July 30, 2011

Day at the beach

Day at the beach

When my kids were little, I’d take them over to Pretty Colour Lakes pretty often. We’d walk around the lake, eat a snack in the shade, and skip stones. On hot summer days, we’d wear bathing suits and spread an old sheet out on the beach. We’d build sand castles or dig holes that filled with water, or splash around in the warm, shallow water. Boy-in-Black used to try to catch one of the seagulls that swooped in to eat our leftovers, but he never did.

The beach is great for small children who are just learning to swim. People joke that the lifeguards there have any easy time: if a swimmer is in trouble, they just yell, “Stand up!”

During our recent heat wave, I picked Little Biker Boy up and took him to the beach. He’s ten, so I figured he is young enough to appreciate the shallow water. I thought it would be fun to build a sand castle. I haven’t built one in years.

Little Biker Boy did not want to build a sand castle. Or splash in the shallow water. Apparently, he’s too cool for that. Instead, we went to the pier that juts out into the lake, the one place where the water would be over his head.

Along the green metal railing, a crooked line of kids waited their turn to jump into the deep water. Most weren’t wearing bathing suits. Like Little Biker Boy, they were swimming in baggy shorts that threatened to fall off every time they jumped. None of them could swim very well: they’d land in the water, come up spitting water, and then doggy paddle their way over to the ladder. A patient teenager lifeguard in a red bathing suit kept a watchful eye as the kids teased and jostled each other.

We spent the next couple of hours jumping off the pier, swimming to the ladder, and then jumping off. Over and over and over again. Like the other kids, Little Biker Boy always looked a little terrified while he was in the water, but as soon as he was safely on the ladder, he’d begin bragging, “Did you see that? I got some air!”

I was about a foot taller (and maybe 40 years older) than anyone else in line: there were no parents in sight. After about ten jumps, I could feel that my sinuses were filling with water. So the next time, when I got up to the edge of the pier, I decided to dive instead. I didn’t do any kind of fancy dive. I just dove headfirst into the water, pretty much the way anyone in the world would. When I came up to the surface, I could hear Little Biker Boy’s voice.

“Sweet!” he yelled. “You know how to dive!” He sounded surprised. He nudged the kid next to him in line. “Did you see that?”

As I climbed up the ladder, the kids looked at me like I’d just done something amazing. The teenage lifeguard grinned at me. As I took my place in line, I felt like a celebrity.

July 28, 2011

For as long as we both shall live

Kindergarten Friend might be my oldest friend, but that won’t stop me from exposing her darkest secret on my blog. I’ve already mentioned her obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books. She and I once spent days creating a Little House on the Prairie board game, complete with a deck of cards that had a picture of a covered wagon drawn in magic marker on the back of every single card. She and I did some crazy things when we were little: we’d tape yarn on light switches, for instance, to create the predecessor to the remote control. It was her idea that we should knit a scarf between us, each of us working on one end of it, while simultaneously roller skating down the street, the scarf stretching between us as we moved.

I suspected, when I saw her pull out her knitting, that she wasn't making a sweater. That would have been too ordinary. And I was right. About an hour into my visit, while Kindergarten Friend and I were still catching up on gossip from our respective families, her daughter bounced over with a swish of her blonde ponytail and presented me with a craft box with a smile that said, “You aren’t going to believe how crazy my Mom is.” When I opened the box, I saw evidence of a truly depraved soul.

Kindergarten Friend has been knitting the Royal Wedding.

Yes, it’s true. As I pulled out the knitted figures, I recognized them right away: William in his uniform, Kate with her lovely veil, the mischievous Harry, the beautiful Pippa.

“I’m still working on the archbishop,” Kindergarten Friend said, “He's missing his head.”

If she’d been someone I just met, I might have tried to be polite, but she’s known me for 45 years. There was really no point in hiding my reaction. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Then I grabbed the figures and said, “I NEED to take a photo for my blog! My readers are not going to believe this!”

