who could feel sick outside in the hot sun and cold wind?

The best way to see any landscape, I think, is from the perspective of a river. The river knows where to go to show you the mountains, the trees, the rocks covered with moss. Oregon has a lush climate, even greener than the landscape I live in, and the mosses shone brilliantly from the edges of the river. An osprey flew overhead, reminding me of the osprey we have up at camp.

Near the end of the trip, we came to a calm stretch, and the guide said we could jump off the raft if we wanted to. After being chilled through for a couple of hours, I was not sure if I wanted to jump into the icy water. But Artist Friend nudged me. "If you don't, you will regret it."

And he was right. The only way to experience a river is to be totally in it. To leap from the raft and let the water pull your whole body along. I swam for a moment, then let the current take me, surrendering to the coldness, the movement. I looked up at the mountains, and all the lush greenness around me.

And now, back home in sweltering heat, sitting at my desk to do the tedious job of adding up and submitting my conference receipts, I think over the conference. I loved being plunged into the current of ideas and thoughts; I love being part of a community of people all concerned about the big issues that face our times. And when I think of the river trip, I am glad I jumped in. I can still feel that tingly coldness. I remember how easily the current swept my body along -- and how humble I felt in the presence of that power.

June 27, 2005

This side of reality

The situation was not ideal. I was hungry. I was tired. I had PMS.

It was my first blogger meet-up, and I wanted to make a good impression. My friend Philadelphia Girl and I were driving from Portland to Eugene for a conference, and I offered a fellow blogger a ride in our rental car. I was hoping he would see this as a magnanimous gesture, one that would mark me a generous and wonderful friend.

Of course, the gesture was undercut when I decided to make Green-haired Blogger drive. Well, I hate driving in a strange city. I'm a terrible driver. Then I told him he had to get up at dawn because I wanted to take the scenic route. And then once we were in the car, I told him he was driving too fast and had to slow down. And then we slowed way down anyhow, because somehow I had timed our departure from Portland to coincide with rush hour traffic and we ended up in a traffic jam. Then I told him he couldn't change lanes because the sideways motion made me sick. The distance from Portland to Eugene is about 95 miles, but the scenic route ended up taking us ten hours. Yes. Ten. Hours. Ten very long hours. It turns out that the route to the coast is full of twisting roads that made me motion sick, and I had to keep asking Green-haired Friend to pull over so I could vomit.

The great thing about seeing a blogging friend in person is that you get to see his gestures. Green-haired Blogging Friend has very expressive eyes and body language. Within minutes of meeting him, I was able to catalogue many of his expressions: The Eye Roll. The Hair Toss. The Glimpse of a Smile. The Sideways Look. The Slouch. The Finger Drumming. The Nervous Giggle. The Thumb Twiddling. The Hair Tousle. The Fingernail Chewing. The Wide-eyed Look. The Direct Look. The Spontaneous Laugh. The Full Smile.

He is animated when he walks or talks. He cannot carry a bottle of soda without flipping it upside down into the air and catching it. He drums his fingers against the steering wheel as he drives, his body moving to some tune inside his head. And yet, he knows how to listen. All this movement disappears when he is listening, then even his hands are still, and his eyes will stare directly at you so that you know he is hearing even the parts you aren't saying.

Ask him a difficult question and you can see him thinking. Often he will look away as if he thinks the answer is going to be written on the side of a building. And he shrugs. Characters in books are always shrugging, but I had never seen anyone in real life who had mastered the full shrug. I myself do not come from a community of shruggers. But Green-haired Friend has a whole arsenal of shrugs, from the simple Shoulder Shrug to the Full Shrug, complete with an Eye Roll, Visible Shoulder Movements, and Dramatic Hand Gestures.

By the time we were a couple hours into what was supposed to be a quick commute to Eugene, I was nauseous and miserable, on the edge of a migraine, and my behavior was reduced to that of a whining four-year-old. My plans to impress my blogging friend with my wisdom and maturity (I am a full ten years older than he is) had fallen apart. We stopped at a little gas station along the edge of a twisting mountain road because I ABSOLUTELY HAD TO GET OUT OF THE CAR right that very moment.

"You okay?" Sideways look. Hand gesture.
"I am going to be sick," I said. "I am never ever getting back into that car. Never. Ever."
"Okay," Sideways look. Simple Shoulder Shrug.

Luckily, he seemed completely capable of handling bratty four-year-old behavior. It's easy to see he is an experienced Dad. I was wearing sneakers with those stupid thick round laces that untie all the time and had given up tying the laces, and I could tell that my untied shoelaces were driving him nuts.

Eventually, of course, I did get back in the car. We couldn't stay at that gas station forever, lovely as it was with all those exhaust fumes from traffic backed up because of construction. But I was on the edge of a migraine, and I was feeling panicky. It's really no fun to have a migraine when you are stuck in a rental car in the middle of nowhere.

"You can't put the car in reverse," I said, "That motion makes me sick."

"Okay," he said. He pointed to the wall in front of the car, and shrugged, a shoulder shrug with eye roll and hand gestures. So I got back out of the car and walked to the curb, where he picked me up. Philadelphia Girl, taking a turn sitting in the backseat, was not feeling well either. She was not saying much.

"You think I should take some dramamine?" I asked. Philadelphia Girl started talking about homeopathic remedies for motion sickness, while Green-haired Friend looked at me in disbelief. This was a new look, but the meaning was clear: you've got dramamine in your backpack and you didn't take it yet? Yes, indeed, I was impressing him with my wisdom and maturity.

