January 31, 2012

In the airport

I knew I had a long layover on my flight home, and I figured that I’d do some work or maybe write a blog post in the airport. I was returning from a Southern City where flowers were blooming — yes, flowers in January — and it was warm enough to eat lunch outside two days in a row. But I didn’t have my laptop with me, and in my dramamine-induced haze, the idea of trying to type whole sentences with one finger on the iPad keyboard seemed like too much work.

The weekend had included a Mountain Goats concert which was so much fun that I had briefly entertained the fantasy of quitting my job, deserting my family, and spending the next year just following the Mountain Goats from town to town. To compensate for my responsible decision to actually return home, I did no work in the airport. Instead, I put on my iPod and listened to the Mountain Goats for three hours.

When I looked up to see if the flight board had any new information, I saw the elderly woman across from me a sympathetic look and whisper something to her husband in a worried tone. That’s when I realized that maybe I’d been singing along to the music. It’s possible that her sympathy had something to do with my inability to carry a tune, but more likely, it was because the lyrics to the Mountain Goats songs tend to be pretty dark. I guess I too would be worried if I sat next to someone in the airport who was smiling and muttering under her breath, “I hope you die. I hope we both die.”

I briefly considered trying to explain to the woman how much cathartic it is to be at a Mountain Goats concert, listening to a whole crowd of people singing ridiculously dark lyrics to the incredibly happy, energetic John Darnielle while he jumps around, laughing in delight at the way we all know his lyrics. But the dramamine had sedated any part of my brain that had ever been capable of such articulation, so I just slumped back down in my seat, clicked over to the next song, and tried to listen without singing along. With the Mountain Goats, that’s surprisingly hard to do.

January 27, 2012



We've had very little snow so far this season. I've heard a few people say that they like a winter when they don't have to shovel the driveway, but mostly, everyone's complaining. Snow is warmer than rain because you can just brush it off. And besides, snow is way prettier.

January 26, 2012

Music in my ears

I’d noticed that my kids listen to music when they run at the gym, and I kept asking them about it, so Boy in Black found an iPod on ebay and bought it for me. “You can fill it with Joni Mitchell and the Mountain Goats,” my daughter said. I am fairly predictable in my musical tastes.

It has taken me a while to get used to the iPod. Whenever a new song begins, I keep expecting the people around me to comment, or start dancing, or sing along. But instead, they just continue along their way, totally ignoring the music, and that’s when I realize that they can’t hear what’s blaring into my ears.

The result is that I feel like I’m watching a movie. I can see people — a man sitting on the floor to catch his breath, two women talking over by the mats, a teenager lifting some dumbbells, a man and a child walking up the stairs — but I’m totally removed from the scene, with just music rushing through my head.

I find myself doing the voice-over narration in my head, making up stories for the characters. I can usually find someone whose body language and facial expressions match whatever song is playing.

That woman in purple is running fast to escape the memories of her childhood, the demons that keep her awake at night. That man in the red shorts slows down as he remembers the boy he used to be, the teenager who jumped from the high cliffs of the gravel pit with his friends, unafraid to take risks. He wonders how he turned into a middle-aged man scared to speak up to his coworkers. The girl in the spandex is smiling because she’s got plans for tonight.

Music fills my time at the gym with an endless stream of stories.

January 23, 2012

No skating

No skating this winter

We've had such a warm winter so far that the creeks aren't even frozen. 

January 22, 2012

In the locker room

I could pay for my gym membership just by selling the stuff that people leave behind in the locker room. So far this month, I’ve found a flowered beach towel, a wooden hair brush, a green nalgene bottle, a silver bracelet, a crumpled pair of white socks, a plastic hair thing, a purple t-shirt from a national park, and a bathing suit sized for someone with no appetite.

The most valuable thing I’ve found yet was a smartphone left in a bathroom stall. I didn’t want to just toss it in the Lost & Found box, so I clicked on facebook, found a name and photo, and then went out into the locker room to find her. She was an older woman, of course. Like me, she grew up in the days when telephones were attached to walls and there was no chance of ever leaving them in a public bathroom.

My kids never even use the locker rooms — they wear their workout clothes to the gym (yes, shorts, paired with a winter coat) and just go straight to the workout rooms. “It’s no wonder you always find stuff in the locker room,” my daughter said when I reported the day’s findings. “There are always mothers with little kids. I’m guessing when you come to the gym with a bunch of little kids, you feel lucky if you just manage to leave with the same number of kids you came with.”