I set the propped the figures up on a pillow. The light was okay, but we needed something more. “Wasn’t there a red carpet?” I asked. “And trees? Right? Trees in Westminister Abbey!” I pulled off my red fleece: it made a fine red carpet.

Kindergarten Friend produced the special royal edition of People magazine, and we consulted the photographs eagerly. I began scouring the room for props. The soap dish from the bathroom looked like a marble step. The checkerboard from the kids’ box of games looked like the black-and-white tiled floor inside the abbey.

“Let me pin their hands together,” Kindergarten Friend said. “That will look more romantic.” She fussed with the little figures while I kept bringing her more props. Blonde Ponytail got into the act and made steps by folding up a piece of cardboard. The most brilliant touch was a hand-decorated Christmas ornament that I found in the kitchen: we dangled that above the royal couple like a lovely chandelier.

After about thirty minutes, we had a pile of random items gathered on the floor. The hardest part was trying to make pillars. We tried a broom handle, a paper towel dispenser, a ceramic soap dispenser. Nothing was just right. We briefly considered moving the whole photo shoot into the bathroom, where the tiled floor looked quite church-like.

In the midst of this, I noticed that the Kindergarten Friend’s niece, a bright young woman about to go into her senior year of high school, was giving us an incredulous look. She looked at us both, then looked over to her grandmother. Kindergarten Friend’s Mom just shrugged and went back to her knitting. Kindergarten Friend’s husband shrugged and went out on the deck to grill burgers for lunch.

“Don’t worry,” Kindergarten Friend reassured her niece, “We’ve always been like this.” Then she turned back to the tableau. “How about if we tape a piece of fabric to the wall?”

We had to hurry because her husband had lunch almost ready, but still, we felt pleased with the results. You have only to check the many online photos of the royal wedding to see that our details were exact. Well, we had to eliminate the archbishop because of that whole missing head problem, and Kindergarten Friend gave the Prince more hair than he really has, but otherwise, I think we quite captured the regal flavour of the occasion. And it was a perfectly lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon.

The royal wedding. Knitted. Really.

July 27, 2011

A place I've always known

Mountain lake

When I called Kindergarten Friend to wish her a happy 50th birthday, she was at her family's summer home in the mountains, where the nights are cool. “We’ll be here all week,” she said. “Come visit.”

So the next morning I drove up to the mountain lake I’ve visited since childhood. Kindergarten Friend’s kids were there, and her husband, and her mother. And her oldest sister. And her niece. Plus a whole herd of little dogs who mistook me for someone who likes dogs and kept licking me and climbing onto my lap.

The camp has two buildings now instead of one, and I stayed in the new place which has big windows and a deck that overlooks the mountain lake. When I went next door to visit the smaller, older camp, I found everything the same, from the knotty pine ceiling to the dark red linoleum on the counters and floor.

Kindergarten Friend’s mother kept waiting on me, just like she did when I was a little kid. “Want me to make you a salad? Are you hungry? Do you want some leftover birthday cake?” Kindergarten Friend’s husband bought portabella mushrooms for the grill since he knows I don’t eat meat. I’ve known Kindergarten Friend’s husband for almost as long as I’ve known her: he went to elementary school with us. But I didn’t talk to boys for most of my elementary school years so it doesn’t count.

We went swimming off the dock: the water was lovely and warm. I made an ungraceful attempt at water skiing with some child-size skis that were clearly not long enough. When storm clouds moved across the lake, we retreated to the camp.

Kindergarten Friend and her mother pulled out their knitting, and then her daughter and niece began knitting as well. Her niece said that her plan was to make a scarf that looks exactly like the one that Dr. Who wears. A noble goal. I’m not someone who had the patience to knit — I made one sweater once just to prove I could and haven’t picked up needles since — but I’ve always found it relaxing to be around folks who knit. I found the book that Kindergarten Friend had brought, a book written by a woman who was as obsessed with the Little House books as we were, and read the funny passages aloud.


