October 31, 2005

Blogging in blue

My blog has a new design! If you are reading on bloglines or sage, click through to take a look and tell me what you think. We are still tampering with the details. Well, okay, when I say we, I really mean the wonderful and incomparable Dr. MMMMmmmmm who did the design, found a template for me, and worked his magic. I haven’t actually done anything except keep sending him emails saying, “Oh, yeah, that looks cool.” So big thanks to Dr. MMMmmmmmmmm.

Of course, some thanks goes to Scrivener, who initially responded to my begging and whining for help by agreeing to help and forwarding my pathetic pleas to Dr. MMMmmmm.

And check the post below this if you want to see With-a-Why’s Halloween costume.

Duct tape, aluminum foil, and a little imagination

One of our Halloween traditions involves making costumes at the last possible minute. My long time readers know that I can make a pirate costume in fifteen minutes. But this year, I decided to be pro-active and help With-a-Why make his costume ahead of time. We started on Thursday, days ahead of time.

I know there are crafty parents who can whip out a sewing machine and make some kind of spectacular costume. I've met people like that. I am not one of them. I am the parent who will help my child hastily assemble a costume out of stuff we've got lying around the house. I trust the crowd at the Halloween parade to have a little imagination. And if people aren't imaginative enough to appreciate a homemade costume, it is NOT MY FAULT.

With-a-Why said he wanted to be a robot. Not any robot, though. Boy in Black convinced him that he wanted to be Bender. Some of you readers might already know this, but Bender is the robot on the animated television show Futurama, a show that apparently does not count as a television show in my house because Boy in Black downloaded episodes and watched them on the computer. See, it's not a television show if you don't watch it on a television. A convenient loophole in the summertime no-television rule. And Boy in Black converted With-a-Why to a Futurama fan by claiming that they were doing some brotherly bonding at the computer. He's got the idea that I will just cave in whenever I hear the word bonding.

The idea of making a costume to imitate something on a TELEVISION SHOW pained me deeply. But I decided to sacrifice my own ideals because my son seemed excited about the idea. And besides, I was tired, and the costume seemed like a simple one. A robot, I figured, was a classic Halloween costume, one that I remembered from my own childhood. And of course, I figured that Boy in Black would help, and it would be a good bonding experience.

Every good Halloween costume begins with duct tape, and we had a whole roll of grey duct tape from the dollar store. A helpful blogger suggested aluminum foil, and soon we were on a roll.

Making a costume with little kids is really fun because you can impress them with simple skills. Making a costume in a roomful of teenagers is somewhat different. Here is how our conversation went:

Me: Okay, let's just cut this poster board in two and wrap it in aluminum foil. I'll put strings on so they hang in front and back.
Boy in Black: But that's a rectangle!
Me: Yeah ... so what?
Boy in Black: You can't have rectangles. Bender is made of cylinders.
Me: (Glaring) Use your imagination.
With-a-Why: (in a robotic voice) I am Bender. Please insert Girder.
Me: Oh, that's good. You sound like a robot.
Shaggy Hair: Oh, you might not want him talking like Bender.
Me: What? Let's everyone be supportive here.

Boy in Black: What are you doing now?
Me: If I wrap the arms of his shirt in duct tape, they will look just like cylinders. Exactly. Like. Cylinders.
Boy in Black: I am not sure about the aluminum foil.
Me: What? It looks great.
Boy in Black: Bender is not made of aluminum.
With-a-Why: He is 30 percent iron, 40 percent dolamite.
Boy in Black: 40 percent ungsten.
With-a-Why: Don't forget the .04 percent nickel impurity.
Me: That is more than 100 percent.
Boy in Black: (patiently) Yes, that is why it's funny.
Shaggy Hair: She just doesn't get the funny parts of the show.

Boy in Black: The aluminum foil makes him look like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz.
Shaggy Hair: Or leftovers maybe.
Me: (Silent glare.)
Boy in Black: (hastily) Oh, the aluminum foil is a great idea. Just. Perfect.

With-a-Why: What are you doing?
With-a-Why: (to his brothers, in shock and horror) She is putting her leg in my shirt!
Me: I just need to hold the fabric out so that the duct tape won't be on too tight.
With-a-Why: You expect me to wear that now?
With-a-Why: After your leg has been in there?
Me: Don't be ridiculous.
Shaggy Hair: How are you going to get that off?
Me: What?
Me: Ahhhh! Someone help pull this off my leg!

phone rings
Me: Hello.
Daughter: Hey.
Me: I've got a shirt stuck on my leg with duct tape.
Daughter: (laughing) What?
Me: I am helping With-a-Why with his Halloween costume.
Daughter: What? Are they having the party and parade tomorrow? On Friday? That doesn't make sense.
Me: We are making the costume ahead of time.
Daughter: AHEAD OF TIME? You've never done that before.
Me: Ahhhh. I am going to just rip this off.
Daughter: What is he going to be?
Me: That robot from Futurama.
Daughter: Oh, that is so cute.
Daughter: (to roommate) My little brother is going to be Bender.
Daughter: I ought to bring him to a frat party. They would love him here. I could just see him playing beer pong.
Me: He is even talking in a robot voice.
Daughter: Yeah, you might not want him talking like Bender.
Daughter: Can you check my closet for that black dress I wore to the piano recital? I've got a Halloween party tonight and I am going to be Cruella DeVille.
Me: I can't walk right now.
I hand off the phone to someone else.

Me: Okay, let's stuff the arms and legs with newspaper while we put on the duct tape. The leg thing didn't work so well.
With-a-Why: I can't get this over my head.
Boy in Black: Too. Much. Duct. Tape.
Blonde Niece: Duct tape has a non-metallic luster. I am not sure how I feel about that.
Me: (ignoring everyone) I think he looks just like a robot.
Blonde Niece: Shouldn't it look like metal?
Me: It's in the future. Use your imagination!

Me: (to With-a-Why) Try walking and talking like a robot.
With-a-Why: (in a robot voice) Up yours, chump!
Me: What?
Shaggy Hair: Uh, that is how Bender talks.
With-a-Why: (in a robot voice) Kiss my shiny metal ass.
Me: What?
Boy in Black: Maybe you ought to be a silent robot. I'm not sure the nuns at school are ready for Bender.
With-a-Why: (in a robot voice) I am taking the next pimp-mobile out of here.

October 30, 2005

Like wine

When Oscar Madison started an old clothes meme, Phantom Scribbler answered the challenge with a beautifully poetic post. Then Scrivener chimed in by bragging that he still wears a shirt from 1989. Unlike Phantom, I've got nothing poetic to say on the topic, but I can brag that I have lots of clothes that are older than Scrivener's t-shirt. For that matter, I have clothes older than Scrivener.

I've got a sweatshirt from 1988, a hand-me-up from Urban Sophisticate Sister. She graduated from high school that year and the sweatshirt bears the words I've Had the Time of my Life, which was the theme song for her class. The sweatshirt has a bloodstain on the sleeve from a traumatic car accident I was in 1991.

I've got two pairs of shoes from 1987. I remember the year because my first child had just turned a year old, and I was startled to discover that even though I was back to my normal pre-pregnancy weight, my feet had gotten a half size bigger. (Has that happened to anyone else?) So I went shopping with a friend and bought two pairs of black dressy shoes - one pair to wear with pants and the other to wear with a dress. These are still the only dress-up type shoes in my closet. I have not bought a pair since.

I've got bright yellow raingear from 1985, a full set that I bought at the Farm and Tractor Store. The store has since gone out of business, but I still wear the raingear up at camp. I do have a nicer raincoat that I wear at conferences and on occasions when I don't particularly want to look like a farmer.

I've got silk lingerie from 1984, the year I got married. Expensive silk wears well and never goes out of style. Besides, it never stays on long, and doesn't need to be washed that often. Spouse does the laundry in our household, and he is willing to take the time to wash silk by hand.

I've got a red sweatshirt from 1982, bought during college. It's got the name of the college written on the front. The sleeves are a bit ragged, and it's got holes from where campfire sparks have landed, but it is still the sweatshirt I wear at camp. I've got t-shirts from that era too, soft and worn. I'm planning to buy a new sweatshirt when I go visit my favorite north country blogger.

