April 29, 2012

Baby sheep!


I know what to expect when I go to the monastery for my April retreat. And I was not disappointed. 

The daffodils that Brother Joking planted years ago were blooming along the bank by the old hay barn. The woman with the lovely British accent made us delicious meals, served on the sunny porch of the women’s guesthouse. Retreat Friend and I stayed in the old stone farmhouse, where we drank tea and ate chocolate while we read each other’s books, wrote in our journals, and talked about our lives. At Compline, Brother Tractor played the harp in the candlelit chapel while the other monks sang the evening prayer.

But best of all, April is lambing season. The southeast end of the barn was set up with pens for laboring ewes. “About 180 sheep born so far,” Brother Beekeeper told me. “And 24 ewes still to go.”

The babies, when they’re born, come out front hooves first. “Like a dive,” Brother Tractor will say. They’re often covered with yellow slime or blood, their wool matted down, and their first steps are often wobbly. Sometimes a newborn will walk around on his knees for a few minutes before he gets the hang of using his legs. But amazingly, within hours, each newborn is transformed into a cuddly white lamb who looks just like the stereotype of what a lamb should be.


April 27, 2012

A bit of August

In early August, concrete sidewalks rub warm against bare feet, breezes fan sweat against the hair that hangs down my back, and not even a teenage boy can eat an ice cream cold fast enough before it drips. In early August, my body relaxes even when the wind rises, because it’s just warm air and more warm air, smelling like pine needles and asphalt and ripened fruit.

Going to Southern Sunshine State meant experiencing a bit of August four months early. Summer thunderstorms rolled through the area, waking up the sleepy alligators and drenching the anhinga who had been holding out her lovely feathered laundry. But the storm came and went, and the next day, sunshine warmed the benches and the roadways along the coastal islands. As we waded in the shallow warm water, we could see little fish swimming up to our toes.


April 26, 2012

Exploring the river of grass


The nice thing about the rain is that it keeps other tourists away. Through most of the Everglades, my husband and I had the trails and boardwalks to ourselves. It was a warm, misty rain that left sparkling drops on the sawgrass. After a couple of hours of walking through lush vegetation, tromping over boardwalks to look down at the alligators in the canals, and walking through endless sawgrass, my sneakers were soaking wet and my hair was curly.


April 25, 2012

In the wind


On Sunday morning in the Sunshine State, we finally got some sun. So we did something I’ve been wanting to do – we drove to a state park at the edge of an island to go kayaking through the mangroves.

The weather forecast called for more thunderstorms and isolated tornadoes. Signs at the entrance to the park warned “Boat trips cancelled.” But the young man at the kayak rental place squinted at the sky, shrugged his shoulders, and handed us life jackets. My husband, in an optimistic move, put on sunscreen.

Despite the rising wind, the sun was still shining as we paddled past a marina and then into a creek that wound through a maze of mangroves. I kept leaving the main channel to follow smaller creeks, ducking my head to fit the kayak under the branches. The sun shone down through the branches, a greenish filtered light. As I looked at the branches over my head, I wondered if snakes lived in mangrove trees. That’s the cool thing about exploring far from home: you don’t know what to expect. Having a snake drop onto my shoulders from overhead would have been terrifying, but it would have made a great story. 

We paddled through the mangroves, happily lost, until my husband looked at his watch and said, “I think we’re supposed to get the kayaks back.” We wound our way back through the little creeks and into the main channel. By then the weather was changing, and we had to paddle hard to fight the wind. We made it back to the kayak rental just as the rain began.

April 21, 2012

After flying south ...

I'm spending the weekend in Sunshine State where, ironically, it's raining. Severe thunderstorms rolled through the Everglades this morning. Last time I was here the sleepy alligators seemed like logs, basking in the sun, but in this rainy weather, they seem more lively, swimming through the canals, eyes just above the surface, their powerful bodies moving fast. I didn't bring my laptop so I can't post photos until I get home, but mostly I've been taking pictures of birds, alligators, and palm trees. I so love the palm trees.