July 24, 2011

Heat wave

On Thursday, the temperature in Snowstorm City hit 101 degrees Fahrenheit. In this region, where many of us do not have air conditioning in our homes or cars, and the air is so humid that it's like walking through water, that temperature feels ridiculously hot.

In preparation for the heat wave, I moved the emergency chocolate into the refrigerator. Then I tacked sheets up over our windows, which tend to gather heat the way a greenhouse does. I’m used to the sunshine pouring in, so it felt odd to be living in such a cave-like environment. And the air heated up anyhow. By midday, we’d given up doing anything useful and were all just lying on the floor, complaining about the heat. We've got seven laptop computers scattered about the living room, but it was too hot for anyone to do any work.

Usually, night brings relief from the heat, but that night, the temperature stayed high. The kids slept downstairs on the floor of the living room, near the one electric window fan that actually works. I tried a trick a friend had suggested: I put one of those blue freezer packs, the type you stick in the cooler for picnics, under my pillow. Every time I restlessly turned over my pillow, it was nice and cold. This worked for me, but not so much for my light-sleeping husband who said, finally: “Must you keep turning your pillow over and over again?”

Bulletins on the radio asked us to check in with elderly relatives and neighbors. I don’t think of my parents as elderly, but it’s true that my Dad did turn 80 this year. They were up at camp, but thanks to the wonders of cell phone technology, I talked to my mother and asked how they were handling the heat.

“Oh, we’ve been working on a project,” my mother said. Over the winter, their little cabin had shifted off the cement blocks it rests on. So this is what my "elderly" parents did during the heat wave of the decade: they jacked up the cabin, dug out the old cinder blocks, put in new cinder blocks, hauled rocks over to fill in between the cinder blocks, replaced wood along the bottom edges, and then finished by painting the new wood and the worn edges.

Yes, it sounds like they were handling the heat just fine.

I’d promised, actually, to grab whatever young people were free and come up on the weekend to help with the project, but by the time that Shaggy Hair Boy, Smiley Girl, and I arrived on Saturday morning, the work was all done.

“The heat here wasn’t too bad,” my mother said. “We get a nice breeze off the river.”

She listened patiently to our complaints about how miserable the weather was back in Snowstorm Region. Then we climbed into the boat, went out to our favourite island, and jumped into the cool river water.


That's Shaggy Hair Boy leaping off the island. He didn't even stop to take off his shirt.

July 22, 2011

The shortest shower wins

I think it was my daughter who started the latest trend in our household. You could call it a fashion trend, I suppose, except that it’s something you do when you’re naked. No clothes are involved.

She calls it the navy shower.

“The typical American shower uses about 60 gallons of water,” she explained. “Most people just let the water run full force for ten minutes or more.”

A navy shower, on the other hand, conserves energy and water. You turn the water on and take about 30 seconds to get wet. You then turn the water off and leave it off while you soap up and put shampoo in your hair. Then you turn the water back on and take just a minute or so to rinse the soap and shampoo out.

Taking shower in 90 seconds instead of 15 minutes uses only 1/10 of the water. It’s a huge savings. The navy shower began, supposedly, with sailors in the navy who had to ration the clean water they had, but it’s gaining popularity with environmentally-conscious folks everywhere.

And in our household, it’s become a competitive sport.

The first time I came downstairs with wet hair and announced, “Okay, I did it. Thirty seconds, thirty seconds, sixty seconds,” I was feeling quite proud of myself. During the hot weather we’ve been having, I didn’t mind getting a little chilled while I soaped myself up and worked the shampoo into my hair. The only difficult part was trying to turn the faucet back on with soapy hands.

Then Boy in Black looked up and scoffed.

“That’s TWO WHOLE MINUTES,” he said. “That’s a Hollywood shower.”

“What’s with the extra thirty seconds?” my daughter asked.

“Conditioner,” I said. “And I’ve got long hair.”

