February 28, 2011

The other border

Southern Border

I spent the last weekend of January at the northern edge of our country, walking on the frozen edges of a wide river that acts as a border. I spent the last weekend of February at the southern edge of our country, hiking along a sleepy, sunny river that runs through a desert landscape.

February 24, 2011


I've gone off to write and think and read. I'll return when February is over.

February 21, 2011

February Snake Dream

In the dream, my mouth felt weird. I ran my tongue over my gums, the way I used to in ninth grade when I had braces on, and I could feel something moving against the dark insides of my mouth. In the mirror, my gums looked swollen. Something wriggled just below smooth pink surface. I reached in with a pair of tweezers, and pulled out a tiny, perfect snake, alive and curling into coils. I dropped it into the grass. I looked into the mirror again, and saw other little snakes, embedded in my gums. “I might as well pull them all out,” I thought to myself. Carefully, with the tweezers, I yanked each tiny snake out of my gums, pulling it from my mouth and dropping it onto the grass.

When I woke up, I could not speak.

February 20, 2011

View from my front porch

View from my front door

That's a river birch in the foreground. And my car, disappearing once again as snow fills the driveway with white.

February 19, 2011

Came and went

For about 24 hours, we had a thaw. We had sunshine and warm breezes and melting.

“I can smell mud,” one student said as she came into class. Another young woman walked in wearing shorts.

“Shorts?” I asked. “There is NO WAY that it is shorts weather yet.” Sure, I’d been inside the building for a couple of hours, but I knew it hadn’t warmed up that much.

Green Baseball Cap checked his iPhone. “Um, it’s 34 degrees out.”

“That’s warm compared to how cold it’s been,” Shorts Wearing Student said defensively. She was right. I guess it’s all relative.

By the time I got home yesterday, I could see patches of gravel on my driveway, and the tall snowbanks alongside it had shrunk considerably. Sun was glinting off the patches of ice, which were wet with melting. Objects had begun to appear in the front yard: pieces of wood that had been stuck under the tires of stranded cars and then tossed aside, stray mittens and snow shovels, and our Christmas tree, which I must have left near the front door back at the beginning of January.

I had just put on my boots to take a walk out in the woods when Boy in Black appeared, running down the road in a t-shirt and flannel pajama pants. “It was so nice outside that I decided to run home,” he said. He shook his sweaty hair out of his face. “Bridge Street seems way longer when you’re not in a car.” His apartment is 12 miles away but he’s in such good shape from Ultimate that he wasn’t even breathing hard.

“I figure today is the best chance for finding my iPod,” he said. “Before it snows again.” He began searching the snowbanks, the wet gravel, the ditches filled with ice and water. Within a few minutes, he’d found it: an iPod that has been soaking in the icewater near the mailbox for more than a week. He took it apart and sealed it into a bag of rice: we’ll see if that revives it. Boy in Black has great determination when it comes to repairing things: I’ve seen him work miracles with laptops that anyone else would have trashed.

It was still warm when Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why arrived home from the piano studio, but as the sun went down, gusts of wind began clattering the wind chimes on the front porch, and I could feel a change of weather coming. All night, I listened to the wind pushing though the trees as a cold front moved in, and by this morning, a new layer of white covered the icy formations in the front yard. It’s still February.

February 17, 2011

Waiting for a thaw

You’d think that people who live in a region where it snows a whole lot would be good at shoveling their driveways, brushing off their cars, and knocking down icicles.

But actually, it’s the opposite. You live in a place that gets a lot of snow, and you get tired of dealing with it. You start taking shortcuts. Six inches of snow on the roof of the car? No problem. It will blow off during the drive. Windshield coated with ice? No problem. It ought to melt by the time you get to work. Eight inches of snow in the driveway? No problem. Drive fast enough and you can plow right through it.

I rarely shovel all the way to the gravel in the driveway. There’s a certain logic to this. Too much shoveling is counterproductive because then all the little rocks end up in the snow banks and not on the driveway. “When I was kid, we had a PAVED driveway,” my husband always says. “It was so much easier to shovel.”

When we get a warm day, the snow in the driveway melts just enough to freeze into ice when the temperature drops in late afternoon. By this time of year, our long, hilly driveway has tall banks on either side, and alternating layers of snow and ice on top of the gravel, and big ruts where cars have gotten stuck and frustrated drivers have spun their wheels. This year, the snow banks claimed Boy in Black’s iPod, which fell out of his pocket when he was pushing my husband’s car out one dark night and hasn’t been seen since. I gave up on the driveway a week ago and just began parking on the road, which means I risk getting a ticket every night that it snows, which is just about every night.

