June 30, 2011

The hometown tour

In the airplane museum

I’ve known Artist Friend for ten years now, and I mostly see him at conferences. We’re always exploring cities together: eating in restaurants, wandering the streets, and finding cool places to hang out. I met his youngest brother when a conference took us to Big City Like No Other, and I met his other brother when they stopped at my house on their way to the mountains for a camping trip. I’ve met his wife and his son when they’ve come along to conferences.

But last week was the first time I’ve visited his hometown.

We turned the Friendly Green Conference into a roadtrip. For two days before the conference, and a day after, Artist Friend drove me around the part of the country where he’s pretty much lived his entire life.

We went to a museum filled with airplanes — literally, hundreds of real airplanes — and a small brick building where the Wright Brothers repaired bicycles. We walked through a mansion once owned by a rich dead person, where the closets had flowered wallpaper and curved wooden shelves, and we sat by the fireplace in the library. We explored an old train station with a huge domed ceiling and tried to climb up behind the windows in the front. Artist Friend has a fine disregard for rules, and he happily took me up staircases and behind doors that should have been locked. This was mostly fun, except for the moment when a door locked behind us, which freaked me out a little until we found a way out several floors below.

He took me to the river where he fishes, and he insisted that I take a couple of casts with his fishing pole. During a downpour, we took a wet walk to the creek where he played as a kid. He pointed out houses and apartments where he’s lived, campuses where he’s gone to school, and the garage where he once built a canoe. (“I bet there’s still shellac on the floor,” he said.)

When we stopped at his home, his teenage son gave me a tour. I saw all the things I know from ten years of email: the birdhouse he and his son built, the stone steps he spent a summer building, the table he built from a tree that fell in his parents’ yard, his butterfly paintings, and the big brown chair in his study where he sits when we skype.

At the end of the trip, just before I had to fly back home, we stopped at the house where his mother still lives, and I met his Mom. After ten years, it felt good to be able to give her a hug and let her know how much I appreciate her son.

Where he fishes

June 28, 2011

The Outdoor Naked Conference Photo

History Buff poses for the blog

At the Big Creative Writing Conference last February, I stayed out late talking with my male friends about the naked photo project. They kept saying things like, “I can’t pose naked right now, I need to time to get into shape.”

“I’ll pose in June,” said Nature Editor, beer in hand. “I just have to shave my back.”

“We can go to a quarry, and you can take photos of us jumping into the water,” said Midwestern Writer. “A whole bunch of Friendly Green Men. It’ll be like a calendar shot.”

Standing in a bar in February, with summer far away, they made all kinds of promises. “Sure, sure, next conference,” they kept saying. Yeah, I believed it. Just like I believe things like “The check is in the mail” or “Adjuncting will lead to a tenure track position.”

Sure enough, when I got to the Friendly Green Conference, I heard excuses as soon as I hugged my friends hello. “I’m not ready,” said Nature Editor, eyeing my camera uneasily. “I need to lose 40 pounds.”

I was about to give up on the men; after all, I was rooming with three beautiful women, and I had no doubt any one of them would pose. It’s just easier to get women naked.

But then History Buff came to my rescue. Minutes after he arrived at the conference, he sat down with me for lunch, looked at me across the table, and said, “I’ll pose for you.”

He was completely comfortable with the prospect. “Being naked can build community,” he said. We talked about how nudity can create intimacy. Being naked means being allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

“Often I’m the first person to take my clothes off,” he said. “That sort of gives everyone else permission to do so.”

The next afternoon, Artist Friend drove us to a lake north of town. Philadelphia Guy came along, too, and the four of us hiked up a trail and down the edge of a bluff until we were at the edge of the water. The lake was a reservoir, really, small and shallow: families had rented canoes and kayaks, and were paddling about in the middle.

History Buff stripped off his clothes and stood on the shore, looking out at the birds and the kayaks and the dam on the far side of the lake. I scrambled up and down the bluff, taking some shots. Artist Friend and Philadelphia Guy, unclear on what their role was supposed to be, stayed at the top of the bluff.

“I’ve got a good shot,” I said to History Bluff. To my surprise, he began putting his clothes back on.

“You aren’t going to swim?” I asked. I handed my camera to Artist Friend and scrambled back down the bank.

In my worldview, swimming is the second best reason for getting naked. I can never resist a lake or river. I kicked off my sneakers and stepped into the water. It was surprisingly warm.

“Go ahead,” said History Buff, smiling.