It’s true that I sometimes run into herds of little kids in the locker room, but I’m never in a big hurry to actually work out. I’ll play with a toddler while her mother’s getting dressed or hold an infant while her mother uses the bathroom. The warm locker room is a friendly place, filled with half-dressed women who are cramming stuff into gym bags, wrapping towels around little kids, or drying their hair in front of the big mirrors. Despite every stereotype I've ever heard, the locker room smells good — like floral shampoo, warm cotton, perfumed deodorant — and the chaos makes me feel right at home.

January 19, 2012

Playing in the snow

By the creek

 When I picked up Little Biker Boy on Sunday, I said, “It’s a beautiful day. We should do something outside.” It’s what I always said to my own kids when they were little.

About six inches of snow had covered the trees and meadows. I drove down a street that deadends at a little creek and parked the car. Little Biker Boy ran over to the creek bank. “Watch out!” he yelled. “I might fall in!”

He stopped before he reached the edge of the creek and looked back at me. “Did I scare you?” he asked hopefully. “Didya think I was gonna fall in?”

I walked along the creek and took photos while he made snowballs and threw them into the water. With the foliage gone on the trees, we were in full sunshine most of the time, and our bodies made shadows on the snow. We explored the creek, a nearby bridge, and the woods.

When we came to the hill formed by the bridge embankment, Little Biker Boy ran to the top and began rolling down, his arms and legs flailing as he tumbled. When I was little, we lived next to a highway embankment, and I remember how much fun we used to have sledding or tumbling down. I didn’t join in — because sadly, as an adult, I get motion sick doing stuff like that — but I stood and watched Little Biker Boy run up, tumble down, run up, tumble down, run up, tumble down, until finally he was shivering and it was time to go buy hot slices of pizza to warm ourselves up.

January 18, 2012

White out


As most of my readers probably already know, major internet sites like Wikipedia have gone dark today, a blackout to protest SOPA and PIPA, two bills that would severely limit access to online information. Even my favorite webcomic has joined in.

I decided to protest with a whiteout instead of a blackout because in this part of the world, it’s a more appropriate metaphor. It’s snow and ice that can stop the flow of information, shut down businesses, and freeze progress.

January 16, 2012

Back to school

As usual, winter break has gone by quickly. With-a-Why is already back at school, my husband has been back to work for a couple of weeks, many of our extras have gone back to college, and for the rest of us — the semester begins tomorrow morning.

I spent the day cleaning my office and preparing for classes. My daughter did laundry, piling clean clothes in a basket to take back to the apartment. Boy in Black spent the day “bonding” with With-a-Why. (That’s what they call it when they play computer games.)

Shaggy Hair Boy is at the piano, playing jazz. Smiley Girl is lying on the back of the comfy chair that my daughter is sitting in. They are talking and eating chocolate. My husband has his laptop open, planning a trip we’ll be taking in the spring.

The woods are filled with fluffy snow, and the driveway is coated with ice. “Hey, listen,” my husband says, looking up from his computer. I open the window a crack. In blasts some cold winter air. Through the dark night comes the sound of coyotes yipping.

City rooftops

Rooftops of Brooklyn

I always expect to see chimney sweeps. And lamplighters.

January 15, 2012

Saturday in the park

Other creatures

On Saturday, after three nights of amazing jazz performances in dimly lit bars, Shaggy Hair Boy, Brooklyn Friend, and I slept late. By the time we’d gotten up and made hot tea, the sun was already glinting off the pavements and red brick buildings. The nearby park was filled with city folks enjoying the warm weather. Kids were feeding the ducks, a herd of teenagers went riding by on bikes, and a young woman sat under an old tree with a book. We found some logs by the water where we could sit in the sun and talk about our plans for Saturday night: a jazz performance by Shaggy Hair Boy’s favorite pianist at a twenty-first century salon.

January 14, 2012

Dancing on a string


It was still late afternoon when we walked down the narrow cement steps into Smalls, a basement jazz club. I explained our strategy to Brooklyn Friend. “The pianist we want to hear doesn’t play until 7:30 pm. So we’re going to get there 3 hours early, hang out for the Happy Hour jam session, work our way up every time someone leaves, and by the time he plays, we’ll have the best seats in the house.” 

