May 31, 2008

Off and on

That Cluster of Countries on the Other Side of the Ocean has got incredible architecture, amazing sights, beautiful churches, fascinating history, and a wealth of art. But I will say this about Country of My Birth, the land where I currently reside: we have better bathrooms.

I've been spoiled, I guess, by living in a country where public bathrooms have windows, often a whole line of sinks under big mirrors, and spacious stalls underneath bright lights and high ceilings. The typical bathroom we'd find in a restaurant in City of Hot Gondoliers was so small that you'd see customers stripping off cameras and coats before they entered to make themselves as small as possible. Even if I wasn't claustrophic (which, I might add, is a perfectly rational fear), I would not be crazy about locking myself into a dark cubicle with the approximate dimensions of an upright coffin. And since when is toilet paper optional? It's perhaps significant that after spending a week in Kicking Country, I stepped into the bathroom on the airplane and thought, "Wow, this is kind of nice."

The lights in the bathrooms were on timers, which took some getting used to. The first night, I walked into a small restaurant bathroom, wedging myself what appeared to be an airless closet, and wriggled into position so I could shut the door. I untangled my wet raincoat from my bag and took off the fleece tied around my waist and tried to figure out where in this cramped space I could set those things down. Then suddenly, I was plunged into utter darkness. I screamed and began hitting the walls until finally my hands happened on the light switch.

That's when I learned the important rule about European bathrooms: find the light switch first thing.

The hotel, too, had little light switches in the halls and on the stairs. So if I was going to the lobby at night with my laptop, I'd have to find the little switches and press them as I made my way down. My father, a retired lawyer, kept muttering that the hotel would be negligent if someone fell down the stairs in the dark. But once I got used to the little light switches, I could see that they made sense. In Wasteful Country Where I Live, hotels and office buildings are often lit brilliantly all night long, even when no one is in the building. The European model makes much more sense. It's just a matter of getting used to it, acquiring the habit of checking where the light switch is when you enter a bathroom or hallway. Just in case you need to find it in the dark.

May 30, 2008

The Oceanic Four

The Oceanic Four

My parents and two of my sisters, on the way to the beach. The hotel a few doors down was indeed named "The Oceanic."

May 29, 2008

Sheet! Sheet!

Sheet!  Sheet!

Before we left for our trip to Country That's Kicking, people kept asking, "Do any of you speak Italian?" The answer was no. My father's grandfather spoke Italian, of course, but — as was the case with many immigrant families — the language did not get passed down to the grandchildren or great grandchildren. I've worked in an Italian restaurant so I do know the names of foods, which turned out to be helpful, and I know a few swear words, which was a bit less helpful. But I brought along a phrase book and figured that as long as I learned the polite words — please, thank you, hello, and goodbye — I'd get along just fine. My Italian ancestors may not have passed down the language, but the ability to talk with my hands came through the blood.

For simple things like ordering food or asking where the bathroom was, gestures worked just fine. Well, we were sometimes a little surprised by what food showed up at the table, but we just considered that part of the adventure.

Then there was the incident with the white sheet. See, I had spilled water on a bedsheet and decided to hang it out on the third-floor balcony outside our room to dry in the sun. Then I forgot about the sheet altogether, and when a wind came up, the sheet blew away, landing on a balcony below us, too far away to reach. (My father said, helpfully, "How many years have you been sailing? And you didn't tie it down?") Red-haired Sister was worried that we'd be charged for the sheet if I didn't explain to someone what had happened. So I went off to search for the dark-haired woman who seemed to be in charge of housekeeping. I found her vacuuming the hallway, and I tried to explain the sage of the blown-away sheet.

She did not, it turns out, speak much English. Our communication consisted of me saying "Sheet! Sheet!" and her repeating "Sheet! Sheet!" and both of us gesturing wildly with our hands.

So I led her up to the room, where I pantomimed the whole story. I showed her the little table where we'd been eating fresh bread and cheese and fruit and demonstrated how a bedsheet made a fine tablecloth. Then I made motions to show the way in which my water had spilled with a clumsy gesture, not my fault, of course. I led her out to the balcony, and showed her how I had hung the sheet out to dry. Then I pointed to the balcony below, where a white sheet lay crumpled on the ground, out of reach. I wasn't sure how much of the story she was following until she saw the sheet and started laughing. She was still laughing as she reassured me, with a few gestures, that she would take care of the sheet.

When we returned later that afternoon, she had left a new sheet folded on the couch. Satisfied that I had communicated well, I went down to the lobby with my laptop to check email (the wireless only worked from the tiny lobby on the first floor). As I was downloading photos and listening to two other hotel customers talking in Italian about some soccer game on the television, I saw in the other corner of the lobby, Housekeeping Woman talking to the suave Italian guy who was the manager. She was gesturing and laughing, and at one point I heard the words, "Sheet! Sheet!" She looked in my direction once, smiling. I didn't have to understand a word of Italian to know that she was re-telling the story.

May 28, 2008

One more canal photo ...

