November 30, 2005

Like catching snakes

It happens every spring. On the first warm day somewhere around the first of May, garter snakes emerge to mate. If I walk through the woods on that particular day, I can see dozens of snakes. During the rest of the year, I walk in the woods almost every day and rarely see a snake. In the middle of the winter, with a couple feet of snow on the ground, I could look for snakes as hard as I could but I would never ever see one.

Teaching is much like this. I have to be patient and know when it's time to push a student to the next level, to the next challenge. It's a matter of timing. Of waiting for the teachable moment. Of knowing when the students are ready, when the classroom dynamics are ripe. It's intuitive. It's instinctive. It can be learned from experience, I guess, if you watch the patterns. It's like catching snakes in the woods.

November 29, 2005

When parenting is difficult

This summer, my nineteen-year-old daughter had her wisdom teeth removed. This is the procedure in which we paid $2100 to have some doctor yank four perfectly good teeth out of my daughter's mouth. Needless to say, we were all looking forward to it.

I am usually good visiting hospitals, pretty good with sick people. I have spent many hours caring for relatives in nursing homes. I have helped relatives die.

But this was different. This was my daughter.

"She's just getting teeth pulled out," one of my friends said to me, "It's a pretty common procedure. Have you ever heard of anyone dying from having their wisdom teeth pulled?"

But still ... this was my daughter. My beautiful smart wonderful daughter.

The morning of the surgery, I was so nervous I thought I was going to vomit. It took three times for the nurse to get a needle into the vein of her skinny little arm. Watching her drift off to sleep, looking pale white despite her summer tan, was not reassuring but creepy. My husband, whose defense mechanism is humor, kept making jokes. My defense mechanism is to get angry at anyone who makes jokes. I almost hit him.

Of course, things went fine. Within a week, the swelling went down and my daughter was back to her normal self. I was able to laugh again at my husband's jokes.

Waiting for my daughter to wake up from the anesthesia that day, those long, long minutes of waiting, made me think of other parents who go through more frightening and more serious experiences all the time. I have one friend whose young son had leukemia, who spent two years in and out of hospitals, getting treatment after treatment. I have friends whose kids have chronic allergies, who can land in the hospital after one asthma attack. I don't know how these parents do it. I would hope that if one of my kids ever had a health problem I could respond with the same strength and resiliency as my friends have.

Here in the blog community, Moreena has beautifully chronicled some of the wonderful and difficult journey with her daughter Annika, who has had two liver transplants. Annika goes into surgery again tomorrow. Please send some hugs, energy, or prayers their way.

Boy and Tree


When my son Shaggy Hair Boy was little, he went to my sister's house three mornings each week while I was teaching my classes. He and Blonde Niece were born only a few weeks apart, and spending so much childhood time together made the two cousins inseparable. Now at the age of fourteen, they still spend every weekend together and they sit at the same lunch table at school.

One time about ten years ago, Shaggy Hair and Blonde Niece were eating an orange at my sister's house, and she suggested that they plant the seeds into a couple of pots of earth. A few years later, she lugged a three-foot orange tree out to my car and said, "I think it's time for you to take Shaggy Hair’s orange tree home now."

We've had the orange tree in our living room ever since. I need to prune the top of it because the branches scrape against the ceiling. Since the tree needs a south window, it ends up taking the spot next to Boy in Black's set of drums, across from the piano. Blonde Niece's matching tree died just last year, catching some kind of weird disease when they moved from one house to the other but she spends most weekends at my house now, and often sleeps in a sleeping bag under the tree at night.

Every once in a while, often when we are having company over and we realize how little furniture we have -- or when we are trying to figure out how to fit a Christmas tree into the house -- Spouse will ask, "Do we have to have a tree in our living room?" But the tree is a living part of our community, planted by the loving hands of Shaggy Boy during his happy childhood days playing at Blonde Niece's house. Besides, on cold winter days, I like to watch the orange tree absorbing all the sunlight pouring in the south window. If I lie next to it on the floor, moving into a sunny patch, I can pretend that I am living in a warmer climate.

November 28, 2005


I spent two weeks this August rafting down the Colorado River, running more than 200 rapids, hiking side canyons every day, and sleeping on the river bank under the stars at night. I am not afraid of churning water or rattlesnakes, but on this trip, I did have to deal with my fear of heights. Some of our hikes took me up onto narrow little ledges high above slot canyons, heights that absolutely terrified me. One thing I learned on the trip was to accept the help of the people around me and also to accept my fear, to allow myself to be afraid and just keep moving along a ledge anyhow.

Yesterday morning, I did something even more frightening. Scarier than hiking narrow trails high above a desert, scarier than rafting through twelve-foot waves in a rapid, scarier than the risk of getting caught in a flash flood in a side canyon. It was more terrifying than speaking into a microphone to hundreds of people or going on a radio show or helping someone die or going to see a specialist to see whether or not I had breast cancer. More difficult than hiking up mountains or giving birth.

For first time in eleven years, I talked to my brother alone, just the two of us. My brother is a year younger than me, and he did not speak to me for eight years. Since the death of his wife, I have seen him in group settings but we have not had any meaningful conversation.

Yesterday, I told him my feelings. I said them aloud. I told him that I felt angry, hurt, betrayed, and sad. I told him that more than anything, I felt rejected by the one person whom I thought knew me better than anyone else. I sat at a wooden table at a restaurant, looked across the table at my brother, and told him how I felt.

It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.

