May 31, 2011

Stuck in the mud

Stuck in the mud

My parents’ camp is a peninsula of oak trees and white pines, surrounded by marsh. To get there, we drive on a road that’s not even a dirt road but a path across a field, a right-of-way. Most of the time, the field is hard and dry, and the cars make it across fine. This year, we’ve had so much rain that grassy road turned quickly into a Slip ‘n Slide of wet clay.

On Saturday, my husband’s car got stuck before we’d made it all the way up the road. After lots of pushing, swearing, shoving boards under tires, and arguing about what to do, we got the car moving again. Then about twenty feet farther, the car sunk again, the tires spinning in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has ever driven on ice. Except that ice is better because it doesn’t splatter mud in your face while you’re trying to push.

I gathered a couple of buckets of gravel from the closest gravel road, and we jacked the car up to put gravel under the tires. But it was pretty clear to me that even if we moved forward a foot or so, the car would sink again. At the point, we decided to leave the car where it was and hope that a couple days of sunny weather would make the grassy road revert back to its normal state. We unpacked our tent and groceries, and just left the car where it was. “You don’t need to go anywhere for a couple of days,” my mother said.

“It looks like we just parked there,” Shaggy Hair Boy said helpfully.

When Blond Brother-in-law arrived with his four-wheel drive truck, he took an alternative route through the pine trees, boughs scraping the sides of his vehicle. He produced a tow rope and yanked my husband’s car out. We all cheered.

Of course, now we had three vehicles at camp, with no way out except the treacherous mud puddle, but we were all confident that a couple days of sun would come to our rescue.

Then it rained. And rained some more.

My mother and I kept optimistically saying things like, “Oh, just a few hours of sun will dry the road out nicely.” My father dug drainage ditches, but then gave up saying, “The water just keeps coming.” My husband walked around gloomily saying, “I’ve got standing water on both sides of the car. We’re never going to get out of here.”

By yesterday, the sun was shining, but the ground was still awfully wet. During lunch, we argued strategy. As we packed the cars to leave, an ominous foreboding hung over camp."That mud is like quicksand," said my husband. "Impossible to drive through."

Shaggy Hair Boy and Red-haired Niece began taking bets as to when we'd actually get all the cars out and safely up onto the gravel road.

It took us three hours. We’d get one car free, and then another would get stuck. We used boards, buckets of gravel, and the anchor line off my father's sailboat. We gathered behind vehicles to push. We sent text messages to family members who weren't at camp to keep them up to date on our progress.

We’d try one thing, then another, and then in between, we sat on lawn chairs, ate snacks, and argued about the best strategy. “Put it in neutral. The wheels are spinning too much!” one person would yell. “Back away,” Blonde Sister kept saying. “The rope is going to snap!” (She was right. It did.) My father, when his car finally broke free of the ruts, drove the fastest we’ve ever seen him, using momentum to go careening over patches of mud while we all cheered and ran after him.

When we finally had all the cars up on the gravel road, we were left with huge ruts that were quickly filling with water. So the day ended with us jumping up and down in the mud, stomping the edges of the ruts with our bare feet, smoothing out the road the best we could.

May 30, 2011

Water, water, everywhere

High water

When I think about Memorial Day weekend, I picture sunny weather, long canoe rides, and myself floating peacefully through the marsh on an inner tube. I’ve been going to my parents’ camp every Memorial Day weekend for the last 43 years, and sometimes we actually do get that kind of summer weather. But it’s rare. At the end of May, we’re just as likely to get cold rain and spend the weekend huddled in tents, wet and miserable.

This weekend we gathered inside during the inevitable rainstorms and played Boggle, a game which Shaggy Hair Boy kept winning. I kiddingly suggested that five us team up against him — adding our scores together against his. My parents, my husband, and With-a-Why jumped into the game. What’s ridiculous is even with five of us playing against him, he still beat us.

All the rain we’ve had meant high water at camp: the docks were floating, and everywhere, we walked through puddles. When the rain stopped and the clouds cleared, we went out in the boats. The water was cold, of course, but that didn’t stop Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece from leaping into the water.


May 28, 2011

Coming down from the mountaintop

Foggy morning

On the last day, we woke up to fog that had settled around the cabin and in the woods, mist so thick that it felt, as we were driving down from the mountain, that we were coming down through clouds.