As I walked through the City of Gondolas, I could see cameras everywhere, dangling from the necks of tourists or held up to snap pictures of canals and window boxes. I've got a simple point-and-shoot camera that fits neatly into my pants pocket, and I have to admit that I was quite envious of the expensive cameras I kept seeing all over the city.

When we took a gondola ride, we became the focus of all those cameras. Because of course, everyone likes to take pictures of gondolas. But soon we left the main canal, and began gliding through quiet side canals, leaving the other tourists behind. The gondola slid quietly through the deep shade of beautiful old buildings in canals that had no walkways at all. The gondolier, standing on the back of the boat with a single oar, had to duck and heel the gondola over as we went under some of the low bridges, narrowly scraping the sides of the canal as he turned the boat around corners.

As we made our way back to the main canal, turning the bend of a narrow canal and approaching a small bridge, I saw a group of tourists pointing lenses at us, cameras clicking like crazy. I felt, for a moment, like Princess Diana. Urban Sophisticate Sister gave me a nudge, "The paparazzi! They've found us!"

I couldn't help taking hundreds of photos myself. I just loved the curving little bridges, the hanging lines of laundry, the window boxes, the quiet side canals. And taking photos in this city just seemed expected. On one of our walks, we did wander far enough away from the Famous Bridge to find some docks that were more like the docks at home -- wooden piers, with modern boats. But even these modern docks, set against the canal and old buildings, seemed to me beautiful.


Rainy evening

Almost empty

We had some bright sunny weather on our trip, but we had some rainy days too. The nicest part about the rain is that it kept everyone else indoors. We spent one evening walking through Famous Square in a light drizzle, and it was wonderful to be able to the architecture without the crowds of tourists. Lights flicked on as darkness fell, and the music that spilled out onto the wet pavement came from musicians sheltered under an archway of stone.

We retreated, eventually, to a warmly lit restaurant where we shook off our wet raincoats and sat down for a leisurely meal. Our dinners were always leisurely; no waiter ever showed up with our bill until we asked. We talked about the sights we'd seen that day, toasted family and friends back at home, and made plans for the next day. My father told us the story of his grandfather, who'd been born in Country Shaped Like Footwear and who left when he was only fifteen, going to America to make his way. He never came back or saw his parents again. As we sat in the warm restaurant, making our way through plates of seafood and pasta, I thought of what his journey must have been like and wondered what parts of the country he would recognize if he was still alive today.

Red umbrellas

May 27, 2008


At the corner

In a city without cars, where narrow lanes and quiet canals wove between old buildings, I kept noticing the windows, glimpses into an interior world. Window boxes offered the only bits of greenery we saw in the city, and the bright flowers contrasted with the soft, fading colours of the walls. I kept imagining what it would be like to live in one of these buildings — to look down at water rising in a canal, to hang wet shirts on a cotton rope, to admire vines tumbling out of the window box, or to look down at the heads of tourists as they wandered through the neighborhood, happily lost.


Pigeon wings

In Famous Square in City of Gondolas, tourists were feeding pigeons, pigeons that were so habituated that they would land on people's heads or sit on their arms. The sight was oddly fascinating, but disturbing as well. One little boy, who seemed to be there with his parents, kept screaming in fright as the pigeons dive-bombed his head, and he was sobbing by the time his parents finally paid attention to him and led him away from the area. One teenage girl had pigeons clinging to her shoulders and she just kept spinning around in a strangely hypnotic dance.

When I walked into the flock of pigeons, I closed my eyes almost right away, because one landed on my head, and two more on my bare arms. I held my arms stiff, and I could feel their claws on my skin, the weight of each bird shifting and moving, their wings beating the warm air.

I read later on the internet that the long tradition of feeding pigeons in the square was outlawed this month. It's true that we didn't see anyone selling birdseed; most people were feeding the pigeons scraps of their own lunches. But I think the tradition itself may take some time to fade away.

Pigeon wings

That's me, with some pigeons.

May 26, 2008

Almost naked

Almost naked

During the flurry of emails that went back and forth before we took this trip to Country Shaped Like Footwear, I reminded my four traveling companions that one of them would need to pose naked for my blog. Each member of my family tried to shove this important responsibility onto someone else. Red-haired Sister said she thought the couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary (that is, my parents) should offer to pose in honour of the occasion. Urban Sophisticate Sister said she didn't want to pose naked but she volunteered Red-haired Sister. My father said something like, "You've got to be kidding." My mother said nothing at all. The level of enthusiasm, the consideration for my readers, the respect for the tradition of naked blogging — well, it was remarkably low.

So yesterday morning, when Urban Sophisticate Sister got out of the shower and stepped out onto the balcony of the hotel in Italian Seaside Town to see how warm the weather was before she figured out what clothes to put on, I decided to take advantage of the moment. I grabbed my camera. "Hey, Urban Sophisticate, " I said. "Just take off your towel for a minute." She looked at me, looked down at the street where enthusiastic soccer fans had come marching through the night before, and said, "I'm leaving on the towel." She added, as she looked off at the gathering storm clouds, "And you better take it fast."



