January 31, 2008

City morning


A city is quietest in the early morning. When I took my morning walk yesterday, the only people I saw were rushing off to the subway to get to work. By the time I reached the little park near Mansion Where the Mayor Would Live If He Wasn't Filthy Rich, a misty rain was falling. The little playground, with its bright red metal jungle gym, was empty. The swings dangled from chains above puddles of water. On one of the small lawns, a young man was practicing tai chi. The little tables with the chessboards painted on them were empty, the black and white squares glistening with rainwater. A woman strode by with a dog, and one runner came through, listening to his iPod as he went by.

The little park runs along Tidal Strait That Everyone Calls a River, famous mostly as the place where mobsters in movies dump dead bodies. As I stood at the railing, I could hear the water surging past below me, mixing with the hum of traffic and other city noises. I could just picture all the commuters coming over the bridges, hurrying to work. So many of my mental images of the city come not from mobster movies, but from my favorite children's books, so I was not surprised to see a cheerful tugboat moving along happily on the river, excited to be seeing the world at last.


January 30, 2008


Through the train window, I saw snow-covered field after snow-covered field, miles and miles of whiteness, set off by grey sky and the dark branches of trees. The only color in the landscape came from groves of hemlocks, with their dark green branches and sometimes fields of reddish gold grasses, rising above the white. Whenever we passed through a small town, I saw empty backyards, pools covered with dark plastic for the winter, playhouse and doghouses covered with snow.

People around me on trains always seem to be crinkling plastic packages of treats. This time, I'd remembered to pack a lunch and a bag of trail mix. I unwrapped my sandwich and ate it slowly as I stared out at the peaceful scene moving past me. When I looked around inside the coach, I could see passengers sleeping. The teenage girl ahead of me had fallen asleep with her head against her mother, who was quietly reading a book.

The train wound slowly through miles of sleeping farmland, and then we followed the river the rest of the way, a river filled with grey water and floating chunks of ice, a beautiful but deserted landscape. No boats, no people, no activity, just grey water, bare trees, tall bridges, and bluish grey hills in the distance. After hours of rolling through this quiet landscape, the train pulled into a tunnel and we rattled through darkness, the lights flickering off and then on. Passengers woke up and began gathering their things as we approached the station. I could feel a shift in energy as the train doors opened.

The station was filled with people scurrying in every direction. As I made my way up the stairs and outside onto the street, moist air hit my face. Yellow taxicabs swarmed about, lining up to grab passengers. Horns honked, brakes squealed. The air smelled like grilled meat and french fries and stale urine. People hurried about, running every which way, carrying packages or briefcases or backpacks. A kid in a bright blue coat wove through the crowd on a bicycle. Neon signs flickered from store fronts. A man yelled at the kid on the bicycle. Two women called to each other in Spanish as they hurried across the street.

It always feels like a surprise, after traveling for hours through farmland and woods, to arrive in this noisy, fast city, filled with people and color and frantic movement.



Chunks of ice on the River Named for Dead Explorer. Photo taken through the train window.

January 28, 2008

That never sleeps

Tomorrow morning, I'll take one of my favourite train rides: a trip that winds down along a river and arrives eventually in the City Like No Other. I can't read or write on a train because it makes me motion sick, so what I do is just sit and stare out the window, eating the snacks I brought, daydreaming, making up stories about the stuff I see out the window or the other people in the train, but mostly — doing absolutely nothing. I love that. It's so seldom that I give myself permission to do nothing.

By afternoon, I'll be wandering around Urban Sophisticate Sister's neighborhood. When she gets out of work, we'll go out to eat, and then Wednesday, I've got the whole day to explore what is one of the most fascinating cities in the world before meeting a blogger friend for dinner.

That's my plan, mostly. I am going to wander around neighborhoods, visit some museums, and eat great vegan meals with friends. Oh, and beginning Wednesday night, I've got this whole conference to attend, too, jampacked with cool sessions and fantastic readings. My conference roommate and I have been trying to figure out what the conference acronym stands for: I thought it was A Wild Party, but she thinks it means Attractive Weird Poets. Either one works for me.

January 27, 2008

The right kind of snow

From the chairlift

When the alarm rang this morning, I knew it was time for me to head downstairs to make our lunch and pack our snowboarding gear. A glance out my bedroom window revealed a fresh layer of snow on the pine trees, which meant ski conditions would be terrific. But still it was difficult to leave the warmth of the down quilt.

I'd already had a busy weekend. Saturday morning, I'd gone with my parents for a short hike through pine trees. And we'd watched the premier of an underwater film about Pretty Colour Lake, a fascinating glimpse at the reefs underneath that clear water. I'd gone to get my hair cut, a momentous event that happens only once or twice a year. I'd gone on a romantic date with my husband, an afternoon that included popcorn, lemonade, and a movie about a pregnant teenager who talks and acts EXACTLY like sixteen-year-old Drama Niece. (Especially her mannerisms. It was a bit creepy.) And I'd gone to a "I'm tired of winter" party at Quilt Artist's home, a party that included candlelight, conversation, and several kinds of hot soup.

So when I woke up this morning, my first thought was that it would be a great day to stay home by the fire and eat the party leftovers that Quilt Artist had sent home with me. Luckily, the thought was fleeting. And we arrived at the ski slopes just as the chair lifts were beginning to operate.

The slopes were covered with new snow. And weather was warm enough that I could take 4 or 5 runs in a row without my feet feeling painful, and yet cold enough that the snow stayed as snow and not slush or ice. It was a day even Goldilocks would have found "just right."

Our confidence buoyed by the great conditions, my daughter and I left the more gentle slopes and hit the black diamond trails. Snowboarding, it turns out, is actually easier when you are moving faster. The hills weren't crowded because the terrain park was open for the first time all season, which meant that all those super fast snowboarders were over in the park hitting jumps and doing rails, and we had some of the best slopes all to ourselves. I'd felt tired that morning, but I carved down hill after steep hill, gaining just enough speed to keep the adrenaline flowing through my bloodstream, I felt wide awake.

Photo taken from the chairlift.

January 25, 2008

Bus stop

It was an unexpected twist in my morning routine. My friend Makes Bread had an early flight to catch, and she asked me to stay with her little boy until the school bus arrived.

When I got to her house on this cold and dark winter morning, her son was still eating his cereal while she was jamming all manner of items into her carry-on bag. I left her to her frenzied packing while Crazy Full of Energy and I sat at the wooden table and read a book about spiders. Well, mostly, I looked at the photos of spiders while he pretty much recited the entire book from memory. It was clear to me, from page one, that this little kid knew way more about spiders than I did. The only one I could identify accurately was the black widow spider, and that was mostly from the caption that said, "Mating can be DANGEROUS."

When Quilt Artist arrived, Makes Bread stopped cramming stuff into her bag, grabbed her coat, and hugged us goodbye. Crazy Full of Energy and I waved as they pulled out of the driveway and then started the ritual of putting on his outdoor clothes: coat, mittens, hat, backpack.

It's been years since I stood outside in the cold, waiting for a schoolbus. My own kids, when they were little, were able to just watch the bus from inside the house and run out when they saw it coming. But it's funny how quickly the memories come back, even after 35 years or so.

Within minutes of standing at the end of the driveway, my face began to feel cold. I looked hopefully down the road, but all I could see was the occasional car, speeding past through the snow, red tail lights glowing.

"We better jump to get warm!" yelled Crazy Full of Energy. He took off his backpack and set it on the ground, and we both jumped in place, stamping up and down in the snow.