The misty green mountains were beautiful, but I felt too sick to notice. I was determined not to stop again until we reached the coast, where we could match my stops to be sick with some scenic overlooks. But somehow, we weren't moving fast enough.

"I am going to throw up," I announced.

"Okay," he said. Sideways look. By then, my face was probably the colour of his hair. He veered off to the side, hit the brakes, and I stumbled out while the car was still moving.

I am an expert at vomiting by the side of the road. I know how to pull my hair back so it doesn't get icky, and how to stand to avoid splashing my sneakers. I had no doubt that I was impressing Green-haired Friend with these hidden skills. I climbed a little hill to a grove of trees, and leaned against one of the trees, feeling utterly wretched.

When I stumbled back into the car, Philadelphia Girl handed me a peppermint. I felt strangely better. And we were almost to the coast. The sight of the Pacific Ocean, with waves foaming up around huge jutting rocks and sandy beaches, made me feel better. We stopped at every scenic overlook, sometimes climbing down to put our hands in the water. I splashed some salt water onto my face, and tasted the ocean. The dramamine finally kicked in, and the nausea disappeared.

We saw sea otters playing in the surf. We stopped at the famous sea lion caves, and stood with other humans in a cage, behind a chain link face, staring into a grotto full of sea lions, some sleeping in the sun, some playing in the water, some barking to each other. The cold ocean wind had driven the last of the motion sickness away, and even the fishy smell of the cave did not bother me.

Eventually, we got to the conference. Hours late. And yet, I did not regret the taking the scenic route. It was the first time my Green-haired Friend had seen the Pacific Ocean. And the trip had been a strangely satisfying way to meet a fellow blogger. Because if someone sees you at your worst, vomiting and cranky and just totally miserable, and still likes you anyhow, that's when you know the friendship is real.

June 18, 2005

Leaving on a jet plane

I'll be offline for the next week because I will be flying to the other coast for a conference. It's a small, friendly conference that I've been involved with for years so I am really looking forward to this week. It'll be a busy week, filled with things I love to do. Exploring a new part of the country. Catching up with old friends. Hearing some of my favorite writers read. Listening to great sessions on all kinds of topics. Talking about books and teaching and writing. Venting about the Bush administration and what it's done to the environment. Meeting new people from all over the country. Going out to lunch or dinner with friends. Buying new books. Debating new ideas. Staying up late to listen to friends jam on guitar and harmonica.

Unlike most academic conferences, which take place in a hotel, this one takes place on a college campus and includes some cool field trips. I'll be going on a botany hike and a raft trip. And perhaps most interesting to those of you in the blogging community, the trip will include my first ever blogger meet-up!

I promise to come home with stories to tell.

June 17, 2005

Hey, I Just Got a Haircut

About twice each year, I get a haircut. Sometimes I question why. It seems silly, really, to pay someone to take a pair of scissors to my head. But my hair is very dry, and I do like to periodically cut off those split ends so that the hair looks healthier. (I also go to the dentists twice a year too, although getting my haircut is usually less painful.)

And it's always the same. Usually the stylist (and I use the term loosely) will take off lots of hair. My hair is pretty thick, and by the time she's done, the floor will be covered with hair, piles and piles of it. Sometimes I will get a stylist who is determined to cut off all the sun damage, and she will lop off five or six inches. (An aside: I've always liked how my hair gets blonde highlights in the summer, but stylists always refer to it sneeringly as damage. And I will get a lecture about how, after I've been swimming in salt water or chlorine, I am supposed to immediately, upon leaving the water, race to the nearest sink and dump clarifying shampoo on my head. Seriously. This is why hair stylists don't get invited to pool parties.)

Here's the funny part: No matter who cuts my hair or how much she cuts off, my hair never looks any different. Not. One. Bit. Different. I have never had anyone walk up to me and say, "Hey, you just got your hair cut." Never once.

If I announce to friends and family that I just got my hair cut, they will look at me blankly and say something like, "Really? It doesn't look any different." Perhaps I am surrounded by unusually unobservant people. Or perhaps there is some other explanation for this phenomena.

Maybe it's because my hair has always been fairly long. It's thick and wavy. And stubborn, like me. Maybe it's because I don't use a hair dryer or curling iron or styling gel. Maybe it's because I go to the cheapest place possible and leave with my hair wet.

Or perhaps I am to blame. I don't give the stylist very good instructions. Usually I go in and say, "Do whatever you want so long as you keep it sort of long." If the stylist presses me for elaboration, I might add, "Just make it look more civilized."

Sometimes a stylist, empowered to do whatever she wants, will tackle my hair with great enthusiasm, snipping, cutting, combing - convinced that she has been appointed my personal saviour and is going to rescue me from the long-hair-that-looks-like-maybe-her-sister-cut-it-last-time. But then sometimes I get the nervous hesitant stylist who keeps asking me questions about what she should do. "Do you want me to angle it in the front?"

These questions drive me crazy. Doesn't this woman work as a hair stylist? DOESN'T SHE KNOW HOW TO CUT HAIR? Why is she asking me? Isn't this cutting-hair thing HER job? I mean, if I knew what I wanted to do about my hair, I would take a pair of scissors, sit myself in front of a mirror, and go at it myself. WHAT AM I PAYING THIS WOMAN FOR?

Even worse, she will start asking me about hair styles. This is patently ridiculous. Any random person on the street knows more about hair styles than I do. Isn't she supposed to be the hair stylist? Sometimes I get the young stylist who will helpfully start naming brown-haired celebrities. Yeah, that helps. Because I am always up on the way Demi Moore is wearing her hair these days.