I stripped off my clothes, waded in, and then dove under to get my hair wet. Weeds brushed my bare skin. I couldn’t believe how warm it was: no shock of coldness at all. I drifted lazily in the water, letting it wash away all the stiffness of conference sessions. History Buff stripped his shorts back off and dove in to swim next to me.

Artist Friend, who was holding my camera, looked torn between a desire to take some blackmail photos of me and an eagerness to jump into the water himself. Finally, he set the camera carefully on a rock, stripped off his clothes, and joined us in the lake.

Philadelphia Guy didn’t move. He’s younger than me, and the look on his face was the kind of look I’d expect from my teenage son. “My God! I don’t want to see Mom naked!” The kayak that had been heading toward us turned and paddled the other way.

At Saturday night’s banquet, we discussed what pseudonym to use for History Buff. “Which body part would you like featured in your name?” I asked.

The woman sitting across the table said to me, “He has such intense eyes. Surely you could use that.”

I settled on History Buff because I’ve heard him call himself that. And as you can see from the photo, the word buff can function as both a noun and an adjective.

(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. )

June 27, 2011

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

“Wow,” said the young man. “I've been to other academic conferences. But I’ve never seen anything like this.” New to Friendly Green Conference, he seemed startled by the party going on in the lounge of the college dormitory where many of us Friendly Green Folks were staying.

A bunch of college professors, wearing jeans and holding guitars and some still wearing their name badges, had pulled chairs into a semi-circle and were playing a Bob Dylan song. Other folks crowded around, singing loudly, their arms around each other. The little lounge table held a conference program, several bottles of beer, and a set of harmonicas. Ponytail Ecocritic, his hair streaming down his back, bent towards the folks with the guitars and joined in on the harmonica.

Five people crammed onto a little couch that was designed for maybe three people. Yoga Woman was on the floor, stretching her muscles out in the midst of the party. Two women were hugging each other ecstatically and laughing over a joke that no one could hear amidst the music. Lilting Voice sang with the guitars, her voice rising as her long hair swayed back and forth. Dark-haired Woman and I did some interpretive dance: well, that’s what we called it anyhow.

Friendly Green Conference is not just an academic conference: we’re a community. And music is one of the ways that we build community.

Loves Dogs had joined the party with a bag of chips that she passed around. “See that room?” she said, pointing to a door about ten feet from the musicians. “That’s where I’m sleeping.” Thankfully, she’s tolerant. We’re lucky, in fact, that the whole building was filled with Friendly Green Folks: the musicians played every night, and no one ever complained.

During the week, musicians would excuse themselves from the party at about 2 a.m. by saying things like, “Hey, I’ve got to present a paper at 8:30.” But on the last night of the conference, the music went late. No one wanted this conference to end.

The musicians played requests, like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Brown-eyed Girl.” Philadelphia Guy borrowed a guitar to play some Rolling Stones. Chicago Friend entertained us with the “Duct tape Blues.” Everyone sang and swayed to “Hey Jude.”

As the night moved toward dawn, Maine Writer stepped out of the elevator. She was pulling her suitcase, on her way to the airport for an early morning flight. “You’re all still at it?” she asked. “Damn. I should have just stayed up.”

Eventually, people did leave, reluctantly, to pack their suitcases and maybe get a short nap. Six of us still remained, and we debated what song would close out the conference. Philadelphia Guy, who has definite opinions about music, made sarcastic comments all through “Dust in the Wind.” Finally, Chicago Friend picked up his guitar and played “Blackbird.” The singing was lovely, but then Artist Friend had the idea he and Chicago Friend should whistle a verse. They’d manage about a line, then Philadelphia Guy would say something like, “Whistling? That’s ridiculous,” and they’d burst into laughter. Then they’d try again.

Trying to whistle when you’re laughing is harder, but it’s even harder to leave close friends you don’t get to see very often. It was a sleep-deprived crowd that gathered at breakfast the next morning, pulling suitcases or carrying backpacks, hugging each other goodbye one last time before we all began our journeys home.

June 24, 2011

Hanging with Friendly Green Folk

I'm always offline for a whole week when I attend Friendly Green Conference; this year, I didn't even bother to bring my laptop. I knew I wouldn't use it anyhow. This is just a quick report to say that the conference is going well: I've heard great presentations, our workshop went well, and I've already taken the naked photo.

June 18, 2011

Take five

The highlight of our trip to the city was getting hear Dave Brubeck play the piano. We’d been looking forward to the performance since April: we bought the tickets as soon as they went on sale and planned our trip around the event.

We arrived at Blue Note more than two hours ahead of time, and already, a line had formed outside. When the doors opened, the wait staff began seating the people ahead of us.

