September 30, 2011

Piano music and apple pie

“When are you going to start making pies again?” With-a-Why asked last week. Local apples are ripe, and temperatures are cool enough to use the oven. More importantly, my older kids have been living in their apartment near campus, and homemade pie will give them an incentive to stop home.

So Wednesday I bought apples on my way home from work, and then I rolled out crusts while I talked to With-a-Why. He was supposed to be cleaning the living room, but instead, he began playing the piano, which is how he avoids his chores. He plays so beautifully that I can never ask him to stop for something as mundane as cleaning. I’d rather hear classical music than the vacuum cleaner, no matter how messy the living room is.

“Hey, send everyone a text to tell them I’m making pies,” I called out. My fingers were sticky with flour and shortening.

“Already did,” he said without even looking up from the piano.

By the time I pulled the pies from the oven, the house smelled like cinnamon and apple. I put the pies on the kitchen table and flipped a laundry basket over them to protect them from the cats as they cooled.

My husband arrived first; he’d been at the gym, working out. My daughter was next, her hair pulled in a ponytail in the manner of a grad student who has too much work to do. Then came Boy-in-Black, looking like he hadn’t had much sleep. “I spent all day grading physics exams,” he said. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl were chatting happily with each other as they came in. Those two never seem to run out of things to talk about.

“I know we’ve got vanilla ice cream,” With-a-Why said as he rooted through the freezer. It’s crowded with quart-size bags of frozen tomatoes.

It’s a busy time of year for all of us. But we sat around the table, drinking hot tea and eating warm pie, talking as if we had all the time in the world. “Almost as good as Grandma’s pie,” Shaggy Hair Boy said to me, teasingly, and he moved to the piano, where he began playing jazz, the music weaving in and out of our conversation.

September 28, 2011


At the traffic light, I glanced in my rear view mirror. Behind me, a rusty blue pickup truck had come to a stop. I remembered the vehicle from the gas station I’d stopped at just a few minutes before. Mostly, I remembered the proliferation of bumper stickers that suggested that the owner had very different political views than I did.

As I waited for the light to turn green, a burly man stepped out of the truck. He approached my car. He was walking right down the yellow line, in the middle of the road, which didn’t make sense. I rolled down my window apprehensively.

But he didn’t come up to my window. Instead, he leaned over as if to open my backdoor. He didn’t even look my way.

I heard a click.

Suddenly I realized what he was doing. He’d screwed on the cap to my gas tank. I guess I’d left it dangling after filling up at the station.

I leaned out and said, “Thank you!”

He looked up and grinned, then gave a wave as he jumped back into his truck. The light turned green.

September 26, 2011

Naked Thought

Naked thought

The naked man in my hotel room climbed up onto the stuffed chair and looked out at the clock tower we could see in the distance.

“That’s perfect,” I said. “You look like a sculpture.”

“I had Rodin in mind,” he said. The thinker pose fit his personality: I’d only known him for less than 48 hours, but already I’d noticed that he was someone who listened closely, made careful observations, and thought deeply about topics before speaking up in a conversation.

I snapped a few photos of his silhouette and then looked again through my viewfinder. Wait, something was weird about that silhouette.

“You didn’t take your socks off!”

He looked back over his shoulder and then down at his feet. “Oh, I didn’t think you’d see my feet.”

“You have to be totally naked,” I explained. “That’s part of the experience.” So he reached down and obligingly stripped off the socks, then settled back to tell me the story about the tattoo on his shoulder. 

Yes, the naked photo tradition has continued. My conference friends have gotten used the tradition. When I bumped into Vegetarian Guy With Cool Tattoos in the elevator between sessions, the first thing he asked was, "Have you found a victim yet?" 

This conference was interdisciplinary — a mix of scientists, artists, writers, and literature professors — and almost all of my colleagues had something to say about the naked photo project. (Yes, somehow it has become a “project.”) We’ve all studied the body in some way, whether we’ve sketched it, or learned anatomy, or looked at sexual symbolism in literature. In fact, the art show at the museum where some of the sessions were held included interactive exhibits in which the viewer’s body became part of the artwork she was viewing.

