October 31, 2006

Chocolate bars and candy corn

On a warm Halloween evening, Train Track Village is like a set in an old movie. Carefully carved jack-o-lanterns, some with smiling faces and some with evil grins, light the steps of the big old houses, with candlelight flickering through orange slits. Neighbors sit out on their porches, laughing in delight at clever costumes. Teenagers and adults hang back in the street, scuffling through piles of dried leaves, while little kids in costumes make their way shyly up to the doorsteps to get their candy. The nursing home is always open, the lobby filled with wheelchairs of old people with bags of candy in their laps, ready to admire the children who come through. One warm Halloween night, one man set up an impromptu bar, putting a board over a couple of sawhorses, and served drinks to his adult neighbors. Everyone chats with each other while they wait patiently for the kids, and a big crowd will gather near the fire station, eating the doughnuts and cider the firefighters hand out. The streets and sidewalks swarm with crowds of children in costumes.

Of course, here in Snowstorm region, this kind of warm, summer-like Halloween happens only about once every ten years. We are just as likely to get snow, and most likely – cold temperatures and rain.

Most years, Halloween weather is downright miserable. Parents flip a coin to see which one must take the little ones out in the rain and cold – the winning parent gets to stay home and pass out candy. Parents always try to make their kids wear coats over their costumes, which as any kid knows, totally ruins the effect. Anyone opening the door to hand out candy will see little kids with costume paint running down their rain-soaked faces, shivering as they hold out pillowcases clutched in cold red fingers. Cardboard ears and crowns fall apart and end up on the dark sidewalk. Any kid who makes the mistake of bringing some carefully decorated paper Halloween bag instead of an old pillow case will find his bag disintegrating -- and his candy falling into the gutter. The unlucky parents escorting their children around the village gather together to make sarcastic comments about the weather and plan the shortest possible route they can get away with.

When I was a kid, trick-or-treating meant mostly running through wet yards, slipping on piles of wet leaves, stomping through puddles, abandoning disintegrating costume parts, and begging the older kids to wait up as we ran through the rain as fast as we could. By the time we got back to Picnic Family's house, my feet would be so cold I could barely feel them. But the part I loved was sitting down in the warm house afterwards, we kids spreading our candy out on the carpet, my hands and feet thawing slowly as we bartered and traded candy bars. How cozy Picnic Family's house always seemed, filled with talk and light and jazz music. Picnic Father would set down his trumpet at some point to do a dramatic (and hysterically awful) reading of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, and we kids would chomp our candy while we listened. Then my own father would sit back down at the piano, Picnic Father would pick up his trumpet, and the jam session would begin again. Beneath the swirl of talk and music, we kids would play games on the thick carpet. No amount of bad weather could ruin the thrill of staying up late on a school night and eating as much candy as we wanted.

October 30, 2006

Windy

Gusts shook the house yesterday, some of them more than 50 mph. The phragmites that grow along the roadside, most stretching higher than my head, were dancing furiously, their tasselled tops waving in ripples of green-gold motion. The second day of Boy in Black's Ultimate Frisbee tournament was cancelled because the winds were stronger than the frisbee players. In my woods, some of the dead Scotch pines, trees planted years ago by the CCC, came toppling down. The river birches I've planted near my house bend and twist in the wind, but because they are native to this area, they always survive a storm.

When I look from my window, I see bare branches against the cloudy sky. All the beautiful foliage, the bright yellow, red, and orange leaves, has been stripped away. There's something cleansing about a storm that brings high winds. It's as powerful as an emotional upheaval, stripping away all that we cling to, leaving room for something else, in this case, the brilliant white icy beauty of winter.

The autumn leaves are strewn across the ground, in ankle-deep piles, scattered across muddy lawns, drifted into curving paths on the forest floor. They will decay over the winter, turning to compost sometime next spring. At the edge of a lake, the dark water near the shore shows the very last bit of fall color, bright leaves floating in the ripples.

floating leaves

October 29, 2006

Safety pins and lingerie

We were invited to the Halloween party weeks ago, but everyone in the family left the costumes to the last minute. An hour before the party, Shaggy Hair, Skater Boy, and With-a-Why were still just lounging around in front of the fire looking very much like their own selves when I asked, "Aren't you guys dressing up? It's a costume party. It says so on the invitation."

Shaggy Hair shrugged. Little kids get very excited about going to costume parties with their parents, but for a teenage boy, the idea inspires about the same level of enthusiasm as a trip to the dentist. My husband, who had had a difficult week dealing with his mother, was taking a nap. He told me to wake him up five minutes before we left, assuring me that is all the time it would take for him to pull together a costume.

I admit, I hadn't planned a costume either, but I did have the one secret ingredient to making a cool Halloween costume: safety pins. For me, buying safety pins constitutes planning ahead. I figured I would come up with an idea and get dressed first in hopes that my costume would inspire enthusiasm amongst the rest of my sluggish family.

The idea I came up with was kind of lame, but at least it was simple. I put on black pants and a black shirt, and then pinned socks to my legs and arms. I decided that colorful ski socks looked cooler than the white cotton socks. When I started pinning With-a-Why's underwear to my shoulder, Shaggy Hair stopped me in horror. "MOM! YOU CANNOT WEAR OUR UNDERWEAR IN PUBLIC."

Well, fine. I decided that their underwear was boring anyway. I went into my daughter's room and my own drawer for prettier panties, choosing bright colors like red and hot pink that would show up against the black.

"Have you figured out what I am?" I asked the boys as I walked through the living room, with random socks and panties clinging to my body. I was prepared to give all kinds of hints.

"I don't even want to know," Shaggy Hair said, sinking lower into his chair. Skater Boy gave me one horrified look and chose to say nothing.

So much for rallying enthusiasm.

The boys did come to the party, all of them grabbing the random masks and capes we have at our house. I can't say that any of them dressed as anything specific; mainly, they looked like a clump of boys dressed in black and red, with creepy alien faces. My husband, disappointed he couldn't find his Evil Politician mask, grabbed a cowboy hat and a pair of crunches left from the time I broke my leg, and said it was his lame cowboy costume. I was actually kind of relieved he couldn't be an Evil Politician. He is very good at imitating politicians, but once he gets on a roll, it's hard for him to turn off the imitation, and then I am stuck going home with someone who sounds like The Worst President We've Ever Had. Not something that usually leads to a night of romance.

Boy in Black called to say that the second half of his Ultimate Frisbee tournament was cancelled because of the weather and that he was back in Snowstorm City. I told him we'd pick him up and that he had five minutes to come up with a costume. Obliging, he pinned a long towel to his shoulders and put on a pair of sunglasses. Once he was at the party, he kept adding to the costume by taking items from people who were getting tired of wearing their outfits. I saw him as one point with a long black wig and a witch's hat. He gave his analysis of the costumes he had seen on campus: "The theme for women seems to be Sexy Cowgirl, Sexy Nurse, Sexy Whatever. But they've got this really weird idea about what sexy is."