I've got a Lopi wool sweater that I knit in 1981 when I was living in London as a college student. It's a beautiful sweater but I don't wear it that often because it is really too warm.

I've got a white head scarf given to me in 1981 by a Muslim woman from Saudi who lived in my building in London. I don't have much occasion to wear it, but sometimes I will pull it out and put it on to demonstrate to someone how to properly put on a head scarf.

I have a red chamois shirt from 1979, my first year in college, given to me by a male friend that I was sort of dating. Well, maybe he didn't actually give me the shirt; I think I borrowed it and never returned it. I used to steal shirts from male friends all the time, especially flannel shirts and especially if I had a crush on the man. Nothing is as versatile as a flannel shirt. You can wear it as a beach cover-up, wad it together to use as a pillow, or even carry firewood in it. And I love the way a shirt smells if a man has been wearing it.

I've got a puffy down coat from 1977, the very first item of clothing I bought with my own money, just after I started working. I was a sophomore in high school, and I think down coats had just been invented. I do have a newer ski parka that I wear to campus and to the ski slopes, but when I am working on trails in my own woods, getting covered with mud, this is the coat I wear.

I've got a long red stocking cap, blue yarn mittens, wool socks, and several scarves from the 1960s, stuff I wore as a child that I still keep in a bin in our laundry room, for wearing in the woods or lending to extra kids who come here. The red scarf I will probably hang on to forever because I remember clearly the year that I got it for Christmas. The third of three girls born in a row, I was very used to wearing hand-me-downs and that scarf was the first item of clothing that I can remember being brand new and all mine. I guarded it jealously, throwing a fit if one of my siblings grabbed it and tried to wear it. And the red stocking cap I bought with my grandmother on an exciting trip downtown to see all the stores decorated for Christmas. I now wear these bright red items in the woods during hunting season so that I won't get mistaken for a deer.

Looking at my closet, I would say - to be honest - that most of my clothes are pretty old. I hate shopping, and I buy clothes only when necessary. I live in a climate that does not make nudity a viable option, but if I lived on a South Sea Island, I think I would forgo the whole clothing option altogether.

October 29, 2005

How we spent our extra hour

It was a cold fall day here, an nice afternoon to spend in front of the fire. My Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter took a nap on one end of the couch, while Blonde Niece slept on the other. Spouse stretched out on the floor in front of the fire with a quilt and pillow. Our household boy band was recording music at the other end of the room, with SkaterBoy on the drums and Boy in Black on the electric guitar. As I sat in the comfy chair, with my journal in my lap, I heard the same songs over and over again (Daytripper by the Beatles and Bad Day by R.E.M.). The younger boys were quiet. I'd given With-a-Why permission to play a computer game with his cousin, Suburban Nephew, while Shaggy Hair played against FirstExtra.

When the musicians took a break, moving into the kitchen area to root through the refrigerator, I could feel dusk settle into the house. The fire crackled, the dry logs snapping. I could hear a train whistling as it went by on its way to Chicago. Three deer wandered into the yard, grazing the back meadow, just outside the window behind the couch. I watched the deer for awhile, and then stared into the fire before curling up into the chair and taking a nap myself.

Seadragon's Science and Books Meme

I am doing seadragon's cool science meme just to prove that we humanities people can do science. And because I want my blog to be interdisciplinary.

Favorite Plant: Cattails. Beautiful and edible. I love the way they ripple in a strong wind.
Second Favorite Plant: Oak trees. The most patient plants I know.
Favorite Moss Genus: Dicranum. It's all about the strong female.
Favorite Amphibian: Frogs. The ones I hear at night.
Favorite Reptile: Painted turtles. Who sun themselves at the edge of the marsh.
Favorite Bird: Great Blue Herons. Who build big untidy nests high in the branches of dead trees.
Favorite Mammal: Humans. Yes, I know that they are destroying the earth. Yes, I know they are a reckless, arrogant, irresponsible species. But still .... I've got this soft spot for them.
Favorite Biological Concept: The Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis. The diversity of species is highest when disturbance occurs at an interval between the extremes.
Favorite Ecological Concept: There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Favorite Economic Concept Based on Science: The more places you drill for oil, the more expensive the oil will be.
Favorite Scientific Law: The amount of time a professor spends blogging is directly proportional to the number of papers she has yet to grade.
Favorite Chemical Bond: A covelant bond - when atoms share electrons. Because I am all about sharing.
Least Favorite Chemical Bond: A coordinate covelant bond - when one atom provides both electrons for the pair. That just doesn't sound like a healthy relationship, now, does it?
Favorite Number Associated with Science: I am torn between pi and the mole. Such a difficult choice. Or maybe I should go with the speed of light ....
Favorite Acronym from Forestry: DBH or Diameter at Breast Height. No, I am not making that up. It's how trees are measured.
Favorite Science Writers: Natalie Angier, because I love her feminist take. Robin Wall Kimmerer because I love the way she pairs traditional ecological knowledge with scientific knowledge. E.O.Wilson because he makes me see things I never would have noticed. David Quammen because everyone needs to read Song of the Dodo. Sandra Steingraber because she shows what we are doing to our bodies when we dump toxins into the environment.
Authors who can Change my Mood: Adrienne Rich. Linda Hogan. Audre Lorde. bell hooks. Barbara Neely. Sue Monk Kidd.
Book I Read Secretly and Rarely Admit to: Jill Conner Brown's The Sweet Potato Queen's Book of Love.

October 28, 2005

Friday Waterfall Blogging

I can spend hours listening to a waterfall, learning the rhythm of conversation between water and rock.

I took this photo last June in the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon. Even though I was in Portland for less than 48 hours, I went to the gardens twice, once with an old friend and once with a new friend. I enjoyed walking the quiet paths, admiring the trees and mosses.

The crashing, tumbling sound of the waterfall made a nice backdrop for our conversations, for catching up with an old friend and for getting to know a new friend. I love the way a conversation tumbles about, with ideas swirling and twisting and sloshing, always moving downstream.

October 27, 2005

Why I need a fall break

Adapted from *statgirl*.

10. We haven't carved our pumpkins yet.
9. My students have been coming to class looking like the zombies from The Night of the Living Dead.
8. I've been getting migraines again, and a week off might help.
7. I want to go hiking again while I can still walk through the woods without snowshoes.
6. On grey mornings, I want to snuggle under the down quilt and stay in bed.
5. I hate the sound of my alarm clock.
4. Faculty meetings are not my idea of fun.
3. I want to make squash soup and apple pie and homemade bread.
2. I am sick of grading papers.
1. I'd like a week of leisurely, daytime sex.

October 26, 2005

Coming home at the end of a tiring day

During late October, morale is low on campus, especially among first year students. Many are sick. During the beautiful fall weekends in early October, many first year students chose to go home and exchange viruses with their home communities, bringing back colds and stomach bugs. And they've gotten midterm tests back this week, with low grades for many of them. This is the point in the semester when some of the students realize that they are not going to make it in college, that academic dismissal is a sure thing.

I don't much like this time of year on campus. I know too much about what is going on in the lives of my students. I know that some of them have given up on the idea of college and are drinking every night instead. They are fighting with each other, roommates bickering and friendships dissolving. The couples that got together in the excitement of September are breaking up, amidst anger and tears.

Out of my sixty students, it is likely that one or two will disappear, choosing to withdraw and leave college now. Likely one will end up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning -- that is, if we are lucky and a responsible person calls 911. Many will end the semester on academic probation.

It's late October. Students are feeling tired and overwhelmed. Faculty are feeling tired and overworked. The warm weather is gone, and the trees are bare. It feels good on days like this to leave campus and return to my home community, where kids are decorating houses for Halloween. Carved pumpkins are appearing on porches, cutouts of black cats decorate the windows of the elementary school, and one lawn feature tombstones with funny sayings. Inside my own home, a fire makes the living area cosy while we begin brainstorming for With-a-Why's Halloween costume.