One thing I’ve discovered through this project is that everyone has stories about their body. Ask a naked man about his tattoo, and he’ll tell you what was happening when he got that tattoo, often when he was at a transformational stage of his life. Ask a woman about the scar on her belly, and you’ll hear a story. That’s still the valuable part of this project: not the photographs, but the stories that people tell me when we talk about the project. The stories don’t end up on my blog because they aren’t my stories to tell.

On Saturday night, conference attendees gathered for a dance. After three days of intent discussions and serious presentations, it’s always fun to watch everyone strip off their blazers and gyrate to the music. As I looked around the room of sweaty conference folks, I thought not about the intellectual ideas they’d brought to the conference, typed into laptops or scribbled onto yellow pads of paper, but the stories written onto their bodies.

(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here. )

September 24, 2011

Talking between the talks

After a month of classes, long weekend events with students, and all the busyness of fall semester, it feels good to sneak away for an academic conference in Country to the North. I’ve been enjoying the conference life: going to sessions, listening to talks, and eating meals with colleagues. Yesterday morning at an animal studies session, a group of us got into such an intense conversation during the question and answer period that we went to a nearby coffeehouse to talk some more. Artist Friend and I were actually continuing an argument that we'd started at a conference last June, but now other conference friends chimed in with their perspectives. We sat in comfy chairs in front of the fireplace, balancing mugs of coffee and tea on our laps, all of us talking at once. The best part of any conference is the space between the sessions, where we have time for long, in-depth discussions.

September 21, 2011

New bike!

“I am so excited!” Little Biker Boy kept saying, as he yanked my arm and hurried me through the store. “I keep thinking this is a dream. I'm worried I'm gonna wake up.”

We walked through to the back of the store, where the racks of bicycles were. Within seconds, Biker Boy had picked out the bike he wanted. 

“See? It’s got pegs!” he yelled, pointing to the wheels. “It’s a Mongoose. That’s the one!”

Tall Salesperson adjusted the seat while Biker Boy jumped up and down next to the bike, talking fast. “Can you move the handlebars too? Can I have that little tool? Can you take the tags off? Can I try it now?”

“I’m going to teach you how to adjust the seat,” said Tall Salesperson. He knelt down on the floor and patiently showed Biker Boy how to adjust the seat and the handlebars.

“I love bikes!” said Biker Boy.

“Me too,” said Tall Salesperson. “I put this one together yesterday.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Biker Boy as he rode the bicycle across the linoleum. He turned at the end of the aisle, circled back, and stopped to throw his arms around me. “I love you! I love this bike!”

I felt embarrassed by his gratitude. All I had done was drive him to the store to buy a bike I could easily afford. My husband and I had stopped at the store the day before, and we found out we wouldn’t even have to assemble the bike. We just had to walk in and buy it. Biker Boy’s gratitude was way out of proportion to the effort I’d put into the gift, but it was fun to see how enthusiastic he was. Tall Salesperson smiled at me as we watched Little Biker Boy ride in circles.

We paid for the bike and drove to a nearby park, where Biker Boy tested the bike out. He pedaled across the pavement as fast as he could, then circled back.

His last bike had been orange. He’d found the bike in our garage a couple of years ago — it had belonged to my son Shaggy Hair Boy when he was younger — and he’d adopted it. He and the orange bike had been inseparable until a few weeks ago when it was stolen from his front yard.

The new bike was blue and black, and it was just the right size. “This bike has to get used to me,” Biker said. “Just like my old bike was used to me.” He grinned at me and pedaled off again, yelling with excitement as he went.

September 20, 2011



Last year when we took our first year students on an all-day retreat, we spent part of the day discussing Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book in which a family tries to live for a whole year eating only food raised within 100 miles of their home. This year’s summer reading, the book Eaarth by Bill McKibben, included a section about eating local foods.

The owner of the retreat center listened carefully to our discussions about eating locally. Then last March, he bought two piglets. All spring and summer, the pigs ate the scraps of food leftover from the groups that come to do a ropes course at the retreat place. The staff  posted photos of the pigs on facebook. Then just before our scheduled retreat, the pigs were slaughtered, smoked, and turned into pulled pork.