November 26, 2005


I've always lived in small, crowded noisy houses. Even when I go camping, it's often in a group that includes not just my husband and kids, but also my parents, siblings, and their families. Perhaps that is the reason I've always had long hair. When I need to be by myself, I can always shut out the rest of the world by shaking my hair into my face. Behind the curtain of brown and gold, I can think, cry, or daydream. Everyone in my family is used to seeing me sit like this, and they know to leave me alone.

Photo courtesy of Shaggy Hair Boy

Hair in eyes

November 25, 2005


Often when I am trying to sort through difficult feelings, I will wake up in the middle of the night and write in my journal. Something about the dark quietness of a house in which everyone is asleep that makes these feelings rise to the surface. And writing has always been my way of figuring them out, accepting them, allowing the feelings to happen.

When morning comes, my favorite thing to do is to put on my coat and boots, and take a walk through the woods behind my house. I've got miles of trails, and no matter what the season, striding through the woods always calms me, comforts me. About half a mile back, in the center of the woods, is a fallen-over tree to sit on, a place to think. Often I walk back and forth on the log, learning to balance.

This morning, I woke early to sunshine filling my bedroom. My husband had left early for work, and the teenagers were still asleep. I sat in bed, wrapped in my down quilt, and read through my journal, all the scribbled down dark night thoughts. New snow had fallen, and the woods outside the window were invitingly covered with white.

But the sound of gunshot erased the any thoughts I had about going for a walk. The Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, the woods are filled with hunters. Yes, I know that since I own the woods, I could post the land and keep them out, but I don't feel right asking neighbors who have hunted on this land their whole lives to keep off simply because I own it now. I don't think it’s that unreasonable for me to stay out of the woods for a few weeks each year.

So perhaps I will drive to a state park instead, taking a hike at Pretty Colour Lake. I suppose I could put the energy into cleaning my house. (Okay, even as I typed that, I knew I was not serious.) Perhaps I'll go back to bed and try to take a nap before the teenagers wake up. Or perhaps, I'll listen to the gunshot and write in my journal some more, hoping that the sunshine pouring in the window will be enough to change my perspective.

November 24, 2005


For all the crazy children in my household, who duct tape strange objects to the ceiling fan and play weird games with PCV pipe and have loud jam sessions every weekend, who fill my days with music and fun. For my husband, an introvert who willingly lives in a crowded noisy house because he loves me. For the extras who willingly become part of our family, who help make this house a home.

For a marsh filled with snakes and frogs and rich, thick muck. For the kindness of strangers. For blog friends I've never met in real life. For snowflakes and lilacs and sunsets. For my siblings and their families. For Friday lunches with my beautiful, smart, wonderful daughter.

For the my Shadow Women friends, my monking friends, my conference friends. For Artist Friend and Mirror Friend, Quilt Artist and PoetWoman. For friends who know my faults, who see my vulnerable spots, and who love me anyhow.

For mountains that hug me. For the Colorado River, that churning, muddy wonderful river, that taught me how to move through life. For the Saint Lawrence River, the water I will always return to, the islands and the marshes. For the monastery, with its sheep farm and pastures and prayers. For the ocean with its crashing waves and strong undertow that makes me feel small and humble in the scheme of things.

For the time I've spend sailing with my Dad or talking with my Mom, for their continued health even as they grow old. For the conservative members of my community, who disagree with me on almost every political issue but who would risk their lives to save my children if my home was on fire.

For Pilgrim's bar, a safe refuge.

For my students, whose energy and idealism give me hope for the future. For my activist friends, whose vision of the world influences my lifestyle even as they keep tiedye shirts in style. For my poet friends, my artist friends, and my musician friends for the ways in which they nurture my creative spark.

For computers that bring faraway friends close.

For the creatures in my woods, the raccoons and skunks who get into our garage, the deer that graze in our back meadow and know how to stand absolutely still when I look out, the birds who fill my paper-grading days with song, and the coyotes that howl at night.

For contact lenses, and books, and feathers, and cats. For river birches, and dark chocolate, and great blue herons, and polypropylene. For the fire at the hearth, and the stars above my roof, and the wind chimes that sing from my front porch.

All Grown Up

When my children were little, I had this sense that I was going to have small children in the house forever, that I would spend the rest of my life picking up toys, wiping noses, telling a frustrated toddler to "use your words" or explaining to a bunch of energetic little ones that basketballs are "outdoor toys." It's a still a shock to me now that when my daughter comes home from college, and I realize that the little girl who once throw vegetables from her high chair tray is a mature, poised young woman.

Yesterday, I went with my older two children, two nieces, and an extra to see the movie Rent. We bought a large popcorn and a large soda, which we shared amongst the six of us. I ate a big handful of popcorn just before the movie started. Thirsty, I looked back at my daughter in the seat behind me and made hand motions to indicate that she should pass me the soda.

She gave me a smile and pretended not to understand the hand motions. I motioned again, exaggerating to indicate how thirsty I was. By then the gestures were attracting the attention of people around us. My daughter leaned forward and spoke quietly, in the kind of voice you use when you are talking to a small child: "Use your words."

November 22, 2005

Summer photo for a grey November day

We’ll have a small group at my mother's house for Thanksgiving. My out-of-town siblings will wait until Christmas to come home. But Blonde Sister will bring her family, and I will bring mine, and that will make thirteen at the table.

My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter will be home, traveling a whole seven miles to get here. Red-haired Niece, who also attends Snowstorm University, will be coming with her. The only person traveling any distance at all will be Schoolteacher Niece, coming in from the Big City Like No Other City.

