December 31, 2005



We had more than fifty inches of snow before winter officially began, so for a while my woods were piled with white, everything muffled and quiet, even the wildlife. Then this week, warm winds whipped through, melting layers of snow. When I walked through the woods, water dripped from the trees, a constant trickle. Beneath the melting snowbanks, I could glimpse brilliant mosses and green ferns pressed tight against the ground.

My woods are nothing spectacular: no scenic vistas, no mountains to climb, no pristine wilderness. As I walk, I can see scars, marks left by other humans – old logging roads, lines of pines planted by the CCC, bits of barbed wire fences left by farmers, lines of old oak trees that once edged a farm field, the occasional fruit tree planted by someone long ago, and stumps, decaying stumps everywhere.

But every day, even though I take the same path, the woods are different. Today, the temperature had dropped, and all the melting piles of snow had frozen, the ground covered with weird grey puddles edged with curving lines of white. The ice crunched under my feet as I tramped through. I could tell the deer had been moving – tracks and scats everywhere. How much easier it is for them to find food when the thick layer of snow melts.

As I walked back to the house, it began to snow again, and the paths I had taken minutes earlier already looked different, the hemlocks holding the snow, the bark of the scotch pines turning white.

My woods change constantly. They are moody, you might say. I love that.

December 30, 2005


Most of them sophomores in college, they are home with their families for the holidays, and they have a few carefree weeks to hang out with all their old high school friends.
My daughter has been getting together with local friends to talk, eat junk food, and watch movies.

Not all of my daughter's high school friends are home, though. Some are missing. The kids who went into the military are overseas.

Daughter says that her friend Crewcut is in Iraq now but plans to be back this May. "He keeps saying that if he makes it back, we’ll all be just getting out of school for the summer and we will have a big party."

She paused, "He always says it like that … if I make it back…."

He is nineteen years old.

December 29, 2005

Ways of Seeing

The world looks different when your pupils are dilated.

Whenever we camp at a state park or any place that has big, well-lit public bathrooms, the kids and I do the night vision experiment. The experiment is pretty simple. You let your eyes get adjusted to the dark while sitting near a smoky campfire or talking a walk in the dark. Then when it’s time to go into the brightly lit bathroom before going to sleep at night, you keep your right eye closed and your left eye open.

For little kids, this means stumbling around with one hand over the eye while your parent tries to get you to brush your teeth or wash your face or use the toilet. Many of my friends have cursed me for teaching their kids to do this experiment. I think it's funny to watch all these kids in their pajamas, clutching toothbrushes and teddy bears, determinedly keeping one hand over their right eye. And it's worth the effort. Because then, when you leave the bright lights of the bathroom and walk back into the dark woods, you will have one eye with a fully dilated pupil and one eye with a pupil that is tiny. It's fun to stare into each other's eyes and see how bizarre this looks.

Of course, the real point of the experiment -- and you have to do this fast because your eyes will start adjusting again -- is to look at the dark world with first one eye, and then the other. Look out of your left eye, and the woods will seem dark, scary, impenetrable. Then close the left and look from the right eye, the one with the fully dilated pupil, and suddenly, the world is lighter. The dark masses look like distinct trees. The paths are clear.

Sometimes when I am having a hard time seeing something -- grasping, for instance, another person's perspective when it is completely different from mine – I remind myself about the night vision experiment, and how completely different the world can look when my pupil is dilated. I remind myself to be patient. I know from experience that sometimes I have to sit in the dark for 45 minutes before the full benefit of the night vision kicks in. And sometimes even then, I need to wait for moonlight.

Edited to add: If you are going to try this experiment with your kids, be sure to read the comments below.

December 28, 2005

Makes me scream

It happens every year at holiday time. The local newspaper runs a romantic heartwarming story, complete with photos, about a couple getting engaged at the skating rink or in front of the big Christmas tree downtown or some other public spot that looks like a Hollywood cliche. We see a big photo of the couple, often with the woman crying and the man looking smug.

Always, it is the same story, with the same plot. The man decides to propose to his girl. (And yes, I use those words deliberately. Always, the male in the couple is referred to as a man, and the woman is referred to as his girl. And does it go without saying that the couple is never same sex? Have I mentioned how conservative this newspaper is?) We get a whole paragraph about how the man decided he was going to propose, and bought a ring, and how hard he worked to make sure that the girl would be totally surprised.

Uh, totally surprised? Should any woman be surprised into making some kind of major decision like that?

And yet, we get quotes from the woman saying things like, "Oh, I was completely surprised. I had no idea." And the readers sigh at how romantic that is.

Maybe it's me, but I just fail to see the appeal.

I am not against the idea of marriage. I have been known to enthusiastically congratulate two people who talk over the idea of marriage and make a mutual decision to make a commitment to each other.

But that is never how the romantic newspaper story reads. No. The man decides he wants to marry the woman, and he asks her to marry him. And he makes sure he does it in a big public way. So she is completely surprised when he asks her, and she has to give her answer in front of a crowd of people, including a newspaper photographer.

That story does not make me smile. It makes me want to scream.

December 26, 2005

Quiet evening at home

It's been an overcast day, dark and cloudy. Unseasonably warm weather has melted part of the big snow ramp my kids have built out in front of the house, but thankfully the temperatures are beginning to drop. And it's snowing. Within a few hours, the snow ramp will be ready for use again, but right now, we are all in by a crackling fire.

From my spot on the couch, I can keep an eye on the whole household. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew are settled at the table, putting together a big lego castle, both concentrating intensely. Blonde Niece and Drama Niece, who have been trying on each other's Christmas gifts, are giggling together at the other end of the couch. Boy in Black and Skater Boy are sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, playing their guitars. Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy are clustered around the comfy chair, looking to see what Shaggy Hair Boy is doing on Daughter's computer.