“Can we sit where we can see his hands?” I asked the waitress when she approached us. The tables out in front of the stage were already filling up, and some were reserved for special guests, but over on the side, crammed right up against the stage, were a few empty tables.

“These seats are awkward,” the waitress said, “but also awesome.”

I sat down. My chair was touching stage, just behind the black grand piano. When I reached out, I could touch the chair that Brubeck would be sitting in. It was a chair with arms, rather than a traditional piano bench, probably because he’s 90 years old. Shaggy Hair Boy, at the corner of the stage, had a clear view of the piano keys.

The room filled quickly. It’s an intimate venue, and I’m guessing that they were breaking every fire code in the book. The seating was so tight that Shaggy Hair Boy said to me with a grin, “I better not drink anything. I’d never get out of here to get to the bathroom.”

The two hours went by fast as we chatted with the other guests that were seated at our table. When everyone in the room began applauding, we knew that Dave Brubeck had arrived.

He was charming and funny as he talked to the crowd. When he sat down at the piano, I was closer to him than anyone in the room, including the other musicians. When I put my head down on the table (a move appreciated by the man sitting next to me), I could see the reflection of his face in the shiny black piano, just inches away. He kept grinning, even though I’m the only one who could see his face: he seemed just so happy to be there.

He played old standards that I’ve known since childhood, like Pennies From Heaven. (I can, in fact, tell you where my father was the first time he heard that song: he was a young man standing in the lobby of the Wood Hotel in the mountains, with his drummer friend, when that song came on the radio.)

In the dim light, Brubeck’s hands looked translucent, almost skeletal, much like the long skinny fingers of my adolescent son With-a-Why. He held his palms high above the keys, like spider. He played a song called Elegy that was hauntingly beautiful. I had the sense that even if his body gave out, old and tired as it is, that the music would just keep going.

June 17, 2011

Blogger meet-up in the city

The blogger meet-up began with the usual introductions and chitchat. Brightened Boy is just a few years older than Shaggy Hair Boy, and it felt perfectly natural for the three of us to be wandering the city together. We discovered an old church, where I may have accidentally broken the door to the choir loft. We ended up, eventually, at a restaurant in Chinatown, where we ordered way too much food and continued to talk non-stop.

We used several different navigational methods to find our way back to the Park with the Arch: Brightened Boy tried using the sun as a guide, I had theories about which way the traffic was going, and Shaggy Hair Boy looked at the map.

When we reached the fountain near the arch, I decided I ought to take pictures. After all, I was walking with two young men who both have incredibly gorgeous long hair: I knew my readers would want a visual.

“Go stand in the fountain,” I said. I figured the white of the spray would be a great backdrop for all that gorgeous hair.

Brightened Boy went over to stand near the edge, but Shaggy Hair Boy, with a fine disregard for his dry clothing, went striding into the fountain. Brightened Boy hesitated just a moment and went after him.

In the mist

June 16, 2011

Timeless

Elegant

Shaggy Hair Boy plays classical and jazz piano, so every night in the city, we went to hear jazz. We’d get to each club as soon as the doors opened and get a spot where we could watch the pianist’s hands as he played.

At Birdland, we arrived 2 ½ hours early, and the little tables right up close to the piano were still empty. As we choose our spot, I noticed that an older couple had the same idea: they were sitting one row back, right in line with piano. The woman, who was wearing an elegant black dress with her silver hair twisted up, said to us: “Good choice. You’ve got the best spot in the place.”

The older couple, both in their early eighties, were charmed with twenty-year-old Shaggy Hair Boy. We spent the next 2 ½ hours talking, while slowly the room around us filled. They’d both been following jazz musicians since they were teenagers, and they’d seen just about every artist that Shaggy Hair Boy could name.

“But it’s so wonderful to find someone your age who loves jazz and knows the old standards!” Elegant Woman kept saying to Shaggy Hair Boy. She loved hearing how Shaggy Hair Boy jams every Wednesday with his grandfather.

“At our age, we’re always having to come into the city for medical tests,” her husband said. “So our rule is that if we come in for a test, we get a night of jazz.” He winked at me. “It’s getting so that I’m disappointed if I get a clean bill of health and they don’t want to run more tests.”

They kept raving about the pianist we’d come to hear — Bill Charlap — and I admit that he lived up to expectations. We sat, memorized, during the set, listening to the music and watching his hands move like crazy all over the keyboard. When the trio was finished, Shaggy Hair Boy turned to smile at the older couple. “Wow. That was incredible.”

