November 30, 2011

Around the lake

Path to the lake

At Pretty Colour Lakes, the beach is closed and the gorgeous foliage is gone. We haven’t yet had the enough snow to attract the snowshoers and cross-country skiers who will tramp down paths over the winter months. As we walked the trail along the lake, we passed a woman running, a teenager walking a dog, and then an older couple, who were talking as they walked. The cedar trees smell the same no matter what the season.

November 28, 2011

A parcel in a pear tree

By the time I arrived home at 4:30 pm, it was already getting dark. I hate the short days we get this time of year. I stopped, as I usually do, at the end of our driveway to pull mail out of a stuffed mailbox. We get a lot of mail, but it’s almost all junk. Hardly anyone writes real letters any more.

When I dumped the pile of envelopes onto the front seat of my car, I noticed a little slip of pink paper. I’ve gotten those slips before, and they usually mean that I need to go to the post office to pick up a package. The slip was covered in fine print, none of which I could read in the fading light, but when I flipped it over, three words were handwritten on the back: parcel in paperbox .

“It's in a paper box?” I thought to myself. That seemed like an odd thing for our mail carrier to note. I assumed that she meant a cardboard box. The books I order usually come just in a manila envelope or post office mailer. Perhaps the note meant someone was sending me a gift.

The word parcel made me think of the packages we used to get this time of year when I was a kid. My grandmother and aunt would send a big cardboard box, and we’d open it to find stacks of wrapped Christmas presents, which we couldn’t open until Christmas Eve. The word also made me remember the book The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. When Polly Pepper did up a parcel with brown paper and string, the gift always sounded exciting, even if it was something as simple as a gingerbread man. 

I glanced at my watch. I’d have to hurry to get to the post office before it closed.

The drive to the post office took me past cornfields that had been razed to yellow-gold stubble, past red barns and old farmhouses, and over a traintrack. It’s a pleasant drive, and the anticipation of a parcel in a paperbox made me smile as I drove.

In the little brick post office, I showed the slip of paper to the woman behind the counter. She looked down at it and then back up at me. “Did you check your paper box?” she asked.

“My … what?” I asked. I’d forgotten such a thing existed. I haven’t had a print newspaper delivered to my house in years. “Do I still have a newspaper box?”

I drove back to my house. Yep, there it was, right next to the mailbox: a yellow plastic box with the name of the local newspaper stamped on the side of it. Inside was a manila envelope that contained a book I’d ordered last week.

November 27, 2011

Brownies, Laptops, and Twister


For the first time ever, we had the whole week off for Thanksgiving. Some of us – well, pretty much all of us — still had work to do, so the living room was filled with laptops, books, and papers, but the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. Many of our extra kids, home for the holiday, stopped in. Quick played chess with With-a-Why. Film Guy made brownies. Older Neighbor Boy told stories about the culinary institute he’s attending. The gang stayed up one night playing Taboo, and then, for reasons beyond my understanding, they got out the game Twister, a game that gets really absurd when most of the players are over six feet tall. 

November 25, 2011

Into wine

When we were little, my father would send us kids outside with a bucket to gather dandelion flowers. Since all the lawns near us would be covered with the bright yellow flowers, it wouldn’t take long to fill a bucket and bring it back to the basement, where my father would make dandelion wine.

He’s recently revived his interest in wine-making, and this summer, he once again made dandelion wine, which he keeps offering to anyone who comes to the house. I think all the grandchildren have had a taste by now of the homemade wine. About a month ago, he said he wanted to make apple wine again, but that it might be difficult because the cider that is sold nowadays often contains preservatives.

“I know where you can get cider that’s got nothing in it,” I said to him. I was thinking of the monastery I visit for retreats. A couple of years ago, the state told the monks they could no longer sell their cider because it’s not pasteurized. Their solution was to put up a sign informing visitors that the cider was free, and they could make a donation if they liked.