When Little Biker Boy, the little ex-neighbor boy, came to visit the other day, he looked at the driveway and shook his head. “You did a terrible job shoveling,” he said. “Terrible.”

I could tell he was pleased. He likes to know that we are falling apart without him. I nodded. “Without you here, we don’t shovel as much.”

He and I decided to see what we could do about the driveway, but the plastic shovels were worthless against the hard, shining ice. So Little Biker Boy instead grabbed the inner tube we keep on the porch for sledding.

He ran, jumped into the tube, and went skimming down over the ice. Yep. We’ve got a fine sled run here. At least the driveway’s good for something.

February 15, 2011

Visit from Ponytail

“Can we drive past my old school?” asked Ponytail. Even with the seatbelt fastened, she managed to bounce up and down, craning to look out the window.

Ponytail, who just turned seven, used to live near me. But after her mother was evicted, she was sent to live with her father, several towns away. I manage to see Little Biker Boy, her ten-year-old brother, about once a week: he knows my phone number and calls me whenever anyone will let him use a phone, and he lives with his mother only a few miles away.

But I hadn’t seen Ponytail since Christmas time.

We stopped for pizza, and we went to the store to buy her a birthday present. Then she wanted to buy her mother a Valentine’s gift: she chose a Pepsi, a chocolate bar, and a bag of barbecue-flavored chips. When I asked her about her new school and new home, she seemed wary: she’s not as blunt and straightforward as her brother.

When we left the store, she asked me to drive her past all the landmarks she knew: the brick library, the green railroad bridge, the elementary school, the mini-mart, and the empty trailer where she used to live, just down the road from my house. “I love that school,” she said. “I miss that school. I miss the library. I miss the bridge.”

At my house, we danced to Justin Bieber songs (her choice, not mine), and played store with the toy cash register we’d gotten, plus some real pennies and dimes. She loved being in charge of the cash register. I got assigned the role of customer, and I had to pretend to be a different person every time I walked up to the register.

“I need to buy ginger ale,” I said, picking up little bottles we were playing with. “My son has a stomach virus.”

She already had her hand stretched out to take the pennies from me, but then she pulled it back quickly, with a decisive move. “Your child is sick? Then your stuff is free.”

“I like that policy,” I said.

“I’m the owner,” she said. “Those are my rules.”

February 13, 2011

Why I'm not writing a comic book

With-a-Why looks up from his homework.

With-a-Why: Did you know that in French, the word avocado is the same as lawyer?
Me: Language is funny like that. The French word woman sounds like the word hunger to me. Femme. Faim. I can't tell the difference.
With-a-Why: Someday, I want to be famous for quotations that, when they get translated into other languages, become ridiculous. That’s my life goal.
Me: Really?
With-a-Why: No, my life’s goal is to write a comic book. (He grins at me). You know, one that perpetuates the stereotypes of my culture.

A few minutes later.

With-a-Why: You know how some characters shapeshift? My character could shapeshift into a polar bear, but he would get the polar bear instincts and all, and soon he would think he was a polar bear. Then someone would come along, and somehow know it’s him, even though he’s a polar bear.
Me: Stuff like that happens in the Animorph books.
With-a-Why: The problem is that every good superpower has already been done before. Becoming invisible. Shooting flames.
Me: I bet I could think of one.
With-a-Why: Flying. Telekinetic powers. Superhuman strength.
Me: How about this? My special power would be that I could just think of any person in the world and they would instantly feel hugged.
With-a-Why: Oh. My. God. That is the worst.
Me: I think it’s nice.
With-a-Why: What possible conflict could arise from that? Without conflict, you have no story.
Me: Why does there always have to be conflict?
With-a-Why: The Long Distance Hugger. No one would read that.

February 11, 2011

The words on our skin

Soft light

Big conferences are held, usually, in a storyless space: a huge hotel where no one has lived or died, a modern building without ghosts or memories or even cats. But the people at the conference, arriving with suitcases and laptops, wearing black pants and nametags, milling in the lobby or lured into hallways by the scent of free coffee, they carry stories with them, embedded in their bodies.