October 25, 2005

Stealth blogging

When I'm reading blogs at home, sitting at my desk with a cup of hot tea, a slab of dark chocolate, and a stack of ungraded essays at my elbow, I tend to read in a systematic way, using a site reader to look at blogs that have been updated, clicking through if I want to leave comments. I'm checking in with my regular readers, my friends. But on MWF, when I am on campus, sitting at my desk between classes, I don't use a site reader or even my own blogroll. I don't like to put my own blog up on the screen because it could be seen by students who come into the office.

Instead, I choose a blog and begin with that blogroll, just clicking and surfing to any blog that looks promising. I don't leave comments because I know I can get interrupted at any moment: I read a few posts and surf to the next blog. Although I do like the community building aspects of blogging, I have to say that surfing blogs this way, especially if I choose ones that I don't regularly read, has its own fascinating appeal. It's like working in a restaurant and overhearing interesting bits of conversation. When I'm travelling by train, I love the glimpses I get of towns and cities as we roll past, sometimes stopping long enough at a station for me to stare out at the people outside who are just going about their normal life. Surfing blogs feels the same way, bringing me bits and pieces of people's lives from all over the country.

October 24, 2005

You've got to have goals ....

Boy in Black, my seventeen-year-old son, has a very simple wardrobe. He owns three pairs of pants, a handful of t-shirts, one pair of black sneakers, and one hoodie. I know monks who own more clothes.

So he wears the same outfit to school every day: a pair of black zip-off pants and a black t-shirt, with a black hoodie added as his winter layer. Sometimes for variety, he wears a dark green t-shirt instead of a black one. For the last four weeks, though, he's had an accessory: a green wristband, the kind of paper wristband you get as proof of admission to a concert. The wristband is from the White Stripes/Shins concert he went to with his sister. Today I noticed that he was still wearing it.

Me: How is it that you are still wearing that wristband?
Boy in Black: I've been very careful with it.
Me: But that concert was ages ago!
Boy in Black: Yep, it's been four weeks.
Me: (suspiciously) Have you taken a shower?
Boy in Black: (rolling his eyes) Yes, of course, I have.
Me: How long are you gonna keep it on?
Boy in Black: My goal is to keep it on until graduation.

Well, at least the boy has goals ....

October 23, 2005

First fire

We had a cold, rainy weekend here, a grey weekend suited for staying home and getting organized for the winter ahead. I love the chilly weather. It felt good to stay indoors, cosy in a fleece hoodie, fleece sweatpants, and down booties, an outfit I'll be wearing until about April. I love the sound of rain hitting glass, and I know that soon that rain will turn to snow.

The best thing, though, is that the house was chilly enough for a fire. The warmth and smell of a crackling fire draws everyone close, making the hearth the center of our home. What I especially love about a fire is that it makes relaxing in a comfy chair - or on the floor with some big pillows - seem like a meaningful occupation. I can spend hours just staring into the flames.

Saturday, I sat cosily in a chair by the fire and listened while Boy in Black and his friends hung out all around me, talking and joking. This morning, my mother-in-law sat on the couch in front of the fire, reading the Sunday newspaper. This afternoon, my parents stopped by on their way home from a wet hike at Pretty Colour Lakes. "If you go when it's raining, you have the whole park to yourselves," my father said cheerily. I made hot tea for them, and we settled down in front of the fire to talk. Late Sunday afternoon after my parents and all the extra kids had gone home, we had a family meeting, all of us listening to the logs crack and spark while we renegotiated chores, rules about computer use, and bedtimes -- and I announced severe punishments for anyone caught tossing stuff behind the couch. This evening, I sat in front of the fire, snuggled under a quilt, and read everything I needed to read for class tomorrow.

As I was putting With-a-Why to bed tonight (he sleeps in his sister's room instead of the boys' room while she is gone at college because his brothers stay up later than he does), he kept saying, "Can't I sleep by the fire?" On Fridays and Saturdays, most of the kids do sleep on the living room floor, partially because there is really no where else to put them all, but also because they like to be near the fire. And I admit, I sleep on the floor by the fire sometimes myself. There is something wonderfully reassuring about drifting off to sleep in the presence of all those glowing red coals.

Oprah vs. Pretty Colour Lakes

In October my composition class read Bill McKibben's The Age of Missing Information, a book in which McKibben compares watching 24 hours of all 99 channels of a cable television station to one day spent in the Adirondack Mountains. In our class discussions, we compared the type of knowledge you can learn from direct experience in the outdoors to the knowledge you can learn from television.

Of course, we had to do the experiment ourselves. Half of the class took a bus to Pretty Colour Lakes, a beautiful natural area, and spent two hours hiking, writing in journals, admiring the foliage. The other half of the class spend two hours watching television and taking notes. All of the students, I think, would have preferred the field trip, but the division was dictated by which students had lab that afternoon. It is impossible to schedule a field trip that involves all of my students because they have so many afternoon labs and studios.

Each student wrote two pages detailing what they learned from the experience. In class, we read these aloud. The television students sat on one side of the room. The Pretty Colour Lakes students sat on the other side of the room.

The television papers were funny, filled with all kinds of bizarre and random bits of information. Soon, though, they began to all sound alike. Mostly what the students said they learned was pretty superficial and trivial. One student wrote a paper about all he learned about relationships from watching daytime television, and it was bizarrely absurd.

The papers about Pretty Colour Lakes were filled with all kinds of things: detailed observations, philosophical musings, memories, sensory details, lyrical descriptions, and emotional reflections. Often the papers reflecting the writer's personality, some of them touching on profound thoughts while others made funny observations about the way their classmates interacted with the landscape. Students studying science tended to include descriptions of wildlife while the architect students analyzed the design of the park.

The experiment worked to help get the students thinking about some of the overarching ideas of the book. What the students liked best, though, was the opportunity to get out of the city to spend a few hours outside hiking through bright-coloured leaves on a gorgeous fall day.

October 21, 2005

The games we played

Time for a childhood game meme. Since it's my meme, I get to make the rules. And you all know what that means: you are welcome to take this meme and do whatever the hell you want with it.

Game that makes me think of summer evenings and freshly cut grass: Pies. This was the game in which the wolf came to the bakery and chose a type of pie (or a type of tree, type of bread, type of toy), and if he chose Blueberry and you were Blueberry, he would chase you all around the yard. Yes, I am aware that in real life wolves don't really chase people, that are no documented incidences in North America of a wolf killing a person. But I was a child in the sixties and we didn't know any better. And even in the game, the wolf was just playing. He never really hurt anyone.

Games that we never finished: Monopoly. Maybe it was just my family, but we never got to the end of the game. It would get too long, and we would stop playing. Partly, this was because Blonde Sister, who is the oldest, would get mad if anyone bought a light blue property and she would threaten to stop playing if anyone did.

Game which has caused the most injuries: Zap. I think some people call it flashlight tag. The game involves children (and in my family, grown-ups as well) running about crazily in the dark while also trying to disguise themselves, even going to the extremes of switching their clothes. It's not the going off into the bushes and switching clothes that causes the injuries (although that has given my family a weird reputation) but the collisions that occur when everyone runs in at once to try to tag the kid with the flashlight. We still play this up at camp and a new round of injuries came about when Blonde Niece, Shaggy Hair, and Drama Niece decided to fool people by running with paper bags over their heads.

Game that my kids love that I hate: Chess. Boy in Black and With-a-Why have loved chess since they were small. I do not have the patience for a game which involves sitting quietly and staring a board for long periods of time.

Games that my kids have played that I have not: I've never played any kind of video game or computer game. I've never even understood the attraction. I think all the flickering light would give me a migraine.

Appalling game for children: One of my students once brought a Barbie board game to class, and we spent the whole class analyzing the ways in which it encouraged a constructed femininity that was damaging to women.

Something I hated about childhood games: Choosing teams in gym class. The gym teacher would pick two athletic kids and let them choose teams. I was bad at games like softball and basketball because I had never played them. I did not come from a family that played organized sports.

Game that scared me: Dodgeball. Another bad memory from gym class. About a hundred kids, boys and girls, divided into two teams and told to hit each other with balls. Not my idea of fun.

Game that involved laundry: Kickball. The clothesline pole was first base so sometimes we'd have to run through ducking under wet clothes. The poplar tree was third base.

