December 31, 2011


Time for reflection

Yesterday, I took a long walk with an old friend. (To clarify, it’s the friendship that’s old, not the friend.) Her husband and son, who had driven in from out of state with her, joined us for a hike around Pretty Colour Lake. On a cold winter day, the lake wasn't its usual deep green-blue colour, but a shifting pattern of greys and light blues. “That’s what I love about this lake,” Poet Woman said as we walked. “It’s always different. You never get bored.”

I could say the same about friendship. I’ve been friends with Poet Woman for 20 years, Artist Friend for 10 years, and Kindergarten Friend for 45 years. Most of my friends are people I’ve known for at least a decade. But my friends keep growing and changing, showing different aspects of themselves as the light changes, and our conversations never get boring.

Through the brambles



Quick, a long-time extra in our household and an amazing musician, got light-up drumsticks for Christmas.

December 29, 2011


New toy

I was just leaving the house with Little Biker Boy to buy him a birthday present — I’d decided to let him pick out his own present this year — when we discovered that freezing rain had sealed the car shut. I tried every door, but none of them would budge.

“This is terrible!” Little Biker Boy screamed. He ran around and around the car, periodically stopping to kick the metal. Kicking the car did no good whatsoever, especially since he wasn’t even kicking at the doors, but it served to help vent his anger.

Little Biker Boy isn't a patient kid even on his best days, and he’d been having a bad week. Vacations are tough for him. School is a safe place with a consistent routine, filled with teachers and counselors who know how to handle him. A week in his mother’s apartment left him filled with frustration and anger, two emotions he does not handle well.

“Why did you let Shaggy Hair Boy take your car?” he yelled. “Now we can’t go to the store!” He yanked on the door handle, but it didn’t move.

I’ve had frozen car doors before, and I knew we’d get them open eventually. In my old station wagon, I used to just open the hatch in the back and crawl to the front. I tried to think of what I could use to thaw the locks out. A hair dryer and an extension cord might work, if we owned a hair dryer, which we don’t.

The cold wind whipped my hair into my face. I didn’t have the energy to handle both Little Biker Boy and the frozen locks. I brought him back into the warm house.

Boy in Black was already putting on his boots and coat. “I don’t care what you have to do,” I muttered to him. “Just get the doors open.”

It was a bad start to the afternoon, but thankfully, Boy in Black was able to pry open a door and get the car started. Our first stop was the pizza place. “It’s our tradition,” Little Biker Boy said. I kept the car running so that the doors would thaw, while he went in to buy a couple slices of pizza, and we sat in the warm car, eating and talking. Once he’d told me about his week and calmed down, we went to the toy aisle of a big store, where he debated for a long time before choosing a remote control car, some plastic wrestling figures, and a basketball.

By the time we returned to the house, his mood was calmer. I built a fire while he tested his car out in the living room, the hall, and then outside in the yard. It was dark before I said to him, finally, “I have to take you home now.”

He looked out into the driveway hopefully. “Maybe the doors will be frozen shut, and I’ll have to stay here.”

December 28, 2011

Smells so good

Welcome Red-haired Sister and her two kids are always doing cool craft projects, which means we get nice homemade presents from them, like this lovely holiday wreath they made for my house. Every time I open the front door, I can smell fresh cedar and pine.

December 27, 2011

Always, music

Always, music

In my family, our holiday activities are mostly eating and talking. And in between, there’s always music.

December 24, 2011

Ready for Christmas

The last couple of days, we’ve had a flurry of cooking and cleaning, getting ready for the Christmas holidays. The elderly man who tunes our piano made a special trip to the house on Thursday to make sure our holiday music would be in tune. We’ve made countless trips to the grocery store. When the kids are all home, we go through about three gallons of chocolate milk each day: they consider in the perfect food after a workout. Each day that we get closer to Christmas brings more of our extra kids home from college, so we’ve had a gang in the living room every evening, talking and playing games.

The out-of-town family has arrived, which means text messages from Urban Sophisticate as she does her traditional last-minute Christmas shopping trip with my father. Taekwondo Nephew and Dandelion Niece showed up at my house early this morning, volunteering to be my sous chefs, and helpfully chopped up vegetables while I prepared food for Christmas dinner. My husband and the rest of the gang are busy cleaning, which is a never-ending job in this household. Shaggy Hair Boy, as usual, is at the piano, filling the house with jazz music as we work. My kids all learned early on that the way to get out of doing chores was to play the piano -- I can never bring myself to ask them to stop playing so that they can clean.

My kids had given themselves an athletic challenge — which was to run 100 miles in December. Because my daughter is leaving on a trip the day after Christmas, the goal morphed into running 100 miles before Christmas Eve. With-a-Why had to drop out of the challenge because he strained something in his foot and was forced to rest, but the other three kids were determined to reach their goal, despite the end-of-semester busyness.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter finished the 100 miles easily —running anywhere from 5 to 10 miles every time she went to the gym. Boy in Black missed some days during a stretch when he was taking finals and grading exams, but then he caught up by running 10 or 12 miles at a time. Shaggy Hair missed some days when he was off visiting his girlfriend, so yesterday he still had 19 miles to go. He went off to the gym early in the day, right after his piano lesson, and said, “I plan to be there for hours.” More than three hours later, he sent everyone in the family a text message: he’d completed his goal.

The weather has been unseasonable warm, but this morning we woke up to snow. That means it’s time to build a fire in the fireplace as we gather to celebrate the holidays.

Cold, with snow

Cold, with snow

December 21, 2011

Holiday music

Holiday music

Because I never listen to the radio and rarely go into a store with piped-in music, I don't hear the sappy Christmas music that everyone else seems to complain about all November and December. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hear holiday music. In fact, this month has been filled with music, mostly jazz and classical.

The first musical performance we went to this month was held in a castle-like building built more than 100 years ago: it’s the music building on the Snowstorm University campus, but looks like something that belongs at Hogwarts. In an auditorium marked by lovely woodwork, Shaggy Hair Boy accompanied the jazz ensemble on a black grand piano. Because he’s the pianist, he’s the one musician who doesn’t face the audience, which is why it’s lucky he’s got such great hair.

The next weekend, we crowded into a bookstore to hear Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why play a duet, and then the next weekend, they played two piano recitals at the music studio. The families of the other piano students know my two by now, and I often hear people whisper as they get their programs, “Oh, the brothers are going to play!” They know Shaggy Hair Boy for his jazzy numbers, and With-a-Why because he can play songs like Flight of the Bumblebee, which requires playing really fast.

Last Saturday, we went to “Cabaret” night at the local high school. For the first half hour, as people mingled and talked and found their seats, With-a-Why played song after song on the piano. It’s amazing how classical music, nice tablecloths, and dim lighting can transform a high school cafeteria into a cabaret. He sang with the chamber choir, but the evening also featured him playing DeBussy’s Clair de Lune on the piano.

The holiday music season ended yesterday afternoon with the boys playing in a more humble setting: the lobby of the assisted living center where my mother-in-law lives. Although the boys each did a few show-off instrumental pieces, most of their time was spent playing traditional Christmas Carols while my husband took the microphone and got all the old people to sing along with him. My mother-in-law kept turning and saying in a stage whisper, “That’s my son! And my grandsons!”

When the event was over, my husband and I helped move chairs while aides came in to assist some of the residents. But Shaggy Hair Boy stayed at the keyboard, playing songs like “Over the Rainbow” and “Georgia on My Mind.”

“This brings tears to my eyes,” my mother-in-law said to me. I could tell that some of the elderly women sitting near her felt the same way. None of them wanted to move. I’m not sure how long they would have all stayed there — Shaggy Hair Boy playing the old standards, the old folks listening — if the staff didn’t come in to politely tell them that it was almost time for the first dinner shift.