The road home

May 26, 2011

Naked amidst the black flies

I’d been teasing my friends about which one of them was going to pose naked for my blog. “It’s a tradition,” I kept saying. We were staying in a camp owned by a family with a deep love of knick-knacks, so I knew we’d need to take an outdoor shot to get an uncluttered background.

We had rain off and on all weekend, and the weather was fairly cool. I did begin to wonder if I might have to employ bribes to get my friends naked. In warm weather, it’s easy to get a bunch of women to take off their clothes, but it’s a different story when they are wearing layers of fabric and raingear.

On Saturday’s hike, I kept throwing out subtle hints: “See that stone wall? That would look great with a naked woman sitting on top of it.”

We’d been talking about slang words for breasts, and how most of them had negative connotations. “I don’t like the words we have,” I said. “Boob, for instance. It doubles as an insult. And it’s not a pleasing sound.”

Every few minutes, as we walked along, someone would come up with a new word. “Tits? Ta-tas? Rack? Hooters? Jugs?” All the words we came up with seemed condescending, mocking breasts instead of celebrating them.

You’d think the conversation would just make everyone want to take off their shirts, but the wind was cool. And worse, the black flies were out. They kept following us in little swarms, moving from one woman to the other. My strategy was to walk close to a friend who smelled sweeter than I did and then dart quickly away, hoping the flies would stay with her and leave me alone.

At the end of the hike, we reached a little stream of cold water that ran through hostas. Tall Anonymous Woman (yes, I assured her that I would not reveal her true identity) bent down to stick her head in the waterfall. Then she turned to me: “Want your photograph?”

I barely had time to turn on my camera before she’d stripped off her clothes and climbed into the pool of icy cold water. “Wait, let me get a shot from the back,” I yelled, moving quickly. “I mean, your breasts look great, but I can see your face.”

“My legs are numb,” she said.

“Keep splashing yourself,” I said. “That looks cool.”

“I can go get you a towel,” Gorgeous Eyes said and sprinted off towards the cabin.

“How about some bug repellent?” Makes Bread said, still batting at the swarms of black flies.

Tall Anonymous Woman climbed out of the stream and shook her head like a wet animal would, running her fingers through her wet hair. “Get the shot?” she asked grinning.

She might be the bravest model I’ve had yet. She sat in icy cold water AND a swarm of black flies, naked. The things we do for friendship.

Cold, cold water

(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.)

May 25, 2011

Misty and green


The mountains we stayed in last week aren’t the northern mountains that I’m familiar with. We drove south to get to these mountains, really an eroded plateau, that lie just above City Like No Other. The reservoirs we kept seeing supply the city with drinking water.

It’s been a wet spring, and on every hike we took, we saw water rushing across rocks and crashing down cliffs. The tumbling water provided a backdrop to the intimate conversations I kept having, first with one friend and then another. On Saturday’s hike, we walked into a damp, green world. Brilliant mosses glowed from rocks and river banks. Lush green foliage crowded the paths.

Two of the women in the group are avid bird watchers. Binoculars around their necks, they’d stop in mid-conversation any time a bird twittered, sang, or flew from a branch. We teased them about being bird nerds, but their enthusiasm was contagious. Soon we were all crowding for a turn at the binoculars to see a scarlet tanager, whose bright colour was startling amongst all the green.

The best birdwatching, though, was the bald eagle’s nest. First we saw a baby eagle, sitting upright, just looking around. Then we spotted the mother eagle, perched high in the branches of the tree. “Wait, look!” Signing Woman said. “There are TWO babies.” Yep, we watched as another baby’s head appeared over the edge of the nest.

Moments later, the father eagle flew in with a fish, still wriggling. He landed in the nest and began ripping the fish apart, feeding bits to the babies, who ate eagerly while the mother eagle flew off to find more food. We all watched fascinated, until the fish was gone, and it was time for us to go back to camp for our own lunch.

Falling water

Almost there

Almost there

I rode to the mountains with Quilt Artist, Makes Bread, and Signing Woman, three friends I’ve known for years. The trip took more than three hours, and I think we talked the entire time. By the time we reached the reservoir, we’d talked about work stress, kids and grandkids, and the difficulties of relationships. The rain had stopped briefly, and the sun was low in the horizon. Below the dam, a herd of deer were running around in the field. We all got out to stretch our legs, and I could feel the stress of the semester sliding off my muscles and into the water.

