November 30, 2010


Yesterday afternoon, I didn’t feel like grading portfolios or answering work emails or doing any of the items on my long to-do list. I kept thinking about the little neighbor kids, and wondering where they were. I played the piano for a little while, but then I relinquished my spot on the bench to Shaggy Hair Boy, since he said he needed to practice.

So I decided to do a jigsaw puzzle.

I hadn’t done one in years. But a few weeks ago, a friend offered me a jigsaw puzzle: someone had given it to her as a gift, and she didn’t want it. Just the sight of the box brought back childhood memories, and I took the puzzle home.

When I was a kid, we sometimes spent winter afternoons doing jigsaw puzzles. My mother would set up a folding table near the front window, where we could get the late afternoon light. I’d sit in a wooden chair, studying the pieces, gathering ones that had similar colors, putting them together to form an image. My mother would work on the puzzle for a few minutes, then go into the kitchen to make dinner. My brother would take the spot next to me, gathering pieces systematically, and announcing anything he considered a big breakthrough. “Okay, folks, the barn is now connected to the sky.” Sometimes we’d talk, sometimes we’d work in silence. When my eyes got tired of staring at puzzle pieces, I’d look up at the sky outside the window, hoping for snowflakes.

So yesterday, I pulled a folding table out of the garage, set in up in my front window, and worked on a jigsaw puzzle. The craziness inside my head seemed to calm down as I moved the pieces around. I got a little feeling of satisfaction I got every time I snapped a piece into place.

“What’s this?” Shaggy Hair Boy asked incredulously when he came home and saw the puzzle. “Is this because the neighbor kids aren’t here?”

When Boy in Black and First Extra came through the door, First Extra surveyed the table with interest. “Wow,” he said. “This is old school procrastination.” He sat down on the ottoman and picked up the box.

He’d read my blog post, he said. He and Skater Boy had talked about it at lunch. He ran his fingers through the box of pieces, looking for edge pieces. I snapped some more pieces into place. Then the boys went out in the backyard to throw.


November 28, 2010


For the last two and a half years, I’ve gotten daily visits from Ponytail and Little Biker Boy, two neighbor kids. They’ve played with traintracks on my living floor, built castles out of lego blocks, and colored at my kitchen table. They haven’t been easy kids to deal with; they are children who have already been damaged by the difficult lives they lead. My house has been their safe place, even when I’m not home. In the winter, I’ve left plastic toboggans on the front hill for them to play with, and in the summer, I’ve left toys on the front porch.

They are affectionate kids. When I come home from work, they are often on my front porch and they jump up and down with excitement when they see me pull in. Every time I go out of town, they greet my return as if it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them.

Last month Little Biker Boy told me that they’d been evicted. I kept asking his mother what their plans were, but she kept telling me conflicting stories. She made it clear she wasn’t cooperating with the social worker assigned to the kids; her attitude toward all caseworkers is very antagonistic. I think the caseworker wanted her to move into the city, where she could walk or take the bus, since she doesn’t have a car.

As usual, I got the most reliable information from Biker Boy. Despite his mother’s warnings about keeping the family secrets, he has always told me the truth. Unlike his mother and sister, he doesn’t seem to know how to lie.

Ponytail and her three-year-old brother disappeared about a week ago. Biker Boy says they have gone to live with her father. (He’s the man who attacked the family in a drunken rage one night a couple of years ago. Little Biker Boy drove to my house on his bike, barefoot and in boxer shorts, and I called 911. The cops had to taser him before taking him away in handcuffs.) He lives, apparently, several towns over. I have no way of getting in touch with Ponytail.

In the meantime, a man in a white truck has been moving furniture from the trailer. Biker Boy told me that the man is his mother’s latest boyfriend, and that “he’s mean.” I walked over to the trailer so I could meet the man myself, and he was full of talk about how Little Biker Boy “needed his ass kicked.” He seemed to fit the same mold as the last bunch of abusive, alcoholic boyfriends.

Biker Boy and his mother are moving in with this new boyfriend.

Little Biker Boy kept telling me that it’s his fault that they were evicted. His mother has apparently been telling him that.

“It’s not your fault,” I kept saying, over and over again. “You’re a nine-year-old. You’re a kid. None of this is your fault.”

Little Biker Boy got in my car with me, and we went to find the place where he’ll be living. It’s near the high school that With-a-Why goes to. Unfortunately, the road is busy, so I’m not so sure that it’ll be very safe for him to ride his bike. But he knows my phone number, so I’m hoping that he’ll call and I’ll be able to pick him up sometimes and bring him to my house. I’m relying on the fact that his mother is always want to shunt him off, and will be happy to take advantage of a free babysitter.

I pointed out a farm that’s within walking distance of the house. “See that place? Remember the silos. I know the people who live there. If you needed to run somewhere and get help, that would be a good place to go to.”

He nodded.

Yesterday afternoon, my husband and I took Little Biker Boy out to a movie. He was excited about getting nachos and candy and a slushie. He laughed during the funny parts of the movie, and kept turning to me and saying, “Are you having fun? Isn’t this fun?”

Back at my house, he and I sat on the carpeted stairs, where we have had many talks. (It’s where I always send him to calm down.)

“Are you going to cry?” he asked.

“I’ve cried every night,” I told him. “Every night this week.”

“For me?”

“Yes, for you.”

He looked surprised. He leaned back and rubbed his head against me, and I rubbed his back. He said that when he’s old enough, he’ll get a car and come visit me.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what a nice young man you’re going to be,” I told him.

“But I might turn out bad,” he said.

“No, you won’t,” I told him. “You’re like my kids. Like Boy in Black. Like Shaggy Hair Boy. Like With-a-Why. You’re going to be compassionate and gentle and nice.”

And then I had to say goodbye, had to drive him through the dark night to the house where he lives now. I don’t know what happens next.

November 26, 2010

Autumn decor

Piling up

Every Tuesday for the last 26 weeks, I've stopped on my way home from work to pick up two boxes of vegetables from the CSA farm near my house. Mostly, we've been able to keep up with the vegetables by eating them within the week we get them. I'm quite proud of the fact that we ate every single zuchinni that the farm gave us. I admit that I did give some of the beets away to my mother: I've got a limit as to how many beets I can eat.

These last few weeks, we've gotten so much squash that I've ended up piling it on the counter. The nice thing about squash is that it keeps for awhile, so I didn't feel pressure to eat it immediately. And the squash are a nice splash of colour in our kitchen.

But then, with the kids home and nothing much to do except lazily hang out by the fire, I decided to bake the squash and make some soup. Our kitchen area is open to our living room (our downstairs is pretty much one big room), so I was talking to the kids as I took a fork and punched holes in the squash and piled them into baking pans.

Boy in Black, wandering into the kitchen area to get a cup of chocolate milk, looked at me curiously.

"You're cooking those?" he asked. "You're going to eat them?"

"Yeah, I'm making soup," I said.

He opened the refrigerator, yanked out the carton of milk, and then glanced over again at the pans that I was putting into the oven. He gave me his crooked grin, "They're food? I figured they were decorations of some kind."

November 24, 2010

Yesterday's rain

Yesterday's rain

It’s been a dark November. Once the brilliant October foliage is gone, we’re left with stark tree limbs against a grey sky. On rainy days, I drive to campus on dark roads, through grey puddles, past ground covered with dead brown leaves.

“Is it always this dreary here?” asked one of my students one morning. She’s from the west coast, and the cold, dark days were getting to her already.

“Colder is better,” Flannel Shirt assured her. “You’ll like winter here.”

“Snow will make everything better,” said another student.

I thought, as I looked out the window this morning, that my students were right. The snow spread across the lawn changed the soft colours of morning. Instead of staying lazily in bed, as I had planned, I couldn’t resist putting on my winter coat and boots, and taking a walk in the woods behind my house.

The cold woke me up as I breathed it in. I didn’t do much more than meander, stepping into puddles to break thin layers of ice, stopping to take photos, and tramping along trails that wind through old scotch pine. As the sun came up, the blue light caught the snow on the branches. Yesterday's raindrops had turned to crystals of ice. I didn’t walk long, but even that short time out in the cold woke me up, sent blood rushing through my veins. And the warm house, when I returned, seemed cosy.



November 22, 2010


It was late afternoon, with darkness just arriving. The old man who tunes our piano arrived in a station wagon, driven by a friend. He used to come with his wife, but she died this year. Driving is not an option since he doesn’t see; he relies on his ears instead of his eyes. Together, he and his friend removed the front panel of the piano, and he began his work.

While he tuned the piano, he told stories about famous musicians he’s met. Apparently, if you’re famous enough, you can demand the kind of piano you want to play on – venues will rent a Steinway if you’re that famous — and it will be tuned right before your concert. Between stories, Piano Tuner hit keys and plucked at piano strings, listening intently, then adjusting the tuning pins. His friend sat in the comfy chair, reading quietly, and sometimes chiming in on the stories.

I’d explained to Little Biker Boy that he needed to be quiet while the piano tuner was here. He took his snack to the staircase and sat on the carpeted steps, peering out curiously at the men in the living room.

Before the piano tuner was done, With-a-Why arrived home from school, and so did Shaggy Hair Boy. My parents stopped over and joined my sons on the couch, all of them watching the piano tuner work. Piano Tuner and my father are the same age, and they began trading stories about local musicians they know.

“Go ahead and test out the piano,” Piano Tuner said when he was done. Shaggy Hair grabbed the nearest book of music – it happened to be the score to the Charlie Brown Christmas special — and began playing Oh Tannenbaum.

After the piano tuner and his friend left, my sons played for their grandparents. I sat on the steps with Little Biker Boy. He’s not a child who sits still very often, but he does love music. He leaned against me while we listened.

Little Biker Boy will be moving away in eight days. His mother doesn’t yet know where they are going. A rented apartment, maybe. Or perhaps a shelter. Their plans seem to change every time I talk to his mother.

I rubbed Little Biker Boy’s back and gave him a hug. “I love you,” he whispered. Through the railing came the notes of music as Shaggy Hair Boy played.

November 20, 2010

Preach it sister

When I was a kid, priests and ministers were men. Women didn’t preach, or bless a congregation, or give eulogies, or baptize babies. Girls were not even allowed to be altar servers.

In fact, because I live in a Catholic community and the Catholic Church hasn’t yet begun to ordain women, I still rarely see a woman on the altar. Women’s voices are still largely absent in the churches in this area.

That’s why it’s been such an education for me to have so many blogging friends who are women ministers. On the internet, I read about their lives: their struggles to nurture congregations, plan church services, comfort grieving families, deal with church politics, and write sermons every week. In addition to their church duties, they raise children, wash dishes, talk about books, do yard work, and struggle with their personal lives, just like I do.

It took me awhile to adjust my thinking, to imagine ministers who are women, who are accepted as spiritual leaders, who are allowed to preach from the pulpit. The idea of female clergy was so outside my experience. Reading the details of their ordinary lives on their blogs is what made woman ministers finally seem completely normal to me.

That’s why it was especially cool when one of my women minister friends quoted me in her sermon this week.

Note to my mother: click on the word "sermon" in that last sentence, and it will take you to her sermon.

November 18, 2010

No crying he makes

No room for a bed

Every afternoon when he comes over, Little Biker Boy brings me a little yellow flower, which he presents to me proudly. Even though I know he’s picked the flower from the pot of chrysanthemums on my own porch, I love the gesture. Usually I set the little flower on the piano, where I can see it while I’m practicing.

I don’t know yet what is going to happen to the little neighbor kids at the end of the month. They’ve been evicted: they will need to go someplace. I hope they end up someplace within bike-riding distance from my house, but that is pretty unlikely. Because she relies entirely on public assistance, their mother doesn’t have a whole lot of choices.

The song I’ve been practicing on the piano, over and over and over again, is Away in the Manger. It’s an arrangement by Martha Mier. It’s the most difficult song I’ve played yet (hey, remember, I’ve been taking lessons for less than a year), and I’ve really struggled with playing with both hands.

Every once in a while, when I take a break from my stiff, laborious practicing, With-a-Why will come over and sit down at the piano. Before turning to his own music, he’ll play Away in the Manager.

With-a-Why plays beautifully, and it helps me to hear him play the song, just so I know what I’m aiming for. I watch his hands moving gracefully over the keys, I listen to the music, and I look at the little yellow flower. I know the song is supposed to be a Christmas Carol, and the holidays are supposed to be a happy time of year, but the music sounds heartbreakingly sad to me.

November 17, 2010

Cat talk

When I went into my bedroom last night, With-a-Why was sprawled on the bed with Rachel, our orange cat. He seemed to be having a serious conversation with her.

“The C stands for specific heat. It’s mass multiplied by the specific heat multipled by the change in temperature,” he said, stroking her head as he spoke.

He looked up as I approached. The cat stretched out and rubbed her head against his arm.

“People always talk to cats as if they’re stupid,” he explained. “No wonder they don’t learn much. I’m attempting to do the opposite.”

November 15, 2010

Pens are for chewing

Pens are for chewing

It’s that time of the semester: we all had work to do. Sunday evening, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black took the kitchen table, their textbooks and papers spread out, cell phones and laptops lying in wait. With-a-Why stayed on the couch: Shaggy Hair Boy took his usual spot at the piano. I took a break from my reading to cut up a bunch of vegetables and get them simmering for soup.

The cats were less sedentary than the humans: they kept jumping up to claim laps, sit down on papers, or chew on pens. Trouble, our grey male cat, kept chewing on my daughter’s pen even as she was trying to write. My husband, traveling on the west coast, kept sending us all text messages; I'm not sure he realized that we were all in the same room. "Did you get the photo of the harbor seals?" my daughter asked as she glanced at her phone.

"Yep," Boy in Black said without even looking up from his quantum mechanics book. "Next it'll be a text about missing you. Dad always gets nostalgic when he's out of town."

It was about midnight when Boy in Black decided we needed a break. "Family movie time," he announced.

"At midnight?" I asked. "That's ridiculous. I'm tired. We all have to be awake in the morning."

But of course, I can never resist the invitation to hang out with my kids. We piled onto the couch, all five of us, and he started the movie on his laptop — a quirky Canadian film about a high school kid who thinks he's the reincarnation of a famous Bolshevik revolutionary.

"You're going to be tired at school tomorrow," I said to With-a-Why, who was snuggled against me. "I'm such a bad parent."

"Yep," he agreed. And then we watched the movie.

November 14, 2010

Ho ho ho

Holiday Vomit House

On Saturday, I went up to Snowstorm University with my parents and Blonde Niece to hear the Mandarins, a female a capella group that includes Drama Niece, my brother’s very talented daughter. For the last six years, we’ve driven to Camera City to see Drama Niece perform in high school musicals, so it’s nice that she’s going to college here in town, which makes it very easy to go to her events. It was a gorgeous fall day, perfect for strolling across campus, and the singing was pretty amazing.

On the way home, we drove through Traintrack Village to drop Blonde Niece home, and she pointed out the Holiday Vomit House. It was a small grey home, whose yard was filled with as many cheap plastic Christmas decorations as they could pile onto the grass. Clearly, they were going on the theory that quantity trumped quality. Despite my aversion to all things plastic, I sort of admired the occupants of the house — I mean decorating your house like that takes a certain kind of courage.

“It looks like Christmas puked,” Blonde Niece said. I was so stunned by the house that I parked the car at the curb and got out to take a photo.

“Get the Santa in the window,” said my mother. “It’s creepy.”

Blonde Niece laughed as I took the picture. “I guess this is going on the blog.”

November 13, 2010


Usually, I go up to the apartment on Wednesday evenings to spend time with my older kids: we eat Chinese food and watch Glee. But this week was so busy that we waited until Friday night, and they came home. Evenings have gotten dark and cold, so I built a fire. My husband was out of town, so it was nice to have the company of my four kids, plus two of my nieces.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter had a stack of quizzes she was grading, and she sat on the floor in front of the fire, marking them up. She, Boy in Black, and I are all teaching first year students this semester. “In the Physics department, we have grading parties,” said Boy in Black. “Well, it’s not really a party, but we sit around and grade all day, and the professor brings food.” That actually sounded like more fun than the solitary grading we writing teachers usually do.

Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece sat on the couch, re-formatting Blonde Niece’s computer. “It’s going to take awhile,” Shaggy Hair Boy said. Blonde Niece decided to kill some time by baking, and soon the whole room smelled like warm brownies. Red-haired Niece arrived with some board games.

With-a-Why sat down at the piano. I’d left my music – the song I’ve been struggling with for weeks – open on the piano. It’s a Christmas song: Away in the Manager. I can play the right hand just fine, and the left hand just fine, but putting my hands together makes my head explode. Piano Teacher keeps assuring me that I’ll get it eventually.

So anyhow, With-a-Why sat down, glanced at this music he’s never played before, and played it beautifully.

“That’s so unfair,” I said to him. “I’ve been practicing that music FOR WEEKS, and I can’t get it right.”