April 18, 2012

Seeds dancing


The weather has been so crazy this year that no one can figure out what season it is. We'll have snow one day, then hot sunshine the next. But when I took a walk yesterday in the early evening light, I noticed new leaves and seeds glowing on the trees along the canal. I think that means it's spring.


April 17, 2012

And the cats guard the books

Cats guard the new bookcase

When I stood up from my desk, I knocked into a stack of books, which went slithering to the floor, ready to trip me. This happens at least once a day. The problem is that I keep buying books, and I never get rid of the ones I have, because I like to reread books.

“You should just get rid of some of your books,” a well-meaning friends will say, but that’s just patently ridiculous. You can have too many clothes, you can have too much furniture, you can have too many toys, but books? It’s not possible to have too many. I need different books for different moods, and I’m a very moody person. Besides, I explain to anyone who will listen, books are what I do for a living! I have an excuse.

I like a home filled with books, but I needed to clear the floor of my office so that I could move without tripping. So I did the logical thing — I bought another bookcase. I got my son Shaggy Hair Boy to help me lug it into the house.  We squeezed it into the one corner of the house that didn’t yet have a bookcase, and I admired the seven new shelves.

Of course, that was right before Easter Weekend, and with the extended family coming over for Easter dinner, I figured I better clean the house before sorting through the piles of books in my office. As I vaccumed the downstairs living area, I kept finding books on the floor and I just started putting them on the bookcase. By the time I was done cleaning, the bookcase was almost filled.

So this photo shows what the bookcase looks like BEFORE I start adding my books. I’ve decided to enjoy the uncluttered bookcase for a few weeks before I clean my office and start seeing how many books I can cram onto the shelves.

April 15, 2012

My quiet weekend

Lemon-poppy seed muffins

With my husband and youngest son out of town, I figured the house would be quiet. I vowed to spend the weekend getting work done and maybe even cleaning the house.

But then students asked me to judge a talent show Friday night. I can never say no to students. I was amazed, as I always am, by how talented our students are: they did comedy routines, they sang and played guitars, they danced, they read poetry. One of the coolest acts was a young woman who danced in the darkness, while whipping around a hula hoop that sparkled with lights.

By the time I got home, my older kids were arriving home for the weekend. “We need to get work done,” my daughter said, setting up her laptop. Boy-in-Black arrived with both his laptops – well, computational physics is what he does. Shaggy Hair Boy’s project for the weekend was making vegan lemon-poppy seed muffins for his girlfriend as a surprise.

Skater Boy and Thinking Girl came over to try out the muffins, which were a great success. The recipe called for powdered sugar, which Shaggy Hair Boy had dutifully bought and sprinkled on the muffins. Of course, there was leftover sugar, and that somehow led to the Powdered Sugar Game. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl each put a spoonful of powdered sugar in their mouth and then – on the count of three – breathed out big puffs of sugar into each other’s faces. By the time they were finished, they were both covered with white.

So I spent the morning hanging out with my kids – none of us got any work done – and then my friend Signing Woman picked me up for a Saturday evening road trip. “I brought vegan snacks,” LovesAnimals said when I got in the car. So we munched on brownies as we drove through the countryside, all the way to Gorgeous City for a concert by the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Guy.

It was an amazing performance: I loved the way the singer kept joking around with the pianist and bass player, improvising like crazy. He thumped his chest for a percussive sound and rubbed the microphone against his shirt. He invited members of the audience up to do some interpretative dance, and the dancers were amazing. He managed to get the whole crowd singing, “I can see clearly now,” and it sounded really great.

“What impressed me the most was how talented the audience were,” said one of my friends later, when we were gathered, the six of us, for drinks and dessert before the drive back to Snowstorm City.

I didn’t get home until about 2 am, which made for a lazy Sunday. I made beans and rice in the crockpot and talked to the gang in my living room. Film Guy and Sparkly Eyes were in town, so they came over. By then, the lemon-poppy seed muffins were gone, so they had to content themselves with slices of the oatmeal-raisin-apple bread that we refer to as Healthy Bread. Luckily, all the powdered sugar had been brushed off the furniture because Shaggy Hair Boy was putting on the black pants and black shirt he wears when he plays with the jazz ensemble; they were playing at a hotel downtown.