Game that brings out my competitive streak: Spoons. I decide who the most worthy opponent is and then make sure that person does not get a spoon. Even if it means grabbing all the spoons and handing them to other people. No, that is not cheating.

Games we played at birthday parties: Pin the tail on the donkey. I never really liked that one because I didn't like getting blindfolded and spun in a circle. But I liked the game where you drop clothespins into a bottle and the game where you carry a potato on a spoon. Musical chairs was fun if the parent played the right kind of music.

Earliest memories of a game: I can remember playing the card game War with my Dad and sisters - and having to ask which number was higher. I played endless games of Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders too. I can close my eyes and picture both of those boards perfectly. Of course, Duck Duck Goose and Ring Around the Rosy are etched into my early childhood memories.

Card game played most often up at camp: Any rainy day, you can find a group of people, both kids and grown-ups, playing the game pitch. Teams even have names and their own obnoxious chants. My father and two of his grandchildren will become the Triple Aces , and will pound on the table chanting, "Triple Aces, triple threat" while everyone else in the room rolls their eyes. When my mother, daughter, and I are on a team, we call ourselves Three Generations. My daughter has to be the one to sing the theme song because neither my mother or I can carry a tune. We are the two tone-deaf people in a family of musicians.

Game I used to play with my grandmother: Scrabble. When my grandmother and aunt would visit, we would all settle down at the kitchen table with hot tea and homemade cookies and a lazy afternoon of playing Scrabble. And of course, my kids play Scrabble with my mother at that very same kitchen table so this tradition has continued.

Friday Extra Kid Blogging

Here's Blonde Niece. She's fourteen, born just a few weeks after Shaggy Hair Boy. Her mother, Blonde Sister, used to babysit my kids when they were little so our families have been always close. Her parents both work on weekends so Blonde Niece usually spends weekends at my house.

This photo was taken at the playground in town when we were up at camp this summer. Even though we didn't have any small children with us, we still stopped to run around and climb things and jump off platforms and slide through tubes. In our family, you are never too old to play on a playground.

October 20, 2005

If you visit, don't look behind the couch

My boys are pretty good about doing their chores, but they have - how shall I say this? Different standards than I do. Very different standards. Boy in Black considers the kitchen clean if the dishwasher is loaded and running, and the counters wiped clean. Dirty pots and pans piled in the sink are apparently invisible to him. Shaggy Hair Boy chose the chore of cleaning the bathroom with the idea, I think, that he was choosing the smallest and easiest room, and was horrified to discover that he was expected to clean the toilet. ("Why would anyone do that?") With-a-Why considers the living room clean if he's vacuumed the very middle of the room. Stuff piled on the piano or on hearth or in the corner by the drum set is all just part of the normal decor and not to be bothered with.

I am pretty relaxed about the way the house looks, but one thing drives me crazy. I hate it when the kids toss stuff behind the couch. At any given time, you can pull the couch away from the wall and find all kinds of junk behind it. Even though it's not visible to anyone else, I can't stand the thought of it.

Shaggy Hair is the worst culprit. If a bunch of us are all settled in the living room, he won't ever get up to walk to the garbage can in the kitchen. He won't take the risk of losing his spot on the comfy couch. We have room only for one couch and one chair so comfy places to sit are always in demand. Instead of moving from where he is sitting, Shaggy Hair will crumple a homework paper and toss it over the top of the couch.

"Shaggy Hair!" I will scream on cue. And always, he gives me a look of surprised innocence. Did I honestly expect him to move from his comfy spot? And risk losing the spot to a sibling or extra?

"I have a great idea," he said one day, "I am going to invent a garbage can that fits right behind the couch. So that you can throw anything there - popsicle sticks, broken pencils, whatever."

He tossed his long curls and gave a serious look from his freckled face, "Wouldn't that be a great invention?"

"I don't know," said Film Guy from across the room, "I think you might have trouble marketing it to anyone outside this family."

October 19, 2005

The Boy Next Door

Croaky, a little boy with a lot of freckles, was about seven years old when he moved into our old neighborhood, and we got to know him very quickly. His mother would disappear from time to time, and his stepfather worked nights. Sometimes Croaky and his two little brothers slept at our house. I can close my eyes and see them now: all marching up the driveway with sleeping bags draped over their heads.

Croaky was a likeable kid who had a talent for getting into trouble. Once he fell several feet from the tree in our yard, crashing down through the pine branches. He would do anything on a dare and never seemed to notice the bruises.

He'd stop by on his way to school in the morning, coming fifteen minutes early so he could stay and chat before it was time for him to go to the bus stop. He was almost always smiling and cheerful. Even when he had bad news, he'd deliver it casually, "My Mom took off again. I guess she doesn't want to be a Mom."

Most of the neighbors hated his Mom, but I could not.

She had the same croaky voice as Croaky, and eyes that held a deep sadness beneath the layers of eye make-up. Her sense of humor was abrasive, and she did not know how to do the kind of neighborly small talk is so important in the kind of community I come from. I had little contact with her because she was hardly ever home, even when the boys were little. No, she was not at work. But a few times, I caught glimpses that explained the pain in her eyes.

When With-a-Why was born, she said to me, "Oh, you have a daughter and three boys. Just like me." I looked at her in surprise. I had never seen or heard of a daughter. "My first was a girl," she explained, "but I had to give her up for adoption."

I remember the time I was talking to her about With-a-Why's colic.

"Croaky had colic, too," she said, "He cried all the time, and it was hard because I was living at a shelter for battered women and he kept other people awake."

And she sometimes surprised me. Once she rang my doorbell in the middle of the night. "There's an ambulance at Elderly Neighbor's house," she said, "I know she would want you." I turned to grab my shoes, and she disappeared before I could even thank her.

Croaky's mother had times when she would stay clean and sober. But always some kind of pain would rise up to haunt her, and she would slip back into that downward spiral. Croaky was the one who took care of his two brothers. He was the one who called 911 when his stepfather grew abusive and started beating his mother up. He was the one who called 911 whenever his mother attempted suicide.

Croaky could be rude and boisterous. He loved bathroom jokes and laughed like crazy at raunchy jokes. I can remember the time he asked if he could smash our pumpkins. When I said yes, he screamed and yelled gleefully, bashing the pumpkins against the pavement with great energy.

One time when the boys were sleeping at my house, I heard one of his little brothers wake up, crying. I got up to put on sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and started down the stairs. But halfway down, I stopped. In the dark house, I could hear the husky voice of Croaky, singing his little brother to sleep.

Of course, Croaky is grown up now. Like most kids in this area who have few options, he joined the military. When he got back from basic training, he stopped to say hello. With his crewcut, his balck boots, and his BDUs, he looked like a man, but his freckled face was still the same. He hugged me, hugged Daughter, and sat down at the kitchen table to talk. I tried not to cry and managed not to.

"Don't worry," he told me. "By the time I get to Iraq, things will have settled down." But of course, he could tell what I was thinking, even if I didn't say it aloud. That was last May.

And last week, I heard the inevitable news. Croaky is being sent to Iraq. I don't know what his mother thinks of the news, but it is making me cry.

October 18, 2005

Homemade Apple Pie

All I did this morning was grade papers.

Well, maybe that is not exactly right. I also checked my email a few times, like maybe a hundred times or more, surfed blogs just a little bit, ate fourteen snacks, stared out the window eighteen times, checked all the pens in my desk drawer to see if they were working, threw away four dead pens, moved piles of stuff from my desk to the floor, yelled repeatedly at Mama Cat to get off the papers I was grading, stared at the ends of my hair in the sunlight to check for split ends, took nine short breaks for dancing, wrote a blog post, walked out to get the newspaper, walked out to get the mail, which wasn't there yet, read just a story or two in the newspaper, read the comics and the advice columns, moved email from my inbox into neatly labeled virtual folders, checked my email one more time, exchanged just a few emails with Artist Friend, who was also grading papers and who is awfully fun when he is supposed to be grading papers (nothing like procrastination to bring out the creative side of an academic), surfed just a few blogs to make sure I wasn't missing anything exciting, decided to put on a warmer pair of socks, which led to the cleaning of my sock drawer, and drank four cups of chocolate soy milk.

So, like I said, I did nothing this morning but grade papers.