May 25, 2008

When prayer begins to melt

The churches we've visited this week (and I've lost track of how many we've gone into) have been amazing works of architecture, filled with art done by famous sculptors and painters. We've walked on stone floors worn from centuries of use, we've seen the tombs of famous people, and we went up a belltower for a fantastic view. Outside one church, Urban Sophisticate took off her shoes and I boosted her up to a spot where my brother had hidden a coin. (Yes, that coin was still there.) As we'd walk through quiet cloisters or admire works of art, my father or mother or sister would chime in with interesting facts they'd read somewhere. "Did you know that this whole church is resting on wooden pilings?" or "Did you see that tomb? Dead Painter Who Liked Redheads is buried there."

But my favourite thing to do in a church is, simply, to light candles. While the rest of my family would disappear to stare at the magnificent paintings, I'd go over quietly to the racks of candles, usually propped up near a statue or altar, and put a coin in the metal offering box. I lit candles for a friend whose wife had surgery this week, for a friend who is having scary health problems, for a young friend who is dealing with issues from his childhood, for a friend who is untangling complicated relationship issues, for a friend who is getting a divorce, for a friend who is having a difficult summer. From across the ocean, I knelt in these centuries-old stone churches, said prayers for people I care about, and watched flames flicker above dripping wax.

When prayer begins to melt

May 23, 2008



The City of Canals and Gondolas is perhaps the most consistently beautiful city I've ever seen. Because of the age of the buildings and the constant moisture, everything seems to be fading, peeling, and breaking, but somehow these elements only add to the beauty.

Gathering sun

Gathering sunshine

The City of Canals and Gondolas could be called the City of Hanging Laundry. Perhaps because of the rain we'd had earlier in the week, we kept seeing laundry wherever we went, hanging above our heads, often several stories up, towels and shirts and underwear, lines of clothes drying wherever the sun hit the brick and stone walls.

May 22, 2008

Our artisan cousin

Through glass

"Venetians must be drawn to the impractical," Urban Sophisticate Sister said as we entered the glass museum on the Glass-making Island. "They built a city on water. They make lovely, breakable glass."

I couldn't help but think of my youngest son, With-a-Why, as we walked through exhibits of glass and looked at glass chandeliers above our heads. He's always been fascinated with glass. In fact, he has a collection of glass, mostly animal figures, that we refer to as his glass menagerie, and we've taken him to the Famous Glass Museum in our state back at home.

In one of the gift shops on Glass-making Island, Urban Sophisticate Sister looked at the tags and suddenly said, "Hey look at this!" There it was — the name my great-grandfather brought from this country many years ago. The shopkeeper laughed as we explained to her that we'd just found a relative, and she pointed out other pieces of art in the shop made by the same person. She even dug out a tag and gave it to my sister. For the rest of the trip, we kept referring to the artist as "our artisan cousin." And now we are thinking that perhaps With-a-Why's love of glass art is in his blood.



I have taken so many photos of the gondolas that my family and friends are going to get the impression that motorized boats haven't come yet to the City of Canals and Gondolas. So here, for the record, are two gondoliers in their traditional black-and-white striped shirts traveling the Grand Canal in a speedboat.



Inlaid stone floor inside an old church.

Looking for coins

Famous bridge

Years ago, my brother started the tradition of hiding coins when he travels. Last summer on his honeymoon in City of Canals and Gondolas, he and his wife hid coins in several public spots. I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt as we stopped at this famous bridge to look for the American dime he had hidden.

The coin was still there.

May 21, 2008

The sky here


We traveled by foot or boat in this city where there are no cars, no buses, no parking lots, where side canals are quiet enough that you can hear the flap of clothes on laundry lines, a city where faded buildings rise from the water.

Out to dry

Around the bend

Away from the crowded public places in the City of Canals and Gondolas, we wandered along quiet canals or between buildings of brick or stone. Some of the lanes were narrow enough that I could touch either side as we walked through. I could never quite predict what might come next: a bridge leading over some tied-up boats, a big public square filled with cafes and stores, a church, perhaps, a quiet restaurant with a few tables set out on the cobblestones, or a cobblestone path along a canal. The city resembles a maze, more than anything else, or perhaps a page from a Dr. Seuss book. We turned one corner and found ourselves in a small square with a bunch of school children in white smocks and a nun, blowing bubbles in the sunshine.




May 20, 2008



Throughout the City that Seems to be Slowly Sinking Back into the Sea, young men dressed in black and white striped shirts could be seen expertly steering gondolas through the quiet side canals. During lulls, we'd see them at edge of a canal, talking with each other or flirting with potential customers. Their self-assurance as they maneuvered the boats reminded me of the boatmen I've met in the American Southwest on whitewater raft trips, although the setting could not be more different.

From what we could gather, being a gondolier is often a family tradition, passed from father to son. One gondolier told us that he was the fifth generation in his family to practice the craft. We didn't see a single female gondolier: women are apparently still barred from this particular boys' club.