We are eager to hear how Schoolteacher Niece has enjoyed her first semester of grad school in the Big City. Last time I really talked to her was up at camp this summer. Here is a photo I took while we were all hanging out down by the dock, eating and talking, enjoying the warm air. I imagine that after three months of doing grad work and adjusting to life in the Big City, those lazy days of sunbathing by the dock up at camp must seem very far away.

November 21, 2005

Just below the ceiling

A mysterious dent appeared one day in the downstairs hallway of my home. At first, I thought the dent was my imagination. I stepped back, looked at it from the front and then from the side. Yes, definitely, there was some kind of indentation in the wall. It looked like a footprint almost, but that didn’t make sense because the dent was high up on the wall, about level with my head.

That night when the kids were hanging out in the living room, I asked casually, "Anyone know how that dent got into the hallway?"

"What dent?" Boy in Black asked. He and First Extra exchanged a smile. Shaggy Hair smirked. Okay, there was something they all knew. I suspected it had something to do with Monster, the hike-and-seek game they play in total darkness, because the house does sustain a certain amount of damage when you've got teenagers racing around blindly, but I couldn't figure what would cause a dent that high up.

"Okay, come on, I want the story," I demanded. By now, I was really curious. I could not think of any activity that would cause such a peculiar dent.

"Well, it's been there for weeks," said Boy in Back, "And you never noticed."


"Well .... I think you should have to guess,” said Boy in Black. I could tell from his face that he was going to draw this out as long as possible.

He and FirstExtra began acting out scenarios that could have caused the dent. All the other kids, who were clearly in on the secret, chimed in. CoolKid and I were the only two who did not seem to know the origin of the dent.

One scenario involved the game Alligators, a game in which the kids have to move around the house without ever touching the floor. Boy in Black claimed that Older Neighbor Boy was standing on a chair when he fell against the wall, his hard head making a dent. That story did not ring true. I suspected Boy in Black was remembering a story Spouse had told him about the time he was little and excited about brand new sneakers (PF Flyers!) and ran so fast that he put his head through the wall.

Another story, acted out dramatically, involved all the boys teasing Blonde Niece until she threw her lacrosse ball right at the wall as hard as she could. The teasing part of the story seemed highly believable, but the angle seemed wrong. Blonde Niece does bring her lacrosse stick and ball here when she comes on Friday, but none of the kids are the type to throw a ball inside the house. The third story they told, long and complicated, involving water damage, was not believable either.

By now, I was eaten up with curiosity. I hate not knowing stuff. FirstExtra said, "Okay, if you sit on the couch and close your eyes, I will tell you the story." Impatiently, I sat on the couch while he told yet another story that did not match the dent. Teenagers drive me crazy.


"Okay, open your eyes," Boy in Black called. I walked into the hallway, and there he was, up above my head, his entire long body scrunched up against the ceiling, his legs bracing against the opposite wall, his foot right in the dent.

“It was a wicked nasty hiding spot for Monster," he said, grinning. "Skater Boy kept walking right underneath and never dreamed I was up here."


Photo courtesy of Shaggy Hair Boy

November 20, 2005

The smell of hot wax

Friday night's poetry reading was held at local art gallery. My friend PoetWoman, who has degrees in creative writing and science and seems to be good at everything, happens to be an amazing photographer. She had come to town for the opening of a show that featured her photographs. It was great to see her, and to see her photographs nicely framed and hanging on the wall, but the other fun thing was the chance to catch up with some old friends who came the opening.

I hadn't seen Gentle Giant in a couple years. Last time I saw him, he was running a workshop for urban teenagers and I came to help the teenagers do some creative writing. We worked together years ago when I was the editor of an alternative environmental publication. Friday night, after catching up on each other's lives, we spend time reminiscing about our days doing layout. In those days, we were actually cutting galleys, waxing them, and pasting them onto grid sheets on a light table. Yes, cutting and pasting was once literal and not just a computer command.

I admit that I still think the best way to learn layout is to do it by hand, moving the sticky wax headlines and bits of stories around on the sheet. I loved the smell of the hot wax and the camaraderie of working together, talking as we concentrated, coming up with crazy headlines and getting into bouts of laughter. Gentle Giant used to drink countless cups of coffee as we worked so always that rich smell drifted over the pages. Sometimes we'd lose a headline and search the table for it, only to discover the white piece of paper stuck to my long hair.

Other friends who came to the opening were local poets. We talked about our writing, about our families, about our jobs. We compared notes on what we were going to read that night. We'd been assigned the topic of art and color. I love theme readings because it forces me to look at my work in a new way. (Art? Do I have any poems about art? Oh, yeah, I do.) We moved into a smaller room for the reading, an intimate setting with good acoustics so that no one needed a microphone.

It was the kind of relaxing evening I enjoy. We read poetry, we talked, we drank punch, and we looked at amazing photographs, all of us glowing with pride at the accomplishments of a dear friend. And then halfway through the event, PoetWoman informed me that the trays of homemade cookies on the punch table were vegan. That made a nice evening perfect.

November 19, 2005

Ten Things I Love About Cold Weather

I think Fresh-Cut Flowers started this meme. And it’s possible that I changed it just a little bit.

10. I can use the oven without making my kitchen unbearably hot. (I swear, I cooked nothing the whole month of August.)

9. I don't have to lie on the floor and whine about how hot and humid the weather is.

8. I can walk in my woods with NO BUGS and NO POISON IVY. And I love the way that the ground crunches underfoot when it is frozen.

7. Ice Skating. It's just like flying, except you stay near the ground.

6. A fire in the fireplace makes everyone gather around with pillows and blankets, books and conversation.

5. Snowforts. Snow is the most wonderful substance if you get it in big quantities, which we do. A couple hours of work, and you can design your own home, complete with a cave to sleep in, tunnels to crawl through, a lookout tower to climb up. And snowball fights are a great way to vent anger and release tension without hurting anyone.

4. Skiing. Cross-country skiing is a wonderful way to see the woods in winter, especially on a moonlit night. And there's nothing quite like downhill skiing – that sensation of slipping, sliding, gliding, and knowing I could go out of control at top speed at any moment. The adrenaline makes me feel alive.

3. Snow makes the outside world beautiful. Curves of white, magically glinting ice crystals, and mounds of fluffy snow transform the landscape.

2. Winter storms cause us to slow down, break our plans, and stay home by the fire with hot tea, a good book, candles and lazy conversation.

1. Cold winter nights make getting into bed with another warm body seem like a wonderful and miraculous thing.

November 18, 2005

Snowflakes, Shotguns, and Poetry

My first year students were hyper today, filled with all kinds of restless energy. They woke up this morning to the first real snow of the season. We've had some snow in the last month, but this was the first real accumulation. Enough snow for snowball fights and sledding. Enough snow to make mittens and snowplows necessary. The kind of fluffy white snow that adds graceful curves to a city campus and makes it suddenly beautiful.

My students live in the building that my classroom is in, and often they stumble to my 8:30 class a bit sleepily on a Friday morning. Today, though, they seemed wide awake as they stared eagerly out the big windows at the view of other students slipping and sliding across snow-covered sidewalks, hurling snowballs at each other. I'd had a long walk from my office in the falling snow, and the students who milled about me kept saying, "Look at all the snowflakes in your hair!" Some of them even touched my hair, like a little kid would, in a manner that was so innocent that I found it sweet.

Of course, the other reason for the suppressed excitement in the room is that tomorrow is opening day of shotgun season. Many of my students are hunters, and some will be driving home tonight to meet up with relatives and friends, to drink and tell hunting stories around a fire before getting up in the dark tomorrow morning to tramp through the woods, gun in hand, following deer tracks through the fresh snow.

I decided to make use of the energy in the room, and we spent the first fifteen minutes of class writing a collaborative poem about snowfall. I passed out index cards and announced that each student needed to contribute a few lines. Many of the students, especially my construction management majors, my chemists, and my engineers, protested that they didn't write poetry. Some were pretended to be appalled that I was making them write poetry in a composition class, especially at a school mainly devoted to science. I told them to shut up and write some poetry anyhow.

When all twenty students had handed in the index cards, I shuffled them and read them aloud. The results were amazing: some lines were funny, some lyrical, some profound. The poem included lovely descriptions, nice touches of humor, and bits of narrative. Definitely it captured the excitement of the first big snowfall. When I finished reading it, one of the students said, "That was so much better than I thought it would be."

Another student said, "You were right. I guess we can write poetry."

November 17, 2005

After School Snack

My college students usually live off-campus after their first year, bunching together in big houses to save money, living off peanut butter and Weird Long Noodle soup. My Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter has a scholarship that enables her to live in a residence hall and go to a dining hall for meals, yet like most college students, she too seems to eat her share of Weird Long Noodle soup.

Boy in Black, the serious son who analyzes everything, looked carefully at the back of a package of Weird Long Noodle soup once and informed me that it wasn't health food. He's right, of course, but it is still a handy thing to bring on camping trips. All you need to add is water. We camp pretty often in the summer and by August, most of my kids are sick of Weird Long Noodle soup.

With-a-Why is the exception. He just loves Weird Long Noodle soup and asks for some when he comes home from school. Often I try to steer him towards a healthier alternative. "How about some fruit?"

But he loves the noodle soup and cannot be dissuaded.

Yesterday, I said to him, as he devoured an entire package of soup, "You know, that isn't really all that healthy."

He looked at me seriously. "But Mom, I am practicing to be a college student."

November 16, 2005

Blogging as an emerging genre

When I am talking to colleagues at a conference, conversations tend to focus on books and ideas, on teaching and writing. It's pretty common for me to jump into a discussion by saying something like, "Have you read what Bill McKibben says in the book Enough about germline genetic engineering?" It's a long-established standard that scholars talk about books. And when a group of us start talking about a book we've all read, it feels like some kind of common bond.

At the conference last week, I was talking to a colleague and he mentioned that he read political blogs. When I said that I read blogs every day as part of my normal routine, he asked which ones. I gave Bitch Ph.D. as an example. He nodded. "Oh, of course, I read Bitch." We talked about her blog for a few minutes and then moved onto something else, but that was the moment when it occurred to me: blog writers have begun to achieve the same legitimacy as other types of writers.

Talking about Bitch - her ideas, her opinions, her style of writing - was no different than talking about Adrienne Rich or bell hooks or any other person whose writing I admire.

I have been watching with interest the development of blogging as a genre. It seems to me that it's only been in the last few years that composition teachers and literature teachers have recognized blogging as a legitimate activity for their students. I think many resisted at first. But more and more, panels on blogging have crept into conferences. Often now, faculty will refer to their course blogs.

Yes, of course, blogs are different than books. The nature of blogging is interactive and instantaneous. When I write a poem for a literary journal, it gets published more than a year after I wrote it. Blog posts are published within seconds of when they are written. I like the way a blog written by one person can be a text with multiple voices - sometimes personal, sometimes academic, sometimes political. And of course, anyone can post to a blog. You don't have to wait to get noticed by a publisher. I wonder, as publishers increasingly get taken over and ruled by big corporate interests, as small independent presses go out of business just as many independent bookstores have, if blogging is replacing the free exchange of ideas that writers could once do in books.

During several conversations at this conference, it became apparent to me that scholars are beginning to accept blogging as a legitimate activity. But I can think of two last places where blogging is still kept secret, still a taboo subject: hiring committees and P&T committees. I don't yet know anyone who uses their blog as proof of scholarship. But surely that time is coming.

November 15, 2005

Walking through plastic

During my visit to Windy Midwestern City with an Art Institute and at least one Very Tall Building, ArtistFriend insisted on making me walk through Weird Fake Jungle Cafe, a most bizarre place. I am not sure why he inflicted this experience on me, except that he likes to see my horrified reaction to such things. (He tortured me during lunch, for instance, by retelling in graphic detail the story of that time in Hungary when he helped to slaughter a pig -- and drank raw congealed blood.) Chicago Friend, who was walking around the city with us, kept rolling his eyes as ArtistFriend stubbornly led us through the door.

And yes, it was the most bizarre restaurant I've ever been in. The whole place was decorated with an overwhelming amount of plastic greenery that made me think I had shrunk and gone to Woolworth's. Amidst the splendor of trailing fake leaves lived animals that were partially animated in the strangest way. The big elephant, for example, had ears that flapped. But sadly, he could move no other body part. If I were an elephant and I could choose only one body part to move, I don't think it would be my ears.

A waterfall of real water splashed down into a pool that boasted an alligator. Or perhaps it was a crocodile. I sometimes have trouble properly identifying wildlife when it's plastic. Near the entrance a big snake curled down from the ceiling, its tongue flicking out. I jumped when I saw the damned snake, but ArtistFriend, who is much taller and more oblivious than your average customer, strolled by so casually that he nearly got whacked in the head by a fake snake aimed right at his temple. The snake had this tongue that flicked in and out in a way that was oddly hypnotic.

I've been to a real rainforest, a jungle in Puerto Rico filled with green light, frequent rain showers, lush vegetation, waterfalls surging over rock, and a humid earthy smell. The plastic version, which consisted of all kinds of fake plants and animals hanging from the ceiling, was dark and oppressive. I felt like I had stumbled upon the big warehouse of misfit plastic decorations. Surprisingly, it smelled not like plastic but like hamburgers and french fries. As I gazed about, just staring at the weirdness of it all, Woman From London began telling us about her experience watching American television.

"It's a bit overwhelming," she said, "Buy this! Have more sugar! More caffeine! Buy this!"

The one good thing about the Weird Fake Jungle Cafe was that, unlike many of the jazz bars in the city, it was smoke free. Yet, somehow, I still had trouble breathing. After five minutes of gawking, I was more than happy to follow my friends out the door. Of course, we had to walk through a gift shop to get out. That is the American way.

November 14, 2005

Began with vomit and ended with music

My conference trip began the way so many of my conferences begin - with a migraine. Usually the migraine is triggered by air travel, but in a surprise move, this time I had the migraine the night before I left. A pleasant change of place. It is much nicer, really, to vomit at home. After a night of vomiting and dizzyness and no sleep at all, I caught an early flight to Midwestern City. Dramamine took away the nausea, and I fell asleep on the plane. For the very first time in my life, I felt better getting off a plane than I did getting on.

The nice people at the conference hotel took pity on me and let me check in early so by midmorning, I was fast asleep in a hotel bed. By late afternoon, I felt recovered enough to attend the opening sessions. And to be honest, I fit right in with my academic friends, most of whom tend to look tired and kind of sick this time of the semester.

Conference days are crowded with ideas and people. I spent my mornings going to sessions, hearing papers on all kinds of topics. Because this was an interdisciplinary conference, I was able to meet literature professors, scientists, and artists - many of them doing fascinating research. I especially loved the amazing art I was exposed to. Growing up, my idea of art was limited to paintings hanging in museums; I could feel my brain expanding as I looked at power point presentations of all kinds of experimental art.

The other cool part of the conference was getting to spend time with friends and explore the city. We walked miles every day, admiring the architecture, strolling through parks, and finding cozy restaurants and bars where we could eat and talk. At sunset on Friday, we stood at the observation deck atop VeryTallBuilding, watching the pinkish glow light up all the buildings, the street lights outlining all the roadways of the city. Saturday afternoon, ArtistFriend and I went with WomanFromLondon to see the Minatures at the art institute. She had never seen them before. It's always exciting to be with someone who is seeing these lovely little period pieces for the very first time.

Saturday morning, just before my session, a beautiful young woman walked up and introduced herself to me. A blogger meet-up! We didn't have too much time to talk because we had to present at conflicting sessions, but I was delighted to see the real person behind a blog I've read and see that she was as friendly and nice in person as she is on her blog.

Listening to plenary speakers and attending sessions is always a worthwhile part of any conference, but all the hours I spend sitting in restaurants and bars is pretty valuable too. You, know, I'd like to think that I choose my friends for noble qualities - honesty, integrity, intelligence - but when it comes right down to it, the main thing my conference friends have in common is that they are all damned funny. Perhaps it's that literature professors love language and are quick with comebacks. We had serious discussions too - when you are with friends you only see once each year, you learn to bare your soul quickly - and I stayed up far too late every night. On the last night of the conference, we sat at a bar that had comfy furniture - I claimed one end of a couch - and we stayed for hours, talking and laughing, feeling completely relaxed.

One of the nicest moments came at the very end of my trip when ArtistFriend and I were taking a train to the airport. We were standing in the tunnel, our suitcases next to us, with tired-looking people standing about, all of them looking at the floor and not each other in the way that people do in the city. I was feeling sad about saying goodbye to ArtistFriend, whom I won't see for another year. I hate saying goodbye. I was trying to find words to explain what I was feeling when a street musician, who was remarkably talented, began playing Pachelbel's Canon in D, a song that I've always found hauntingly sad. A lovely way to end the trip.

November 09, 2005

Science, Literature, Art, and all that Jazz ....

I've decided to run away from home. I've cancelled my classes, packed my suitcase, and am flying off to a big city in the midwest.

I love conferences. I am an extrovert who enjoys meeting new people and catching up with old friends. I love going to dinner with a whole group of people who want to talk about books and ideas. I like to go to sessions to hear new things that will excite me and to question old assumptions. I will love spending four days in a big city, walking around neighborhoods, going to the art institute or the aquarium, exploring the waterfront, and eating in restaurants.

Sleep deprivation is the one problem I have a conferences. Because I like to do everything. I'll go to as many sessions as I can. I'll explore the city. I'll swim in the hotel pool and talk friends into joining me in the hot tub. I'll go on a pub crawl with my friends, even though I don't drink. I'll stay up late talking to Artist Friend. I'll go to the dance Saturday night and dance every single song and not leave until the band packs up and leaves first.

I'll be back next week with stories to tell.

November 08, 2005

It was the Teenager in the Parking Lot with the Shopping Carts

The parking lot of the grocery store was dark. As I left my car to walk toward the building, I noticed a teenage boy putting together a long line of shopping carts. I could only see the silhouette of the boy, but he looked familiar. I assumed that he was probably someone I knew, one of Boy in Black's friends, perhaps. As I walked past, he gave the shopping carts a shove. Because the parking lot is on an incline, the whole line of carts began rolling toward me. Rolling pretty fast.

Because I thought the boy was someone I knew, I figured that he had pushed the carts on purpose, sort of as joke. Inside my head, this made sense. I pretended not to see them. The carts rolled toward me, rattling and clanking, picking up speed.

"Watch out!" The boy yelled. He started chasing them, but they were out of his reach by then. This big connected mass of twisted metal came barreling toward me, chugging along like an out-of-control freight train. Just before they reached me, it occurred to my sleepy brain that I ought to react, and I jumped out of the way.

The boy came rushing up, grabbing the metal carts, using his full weight to get them to screech to a stop. Then he ran over to me.

"Oh, my god, I'm sorry," he said.

I looked at him and realized that he was not anyone I knew. And he was visibly upset. In that split second, I saw the scene from his eyes: he had almost run down a woman with a bunch of shopping carts. Perhaps in the dark he mistook me for a frail elderly person with a hearing problem, one who could have been seriously hurt by a fast-moving line of metal carts. Perhaps, for an instant, he had the fear he was going to kill some little old lady with a bunch of evil shopping carts.

I wanted to say something to explain to him that I had mistaken him for someone I knew and the teenage boys I know like to tease me and that they would probably do stuff like pretend to push shopping carts at me and that I had seen the carts in plenty of time and that I didn't mean to scare him by waiting until the last possible second to jump out of the way. But even inside my head, that explanation seemed too long and weird, and when I opened my mouth, I just started laughing.

The boy apologized again. I tried to talk but instead, I kept laughing. I didn't want to laugh, because I could see he felt bad, but trying not to laugh just makes me laugh more. He kept apologizing, and I kept laughing.

Finally, he gave up trying to talk, and he too started laughing. We both just stood there in the semi-dark parking lot, facing each other, laughing. I never did say even one single word. Then I walked, still smiling, towards the store, while he went after the rest of the grocery carts.

November 07, 2005

How to swim in a marsh

Shallow warm water, filled with weeds and snakes and turtles, can feel luxurious if you go about it the right way.

First, you have to give up the idea that you can stand up. Beneath the shallow water lie layers and layers of muck, all kinds of decayed plant matter, soft and ready to float to the surface. Stir that up, and the water will stay muddy for hours.

If you want to enjoy the clear water near the top, you must approach carefully. You need to slide your body in gently -- and then float, keeping limbs near the surface, nothing brushing against the mucky bottom. An inner tube or floating raft can help. Lie back so that you can trail your arms across the floating beds of weeds. Feel how warm they are, rich with sunlight.

Of course, if you are fourteen years old, that cautious approach simply will not do. Instead, you must run full speed down the dock and leap into the marsh, splattering muck and water onto everyone, calling and teasing and bragging. When you are done, pull yourself up and shake your dripping head like a dog, making sure to get the nearest person wet.

This photo is of Shaggy Hair Boy, enjoying a swim in the marsh.

November 06, 2005

The well-dressed woman

Saturday afternoon, I braved the mall. All by myself. I hate shopping, but I needed a new pair of black pants. I am going to a conference this week, and the outfit I usually wear when I have to present at a conference is black pants and a nice shirt. It's pretty much the only conference outfit I own, unless you count a blazer paired with jeans, which is what I wear on the days that I am not presenting. Yes, my wardrobe is pathetic by academic standards. I like casual clothes or I like sexy dress-up clothes so long as they are comfy, but the whole conference look - dark, tailored, and professional -- is just not me.

Anyhow, I went to the first women's clothing store I came to, right by the entrance to the mall. I don't like to wander too far into any mall alone because I always get lost. Malls make me nervous. Ever notice how you can never find a clock or a window in a mall? Nothing to keep you grounded in real time? It's like being in the twilight zone. And I can't be the only person who gets lost in malls. All those circuitous paths. My architect students tell me that malls are designed so that you can't find your way out, planned deliberately to force customers to wander through shops for eternity. Someone like me, who has a dismal sense of direction and a gut dislike of shopping, has no chance in a mall.

Anyhow, this store was filled with soft music, thick carpeting, and racks of clothing that were carefully color-coordinated. The customers were skinny middle-aged white women with dyed blonde hair cut chin-length. The mannequins looked serious and kind of mean. Well-dressed, but intimidating. Nice clothing stores always seem to have mannequins that look like they got shipped by mistake from a martial arts studio.

I grabbed black pants in my size and quickly ducked into the dressing room. Wow, the light seemed bright. I really prefer the dimly lit mirrors I have at home to the dreadfully well-lit mirrors that dressing rooms always have. I never think about clothes much, so it is a shock to look into the mirror and realize that my t-shirt should have been turned into a rag years ago. And the big problem with buying pants is that I am too tall to wear petite sizes, but regular pants are often several feet too long. Who are all those women with eight-foot legs? What I really should do is hem a pair of pants but I am too lazy to do that.

I noticed that the dressing room smelled kind of funny. Almost like cow manure, a smell strangely out of place in this store full of sophisticated women, all of whom were better dressed than I was. So I went into a different dressing room to pull off my jeans and sneakers, the sneakers I had just grabbed hastily off the front porch on my way out to do errands. Funny, but the smell followed me.

That's when I realized that the smell was coming from my sneakers.

Yeah, they really shouldn't even let me in those stores.

November 05, 2005

Friday lunch at the lake

Yesterday, classes were cancelled campus-wide for the holiday, so mid-morning I picked up my Smart Wonderful Beautiful Daughter and we took my parents to lunch. We drove out to BigLake, to a restaurant that has big windows overlooking the water. During my childhood, my Dad used to keep his sailboat on BigLake in the fall; we both reminisced about the many wonderful sails we had. This time of year, you can smell leaves burning and can hear the sound of a chainsaw as someone somewhere cuts firewood.

My wedding reception was at this restaurant, 21 years ago, on an August Day when the sky above the lake was a rare blue. My Dad and his friends provided the music, my youngest sister decorated the tables with flowers from my Mom's garden, and Blonde Sister made all the favors. Red-haired Sister was married on the lawn of the restaurant in front of the lake some years later. During the ceremony, my youngest sister sneaked around and handed guests bubble wands and bottles of soapy liquid. When Red-haired Sister turned with her new husband to walk up through the rows of chairs, the sky was filled with bubbles. She loved this wonderfully tacky surprise.

The restaurant was a bit crowded yesterday, so the owner ended up coming to take our orders. He and my father - old friends -- exchanged their usual jokes about the beer on tap. We ate slowly, talking the whole time. Daughter talked about her friends, her studies, and the next concert she was going to. ("Coheed and Cambria?" my father asked, incredulously, "That is the name of a band?" And he nearly spit out his beer when she said she had seen the Shins. "What a funny name.") Despite their shared love of music, the generation gap is apparent with grandfather and granddaughter talk. We talked about Daughter's plan to spend a semester in London. Twenty-five years ago, I spent a semester in London, and my parents came over to visit.

Daughter gave us what news she had heard from her cousins, SchoolTeacher Niece and Red-haired Niece. My mother repeated a conversation she had had that morning with Urban Sophisticate Sister. I told them I had given With-a-Why permission to play an online game that evening with Suburban Nephew, in honor of Suburban Nephew's birthday. My father commented that news travels so fast amongst the women in our family that by the time he tells anyone anything, it is always old news. Cell phones have only accelerated this process.

This morning, my mother called to say again how much she enjoyed the lunch. "Daughter is just the nicest young woman," she said, "Smart. Self-confident. Articulate. Poised. You could not ask for a nicer daughter." Of course, I agreed.

November 04, 2005

Friday Waterfall Blogging

During my August raft trip through the Grand Canyon, I hiked many side canyons and saw countless gorgeous waterfalls. One day, when the group had split up and gone off in several directions, some hiking and some napping, I wandered down through a narrow side canyon to admire a waterfall. But as I stared at the waterfall, I noticed something strange. A hand appeared, waving to me through the spray. Then a foot. It was Storyteller Boatman, who had somehow climbed behind the waterfall.

Of course, I had to try this myself. When I got to the base of the waterfall, I could see a little mossy cave right behind the rushing water. Storyteller Boatman showed me how to climb up through the water and pull myself onto the slippery ledge. The crashing of the water was so loud that we couldn't really talk, but just smiled at each other through the spray.

Looking out, all I could see was water, churned white, pouring down. The cave was cool and wet from spray. After hiking all morning in desert heat, up high rocks and across narrow paths in hot sun, it felt wonderful to sit behind the waterfall, just soaking in that coolness.

Sometimes now when I am in an impatient mood, I think of that cave, that niche, that cool shady spot where I was able to sit quietly for a bit, out of the stream, and let all that rushing, churning water tumble past.

November 03, 2005

The last nice day

We are ready for winter. The firewood is stacked, some in the garage and some out by the pond. I've moved the mittens, scarves, and hats from the big bin in the garage onto the racks in the laundry room. We have had our first snow, although it did not last long, and brightly coloured winter coats have appeared everywhere on campus and in my home community.

Usually, though, in October (well, with global warming, it's now sometimes November), we get one unusually warm day, one last sunny day on which I can take a walk in the wood without a coat or gloves. When I woke up this morning to sunshine flooding my bedroom, lighting up the cream coloured sheets and down quilt, I opened the window to feel a soft wind, and I knew that today was probably it: the last nice day, that one bonus day we get before we move into winter.

PoetWoman drove over to take a walk with me, and by the time she arrived, it was warm enough for just a sweatshirt. Leaving our coats in the house, we crossed the yard to my trail and then followed an old logging trail that leads deep into the woods. We tramped through the fallen leaves, savoring the smell of them. Now that the thick vegetation of summer has died back, I noticed mosses everywhere, lovely soft bright green moss wrapped around logs and stumps, shining brilliantly amongst crumpled brown and yellow leaves.

PoetWoman brought her camera so we stopped to take photos. We hiked through the forest of Scotch pines and then through mixed hardwoods, most of them bare. The young beech trees still retained their leaves, shining yellow gold. Near the stand of hemlock, we sat on a big fallen tree to talk and enjoy the sounds and smells of the woods.

I've been struggling with headaches these last couple of weeks, shutting off the flourescent lights in my classrooms and taking naps to ward off a full-blown migraine. But in the woods with PoetWoman, comfortably seated on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree, the sun touching my face and the wind warm, I could feel the tension drain from my body, and my head began to feel better for the first time in days.

We eventually made our way back to the house to eat the minestrone soup that had been simmering on the stove while we were walking. Reluctant to be indoors on this last nice day, we sat on the back step, talking, enjoying how warm and soft the wind was. When a lady bug began crawling across the leg of my jeans, PoetWoman took her camera out to get a close-up shot, wanting to capture the orange on blue. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, we listened to the sound of dry leaves blowing across the yard, birds calling in the woods, and the wind chimes singing above our heads.

November 02, 2005

Here's what Bender really says

Tonight With-a-Why was doing his homework right next to me while I was working at my desk. When I clicked over to my blog to read comments and admire once again Dr. MMmmmm's wonderful design, he saw the photo of himself dressed as the robot Bender. He hung over my shoulder saying, "You should let me read the story" until I gave up and let him read the post as well as the comments. Like Boy in Black, With-a-Why is a stickler for detail, and I sensed he was checking the story for accuracy.

With-a-Why: Mom!
Me: What is it?
With-a-Why: You got something wrong.
Me: What?
With-a-Why: It's not "Kiss my shiny metal ass."
With-a-Why: It's "Bite my shiny metal ass."
Me: I guess I remembered it wrong.
With-a-Why: You should change it.
Me: What? Doesn't it mean the same thing?
With-a-Why: I don't want people to think I would get a quote from Futurama wrong. People care about that kind of thing.
Me: Fine. I'll write a retraction.

With-a-Why: (reading the comments) How do people think you are funny?
Me: What do you mean?
With-a-Why: People say you are funny.
With-a-Why: But you aren't funny. We say funny things, and you just write it down.

November 01, 2005

Campfire in the classroom

One semester when I was teaching in a small classroom without windows, I complained to my students that the overhead lights were bringing on a migraine. One student, who also suffered from migraines, was sympathetic. She took a flashlight out of her coat pocket and suggested we turn off the lights. (At any given time, my students can usually produce a flashlight, a compass, or a knife.) My head was really bothering me - my vision gets blurry and I can't even read - so I agreed to have class by flashlight. It made sense at the time.

The class was a course in contemporary nature literature, about fifteen students who were mostly seniors; we all knew each other pretty well. The class before, we had been discussing the kind of learning that takes place in the classroom versus the kind of learning that happens in a forest, near a stream, or on a mountain. Experimenting with the classroom setup seemed like a good idea. We put the flashlight on the floor in the middle of the room and circled around it like it was a campfire.

Turning out all the lights did change the classroom dynamics. It was strange to not be able to see anyone's face. I admit, even though I had been teaching for years and we were talking about a text that I knew very well, I had a moment of panic at the thought that I could not look at my notes or even the text. I realized how dependent I was on reading quotes from the text, to articulating some kind of close reading to make my larger points. Unable to see my book, I moved more quickly to the overarching themes in the piece we were discussing, which happened to be the epilogue of Terry Tempest Williams' book Refuge, a piece that connects the high incidence of breast cancer in Mormon women in Utah to atomic testing in the desert.

What surprised us all, though, is how the quality of the discussion changed. I talked less, because of course, I couldn't see my notes. Protected by the darkness, the quietest students - the ones who don't usually talk unless they have to -- spoke up. The discussion got intense very quickly. Students talked about their own fears of cancer. They connected the text to larger cultural issues. The discussion was more personal than usual, more serious. Silences felt comfortable.

At the end of the class, we talked about how what it had been like to have class by flashlight. My students talked about how intimate discussions can be around a campfire and how much more willing people are to speak up when you can't see their faces.