Then about noon, the phone rang. It was my mother. She was baking pies, she said, using up all the apples she brought home weekend before last when she took With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew apple picking. She said, "I know you have to drive by here when you take Boy in Black to his guitar lesson. The pies should be ready by then, and you can pick one up on your way through."

My mother makes the best apple pie in the world. No, I am not biased. Other people, people more traveled than I am, say so too. Her pies taste nothing like those godawful way-too-sweet with weird crust pies that get sold in supermarkets. No, she uses tart apples with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. Her crust crumbles on your tongue before you even start chewing. I doubt even that Dr. K's peach pies, which he claims are famous throughout the land, can compare.

Moments like this are why I am glad I chose to stay in my hometown. It's 9 pm. My papers are graded. My boys are finishing up their homework, my husband reading the newspaper. And I am relaxing with an evening snack: a cup of hot herbal tea and a piece of my mother's homemade apple pie.

All Grown Up

Over the last twenty years, I have sometimes had occasion to bring a child to class with me. For instance, when Boy in Black was young, he didn't like to go to school on Mondays. I figured this out when he went to the school nurse's office three Mondays in a row, complaining about a stomachache. After interrupting my schedule three weeks in a row to go get him from school, I had a talk with him and we made an agreement. If he didn't want to go to school on a Monday, he needed to tell me in the morning instead of going to the nurse's office. So after that, sometimes on Mondays, he would come to campus with me and sit in on my classes. My students always thought it was funny that he would be skipping third grade to sit in on a college class. "It makes no sense. Third grade is more fun than college," they would say.

With-a-Why, who was born in October, began coming to class with me when he was only two weeks old. I never mentioned this to anyone in the administration, and my students kept his presence a secret. When he was old enough to be away from me for a stretch of a few hours, my sister began babysitting him while I was in class, but in the early days, he often came to campus in a sling.

Last Friday, after our usual lunch, my Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter came to class with me because she was planning to come home for the night. She's a college sophomore - well, actually all her AP credits make her a junior - and she has been taking courses with seniors and grad students. She is now older than all the first year students in my class room. Several times during the classroom discussion, she would look at me and smile at something a student said, or sort of roll her eyes at a tangent a student took. It was very much like having a colleague in the room.

I can remember the first time Daughter came to class with me. She was three months old, a baby to be passed from student to student. It doesn't seem all that long ago. I can remember moving a comfortable chair to my office so I could breastfeed there. I can remember changing her diaper on top of my desk. It seems wonderful and amazing to me that the infant I once carried to class has turned into this poised, confident, articulate woman who now meets me on campus for lunch and who talks seriously about her own studies.

October 17, 2005

Collision in the grocery store

The other day I racing through the grocery store, grabbing food quickly because Boy in Black's drum lesson gave me exactly 20 minutes for shopping, and I practically collided with a colleague, a woman who recently relocated to this area and started teaching courses for us last year.

Colleague: Hey, what are you doing here?
Me: Uh, buying groceries.
Colleague: But I've never seen you here before. How long have you shopped here?
Me: Um ... my whole life.
Colleague: Seriously?
Me: Well, since this store was built. Sometime in the early seventies. I came here with my Mom.
Colleague: Really? Wow. This is the first time I've ever run into anyone I know here.
Me: When I come here, I always run into people I know. I know about half the people working here too.
Colleague: No way.
Me: Sure. See the butcher over there? I went to high school with him. And his daughter was in my son's AP Chemistry class last year.
Colleague: Wow. That's amazing.
Me: My mother still shops here. And my sister, too.
Colleague: Honestly?
Me: Sure. It's what life is like when you live in the same place your whole life.
Colleague: I can't even imagine.

The funny thing about the dialogue was her utter amazement. No one in my home community would have found any of my answers even mildly interesting. But academics are always fascinated that I live in my hometown. And I have to admit, that when I am in my hometown, in the grocery store I've shopped in since I was a child, it is always strange to run into someone from the academic world, my other life.

October 16, 2005

How low can you go

We always have a pile of old broomsticks somewhere in the corner of the living room, often leaning up against the fireplace. Friday night, the gang of kids at my house decided that a broomstick could be a limbo stick. So that was the scene in my living room: music blaring from the CD player while a line of kids moved in all kinds of contorted ways to make it under the limbo stick.

Blonde Niece, the most flexible person in the group, had a decided advantage, bending gracefully back from the waist as she went under the stick. In fact, she had only one complaint as she slid underneath: "Damn! My breasts keep getting in the way!" But despite the breasts, she usually made it through with a final head duck and swish of her pony tail.

Some of the teenage boys proved to be not very flexible at all and dropped out of the game early, choosing instead to sit on the couch and watch Blonde Niece as she moved through the line. With-a-Why and Skater Boy, the two shortest in the room, stayed in the game for a while by virtue of their height.

Boy in Black was the most fun to watch. His height -- he's well over six feet tall -- put him at a real disadvantage over all the shorter kids, but he is way too competitive to let that stop him. Strong leg muscles and determination enabled him to fold his long skinny body up and move under a stick held lower than his waist. He looked like some kind of contortionist.

And of course, Boy in Black kept making up rules for the limbo competition. Your turn is not over until you actually touch the stick. Everyone gets two do-overs. You can only touch the floor with your feet. You are allowed to practice by walking up to the stick in a contorted way as long as you don't touch the stick.

I kept telling the kids how my parents and their friends used to play limbo at parties when I was a child. I would sneak out of bed and watch from the stairs. How funny it would be to watch grown-ups in dress-up clothes going under the limbo stick. "They always kept the music going and the line kept moving," I explained to Boy in Black. "They didn't keep stopping and making up rules."

"That's because they were doing it for fun," he explained with just a hint of a smile flickering across his face. "Whereas we don't do things for fun -- this is a serious competition."

October 15, 2005

The kid who was afraid of pizza

While we were sharing a meal last weekend, my friends and I started talking about kids and food. The conversation began seriously, since several of the women were concerned about not making food an issue in their homes. We were talking about eating disorders and binge eating, and women's issues about their bodies. We talked about the dangers of food become a control issue between parent and child.

My method with my own kids is pretty simple: I try to have only healthy food in the house (not always succeeding, of course), and I let my children eat whatever they want whenever they want. I don't use food as a bribe or a treat. Food is just what you need when you are hungry. The method fits with my style of parenting, and my daughter grew up to be a young woman with healthy eating habits and a good body image.

I told my friends my theory that there are many foods children don't really like because their taste buds are very sensitive and because certain textures are hard to chew. I never try to make my kids eat a food. I have often told a child, "Oh, you don't like that now, but you will probably like it when you get older."

Then Quilt Artist spoke up: "When I was a kid, it wasn't about texture, it was about language."

We all stared at her, puzzled. Language?

"Yeah, I couldn't eat pizza for instance." She paused, completely serious. "I was just afraid of all those ZZs."

October 14, 2005

Friday Extra Kid Blogging

This is Skater Boy. He comes here every Friday afternoon and usually stays until Sunday night. He's an Extra. With an attitude.

October 13, 2005

Kick off your Sunday shoes

This morning I read a blog post written by a father who was dancing at home with his very young daughter. That image brought back memories. I can remember being home with my small kids on grey rainy days and turning the music on to dance, more for me than them. Allowing my body to move to a rhythm always brightened my mood, made the day seem less grey. On Saturday evenings, we used to always have a dance party, listening to an oldies station and dancing in the living room with our own kids and a bunch of extras.

Even now, when I'm home grading papers on a grey morning, alone in the house since all my kids are old enough for school, I'll take a break to turn on some music and dance, shimmying and twirling and moving past the sink of dirty dishes and the carpets that need to be vacuumed. Sometimes I will put on Middle Eastern music to do my belly dancing drills. Other times (and I hate to admit this because at least one person in this community will mock me for my music choices), I'll put on the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing or Footloose. I love to dance. I love the movement, the energy, the way it makes my body feel.

Two of the academic conferences I go to host dances as part of the conference. In my field, conference presentations can often be stiff and formal, so watching my colleagues loosen up on the dance floor lets me see them in a different light. Dancing helps turn a group of people from all different geographic locations into a community. I often wonder how different our culture would be if we all spent more time dancing.