An elderly woman let go of her walker to grab my hand. “Your sons have a passion for music,” she said. “That’s a wonderful gift.” Then she went down the hall, singing under her breath as she pushed the metal walker over the linoleum.

December 19, 2011

Spitting distance

Over the tracks

When I picked up Little Biker Boy, I could tell he was in a difficult mood. He stomped out of the little apartment where he lives with his mother without saying goodbye to her. Then he began telling me a fictional story about the life he’d had when he lived with his father. “I owned two snowmobiles. No, three snowmobiles, all to myself. And we used to race them.”

I’d planned to bring him home to my house to help decorate our Christmas tree, but I could see right away that his mood wasn’t a good fit for a living room filled musical instruments, boxes of fragile Christmas tree ornaments, and laptop computers balanced on small tables.

So instead, we went to the green bridge. It’s a pedestrian bridge that rises up three floors above the railroad tracks. To climb it, you walk up cage-like tunnels made of metal grates, first one, then another, and then a third. The fourth tunnel goes across the railroad tracks, high enough that even a double-decker train can pass underneath. When you run up and down, the metal shakes and rattles. The scariest part is that you can look down through the metal and get an incredible sensation of height.

Little Biker Boy ran ahead of me, yelling as he went up the metal ramps. He kicked metal grates and they rattled. At the very top, he stopped and looked down. “It’s so scary when you look down,” he said. He and I are both afraid of heights. We walked across cautiously, looking down whenever we wanted a shot of adrenaline. At the very middle we stopped. Five tracks lay beneath us, and when we walked, the metal bridge shook under our feet.

“Look!” Little Biker said. In this distance, we could see the light of an approaching train. It came rumbling and clanking toward us, moving fast through the big train yard and then swerving on the track that led right below our feet.

The whistle blew. Little Biker Boy yelled, but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. We both jumped up and down on the rattling bridge. It felt like the whole town was shaking. The train whooshed by underneath us, car after car: yellow, orange, brown, red.

Little Biker Boy lay down on the grate and spit. His saliva landed on the top of the train. We could both see the mark as the train passed through. He laughed and stood up again, and we watched as the train kept coming, car after car.

After the train had gone through, we climbed down the other side of the bridge. “I spit on a train!” Little Biker Boy kept saying. That was apparently the accomplishment he needed to shift into a better mood.

The green bridge

December 17, 2011

Binge cleaning

It happens every December. I click the little button that allows me to submit my grades and think to myself, “Hurray! I’m done! I can sit back and relax!”

Then I stand up from my desk, look around my house, and think, “Ugh. When was the last time I cleaned this place?”

It’s amazing how things pile up during the semester. Oh, we manage to keep up with some of the day-to-day stuff like washing dishes, doing laundry, and even occasionally cleaning the bathrooms, but still, at the end of a busy semester, the house looks worse than a cheap hotel room occupied by a bunch of Ultimate Frisbee players.

I’m a binge cleaner by nature, and I have to admit, I sort of enjoy the kind of cleaning and purging that’s necessary at the end of the semester. When my kids were little, I’d go through their toys and clothes every December, getting rid of anything that was outgrown, outdated, or broken. I still get a sense of satisfaction when I fill a bag with stuff to take over to the Rescue Mission. I’ve figured out the formula over the years: every bag of stuff that leaves the house will make my home just a bit easier to clean.

At a Christmas party last night, someone said to me, “Do you have your shopping done?”

It seemed to me a very odd question. This isn’t the season for buying stuff. It’s the season for getting rid of stuff — the shirt that doesn’t fit me any more because it shrunk, that board game my kids out grew, and that book that got dropped into the bathtub. It's time to fill up bags with clothes that just hang in our closets and let someone else get some use out of them. It’s the season for sorting through the folders, papers, and books piled on the floor of my office, or the bin of mail and papers on the kitchen table.

It’s time to clean for the family and friends we'll be seeing over the next month. It's time to make space for the new year.

December 13, 2011


The semester is winding down. My older two kids have moved back home for winter break, but none of us are quite in vacation mode yet.

My daughter, sitting by the fire, has her computer open and a stack of papers in her lap. She’s preparing for her thesis proposal defense – something to do with social norms theory and the sexual behavior of college-age women. With-a-Why, at one end of the couch, is writing a paper for his graphic novel class. He’s arguing that Batman represents conservative values while Superman represents liberal values. Boy in Black, who has claimed the other end of the couch, is studying for a physics exam. Smiley Girl is preparing for her dendrology final by flipping through index cards filled with facts about trees. Shaggy Hair Boy is writing a paper about how he considers jazz a sacred music. My husband is checking graphs that show what the stock market is doing, and muttering about a “head and shoulders” pattern.

After a day of long meetings on campus, I came home to make veggie lasagna so that we could all eat together before getting back to work. I’ve got a stack of portfolios in my office, but I need a good night sleep before I tackle them. I’ll start grading them tomorrow.

December 11, 2011

Made for walking

For a couple of years now, my piano teacher has been saying she needs to take me shopping. She’s a beautiful woman who is always dressed gorgeously, in carefully chosen clothes and jewelry. I, on the other hand, tend to wear the same pair of jeans over and over again, paired with whatever t-shirt I happened to grab out of the closet. Once when my daughter was trying to tactfully describe the way I dress, Boy in Black said, “You’d never be surprised to find a twig or leaf in Mom’s hair.” Yep. That about sums it up.

Friday afternoon during my piano lesson, Beautiful Piano Teacher told me she’d just bought a pair of boots. She even pulled out her cell phone to show me a picture of them. “They’re warm and comfortable,” she said. “I hate cold feet.” 

“I hate cold feet too,” I said. “I should get a pair of boots.” It’s not that I don’t own a pair of boots. I do. They’re insulated hiking boots that have to be laced up every time I put them on. I wear them with jeans all winter long, but they’re fairly clunky and my feet end up sweating, which makes them cold. I liked the idea of a pair of boots that I could just slip on and off, so that my feet won’t sweat when I’m indoors.

“I used to have a pair of regular boots,” I told Beautiful Piano Teacher. “But it was before my daughter was born so it was more than 25 years ago.”

She stood up. “We have to get you a pair of boots. Let’s go.”

“Right now?” I asked. I liked the idea of owning boots, but the thought of shopping for them made me feel queasy. Shopping for boots would be a Herculean task, one I’d need to prepare for with food and drink, perhaps some meditation.

“Yep,” she said firmly. “My next lesson cancelled — we have time.”

The next thing you know, we were in her car and heading to the mall. Yes, we were going to the mall on a Friday afternoon just two weeks before Christmas. Beautiful Piano Teacher is a brave woman. 

She led me into Baron & Seamstress, an expensive department store. “Don’t worry,” she said. “They’re having a sale.”

It wasn’t the prices that scared me, but rather, the store itself. I’m afraid of department stores. They confuse me. There are always pillars and mirrors and escalators and racks of stuff set up in paths that get me completely lost. The merchandise is set up in a way that seems to me completely random. I much prefer thrift stores, where all the red shirts are put on one rack, or all the jeans in one bin. That method of organization is at least logical.

But Beautiful Piano Teacher has no fear of department stores. In fact, she actually likes to shop. Without hesitation, she marched past racks of shirts and holiday sweaters, swishing past counters of perfume and weird cosmetic gunk, turning this way and that, leading me right to the shoe department. She was right about the sale. Big signs proclaimed the prices. Women were everywhere – grabbing at the boots on the tables, sitting in the chairs to take off their shoes, and tossing boxes aside as they tried the boots on. It’s the kind of scene that made me want to turn and slink out of the store, although escape at that point was impossible since there’s no way I could have ever found my way back to the car.

