November 30, 2006

You better watch out

Late Thursday afternoons, it's dark as I drive With-a-Why home from his piano lesson, and today we noticed that some homes had Christmas lights already. Ironically, the warmer the weather is at Thanksgiving, the more likely people are to put up lights. It's understandable that people are more willing to get out the ladders and staple guns when they don't have to trudge through snowdrifts and fight icy winds, but to me, Christmas lights look strange and out of place when there is no snow. Oh, we are sure to get some snow eventually, but right now we are having an unusual warm spell and the houses that still have their Halloween decorations up look more in keeping with the season.

As we turned onto one street, With-a-Why gasped in horror and said, "Look!"

The houses on the street were mostly dark, since most people were still at work. A strong wind was blowing dead leaves across the lawns and shaking the mailboxes. In almost every front yard stood a huge inflatable Santa. Not just life-size, larger than life. These huge floating Santas appeared to be tethered in some way as they bobbed in the wind, looming over anything human-sized. White beards and weird smiles glowed in the dark, high above our car. Maybe if the figures were nestled into snowbanks, they would seem cheery and Christmassy but that was not the effect here at all. This was creepy. It was if some kind of evil Santa had cloned himself and was poised to take over the world.

And it got worse. At the edge of one house, glowing white and even creepier, shining in the streetlight, was a gigantic snowman with an evil grin, bobbing up in the cold November wind, high above mailboxes and trash cans. Remember the scene in the Ghostbusters movie in which the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man was threatening to destroy the city? Exactly. like. that.

I just know this is going to give me nightmares.

November 29, 2006

My Christmas tree philosophy

I've always argued that a Christmas tree is supposed to look like a Christmas tree; that is, a tree decorated by all sorts of family members, including little kids who hang ornaments in the strangest places, and kittens who knock stuff off so that you have red balls rolling around in the manger scene. A Christmas tree is supposed to be lopsided because that's how you know it's a real tree. I mean, why would anyone want to buy a tree that looks artificial? And a Christmas tree is supposed to be covered with a strange assortment of decorations that don't match each other because they've been given to you by all different people, each ornament with a story and a history to go with it. The best parts of any tree is the homemade stuff: my parents' tree still holds tacky deocrations that I made in elementary school as well as ornaments made by their grandchildren. You can tell a lot about a family by looking closely at what hangs on the Christmas tree.

I have never understood friends who want try to coordinate the ornaments of their tree or who want their tree to look good. Oh, I still talk to these friends, and even go to holiday parties at their houses, but I don't understand them. At all. I mean, if what you want is an aesthetically pleasing tree, if beauty is what you are after, than I recommend that you leave that tree out in the farmer's field where you got it in the first place. No amount of tinsel or artificial lights can possible come close to the way a snow-covered tree looks on a sunny afternoon in December, with ice crystals shining from the green needles, with acres of trees and a whole golden-white pasture stretched out behind it.

To me, Christmas trees are like snow forts or sand castles or art projects: the fun part, the worthwhile part, the creative part, is the process of getting the tree and decorating it. The finished product is not what matters.

Some of my most treasured childhood holiday memories are from the exciting day in December when we would finally go get our Christmas tree. We'd get dressed in our winter clothes, with boots and hats and mittens, cram in to the station wagon, and drive out to an old farm, where we'd spend an hour or so tramping around in the fields, looking for just the right tree. We'd argue about which tree looked the best, and we'd knock the snow off the branches to see how thick the branches were, and my father would always stand next to the tree with his arm up, saying, "Look, gang, this is where the ceiling is."

My father would cut a tree down, and we'd have the excitement of carrying the tree, all of us helping, across the snowbanks. We'd stand in the barn, drinking hot chocolate and getting warm, before piling into the back of the station wagon, us kids clinging to the tree so that it wouldn't fall out. Seat belts hadn't been invented yet, and it was an exciting ride home, hanging onto those prickly branches, breathing in that spruce smell, and wondering if we were all going to go flying out the back of the car.

We always ended up with a tree way too big – because a tree that looks small out in the field suddenly become much bigger in a living room – and my father would cut off the top to make it fit, and so our trees never had that kind of shape you see in Christmas cards. We often ended up with a tree that would list to one side, as if it had been drinking too much eggnog, but my father would solve the problem by tying wires to the top and attaching them to curtain rods. Perhaps the best part is how great the whole house always smelled, that pine scent of the woods filling up the rooms. The tree stood in the corner of the living room, and my brother and I would crawl back behind the tree, where the thick green branches made a secret hiding spot.

Supper was always homemade chili over rice, and afterwards we would decorate the tree. My father would put on some Christmas music. My mother would open the big cardboard box of ornaments and pass them to us kids. She would stop and talk about her favorite ornaments sometimes, or tell stories from her own childhood. We'd stand on kitchen chairs to reach the top of the tree, and I always insisted on hanging some ornaments in the back of the tree, even though no one could see them. There was often some kind of big argument about whether or not to put on tinsel, but my mother loved tinsel and her side always won. The room was dimly lit by the glow of the big, colored Christmas tree lights that made the ornaments and tinsel shimmer.

It took all weekend really, getting the tree, decorating it, setting up the village under the tree, putting out the manger scene, and then finally, taking time to admire our work. My father would say, "Look at it from this angle!" and he'd lay down on the floor under the tree. And we'd all lay down, bumping our heads under the tree. That is still one of my favorite ways to look a Christmas tree, staring up at the swaying tinsel as it moves and catches the light.

November 28, 2006

Dating Advice

One of my blogging friends recently asked on her blog for dating advice. Of course, I was tempted to fill dozens of her comment boxes. I do so love to give advice. But then I figured, heck, since she reads my blog, I might as well put it here.

Of course, I haven't had a date myself in over two decades. You might think that should disqualify me from dispensing advice, but really it's not my fault that my high quality dating skills led me to a solid marriage that has lasted this long. And I've been studying this whole dating thing for years and years. My friends love to entertain me with funny stories of dates gone wrong, so I have heard enough about bad dates to qualify me as some kind of dating anthropologist. And hey, I did take a psychology course in college about dating – honestly, I did – so I believe that gives me some kind of credentials.

I can sum about my advice about dating in a simple sentence: don't think of it as dating.

See, the minute you call something dating, you bring in all this dreadful cultural baggage. All kinds of weird, arbitrary, and convoluted rules, hammered out by patriarchy and set in formica by television shows in the 1950s. All kinds of expectations and pressures that no one, absolutely no one, can live up to. The minute you call something a date, you doom it to failure. Suddenly, your life turns into a sitcom. And that is never a good thing.