When I was a kid, I went to a small Catholic school where the uniform for girls was a plaid skirt and knee socks. My bare knees would freeze on icy winter days, as we stood in the cold, waiting for the bus. I vowed to always wear pants in the winter when I was old enough to choose, and that's a vow I've pretty much kept. But even with jeans on now, my legs were getting cold.

Down the street, I saw some flashing lights, a glimpse of yellow. "Hey! I think it's the bus!" I said eagerly.

"Probably just the first bus," Crazy Full of Energy said in a resigned tone.

Oh, how I remember that. Our district likes to send out these phantom buses that circle neighborhoods, not picking up kids, not doing anything, just teasing those of us who are shivering in the cold. Apparently the sadistic practices of the bus garage have not changed in forty years.

The first bus went by, and then the second. It occurred to me to wonder what I was going to do if the right bus didn't show up.

"Hey, what school do you go to?" I asked Crazy Full of Energy. It seemed like information I should know. Or at least, information he should know. Surely a kid who could memorize a hundred interesting facts about spiders would have learned an important detail like the name of his school.

He shrugged. "I dunno."

"Is it the one with the pine trees around it? Or the one right on the main street of Traintrack Village?"

He shrugged again. "I dunno. Wanna see me jump over my backpack?"

Across the street, the sky began to glow pink, reddish hues filling in the soft spots behind the bare branches of a tall tree. I could see lights coming on in some of the houses, as the neighborhood began to rise. More and more cars began speeding past, hurrying to work.

And then suddenly, just as I was about to give up hope, the bus pulled up, making that squealing sound only school buses make. The door magically opened as the driver leaned forward. I held Crazy Full of Energy back until the bus was completely still, and then put his backpack on him and gave him a hug goodbye. He climbed up the stairs quickly, and then turned at the top to wave and grin. I waited in the cold one more minute, watching the bus pull away, before climbing into my car and driving towards the sunrise.

Promises to keep

Promises to keep

January 24, 2008

Rite of passage

The first thing you notice as you walk in the door are polished wooden pews, set in a big semi-circle, facing the front of the room. Amongst the pews, people sit, still wearing winter coats and hats, alone with their thoughts. They all keep looking up at the big square sign hanging from the ceiling, so that there's a constant head bobbing motion rippling through the congregation.

A man in a dark uniform comes out of a side door, rolling a bin in front of him. He kneels down to lift up muddy mats, tossing them into the bin and replacing them with clean ones. One mat is in use: a woman is standing on it. He waits, hands folded, eyes on the floor, until she steps away.

Every few minutes one person from the crowd, prompted by a sign above, leaps to his feet and makes his way to the front of the room, clutching an offering of paperwork. Music, pumped in from — well, from the seventies, it seems — provides a background of noise that covers the quiet questions and answers, the back and forth of information, the necessary ritual. When the music pauses, I can hear a low hum from the vending machines and flourescent lights. In the back of the room, a young couple lean against a counter, filling out a form, consulting each other with nervous giggles.

A woman standing behind a counter wears a floral Hawaiian shirt, the only bright spot of colour in this room full of neutral hues. A young woman in a fur-trimmed coat fidgets as she waits in line. "Stand all the way back," Floral Shirt says, and Fur-trimmed Woman moves self-consciously back, gasping a bit as a bright light clicks on, shining right into her face. "One, two, or three?" Floral Shirt asks. Fur-trimmed Woman blinks and hesitates just a moment before saying, "Three. They are all awful, but I guess three."

Fur-trimmed Woman is wearing fur-trimmed boots, and one still has a tag hanging off. As I watch her, I wonder the reason for the tag. Is it a status symbol? Does she plan to return the boots? Or is she just flaky? She leaves one line to go to across the room to another, leaving behind the black bag that looks like it might contain a laptop computer. I call to her, and she grabs the bag gratefully. Just flaky, I decide.

When it's Shaggy Hair Boy's turn, I stand with him. We produce documents. Some of the questions they ask him are difficult to answer. "How tall are you?" asks the man behind the counter. Shaggy Hair shrugs and looks at me. I look up at my newly tall son. "Uh, I don't know. It seems to change daily."

They take my son away to a side room for testing. I return to a wooden pew and read the signs on the bulletin board closest to me. I like the "Dangers of Drowsy Driving" poster; I think briefly about stealing it to hang in Boy in Black's dorm room. Another poster screams CLICK IT in huge letters. I spend several minutes contemplating what "click it" might mean in urban slang before I read the rest of the poster and see that they are talking about seat belt use. Another poster has ominous warnings about what will happen if I don't talk to my kids about sex and drugs.

My son is finally released from the side room. He tosses his long curls back, his hands still in the pockets of his winter coat, and motions for me with just a tilt of his head. Woman in Boring Cardigan asks for proof of identity — and demands that I pay her money. We pay quietly, without argument, and circle around the wooden pews. Once we are out the door, we breathe sighs of relief.

I hold up the car keys and look at my son. "Want to drive?"

January 23, 2008


The Answer

It's a traditional seventh grade project: each kid in the class builds a wooden car that is propelled by a rubber band. With-a-Why decided that his car should carry the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

That's a risk she'll have to take

At the end of the month, I'll be sharing a hotel room with Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend and hopefully changing her pseudonym to Yet Another Blogger Who Posed Naked for Jo(e)'s Blog.

We'll both be attending the Big Creative Writing Conference, the same one I went to last year. Late this afternoon, I sent her an email to confirm the arrival date, the check-in time, and other mundane details about our hotel stay.

Her reply email chimed in right away: "You better not be bringing that creepy Raggedy Ann doll to the conference."

January 22, 2008

Candy heart and zombie smile

Candy heart

I've loved Raggedy Ann since I was four years old. When I was young, she and Andy were my constant companions. I still have the original dolls, tucked in a box somewhere in my basement, but their faces, hair, limbs, and clothes have been replaced so many times that they look almost nothing like the originals. I slept with those dolls every night for years, and they came with me when I went to college. My brother, during his annoying younger brother teasing stage which lasted for years on account of the fact that he had four sisters, used to scare me at night by saying, "What would happen if the house caught on fire and you jumped out the window and forgot to bring Raggedy Ann and Andy?" I'd be so worried about this possibility that I couldn't fall asleep unless I was clutching both dolls.

As I got older, Red-haired Sister and I played dolls often, usually every night when it was time to go to bed. Sometimes Blonde Sister or my brother would join in, but more often than not, it was just the two of us. "Playing dolls" was mostly a form of story-telling for which the actual presence of the dolls wasn't really necessary. We'd shift back and forth, taking turns in the narrative we were weaving.

"Pretend-like we decide to visit a cabin in the woods."
"I know! Pretend-like the cabin belongs to us."
"Pretend-like someone died and left it to us."
"An old aunt or something."
"Aunt Clarissa. She died and left us a cabin, and it's not sad because we never knew her. We just got a letter in the mail saying we own this cabin now."
"Pretend-like it's a log cabin with two fireplaces."
"In the mountains."
"Pretend-like we get snowed in."
"Pretend-like we find a kitchen filled with supplies so we decide to make a big meal and just stay over night."
"Pretend-like we bring in wood from the woodpile and make two big fires."
"And we notice a trapdoor on the ceiling"
"Pretend-like we decide to stand on a chair and open the trap door."
"Pretend-like we find a big attic room."
"And it's filled with big trunks."
"And we decide to open the trunks to see what's in them."