The confusion didn’t bother Beautiful Piano Teacher at all. She scanned the tables quickly, while I muttered objections. “No heels. No pointy toes. No suede. No weird buckles.”

She found a boot that met my requirements and held it up. “See? It’s lined so they'll be warm. It’s stylish.”

I gave in. “Okay.” Then I looked around. All the chairs were filled, so I figured it might take hours before anyone waited on us. Usually in that situation, I give up and go home. I’m invisible when I’m in a department store — I never get waited on. And more than twenty minutes in a mall makes me lightheaded.

Beautiful Piano Teacher went up to the counter, held up the boot, and called out in her lovely Russian accent: “We need this in size 8.” A salesperson appeared from nowhere.

Within minutes, I was trying on the boots. They were as comfortable as slippers. They were lined with soft, warm material. Beautiful Piano Teacher assured me they were fashionable.

“Even if you wear jeans, they look so much better than the sneakers or hiking boots you usually wear,” she said. We drove back to the studio just in time for her next lesson, and the next day, I tried the boots out. I wore them for hours, and my feet stayed warm and comfortable the whole time.

“It’s a start,” Beautiful Piano Teacher said when I showed up at my sons’ piano recital wearing the boots. “Next time, we will buy you some clothes.”

December 09, 2011

What I learned this semester

On the last day of class, I gave each of my first year students an index card and asked them to write one thing they learned during their first semester in college. Then I shuffled the cards and read them aloud.

Apoptosis is programmed cell death.

In my first semester of college, I learned that Dungeons & Dragons is more fun than it sounds.

The average American teenager sends and receives about 80 text messages every day.

How to do stoichiometry.

Eight hours of sleep a night will not happen. Naps are great. So is coffee.

I learned more about the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is awesome.

I learned more about steel than I ever thought possible.

Twenty-four percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 50 have at least one tattoo.

Time management. Finally.

A medium-sized dog has double the environmental impact of driving an SUV for 10,000 miles.

Only 8 percent of the energy in the United States comes from renewable resources.

I learned that there are people here and around the world who think like me about the environment.

I learned how to recognize bad writing.

350 ppm is the safe limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’ve passed that.

I learned that I look decent with a beard.

I learned the importance of stress release and sleep.

I learned that formaldehyde is what makes me feel light-headed while dissecting things.

I learned that I procrastinate way too much, have a horrible work ethic, and am too obsessed with Facebook. 

I learned why God created Sunday as the day of rest. It's because Friday and Saturday kicks your butt.

There is a subspecies of drosophila (fruit fly) that has sperm that is 5.8 cm long.

Time management is extremely important.

I learned what dimensional analysis is.

When times get tough, and there’s a right or left in the trail ahead of you, you must go straight through the brush, because nothing is easy.

I learned that the molecular mass of carbon dioxide is 44.01 grams and water is 18.01 grams.

I apparently have an accent of some sort.

I learned how to properly light my hand on fire.

Dining hall food gets old. 

This semester I learned the basics on why animals behave the way they do.

Temperature influences turtle gender.

Pulling an all-nighter to study and taking a caffeine pill is not a good combination.

I learned that power naps are the key to survival.

Having a lab partner is a lifelong commitment.

You must let the little things in life that bug you slide because in the end, they don’t really matter. 

Chemistry is harder than I thought. I would rather build a real life replica of the Colesium.

I learned how to solve problems with my roommate.

You are not supposed to reduce a fever.

My study habits aren’t good enough.

Monecious means that something has male and female organs.

I learned more in this one semester of college than I did in 12 years of grade school.

How to budget my time.

I learned how to do calculus. Sort of.

The cemetery is a great place to go for a walk and escape the stresses of school.

Science is a lot of hard work.

I learned to accept those who have different political views than I do.

I really learned a lot about different movements and current events going on in the world around us. 

The easiest decision is rarely the right one.

 Life goes on.

December 07, 2011

jo(e) athlete

A few years ago, when a new gym opened near us, my husband joined. He’s gone faithfully, usually three times each week, and that’s kept him in pretty good shape. I went with him once and decided that a regular gym wasn’t really for me. I prefer to exercise outside in the fresh air. I’ve never been one to exercise just for the sake of exercise. I’d rather take classes like karate or belly dancing, snowboarding or skiing, so that I’m learning a skill while I exercise.

But this winter, my Ultimate Frisbee playing kids are using the gym to stay in shape while the Ultimate fields are covered with snow. They coordinate the times by cell phone and travel in two groups – one group coming from campus and one group from my house. They’ve pledged to each run 100 miles in December.

So last night, I drove over to the gym with my husband, who had gotten out of work late. By the time I walked into the big room with the treadmills, their workout was already in full swing. The five kids (Smiley Girl is part of the group) were lined up on five treadmills, all running hard. They were a noticeable group because they were all wearing bright-coloured Ultimate shirts. Shaggy Hair Boy’s hot pink outfit and With-a-Why’s bright purple make them very easy to find.

I took the treadmill next to Boy in Black, which may have been a mistake. He thinks it’s fun to do things like the set the treadmill at top speed so that he can run a five-minute mile. I ran for hours — okay, maybe it wasn’t really that long — and went only two miles.

But still, I congratulated myself. So far I’ve run 2 miles in December. Only 98 more to go! I abandoned my family, who were all still running obsessively. I went to the hot tub for a few minutes, then the sauna. Those, I could get used. Then I changed back into my clothes and found the rest of the family, who were gathering in the lobby.

“Do you think you’re going to make the 100 miles?” I asked my daughter. “December goes by fast.” 

She pulled her coat on as we walked toward the door. “Well, today is Day 6, and I’ve already run 30 miles. So I think I’m good.”

December 05, 2011

Chilly day for a swim

Into the water

I stood on the shore of the lake wearing a winter coat over a wool sweater, plus a scarf and mittens, to protect me from the cold December wind that blew across the lake. Volunteers from a local diving club, clad in dry suits that kept them warm, stood waist-deep in the lake, waiting for the event to begin.

“I’m disappointed that it’s not snowing,” said the cheerful woman standing next to me. “That always makes this more fun.”

“Some years they have to break some ice,” said an older man with a camera. “They lucked out this year.”

To my right, hundreds of people gathered under a big white tent. Some teams wore matching t-shirts or crazy hats. Many had stripped down to bathing suits and barefeet. Blond Brother-in-law had on bright green shorts, but I kept losing sight of him in the confusion.

Someone with a microphone began a countdown, and suddenly they all started running — across the muddy ground and straight into the cold lake. 

It was one of the craziest fundraisers I’ve ever seen. Folks of all ages were splashing, squealing, and yelling as their bodies hit the icy water. A teenager in a bikini kicked her feet and splashed her friends. Some friends locked arms and ran together. Some dove under to get their hair wet while others were content to run splashing and screaming in a wide arc. Within about ten minutes, more than 300 people had jumped into the lake, all to raise money for the Special Olympics.

The event didn’t last long. Within minutes, people began running back out of the lake, eagerly grabbing dry towels from family and friends who stood on the bank. All around me I could hear excited chatter as folks dried off and began putting layers of clothes back on over their goose pimples. I found Blond Brother-in-law talking to my parents. He was soaking wet, but that didn’t seem to bother him at all. “Nice day for a swim,” he said.


December 03, 2011



Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Sailor Boy went out to buy birthday presents; they called to say that they’d pick up Drama Niece on their way home. Boy-in-Black and Blonde Niece went to the grocery store to buy cookies, granola, fruit, and gallons of chocolate milk. Smiley Girl cleaned the kitchen while Shaggy Hair Boy picked With-a-Why up from his piano lesson. I carried logs in to build a fire. My husband texted to say he'd be home soon.

As everyone began to gather in our living room, I brought out dozens of beeswax candles from the monastery.