My daughter drove in from campus to join the party late. Wearing an old-fashioned dress from the children's section of a thrift store, with white tights and her hair in a pony tail, she looked like a little girl from another era. Since she is tiny, the dress fit her fine, and the effect could have been cute. Except that she decided to be a zombie little girl. Her pale skin was chalked even whiter, red dripped from the sides of her mouth, dark circles were drawn under her eyes, and a jump rope hung around her neck in a noose. I can't even watch horror shows because they give me nightmares so seeing my daughter transformed into a character in a horror flick was beyond creepy.

About half the people at the party were able to guess correctly what my costume was. Some were puzzled even when I told them. Many of the guests, well, not counting the ones related to me, had rented or bought fairly elaborate costumes: a nun, a Spiderman, a devil, that kind of thing. It's very strange to meet people for the first time when they are dressed head-to-toe as someone else. My kids abandoned their masks and capes when they discovered a ping pong table in the basement.

What's ridiculous is that when slips of paper were passed around and a vote was taken, I won the prize for best individual costume. I am not sure why. Maybe it's because people are more likely to vote for a costume that is homemade. Maybe it's because people felt sorry for me. Or maybe people think it's cool to wear lingerie pinned all over your body.

October 28, 2006

Romantic gift

All summer, every time I went into the garage to get out the lawn mower or a wheelbarrow or camping equipment, I would look around at piles of junk and say, "Some day we have to clean this." I was bothered not so much by the aesthetics of having a garage that looked like a junk yard kept by a crazy person, since it's very easy to just shut the door on it, but more by the fact that is a real pain to have to climb over old furniture and car tires and cardboard boxes in order to get at the box of grass seed or the garden hose or those bicycle helmets.

Since most of our furniture comes from garage sales or thrift stores in the first place, it is usually not worth being donated anywhere by the time we get done with it. And our garbage collector won't pick up anything that doesn't fit into a 30-gallon trash bag. So what do we do with old stuff that is useless? A guitar case from the seventies that has completely fallen apart at the seams and has been replaced by a new hard one. Two twin beds, with mattresses, that were permanently damaged during the days before my little boys had the hang of staying dry at night. An old vacuum cleaner that got burned out too many times, possibly from people trying to vacuum up stuff way too big. A lawn mower that I abandoned after it caught on fire. An old chair that no longer has legs. What we do is just toss the item in the garage and forget about it.

And when I say "toss," I mean that literally. In really cold weather, when icy air comes blasting into the house, I have been known to open the door, throw an item, and then slam the door shut again. Out of sight, out of mind.

After seven years of living in this house, our garage was filled with useless stuff. Every once in a while, I would say to my husband, "We ought to clean the garage." I had this image of a happy family project in which we would all pitch in and work together to sort through all the crap. My husband would nod and agree, although he was more realistic about just what kind of happy family togetherness the plan would involve. But then a sunny Saturday would come, and we'd back out of the plan. It just never seems right to waste beautiful weather on a project like cleaning the garage.

Then in October, I went away with my friends for a weekend. Almost always when I come back from a weekend away, my husband will leave a note on the kitchen table, often with some kind of surprise gift – flowers in a vase, tofutti in the freezer, a new piece of silky lingerie, a dark chocolate bar on my pillow. This time his note said simply: "I was thinking of you this weekend. Look at the garage."

I opened the door and could barely believe my eyes. The garage was almost completely empty.

My husband and sons had worked on it all weekend. They'd sorted through the stuff we needed to keep, and piled that on the shelves in the back of the garage. They'd bagged up the dozens of bottles and cans, several years worth, that had escaped from the containers that once held them. They'd burned the cardboard boxes that we always just toss into the garage. The biggest thing, though, is that they'd rented a trunk and taken most of the stuff to the Rescue Mission and to the dump.

So for the first time since we've lived here, the garage is empty. Well, not exactly empty, since we did keep the lawn mower, the snow shovels, the bicycles, and the camping equipment. But it looks clean now, with an open space in the middle that is actually usable space. Every time I go into the garage, which is several time a day since that's where the firewood is stacked, I look around and feel grateful.

When it comes to romantic gifts, a clean garage is higher on my list than a dozen red roses.

October 27, 2006

Crescent Moon

Last weekend when Red-haired Sister was in town, she and my parents took the younger kids apple-picking. It was a cold, rainy weekend but they waited for a break in the weather and wore winter coats. With-a-Why came home with red cheeks and a big bag of apples.

All week I've been saying, "Oh, I ought to make a pie." Shaggy Hair Boy loves homemade apple pie, his favorite dessert. But this is a busy time of the semester, and my days are filled with classes, meetings, paper grading, and planning for upcoming conferences. My husband and I have had to devote all kinds of time and emotional energy to my mother-in-law, who has macular degeneration and has been very anxious over a new medicine that gets injected directly into her eye. It's been a stressful week, with no time for anything as leisurely as making a pie.

Yesterday afternoon, my mother called to say, "I made you an apple pie. I just put it in the oven, so stop by sometime this evening and pick it up."

My mother makes the best apple pie. Really. I am not the only person who thinks so.

So yesterday, on my way to meet Quilt Artist, Long Beautiful Hair, and Makes Bread, three friends I was meeting for an hour or two of chatting and commiserating, I stopped at my parents' house, and my mother handed me an apple pie, still warm from the oven. After half an hour of chatting with my parents, I put the pie carefully on the floor of my car and drove off in a vehicle that now smelled delicious.

When I came home after visiting my friends, I carried the pie into the quiet house. My husband was upstairs putting With-a-Why to bed. They read comic books together, and usually in the evening I can hear the voice of Thor coming from the bedroom, but the quietness made me think that my tired spouse had fallen asleep while cuddling his youngest. Shaggy Hair was still awake and eagerly anticipating the pie. He'd built a fire in the fireplace, and the red coals glowed invitingly as I came in from the windy darkness. Right away, I put the kettle on the stove so we could make hot tea and cocoa.

My feet and hands were cold: I haven't yet gotten around to digging out the wool socks, hiking boots, and mittens that I will be wearing from now until spring. I sat down in the comfy chair and drew close to the simmering red logs. I could see flames reflected in the dark window panes behind Shaggy Hair, who was stretched out on the couch with his homework. In silence, we each ate a piece of pie, savoring the cinnamon apple taste, the tender crust.

"Listen," said Shaggy Hair, opening the window just a crack.

From the south, towards the railroad track that acts as a corridor for wildlife, came that haunting sound, the howl of a coyote on a dark fall night.

October 26, 2006

If the pants fit

Reading Lisa's post this morning made me think of all the family and cultural pressures that can cause me to feel like a good parent or bad parent. I've found it hard work to sort out which of those pressures are negative, and should be ignored, and which might spur me to be a better parent. Too often, I think it's easy to respond to societal pressure with a vague guilt that can be more destructive than helpful. Some types of guilt I am able to ignore, but others are more difficult.