We could go on for hours with this kind of narrative.

I hadn't thought about Raggedy Ann in ages, but on Christmas Eve at my parents' house this year, Red-haired Sister gave me a present to open.

"I'm a grown-up, " I said in surprise. "I don't get a present."

She said, in the kind of voice you'd use with a small child. "Well, sometimes if you've been good, you do."

Inside the wrapped gift was a Raggedy Ann doll! I checked immediately to make sure she had a heart that said, "I love you." My sister laughed when she saw me taking off the flowered dress to check. "That's the first thing I checked too." The doll now sits on the desk in my home office, taking a special place of honour, along with the seashells, feathers, rocks, and snakeskins that litter the edges of my bookshelves and desk.

I decided to take a photo of her for my blog, hoping that the familiar doll would stir up memories for those of my readers who are old enough to remember when rag dolls were far more exciting than any kind of computer game. I showed the photo to my kids, thinking somehow that I could share my warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia with three teenage boys.

Shaggy Hair took one look and said, "Wow, that's creepy."

"Creepy?" I said in surprise.

He learned over and took a closer look. "Yeah, creepy."

He shuddered. "That smile."

His brothers came over to peer at my laptop screen. "Scary," said With-a-Why.

Puzzled, I showed the photo to Film Guy. I can count on him to give a balanced and rational analysis of any kind of image. He took one look at the screen and laughed.

"Yeah, that's creepy. And the lamp makes it even worse. It's like a scene in a horror film. It's late at night, you've got only one light on, and there — under the single lamp — the doll is waiting ...."

January 21, 2008

Stacked against

Stacked against


On a warm winter day, riding the chairlift can be enjoyable. My daughter and I like to watch skiers and snowboarders as they come down the slope. We're always looking for the familiar coats and helmets of our own crew. "Hey, that's Shaggy Hair Boy coming down the headwall," my daughter will say. "He boards as if he's out to kill someone." We'll watch him hit jumps as he carves down the mountain at top speed. Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy are almost always together, traveling at speeds that make me nervous, calling to each other and joking as they go.

The beginner skiers go back and forth, weaving down the slope in the slowest possible way. You can tell the instructors from the coats they wear. And we'll see beginning boarders, too, nervously heel sliding down the steep parts because they are afraid to turn. I am always comforted when I see someone who seems less experienced than I am. "He needs to put more weight on his front leg," I'll say to my daughter, and we'll nod to each other sagely.

On warm days, my daughter and I talk on the chairlift, a time for bonding. But yesterday, the temperatures had dropped into the single digits, with gale force winds, and the chairlift seemed more like an instrument of torture than anything else. Despite my polypropylene long underwear, my thick fleece, and my winter coat, not to mention a whole layer of flesh and bodily organs, that chilly wind touched my bones.

My daughter, shivering in the seat next to me, her mittened hands up in front of her face to protect it from the wind, kept muttering over and over again: "This is terrible. This is horrible. This is terrible. This is horrible." I would add occasionally, like a chorus: "This is fucking cold."

Of course, even despite the icy wind that kept finding patches of skin whenever my goggles or helmet or neck gaiter shifted, I couldn't help admire how clear the air was, how blue the sky. We don't get blue sky here often enough for it to be a cliche: our sky is often grey and filled with clouds. Extremely cold temperatures give the sky a depth of colour and make the snow sparkly. From the chairlift, we could look out over the valley of white snow, surrounded by pine trees and bare hardwood trees and big stretches of snowy ski slopes. I've been reading a book about meditation that talks about being present for the moment, and really, there's nothing like bitter coldness to keep a person in the moment.

Daughter and I have been perfecting our getting-off-the-chairlift technique, which still needs a bit of work. We've figured out how to turn sideways and step off, but then as we go boarding down the ramp, which has been icy and fast, we are only inches away from each other. My self-defensive snowboarding instinct is apparently stronger than my maternal instinct because every time, without even being conscious that I'm doing it, I reach out with both hands and shove my daughter out of the way. "Your own daughter!" Drama Niece said in mock horror, the first time she watched us. Even readers who know nothing about snowboarding can probably grasp that shoving the other person to the ground as you get off violates chairlift etiquette.

Traveling up through the frigid temperatures to get to the top of the mountain was worth it. The snow was hard-packed, with some powder on top, the wind swirling the fine grains of white into patterns. As I get more experienced, I am losing my fear, which means I actually relaxed and enjoyed myself as I boarded down the slope. And of course the other benefit of the weather is that there were no lines at the lift.

By lunch time, we had all gathered inside to warm up. We'd picked the two picnic tables by the south windows, and the sun on my back felt wonderful as I ate a sandwich, some juice, and french fries with hot sauce. On icy cold days, lunch takes longer, because everyone needs time for their feet to thaw. The teenagers joked and jostled each other and told stories about what had happened on the slopes. DramaNiece, who had joined us for the weekend and was zipping around on skis, came in with a bright red face, saying in her dramatic fashion: "That wind is like barbed splinters of ice jabbing my face."

By late afternoon, we were ready to return to a warm house with flames crackling in the fireplace and spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. Spending the day snowboarding in an icy wind made me feel alive and awake — and exhausted as well. My husband and I had planned to go to the movies, but we decided instead to cuddle under a down quilt and watch a DVD on his laptop computer rather than go back outside into the cold.

January 19, 2008

Seventeen candles

Seventeen candles

The word went out through text messages, instant messenger, and cell phone calls: "Candle ceremony at 10 pm."

Drama Niece came by train from Camera City. My daughter picked her up and brought her along to a meeting on campus, and then they picked up Skater Boy on their way through Traintrack Village. Quick arrived at about 8 o'clock, carrying a pillow, a quilt, and a birthday present for Shaggy Hair Boy. Pirate Boy pulled up in his truck and came in to take his usual spot, lounging on the floor by the fire. Blonde Niece came in with a silly present: a bunch of ponytail bands. (Shaggy Hair is always borrowing them from her.) Spouse came home early enough to get a spot on the comfy couch. Boy in Black and First Extra, who both had Ultimate Frisbee practice, came well after dark, but they brought with them a present: a brand new disc. Their plan, they explained, had been to stop and fill the disc with hot sauce, but the local pizza place was closed when they got there.

The birthday celebration had begun earlier: my parents stopped by while the kids were still at school to leave one of my mother's hand-painted birthday cards on the piano, where Shaggy Hair would see it first thing — and a homemade apple pie that they put safely into microwave, where the cats couldn't get at it. When I took Shaggy Hair to his guitar lesson, he kept saying how much he was looking forward to his birthday pie. When we got home, he went straight to the kitchen to grab a fork and begin eating. "I'd offer you some, " I heard him say to With-a-Why, "but it's a tradition for me to be an asshole about it."

It's still hard for me to believe that the sleepy baby I gave birth to seventeen years ago has turned into this tall young man. As I began gathering candles for the candle ceremony, pulling them off windowsills and ledges all over the house, I noticed that Shaggy Hair had broken with tradition and was sharing his pie with his younger brother. They were both on the couch by the fire, eating happily.

When we first began doing candle ceremonies with the kids, they were very young, and they'd giggle and squirm and just say a sentence or two. "I like Shaggy Hair Boy," or "I think that Shaggy Hair Boy is funny." We'd be done in about ten minutes. But the candle ceremony has expanded to include stories and anecdotes that are repeated each year, complete with tangents, side discussions, and all kinds of jokes. Shaggy Hair's ceremony this year went until midnight.

