May 31, 2006

Hot Weather Meme

A meme inspired by an unseasonably hot day yesterday. It's my meme so I get to make the rules, which means that there are no rules. Change the questions, add questions, do whatever the hell you want. It's so damned hot here that I won't care.

How do you cope with hot weather? I don't. On hot humid days in the summer, I just lie on the floor and whine.

When does the heat make you most crazy? My car does not have air conditioning, and on hot days, when I am at a traffic light in the city, and the sun is beating down through the windshield, and heat is radiating off the melting pavement, and the kids are complaining about the heat, and the light is STILL RED, I come close to losing my mind.

Your favorite hot weather music? I don't know why, but it seems like summer nights when I stay up late and it's too damned hot to sleep, and the house is dark and quiet, and I am feeling sad, Joni Mitchell’s CD Blue is the one that I listen to.

Where do you go to get air conditioning? The movies. My husband and I see a lot of movies on hot summer nights. I will see any kind of movie just to sit in a nice cool theater and eat popcorn and drink lemonade.

Your favorite place to sleep in hot weather? A tent. Unless I am in a place like Arizona where there are no bugs, and then I will would prefer to sleep under the night sky without a tent.

Your favorite hot weather food? Watermelon that has been chilling in river water, cut into slices for a picnic lunch on an island.

Your favorite people to visit in the hot weather? Well, on hot summer afternoons, we head over to the house where Neighbor Guy, Neighbor Woman, Older Neighbor Boy, Philosophical Boy, and Neighbor Girl live. They have a pool.

Your favorite way to wear your hair in the hot weather? I have lots of long hair – it's never been short – and I’ve never been one to tie it back or put it up. Instead, what I do it stick my head under the faucet every hour or so to get my hair wet. A whole head of long wet hair does wonders to keep me cool.

Your favorite hot weather drink? Lemonade. With lots of ice cubes. And a bowl of popcorn.

Your hot weather story? Seven years ago, we needed a place to live for the summerwhile our house was being built. So we lived in the upstairs of Neighbor Family’s house, which was pretty small and crowded. My husband and I shared a twin bed while the four kids slept on the floor. It was one of the hottest summers on record, and the upstairs apartment got so hot that when we finally moved at the end of August and I went to pack the bucket of crayons, they had all melted together into this weird wax sculpture. Despite the heat and cramped living space, we had a great summer because we just spent most of it camping – or in the backyard pool.

Is hot weather good for anything? Sure. Swimming. Sailing. Canoeing. White water rafting. Hiking on trails that include waterfalls. And hot humid weather is terrific for massage because the muscles will be all loose and relaxed. Hot weather sex has a special quality to it because of the relaxed muscles, the slow pace, the sweat mixing with massage oil ....

May 30, 2006

The Traditional Hair Photo

In my family, we take what we call hair photos. Four women will be standing on the staircase at my mother’s house, and someone will yell, "Hey, everyone lean your heads over the rail and we can take a hair photo!" I think the tradition started because we have lots of different hair colours in the family – and lots of long, beautiful hair.

Last weekend, the back of my brother-in-law’s pickup truck seemed a perfect opportunity for a hair photo. In the interest of breaking gender stereotypes and being an equal opportunity hair blogger, I made two of the males at camp get into the hair photo. Neither ever combs or brushes his hair – and neither has had a haircut in over two years -- but both have gorgeous curls.

From left to right: Sailor Boy, Red-haired Niece, Schoolteacher Niece, and Shaggy Hair Boy.

hair photo


A tent is the ideal place to stay in the summer. You can set it up in about ten minutes, it cools down quickly at night, and it protects from rain and mosquitoes. At my parents' camp, a tent gives me privacy, a retreat, a place where I can write in my journal or read a book.

My extended family camps together for long holiday weekends and for a whole week in July, gathering on the land that my parents own up on the river. My parents have a small one-room cabin, and the rest of us bring tents. My parents have almost sixty acres of land altogether so we can space the tents out as far apart as we want. We aren't an extended family that gets along magically – we have our arguments and issues just like any other family – but the tents give each smaller family their own space, and that's part of the reason we are able to all spend time together without killing each other.

My husband and I use a small backpacker's tent. It's barely big enough for the two of us, but that of course, is the whole point. No children are allowed. We set it up far from the picnic tables and fire pit, over under the pine trees so that we have a private shady place we can go if we want to take a nap. The teenagers tease us and refer to it as the sex tent. "Taking a nap? That what we are calling it now?"

