February 28, 2005

Skinny Dipping, for the First Time, Early Adolescence

It's early evening, getting to be dusk. You spent the day at the beach, splashing with your girlfriends, huddling on the towel to discuss all the boys on the beach, too shy to flirt but giggling just at the thought of it. Your skin has that dry, tight feeling of skin that's been exposed to sunshine all day. You and your friends have left the beach to walk the trail around the lake, talking the whole time of course, glancing occasionally to notice how incredible the water looks - that blue green colour this lake turns on a summer day when the light hits it just right. Someday when you are older, you might take limnology and understand the science behind the gorgeous color of the water, but right now you are content to just stare into the depths and admire what you do not understand.

At Dead Man's Point, you and your friends leave the shady trail to walk back out into the sun. From here, you can see the beach off in the distance, quiet now, the lifeguards pulling in the ropes, parents tugging their children over to the parking lot. It's summer time, and a whole lazy week stretches ahead of you. Someday, you will look back and realize how privileged you were, to have a carefree summer of laughing and camping and swimming, a life in which the most important decision is which flavor of ice cream to order, but right now you don't know any different. You think that the whole world is golden, filled with slanting evening light that ripples across trees.

The water in this lake is clear, so beautifully clear that when you stand on the edge of the rock shelf and look down, the urge to dive in is overwhelming. You don't really understand that urge, that tugging that comes from somewhere deep inside, any more than you understand what makes you giggle now at the sight of a boy who last year was just an annoying kid in math class. You let the warmth slip over your toes, and then your ankles.

Bold friend comes over to whisper, "Hey, let's take a swim."

Why is she whispering? There is no one else around. The trail is empty. But the hushed tone makes the whole prospect somehow more exciting. You point to the "No Swimming" sign. Bold Friend shrugs, takes the striped beach towel from her shoulders, and hangs it from the sign. Oh, how clever. You all giggle at her boldness. What if a park ranger comes by?

Bold Friend begins taking off her clothes. She is standing near the water, unafraid. You pull back, making sure cedar trees hide you from the view of anyone who might come along the trail. You and Quiet Friend look at each other and come to a decision. Both at the same time, you step out of your cut-off shorts, piling them under the cedar trees. By now, Bold Friend is naked. She looks so different than she did a year ago. She has breasts, now, and hips, a waist that curves in. You and Quiet Friend exchange another look.

"Come on," says Bold Friend. She steps to the edge of the cliff, takes a fast look in the direction of the now-deserted beach, and dives in.

Watching her body slip into all the blue-greenness is too much to resist. And now that Bold Friend is no longer watching, it's easier to pull off shirt, bra, and panties. Quiet Friend blushes as she piles your clothes under the trees and takes another glance down the trail. You've been best friends since first grade so you can tell what she is thinking. What if those boys from the beach came walking by? The thought turns her face red. She moves quickly to the edge and goes in quietly, feet first.

Now it is your turn. You leave the safety, the shelter, the warm spicy smell of the cedar trees, and walk deliberately out to the end of the rock shelf. For a moment you stand there, letting light touch your skin. Then you hear a rustle in the trees, a chipmunk perhaps, or a park ranger come to enforce rules: the thought brings shivers. Without looking back, you dive into the water.

When you swim with no clothes on, nothing holds you back. The lake touches your skin, touches all of you, surrounds you, holds you. You are fully aware of your body, every part of you, and yet you are hidden from the outside world, from the human world of land and air. You dive into blue-greenness, and up close, it's all clear, all transparent, all fluid and moving and open, ready to take you in. Once you've been touched by a lake in this way, you are changed by that touch, transformed by that wetness. Your relationship with the lake will be changed forever.

You will return to that lake year after year, sometimes when you are alone and need a place where you can cry, and sometimes with a person you love, as a way of bonding that person forever into your memories and yourself. You will walk by this spot with your children and with your parents, with anyone who becomes important to you. On the last cold day of February, you will ski to the edge of the lake and stare out across the ice, remembering the first time you dove into the lake naked.

Put Swimming Naked on Your List

During one of the latest memes that was going around, it came to light that some of my blogging friends have never been skinny dipping! A sad state of affairs. I think everyone should put it on their to-do list for this year. Put it right at the top of your list, way higher than stupid academic crap like getting tenure or sending scholarly articles to get published. Let's face it, at the end of your life, which will be the more valuable experience: getting some article published in an obscure journal read mostly by the seven other academics also published in it -- or knowing what it feels like to dive naked into a lake?

February 27, 2005

Ice Skating with the Middles

It's been a busy week, with Spouse and Boy-in-Black out of town, and the kids off from school. The out-of-town cousins have been traveling in herds, from my parents' house to my house to Blonde Sister's house, and then back again. I never know when I come home from class which group of people might be at my house.

Last night, Red-haired Sister took charge of the Littles, while I got the Middles. The Middles are three cousins from three different families, all born in 1991 -- Shaggy Hair Boy, Blonde Niece, and Drama Niece. I was happy, actually, to get a break from watching the Littles, since two of them have shrill voices and a tendency to sing Hilary Duff songs. I piled the teenagers in my car, waved good-bye to the high-pitched little ones, and headed for the outdoor skating rink downtown. The skating rink is fairly new, and I hadn't been there before.

We expected the place to be crowded but it wasn't at all. A beautiful winter night - about 10 degrees Fahrenheit with a light breeze - and the place was empty. Crazy.

I spent my childhood and teenage years skating on ponds and canals, so I am not used to artificial ice. It is so slippery and smooth compared to pond ice. When I was a kid, we had one floodlight focused on our pond, but all around were shadows and then darkness. It was always quiet at night, with just our voices, the creak of the old willow tree, and the sound of skate blades scraping the ice.

Skating on an urban rink is a whole different experience. The lights were so bright I could have read a book. I could not see the stars in the night sky, but I could feel the presence of the city, all around us, as we skated. Grey monuments, old brick buildings, and parked cars crowded up against the edges of the rink.

High above our heads, a loudspeaker blared music. I've often noticed that my urban students bring music with them no matter where they go. I wonder if that is their way of marking space for themselves within the hectic sounds of urban life. At the rink, the music hid the sounds of traffic, car horns, and rattling trucks. As I circled the ice, I was reminded of the rollerskating rink where I spent every Sunday afternoon as a teenager. Perhaps it was the oldies music that brought back these memories.

Skating on a pond leads usually to games of hockey or snap-the-whip, but here, strangers were sharing the same stretch of ice. A bored attendant was skating around backwards, a whistle in his mouth, and I knew that if I suggested a game, I might have the embarrassing experience of having a nineteen-year-old expel me from the skating rink. So I behaved myself, and skated obediently around the circle, watching my gang of teenagers, who were laughing and calling to each other. Blonde Niece attracts attention no matter where she goes, and a young boy in a grey sweatshirt glanced at her so many times that he almost crashed into the side of the rink. Shaggy Hair Boy skated fast around the rink, his long hair blowing out of his face and his freckles moving self-consciously. Drama Niece was singing some of the songs and attempting to teach Blonde Niece some dance moves.

On the way home, the two girls sat in the back seat, giggling and sending text messages to each other on their cell phones, while Shaggy Hair Boy sat next to me in the front, rolling his eyes and saying "It's almost as bad as having to listen to Hilary Duff songs." I turned the car towards the east and watched the moon, almost full and emerging from the clouds, rising in the sky ahead of us, marking the path home.

February 26, 2005

New, improved sex meme

One of the most bizarre memes that's been going around is the one in which you are supposed to list which states you've had sex in. It seems to me that this meme is missing the point ENTIRELY.

