September 30, 2010

On the clock

It’s that time of year again. I spent all of yesterday locked in my home office with a stack of essays that needed to be graded.

Well, maybe I didn’t spend the whole day grading. I did take breaks to eat, to play the piano, and to chat on the phone with a friend. My afternoon grading time was interrupted for a couple of hours by the little neighbor kids, who got off the bus to find that their mother wasn’t home, and so came over here. And my grading officially ended at about suppertime, when my husband, With-a-Why, and I picked up Chinese food and drove up to the older kids’ apartment for supper.

But still, I had a bunch of time to grade papers: I had set aside the time specifically for grading.

And so I timed myself. With-a-Why had left his chess clock out near the piano, and I decided to experiment and see how long it takes me to grade a single 1000-word essay. I turned the chess clock on, hit the button, and began grading a paper. When I was done, I hit the button the chess clock again. Then when I began grading the next paper, I punched the clock again. I figured I would grade a bunch of papers and come up with an average.

Here’s the funny thing about a chess clock, though. It’s designed for two players. So while I was recording the time I spent grading each paper, the clock also kept track of the time I spent NOT grading papers. Yep. All those breaks to check my email, surf the internet, get a snack, walk aimlessly about the house – all recorded.

Here is what I discovered. For every 15 minutes I spend grading a paper, I spend at least that much time taking a break. Yep. When I set aside 8 hours to grade papers, for instance, I’m on task for only half that time. And to be honest, without that clock ticking on my desk, I suspect that I would have taken even more breaks.

It’s humbling to realize that I am easily distracted as any of my students.

September 27, 2010

Signs of fall

Yesterday, I stacked two cords of firewood in the garage. The little neighbor kids helped me. That is, Ponytail made a fort out of the eight tires in our garage (snow tires, which we’ll be putting on soon) while Biker Boy kept going up to the woodpile and screaming, “I think I see a snake!” To celebrate the cool fall weather, I made a big pot of vegetable soup, using up the week’s vegetables from the CSA up the road.

This afternoon, I made a couple of apple pies. Ponytail and Biker Boy arrived after school just in time to help me. I knew they’d never have enough patience to wait until the pies were done and cool, so I gave them the leftover pie crusts I had trimmed off the edges of the pies and showed them how to sprinkle on cinnamon sugar. The pie crusts bits baked nicely in just ten minutes, and they ate them eagerly with the cut-up apples we’d put in the microwave. “This brown stuff smells good,” Biker Boy kept saying. “I like how your house smells.”

This evening, bribed by homemade apple pie and hot soup, my older kids came home, bringing dirty laundry and textbooks with them. After we ate, With-a-Why and my husband sat down on the floor to play a game of chess. Boy in Black stayed at the table with Classical Mechanics, while my daughter curled up in the red chair with Applied Behavior Analysis. Shaggy Hair Boy was at the piano, of course, playing music over the sounds of the dishwasher humming from the kitchen area. I took a spot on the couch, where I could work on my laptop and drink a cup of hot tea, listening while Shaggy Hair Boy played the jazz standard Misty.

September 26, 2010

Under the bridge

Under the bridge

On our way home from the mountains, my husband and I traveled a road that meandered from lake to lake, hamlet to hamlet. Since we had all day, we went slowly, stopping at anything that looked interesting. We took a short hike through a gorge to see a waterfall, drove into a boat launch for a view of a mountain lake, climbed the lifeguard’s chair at a little beach, bought some snacks at a general store, and visited Little Green’s mountain campus, where our students learn how to be forest rangers. The wind was chilly, the leaves were brilliantly colored, and every time I scuffed through piles of dead leaves, I could smell fall.

Our route led us gradually out of the mountains and into a high plateau covered mostly with forests and farmland. We stopped at a little town built, like so many of the towns in the north country, over a small river. The sun had just come out from behind the clouds, and it was almost warm enough for me to take off my fleece. “Let’s climb down to the river,” I said to my husband. I went to college in the north country, and I spent many lazy afternoons sitting on the bank of just such a river.

I know well how isolated these small towns can be during the harsh north country winters. I taught seventh grade in a north country school, and I know something about the poverty and social problems that exists in the small towns. But on a day in early fall, sitting by the river and listening to the water rushing over rock, it was an idyllic place to be.