Thanks to the naked photo project, a woman I’ve just met will tell me how she got this scar or why she wanted that tattoo. A man will tell me how vulnerable he felt that time he was on crutches or why he gave up the sport he played in high school. I’ll hear about what it’s like to lose your hair in chemotherapy, or how breastfeeding can trigger childhood issues, or how it can be painful to water ski naked.

They are not my stories to tell, so I don’t usually put them on the blog. Yep, that’s right. I post the photo and not the stories. Since I’m a writer, not a photographer, that’s ironic. It’s as crazy being a ventriloquist who performs on a radio show.

But still, hearing the stories is a wonderful privilege, and I continued to be amazed by people who are willing to be vulnerable, who willingly take off their clothes for my camera while they confide in me.

I was talking about this with an editor last week as she was stretching back in a chair, letting the soft light from the window spill over her naked body. She said, “Even if you can’t write them, I like that the stories exist in the moment. They become part of the photograph.”

(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. )

February 09, 2011

This time, a naked man

Naked writer

“I need a volunteer,” I said. “It will just take a few minutes. All you have to do is take your clothes off.”

We were hanging out at a bar, as usual, with drinks and plates of food, re-hashing what we’d heard at conference sessions, which consisted mostly of depressing anecdotes about how hard it is to get published. Much as I hated to interrupt this scintillating conversation, my need was urgent: my readers were complaining about the lack of naked men on my blog.

Clearly, one of my male friends needed to step up to the camera.

Midwestern Writer had just been complaining about how difficult it is to sell your non-fiction work when you don’t lead an edgy, urban life. “Agents hate the word quiet,” he said. But when I offered him a few minutes of fame on my blog, he spit out his beer in laughter, gave me an incredulous look, and turned me down.

My male friends knew they were safe. It was late at night. I prefer natural light for photos, and I won’t take photos of anyone who has been drinking. (I figure if readers want blurry naked drunk photos, they can go to facebook.)

So the men talked eagerly about the project, secure in the knowledge that I wasn’t even carrying a camera. One man told me about the time, 25 years ago or so, that he had surgery for a melanoma. He had a photographer friend take photos of his skin, systematically documenting every square inch of his body so that his wife could check his body for any changes. “I’ve still got those photos,” he said. “Like a deck of playing cards.”

He yanked his shirt up to show the scar on his back. “My husband has the same kind of scar,” I said. “I think his is bigger.”

You would think, after living in house full of teenage boys, I would have learned to stop myself before that kind of slip.

The men were all still joking — which is pretty much the reaction any time I bring up the naked photos — when a young writer spoke up. “I might pose this year.”

The best part is that he was completely sober. I usually drink ginger ale at the bar, or maybe cranberry juice. He drinks water. Yep, he’s even more cleancut that I am.

We took the photo the next day, taking a few minutes away from the frenzied florescent mob scene at the book fair to sit in the natural light coming in a fourth floor window. We talked about scars, body image, and transformative moments in our lives. He wanted his wedding ring in the photo, and I agreed it would be a nice touch. “Put your hands up on your head,” I said, “And we’ll get the ring into the picture.”

I couldn’t help envy his tan line. Where I’m from, no one has a tan line February. We’ve forgotten what sunshine on skin feels like. “Yeah,” he said. “I swim every day.”

Several editors told me that this young man’s novel is going to make big waves when it gets published. “He’s going to be famous,” my roommate said. So I figured I’d better get his picture fast while he’s still an innocent farm boy.

“Yeah, catch me after my novel is published,” he said. “And I’ll be an addict, strung out and living in the gutter.”

Having spent some time getting to know him, talking about his high school experiences, his wife, and his writing, I doubt that very much. But I liked taking a photo that catches him in transition, a young man about to embark on the next stage of his life.

(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. )

February 08, 2011

Naked at the blogger meet-up

French braid

“Do you remember learning how to braid hair?” asked the naked woman. She was braiding her hair as she spoke, twisting the strands into a lovely French braid, while I snapped photos of her nude body.

I’d met her for the first time that morning. We’d eaten an early lunch, talked about our lives, and then an hour later, she was sitting naked on a table next to my bed. A typical blogger meet-up.

The lack of clothing didn’t seem strange at all. We’ve read each other’s blogs for years. I would, in fact, brag to my readers about which blogger I’d just added to my blogger life list if it weren’t for the fact that I’m posting a naked photo of her. It’s complicated.