“No candles near the laptops!” warned Boy-in-Black. Our living room has so many little tables that it looks like a library or coffee shop, and my kids have strict rules about their computers. Drinks and melting wax are not allowed near the piano or on any little table that holds a laptop. So I pulled over several wooden stools. Soon plates of candles were balanced amongst the bodies and laptops crowded into the living room.

The many little flames combined with the glowing logs in the fireplace lit the faces of the kids as they talked, telling stories and funny anecdotes about the two teenagers whose birthdays we were celebrating: Drama Niece and Smiley Girl.

I’ve known Smiley Girl for more than a year now — she was my student before she started dating Shaggy Hair Boy — and I’ve known Drama Niece her whole life. I well remembered the morning of her birth. “I held you when you were just minutes old,” I said.

“You win at the candle ceremony,” she said. “No one can beat that.”

Of course, if there’s any competition at the candle ceremony, it’s who can come up with the funniest story. Drama Niece, whose pseudonym comes from the amazing theatrical talent she showed during high school plays, won that competition by jumping in with backstory to anecdotes her cousins were telling.

By the time we were done with stories, some of the candles had burned down completely, and the plates I’d set around the room were filled with pools of melting wax. And now Drama Niece and Smiley Girl, born the exact same day, are no longer teenagers, but young women in their twenties.

December 01, 2011


One Thanksgiving when I was very small, my grandmother taught me how to serve cranberry sauce out of a can. While I knelt on the kitchen counter and watched, she used the can opener to cut both ends, then pushed the sauce through so that it came out neatly, beautifully red and perfectly molded. 

Years later, long after my grandmother had died, my mother decided to make fancy homemade cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. She spent all kinds of time making it, and admittedly, it tasted good, but I was horrified. “But we always have cranberry sauce that’s shaped like a tin can,” I said to her. “It’s a tradition.”

I’ve never been someone who embraces change.

If there’s someone who likes rituals even more than me, it’s Little Biker Boy, the ten-year-old who used to live down the street. When I picked him up after school, we didn’t even have to discuss where we were going. I drove straight to the pizza place in Traintrack, and he said, “Park in front of the sign, like you always do.”

I handed him the money, because he likes to be the one to pay, and he carried the pizza slices out to the car. While we ate, we talked about his week at school, his new social worker, and his weekend with his older sister. Then we drove around his old neighborhood. “Don’t forget to go down to the railroad track,” he said. “We always do that.”

So we drove down to the end of my road to watch the trains going by. When the train went by going east, I told him stories about Big City Like No Other, and we imagined what the people on the train might do when they get to the city. He knows the details by heart, even though he’s never been to the city.

When a train went by going west, I told him stories about the large midwestern city on the Great Lake. Then we went back to my house, where we sat on the kitchen floor by the heat vent and talked until it was time for me to take him back to his mother’s apartment.

November 30, 2011

Around the lake

Path to the lake

At Pretty Colour Lakes, the beach is closed and the gorgeous foliage is gone. We haven’t yet had the enough snow to attract the snowshoers and cross-country skiers who will tramp down paths over the winter months. As we walked the trail along the lake, we passed a woman running, a teenager walking a dog, and then an older couple, who were talking as they walked. The cedar trees smell the same no matter what the season.

November 28, 2011

A parcel in a pear tree

By the time I arrived home at 4:30 pm, it was already getting dark. I hate the short days we get this time of year. I stopped, as I usually do, at the end of our driveway to pull mail out of a stuffed mailbox. We get a lot of mail, but it’s almost all junk. Hardly anyone writes real letters any more.

When I dumped the pile of envelopes onto the front seat of my car, I noticed a little slip of pink paper. I’ve gotten those slips before, and they usually mean that I need to go to the post office to pick up a package. The slip was covered in fine print, none of which I could read in the fading light, but when I flipped it over, three words were handwritten on the back: parcel in paperbox .

“It's in a paper box?” I thought to myself. That seemed like an odd thing for our mail carrier to note. I assumed that she meant a cardboard box. The books I order usually come just in a manila envelope or post office mailer. Perhaps the note meant someone was sending me a gift.

The word parcel made me think of the packages we used to get this time of year when I was a kid. My grandmother and aunt would send a big cardboard box, and we’d open it to find stacks of wrapped Christmas presents, which we couldn’t open until Christmas Eve. The word also made me remember the book The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. When Polly Pepper did up a parcel with brown paper and string, the gift always sounded exciting, even if it was something as simple as a gingerbread man. 

I glanced at my watch. I’d have to hurry to get to the post office before it closed.

The drive to the post office took me past cornfields that had been razed to yellow-gold stubble, past red barns and old farmhouses, and over a traintrack. It’s a pleasant drive, and the anticipation of a parcel in a paperbox made me smile as I drove.

In the little brick post office, I showed the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter. She looked down at it and then back up at me. “Did you check your paper box?” she asked.

“My … what?” I asked. I’d forgotten such a thing existed. I haven’t had a print newspaper delivered to my house in years. “Do I still have a newspaper box?”

I drove back to my house. Yep, there it was, right next to the mailbox: a yellow plastic box with the name of the local newspaper stamped on the side of it. Inside was a manila envelope that contained a book I’d ordered last week.

November 27, 2011

Brownies, Laptops, and Twister


For the first time ever, we had the whole week off for Thanksgiving. Some of us – well, pretty much all of us — still had work to do, so the living room was filled with laptops, books, and papers, but the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. Many of our extra kids, home for the holiday, stopped in. Quick played chess with With-a-Why. Film Guy made brownies. Older Neighbor Boy told stories about the culinary institute he’s attending. The gang stayed up one night playing Taboo, and then, for reasons beyond my understanding, they got out the game Twister, a game that gets really absurd when most of the players are over six feet tall. 

November 25, 2011

Into wine

When we were little, my father would send us kids outside with a bucket to gather dandelion flowers. Since all the lawns near us would be covered with the bright yellow flowers, it wouldn’t take long to fill a bucket and bring it back to the basement, where my father would make dandelion wine.

He’s recently revived his interest in wine-making, and this summer, he once again made dandelion wine, which he keeps offering to anyone who comes to the house. I think all the grandchildren have had a taste by now of the homemade wine. About a month ago, he said he wanted to make apple wine again, but that it might be difficult because the cider that is sold nowadays often contains preservatives.

“I know where you can get cider that’s got nothing in it,” I said to him. I was thinking of the monastery I visit for retreats. A couple of years ago, the state told the monks they could no longer sell their cider because it’s not pasteurized. Their solution was to put up a sign informing visitors that the cider was free, and they could make a donation if they liked.

So when I went on retreat a few weeks ago, I stopped in the bookstore to chat with Brother Tractor about the cider they were selling. “Nope, we don’t add any chemicals,” he said. “It’s just cider.”

When I brought a few gallons of the cider home, With-a-Why pointed to the monastery label. It said: “Ingredients: apples.”

Yesterday, when I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, my father brought me down into the basement to show me what he’d done with the cider I’d brought home from the monastery. There it was, in two glass bottles, bubbles rising as I watched. “It’s working,” my father said. “Soon we’ll have wine.”


November 22, 2011

If only I had some tap shoes

A few days ago, my parents sent out a message over the family email list, announcing a movie night at their house. It’s become a cold weather tradition. Eight of us gathered tonight near the warmth of their wood-burning stove. My mother made popcorn and poured lemonade while my father searched through his collection and pulled out a black-and-white film that featured Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

We congratulated Red-haired Niece on her new job, which starts next week. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter pulled up her shirt to show everyone the row of stitches on her abdomen. “My knife wound,” she said dramatically. That sounds infinitely more badass than the real story, which involves a dermatologist and a biopsy that showed the removed tissue to be benign.