The dinner included salad made with homegrown tomatoes and local lettuce as well as apples and cider from a local farm. We ate salt potatoes, which is a local delicacy. The potatoes were local, but the salt probably wasn’t. At one time, our area was famous for producing salt, but I think now we would need a time machine to get some.

The retreat place fed about 300 students, faculty, and staff, and they did it mostly from local foods. “That was impressive,” said a student in class today. “Now we have to figure out how to live like that all the time.”

September 18, 2011

Learning by rope

Through the sky

I spent yesterday in the woods, getting high with my students. It’s a Small Green tradition.

Every fall, we take our first year students to a ropes course, where the “high” elements include climbing up into the trees and jumping off platforms, and the “low” elements include teamwork challenges. I love the adrenaline that shoots through my veins when I have to climb 50 feet up the side of a tree and dangle from a single rope. I am terrified of heights, which makes the high ropes course that much more fun.

During the teamwork challenges, I get to know my students. I see who likes to take charge, who is good at listening, and who is the most diplomatic. My favorite low ropes element this year was a big rope web hanging in the trees, about a foot above my head. For our challenge, we had to get every person up through openings in the ropes, but we could only use each opening once. To make it even more difficult, the facilitator blindfolded some of us.

When I’m doing the low ropes course, I just do whatever my students tell me. So when Long Island Accent told me I was to try for one of the highest openings, I stood still and let two students lift me up. Once I was high enough, I grabbed the hands of another student who guided me in. Another student grabbed the belt loops of my jeans to make sure I didn’t tumble down the large hole in the middle of the web. I flopped in awkwardly, like a fish in the bottom of a boat.

Once I was safely in, I quite liked the rope web. It was like a huge hammock that could hold 20 people at once. I enjoyed just hanging out with my students, cheering them on as they ascended one at a time.

That's a student in the top photo. Below is the low ropes element that they call the Eagle's Nest.
Low ropes with my students

September 16, 2011

Just me and my radio

As soon as Little Biker Boy got into my car, he reached over to begin fiddling with the buttons on the radio. I’d been listening to a CD that my father had burned for me, and the song “Ain’t Misbehaving” filled the car. Biker Boy rolled his eyes, and immediately began hitting buttons to turn it off.

“Wait,” I said to him. “Listen to a couple of the songs on that CD.”

He listened for about 6 seconds, then reached to turn it off. “I don’t like that kind of music,” he said. “I listen to rap.”

“I know, but just listen, and then I’ll tell you why,” I said. He sighed deeply and leaned back in his seat.

After about 10 more seconds, he reached to fiddle with the buttons again. “Why do I gotta listen to this?”

“You know the people on it,” I said.

“No, I don’t,” he said. He folded his arms. “I don’t like this kind of music.”

“They live in my house,” I said. He straightened up, suddenly interested, and looked at me sideways.

“See if you can guess who they are,” I said.

“The piano – that’s Shaggy Hair Boy!” he said. He grinned.

“Yep. Now listen to the guy singing. He sounds like a grown-up, but he’s really just a very shy teenager,” I said.

“With-a-Why?” he asked. “That’s him singing?”

“Yep,” I said. “And the clarinet is my father. You’ve met him before.”

He turned up the volume. “THEY’RE ON THE RADIO.”

“Not exactly. It’s just a CD they recorded,” I explained.

“That is sooo cool,” he said. “Do you think they can put me on there?”

“You mean … record you singing?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I mean, put me in the song.”

He began swaying back and forth in his seat, and started rapping in a deep voice: “Yo Biker Boy, this song’s about you.”

And for the rest of the car ride, he made up his own words to go along with the jazz standards my father and sons had recorded.

September 14, 2011



The snakes I found in my garage last week were pretty small. I figured that shoving them out with a shovel (gently, of course) was probably enough to scare them away. By this afternoon, I’d already forgotten about the snakes when I went out in bare feet to throw some bottles into the recycling bin.