I used to think I was good at avoiding the pressures of a consumeristic culture: I would buy my children only the clothes they really needed, making good use of hand-me-downs from cousins and garage sale items. My kids don't have need to dress up very often, but usually I made sure that each of them owned a pair of black pants and one white dress shirt, the standard uniform for school band and choir concerts. Well, actually, Boy in Black's dress shirt was black instead of white, but the band director seemed to be okay with that. The school concert outfit could also be worn for an unexpected funeral or for end-of-the year award ceremonies.

Then in tenth grade, Boy in Black made his Confirmation, a big church ceremony that kids dress up for. It was March, but I knew that hanging in his closet were the black pants and black shirt he had worn to his concert in December. My husband is pretty good about keeping up with the laundry, so I knew they would be clean and not crumpled at the bottom of the hamper. I was confident that we were prepared for the occasion, and I didn't need to go buy him anything.

About half an hour before the Confirmation ceremony, Boy in Black went upstairs to change and then came back down with the awful news: "Hey, Mom. These don't fit me anymore."

I looked at him in horror. Even though Boy in Black is a skinny kid, the black pants were ridiculously tight. And I could see several inches of his white socks. Boy in Black pulled the pants up higher and began strutting around the room; his siblings thought it was funny.

Had he grown that much in just three months? Well, I guess he had. I knew he had grown nine inches between eighth and ninth grade – why I hadn't I realized how fast he was growing?

We had to be at the church in fifteen minutes. What were we supposed to do? These were the only dress pants that the kid owned. I thought of Neighbor Family – I've often borrowed clothes from their kids and vice versa – but unfortunately Boy in Black is older than their two boys and taller. I thought of my sister, but she just has three skinny girls. We looked through my husband's clothes, but at that point in time, he was still way taller than Boy in Black – and not as skinny as a tenth grader either. There was not time to go out and buy him a pair of pants.

My solution was for Boy in Black to wear his casual pants, the baggy zip-off pants he wears every day, but he ignored my idea and opted to go the dressed-up route. I gave him a pair of black socks so that the glaring white socks would not advertise so much how short the pants were. So he wore the ridiculously small pants, with me cringing.

I kept saying things like, "Oh, I should have thought to have you try these on," and he kept saying, "It's okay. I don't care how they look."

Throughout the ceremony, I winced every time the Confirmation candidates had to stand up at the altar. Twelve kids in nice outfits that fit them, and Boy in Black in his ridiculously small pants. I kept telling myself that it shouldn't bother me – it's just clothes, after all, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was a terrible parent because my son did not have pants that fit him. I think my husband was feeling much the same way, despite the reassuring things he kept saying about how the pants really didn't look that bad. I gave whispered explanations to my parents and mother-in-law, who to their credit, just kept saying positive things about how Boy in Black was growing so fast.

So I spent the whole ceremony beating myself up for being a terrible mother who hadn't bothered to check to see if her son had pants to wear to some important rite-of-passage ceremony. My husband pointed out that it was silly to for me to feel so responsible. He hadn't checked the pants either, and for that matter, Boy in Black was plenty old enough to be responsible for his own clothing. Naturally I ignored the logic of this.

Finally, the ceremony was over, and we all came back to our house for food and cake. I felt relieved when Boy in Black changed out of the black pants and appeared in his normal casual clothes. He handed me the pants. As I looked at them, something on the label caught my attention.

That label looked familiar. These were my pants, the black pants I wear when I have to present at a conference. No wonder they didn't fit him. A sudden thought crossed my mind. I ran up to Boy in Black's closet, which is stuffed with games and toys and very few clothes. There, on a hanger, looking almost brand new, were his black pants. Which would have fit him perfectly.

October 25, 2006

When it's raining

My part of the world can be gorgeous on sunny fall days, when the afternoon light shines on brilliant red and yellow leaves and the sky is a deep blue. But towards the end of October, we get dark, cold days of icy rain. Nothing is so chilly as rain when the temperatures are hovering around freezing. The winds blow the leaves off the trees, leaving bare branches against the cloudy sky, and slap against wet winter coats and the bare hands of those who haven't gotten their mittens out yet for the season. Most of us are just hoping the precipitation will turn to snow, which is lighter and more cheerful, and warmer because it doesn't soak through all your clothes.

On days like this, I keep a fire going in the fireplace. It's the only way to ward off the ominous realization that the days are getting darker and shorter and colder. The crackle and the heat that radiates from the flames makes my home a cosy place to be. On cold, wet weekends, everyone gathers around the fire: it's the natural place to go as soon as you walk in the door.

Boy in Black was home last weekend to play Ultimate Frisbee with his siblings and extras, and they played all day Saturday, despite the cold and rain. They wore long underwear and gloves, but they were practicing layouts, which involves throwing your entire body against the ground, often into a puddle, and they would come in periodically to cluster around the fire, dripping muddy pools of water onto the carpet. Red-haired Sister was in town with her kids, and she chose a spot by the fire where she could nestle with a good book. She is a restful person to be around. If I say something like, "Sorry things are such a mess here," she shrugs and says, "Oh, I wouldn't expect the house to be clean with all the kids you've got here." And if some cleaning does need to be done, like say, we've run out of clean glasses and we are all drinking out of vases and measuring cups, she'll pitch in to help clean and help yell at the kids to clean too.

With-a-Why and his cousin Suburban Nephew kept disappearing upstairs to play in the boys' room, but every so often they would wander back down to the fire where their mothers were. With-a-Why has a habit of just stopping at the piano to play a song, or even a piece of a song, whenever he enters the room. Dandelion Niece and Neighbor Girl, who are about the same age, were running around the house together, but they kept coming back to the fire to ask a question or ask for something to eat.

Always we gather near the fire, drawn to the warmth, the smell, the crackling noise.
Blonde Niece, who is one of the Ultimate Frisbee players, will come in sopping wet and sit on the hearth, saying, "Oh, that fire feels good." My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter will take a place on the couch with her laptop, basking in the warmth as she writes a paper. The boys will all bring their mugs of hot cocoa over to the fire, sitting on arms of the comfy chair or on the hearth or the floor. My husband will always look over at me and say, "Aren't you glad we put in a fireplace when we built this house?"

I cannot imagine these cold fall days without it.

October 24, 2006

Kindergarten Cleavage

When I was a kid, I used to love Halloween. The week before the big day, we kids would all start coming up with ideas for costumes. I was never particular creative when it came to costumes, but my sisters were. Blonde Sister was particularly good at painting stuff on our faces, using just regular water color paints. She was way ahead of her time because face-painting had not yet become a trend. Pretty much everyone I knew wore homemade costumes, with bits and pieces that had come from garage sales or thrift stores, or sometimes cool hand-sewn costumes made by someone's parent and then passed down through many children. You could buy cheap costumes with plastic masks at the drugstore, but they always fell apart easily, and a mask is annoying to wear on a dark October night.