For all their teasing, the teenagers have always been good about letting With-a-Why sleep in the teenage tent with them so that my husband and I can have privacy at night. "He’s our mascot," they often say. The teenage tent is the biggest tent at camp, and they set it up strategically as far from everyone else as possible. It’s the noisy tent. Walk near it in the middle of the night, and you can hear singing, laughing, and arguing over card games played by flashlight. No adult really knows all that goes on in the teenage tent at night – but it seems to be the source of all kinds of inside jokes amongst the cousins. This weekend, ten kids crammed into the teenager tent, and when they stumbled out to the picnic tables for breakfast each morning, they all kept complaining about who was stealing blankets from whom.

The medium-sized dome tent in the photo below, which is the tent my brother brought this weekend, is the kind of tent almost everyone else brings. It's small and light, but you can still stand up to change into a bathing suit. When my kids were small, my goal used to be to spend at least half my nights each summer sleeping in a tent. The six of us and all our stuff used to fit into a tent like the one in the photo. We've camped up on the river, of course, and in the mountains, and on a great lake, and in the sand dunes on the coast. A tent gives you the freedom to travel anywhere. It's still my lodging of choice.


May 29, 2006

Home from camp

I’ve gone camping every Memorial Day weekend for my entire life. And I know from experience not to expect good weather. Often the end of May we get a cold, grey weekend with constant rain. I’ve spent many Memorial Day weekends huddled inside a tent, trying to keep warm and dry.

But once every seven years or so, we get a gorgeous Memorial Day weekend with sunny summer weather. This year was one of those. We all went swimming repeatedly, even though the deep river water was still icy cold. We went canoeing and sailing. We played bocce and frisbee and ZAP and sat by the campfire at night. We’ve returned tanned and tired, but finally – it feels like summer. And that’s a good feeling.


May 25, 2006



Memorial Day weekend is perfect for campfires. The weather is usually still a bit cool, and the mosquitoes in the north country have not yet hatched. As soon as the sun begins setting, the sky turning a spectacular red over the bay, we will began gathering around the firepit, fighting over chairs and dragging over the benches from the picnic table. We often have more than twenty people, and that’s a lot to fit around one fire. With-a-Why is still small enough that he can just claim someone’s lap – and the skinny women in the family will often sit two to a chair.

Few things are more relaxing than just gazing into a fire. People’s faces are sort of hidden, and a teenage boy dressed all in black with a headful of dark hair will disappear into the shadows altogether, invisible until he speaks up to tell a joke or begins to play the guitar or harmonica. My father tells the same stories every year: we hear about his first car, which was a ’36 Ford with a pop-out windshield. My mother will talk about her childhood summers spent down at the Jersey shore or on her Aunt Jane’s farm.

We play the same games every year: Twenty Questions is an old tradition. The newer tradition is a game in which a person yells out a word, and teams have to sing a line of a song with that word in it. My father, who is in his late seventies, often challenges some of the songs the young people come up with. He is always saying, "What? That’s not a song. I never heard of that one."

Firelight creates an easy sort of intimacy. You can join in the conversation if you want, but you can also just stare into the flames and listen, leaning against the person next to you, passing the bag of cookies around, petting one of the family dogs, or snuggling a small child. Eventually, the small kids fall asleep, and older family members go off to their tents for the night. The teenagers disappear to the teenage tent, and I take one last look at the flames before pouring a bucket of water on the fire, and watching the smoke rise to the night sky.

May 24, 2006

Last Minute Costume

Ten minutes before it was time to leave for the spring concert at With-a-Why’s school, he said, "Oh, yeah. I am supposed to wear a costume."

I am so used to this sort of announcement that it didn’t even startle me. "What kind of a costume?"

He thought for a minute. "I am supposed to dress like it’s the seventies."

The seventies? Apparently the kids were singing Boogie Fever and Build me up Buttercup and Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog and Another One Bites the Dust.

I was a teenager in the seventies, and I think I just wore the same clothes I wear now – jeans and t-shirts. But With-a-Why rummaged confidently through the house and came up with a strange wig, a boa, and a dangling scarf that he's been wearing everywhere lately.

Apparently that’s what the cool kids in the seventies wore. Clearly, I hung out with the wrong crowd ....


May 23, 2006


The kid who taught us the game called it ZAP. That was almost forty years ago, and since then, we’ve never met anyone who has heard of the game ZAP, but loyal to the boy who taught us the game, even we suspect he made up the name himself, that is what we call it. Other people call it flashlight tag.