It never matters which movie my father chooses because they tend to be all the same. This movie took place in Europe supposedly, although it looked suspiciously like a set. The women wore gorgeous dresses with swirly skirts that floated through the air when they danced. The plot involved love-at-first sight, a crazy scheme, mistaken identities, absurd gender roles, and corny dialogue, made funnier by the muttered commentary of the young people sitting next to me on the couch. The music and dancing were terrific, and I couldn’t resist dancing as we moved out to the kitchen for tea, cocoa, and homemade cookies.

The music was still going through my head as we put on coats and headed out into the cold rain to drive home.

November 20, 2011

The whole world is watching

I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical about the purpose or power of social media. Oh, I admit, I use it. I’ve treated facebook like a big address book, looking up folks when I want to send them an email, and I’ve used the Google+ circles as a way to have conversations with friends. It’s been nice to keep in touch with folks who live far away. I’ve been on twitter for a few years, and I once joked that it’s main purpose seemed to be to let me know which celebrity had died that day. Last semester, a friend sent me an email saying, “Hey, you must have papers to grade. You’ve been on twitter a lot.” So yeah, that too. Twitter can be a fun procrastination tool.

For the first few months I was on twitter, it seemed very much like a big cocktail party. Oh, it was entertaining and sure, there’s a social value to making small talk with folks, but most of what I saw was pretty superficial: folks joking around when they want to procrastinate, friends promoting their online businesses, single friends flirting with other twitter folks in hopes of a hook-up, bloggers linking to their blogs, people venting about relationships, and really funny twitter streams coming from people pretending to be famous dead celebrities.

I’ve watched the way that the younger generation — that is, my students and my household — embrace all the technological ways of communicating. The speed at which they can send text messages stuns me. (I think I’m just I’m too old to master typing with my thumbs on a very tiny keyboard.) I’ve watched how young people are able to use cell phone technology to coordinate a flashmob, gathering impressive numbers to sing and dance a single song. When I’ve talked with my students about social media, I’ve asked the question of whether or not their generation would eventually use those connections, that ability to reach large numbers of people, for something larger and more meaningful than entertainment.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has answered that question for me. In a time when the corporate-owned mainstream media are not always reliable sources of information, my twitter stream has been an invaluable source. When college students at UC Davis, sitting on the sidewalk in a peaceful, non-violent protest were pepper sprayed by a cop at close range, videos were posted on the internet within minutes and the link sped through various social networks. When I wanted to see how a General Assembly at the Occupy Wall Street movement in the city functioned, I clicked on a livestream and watched the entire thing, through the camera of a young man standing right in the crowd. Most of the folks I follow on twitter are people I know in real life — some are former students who are at the protests — so when I see their photos, their comments, their links, and their livestreams, I know something about the source and what bias might be involved. It’s so much more immediate and unfiltered than the days of reading columns in the morning newspaper.

Someone said to me yesterday, “How can the Occupy Wall Street movement survive without one strong leader? They need a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. A movement won't work without a leader.” But I think they are forgetting the role of the internet in this movement.

It’s true that the Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t have one charismatic leader, but it’s also true that it’s not a leaderless movement. Watch a livestream of a General Assembly and you will see many strong leaders, who believe in a participatory process. They’re making decisions by consensus, they are trying to give everyone a voice, and they’re working with each other to plan strategies. Many approaches they are taking – the human microphones, the drum circles, the think tanks, the working groups, the general assemblies, the insistence on non-violence, the chanting, the puppets, the marches — are techniques borrowed from the history of activism, but the internet has magnified the scale of participation. They’re using their cell phone and laptops to connect to each other, to broadcast their ideas to the world, and to let anyone with access to a computer to become part of the movement.

The action of the Occupy Wall Street movement – the folks marching in the streets and occupying parks and public spaces in major cities — has been flanked with a whole lot of smart, perceptive writing by folks who are participating from their homes, ideas that have been spread to readers mostly through the internet. “I don’t see any specific solutions,” someone said to me. Well, after just a few hours of reading on the internet, I can see a whole lot of ideas and solutions being proposed.

The internet has changed the face of activism. It’s connecting the activists on the street with the activists who write from their desks. It’s made this country a smaller place. And it has made video footage a powerful tool. I don’t think you need to be the parent of a college student, as I am, to cringe at the video of the cop casually spraying pepper spray at close range into the faces of students sitting on the ground in peaceful assembly.

One of the chants the Occupied Wall Street protestors use is “The whole world is watching.” Indeed, thanks to the internet, they are.

I started to add links to this post, but there are just too many to choose from. I'd advise readers to go to twitter, search  #ows and see what's there.

November 16, 2011

And the world has somehow shifted

With-a-Why was in second grade when he said to me, “I want to take piano lessons.”

He was a painfully shy child. He did fine in school — it was pretty clear that he was academically gifted — but I don’t think his classroom teacher even knew what his voice sounded like. I tried to imagine this child staying after school to take piano lessons, and I couldn’t imagine him talking to the piano teacher.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You’d have to sometimes talk to the teacher.” He said nothing. Then he went over to the piano and played Ode to Joy, something he’d learned from watching his older brother.

“I want to learn to play the piano,” he said.

So I signed him up for lessons with the young woman who worked at his school as a music teacher. She was already teaching my two oldest kids, and she said she’d be happy take him on as well. I warned her that he was shy, but she knew that already. She was kind of shy herself so they were a good match.

With-a-Why loved piano right from the start. When his first music teacher moved away, I found another music teacher, but I wondered again if his shyness would be a problem.

“He’s really shy,” I said to the teacher. She was a beautiful, confident woman with a lovely voice. “He doesn’t talk to many people outside the family.”

“I love shy kids,” she said. “You are so lucky to have a shy child.” I knew then that I’d found the right teacher.

Since then With-a-Why has played for many recitals and exams. He plays classical music, mostly, and he’s known for playing superfast, his fingers dancing over the keys.

More recently, his grandfather has convinced to sing in front of people too. When he signed up for choir this year in eleventh grade, the choir director soon discovered his piano playing ability.

At the concert last week, With-a-Why stepped down out of the choir to take his spot at the grand piano and accompany the choir. They were singing “I see the light” from the movie Tangled. What amazed me wasn’t so much his playing – it’s a song he can play easily – but the poise with which he sat down in front of hundreds of people and began playing.

In the crowded auditorium, I watched him – a lanky young man dressed in a dress shirt and black pants, his shoulder-length dark hair hanging down his back and his hands moving confidently over the keys. He’s come a long way from the shy little boy who learned first learned music by standing quietly and watching his siblings at the piano.

November 14, 2011

Sunshine and conversation

This weekend, I sat on the grass in a southern city, watching brown-and-gold leaves drift down from the trees, savoring the touch of sun on my bare arms and bare feet. The colors seem muted compared to the brilliant fall foliage we get in the northeast, but still, the landscape was more beautiful than I had expected.

The friend I was visiting seemed happy to indulge my wish to be outside, so we spent hours just wandering around parks or sitting on the grass, talking, moving every time the patch of sun moved. City parks are great for people watching, and I couldn’t resist analyzing the people we’d see. The most telling was the young father walking with his toddler son. The little boy had fallen and was crying. The father kept saying to him, “Shake it off! Shake it off!” and never so much as gave the kid a hug.

“Wow,” I said. “I bet he’d act different if that kid was a girl. He’d pick her up and give her a hug.” 

“Yeah, it’s easy to see how gender stereotypes get perpetrated,” my friend said. A few minutes later, he pointed to a girl who had fallen while walking on a stone wall. She was immediately surrounded by family, who were giving her all kinds of sympathy.

It felt like summer in the park. Whole families were running around in the grass, often accompanied by barking dogs. Groups of little kids had gathered for football practice, their skinny bodies hidden under shoulder pads and helmets. We could hear the repeated crack of a bat from the batting cages on the other side of the field.