Now it’s Sunday night, and my quiet weekend has gone by. I haven’t done even one bit of work. I guess that’s what Mondays are for.

April 13, 2012

By cell phone

Right after Easter, my husband and youngest son flew west for a father-son adventure. While I’ve been home here, teaching my classes and going to meetings, they’ve been hiking in a national park famous for great views and lovely waterfalls.

I figured I might hear from them once they were out of the park and driving to the next part of their trip. Sure enough, the other night while I was grading papers, a text message chimed in from With-a-Why:

“The hotel Dad and I were supposed to stay at is under construction. They directed us to another hotel but the rate there was unacceptable, apparently. Now we’re driving around town trying to steal internet to reserve another hotel. Dad wrests prospective spots from tellers at local stores and I keep the car running while he checks for security weaknesses with the iPad. Once he gets in, it’s a race against the clock. Who might be watching our attempts to steal access? We know the cost of a slip-up but would gladly take the risk for a roof over our heads, an almost impossible fantasy for us drifters. Will the new dawn find us fast asleep in an idyllic bed of blankets, or will an over-looked security trap end our great adventure forever? There’s no way to tell. The only thing I know is that when I feel that rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins as clever programming combats our efforts, I feel more alive than ever before. And I know that it’s worth the risk …”

I guess that means they’re having fun.

April 11, 2012

Just a few weeks left

Sun poured through the windows, lighting the linoleum, while my students shoved the desks into a circle. I dumped my backpack onto a desk to find the book I use for class. That’s when I remembered that I’d be collecting student folders that day.

“Damn,” I said aloud. “I forgot to bring an extra bag. For the portfolios.” I looked up at the clock, to see if I had time to run back to my office.

The young man to my left, an outgoing student with crazy hair, looked up from his iPhone. “You usually carry an extra bag in your coat pocket,” he said. “The pink one.”

He was right. I checked the coat pocket, but the pink bag wasn’t there. “I must have used it when I stopped at the store yesterday,” I said.

“Check your backpack,” he said without even looking up from the tiny screen he was staring at. “The green bag should be there.”  The girl next to him, who sorting through the papers in her folder, swished her bright red hair as she nodded in agreement.

I checked – and he was right. Tucked under the books and folders, I found a green fabric bag I could use to carry the portfolios.

“We know you pretty well,” teased the girl with the red hair. “I mean, we spent that whole long month of February with you.”

“And everyone knows that February is NINETY-FOUR days long,” added the young man sitting across the circle from me. He grinned.

It’s that time of the semester. My students and I know each other all too well. We eat each other’s food, we finish each other’s sentences, and we know each other's weak spots. We’re all just hanging in there, together, trying to get our work done, waiting for summer to begin. 

April 09, 2012

Celebrating Easter Hunger Games Style

Anyone who still thinks that young men can’t relate to a book that features a strong female protagonist ought to meet my sons. Soon after reading the Hunger Games trilogy, Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why decided to buy bows so that they could set up an archery range in our backyard.

“Katniss was only my second favourite character, though,” Boy-in-Black explained to me. “Rue was my favourite.”

Of course, when my extended family descended upon us for Easter dinner, everyone wanted a chance to try their hand at shooting arrows into a target. Urban Sophisticate’s boyfriend, Tall Man Who Owns Cowboy Boots, even went so far as to set an apple on the top of the target, just to set the stakes a little higher.

Even my parents joined in. My mother tried Boy-in-Black’s bow. “It’s a little tough to pull back,” she said after sending an arrow across the grass to the target. Well, there’s some chance that a bow that’s a good fit for a 6’3” young man in top condition might not be the right bow for a 78-year-old woman who is almost a foot shorter.

Tie-dye Brother-in-law was the first to hit the apple. Everyone in the family immediately began saying, “That’s not fair! You’ve used a bow before!” Clearly, using a bow and arrow a couple times as a kid forty years ago at a summer camp disqualified him from any sort of honor that we might bestow on him.

After my nieces had had a chance to shoot some arrows, Blonde Sister stepped up to the bow. She didn’t look very confident as she pulled back, but she managed to hit the target. And then, just a few arrows later, she hit the apple!

“It’s like getting a gold medal at the Olympics,” she said, setting the bow down after a celebratory dance and photo shoot. “I’m going to go into retirement now.”

When I checked facebook today, I kept seeing photos of family members posed with the bow, which gives the eerie impression that we held some sort of Hunger Games over the weekend. I couldn’t take any photos myself because I’d left my camera at my mother’s house, but here’s a photo of Blonde Niece, which Boy-in-Black took with her phone. That pretty much sums up our Easter celebration. Food, conversation, and archery.

Blonde Niece as Katniss

April 07, 2012

Play time

Upside down

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend and his two young daughters. While my friend was busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, the nine-year-old said to me, “Want to see me do a handstand?” 

We ran outside, where she did handstand after handstand, yelling each time, “Did you see that?” Her sister followed with impressive backflips, and then we all did cartwheels on the lawn.

It was a warm evening, and flowers were opening on the trees in the neighborhood. We sat on the stairs to the apartment building and talked about a school project that Handstand Girl was working on. “I’m going to make little figures out of wax,” she explained. She was so pleased with her idea that she got up and danced around the lawn in happiness, her silky hair flying in all directions.

I felt transported back to the summers of my own childhood, where we spent every evening outside, playing kickball or tag or simply showing off with cartwheels and summersaults.

We traced our names in the yellow pollen that had spread a film over their father’s car, we talked about what we’d use to make hair on little wax figures, and we danced to a song that I’d never heard of. It was nice, for a short time, to remember what the world is like when the evenings are long, time is for playing, and the only thing you have to worry about is how soon your parent will call you in for supper.

April 04, 2012

Gonna wash that man right outta my hair

A few years ago, when Older Neighbor Boy was in a high school production of South Pacific, we all went to see it. Some of the kids had soft voices, which made it hard to hear, and I couldn’t follow the plot at all. One male character died near the end, but I didn’t know why, or whether or not I was supposed to be sad. It was all very confusing.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the play. The production featured lots of familiar songs, sung enthusiastically, and a bunch of tap-dancing high school kids, who looked like they were having fun. That’s pretty much all I ask of a high school production.

Oh, and a teenage girl washed her hair on stage while singing “I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.” It’s not her performance I remember so much as the reaction of her classmates. All up and down the rows of the auditorium, teenagers were leaning over to their parents and whispering, “That’s real water! Real shampoo! She’s really washing her hair!” Everyone was quite excited about this accomplishment, which had been carefully planned with ropes, a bucket, and water that was apparently pretty cold by the time the young actress used it.

Anyhow, when I told my mother about the play afterwards, she said, “Oh, South Pacific! That’s first Broadway play I ever saw. My father took me.” That was in 1949, and she was sixteen years old.

So when the play South Pacific came to Snowstorm City this year (and yes, we’re close enough to City Like No Other that we get plays right off Broadway on a regular basis), I bought tickets for my mother and me. I figured after 63 years, she was probably ready to see it again.

It was fun to go downtown to a play on a lovely spring night. During intermission, my mother and I talked about the costumes, the set design, and the choreography, all vast improvements over the high school production I’d seen. The plot even made sense in this version.

But one thing was the same: the lead actress did actually wash her hair on stage. She didn’t have a whole bunch of whispering teenage friends in the audience to spread the news, but she tossed the suds around enough for everyone to get that it was real.

“Yeah, it’s a thing,” my mother said. “They always use real water and shampoo.”

Times have changed since my mother first saw the play in 1949. The rigid gender roles in the play and the racial prejudice seem absurd now. But somehow, audiences still like to watch a woman wash her hair on stage. It seems an odd thing to have stood the test of time.

April 02, 2012

Spring cleaning


The leaves haven’t come out yet, and it’s possible that we could get more snow, but still, it’s April. I’m packing away the mittens and hats and gloves. If it gets cold, I’ll just stick my hands in my pockets. We’re having the family here for Easter dinner this weekend — that’s 22 people cramming into our living room — which means it’s time to do a little spring cleaning.