It's a bit like the advice MentorPoet gave me the first time we read at a poetry reading together. He wanted me to open with a funny poem, and I was nervous about reading a funny poem to a cold audience. I mean, what if they didn't laugh? What if they didn't find me funny? It seemed like an awful lot of pressure.

He told me the trick: don't think of it as a funny poem. That way, you won't expect them to laugh. Just get into the poem and read it like you are totally serious.

That simple piece of advice removed all pressure. After that, I never minded reading a funny poem. I just get into character – that is, just an exaggerated version of me, which is really not a character at all – and read the poem as if I am completely serious. I drop any expectations. If the audience laughs – and usually they do – it's great, but if they don't, it doesn't matter. Either way, I've performed the poem successfully.

The same thing applies to dating. If it's not a date, there is no pressure. If two people go on a picnic together, eating some nice food, enjoying a natural area, and spending time chatting, then they can both return home feeling good about themselves. It was a good picnic! A nice afternoon!

But if it's a date, the whole thing never ends with a simple nice feeling. No! That apparently is against the official dating rules. The nice feeling of a pleasant afternoon dissolves immediately under a surge of dating questions: did she like me? did I talk enough? did I talk too much? should I have kissed him? what will this lead to? do I want to see her again? what did she mean by that? should I wait for her to call? should I send a text message? was I chewing too loudly? should I have worn my contact lenses? are we compatible? is she smart enough? am I smart enough? did I act stupid?

The dating questions are followed closely by a round of date-doubt, designed to grind away any last bits of self-esteem that may have survived the first round of questions : I know I talked too much. I shouldn't have told that joke. She didn't laugh. I think there may have been something weird about him. It's been three hours and she hasn't called. I don't think she is going to call. Did I remember to give him my phone number? Did I look too eager? Was there spinach in my teeth?

Within an hour of the date, all pleasant feelings have been overtaken by a spiral of questions that get increasingly more desperate and hopeless, a situation that can be remedied only with slabs of chocolate and a long phone call to a friend.

So yeah, if I were single, I would just avoid the dating thing altogether and continue to nurture friendships. I mean, it's always fun to meet someone new, get to know them, spend some time together eating a meal or taking a hike or going to a museum. Perhaps one of the reason I love to get to know people and make new friends is that I've been married for 22 years so I never have that pressure of being on a date.

Of course, Hollywood tell us that without dates, no one ever lives happily ever after. I mean, the movie romance is love-at-first-sight, right? I have known couples, quite a few, actually, who have had an initial intense attraction, a romantic encounter that begins with a bunch of dates and leads to sex within a month or two, and feels like true love. But rarely does that lead to happily-ever-after. From what I've seen, love at first sight usually means, "Hey, I've found someone with whom I can work out my childhood issues." Once the first happy year of infatuation and sex are over, the couple is headed for fights, tension, therapy, or some kind of dramatic breakup. I'm not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing – you can learn a lot from being in a relationship with someone just like an emotionally unavailable parent – but it does seem like Hollywood leaves out a whole lot.

From what I've seen, friendships are the best route into romantic relationships that have promise. Of course that brings up the question everyone always asks: will sexual attraction eventually surface even without the ritual of dating? That seems always to me a silly question. I would argue that sexual attraction is such a powerful force that most dating rituals in our culture have been designed to keep it in check, rather than the opposite. I don't think it takes stupid dating rituals to stir hormones into action. I'd say, that if you are close friends with someone who is available and compatible, and sparks aren't flying, that's a sign that you have some emotional work to do before you are ready for a relationship.

And if sparks are going to fly, if chemistry is going to happen, if stars are going to collide, if all the falling-in-love cliches are going to happen, it's nice when it happens between two people who are already friends, who already know and respect and care for each other.

November 26, 2006

Another Kind of Turkey

My youngest son, With-a-Why, is a shy child, so I try to encourage him whenever he shows any interest in extra-curricular activities. When he came home last week with a flyer advertising a bowling tournament for kids, I was surprised at his eagerness because he has gone bowling maybe four times in his life, but of course, I signed him up. He spends so much time with high school and college students that I welcome any chance for him to spend a morning with kids his own age. As we drove to the bowling alley, I told him the story of how his grandfather used to work setting up pins in a bowling alley when he was a teenager, a noisy job that probably did permanent damage to his ear drums.

Although the name had changed, the bowling alley was the same place where I used to bowl every Friday afternoon in seventh grade. We used to walk from school, right after lunch, and bowl three games, then make it back in time for the school buses. I was a painfully shy kid, just like With-a-Why, and bowling is a good sport for shy kids. You have to keep moving around, because everyone is taking turns, and the alley is so noisy from the crashing pins that no one will really notice if you don't talk much.

Some things in the familiar bowling alley had changed. The scores are done electronically now. I missed the little table with the warm light, the big pieces of paper, and the little yellow pencils. Keeping score was always a good role for a shy child. But everything else seemed the same: the smell of french fries, the racks of black balls, the worn rows of red, white, and blue shoes. Honestly, I don't think they've replaced a single pair of shoes since I was a kid.

The strangest change – and this came as a total surprise – is that bowling seems to have turned into a "boy sport." Over a hundred kids, all between fourth and sixth grade, had signed up for the tournament and yet I counted only five girls in the crowd. When I was a kid, everyone bowled, both girls and boys, and I can remember accompanying my daughter to several birthday parties at bowling alleys. I cannot even begin to guess why there were so few girls. Were they all off at Club Libby Lu, learning to walk in high heels and dress pretty? Was the lack of girls another result of the gender stereotypes unconsciously enforced by younger parents these days? Is bowling, like skiing and snowboarding, like practically every fun sport in our school district, somehow not "girly" enough? Are the parents worried about how their little girls will look in the ugly bowling shoes? How frustrating that even informal sporting events are dominated by boys.

The etiquette of the bowling alley hasn't changed. Parents and grandparents milled about on the carpeted areas or sat at tables eating french fries while the kids got the plastic seats right up near the polished wood lanes. Several of the boys in With-a-Why's lane seemed like experienced bowlers, hitting strike after strike, giving me the impression they had been living in bowling alleys since they were very small. I talked to one boy's grandmother, and she confirmed that yes, her grandson had gone bowling every week for the last seven years. The expertise of his peers did not bother With-a-Why at all, who focused only on his own game, happy as long as he hit down any pins at all. Between turns, he came over to talk to me or to Boy in Black, who had come along to cheer him on. As he grew more comfortable with the situation, he talked quietly to Sparkly Eyes, the shyest of the eight boys.