After the rain

After the rain

We had a terrific thunderstorm the first day in the country, but by the time we arrived in the City of Canals and Gondolas, the sun was shining.

May 18, 2008

Sea change

The sea at my feet

The first day in Country of Some of My Ancestors, we woke up to a thunderstorm. When the lightning began to subside, we decided to shake off jet lag with a walk along the beach. Waves pounded against the piers that ran out into the sea, and red warning flags flapped from the lifeguard stations. A salty wind washed the tiredness from my brain as I stepped onto the wet sand. My father kept saying, "It smells just like the Atlantic." As I walked along a pier to take a photo, sea water came bursting up through the slats.

Kicking up

The top photo, a picture of me, was taken by Urban Sophisticate Sister as I was walking out to take the photo at the bottom.

May 15, 2008


To celebrate my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, we didn't have a party, we didn't buy cards, we didn't buy presents. Instead we're sending them on vacation to a place my mother has always wanted to see: Italian City of Canals and Gondolas.

Three of their daughters are going along to help make sure the vacation runs smoothly. Urban Sophisticate Sister is an experienced traveler who is good at getting anyone to do what she wants, even when they don't speak her language. Red-haired Sister, who has also traveled quite a bit, always takes care of everyone around her, which makes her an important addition to the trip. And me? My role is to make my father feel gleeful that someone else gets motion sickness worse than he does.

Our adventure begins today, with a trip to the Big City Like No Other area, where we will meet up with Red-haired Sister and Urban Sophisticate before getting on a plane together to fly over the ocean. I'll be taking photos and keeping a journal, and I should have all kinds of stories when I return.

May 14, 2008

Wildflowers and graffiti

Follow the shadows

The boardwalk curved its way through a marshy area filled with birdsong and green things just beginning to unfold. Bright yellow marsh marigolds bloomed along the edges of our path. I'd driven to Black Dog Hollow to meet Nearly Kin, a blogging friend who doesn't blog very often any more. We'd chosen this fairly obscure location because it was somewhere between his town and mine, and our two cars were the only ones in the parking lot. Luckily, I'd already established that he wasn't an axe murderer. We talked as we walked, catching up on the events of the winter. When we ran out of boardwalk to explore, we went down to the pond, passing under an apple tree that was holding rosy blossoms up against the sky.

I told Nearly Kin that my goal was to find the trail to Pot Mender Falls, a waterfall I'd heard about for years. I knew there was a path from the road, but I'd looked for a sign every single Sunday as I drove past on my way to the ski slopes, and even in the stark winter landscape, I couldn't find one. We consulted maps, which helped not at all, and a printout from the computer, which was completely confusing, and then simply went up the road, looking for anything that might be a path. I figured that as long as we found some kind of creek, we could just follow that uphill.

Eventually, we did find a trail, unmarked but obviously a trail, and soon we were hiking along a small stream. It didn't take us long to come to the waterfall: thin sheets of water cascading over a rock lip, falling about sixty feet onto a tumble of rocks. We were in a shady glen of big rocks that looked like they'd been scattered by some kind of gleeful child giant. But I was horrified to see graffiti — yes, graffiti — spraypainted on the cliffs under the falls.

I quite like graffiti when I see it on the sides of trains or abandoned buildings or bridges in the city. But the garish spray paint seemed horribly wrong in this misty green glen. The graffiti wasn't even artistic or clever or political: just some names and such. I immediately began wondering if graffiti removal could be a community service project for my students next semester.

From the waterfall, we followed the stream as far as we could. We were apparently too late in the season for the annual mating migration of the spotted salamander, which is apparently a big event in Black Dog Hollow, but I did see a snake, a tiny thin garter snake that slithered quickly under the rocks when it felt the vibrations from my feet. The stream bed was completely dry once we'd gone a few hundred yards, just a long trail of flat grey rocks.

By the time we'd walked the trail, I was hungry. For some reason, I hadn't thought to bring food or water. But Nearly Kin assured me that we could find a fine dining establishment in Small Town in the Middle of Nowhere. We did, thankfully, find a Chinese restaurant, where we sat in the sun, eating vegetables and rice, washed down by bottles of drinks that were mostly high fructose corn syrup.

Breathing in the mist

I'm guessing the flowers are marsh marigolds, but I'm not really sure. If anyone wants to identify them from my photo, please leave a comment. And if you look closely at the top of the waterfall photo, you can see the graffiti.

May 12, 2008

Caps, gowns, and cell phones

My daughter's graduation took all weekend — we were invited to three convocations, six receptions, and then, the actual commencement. Two of the events included music from a brass ensemble, and food was served at all the receptions, although the quality of the food was inversely proportional to the size of the reception. I lost track of how many times I heard "Pomp and Circumstance." More than 5,000 students graduated, which meant the campus was jampacked with people. At least three of the events were held in an area the size of a football field. Well, actually, it was a football field. At the commencement, the students marched in formally, in lines behind student marshals carrying flags, in an hour-long procession that reminded me so much of the Olympics that I kept expecting the voice on the loudspeaker to tell us who was favored to win the gold medal in figure skating.

At the convocation for the college of arts and sciences, family and friends sat in bleacher seats, far above the graduates who were dressed in dark blue robes. Everyone arrived early, fighting for the best parking spots, and that meant we had time to kill before the event began. When I looked down at the rows and rows of students, sitting in folding chairs on the indoor football field, I saw them with them with cell phones pressed to their ears, scanning the crowd for their families. All around me, I heard parents saying things like, "The left side? You mean my left? Stand up and wave so I can see you."

Half an hour before the convocation began, a voice over loudspeaker instructed everyone: "We ask that you turn off your cell phones at this time."

Given the choice between listening to the anonymous voice of authority or the voice of a parent on the other end of the phone, what did the students do? Naturally, they ignored the anonymous voice. Students continued to pop up, on cue, to wave at Mom or Dad. I heard delighted murmurs around me, "There she is!" or "I see him now!" To the students' credit, they did silence their cell phones as soon as the event began, reverting to discreet text messages such as: "oh god. please tell me they aren't going to read every name"

A few of the receptions were smaller and more personal. And the weather was sunny, so we were able to wander the campus when we had some time to kill between two receptions on Saturday afternoon. My father graduated from Snowstorm University's law school more than 50 years ago, and he kept pointing out to his granddaughter which old buildings he remembered. Occasionally, I'd chime in with what the campus looked like when I began graduate school 25 years ago. The boys had brought a frisbee with them, of course, and they entertained their grandmother with spectacular throws and catches, narrowing missing family members most of the time and on one occasion, clipping my husband by accident.

The last event of the day was a reception for the Treat 'Em Like Royalty Scholars. By that time, With-a-Why had acquired his sister's cap and gown, as well as her light blue scholarship stole and the dangling honors medal. He does love a costume. For a shy kid, he's amazingly unself-conscious, and he swished through the gathering happily, looking very much like Harry Potter. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair, dressed in a fashion considerably more informal than anyone in the room, were equally unself-conscious. After sitting through two big convocations on uncomfortable bleacher seats, we were thankful to sit in comfy chairs and eat the fancy food provided, while around us students, parents, and deans mingled.

Back in my day ....

That's my daughter in the middle, with her grandfather on her left and With-a-Why on her right.

May 11, 2008

Tomorrow, the world

Tomorrow, the world

More than 5,000 students graduated from Snowstorm University this weekend. The class of 2008 included Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, who graduated with honors and who earned a degree in English, with a minor in Psychology, and a degree in Magazine Journalism. The School of Public Communications gave her an award for being "an outstanding student who has exemplified strong, sensitive writing and the potential for being a professional magazine journalist." Her senior honors project was a magazine that she wrote, edited, designed, and produced. The feature article in the magazine was a story about a road trip that she took with -- of course -- her three younger brothers.

Two of my extras graduated as well. Film Guy, whom we've known since seventh grade, graduated with a degree in Television, Radio, and Film. He's my daughter's best friend, and they have lived near each other since seventh grade. Even during her semester abroad, they lived just a few blocks away from each other. And his off-campus apartment is upstairs from hers. Later this summer, they will likely be separated for the first time: her career is likely to take her to a big city in the northeast while his will take him to the west coast. Singing Woman, who has been in school with my daughter since kindergarten, graduated as well, with a degree from the School of Visual and Performing Arts. Her career will likely take her to any city big enough to support a symphony.

Today, I kept remembering when they were all seventh graders and they were at my house for Halloween, acting silly and self-conscious because they were getting too old for trick-or-treating. I can remember thinking then they were growing up too fast. And now, they are college graduates, self-confident, mature, and ready for whatever the future might hold.

May 09, 2008

Nothing more than feelings

Parenting magazines are full of advice about how and when kids should do their homework. Every kid should have his own desk, a quiet place in his bedroom perhaps, where he can sit down without any distractions. This advice sounds lovely, of course, but it's not realistic unless you live in a big house with lots of separate rooms. The living/kitchen area of our house is one room and that's pretty much the whole downstairs of the house. My kids do their homework sitting on the floor or on the couch, usually several feet away from siblings making music or eating food or talking about random stuff. And I'm there, too, doing my work while listening to their conversations.

With-a-Why: Ugh. This is the worst kind of homework.
Me: How bad can it be?
With-a-Why: I'm supposed to write about my feelings.
Boy in Black: (laughing) Oh, that sucks.
With-a-Why: MY FEELINGS.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I hate that crap.
With-a-Why: Yeah.
Me: Let me see the sheet.
Boy in Black: Is this for English? Just make up some bullshit.
Boy in Black: (giving me a crooked grin.) English teachers like that.
Me: (reading aloud) "Describe a time when you felt uncomfortable."
With-a-Why: I'm never uncomfortable.
Me: What? You are like, the shyest kid in the universe.
Shaggy Hair Boy: But he's comfortable with that.

Boy in Black: (reading aloud) "How did you get through the situation? Give details about your FEELINGS."
Shaggy Hair Boy: Oh, god. (He turns back to the piano and begins playing again.)
Me: How about that time I tried to get you to take swimming lessons? And you were too shy?
With-a-Why: I built a sand castle.
Me: You could write about that.
With-a-Why: I didn't feel anything.
Me: You guys! Stop playing for a minute and help out. What do you do to get through uncomfortable experiences?
Shaggy Hair Boy: That's ridiculous. (Begins improvising on the piano.)
Boy in Black: You don't have to do anything.
Boy in Black: You can't stop time.
Boy in Black: You get through stuff whether you want to or not.
With-a-Why: I just sat there. And then it was over.
Me: Okay, pick another experience.

Boy in Black: (snickering) How about the time you went on Mom's blog and saw a naked picture of her?
Shaggy Hair: He didn't get through that.
Boy in Black: He was scarred for life.
Me: You. Are. Not. Helping.
Shaggy Hair: I felt slow today. Everything felt slow.
Me: You have a cold. That makes everything slow motion.
Boy in Black: We are out of milk. Again.
Me: Can you think of a time when YOU felt uncomfortable?
Boy in Black: Stuff doesn't make me uncomfortable. Because I don't care.
Shaggy Hair: How about that time you got roped into going to the prom?
Me: Hah! He's got you.
Boy in Black: What was I feeling? Like, I want to get the fuck out of here.
Boy in Black: Like ... I'd rather be playing Ultimate.
Shaggy Hair: Even my layouts were in slow motion.

Me: How about your first piano competition?
Shaggy Hair: Write about the time you had this stupid English assignment.
Shaggy Hair: And it made you uncomfortable.
Me: I mean, you had to talk to the judges and say the name of the pieces you were playing.
With-a-Why: (scribbling) And I was supposed to bow.
Me: You can write about the music -- you know lots about music.
With-a-Why: I can't write anything too complicated. The teacher won't get it.
Boy in Black: Just put in tons of shit about your feelings.
Shaggy Hair: Do you think she'll know what allegro means?
Me: You were okay once you started playing. You were probably the best musician in the room.
With-a-Why: Of the kids. But that judge might have been pretty nasty on the piano.

Boy in Black: We don't have any milk.
With-a-Why: How's this?
Me: I just bought some yesterday.
Boy in Black: Three gallons is never enough. You can't just buy three gallons.
Me: You just need one last line.
With-a-Why: Where did my pen go?
Me: Boy in Black, you go to the store next time.
With-a-Why: (reading aloud) "My love of music got me through the experience."

May 08, 2008



Every couple of months, Boy in Black goes into the bathroom with a pair of scissors and chops an inch or two off his hair. This five-minute grooming ritual puts him way ahead of his younger brothers, neither of whom has had a haircut in years.

May 07, 2008

And the painted ponies go up and down

The semester is winding down. When Boy in Black stopped home last week, he carried in a laundry basket full of clothes and a cardboard box full of desk supplies. The next night, he came in with a bag of books and a plastic bag that held his quilt and pillows. "I've moved home, " he announced. He is a man of simple means.

My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, who has been living in an off-campus apartment, took a couple of hours last week to paint over the mural that she and I painted on her wall last July. (Her landlord didn't agree with us that the mural added value to the room. There is just no accounting for taste.) It seemed funny to see the room looking blank. She has more clothes than Boy in Black, but she, too, will move home by just tossing a few boxes of stuff in the car whenever she gets a chance.

And yesterday, I picked her up for lunch. We drove to the cafe that serves great vegan food and ate there, just the two of us. We've had lunch once a week for pretty much her whole college career, and this was officially the last lunch: she graduates this weekend.

By Monday, all my kids will be living under my roof again. I'll have them all here, playing music and draping themselves on the couch and playing card games and rounding up people for Ultimate or just hanging out teasing each other and making inappropirate jokes and watching YouTube clips.

But this will likely be the last summer that we'll all be together. Because they just keep growing up.

And the sound of popping corks

And the sound of popping corks

On the Wednesday afternoon before commencement, the senior class at Small Green gathers on the quad for a champagne toast, and a class photo taken from the roof of the library. Students invite faculty to pour the champagne (and ginger ale for those who don't drink), and everyone spends some time mingling about, talking about their plans for the future. It's the last chance to talk to the graduating seniors and just hang out casually before families begin arriving and the rush of the weekend begins.

May 06, 2008

If every woman had a cape

Even superheros get static cling

A few years ago, my husband and I went with some friends to see a movie, the name of which I've completely forgotten. The plot of the movie was as forgettable as the name of it, and mostly I remember the way that Staten Island Woman and I mocked the movie while we watched it, much to the annoyance of the two men with us, who both claimed they prefer to watch movies without a running commentary. (Yes, I know. How crazy is that? Our insightful comments were CLEARLY the best part of the experience.)

It was a comic book movie, except with human actors and actresses instead of drawings, and I couldn't help but analyze the corny dialogue as we listened. The movie was a wonderful illustration of the black-and-white thinking in which people fall neatly into the categories of villain, victim, or hero. Even with all kinds of cool special effects, it's incredible how tiresome those narrative can be. And more than tiresome; it's downright sad. I know real life people who get stuck in those narratives.