Of course, at Smalls, the best seats in the house are just old wooden kitchen chairs. It’s a small basement room with a long wooden bar, an eclectic bunch of old chairs pulled into rows, some old posters on the wall, and a 100-year-old baby grand piano. Musicians and singers kept coming and going during the jam session, and we changed out seats whenever we could. By the time Ehud Asherie sat down at the piano, we were in the front row, with Shaggy Hair Boy sitting right at the pianist’s elbow.

The jazz pianist was performing with Bob Mover, a much older man who brought with him a bunch of saxophones. They played the old standards, songs I’ve known since childhood, and sometimes the older man would grab the microphone and start singing. “A crooner,” Brooklyn Friend whispered to me. The pianist was amazing, and it was cool to be close enough to watch his hands flying over the keys as he played. We could hear every word the duo said to each other.

When the musicians took a break, a couple in their early 80s came in. I looked up and motioned to them that the two chairs next to me were empty. The man wore a thick black coat with a long red scarf and he threw off the coat as he sat down, knocking right into me. “Kind of a tight fit,” he said, grinning. “But the music here is always worth it.”

Naturally we started talking. Like everyone else we’d met, he was charmed with the idea that I was traveling with my twenty-year-old son. Because Shaggy Hair Boy jams with his grandfather, he can talk knowledgeably about jazz to anyone of that generation, so it wasn’t long before the two of them were talking about music.

Then the duo began playing again. The saxophone player grabbed the microphone and sang “What Kind of Fool am I?” and “Isn’t this a Lovely Day?” The pianist’s hands were only a few feet away from us, and Shaggy Hair Boy watched them intently. When they played “Hey There, You With the Stars in Your Eyes,” the man in the black coat sitting next to me sang all the lyrics. Brooklyn Friend and I looked at each other and smiled.

By the time we were ready to leave Smalls, we’d been there for more than 6 hours. We’d talked to the pianist and the saxophone guy, and I felt saturated with music.  The older man in the black coat was giving Shaggy Hair Boy advice as if he were his grandson. “There’s an open jam at Kitano’s on Monday night,” he said. “Just get up your courage and sit down at the piano and play.”

“Okay, I will,” Shaggy Hair Boy said, grinning. As we left, we noticed a long-haired cat sitting on a newel post, looking just like a character out of the Aristocats. The elf-like man who had taken our cover charge was squished into a little shelf by the staircase.

“The music was great,” Brooklyn Friend said to him. “Very poignant.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding in agreement. Then he said. “What does poignant mean?”

Shaggy Hair Boy did take the advice of the old man in the black coat. He looked up the Kitano on google and found that it’s an expensive hotel on Park Avenue with a jazz lounge. He stayed in the city for a few days longer than I did — taking advantage of my sister’s offer to stay in her apartment while she was gone — and on Monday evening I got a text from him saying, “Played Satin Doll at the Kitano.”

January 13, 2012

Our favorite street performer

Music in the park

We wondered if the winter weather would keep away Chain Lightning, the guy we’ve seen playing piano in Washington Square Park on our last two visits to the city. (Our nickname for him comes from the conversation Shaggy Hair Boy had with him about Ultimate — it’s the name of the club team he used to play for when he lived in the south.) Our second day in the city, the weather turned warm and sunny, and when we walked over to the park, we heard classical music coming from the other side of the famous arch. 

January 12, 2012

City streets

City street

During the first couple days of our trip, Shaggy Hair Boy and I stayed at Urban Sophisticate Sister’s West Village apartment. At night, we went to jazz clubs, but during the day we wandered the city streets, exploring her neighborhood. The curbs were filled with old Christmas trees, broken wreaths, and leftover piles of pine boughs. Red-haired Niece, who went with us to a jazz club one night, said she thought the piles of discarded trees were sad, but I have to say that they really did make the neighborhood smell nice.


On the train

From the train

When Shaggy Hair Boy and I boarded the train in Snowstorm City, we heeded my father’s advice and sat on the starboard side so that we could see the river. Through our window, we looked at the little towns, the marinas along the river, and the graffiti under the bridges. I can’t read on a train because it will make me motion sick, but I love watching the scenes that roll by outside my window. Most of the little towns were still decorated for Christmas, and the river wasn’t frozen yet.