The game, which we play up at camp – and we includes both children and adults – goes something like this. One person sits in a lawn chair in the middle of a dark clearing, holding a flashlight and slapping at mosquitoes. At periodic intervals, a shadowy figure will come running out of the woods and make a dash for the lawn chair. The holder of the flashlight shines the light on the person and yells, "ZAP on Shaggy Hair, I mean, With-a-Why, I mean jo(e), I mean Blonde Niece!" If the flashlight holder gets the right name, even if it's part of a long string of names, the person zapped slinks back into the shadows, defeated for the moment. Sooner or later, a whole herd of people will make a rush for the lawn chair, and one will collide with it without getting zapped. Then that person, often bruised and rubbing his shins, earns the privilege of being the flashlight holder.

The toughest part of the game, besides the hungry hordes of mosquitoes, usually involves finding a flashlight. Even when the whole extended family and assorted extras are up at camp, more than twenty of us in all, and some of us most certainly adults, it can be hard to procure a flashlight. No one ever remembers to bring a flashlight. Most of us do fine without flashlights, anyhow, letting our eyes adjust to the moonlight. You can't use a flashlight as you go into a tent because that will just guarantee that some mosquitoes will follow. Besides, when you've been camping in the same place your whole life, it is not that hard to find your way in the dark.

So for the game, one of the grandchildren in the family will go to beg a flashlight from the only person who ever can be relied on to bring one – my mother. She will give it out reluctantly, with her usual warnings about how the batteries need to last all summer and it needs to be returned to her immediately after the game. My mother was a child during the depression, and is always careful not to waste anything, and that includes flashlight batteries.

Years ago, my cousin and I came up with a brilliant plan to fool the person holding the flashlight. At the time, he was a boy about my size. I put on his sweatshirt, tucking my long hair into the hood, and he put on the red windbreaker I was wearing. Then he took the toddler I was carrying on my hip (Boy in Black, I think) and carried him as he ran. We had to move quickly because the toddler was not fooled in the slightest and began screaming when separated from his mother, but the move succeeded beautifully. The person holding the flashlight kept screaming, "ZAP on jo(e). I know it is jo(e)" as my cousin slid in and collided successfully with the lawn chair, dumping my toddler to the ground as he did so.

The Switching Clothes maneuver is now standard fare for games of ZAP. In fact, visitors to camp are sometimes startled when we invite them to play a game, and they see everyone going off into the bushes to remove clothing. It's the kind of thing that gives my family a strange reputation.

Paper bags were officially outlawed from the game of ZAP in 2004 after an unfortunate incident that began when Drama Niece, Urban Sophisticate, and Shaggy Hair decided that running with paper bags over their heads would best conceal their identity and crashed dramatically while making a dash at the lawn chair. When my brother, who was at the lawn chair, held the flashlight up to his daughter's face, all he could see was blood streaming down. It turns out that running in the dark with paper bags is not such a good idea. See, these are the things we learn from games like ZAP.

No one ever really wins the game, unless you count the privilege of being the holder of the flashlight. But after the game is over, we all return to the campfire to recount the highlights of the game – the strategies, the injuries, the near misses, the new hiding spots – and those who made it to the lawn chair without being zapped exercise their bragging rights.

May 22, 2006

Spring cleaning

I'm a binge cleaner. I can be casual about the day-to-day messiness of a crowded house, but clutter eventually drives me crazy. So about twice each year, I go through the house and pile everything I can find into bags to take to the Rescue Mission or to put into the trash. The easiest way to clean this house is to make sure we have very little stuff in it.

When my kids were little, I would do this in the middle of the night. I knew if I let them help, they would cling to every battered toy, suddenly deciding it was something fun to play with, their favorite toy in fact, and how could their mean mother even think of getting rid of it? Maybe I should have done this chore with them, and taught them how to sort through their stuff, but I have not the patience. So I would wait until they were all asleep, pile anything unnecessary into bags, and put it out in the car to be dropped off the next day.

My boys are plenty old enough now to clean their room themselves, but their standards are far lower than mine. Considerably lower. Not even close to mine. And over the winter, they had somehow accumulated a bunch of junk. So last week, when they were at school, I got a bunch of trash bags and went through all the stuff in their room, even emptying out the closets. I found games no one will ever play, binders full of school papers no one will ever look at again, broken toys, hundreds of miscellanous lego pieces, and way too many stuffed animals. I found enough dirty white socks to fill a laundry basket. I went through it all ruthlessly, getting rid of almost everything in the room, leaving only stuff that the boys actually use and With-a-Why’s favorite stuffed animals.