"Do whatever you want," I mutter eventually, thinking it will get the woman to stop staring at the hair and start cutting it.

Usually, this the signal for her to pounce with her last and final question:
"When are we going to do something to cover the grey?"

I hear this every time. Every. Single. Time. Every stylist acts like she is telling something new when she mentions that I'm going grey. Like somehow, maybe I just did not notice all those grey hairs. And that once I look into the mirror and see the grey hairs, I will beg for her help in covering them up.

I love how the question is framed. The word when indicates that it is just a matter of time; I will give in eventually and let this woman dye my hair. Eventually, she will wear me down. How am I supposed to answer to the question? "Sure you can dye my hair. Right after they embalm me."

Finally, the stylist will give me up as a hopeless cause, drop the questions, and actually cut my hair. And this is the part I like. I start asking her questions. What kind of vacation she will take this summer, how old her kids are, that kind of thing. I like that part of the haircut, getting a glimpse into someone else's life. I do like someone fussing over my hair, combing and cutting it. My sisters and friends used to play with my hair when we were teenagers. So she will talk and fuss over my wet hair, and I will relax. By the time I get home, the wet hair will be mostly dry, and I will look into the mirror. And always, it looks exactly the same.

But when it comes right down to it, I don't mind really. I like my hair, the way it feels brushing against my chin and shoulders. I like it to be sort of long, and I think the grey hairs blend beautifully with the blonde highlights I get from the sun. I really don't want it to be any different.

June 16, 2005

Hair in the Face


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Some kind of strange hair meme is going around. I've been seeing bad hair photos, out-of-date hair photos, and then my favorite -- hair in the face photos.

Here is a photo of one of my kids up at camp Memorial Day weekend. The dock is in a marsh so the water is shallow and muddy, filled with all kinds of weeds and creatures. When you stand at the end of the dock, your feet sink into several feet of soft muck which will rise and swirl all around you. Most of us choose to float in this water, trying not to stir up the muck, keeping our bodies on the surface, keeping an eye out for water snakes and snapping turtles, but Shaggy Hair Boy does not hesitate to push his feet right into all that mud.

June 15, 2005

Postcard from Profgrrrrl!


I have been checking the mailbox impatiently every day, and today it came. A postcard from Profgrrrrl!

A photo of the Meiji Shrine: "a most peaceful shrine that rests emebedded in a wooded area just off the Harajuko metro stop."

It's now on the bulletin board above my computer, along with other important cards and photos.

June 14, 2005

Word for the day: professional

I always feel a little itchy when someone talks about acting professional or looking professional or wanting to appear professional. I think it's because on my campus, the word is sometimes used as some sort of weapon, a way to keep progressive thinkers in line.

Professional sometimes means conforming to the way we've always done things in this profession. No new ideas, new perspectives, or new ways of thinking allowed.

"No, you can't do that. It just wouldn't be professional."

Junior faculty are not supposed to question that line of thinking. I think they should. I love it when new young faculty bring in new ways of doing things, new ways of teaching, even new ways of dressing. I hate it when all the energy get stamped down by old-timers sneering and saying, "That new professor just isn't very professional."

A retired colleague who was one of the first women ever hired on our campus says that in her early days, her chair would tell her that she was not dressing "professionally." When she finally questioned what this meant, she was told that looking professional meant wearing a suit and tie. This was in the days before stores even carried suits for women. A suit was something found in the men's department. Often the word professional means: looking and acting like a white man in navy blue suit.

On my campus the word professional almost always means acting in ways that would be traditionally considered masculine. (I'm not essentializing here - I'm talking about the socially constructed category of masculine.) Wearing a tie is professional. Wearing a skirt is not. A short haircut is professional. Long hair is not. Carrying a briefcase is professional. Carrying a purse is not. Acting cold and distant with students is professional. Acting nurturing and supportive is not. Always acting like an expert is professional. Admitting that you don't have all the answers is not. Asking questions that really just show off your own knowledge is professional. Asking questions that you are curious about is not. Acting calm and rational is professional. Being passionate about your work or openly emotional is not.

I worry that we are not moving fast enough to change our concept of what professional means. It's not just the academy; it's the larger community as well. We still vote for politicians who look like .... white men in navy blue suits. Howard Dean gives an enthusiastic yell at a rally and his political career is over. Hilary Clinton is bashed incessantly in my conservative community, not for her political stances, but for the way she wears her hair or what goes on in her marriage. I asked my students last semester - and these are college students in the northeast, a fairly enlightened population - if they could even envision the country electing a president who didn't fit the image of the white heterosexual male. Sadly, they said no.

June 13, 2005

Walking with my son on the beach


Another photo. Because it is still too hot to think.

Beaches along the coast are the most crowded during the day, when the hot sun is bright and glaring. But I love the beach most in the early morning before anyone else is there. If we are camping in sand dunes, I sneak out of the tent just as it is getting light.

I love the coolness of the early morning and the grey, soft quality of the light. The sea and sky blend so that I cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. The waves come out of nowhere, just appearing in the mist, spreading their white foam across the sand, leaving it wet and glistening. I can sit for hours, just losing myself in that rhythm.

When I was a little kid, we spent a week every August on the Jersey shore. My Dad loved to get up early in the morning and head to the beach. Sometimes he would take me with him. Since I am one of five kids, this time alone with my Dad was special and rare. We didn't talk much, but we rambled along the beach, taking our shoes off to get our feet wet, and I collected shells. The boardwalk and beaches were deserted and peaceful, except for the occasional fisherman.

