September 30, 2007

Change in plans

From our window

Friday morning, I arrived at my parents' house bright and early to drive them to the mountains. Their bags were packed and sitting under the picture window near the front door. My mother, who opened the door, was dressed to go, even wearing her fleece. But my father, just minutes before, had gotten suddenly sick, down with some kind of stomach virus that left him vomiting and nauseous, unable to travel. It had happened very fast, all in the few minutes that it takes for me to drive from my home to theirs.

We were all disappointed, but at least it was just a simple virus and not something more serious. My father is 76 years old, so his continued good health is not something any of us take for granted. Since I'd already paid for the rooms at the inn we were staying at, my mother and I began brainstorming for plan B. She didn't want to leave my father, so her coming was not an option. But she didn't want the rooms at the inn to go to waste. I called my husband to ask if he wanted a spontaneous trip to the mountains.

We made arrangements fast. My husband maneuvered things at work so that he could be done by 3 pm, which would get us to the inn before dark. My oldest two kids were out of town, Boy in Black at an Ultimate Frisbee tournament and my daughter visiting friends, but First Extra was willing to help out. He would pick With-a-Why up at school, take him to his piano lesson, pick up Shaggy Hair Boy, take him to his piano lesson, and the circle back again to take Shaggy Hair to his guitar lesson. Neighbor Woman said that the two boys could sleep at her house, home to Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy, and she invited Skater Boy to join them as well. After just a few phone calls, everything was in place, and by late afternoon, my husband and I were driving to the mountains for a romantic weekend that came as a bonus.

The weather was changeable as we drove through both rain and sun, but as soon as we hit the higher elevations, we could began seeing the fall colours in the trees along the road. For sheer beauty, it would be hard to beat the mountains in autumn. The winding mountain road led us past small lakes, stands of pine trees, and maple trees that burst with red and gold. By the time we pulled into the old mountain inn on Large Ungulate Lake, we were both hungry and ready for a leisurely dinner in the restaurant that overlooked the lake.

Of course, I'd packed for a weekend with my parents and not my husband, which mean that my overnight bag contained papers to grade rather than lingerie, a discovery which led to all kinds of jokes that I cannot repeat on this kind of blog. Our room looked out over the lake, lit only by moonlight. Most of the summer camps on the lake are dark and quiet in the fall, although light spilled across the porch from the inn's restaurant, which was filled with laughing, talking patrons.

Saturday, we woke to a blue and gold autumn day, cool enough for long pants and a fleece. We hiked around one of our favorite lakes and found a bridge where we could sit in the sun and talk. Always, it is wonderful to leave behind the everyday world of work, papers, computers, email, telephone calls, and tight schedules. We talked about childhood memories and landscapes we love, and about how difficult it is to let go as our children turn into young adults. We took off our socks and hiking boots to put our feet into the icy cold mountain lake.

By lunchtime, we'd visited a few of the places I usually go to with my parents: the resort on the lake, the public dock on Numbered Lake, some short hiking trails. A strong, cold wind was blowing across the lake, so we stopped in town to buy some homemade pie, and hiked into a bog, which I knew would be warm and sheltered. The boardwalk kept us high and dry, and soon we were both lying down in the sun, using our rolled-up sweatshirts as pillows and taking a peaceful nap in the sun. The busy, stressful world of fall semester seemed miles and miles away.

From the bridge

September 27, 2007

Days gone by

Days gone by

My father calls this building "The Casino." It's old now, and it hasn't been kept up, but it's still standing at the edge of a lakefront resort in the mountains. When my father looks at the building, he can still picture those evenings in the 1950s, when the guests at the resort would dress up in their evening finery and come out to the casino to drink and dance and flirt. My father was a musician who worked at the resort, playing every evening, and then hanging out with the rest of the staff in the early hours of the morning.

Every year in the fall, I drive with my parents to the mountains, and we visit my father's old haunts. We hike along trails that edge mountain lakes, wander through resorts, some of which have long since closed, and visit the little mountain towns where he spent so much time in the summer as a young man. We'll stay at an old mountain inn, a cosy place with a big fireplace and cups of mulled cider for all who enter. We'll drive through winding roads lined with bright foliage and dark pines on this fall pilgrimage to the mountains.


September 26, 2007


On a day when I am sitting at my desk all day, grading papers, sorting through piles of stuff on my desk, and feeling overwhelmed by the to-do list that gets longer every time I check my email, I can't help but think of places where I'd rather be. Walking along the shore in a light rain. Riding a raft through a rapid on the Colorado River. Sailing on the river. Paddling through a marsh in a red canoe. Lying in a hammock and looking up into the branches of an old oak tree.

Looking up

September 25, 2007

Devotion to the disc


All summer, Boy in Black devoted his energy to getting together enough people for a game of Ultimate Frisbee. That's what he did pretty much every day. Since few of the kids who come here own cleats, they all play barefoot, and Boy in Black's dedication to the sport of Ultimate is such that his feet were black with dirt and wear for most of the summer. (Even though I keep using the word frisbee, Boy in Black tells me that the round object is really supposed to be called a disc.)