Road trip

Road trip

September 24, 2010

To the mountains

I’m lucky to live in a state with hills and mountains, waterfalls and gorges. Just to my north lies a six million acre park, a mountain range that includes thousands of lakes, 46 high peaks, and stands of pine, spruce, and hemlock.

Of course, within the park, only 43% of the land is public land. The rest of the park contains private homes, summer camps, whole villages and towns. But the 1894 clause in the state constitution that pledged to keep these mountains “forever wild,” works to keep big tracts of the land from development.

Tourists flock to the mountains in the summer, appreciating the coolness that the high elevation brings. In September, the summer camps are mostly boarded up and the hiking trails are quiet. The brilliant colors of the hardwood trees shine against dark green conifers, and narrow mountains roads weave through an unbelievable tapestry of colour.

I try to get to the mountains as often as I can in early fall. I'm driving to the mountains this morning with my husband. I've got a reading this evening in a town far north, and we're using that as an excuse to get spend the weekend at an old inn on a lake surrounded by mountains.

September 22, 2010

Can I borrow a tampon?

During one of our airport layovers this summer, I sat down at the food court while my husband went off to get some food. A woman sat next to me, and soon we were chatting. She was just leaving when my husband returned.

Him: Who was that?
Me: I don’t know. She just sat here because it was crowded.
Him: (curiously) So what were you two talking about so intently?
Me: She’s going to Mile High City to visit her son. She’s 62 and she’s still having hot flashes, even though she had a hysterectomy three years.
Him: What? She told you that? After like, two minutes?
Me: Women can achieve intimacy very quickly. I don’t think men aren’t socialized to do that.
Him: I don’t know about that. The guy behind me in line was telling me about his erectile dysfunction.
Me: (through my dramamine haze) Really?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately — how women will often share intimate details of their lives with each other very quickly. At academic conferences, I’ll ask a woman I’ve just met to pose naked for my blog, and next thing you know, we’ll be in a deep discussion about her ex-husband or how she feels about her body. I’m guessing this ability to achieve intimacy so quickly is a learned social skill, and I’m still wondering why there’s such a gender difference, especially in this century, when it comes to those conversations.

September 20, 2010

Ready to fly

Touching sky

Every fall, we take our first year students to a ropes course. We strap on harnesses, the type used for rock-climbing, and we climb high into the trees. Students and faculty alike have a chance to move out of their comfort zones, be vulnerable, and work together to return safely to the ground.

For the last three Septembers, we’ve gone to the same retreat center. It’s a perfect place for a ropes course: the high ropes elements are build on the side of a steep hill so the sensation of height you get when you’re up in the air is incredible. The low ropes, which are the team-building exercises, take place in a pine woods. Our students always love being out in the woods all day long, and thankfully, we had another beautiful sunny day for the event.

The owner of the place is a Little Green alum, and he loves working with our students. He’s pretty much a kid at heart, and he’s found a way to use his forest engineering degree to play games out in the woods every day. When we arrived on Saturday, he said to me, “I’ve got a new high ropes element for you to try out.”

He called the element “the Peregrine.” The name should have given me a warning. Peregrine falcons are one of the fastest creatures on the planet: a peregrine can reach up to 200 mph in a dive.

Students cheered me on as I put on a harness and a helmet, and then climbed up a very tall free-standing ladder with Kid at Heart. At the very top of the ladder, he strapped me to a caribiner that was attached to three very long cables, all of which were threaded through the tops of three tall trees. Then he attached a second line, which stretched out ahead of me, and down through a tree: six students held the end of that line.

“The students will pull you up as close to the top of that tree as they can,” he said. “Then when I give the signal, you pull this cord, which will release you from that line and send you into a freefall.”

It sounded like a crazy plan.

“Um, you have tested this out for safety, right?” I asked.

He grinned. “Forest engineering! I have a degree from Little Green!” He went down the ladder, and they pulled it out of the way. At that point I was only twenty feet or so off the ground, dangling comfortably in my harness. The students began pulling and I kept rising higher, and higher, and higher. Soon I was far up, close to the trunk of a very tall tree. I could hear the students below me, but they sounded very far away.

“Go ahead! Pull the release!” Kid at Heart shouted from below.

I yanked the yellow cord.

My body dropped, with my stomach going first. I was hurtling toward the ground. I could the students below me screaming. Then the three wires pulled taut and I went flying backwards, then forwards, in a huge, fast arc. Wind whistled though my helmet. I was moving too fast to see anything. Where were the trees? I felt certain I was going to crash into one.