Most of the candles we use come from the monastery, so the room smelled like beeswax as each person told stories about Shaggy Hair. The little flames of light kept shifting around the room, many of the candles ending up on the oak bench we use as a coffee table. Drama Niece and Blonde Niece kept playing with candles, and Quick kept fixing the ones that went out, while Shaggy Hair did his usual game of pouring hot wax into a plate to make a weird sculpture.

When it was my turn, everyone in the room groaned and began teasing me. "Do we have to hear it again?" But of course, I am the only person who can properly tell the story of Shaggy Hair's birth. It's a dramatic one too. The Persian Gulf war had just begun. We'd borrowed a little black-and-white television from my in-laws (we didn't own a TV at the time) and were watching the news coverage of the war. I can remembering feeling kind of nauseous, going into the bathroom, sitting down on the cold linoleum, and feeling sad about the war, about the senseless deaths that were going to happen, feeling angry at the world my kids would have to grow up in. And that was when they began: the first contractions of labor.

The next day we dropped our two kids off at my mother's house and drove through a snowstorm to the birthing center, where I tried to forget all that was happening in the world and concentrate on giving birth. The contractions were slow and easy, and the sleepy baby inside me moved lazily about. The single difficult thing about that birth was that he was sucking his two middle fingers and continued to suck on them as he made his way out of my body. The midwife and I had been puzzled as to why his head wouldn't drop even after I was fully dilated (I'd already given birth twice before so it didn't make sense) but when I finally pushed him out, she explained. "Oh, he's got his fingers in his mouth." THAT explained the weird elbow placement as he came through the birth canal.

"Okay, let's move on," one of the teenage boys in the room said. They are always happy to get the birth story over with. So I talked about how smart Shaggy Hair is, how creative, how expressive. I can always tell what he's feeling by looking at his face. I love how hard he works, how disciplined he is, what a great sense of humor he has. The others in the room chimed in with their compliments. He's "sick at Warcraft" and "nasty on the piano." Their compliments were less sappy than mine, but no less sincere.

We ended with my daughter. It's always hard to come last because everything has already been said, but she came up with a story that no one else had said yet: the time that when we were camping and he was trying to get a tigertail out of a tree so he threw a metal pot into the tree. The metal pot hit a branch and came right back down on his head. Everyone loves to tease Shaggy Hair with stories like that, but my daughter also ended on the ceremony on a sincere note. She said that Shaggy Hair Boy is the most genuine person she knows. He doesn't pretend. And in the dark room, lit by fire and seventeen beeswax candles, everyone in the circle nodded in agreement.

January 17, 2008

Peanut butter and jelly

"And the special today is chicken and eggplant parmesan," said the waitress. She handed us menus and walked away. Kindergarten Friend shuddered.

"Isn't chicken parmesan what you usually order?" I asked.

"Yeah, but not with eggplant in it." She looked up from the menu. "What a nasty vegetable. I can't even figure out why it exists."

Our eating habits are almost entirely opposite. We both grew up in the era when kids brought metal lunch boxes to school, usually holding the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and we ate lunch together every day from first grade to eighth grade. But she doesn't like peanuts, she will eat only jelly. And I don't like jelly, I put only peanut butter on my sandwiches. Perhaps this is the secret that has held our friendship together for over forty years.

An Italian restaurant is a good meeting place for us: we both eat pasta. And we ate slowly last night, because we hadn't seen each other in months, and we had all kinds of catching up to do. We discussed our kids, our siblings, our parents. And of course, we had to exchange the usual gossip about the Big Stone Church School community, relaying encounters with friends from elementary school.

"Remember Irish Name Boy?" I asked.

"Of course," she said. "I mean, I haven't seen him since 1975 or so ...."

"I ran into him last week at the ski slopes. He moved south with his wife about twelve years ago, but then he got a divorce. He had to stay there until his kids were grown up, and then he moved back here."

"His kids are grown up? That makes me feel old."

"And guess who he's dating? Girl Who Rode Horses."

"No way!"

That's the amazing thing about the Big Stone Church School community: how connected we still feel, even after all these years. Kindergarten Friend herself married someone from our small class. My brother last summer married someone from his class. People move away, lead some kind of life somewhere else, and then come back and marry someone from the community years later. And many of us are still friends. When I run into someone from Big Stone Church School community, it's always like seeing a cousin.

After we caught up on all the news, we talked about ourselves, of course. I love talking to someone who's known me my whole life: I can be completely honest. During one rambling narrative about something that happened last fall, I kept interrupting myself to say, "See, I was right! Didn't I tell you?"

Only a close friend can tolerate that kind of gloating. And Kindergarten Friend, she actually encourages it.

And of course, we are almost exactly the same age. When she gave up squinting at the tiny print on the dessert menu and handed it to me, I laughed and put it back on the table. "Hey, if you can't read it, I can't either."

We'd gotten to the restaurant early, but suddenly I looked up and noticed that all around us, the wait staff were clearing tables, putting on new tablecloths, and sweeping the floor. All the other customers had gone home. We'd been talking for hours. Reluctantly, we put on our coats and headed out into the dark winter night.

January 16, 2008

Shadow and light

Almost dusk

I was just a kid when I began to notice the way winter evenings reach backwards into late afternoon.

Sometimes I'd be outside playing ice hockey on the skating pond with my brother and his friends, or building a fort with my brother in the drifts of snow near the pine trees, or shoveling the driveway because my father was on his way home from work. I'd feel that sudden drop in temperature, the coldness that comes with the long blue shadows.

Other times, I'd be in the house, doing homework at the card table set up in front of the picture window, or reading a book on the couch, and I'd notice that the room was getting dim, that I couldn't quite see the words on the paper. I'd look out the window to see the world in cold shadow, with just the white snow glowing.

I'd switch on the lamps, the golden light spilling onto my books and papers. Or if we were outside, we'd come in, stamping the snow off our boots, stripping off wet mittens and scarves and snowpants. The house smelled like baking usually, cookies or bread, or perhaps pot roast or chili, something hot for supper. I'd hear my mother in the kitchen, spoons or pot lids clinking. Soon she'd call me to set the table, pour the ice water.

The lights in the house turned the big picture window into a dark mirror, but when I pressed my face against it, I could see outside and watch snowflakes falling against a darkening sky.

January 15, 2008

Morning sun

Thumpety thump


For the last month, the house has been full of teenagers, kids, and young adults. But the college kids have gone back to campus, the younger kids are back in school, and spring semester has begun. Yesterday, I had a busy day, teaching classes, meeting students, and talking to advisees.

Today I worked at home. As I sat at the table with my laptop, silence settled comfortably around me. No one at the piano, no one at the drums, no one playing the guitar. The living room looked empty without the cluster of bodies and laptops. I could hear the cat on the couch purring. When a gust of wind blew snow across the backyard, faint music came from the wind chimes that hang near the back door

January 14, 2008

Dropping from the veils of morning

Dropping from the veils of morning

Boy in Black stopped home today to pick up his guitar. He sat on the arm of my chair while we talked about his first day of classes, and then he looked at the photo on the screen of my laptop.