Is sex in Ohio that much different than sex in Indiana? I am trying to picture someone on a road trip whispering to her lover, "Oh, not tonight, honey, let's wait until we get to New Jersey. I want to save all my orgasms for Trenton."

So even though I had not planned to talk about sex in my blog because really there's entirely too much sex on the internet already, I cannot help editing the current meme and making it

Not states, but places I've had sex:

1. On the beach at night by the ocean
2. In a pine forest on a sunny day
3. In a rock canyon in desert heat
4. In a hot tub
5. On a balcony
6. At the drive-in
7. In a meadow of wildflowers
8. On a staircase
9. At a rest stop on the highway
10. By a campfire

Since I am of course a respectable married woman, let me make the disclaimer that in my case, these have all been with the same person. For any of my readers who are really young, I will also add that many of these are less romantic than they sound. Mosquitoes, poison ivy, poisonous snakes, the gritty feel of sand inside your underwear, abrasions from rock rubbing against sensitive skin, kids playing ball outside your car, and park rangers with flashlights - these are elements you should consider ahead of time.

And there are some places you should just avoid unless you are way more coordinated than me. A canoe? A hammock? These fall under the category of Attempts at Romance that Lead to Laughter Instead of Sex.

February 25, 2005

My Top Fifty Authors List

Friday is usually a good day for top ten lists - except that I have a hard time narrowing anything down to only ten. So instead I've got a top fifty list. These are authors I like so much that I buy all of their works, authors who have changed my life or my perspective in some way, authors I've reread at different stages of my life. I had to omit children's books because the list was getting too long but certainly authors like Maud Hart Lovelace and Laura Ingalls Wilder would be on here if I hadn't limited myself.

Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Linda Hogan,
Ursula Le Guinn, Sue Monk Kidd, Kathleen Norris,
Derrick Jensen, Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass,
bell hooks, Natalie Angier, Richard Nelson,
Toni Morrison, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver,
Susan Griffin, Carolyn Merchant, Joy Harjo,
Wendy Rose, Luci Tapahonso, Zora Neale Hurston,
John McPhee, Barbara Neely, Aldo Leopold,
Rachel Carson, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau,
Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth,
Alfred Lord Tennyson, Gerard Manley Hopkins,
Bill McKibben, Jean Kerr, Rumor Godden,
Lewis Thomas, Ray Carver, Rachel Carson,
Sherman Alexie, Peter Matthiessen, E.O. Wilson,
David Quammen, Sapphire, Sandra Cisneros,
Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Bill Bryson,
Walt Whitman, John Keats, Leslie Marmon Silko

I know I've left some great writers off the list; it was hard to keep it to fifty. But writing this list was a strangely soothing activity, like making a list of old friends.

February 24, 2005

Remember when Peter Brady's voice changed?

Most days, this house is so filled with teenage boys that I feel like I am living in a cloud of testosterone. The strangest thing is how little boys turn into teenagers practically overnight.

Last year my son Shaggy Hair was a cute little boy who liked me to read aloud to him. He still liked hugs and sometimes even sat on my lap. A year later, and suddenly he is taller than me. He's got this new deep voice. He hasn't cut his hair since last year so I can't really see his eyes. (I think he's going for the Cool Snowboarder look, which here in the northeast is a pale version of the California Surfer Dude look.) Oh, he's still the same wonderful kid and underneath the long curls, he's got the same innocent freckled face, but he's definitely going through the separation-from-Mom stage.

Last week, I took a nap. I was wearing a long t-shirt and jeans, so I took off the jeans for the nap. Nothing unusual about that. Because I'm short, a big t-shirt covers me up just fine. Anyhow, when I woke up, I could hear Shaggy Hair calling me. He was doing his homework on the computer and wanted to ask me something. I came into the room, sat on the bed, and began answering his questions. I was thinking, "Oh, how nice. Even though he's going through this independent teenage phase, he still needs me."

Then Shaggy Hair Boy turned, tossed his head in the way that ultra cool teenage boys do when they need to actually see from beneath the locks of hair, and gave me the kind of look of horror that only a thirteen-year-old can give. After a dramatic pause to indicate the depths of his horror, he spoke up in his new deep-but-squeaky-around-the-edges voice:

"Woman! Get some pants on!"

February 23, 2005

Night Vision

Last night I went cross-country skiing with With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew. We circled the house a few times until I was sure that they both had gotten the hang of using the skis, and then they followed me to the trail into the woods. The woods look different at night: it's like being in a black-and-white movie. All the colour has been drained from the landscape; the trees, the bushes, the branches are in shades of grey or black, contrasting with the white snow. Even Suburban Nephew, in his bright-coloured parka, became the dark silhouette of a boy.

The woods are quiet on a winter night. No birds singing, no tree frogs, nothing rustling, just the occasional creak of a branch. Even the two boys seemed quieter, muffled, awed by the bigness of the night. I could hear the swish of their snowpants, the sliding of their skis, and the sound of their breathing. I could tell that Suburban Nephew was getting scared by the way he hurried to stay close to me.

"What if we get lost?" he asked finally. "Haven't we gone far enough?"

With-a-Why scoffed, "My Mom knows these woods like she knows her own name."

I was hoping the coyotes would howl in the distance. I hear them sometimes, off in the direction of the train track. I think other creatures use the railroad as a corridor for moving about amongst these scattered sections of undeveloped land. The howling would have scared Suburban Nephew, but would have thrilled him too. So seldom any more do we humans have the opportunity to feel scared and humbled in the woods.

We skied in single file, me following a trail that the boys could not see, until we came to a clearing where there was room for the boys to turn (a clumsy maneuver when you are first learning to ski). When we turned, I could hear Suburban Nephew give a sigh of relief. Off in the distance, through the woods, you could see the lights of our house. I could tell he felt happy skiing towards that light and all that it represented: hot cups of cocoa, the noisy play of all his cousins, and his Mom reading a book by the fire.

Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona

Spouse and Boy-in-Black are travelling in the Southwest this week. I had not expected to hear from them; I much prefer to wait and hear all the stories when they return home instead of trying to talk over the telephone.

But Spouse could not resist stopping at a pay phone in Winslow, Arizona so that he could call home and sing to me an old Eagles song.

February 22, 2005

Context is everything

I don't think anyone was fooled into thinking I've had some kind of wild, exotic past. Oh, well. Maybe I'll have to start making stuff up. Everything in my last post was true, and here are the explanations for anyone who was wondering:

Gotten sawed into three pieces? I was working as a magician's assistant. It was a temp job, a favor for a friend, really - and the box was built to someone else's measurements, not mine - so actually I was lucky that one of the blades didn't accidentally saw off a breast.

Jumped off a high cliff? Rock climbing in high school. I love rock climbing. It's like flying.

The magazine that regularly features photos of naked women? Midwifery Today. Yeah, it's all about context. The naked women are always giving birth or breastfeeding.

Gone hiking with a monk? Two or three times every year, I go to a monastery for the weekend, and I've become friends with a monk there.

Lent clothes to a stripper? She was pregnant and scared and would call me for pregnancy advice. I lent her maternity clothes.

Had sex with a bank manager on his desk? Spouse used to manage a bank. The kids were home with a babysitter. The bank was closed.

Breastfed someone else's baby? Well, my sister and I had babies a couple weeks apart. I used to give babysitters bottles of breastmilk to feed my baby. Her baby wasn't used to this and wouldn't take a bottle the one time that I babysat him. So nursing the infant made more sense than letting him cry with hunger. Not a big deal.