Anyhow, the main character, a female superhero whose special powers involved throwing knives around and then disappearing without a trace, decides to avenge her mother's death by going to battle with the villain. There is a dramatic scene in which the camera focuses on the villain, who is of course evil to the core with no complex or redeeming qualities, and then shifts dramatically to show Female Superhero standing in the doorway, ready to throw knives. The drama of the moment was spoiled when Staten Island Woman and I both started laughing aloud.

See, it turns out that Female Superhero, in her fit of revenge, had felt the need to stop and buy lingerie on the way to battle. A convenient wind blows away her cape to show her standing in the doorway in skimpy spandex underthings and — of all ridiculous things —high heels. Before reaching for her knife, she wastes valuable time to throw back her hair and push out her breasts. Staten Island Woman convulsed with giggles, "Oh, god, my mom would kill me if I showed up wearing that outfit to avenge her death!"

It's the peculiar assumption of the comic book world: women can only be powerful if they have large breasts, long legs, and tiny waists. And they must be willing to dress like sex objects. I can't tell you how many times I've cringed at the sight of a small child wearing a superhero outfit that included fake cleavage. The messages that these superhero narratives give to our children fit in nicely (of course!) with the goals of patriarchy.

So I've decided to start a campaign for a new kind of superhero. I'd like to see superheros of all sizes and shapes. Superheros with grey hair. Superheros who make their kids' lunch on their way to battle. Superheros who recite poetry instead of cliches. Superheros who wear sensible hiking boots or sneakers. Superheros who stop to talk to the villains and see what's bothering them before throwing knives.

And the one part of the costume worth saving, it seems to me, is the cape.

If every woman had a cape

May 05, 2008



We've lived in this house for nine years now, and every spring, when I see daffodils and tulips blooming in other yards, I think to myself, "How come I didn't plant any bulbs last fall?" I plant lots of stuff in the spring — bushes, trees, perennials of all types — because the rewards are so immediate. But planting bulbs in the fall requires the kind of forethought that I am not known for.

Last fall, though, I did it. I bought some bulbs and spent a sunny afternoon planting them. It was therapeutic. I had been moping about, feeling sad about something, in one of those melancholy feeling-sorry-for-myself moods, and I can remember thinking as I planted the bulbs that by the time they flowered, spring would be here, and my melancholy mood would be gone.

So I spent a few hours planting the bulbs and then promptly forgot about them. Just the act of planting them, pushing them down into the soil with my fingers, had cheered me up. The bulbs lay under the snow all winter long, and when the last of the snow melted last month, I was surprised and pleased to see green shoots poking up out of the earth.

Today, the red tulips bloomed, shining brilliantly against the brown earth and green grass, looking strangely formal in my woodsy front yard. I'd had red tulips at the last house we lived in — bulbs given to me by my father-in-law, who loved flowers and who died before we moved here. And my mother has always had red tulips in her yard. After a winter of mostly white and blue, the splash of red in my front yard makes me smile every time I walk out the door. And the thing that was making me sad when I planted them — well, I don't even remember what it was.

May 04, 2008


Where the snake lives

This afternoon, I walked around Pretty Colour Lake with my brother, who had come to town to run a ten-mile race this morning. Because the day was cool, the trails weren't crowded at all. The wind had died down, and the water was that brilliant green-blue colour that it can be on spring afternoons. When we reached Dead Man's point, where reefs stretch out into the lake, we sat on a bench in the sun for a few minutes.

I've come to this lake hundreds, no thousands, of times in my life: with my family, with my friends, with my students. I can remember swimming in the lake as a teenager with my friend Outdoor Girl, collecting bright leaves at this lake with Picnic Family when I was a child, coming here on class picnics with Urban Sophisticate when she was a child, playing here with my own kids when they were little, walking around the lake five years ago with Artist Friend. I come here often for walks with my husband or my parents.

I stepped down to the water's edge to take a photo, and when I looked down, I realized that I had almost stepped on a snake. It was a common water snake, long and fat, with mottled skin. I've had so many snake dreams during the last few weeks that I felt startled by the sight of a real snake, the first one I've seen since last summer. The snake gave me little chance for contemplation. It uncurled and slithered into the water, sliding easily into all that green-blue.


In my dreams

Snakes have appeared in my dreams since I was a small child, exotic snakes that curl up against my skin, roll out from cracks in the walls, or appear on a lawn that I need desperately to cross. When I was a kid, I 'd wake up terrified and peer over the edge of the bed, fully expecting to see snakes on the bedroom floor.

But I was an adult when the lion began appearing in my dreams. He's a big African lion, a full-grown male, and like the snakes, he appears in unexpected places, almost always indoors. In my dream this week, I was packing up a house to move, with furniture and belongings piled about. China balanced on the tops of bookshelves, cups and saucers piled precariously in a way that made me think of a Dr. Seuss book. The lion padded quietly through the paths between the couches and boxes, moving gracefully and swiftly.