Red-haired Sister just left with Dandelion Niece and Little Russian Girl, heading back to my mother's house. First Extra just returned from the hardware store, where he bought new light bulbs for the floodlights that the kids put in the trees out front when they want to work on their snow ramp in the middle of the night. My Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter just called to say she is at the mall with Sailor Boy. Spouse is taking a trip to the grocery store to replenish our food supply. (Three gallons of chocolate milk will be gone by morning.)

From where I am sitting, I can hear bits of conversation. Blonde Niece is talking about her new boyfriend, the younger brother of Sailor Boy. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew are making all kinds of sound effects as they move lego figures around a castle. The older boys have shifted from playing their guitars to playing with yoyos. And Boy in Black is explaining to the other kids what he intends to make from the pile of PVC pipe he got for Christmas. "Bo staffs." Of course.

Strangest Christmas present

Boy in Black asked for, and received, several six-foot lengths of half-inch PVC pipe from the hardware store.

And several rolls of duct tape.

December 25, 2005



On Christmas Eve, most of us in the family gather at my mother's house to do what we do at every holiday – eat and talk. Towards the end of the evening, we have the candle ceremony. I bring boxes of white emergency candles from home and hand them out. My mother and Blond Brother-in-law save the aluminum foil from the plates of cookies, rip it into small squares, and hand each person a square to wrap around the base of the candle.

We crowd into the living room, nineteen of us this year, with six or more piling onto the couch, my parents in their rocking chairs, and everyone else jammed together on the floor. We begin with the room dark except for the soft coloured lights of the Christmas tree.

The tradition, as each person lights a candle, is to say something you are thankful for. The hardest part of the tradition is that if you are one of the people to go last, everyone else in the room has already used the things you were going to say – gratitude for family, friends, good health. I remember the year Boy in Black was born. Blonde Sister began by lighting a candle and saying, “I’m thankful for Boy in Black,” and everyone in the room screamed at her, "No fair! That's the one I was going to use!"

The corny and touching things people say are interspersed with funny and sarcastic speeches from many of the teenagers – and a few of the adults as well. Sometimes the words of gratitude are surprisingly specific: "I'm thankful the transit strike is over." Shaggy Hair Boy always sits next to his favorite aunt, Blonde Sister, and keeps blowing her candle out when she is not looking, just so she will have to keep lighting it again. The youngest children are always eager to light their candles, but then long pauses follow as they struggle for something to say.

Boy in Black was the last person to light his candle this year. By the time it was his turn, the whole room was glowing with little flames. He said simply, "I’m thankful that my family knows me so well that I don't even have to say what I’m thankful for."

December 24, 2005

Alone in the woods


The woods is where I go to be alone, away from family and friends, away from the busyness and stress of life, alone with my thoughts and feelings. It's where I go to cry, to rejoice, to grieve.

Back in the grove of old Scotch pines, which is the center of the woods for me, a dead tree balanced over a little creek is one of my favorite spots. I always stop to walk back and forth on the tree, learning to balance. I've often thought that if I could just get my body to figure out how to balance, perhaps my emotional and spiritual life will follow. At the base of the pine trees, I will usually toss my coat down to make a seat, because sitting in the presence of the woods brings me peace.

December 23, 2005

Felt, glue, and yarn

I come from a family that values homemade gifts. None of us like shopping, and some of us are downright anti-consumerism, but all of us appreciate time and effort spent making and choosing presents, even when they don't always come out well.

Perhaps the first gift any child in the family learns to make is the bookmark. Made from stiff paper, felt, or cardboard, bookmarks are something everyone needs. You can never have too many bookmarks. At least that is what my mother always says as a grandchild hands her yet another bookmark. I think she's gotten enough bookmarks over the years to keep one in every book. Luckily, she reads a lot.

My older kids always give their grandparents chore coupons, carefully printed pieces of paper, each worth one chore. When the kids were younger, the chores would be something simple, like helping with the dishes after a holiday meal. But as my parents have gotten older and the kids have gotten bigger and stronger, the coupons have soared in value. My father is a stubborn, independent man who doesn't like to admit, as he gets older, that he needs help with anything, but for some reason, he feels perfectly comfortable calling in the chore coupons. One summer, Boy in Black helped him put a new roof on. My father loved having the company and the help of a young person with boundless energy. And Boy in Black learned how to do roofing.

Before my oldest nieces started going to college and grad school, it was a tradition for the grandchildren to get together and make a video tape each year. They would come up with a plot, write a script, get together costumes, and plan props. Urban Sophisticate Sister, who was part of this project, would come home one weekend in December, rent a camcorder, and shoot the whole thing in a day. The movie would be unveiled on Christmas Eve, when the extended family would be together at my mother's house. We'd all crowd into the small living room, sitting on the couches and chairs and floor, to watch the movie over and over again, while the grandchildren would tell all the funny stories that happened during the making of it.

We still have all the Christmas videotapes, and we will watch them tomorrow night at my mother's house as we gather once again for Christmas Eve. The videotapes are not without their precedent. We've got movies made during my childhood – movies complete with corny plots, dreadfully stereotypical costumes, and subtitles. They are silent movies because they were shot on a movie camera and later transferred to video. It is just as well. When we watch the movies, we all scream and laugh so much that we wouldn't be able to hear any dialogue anyhow.

Some of the older grandchildren are working now and have money to buy presents for family members, but I think the best presents are still the homemade ones. Tonight I helped With-a-Why wrap the boondoggle keychains that he made for everyone in the family, carefully choosing each person's favorite colours. I am hoping that in secret he made me one too.

December 22, 2005

Bits of myself

When I was a kid, my father and I used to take a trip into the city every Christmas Eve to "make the rounds." That meant visiting his family members, his aunts and uncles, all of whom lived in the same ethnic neighborhood on the north side of the city.

First we would stop at the tobacco shop to buy a cigar for his uncle. Ducking into that fragrant shop, after running through cold winds across an icy pavement, was the most wonderful experience. At first, I would just stand still inside the warmth, breathing in the rich fruity smells of all kinds of tobacco. Then I would wander to the glass jars, opening them to taste the aroma. My father would announce to the shop owner that he needed just one cigar, "the best cigar in the place."