Gone winter camping with my students? I have really cool students. The mountain climbing trip was their idea.

Put blindfolds on everyone at a conference presentation? I've done lots of crazy stuff like that. I was doing a presentation on creativity in the classroom. It was the FourSeas Conference (I'd like some applause from the rhetoric/comp crowd for that wonderfully clever pseudonym).

Shown nude photos of myself at an academic conference? I've actually done this at six or seven different conferences, some in my field and some not. I am naked in the photos but I am also nine months pregnant. Context is everything.

February 21, 2005

Ten Things I've Done that You Probably Haven't

So I promised Pilgrim/Heretic that I'd try this meme.

Ten Things I've Done that You Probably Haven't

1. Gone winter camping in the mountains with my students
2. Breastfed someone else's baby
3. Put blindfolds on every member of the audience during a presentation at an academic conference
4. Gotten sawed into three pieces
5. Shown nude photos of myself during a presentation at an academic conference
6. Had sex with a bank manager on his desk
7. Written for a magazine that regularly features photos of naked women
8. Jumped off a high cliff
9. Gone hiking with a monk
10. Lent clothes to a stripper

You are welcome to try to guess the context for any that seem out of character ....

February 20, 2005

Eye of the storm

It was an unusually quiet weekend here. Daughter is at college; Spouse and Boy-in-Black are gone for the week on a father/son trip. It was funny to be home with just the two youngest kids. Well, we did have a few extras: Blonde Niece, Skater Boy, and Philosophical Boy, but certainly the energy level of the household was way down without Boy-in-Black and his friends.

Saturday night, the fourteen-year-old crowd decided to go to Blonde Niece's house for a change because her Dad had the night off. That left me home with just two little kids, With-a-Why and Philosophical Boy. How nice and quiet it was!

Philosophical Boy is the one of the neighbor kids we go skiing with. He's With-a-Why's best friend. He's a smart, shy kid who often asks deep philosophical questions. Once when he was very young, he convinced Daughter that inertia was purple.

It's a luxury to have a quiet house. As much as I love my noisy family, it felt great to have a whole evening to myself. The two little boys sat on the living floor, engrossed in Complicated Card Game that involves Creatures Morphing into Other Creatures, and I decided to go on a cleaning binge. The kids and Spouse are pretty good about doing daily household chores, but they are all terrible when it comes to such things as cleaning out closets. I am the opposite. I hate daily chores (why wash the dishes if they are just going to get dirty again?), but I enjoy binge cleaning: tackling a closet, throwing stuff away, putting clothes in a bag to send to another family, that kind of a thing. Keeping all of our stuff to a minimum is the only way to keep this crowded household livable.

So I put on music, cleaned the refrigerator, the hall closet, and the laundry room. And felt perfectly happy. It felt wonderful to have time to myself, time to just listen to music and think.

The quiet will not last much longer. The kids have the week off, which means my out-of-town niece will be arriving to stay with me. And my Red-haired Sister will be coming in late tonight with her two young kids, and an extra. Skater Boy and Blonde Niece will be coming back over, as well as both of the neighbor kids. And I'm not sure who else. So it will be a busy week, especially since it's a week full of classes and meetings at school, and I am not sure how much time I will be able to spend with the crowd at my house, but I feel revived by the quiet Saturday night and I am looking forward now to the next whirlwind of activity.

February 19, 2005

Don't believe everything you read in the New York Times

Sometimes I just want to slap Judith Warner.

I don't disagree with everything she says, but I am bothered by her implication that such things as breastfeeding, family beds, and attachment parenting lead to the drying up of marital romance. She says: "Real intimacy has gone the way of bottle-feeding and playpens." By real intimacy, of course, she must mean sex since I don't see how breastfeeding a baby would prevent a woman from talking to her husband. I don't see how a sleeping child in the bed is going to prevent emotional intimacy. Her implication is that women who welcome a baby into their bed, which for most mothers is really the only sensible way to breastfeed unless they want to get out of bed several times a night (a plan which seems bizarre to me) are automatically limiting their sex lives. Where's the logic here?

Taking care of a baby can be exhausting. Everyone knows that. And getting sleep is the most important things a new mother can do. For herself and her marriage and her career and her sex life. If the baby sleeps with her, she can breastfeed with almost no interruption to her own sleep. Okay, I won't speak for anyone else, but I can breastfeed a baby practically in my sleep. If the baby is in bed with me, that is. If I had to get out of bed, go find the baby in a crib somewhere, sit in a chair to nurse the baby, or worse, heat up some damned bottle in a microwave, and then get the baby back to sleep in the crib - let's just say, that if that had been my method any of my children, I would have been a walking zombie. The interruption to my sleeping cycles would have put me over the edge.

The implication seems to be that a baby in the bed will prevent the parents from having sex. How stupid is that? Sure, maybe the parents won't want to have sex in the bed in which the baby is sleeping .... but uh ... can't they go somewhere else in the house? Sex on the stairs, sex in the shower, sex on the couch, sex on the kitchen table. The possibilities are endless.

Breastfeeding is the best option for a baby. Scientists rarely agree on anything, and yet the scientific data agrees on this issue: breastfeeding is better for both the mother and the child. And yet, somehow, Judith Warner has found a way to make mothers feel guilty about breastfeeding. Because somehow breastfeeding .... leads to less sex in the marriage? Because men are so infantile that they are going to be jealous of their children?

Her reasoning is so ... 1950s. And I think she's wrong. Women who breastfeed have more TIME to have sex because they don't have to play around with bottles and formula and all that crap. Women who breastfeed lose their pregnancy weight faster and feel better about themselves physically. I can't honestly say that I've ever met a man who was turned off by the fact that his wife's breasts were bigger while she was breastfeeding, or that sometimes milk leaked out during orgasms, adding more fluids to an experience in which wetness is usually considered to be a good thing.

And longterm breastfeeding .... nursing a child until he is three or four or whatever .... well, that too can add to a couple's sex life. It's a quick way to get the kid to sleep. Nurse him for ten minutes, he falls asleep, and there you go - half an hour of time for adult frolicking.

Warner says that up to 20 percent of couples have marriages that are virtually sexless. Sure, I know couples like that. But in the marriages I know where sex has become non-existent, usually one or both of the spouses is working through some painful childhood issues. Incest. Abandonment issues. Stuff like that. Perhaps the birth of a child and the transition to parenthood in a marriage brings some of those issues to the surface, but I don't think the lack of sex has anything to do with how they are raising their children. To blame that kind of sexual dysfunction on breastfeeding or the family bed concept or any other element of attachment parenting is absurd.

How come I never read articles about how fathers are so over-involved with their kids' lives that they just aren't giving their wives enough sex?

February 18, 2005

To answer your questions about the pirate costume ...

So what kind of mother would send her kid to school with a piece of lingerie pinned to his shoulder? What kind of lingerie was it?

It wasn't a thong. Or a bra. Or anything recognizable. Even I would hesitate to send my child to a Catholic school with a thong dangling from his clothing, although I am sort of curious now as to just what the reaction from his teachers would be. (Would the gentle old nun even know what a thong was? I wonder.) The lingerie in question was just a slip, really, a bright red piece of silk with little straps that hold it up. Simple and classic. It was hanging in the laundry room, just off our kitchen and within easy reach, because it had been used earlier in the week for .... er, a Valentine's Day celebration and was hanging there to dry after being tenderly handwashed by Spouse. (Side note about Mr. Laundry Man: he will callously toss expensive wool ski socks into the dryer, shrinking them until they look like toe socks, but when it comes to washing lingerie, he takes great pains.)