Me: What do you think of this photo?
Boy in Black: That's the picture you took on our way to snowboarding yesterday.
Me: Do you like it?
Boy in Black: Yeah. You going to put in on your blog?
Me: I guess.
Boy in Black: Are you going to write a post about it?
Me: I wasn't planning to.
Boy in Black: You can say how you got everyone in the car mad by stopping to take a photo.
Me: It took ONE MINUTE to take the photo.
Boy in Black: And how the chairlift was about to open.
Me: I didn't even get out of the car.
Boy in Black: And everyone was yelling at you that we were going to be late.
Me: We were practically the first people into the lodge.
Boy in Black: And how the car behind us almost hit us because you just stopped out of the blue.
Me: I didn't think anyone was behind us.
Boy in Black: You never look in your mirrors.
Me: It was a deserted country road.
Boy in Black: So we almost got in an accident with Neighbor Family.
Me (laughing): It's funny that the car behind us turned out to be them.
Boy in Black: Well, they left their house way later, but you drive so slow.
Me: I was driving at a perfectly normal speed.
Boy in Black: And stopping to take pictures.
Me: Once. I took exactly one picture.

Boy in Black: Yeah, write a post about how peaceful it was.

January 13, 2008


The local ski slopes are dominated by teenagers. I'd say I'm roughly thirty years older than the average snowboarder. That's not even an exaggeration.

My snowboard instructor is a young man who reminds me of my own Shaggy Hair Boy. Last week, when he was assigned to me, he walked over shyly, snowboard under his arm.

I spoke up quickly. "I boarded for one season two years ago, but last year, I got injured on the first day of the season. I'm terrified of getting off the chairlift." I felt it only fair to warn him.

Freckles moved across his face as he looked at me. Something in his eyes made me think he didn't have much experience teaching. And he had just realized he'd been assigned a difficult student.

"Don't worry," I told him. "I took a run with my son this morning. So I've already been on the chairlift once."

He looked relieved. He seemed a bit nervous about teaching — this is his first season as an instructor, he told me on the chairlift — so I gave him tips. "See, learning at my age is hard because I'm old enough to be afraid. I know what it feels like to break a bone or stretch a ligament. I know what to do; I just have to get over the fear. So mostly, you just have to keep saying encouraging things to give me confidence. And pushing me to go faster."

He nodded. "I can do that."

He gave me careful instructions for getting off the chairlift, but then when the time came, I didn't push off fast enough. I knocked into him, and we both fell down. We had to roll quickly to get out the way of the two skiers who came right after us. As we untangled our snowboards at the bottom of the snowy ramp, he seemed horrified that he had fallen. I think he was worried that he'd hurt his credibility as an instructor.

"No, it's okay," I assured him. "Neither one of us is injured, so it counts as a win."

We took three runs that day (the lessons are an hour and a half long), and he did fine as an instructor, giving me compliments every time I stopped, just as I had told him to. He seemed puzzled by the number of teenagers who kept yelling my name from the chairlift — or waving to me as they went by. "It seems like everyone here knows you," he said.

This week, he greeted me with a pleased smile when I showed up for the ten o'clock lesson. "The conditions aren't great," he said. "I was afraid you wouldn't come." The weather has been unseasonably warm, and only seven trails were open.

The snow was soft in some spots and icy in other, but still, it felt good to be moving across the slopes, carving back and forth in the sunshine. On the chairlift, it was warm enough to take off goggles and talk. Young Snowboard Instructor told me about the lessons he'd taught that weekend, and I said encouraging things about his teaching. Then I talked to him about snowboarding, and he said encouraging things about how I was doing. We looked down at the people boarding below us and analyzed their snowboarding techniques.

Then Young Snowboard Instructor waved his arm at the trickling creek, the big patches of mud and grass that lay beyond the area of the snow-making machines. "It's ridiculous how warm it is," he said. "Someday you won't even be able to snowboard here at all, thanks to global warming." The next thing you know, we were talking about politics.

"There are so many Democratic candidates right now that it's confusing," he said.

"Who do you want to vote for?" I asked.

"I can't vote in this election," he said. "I'm only seventeen."



Blonde Niece on the ski slope.

January 12, 2008

What books are for

Conversation with my youngest son on the way to his piano lesson.

With-a-Why: Hey, do you know the Pythagorean theorem?
Me: Yeah, of course. A squared plus B squared equals C squared.
With-a-Why: But do you know what that means?
Me: If you take the hypotenuse of a right triangle and square that number, then that should equal the sum of the squares of the two smaller sides.
With-a-Why: My math teacher said that it's the one math formula our parents would remember.
Me: (laughing) So he was right.
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: Well, I remember other math formulas too, but I like math, and a lot of people don't.
With-a-Why: He said everyone remembers the Pythagorean theorem.
Me: I think it's because of the Wizard of Oz.
With-a-Why: The Wizard of Oz?
Me: In the Wizard of Oz, when the Scarecrow gets the diploma, he says the Pythagorean theorem, except with an isosceles triangle instead of a right triangle. Isosceles is a cool word, so it sounds intelligent, but it makes the formula wrong. But that's why people my age know the Pythagorean theorem.
With-a-Why: Because of the Wizard of Oz?
Me: Yeah. You know the scene I'm talking about, right?
With-a-Why: Yeah. But that's not why people remember it.
Me: Sure it is.
With-a-Why: The Pythagorean theorem is awesome. That's why people remember it.
Me: Well, it is cool. If I close my eyes, I can picture all these triangles, lined up each with a right angle, and I sort of picture the sides of the triangle as a rope, so that you can move the rope and shift the sides of each triangle, and I can imagine that there would be a pattern to the way the shorter sides of the triangle relate to the longest side.
With-a-Why: It's cool how it works out. Every. time.
Me: Well, that's the reassuring thing about math formulas. It's nice that they stay the same.
With-a-Why: I like math because it makes sense.
Me: Yeah. Well, I like that too. There is so much in the world that doesn't make sense.
With-a-Why: Yeah. Like people hitting each other with little black pebbles at high speed.
Me: Little black pebbles? Who does that?
With-a-Why: (Looking at me sideways.) It happens all the time.
Me: Oh, you mean bullets.
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: Who calls them little black pebbles?
With-a-Why: The rabbits. In Watership Down.
Me: Oh, right. Well, I guess that's what books are for. For things that don't make so much sense.
With-a-Why: Yeah.

January 11, 2008


Serious gardeners love to talk about the right way to make a compost pile. Some of my gardening friends add stuff in layers, in some kind of careful ratio. Some are very systematic about how often they turn everything over with a pitchfork. I've heard scientists argue about the optimal height for a compost pile. (Some say three feet, and others say four.) Other gardeners will argue that you should have not one, but two compost piles, so that you always have some compost ready to use.

I admit, I have nothing much to add to that conversation. I am a lazy gardener. The compost bucket in my kitchen fills up fast — as you can imagine it might in a houseful of mostly vegetarians who eat constantly. But in the cold weather, which is most of the year here, I don't bother walking all the way out to my compost pile. I put on a pair of boots, grab the bucket, go out through the garage to the raised bed gardens right near the back door, and toss the scraps right onto the vegetable garden. It just seems easier. That way, I don't have to put on my coat. And it's all going to end up in the garden anyhow, right? When spring comes, the compost thaws and decays, and I just turn it into the soil. It's probably not the optimal way to enrich my garden, but it's good enough for me.

I keep several big bowls of fruit on my counter at all times, and if ever I find a piece of fruit that is starting to rot, I usually open the back door, still standing on the kitchen linoleum in my socks, and just chuck the fruit in the direction of the garden. I do the same thing with apple cores or grapefruit rinds. My aim has gotten quite accurate. It's pretty much the only fun part of cleaning the kitchen, unless you count the sarcastic comments I have to hear from Boy in Black about how things worked so much better when he was in charge. In the cold weather, the fruit stays colourful for weeks or even months, and the compost spread across the snow can actually be quite pretty.