I've always thought of Halloween as a holiday for children, complete with seasonal candy, carving pumpkins, classroom parties, silly games like dunking for apples or eating donuts off a string, and the excitement of running around a neighborhood after dark, bravely knocking on doors to ask for candy. Since we lived on a country road, we used to visit Picnic Family's neighborhood on Halloween night. We kids would trick or treat for a few hours, then come back to spread our candy on the carpet, carefully sorting the candy bars and hard candy, ready to trade away anything we didn't like. The adults were always in the background, or more accurately, in the basement. Jazz music came drifting up from the jam session going on below us as we argued the worth of a candy bar.

One of the biggest changes I've seen in Halloween in my lifetime is the way that consumerism and adults have taken over the holiday. Instead of simple costumes they make themselves, for instance, many kids now wear elaborate store-bought costumes. It seems sad that kids often don't make their own costumes any more, since that sort of kills the creative element of the holiday, but the thing that most horrifies me is the kind of costumes that seem to be available. I mean, left to her own devices, would your average seven-year-old girl think to dress up as a slutty cheer leader? I doubt it.

I suppose it is unrealistic to think that corporations motivated only by profit would manufacture costumes for little girls that were original or creative or clever. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the costumes tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, which for girls means that the emphasis is on sexuality. When I was a kid, I sometimes dressed as a cat, which meant black cloth covering my whole body, and cardboard ears, and whiskers that my sister painted onto my face, and a long tail. Nowadays, a cat costume means a bare midriff, a black tank top that emphasizes the chest, fishnet stockings, and eye shadow. How is it that a cat costume for a five-year-old can be so sexualized? Am I the only one who thinks it is a bit unhealthy to push that sex object stereotype on a child who won't have breasts for another eight years?

Last year, I saw numerous little girls dressed as comic book superheros, with full-body costumes that gave them cleavage, round breasts, skimpy shorts, and hooker boots, sort of a colorful version of a Hooters' waitress. One parent, with whom I was having a thoughtful discussion, defended the costume to me by saying, "Oh, but it's a progressive outfit. A superhero is powerful." Yes, the idea that a woman needs big breasts, long legs, high heels, and skimpy attire to be powerful – that is real progressive.

I suppose all these highly sexualized costumes for little girls is just one more example of unhealthy attitudes towards the body in our culture. Perhaps is the repression of adult sexuality that leads to the once-a-year Halloween slut. Many adult women in our culture feel uncomfortable with their bodies and their sexuality, and yet we foist an artificial sexuality on our little girls as some kind of cute Halloween joke.

Of course, I don't want to idealize Halloweens of the past too much. Certainly, in my childhood, some inappropriate costumes existed. In the sixties, kids still dressed like the stereotype of the Indian, for instance, a practice incredibly offensive. And I know that a few decades before that, a costume could include blackface, and few would question the racist implications of that. In the schools in this part of the country, at least, educators have begun the process of getting kids and parents to think about who they might offend if they choose to dress as a stereotype.

Yet, I think we still have a long way to go in examining the messages that costumes mass-produced by patriarchy give our children. Perhaps it is unrealistic for me to think that parents would refuse to buy costumes that make their little girls look like sex slaves. Perhaps it is inevitable that girls learn that their place in our culture is to serve as the object in a male fantasy. Perhaps I am old-fashioned in thinking that an elementary school's Halloween parade shouldn't look like a porn show.

October 23, 2006

Venom

My students are always trying to educate me. Horrified that I watch so little television, they feel it's their duty to teach me about pop culture so that I won't embarrass myself at a party by saying something stupid like, "Reality TV? What's that?"

A few weeks ago, when we were talking about the death of Famous Crocodile Television Personality, I admitted that I'd read about the man on blogs and I'd listened to literature professors analyze his attitude towards nature, but I had not actually ever seen the show. Not even one minute of it. I didn't even know what Famous Dead Naturalist looked like. I had heard countless bad imitations of him, so I sort of knew what he sounded like. Well, at least, I knew he said the word Crikey a whole lot.

One of my students, who was writing a paper on Outdoors Guy Who Talked With Cool Australian Accent, brought a VCR tape to class one day and told me to watch it over the weekend. Everyone in the class chimed in: "You have to."

So over the weekend, With-a-Why and I settled in front of the television to watch the famous show. When I looked at which episode my student had handed me, I paused. The title was: Africa's Deadliest Snakes.

Snakes!

All my life, snakes have appeared in my dreams. I am not afraid of snakes in real life, partly because I live in a part of the country where snakes are harmless. But the snakes in my dreams are always vivid in color, nothing like the garter snakes or common water snakes that I am used to, and they terrify me. When I was a child, I would wake up from snake nightmares screaming. As an adult, I used to have dreams that I was back in the house that I lived in a child, and snakes would come rolling out of the walls. The multi-colored snakes of my childhood dreams have given way as I've gotten older to long green snakes, beautiful in color. I have assumed that these long green snakes, graceful and thin, winding their ways around tree branches, are harmless and simply a figment of my imagination.

As I've gotten older, I've tried to accept the snakes in my dreams. And the snakes that have appeared in my real life, sometimes in the strangest places, have come to mean positive changes. I am always finding snakeskins, and I usually accept them now, putting them on the edges of the bookshelves in my office as a reminder to myself to embrace change and transformation.

Still, I felt a little trepidation as I began watching the tape, an hour of Very Enthusiastic Famous Guy finding, touching, and releasing deadly African snakes. I was sure the show would give me nightmares. Lots of things surprised me about the show -- the televison persona of Famous Guy About My Age Who is Dead Now was actually quite different from what I expected. But the most startling thing of all was finding out that the long bright green snakes of my dreams are not imaginary at all.

The green mamba. The boomslang. I watched in fascination as they slithered along tree limbs, exactly like the snakes in my dreams. My dream snakes have names. They really exist, although on another continent. And it turns out they are not harmless at all. The snakes that have been appearing in my dreams lately are venomous and powerful.

I like that.

October 22, 2006

Sunrise

I never used to be a morning person. I have always been the kind of person who stumbles about blearily in the morning, snarling at anyone who crosses my path, or who just sits in a lump on the couch until my husband reminds me that I might want to get dressed and go to work. When my kids were little, I never minded breastfeeding in the morning, since that is one task that can be done while half-asleep, but anything more strenuous than pulling up my shirt to offer a breast is more than I can handle. My husband, luckily, can function in the morning, and so he has always been in charge of the alarm clock, breakfast, and the kids' school lunches.

Of course, there have always been exceptions. I am somehow able to get up early when I am camping, waking as soon as the first light arrives, to go sailing in the early morning fog, or walk along the ocean by myself, or take a canoe through the mist, or hike a trail while the sun is rising. When I stay in a city, I love to get up early to walk around the quiet streets, watching merchants sweeping their door steps or setting up their wares. During vacation, I can transform quite easily into a morning person.