The homes we visited that afternoon were apartments, sandwiched in with small businesses. Uncle Tailor and Aunt Soap Opera lived behind the tailor shop, both of them always listening for the bell that jingled when a customer opened the front door, always ready to go swishing through the racks of clothes. Uncle Tobacco and Aunt Talker lived on the top floor of a building, in apartment that slanted back away from the street as if it were pulling away from the traffic.

In every kitchen, food was cooking on the stove in preparation for Christmas. Aunt Soap Opera was always making meatballs with sauce. Aunt Talker was always preparing fish and washing artichokes. In each house, we’d sit at the kitchen table, watching the women work. Aunt Talker would give me a cup of black coffee and a shot of brandy. I would drink them both. Every home had a wall filled with black and white photos, framed and hanging crookedly. How strange it would be to stare into those photos and see bits of myself.

All the relatives we visited every Christmas Eve – and I kept going on the visits even when I was in college – are dead now. When Aunt Talker died, they put her rosary in the coffin. When Uncle Tobacco died, they put his pipe in his hands and his dice in his pocket. He had lived in that same slanting apartment for more than eighty years.

In many ways, I have resisted the heritage I get from my father's side of the family. In reaction to those dark, stuffy urban apartments, I have chosen to live in a house full of sunlight out in the country. I learned at an early age how to take a shot of liquor, downing it in one gulp, but then I gave up drinking over twenty years ago. I've never taken anyone to a field at the edge of town and put a bullet in his head.

But the older I get, I realize that I am more like my father's family than I ever realized. His family was filled with artists and musicians, and I still value those things, nurture the artistic and musical talents of my children. I'm tone deaf, but I think of rhythms when I write. I talk with my hands, like all the women in the family. I like making large quantities of food for relatives, basking in the smells of chopped basil, onions, and garlic. I have stayed stubbornly in the same area for my whole life, refusing to relocate for any reason. I can lose my temper over any little thing. And I still celebrate Christmas as a time to be with family.

December 21, 2005

Sirens on Sunday morning

It was a peaceful Sunday morning. I had just put the tea kettle on the stove, and the sleeping bodies strewn about the living room were just beginning to move. Suddenly, loud sirens came screeching down the road. From the window, I could see flashing lights, police cars, and a firetruck – all stopping at the end of my driveway. For a brief moment, I thought – oh, damn, is our house on fire?

But then I looked out see that it was just Santa Claus, terrorizing the neighborhood with loud noise and candy canes. The teenagers and kids, mostly half-dressed, rushed out to grab the free candy. The young man riding with Santa came down off the truck to talk to Blonde Niece and Drama Niece. The young cops in the patrol cars were playing with the sirens the way little kids would. One of the young men said to me, curiously, "How many kids do you have, anyhow?"

The fire department Santa never misses our house, despite the fact that we live on a deadend country road well outside Train Track Village. And despite the fact that we don't really have any little kids here either. I don't want to start rumors about Santa but I am beginning to think that he favors houses that feature teenage girls running outside in their sleepwear.


December 20, 2005


Friday night, a group of us were gathered in a formal dining room, with big plates of food in front of us, talking and laughing and eating, enjoying the annual holiday party at the home of AutoShopOwner. As I looked into the mirror hanging on the wall, admiring the way it reflected the whole table full of desserts, I noticed the man in the red sweater wandering into the room. Red Sweater did not even have a plate in his hand. He had eaten nothing. He came in to say good night to us because he was tired and heading home. During all the hugging that ensued, I could see that he was crying.

Just a few months ago, his wife died from a massive heart. They had been married for twenty years. This was the second time he has been widowed. As I watched him walking through the party, I could see how difficult this was for him, to be at the same party, with the same food, wearing the same red sweater. Having everything the same made that one glaring absence in his life ache just that much more.

And at the high school choir concert last Wednesday night, I saw that Stoic Guy, whom I have known since ninth grade, was sitting alone. When I went over to talk to him after the kids were done singing, he told me that he has separated from his wife after twenty years of marriage and will soon be getting divorced. He gave me these details tersely, and said he just wanted to survive family Christmas parties. How strange it seemed to be talking about such a serious matter while standing in the same high school auditorium where we'd both gone to school, where we had spent so many carefree days.

Amidst all the warmth and comforting rituals of the holiday season, we notice more acutely the losses in our community. We have families whose children are in Iraq, who will come home eventually with emotional scars. One family has lost their son, a boy who went to school with my niece, killed in combat at the end of the summer. Another family is still grieving the son who returned from Iraq safely and then committed suicide.

This week Red-haired Sister called to say that she was bringing one of her extras home for Christmas with her, a little girl who speaks fluent Russian and is just a little younger than With-a-Why. We'll all be happy to see Russian Girl, of course, but it means that her mother must be again either missing or in prison, and her father has likely left the country.

Even as I gather my own healthy, smart, wonderful children around the fire or take time to spend with my husband or pile everyone in the car to go to my parents' house on Christmas Eve, I can't help but think of all the people in my community, both my home community and my blog community, for whom the holiday season is the most difficult time of the year.

December 19, 2005

The warmth of sunlight and fire

Spouse and I do not exchange gifts at Christmas -- I’ve never really bought into the idea of Christmas as an occasion for consumerism -- but one tradition we have kept for the 21 years we've been married. We always take one day off during the week before Christmas to spend together, a whole day away from the holiday busyness. A day to stay home in front of the fire, eat Chinese take-out, and do nothing but enjoy each other’s company.

When my kids were little, I would send them to my mother's house or my sister's house. Once the kids were in school, it became easier to plan the day. We would just make sure it fell on a day when the kids were still in school. Of course, now that our Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is in college and has the same calendar as me, I found that I had to do some negotiating to get a peaceful, relaxed day with my husband. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Listen, Dad and I want to have a special day on Monday. Perhaps you could go visit Red-haired Cousin for the day?
Daughter: You kicking me out?
Me: Not exactly. It's just that Dad and I want some special time together.
Daughter: Special time? That what we're calling it?
Me: It's a tradition for us to take a day, and just relax in front of the fire.
Daughter: You're kicking me out so that you can have sex in front of the fire?
Me: Well, I don't think you would want to be home for that.
Daughter: (raising her voice and talking to her brothers) Can you believe that they're kicking me out so they can have sex in the living room?

Boy in Black looks up, opens his mouth, says nothing, and leaves the room. Daughter and I both laugh.

Me: Just remember, some day, you'll be asking me to babysit your kids so that you can have time with your husband.
Daughter: Just remember, some day, I'll be the one to take care of you so you don't have to go into a nursing home.
Me: So we're even.
Daughter: Can I take your car?
Me: Sure.
Daughter: And your credit card?
Me: (rolling my eyes) Whatever it takes.

December 18, 2005

Sad music

Pachelbel's Canon in D

I know it's supposed to be sappy
wedding music that makes people cry
tears of joy and smell orange blossoms
or something like that but my daughter
was practicing it every morning
the week before we moved and I remember
Croaky, skinny with freckles, the neighbor boy,
stopping on his way to school to say
he was going to see the new Star Wars movie,
he failed another math test, his father yelled
at him during softball practice because
maybe he is still mad at him for
calling 911, you know, the cops coming
to his house in the middle of the night, flashing
lights and all, that time his mother got beat up
and during that last week I kept giving
him hugs, we both tried not to cry
because we knew things would change,
had to change, we were leaving on Saturday,
leaving forever, and all the time
my daughter just kept her eyes
on the music, her fingers moving,
playing that song over and

December 17, 2005

Blue light at dusk

Across the road from my house is a big open field. The people who own it keep it mowed all summer long. I am not sure why. The only people to ever use the field are my children and the extra kids at my house. The field is great for games of Ultimate Frisbee. In the warmer months the field is often filled with our teenagers running up and down, yelling at each other, and leaping to catch a frisbee.

In the winter months, the field is covered with sparkling snowdrifts. Or sometimes, after a warm winter day, when the temperatures go above freezing, the snow gets soft, and everything begins to melt, a sudden change in weather at dusk will cause a mist to spread across the field, a rolling translucent whiteness that transforms the ordinary field into something mysterious.


December 16, 2005

Snow at dawn

Today was a day for cooking, for chopping up onions and peppers, for mincing garlic, for stirring pots of food and dumping in spices, for filling our house with good smells. Before participating in such domestic chores, though, I first put on my snowshoes for a walk through the woods.

An overnight storm had dumped another eight inches of new snow on the trees and the trails, fluffy snow that clung to the bare branches of beech and maple. The crooked Scotch pines, many of them gnarled and twisted into crooked shapes, held piles of snow high up off the ground. The woods are quiet after a heavy snowfall, the usual creaking and scampering noises muffled, and my footprints were the only tracks I saw.

I've been in a sad mood all week, despite attending three holiday concerts. Or perhaps because of the concerts. Music has a way of pulling sadness from different parts of my body, gathering the blueness into my throat. At the high school concert on Monday night, the concert band played a beautiful rendition of Pachelbel's Canon in D, a song that I think is hauntingly sad, and it took all my effort, sitting in the dark auditorium, not to cry.

The woods have the opposite effect. As I tramped through the snow, trudging past trees transformed and outlined in white, I could feel my body relaxing, the sadness lifting into snow, trees,sky. Against the blue light of early morning, the dark branches of the trees outlined a pattern that I could walk through. Snowflakes clung to my eyelashes and hair until the world grew blurry, and I could retreat into the sound of my own breathing. Near my favorite fallen tree, I sprawled on the ground to stare up at the treetops, many of which were bent over with the heavy snow.

By the time I returned to the warm house, my mood was peaceful, and I felt able to tackle the kitchen, the cooking, and the noisy houseful of children who had gotten an unexpected day off from school.

December 15, 2005

Holiday party

"How come you make the exact same food every year?" my husband asked. We are having our holiday party Saturday night, and we have divided up the chores in our usual way. He will clean the house, I will buy and make the food, and we will take turns threatening and bribing the children into helping us.

We've tried to keep the party small over the years by only inviting family and friends we've known so long that they seem like family, but since we have both lived in this area our whole lives, even that list gets pretty big. We will likely have anywhere from 60 to 100 guests at the party. If you saw the size of our house, you would realize how ridiculous the party is. We will have people standing in the bedrooms, the hallway, the laundry room, and every available space. We may do a bonfire in the backyard this year just to move some teenage bodies into a different space.

And the reason I make the same food every year is because it's efficient. Sure, it might be boring to eat the same meal over and over again, but when you have a whole year in between, I think people have time to cleanse their palette. I have a shopping list on my computer, and each year, after the party is over, I make any adjustments I think I will need for the next year. I can look at the list, for instance, and know that last year for the punch I used 12 quarts of Sprite, 6 containers of frozen lemonade, 6 big bottles of cranberry juice, a bag of lemons, and a bag of ice. People who want to be helpful and bring something, which is almost everyone who comes to the party, know what I am making so they know what to bring -- a whole lot of desserts to balance off all the healthy stuff.

And everyone knows ahead of time what their jobs are because everything stays the same from year to year. My mother is in charge of making batches of rice in the microwave and refilling the covered casserole dish we keep the rice in. My father is in charge of putting logs on the fire. Blonde Sister will make the garlic pizzas, cut them up, and pass them around. Blond Brother-in-law will adjust the seasonings on the big pots of chili, stir them occasionally, and refill the punch bowl when it gets low. My kids and nieces know to gather used bowls, mugs, and dirty silverware, and pile them into the laundry baskets on top of the washer and dryer, where they will sit until they can be washed the next day.

Everyone in the family knows to guard the piano and stop anyone from setting a drink on it. (The other musical instruments and various fragile items will be piled into my bedroom, which we then lock.) The boys' bedroom becomes the place where little kids can hang out: we have big bins of wooden train tracks and trains because I used to take trips to a place where I could buy them wholesale. The teenagers will crowd into my daughter's tiny bedroom, piled on the bed and sitting on the floor on top of a big pile of coats.

The big crush of people will arrive at 6 pm and stay until about 10 pm. Then the second party will begin – a more relaxed group who will sit in front of the fire and start eating again. Some of us will do some clean-up in the kitchen area while others will bring the musical instruments out of hiding and begin to play.

Almost every person who comes to the party will be someone I've known for at least twenty years – or since birth, in many cases. For example, Oldest Friend and I went to kindergarten together. She will come with her husband, whom I have known since first grade, and perhaps bring her mother, who was the fourth grade teacher for all of my siblings and my two oldest kids. The teenagers and college students at the party will all be young people I've known since birth: always at least one young person will bring a new boyfriend or girlfriend to meet everyone. (I've heard that it's a pretty intimidating experience.)

As much as I love making new friends, it's nice at least once a year to get together with old friends, with people I've known most of my life. It's nice to chat with their kids and catch up with their spouses. It's nice to stand in the kitchen and joke about stuff that happened years ago. And I like the security of knowing that ten years from now, we will likely still be doing this, gathering in my home at the holidays, talking and laughing, and eating the same food I serve year after year.

December 14, 2005

Winter sunlight

My Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter is home from college, but she still has a few projects to finish and send in electronically before the end of the week. I am in the same situation. My classes are done, but I've a stack of portfolios to grade and letters of recommendation to write before I can relax.

So this morning, we were both home working. Well, sort of working. We did stop to watch an episode of the Gilmore Girls on her laptop. I don't know where my daughter learned her procrastination skills, but they certainly rival mine.

Late morning, as we drove to the elementary school for With-a-Why's Christmas concert, we compared notes on how little we had gotten done and how much work we still had left to do before the end of the week. The work includes, incidentally, some cleaning, some grocery shopping, and cooking for about 80 people because we have a big party at our house on Saturday.

But when we walked into the little brick elementary school, we both relaxed. The elementary school, which is the same school I went to as a child, has not changed much in forty years. The green tiled walls still have crayon drawings taped to them, and boots are still lined up in the hall outside each classroom. We were early, and the children were still all in the classrooms, but we made our way to the gym, which was filled with big squares of winter sunlight.

As we sat down on the bleachers, my daughter nudged me. Across the gym, three girls sat on the floor in a patch of sun, cutting shapes out of construction paper, happily chatting with each other.

"Elementary school is so wonderful," Daughter said. "The kids don’t have to do any work."

She stared across the room enviously, "I mean, those girls are just sitting there cutting things out of construction paper."

We both sighed.

And that's my plan for next week. After we get done with college stuff and home holiday stuff and all that needs to be done, maybe we will sit on the floor in the sunlight somewhere and cut things out of brightly coloured paper.

December 13, 2005

Time to dance


Too much time sitting at my desk, grading papers and writing letters of recommendations, is just not healthy for me. When I am feeling miserable, I need to put on my boots to go hike in the woods -- or strip naked to feel the sun on my skin. Or sometimes, I put on my pantaloons, pick up my zills, crank up the music, and dance.

December 12, 2005

What we learned this semester

On the last day of class, I handed out index cards for our last collaborative piece of writing. I told my first year students to write something they learned this semester, in any class or in the residence hall. Then we shuffled the cards together and read them aloud. Here is what one class came up with:

I learned that inner molecular forces determine the physical properties of a compound.

I learned that plants have hormones.

I learned that Snowstorm City does indeed have worse weather than any other place I have ever been.

I learned that ingesting nutmeg can make a person trip.

Parenchyma cells are highly vacuolate.

Shopping carts are fun.

Looking at bad situations with humor is the only way to not go crazy.

Nyquil is a wonderful drug.

I learned that I like to write.

I learned that I could be very different from people I lived with and still get along with them.

Orange juice goes bad in the fridge.

Sleep is both a precious and scarce resource.

I learned to put up with people, like my roommate.

I learned that I really care about chemistry.

I learned that you can get written up for hitting on an RA while inebriated.

I learned that people aren’t always as mature as they seem. I also learned that in a time of need, unexpected people come through for me.

I learned that I still don’t enjoy writing but I think I am better at it.

I learned that Christianity was a cult in the Roman Empire before Constantine made it the official religion.

I learned that it is sometimes too much effort to sleep or bathe.

I learned how to write geometric isomers.

One thing I learned this semester is that I have to work harder next semester.

I learned a lot. Mainly how very different and unique people can be.

Freewriting is a good way to get ideas onto paper so that I can then organize them.

I learned not to let garbage sit in my room for three weeks.

I learned to write faster.

When one person in a community gets sick, everyone gets sick.

The endosperm is a 3n triploid.

Trees are amazing.

Timing is everything.

I learned that I really enjoy all aspects of science.

I learned that I can write poetry.

Water secretion by the hydathodes is called guttation.

I learned that it was possible for me to read my own writing aloud to a large group of people without passing out.

The sheer amount of writing we did this semester changed my way of thinking about writing. It takes me less time to write papers now because I know that I just have to do it.

I learned to believe in myself.

I learned to appreciate sleep.

December 11, 2005

The world is full of zanies and fools

Friday night, I drove to Camera City to see Drama Niece in a school play. She goes to a special school for the arts, and they take their plays very seriously. That means gorgeous costumes and set designs. It also means that they tend to actually stick to the script, which is most unfortunate, because they were performing Cinderella and the script could seriously use some tweaking to bring it up to date.

I couldn’t help but think of the changes I would have made if I were in charge of the play. For instance, when the king and queen were fretting over their son, wondering how they could find him a woman, planning the ball as a ritual of heterosexual pairing, I so wanted the Prince to walk in and announce that he was gay.

If I were Cinderella and I was trying to seduce a man, I think I would stick with the peasant outfit she wore in the first scene, with its tight-fitting bodice that showed the shape of her breasts, the lowcut white peasant blouse, and the brown skirt that kept hiking up to show bare nicely shaped legs. I mean, that whole outfit was just way sexier than the puffy princess dress, with all the frills, the heavy make-up, and her hair pulled severely back. That godmother sure as hell didn’t do her any favors.

The fairy godmother's dress was beautiful, pink and glittery, but she must get tired of always smiling sweetly. Even a fairy godmother ought to be able to have a bad day once in a while and throw a few lightning bolts around just for the heck of it, or tell the annoying whining Cinderella to fuck off. It is hard to believe that a woman would have all kinds of amazing magical powers and then use them simply to conjure up another princess costume.

Of course, I blame Cinderella for that. I mean, if you were a poor peasant girl and you had just one wish, would you use it to turn a plain yellow pumpkin into a golden carriage? Maybe she should have asked for college tuition instead.

The one good part of the play was that that it was not totally sexist. I mean, the male characters were pathetic too. The prince, who was not charming in the least and had not a single line that revealed any sort of intelligence, curiosity, or wit, had this pathetic scene in which he says he will never be complete unless he finds a woman. Specifically, he needed the woman in the princess costume he had known for ten minutes. It was all I could do not to leap from the audience screaming, "Honey, you need therapy!"

Of all the myths about romantic love that I detest, this idea that a person is incomplete without a spouse is perhaps the one I despise the most. Who would want to marry a pathetic Prince who thinks he is incomplete without a woman? Especially an arrogant Prince who just assumes that every woman would want to marry him. Who would want to marry the peasant woman who thinks her only route to happiness is to marry Old Money? Especially one who is as mild and meek as a mouse. Ugh. Fuck. I mean, fol-de rol and fiddle dee dee.

I think the fairy godmother was completely irresponsible. She not only listened to Cinderella’s pathetic plan to go to the ball, but went along with the plan. I would have had more respect for the fairy godmother if she’d slapped Cinderella upside the head. And clearly the king and queen should have swallowed their royal pride and sent the son to therapy before listening to one more sappy song about how he was lying in the loneliness of evening. Clearly, the prince needs to figure out who he is, and become complete and confident, a whole person himself, before he is ready for marriage. Sheesh.

The part with the glass slipper has never made any sense anyhow. We are expected to believe that Cinderella's feet are such an unusual size that no other woman in the entire kingdom could wear her shoes? Yeah, that is attractive. I thought the way to update that scene would be to make the item of clothing she left behind a bra. I mean, we all know that getting a bra to fit correctly is indeed difficult. And that would explain what the two were doing on the balcony during the musical interlude. If she'd left a bra behind at midnight, Prince's panting pursuit of her would make a bit more sense. The scene where all the village girls line up to be fitted, eagerly thrusting their bare feet at the royal guard, would be far livelier if it were a bra they were trying on. And unusually sized breasts seem somehow more appealing than unusually sized feet.

In the end, I guess I just had a hard time rallying enthusiasm for a heroine who acts the part of the helpless woman, sitting alone in her own little corner in her own little chair, waiting for a fairy godmother or rich man to rescue her. The only person in the whole damned play that I could admire was the evil stepmother. Okay, maybe she was a little bossy, but at least she had personality.

December 10, 2005

Recycling the love

Tonight's Christmas party will be with friends we've known for years. We gather at someone's house, everyone bringing food. One of the traditions for this party is the recycled gift exchange. To participate in the gift exchange, you take something from your house that you don't want any more – that ice bucket you got for your wedding, that weird clock your aunt gave you, that ugly mug you've always hated – and wrap it up. At the party, we draw numbers from a hat, and open gifts in turn. When it's your turn, you get to choose a gift from the pile and open it, or steal a gift from someone else. Some of the gifts are actually nice, but most are simply funny, and always people start fighting over some ridiculous item. Eventually, after a great deal of joking around, everyone ends up with something to bring home, although the couple who host the party always claim that they see people shoving unwanted gifts under the couch. I am looking around the house right now to see what we can bring this year.

December 09, 2005

Pa rum pa pum pum


I figured that holiday music was going to be the Friday meme this week, so here I offer you our drummer boy. If you notice, he is not merely playing the drums, he is studying the music carefully and practicing to get the rhythms exactly right. Boy in Black is the kind of kid who gets everything exactly right.

I remember the day that Boy in Black, who was a scrawny little kid at the time, decided to learn how to ride a bike. We didn’t have training wheels or anything like that, but we did have a small bike we’d picked up at a garage sale. Without help from anyone, Boy in Black took the bike out on my parents’ driveway and practiced going up and down, over and over again, his face red with exertion and his t-shirt soaked with sweat. By the end of the afternoon, he knew how to ride a bike.

Boy in Black is the most focused person I have ever met. When he begins a homework project, an essay for AP English or a lab for AP Physics, he begins at the beginning and does not stop until he is finished. And he is persistent, if nothing else. You will notice that he is still wearing the concert wristband that he got on September 24th. I think that might be his proudest accomplishment to date.

December 08, 2005

Stress relief

Every year, sandwiched in between the last day of classes and the first day of finals, we get an extra day. I think the administration calls this a reading day, but students think of it as stress relief day, a day to do crazy things to relieve the stress of the semester before beginning those final papers and studying for those final exams. We have a student group who plans activities for this day, and often other student groups will join in with fund-raisers for worthwhile causes.

One year students could pay money to throw a pie plate of whipped cream at a professor.

Naturally, students coerced me into participating. I'd like to think that they extended me the invitation because they think I’m a good sport, but I think it's more likely they chose the faculty member who could be counted on to wear jeans and an old sweatshirt to campus that day. Determined not to face the plates of whipped cream alone, I dragged my colleague PoetFriend from his office and made him come with me.