Now that he's back at college and playing with the team again, Ultimate is pretty much all Boy in Black talks about. I keep hoping that maybe he's learning something from his classes or his interactions with professors and other students, but mostly it seems that he is spending his time honing his Ultimate Frisbee skills. Even when he's home, which is fairly often, he will talk his brothers or some of our extras into going out to the field across the street to practice. Starting this weekend, he'll be going to tournaments, traveling about with the team.

Last weekend, I came home in the evening to see Boy in Black over in the kitchen area, washing dishes. He'd been out in the field earlier with his brothers. I felt impressed that he was willing to jump in and help out with the chores, even though he doesn't live here during the semester. I walked over to say something nice to him, and then noticed that the round flat objects he was washing so carefully weren't china dinner plates. They were frisbees.

He looked up and explained, "The discs get covered with poison ivy. You can't be too careful."

The feet of an Ultimate Frisbee player

Boy in Black's feet after playing a barefoot game of Ultimate.

ETA: For those of you who haven't ever seen Ultimate played, Boy in Black recommends this video.

September 24, 2007

Just in case

In my efforts to get my friends to procrastinate in the same ways I do, I have sucked yet another person into blogging: Kindergarten Friend. I've written about her before on my blog – we've been friends since we met in kindergarten over forty years ago. Since we've both chosen to stay in Snowstorm Region, we still get to see each other in person. She is one of the few people I know in real life who reads my blog: she has been known to leave comments saying things like, "Yep, it's all true. Jo(e) really is crazy." And of course, she is the friend who went to Club Libby Lu as a spy, which makes her responsible for about half of all the hate mail I get.

It's fun that now when we talk on the phone we can talk about blogging. Here, for example, is a bit of our conversation from the last time we talked.

Me: Hey, now that you blog, you can be the person who tells all my blogging friends if I'm dead.
KF: What?
Me: Well, it seems to happen all the time.
Me: Bloggers stop blogging, just disappear, and you never know what happened to them.
KF: Oh, so you assume that they got hit by a truck or something.
Me: Exactly.
Me: If I get hit by a truck and killed instantly, I want my blogging friends to know.
KF: Well, if that happens, I can write something for your blog.
KF: I'd be happy to.
KF: I mean, after I stop crying and all that.
Me: Oh, yeah, you can have a day or two to grieve.
Me: I'll give you my password now just in case.
KF: Okay, let me grab a pen.
Me: Oh, you won't have to write it down.

I rattled off a bunch of numbers. She laughed.

What might be random numbers to anyone else are not at all random to two people with a shared history.

KF: I think I can remember that.
Me: And my username is "writingasjoe."
KF: Got it.
Me: I am sure my readers will be happy to know we have a plan in place.

September 23, 2007

Goldenrod and asters

My husband and daughter flew this weekend to Big Midwestern City With the Baseball Team That is Famous For Losing. The trip, they told me, was all about my daughter visiting Grad School Where Urban Sophisticate Learned to be a Reporter. It was about father/daughter bonding time. Really, the trip was for educational purposes and for strengthening their relationship. And coincidentally, as an afterthought really, they just happened to have expensive hard-to-get tickets for three baseball games.

Meanwhile, I had a lazy weekend home with the boys. On Saturday, I took them out to Pretty Colour Lakes, where With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Philosophical Boy spent their time trying to skip stones on the water's surface. It was a lovely evening to be outside. The sun lit up the cedar trees on the other side of the lake, whose waters were shining deep green. When Boy in Black and Skater Boy joined us, the boys took over the empty beach and tossed the frisbee around until after dark. First Extra was just pulling into the driveway when we got home, and the rest of the evening was devoted to music, chatter, and the game Scattergories.

Today was another sunny fall day, and my mother called in the morning to see if we wanted to go on a picnic. After consulting with the boys, I called her back, but no one answered. For the rest of the morning, I called repeatedly. I was reading aloud to With-a-Why and we'd hit an exciting part in the book, but we did stop at the end of each chapter to hit the redial button. But all I got was a dial tone. I decided then that some tragic accident had happened and both my parents were dead. Or perhaps something was wrong with their phone. Eventually, after With-a-Why and I had finished the book, I drove to their house. They had just finished eating lunch, happily oblivious to the fact that I'd been calling. They turned the phone off when they were watching a television show the other night and then just forgot all about it. "I wondered why we hadn't gotten any calls this week," my mother said.

The sun was still shining, so we took a walk along the canal, on a flat gravel path that was once the towpath. Asters and goldenrod bloomed along the edges. My father, predictably, was filled with facts and stories about the canal. He kept describing to the boys what it must have been like to travel along the canal by boat. My mother pointed out the wild grapes growing along the edge of the canal. Shaggy Hair picked some and made us eat them: the grape he gave me was so sour that I spit it out. An older man was sitting on the stones at the edge, fishing, and farther along, we saw a little boy with his fishing pole and his mother. Several times, we heard calls of "on your right" and bicyclists went zooming by. We saw young people running, parents pushing strollers, and several people walking their dogs. A whole flock of geese swam along on the surface of the water, amidst the floating leaves. Creatures of all types seem to be enjoying the lazy sunny afternoon.