So anyhow, appropriately pinned together, this little silk nightie thing really did look like the kind of bold red sash a pirate would wear. Well, the stereotype of a pirate, of course, and not a real one. Costumes in elementary school are almost always based on stupid stereotypes, which is why I don't take them very seriously. Anyhow, my point is that the silk nightie looked like a piece of cloth and NOTHING MORE. At least to me.

Boy-in-Black, however, is at the age when he does not want anyone to know that his Mom has ever had sex. In fact, HE HIMSELF does not want to know that his Mom has ever had sex. He prefers to think that when Dad took Tuesday morning off to stay home and do the taxes, that his parents spent the whole morning DOING TAXES. He most certainly does not want to think that doing the taxes involved any sort of lingerie or nudity. He has the theory, actually, that the only reason his parents let him drum loudly late at night is so that he will drown out the noises coming from their bedroom but he does not like that theory. He clings to the belief that they secretly think he is some kind of genius drummer with talent that needs to be nurtured.

Anyhow, thanks to Boy-in-Black's diligent efforts, With-a-Why did not go to school wearing women's lingerie but instead a folded up pillowcase. This costume change may have been a good thing because reporters came to the classroom and taped footage of all the fourth graders giving their reports. The reason for all this unexpected media attention is that nothing ever happens in this small town, and the daily news often consists of cute kid shots with a voice-over about how wonderful are the stupid standardized tests that the politicians in this state so love. I'd like to think that if the camera had zoomed in on a child wearing lingerie, the reporters would have had something interesting to say, for once.

Instead the voice-over message was almost completely unconnected to the shots of the cute children so the viewers were never told what the costumes were supposed to be. And With-a-Why, in his billowing white shirt, red pillowcase, and black hat pulled down over his eyes, didn't really look anything like a pirate but most certainly looked like he had some kind of costume on. More importantly, he looked damn cute. Which proves my point: the details of the costume don't really matter. And fifteen minutes is all any parent should have to spend on making a costume for her kid.

February 17, 2005

Pirate costume in less than fifteen minutes ...

So last night as I am putting With-a-Why to bed, he suddenly remembers that he needs a costume for school the next day. He's doing an oral report and he needs to dress like a pirate. After explaining that he should have told me sooner and I am NEVER EVER going to help him with a last minute effort like this again, I give in and help him make a costume. Spouse and Boy-in-Black, cleaning the kitchen, add their unhelpful advice.

Here is the scene:

Me(working fast): Find that weird black hat. Get some black pants, and I'll get you a blousy white shirt. Then we'll pin this silky red cloth to your shoulder.
Boy-in-Black: Mom, no matter what costume you make, it's always the same outfit.
Me: What are you talking about? I'm great at costumes.
Boy-in-Black: That's the outfit I wore as Napoleon.
Boy-in-Black: No matter who the character is, you dress us ... like some kind of bullfighter.
Me: You got any better ideas?
Shaggy Hair Boy: It's the outfit I wore as Benedict Arnold.
Boy-in-Black: Kind of a cross between a bullfighter and the waiter in a fancy Italian restaurant.
Me: So long as you look like you have some kind of costume on. It's the general effect that counts.
With-a-Why: This hat is too big. I can't see anything.
Shaggy Hair Boy: Been. A. Dick. Arnold. I love that name.
Boy-in-Black (looking closer at the red silky cloth): WHAT THE .... Mom, you can't let him wear that.
Me: Don't be ridiculous. A sash of red makes the whole costume.
Spouse: Is that lingerie you are hanging on his shoulder?
Me: It's red silk! It's a nice touch!
Boy-in-Black: Ew. That. Is. Just. Wrong.
Me: I need a safety pin. Where are the safety pins?
Boy-in-Black: Let me find some OTHER red cloth.
Spouse (looking closer): I carefully washed this by hand and you are making it part of a pirate costume?
Spouse: Use a diaper pin.
Spouse: Well, I just thought there might be some still lying around.
Boy-in-Black: A red pillowcase, maybe. Anything. Anything. At. All.

Daughter: Hey!
Me: Do you know where I could find a safety pin in this house?
Daughter: (laughing) You called to ask me that?
Me: You are my only hope
Daughter: Try looking in the sewing kit.
Me: Great idea.
Me: Uh ... where is the sewing kit?
Daughter: (laughing) In the hall closet.
Daughter (in an aside to college roommate): My Mom called me to ask where she could find a safety pin.
Me (rummaging through sewing kit): WE HAVE NO SAFETY PINS!
Daughter: What is it you are doing?
Daughter (aside to roommate): They are lost without me.
Me: I'm making a costume for With-a-Why.
Daughter: Oh, let me guess. Black pants, white shirt, some kind of red hanging from the shoulder.
Me: Yes! How did you know? He's a pirate.
Daughter: You could add some gold jewelry.

Me (to at-home family): We need some pirate jewelry.
Spouse: Don't look at me. I don't wear jewelry.
With-a-Why: I can't see with this hat on.
Spouse: I'm cleaning the kitchen. The costume is your project.
Me: Hey, Boy-in-Black, how about all those medals you've gotten for academic awards? They look like pirate medals, don't they?
Boy-in-Black: Yes, many a pirate got an award for chemistry or math.
With-a-Why: Are we almost done?
Me (to Boy-in-Black): YOU wore medals pinned to your shoulder when you wore this costume.
Boy-in-Black: That's because I was being Napoleon.
Boy-in-Black: But I've got a drum lesson tomorrow so I REALLY need to practice.
Shaggy Hair Boy: You owe me a million dollars.
With-a-Why: Can I take this hat off now?

February 16, 2005

Thoughts on student evaluations ....

Thoughts on student evaluations, a tangent spinning off the discussion going on over at Dr. Crazy's:

My student evaluations tend to be very positive. I will sometimes get 100 percent of the students strongly agreeing that I "am enthusiastic about teaching" or that I display "a positive attitude towards students." What does this say about my teaching?

Well, not much, actually.

I think I am a terrific teacher but I don't think the student evaluations reflect what I do, or whether or not they've learned anything. I happen to have an extroverted personality. Students see me as a warm, friendly, talkative person who will stop to chat with them on the quad. Students like me, and so when they fill out the stupid bubble forms we are required to use, they just automatically fill out the "strongly agree" bubbles.

Five years ago, I had the semester from hell. I was on crutches from a leg broken in two places -- and in pain most of the semester. I had recurring trouble with migraines. I had four small children. Spouse was working a job with long hours (a job he later quit) so most of the responsibility of the children and the household fell to me. My aunt was dying, which meant endless meetings with doctors and of course daily visits to her. I was not a particularly good teacher that semester. I went through the motions but my mind was elsewhere. I was often not prepared for class. I even had to cancel several classes so that I could be with my aunt during the last 72 hours of her life, and then again to make funeral arrangements. Here's the part that surprised me: my student evaluations remained the same. The same glowing positive comments I had always gotten, even though my teaching had fallen far below my own standards.

On the other hand, I have a friend who is a brilliant teacher. Her lectures are effective and thought-provoking. She designs assignments that challenge her students. She has what some might call a cold, no-nonsense approach. Sometimes students will say to me, "I don't like BrilliantProfessor." I'll ask: "Do you feel like you are learning in her course?" And the student will say, "Oh, yes, I'm learning tons. I have to stay on top of the reading because she moves so fast." But when BrilliantProfessor gets her evaluations back, the response from students is lukewarm.