So when I went on retreat a few weeks ago, I stopped in the bookstore to chat with Brother Tractor about the cider they were selling. “Nope, we don’t add any chemicals,” he said. “It’s just cider.”

When I brought a few gallons of the cider home, With-a-Why pointed to the monastery label. It said: “Ingredients: apples.”

Yesterday, when I was at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, my father brought me down into the basement to show me what he’d done with the cider I’d brought home from the monastery. There it was, in two glass bottles, bubbles rising as I watched. “It’s working,” my father said. “Soon we’ll have wine.”


November 22, 2011

If only I had some tap shoes

A few days ago, my parents sent out a message over the family email list, announcing a movie night at their house. It’s become a cold weather tradition. Eight of us gathered tonight near the warmth of their wood-burning stove. My mother made popcorn and poured lemonade while my father searched through his collection and pulled out a black-and-white film that featured Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

We congratulated Red-haired Niece on her new job, which starts next week. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter pulled up her shirt to show everyone the row of stitches on her abdomen. “My knife wound,” she said dramatically. That sounds infinitely more badass than the real story, which involves a dermatologist and a biopsy that showed the removed tissue to be benign.

It never matters which movie my father chooses because they tend to be all the same. This movie took place in Europe supposedly, although it looked suspiciously like a set. The women wore gorgeous dresses with swirly skirts that floated through the air when they danced. The plot involved love-at-first sight, a crazy scheme, mistaken identities, absurd gender roles, and corny dialogue, made funnier by the muttered commentary of the young people sitting next to me on the couch. The music and dancing were terrific, and I couldn’t resist dancing as we moved out to the kitchen for tea, cocoa, and homemade cookies.

The music was still going through my head as we put on coats and headed out into the cold rain to drive home.

November 20, 2011

The whole world is watching

I have to admit, I’ve been skeptical about the purpose or power of social media. Oh, I admit, I use it. I’ve treated facebook like a big address book, looking up folks when I want to send them an email, and I’ve used the Google+ circles as a way to have conversations with friends. It’s been nice to keep in touch with folks who live far away. I’ve been on twitter for a few years, and I once joked that it’s main purpose seemed to be to let me know which celebrity had died that day. Last semester, a friend sent me an email saying, “Hey, you must have papers to grade. You’ve been on twitter a lot.” So yeah, that too. Twitter can be a fun procrastination tool.

For the first few months I was on twitter, it seemed very much like a big cocktail party. Oh, it was entertaining and sure, there’s a social value to making small talk with folks, but most of what I saw was pretty superficial: folks joking around when they want to procrastinate, friends promoting their online businesses, single friends flirting with other twitter folks in hopes of a hook-up, bloggers linking to their blogs, people venting about relationships, and really funny twitter streams coming from people pretending to be famous dead celebrities.

I’ve watched the way that the younger generation — that is, my students and my household — embrace all the technological ways of communicating. The speed at which they can send text messages stuns me. (I think I’m just I’m too old to master typing with my thumbs on a very tiny keyboard.) I’ve watched how young people are able to use cell phone technology to coordinate a flashmob, gathering impressive numbers to sing and dance a single song. When I’ve talked with my students about social media, I’ve asked the question of whether or not their generation would eventually use those connections, that ability to reach large numbers of people, for something larger and more meaningful than entertainment.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has answered that question for me. In a time when the corporate-owned mainstream media are not always reliable sources of information, my twitter stream has been an invaluable source. When college students at UC Davis, sitting on the sidewalk in a peaceful, non-violent protest were pepper sprayed by a cop at close range, videos were posted on the internet within minutes and the link sped through various social networks. When I wanted to see how a General Assembly at the Occupy Wall Street movement in the city functioned, I clicked on a livestream and watched the entire thing, through the camera of a young man standing right in the crowd. Most of the folks I follow on twitter are people I know in real life — some are former students who are at the protests — so when I see their photos, their comments, their links, and their livestreams, I know something about the source and what bias might be involved. It’s so much more immediate and unfiltered than the days of reading columns in the morning newspaper.