I swung back and forth at an incredible speed.

“Breathe!” Kid at Heart yelled.

I took a breath.

Soon I was moving slow enough to see the view: I was swinging back and forth, above the students, above some small trees, swishing through the canopy of the woods. I took another breath and relaxed as got closer to the ground. I had adrenaline in my veins for the rest of the day.

Ready to fly

Yes, that's me in the bottom photo. I'm just about to release the cord that's holding me so high up.

September 17, 2010

New piano!

We’ve needed a new piano for awhile. The old one was no longer holding a tune. And my kids, no longer little kids but young adults who are pretty serious about their music, had outgrown it. Piano Teacher joined forces with the kids in convincing me that we needed to invest in a good piano. She teaches her lessons at a music store that sells pianos, and my kids and I have spent hours playing the pianos in the store. It’s hard to go home to an out-of-tune piano after you’ve practiced on a piano that sounds great.

Of course, we couldn’t afford the $25,000 Petrof that With-a-Why would have chosen. And we don’t have room in our house for a grand piano. But Piano Teacher kept a lookout for pianos as they came into the store and kept pointing out pianos that the music technician at the store recommended for us. I read The Piano Book by Larry Fine to educate myself about what kind of piano we needed. And finally, we found the piano in our price range that matched our lifestyle. It’s a 45-inch upright, a model designed for schools and libraries: a sturdy piano built for lots of use. It’s a plain wooden piano, nothing fancy, but it’s a big step up from what we’ve been using. We bought it this week.

I think Shaggy Hair is the most excited about the new piano. He told Piano Teacher first, of course. And then he told his jazz piano teacher. And then he told his other jazz piano teacher who gives him lessons up at Snowstorm University. And then the teacher of his improv class. And then his grandfather, whom he plays with every Wednesday. He spends hours playing the piano every day, and the old piano had been driving him crazy.

The piano was delivered this afternoon. Shaggy Hair Boy and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter rushed home as soon as their classes were over and arrived at the same time as the truck. Shaggy Hair Boy started playing immediately, while I went to pick With-a-Why up and bring him to his Friday afternoon piano lesson. Piano Teacher was just as excited as my kids.

“How do you like it so far?” she asked. I laughed. “Shaggy Hair Boy is home – I haven’t even been able to play it yet.”

As I write this, With-a-Why is taking his turn at the new piano – playing Graceful Ghost, which is a lovely piece. The music sounds even better in our living room than it did in the store. The piano stands in the middle of our house, pushed up against the inside wall that holds the center staircase, and the music radiates out to all corners of our home.

New piano!

September 15, 2010

Another sign of fall

On my way home from work today, I stopped at a local farmstand to buy some apples. Just-picked local apples always taste so much better that ones that have been shipped across the country or stored until they’re soft. I ate an apple as I drove home; it was crunchy and tart.

“Want to help me make some apple pies?” I asked With-a-Why. I figured maybe we could bond by baking together.

“I’ll provide music while you make them,” he said. It’s his time-honored way of getting out of chores. He plays so beautifully that I always go for the deal.

He sat down at the piano. I stood at the table and rolled out pie crust to Chopin.

September 13, 2010

When my left leg aches

The summer before I began kindergarten, I was filled with dread. I didn’t want to go to school.

I didn’t have any particular reason to fear kindergarten. I knew little brick elementary school building pretty well because it’s where my older sisters went. I’d gone there for Christmas concerts and the fall bazaar. In fact, I’d even gone to kindergarten for a day with Red-haired Sister and had had a great time.

But still, I hated change. I wanted to just stay home with my little brother and play traintracks on the carpet like we’d always done. I didn’t want to get on the big yellow bus with all those loud older kids, especially the tall 8th grade boys, who terrified me.

A boy from down the street told me that he knew a lucky kid who broke his leg — and got to stay home from school. That gave me a plan. All I needed to do was break my leg, and I wouldn’t have to go to school. Besides, I could probably get all kinds of attention and treats as well.

I tried my hardest that week to break my leg. My brother was a daredevil who had no fear of heights, and I followed him around, trying to jump off the same rocks he did. But unfortunately, my cautious nature kept me from hurting myself. I even went to a higher authority and prayed at night for God to break my leg, but my prayers were not answered.