In this hot weather, I think longingly of the ocean, and how wonderful it would be to swim in the cold salt water, enjoy the breeze along the shore. And take an early morning walk in the cool misty light.

June 12, 2005

Lazy Summer Afternoon

The heat wave here in Snowstorm Region continues. Since neither my home or car are air conditioned, the only thing to do on a hot humid day is find water somewhere. Yesterday, the kids and I spend the afternoon at Neighbors' House. These neighbors live about a mile away, right in the center of Train Track Village, and they have an above-ground pool.

The kids - my own, some extras, and the neighbor kids - spent the entire time in the water, splashing and playing games. Neighbor Woman and I went in and out of the water, and sat on the deck to watch the kids, talking the whole time. She and I went to high school together, the same high school Boy in Black currently attends.

It was a lazy summer afternoon. The kids were counting up how many days of school they had left. Philosophical Boy is graduating sixth grade and has to give a speech at the graduation ceremony on Thursday. Neighbor Guy and I reminisced about skiing last winter, and talked about camping in the mountains. Blonde Niece and Daughter compared their new bathing suits, bright-coloured bikinis. Spouse had decided to stay home and work in the empty quiet (but certainly not clean) house, but gave up eventually and came for a swim.

The first swim of the year always makes Neighbor Woman and I realize how much our kids have grown. The height of the water in the pool is about three feet and we used to have to supervise the kids very closely when it was over their heads. This year, for the first time, all the kids are tall enough to stand up. And besides, they can swim pretty well now. What a relief.

Yes, it is a relief that the kids don't need us as much any more, but it is also a little bittersweet. The pool gets smaller each year, as the kids turn into teenagers and then adults. Daughter has completed a year of college, and the next two kids - Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy - are not far behind her. Neighbor Woman and I both live in the community we grew up in; how many of these kids will make that same choice? These are the things we talked about as the sun got hotter. But soon I shook off those thoughts and joined the group of children in the pool. Summers are for splashing in cold water and enjoying the kids right now. And it's only June: we've got the whole summer ahead of us.

June 11, 2005

Another Quiet Moment for Shaggy Hair Boy


For those of you who have been admiring all the beautiful hair in my family, here’s a recent photo of Shaggy Hair Boy. He stopped cutting his hair just about a year ago. He looks very different than the cute little boy you've seen in other photos, but he is still the same kid who can sit for long periods of time in a boat, feeling the river water on his toes, listening to the birds of the marsh, and just contemplating life.

June 10, 2005

Friday Cat Blogging


In honour of Friday cat blogging and as a continuation of my Faceless Family photo series, here is a picture of my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter in the backyard with our cat Trouble.

Trouble is what we call the cat. I figure the cats' names are pseudonyms already so I don't have to make new ones up. I don't speak cat so I don't know what his real name is. And I'm not thinking that any of his friends are likely to google him.

June 09, 2005

If the shoe fits

There's an interesting discussion going on over at Bitch's about gendered children's clothing. The comment thread over there got so long, that I decided to write my comment here.

Over twenty years ago, before I had kids of my own, I spent one spring and summer teaching elementary school kids how to use computers. I ate lunch in an empty teachers' lounge, near an open window that overlooked the school playground. While I ate my sandwich, I watched the kids on the playground.

Here's one of the first things I noticed: the boys were all running around, yelling and screaming, climbing on stuff and having a good time. About half the girls were doing the same thing. But half of the girls were just sitting quietly on the sidelines, talking and such.

I puzzled over this behavior. Why did some girls feel free to run and play, while others felt they had to sit quietly? Did some of the girls just have quiet personalities?

I looked for external causes. My first hypothesis was that clothing might be a factor: many of the girls wore dresses while the boys wore shorts. I counted carefully for several days, making notes in my journal. (Yes, really, I am that much of a nerd.) But clothing did not seem to make a difference. Little girls wearing dresses were just as likely to climb the monkey bars or jump off the swings as the girls wearing shorts.

Since I knew most of the kids, I tried to make a hypothesis based on their personalities, but I could not come up with anything. Outgoing girls seemed just as likely to be sitting on the sidelines as shy kids. It didn't make sense.

Then one day, I noticed a boy teasing one of the girls who was sitting down. She got up to chase him, but kept slipping on the pavement. She gave up and sat back down with her friends. That is when I noticed her shoes. She had on these shoes with slippery soles. I don't know if these kind of shoes still exist (I suspect they do), but we always just called them "pretty shoes" or "dress-up shoes."

In looking at the kids' clothing, I had completely overlooked the shoes. Now I studied their feet. The boys wore sneakers or sensible rubber-soled shoes. The girls who were racing about with the boys, running and climbing and having fun, had on sensible shoes. Some of them were gendered by colour (after all, we wouldn't want unisex hand-me-downs, because that would cut in half the amount of money a new parent could contribute to the cause of consumerism), but still, they were shoes that encouraged running and jumping and climbing.

On most days, nearly 80 percent of the girls sitting on the sidelines were wearing "pretty shoes."

I've since wondered how many "feminine" and "masculine" traits that our culture accepts as biological are caused by simple things like gendered choices in footwear. When I used to attend corporate dinners with my husband (before he got fed up with corporate life and quit that job), I'd watch women wearing high heels even on nights when the pavements everywhere were covered with ice. Women were always complaining about how their feet hurt, sitting down because their lower backs ached, or taking their shoes off in order to dance. The men, in the mean time, were able to mingle and walk about all evening, their feet comfortable in sensible shoes. At the end of the evening, it was common to see a huddle of women, balanced precariously on high heels, clustered near the entrance way, helpless when it came to facing the icy sidewalks. They would stand in a helpless clump, waiting while the men went to get the cars and pick them up.