Along the canal

September 22, 2007

Bits and pieces

Out the window

With-a-Why is a quiet, serious child, the youngest in a noisy, chaotic household. Most of my conversations with him take place during bits of time sandwiched between other events of the day, during those odd moments when he and I are alone together. Yesterday morning, for instance, he sat next to me in the waiting room at the orthodontist's office and read over my shoulder while I wrote a blog post on my laptop. He loves to point out typos. And we talked that afternoon on the way to his piano lesson. Here are a few topics we covered during the ten-minute drive from the junior high building to the music studio.

With-a-Why: You know that blog post you were writing at the orthodontist's this morning?
Me: Yeah.
With-a-Why: Did you put it up already?
Me: Yeah. When I got home.
With-a-Why: I was thinking. You should have started out with the tips you were giving your students for the introductions, like "Be vague and general." Then people would have been like, oh, she sucks as a teacher. And then you could have said you were having them write bad introductions on purpose.
Me: Yeah, that would've been a better approach.
With-a-Why: It would've been a better introduction.

Me: You need to wash your hair tonight.
With-a-Why: Why?
Me: So it'll be clean.
With-a-Why: Why does that matter?
Me: Because if you don't take showers and wash your hair, you'll smell.
With-a-Why: So what if I smell? It will protect me from predators.
Me: But you're a human.
With-a-Why: (Shrugs.)
Me: And humans are social beings. You live in the human world.
With-a-Why: The world doesn't belong to the humans. That's a ridiculous thing to say.
Me: Anyhow, predators use smell to find their prey. I think a strong smell would be a bad thing.
With-a-Why: What about sow bugs?
Me: Sow bugs?
With-a-Why: Or skunks. Some animals use smells to ward off predators.
Me: But humans don't.

With-a-Why: Do they dissect animals at Small Green College?
Me: What?
With-a-Why: Do they dissect animals?
Me: Uh, yeah. In the labs. In courses like zoology.
With-a-Why: Do they kill them or do they use animals already dead?
Me: Well, sometimes it's roadkill. Whenever my students see a dead animal on the road, they put it in their freezer.
With-a-Why: But do they buy animals to kill?
Me: Well, I think they must.
With-a-Why: We're supposed to do dissections in science next year. For eighth grade.
Me: I remember that when Red-haired College Roommate went through medical school, she had to dissect humans.
With-a-Why: That's different.
Me: What do you mean?
With-a-Why: The humans have agreed to donate their bodies.
With-a-Why: And when humans agree to donate their bodies, it doesn't happen until after they've died of something else. They don't agree to be killed.
Me: Yeah, that's true.
With-a-Why: Well, I am not going to do dissections. It's wrong.
With-a-Why: The animals didn't agree to be killed.
Me: Well, they can't make you do something you think is wrong.
Me: Just make sure you are prepared to explain why you think it's wrong.
With-a-Why: Well, it's sort of obvious.
Me: Not everyone thinks like that.
With-a-Why: Did you do a dissection?
Me: In high school, I did.
Me: The fetal pig was kind of creepy. It looked kind of human inside.
With-a-Why: Would you do one now?
Me: Well, I would with roadkill or something like that.
Me: Dissections can be fascinating.
With-a-Why: Not for the animal being dissected.

September 21, 2007

The modern world of today

"So tell me, " I said to my first year students in class yesterday, "What do I need to do to write a bad introduction?"

They looked puzzled at first, but a few students understood what I was doing and jumped in with ideas, and the rest of the class followed. Soon they were all shouting out suggestions. Be really general and abstract! Use big, abstract words, but say nothing. Use cliches! Quote the dictionary. Use a cliche but put it in quotes as if that somehow makes it better. Don't ever get to your point. Be vague. Be irrelevant. Don't vary your sentence structure! Don't include any interesting details. Use tired old phrases. Write confusing, convoluted sentences. Be redundant. Above all, be boring.

Then I put the students in pairs, gave them a topic — violence on television — and told them that they need to write a bad introduction, using all that we had talked about. They set to the task eagerly, with me spurring them on, "Use another cliche! Be boring!" This exercise always brings chatter and laughter as they brainstorm ways to write badly.

The best students, not surprisingly, wrote the worst introductions. One enterprising duo managed to use the phrase "in the modern world of today" four times. Another introduction began with the sentence, "Throughout history, television has always been part of history." Of course, they couldn't resist exaggerating the paragraphs to the point where they became funny and interesting, a parody of bad writing rather than bad writing itself. Read aloud, they weren't mediocre and boring, but hilariously funny. As we went around the room, reading them aloud, everyone laughed and clapped at the best ones – or should I say the worst ones?

We analyzed what was especially bad about each introduction, labeling certain practices as "classically bad." Most of us have that kind of stuff in our first drafts, I told them. The key is to notice it, and edit it out.

I know from experience that this exercise works. Once you've read a whole bunch of dreadfully bad introductions, you can't help notice that kind of stuff in your own writing. For the rest of the class period, we were workshopping drafts of an essay that's due next week, and I heard many students say, "I need to rewrite this introduction." One student, grinning, showed me his essay, pointing to the very first sentence where he had crossed a phrase out with bold black pen: "In the modern world of today."