And now, as I get older, I find myself more and more awake in the early hours, getting before light to read or write or work at my desk. Perhaps it's because my body is getting older, and I wake up in response to the warm energy that spreads through my body just before dawn. Or perhaps it's the result of having teenagers. When my kids were little, the only quiet time I had was at night, after they were asleep, and sometimes I'd stay up late just to enjoy some time alone. Now that I have teenagers who stay up late and like to sleep late when they can, the best chance I have for time alone in a quiet house is in the early hours, while everyone else is sleeping.

sunrise

Sunrise on a mountain lake. I took this photo a few weeks ago, on the trip I took with my parents.

October 20, 2006

Before All Else

It was a day-long teach-in on our campus, part of a year-long collaboration and dialogue amongst environmental activists, scientists, native people, and people like me whose roots here only go back for four or five generations. It was a day to talk about environmental issues close to home, a day for grieving and for planning, a day to seek common ground as we discussed ways to heal our relationship with the land.

We began early in the morning, with people of all ages trailing into the auditorium one at a time, clutching cups of coffee or pieces for fruit. A young man disappeared into the men's room, and emerged in his traditional clothing, long fabric strings swaying from his chest and shoulders as he moved up the aisle and took his place at the microphone. In the tradition of the native people in this area, we began with the words that come before all else, words of thanksgiving. He gave thanks to the sun, the moon, the stars, thanks to the plants and creatures, thanks to the waters and the fish, thanks to the trees, the winds, and the thunderers. Thanksgiving was a common theme through the workshops and talking circles; over and over again, native elders kept stressing this need to be thankful.

PlantsWoman gave a talk about what ecologists call the restoration ecosystem, describing what this landscape looked like before Europeans settled here, when the land was managed by the native people who had lived here for thousands of years. After her careful descriptions of the plants and animals, we could just imagine the park-like forests, the meadows full of deer that the natives had formed through controlled burning, and the lake filled with fish and water clean enough to drink.

How difficult then, to end the day with scientists, lawyers, and native elders giving us the current facts about the lake that is now regarded as the most polluted lake in the country, with levels of toxins at such high levels that the data they read from the EPA documents seemed like the stuff of a horror movie. The lake, a body of water considered sacred by native people, was used as an industrial dumping ground in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continues to act as a sewer for Snowstorm City. My father swam in the lake when he was a boy, but swimming was banned in 1940 as a health hazard. I have never swum in Polluted Sacred Lake, and my children never have either. In fact, when we drive by, they roll up the windows because they can't stand the smell.

A very recently announced plan to clean up Polluted Sacred Lake, a plan that came about as a result of litigation, seems to be little more than a token effort intended to appease the public. Rather than removing the toxins from the bottom of the lake, the plan calls for a cap to be installed. Caps have not been proven to work in the short term, and most certainly, a cap of any material that sits underneath water will not work in the long term. Eventually, it will erode and the toxins will leach into the lake. As one of the native elders said about the clean-up plan: "It is a cover-up that dumps the problem into the laps of our grandchildren."

At the very end of the day, a young man approached the microphone. He is the son of a chief, a young man whose relatives have lived here for thousands of years, a people so integrated into the landscape that the lake we were discussing bears their name. When asked, "What is a reasonable timeline for cleaning up the lake?" he said simply, "This is our home. We have always lived here. I live here, my children will live here, my grandchildren will live here. We are not leaving. We must clean up the lake, however long it takes." His father, when asked earlier in the day what he wanted for the lake, had said simply, "We want to be able to eat the fish, drink the water."

And yet, as we sat in the auditorium, looking at the depressing statistics about the toxins in the lake, it was hard to even imagine that any of our descendents would be able to even swim in the lake, no less drink the water that came from that lake. PlantsWoman and I looked at each other, and sighed. Then above the somber mood in the room, the young man began talking into the auditorium, low words in his hash-sounding native language, words that I recognized from that morning. Words of thanks.

The words that come before all else.

October 19, 2006

Morning break

woods

The middle of October is the middle of fall semester, a busy time on campus. Students are sleep-deprived and miserable from taking difficult tests. Faculty, tired of grading papers and planning classes, are caught in the crunch that comes with deadlines for conference proposals, research grants, and spring semester planning. Everyone has a head cold. Meetings are filled with arguments and lethargy. And on top of everything else, the days keeping getting shorter and colder.

Working at home this morning, I looked around at the piles on the floor of my office and decided that what I needed was a walk in my own woods.

It was a smart decision. As soon as I stepped from our back meadow onto the trail, I could smell the richness of fallen leaves. My woods have no spectacular vistas, but the bright yellow gold leaves mixed with the green of the conifers and the occasional bright orange-red of a maple turn the flat trails into colorful pathways. As I crunched loudly over dead leaves and twigs, a deer bounded out of the brush ahead of me, leaping gracefully away, the white flag of her tail high in the air as she disappeared from sight. I stopped a few times to take photos, but mainly I just wandered aimlessly about, enjoying the cool autumn air, admiring the brilliant green mosses that covered every log and stump. After an hour in the fresh, damp air, I felt ready to tackle the to-do list on my desk.

October 17, 2006

Dressed like an academic

It was a presentation at a national conference, and everyone else on the panel would be wearing a suit. So I pulled out my one professional outfit – black pants and a blazer. And a long black coat. My black coat is a hand-me-up from Urban Sophisticate Sister, whose cast-off clothes are still far nicer than anything I own. As I got dressed, it felt funny to be putting on this outfit at home, instead of in a hotel room. This year the conference was being held in Snowstorm City, at a conference center within walking distance of my campus office.

Of course, once I was dressed, I had to leave the house. I have seven cats, and black pants have this special magnetism that attracts cat hairs, much the way my skin attracts poison ivy juice. I knew if I spent any time lounging around the house, taking the time perhaps to figure out what I was going to say for the presentation, or hanging out and eating breakfast, that I would I end up looking like a crazy cat lady.

So I went to campus to do a few hours of work before it was time to walk over to the conference. As I walked through the library to my office, I noticed students and colleagues giving me sympathetic looks. It was a little strange. Why was everyone feeling sorry for me? I looked down to see if there was anything particularly pathetic about my appearance. Was I covered in cat hairs? No. Was I trailing toilet paper? No. Had I made the mistake of getting chalk on my hands and then wiping them on myself so that I had handprints on my butt? No.

It's true that my students and colleagues are used to seeing me dressed in jeans, but that does not account for the way they greeted me with somber head tilts instead of the usual cheery hellos. Perhaps they thought it was sad to see me dressed like an academic instead of a tree-hugging, peace-loving, feminist hippie poet.

Then finally one colleague said something that made it all clear. "Going to a wake?"

Yeah. My looking-like-an-academic outfit is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same outfit I wear to funerals.