When my kid were little, I was often terrified that the dream lion would hurt them. I'd call to them to climb to the tops of the bookshelves, where we could look safely down at the lion. In one recurring dream, I'd carry my sleeping child into the bathroom, the only room with a door that locked, to keep him away from the lion. But then, I'd wake up in terror, realizing I had made a mistake and locked the lion in with my child.

My children, older now, don't appear in the dreams anymore. I was by myself as I watched the lion, as he brushed past over-stuffed chairs and old-fashioned lace curtains. He's familiar now, and his presence doesn't surprise me the way it used to. I admired the way his muscles moved as he put his paws on the kitchen counter, stretching his body up.

I'd been working for several minutes, packing dishes and sorting through boxes, listening to the lion pad through the house, when suddenly I had this realization: he's a lion. He's got claws and teeth.

He could kill me if he wanted to.

I stepped slowly from my task and turned to look at the lion, wondering what I should do. He dropped from counter to the linoleum floor in one easy move and ran swiftly through the boxes. I could hear the screen door as he pushed his way through. And then he was gone.

May 02, 2008

Inside the pages

I don't like bookmarks. Oh, it's not that I have anything against pretty little pieces of cardboard decorated with kittens or flowers or birds: it's that I don't like to stop partway through a book and come back to it later. When I have only a few minutes to read, I'll pick up a book I've read before, choosing some random bit. New books, I prefer to read from cover to cover, in one gulp.

When I was a kid, I loved that in the summertime I could stay up late reading as late as I wanted. I could begin a book and read right through to the end. I could disappear completely into the pages — and stay there. It's still one of my favorite things about summer: whether it's a book I'm reading because I might want to use it in a course or a book I just picked up because it covers one of my favorite topics, I have the space and time to read a book all the way through without interruption.

So as the semester ends, I begin cleaning my office, tossing away outdated memos, filing stuff for next year, getting rid of the papers that have piled up on my desk. And then I look eagerly through the stack of books on the floor, all those wonderful pages that will keep me company all summer long.

Lost in the pages

What I'm reading in this photo is the latest issue of the Antioch Review, which features a short story by none other than Artist Friend.

May 01, 2008

Rocks and water, falling


Yesterday's field trip with my students began in the early morning with a flurry of frantic cell phone calls when the vehicle in which I was traveling got separated from the pack. It seems always that way: no matter which car I'm in, it's the one to get lost. The lead car had apparently decided to stop for gas and coffee, and no one in my car had noticed because we arguing over whether or not to listen to a Power Rangers tape. Students who are the mostly likely to have cars and volunteer to drive on field trips are almost always from out of town, which means they call roads and landmarks by their official names, which is very confusing to us locals. But thanks to modern technology, we didn't spend too much time needlessly circling about of Snowstorm City before getting on the highway.

The day ended with a hike to see the highest free-falling waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Yes, Hard-to-Pronounce Waterfall, which is what my students kept calling it, is even higher even than Famous Waterfall That Sounds Like a Spam Email, although the volume of the water is so much less that it is not nearly as famous. In fact, on a sunny, but chilly Wednesday afternoon, we were the only people on the trails and creekbed leading up to Not-Very-Famous-Waterfall.

The noise of the creek, rushing and crashing over rock, rippling in wide shallow pools, kept us company as we walked along. Even the most hyper of my students began walking slower, moods shifting, as the sound of the water soothed us.

We were walking through a glen with walls on either side that rose 400 feet to the sky. Mountain Climbing Woman kept saying to me, "Oh, this is such a great canyon, but you couldn't climb it. It would be too dangerous." Even as we walked, we could hear rocks pinging against hard surfaces as they fell. The canyon was formed when a creek eroded through about 400 feet of shale, depositing most of it near the lake, and debris continues to fall. Signs warn hikers to "Beware of falling rocks."

My students were quick to identify trees along the trail: hemlock, basswood, maple, oak, sycamore. Swishy Hair called me over to see some purple trillium. It's actually illegal to pick trillium in this state, because the three leaves just below the flower are the main food source for the plant, which means that a picked trillium will almost always die. When I was little, my mother used to always say that, and now my students tell me the same thing.

The creekbed on the way to Impressively Tall Waterfall is so broad that even in the spring, the water doesn't always cover it. Soon we'd left the trail to walk up the dry parts of the creekbed, a slippery limestone surface covered with wavy patterns. Acidic rain puddling on the creekbed has eroded the limestone so that the puddle indentations are permanent. And sand swirled by the current of the creek continues to carve out curving shapes.

My students kept pointing out things, from the swallows and hawks flying near the tops of the cliff to the slugs that Swishy Hair found under a rock. It's always great to take a walk with students who have been trained as naturalists. Our walk took us, eventually, into an ampitheatre carved by the 215-foot waterfall. The plunge pool below the waterfall is more than 30 feet deep, although the falling rocks would make it dangerous to swim in. Despite the chilly air, several students went up close to feel the spray of the waterfall against their faces. As we walked back, one student said to me, "It smells like summer."

In the mist

Field trip