Sparkly Eyes asked my assistance in buying french fries and shot me shy smiles when I clapped for him but said very little else. ("Mom!" Boy in Black said to me quietly, "You don't clap at bowling alleys. You just don't.") But for the most part, the kids ignored the parents and grandparents completely, acting as if they were invisible. This behavior seemed entirely normal to me, in keeping with what I remembered from my childhood. Of course, the exception was Boy in Black, who was treated by the kids like a celebrity – and an expert on bowling, which he most certainly is not. Apparently, a long-haired teenage boy, half-asleep and dressed in an old black band t-shirt, is way cooler than a parent or grandparent.

Some things don't change.

November 25, 2006


Lake in November

Holiday weekends in my family often include a walk at Pretty Colour Lakes, a nearby state park. Today was unseasonably warm for November, sunny and in the 40s, so of course, we went for a walk around the lakes, tramping along paths lined with cedar trees. Well, some of us walked; Urban Sophisticate Sister, who runs marathons, chose to run around the lakes. She is not someone who moves in slow motion.

My father reminisced how when he was a boy, his family drove to this park in a Model T. He'd have a blanket and pillow so he could nap on the back seat. That was more than seventy years ago. Since my parents walked here when my mother was pregnant with me, I always tell people that I've been coming to these lakes since before I was born.

No matter how often I come to Pretty Colour Lakes, I never get tired of the scenery. Even as we walked, the lake changed colour. When the wind moved across the water, the rippling lake turned blue, reflecting the sky. But in quiet coves, when the path led us above old cedar trees and weathered tree trunks, we could look down at the calm surface of the deep lake and see the green-blue colour that this lake is known for.

Green Lake

November 24, 2006

Photos, frisbee, and pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving is a low-key holiday in my family. Most of the out-of-town members of the family wait and come in for a long visit at Christmas, so yesterday was not the full extended family, but fifteen of us gathered at my mother's house. I love a holiday that involves no work on my part; my mother does all the cooking, and I just get in the car and drive to her house, which is only a few miles away. The house always smells so good when we walk in the door that we end up gathering in the small kitchen, crowding each other, and getting in my mother's way while she is trying to cook. Seven or eight of us can fit around the kitchen table, while the rest of the group eats around the folding tables set up in the living room. My mother cooks the traditional turkey dinner, but she makes so many side dishes that the vegetarians in the family are plenty satisfied.

Often when my family is together, we look at photo albums or slides or some of the videotapes the grandchildren have made; this holiday, we gathered around my parents' computer to look at digital photos. Red-haired Niece's boyfriend, Outdoor Boy, had just returned from forty days spent hiking in the Highest Mountains on the Planet, part of his training to be a wilderness guide. He showed us photos of his adventure, which included carrying an eighty-pound pack, wading through snow past his knees, crossing fragile-looking bridges, and camping on steep slopes night after night. He had seen eagles dropping their prey onto rocks to kill them, and he described monkeys that were absolute pests, trying always to steal food. Most exciting, he had seen a creature that few people ever get to encounter in the wild: a snow leopard.

On either side of the long trek, he spent a few days immersed in the culture of Asian Peninsula Country. He showed us photos of women carrying heavy loads on their backs, children in bright-colored clothing, shops where you could drink cups of chai, and of long low shacks that he said were places you could stay for about ten cents per night. He showed us photos of Famous Marble Building with its recognizable domes.

Red-haired Niece, who is going to grad school in Big City Like No Other, has been working on a degree in early childhood education and is simultaneously working a full-time job at Progressive School for Rich Kids. Some of the parents in the school are not merely rich; they are celebrities. (You know an actor is famous if even I've heard of him.) The kids in her photos looked like normal kids, though, all playing together on the rooftop playground or in the classroom, and she talked about them with great enthusiasm and affection.

It was great to see Schoolteacher Niece and Red-haired Niece, both full of their usual energy despite their demanding grad school schedules; life in the Big City Like No Other seems to agree with them both. After eating the big meal, some of the family went out in the backyard to play Ultimate Frisbee while others walked out to see my father's garden. The cold outside air smelled like mud and dead leaves. Soon we were all back in for another round of eating – pumpkin pie, apple pie, and some kind of pumpkin bread with chocolate chips in it. The holiday ended the way a holiday at my mother's always does, everyone crowded into the small living room, with five or six people jammed onto the couch, my father in the rocking chair, and other people sitting on the floor or on kitchen chairs, everyone talking all at once.

November 23, 2006



For a wonderful family and supportive friends, for students who teach me, for woods and marshes and other creatures, for books and blogs and email messages, for monks and cats and pine trees, for extra kids and fire and duct tape, for sunshine and snowdrifts and moonlight, for all that helps keep me in balance.

November 22, 2006

The gastronomical metaphor

My students write short papers for each class, papers written in response to what we are reading, or what we've been talking about, or stuff happening in the news, and we begin each class with a few of these papers read aloud. Since my fall semester students live together on one floor of a residence hall, they often read each other's papers the night before class, and they will come to class saying things like, "Make So-and-So read aloud today. Her paper rocks."

Apparently, the other day one of my students, Hair-in-Eyes, decided on a dare to eat 50 chicken nuggets in a single sitting. He is an average-sized person, not unusually big, so I can imagine how sick he must have at the end of the eating binge. His friends chose to write their papers about this feat, using it as a model of consumerism, an example of what happens in a culture in which people are constantly goaded into buying more, buying bigger, consuming as much as they can. Since we have been reading about environmental issues all semester, the papers did fit with the topics we've been discussing. Although the discussion began with some joking around, it quickly grew serious, with one woman bringing in the topic of eating disorders and how food gets tied to emotional issues in our culture.

I asked Hair-in-Eyes to sum up how he felt after eating the chicken nuggets. His roommates were making all kinds of comments to indicate the sort of gastrointestinal distress he'd been in. He looked up at the class, shook the hair out of his eyes, and said simply, "It was awful."

November 21, 2006

Breakfast conversation

Three mornings a week, I eat breakfast on campus – a bagel with peanut butter and orange juice. The students and colleagues who eat with me over in the snack bar are usually looking sleepily through the newspaper as we eat. Sometimes we discuss one of the articles in the paper.