Numbers going through my head while I sit at home grading papers

This semester, each of my students will produce about 33 pages of writing for my class. I have 60 students (three sections of 20). That means by the time this semester is over, I will have read and responded to 1,980 pages of student writing.

October 12, 2005

All but the scar

Conversation with my red-haired sister, who was visiting from out of town:

Sister: Hey, I haven't seen With-a-Why's glasses yet. Didn't you tell me he wears glasses now?
Me: Well, he mostly wears them at school.
Sister: I want to see what he looks like in glasses. I bet he looks cute.
Me: I think he is self-conscious about the glasses.
Sister: Why would he be self-conscious?
Me: Because when he puts them on, everyone always says the same thing.
Sister: What? Not something mean, I hope? Are kids being mean?
Me: No, nothing mean.
Me: But even at the eye doctor's, everyone kept saying it. He is sick of everyone saying it.
Sister: What are you talking about? What do they say?
Me: You'll see.
Me: (to With-a-Why) Go get your glasses and put them on.

With-a-Why is a quiet serious child, with pale skin and beautiful big eyes. His dark hair is always messy and standing straight up. He pulled the glasses out of his bookbag and put them on.

Sister: Oh, my God! He looks like Harry Potter!
Me: Exactly.

October 11, 2005

Wild dancing figures

Saturday evening, my friends and I gathered in the main room of the lodge, near the fireplace. Eight women altogether. Through the big glass windows, we could see the mountains disappearing behind white mist that made the lake all silvery. Dark tree branches outside the window curved against light blue grey.

One year we came to the mountains on a warm October night with a full moon, and we gathered outside on the deck for a moon ceremony. This year, the cold and rain kept us in by the fire, talking and eating. QuiltArtist brought her collection of CDs so that we would have music. LongBeautifulHair and I decided that we needed to get everyone dancing.

Some of us - well, mainly LongBeautifulHair and me - will dance anywhere, any time. Others need to be coaxed. In the safe atmosphere of the lodge, with no audience watching, even the most self-conscious woman will join in the dancing. "Come on," LongBeautifulHair shouted above the music, "It's not a party until everyone is gyrating and sweating."

Between songs, we could hear rain drumming on the roof and waves crashing against the seawall. The big dark windows became mirrors that reflected back the scene: wild dancing figures. Despite the cold wind outside, the lodge grew warm from body heat and the glowing coals in the fireplace. Gradually, we all began stripping off layers of clothing.

"Throw it down!" LongBeautifulHair would chant each time a woman tossed another item of clothing onto the pile on the floor.

My friends cajoled me into giving an impromptu belly dancing lesson. The atmosphere was nothing like the quiet respectful attitude we all bring to belly dancing lessons at the yoga center. Screams, laughter, and sarcasm accompanied everyone's attempts to do the pivot bump, the down hip, the shimmy.

Chest circles caused the biggest commotion. "Oh, my God! How are you doing that?" said one woman, and "It's like your breasts are alive!" I kept assuring them that any woman could learn to move her breasts while keeping the rest of her body still, but most of them gave up after a few tries, collapsing onto the couches with giggles. So we went back to crazy freelance 70s style dancing.

When a group of people dance together for a couple of hours, eventually they all start moving to the same rhythm. I mentioned this phenomenon to one of my friends. "Yeah, it's true," she said, "But it's never that they all become like the best dancer in the group. It's more like the lowest common denominator."

Eventually, we opened a door to let in some fresh moist air, filled with mist from the dark lake. We collapsed around the room, ready for massages or journal writing, for talking and listening. QuiltArtist put on a CD she always brings for me, Joni Mitchell's Blue and began spreading out bits of bright fabric she was sewing into tear drop shapes. Dark-haired Woman put the kettle on for tea and brought out the apple crisp she'd brought. Outside, cold rain struck the windows and roof, but inside, the lodge was filled with golden light and the warm energy of women.

October 10, 2005

Sacred Circles: Walking the Labyrinth

On a rainy day in the mountains, the clouds were so close that I could touch them. White mist trailed splendidly across bright trees. The BigLake was churning, sending waves crashing against the seawall. The wind tugged at my winter coat as I walked with my friends to the outside labyrinth near the edge of the lake.

A labyrinth is a meditation that you do with your body. Walking a labyrinth is one of the oldest contemplative practices known to humans. When you look at a labyrinth, inlaid with stone on the floor of a cathedral or built outside, with gravel paths perhaps, it looks like a maze. But actually, a labyrinth is the opposite of a maze. A maze, which offers all kinds of confusing choices, will get someone like me completely lost. A labyrinth offers only one path, a path that circles about and leads eventually to the center. A labyrinth helps someone like me find my way.

The day was cold and grey, with the trees offering bursts of cold wet colour, bright red and yellow and orange. The wind and misty rain matched my mood as I entered the labyrinth, walking purposefully and steadily, my arms at my sides with the palms facing out. The first part of the labyrinth, walking in, circling towards the center, is about release. Always, I have things I want to release. I have this idea that someday I will let go of all my issues, all my faults, all my insecurities.

Some scholars say that the earliest labyrinths date back to Egypt 4500 BC. Some say that the Cretan labyrinth, dating back at least 3500 years and named after the island of Crete, is the oldest. The Hopi carved the image of the labyrinth onto walls a thousand years ago in the desert. Labyrinths have been found in India and Syria, Greece and Spain, North Africa and Yugoslavia. Fishermen in Sweden, Finland, and Estonia walked labyrinths before going to sea. The church labyrinths of medieval Europe were an odd mixture of Christian and pagan symbolism, a melding of old and new spiritual practices.

The labyrinth I walked Saturday was a Chartres labyrinth, named after the permanent stone labyrinth set into the thirteenth century floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. The paths, mulch with brick edges, wound through eleven concentric circles divided into four quadrants. The center had the six-petal shape of a rosette, the traditional symbol for Mary.

In the labyrinth, I had only one path to follow. No choices to make. I just kept moving forward. No obstacles. No puzzles. No need for rational thought. The movement is much like the raft trip I took down the Colorado River: always you must continue downstream. I couldn't get lost because the path was clear.

Because I was first to enter the labyrinth, I was first to reach the center. As I sat quietly, I could see my friends circling around me, each on their own path, their own silent journey. Sitting in this sacred space, I took a breath and faced myself -- a human with all kinds of flaws and faults, complicated emotions, deep passions. Despite that sensation of release, I still carried all these things with me. The labyrinth does not change who I am, after all, but provides me a safe place where I can accept who I am, loving myself -- imperfections and all.

At one time in history, Christian churches covered up labyrinths or destroyed them. Feminist scholars have speculated that this repression had to do with the connection of the labyrinth with female spirituality, with the earthy metaphor of birth. Walking the labyrinth is nonlinear, cyclical, intuitive, feminine.

Walking out of the labyrinth, I circled around and around, making my way back into the world. All those painful things I hoped to release - fears, insecurities, scars - were still with me. All my vulnerable spots. But I felt stronger, happier, at peace. The clouds moved low from the mountains to hug me. The misty rain touched my face and hands.

Back in the lodge, cozily drying out near a crackling fire of birch logs, we talked about our experiences in the labyrinth. I told my friends that I was frustrated at first to reach the center and find that I still carried all my issues with me. I wanted to release the dark and painful parts of myself and be done with them. How startling to reach the center and find those vulnerable spots still with me, to realize that I needed to embrace and not reject those parts of myself.

"Why would we want to turn away from those painful parts of ourselves?" asked ReikiWoman. "They are what connects us to humanity. Those parts are what make us need other people."

"Besides," said Dark-haired Woman, "If you were perfect, you couldn't come on this weekend with us. You wouldn't fit in."

October 07, 2005

Weekend Retreat with the Shadow Women

Spectacular. Beautiful. Gorgeous.

All the superlatives in the world cannot describe the mountains on an October day. Brilliant red leaves form intricate patterns against dark green pines. Yellows and oranges group together, deepening into gold. Roads curve through slopes of colour so vivid that it seems unreal. And everywhere, tucked into mountainsides, calm lakes sleep, their dark surfaces reflecting all that splendid colour.