Thirty-eight years later, on a hot August evening, three days before my fall semester began, I ran down the stairs in my own house, jumped the last four steps, hit the floor, and broke my leg in two places. I had to miss the first four weeks of the semester, and my leg was in a cast until January.

The leg did heal fine, but every once in a while when it’s about to rain, I’ll feel a familiar ache in the leg. I try to think of it as a subtle reminder of that change, even scary change, might well be less painful than a broken leg.

September 12, 2010

Outdoor classroom

Outdoor classroom

Yesterday, we took our first year students on an all-day retreat. We spent the entire day outside. The students loved the high ropes course, where we challenged ourselves by climbing up high into the trees and walking on wires high above the ground. The low ropes course involved crazy teamwork challenges like trying to get a group of twelve people, half of whom are blindfolded, balancing on a tiny platform. But more importantly, the students got to spend time meeting faculty and staff in a setting that’s far more informal than a classroom.

We ate meals together, sitting outside on the grass, and had long discussions about where our food came from. (Our first year students read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle over the summer.) Several faculty members brought produce from their own gardens, including some crazy-looking heirloom vegetables. Faculty and students played soccer together and searched together for the soccer ball together every time into the woods. At least two students brought their dogs, who were pet by dozens of hands. I taught countless first year students how to play bocce.

Because our college focuses on environmental science, faculty had lots to say about the beautiful natural area where we spent the day. In small groups, students walked to the pond, the orchard, the pine forest, the rock cliffs, and the sinkhole, where professors could talk about some of their specialties. It was a long day, filled with activity, and ended with a fire, and the traditional cooking of S’Mores. It was a day filled with positive energy, the idealistic young students talking excitedly to professors who have worked in the field since before some of these students were born.

By the pond

September 08, 2010



I took this photo of With-a-Why last weekend at camp. It’s a typical pose for him — black hoodie tied around his waist, head bent, hair in his face, so deep in thought that he’s oblivious to all around him. I often wonder when I look at him what thoughts are going through his teenage mind.

What I didn’t realize when I snapped the picture is that it would be the last photo of With-a-Why with such long hair. The next evening, just before starting tenth grade, he decided to cut his hair and donate it to a charity. The minimum length needed for a donation is ten inches, and his hair, which he hadn’t cut in four years, was plenty long enough.

I took him to haircut place where the women on staff exclaimed over his dark silky hair, and bound it into little pony tails that they snipped off. His hair is still longish – it touches his shoulders – but he looks way different. I can see his face.

He looks taller, somehow, and older. That shy little boy is disappearing fast.

September 07, 2010

End of the season

End of the season

Nine family members gathered at camp on Saturday, a small enough group to fit around the wooden table in my parents’ cabin if we didn't mind knocking elbows with each other. Because the weather was cold and windy, we played cards and board games inside. Every few minutes we’d hear a knocking sound as acorns came tumbling down from the oak trees, plinking against the roof. When the sun came out, we took a walk through the pine forest. My father had already pulled his sailboat out of the water for the winter; the dock always looks empty to me without the mast coming up through the cattails. After dark, when I stepped out of the cabin, I heard a wild scurrying, rushing, and click-clacking as small creatures dashed up the oak trees. When I shone a flashlight up into the branches, two small raccoons looked down at me.

September 03, 2010

Off to camp

The busyness of the first week of classes coincided this week with a late summer heat wave. All week, our cats have been stretched out on the living rug as if they're dead, and I've felt much the same way. It'll be a relief to get up to camp, where the tall oak trees and breezes off the river keep things cool.

September 02, 2010

Growing up

Ponytail, the little neighbor girl, calls me “Tooseen.” When I come home from work, she's often jumping up and down on my porch yelling, "Tooseen! Tooseen!" as if it's some kind of cheer. This pronunciation is so far off from my real name that revealing it does not destroy my anonymity. When I first met her, she’d often say phrases that we couldn't figure out, although after a while I got used to her way of talking and could translate most things.

Last year, Ponytail went to a speech therapist at school, and she’s become easier to understand. She’s continued to make progress over the summer, even without the speech therapist. Last week, she said to me, sort of out of the blue, “I can say your name now.” Then slowly, and carefully, she said my first name, both syllables.

I hugged her, and she repeated my name, over and over. I could tell she was proud of her accomplishment, but it made me a little sad too. She’s getting old fast.

September 01, 2010



We're having another heat wave here — this has been the hottest summer anyone can remember — and it's too hot inside my house to write, or think, or eat anything but fruit.