I think when we discuss student evaluations, we have to acknowledge that their value is limited. Is it fair to expect a 19-year-old to evaluate a college level course? Many students will react to their vague, gut feelings. No one has explained to these students the different expectations placed on high school teachers and college professors. The students expect the college professor to act like the nurturing supportive high school teacher who will check to see if their homework is done and who has study sessions in her room during the lunch hour. No one explains to college students that college professors are not simply hired to teach, that these professors have great pressure to do research and publish.

Many students will respond simply to their sense of liking or disliking a teacher's personality. Many of these students have an internalized gender bias that they are unaware of. Female teachers are expected to be warm and supportive. Male teachers should speak with authority. Looking back at my own college years, I don't think I did a very good job filling out evaluation forms.

What surprises me is that P&T committees in many places seem to put a high value on student evaluations. I understand the desire to reward good teaching and to have student input, but I don't see how collecting a bunch of poorly designed fill-in-the-bubble forms is going to accomplish that.

I am not saying that I don't find student feedback helpful. I often ask students to write a separate evaluation of the course, one that only I see, and I ask them to sign their names. If the smart, motivated student says, "I think the reading load was too heavy," I am likely to really consider her comment. On the other hand, I read the comments of the student who is failing the course who says, "Drop the essay by Ward Churchill" or "Why do you make us read all this feminist stuff?" Well, then, I shrug. I understand what he is saying, I know he doesn't like the fact that I made him think, I think it's important feedback because I know I pushed him out of his comfort zone, and no, I'm not planning to change that part of the course.

February 15, 2005

Savoring poetry

Yesterday was Bring-a-Poem-You-Love-to-Class day. We are about four weeks into the semester, my students were feeling overwhelmed and tired, and I wanted to have a day that would remind them what they love about literature. I was curious as to what these students would actually bring. None of them are English majors - we have no English majors on our campus - they are studying to be biologists, chemists, social scientists, and architects. They are mostly seniors. My course is the first and last literature course they will ever take in their lives so I feel this urgency to make them fall in love with language, with poetry, with words.

They came to class today, eagerly, carrying worn poetry books, poems printed from the internet, and poems they'd written themselves. They read aloud in turns, some shy and hesistant, some surprisingly confident. We heard from some famous poets: Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Sharon Olds, Robert Browning, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Allen Ginsburg. We heard a bit from the Vagina Monologues. Some brought rap music, the lyrics carefully printed out. We listened to the words of Ani DiFranco and Joni Mitchell and Dr. Seuss. Some students brought amazing poems from poets I had never heard of.

My favorite part was listening to the students talk about why they loved the poems. One woman said that her mother used to read her Robert Frost at night if she woke up from a nightmare. Another woman said that her Dad read her poetry every night before she went to bed. Some of the poems brought back tearful memories of high school romances. Some were political. Several poems brought back the grief of 9/11. They talked about their favorite poetry websites, their favorite high school English teachers, and poems posted in the trains in the city. Some of my students write poetry, and some have participated in the Poetry Slam movement.

I think it was worthwhile to have an enjoy-and-appreciate poetry day. Wednesday, we will get back to our intense discussions and endless analysis, but Monday was a day to hear poems aloud and savor them.

February 14, 2005

First Kiss

It was thirty years ago. I was thirteen. The jukebox was playing "Muskrat Love." He was wearing jeans, a black t-shirt, and a denim jacket covered with the signatures of teen-age girls. His hair was long, of course, black and hanging loose. He smelled like ironed cotton, cigarettes, and root beer.

I didn't have any romantic illusions about him being Mr. Right. Once in the spirit of getting to know him, I asked him what his favorite book was. He paused for a moment and said, "I don't think I've read a whole book."

At school, I was the smart girl. Even in ninth grade, everyone knew that I was going to be valedictorian. Everyone knew that I would get a scholarship, go to college and eventually grad school. He was a hood, a delinquent, a trouble-maker. Everyone knew that he would get sent to a detention center, and eventually prison. I was thirteen, and he was twelve. All of this was already decided.

But I wasn't thinking about any of that. It was my first kiss. I remember how his lips felt, warm and a bit hesitant, his tongue exploring my shyness. His hands kept tangling and untangling themselves in my waist-length hair. I knew from romantic novels that I was supposed to close my eyes but I was not prepared for the way that everything disappeared into this darkness. Even the clanging sound of the pinball machine went silent.

Nothing in the movies prepared me for the way my whole body would respond, energy tingling down under my shirt, shivering along underneath my skintight jeans until my whole self moved closer to this warm being. How conscious I was as each body part - arms, breasts, waist, hips, legs - came into contact with him, the energy intensifying every time I shifted closer.

When I opened my eyes again, I was startled that the room had not changed. Everything looked the same: the green felt on the pool tables, the lights hanging low above the bright-colored billiard balls, the men lounging with pool cues, the juke box machine glowing. The bored waitress had not shifted from her spot on the bar stool, except perhaps to stub her cigarette out in the ashtray.

It was just a kiss, really. It didn't last long. And yet, it was a discovery, a realization. I'd learned how to lose myself in something too big to name, discovering a place where time became irrelevant. I felt both powerful and powerless. I'd tasted feelings that could make the whole dim world around me disappear.

February 13, 2005

Business Expense, Schedule A

Amount spent on books last year: 2342.51

Wind chimes

When my house is quiet, which happens only in the early morning when all the kids are still asleep, sometimes I'll leave the front door open, with just a glass door between me and the snowy world. The cold will creep in, of course, but I want all the winter sunlight that spills into the hallway... and from my desk, I can hear the sound of the wind chimes on the front porch.

I bought these wind chimes summer before last. It was a sunny June day, and I had just had a visit from ArtistFriend. We'd been talking about all kinds of stuff - music and heartbreak and four-leaf clovers - and I remember sitting on the front porch watching his car pull out of the driveway, wishing he didn't live so far away. My house was filled, as usual, with kids and cats, and I could hear Spouse in the kitchen, piling mugs into the dishwasher. I took a moment to sit outside, feeling the sun on my legs, enjoying the stillness of the outdoors, and when I looked up at the porch roof, I thought to myself: I should buy some wind chimes.

I knew the chimes I wanted. I bought them at this incredibly tacky tourist place up on the river. They hang on my porch now, and when the wind rushes across my front lawn, we get these random bits of music. In the evening, I look forward to listening to the chimes when I go out to shovel the driveway. Our driveway is 150 feet long and we get lots of snow, so shovelling snow is a chore that needs to be done every night. Most people in rural areas here have plows and the suburbanites have snowblowers but I think it's great exercise to shovel. And I have any amount of teen-age help I can enlist if we get a big storm.

I like shovelling snow. Especially on a snowy evening, when all the curving banks of blue-tinted white make my house look like some kind of corny Christmas card. Through the windows, I'll see the rest of the family - kids doing homework or chores, Spouse cleaning up the kitchen, With-a-Why at the piano. I'll remember how lucky I am to have this home full of music and chatter and warm yellow light. When the wind gusts across the banks of snow, whirling it into the driveway again, the chimes on the porch offer bits of quiet music. I'll think of ArtistFriend and whatever crazy e-mail he sent me that week; usually he tells me to shut up and stop whining, and then he is sweet and nice and makes me laugh.

I'll look up at the moon to see where she is in the sky, shovel some random bit of the driveway, which during February looks something like a luge run, and watch my own breath disappear into the night sky. When I've had enough of the fresh winter air, I stand on the front porch to stamp the snow off my boots, and pause for a moment under the wind chimes, letting their music warm me for a moment before I go indoors.