September 19, 2007

And a star to steer her by


During the winter of 65-66, my father began building a boat in his basement. I was a tiny kid, not yet in kindergarten, and the 18-foot sailboat seemed huge to me as I watched it take shape. I wasn't allowed in the cellar when he was using power tools, although I could hear the familiar whine of the table saw from where I would be sitting up in the kitchen, eating or playing a game with my siblings. But when he wasn't using power tools, I could perch on the stairs and watch him work. He'd be marking pieces of wood with the flat pencil that he kept above his ear. The light bulbs on the cellar ceiling shone down on puddles of sawdust and scattered bits of wood.

When he was halfway through the project, my parents threw a boat-turning party. My father removed bunch of cinder blocks from the wall of the basement, and his friends carried the boat outside to turn it over and then carry it back in so he could finish the project. A newspaper reporter showed up at the party, and they ran a story about the man who built a boat in his basement and knocked a wall out so that he could get the boat out. I can remember even as a kid thinking that the story was a bit exaggerated: he'd planned all along to remove the wall.

And how exciting it was when we finally got to sail the boat. Well, come to think of it, the first half an hour wouldn't be exciting. My parents would tell us kids to stay in the cabin and keep out of the way, while they went through the hassle of raising the mast and figuring out where the ropes went. In the early days, this process was fraught with tension, since my parents didn't know yet how to sail: my father was learning from books he'd read, which is possibly not the easiest way to learn something like that. We kids would be huddled in the cabin, amidst the white duffle bags and orange life jackets, impatiently waiting for the moment when we could climb up and out the forward hatch and sit on the deck in the nice breeze.

But soon, my father had learned to sail, and some of us kids began learning too. In the summertime we sailed up on the river, where we went camping, and in the fall, we sailed on Big Lake Near Snowstorm City. I can still remember those fall afternoons when my father and I would drive out to the lake to the marina where he kept the boat. Whitecaps would kick up on gusty days, and other days, we would just ghost along with the slightest breeze. When we glided near shore, we'd hear the hum of chainsaws and smell fires burning autumn leaves. Mostly, it was just the two of us, although sometimes my brother came.

But wooden sailboats don't last forever, and after twenty years, dry rot spread through the hull of the sailboat. My father salvaged what he could, including the mast, the centerboard, and the rigging, and we had a boat burning ceremony in their backyard. The ceremony included dramatic readings from the ship's log, flowers presented and dropped down the hatch, and ended with an emergency call to the fire department. But that's another whole story.

Not deterred by the loss of his first boat, my father did something he'd been wanting to do: designed his own sailboat. He drew up the plans and built the boat during the winter of 85-86. I was, coincidentally, expecting my first child that June, and we decided to race to see who would get done first. When I went into labor, my husband and I went over to my parents' house, so that I could take a walk through the apple orchards behind their house. My father had the boat on the trailer and was just raising the mast for the first time, testing out the rigging and the sails.

The new sailboat was both fast and stable, with a centerboard that could be pulled up in the shallow marsh where my parents' camp is. For over twenty years, my father has sailed this boat on the River That Runs Between Two Countries. Early this summer, both the boat and my daughter turned 21. And in the boat, my father discovered rot. It was time, once again, to salvage what he could and re-design the whole boat. He ripped off the cabin, and set to work.

That's been my father's project for the last month or two. He's been working on the boat, not in his basement this time, but up at camp, since he no longer has a boat trailer. The temperature has to be high enough for fiberglass to set so he's been working furiously to get the boat done before the cold weather. He's 76 now, and he claims that he gets tired more easily than he used to, but you would never notice that if you watch him work. He's been doing carpentry so long – he built houses with his father when he was a kid – that building a boat is easy to him as walking is to most people.

He's had to battle the weather during this project: rain, heat, gale force winds. In some ways, working under a tarp at the edge of a river is the worst possible working conditions. Thunderstorms move quickly up the river, and rising winds can tear the tarp from its moorings. But on the other hand, he has also been working under the best possible conditions. The fresh clean air from the river sweeps away the smell of the fiberglass. The marsh provides music -- birdsong, frogs, the splash of turtles or fish. When he wants a break, he can retreat to the shady spot under the oak trees where my mother might be reading a book or working on some project of her own. And there's something satisfying about building a boat right at the edge of the water, just a few feet from the dock where it will be tied next summer, just yards from the river where he'll be sailing it.


September 18, 2007

My woods


The rhythm of the household has shifted now that fall semester is underway. Teaching gives my life a structure: one day I get a quiet morning at home to work, the next day is filled with classes and meetings, the next day, another quiet morning at home. Because I'm an extrovert, I enjoy the busy days on campus. Teaching energizes me, forces me to think about issues larger than my personal life. But I also value the days when I'm at home, working at my desk, exchanging emails with friends, and eating lunch by myself at the round wooden table that looks out the big glass windows to the woods beyond the house.

I don't go into my own woods much during the summer because the mosquitoes are fierce. But now that it's September, the bugs are gone, and I can walk amongst the trees behind my house without slapping at my arms constantly. I live in the sticks: a flat, wet landscape of young trees that grew up after some of the land had been logged or farmed, and groves of scotch pines planted by the CCC. There aren't any spectacular vistas or gorgeous lakes: just acres and acres of trees. Some of my trails follow old logging roads, others follow trails made by white-tailed deer. In a few more weeks, the foliage will turn spectacular shades of red and orange, but for now, the trees are mostly green and yellow and gold, the soft shades of early fall.