For two days, I’d been sucked into the chaotic conference frenzy: the bookfair, where editors were handing writers bits of chocolate to make up for the many rejection letters they’d sent; a party that involved jamming herds of eager MFA students into one hotel suite and letting them weave through the crowd like rats to get to the bathtub of beer; and late nights of storytelling at the bar, where I entertained myself by getting my friends drunk and then asking them stuff like, “What’s the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?”

It was a nice break to sit in my hotel room with a blogger I’ve known for years, and talk about the way that I used to practice braiding the yarn hair of my rag doll. Her quiet question stirred up memories of grade school. Suddenly, I was in my mother’s yellow kitchen, standing by the pencil sharpener while she braided my hair on first one side and then the other. I’m often amazed at how quickly we can achieve intimacy when we begin with the stories about our bodies: Where do you buy your bras? When did you first have sex? Who taught you how to braid hair?

(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. )

February 07, 2011

While ye may

Gather ye rose-buds while ye may

The first morning at Big Creative Writing Conference a young man came up to me and said, “I remember you!” I tried to look humble as I waited for him to comment on the brilliance of the talk I gave last year, although to be honest, I was feeling puzzled. That presentation was so unremarkable than I myself don’t remember what my point was. I searched my brain, trying to remember at least the title so that I could respond to him intelligently, but I needn’t have bothered.

“You’re the naked photo lady!” he said.

Yep. It seems I’ve gained a reputation.

I guess it could be worse. The woman with the purple scarf the last night of the conference who will forever be known as “the woman who vomited in the corner of the bar.” An editor told me that the only thing people remember about him is the fact that he mentioned fellatio in both his talks. In the conference swirl of books, words, and ideas, it seems that it’s the bodily experiences that we cling to.

A woman who posed naked for me a few years ago chimed into the conversation to say that it was a positive experience. “I loved all the comments your readers put on my photo,” she said. “They were so lovely and affirming. All these women writing and telling me that I’m beautiful.” My readers have become an important part of this project: thankfully, I have sensitive readers who chime in with appropriate comments and stories about their own bodies. I rarely have to delete a comment, even when I use a title like “Them Naked Women.”

I did wonder, as I was checking into my hotel room, if my roommate would be willing to strip off her clothes for the camera. She knew the tradition, but not everyone respects tradition the way I do. Creative writing folks tend to be all about breaking with tradition and doing crazy new stuff. And I hadn’t had time yet to catch up on what was going on in her life. Maybe she wasn’t in the mood to pose naked. There really is such a thing as the right time and place.

Then I stepped into the hotel room. The first thing I noticed was a dozen red roses, gathered in a vase by her bed.

“She’s in,” I thought.

(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. )

February 04, 2011

Conference life

I spent last weekend with my extended family, 22 of us in all, celebrating my father's 80th birthday, and visiting the north country in the winter. This weekend, I'm at a conference in a southern city, going to sessions, giving a talk, and trying to get people I've just met to pose naked for my blog.

February 02, 2011

Camp in winter

Dock in winter

It had been years since we'd been to camp in the wintertime. My parents' little cabin has no heat and no plumbing, and the dirt road that leads to the camp isn't plowed in the winter. Years ago, we used to sometimes hike in and build a fire to keep warm. One time, the whole bay was frozen and smooth: we could skate for miles. It's the closest I've ever come to flying.

On the 80th birthday celebration weekend, Sailor Boy offered to take us in his jeep, which has the ability to drive over snowdrifts and ice. I'd forgotten how different camp looked in the winter, how much bigger, really, without leaves on the trees. It seemed really odd to jump off the dock and walk across the frozen water.

Walking on water

My daughter walks out onto the bay.

February 01, 2011

Island castle

Island castle

The big stone castle on the river has been there my whole life. It’s by itself on a heart-shaped island near town: you can see it from the park in town and from the window of the hotel where we celebrated my father’s 80th birthday. We’ve sailed past the castle, and walked the grounds of the castle. We watch fireworks explode above the castle every July.

The castle is such a familiar sight that in the summer, I don’t even notice it any more. It’s always been there. We never talk about it.

Against the stark winter landscape, with no foliage to hide the edges of the building, with the blues and whites of the water and sky as a backdrop, the castle looked different. Everyone in the family kept going out on the balcony to take photos of the castle, to stare at it in the morning light, the afternoon light, the sunset light. It’s a castle I’ve known my whole life, but suddenly, it seemed strange and wonderful to have it right outside my window.