February 12, 2005

Important theological question

With-a-Why is still small enough to sit on my lap and listen intently while I read aloud to him. Modern child that he is, he loves such things as video games and does not understand why I put limits on them. He still wakes up from nightmares to come into bed with me.

One night when he was very young, With-a-Why woke up from some kind of bad dream, and climbed in under the covers with me. I could tell he was terrified. He was shivering so I wrapped myself around him until he got warm.

"Mom," he asked, "What happens after we die?"
I could tell from his face that it was a serious question.

I gave him an overview of several different philosophies about an afterlife, trying to tell it in a way that was appropriate to a five-year-old and adding my own perspective. The sound of my voice seemed to calm him down.

He thought for a minute.

"But, Mom ... will there be video games there?"

February 11, 2005

Twelve things about me

1. Cats or dogs? Cats
2. Canoe or jet ski? Canoe
3. Tea or coffee? Tea
4. Paper or plastic? Paper
5. Sail or motor? Sail
6. Sink or swim? Swim
7. Steak or lentils? Lentils
8. Beer or wine? Root beer
9. Hot or cold? Hot
10. Book or video? Book
11. Hotel or tent? Tent
12. Black or white? Grey

February 10, 2005

Response to blog tempest

So which friend has it worse? The woman who wakes up every night with nightmares because she is still grieving for the daughter who was killed when the World Trade Center came down? Or the woman who is struggling to care for her dying father, even though he was abusive to her as a child?

Who has it worse? The friend who has just moved to a strange city and knows absolutely no one, who spends her weekends at the office, doing paperwork by herself? Or the friend who just had twins, both with birth defects, and hasn't slept for more than three hours in a row in weeks?

When I lived in London, a friend taught me this pub game in which each person would tell their saddest story, competing to be the sorriest sod in the group. The game was hilariously funny. Maybe the humor came from the fact that we'd all been drinking all night. Or maybe it came from the absolute absurdity of thinking that we could possibly put such things as stress, anxiety, or grief on a measurable scale.

Life in this culture in this century is difficult for just about everyone. So many of the people in this blog community live far from family and friends, with all kind of societal pressures on them.

My gut feeling about all this : when you are on a ship that has sprung a whole bunch of leaks, water pouring in everywhere, it doesn't make sense to stand around and argue whose feet are getting the wettest.

Stop fighting everyone! Just grab the buckets. And start bailing.

February 09, 2005

Theme song nostalgia

When I growing up, I was allowed to watch about an hour of television every week. Usually, this meant two half-hour shows that the whole family watched together. Here are the shows from my childhood/teenage years that I can remember watching often enough to recognize the theme song:

1. Batman (with Adam West)
2. The Monkees
3. The Beverly Hillbillies
4. I Dream of Jeannie
5. Bewitched
6. My Three Sons
7. The Brady Bunch
8. Green Acres
9. The Partridge Family
10. Gilligan's Island
11. Happy Days
12. MASH

I often wonder what bizarre influence those television shows have had on me. My first crush was on Davy Jones ... yeah, I still have a thing for men with accents. And my second crush was on Robin, Batman's sidekick. He always seemed like the underdog, never getting the respect he deserved, while everyone fawned over Batman. For creeping out my feminist sensibilities, I would have to say that "I Dream of Jeannie" wins, hands down. Stumbling across the show as an adult and watching it was most horrifying.

The main thing I remember from any television show is the opening theme song. I liked the stability of listening to the same song the same time every week. I'd be lying on the living room floor, squeezed in between a bunch of siblings and some extras, all of us fighting for a good spot, all grabbing for the popcorn or pretzels or whatever the snack was that week. After the theme song, I'd usually return to the book I was reading - which is perhaps why I remember almost nothing from these shows - but still I liked the stability of hearing that same music every week.

I can remember Spouse singing television theme songs to me when I was in labor with my second child. I'd been in labor for about 24 hours, a slow, easy labor, and I was in a dimly lit room, relaxing in a tub of hot water. Spouse, sitting on the floor next to the tub, had been entertaining me for hours and the lack of sleep made him punchy. So he started to sing television theme songs, often doing imitations of the characters as well. I couldn't even do the Lamaze breathing we'd practiced because I was laughing so hard. When the midwife came in to check my vitals, she would tease us and say, "What's going on in here? It doesn't sound like you are having a baby. You are laughing way too much." And she was relieved to find that I was fully dilated and ready to push the baby out. "Thank God. I don't think I could stand to hear the Brady Bunch theme song one more time."

Boy-in-Black, the child whose birth was accompanied by laughter and song, is now the kid whose job it is to tape whatever television show the family has agreed to watch each week. This season the kids chose the show Scrubs. It's a ritual for us to gather in a dark room, with snacks assembled and a book in my hand. I swear, it takes about half an hour before we can actually watch the show because someone is always running downstairs to get another glass of juice or something. We fight over pillows and With-a-Why is still young enough to fight for a spot next to Mom. Boy-in-Black always tries to fastforward through the theme song and opening credits, and the whole family teases me because I won't let him. I like listening to the opening music, while the kids jockey for position, shoving each other playfully, grabbing for snacks, teasing each other, and joking throughout the opening credits. I don't really watch the show; the theme song is the part I like best.

February 08, 2005

No matter what

I had always planned to care for my relatives in my home when it was time for them to die, but when New Jersey Aunt was dying, five years ago, caring for her at home was not possible. My aunt's physical needs were too great, and she was allergic to cats. I had four small children, a full-time job, and a cast on my leg from a bad break. We moved her into a nursing home just down the road, and I came to see her at least once every day.

I'd stop in the morning on my way to campus. Or late in the afternoon, when Daughter could babysit her brothers. Or I'd sneak out in the evening when Spouse was putting the kids to bed.

I'd walk in through the big double doors, into a hallway that smelled of clorox, stale urine, and some kind of sickeningly floral cleanser. When I came around the corner into my aunt's room, still carrying a gust of cold fresh air with me, she would look up and smile. No matter when I came, she was always eager to see me, ready to switch off the television, show me all the cards she had gotten in the mail, and recount again the childhood stories that I was learning by heart. I'd sit on the chair next to her bed, in that calm, quiet room, and listen to her talk. Her eyes never left my face.

I think everyone should have someone like New Jersey Aunt in their life. Someone who is always happy to see you, no matter what.

Unexpected February moment

The world outside my window is blurry, white, thick. Peering through the fog, I can see the whiteness of the snow, the dark shapes of the bare trees. The river birch nearest me has twisting, thin branches and on each branch, a row of delicate drops hang, waiting to fall. Beyond the closest trees, all is soft and grey.

I am alone in the house except for the kindly old man who tunes my piano. He has been working for an hour, hitting notes, putting in a new piece of felt under the soft pedal. But when the job is done, he sits down at the bench and plays a song, softly. From my spot at my desk, where I am grading papers, I hear the music. Each note seems to trigger a memory, a tightness in my throat. The song is an unexpected gift. It makes me cry.


Two years ago, on a cloudy February day, Derrick Jensen said, "I think it's the role of the writer to put into words what everyone knows in their heart to be true."

I am still thinking about how to do this.

February 07, 2005

Finding time

When I plan out my semester, I always imagine that I am going to have big chunks of time to devote to my writing. Then at about the third or fourth week of the semester, it occurs to me that I forgot to factor several million annoying tasks in to the equation when I came up with my grand plan for the semester. This week I have been reminded suddenly of one of those tasks: writing letters of recommendation.