“How’s it unfair?” he asked, his finger still moving lightly and gracefully over the keys. “I’ve been playing the piano for years. It’s entirely fair that I play better than you.”

“Hey, that song sounds … just a little bit familiar,” Shaggy Hair said, snickering. “Is THAT what you’ve been trying to be play, Mom?”

“I don’t think so,” said Boy in Black, grinning. “That’s nothing like what Mom’s been playing.”

Shaggy Hair Boy loves to tease me – as do all the young men of the household — but I have to admit that he’s also been completely supportive of my piano playing. When I’m practicing, he’ll say, “It’s getting better all the time.” He says things he’s learned from Piano Teacher. “Just take it slow.”

I don’t know what time the gang of young people all went to bed, but I ended up going upstairs sometime after midnight. I could hear the conversations and laughter still going on downstairs. By then Shaggy Hair Boy had taken his usual seat on the piano bench, playing jazz as I drifted off to sleep.

November 11, 2010


After a long day of classes and meetings, I walked into the chilly air and onto our quad. The first week after we reset the clocks, change in light startles me. The sun was already smudging the horizon. The clouds had rolled back enough to allow the golden light we get just before the campus falls into dark shadows.

As I stared up at the evening sky, I could see birds, hundreds of black wings, all flying in the same direction. They appeared over the top of one building, moving in unison, swooping first left, then right, then left, curving and rippling, their dark wings catching just enough of the evening glitter that they looked almost like fish, with shiny gills rather than feathers.

I noticed a student, young with a blond ponytail, staring up at the birds. “Aren’t they cool?” I said to her. She nodded, and stopped walking. We looked up at the dance of feathers, the wave of birds.

A biology professor and his grad student, deep in conversation, came walking down the path — and almost bumped into us.

“Look up,” I said. They stopped and stared.

“Crows,” said Biology Professor.

“They’re considered nuisances,” said Grad Student.

We watched as the wings went smoothly past, the dark silhouettes moving through the last golden light of the day.

“But they’re so beautiful,” said Ponytail Undergrad.

Biology Professor smiled. Grad Student grinned. We looked back at the sky. The last flock of birds moved over our heads then disappeared over the brick building. Without another word, we all began walking again, moving in separate paths, me to my car and home.

November 10, 2010

Grading, grading, grading

Ten days ago, three sections of students handed me essays. Sixty essays altogether. I stacked them inside manila folders and put the folders in my bookbag. For ten days, I’ve had this nagging thought inside my brain, a thought that has accompanied me no matter where I’ve gone, like a stone caught inside a boot, rubbing against my heel at every step: “You have papers to grade! You have papers to grade! Must grade the papers!”

The ridiculous part is that I was, in many ways, looking forward to reading the papers. My students had been working on the essays for several classes: brainstorming ideas, talking over thesis statements, and doing peer review on rough drafts. They’d picked great topics. I knew I’d be reading about geothermal energy, straw bale construction, hydrofracking, ecotourism, wind turbines, urban growth limits, nuclear energy, phytoremediation, coral bleaching, offshore drilling, and more.

I wanted to read the papers; really, I did. It’s just that reading and commenting and grading takes soooo much time. If I spent 20 minutes on each essay, for example, that would be 20 solid hours of grading. But I was determined to have a positive attitude towards the papers and just sandwich them in whenever I could. I decided to just take the papers one at a time and not be overwhelmed by how many there were.

So that’s what I did. I read some of the papers at the monastery, between walks through the sheep pasture and prayers in the crypt and conversations with my friends. I read some sitting at my kitchen table, while enjoying the morning sun and a hot cup of tea. I graded some sitting up in bed, cozily under the blankets. I graded some in the living room in front of the fire. I graded some sitting on the couch while Shaggy Hair Boy played the piano. I even made popcorn one night because a blogging friend (COUGHpilgrimCOUGH) claims that popcorn magically makes grading fun, but to be honest, the popcorn mostly just made greasy spots on the paper.

It feels like I’ve been grading papers constantly for the last ten days, but that’s not exactly true. I took time out on Monday to cook dinner for my daughter, a bunch of friends from the Ultimate team she plays on, and of course, my sons. I stopped this afternoon to visit my parents. I’ve had long conversations with friends, with my husband, and with my kids. I’ve taught classes, gone to meetings, stopped at the CSA farm to pick up the week’s vegetables.