May 24, 2011



On a foggy morning, I ran through puddles on a soft, squishy lawn filled with violets. My friend Gorgeous Eyes picked up my camera and took some photos.


May 20, 2011

To the mountains

It's been raining all week, and the ground is so wet that I haven't even been able to mow our lawn. But there's rumors that we might have some sun tomorrow, and I'm hoping to take advantage of the first summer weather by hiking with some friends. Spring semester has ended, my grades are handed in, and I'm ready to celebrate by beginning with a summer adventure. We're heading to the mountains, nine of us. We're bringing books and games, cameras and binoculars, and enough food to feed an army. I'll be back in a few days with photographs.

May 18, 2011

Just that earring

Just that earring

My son opened my laptop and gasped in horror. I rushed over, worried that my hard drive had crashed. Already I was thinking, “I should have backed those files up.”

He pointed to the screen.

I expected to see the black screen of death. Instead, my desktop looked the way it always does: a solid green background littered with files.

“Why do you have a photo of a naked woman on your computer?” he asked.

Oh, that.

Well, I often leave photos on my desktop, as a reminder to write a blog post. The photo was small, just a thumbnail really, but his eyes are obviously better than mine. I’ve had that naked photo up for almost a year now, and I’m so used to it being there that I don’t even notice. At a conference in February, a roommate used my laptop for something, and she too gasped when she saw the photo, but her reaction was entirely different.

“She’s so beautiful,” she said. “You need to put that photo on your blog.”

You’ve seen Yoga Woman naked on this blog before. In this photo, she’s wrapped in a black shawl, not out of any sense of modesty, but because she’s always cold. She lives in a warm climate, and whenever we meet anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, she’ll arrive wrapped in layers of scarves, shawls, and other elegant fabrics.

I’ve liked having the photo on my laptop because it reminds me of a wonderful gathering of women friends last June. We cooked meals together, hiked together, did some creative writing, and hung out naked in the hot tub. Sitting outside a wooden deck with an incredible view of the mountains, we shared the intimate details of our lives.

I think that’s why I like taking naked photos of my friends. It’s the intimacy that I value: the willingness to tell our most embarrassing stories, to admit our fears and frustrations, to be naked emotionally and physically and spiritually.

Besides, my women friends are beautiful. That makes taking the photos easy.

(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. )

May 16, 2011

Bear proof

When I answered the door, a young cop was standing on my doorstep.

“Hey, there’s a black bear in the neighborhood,” he said. “Just wanted to let you know.”

He said that the bear had been spotted in the yard next door. After he left, I told my family, but I admit, we were all feeling skeptical. We’ve got white-tailed deer here, coyotes and foxes and raccoons, lots of wild turkeys, but we’re only a mile from the main street of Traintrack Village. I’ve never seen a bear here — or any scat in the woods.

“Maybe it was just a big raccoon,” I said to my husband. “A raccoon can knock over garbage cans, wreak all kind of havoc.”

But then this morning, my neighbor stopped over with his phone in hand. “I got pictures!” He handed me the cell phone.

And there was the unmistakable proof: a black bear in his backyard, several feet from his window.

May 15, 2011

Newly washed


It was Boy in Black who first started the trend of washing clothes and then hanging them up wherever he could to dry: on the chandelier in the front hallway, on the curtain rod above the sliding glass doors, or from the fireplace mantel. It used to drive me crazy, to come home and have to brush past wet Ultimate jerseys just to enter my home. Even when it’s just been washed, an Ultimate shirt smells like layers of old sweat.

“Why are your shirts hanging all over the living room?” I’d ask.

Boy in Black would answer calmly. “Because I just did a wash. I’ve hung them to dry.”

“Can’t you hang them somewhere else?” I’d ask.

He’d look up from his computer. “Where?”

He had a point. We don’t have a basement or an attic. In the summer months, clothes can be hung outside on sunny days, but in this climate, summer lasts only a few months, and much of that is rainy.

Besides, there was a certain logic to his method. Forced air heating takes the moisture out of the air in our house, and the newly washed clothes dry pretty fast. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense to waste energy using the dryer if we don’t need to. Clothes that have been hung to dry last longer, shrink less, and don’t need to be ironed.