Saturday, we walked along a wide creekbed filled with a fascinating pattern of rocks and water that led to the remains of an old textile mill that burned down during the civil war. Five stories of brick walls rose above the rushing water. We climbed around the rocks, staying out in the middle of the stream to enjoy the sunshine, talking while we wandered around. Too soon the sun disappeared behind the trees, and it was time to hike back to the car before darkness fell. Even in the south, November days are short.

November 10, 2011

Just a bit more sunshine

When my kids were little, I’d send them outside to play any time we had sunny autumn weather. “This could be the last nice day,” I’d tell them. I knew that cold rains and then snow would keep them inside soon enough.

This fall, I’ve tried to follow my own advice and spend as much time outside as I could. What’s worked out well is that my weekend trips have been in geographic order, from north to south, so I’ve managed to find that last beautiful day in several different regions. During September, I drove north to Maple Leaf Country for a conference: the weather was warm enough to eat outside with my friends. During October, I went north to the mountains, where the leaves were turning bright yellow and red. Last weekend, I drove south to get to the monastery for a weekend retreat.

Tomorrow, I am flying south to a city where the temperatures are expected to reach the 60s. I’m hoping for one more weekend of sunshine before winter begins.

November 08, 2011

When the shadows reached me


My weekend retreat at the monastery included a Saturday afternoon hike down the steep trail to the river where Nurse Friend and I could sit in the sun on the flat stones and listen to the rushing water. Close to the ground, the air was warm. I rolled my fleece up to use as a pillow and took a nap, waking up when the shadows reached me. 

River bank

In the barnyard

In the barnyard

November 07, 2011

Morning walk at the monastery

Wandering through the barnyard

Saturday morning at the monastery was cold but sunny. I wore my winter coat when I went for a morning walk. Frozen blades of grass crunched under my feet as I walked along the fence towards the sheep barn. The sun began melting the frost on the pastures, but icy spots still remained in the shadow of the barn and in round spots under the crooked trees in the apple orchard.

After wandering through the barnyard and taking photos of sheep, I went into the chapel to get warm. As I walked down the stone steps into the crypt, I heard voices. A class of school kids were gathered in the little back room. Brother Tractor was telling them stories about the early days of the monastery. He came in 1961, the year I was born.

“We wore robes all the time in those days, but we kept ripping them when we were doing farm work. Mine would get caught in the tractor. So we had a meeting and they voted that you could wear pants when you were doing farm work or using a ladder,” he said. He added, “One of the brothers said that I was always carrying a ladder around just so I could wear pants.” The kids laughed.

"Why do you sing and chant?" asked a girl. Brother Tractor said, “Do you like it? The music adds something to prayer that words cannot.”

Once I was warm, I went back outside to wander over to the sheep pasture and walk up the road in the sun. The wind that rose was cold, and it wasn’t long before I was ready to go back to the guest cottage where I’d sit in the sunny window with a cup of hot tea and a book.

November 06, 2011

Monastery in November

Outside the chapel

At the monastery, the monks are preparing for winter. The big barns are filled with stacks of hay. In the lobby of their bookstore, visitors can buy cider made from their apples, candles made from beeswax, and mittens made from wool. The trees in the orchards have been picked clean, and the vegetable garden turned over. The sheep that graze outside the chapel are fat and healthy, with thick wool coats. 

Nurse Friend and I arrived on Friday evening just in time for Compline, the last prayer of the day. The bell was already ringing as we hurried through a cold wind and up the stone steps of the chapel. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped into the warm, musty air. That familiar smell of old incense and melting wax always makes me feel at home.

The evening prayer service ended downstairs in the crypt, with the monks in their dark robes standing in a semi-circle around a low stone altar that holds a fourteenth century stone statue of Mary, the room lit by the flickering flames of votive candles that visitors have placed on the altar. When the chanting was done, one monk climbed back up to the ring the bell, and the monks left quietly to return to their living quarters. Nurse Friend and I went back out into the night to go unpack our car and get settled at the little guest cottage where we’d be staying.

November 02, 2011

Music on a Wednesday night

We don’t often go out during the week, but tonight my husband and I went out on to listen to some jazz. We ate at a wooden table in a restaurant that had old brick walls and big glass windows under curved arches. The room was filled with mostly older folks, although across the room Red-haired Niece and some of her friends had gathered to eat and drink, a tableful of young people amidst the greying heads. Smiley Girl sat with us, eating salad and listening to the music.

Shaggy Hair Boy, of course, was sitting at the keyboard. He’s the pianist for the Snowstorm University Jazz Ensemble. Wearing the black dress shirt that belongs to his older brother, his long curly hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail, his hands danced across the keys while his head moved to the rhythm of the music.

It wasn’t quite the same as the Big City Like No Other jazz clubs: the restaurant could have used some thick velvet curtains to improve the acoustics. But the young music students sounded pretty terrific, and the crowd clapped like crazy after they played their last number.

Shaggy Hair Boy plays the piano several times every day, so I hear his music all the time, and I often fall asleep at night to the sound of his playing. But it was fun to watch him play with the ensemble, to an audience of people who love music. It still comes as a shock to see him up in front and realize that my little boy has transformed into a poised, confident young man.

November 01, 2011

Or perhaps an owl

I had a busy day — a breakfast meeting, an appointment with a student, three 80-minute classes in a row, and then another meeting. I never even had time to turn on the computer in my office and check my email. It was getting dark by the time I got home, changed into sweatpants, built a fire, and made myself a cup of tea.

When I finally grabbed my laptop and checked my inbox, I saw an email from this morning, a friend asking if I wanted to go to lunch tomorrow. I started to reply to the email, but then I stopped halfway through writing the message when I realized that the address was her work email. I knew she was already home from work, and I wasn’t sure if she would check her work email from home. But I needed to plan my day for tomorrow.

I went over to her facebook page: it looked like she’d been online earlier. I found her on my cellphone with the plan to send her a text. I squinted at the first three digits of her phone number and realized that it was a local number, which meant a landline. I checked twitter, and thought about sending a direct message, but I wasn’t sure how often she checks twitter. I checked google chat, but she wasn’t online.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I picked up the telephone and dialed her number. Suddenly, I heard her voice and we were talking directly! It took us less a minute to make lunch plans.

And I didn’t have to type anything.

And the days get shorter

And the days get shorter

October 30, 2011

Quiet Saturday

“I’ve got to grade papers all day,” I told my family. I stacked the piles on my desk, made myself a cup of hot tea, and pulled my chair up.

Then my phone rang. It was Biker Boy, the little boy who used to live down the street from me. He needed a Halloween costume. “Before Monday,” he said. “That’s when we have the party at school.” 

When I picked him up, I put his bike in the car and we came back to the house. “We’ll go get a costume in awhile,” I told him. “But first, you go out and ride your bike while I grade some papers.” He’d been looking forward to bike riding, so he was content to ride around the neighborhood while I worked.

By the time he came back into the house, his face was red with cold and my household had begun to stire. I made him a cup of hot cocoa, which kept him still long enough for me to grade one more paper. Then he ran over to With-a-Why’s chess set. “Can we play chess?” he asked. “I know how!”

I gave Shaggy Hair Boy a pleading look, and he walked over to the chess set. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll play.” I slipped back into my office and graded a few more papers, hoping that the game would keep Little Biker Boy occupied for a while. I could hear the clink of dishes in the kitchen as Smiley Girl took over the chore that Shaggy Hair Boy had been just about to start.

When I checked on Little Biker Boy again, he seemed to be playing chess quite happily. The pieces were in an odd arrangement, unlike any chess game I’ve ever seen. “It’s more like checkers with some extra rules,” Shaggy Hair Boy said to me. He flipped his ponytail back and shrugged.