At least one husband told me he thought that heels were sexy because he liked how it made his wife dependent on him: going out to get the car made him feel like the big strong man taking care of his wife. (Yes, I'm paraphrasing , and yes, he was quite drunk.) A woman, one of the upper level corporate managers, told me that she hated wearing heels but that they were part of the unwritten dress code. She was bitter about the trips she would be taking to the podiatrist from the footwear she felt obligated to wear. "Men in the corporate world are not expected to cripple themselves for the job." (No, I'm not paraphrasing here. And she was not drunk.)

When I buy shoes for my kids, I always ask the kid to put the shoes on. Then I tell him or her to run around the store. I refuse to buy a pair of shoes that is not conducive to running, climbing, and jumping.

I put my own shoes through the same test. Because to be honest, I don't like feeling helpless. I don't find the role of helpless woman sexy in the slightest. I can remember my karate teacher talking about the best way to react if attacked. You have one chance to strike your assailant and then run like hell. "And if you are a woman wearing heels?" someone asked. He shrugged. "Better have a man with you to protect you."

June 08, 2005

Into Cold Water


It's been a hot humid week. When With-a-Why came home from school, he pulled off his shirt and his body was covered with a red rash: prickly heat. Always, we get one heat wave before school is out for the summer. By late afternoon, everyone in my house is just lying on the floor. It is too hot to do anything. My car is even worse: not so bad when we are moving, but at every traffic light, all air movement stops, the sun pours in, and it feels like a sauna. I can smell the tar on the road melting.

In this heat, I want to be camping. Days like this are meant to be spent on the water. Canoe out to an island, climb up on a big rock above deep cold water -- and jump right in.

One Way to Prevent Whining about Grades

There's a big discussion going on over at Scrivenings about students who whine about their grades. I used to think the way to prevent complaints was to be as specific about grading as possible. But I think that is tough in the humanities, when you are grading essays. Here's the problem: if the student had the critical thinking skills and reading sophistication to recognize why his lame, mediocre paper deserved a C and not an A, he would probably be writing better papers in the first place and would have no reason to complain. I try hard to teach my students to recognize good writing, but the ones who get low grades are the students who just don't get it.

Anyhow, here is my best strategy for preventing student complaints about grades:

At mid-semester, I ask them to hand me a manilla folder that contains all their work: usually, this includes three formal essays I've already graded (using an A through F scale), about ten informal pieces of writing that I've read and checked off, and a one page reflective piece in which they assess their class participation. I skim through this all and put a grade on the inside of the folder. I write nothing but the grade. (Otherwise I just wouldn't have the time to do this.) This grade is the grade that they are currently earning for the course.

Here's the spiel that they hear from me:

"I know that some of you are concerned about grades because you are applying for vet school or med school. And some of you have to keep a certain GPA to maintain scholarships. If you have some concern about the grade you are getting in this class, you need to make an appointment and come in to talk to me NOW. THIS WEEK. If you wait and come to talk to me at the end of the semester, IT WILL BE TOO LATE. At the end of the semester, there is NOTHING I can do about your grade. Except mark your grade in that little bubble sheet they give me.

Right now, we've still got half a semester left. There are things you can do to try to get a better grade. I can give you opportunities to rewrite papers. I can talk to you about strategies for writing the next paper. We have a writing center on campus - and other resources as well.

The grade I wrote in your folder is not likely to get higher. The semester will get harder, not easier. If you feel panicked about that grade, make an appointment with me THIS WEEK."


I repeat the gist of this several times until I know they've all gotten it. And a few will make appointments to meet with me. And the others? Well, they have waived their right to whine about grades.

It seems to work. I have not had a complaint about grades since I started doing this.

June 07, 2005

When Boys Turn into Teenagers

The other day, I promised to pick my eighth grade son, Shaggy Hair Boy, up from school. Somehow, I mixed up the times and ended up getting there way too late. No one was at the school when I arrived.

"Don't worry," said Boy in Black, who was in the car with me. "It's a nice day. I am sure he started walking home." The school is miles from our house, but not an impossible walk, so he was probably right.

But I felt awful that I had missed him. And then I started worrying about him walking home. Inside my head, of course, Shaggy Hair is still a little boy, shy and quiet. Inside my head, he still has that innocent freckled frace and short hair, not the wild mane of curls that currently hides his whole face. We started home, taking the route he would have most likely taken.

"Stop worrying, Mom," Boy in Black said to me. "He is not a little kid anymore. He is a teenager."

He paused. "Teenagers are what people are afraid of when they worry about their little kids walking home alone."

That line put things in perspective for me.

We came around the corner, and I saw them: Shaggy Hair, dressed in black, his long hair in his eyes, sauntering along. His friend Skater Boy, also in black, was next to him, tossing down a skateboard and leaping on, moving along the road. Boy in Black was right: they looked like teenagers now.

And we live in a culture that fears teenage boys. I wondered what it must be like to be a teenage boy - and realize that.

June 06, 2005

Hot and sweaty

Today is one of those hot, humid days that we get every once in a while. And I've been out mowing the lawn. When I came inside, thirsty, to get some cold water, I had to strip off my shirt and shorts because they were wet with sweat.

When it is hot like this, I cannot sit at my desk and write or do any kind of work that requires mental stimulation. But for some reason, physical exertion feels good. I love how loose my muscles feel when the temperatures get this hot. All the aches in my shoulders from last night's belly dancing class have melted away.