That’s when I noticed a snakeskin, several feet long, draped along the back wall. A larger snake has been using the rough cinderblocks in my garage to moult.

I can’t blame the snake, really. The back wall of the garage faces east and absorbs the morning sunlight. It’s probably a lovely place to shed your skin.

When I went back into the kitchen, I grabbed the nearest cat, Rogue, and put her out to the garage. She walked lazily around and showed no interest in the snakeskin.

“Why did you put Rogue in the garage?” With-a-Why asked from his spot on the couch, where he was doing homework.

“I thought maybe a cat would scare away the snakes,” I said. “But she doesn’t seem to get it.”

“Well, I didn’t get it,” he said, “so I doubt she did.”

I grabbed another cat, the grey male cat we call Trouble, and put him in the garage as well. He, too, just walked around lazily and then asked to come back in.

I guess I could leave the cats out there until they start peeing on stuff. Then at least the garage would smell like cat.

On second thought, maybe I’ll just wait for the cold weather, when the snakes are likely to leave on their own.

September 13, 2011

With sprinkles

“How about we go for ice cream?” Little Biker Boy asked when I picked him up. The evening was warm enough for short sleeves, and the ice cream shop in Traintrack Village was still open for the season. As soon as we bought the cones, he said, “Hey, can we go for a walk? I don’t have to be home until 8 o’clock.”

A walk seemed like a good idea. Little Biker Boy had had a bad day at school, and when I’d picked up him, he’d been sullen and angry. The fresh air might help his mood. 

Church bells began tolling as we walked down the street towards a big church built from grey stones. I motioned for him to sit down on the steps. He looked up at the stained glass windows apprehensively. “Can we sit here?” he asked nervously.

I shrugged. “Sure. It’s my church. Or at least, it used to be. I was baptized here. My parents brought me here every Sunday when I was a kid. I’ve been here hundreds, no, thousands of times.”

As the music chimed, I couldn’t help but think back to the times I’d stood on these steps, waiting to enter. On the day of my First Communion, I wore a filmy white dress that to this day is the prettiest dress I’ve ever owned. I was only seven, but I can still close my eyes and picture that dress. On the evening of my eighth grade graduation, I stood on those steps with Kindergarten Friend and Outdoor Girl, the three of us nervous and excited about leaving our little elementary school. I stood on those same steps the morning of my wedding, surrounded by my sisters. On the morning of her wedding, I gave Kindergarten Friend a hug on those steps, just before preceding her down the aisle.

“I never been in a church,” said Biker Boy.

We climbed up to see if the doors were unlocked, but they weren’t. So we continued on to the familiar brick building on the next block. The door near the gym was propped open, and a whole group of middle-aged women were gathered inside, singing.

“Some kind of choir practice,” I said to Biker Boy. “Just be quiet as we walk through.”

As we walked through the school and then around it, I told him stories about my childhood. “That’s where my second grade classroom was. The teacher was this nun who liked to dance so every afternoon, we’d push back all the desks, and she’d teach us how to dance.”

I think the stories of my quiet, sheltered childhood would bore most people, but Little Biker Boy listened eagerly. Then we sat down on the steps near the gym where we could hear singing. It wasn’t a song, really, but some kind of practice. The women all kept singing the same syllable over and over.

“It sounds cool,” Biker Boy whispered. He snuggled up against me.

It was getting dark as we walked back to the car. As we drove out of the village, Biker Boy said, “Hey, look!”

In the field on the edge of the village, firefighters had gathered for what looked to be some kind of training session. They were all wearing protective gear, and they had a hose out. We stopped to watch for a few minutes.

“I’m going to be a fireman someday,” Little Biker Boy said.

“I think you’d be good at that,” I said. “If my house were on fire, I’d feel very safe knowing that you could come rescue me.”

By the time we drove home, the roads were dark, and the almost-full moon had risen in front of us.

September 12, 2011

The snake in my garage

The other day, I stepped into my garage in bare feet and stepped right onto a little garter snake. I jumped and screamed. I know that a garter snake will do me no harm, but still, that’s my instinctive reaction.