Luckily, we had obeyed the most important rule of train travel, which is to bring good snacks. Whenever I’m on a train, people around me are always opening sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, or munching potato chips from crinkly bags, and just those noises make me salivate. I’d gotten up early that morning to pack sandwiches, cookies, fruit, and potato chips. I don’t normally eat potato chips, but on a train, it’s important to eat food that comes in noisy package so that everyone around you will be jealous.

We couldn’t help but listen to the conversation of the young woman sitting behind us, who kept talking very excitedly to the young man in the seat next to her. Shaggy Hair Boy rolled his eyes every time the young woman said something weird, which was pretty often. I kept trying to figure out their relationship. At first, I thought she was flirting with someone she just happened to sit next to. Then I decided that they were friends, traveling together. By the end of the trip, I concluded that he must be a cousin. I think if they weren’t related, he would have moved his seat.

January 04, 2012

Off to the city

I’ve packed some clothes into a backpack, but I’m not taking my laptop computer. I’m heading to the city that never sleeps, so there’s no way I will have any time to blog.

Shaggy Hair Boy and I are heading into Big City Like No Other for the winter jazzfest. I’ll be back next week.

January 03, 2012


Many years ago, my father and my oldest son built a fort from trees they'd cut down in our own woods. My father designed the treehouse, and it even had a tower from which Boy in Black hung a yellow, orange, and green flag. I think it was the flag of the Congo, which he'd made for some kind of project at school.

From the kitchen window, I could see the treehouse at the far edge of the backyard, and I could watch the kids when they played in it.

Of course, Boy in Black is in grad school now, and even my youngest child is seventeen. It's been a few years since anyone played in the treehouse. I took the ladder away when I realized the logs had begun to succumb to the relentless eroding weather. More recently, the whole structure has collapsed, to be buried under the winter snow.


January 02, 2012

All that glorious warmth

I’ve always preferred getting my exercise by doing something useful, like chopping wood or shoveling snow — or something fun, like hiking or snowshoeing. I’ve never really understood the appeal of working out at a gym. During the first fifty years of my life, I went to the local gym exactly once, even though we’ve had a family membership for years.

But then my kids became obsessed with running on the treadmill at the gym, mostly to keep in shape for playing Ultimate, and my husband increased his visits to the gym because the kids were there. That made me think maybe I should start going to the gym. If the rest of my family were going to spend their evenings running like hamsters in a wheel – well, heck, I might as well do the same.

In addition, we had a miserable December this year, with almost no snow at all. The outside world was dark, cold, and muddy. Most winters, my feet are cold from November until March, but at least a frozen ground keeps my feet from getting wet. This year, we had puddles and cold rain. Exercising indoors seemed suddenly appealing. I began to go to the gym to run with my kids and husband.

Then I helped a friend’s son, Dry Humor, with his essays for grad school applications, all about his experiences as a personal trainer. When we were done with the essays, he said to me, “Let me return the favor, and teach you how to use some of the equipment at the gym.”

Suddenly I had a personal trainer.

I’d always been a bit afraid of the weight room, with all its intimidating equipment, but Dry Humor walked confidently up to each piece. By the end of the hour, I had learned how to exercise muscles I hadn’t thought about since ninth grade biology class. “You might be sore tomorrow,” he said grinning.

And so now, I’ve become someone who goes to the gym. I spend about 45 minutes using different body parts to lift weights, and then I join the rest of the family in the big treadmill room and I run a couple of miles. If I have time, I go to the hot tub or sauna after and soak in the heat.

I think I’ve finally figured out why people – well, at least people in this climate – go to the gym.

It’s not the thought of getting in shape. I didn’t feel particularly out of shape when I began. It’s not the idea of losing weight. I think my weight is fine. It’s not the social element. It turns out that people at the gym don’t talk that much, and mostly they all listen to iPods, running and stretching in their own little worlds. It’s not anything about endorphins or adrenaline or any sense of accomplishment. I never feel anything in particularly rushing through my veins at the end of the workout.

No, the great thing about the gym is that when I’m working out, I’m warm. The exercise drives every bit of chill out of my body. Even my hands and feet are warm. Yes, even my feet. At the gym, I’m warm, warm, warm. I can strip off my clothes, down to bare feet even, and go to the hot tub or sauna. I have no idea why anyone would go to the gym in the summer —that seems just crazy to me — but now when my husband or one of the kids invites me to go along to the gym, I find myself thinking, “Oh, I could be WARM for a whole hour.”

It just might get me through the winter.