Someone said to me yesterday, “How can the Occupy Wall Street movement survive without one strong leader? They need a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. A movement won't work without a leader.” But I think they are forgetting the role of the internet in this movement.

It’s true that the Occupy Wall Street movement doesn’t have one charismatic leader, but it’s also true that it’s not a leaderless movement. Watch a livestream of a General Assembly and you will see many strong leaders, who believe in a participatory process. They’re making decisions by consensus, they are trying to give everyone a voice, and they’re working with each other to plan strategies. Many approaches they are taking – the human microphones, the drum circles, the think tanks, the working groups, the general assemblies, the insistence on non-violence, the chanting, the puppets, the marches — are techniques borrowed from the history of activism, but the internet has magnified the scale of participation. They’re using their cell phone and laptops to connect to each other, to broadcast their ideas to the world, and to let anyone with access to a computer to become part of the movement.

The action of the Occupy Wall Street movement – the folks marching in the streets and occupying parks and public spaces in major cities — has been flanked with a whole lot of smart, perceptive writing by folks who are participating from their homes, ideas that have been spread to readers mostly through the internet. “I don’t see any specific solutions,” someone said to me. Well, after just a few hours of reading on the internet, I can see a whole lot of ideas and solutions being proposed.

The internet has changed the face of activism. It’s connecting the activists on the street with the activists who write from their desks. It’s made this country a smaller place. And it has made video footage a powerful tool. I don’t think you need to be the parent of a college student, as I am, to cringe at the video of the cop casually spraying pepper spray at close range into the faces of students sitting on the ground in peaceful assembly.

One of the chants the Occupied Wall Street protestors use is “The whole world is watching.” Indeed, thanks to the internet, they are.

I started to add links to this post, but there are just too many to choose from. I'd advise readers to go to twitter, search  #ows and see what's there.

November 16, 2011

And the world has somehow shifted

With-a-Why was in second grade when he said to me, “I want to take piano lessons.”

He was a painfully shy child. He did fine in school — it was pretty clear that he was academically gifted — but I don’t think his classroom teacher even knew what his voice sounded like. I tried to imagine this child staying after school to take piano lessons, and I couldn’t imagine him talking to the piano teacher.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “You’d have to sometimes talk to the teacher.” He said nothing. Then he went over to the piano and played Ode to Joy, something he’d learned from watching his older brother.

“I want to learn to play the piano,” he said.

So I signed him up for lessons with the young woman who worked at his school as a music teacher. She was already teaching my two oldest kids, and she said she’d be happy take him on as well. I warned her that he was shy, but she knew that already. She was kind of shy herself so they were a good match.

With-a-Why loved piano right from the start. When his first music teacher moved away, I found another music teacher, but I wondered again if his shyness would be a problem.

“He’s really shy,” I said to the teacher. She was a beautiful, confident woman with a lovely voice. “He doesn’t talk to many people outside the family.”

“I love shy kids,” she said. “You are so lucky to have a shy child.” I knew then that I’d found the right teacher.

Since then With-a-Why has played for many recitals and exams. He plays classical music, mostly, and he’s known for playing superfast, his fingers dancing over the keys.

More recently, his grandfather has convinced to sing in front of people too. When he signed up for choir this year in eleventh grade, the choir director soon discovered his piano playing ability.

At the concert last week, With-a-Why stepped down out of the choir to take his spot at the grand piano and accompany the choir. They were singing “I see the light” from the movie Tangled. What amazed me wasn’t so much his playing – it’s a song he can play easily – but the poise with which he sat down in front of hundreds of people and began playing.

In the crowded auditorium, I watched him – a lanky young man dressed in a dress shirt and black pants, his shoulder-length dark hair hanging down his back and his hands moving confidently over the keys. He’s come a long way from the shy little boy who learned first learned music by standing quietly and watching his siblings at the piano.