Tomorrow morning early, I will drive to the mountains with a group of friends I have called the Shadow Women. We will stay in a camp owned by Signing Woman's family, a lodge with floor to ceiling glass windows that overlook a lake, a place surrounded by mountains that will be woven with colour.

We will talk. We will eat food. We will take a hike and find a place to sit in the sun on top of a mountain. We will talk some more. We will walk to a church down the road that has a labyrinth outside by the lake. Silently, each of us will walk the labyrinth. Then we will make more food. We'll talk some more. Some of us will take the canoes out, paddling along the shore, under the overhanging sugar maples. Some of us might swim, if the water feels warm enough.

In the evening, I will build a fire in the big stone fireplace. We'll talk some more. We'll listen to music. LongBeautifulHair and I will try to get everyone to dance. We'll give each other massages, using lavender-scented massage oil. ReikiWoman and I will do some reiki. We'll talk some more. We'll drink hot tea and eat homemade desserts.

At night, I'll sleep on the floor next to the fire, near the red coals that will fade slowly, and awaken to morning sunlight splashing through the big windows. And possibly, the sight of bras dangling at the hearth.

October 06, 2005

Reaching her goal

Last March I wrote a post about a former student who was setting off to hike the Appalachian Trail, following the trail up and down mountains for 2175 miles, all the way from Georgia to Maine.

SmilingStudent sent email updates whenever she could, always cheerful and upbeat. She talked about the wonderful community she found on the trail. "We are a species who are at our best when we work together." She said that before beginning the journey she thought that she would be pushing herself physically, but really the biggest challenge was learning the importance of patience and communication.

Last week, on a dark rainy day, Smiling Student made it to the summit at Katahdin - and completed the Appalachian Trail.

October 05, 2005

Baby of the family

With-a-Why has been hanging out with teenagers since he was small. When he was in kindergarten, he would play chess with Boy in Black's junior high friends. He and Boy in Black are so much alike that the six and a half years gap between them has never much mattered. He has Boy in Black's dry sense of humor, lines delivered with a completely straight face, and it's all the more effective coming from such a little person. Both boys will deliberately say stuff to annoy their feminist mother, and my husband always marvels at what they can get away with. "If I said that, you wouldn't find it funny."

The other day, I had to take With-a-Why to the eye doctor's. I had to rush him to get him out of the house. I have no patience, none whatsoever, and I hate being late for anything, so by the time we got in the car, I was in full Psycho Mom mode, ready to strangle him if he didn't put his sneakers on right that instant. And how is it that he didn't know where his glasses were? Didn't he know he had to bring his glasses to an eye doctor appointment?

Of course, once we were driving along, and I glanced at the clock and realized that we weren't going to be late at all, that in fact we would be early for the appointment, I felt bad for all the yelling and nagging. I glanced over at the cute child next to me, with his pale skin and big dark eyes, all young and innocent.

"I'm sorry," I said to him, "I hate being late. I guess I was being a mean Mom."

He looked at me from under his long black eyelashes, with a glimmer in his eyes. "I prefer the word bitch."

October 04, 2005

Bring back the rock crushing machine

This summer we spent a night in a motel. After camping all week, the six of us crowded into a small motel room, mainly to take showers and sleep. What caught the kids' attention, though, was the big television, with all the cable stations. (We watch very little television at home, and we only get five channels.)

I am not sure how Shaggy Hair Boy ended up with the remote control. When I came out of the shower, he seemed to be in charge. Tired from travelling, I piled onto the bed with everyone else and watched the screen. Somehow, he had found a program that showed a big rock crushing machine. It was actually kind of interesting. This big machine took rocks from a gravel pit and crushed them into smaller rocks, the type that would be used for driveways and such. Mesmerized, we all stared at footage of this machine crushing rocks. And more rocks.

"Why are we watching this?" Daughter finally said, just when we were all in danger of being hypnotized. "All these channels and we are watching rocks getting crushed ... over and over again?"

She took the remote and said, "Hey, Mom, let's find shows you will hate."

It wasn't hard. Daughter clicked through a series of shows so bizarre that I felt like I was on another planet. One show featured celebrities who had apparently been told to lose weight. Well, the show said they were celebrities, but they were people I had never heard of. Anyhow, the pump but pretty celebrity would come out and weigh herself, and then a panel of other people, who I think were also supposed to be famous, would say really mean, shaming things to her because she had not lost any weight. Really. That was the whole show. An entire show based on shame about the human body. I am guessing the celebrities must have been the kind of people everyone loves to hate because otherwise I just don't see the appeal of that kind of show.

Another show featured a good-looking young man who apparently had so few social skills that he was relying on a television show to find him a date. The absolute strangest part, aside from the fact that there was somehow a group of equally desperate and good-looking young women willing to date this young man, was that the young man was told to go on a date with each of the mothers of the young women he was getting hooked up with. Yes, the mothers. Really. And the mothers were all women about my age. So this hot young man would take a woman my age to a sushi bar or night club or park, and then listen while she tried to pimp out her daughter. I wanted to start screaming about the whole premise of the show, which is that women are supposed to compete for male attention, but I couldn't even deliver my usual snarky trirade and gender analysis as I stared at the screen; the show was that weird.

We saw commercials, too, most of them promoting products that seemed completely useless. And the main message of the commercials seemed to be that there is something truly wrong with the human body. But not to fear, there are all sorts of products you can buy to cover up those defects. Gunk to put on your eyes and skin. Perfume that has special powers. Apparently, it even matters what detergent you use on your clothes. And what kind of shampoo. Choose the wrong shampoo, and you will never get a date.

I don't know how long we watched before I felt like my head was going to explode. I couldn't take much of it. Soon I was begging to go back to the channel that featured rock crushing. I wanted to forget this dreadful glimpse into the dominant culture and lull myself to sleep with the image of a big machine crushing rocks. And more rocks. At least there was something soothing about that image.

October 03, 2005

How to plan a birthday party in fifteen minutes or less

About a week before the child's birthday, I suddenly remember that we ought to have a party. I tell myself that next time I am going to remember this ahead of time. OTHER PARENTS plan birthday parties MONTHS ahead of time, and what kind of parent am I? Then I tell that inner You Suck as a Parent voice to go to hell.

At the grocery store, I buy a couple packs of tacky birthday party invitations. I would let the child pick the design but I can never get a child to come to the grocery store with me. Mainly, this is because I won't let my children buy refined sugar disguised as healthy snacks. According to my youngest child, I am the only parent in all of Traintrack Village who is not willing to buy Weird Sticky Sugar Dyed Red and Sold by the Foot.

So I have to choose the invitations myself. And the options are often dreadful. I try to find cards without much text because I have a low tolerance for cartoon puns. And merely looking at the cards sends me into a rant about gender stereotypes, leading me to mutter angry things to other shoppers who take one look at me and push their carts very quickly into another aisle. This could be another reason my children don't like to shop with me.

Then I look at the calendar to pick a Saturday for the party. Usually, because I've waited too long, the party comes about a week after the actual birthday. Sometimes a few weeks. I used to worry that this sort of neglect was traumatic for the child, but I have since discovered that no one really cares about the date. And if I am wrong, well, every kid needs something to talk about in therapy some day.

Next, the child and I sit down at the kitchen table and write out the invitations. The most important part of the invitation is to write: "Wear play clothes that can get dirty" on the bottom of the card. Otherwise, we will get some girls wearing party dresses who won't play games because they don't want to get their dresses dirty. Honestly. I am not making this up. We still get the fancy dresses sometimes, but I have learned to keep sweatpants and such on hand for the girls to change into. Usually once they have changed their clothes, they will happily trudge through the pond like all the other kids. I really should write, "Wear shoes that you can afford to ruin" on the cards but I've always worried that that would scare some of these young parents.

Next, we take five minutes to plan an activity that we can do outside. Something simple. Water balloon fights if it is warm. Going down the front hill on inner tubes if it is winter. Relay races. Scavenger hunts. In the warm weather, anything that involves mud and water is popular. The extent of our planning is merely to choose an activity ahead of time; spontaneous games often result.