“I’m winning,” said Little Biker Boy smugly. The game kept him quiet long enough for me to grade two more papers. Smiley Girl finished cleaning the kitchen.

Then I figured I’d better take Biker Boy out before his good behavior got used up. I deserted the stack of papers, and we went out into the cold October wind to find him a Halloween costume.

October 27, 2011

First snow

“Snow?! We’re expecting snow?” blurted the young woman as she came into the classroom. “That’s crazy!”

She sat down next to a student in a bright fleece, who looked at her curiously.  “We always get some snow before Halloween," he said. He shrugged and looked back down at his book. "It won't stick, ground's too warm."

In late October, it’s easy to tell the out-of-state students from the local kids.

The first snowflakes of the season drifted past our classroom windows this afternoon. The last few days have been dark and rainy — a steady, cold rain — so many of us are eager to see the snow arrive. I’d rather walk across a frozen surface than slosh through puddles and mud. Snow is bright and cheerful, and actually warmer than rain because it doesn’t leave you sopping wet.

“I can’t wait for the real snow to arrive,” said Long Blonde Hair. “We’re going to build snowforts on the quad.”

She’s come to the right school.

October 24, 2011

Let's take a look

 Let's take a look
“I’m not supposed to tell you,” said Little Biker Boy, the ten-year-old who used to live down the street from me. But then he confided in me anyhow, as he usually does.

“My bike is broken,” he said. He kept trying to explain the problem, but he was so upset that his words made no sense. He’s a child who gets frustrated and angry easily, and he becomes inarticulate when that happens.

“My mother’s angry. She says it’s my fault,” he said. “The bike – there was a chain guard – and I adjusted the thing – and it skips – and now when I – and it’s broken – and my mother’s angry.”

“Hang on for a minute,” I asked him. “Finish your sandwich, and we’ll talk about it.”

I have no expertise when it comes to fixing bikes, but I tried to think of who could help. My husband and Boy in Black, both pretty mechanical, were out of town. Snowboarding Neighbor Boy, who used to fix everyone’s bikes and would be the first person I’d call, is off at school learning the culinary arts. Then I thought of my father. He spent his childhood and teenage years riding a bicycle everywhere, and he’s good at fixing stuff.

“Let’s go get your bike,” I said to Little Biker Boy. “We’ll put it in the trunk of the car and take it to my parents’ house.”

Getting the bike out of his mother’s apartment was difficult. His mother was angry. “It’s his fault the bike is broken,” she screamed. “I told him not to touch it. He adjusted the handlebars. He loosened the back tire and now it’s broken. I told him not to touch it.”

I said little to her, but put the kid and the bike in my car, and quietly drove away. Then I tried to calm Little Biker Boy down on the way to my parents’ house.

“It’s not your fault,” I kept assuring him. “Adjusting the handlebars, tightening the chain, playing around with the bike – that’s how kids learn about bikes. You were just acting like a normal kid with a bike. You did nothing wrong.”

My parents know Little Biker Boy — and his background. My mother gave him a hug as we came through the front door. Little Biker Boy went running through the house to find my father. “Can you look at my bike?” he asked, and then went into an incoherent explanation of what was wrong with it.

“Bring it around to the backyard,” my father said. “I’ll get my tools.”

“When I pedal – that thing in the back – and then it skips – and it’s broken – and I wasn’t even going fast –” Little Biker Boy began yelling.

“I’ll meet you in the backyard,” my father said and went down into the basement to get his tools.

Yellow leaves were drifting to the ground in the backyard. My father turned the bike upside and looked at it carefully, while Little Biker Boy kept running around, kicking things and yelling. Every once in a while, my father was able to get his attention, but then he’d start moving again, agitated. My mother talked to him calmly, and in return, he kept telling her crazy stories. “I used to have 50 bikes when I lived with my Dad,” he said. “I went on television and did tricks with the bikes.”

My father examined the bike and then told me exactly what was wrong with it: “See this gear here? It’s not working correctly. It’s already worn. That’s making the bike skip.” He gave his final verdict: “I can’t fix it. You ought to take it back to the store. You still have the receipt?”

With the bike back in the trunk of my car, we drove to my house. “Why are we going to your house? We need to get my bike fixed!” Little Biker Boy kept saying.

“I need to get the receipt,” I explained for the fourth time. “To prove that I bought the bike.”

“They don’t need a receipt,” Little Biker Boy argued. “I know this store. They will fix the bike for thirty-five dollars.” I have no idea where he came up with that price.

“Little Biker Boy’s here!” I called as I entered the house. My kids know what that means, and I could hear Shaggy Hair Boy quickly putting away laptop computers. When Little Biker Boy is in a frustrated mood, it’s best to keep sensitive electronic equipment safely out of his reach.

I convinced Little Biker Boy to run around outside the house a little bit — just to let off some of his energy and anxiety — and then with the receipt in hand, I drove the bike to the store where we’d bought it last month.

“Hey, I remember you,” said the burly guy who had put the bike together for us. Little Biker Boy is hard to forget. I told Burly Guy what my father had said about the bike.

“You’re the third person to bring back one of these bikes,” Burly Guy said. “There’s something wrong with them.” He convinced the manager to give us a new bike in exchange for the broken one. Little Biker Boy was so excited by this news that he ran over and hugged Burly Guy.

We picked out the new bike, and Burly Guy showed Little Biker Boy how to adjust the handlebars, tighten the chain, stuff like that. He repeated what I had said. “No, you didn’t break that bike. It was a manufacturing defect. It wasn’t your fault.”

We stopped at my parents’ house to test out the bike. They live on a deadend street, and they both came out in the fall sunshine to watch as Little Biker Boy pedaled up and down the road, yelling with excitement as he went. “A kid like that needs a bike,” my father said as we watched. I nodded in agreement.

October 23, 2011

Weekend at home

Soon it will be winter

For the first time since August, my weekend calendar was empty. And my house was mostly empty too. My husband had gone to visit his out-of-state sister for the weekend, Boy in Black had taken my car to an Ultimate tournament, and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter had gone to Bison City with Sailor Boy and Blonde Niece to visit Film Guy and Sparkly Eyes.

Saturday morning, I slept late and went to an eye doctor’s appointment, where I asked several complete strangers to vote on which glasses I should buy. (I hate picking out frames. It’s even more painful than the little machine that blasts puffs of air into my eyes.)

On the way home, I stopped at a thrift store, where I bought several low wooden tables for the living room. I drove home with my trunk open because it turns out that the tables didn’t quite fit into the car. With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Smiley Girl were awake by the time I arrived home, which meant that there was piano music as I made squash soup.

“I am not doing any work today,” I announced as I was cutting up onions. “I am going to just relax and do nothing.”

“We can watch an episode of Arrested Development,” With-a-Why offered, pulling the wooden table that held his laptop closer to the couch. “It’s weird. You’ll like it.”

Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl cuddled on one end of the couch (they are boyfriend and girlfriend – have I mentioned that yet on this blog?) while With-a-Why showed me a couple of episodes of a bizarre but cleverly written television show. Then Skater Boy and Thinking Girl arrived, and we all talked about how it would be cool to knock down the wall of the boys’ bedroom.

“The upstairs could be one big room just like the downstairs is,” Shaggy Hair Boy said. “That would be great!”

When I was growing up, my father was always knocking done walls, building new walls, and changing the inside of our house, so the idea seemed reasonable to me. I pointed out that the first step to knocking down the wall would be to empty the room. “You mean CLEAN the room?” asked With-a-Why. “I’m out.”

Shaggy Hair Boy decided that sending absent family members text messages that made it sound like he was knocking the wall down might be just as much fun and far less work than actually doing the job. “A photo would be even better,” said Skater Boy, and soon they were out in the garage looking for the sledge hammer.