September 17, 2007

Next week: floss

Toothbrush meme

Some of my favourite photo bloggers have been posting pictures of their toothbrushes. Yeah, really. I'm not making it up. I guess it's that time of year when bloggers run out of stuff to photograph. It's a weird meme; I liked the sunflower meme much better.

Snapping an action shot of my toothbrush was easy; I did it first thing in the morning so it would look authentic. Well, actually, I decided that toothpaste wouldn't look foamy enough for a good photo, so I brushed my teeth with shaving cream instead of toothpaste, but otherwise, the photo is pretty authentic. Well, except I'm sort of gagging in the photo and kind of drooling and trying not to swallow anything because shaving cream, it turns out, doesn't taste so great. It did come out nice and white though, which worked well because I don't have photoshop, so I can't enhance my photos like all the cool bloggers do.

But I debated what to write about the toothbrush scene. It's hard to come up with something lyrical and profound about brushing your teeth. I did think about a conversation I had last June with some blogging friends about those handheld vibrating toothbrushes that they sell supposedly for kids. You see women in the grocery store buying them all the time, checking out the shape, touching the bristles on the head to see how soft they are. Everyone knows that they are really just a discount sex toy.

And I thought about the conversation I had with my dentist, who is a woman my age, with a husband I've met and three kids about the ages of my kids. She was complaining about how viscous my saliva is, pulling long strings of it out of my mouth to demonstrate, and we both started making inappropriate comments about the usefulness of viscous saliva. She was trying not to laugh, because she had these sharp instruments in her hands, and I was trying not to laugh, because I had weird things stuffed into my mouth. And the very young hygienist who was standing there holding a tray full of instruments said not a word the whole time. Not a single word.

And when I showed the three photos to Shaggy Hair Boy, just before he went off to school, asking him which photo he liked best, he gave me a horrified look and went right out the door without casting a vote. It turns out that teenage boys do not want to see photos of their mother putting anything in her mouth, even if it's just an innocent toothbrush.

So my narrative is going to be pretty short: I brushed my teeth this morning. And I've got a photo to prove it.

September 16, 2007

Seasons change


We wanted to go paddling while the weather was still warm and sunny, to absorb as much sunshine as possible before the cold weather arrived. We talked on Friday and agreed to meet the next morning at PlantsWoman's house, where we'd load one of her canoes onto her car.

But Saturday morning was cold, and rain clouds moved across the fields as I drove to the old farmhouse where PlantsWoman lives. She'd built a fire in her woodstove, and the house smelled nicely like woodsmoke as I came in. She'd gathered tomatoes from her garden along with basil, onions, and garlic, and soup simmered on her stove. We pulled up chairs to her wooden table and cut up the loaf of fresh Italian bread I'd bought on my way. Rain came splattering down past the windows as we talked, her big dog weaving his way under the table and knocking at the other chairs. A black-and-white cat sat on the windowsill near the fire, licking her paws and looking out at the rain.

When the sky cleared for just a bit, we decided to take a walk at a marsh that's tucked in between the hills of farmland. Wriggly Dog came with us, eager to run and explore. A recent windstorm had knocked several trees across the trails, including a huge old cherry tree that must have stood there for decades. In another spot, we found logs covered with fungi that had fallen into a bed of ferns. The woods smelled like dead leaves and moss.

We climbed a hill to look across at the marsh, sitting down to talk and look out at the scene. PlantsWoman's two daughters are grown now, one living in the southwest and the other in college, and we talked about how it felt to move into a new stage of life after so many years. As we chatted, flocks of geese moved across the sky, honking to each other. A chilly wind rippled across the cattails and through the trees, cutting right through the thick fleece I was wearing. We decided it was time to go back to the house for mugs of hot tea by the fire.

"I think the season has changed," PlantsWoman said, "This feels like fall."


September 14, 2007

Beside them danced

Of the sun

As I was driving to the grocery store the other day, I couldn't help but notice how sunflowers seemed to be blooming everywhere, their faces turned toward me in the afternoon light. I love how translucent the petals look that time of day, and I decided to stop along the road near a field of sunflowers, with the idea that I'd take a photo of some sunflowers, like all the other cool bloggers.

But taking a photo of the whole field proved impossible. When I walked up to the flowers, they were way taller than me, swaying above my head. I looked around for something to climb, but all I saw were sunflowers and more sunflowers, and after that, a lawn of grass that stretched to a barn and house. I stepped carefully into the field, turning to weave my body through the tall stalks. I took a few photos, then shoved the camera back into my pocket. When a wind came up, the flowers danced and twirled above my head, throwing shadows onto my arms. I held my hands up and swayed with the sunflowers.

When I walked out of the field and back to my car, I noticed a woman approaching me. She was about my age, dressed much the same as me in jeans and a sweatshirt. I figured she had come from the farmhouse next door and probably owned the field.

"Hey, " I said as she got closer. "I'm just taking some photos."

She gave me a strange look, and I noticed her glancing at my hands.

Was something wrong with my hands? I looked down at them, but they looked the same as they always did. Normal hands. But then in a flash, I figured it out: normal people who stop to take photos usually have cameras. Not for the first time, I wished I had some kind of impressive digital SLR hanging about my neck, instead of this tiny point-and-shoot camera shoved into my jeans pocket.

I dug the camera out of the pocket of my jeans and held it up to her. It didn't look very impressive, but she nodded.

"The sunflowers are beautiful," I said, still hoping to establish myself as a normal person.

She shrugged. "I wondered if you had a flat tire. I was checking to see if you needed help."

"Thanks, but I'm good."

Without another word, she turned and went back toward the house, the afternoon sun catching the auburn glints in her hair as she hurried along. I looked up at the sunflowers, mostly in shadow now, and got back into my car.

September 13, 2007

While it lasts

I can remember thinking last May, just before his siblings came home for the summer, that With-a-Why was getting old fast and that he would soon outgrow one of my favourite bedtime rituals: reading books together. Oh, I think reading aloud is something that can be enjoyed at any age, but let's face it: most teenage boys do not think that snuggling with their mother at night while she reads aloud is the cool thing to do.

We don't have regular bedtime rituals in the summer. The kids go to sleep at crazy times. This year, they would stay up late jamming or playing cards, long after my husband and I had gone to bed, and in the morning, I'd find their sleeping bodies sprawled out in the living room, or sometimes in the boys' bedroom with an electric fan in the window. I missed reading aloud to With-a-Why, having that quiet time alone with him at the end of each day.

In the middle of August, my daughter moved into her off-campus apartment. Boy in Black's friends began saying goodbye as they all went back to college, and he moved into his dorm at the end of the month. Suddenly, evenings at our house were much quieter.

The day after Boy in Black moved out, as I was driving With-a-Why to his piano lesson, we began talking about school and fall and all the changes happening. The transition was a bit easier this year because we all knew what to expect. But still, it seemed a little sad to me that my kids were growing up so fast. With-a-Why had gotten tall over the summer, and his hair long. In his black band t-shirt, he looked more like a teenager than a little kid.

But then he shook his hair out of his eyes and said, "What book are we going to read next?"

"At bedtime, you mean?"

I was so pleased that he wanted to continue the ritual that I didn't even jump in with any suggestions. But he already had a plan.

"Have you ever read Watership Down?"
"I think you would like it."

So now that my youngest two are back in school, I get some quiet time each night with With-a-Why, snuggled next to him on the bed while I read aloud. He sleeps in my daughter's room while she's at college; a small, pretty room with a pink wall and a white bookshelf. It's crowded on the little bed because we have to make room for his stuffed animals, and often one or more of the cats. I read a chapter or two, and then we talk about the day. When I turn out the light, he puts his arms around me and falls asleep.

I know that these cosy evenings of him snuggled up against me won't last much longer; he's the fourth child, so I know what's coming. But right now, I am enjoying these moments at the end of the day when he is still, just for now, my little boy.

September 12, 2007

In circles

For our shared reading event, the whole campus community was invited to read the book we'd chosen last spring. Early this afternoon, we gathered in Lounge Named After an Imaginary Person to share our thoughts and ideas about the book. The students gathered in the middle of the room, most of them sitting on the floor, dropping backpacks and pulling out the book as they arrived. Earlier this summer, I'd lined up staff and faculty as discussion leaders, so once everyone arrived, I divided them into random groups and sent each group outside, handing them the discussion questions I'd written. I always cut the sheet of discussion questions up so the facilitator can pass the questions around, so that the responsibility for asking the questions is shared.

The sun was shining but the breeze was cool, a perfect day for sitting on a grass and talking about a book. I walked about to make sure that the discussion leaders had what they needed: every group seemed fine. Librarian and her group were plopped on the grass near the library. Dark-haired Writing Instructor had gathered her group on the edge of our small quad, enjoying the sun. The students in Science Guy's group were clustered near the bike rack, and I could see him gesturing. Paper Science Guy was climbing up the hill to take his group into the cemetery that adjoins our campus, the students clutching the book as they searched for the best spot to sit down. Landscape Architect was leading her group into a building, in search of a quiet lounge.

No one needed any help from me, so I joined Ornithologist and his group, sitting down on the grass beside him and jumping into the discussion. The premise of the book we'd read, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, is that the current generation of children being raised in this country today spend very little unstructured time in nature, a stark difference compared to their parents' generation and their grandparents. The book connects this separation from nature to all kinds of things, everything from ADHD in children to depression in adults, backing these connections up with all kinds of data. We had a lively discussion that began with personal experiences and ended with talk about climate change, environmental activism, and some philosophical speculation about the healing powers of nature.

"Whenever I go for a hike or a walk," Ornithologist said, "it's like going through a wall and coming out the other side. All that stuff I carry with me gets left behind."

The discussion circles lasted an hour; then it was time to send the students on our way and go home ourselves. The shadows along the buildings had gotten longer, and clouds were turning that bluish colour they get in late afternoon. I stopped to talk to Librarian and Chemistry Lab Guy, to see how their groups had gone.

"Wasn't this cool?" I said to Librarian. "It was like being at a liberal arts college. Groups of people on quad, sitting in circles, talking about books!"

The scientists in the group laughed at my enthusiasm, but I could tell they had enjoyed the event. I drove home still thinking about all the students had said, filled with their ideas and their energy. The light seemed just right for a photograph, so I stopped at the canal to climb down, snap a picture, and sit near a patch of purple loosestrife. Traffic hummed by on the road above the canal, but the sun shone warm against my arms and I could smell the drying grasses on the towpath. I rested for a moment, thinking about the satisfying day I'd had, absorbing the peaceful scene, before getting back into the car and continue home.

Along the towpath

September 11, 2007


Backyard in early morning

This morning, as I sat on the couch with my computer in my lap and a cup of hot tea on the floor near my feet, I looked out the window at deer grazing in my backyard. The woods behind my house are still mostly green, although the leaves of the river birches have begun to yellow, and the black-eyed suzies are still in bloom. Mornings are quiet here, with my kids all in school. I could hear birdsong and the wind riffing on the wind chimes that hang above my back step.

From the south, I could hear a train rumbling past on the tracks at the end of my road. The train travels east and then south along a river, stopping in small towns and then continuing on until it reaches Big City Like No Other. When I drive along the traintracks on my way to work, I often admire the colorful graffiti on the trains that come from Big City Like No Other, enjoying the urban artwork that looks a bit out of place in this small town.

Today, as I listened to the trains coming and going, a faint vibration in the distance as I worked, I couldn't help but think of Urban Sophisticate Sister, of a friend who lost her daughter on this day six years ago, and of friends and colleagues and former students who live in the city. As I came home from campus, after a day during which many of us stopped to think, in quiet moments, of the sadness and loss, the trains were still going back and forth, travelling from this small town to the big city on the edge of the world.

Urban art

September 10, 2007

Hanging with my students


This weekend was our fall retreat with our first year students. We took them, yes all 250 of them, to a retreat center, asking them to color code themselves by wearing shirts that matched their team color. My sixty students, who all live together on one floor, became Team Red.

Saturday morning, we did a ropes/challenge course, designed to build community and encourage communication skills. We figured out ways to get through webs of rope, we pushed and pulled and lifted each other over a high wall, we practiced falling and catching each other, and we raced across a field while tied together. One of my favorites this year was rope web hung from a gym ceiling: we lifted each other up into the rope nest, climbing and shifting to keep the holes open for the next person. The fun part was not the challenge of getting everyone up into the web, but just hanging out on the ropes, watching people walk below us.

The weekend began with a hard rain, but by Saturday afternoon, the clouds had parted and a nice breeze was stirring. In small groups, the students walked around in the park that runs along Polluted Sacred Lake, using handheld GPS devices to guide them to different waypoints, where faculty members waited for them. At each waypoint, we had time to sit in the grass at the edge of the lake, usually in the shade of a tree, and talk about our surroundings. The chemistry faculty had the students draw water samples, which they will analyze in lab later this semester. A dendrologist asked questions about the trees along the lake, an ecologist talked about the pollution in the lake, and the botany teacher started a philosophical discussion about the value of the lake.

By the time we met for supper, students were talking excitedly about the day, some hyper and full of energy, and some looking like they needed a nap. (We'd gotten them on the buses at 8 am, so many were definitely sleep-deprived.) The older students who serve as mentors to the first year students took charge, forming small groups who took walks by the lake, observed the flora and fauna, and then sat in the grass with their notebooks do some nature writing. The threat of rain had disappeared by then, and the cool evening air felt good.

After dark, we all returned to the retreat center. The chemistry teacher had set aside one room for tie-dying, and students were playing poker in another room. In the dining hall, students helped me rearrange the chairs to set up for a coffeehouse, and students began cajoling each other to put their names on the open microphone list. I love the intimacy a coffeehouse creates. One woman played the saxophone, and several had guitars. One young man had us all drum a beat out on chairs and tables, and then he break-danced to the beat. Students read poetry, sang songs, and performed skits. One student did such hilarious impersonations that we kept yelling out names of famous people, wanting him to do more. One young man pulled out a harmonica and played while the whole crowd sang Billy Joel's Piano Man. Two students who were standing against the wall, swayed back and forth as they sang, and the sentimental moment turned funny when one student held his cell phone up to crowd.

Sing us a song, you're the piano man
Sing us a song tonight
Well, we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us all feelin' alright

By morning, we were all exhausted. Sleeping on a gym floor amidst a bunch of snoring students does not make for a restful night. But breakfast revived us, and I walked my students through a quick writing exercise, one in which they wrote letters to themselves. They will get the letters back in May. Then we gathered, all of us, out in the field, arranging ourselves to form the acronym for our college, while one of my new students took a photo from the roof of the building. It had been a wonderful but tiring weekend and I admit that when I saw the buses pulling up to take the students back to campus, I was more than ready to head home and take a nap myself.


One of my colleagues, lying on the floor after the students left.

September 07, 2007

Friday lunch

Since my daughter is back in Snowstorm City this semester instead of European City Where People Make a Fuss Over Royalty, we are once again having lunch on Fridays. I pick up food on my way to her off-campus apartment, which has an atmosphere not unlike the home she comes from. The big living room has a certain dishevelled look, and there seem to always be people coming and going. Last week, Boy in Black and First Extra walked down from their dorm to join us for lunch, and Film Guy, whom we've known since seventh grade, came downstairs from his apartment just above.