"Look at this," one of the students said last week, as he was looking through the Big City Newspaper, "The Catholic bishops – they came out saying married people shouldn't use birth control."

His tone of voice was shocked. Since I grew up Catholic and live in a Catholic community, none of this was news to me. I shrugged.

"Yeah, that's what the church has said for decades. It became a big deal in 1968 with the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae." I went back to reading my section of the newspaper.

"That is so irresponsible. They can't be serious."

"Sure, they are. It's a mortal sin. A Catholic who uses artificial contraception can go to hell for it. That's what the Church is saying."

"So Catholics don't use birth control?"

"No, actually, they do. The use of birth control amongst American Catholics is no different than use of birth control in the overall population."

"So the bishops get together and make these pronouncements, and no one listens to them?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"How weird is that?"

"Well, think about it. It would be even weirder if Catholic women let a bunch of celibate old men in power make decisions about their sex lives."

November 20, 2006

Homemade doughnuts

I don't have advertisements on my blog, and I've turned down offers to receive money or merchandise for links. But I admit that the following post has an agenda. Over the family email list, we've discovered recently that none of the grandchildren have ever tasted my mother's homemade doughnuts. Ever. This seems to all of us a serious failing. In the past 48 hours, since this shocking discovery was made, I've got no fewer than 30 emails on the topic of doughnuts. So this post is part of a campaign to get my mother to revive the tradition of making doughnuts.

My mother's kitchen was (and still is) painted yellow so it is a sunny place to be on a cold winter day. The kitchen table was where we kids gathered at night to do our homework, or where we played games like Scrabble. The round tin on the top of the refrigerator almost always held homemade cookies. Even to this day, anyone who enters my mother's house sits down right away at the kitchen table, knowing that the tea kettle will soon whistle and the tin of cookies will be opened.

Most winter days when I was a kid, I'd come home from school to find my mother in the kitchen, with an apron tied on over her jeans and turtleneck, baking. Some days she would be making cookies or bread, but often when we were having friends over and she knew she'd have a whole group of hungry people to feed, she made doughnuts.

My mother is very systematic when it comes to baking. The first thing she does is pull out the heavy wooden cutting board to set in the middle of the table. The big board doubles as a game board; it has squares for playing chess on one side and a Scrabble game on the other. My father made that wooden board when he was about Shaggy Hair's age, just about sixty years ago. Next, my mother pulls out all the ingredients and lines them up along the edge of the board. She puts away each bag or bottle or box as soon as she uses it. That way, if she comes to the end of the recipe and something remains on the table, she knows she has left something out.

Back in the doughnut-eating days before people worried about cholesterol and skinny people ate whatever they damned well felt like eating, my mother would make double and triple batches of doughnuts. She would roll the dough out on the wooden cutting board, and then use the little metal doughnut cutter to cut out the round doughnuts. Red-haired Sister claims she can remember when we used to cut out the doughnuts using two different sized glasses – before getting that new-fangled doughnut cutter – but I remember only the metal thingy, which is probably an antique by now. These doughnuts were a bit smaller than the doughnuts you see in bakeries now; desserts had not yet been super-sized.

On the stove, a big pot would be filled with vegetable shortening, which would first melt, and then sizzle. My mother would drop in the first batch of doughnuts, and soon the whole house would be filled with the delicious smell of frying. I loved to peer in and watch the doughnuts plump up as they cooked, my mother flipping them over as they turned a light brown.

On the counter next to the stove, the same counter that held pots of plants and usually a cat staring out at the birdfeeder attached to the window, my mother would place a cookie sheet covered with paper towels. The use of disposable towels indicated the importance of these doughnuts. My mother rarely consents to using something disposable. In her household, a roll of paper towels lasts about six months. An unsuspecting guest once grabbed a handful of paper towels to use frivolously – I think he was drying his hands – and turned to find everyone in the kitchen staring at him in a shocked silence. I have inherited this reluctance to use paper towels; I don't even buy the damned things because I'd feel so guilty using them.

My mother never eats cookies or doughnuts as she makes them. Seriously. She never even so much as tastes a speck of cookie dough. She can make a whole double batch of chocolate chip cookies and never eat one. She will wait until they are all done, and then make herself a cup of tea, and sit down and enjoy the finished product. This trait, inexplicably, has not been passed down to any of her children. My Red-haired Sister and I have been known to buy bulk bags of chocolate chips, which seem so big that no one will notice if you just reach in and grab handfuls of chips as a snack, and we've devoured whole bags without ever making cookies. To be honest, I can probably count the number of times I've made cookies for my kids at all. Much easier just to send them over to their grandmother's house.

Of course, the key to sneaking food while my mother is baking is to volunteer to help. When it came to the doughnuts, I always clamored for the important job of sprinkling cinnamon sugar on the doughnuts. I'd pull over a wooden chair, climb up to make myself tall enough, and stand at the counter, with the shaker filled with cinnamon sugar in my hand. While I waited for the doughnuts, I'd look out at the trees covered with snow, and at the birds in the feeder, just a few feet away. On winter afternoons, the sunlight on the snow gave way quickly to a blue light that signaled the approach of dusk, making me feel lucky to be in a warm kitchen filled with doughnuts.

My mother would pull out the first batch of doughnuts and dump them out on to the paper towels; they'd be plump and brown and sizzling with hot grease. As fast as I could, I'd sprinkle on the sugar so it would stick. And as soon as they were even partially cooled, I'd find one that was a bit misshapen, decree that it was imperfect, and decide it was my duty to eat it.

Few things taste as satisfying as a warm doughnut. And these doughnuts tasted like nothing like the "donuts" sold in stores all over the country now. They were plain, with the texture of bread, and they filled you up wonderfully.

By the time the doughnut making was done, my mother would have two cookie sheets of donuts, cooled and propped into rows, lightly covered with cinnamon sugar. I'd be so full from eating doughnuts that I would be feeling sluggish as I set the table for supper. But that night, we'd all go out skating on the pond in front of the house – my Dad had rigged up a light bulb in the old willow tree so we could skate at night – and after a couple of hours in the cold winter air, playing ice hockey or snap-the-whip, I'd come into the warm house, eager for a cup of hot cocoa and more of those good doughnuts.