Shaggy Hair grabbed a handful of his own curls and tossed them over his shoulder. He’s got more hair than I do. In fact, all my kids have long hair. He bragged. “I can do it in ten seconds, twenty seconds.”

Boy in Black tucked a strand of his hair under the pink bandana he wears. “I’ve got the record. Five seconds, nine seconds.” He grinned. “The water never even got warm.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I said. “You can’t even be clean.”

He shrugged and continued typing stuff into his computer. “I’m playing Ultimate again tomorrow, so what does it matter?”

With-a-Why said nothing. His plan was obvious: he’s going for zero, zero. During the school year, I insist that he take showers on a regular basis, but in the summer, he’s content to skip the shower altogether. When I try to talk to him about hygiene, he brushes that aside. “It’s better for the planet.”

I admit that the Navy Shower tradition has certainly eliminated any tie-ups in the bathroom. My boys go fast even during the time they’re soaping up, so Boy in Black will go upstairs for a shower and be back down again in about two minutes flat. Even though all of my kids and extra kids play Ultimate in the evening, and that leads to seven or eight people taking showers in a row, we simply don’t ever run out of hot water.

Yep, the navy shower has worked out fine during these warm summer months. But I’m waiting a whole year before I’m totally sold on the idea. I’m wondering how I’ll feel about it in February when feeling chilled while I soap myself up is not quite as desirable.

July 20, 2011

This sweet old song


It’s in the 90s here and humid. Despite the river birches that shade my house, it’s pretty hot in the living room.

Boy in Black has claimed the couch. He’s got two laptop computers set up in front of him and a stack of textbooks. He’s been simultaneously doing physics research and studying for his qualifying exams. But he’s also got mono, and so he’s stretched out among the pillows, asleep. Several of the books have slid to the floor and as I pick them up, I glance at the titles: Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics, Griffiths’ Quantum Mechanics, and Prathria’s Statistical Mechanics. Summer reading like that would put me to sleep even without mono.

My daughter works on her laptop, the keys clicking away as she writes. Smiley Girl works at the kitchen table, doing her chemistry homework with her laptop open, and With-a-Why sits next to her, helping. They keep pointing to the periodic table on her computer screen and muttering stuff about electrons and protons. Whenever they aren’t sure about something, Boy in Black lifts his head from the couch and mutters the answer.

Shaggy Hair Boy sits at the piano, playing some classical pieces, some jazz. Or sometimes he just fools around, improvising. He’s been playing with my father a lot this summer, and so he plays a lot of the old classics. The song he’s playing right now is “Georgia on my Mind” which in this hot, humid house seems wholly appropriate.

July 19, 2011



One evening, my husband and I decided to take a drive along the river, following the water's edge down to the lighthouse that stands at the entrance to the great lake. We found a town filled with flower boxes and little shops. We stopped to look at boats in a marina, walked down a pier where kids were fishing, and looked at the wind farm across the river. We bought snacks at a campground store across from a big correctional facility that had fenced topped with rolls of barbed wire. Alongside the road, high on a pole, we saw an osprey nest.

July 18, 2011

With curry

On the grill

On the last night at camp, Urban Sophisticate Sister decided she was going to make a gourmet meal. She is, after all, a world famous curry blogger and winner of a never-televised Islands Chef contest. She had curry in her suitcase: she packs curry the way someone else would pack bandages or aspirin. A bunch of family members had gone home to their jobs, and we’d only have 11 people at the picnic table for dinner. That’s a small group in my family.

Urban Sophisticate drove confidently to the little north country grocery store, where she picked up several packages of chicken. “I need some tofu for the vegetarians,” she said, looking around.

The teenagers in red shirts were busy bagging groceries for the usual tourist-heavy July crowd, but a tanned older woman with a grocery cart noticed her scanning the aisles and said nicely, “Can I help you find something?”

“Yeah,” Urban Sophisticate said. “I’m looking for tofu.”