November 14, 2011

Sunshine and conversation

This weekend, I sat on the grass in a southern city, watching brown-and-gold leaves drift down from the trees, savoring the touch of sun on my bare arms and bare feet. The colors seem muted compared to the brilliant fall foliage we get in the northeast, but still, the landscape was more beautiful than I had expected.

The friend I was visiting seemed happy to indulge my wish to be outside, so we spent hours just wandering around parks or sitting on the grass, talking, moving every time the patch of sun moved. City parks are great for people watching, and I couldn’t resist analyzing the people we’d see. The most telling was the young father walking with his toddler son. The little boy had fallen and was crying. The father kept saying to him, “Shake it off! Shake it off!” and never so much as gave the kid a hug.

“Wow,” I said. “I bet he’d act different if that kid was a girl. He’d pick her up and give her a hug.” 

“Yeah, it’s easy to see how gender stereotypes get perpetrated,” my friend said. A few minutes later, he pointed to a girl who had fallen while walking on a stone wall. She was immediately surrounded by family, who were giving her all kinds of sympathy.

It felt like summer in the park. Whole families were running around in the grass, often accompanied by barking dogs. Groups of little kids had gathered for football practice, their skinny bodies hidden under shoulder pads and helmets. We could hear the repeated crack of a bat from the batting cages on the other side of the field.

Saturday, we walked along a wide creekbed filled with a fascinating pattern of rocks and water that led to the remains of an old textile mill that burned down during the civil war. Five stories of brick walls rose above the rushing water. We climbed around the rocks, staying out in the middle of the stream to enjoy the sunshine, talking while we wandered around. Too soon the sun disappeared behind the trees, and it was time to hike back to the car before darkness fell. Even in the south, November days are short.

November 10, 2011

Just a bit more sunshine

When my kids were little, I’d send them outside to play any time we had sunny autumn weather. “This could be the last nice day,” I’d tell them. I knew that cold rains and then snow would keep them inside soon enough.

This fall, I’ve tried to follow my own advice and spend as much time outside as I could. What’s worked out well is that my weekend trips have been in geographic order, from north to south, so I’ve managed to find that last beautiful day in several different regions. During September, I drove north to Maple Leaf Country for a conference: the weather was warm enough to eat outside with my friends. During October, I went north to the mountains, where the leaves were turning bright yellow and red. Last weekend, I drove south to get to the monastery for a weekend retreat.

Tomorrow, I am flying south to a city where the temperatures are expected to reach the 60s. I’m hoping for one more weekend of sunshine before winter begins.

November 08, 2011

When the shadows reached me


My weekend retreat at the monastery included a Saturday afternoon hike down the steep trail to the river where Nurse Friend and I could sit in the sun on the flat stones and listen to the rushing water. Close to the ground, the air was warm. I rolled my fleece up to use as a pillow and took a nap, waking up when the shadows reached me. 

River bank

In the barnyard

In the barnyard

November 07, 2011

Morning walk at the monastery

Wandering through the barnyard

Saturday morning at the monastery was cold but sunny. I wore my winter coat when I went for a morning walk. Frozen blades of grass crunched under my feet as I walked along the fence towards the sheep barn. The sun began melting the frost on the pastures, but icy spots still remained in the shadow of the barn and in round spots under the crooked trees in the apple orchard.

After wandering through the barnyard and taking photos of sheep, I went into the chapel to get warm. As I walked down the stone steps into the crypt, I heard voices. A class of school kids were gathered in the little back room. Brother Tractor was telling them stories about the early days of the monastery. He came in 1961, the year I was born.

“We wore robes all the time in those days, but we kept ripping them when we were doing farm work. Mine would get caught in the tractor. So we had a meeting and they voted that you could wear pants when you were doing farm work or using a ladder,” he said. He added, “One of the brothers said that I was always carrying a ladder around just so I could wear pants.” The kids laughed.