November 19, 2006

Along the canal

Yesterday was a dreary November day, grey and threatening to rain. My husband gathered up the kids and took them to a bowling alley for the afternoon, and I was lounging sleepily on the couch, trying in a most unsuccessful way to bribe myself to tackle some kind of chore when Signing Friend called to see if I wanted to take a walk over at the canal.

Signing Friend has a Border Collie puppy, which forces her outside every day, no matter what the weather. We had the path along the canal mostly to ourselves as we strode along, moving briskly to keep up with the puppy. The sky was overcast, and part of the time, we were walking through a misty rain. The canal water was a muddy milk chocolate brown, and in the late afternoon light, the whole landscape was grey brown, with the bare branches of the trees casting dark reflections on the water.

We walked briskly to keep warm – and to keep up with the lively puppy – and our conversation moved briskly too as we talked about everything that has happened in our lives over the last few weeks. We talked about friendships and family, about the complexities of relationships. We talked about my trip to the Big City Like No Other, about her plans to travel to Baked Beans City for Thanksgiving.

We were talking so furiously that we didn't noticed how far we'd gone until we realized that it was getting dark. The evening air, the misty rain, and the conversation made me feel wide awake as we turned back, throwing sticks for the dog as we went. As we drew near to the little park where we'd left her car, I could hear the traffic on the road that runs on the other side of the canal, headlights and red taillights flashing though the darkness as the world hurried past. Beside us, the wide canal of still water reflected the last of the daylight as we climbed into her car to return home.

November 18, 2006


When I am feeling sad or confused or angry or frustrated, if I am grieving a loss or making an important decision, or if I am in one of those moods in which I just don't know what I feel, the one thing that always helps is a walk in the woods. It's always feels right to get outside into the moist air that smells of mud and dead leaves, to leave behind the computer and telephone, the stacks of papers in my office, the housework and the to-do lists.

In my own woods, I will find big trees that have come down during high winds, and I will walk along the slippery trunks, picking my way across mosses, trying to balance before I fall into the muddy puddles below. I have this idea that learning to balance physically will somehow bring about a corresponding emotional balance.

If I am near a lake or a river, I can spend hours just staring at the water, or climbing up a rock or tree to see how far I can see. Changing my perspective by something as simple as a change of height can sometimes change the way I am turning over thoughts inside my head.

me on rock

Photo of me taken by my Dad during October.

November 16, 2006


When my mother-in-law had to stop driving because of her macular degeneration, she gave her car to my two college-age kids to share. So even though they live at Snowstorm University, both kids can drive home whenever they want, which is pretty often. My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter will appear when I least expect it, sometimes waking me up late at night to talk – and then laughing at me in the morning because I don't remember the conversation. She volunteers at the Women's Shelter on Saturdays, and will stop here afterwards to go through our cupboards and take food back to her apartment. Boy in Black will stop home during the week after a drum or guitar lesson, or he sometimes comes home on the weekend if he doesn't have an Ultimate Frisbee tournament.

I think my youngest two boys love having their older siblings home so often, but they don't actually feel the need to say so aloud.

The other day, for instance, I was sitting on the couch in front of the fire when With-a-Why came home from school. He smiled when he saw that his oldest brother was home, but did not even say a word to him as he went over to the refrigerator to get something to eat. Boy in Black, sitting at the piano, said nothing either but in a few minutes, he began playing a Bob Dylan song I recognized, All Along the Watchtower.

When With-a-Why wandered over near the piano, Boy in Black nodded to him, and moved over on the piano bench. Without a word, With-a-Why slid into place next to his big brother, and his fingers began moving over the keys. Sometimes with three hands, sometimes with four hands, they played the familiar tune together. Their posture was just the same as they sat together on the bench, long hair hiding both their faces, their heads close together, sunlight falling on the keys and on their hands.

The song ended with all four hands, all twenty fingers, moving rapidly over the keys. The brothers grinned at each other. Then Boy in Black went back to his Organic Chemistry book, and With-a-Why went over to dump papers out of his school backpack and find a form he needed me to sign.

These two brothers have never needed words to communicate.

hands at piano

November 15, 2006

Blue Owl in the City

One of the cool things about attending a conference in Big City Like No Other is that some of my conference friends finally had a chance to meet my little sister, Urban Sophisticate, who lives and works in the Middle Island of the city. On Sunday when we were up in her neighborhood to go to an art museum, Artist Friend and I met Urban Sophisticate for lunch. She's heard so much about Artist Friend over the last five years that she always calls him the Famous Artist Friend. Alas, she missed her chance to meet Artist's Friend's younger brother, LovesWildlife, who is the same age she is, because he'd gone home by then; I am sure that after seeing a photo of him naked on a balcony, she regrets that. I mean, perhaps if I had posted the nude photo sooner, maybe she would have tried a little harder to meet us the night we called her at midnight from some obscure bar fifty blocks from her home.

Another night I met Brooklyn Friend for a late evening meal (well, late evening by city standards – to me, it seemed like the middle of the night), and my sister joined us. Brooklyn Friend has lived in the city her whole life, so she walks around the city with complete assurance. I, on the other hand, was heady from walking around the city all day, overstimulated by all the sights and sounds, and as we walked into the restaurant, I was babbling stuff like: "Look! Out the window! All those people! You can see people going by! As they walk to the subway stop! To take a train!"

When the hostess came over, I said, "Can we sit by the windows?" She smiled and pointed to at table over near the window, perfect for people watching. Brooklyn Friend said to her, apologetically, "My friend is from out of town."

Another night, Brooklyn Friend took me and some of my friends to a bar owned by her nephew, a colorful place patronized by hip young people who apparently love very loud music and who gave me the kind of smiles you give to someone's mother. We also walked through Famous Park Where Old Men Play Chess in the Sun, a place so alluring that it caused me to miss a conference session one afternoon.

On Saturday night, my sister told me she'd be at a bar called Blue Night Bird That Makes Hooting Noises. She told me what street corner it was on, as if that information would be enough for me to find the place. But it turns out that certain bars in Big City Like No Other have such a loyal and elite following that they don't feel a need to do anything as unsophisticated as putting out a sign with their name on it. After a several attempts to find the place – and text messages to my sister insisting that her directions were completely wrong – Chicago Friend and I walked through a cluster of buildings, peered down over some railings, and saw a sign below our feet with a picture of a blue owl on it. At the moment, which was sort of like a scene out of a Harry Potter book, the doorway of a small bar slid into our view.