But still, it does seem like my students have followed me everywhere for the last ten days. I keep bringing their ideas into conversations. Just this afternoon, I found myself explaining to my parents what LEED stands for. At the monastery, I got into a long conversation with Brother Beekeeper about the evils of hydrofracking. And I keep telling my husband how we need to look into getting solar panels for the roof. I feel lucky that my students have access to so much information, that they study such cool topics in their classes. That’s the part that makes grading papers worthwhile in the end: I learn so much from them.

Still, it will be a relief to hand them back tomorrow — and know that I can look forward to a weekend in which my time is once again my own.

So much sky

So much sky

November 08, 2010


Afternoon walk

"So what do you do on retreat?" Friends ask. "No television. No cell phone. No computer. No radio. What do you do?"

Well, I spend some of the time with my friends, talking. Mealtimes at the women's guest house often includes long, intimate discussions. The Benedictines don't keep silence, so the retreats at my usual monastery include conversation. Brother Beekeeper and I are friends: we usually find time to catch up on each other's lives.

But my friends and I are good at respecting the need for quietness on retreat, so I also spend a good deal of time alone.

I go to services in the chapel, listening while the monks chant psalms. When the chapel is empty, I sit down in the crypt, cross-legged on the stone floor, and stare into the flickering light of votive candles. I meditate, usually for twenty minutes at a time. I read, I write, I pray. I stare out the window and watch snowflakes spinning against the sky.

Most importantly, I walk. No matter what I'm working through, no matter what swirling thoughts I'm trying to sort out, I find peace by wandering through pastures, tramping through the woods, or following a stream. My spiritual life needs the slap of cold air, the rustling of the trees, and the wholeness of the sky. At the monastery, I leave my books and papers inside on the table, and I walk.

November 07, 2010


May safely graze

It was raining when Retreat Friend and I arrived at the monastery, but the old stone farmhouse where we were staying was cosy, once we turned up the heat and turned on the lights. We’d stopped for Chinese food on the way through town, so we sat down right away for hot soup, veggies, and rice. We’d just finished when the chapel bells began to ring: time for prayer.

As I pulled open the heavy wooden door to the chapel, warm air rushed out. The chapel air has a musty, spicy smell: the smell of incense, of melted wax. I breathed in the smell and could feel the tension behind my eyes loosen. The monks were gathering in a semi-circle around the stone altar, and Brother Beekeeper gave me a wink.

It was a lazy, quiet weekend. I stayed in on a rainy morning to grade some papers, then write in my journal. Nurse Friend arrived, driving from a city where she’d attended a conference. She made coffee, Retreat Friend made tea, and the three of us talked all afternoon. We talked about grown kids, about career plans, about marriage, about divorce. We’ve been coming to the monastery for 13 years, and we know it’s a safe place for long, serious conversations.

This morning, I rose early to find the sheep pastures covered with frost. By the time I was done taking a shower, the sun had come out from behind the clouds. Blades of grass crunched under my feet as I walked with my camera, taking pictures and breathing in the cold fresh air. As the sun began warming the landscape, I wandered through the sheep barns, along the ridge of trees, and through the apple orchard. By the time I returned to the guest cottage for breakfast, my wet hair had frozen into icicle dreads, my hands were numb, and I felt wide awake.

Monastery in November

November 04, 2010

Gone monking

I've got a busy day today, with back-to-back classes and meetings, and no time even to eat lunch. But first thing in the morning, I'm sneaking away for a weekend at the monastery. I won't totally escape work: I'll be bringing with me stacks of papers to grade. But still, I'll have time to walk the sheep farm, chat with Brother Beekeeper, catch up with the two friends I'm going with, light candles in the chapel, and enjoy the peace and quiet that the monastery always offers.

November 02, 2010

Men get naked too

My blog is the number one google hit for “photos of naked middle aged women.” Yep. I'm so proud. That’s pretty much the biggest accomplishment in my life right now. I owe it all to my cooperative women friends, who have selflessly moved out of their comfort zones to pose for me. And my readers (mostly female) who have supported the naked photo project from the start.

At the conference last week, I decided it was time for a naked male photo. Surely, I thought, one of my male friends would cooperate. After all, they are sensitive feminist guys, willing to talk about gender stereotypes. They are intellectual guys who would surely want to extend the discussion of body image to their own gender. They are generous guys who, quite literally, were giving me the shirts off their backs and the socks from their suitcases.

But they balked.

“No way,” said Artist Friend. “But I’ll ask my roommate, Ghana Priest. You want to write on his skin? You’ll need a silver sharpie.”

Philadelphia Guy mumbled something about how he didn’t have tenure yet. “But how about my roommate? He’s got cool tattoos. You wouldn’t even need a sharpie.”

Literature Professor With Cool Tattoos, who lives in West Coast Movie Star City, did seem like the perfect candidate. He had, in fact, offered to pose naked three years ago, but it was late at night in a dimly lit bar and I didn’t have a camera with me. We’d had a long discussion about porn. He’s got a tattoo that represents the band Skinny Puppy. And he's a feminist. I mean, if that didn’t set him up as the perfect candidate, I don’t know what would.

When I sat near him at the Saturday business lunch, I said to him quietly, “I’ve got my camera with me.”

He shrugged, “Sure.”

It felt like a drug deal.

We had to move quickly. The lunch ended late, and he had plans to attend a panel that began in about five minutes. But the photo shoot didn’t take long. I yanked the blankets off his bed so we’d have a white background, he took off his clothes, and I snapped the shot. Minutes later, we were both heading down the hallway to our respective afternoon conference sessions.

Men get naked too

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. .)

November 01, 2010

Without my clothes

My luggage never did arrive. But really, it didn’t matter. No one cared that I wore the same pair of jeans every single day. They were new jeans, so they looked almost as dressy as the black pants so many of attendees were wearing. And really, it warmed my heart the way colleagues let me root through their suitcases. Want to get some sympathy and attention at an academic conference? Arrive without your suitcase. Seriously. I ended up meeting all kinds of new people because they felt sorry for me.

On Saturday night, the conference organizers had planned a dance, and we were invited to wear Halloween costumes. By then, I’d given up on hope that I’d get my suitcase, with the dress that I’d planned to wear. I’d been wearing Artist Friend’s navy t-shirt as a nightshirt, and his roommate, Fun Priest, graciously offered a red sleeveless shirt that was almost long enough to wear as a dress. I borrowed black tights and a black camisole so that the outfit wouldn’t look indecent, and I pulled the red shirt on over the skintight black clothes. It was miles too wide, but I decided I couldn’t be picky. Besides, I needed a wide palette. I added strips of masking tape to simulate sound waves, first close together, then farther apart. The conference was filled with science nerds – such is the nature of the organization – and I figured everyone would appreciate me illustrating a scientific principle.

The group of grad students who had gathered in my hotel room to share a bottle of bourbon cheered me on as I put the costume together. A woman young enough to be my daughter said to me, “I don’t know what you’re supposed to be, but you have great legs.” Although the bottle of bourbon was almost empty at this point in the conversation, I chose to think the compliment was sincere. “The curves of your body make the straight lines curve like real sound waves,” said another young woman. “It’s totally flattering.” I love grad students.

I had to explain the costume to almost everyone at the dance – most of whom were wearing normal dress-up clothes. Because I was wearing black tights, I don’t think anyone noticed that I had arrived without shoes. What’s especially funny is that I got more compliments on this ridiculous outfit than I’ve ever gotten while wearing my own clothes. Only one person knew the costume right away, and only because he knew where I’d stolen the idea. He and I spent at least twenty minutes discussing our favorite episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Then he gave other people hints by repeating making the noise of a car as it speeds off into the distance.

The next morning, after dancing until past midnight and then hanging out at a bar with friends until 3:30 am, I got up early and filled my backpack with clothes that I had borrowed from colleagues, so I could start returning them. Most of us had flights that afternoon.

I arrived at the 8:30 am session early. Bleary-eyed colleagues were sitting in the rows of chairs, clutching cups of hot coffee. Chicago Friend was fiddling with the computer that would project his powerpoint images. Since the panel hadn’t started yet, I began handing clothes back. “Here are your socks,” I said to Philadelphia Friend. “And your shirt.” I tossed the clothes over to him and turned to Artist Friend. “Can you give this shirt back to your roommate? Sorry about all the masking tape on it.”

I looked up to scan the room, to see what other friends were present. That’s when I noticed that everyone in the room had turned toward me. They’d stopped talking to each other and drinking their coffee. They were actually staring, eyes wide awake.

“We’re dying to know the backstory,” said Tall Man. “It looks like you had quite a night.”