I remember how cold I felt last winter when I rode the chairlift at the ski mountain, that wind just chilling me through. So now, I let the heat soak all the way through to my bones and my insides. Sweat has oozed out of my pores until my skin is glistening, and my hair is curling with wetness. When a slight breeze comes up, I lean over to shake out my long hair, and let the breeze cool the back of my neck.

The sun touches my arms, my legs, my face ... and I let myself absorb it. I want to savour this summer heat. I know how soon winter will return.

June 05, 2005

Art show on a Friday evening

To get there, we drove through miles of countryside, past white farmhouses with sagging front porches, towering lilac bushes, big red barns, cornfields crowded against lines of old maple trees, and a Christmas tree farm with hills of spruce and fir. The town was one of those rural towns built hundreds of years ago. The main street held old wooden houses, each with a barn in the back, and big maple trees that hung over bay windows and long porches.

The art show was in the library, a building that used to be a Methodist Church. I loved that the library, with its shelves and shelves of books and big stained glass windows, was at the very center of town. Behind it, a softball game was in full swing, the blue t-shirt team playing against the team with tie-dye shirts. On the sidewalks out front, a mother pushed a baby in a stroller, and a young father was just heading home with two little kids and an armful of books.

The artist was a friend of my father's. His work filled a small room near the front, and then spilled into the rest of the library, hung above bookshelves and beside windows. I walked around with my mother, looking at the art, picking out our favorite paintings. My father was mingling with his friends, musicians and artists, most of them, all chatting happily.

My mother and I talked to WaterColourArtist, an amazingly talented woman who was dressed elegantly for the show. She had a new hairstyle, and my mother could not resist asking, "Where did you get your hair cut?" (That's the advice you always hear: find someone whose hair looks great and find out where they got it done.) The woman laughed. "Oh, I just cut it myself." Yeah. She just takes a pair of scissors, looks in the mirror, and gives herself a haircut. I guess we should not have been surprised. Some people are just good at everything.

Three teenage girls were setting up music stands on the raised platform just beyond the circulation desk. Carefully, they took out their instruments, two violins and a cello. As their music began, it was clear that they'd been playing together for a while. I sat in stiff wooden chair, eating fresh strawberries and grapes, watching them play. All three were beautiful in the manner of young woman who don't know yet that they are beautiful. Between pieces, they flipped their silky hair back over their shoulders, their tanned arms moving gracefully as they shuffled through their music. At the end of each piece, I applauded - and the people around me joined in. The cello player each time looked up to give me a shy smile before returning to her intense gaze to the sheets of music.

We drove home just as it was beginning to get dark, the sun setting over the farm fields and lights coming on inside the big old houses. I chatted with my parents about the artwork, the music, the food and wine, the layout of the town. We talked about my little sister and her latest phone call, about my daughter and the work she is doing at the literacy center, about my niece who is heading to grad school in the fall. My parents dropped me off at about nine o'clock, just as the gang of teenagers were gathering at my house for a Friday night sleepover, just as my husband was getting home from work. After the peaceful evening at the art show, I felt ready to return to my normal noisy chaotic life.

June 04, 2005

Summer Nap

The weather has turned hot and humid. On days like this, I look at the dishes to be done, the bathrooms to be cleaned, the piles of stuff on my desk - and none of it seems anything I can tackle. The heat makes my energy level drop until a nap is really only the logical choice of activities. I can do housework in the early morning when the house is still cool, and tonight I'll probably enjoy an air conditioned movie theater with my husband, but in the afternoon of a hot summer day, the only thing that works for me is a nap.

I settle into the comfy couch, just below the open windows. Around me kids are playing cards and battling with light sabres that make strange humming noises. I can hear bird song, and the occasional tinkling of the wind chimes. I pull the pillows around me until my body fits perfectly. I doze off thinking about camp -- the cool shade of the oak trees, the icy chill of the river water, and the way the wind rushes across the rocks.

June 03, 2005

Birth Meme: Spring time baby

Lawmom has started a birth story meme. I don't think there are any rules to this meme so anyone who hasn't physically given birth to a child should feel free to participate with adoption stories, cat or dog stories, manuscript birthing stories, mountain climbing stories, caving stories, marathon running stories, or pretty much whatever the hell you want. I am sure everyone has at least one story that fits the birth metaphor in some way. I've had a baby for each season, so I am going to tell the story of my spring time baby.

Lilacs were blooming the night before he was born. My contractions started on a Wednesday afternoon, and by suppertime, I wasn't all that hungry. So we had a simple meal - pancakes - and then we walked around the neighborhood to see if that would speed up the contractions. Daughter was a toddler, and she walked between Spouse and me, swinging on our hands and giggling. I knew from my first birth that my body takes things slow ... so I knew I had lots of time as we strolled about the neighborhood.

As dusk arrived, the contractions picked up. We circled the neighborhood, the streets quiet and dark, lights coming on in kitchen windows, the heavy scent of the lilacs drifting toward us. The baby's head had dropped earlier in the week and I could feel that hard little head pressing against me as we walked. No doubt about it; this baby was ready to come out. When a contraction would begin, I would stop and lean against my husband, breathing slowly. Daughter thought this was funny.

"Yeah, this feels like the real thing," I told Spouse. We smiled at each other. How much easier things are the second time around. We both felt confident this time: we knew what we were doing.

Then I felt a little panic: did we have names picked out? I was positive about the boy's name, because it was leftover from the first baby, but what about the girl's name? Spouse and I are terrible at choosing kids' names and the deadline was looming. This baby was coming out soon.