January 10, 2008


My woods are flooded with snowmelt. Long puddles stretch past mossy stumps and tree trunks. During these crazily high temperatures, the snowbanks have melted, and I can walk without snowshoes, without mittens, without even a hat to keep me warm. The trees are bare, their dark branches silhouetted against a grey winter sky. Only the young beech trees cling to their gold-brown leaves. Green ferns lie completely flat against the ground, waiting for the next snowstorm. In the dark puddles, swatches of white remain, smooth lumps of ice that look like fish, or mermaids perhaps.

With no snow and no foliage, I can see far into the bare woods. Yesterday, I walked the south boundary of my property, adjusting my eyes to catch tendrils of surveyor ribbon, old fence posts that lean to the side, and bits of barbed wire long since grown into the bark of trees. We have fifty acres of land, most of it woods. In the lush foliage of summer, the boundaries can be almost impossible to find, but on a warm day in January, with the snow gone, I can find the faded ribbons, the iron posts, the edges. Dusk comes early this time of year, though, and it wasn't long before shadows made me turn around and head back home, towards a warm fire and hot bowl of lentil stew.


January 09, 2008

The missing book saga

The night before he went back to school after Christmas vacation, just as my daughter and I were leaving to do some errands, With-a-Why announced to me that he needed a book. The book in question was some kind of junior high biography of Charles Dickens.

With-a-Why: I need it for school.
Me: But you haven't been in school for almost two weeks.
With-a-Why: I have a test on it.
Me: Tomorrow?
With-a-Why: Yeah. Or maybe the next day.
Daughter: Why would you have a test the day after vacation?
With-a-Why: Because we had a snow day right before vacation and that mixed things up.
Me: So you were supposed to have a test on the book two weeks ago?
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: And you haven't read the book yet?
With-a-Why: Um. Not exactly. (He shrugged and looked down at the book he was reading, a science fiction novel.)
Me: And you don't have the book yet? You are just telling me right now that you need it?
With-a-Why: They gave us copies of the book. But I lost mine.
Me: You lost it?
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: Shouldn't we look for it?
With-a-Why: No, I lost it at school.
Me: And that was more than two weeks ago?
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Daughter: (laughing) He's sooo the baby of the family.

Usually, I try not to bail my kids out of these kinds of situations, with the idea that they should accept the consequences of their behavior, but since my daughter and I were in a bookstore that evening, we did look for the book. The bookstore didn't have it. I reported this news to With-a-Why. He didn't seem overly concerned.

Me: I couldn't get a copy of the book.
With-a-Why: The other kids said it wasn't very good anyhow.
Me: So you don't really want to read it?
With-a-Why: No.
Me: Maybe you should talk to the teacher about it.
With-a-Why: (shrugged and looked back down at the book he was reading)
Boy in Black: We should order a copy of the book online.
Me: Why? That would never come in time.
Boy in Black: But he will need to give the school back a copy of the book whether he's read it or not.
Me: Oh, right.

During the last week, With-a-Why has been steadily reading the science fiction books he got for Christmas. He reads books far beyond the seventh grade level, so I wasn't overly concerned about him missing out on the assigned book, which didn't seem to be any great work of literature. I wondered how he'd feel about getting a low grade on a test, though, since he's used to getting the highest grades in the class. The next day after school, he was sitting cosily by the fire with one of his new Christmas books when I thought to ask him again about the missing book.

Me: Hey, did you talk to your teacher about losing the book?
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: (surprised that my shy child actually talked to the teacher) Oh, good for you. What did you tell her?
With-a-Why: I asked her if I could have another copy of the book.
Me: What did she say?
With-a-Why: No.
Me: Oh, well. That's probably her official policy.
With-a-Why: She said the test was multiple choice.
With-a-Why: (looking back down at his book) I can wing it.
Film Guy: (laughing) I used to do that all the time.

I'd forgotten the whole incident until With-a-Why mentioned it over the weekend. As usual, a bunch of us were gathered by the fire, with books and laptop computers. With-a-Why looked up from his book and said to his oldest brother, "Hey, I don't need that book we ordered."

Me: What? Did you find the book?
With-a-Why: No. The teacher collected all the books yesterday.
Daughter: And you didn't have one.
With-a-Why: But she had a list of numbers that were on the books when she gave them to us. The girl next to me had my book.
Me: What? How did she get it?
With-a-Why: (shrugged and looked back down at his book)
Boy in Black: (laughing) Niiiiice.

The last conversation about the book took place again when we were all gathered by the fire.

With-a-Why: Hey, you know the test on that book?
Me: The one you didn't read?
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: How did you do?
With-a-Why: I got a 90.

He smirked and went back to reading his book.

January 08, 2008


Tea kettle self-portrait

"Hey, what do you think of this photo?" I asked.

I'd snapped a self-portrait in the tea kettle that was sitting on the picnic table in our backyard. Yes, the weather has been so warm that I drank my morning cup of tea outside. And as you can see from the photo, most of the snow has melted away.

Often after I move my photos from my camera to my computer, I will grab the nearest person and make them look at the photos with me. When I showed this photo to Film Guy, who happened to be sitting near me on the couch, he nodded knowingly and said, "The reflection in the tea kettle shot. Well, that's certainly been done before."

He paused. "Except you're supposed to be naked."


The teenagers in the household have given me all kinds of grief about the absolutely innocent nude photos I've posted on my blog. "My eyes are still burning," First Extra will say, shuddering. My own sons rarely read my blog, so worried are they that they might see their Mom with some tiny bit of skin showing. And now Film Guy was suggesting a nude shot?

"It's a photo that's been all over the internet," Film Guy explained. He said that some guy posted a picture of a tea kettle, one that looked exactly like mine, on an online auction site, with a reflection of his naked self on the tea kettle. Apparently that photo started a trend called reflectoporn. I checked an urban myths website, which confirmed what Film Guy said: sometimes people trying to sell objects with reflective surfaces make sure that the online photo includes a reflection of naked body parts.

It's hard to see how reflectoporn would work as a marketing technique. I mean, who in the world would want to buy a tea kettle that showed a naked middle-aged guy with a potbelly leering from the reflection? That hardly seems a bonus. And let's face it. You don't need a higher degree in physics to figure out that, unless you live in some kind of Harry Potter book, the tea kettle that came in the mail would no longer hold the image of the weird naked guy.

I thought for a moment about taking a nude shot in the tea kettle. Just to keep up the internet tradition. But the weather, mild as it has been for January, just isn't THAT warm.

January 07, 2008

Sidewalk art

Sidewalk art

The weather today was unusually — and unnaturally — warm for January. Snowbanks melted, ditches filled with water, streams rose in the woods. Taking advantage of the dry pavement, I drove out to the main post office to renew my passport, went to the grocery store, and drove up to campus to get folders of course material that I needed. Campus was quiet — students don't come back for another week. The paved walkways at school, normally covered this time of year with hard-packed snow and ice, were decorated instead with bird droppings, in patterns that looked to me like the birds were trying to be artistic.

January 06, 2008


Today was the day. After weeks of throbbing pain in my knee, months of having to be careful how I walked, long nights of cursing how long it takes a ligament to heal, months of stretching my leg to get it back to normal — this morning I returned to the place where I'd been injured. After a full year of dreading the moment, it was time to tackle my new and completely rational fear. The time had come to face my terror of getting off a chairlift.