October 16, 2006

Aerobic grading

One thing I hate about grading papers is that it's sedentary work. And sedentary pursuits don't ever do much for my mood. Stacking firewood, mowing the lawn, shovelling snow, gardening, or working on trails are chores that force me outside and put me in a happier mood. Sitting at a desk indoors grading papers makes me feel like a slug. Really, I think I was meant to be a farmer and not an academic.

So with this last batch of essays I had to grade, I tricked myself. I left my computer downstairs, and I carried the essays up to my daughter's bedroom. Her small room is the only neat, clean room in the house, the one place where I won't be tempted to do housework. So I sat on her bed under black-and-white posters of Paris, looked across at the books lined up neatly on her white bookshelf, glanced at the fall foliage outside her windows, and graded essays.

Normally, I take a break after each essay to check my email, surf blogs, or get a snack. Yes, I take a break after EACH essay. Pathetic but true. But because I was upstairs, every single time I wanted to take a break, I found myself going down the stairs – checking my email, grabbing a snack – and then running back up the stairs. By the time I was done grading all sixty essays, I had run up and down the stairs sixty times.

No, it didn't make the grading any faster, but it did make me feel less like a slug.

October 15, 2006

Firelight and birthday cake

Since Friday was With-a-Why's birthday, both of my older kids came home for the weekend, with a bunch of extras joining us as well. Friday night, they jammed, filling the house with music, and Saturday afternoon was reserved for games of Ultimate Frisbee. The weather has turned cold – we had snow Thursday night – and it was time to root through the winter clothes for long underwear and fleece hats. As the kids came in from playing frisbee, their faces were bright red from the wind.

It wasn't a formal birthday party, but we did gather near the fireplace for cake and a candle ceremony. It was a combined candle ceremony, since both Skater Boy and With-a-Why had birthdays this week. It seemed, too, as I looked around the room, that the ritual marked the transition from sunny outdoor days to the cozy indoor weather of late fall and winter.

FirstExtra and Blonde Niece, still cold from playing Ultimate Frisbee, were fighting for places near the red hot coals and crackling flames. With-a-Why was snuggled on the couch between Shaggy Hair Boy and my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter, all three holding hot bowls of homemade vegetable soup. Pirate Boy drowsed in the comfy chair nearest the fire, while Boy in Black balanced on the arm of the chair, strumming a guitar, his foot on the wooden kitchen chair that Skater Boy was sitting on. Sailor Boy sat astride the piano bench just behind Spouse, who was brandishing a knife with which he was going to cut the cake. Older Neighbor Boy, lead singer for the Pseudonymous Boy Band, set down his microphone to come sit on the oak bench that we use as a coffee table, completing the circle.

Since it was daylight, we didn't light twelve different candles, but instead just passed a beeswax candle from person to person, each of us saying something nice about the two birthday kids, With-a-Why and Skater Boy. Of course, even when it's not dark, most of the teenage boys are still able to hide their faces with just a shake of their long hair – and hide their emotions with jokes and funny lines – but despite the silliness, the room was warm with firelight and affection.

October 14, 2006

Gmail is forever

When I in college, I can remember writing SWAK on the flap of an envelope: Sealed With A Kiss. As my tongue brushed the sharp edges of the envelope, I could imagine that I was sending a kiss through the mail, a kiss my boyfriend would get a few days later. I have boxes of old love letters in my basement, many of the envelopes bearing that acronym. And I have the letters my mother sent me while I was in college, many with scotch tape still clinging to the edges because I used to tape the funny ones on my door for my friends to read. I've got the letters my father send me to, a series of dashes and dots written on yellow legal paper, because he liked to send letters in Morse Code. I've got a whole stack of letters written on familiar blue airmail sheets from the semester I lived in London. Someday, I'll look through those letters to get a glimpse of my life and who I was at that age.

I wonder what young people do now to indicate that an email they've sent is a love letter. Is there some acronym they can put in the subject line? Perhaps TWAC? Typed With a Caress? Or SWLS? Sent With Loving Strokes? I think fingers touching a keyboard could invoke a loving image the way that lips touching an envelope might, but it really doesn't lend itself to a catchy acronym.

But the strangest thing, I think, is that my kids won't come home from college next May with boxes of letters to be put in the basement. Emails are easily deleted, and instant messages disappear the same day they are typed. Saved emails last only as long as the computer, and the life span of the average computer seems to be decreasing all the time. Text messages are deleted with a quick touch minutes after they've been sent.

My instinct is to save words, to fold them into bundles, store them in boxes, archiving the relationships in my life. So it makes me nervous to think of all the emails we write -- some serious, some silly, some heartfelt -- disappearing almost as they've been read.

October 13, 2006

The Comfort Meme

Here's the Friday Five meme from the RevGalBlogPals.

1. Comfort beverage: Herbal tea. I put a square of dark chocolate on my tongue, then take a big gulp of hot tea, and let the chocolate melt in my mouth. Mmmm....

2. Comfort chair: I hike back in my woods to a fallen tree, which makes a nice place to sit and think about life.

3. Comfort read: Books written for young people. Especially books written in other time periods, like the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace or the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

4. Comfort television/DVD/music: It would never occur to me to turn on the television for comfort. I watch very little television, and even then, only because someone else has turned it on. The only time I can ever remember watching television by myself is on September 11, 2001. I was home alone, and my mother called and told me to put the television on.

I don't really have comfort music either although the CD that I have listened to many times when I am sad is Joni Mitchell's Blue.

5. Comfort companion(s): My husband. He's a really calm, stable person, very comforting and reassuring. And my daughter is wonderful to be around when I am feeling down. But I also can be cheered up my sons, my extended family, my friends. I even get long distance comfort by exchanging emails with Artist Friend or Mirror Friend.

October 12, 2006

Why I am still not done grading those papers

Beach

Because winter is coming.
Because each sunny day must be savored.
Because in October, this part of the country is beautiful.

October 10, 2006

Empty

A couple of months ago, my mother-in-law moved into an assisted-living facility. The home she lived in for 47 years, the house that my husband lived in from the time he was born until after he graduated from college, needs to be sold. So a few weeks ago, my husband and his brother began cleaning the house out, keeping a few boxes of sentimental things such as photographs, but mostly packing everything else up to be donated or dumped.

They spent a weekend sorting through piles of papers, emptying out drawers and closets and cupboards. They came across old toys, school papers, Christmas ornaments made in elementary school, a wedding album. The old house is filled with memories – some happy, some painful, some sad – memories stretching back across my husband's lifetime.

My first visit to that house was in 1978, when my husband and I began dating. So I have memories from the last 28 years, especially the holidays when our children were little. On Christmas Eve, we used to go with my in-laws to Midnight Mass and then return to the quiet house to open presents. Many Sunday afternoons, we stopped to visit my husband's parents so they would have a chance to see their grandchildren. We'd sit around the kitchen table and my mother-in-law would pour cups of soda.