As the snake wriggled away from me, unharmed, I grabbed a snow shovel to gently nudge it out the door. The door, I think, was what had attracted the snake in the first place: the bottom edge is frayed black rubber that gets nice and warm on sunny days, the perfect place for a snake to snuggle. I figured it was an unusual happening, and I’d scared the snake off.

But then two days later, I went out to the garage to find my cleats, and the snake was there again, wriggling across the floor just below the steps. So this weekend, when I was on a field trip with students and colleagues, I asked their advice on how to discourage snakes from coming into my home. I knew that at least one of the students at the picnic table had taken herpetology.

“Maybe if I could find a scent they hate,” I said. “Do snakes smell?”

“Yes,” said Herpetology Student, “that’s what they’re doing when they flick out their tongues.”

“You’d think they’d smell our cats,” I said. “But then again, I’ve got 6 cats, and we still get mice in the garage.”

 “A garter snake will eat the mice,” said Herpetology Student. “You ought to keep it around.”

 “Yeah, why would you want to get rid of the snake?” asked another student. I looked at him.

He grinned. “No, really. Learn to embrace the snakes!”

 Just then Chemistry Lab Guy walked over to join the conversation.“Any ideas about how to discourage snakes from coming into my garage?” I asked.

 He answered immediately. “You need a mongoose.”

 Yes, of course.

Ten years later

I don’t watch television or listen to the radio, so I didn’t  watch or listen to any of the media coverage of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I spent a lazy morning with my husband: we both decided we deserved to sleep late. Then he went off to church while I settled into the comfy chair with my laptop to do some writing. In the afternoon, I mowed the backyard, read a book, and wrote some emails. In the evening, I went to a play with my youngest son, With-a-Why. When we returned, I read over a paper that Shaggy Hair Boy was writing for his history of music class. I called Boy in Black on the phone to hear that his club Ultimate team had won at sectionals. Then my husband and I settled down to watch an old episode of the Big Bang Theory on his laptop before bedtime.

It was an ordinary Sunday. But I found myself thinking about my students from Big City Like No Other, both the students who were in my classes ten years ago and my present students who were only kids when the terrorist attack happened. Many of the students that I wrote about in this post are on facebook, and before I went to bed, I checked on them, to read what they were thinking and doing on this anniversary. It was a relief to read so many ordinary statuses, to see them playing with their young children or doing household chores, going on with their lives.

September 09, 2011

Casual Wednesdays

Boy in Black is a serious Ultimate Frisbee player. You might even call him a fanatic. Even in early summer when he was sleeping all day because he was recovering from mono, and in the middle of the summer when he was doing research and still recovering from mono, and in late summer when he was spending big chunks of time studying for his qualifying exams, he still kept playing Ultimate.

Boy in Black has this weird ability, or perhaps compulsion, to pull everyone around him into whatever he’s passionate about. So that means his siblings played Ultimate this summer. And all of our extras. And on Wednesdays, even his parents.

Other nights of the week, he’d play Ultimate with a league or club team, and old folks like us would be spectators, but he declared Wednesdays to be the evening for Casual Ultimate. Everyone was welcome to play, no matter the age or skill level. My husband and I both played. Our extras played. Boy in Black invited pretty much everyone he knew. And most of them showed up.

I was thankful, actually, that so many of the young men of the household have girlfriends now. It’s a bit ridiculous for me to be playing on the same team with my 6’3” Ultimate fanatic son. It’s makes a little more sense if I’m asked to guard a 5’ woman who has never played Ultimate before. Then I’ve got at least a chance.

We gathered on the empty field behind the old elementary school, right next to the cemetery, and Boy in Black set the boundaries with orange cones. He brought everything we needed, including extra white shirts and bottles of water for everyone. He marked his own water bottle with a rubber band because no one wanted to come in contact with mono-contaminated saliva.

The games were filled with joking and teasing, but also serious instruction. Boy in Black and First Extra were very patient about explaining rules or strategies. During the last few games of the summer, I was usually guarding Thinking Girl, and we’d help each other out, even though we were on opposite teams. “That was a turn-over. You’re going in that direction now,” she’d say when she’d see me heading up the field the wrong way.

My tendency to get into conversations with the person I’m supposed to be guarding means that I’m not a very competitive player, but still the games were fun.

It was always dark by the time we returned to the house. Some of the players would take navy showers, while others rummaged through the kitchen for food and drink. Boy in Black always took the time to stretch, lying on the floor while discussing the game with First Extra or Shaggy Hair Boy. My husband and I would go to bed, but the young people would stay up to play cards or computer games, carefree on a summer night.

That's Shaggy Hair Boy in the photo.

September 07, 2011

And the seasons change

It’s raining. I’m wearing long pants, a fleece, and my fuzzy socks. Students on campus have stopped talking about their summer vacations and started complaining about how much work they have to do. They’ve started making plans for apple picking and pumpkin carving.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black moved back to the apartment near campus that they share with First Extra. The public schools opened again yesterday, and With-a-Why began eleventh grade. I'm thinking about making an apple pie.

Summer’s over.

September 05, 2011


On Saturday, the weather at camp was warm enough for swimming. On Sunday, it was cool enough for a hike. But the most exciting thing we did over the weekend was watch Red-haired Niece cut Boy in Black’s hair.
Boy in Black has had long — or at least longish — hair since sixth grade. He doesn’t let it get real long, like my other two sons, but keeps it off his shoulders by cutting it himself. Every couple of months, he’ll go into the bathroom with a pair of scissors and chop some off. He ties it out of his face with a pink bandana when he’s playing Ultimate.

Friday night, he was about to cut his hair when Drama Niece offered to do it for him. He shrugged and handed her the scissors. 

For the record, I loved the haircut she gave him. She added layers, which made it look thick and curly. All that lovely wavy hair made him look younger, like he was back in high school, and emphasized his big brown eyes with their long black lashes.

Everyone else thought the haircut was hysterically funny. And even I will admit that the curls didn’t match his personality. Or his 6’3” athletic frame.

“I’ve been thinking about buzzing it anyhow,” Boy in Black said. “It would be easier.”

Red-haired Niece volunteered to do the job. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter sent a text to Film Guy, who told them where they could buy the right kind of razor. “It shouldn’t be too hard to use,” she said. “I know people who have gotten drunk and shaved their heads, and it usually looks okay.” 

Once Boy in Black had made the decision, the group wasted no time. Red-haired Niece yanked the shaver out of the box, glanced at the directions, and declared that she was ready. She draped a beach towel over Boy in Black. Schoolteacher Niece grabbed the mirror out of my parent’s cabin and held it up. The rest of us pulled lawn chairs over to watch.

“It’s going to look so great,” Red-haired Niece kept saying. “I can just imagine the women on campus when they see you now.” She started right in, happily cutting off long locks and tossing them to the ground. She did the back and sides first, leaving a bunch of hair in his face, before dramatically finishing.

The crowd kept chiming in. “You look like Suburban Nephew now,” and “You look like Jack from LOST.” We all kept teasing him about his movie star features, but it’s true: he’s ridiculously good-looking.

My parents gave the new haircut their seal of approval. Boy in Black went down to the dock, stripped off his shirt, and stuck his head in the water to rinse it off. When he stood up, he rubbed his head with his hands and grinned. “It feels cool.”

Boy in Black, ready for battle

Boy in Black's new silhouette. I took this photo while he and With-a-Why were battling with their light sabers.

September 03, 2011

Off to camp

It’s Labor Day weekend, the official end of the summer, and that means that we’re heading up to my parents’ camp for one last weekend. I’m hoping it will be warm enough to swim, but if not, we’ll go hiking or play bocce or sit by the campfire.

I’ve only been back to work for a week, but the first week of classes was long, filled with the excitement of seeing students who have returned after the summer and the tedium of meetings where administrative tasks get done. My campus office was painted and carpeted this summer, which means I returned to find all of my belongings — including every single book from my shelves — packed in cardboard boxes. It’s been a week of unpacking and getting ready for the school year to come.

So yeah, I feel I deserve a long weekend.

End of the summer