The morning began with the usual last-minute rush as the kids and I raced around the house, getting our gear together, shoving it all two vehicles. We wanted to be at the ski center before the lift began running, and that meant we had to leave by 8 am. My plan was to take a run before my snowboard lesson: I'd already decided that Boy in Black, and not some random instructor, was going to be the person with me when I got off the chairlift for the first time since my injury.

"Hurry up!" I kept yelling at the kids.

"What about my green neck thing?" Shaggy Hair asked. "I can't find it."

"You don't need it, " I told him. "It's pretty warm out."

He looked at me. "But when I wear my green neck thing, I feel invincible."

After finding all manner of missing items, including the green neck gaiter, and yelling at Boy in Black about ten times to wake up, I finally got the half-asleep teenagers out the door and into the vehicles, and we took off, leaving my husband with a quiet albeit messy house to himself. By about 9 am, I had my snowboard strapped to my right foot and was sitting on the chairlift, heading upwards.

Despite the sinking feeling in my stomach, I did take a minute to look at the scene. The mountains in Snowstorm region are gentle mountains, covered with pine trees and hardwoods, with big white swatches that are the ski slopes. The weather was unseasonably warm, and the air felt soft, one of those warm days when you can take your mittens off to adjust your bindings without losing a finger to frostbite. The snow was soft, not icy, and below us, a couple of boarders were hitting the jump on the headwall. It was a perfect day for snowboarding, really, if only I could get off the lift without killing myself.

"I am so scared about this," I said to my oldest son, who was sitting right next to me, his own snowboard dangling from his right foot.

He adjusted his goggles. "Well, it's too late to change your mind."

I kept reviewing aloud what I needed to do. Turn sideways on the metal chair. Get my board down onto the ground. Get my left foot onto the stomp pad. Push off from the chair before it could knock me down. Boy in Black listened patiently, nodded, and didn't say much. He's a pretty laidback personality. This is his eighth year snowboarding, and I knew he could get out of my way no matter which way I slid.

As we approached the ramp, Boy in Black lifted the metal restraining bar, and I tried to turn sideways as much as I could. Of course, I was hampered by the fact that I was wearing heavy outdoor clothes, I was on a metal chair dangling 30 feet above the ground, and I had this long heavy snowboard strapped to my right foot.

And then, the moment came. We approached the ramp. We were close enough that I could even read the clock inside the little hut where the lift operator works.

"Just put your board down and go," Boy in Black said.

And I did it. With my right foot strapped in and my left foot on the stomp pad, I coasted away from the chair lift and stopped in a patch of new snow. When I finally took a breath, I could feel all kinds of adrenaline surging through my bloodstream.

Later this evening, after a full day of boarding, and enough trips up the chair lift that it no longer scared me, I told the dramatic story to First Extra, who doesn't snowboard but had come over to hang out with Boy in Black at the end of the day.

"It was one of the scariest things I've ever done, " I told him.

"Ever?" he said.

"Well, maybe in the top 100 scariest moments."

Then I thought about it some more. "I can remember feeling just a little scared right before Daughter was born — because I'd never had a baby before — but that was different because I wasn't dreading it. This was something I've been dreading for a whole year."

First Extra said in his usual dry way. "Well, having a baby is natural. Jumping off a metal chair with a piece of wood strapped to your foot is not."


January 05, 2008

Headed to the chair

This afternoon, I piled socks, mittens, and gloves onto the table, trying to match them up. I searched the house for anything we were missing, and yelled to the kids to get their stuff together. "Does everyone have a helmet? Whose goggles are these? With-a-Why, did you try your boots on to make sure they still fit?"

Boy in Black took the snowboards to the ski shop yesterday to get them waxed. We made a trip this afternoon to get a few things we needed: a new pair of boots for Boy in Black, a new neck gaiter for me, some new boarding socks to replace worn out ones. We picked up Skater Boy on the way, and I called Blonde Niece to make sure she had gotten her stuff together. Now that the holidays are over, snowboarding season has begun. Early tomorrow morning, we'll head to the ski slopes.

Anyone who read my blog last winter probably remembers that I injured my knee on the ski slopes. I think I mentioned the injury in every blog post from the end of January until the middle of March. I stretched a ligament (the medial collateral ligament, to be specific) and pinched the cartilage. The worst part is that I hurt myself on the very first run of the season. Well, actually, I hurt myself BEFORE the first run of the season, since getting off the chairlift was what caused the leg to twist in a way that a leg is not supposed to twist. I ended up missing the whole season.

The good news is the my knee is fully recovered, and I have no lingering fear of snowboarding.

The bad news is that I am terrified of the damned chair lift.

A chair lift, I keep explaining to anyone who will listen, is designed for someone wearing skis. It's very easy to get off a chair lift when you are wearing skis. You just push off straight forward and ski down the little hill, all poised and graceful. Even little kids can get off a chairlift with ease when they are wearing skis.

Getting off a chair lift is completely different when you've got this long stiff snowboard awkwardly attached to one leg and not the other. You've got to twist your body sideways on a metal chair, stick one leg forward despite the heavy board dangling from it, shove the board down so that it will make contact with the icy ramp, get your loose foot to magically find the stomp pad on the board, and then somehow move sideways down the little slope before the chairlift knocks you in the head. Getting off a ski slope chairlift while wearing a snowboard is a completely unnatural act. It's like trying to ride a horse while wearing ice skates or playing hockey with snorkel fins on.

Wish me luck.



January 04, 2008


The dentist, a man with silver hair and the traditional white lab coat, pulled his mask down from his face as he came out of the maze of dentist offices and into the waiting room. A teenage girl trailed behind him. He spoke to the woman sitting opposite me, clearly the girl's mother.

"We had a little problem, " he said. "Even with the novacaine, she says it still—"

"I know," said the girl's mother. "You had to give her another shot."

He started to say something, then stopped, looking puzzled. He turned to look at the teenage girl standing next to him.

"And you only did the one side so she's going to need another appointment," the mother finished.

His head bounced back in her direction like a dentist bobble head. "Um, how ..."

"She sent me a text message," the mother explained.

"From the chair?" he asked.

"Yep," said the daughter. She pulled a cell phone out of her jeans and waved it in the air.

The dentist threw up his hands. "I think it's time for me to retire."

Winter sunlight

Winter sunlight

January 03, 2008

Blue morning light

The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is look out the window to check on the weather. Often a fresh snow has fallen during the night, giving the lawn and woods that clean, sparkling look. A few inches of snow covers muddy tracks, smoothes edges, and makes everything look new. If more than a foot has fallen, I get dressed to go out and shovel, but otherwise, I admire the snow and then climb back in bed to snuggle under the quilt a few minutes more, listening sleepily while my husband attempts to get our youngest son to come down for breakfast. With-a-Why likes to eat his cereal and then come climb into bed to snuggle with me for a few minutes at the beginning of the day, so I feel it's my parental obligation to stay cosily in bed.

Eventually, though, With-a-Why has to brush his teeth and get dressed for school, and I go downstairs to feed the cats. By then the house is fairly warm, but a blast of cold air rushes into the house when I open the sliding glass door to let in any cats that stayed out during the night. If we are getting a warm spell, the back step will be covered with lovely ice crystals, formed from the water that drips from the eaves. On windy days, powdery snow dances in circles across the yard, smoothing out the edges of footprints.