Well, actually, make that a whole lot of spring cleaning. Anyone who lives by the academic calendar can imagine what our living room looks like this time of year. My two oldest kids, who are home most weekends, are grad students who barely have time to shower, so cleaning the house is not a priority for them. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl (his girlfriend) are both undergrads, and the loveseat where they work is piled with books and papers and crumpled hoodies. The end of the couch where With-a-Why does his homework looks like the nest of some kind of rodent who hoards chess pieces, art supplies, and sheet music.

I’m just as guilty as the rest of the family. On the days when I work at home — grading papers, doing class prep, writing, sending emails — I tend to move about the house with my laptop, leaving a trail of tea mugs behind me. My husband isn’t an academic, but April is a busy time in the financial world, which means that the red chair where he sits with his laptop is covered with fallen post-it notes and empty bottles of gatorade.

So yeah. Add a layer of cat hair (the damned creatures shed like crazy this time of year), piles of nasty-smelling Ultimate Frisbee jerseys and cleats, and disorganized piles of sheet music everywhere. That’s pretty much the scene at my house.

Finding out that we're hosting the Easter holiday has forced me to begin my end-of-the-semester cleaning binge a bit early. Well, to be honest, I haven't really done much cleaning yet, but I did give the family my “You all have to pitch and help” speech.

“We ARE helping,” Shaggy Hair Boy said, defensively, when I was done with my spiel. He and Smiley Girl had just gone through all the upstairs bookshelves and pulled out dozens of old textbooks, which were stacked in untidy piles on the floor.

“How is it helping to drag all those books down into the living room?” I asked.

“We’re going to sell them,” said Smiley Girl. She was entering the titles into some data base on the computer.

“See?” said Shaggy Hair Boy, “We make money, and we get crap out of the house.”

Boy in Black, who had ignored my whole speech, looked up from his laptop. “That works,” he said. Many of the textbooks were his – and my daughter’s – but they’d been paid for by scholarship money, so I guess that means they are fair game for a younger sibling looking to finance a summer trip to the Southwest with his girlfriend.

So far, that’s the extent of our cleaning. We’ve packed away the winter clothing, I've given a stern speech, and we’ve gotten rid of a whole bunch of textbooks. I hope when the rest of the family arrives for Easter dinner, they are suitably impressed.

April 01, 2012

For the garden

The little girl who answered the door was not shy at all. Dressed in bright purple and pink and green, she pranced about the room like a fast-moving spring flower. She pounced on With-a-Why, my tall teenage son: “Do I look like a first grader? Do you play the piano? Have you watched Willie Wonka?”

“Hyacinth, you play quietly,” her mother said. She pushed the little girl gently into the kitchen, where I could see toys and games on a table. Then she turned to With-a-Why, who was standing in the doorway, holding a folder of sheet music. He had not said a single word.

“Ready to sing?” the woman asked. I sat down at the dining room table with my book, while they retreated into another room for With-a-Why’s voice lesson. Just as soon as the singing began, the little girl popped back into the room. I closed my book. I don’t get many chances to play with a five-year-old.

“Are you good at craft?” Hyacinth whispered. Craft, it turned out, meant using grown-up scissors to cut out her drawings. Her green scissors were missing, she explained, and she needed me to use the black ones.

I cut out the first drawing It was a large purple triangle, long and a bit irregular, but definitely a triangle. I turned it sideways. Maybe it was a flag? Hyacinth turned the triangle so that the two longest sides led upwards to a point.

“That’s how it goes,” she whispered, mindful of the lesson going on in the next room. She’d quickly figured out that she could talk whenever With-a-Why was singing. His deep voice covered both of ours.

She handed me another drawing. It was another purple triangle. I cut that one out. Then she handed me the next drawing. Another purple triangle. She’d been drawing all morning, it was clear, and she’d worked so hard that the purple marker she was using had run out of ink.

She lined them up on the table while I cut, being careful to follow her sometimes squiggly lines. Twelve crooked purple triangles, all listing to the right.

“Tell me what we’re making,” I whispered.

 She looked at me in surprise, like it was obvious. “Gnome hats.”