My father-in-law has been dead for nine years, but I well remember the time he and I were put in charge of taping a soap opera for my sister-in-law when she was at work. They didn't have a VCR – this was more than twenty years ago – so we were using a cassette tape. We decided that she was missing the visual element and took it upon ourselves to describe what we saw on the screen. "Oh, that was a SIGNIFICANT glance, don't you think?" Neither of us could resist mocking everything we saw. We amused ourselves so much with our witty descriptions that the tape was filled mostly with laughter. I recall that my sister-in-law was not particularly amused.

The house is quiet now. The marks on the ceiling where the Christmas tree always stood will be painted over. The bedroom my husband shared with his brother is empty. The dents on the living room carpet show where the furniture used to be -- the couch, the chair in the corner, and the television stand. The flower garden that my father-in-law tended so carefully has long since become a bed of weeds, and the backyard where the kids once played whiffle ball is now just a mown lawn of green.

The house is bare. The closets, the cupboards, even the entire basement.

Empty.

October 09, 2006

Mountains, waterfalls, and a full moon

Mountaintop

In October in the mountains, the weather changes very quickly. As my friends and I drove north for our weekend together, we compared notes and realized we'd packed everything from winter coats to bathing suits. You never know what you might need this time of year.

That night we wore winter coats as we crowded around a crackling campfire, putting our feet on the rocks near the flames to keep warm. On the coldest night, we drove into the nearest town to eat in a warm restaurant filled with local people. Long Beautiful Hair insisted that we shoot a few games of pool, and we ended up staying for hours, laughing and screaming so much as we played that none of the men in the bar dared approach us and challenge us for the table. Yes, we are an intimidating group. (One man who knew Long Beautiful Hair did come over to us before he left to say, "Give me a call if you need bail money.")

The nights were chilly, but the days were sunny. On Saturday morning, we climbed a mountain, stripping off sweatshirts as we walked, warm despite the thick shade of the woods. Once we reached the summit, we found a ledge of bare rock overlooking the mountains and lakes, and we lounged there for an hour or more, eating food we had carried up with us. The sun on the rock was so hot by then that several of us stripped down to our underwear so that we could stretch out and feel the sun on our bare skin for perhaps the last time this year.

Lady bugs seemed to find all that bare skin an invitation, and I had to keep sitting up to brush the lady bugs off my arms and legs. We all tried to figure out whether the lady bugs were symbols of good luck -- or just annoying.

That evening, we gathered on the dock to look across a still lake that reflected radiance from the full moon. A mist lingered just above the water's surface. In the early morning, we stretched out on the same dock to warm our bodies in the morning sun and splash lake water on our faces. We drank hot tea or coffee while we watched the way the ripples in the lake sent waves of light through the bright yellow leaves of the trees.

On Sunday, we hiked to several waterfalls. One waterfall sprayed all kinds of mist that clung to our eyelashes and turned the morning sun into a rainbow. We decided to just hang out at that waterfall for awhile, since there were rocks to climb, side trails to explore, and sunny ledges perfect for sitting and talking. Churning water is a wonderful backdrop to a good conversation.

All weekend, Signing Woman kept pointing out wildlife – a garter snake slithering across a mossy path, deer browsing at the edge of the road, a red-tailed hawk soaring below us as we looked down from a mountain summit, a fox darting back into the woods, and a pair of owls calling in the moonlight. Long Beautiful Hair took us to places she had played as a child – the beach she'd swum at with all her siblings, the woods they camped in, the sand dunes where she'd had her first crush. We went canoeing, we hiked, we built fires.

Mostly, though, we talked. Whether we were playing pool, or eating a meal, or paddling canoes, or sitting in the sun, or climbing a mountain, or hiking a trail, or throwing sticks off a bridge, or sitting around a campfire, we were mostly deep into conversations. We talked about relationships and kids and jobs. We talked about childhood memories and careers and sex. Some of the time, we joked around and acted silly, and got into ridiculous conversations that made us all laugh. But just as often, the conversations were serious, as we took the time to think about ourselves and nurture our friendships with each other.

Shoreline

My friends dancing on the shore.

October 06, 2006

Time for friendship

seventhlake

We'll climb a mountatin on Saturday, a long hike that will include finding a rock in the sun where we can sit lazily, admire the bright foliage, and talk. We might walk a labyrinth. If it gets warm enough, we'll go skinny dipping.

We'll eat and drink, talking furiously at every meal. We'll have a full moon ceremony. Definitely, there will be wild dancing. Some of us will talk late into the night, like teenagers at a pajama party. Perhaps by morning, bras will dangle at the hearth.

I'm off to the mountains again, this time with a group of women friends. We do this every year. We leave partners, kids, and work to spend a weekend together. Because winter will come soon, and we have to enjoy this wonderful fall weather. And because we all think that time spent nurturing ourselves and our friendships is time well spent.

October 05, 2006

Mountain memories

MountainRoad

The mountains are stunningly beautiful in October. Even the roads, winding through tree-covered mountains, are pretty. With most of the summer crowds gone, we saw all kinds of wildlife: white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and a fox. When I go the mountains with my parents, though, we are returning for more than just the sheer beauty of the bright leaves and small lakes. We return for the wild parts of the mountains, the big tracts of land protected by the state where wildlife is free to roam, but also for the human memories.

One of our stops was at the campsite where we spent so many summer weekends in the 1960s: two other families usually joined us so whoever got there first saved three campsites near each other, along the back road with the woods behind us. The twelve of us kids would climb rocks, run around in the trees, and beg the parents to take us to the beach. My mother still remembers the time that one of the woman in the campsite went into use bathroom and came out of a stall to find a black bear roaming about near the sinks. In those days, a handful of campers used to gather at the town dump at dusk to watch black bears pick through the garbage, eating junk food that campers would toss them. I well remember the shivers of anticipation as we would stand on the dirt-covered hill and watch for the first dark bodies to come lumbering out of the woods.

We stopped at the camp that Kindergarten Friend's family owns, a cottage on the shore of one of the bigger lakes, a place I visited during my childhood. They've built another camp, but otherwise, everything has stayed the same. The general store, where we bought Seek-a-Word books, is still operating. And the shady pine woods where we played, looping yarn around the trees, attaching notes to the yarn, and pulling it back and forth in some complicated game, look just the same.

Of course, my father's memories of the mountain go back farther than mine or my mother's. During summers in the 1950s, he worked as a musician at one of the resorts. As we drove around the small mountain towns, he told stories about each building we passed. "That front part there was the barroom. I used to play singles there."

Some of the old hotels are still standing, some still operating. On our annual tour, we parked wherever we felt like it, usually in sunny driveways covered with pine needles, and wandered around. My father would point out where the musicians would set up, fifty years ago, and where the staff quarters were. "There used to be a Boy Scout camp across the way," he said, "and every night at dusk, someone would walk out on the dock and play taps." I could imagine just how haunting that would sound, the notes of music coming across the water.