As we climbed down the stairs and entered the doorway that had appeared out of nowhere, Chicago Friend and I found ourselves surrounded by beautiful urban people – sleek, sophisticated, well-dressed. I can't speak for Chicago Friend but I felt a bit out of place as we wove our way through black pants, silky dresses, and wine glasses held at just the right angle. It's not so much that I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or that I don't wear cosmetics, or that I don't drink at all. It's that I felt sure I had not been in the city long enough to assume any sort of sophisticated air. To be honest, I think at this point in my life, I'd have to live in a city for decades before attaining any sophistication at all. But we found my sister, and her group of friends, and I felt right at home as soon as they began exclaiming, "Oh! You are Urban Sophisticate's Sister!"

My sister's friends were friendly and warm, smart and fun. They are also mostly reporters. At first I forgot this detail – I mean, they looked like normal people; it's not like they had their press credentials stamped to their foreheads. But within minutes of being introduced, I found myself answering questions, and then follow-up questions, and then being put on the spot with a particularly probing question – and that's when it hit me. I was being interviewed.

I love going to conferences – listening to new ideas, seeing famous scholars up close, catching up with old friends, sharing my own ideas, eating in great restaurants, and talking endlessly about books and science and politics – but this time I had the added bonus of spending some time with my sister and a close friend from Brooklyn, and we had a chance to see just a little bit of each other's worlds.

November 14, 2006


Because I had the early morning time slot for my presentation at the conference, I got up as soon as it was light on Saturday, showered before any of my roommates were even awake, and went off by myself to find breakfast. I had had only about three hours of sleep, but the cool breeze against my wet hair woke me up as I walked down the streets of the city, which seemed quiet compared to the night before. All the crowds of people, who had been clustered around the doorways of bars and restaurants, drinking and talking and laughing, were gone.

In front of one restaurant, a young man was sweeping the sidewalk with a broom, and pulling out a wooden sign with hand lettering. Farther down the street, an older man was setting up racks of colorful scarves that twisted and glittered in the morning sunshine. Two women were lugging crates of fruit out to the front of a little store, arranging the bright oranges and green apples into tempting displays. In the bright morning sun, the sidewalks were a shifting mosaic of dead leaves, assorted trash, and crumpled advertisements. The smell of coffee and frying began wafting out of open doorways as some places opened for breakfast.

As I stopped for a moment to check my map, I noticed a lone figure coming down the sidewalk toward me. She was a slim young woman, about my daughter's age, I'd say, still wearing her Friday night evening-on-the-town clothes, a tight black skirt and a lowcut silk shirt. Her gorgeous silky black hair blew into her face as she moved along the sidewalk. Her posture, the way she carried herself, with her head hanging down and her shoulders hunched, seemed all wrong for someone so beautiful. As she came hurrying past me, she looked up for a moment, and I caught a glimpse of her face.

She was crying.

November 13, 2006

Conference tradition: nude photo

At this conference in Big City Like No Other, I ended up sharing a tiny hotel suite with a bunch of male friends. I am not sure how this happened. I think somehow I had the idea that my male friends were sensitive, enlightened guys, and that rooming with them would be no different than sharing a suite with a bunch of women.

I was wrong about that.

The only thing that saved me, I think, was my years of experience living in a household full of teenage guys. So I am used to surviving in a cloud of testosterone.

And of course, there are certain advantages to hanging out with a gang of men. I am the kind of person who feels guilty if I leave food on my plate in a restaurant, but I no longer had to worry about that. As soon as I announced that I was full, this group would swoop in with their forks and finish whatever food I didn't eat. I will admit that the constant banter and jokes and insults that they tossed back and forth kept me entertained. And the conversation improved after I announced a moratorium on talking about football games or stock car races.

The small suite got more crowded as the week went on. Artist Friend, deciding that he needed help in driving me crazy, invited his thirty-something brother, Loves Wildlife, to drive up from the State That Sounds Breakable and join us for a night. Of course, I was thrilled to finally meet Artist's Friend's youngest brother – he had the same laugh, the same teasing energy, the same intense interest in nature – but since the suite was tiny, with every bed already occupied, there was some question as to where he was going to sleep. The guys were happily arguing about who was going to share the pull-out couch with me when I announced that there was plenty of room on the balcony. Loves Wildlife, unbelievably, produced a sleeping bag, climbed out the window, and camped out under the night skies of City Like No Other.

On Friday night, I waited until my male friends were all properly inebriated before reminding them of a tradition I have with conference roommates: one of them was going to have to pose naked for my blog.

My readers, I explained, were expecting it.

I tried Artist Friend first. I thought someone with an artistic temperament would be comfortable with the idea of nudity, and supportive of a friend trying to take an artistic photo. I also thought that Artist Friend, honored that he was the first real life friend I told about my blog, would be loyal to me and my blog readers. But alas, that was not to be. Any readers who have conjured up this picture of Artist Friend as a sensitive, loyal guy, a friend who would literally give me the shirt off his back, or at least take off his clothes for my blog, will be disappointed that he dismissed my brilliant idea with a single emphatic syllable: "No."

And he followed that up with a look that meant, "Are you fucking crazy?"

Philadelphia Guy, after all kinds of incredulous looks and several beers, eventually said, "Well, okay." When Artist Friend expressed his horror, Philadelphia Guy shrugged and said, "I can't say no to jo(e). No one can. Even the Famously Surly Waiters at the Well-known Deli in City Like No Other were nice to her." But his lack of enthusiasm – and his muttering about how he didn't have tenure yet – made me think he was not an ideal candidate. Chicago Friend said nothing, but it was clear from the expression on his face that he was quite happy with the twist in fate that put him in a hotel more than ten blocks away from me.

LovesWildlife, on the other hand, had the proper attitude. He kept laughing and saying things like, "What? You want me to go out on a balcony in the middle of the city butt naked? You've known me for four hours and you think I am going to pose naked for your blog?"

Here, clearly, was the weakest link.

So late that night, LovesWildlife stripped off his clothes and climbed out the window to the balcony. I had planned to take the photo in daylight – natural light is so much better for any kind of photo – but he explained very nicely that there was no chance in hell this event would take place in broad daylight, and that if I wanted a picture, I had better take it now. Artist Friend, who did not seem thrilled in the least at this turn of events, took one glance out the window at his naked younger brother and retreated to his laptop computer, taking comfort in a manly array of football statistics on the Bengals' website.

My original plan had been a nice portrait of all my roommates together, but LovesWildlife was emphatic that there would be no other men in his photo. It's funny how peculiar men can be about those things.

I had explained that I don't show faces on my blog, and LovesWildlife seemed to take that rule very much to heart. In fact, once he had tossed aside the towel he was wearing, he refused to turn even to talk to me, so our conversation consisted mainly of me shouting things to the back of his head. I kept coming up with brilliant ideas: "Maybe you should sit on the ledge! How about if you are tossing flowers off the balcony? Maybe you could be holding a beer? Could you perhaps burst into song for the benefit of all those people peering out their windows?"

And he kept saying things like, "Are we done yet? WHERE IS MY TOWEL? WHAT DID YOU DO WITH THE TOWEL?"

Artist Friend, still muttering football statistics, was no help at all. In fact, his sarcastic comments kept making me laugh, which is not such a good thing when you are trying to take a serious artistic shot. And Philadelphia Guy, unnerved by the whole photo shoot, had retreated to a bar up the street. I have no idea what any of those people peering out their windows at the balcony thought, but I think the photo came out quite well.

nude conference photo

November 10, 2006

City sidewalks

city in the rain

My conference began yesterday, but I came to the city early to spend two nights with Urban Sophisticate Sister, who lives on the Upper East Side of the Middle Island. That first night, we met Schoolteacher Niece and Red-haired Niece (who are both grad students in the City Like No Other) for dinner. Urban Sophisticate had found a cafe where everything on menu was vegan. Even the entire dessert menu. This kind of thing is what makes City Like No Other one of my favorite cities.

Wednesday, I planned to spend the day pretending I lived in the city. I was determined not to act like a tourist. Of course, I suppose if I actually lived here,I would have gone to work like my sister, instead of spending the day wandering around in the rain and going to art museums.

Despite the absolute drenching rain, the streets were filled with people, most of whom carried umbrellas as they hurried along the crowded sidewalks. I watched the choreography of the jostling umbrellas to see if I could learn proper umbrella etiquette. These people were moving fast, and sometime in opposite directions, with all kinds of maneuvers happening at every street corner, and yet, somehow, the umbrellas did not crash or snag. How were they doing it? One person might raise an umbrellas slightly, another might tip her umbrella to the side, and smoothly, the flow of black umbrellas never stopped. And they did this all without words. I could not see anyone talking or even looking at each other.

I tried to fit in with the crowd, clutching the umbrella I'd borrowed from my sister, but it was like joining a dance troupe without knowing the steps. I kept knocking into people with my umbrella, or snagging a tip of their umbrella. I'd stop and apologize profusely, but then I never even made it through an apology because the whole thing would strike me funny, and I'd start laughing. So that is where I kept finding myself, standing in the rain on a city sidewalk, talking and laughing with a stranger, while around us flowed a crowd of people smoothly negotiating by with their umbrellas. My attempt to pass for a sophisticated city person did not work at all.

City streets are filled with windows, and on a dark rainy day, you can look right into the cozy lit worlds of bakeries and restaurants and tiny shops. I watched people in dark coats huddled at round tables, drinking coffee. I saw a woman and her toddler choosing pastries from a mouth-watering display. I brushed so close to the window of a coffee shop that I could hear the white mugs clinking as a young couple shared breakfast. The flower shops were just bursting with color, reds and yellows and oranges on this grey November day, big bunches of cut flowers in vases, all pressed against the glass. I can never resist stepping into a patisserie, just to smell the baking bread, or a flower shop to breathe in that fragrant moisture.

One of the great things about wandering around a city aimlessly is the sense of discovery you get when you happen upon things. I'd come around a corner and say to myself, "Wow, look at the shape of that huge building. How strange that it's round. How cool to have a museum that -- oh, wait! It's Famous Round Museum! Designed by Frank Lloyd Left!"

Big City Like No Other is southeast of Snowstorm region, and a warmer zone. Many of the trees still held yellow leaves, which glowed in the rain, almost shimmering against red brick or dark grey buildings. Even more striking were the leaves scattered against the sidewalks, forming really spectacular patterns, the delicate curves of the leaves contrasting with the geometric shapes on the ground.

wet leaves

November 06, 2006

Literature, Science, and Skyscrapers

For most of this semester, I've taken advantage of sunny weather whenever I could by exploring beautiful natural areas. I've climbed mountains, gazed at waterfalls, hiked around lakes, canoed in a peaceful bay, and wandered around a sheep farm.

This week is different. I'm off to a conference in a big city.

I'll be eating in restaurants, going to museums, riding the train, walking through parks, and wandering through city neighborhoods. I'll be staying with my sister, Urban Sophisticate, for two nights before joining up with a bunch of conference friends and staying in a hotel suite for the rest of the week. I am looking forward to late night conversations, leisurely meals, cool sessions that explore new ideas, a Saturday night dance, and the fun of exploring a city.

November 05, 2006


Last night was cold and windy, the kind of November night that made me think it's time for me to get out my mittens and winter hat. As Poet Woman and I hurried across a dark parking lot, we almost crashed right into Evening Poet and her husband. Evening Poet was wearing a purple winter hat, and Poet Woman said to her, "Oh, in the dark, I thought for a moment you had dyed your hair purple!" Evening Poet, who gets very tense before a poetry reading, could not help laughing. We stopped to exchange hugs in the chilly air before walking together into a coffeehouse with colorful walls and soft lights and the rich smell of coffee.

The night's event was a fundraiser for the women's shelter, the place that provides a safe haven for women and children who are escaping abuse, a place that provides counseling and support. The evening was a gathering of poets, musicians, and artists, a gathering of survivors and friends of survivors.

We looked at the artwork for sale, we bought raffle tickets, we drank herbal tea and hot coffee. We sat at little tables and talked, warming our hands on the steaming cups. And then as the event began, as the first woman stepped up to take the microphone, I set down my tea and got ready to listen.

Evening Poet cried as she read poems about her childhood, and people in the audience cried with her. Between poems, we heard bits of each person's story. One woman who was sexually abused as a child said she repressed those memories for so long that she was in her thirties before she finally acknowledged that she had been abused. Another woman said that in the culture she grew up in, it was acceptable, even desirable for a husband to be jealous; his jealousy and his possessiveness were considered signs of love. A young man from a family of abuse played the guitar and sang songs he had written. Poet Woman read a poem with such horrific details that she felt obligated to say afterwards, "Yes, everything in that poem is true."

I listened. After Poet Woman was done, I would take the microphone to read poems about healing, poems about meditation and reiki and friendship. I would read a poem about hope, a vision of a world in which women and children and men would all feel safe.