So we walked, and talked about names, and then eventually went into the house to put Daughter to bed. I called my Mom and my sisters to give them updates. I knew I had just killed any chances of the women in my family getting any sleep - they would be waiting by the phone all night.

Spouse and I didn't get much sleep either. Daughter did not go to sleep nicely; she ended up in the bed with us. Spouse napped a bit. I would doze a little between contractions but they were coming every five or ten minutes and that did not give me a whole lot of time for napping. Mainly, I relaxed on the bed, snuggled against my husband, watching my daughter sleep. I wondered if she would be close to this new sibling. I imagined her playing with a little sister or brother.

By the time morning came, the contractions were still steady. I was sleepy but not uncomfortable. We piled into the car and drove the few miles to my mother's house. My mother came running out of the house: "Is this it? Are you ready to go the birth center?"

I shrugged. "Not yet. But some time today."

I have long slow labors - which I like because it is so easy - but this drives my mother and sisters crazy. By the time I actually give birth, they are exhausted. We spent a few hours at my Mom's, with her making breakfast for everyone. During contractions, I would get up and walk around the table. My Dad found this fascinating and kept asking me all kinds of questions.

Mid-morning, I checked in with the midwife. I decided to stop at her office for an internal exam just to see where things were at. My gut feeling was that nothing had really happened yet, but I was wrong. "Five centimeters and fully effaced," said the midwife. "I think it's time for you to head to the birth place. I'll follow as soon as I can."

Spouse and I went out to the car. How exciting! Time to have the baby. The car was warm from the sun, and Spouse had stopped for a newspaper. We both started reading the paper. I am very easily distracted by reading material. The heat coming through the windshield felt very soothing.

Suddenly, I elbowed Spouse. "Hey, what are we doing? We are sitting here reading the paper! We are supposed to be racing to the birth center. Midwife is going to get rid of her patients, race out to her car, and see us just hanging out here!"

He laughed, put down the paper, and we drove to the birth place. Regulations required that a woman be hooked up to monitors for at least 20 minutes and I wanted to get that over with. This was the most uncomfortable part of the labor. For twenty minutes, I had to lie in a bed with stupid straps on me. Lying in bed when your uterus is contracting is most uncomfortable. I prefer to be upright and walking. And having something strapped to your abdomen when you've got a baby in there - well, that is downright painful during contractions. But luckily, we got the twenty minute strip over with way before things got intense. We got that one stupid regulation over with. And then I was free to do anything I wanted.

For a few minutes, I tried out the comfy rocking chair. The birthing room was lovely, decorated like a bedroom at an upscale B&B, but it didn't seem right to be inside on a gorgeous day. I had brought a blue and white cotton nightgown that was quite fashionable, and the nurses assured me it looked just like a sundress. So Spouse and I went out the big double doors and took a walk around Snowstorm City. I suppose I should have brought sandals instead of fuzzy slippers but I am not that tuned into fashion even when I am not in labor. We enjoyed the lovely spring day as we ambled about the crooked sidewalks. We went into a little deli to get something to eat. The old Italian woman behind the counter assured me that minestrone soup was appropriate fare for a woman in labor.

By mid-afternoon, my lower back was beginning to feel sore, perhaps just from all the walking around with a huge pregnant belly. At the birth place, I settled into a bathtub of hot water in a dim-lit room. Spouse lounged on the floor next to me, and entertained me by singing corny songs to me for a couple of hours. The hot water felt great. I was completely relaxed and comfortable. My first labor had been wonderful, but also intense, challenging, and exhausting. This labor seemed so easy that I felt almost like a fraud. When the nurse came in to take my vitals, she said, "We can all hear you laughing in here! Are you sure you are in labor?"

By late afternoon, the midwife came in to see what was holding things up. She did a fast internal. "Okay, you are fully dilated. Any chance you want to get out of the tub and have that baby?"

"Are you sure?" I asked incredulously.

But I got out of the tub. I put my fashionable nightgown on so that Spouse could take a photo of me standing in front of the clock and smiling. (This photo was for friends who didn't believe me when I told them that I love labor and delivery.) Then I stripped off the nightgown so it wouldn't get dirty. Then I stopped to write in my journal and record the time and such.

"What are you doing?" asked one of the nurses, looking at me like I was crazy. "Homework?"

I was about to make a few phone calls when Spouse stopped me. "Shouldn't we get ready to have this baby?" I had given some thought to the birthing position ahead of time. I pulled the bean bag chair up on top of the bed. Spouse sat up behind the bean bag, and I leaned back into his arms, sort of in a crouching position. This felt right to me.

But still and all ... nothing was intense. I didn't even fully believe I was going to have a baby. I didn't even feel like pushing. We were all ready, everyone in position ... and nothing happened. We chatted for a minute or two. The midwife and nurse sat on the bed, waiting, expectant.

I felt with my hands to see what was going on. I half expected to feel the baby's head; I'd been carrying him so low. But instead I could feel something squishy.

"The bag of waters is right there," the midwife said. "Want me to poke it with my finger and see if it breaks? I've got fingernails."

"Go ahead."

A trickle of water ran down my leg. Clear fluid, a good sign. And then suddenly, I felt overwhelmed. All this adrenaline, this incredible urgency. This wave of intensity. I could not have stopped it if I had wanted. Every part of my being wanted to push that baby out. I gave into the feeling and let my body push. Oh, it felt good to give into that urgency. And I could feel the baby moving.