"Why do you sing and chant?" asked a girl. Brother Tractor said, “Do you like it? The music adds something to prayer that words cannot.”

Once I was warm, I went back outside to wander over to the sheep pasture and walk up the road in the sun. The wind that rose was cold, and it wasn’t long before I was ready to go back to the guest cottage where I’d sit in the sunny window with a cup of hot tea and a book.

November 06, 2011

Monastery in November

Outside the chapel

At the monastery, the monks are preparing for winter. The big barns are filled with stacks of hay. In the lobby of their bookstore, visitors can buy cider made from their apples, candles made from beeswax, and mittens made from wool. The trees in the orchards have been picked clean, and the vegetable garden turned over. The sheep that graze outside the chapel are fat and healthy, with thick wool coats. 

Nurse Friend and I arrived on Friday evening just in time for Compline, the last prayer of the day. The bell was already ringing as we hurried through a cold wind and up the stone steps of the chapel. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped into the warm, musty air. That familiar smell of old incense and melting wax always makes me feel at home.

The evening prayer service ended downstairs in the crypt, with the monks in their dark robes standing in a semi-circle around a low stone altar that holds a fourteenth century stone statue of Mary, the room lit by the flickering flames of votive candles that visitors have placed on the altar. When the chanting was done, one monk climbed back up to the ring the bell, and the monks left quietly to return to their living quarters. Nurse Friend and I went back out into the night to go unpack our car and get settled at the little guest cottage where we’d be staying.

November 02, 2011

Music on a Wednesday night

We don’t often go out during the week, but tonight my husband and I went out on to listen to some jazz. We ate at a wooden table in a restaurant that had old brick walls and big glass windows under curved arches. The room was filled with mostly older folks, although across the room Red-haired Niece and some of her friends had gathered to eat and drink, a tableful of young people amidst the greying heads. Smiley Girl sat with us, eating salad and listening to the music.

Shaggy Hair Boy, of course, was sitting at the keyboard. He’s the pianist for the Snowstorm University Jazz Ensemble. Wearing the black dress shirt that belongs to his older brother, his long curly hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail, his hands danced across the keys while his head moved to the rhythm of the music.

It wasn’t quite the same as the Big City Like No Other jazz clubs: the restaurant could have used some thick velvet curtains to improve the acoustics. But the young music students sounded pretty terrific, and the crowd clapped like crazy after they played their last number.

Shaggy Hair Boy plays the piano several times every day, so I hear his music all the time, and I often fall asleep at night to the sound of his playing. But it was fun to watch him play with the ensemble, to an audience of people who love music. It still comes as a shock to see him up in front and realize that my little boy has transformed into a poised, confident young man.

November 01, 2011

Or perhaps an owl

I had a busy day — a breakfast meeting, an appointment with a student, three 80-minute classes in a row, and then another meeting. I never even had time to turn on the computer in my office and check my email. It was getting dark by the time I got home, changed into sweatpants, built a fire, and made myself a cup of tea.

When I finally grabbed my laptop and checked my inbox, I saw an email from this morning, a friend asking if I wanted to go to lunch tomorrow. I started to reply to the email, but then I stopped halfway through writing the message when I realized that the address was her work email. I knew she was already home from work, and I wasn’t sure if she would check her work email from home. But I needed to plan my day for tomorrow.

I went over to her facebook page: it looked like she’d been online earlier. I found her on my cellphone with the plan to send her a text. I squinted at the first three digits of her phone number and realized that it was a local number, which meant a landline. I checked twitter, and thought about sending a direct message, but I wasn’t sure how often she checks twitter. I checked google chat, but she wasn’t online.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I picked up the telephone and dialed her number. Suddenly, I heard her voice and we were talking directly! It took us less a minute to make lunch plans.

And I didn’t have to type anything.

And the days get shorter

And the days get shorter