Whenever it doesn't snow for a few days, the snow on the ground becomes a map, a record of activities. Out front, it's easy to see that a flurry of activity took place around the pile of snow which the kids are making into a ramp. Rabbits leave their distinctive tracks when they go running across the side yard, and sometimes I'll see the trail of a fox. The deep tracks are from the hooves of white-tailed deer who come to browse for food along the edges of lawns and roads. A big section of churned-up snow in the backyard means that Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair led a gang out to play Ultimate Frisbee during the night. When, later in the day, I pull on a coat and boots for a walk in the woods, I come across all kinds of tracks and rubbings and scat, reminders of all the other creatures who share the land with us.

Paw prints

Cat paw prints on my back step in the blue light of early morning.

January 02, 2008

New Year promises

When I woke up on New Year's Day, the house was quiet. The floor of the boys' room was filled with sleeping bodies, teenage boys wrapped in blankets. My husband, who is normally the first to wake up because he's in charge of the alarm clock, breakfast, and school lunches, had given himself permission to sleep late and was still cuddled under the down quilt on our bed, taking a much-deserved day off. The downstairs bore the traces of an all-night party: guitars propped against furniture, empty glasses on the counter, drumsticks set aside on the window sill, the piano bench pulled out, sheet music piled on an amp, a stack of board games on the floor near the fireplace.

I dressed quickly, left my sleeping household, and drove just a mile up the road for what has become a New Year's tradition: brunch with some of my friends. We gathered in a farmhouse that was built more than a century ago, the home of Makes Bread. Gusts of wind blew snow across the road and rattled the windows, but inside her kitchen, the warm air smelled of chili and gingerbread. We stood around her kitchen counter or sat around the big wooden table, eating leftover holiday food we had brought from our homes, plus all the amazing food that Makes Bread always provides.

We talked about the holidays, about our extended families, about children and grandchildren and parents. Mystic Woman told us about a new year's tradition that involves putting various items into a paper bag, leaving her house before midnight, and then making sure the paper bag is the first thing that crosses the threshold after midnight. She's a deeply spiritual woman who is quite willing to poke fun at herself. "Yeah, there I am, out in the snow in my pajamas, clutching a paper bag, peering through the windows to see if the ball has dropped yet. The neighbors think I'm crazy."

In a conversation about animal spirits, I repeated what the group has heard before: if I have an animal totem, it's the snake. It's not the animal I would choose — I'd prefer something a bit warmer and cuddlier — but it seems to be the animal that has chosen me, appearing in both dreams and real life. Healer Man, a down-to-earth guy who works as a plumber but studies mysticism as well, repeated what I've often heard about the snake as a messenger of change, transformation, and growth.

"I don't like change," I told him. "Change has always scared me." I can remember being frightened to go to kindergarten, just absolutely terrified to leave the comfort of home and go off to that big brick building, a new stage in my life. I am not someone who seeks out change. I still live within a few miles of where I was born, I wear the same clothes just about every day, I have had the same job most of my adult life, and I'm married to my high school boyfriend.

He laughed. "Exactly." Apparently, an animal totem isn't supposed to reflect who you are, but challenge you to grow beyond yourself.

So that's one of the themes I am going to put on my list of New Year's promises to myself. I am going to embrace change. Because change is inevitable at my age: my daughter will graduate from college this year, which means she will move away from Snowstorm Region, a dramatic change for me as a parent.

I've got other New Year promises on my list too. I made a truce with a close friend to make detachment a theme, to step back from emotionally fraught situations and put things in perspective. And my third theme, I think, will be balance. That's something I've often discussed with Artist Friend. I like all the parts of myself, even the stubborn streak and the quick temper and the crazy passionate parts and the impulsive words, but I feel so much healthier when I can all keep all of that in balance.

Of course, all the themes and resolutions and promises I've heard from my friends add up pretty much to the same thing: 2008 as a year of healing. In a warm kitchen, surrounded by friends, I felt hopeful about the year, optimistic even about the November election. Snow swirled against the windows as we packed up food. My friends sent most of the leftover food home with me, since I've got hordes of hungry teenagers who will devour it. Quilt Artist and Signing Woman spooned food into plastic containers and bags while I found my coat. We hugged and made promises to ourselves, to each other, and to our friends and our families. And then drove back out into the snowstorm.

January 01, 2008


They are people I've never met. But I feel like I know them. Because I've been looking at photos they've taken, one photo every day all year long.

At the beginning of last year, I noticed bloggers talking about the 365 photo project. The goal of the project was to snap a photo every single day and post it to a blog. By mid-January, I was reading a bunch of 365 blogs.

It was fascinating to catch glimpses into the lives of people I'd never met. I'd click on Ianqui's 365 blog to see shots of Big City Like No Other, often taken from unexpected angles. Her portraits of strangers always made me wonder what narratives lay behind the people in the pictures. Bright Star has said that she appreciates the flowers in the northeast because she grew up in the desert, and just looking at all her photos of flowers made me see in a new way these plants I've known my whole life. I wasn't looking Julie Unplugged's photos for long before I realized that she and I were at similar stages in our lives, raising teenagers and letting go of adult children. I could practically smell the hay in Ampersand's barn photos. I was often surprised at how Jayfish or Overread could take incredibly shots of very ordinary bits of life. And I was touched by the emotional journey that Billie was taking through her photos.

Inspired by the 365 photo bloggers, I took a photo each day last year. Well, usually I took more than one photo: using a digital camera is way too much like eating popcorn. I took photos every single day, and most days, I posted one of those photos to my blog. I didn't set up a separate 365 blog because I am a writer, not a photographer. I use a point-and-shoot camera, and I don't have Photoshop either. I used photos as writing prompts rather than stand-by-themselves blog posts, so I wasn't exactly following the 365 rules. I am not so good at following rules.

But still, I liked hanging out at the edge of the 365 community, looking at their photos, imagining narratives that might go with their photos, and absorbing that creative energy. I was curious to see what photography could teach me about writing.

I found that a few months into the year, I was using my camera the way I have always used journals. I'd snap a photo of something as a reminder to write about that experience. (Sometimes neither the photo nor the piece of writing was something that ended up on my blog.) I tend to take photos that show landscapes and seasonal change, since connection to place is something I write about. And mostly, I take photos that tell a story, because narrative is what interests me.

The photos did change what I'd write. I never realized before just how much I like to write lyrical descriptions about place. I'd start to write a bunch of descriptive details and then I'd say to myself, "Oh, wait. I'm using a photo that shows the place. So no point in describing it." I think my usual mode of writing is to describe to readers an image inside my head, and it's a bit disconcerting when that image is a photo that the readers are going to see. Suddenly, I've got to come up with something else.

The drawback to taking photos each day is that it took time away from writing, and that's one reason that I am hesitant to invest more time or money into a decent camera or photoshop. Time is such a valuable commodity in my life. But then ... when I went for a walk at Pretty Colour Lake the other day with my friend Poet Woman and her husband, they let me play with their cameras and lenses. I took macro shots of broken ice! I took action shots of Tall Bearded running down the beach. I zoomed in to foucs on ducks on the surface of the lake. It was so cool to have all these options! And I have to admit, I found myself planning what camera to buy next. Because even though photography can be time-consuming, I can think of worse ways to spend my time than walking outside on an overcast day, searching for beauty.

Around the lake

Here is one of the few photos that I took with my own camera on my walk with Poet Woman. I spent most of my time playing with her cameras.