I thought the students might hesitate to toss whipped cream at the person who would be grading their portfolios but I could not have been more wrong. Within minutes, both PoetFriend and I were covered from head to toe with whipped cream. I had so much whipped cream in my hair that I could pull it up and arrange it into all kinds of weird sculptures on my head. Since I never wear my hair pulled up, students kept stopping to comment on the hairstyle. "Hey, your hair looks nice like that," they would say sincerely, before winging another plate of white stuff right at me.

Because a photographer from a local news station showed up at the event, many of the suits from the administration appeared, although they hung near the edge of the room, not wanting to get any whipped cream onto their clothes. Covered by then with layers and swirls of sticky whiteness, I kept walking over and threatening to hug people -- many of them people who do not normally get a friendly hug from me -- and they kept backing away nervously. It was such a feeling of power.

My students love whipped cream fights, snowball wars, dunking booths, water fights -- anything that is messy and fun, and gives them a chance to work off some of their pent-up stress. I admit that I love this kind of thing too. Up at camp in the summer, my extended family sometimes gets into playful battles in which we hurl water, mud, and weeds at each other. I am quite good at balancing on an inner tube while tossing a handful of weeds and muck at someone. Always, that kind of energy release feels good. I think we could all use more mudfights in our lives.

December 07, 2005

Winter morning


On winter mornings, the house is still dark and cold when the alarm clock rings. Spouse wakes up the kids, or at least tries to wake them up by calling their names in a series that gets more and more urgent, and then goes to the kitchen to put water on the stove for cocoa and tea. I'll drag myself out of the warm bed and stumble downstairs, pretending to be awake and cheerful, but not fooling anyone. Spouse has long been in charge of getting everyone up and out of the house in the morning; I am not to be relied upon at that hour of the day.

Always, one of the cats is at the back door, wanting to come in or go out. When I slide open the big glass door, the fresh cold air will hit my face and breeze right through my cotton shirt, waking me up, no matter how tired I am. Later in the day, sunlight will make the snow sparkle, and sunlight will fill my living room, creating patches of warmth for humans and cats. But early in the morning, the outside world glows with blue light, and the woods behind my house are a dark silhouette.

December 06, 2005

Deck the halls and dim the lights

Every year right before the holidays, I look around the house and think – gee, I should do some cleaning before we start having lots of company over. Even though the color of our carpeting, bought purposely to match mud, chocolate, and cat barf, does hide most stains, it would probably be a good idea to rent one of those carpet cleaner things. And the light-coloured walls are covered with fingerprints and scuff marks and all kinds of dents: I really should get out the paint and do some touch ups. Spouse will look at the walls and say things like, "Maybe we shouldn’t let the kids rollerblade in the house," but in our climate, thoughts like that are patently ridiculous. It is true that the wild games of Monster do take their toll on the interior of a house. I suppose I could wash or paint the white windowsills, too, to make them look more respectable.

Since Spouse will be at work and the kids at school next week, getting help from them is not an option. No, it will be all up to me, the person home with a stack of portfolios to grade. For a brief moment, I contemplate doing the work, with a fantasy in which I become Super Woman, able to tackle household chores in a single bound. After all, compared to grading papers, chores like painting and carpet cleaning sound like fun.

But then I remember the time-honored solution, the fastest way to make our house look nice for a holiday party: dim lighting. It's so much easier than cleaning. The windows of our house have deep sills, perfect for candles. A fire in the fireplace will light up one corner of the room and the old-fashioned coloured bulbs on the tree will light up the other. We have a red light bulb that fits into the lamp on the piano. And I will sometimes drape little white Christmas lights above the cupboards in the kitchen area to make it light enough while I am preparing food.

This solution is not without its drawbacks. When my house is crowded with people -- many of them women with long, silky hair -- all those candles can be dangerous. Blonde Niece was happily talking one year, gesturing with her hands, her hair swishing about, in the animated way that is characteristic of the women in my family, when someone noticed that her silky hair was brushing right through the flames of the candles behind her. Luckily, the smell of burning hair is strong enough that we usually stop those fires before they spread far.

Despite the risks, I love the look of candles burning steadily in the big dark windows that mirror back tiny flames. The smell of beeswax candles mixes nicely with the scent of freshly cut spruce, the spicey smell of veggie chili, and the sweet smell of cider mulling on the stove. Since we live in the country, we never pull the curtains shut, and anyone driving up to my home or walking up the long driveway through the snowbanks can see the candles burning in every window. I love the intimate light of a night time party, with friends and family standing in little clusters to talk and laugh, eating bowls of chili and drinking glasses of punch, with candlelight and firelight flickering over the whole scene, the soft colours of the Christmas lights glinting from the pine tree in the bay window.

December 05, 2005

Time to nap

Something happens this time of year, when days are short, the snow is deep, and the cold creeps in under the door. Everyone in my family begins to hibernate. Walk around my house on a Sunday afternoon, and you will find sleeping bodies strewn about everywhere. With-a-Why might be sprawled on the floor, face down, right in the middle of the room. FirstExtra likes to sleep in the comfy chair. Boy in Black takes a spot near the fire. Shaggy Hair Boy will roll up in a blanket so that you cannot even see him and slide under a piece of furniture. CoolKid always sleeps with a beach towel. And Skater Boy sometimes falls asleep sitting up, as if he never really intended to take a nap.

When my children were little, no power on earth could convince them to take naps, but now that they are teenagers and stay up all night playing poker, hurling pennies at each other, playing "Name that Tune" with the iPod, or duct taping strange objects to broomsticks, they love to nap. Here on the couch in our living room, Blonde Niece is sleeping.


December 04, 2005

Polar Bear in person

A snowstorm Friday night dumped about a foot of snow onto my front lawn, making it seem like winter at last. My gang of teenagers have been at work already with snow shovels, building a snow ramp in front of the house. A bad cold kept me home for the last three days, drinking hot tea and moping about the house in my most comfy clothes, brown fleece pants with a brown fleece hoodie. The next month will bring a surge of activity: many Christmas parties, several holiday concerts, and a constant stream of friends and relatives stopping by. So this weekend was the moment of calm before the holiday busyness of cooking and cleaning begins.

Saturday afternoon, I did leave the comfort of my warm house to venture to a small cafe in Snowstorm City to meet a blogger who was driving through. Even a bad cold could not make me miss the chance to meet someone whose writes so beautifully: PPB! We only had an hour to talk but it was just wonderful to see her in person and discover that she is just as warm and friendly and sparkly as she seems on her blog. I kept looking out the window hopefully for a storm that might snow her in. My family would have been thrilled if I had brought home an unexpected guest, but to my disappointment, the roads stayed dry and she was soon back on the highway.

One of the interesting things about meeting another blogger is that at first your conversation is simply filled with pseudonyms. I realized after a moment that it was ridiculous to be calling the city Snowstorm City; after all, she had read the real name of the city on the sign when she got off the highway. And I tend to switch back and forth between real names and pseudonyms when I talk about my own kids. It's a bit like being bilingual and having two words for everything.

Otherwise, though, I have to say that the most strange thing about a blogger meet-up is that it doesn't feel strange at all. Sitting and talking to PPB felt completely normal and comfortable. Her warm energy was just what I needed to brighten my cold winter weekend. Next time I will make sure she gets snowed in and has to stay for a week.

December 02, 2005


The other day, I needed to leave the house to go pick up Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy over at the high school. I yelled for With-a-Why and Neighbor Girl to get their coats and shoes on. With-a-Why looked at me and said, "I’m eleven now. I can babysit Neighbor Girl." That is when the realization hit me.

None of my children need babysitters any more.

I have been a parent for nineteen years. I have four children. I have a full-time job. When my children were small, Spouse worked a corporate job with very long hours and a rigid schedule. (He has since quit that job.) Like most academics married to non-academics, I shouldered the responsibility of childcare. So for the last nineteen years, every single time I've left the house, I've had to stop and figure out who was going to be watching my children. Every. Single. Time.

Not one of my four kids has ever been in any type of formal day care. Where I live, daycare options are fulltime, and you have to pay for 50 hours each week even if you don't need that much daycare. When my kids were small and I was teaching as an adjunct and editing for a non-profit, daycare would have cost far more than I was getting paid. So instead I've relied on family, friends, and neighbors.

I've brought children to class with me more times than I can count. I've carried a baby in a sling to meetings. I've memorized the locations of all the vending machines on campus so that I could bribe my kids into good behavior by giving them quarters. I've changed diapers in conference rooms. I've carried crayons and post-it notes in my teaching bag so that my kids could entertain themselves quietly. I've run meetings while breastfeeding a child.

None of my children need babysitters any more.

I've spent hours and hours on the telephone making arrangments for family members to babysit or pick up my kids. I've called my mother at 6:30 am to convince her to take a child who was vomiting. I spent years pumping breast milk so that I would always have bottles in the freezer to give to my mother or sister while they watched my child. I've carried a baby in a sling all day long at national conferences, nursing the baby during sessions. I've bribed committee chairs to schedule meetings that worked with my children’s schedules.

I used to drive all the way down to the valley to leave my two youngest kids with my sister in the days when she lived thirty minutes away. I have deliberately chosen to teach 8 am classes because the time slot worked with my kids' schedules.

I've spend very little time at my office on campus. I have always graded papers at home, done my reading at home, and planned my classes at home – in the midst of a chaotic noisy household. I've written conference presentations, book reviews, and poems while simultaneously caring for a houseful of children.

None of my children need babysitters any more.

I no longer have to call my friends and make rash promises about how well-behaved my children will be if they take them for the day. I can drive to the store to buy a ream of paper without strapping children into seatbelts or getting a struggling toddler into a car seat. I no longer have to make desperate phone calls when a virus or cold goes through the family.

None of my children need babysitters any more.

I thought this day would never come.

December 01, 2005

Holiday music

Bloggers have been complaining about listening to Christmas music at the mall or in any store they go in. Perhaps it is that I just don't get to the store very often or that I am oblivious, but I haven't really noticed this phenomenon. My own home, on the other hand, has been filled with Christmas music lately.

My son With-a-Why has been practicing like crazy this week. I think he wants to surprise his sister with some music when she comes home. The first song I keep hearing is a piece that his piano teacher chose for him, the Ukrainian Bell Carol. I find this music very soothing while I am grading papers, or procrastinating grading papers by staring mindlessly out the window at the snow-covered woods behind my house. The other thing I keep hearing is music that he picked out, music that his older siblings are helping him learn. It's the score to A Charlie Brown Christmas arranged by Vince Guaraldi. The piece that With-a-Why especially loves, and plays over and over again, is the piece that Schroeder plays on his piano that causes the whole Peanuts gang to dance like crazy. I admit that I never get tired of hearing it.

When With-a-Why gets home from school, he walks over to the piano and starts playing without even sitting down or taking his coat off. Neighbor Girl, who is younger and gets off the bus with him because her parents are both at work, stands at his elbow and gazes at him with adoration.

Of course, I have also to listen to Boy in Black's constant drum practice. If you are imagining something like the music the Little Drummer Boy plays for Baby Jesus, think again. He's got not some little tiny soft drum but a full set. And he plays them about ten feet away from the desk where I am grading papers. He does have SoundOff pads but he doesn't like to use them.

Yesterday, he told me his drum teacher recommended that he buy some ear protection.

"Like the kind of ear muffs your grandfather wears when he uses his chainsaw?" I asked.

"Yes. Exactly."

"What about the rest of us in the household?" I asked.

He paused. "Well, you can buy as many pairs as you like."