First Extra just transferred to Snowstorm University this fall. He and Boy in Black have been close friends since second grade, but the last time they were in school was sixth grade. In those days, First Extra used to take the bus home with Boy in Black and stay with us until his father picked him up. Boy in Black never said much when he came home from school in those days; he'd just sit right down on the floor and do his homework to get it over with. But First Extra would always be filled with funny stories. He'd even do imitations of Sister Mary Old School.

The boys haven't changed much since then, although they've both gotten considerably taller. Boy in Black still has very little to say about school, while First Extra was bitterly funny relating his encounter with the evil bookstore manager who would not let him return an expensive economics book after he dropped the course. He did a humorous imitation of his wacky English teacher, cutting up words on papers and scattering them about in a ditzy way. "Actually, she reminds me of you, jo(e)," he said. He paused. "Well, except that she's crazy, and I hate her."

Film Guy is a senior now, which means he gets to do a cool internship that involves helping to produce a live television show. My daughter is working on two different magazines as senior editor, and writing for a couple more. She's wondering when she is going to have time for her classes. Boy in Black volunteered that one of the classes he's taking, Physical Chemistry, might not suck.

My daughter lives in a beautiful old mansion that's been divided up into rooms for students. Sunlight pours in the big bay windows as we sit and eat Chinese take-out, or vegan burritos from the place up the street. Her roommates will sometimes appear out of nowhere and join us, everyone relaxed on a Friday afternoon.

September 06, 2007

Teenagers: Part Twelve

Shaggy Hair Boy, hard at work

The summer homework that Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece were given was not an unreasonable amount. Read the five assigned books, answer some questions, summarize and analyze the text, write a few essays. They've had the assignments since June, and we purchased the books sometime in July. They've had ALL SUMMER.

The two sixteen-year-olds read all kinds of other books during the summer. On camping vacations and car trips or during sweltering hot days at home, they are both the type to find a comfy spot and settle down with a book. But neither one touched their summer homework until Labor Day Weekend. It didn't make sense to me. Blonde Niece could read Hunter S. Thompson on ridiculously hot day, but not Nathaniel Hawthorne? They could read the newest Harry Potter book the weekend it came out, but the official summer books went untouched.

The assignments that seem reasonable when you've got two months to do them become a real challenge when you've only got a few days. Last weekend up at camp, the two cousins stayed up all night in the little cabin with the screen windows where we usually play cards, shivering while they read and took notes and complained to each other. When I offered Blonde Niece a blanket to wrap around her shoulders, she said, "The cold is the only thing keeping me awake."

I tried to help out at lunch time by introducing a discussion of The Scarlet Letter. Of course, the only thing I really remembered is that I absolutely hated the book when I read it in high school, but loved it when I read it in graduate school. I think sixteen is really too young to fully understand the emotional and psychological intensity of the book. Not surprising, the two teenagers did not find my thoughts at all helpful. My mother, who read the book more recently, was much more useful in her analysis of the characters.

By the end of the weekend, Shaggy Hair Boy was stumbling about in a sleep-deprived haze, his long, curly hair flowing over his shoulders and into his eyes. I had no sympathy for him. "You've had all summer to do this work," I said to him. "Why did you save it until now?"

He said nothing, just looked up blearily and then bent over his notebook again. I looked at Blonde Niece. "You love to read. Why didn't you just read these books sooner?"

She shook back her hair, "I don't like to be told what to read."

In the sun

Blonde Niece using her AP History book as a pillow.

September 05, 2007



Last weekend at camp, Blonde Niece pulled herself away from her summer homework to canoe with me into the bay and up the creek that winds its way through the marsh that was beginning to look like autumn. Already the edges of the green cattails were browning into gold. The lily pads crowded together, jammed out of the mud by the drop in water, the pads flapping at crazy angles. We paddled through thick beds of floating weeds, fighting a strong wind, and then pulled into the quiet creek. Geese flew overhead, calling to each other.

Although it had been cool in the deep shade of the oak trees, the air felt warm out under the sky. I pulled my sweatshirt off so that the sun could warm my forearms as I paddled. When the creek grew too shallow, and our paddles began sticking into the mud, we turned and let the wind push the canoe back. We talked lazily as we drifted. Blonde Niece begins eleventh grade this week, as do Shaggy Hair and Skater Boy.

She shifted in the boat to put both feet in the water. "It's a little sad," she said to me. "The last canoe ride of the summer." But I could tell, too, she was looking forward to the busy school days that would include seeing her friends every day. We sat quietly with our thoughts, soaking in the peaceful moment before paddling back to the dock where her parents were pulling their boat out of the water for the season.

September 03, 2007

Early September


The tourists, with their fast motorboats and loud jet skis, have gone home. The summer people have boarded up cottages, pulled out docks, and locked cabins. Boats are tied to posts, pulled up on the shore, or taken home on trailers. Fall will bring duck hunters, who construct blinds out of wire fencing and clumps of cattails, and a small wave of tourists who will come to admire the foliage. But in early September, the river is quiet.

In our bay, the water dropped, as it always does near the end of August, leaving thick mats of floating weeds and water lily pads. Our peninsula of oak trees and white pines was more private than ever, as we played bocce or took out the canoes or found quiet places to read or nap. My father worked on his boat and the teenagers did their summer homework while the rest of us relaxed, enjoying the warm sunshine and gorgeous weather, trying to get our fill of sunshine before the winter ahead.

Early September