The elegant elderly couple got up to leave: Shaggy Hair Boy and I had decided to stay for the 11 pm set. They shook our hands, and the woman said to Shaggy Hair Boy: “Meeting you was the highlight of my night. I hope someday I get to hear you play.”

All that jazz

Bonsai

Bonsai

This little tree, about a foot tall and carefully planted in a pot, is 93 years older than I am.

Summer in the city

Summer in the city

On our January jazz trip to the city, Shaggy Hair Boy and I wore winter coats and tromped across icy sidewalks. This trip, we saw flowers blooming. Not just a few flowers, either: we saw hundreds of flowers, thanks to Booklyn Friend, who took us to the botanical gardens.

“We ought to start with the roses,” Brooklyn Friend said. She’s gone to the garden her whole life, so she didn’t even need the map to lead us to the area where trellises were filled with red, pink, and white roses. I kept taking photos of roses in bloom, but I noticed that Shaggy Hair Boy was using his phone to take pictures of the little black signs right next to each clump of flowers. “The names are so weird,” he said grinning.

In the Japanese garden, he was fascinated by the big, weird fish. “I’d be scared to death if someone pushed me in the water,” he said. “Look at the way they are coming toward us!”

I almost dropped my camera trying to take photos of the fish. “Hey, be careful,” said a security guard, who was standing about ten feet away. “I’m not going to rescue you if you fall in.” He grinned at me teasingly.

The same security guard stopped me a few minutes later, as we were walking the path around the pond. “Hey, want to see the coolest spot here?” he asked. “You can take a photo.”

We’d been carefully staying on the trails, since numerous signs expressly forbid us to walk on the grass. But the security guard cheerfully led us over a fence, behind some trees, and up a grassy hill. Below us, in the Japanese garden, visitors wandered around the trails or clumped in the pavilion. We could see them, but the spot was secluded enough that they couldn’t notice us.

After Friendly Security Guard obligingly rolled up his sleeve so I could take a photo of his tattoo and invited us back later in the summer for the “Forbidden Pleasures” picnic, we wandered through the rest of the gardens. In the cherry orchard, people were sitting on the grass, reading and eating. Couples walked the garden hand-in-hand, parents pushed strollers, little children ran about and ate ice cream cones.

“You can bring your girlfriend here when you two come to the city,” I said to Shaggy Hair Boy. He looked around and nodded. “Yeah, urban nature. She would love this place.”

Japanese garden

June 10, 2011

To the city

So far this summer, I've spent time up at camp with my family, travelled to the mountains to the north with my husband, and gone to a gathering of women friends in the mountains to the south. Now, I'm heading off Big City Like No Other with my son Shaggy Hair Boy. We'll wander around the city during the day, visiting all the cool things the city has to offer. At night, we're going out to hear some jazz.

June 09, 2011

Blueberry, peach, strawberry-rhubarb

Small town

We stopped in a small town to stretch our legs. Below the bridge, a couple were eating sandwiches at a picnic table while their two dogs ran around on the rock outcroppings. On the other side of the park, a boy stood at the water's edge with a fishing pole. As we climbed back up to the church parking lot where we'd left our car, I saw a sign tucked up against the building. I am tempted to come back next month for a slice of homemade pie.

June 08, 2011

A wretch like me

Through the clouds

It was still cold when I walked down to the mountain lake: I was wearing a fleece and hoping the rising sun would warm my bare legs. I stopped at a coffeehouse in town to buy a strawberry-banana smoothie, which I drank on a little deck that looked over the lake.

I was thinking about Artist Friend, whose father died last week. I didn’t go to the funeral because he lives too far away, but I wanted to take some time to honor him. I’d tried taking a walk in my own woods the day I got the email about his death, but the swarms of mosquitoes prevented me from having a contemplative moment. This mountain lake, with its mirror-like surface, seemed a calmer place to put my thoughts.

My hair was still wet from the shower, which made me shiver as I walked. Every once in a while the sun would come bursting out from behind the clouds, and the lake would slip into shining, like a roll of aluminum foil that’s escaped from the box. A single kayak moved across the lake. I followed the path along the water, walking past summer cottages that weren’t yet open for the season.

When I came to the stone church, I realized that I’d been inside it before, more than 30 years ago — that time in high school when I went winter camping with a gang of teenagers. We’d been joking and laughing on the car ride into the mountains, but when we came to this town, the oldest girl (she must have been 18) said quietly, “Let’s go into the church and say a prayer before we hike up the mountain. It’s a tradition.” I still remember that moment: all of us in our bulky winter clothes and heavy hiking boots, sitting on the wooden pews to say a prayer before leaving our cars at the trailhead and putting on our packs.