But mostly, my role was to listen, to witness the incredible courage of people who have survived abuse – and are doing the hard work of breaking that pattern, who are through their own actions helping to create a world in which everyone can feel safe. It's part of the healing process: saying the words aloud, telling the story, acknowledging the abuse.

When the reading was done, everyone lingered. I could hear intense conversations going on between people who had just met. I exchanged hugs with women I'd never seen before and talked with the young man who had played the guitar. Washing through the room, as strong as the smell of coffee or mulled cider, was this undercurrent of relief, a release of tension, the feeling that little bits of pain had been unlocked and released into a loving community.

November 03, 2006

Casual encounter

I've shopped at the same grocery store my entire adult life. I can remember, in fact, when it was built, sometime during the 70s. How exciting it was to walk through for the first time with my friend Outdoor Girl and her mother. The store seemed huge compared to the tiny grocery stores we had always known. It had more than the traditional eight aisles and it sold stuff other than food. "Look at this! Socks! A grocery store that sells socks!" The idea stunned us.

By today's standards, Grocery Store Named After White Guy is small. When I walk in, I recognize the people who work there – and some of the customers as well. I like that. Grocery shopping can be a boring task, and chatting with people in my community makes the experience much more tolerable. Besides, talking to real people keeps me from talking to the grocery cart, a habit I got into during years of shopping with small children.

Last week, I bumped carts with a woman my age that I've met at a few times although I don't know her very well. She was choosing apples carefully, picking each one up for inspection. I was debating whether or not to buy butternut squash to make soup. No one else in my family really likes squash soup so I know if I make it, I will be eating it for a week.

So we had a relaxed conversation about how much candy to buy for trick-or-treaters (I buy none since we live on a deadend country road) and what kinds of food we like to make in the fall and where we were spending our Thanksgivings. We reminisced about how much more fun Halloween was when our kids were little. I told her that my oldest two kids were in college, and I was looking forward to having them home for a home month at Christmas.

As the conversation came to a close, and we began pushing our carts off in opposite directions, she paused and said in the most casual way. "Hey, say a prayer."

I stopped my cart. She fiddled with her purse and set it down in the empty childseat of her grocery cart.

"My son is in Iraq. He won't be home until March."

We looked at each other across a display of candied apples, and I nodded. Then she disappeared down the frozen food aisle.

November 02, 2006

Cornfields and waterfalls

This landscape is spectacular during October, when whole trees turn red or yellow against a brilliant blue sky. But November brings a different kind of beauty. Early this morning, as I drove to Gorgeous Town to meet a blogging friend, I passed fields of dried cornstalks, golden and rustling in the wind, and whole hillsides of muted late fall colors. I passed red barns and white farmhouses, and silos filled to the bursting. It's a hilly drive, and every turn brought a different view, with bare branches silhouetted against the sky.

We've had a few weeks of dark, rainy weather so it was wonderful to spend a day hiking in the sunshine with a friend. We hiked along a stream and up to the rim of a steep gorge, passing by numerous small waterfalls and a really spectacular big waterfall.

Most of the leaves were on the ground, under our feet, but the young beech trees hang onto their leaves, and they shone bright gold against bare branches or green conifers. With so much of the summer foliage gone, the mosses are suddenly noticeable. Since we were hiking along rocks just running with moisture, we saw mosses everywhere, mosses soaking in the spray from waterfalls or clinging to the cliff wall. When I looked close, I could see all different types – mosses shaped like delicate ferns, or moss that looked thick and spongy. I can't rattle off the lovely sounding Latin names like my students can, but that doesn't stop me from admiring how beautiful they are, brilliant green in a landscape of grey rock and gold-brown leaves.

We hiked for a few hours, with the rush and tumble of water a background to our conversation. We talked about work and politics and parenting – and especially the frustrations of parenting teenagers. His two kids are the same ages as my youngest two, so it was fun to compare notes. We both kept periodically announcing what our kids would be doing if they were with us ("If my son were here now, he would be walking on the very edge of this cliff, just to make me nervous") – or else we would interrupt our conversation to admire another waterfall. If it had been warmer, it would have been impossible to resist jumping into the quiet pools that formed at the base of each waterfall, but in this chilly November air, neither of us were willing even to take off a winter coat. I did put my hands in the water several times, just to feel the energy of the rushing stream, and it was icy cold.

At the end of the hike, we had time to warm our hands over sandwiches, coffee, and juice in a local bakery before it was time for me to drive back home, back through hills of farmland and woods, savoring the afternoon sunlight that rippled across the pastures and cornfields.

November 01, 2006


camp evening

During long summer days at my parents' camp, night time comes slowly. After supper, we have all kinds of time to sit at the picnic table and linger over coffee or tea, devouring bags of cookies. My father and I might go off for an evening sail, or I might ask my mother to go canoeing. Someone will get up a game of bocce or frisbee golf. Sometimes I'll go for a long walk with my husband, giving us some quiet time together away from the kids. More restless members of the family might take a ride into town, usually with the aim of replenishing the cookie supply and filling up our water containers at the spring. Always someone claims a spot in the hammock, a peaceful place to rest a sunburned body.

Even as we gather around the firepit, everyone jockeying to get a good spot, sunlight still drops peacefully down through the oak branches. My sisters bring books or magazines with them as they pull their chairs closer to the circle, and the guitar players will be looking at sheet music, talking about songs. Some of the kids will take one last swim off the dock.

Eventually, of course, the sun does descend to the horizon, turning the sky and the bay into a brilliant red. Our camp faces west over the river, and the sunsets are gorgeous. But even after the brilliant colors fade, nothing is dark quite yet. The sky will be a deepening blue color, with visible clouds and light reflecting off still water. Often I'll walk away from the raucous crowd at the fire to go stand on the dock and admire the way the familiar scene gradually turns into dark silhouettes.

By the time darkness finally does envelope the landscape, with the flames of the firepit lighting the faces of family members as they joke or sing or play games, I am comfortably tired. Worn out from swimming and sailing and hiking, filled with a whole day of summer sun, I am ready for the darkness, ready to disappear into my small tent with my husband.

It's hard not to think of this in early November, when the days have gotten so suddenly short. I come home, check my email, think about supper, build a fire in the fireplace, read with With-a-Why for a little while – and suddenly, I look up to notice that it has happened again; all the windows are dark, our house plunged without warning into night.