Of course, in small towns, the locals don't always like strangers coming to gawk. At one place, an older man walked out, gave us a meaningful look, and said in a cold voice, "May I help you?"

My father looked over at the man. "I worked here in the 1950s. I was one of the boys from the Wood Hotel."

It is funny how those words changed everything. Immediately, the man relaxed. He and my father lapsed into a series of reminiscing and catching up -- what happened where, who ran which resort, and who was still alive. As they talked, I could just picture what the small mountain town was like in the 1950s with rich people from the city staying at these elegant resorts, dressing for dinner, dancing into the night. And the staff -- the musicians, the waiters, the kitchen help -- working hard all evening and then taking off in the middle of the night for their own adventures on the dark back road along the lake.

Over the years, we've met any number of staff who worked in the mountains during the 1950s and who still talked fondly of those days, some returning to live in the mountains, some returning their for camping or hiking or boating every summer. I've often wondered about the rich families who stayed in those resorts and whether or not they, all these years later, have that same attachment to the mountains where they spent summers eating the food that was prepared for them, sleeping on the beds carefully made up for them, and dancing to the music my father and his friends provided.

October 04, 2006

Early morning on the lake

morningfog

In the mountains, we stayed at an inn that was so old that the floors in the hallways were buckled and uneven, like the weird floors at a funhouse that make you feel silly when you walk. And the plumbing, added years after the inn was built, was sometimes suspect. But the big fireplace in the lobby, the comfy chairs and mulled cider that awaited us when we came in to sit near the fire, and the magnificent view of a mountain lake made any of those minor flaws seem inconsequential.

When I stay overnight somewhere, especially if I am on the water, I love to get up early in the morning to walk the shoreline. No one else was around at dawn as I walked past empty docks and cottages that have been closed for the winter. It was chilly -- I was wearing both a fleece and my winter coat -- and my sneakers were soon wet from the dew. A thick fog was draped across the mountains, muting the reds and oranges, a soft landscape that grew more brilliant as the sun rose.

Mountain Lake

SeventhLake

As I drove home from spending a couple days in the mountains, I began counting how many lakes I had seen and realized that there were too many to count. Lakes are everywhere in these mountains, from long lakes with finger-like coves to small shallow lakes. Some of the small lakes could be mistaken for ponds if not for that small brown official sign giving it some sort of wildly original name like Fifth Lake. The woods are especially beautiful this time of year, when whole trees turn bright red or whole groves bright yellow, and whole branches of bright red-orange glow vividly against the dark green conifers, but almost every trail has as its destination a glimpse of a lake. Trails up mountains lead inevitably to a bare rock where hikers can sit down to rest and look down at a lake. Even the road winds its way close to the edge of lake after lake, as most of the camps, summer cottages, and old inns are clustered along lake shores.

It seems somehow that humans are drawn to bodies of water. When I am hiking, I love the smell of pine needles and fallen leaves, and I enjoy the spectacular foliage and the green mosses and ferns along the trail edges, but somehow, I am always looking for the nearest lake. There is something wonderful about coming out of the shady, thick woods and seeing an expanse of still water that reflects the sky, the trees, and the mountains.

October 02, 2006

Off to the mountains

Every fall, I take a day to drive to the mountains with my parents. It's our tradition to visit the mountains in October, when the trees are bright with red, orange, and gold, the deciduous trees gorgeous against the dark green conifers. We drive by the old inn where my father worked as a musician during summers in the 1950s, the places we camped at during my childhood in the 1960s, the lake I used to visit with Kindergarten Friend, and the campground I've come to as an adult with my husband and children. We hike some trails and have a picnic by one of the gorgeous mountain lakes, and my parents tell stories about the time they've spent in these mountains.

This year, thanks to Yom Kippur falling on a Monday, I am able to take two days for our annual trip and we are going to stay overnight at same inn where my parents once celebrated one of their wedding anniversaries. That will gives us two full days to hike, talk, picnic, and enjoy the brilliant foliage.

October 01, 2006

Home from College

Our household has adjusted to being smaller and quieter. With my two oldest off at college, Shaggy Hair Boy has assumed the role of oldest child, the responsible one who feeds the cats and locks the doors at night, the person who calms his mother down when her computer goes berserk. Boy in Black is not much for chatting on the phone like his sister will, but he talks to his brothers online and often stops home on Wednesdays after his drum lesson. And both kids meet me for lunch on Fridays.

My Beautiful Wonderful Smart Daughter will chat about her classes and her friends and her plans for next semester, which will be spent in London. Sometimes she will call me on the phone to talk to me about a story she is writing, or to tell me what is going on with a friend. She is already looking ahead to grad school and a career. She's been home to do things like gather documents so that she can get her passport.

Boy in Black is quieter. When asked about his classes, he shrugs. Even though he is taking upper level science courses, he finds the work easy so far and is puzzled that his classmates keep complaining how hard it is. He had planned to major in chemistry, but now he is thinking of shifting to physics. "I love the stuff we do in organic chemistry lecture," he said, "but I don't like the labs. The thing is -- I don't really care about chemicals." Well, I guess that's a good reason not to become a chemist.

"Are you learning anything in college?" I asked.

"I'm learning tons," he said, "in Ultimate Frisbee." His whole body became animated as he talked about the Ultimate Frisbee team – the practices, the drills, and the tournament they went to in Bison City. He rattled off sentences full of Ultimate Frisbee jargon, and he pulled a frisbee out of his backpack to demonstrate ten different ways to throw. The other night the team practiced for hours in the rain and cold. Apparently, he's found a whole group of young people who are just as fanatical about the sport as he is.

Both brother and sister have told me how nice it is to be on the same campus. "I think I've seen Sister every day," Boy in Black said. When we have lunch together, they tease each other affectionately and joke around. They are both adults now, but they will still act like kids, racing to see who gets the front seat of the car if we decide to drive somewhere. They eat lunch together every Tuesday, Boy in Black told me.

This weekend, my daughter went out of town to visit a friend, and Boy in Black decided to come home overnight. Even though most of his high school friends are off at college, he still managed to gather a dozen kids for a big Ultimate Frisbee game, teaching his brothers and extras all the new throws and moves he's learned. Even after it had been raining for a few hours, and all the other kids had drifted into the house to wrap beach towels around their wet, muddy bodies and huddle near the fire to get warm, Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair stayed out in the field, tossing a frisbee back and forth as it grew dark.

By night time, the house was filled with music. The Pseudonymous Boy Band was playing the same songs they've always played, happy to have their leader back. Blonde Niece suggested we order pizza and the group of kids hung out by the fire, eating and joking around. When Boy in Black sprawled out on the couch, With-a-Why, worn out from playing Ultimate Frisbee with the older kids, snuggled up to his big brother and fell asleep.