What is funny is that the activities I choose are usually at least a hundred years old, sometimes thousands of years old, but some of these younger parents (and by that I mean anyone who does not have grey hair and at least one kid in college) are always congratulating me on coming up with new ideas. One time when a parent came to pick his child up from a winter party, he stood and watched the kids go down the hill on black inner tubes and said, "Where ever did you get the inner tubes?"

"At the auto parts store," I answered, stating the obvious.

"At the auto parts store?" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," I said, "They are the inner tubes of truck tires. We blew them up at the gas station."

Then he started going on and on about how clever I was to think of using inner tubes for, er, inner tubes. Yes, these young parents are easy to impress.

When it comes time to buy stuff for the party, my choices are simple. I never waste money on paper plates or paper napkins or any of that insipid birthday party stuff. I don't like to buy disposable products, especially disposable products that promote dreadful gender stereotypes, and I don't think kids need that stuff anyhow. How many kids come home from a party exclaiming about how cute the napkins were? Really. That would have to be the dullest party ever. We just use real plates and cloth napkins at the party. Well, actually, the cloth napkins don't get used much. These are not Martha Stewart's kids we've got here.

And the food? Halfway through the party, Spouse goes out and picks up pizza and soda. We do have cake and ice cream, of course. Here is where I have a confession to make. I am the shockingly horrible parent who does not make a homemade cake for my child. I don't even order an expensive bakery cake personalized with the kid's name in order to make up for my guilt of not having a homemade cake. I buy a couple of frozen Pepperidge Farm cakes (often on sale, 2 for $5) and put candles on them. I would feel guilty about this cheap and easy shortcut, except that I don't.

I used to feel guilty. Then one year during some kind of insane Susie Homemaker spell, I said to one of my kids proudly, "I am going to make you a homemade cake this year." He said, in a hurt voice, "What? I don't get a Pepperidge Farm cake? But it's a tradition!"

So that's the party. Parents drop their kids off, many of them exclaiming how happy they are to get an afternoon to themselves. (We will often invite a younger sibling to stay and join the party which makes the parents even happier.) The kids mill about in the living room while I make sure I know all their names. Then we go outside for some kind of crazy activity. When they come in, everyone is hot and sweaty, or cold and muddy. We eat pizza and cake. We sing happy birthday. We drink gallons of soda. We open presents.

Then everyone goes outside again. I give every child a ziplock bag. I go upstairs to an open window, and throw candy out the window. The kids scream and yell and run around picking up the candy. I throw more candy. They scream and yell and pick it up. This activity goes on for about half an hour. It could go on for hours if I let it. You can entertain children endlessly by throwing candy out an upstairs window. Our household has become famous for this particular birthday tradition.

The day ends with another tradition, the sleeping monster game. Spouse lies on the floor of the living room and pretends to be a sleeping monster, complete with dramatic fake monster snores. The kids try, one at a time, to sneak past him. He wakes up from time to time, grabbing at their legs, sometimes tackling a child. Much screaming and giggling and running around ensues. So far no one has gotten hurt during the playing of this game. Well, unless you count my husband. He has taken some kicks to sensitive body parts.

When parents start arriving, I usually try to get my child to stand at the door and say polite things as the other kids leave. Spouse limps around the living room picking up crumpled wrapping paper. The parents try to get their kids to say thank you. I provide plastic grocery bags for clothes that are too wet to wear home, and apologize for the white socks that will never get clean again. It's all good.

As my kids have gotten older, they have outgrown the birthday parties, of course. Teenagers would rather gather at night to jam and play monster. But With-a-why is still young enough to see want this kind of daytime party. And his birthday is in October.

October 02, 2005

Sunday afternoon cleaning

My kids are good about doing their chores, but their standards are different than mine. Very different. So every once in a while, I like to go through and clean the downstairs of the house myself. Just to keep the health inspectors away. What is frustrating is that after several hours of cleaning, the living area still looks kind of messy. That is because it's filled with strange items that don't really belong anywhere else.

Not much fits in our bedrooms because they are small. We do not own even one chest of drawers. So the bedroom closets are needed for clothes. We already have a computer in the boys' bedroom -- and the television set - because there is no other place to put things that I don't want in the living area. And we don't have a family room or den or dining room or basement or attic or any of those extra rooms other people use to store miscellaneous items.

One main room is pretty much what we've got. And the room, with a brick fireplace and lots of windows, would look lovely if we didn't have so much stuff strewn about. Today, I did take newspapers out to the garage, and I piled books and games on the staircase with the theory that they should go up to the bedrooms. I tossed dozens of white socks and crumpled t-shirts into the laundry hamper. I piled all the sneakers in the hall closet. But odd items still remain:

One electric guitar
One bass guitar
Two amps
Microphone and stand
A balance board
About twenty drum sticks
Sound Off pads for the drums
Two rolls of duct tape
A flood light balance precariously on the front window sill
Piles of music books and loose sheet music
Three school backpacks filled with books
A saxophone
Tins of Yu-Gi-0h cards
Four decks of cards, two tins of poker chips
Hacky sacks piled onto the top of the piano
Various black cords
Sixteen frisbees
Three broom handles, not used for cleaning
Ten light sabers, battle ready
An orange tree tall enough to touch the ceiling
A full set of drums

So after an afternoon of cleaning, my living room still looks - well, lived in, I guess. But I did get all those crumbs off the carpeting. Sigh. Maybe I should have gone for a walk instead.

Friday night at the theatre

It's true that I've never been to a movie by myself. I don't think I've ever even watched a television show by myself. But my husband is out of town, and Friday night I did go to a play by myself.

Well, maybe not exactly by myself. It was me and about two hundred college students. Most of them eighteen years old.

At dusk, I met my students on the patio outside their dorm and passed out the tickets. It was a cool fall evening, a perfect night for walking downtown. My urban students have been to plays before, of course, but some of the students from small rural towns had never been to a live performance before. Some of the students were dressed up for the event, and many started switching tickets to make sure they could sit near their dates. Our first year students live in three different dorms, and about sixty students from the dorm up on the hill came walking down to meet us.

We started the long walk to the theatre, following the ugly grey streets of Snowstorm City, past a hospital, past parking lots, past anonymous brick buildings. At the first cross street, I looked down to see a gang of students heading towards us, the group from the third dorm walking to meet us.

"Let's wait for them," I said. As we stood there, all lined up along the sidewalk, the harsh street lights glaring on the grey asphalt around us, watching the gang of young people striding purposefully toward us, two of the students behind me began humming the music to West Side Story.

Twenty minutes later, our throng of first year college students converged on the little community theatre, taking up big sections of the place, including most of the balcony. The school administration had paid for our tickets, and the students kept thanking me. As the lights dimmed, they went quiet, all eyes on the stage. During the play, I kept glancing around me, looking at the faces of my students; most were watching intently, laughing at the funny lines, looking subdued at the sad parts.

"Hey, this was fun," said ConstructionManagement Student as we walked out after the show. He sounded surprised.

An usher marvelled: "All these college students! And not a single cell phone went off during the performance."

Even though I am tired on Friday evenings, the experience was completely worth it. I could hear students all around me chatting about the play as we pushed through the doors and went back out into the night.

October 01, 2005

Numbers Meme

Number of cats who live in my house: 7
Percentage of these cats who are female: 86
Number of canoes I own: 5
Number of sisters I have: 3
Average number of times I eat every day: 8
How many academic conferences I went to last year: 3
How many years I've been cross-country skiing: 25
How many years I've been downhill skiing: 3
The age of my youngest child: 10
How old I was when I first began sailing: 7
How many Joni Mitchell CDs I own: 13
How many years I've been with my spouse: 27
How many dollars I spent on my wedding dress: 50
Number of people in my household who play the piano: 4
How many times I've been to California: 2
How many times I've been to Europe: 2
How many times I've been to Florida: 0
How far, in miles, I live from my parents: 6
Number of left-handed siblings I have: 3
How far, in miles, I live from the nearest grocery store: 6
Pairs of snowshoes I own: 3
Years since I last ate meat: 9
Number of television shows I watch each week: 1
How many students in my high school class: 496
Years I've lived in this house: 6
Years I've lived in this town: 44

Edited to add: Since this is my meme, there are no rules. Adapt it in any way that you like.