Pretty soon, Boy in Black had converted the rest of the household. When I do a load of wash, I grab a bunch of hangers and just start hanging shirts anywhere I can. We’ve all gotten used to clothes hanging on the curtain rod by the table. When the sun shines in against them in the early morning, the colors can be quite pretty.

May 14, 2011

Blogger is back. Finally.

So the other day, on twitter, I told my friends to come to my blog and admire my mother’s red tulips. Apparently, the surge of folks stopping to see the flowers must have overwhelmed Blogger, because the whole thing crashed, preventing anyone who used Blogger from posting to their blogs for two days. It’s the longest Blogger has been down since I began using it six years ago. It’s working again now (well, obviously, since I’m posting this), but all the nice comments people left about my mother’s tulips are gone. So I’m just posting this to say, really, Mom, everyone loved your tulips.

May 11, 2011

My mother's tulips

My mother's tulips

Every year, as soon as I'm done with my classes, my parents take me out to lunch. Sometimes we drive out to the lake, where we can watch the waves crashing against the piers. This year we ate in a restaurant the next town over. We sat in a booth, eating french fries, talking about summer plans, and catching up on family gossip. It felt luxurious to relax in the middle of the day, without having to look at my watch to see which meeting I need to be at, which class I need to teach. After lunch, I took photos of my mother's tulips. After a long white winter, I can't resist all the bright splashes of color in our spring landscape.

May 10, 2011

Where the three little pigs lived

Made of straw

Fairy tales give out a whole lot of misinformation. Waiting for a prince to rescue you is a stupid strategy. The big bad wolf has never attacked a person in Northern America. And a house made of straw? Well, it turns out that it’s a good thing, a smart ecological and economic choice.

The coolest part of my weekend visit to Gorgeous Town, besides getting to spend time with friends and their very cute one-year-old daughter, was getting to visit a nearby straw bale house.

Yes, that’s right. A house made of straw.

The frame of the house is made from thick wooden beams, but the walls are made of bales of straw tightly packed together and plastered with stucco. Building the house was a communal project; family and friends pitched in to help. The walls are so thick that the house remains cool in the summer months and can be easily heated in the winter with a wood stove. Solar panels provide the rest of the energy needed for the house: it’s off the grid.

I’d heard about straw bale houses from my students, who talk about what a smart choice they are. Straw is a renewable resource, readily available, and the houses can be built with unskilled labor. Straw bale walls make for incredible insulation.

A house built from straw bales can also, it turns out, be beautiful. Outside, a garden grew on the roof, green plants shooting up against the adobe walls. Inside, the thick walls made for lovely windows, with window seats and shelves. The edges were curved and rounded, smooth like a sand dune rather than sharp angles. I couldn’t help but think I was walking around inside a storybook.

Where the three little pigs slept

May 09, 2011

If I had a hammer

Twelve us ended up at the movies together on Saturday night — my husband, my four kids, and six extra kids. I’m using the term “kids” loosely here: they are mostly young adults. My husband loves to gather a whole gang for a movie. He'd been looking forward to the event all week. I’d promised not to make snarky comments during the movie, but everyone knew that I wouldn’t keep that promise.

“The whole theater would be quiet,” Boy in Black said afterwards, “And then I’d hear you laughing aloud. At parts that weren’t supposed to be funny.”

Well, yeah. When a character comes through with a cheesy line that is totally expected, the melodrama makes me laugh. I can’t help it.

My daughter summed up the movie in a single line: “The boy who can’t use his weapon until he’s a man.” I kept thinking that the actor who played Thor should have been at least a little bit attractive: the love plot made no sense at, especially since the character was supposed to be an arrogant, stubborn jerk for the whole first half of the movie. I can’t even imagine why a smart beautiful astrophysicist would fall for someone like him.

Back home, the young men argued with me about my characterization of Thor. “No, really, most women find him attractive,” they kept saying. I rolled my eyes.

“Believe it or no, real life women prefer smart sensitive guys like you,” I told them. When asked who my celebrity crushes are, I always say Dana Carvey and Jim Parsons. You can’t beat a guy who makes you laugh.

In the midst of the argument, Boy in Black grabbed our box of candles and began lighting them. “It’s after midnight,” he said. “And it’s Mother’s Day.”

Usually, I’m the one who begins a candle ceremony; my kids know how much I like to just sit in a dimly lit room and listen to everyone talk. “It’s the tangents and the jokes and the bonding and all that,” Boy in Black explained to Blue-eyed Ultimate Player, who hadn’t been to our house for a candle ceremony before. “It doesn’t really matter what you say.”

He was right, of course. It was a nice way to end the night, all of us clustered in the living room, sitting practically on each other’s laps, and laughing at the jokes and stories that got told as each person in the circle took a turn.

May 07, 2011

Drumbeat in Trillium Woods


I got up at 5:30 am this morning to go birdwatching. On a Saturday. It wasn’t my idea, of course. It’s still dark at 5:30 am. But I was visiting LovesWolves, and birdwatching at dawn is her idea of fun.

Once I managed to get myself out of bed, it was fun. A light rain was coming down, but the sky got brighter as we walked, and LovesWolves kept identifying every bird that sang.

“That’s an oven bird,” she said. “There’s a wood thrush. A crow, of course. And that drumming sound? A ruffed grouse.” Usually, bird song sounds like an orchestra number to me, beautiful music but I don’t separate the trumpet sounds from the flutes or think about the individual musicians. But after LovesWolves pointed them out, I listened and heard individual birds. We wandered in the direction of the oven bird, hoping to see it.

A mist of green was creeping across the woods. We saw mayflowers, trout lily leaves, bloodroot, skunk cabbages, trilliums, ferns. LovesWoods knew the name of everything I pointed to. Old logs were covered with brilliant mosses. The leaves on the trees were just starting to unfold, so we could see all the way to the eastern horizon, where a reddish sun was making branches glow.

As we neared some older trees, we heard a sudden beating of wings, a flurry of flapping. A ruffed grouse flew right up in our faces and then took off to our right. Distracted, I turned toward the sound, but LovesWolves nudged me. “Look.”

At the base of the tree was a nest, filled with eggs. We moved quietly away so that the bird could come back to her nest.

The best part of early morning in the woods is thinking smugly about all the people in town, sound asleep, missing out on the cool things we were seeing. But after an hour of wandering, I was ready for a cup of hot tea. We came back to the house, where LovesWolves’ wife was still sleeping, tired from a 12-hour shift she’d worked, and her one-year-old daughter was wide awake and looking for breakfast.

May 05, 2011



Outside, ferns unfold, leaves burst from lilac limbs, and dandelions pop up on my lawn.

But the semester isn't quite over yet: I'm still grading portfolios, meeting with students, answering emails, writing an annual report, and sitting at long meetings where it's getting increasingly difficult to concentrate.

Another week, and I'll be free to roam the woods.

May 04, 2011

May 03, 2011

Last class

Despite the rain, students were standing outside today, clutching magic markers and chatting as they signed their names to a 32-foot steel beam that will be part of a new building on campus. “I’m a senior, so I won’t be here to enjoy the new building,” said Baseball Cap. “But I want to be part of campus history.”

“I can’t believe we’re graduating,” said Silky Hair. “I’m happy and sad and excited.”

Inside my classroom, I felt the same mix of feelings. Over the semester, we formed a community. We read each other’s papers, shared ideas, and got into long discussions, often with tangents that were more meaningful than the original topic. By this last day of class, we know which student is likely to tell a funny story about his crazy family, and which student will deepen the discussion with a philosophical question. We know which student just finished climbing the 46 high peaks, which student loves to dance, and which students are working to prevent hydrofracking.

“We’re living inside a bubble,” one student kept saying all semester. “We care about environmental issues, but I don’t think we’re typical of the rest of the population.”

She’s right, I know. That’s what happens at a specialized college like Little Green. I’m sad to watch some of my favourite students graduate and leave our small campus, but it’s exciting to know that their energy and enthusiasm and brilliant ideas will now be unleashed outside that bubble, infecting the world beyond our classroom walls.

May 02, 2011


First green

The snow has melted into big puddles, but the leaves haven’t yet burst forth on many of the trees here. When I walk in the woods, what I notice are the mosses, shining brilliantly from stumps, old logs, and mosses.