The woman burst into laughter and threw up her hands.

“Honey, I live in Sedona during the winter,” she said. “The store there carries three types of tofu. But here? In the north country?” She shook her head, amused.

So the great curry chef adjusted her recipe and bought cauliflower instead of tofu.

Back at camp, Dandelion Niece offered her services as a sous chef and began chopping vegetables. Blond Brother-in-law, our usual grill master, had gone home but Tie-Dye Brother-in-law stepped into the breach and cranked up the grill. Urban Sophisticate spent all kinds of time making some kind of fancy curried glaze which she brushed onto the chicken and the veggies, and she’d brought sweet corn for a side dish. My mother raced back and forth to provided utensils.

By the time the meal was ready, it was getting dark. Fancy cooking takes time. Thankfully, a light wind kept the mosquitoes away. My mother disappeared into her cabin and returned with a handful of stubby white candles. She lit the first candle, dripped melted wax on the picnic table, and then affixed the candle to the table by pushing it down on the melted wax. Red-haired Sister produced a vase filled with wildflowers, which she plunked down on the peeling paint of the picnic table.

“This is wonderful,” my father said as he took his spot at the candlelit table and began eating. “Where did the candles come from?”

“They’re our emergency candles,” my mother said. “I figured that this was an emergency.”

From the curry chef



With-a-Why and Dandelion Niece singing show tunes while they sway in the hammock.

July 16, 2011

Summer afternoon jam session

My brother on the guitar

The lifestyle at my parents’ camp is simple, monastic even. They’ve got a small cabin, and the rest of us bring tents. They’ve got a couple of picnic tables, an outhouse, a fire pit, and a dock. There's a field where we can play bocce or ladder toss, and some horseshoe pits, and a hammock under the oak trees. It’s pretty much all we need. To create a peaceful atmosphere where we can hear birdsong and the wind rushing through the cattails, my parents have decreed that family members leave behind radios, televisions, computers, and anything that makes noise.

Of course, that rule does not include musical instruments. We’ve always had live music at camp. Shaggy Hair Boy and my father jam together every Wednesday at home: they are sixty years apart, but a love of jazz means they’ve got a whole lot of music in common. They both looked forward to the week at camp when they could play together every day.

Shaggy Hair Boy couldn’t bring a piano to camp, but he managed to fit a battery-powered keyboard into the car. My father plays a bunch of instruments, but he brought the clarinet to camp because it’s the lightest. My brother joined them on guitar, and the trio set up every afternoon after we came back from swimming to play some numbers while the rest of us ate snacks and planned supper.

Camp music

July 14, 2011

Mysterious Naked Man


I’d been hiking for hours. I’d lost track of the familiar landmarks that I used to know so well and wandered into a forest I’d never seen before. When finally, I came to a clearing, I scanned the horizon eagerly, hoping to find a way back to camp. That’s when I saw him.

He sat cross-legged in the sun, stretching his arms first this way and then that, in a series of deliberate poses that looked like taekwondo. He was tanned and fit, like someone who has spent his life outside. He was naked.

I sat down quietly and held my breath. He didn’t see me. He wore a mat of moss on his head. A disguise, perhaps? A garment to protect him from the sun? I thought of how moss was used during World War II for bandages: perhaps he’d had a head injury. That would explain his slow movements.

I’d just finished reading a novel about a hermit, and I’d wondered if they still existed. This man looked like he’d been living on the land for years, maybe decades. I wondered what it would be like to live silently, alone, with only the flora and fauna of the woods to keep you company.

When he heard the click of my camera, the hermit looked in my direction but said not a word. He finished his stretches, moving slowly and deliberately, then disappeared into the woods in silence, carrying with him whatever stories he absorbed from the land.

(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. )

July 13, 2011

Into the crooked creek

Crooked Creek

The early morning hike was my mother's idea. A local land trust just opened a new trail near the state park where we used to camp back in the 1960s. So we woke up the teenagers early, piled into a couple of vehicles, and drove a few miles up the road to the trailhead.