On this June morning, the church wasn’t empty. I could hear a woman’s voice coming from the pulpit as I walked in. I’d forgotten that it was Sunday. The old woman in the last pew smiled and moved over a little to make room for me. The congregation prayed together, and I liked the refrain they kept using: “Holy God, Holy One, Holy Three.”

I could feel my hair getting curly as it dried. A man sat down at an old wooden piano and began to play. I recognized the hymn right away: “Amazing Grace.” It’s one that always makes me cry. I stayed until the minister in the dark print dress told us the service was over, and then I slipped quietly out the front door.

The sun was still chasing clouds across the surface of the lake. I thought of the time that Artist Friend came to visit me, and we sat watching the ripples of Round Lake as we talked. We saw a watersnake that day, moving toward us. I hoped that after the funeral service, he’d go fishing with his son maybe, or walking along a riverbank. By then, the air was getting warm. I took off my fleece and tied it around my waist, and let the breeze from the lake dry my hair.

June 05, 2011

Field days

Field days

I had planned to take Little Biker Boy out for ice cream: that seemed the perfect thing to do on a summer evening. But then on our way through Traintrack Village, we heard music blaring, people screaming, and the sound of a fire hose sprayed full force. As we came over the bridge, I saw strings of red and yellow lights, a tall blue slide, and greasy smoke rising from the concessions stands.

It was the field days, sponsored each year by the fire department. Little Biker Boy bounced up and down in his seat. “We can get ice cream there!” he said.

As we walked across the grass to the spinning lights and bright-colored booths, I could smell fried dough and stale beer. Little kids ran around screaming, clutching stuffed animal prizes. I could hear the clink of plastic rings bouncing off bottles, and the jangle of change as hawkers took money from customers.

I get motion sick, so there’s no way I was going to go on the rides, but Little Biker Boy lined up right away to go on something called the Cyclone. It looked like some kind of torture method to me, but he was dancing with eagerness.

“Now stay right here!” he kept saying. “Right here where you can see me!”

“I’ll be right here,” I assured him. “I’ll wave to you.”

He climbed up, let the man strap him in, and waved to me until the ride started. It made me dizzy just to watch the contraption spinning around and around. When the wheel came to a stop, he stumbled down the ramp, looking a little sick. But when he saw me, he puffed out his chest: “That was awesome!”

As we wound our way through the crowd, he kept running into kids he went to school with last fall. It seems like everyone remembered him. We threw rings at bottles, and darts at balloons, and squirted water at moving targets. He ate fried dough and a caramel apple and a piece of pizza.

When I could see that he was beginning to get overwhelmed by all the noise and excitement, we got back in the car, and I drove to the canal. The setting sun was casting shadows on the water, and we could hear the little frogs singing. The tension in my head began to subside. We sat in the dusk, slapping at mosquitoes and talking, until he seemed calmed down and ready for me to take him home.

“I’m going to fall asleep tonight. I know I am,” he said in the car as I drove him back to his mother’s apartment. “Thanks for tiring me out.”

June 03, 2011

Paddling

Off on a canoeing adventure

When you travel by canoe, you get to see the creatures of the marsh: painted turtles plopping into the water as you approach, a snake slithering off a clump of cattails, a beaver diving and somersaulting in the creek. You can peer down into the water to look at what lies below the stillness: lacy green weeds which sway back and forth above layers of dark muck. You get to see the water lilies up close, and the beaver dam, and the edges of the shore. Because canoes are quiet, other creatures will barely notice as you glide by. The great blue heron will turn her head for just a moment and then rise up from her nest, flying just over your head.

A canoe is great for a water fight: you can grab clumps of weeds, yanked up from the mud, and throw them at other boats. And of course, you’ve got the paddles, which can be smacked against the surface of the water for splashing water into the faces of the family members in the next canoe. When you reach a rock or island, you can pull the canoe ashore and jump out to take a swim. A canoe is low maintenance: no matter how big the water fight, all you need to do is turn the canoe over to dump out the weeds, mud, and water that family members may have tossed at you.

Perhaps the best part of canoeing is that you don’t have to rely on gasoline or motors, and you won’t pollute the river with anything other than your own sweat. When you finally arrive at the island for a swim in cold river water, you’ve come on your own power, the strength of muscles and your ability to coordinate your strokes with the other person in your canoe.

That’s Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece, heading out for an adventure in a canoe.