I have 16 letters to write tomorrow. Every time I check my e-mail, I get another request from a student. I like these students, I want to help them out, but I hate writing these letters. I resent the time it will take. I also have papers to grade, course stuff to read, classes to prepare for, an administrative report to write, a course proposal to be drafted, e-mails to answer .... and suddenly, the couple of hours of free time I have tomorrow are not nearly long enough to do what needs to be done.

February 06, 2005

Good vibrations

My favorite thing about Super Bowl Sunday is that so many people stay home and watch football on television. Because that means no lines at the chairlift. Ski conditions were almost perfect today -- sunshine, moderate temperatures, and hard-packed snow -- and yet the slopes were empty. The kids and I arrived first thing in the morning before the chairlift started running and left only after they shut it down at the end of the day. It was so warm that I could take as many runs as I wanted to without my feet getting cold. I was in a miserable mood last week (I hate February! Have I mentioned that?) but it's impossible for me to spend a day outside in the sunshine and fresh air and not feel a whole lot better about life. I'm sunburned, actually, and I can't tell you how good that feels. The great thing about a few weeks of cloudy skies and subzero weather is that when a day like today comes, it feels like a miracle.

After three hours of skiing in the morning sunshine, we met inside the lodge for lunch, and all stripped off layers of clothes; how wonderful to be too warm! The lodge is just a big room with windows facing the slopes. It looks nothing like the ski lodges in 1930s movies; the atmosphere is more like a locker room. Picnic tables are scattered all about and everyone has piles of stuff: wet clothes, boots, snowboard cases, coolers, bags of food. People are constantly taking clothes off or putting them on, and dancing about in their socks to avoid wet spots on the floor.

Every Sunday, we share a picnic table with NeighborGuy and his three kids, marking our spot by piling all of our stuff on it. NeighborGuy and I always joke about the fact that we bring all kinds of healthy food -- and then succumb to pressure from the kids and buy french fries with hot sauce. That smell is hard to resist. So today, when out of the blue, he handed me an apple, I figured he was hinting that I should eat something healthy, so I took a bite. He gave me kind of a surprised look but said nothing while I ate the apple. Later, Boy-in-Black said to me, "Do you know why NeighborGuy handed you that apple?" I shrugged.

He continued: "We were playing with it - kicking it around on the floor - didn't you notice how filthy it was?" Uh, no.

Usually we pair off to ski or snowboard, but we do at least one run as a whole group. Boy-in-Black and OlderNeighborBoy have been boarding for five years, and they delight in showing off -- carving at top speed as close to my skis as they can, hitting every jump in the terrain park, and getting as much air as they can on their ollies. The adrenaline I get from skiing down a slope is only heightened when I'm surrounded by a pack of high-energy teen-agers. After skiing through that energy - the laughing, the teasing remarks, the flashing grins, the rattling sound of edges carving into ice, the whoosh of air as their bodies brush by - I feel ready to tackle the week.

February 05, 2005

Read this first. Yeah, right.

Today's household computer crisis led to five calls to tech support, two trips into the city to two different computer stores, and a couple hundred dollars of equipment. Attempting to do anything with my computer when I had a sinus headache was a bad idea. In fact, the whole timing was bad. Daughter, who will re-format a hard drive without hesitation, was at college and not available. Boy-in-Black, boy genius, was at an all-day academic competition for high school kids, along with several of our computer geek extras. All unavailable. So I figured that Shaggy Hair Boy and I would deal with the crisis as a tender mother/son bonding time. Skater Boy, Blonde Niece, and With-a-Why, who know better to get involved with something like this, made popcorn and watched with amusement while Shaggy Hair and I yelled and screamed at the two computers and at each other.

Shaggy Hair and I get along very well almost all of the time but we both get very easily frustrated when it comes to taking care of precise details. I like to work really fast, no matter what I do, and when I have to slow down and do anything step by step, it makes me want to scream. I never bother to read directions. I have no patience with inanimate objects. Shaggy Hair is the same way. We are way too much alike to work on this kind of project together.

Here is our typical conversation:

Me: Let's just try this.
Shaggy Hair: Wait, I'm trying this.
Me: Why would that work?
Shaggy Hair: Just hand me that cord.
Me: No, that's not the right cord! LET ME DO THIS PART!
Me: It's not working!
Shaggy Hair; (to computer): I HATE THIS!

Well, at some point, we both realized how ridiculous the whole thing was and started laughing. Spouse, who knows almost nothing about computers but who has a calm, rational temperament, eventually swooped in and took the kids' computer off to a store to have an ethernet port installed, which was part of the problem. Shaggy Hair and I called a truce and got the other computer ready to go. A couple more calls to tech support, and we were done. The result of the whole morning's work was that now my computer is linked to the kids' computer, and I no longer have to use dialup!

Switching my ISP means of course that my old e-mail address is no longer valid, which means I have to get all my friends to update their address books. Some of them will forget to. Sigh. I hate feeling disconnected from all my long-distance friends. But still and all, it will be so much faster .... and of course, I had all that nice bonding time with my son.


My New Jersey Aunt used to tell us the story about how she once almost drowned in a tidal wave. She was about three years old, playing near the edge of the water with another little boy at the beach. It was the early 1930s. A tidal wave (that's what she called it, I have no idea how accurate the term was) came out of nowhere and swept the two kids under. As soon as the water was calm, the adults on the beach began diving in to the water, trying to find the kids. My grandfather felt a small body just below the surface, pulled a child out by the hair, and passed the child to onlookers, thinking he had found the little boy. The child he had rescued was actually my aunt, who had short curly hair.

I think it was my aunt's earliest memory, and perhaps the most vivid memory she had. She loved the ocean, loved to swim and body surf in the waves at the Jersey shore, but she also respected the force that came so close to taking her life. Five years ago, as she was dying, she repeatedly told me the tidal wave story, describing what it felt like to be sucked under by an approaching wave. Her short-term memory had faded and she could no longer remember what she eaten for lunch that day, but that early memory was entirely clear, almost as if her whole life had compressed until she was once again that child standing on the beach.

February 04, 2005

Easy to read

On Fridays, I have lunch with my beautiful, smart, wonderful daughter. She's in college but her campus is within walking distance of mine so on Fridays, she walks over from Snowstorm University to the campus where I work. It's funny to see her on my campus, sometimes interacting with my students, to have my home world and campus world overlapping in that way.

She meets me in my office and I will often stop to say something to a colleague or student on my way out. After the brief interaction, she and I will walk on and she will give me her capsule version of the interaction.

"Well, clearly you don't like Colleague X, but you know you have to work with her so you are overcompensating by acting all friendly."


"You are trying to be nurturing and supportive of that student because you want to encourage him, but secretly you are wondering why the hell he chose that project."

The amazing part is that her quick characterizations are completely on target every time.

"Wow," I said to her today, "Am I that transparent?"

She shrugged: "Yeah, you are."
She added: "Of course, I know you pretty well."
Then she laughed. "And besides, I'm smarter than most people."

February 03, 2005

Through the snow

February is always a time of intense introspection for me. I haven't decided yet whether or not that is a good thing. Or even if it is, I think it is highly possible to have too much of a good thing. Last night, I spent way too much time thinking about all the things I hate about myself and moping about something that happened three years ago. Then this morning, when I looked at my blog, I saw the list of things I am supposed to be doing to fight off the February blues and realized that MAKING A LIST OF THINGS I HATE ABOUT MYSELF was not on the list. Grading papers (which is what I should be doing now) was not on that list either. So I forced myself to put on some clothes, grab the snowshoes out of the garage, and head out to the woods behind my house.

If you have ever hiked on snowshoes on a groomed trail at a nature center, well, it's not at all like making your own trail through the woods. Deep snow is heavy, and every step takes effort. The physical exertion is a wonderful way to stamp through negative feelings. I get into a rhythm after a while - stamp, stamp, breathe - stamp, stamp, breathe - and there's a clumsy grace to it, almost like dancing. (When I'm in an especially bad mood, I chant swear words to myself and it's very cathartic. Stamp, stamp, breathe. Fuck, fuck, damn.)

It's funny actually, that I can think of all kinds of swear words, but that we have only one word for snow. It doesn't seem right because we've got so many types of snow here. For the last couple of weeks, during our sub-zero cold spell, we had that kind of shining, glittering snow that sparkles. In today's warmer air, the snow was thick, soft, with just some glisten along the top. The woods are quiet when the snow is tired like this. I walked across tracks of all kinds of animals - well, mainly deer and rabbit and some kind of little rodents. I like seeing the evidence of other creatures running around here in my woods, their lives criss-crossing mine.

I hiked to the spot that is for me, the center of the woods, a fallen tree where I've come many times to rest and think and escape from myself. Sometimes I climb onto the tree and walk along the trunk, careful to balance. Balance is what I'm seeking in life, and it's a continual struggle. (When I was younger, my motto was "nothing in moderation" and I still have those tendencies to be intense about ... about everything I care about.) Today, though, the tree was piled with snow and I was wearing clumsy snowshoes, so I didn't even challenge myself to balance. I just threw myself down on the tree, wrapping myself around the trunk, and rested there until all the negative thoughts had seeped out of me and onto the ground. The good thing about February snow is that it can absorb a whole lot. And in another month, it will melt.

February 02, 2005

Chasing away the blues

Thanks to everyone who wrote nice comments to yesterday's post. I really appreciate the support I get from this blogging community.

As a reminder to myself, here is a list of the things that ward off the February blues (and February migraines as well ... I get more migraines during February than any other month). Feel free to add your own ideas.


Getting enough sleep every night! Eating healthy!

Any kind of outdoor activity. Downhill skiing on Sundays. Cross-country skiing through the forest. Ice skating at the rink downtown. Snowshoeing. Shoveling snow in the moonlight. Hiking in the woods behind my house. Anything that puts me outside in the fresh air, no matter how cold it is.

Dates with friends. Plantswoman and I are planning to meet for breakfast at least once during February. PoetWoman and I are going to meet for lunch. I've promised LongBeautifulHair that I would call her and go for a walk together or something. QuiltArtist and I have a date to go hear a storyteller. I have a bunch of women friends who sometime go out together in the evening but it's hard to set up in February because it too often gets cancelled because of weather. I've lived in this area my whole life so I have friends here; it's just making the time to see them that is the problem. I am going to make the effort during February to make the time.

Connecting to out-of-town friends. Phone calls! My life is so crazy that I actually have to e-mail out-of-town friends so that we can set up a phone call. But it is so worth it. A long rambling phone call when I am feeling blue can change my whole mood. Long rambling e-mails to friends help too. ArtistFriend will listen to me talk for hours; he will patiently read the longest, most whining e-mail and write back something funny to make me laugh. I don't know what I'd do without him. And hey, I think I am going to add long rambling blogging to this category. I think my blogging friends count as out-of-town friends: maybe I'll start coming up with pseudonyms for all of you. Maybe some day in February, I'll break my one-post-per-day rule and spend the whole day writing posts! A self-indulgent blogging marathon.

Let's see, what else? A fire in the fireplace. Hot tea and dark chocolate. Reading for pleasure. Maybe even some of the Betsy-Tacy books. Writing poetry. Meditation or reiki. Massage. Saturday night dates with Spouse. Belly Dancing. Lying naked in the sunshine that comes through the south window when the kids aren't home. Taking the time to read to and snuggle With-a-Why. Friday lunches with Daughter. Reading in the bathtub. Taking time to do some pastels while listening to my favorite music. Chopping up basil so that the whole kitchen smells nice. Vegan chocolate cake.

February 01, 2005


February is the month for the blues. I use the word blue instead of depressed because I have friends who struggle with depression and I don't want to trivialize what they go through by pretending I know what it's like. My blue moods arrive when the season cracks a memory open, but they can be soothed away by a good cry while listening to Joni Mitchell and a long phone call with a friend. It's not the same as depression caused by chemicals in the brain. (I get migraines and I don't like it when people casually refer to any kind of bad headache as a migraine because really, it's not the same thing at all, and a regular bad headache is nothing compared to how incredibly debilitating a migraine can be.)

I used to think I was crazy because I would get sad on anniversaries of bad stuff that had happened to me until once I heard Adrienne Rich talking about how certain scars re-open each year. Time is like a Slinky, with seasons lined up on top of each other over the coil of each year. Right now the cold snowy February of 15 years ago is much closer to me than August of last year, when I was camping in the sand dunes with my family in the heat of Virginia. And much closer than August of this year, when I'll be heading down the Colorado on a raft for a two-week camping trip.

Past Februaries haunt me.

In February when I was in college, away from home in the coldest part of this state, I got the phone call that my sister's fiance had just died when his car went off an embankment. Another February, I looked down to see bright spots of blood on the sheets and realized that what I thought was a healthy pregnancy would end in a miscarriage. Another February, just months after a traumatic car accident, I started waking with nightmares about the accident and begin feeling panicked about driving on icy roads, anxiety attacks that were eventually diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Another February, I realized that my brother was refusing to talk to me, a silence that lasted for eight painful years. Another February, I visited my sister-in-law in the hospital in Snowstorm City, the last time I saw her before she died of breast cancer. Oh, there are other things too - some too complex to explain here - but all associated with February.

Other months of the year are filled with all kinds of happy memories. I have had an easy life compared to most people and most of the time I remember to be thankful for that. But in February, these personal scars open and suddenly, I feel flooded with all the pain and suffering in the world. I'll be standing at the grocery store, piling food into the cart, during the kind of quick run Spouse and I often do on our way home from a Saturday night date, and suddenly, I won't be able to stop myself. I'll think about children who live in fear, soldiers coming home with missing limbs, women who will have children with birth defects because of toxins in the environment, teenagers who get gunned down because of the color of their skin, animal species going extinct, lost to us forever, marshes teeming with frogs and song filled in with dirt and turned into parking lots, women who are afraid in their own homes, and leaders like our own who are filled with hate and self-righteousness.

So I'll be standing in the grocery store, in the frozen food section perhaps, and that numbness I can usually rely on to ignore all that is happening in the world will melt away, and I'll feel that tightening in my throat that makes me look to make sure no one is watching. I'll shake my hair in front of my face as I bend over to pick out frozen juice for my kids -- my own kids, warm, well-fed, healthy, safe, sleeping on the living room floor in front of the fireplace.

I've always had long hair and sometime I hide behind it. I hate for anyone to see me cry.

Longest month of the year

I always roll my eyes when people talk about time as if it's linear. I don't know what time is like anywhere else in the world but here in the northeast, time is cyclical and wrinkled. Maybe it's the mountains that cause the lumps. But we have only 3 days between July 4th and Labor Day. That's right. One day, I'm up at camp, swimming and getting tanned, and bam! Three days later, the summer is over and the semester has begun. The calendar shows something like 35 days between Thanksgiving and New Year's but everyone knows that is not true. It's really only five days - a busy five days, crammed with all kinds of holiday stuff, but in the end just five days long. And February, well, it certainly is not the shortest month. Maybe it's the bitter cold we get at the end of January that freezes time and makes it grind to a stop, but February often lasts for 90 days. Really.