The trail wound through some fields and then the forest, with wooden bridges over the marshy parts. We found a little pond created by a beaver dam, surrounded by the stumps of trees that had been chewed through and toppled. As we walked farther, the trail climbed up and down the big rocks that make up the landscape along the river.

We’d been walking for about ten minutes when the bugs discovered us. The mosquitoes were first. We tramped through a marshy area, and they rose to greet us, surrounding our band of hikers with that annoying buzzing sound. I’d taken out my camera to take a picture of Dandelion Niece balancing on a log, but the photo shoot was cut short when I realized that I needed both hands to protect my bare arms from the bloodthirsty insects.

The horseflies were next. A swarm settled near my head, trying to catch a ride on my hair as I walked. I moved closer to Dandelion Niece, offering her lovely blonde hair as a bait. That worked. The flies zoomed over to her sweet-smelling locks, and I darted away quickly.

The pace of our hike picked up as we tried to escape the hungry hordes. Red-haired Sister had brought two of her dogs, and I could hear their jaws snapping as they bit at flies. Family members slapped at their arms and muttered curses. Shaggy Hair Boy took off his jeans and tied them around his head. The early morning breeze had died, and the sun that filtered through the leaves began to feel hot. Soon my face and neck were sweaty, which just attracted more flies.

“Know how at the end of your life, you look back and have regrets?” Taekwondo Nephew said to Shaggy Hair Boy. “My regret will be getting up early today to go on this walk.”

We pushed ahead through the marshy areas, climbed along some rock cliffs, and then suddenly came upon a clear area. A big shelf of rock stretched ahead to a creek, one that we’ve explored with canoes before. It’s a crooked creek that winds through stands of cattails with big rocks that make great picnic spots.

I took off my sneakers to feel the warm rock under my feet as I walked down to the creek edge. The bugs were gone: they’d stayed back in the shade. Suddenly, the sun on my arms felt good and not oppressive. I heard splashes and squeals from below. Shaggy Hair Boy and Taekwondo Nephew had already stripped off clothing and jumped into the water.

I stepped off the rock into the cool, deep water and then dove under to rinse the sweat from my hair. My brother and Tie-Dye Brother-in-law had already swum out to the middle of the creek. Dandelion Niece kept climbing back up onto the rock to do dramatic leaps into the water. Suddenly, the hike seemed worth it.

Into the creek

July 11, 2011

Into the river

Into the river

Every afternoon at camp, we put on bathing suits and pile into boats: canoes and sailboats for some of us, a fast speedboat for Tie-Dye Brother-in-law, and a couple of old boats with very sketchy outboard motors for everyone else. The river has thousands of islands, but our favorite is just outside our bay: it’s got a shelf of rock that extends into the deep water for those who like to wade in gradually, several smaller islands to swim to, and a cliff for those who like to jump.

Taekwondo Nephew always leaps right off the island into the cold water right away, just so he can brag that he was the first one in. The rest of us spread out towels out on the rock, with the fair-skinned members of the family claiming the small patch of shade under the very small stand of pine trees. Then we spend the next couple of hours swimming, sunning, talking, and fighting over whatever snacks anyone thought to bring along.

Top photo: My daughter, four of my nieces, and Boy in Black’s girlfriend decide to take the plunge together.

Island life

July 01, 2011

Time to think

Shaggy Hair Boy at camp

That's Shaggy Hair Boy sitting on the end of the dock at my parents' camp. I took the photo yesterday: we went up for the day to help my parents shovel stone into the grassy driveway, so that we won't have to spend next week pushing cars out of mud. Tomorrow, we're going up for the week. My parents are already up there, my siblings will join us, and the grandchildren will come and go all week, depending on summer jobs, Ultimate games, and grad school obligations. I'm looking forward to another week offline: a week of reading, writing, swimming, sailing, and playing lazy games in the shade.