First strike

October 21, 2011

Raindrops on roses

All week, I’ve practiced the newest piece of piano music I’m learning, the song “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. I made sure to practice every single day. But when I played the song for Beautiful Piano Teacher at my lesson today, it still sounded pretty awful. My right hand knows the song, but I kept pausing between measures to see what my left hand was doing.

My piano teacher was all supportive and encouraging — really, she’s the most patient person on earth — and she kept telling me not to compare myself to my piano-playing sons. But still, it drives me crazy that my playing is so slow and torturous. Putting my right hand and left hand together still makes my head explode.

“This is so frustrating,” I said to With-a-Why this afternoon as I sat back down at the piano. “I practiced every single day this week. And it still doesn’t sound the way it does when you play. That’s so unfair.”

“Yeah, that’s really unfair,” he said. He switched his voice to a higher pitch in imitation of me. “I’ve been playing this song every day for a whole week, and I’m not as good as someone whose been playing for nine years.”

I conceded that he did have a point. But still, it feels like I’m learning really slowly.

“It’s not like I think I will ever play as well as you or Shaggy Hair Boy,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked. “You won’t catch up with us, but someday you could play as well as I can now.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “It just takes practice.”

He shook his hair out of his face. “Really, you ought to set your goals higher.”

October 19, 2011

Pumpkin heads unite!

Pumpkin heads unite!

When my parents and I drove past the elementary school in a small mountain town, we could see a bunch of little kids clustered just inside the door, waiting for their bus to arrive. The front lawn was decorated with their seasonal art project.

October 18, 2011

Birthday celebration

It’s a busy time of the semester, but we all took a break last week to celebrate With-a-Why’s birthday. I made a couple of apple pies, and the older kids stopped on their way home to buy shortcake, strawberries, and whipped cream.

Skater Boy has a birthday two days before With-a-Why so the celebration was for him as well. The candle ceremony would wait until Saturday, but we did what we do for any occasion — talked and ate. Philosophical Boy, who is in his first year of college, had just come home for fall break and we all exclaimed over how long his hair had grown. I sipped hot tea as I listened to the conversations around the kitchen table.

“Hey, remember that pianist you went to hear last year?” Philosophical Boy said.

“Dick Hyman?” asked With-a-Why. He glanced over at Boy in Black, who smirked.

“Yeah, he was at my school,” said Philosophical Boy. He mumbled something about a sextet  -- clarinet, piano, and strings. That last bit of information was too much for Boy in Black.

“A sextet?” he asked. “I mean, seriously? If your name was Dick Hyman wouldn’t you make one person leave to make it a quintet? Or maybe add a person?”

Shaggy Hair Boy laughed and cut himself another piece of pie. I put another log on the fire. First Extra stretched out on the couch, talking to my daughter, who had brought home a laundry basket of dirty clothes. Thinking Girl was talking about the work she had do, while Smiley Girl was nodding in agreement. We all had work we were supposed to be doing.

“And With-a-Why has school tomorrow,” my husband pointed out. But still, it was after midnight before the older kids left and we all went to bed.

With-a-Why, my youngest, is seventeen years old now. And Skater Boy, the kid we’ve known since he used to come up our driveway in a big wheel, is now twenty. It's still hard for me to believe.

October 16, 2011

The woods in the rain

And the road bends

On our annual trip to the mountains, my father pointed out places he remembered from the 1950s, when he worked at mountain resorts as a musician every summer.  The resorts were always on lakes; every winding road we took led us to yet another beautiful lake.

We stayed Friday night in an old inn owned and operated by a couple who live right next door with their small children. We ate dinner by a window that overlooked the lake, with the sky getting dark as we ate. After dinner, we pulled comfy chair up to the fire that crackled in the old stone fireplace. My father entertained the owners with stories about his days in the mountains as a musician while I found the guestbook and read aloud some of the entries. 

On Saturday, we hiked around a lake where my husband and I camped when our kids were little. “See that island in the middle?” I told my parents. “We canoed out there so the kids could climb up and jump off the rock. That was a very big deal for the kids.”

Each year our pilgrimage includes a stop at Kindergarten Friend’s summer home. Usually, the place is closed so we just walk on the lawn and dock, with me telling stories about the times I visited as a kid, more than forty years ago. This year, we were greeted warmly at the door by Kindergarten Friend, her mother, her husband, her two kids, and three little dogs who yipped and barked at our heels. They’d come up for the weekend.

It was raining outside by then, but the main room has high ceilings and huge windows, so the place was filled with light. “You can see the lake from here,” my father said admiringly. He and my mother hadn’t been inside the vacation home before, so Kindergarten Friend gave them a tour, with me tagging along to point out cool stuff, like the wood carvings she had done on the newel post. We’ve been friends so long that I feel like I can take credit for how creative she is.

We drove home along a road that followed the south shore of a lake. “We used to come here in the middle of the night, after we got off the stand,” my father said. “You’d see whole herds of deer sometimes.” Some of the trees were already bare, but the beech trees glowed orange and gold against the dark green conifers as we followed the winding road, making our way home.

October 15, 2011

End of the season

The docks are empty. Deer run through the deserted campgrounds. We saw loons on the quiet lake. The cosy mountain inn where we stayed is about to close for the season, opening again in January to host the snowmobiling crowd. The mountain museum closes tomorrow for the winter.

On our annual trip to the mountains, my parents and I drove through orange and gold foliage that shone against green conifers. Everywhere, we saw camps boarded up for the winter, stacks of firewood near year-round homes, and boats pulled up out of the water. Winter is coming.
End of the season

October 12, 2011

Water nymph

My friends know by now that I’ve got this blogging tradition: when I go off on trips, I try to return with a naked photo. My readers expect it.

I keep telling my friends that the naked photo tradition is a serious project that leads to in-depth discussions about the body. At academic conferences, the mere mention of naked photos leads to all kinds of feminist critique of the dominant culture. My friends are willing to jump into that conversation, but they can’t resist teasing me about the project. “You have to admit,” one friend said to me frankly. “It’s a little weird.”

They kept reminding me of an unfortunate incident that happened a few years back. We had climbed to the top of a mountain, and three of us posed naked for what I thought would be a lovely silhouette shot. I’d given my camera to Dark Curly Hair because she didn’t want to pose. She snapped a few pictures, we put our clothes back on, and we walked back down the mountain.

Then I looked at the photo.

In the picture, the three of us are standing in yoga poses, dark silhouettes against a blue sky, other mountains in the distance. It was a lovely shot, except for one thing. A single ray of sunshine, like the hand of God, was shining directly on my butt, which glowed almost supernaturally.

My friends thought it was hilarious. I never posted the photo on my blog, but the image is apparently imprinted indelibly in their minds because they’ve never forgotten it. We’ve had many sensitive discussions about body image, but always somehow the conversation always turns to the infamous white butt shot.

“Do you still have the picture? Or did you delete it?” asked Makes Bread.

I’ll never tell.

And I’ve learned my lessons about trying to take group shots of naked women. It’s too difficult. Trying to get a group shot of women who are laughing and joking around, and paying no attention to the photographer – well, it’s worse than trying to take a holiday photo of four kids. They just won’t sit still.

So instead I asked just one friend to pose. She is the oldest of the group, an elder really, so it seemed right. We stepped off a hiking trail that meandered along a stream, and she stripped off her clothes.

“Shake your hair out,” I kept saying. She’s got really long gorgeous hair, part dark and part silver, and I wanted to catch the way the sun glinted off the silky strands. But when we looked at the photos, the unposed shot — the one in which she was undoing her hair as she walked down to the stream — was our favorite.

Water nymph

Quilt Artist as a water nymph.

(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 and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )