October 30, 2011

Quiet Saturday

“I’ve got to grade papers all day,” I told my family. I stacked the piles on my desk, made myself a cup of hot tea, and pulled my chair up.

Then my phone rang. It was Biker Boy, the little boy who used to live down the street from me. He needed a Halloween costume. “Before Monday,” he said. “That’s when we have the party at school.” 

When I picked him up, I put his bike in the car and we came back to the house. “We’ll go get a costume in awhile,” I told him. “But first, you go out and ride your bike while I grade some papers.” He’d been looking forward to bike riding, so he was content to ride around the neighborhood while I worked.

By the time he came back into the house, his face was red with cold and my household had begun to stire. I made him a cup of hot cocoa, which kept him still long enough for me to grade one more paper. Then he ran over to With-a-Why’s chess set. “Can we play chess?” he asked. “I know how!”

I gave Shaggy Hair Boy a pleading look, and he walked over to the chess set. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll play.” I slipped back into my office and graded a few more papers, hoping that the game would keep Little Biker Boy occupied for a while. I could hear the clink of dishes in the kitchen as Smiley Girl took over the chore that Shaggy Hair Boy had been just about to start.

When I checked on Little Biker Boy again, he seemed to be playing chess quite happily. The pieces were in an odd arrangement, unlike any chess game I’ve ever seen. “It’s more like checkers with some extra rules,” Shaggy Hair Boy said to me. He flipped his ponytail back and shrugged.

“I’m winning,” said Little Biker Boy smugly. The game kept him quiet long enough for me to grade two more papers. Smiley Girl finished cleaning the kitchen.

Then I figured I’d better take Biker Boy out before his good behavior got used up. I deserted the stack of papers, and we went out into the cold October wind to find him a Halloween costume.

October 27, 2011

First snow

“Snow?! We’re expecting snow?” blurted the young woman as she came into the classroom. “That’s crazy!”

She sat down next to a student in a bright fleece, who looked at her curiously.  “We always get some snow before Halloween," he said. He shrugged and looked back down at his book. "It won't stick, ground's too warm."

In late October, it’s easy to tell the out-of-state students from the local kids.

The first snowflakes of the season drifted past our classroom windows this afternoon. The last few days have been dark and rainy — a steady, cold rain — so many of us are eager to see the snow arrive. I’d rather walk across a frozen surface than slosh through puddles and mud. Snow is bright and cheerful, and actually warmer than rain because it doesn’t leave you sopping wet.

“I can’t wait for the real snow to arrive,” said Long Blonde Hair. “We’re going to build snowforts on the quad.”

She’s come to the right school.

October 24, 2011

Let's take a look

 Let's take a look
“I’m not supposed to tell you,” said Little Biker Boy, the ten-year-old who used to live down the street from me. But then he confided in me anyhow, as he usually does.

“My bike is broken,” he said. He kept trying to explain the problem, but he was so upset that his words made no sense. He’s a child who gets frustrated and angry easily, and he becomes inarticulate when that happens.

“My mother’s angry. She says it’s my fault,” he said. “The bike – there was a chain guard – and I adjusted the thing – and it skips – and now when I – and it’s broken – and my mother’s angry.”

“Hang on for a minute,” I asked him. “Finish your sandwich, and we’ll talk about it.”

I have no expertise when it comes to fixing bikes, but I tried to think of who could help. My husband and Boy in Black, both pretty mechanical, were out of town. Snowboarding Neighbor Boy, who used to fix everyone’s bikes and would be the first person I’d call, is off at school learning the culinary arts. Then I thought of my father. He spent his childhood and teenage years riding a bicycle everywhere, and he’s good at fixing stuff.

“Let’s go get your bike,” I said to Little Biker Boy. “We’ll put it in the trunk of the car and take it to my parents’ house.”

Getting the bike out of his mother’s apartment was difficult. His mother was angry. “It’s his fault the bike is broken,” she screamed. “I told him not to touch it. He adjusted the handlebars. He loosened the back tire and now it’s broken. I told him not to touch it.”

I said little to her, but put the kid and the bike in my car, and quietly drove away. Then I tried to calm Little Biker Boy down on the way to my parents’ house.

“It’s not your fault,” I kept assuring him. “Adjusting the handlebars, tightening the chain, playing around with the bike – that’s how kids learn about bikes. You were just acting like a normal kid with a bike. You did nothing wrong.”

My parents know Little Biker Boy — and his background. My mother gave him a hug as we came through the front door. Little Biker Boy went running through the house to find my father. “Can you look at my bike?” he asked, and then went into an incoherent explanation of what was wrong with it.

“Bring it around to the backyard,” my father said. “I’ll get my tools.”

“When I pedal – that thing in the back – and then it skips – and it’s broken – and I wasn’t even going fast –” Little Biker Boy began yelling.

“I’ll meet you in the backyard,” my father said and went down into the basement to get his tools.

Yellow leaves were drifting to the ground in the backyard. My father turned the bike upside and looked at it carefully, while Little Biker Boy kept running around, kicking things and yelling. Every once in a while, my father was able to get his attention, but then he’d start moving again, agitated. My mother talked to him calmly, and in return, he kept telling her crazy stories. “I used to have 50 bikes when I lived with my Dad,” he said. “I went on television and did tricks with the bikes.”

My father examined the bike and then told me exactly what was wrong with it: “See this gear here? It’s not working correctly. It’s already worn. That’s making the bike skip.” He gave his final verdict: “I can’t fix it. You ought to take it back to the store. You still have the receipt?”

With the bike back in the trunk of my car, we drove to my house. “Why are we going to your house? We need to get my bike fixed!” Little Biker Boy kept saying.

“I need to get the receipt,” I explained for the fourth time. “To prove that I bought the bike.”

“They don’t need a receipt,” Little Biker Boy argued. “I know this store. They will fix the bike for thirty-five dollars.” I have no idea where he came up with that price.

“Little Biker Boy’s here!” I called as I entered the house. My kids know what that means, and I could hear Shaggy Hair Boy quickly putting away laptop computers. When Little Biker Boy is in a frustrated mood, it’s best to keep sensitive electronic equipment safely out of his reach.

I convinced Little Biker Boy to run around outside the house a little bit — just to let off some of his energy and anxiety — and then with the receipt in hand, I drove the bike to the store where we’d bought it last month.

“Hey, I remember you,” said the burly guy who had put the bike together for us. Little Biker Boy is hard to forget. I told Burly Guy what my father had said about the bike.

“You’re the third person to bring back one of these bikes,” Burly Guy said. “There’s something wrong with them.” He convinced the manager to give us a new bike in exchange for the broken one. Little Biker Boy was so excited by this news that he ran over and hugged Burly Guy.

We picked out the new bike, and Burly Guy showed Little Biker Boy how to adjust the handlebars, tighten the chain, stuff like that. He repeated what I had said. “No, you didn’t break that bike. It was a manufacturing defect. It wasn’t your fault.”

We stopped at my parents’ house to test out the bike. They live on a deadend street, and they both came out in the fall sunshine to watch as Little Biker Boy pedaled up and down the road, yelling with excitement as he went. “A kid like that needs a bike,” my father said as we watched. I nodded in agreement.

October 23, 2011

Weekend at home

Soon it will be winter

For the first time since August, my weekend calendar was empty. And my house was mostly empty too. My husband had gone to visit his out-of-state sister for the weekend, Boy in Black had taken my car to an Ultimate tournament, and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter had gone to Bison City with Sailor Boy and Blonde Niece to visit Film Guy and Sparkly Eyes.

Saturday morning, I slept late and went to an eye doctor’s appointment, where I asked several complete strangers to vote on which glasses I should buy. (I hate picking out frames. It’s even more painful than the little machine that blasts puffs of air into my eyes.)

On the way home, I stopped at a thrift store, where I bought several low wooden tables for the living room. I drove home with my trunk open because it turns out that the tables didn’t quite fit into the car. With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Smiley Girl were awake by the time I arrived home, which meant that there was piano music as I made squash soup.

“I am not doing any work today,” I announced as I was cutting up onions. “I am going to just relax and do nothing.”

“We can watch an episode of Arrested Development,” With-a-Why offered, pulling the wooden table that held his laptop closer to the couch. “It’s weird. You’ll like it.”

Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl cuddled on one end of the couch (they are boyfriend and girlfriend – have I mentioned that yet on this blog?) while With-a-Why showed me a couple of episodes of a bizarre but cleverly written television show. Then Skater Boy and Thinking Girl arrived, and we all talked about how it would be cool to knock down the wall of the boys’ bedroom.

“The upstairs could be one big room just like the downstairs is,” Shaggy Hair Boy said. “That would be great!”

When I was growing up, my father was always knocking done walls, building new walls, and changing the inside of our house, so the idea seemed reasonable to me. I pointed out that the first step to knocking down the wall would be to empty the room. “You mean CLEAN the room?” asked With-a-Why. “I’m out.”

Shaggy Hair Boy decided that sending absent family members text messages that made it sound like he was knocking the wall down might be just as much fun and far less work than actually doing the job. “A photo would be even better,” said Skater Boy, and soon they were out in the garage looking for the sledge hammer.

First strike

October 21, 2011

Raindrops on roses

All week, I’ve practiced the newest piece of piano music I’m learning, the song “My Favorite Things” from the Sound of Music. I made sure to practice every single day. But when I played the song for Beautiful Piano Teacher at my lesson today, it still sounded pretty awful. My right hand knows the song, but I kept pausing between measures to see what my left hand was doing.

My piano teacher was all supportive and encouraging — really, she’s the most patient person on earth — and she kept telling me not to compare myself to my piano-playing sons. But still, it drives me crazy that my playing is so slow and torturous. Putting my right hand and left hand together still makes my head explode.

“This is so frustrating,” I said to With-a-Why this afternoon as I sat back down at the piano. “I practiced every single day this week. And it still doesn’t sound the way it does when you play. That’s so unfair.”

“Yeah, that’s really unfair,” he said. He switched his voice to a higher pitch in imitation of me. “I’ve been playing this song every day for a whole week, and I’m not as good as someone whose been playing for nine years.”

I conceded that he did have a point. But still, it feels like I’m learning really slowly.

“It’s not like I think I will ever play as well as you or Shaggy Hair Boy,” I said.

“Why not?” he asked. “You won’t catch up with us, but someday you could play as well as I can now.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “It just takes practice.”

He shook his hair out of his face. “Really, you ought to set your goals higher.”

October 19, 2011

Pumpkin heads unite!

Pumpkin heads unite!

When my parents and I drove past the elementary school in a small mountain town, we could see a bunch of little kids clustered just inside the door, waiting for their bus to arrive. The front lawn was decorated with their seasonal art project.

October 18, 2011

Birthday celebration

It’s a busy time of the semester, but we all took a break last week to celebrate With-a-Why’s birthday. I made a couple of apple pies, and the older kids stopped on their way home to buy shortcake, strawberries, and whipped cream.

Skater Boy has a birthday two days before With-a-Why so the celebration was for him as well. The candle ceremony would wait until Saturday, but we did what we do for any occasion — talked and ate. Philosophical Boy, who is in his first year of college, had just come home for fall break and we all exclaimed over how long his hair had grown. I sipped hot tea as I listened to the conversations around the kitchen table.

“Hey, remember that pianist you went to hear last year?” Philosophical Boy said.

“Dick Hyman?” asked With-a-Why. He glanced over at Boy in Black, who smirked.

“Yeah, he was at my school,” said Philosophical Boy. He mumbled something about a sextet  -- clarinet, piano, and strings. That last bit of information was too much for Boy in Black.

“A sextet?” he asked. “I mean, seriously? If your name was Dick Hyman wouldn’t you make one person leave to make it a quintet? Or maybe add a person?”

Shaggy Hair Boy laughed and cut himself another piece of pie. I put another log on the fire. First Extra stretched out on the couch, talking to my daughter, who had brought home a laundry basket of dirty clothes. Thinking Girl was talking about the work she had do, while Smiley Girl was nodding in agreement. We all had work we were supposed to be doing.

“And With-a-Why has school tomorrow,” my husband pointed out. But still, it was after midnight before the older kids left and we all went to bed.

With-a-Why, my youngest, is seventeen years old now. And Skater Boy, the kid we’ve known since he used to come up our driveway in a big wheel, is now twenty. It's still hard for me to believe.

October 16, 2011

The woods in the rain

And the road bends

On our annual trip to the mountains, my father pointed out places he remembered from the 1950s, when he worked at mountain resorts as a musician every summer.  The resorts were always on lakes; every winding road we took led us to yet another beautiful lake.

We stayed Friday night in an old inn owned and operated by a couple who live right next door with their small children. We ate dinner by a window that overlooked the lake, with the sky getting dark as we ate. After dinner, we pulled comfy chair up to the fire that crackled in the old stone fireplace. My father entertained the owners with stories about his days in the mountains as a musician while I found the guestbook and read aloud some of the entries. 

On Saturday, we hiked around a lake where my husband and I camped when our kids were little. “See that island in the middle?” I told my parents. “We canoed out there so the kids could climb up and jump off the rock. That was a very big deal for the kids.”

Each year our pilgrimage includes a stop at Kindergarten Friend’s summer home. Usually, the place is closed so we just walk on the lawn and dock, with me telling stories about the times I visited as a kid, more than forty years ago. This year, we were greeted warmly at the door by Kindergarten Friend, her mother, her husband, her two kids, and three little dogs who yipped and barked at our heels. They’d come up for the weekend.

It was raining outside by then, but the main room has high ceilings and huge windows, so the place was filled with light. “You can see the lake from here,” my father said admiringly. He and my mother hadn’t been inside the vacation home before, so Kindergarten Friend gave them a tour, with me tagging along to point out cool stuff, like the wood carvings she had done on the newel post. We’ve been friends so long that I feel like I can take credit for how creative she is.

We drove home along a road that followed the south shore of a lake. “We used to come here in the middle of the night, after we got off the stand,” my father said. “You’d see whole herds of deer sometimes.” Some of the trees were already bare, but the beech trees glowed orange and gold against the dark green conifers as we followed the winding road, making our way home.

October 15, 2011

End of the season

The docks are empty. Deer run through the deserted campgrounds. We saw loons on the quiet lake. The cosy mountain inn where we stayed is about to close for the season, opening again in January to host the snowmobiling crowd. The mountain museum closes tomorrow for the winter.

On our annual trip to the mountains, my parents and I drove through orange and gold foliage that shone against green conifers. Everywhere, we saw camps boarded up for the winter, stacks of firewood near year-round homes, and boats pulled up out of the water. Winter is coming.
End of the season

October 12, 2011

Water nymph

My friends know by now that I’ve got this blogging tradition: when I go off on trips, I try to return with a naked photo. My readers expect it.

I keep telling my friends that the naked photo tradition is a serious project that leads to in-depth discussions about the body. At academic conferences, the mere mention of naked photos leads to all kinds of feminist critique of the dominant culture. My friends are willing to jump into that conversation, but they can’t resist teasing me about the project. “You have to admit,” one friend said to me frankly. “It’s a little weird.”

They kept reminding me of an unfortunate incident that happened a few years back. We had climbed to the top of a mountain, and three of us posed naked for what I thought would be a lovely silhouette shot. I’d given my camera to Dark Curly Hair because she didn’t want to pose. She snapped a few pictures, we put our clothes back on, and we walked back down the mountain.

Then I looked at the photo.

In the picture, the three of us are standing in yoga poses, dark silhouettes against a blue sky, other mountains in the distance. It was a lovely shot, except for one thing. A single ray of sunshine, like the hand of God, was shining directly on my butt, which glowed almost supernaturally.

My friends thought it was hilarious. I never posted the photo on my blog, but the image is apparently imprinted indelibly in their minds because they’ve never forgotten it. We’ve had many sensitive discussions about body image, but always somehow the conversation always turns to the infamous white butt shot.

“Do you still have the picture? Or did you delete it?” asked Makes Bread.

I’ll never tell.

And I’ve learned my lessons about trying to take group shots of naked women. It’s too difficult. Trying to get a group shot of women who are laughing and joking around, and paying no attention to the photographer – well, it’s worse than trying to take a holiday photo of four kids. They just won’t sit still.

So instead I asked just one friend to pose. She is the oldest of the group, an elder really, so it seemed right. We stepped off a hiking trail that meandered along a stream, and she stripped off her clothes.

“Shake your hair out,” I kept saying. She’s got really long gorgeous hair, part dark and part silver, and I wanted to catch the way the sun glinted off the silky strands. But when we looked at the photos, the unposed shot — the one in which she was undoing her hair as she walked down to the stream — was our favorite.

Water nymph

Quilt Artist as a water nymph.

(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 and here. )

October 11, 2011

Telling our stories

During our annual weekend in the mountains, my friends and I are good about giving each other space. Quilt Artist will go out to the deck to write in her journal. Makes Bread will find a chair by the lake and settle into it with a book. Signing Woman will grab her binoculars and look for birds. I’ll go off for a walk with my camera.

But it’s definitely not a silent retreat. Our main activity is talking. Even when we’re hiking to a waterfall, or walking a trail, or stripping down to swim in the lake, we get into the kind of deep conversations you can have with friends who know you well.

Saturday afternoon, Beautiful Hair and I decided to find a patch of sun by the lake where we could relax and talk. As the sun moved, we kept moving our blanket, keeping our bodies in the warmth, knowing that it might be months before we’d once again feel the sun on our skin. Gradually, our friends joined us, the conversation continuing as the shadows deepened, until finally it was time to go indoors for hot bowls of homemade soup and a crackling fire.


Photo taken by Beautiful Hair.

October 07, 2011

Off to the mountains

Nights are getting cooler and leaves are beginning to look yellow around the edges. It's October. I spent all last weekend grading papers (seriously, I did nothing but grade papers) so this weekend, I deserve something more relaxing. I'm heading to the mountains with a bunch of women friends for our annual retreat.

We're traveling to the beautiful old summer place owned by Signing Woman's family. The lodge has a fireplace, a full kitchen, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake. It's near hiking trails and a labyrinth. Most importantly, it's got the kind of peaceful atmosphere usually found in monasteries and retreat places. I'll be back next week, renewed and refreshed.

October 06, 2011

Forget about your worries and your strife

Since Shaggy Hair Boy has classes during the day and does his schoolwork in the evening, it’s often fairly late at night when he sits down at the piano. Most nights, I fall asleep to the sound of jazz music reverberating up the stairwell. Since my father and his friends used to jam together when I was a kid, I learned long ago to sleep in the midst of music.

The other night, my husband woke me. “Listen,” he said. “How can you possibly sleep through that?”

I sat up in bed. It did sound like a wild party going on below. But when I listened closely, it was really just two voices, Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why. They’d found a book of Disney music and decided to do some recording. When I walked downstairs to get a glass of water, they were both at the piano. Shaggy Hair Boy’s hands were moving fast and he was laughing while he played.  With-a-Why was standing at his side, his uncombed hair hanging in his face, singing into the microphone.

“They’re having fun,” I said to my husband as I got back into bed. “They’re bonding.”

I fell back to sleep right away — I can sleep through anything — but the next time I woke up, I noticed that my husband was gone. He’s a light sleeper compared to me. The raucous singing and laughter was still coming up the stairwell. I could make out the words from the Jungle Book: “The bare necessities of life!”

This time, I recognized my husband’s voice.

I looked at the clock. It was 3 am. I came down the stairs to sit on the couch and watch the performance. Shaggy Hair Boy’s hands were still moving like crazy, half following the music and half improvising. My husband and With-a-Why both leaned to sing into the microphone, making up words whenever they didn’t know them.

Family bonding in the middle of the night.

October 03, 2011

The scary Jesus barn

The scary Jesus barn

During the roadtrip I took with Artist Friend this summer, we drove through the midwest: lots of flat farm country. When we passed a scary Jesus barn, I insisted he stop so I could take a photo. I'd never seen anything quite like it.

October 02, 2011


I was sitting at my desk this morning, grading papers, when I heard a thumping noise. The sound came from upstairs. I took a bite of chocolate and another sip of hot tea. Then I moved to the next paper. When I’m grading, I try to ignore the sounds of the household. 

The thuds continued. I figured it was probably Boy-in-Black doing his exercises. He’s got this whole routine he does before he takes a shower. When he jumps rope, it’s pretty loud. I graded another paper. Then I heard Boy-in-Black’s voice, yelling from the living room in an exasperated way, “Hey, what the fuck are you doing up there?”

There was no answer from upstairs. But the noise continued, loud bangs as if someone was kicking the wall. I stepped out of my office and looked into the living room. Boy-in-Black was on the couch, doing something on his computer, a laptop that’s bigger than most people’s desktop computers. It looks like something you’d see on a spaceship. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl were squeezed together on the red chair; they both looked sleepy.

I went back into my office and graded another paper.

The thumping noise continued. It sounded a bit like someone hammering. I glanced out the window but my husband’s vehicle wasn’t in the driveway, which meant he wasn’t even home. I graded another paper.

It was my daughter who finally went upstairs to see what the thumping noise was. I heard her yell from the top of the stairs. “Hey! With-a-Why is locked in the bathroom!”

What? That got us all up from our chairs.  

We crowded around the locked bathroom door. “Why didn’t you yell something?” I asked through the door.

“I did,” he said. “You must not have heard me. I’ve been banging on the door forever.”

I grabbed a screwdriver to start removing the door handle.

“I can’t believe we all just ignored it,” Shaggy Hair Boy said.

“Why didn’t you use Morse code?” I asked With-a-Why when he finally emerged from the bathroom.. “Why did we bother learning it?”

He looked at me. “Like any of you would have paid attention?”

"The thumps were too rhythmical," said my daughter. "They didn't sound frantic. But then I thought, I wonder why he's kicking the door like that."

“I better I could yell loud enough to make you all come running,” said Shaggy Hair Boy. So we tried it. We locked him in the bathroom and all went back downstairs. Then he let out a high-pitched scream that made it sound like one of the cats had put her claws into his throat. 

Yep. We would have responded to that.