I reached down and felt the top of a slimy wet head. "Lots of dark hair!" the midwife reported. My husband whispered encouraging things into my ear.

I hardly heard them. I wanted to push again. I leaned against my husband. It hurt but I didn't care. I gripped his arms. I had to push. I could feel the baby moving, shifting, that impossibly hard head shoving its way out. I was burning. I was bursting.

The head came through. Oh, what a relief. And then the body slithered out, all red and wrinkled. A baby! A whole baby!

And that is always the most amazing part. I mean, I knew all along I was having a baby - I had even done it before - but then when the baby actually appeared, well, it was just unbelievable.

A baby! From inside my body. An alert, squirming baby. Eight pounds, five ounces. After months of carrying him around inside me, I got to hold him in my arms, his wet body cuddling up against my skin. And that moment, of course, was the very best part of the experience.

June 02, 2005

Quiet moment



At least once every summer, we go camping in the mountains. These are the mountains I used to camp in as a small child, the mountains where my Dad worked every summer as a musician during the 1950s, the mountains where my parents met.

We choose a campsite on a small lake where motorboats or jet skis have been banned. I think the restriction on motorized craft has something to do with the nesting loons, but humans as well as loons need quiet time, whether or not we are breeding.

The lake has an island in the middle, with a big rock that is fun to jump off, and we usually canoe out to the island for an afternoon of swimming. In the morning or early afternoon, I like to walk around the edges of the shallow lake, watching minnow through the clear water. Or sometimes I just sit somewhere by the edge of the lake with my journal.

Even young kids need those quiet moments for pondering life. Here's a photo of my son, staring into the water, having a contemplative moment.

June 01, 2005

Morning Sail

My parents' camp, a peninsula surrounded by acres and acres of protected marsh, is a quiet peaceful spot that has not changed much in the many years we have camped there. When my father and I take a sail, we leave this shallow sheltered bay and sail out to the river, which is deep and huge and busy, filled with motorboats of tourists, islands and islands of summer cottages, and ships moving through the channel, carrying cargo.

In the early morning, even the busy river is quiet as my father and I glide past islands, looking to see what changes have happened since the year before. Winter storms will sometimes send trees crashing down through cottage roofs. The ice can turn the most level dock into some kind of twisted surface that looks like it should be part of a fun house. Memorial Day weekend is when we begin to see the first signs of activity when ownership of an island has changed over the winter.

It's a pattern. The first thing a new owner does after buying an island is to put up No Trespassing signs. Yes, that seems to be the whole crux of private ownership of land: you get the right to keep people off. Next, barges full of materials arrive: cinder blocks, lumber, even truckloads of fill. That summer, the island will be filled with furious activity: all kinds of hammering, drilling, building. Each time we sail past, the structure will be take shape a little more. The roof this week, the windows next week. By the end of the summer, the island will have a new cottage, complete with fancy deck, sturdy dock, new Adirondack chairs. Maybe even a slide into the water.

The second summer, we will see people enjoying the new place: kids playing in the water, a woman reading a book in one of the chairs, a man sunning himself on the deck of a boat. But very quickly, the island will get that deserted look: the house locked tight, the boat covered, no one home. By the third or fourth year, the dock will be empty, the place deserted. The No Trespassing signs will fade and fall away, giving local and summer people the idea that they can swim or fish there with impunity. Eventually, too, the building will take on that abandoned look, the padlocks broken, the place looted. Sometimes the building will disappear altogether, and the island will become one of the uninhabited islands where people like us go for a swim in the deep river water.

But then one spring, a bunch of new No Trespassing signs will go up, and the whole process begins again. Each time, of course, the place that gets built is a little bigger, a little more ambitious, until you have these ridiculously huge buildings on tiny rocks, porches hanging right over the edge of the island.

It's a peculiar phenomena. It almost seems that the more money people spend on a summer cottage, the less they use it. Sometimes we do hear from local people what happened: the couple who owned that island got divorced. The man who built that fishing camp relocated to California. My father, who has been coming to this river for over 70 years, says that people seem to have less leisure time than they used to, that people who work high pressure corporate jobs have the money to build bigger and bigger summer places, but no time to use them. Many come only once a year.

I've got another theory too. It's the snow fort theory.

When I was a kid, I loved building snow forts. After a good storm, we could build pretty impressive structures with tunnels, cave-like rooms, castle turrets edged with sharp icicles, maybe a lookout tower. Playing in the fort meant building it, adding rooms, scooping out tunnels. The fun part was building and creating. We never actually use the fort for anything, just kept making it bigger. With each new snow fall, we got greedier, building the fort bigger and higher, until a thaw would humble us by collapsing the whole thing.

Sometimes I wonder if our culture is based on the snow fort mentality. Always, we keep building bigger, newer houses, buying more stuff, adding on rooms, making new shopping malls -- bigger, better shopping malls -- always growing. Our economy is based on the idea of constant growth, as if our resources were not finite. It's as if we Americans are stuck forever in childhood, always just building and buying new stuff, without any thaw to bring us back to the bare ground.

This is what my father and I talk about as we sail past big stone piers, huge boathouses, and mansion-like summer cottages. But often, too, we sail in silence, each of us shifting our weight in the boat as the wind shifts or we try a new tack. We watch the osprey make an amazing dive to get a fish, we listen to the water gurgle against the hull, and we smile at each other as a gust of wind sends the boat forward, heeling us until the rail is nearly under the water. And soon the thought of breakfast calls us to leave the river to sail back into our own quiet marsh, where the rest of the family are stumbling sleepily out of tents and gathering to eat.