I was in a miserable mood last week, and I have to say that a bad mood helps tremendously for this kind of cleaning. Any kind of tendency to feel sentimental about stuffed animals or old toys disappears when I am in a pissy mood. I pile stuff into bags with great energy. "We don't need this. This is just crap. I can't stand the clutter."

Before my bad mood could evaporate, I used that angry energy to clean the whole upstairs of the house. Then I drove to the Rescue Mission and dumped out the contents of my car before I could change my mind about any of it. And somehow, that made me feel better.

May 21, 2006

Plant exchange

We gathered at noon, about a dozen of us coming from all directions, parking our cars in the gravel driveway and ducking raindrops as we lugged plants and food toward the big old house that Makes Bread lives in. Whenever my women friends get together, we have plenty of food: big trays of fruits and veggies, spinach casserole, big sandwiches of all kinds, homemade breads, guacamole and salsa and chips, humus and pita bread, all kinds of desserts, and big mugs of hot tea. We hung out in the kitchen, all talking and eating.

One friend, who went back to school years after she started college, just finished her degree. In fact, she skipped the commencement exercises to come to this gathering today. We all hummed Pomp & Circumstance for her, and applauded wildly. She kept saying, "I’m done with school! At last!"

When it stopped raining, we all went out to the driveway to look at the plants we’d dug up from our gardens. Amidst a confusion of chatter, we handed them out, everyone taking the plants they thought they could use. "Who wants a coneflower? It needs full sun. Anyone need oregano? This plant here – what is it called?"

I came home with a plateful of cookies and a bunch of plants for my gardens. If the temperature ever gets above 50 degrees, I am going to do some gardening.

May 20, 2006

Rain and cold

When my sister planned Red-haired Niece’s college graduation party, she pictured a sunny May afternoon, all of us sitting outside in the backyard eating and talking, perhaps even getting tanned. Instead, temperatures today were in the forties, with rain and a cold north wind.

We all crammed into the house, filling every room, juggling plates of food, talking and joking. The gang of teenage musicians piled their instruments and amps into one room for a long jam session. Some folks hovered in the kitchen, close to the trays and bowls of food crammed onto the counter. Some of us played musical chairs in the living room, grabbing the empty seat any time someone got up to go get more food.

When the rain stopped, we went outside for a fire, huddling close to the flames for warmth. When we went back inside for another round of eating, the warmth made everyone sleepy, and soon bodies were draped all about the furniture, in the way that people sit when they are relaxed and comfortable and full of good food. A good party, despite the weather.

May 19, 2006

Dressed in black

The guest speaker I heard last night was young, just about eighteen. He was tall and thin and dressed all in black -- black dress shirt, black dress pants, red and black tie -- with a headful of shaggy dark hair. He was introduced as a musician, a snowboarder, and a scholarship student who planned to study math and science. For a kid his age, he seemed amazing self-assured as he got up to the podium, tossing his hair so that we could see his eyes.

The event was an awards ceremony for eighth graders, and this young man talked to them directly, giving them some insight as to what they could expect from the high school he was graduating from. He joked about the way junior high teachers warn about those strict high school teachers, and he said: "Don’t believe it. The teachers here will support you and help you out, just like they always have." He told them they would have more freedom to choose their courses, a more flexible schedule. "In fact, you can have lunch three time a day if you’re clever."

The audience laughed at his jokes, and the eighth graders seemed to be listening intently. He spoke sincerely, talking about the need for balance in life, and he argued that sleep deprivation is not such a bad thing. He talked about the times he has stayed up all night to play music or play cards with his brothers.

The guest speaker was, of course, my own Boy in Black. It is a tradition that the valedictorian at our high school is the guest speaker at the junior high awards ceremony. The idea is that giving a speech in front of hundreds of people in May is good preparation for giving a speech in front of thousands of people in June. It’s supposed to be an honor, although Boy in Black did not see it that way: "So it’s like punishment for doing well in school? Now I gotta write a speech?"

I’d known how I would feel when I saw him up there at the podium; my daughter gave a speech at the same event two years ago. And yet still, I was not prepared. Could this articulate self-possessed young man (looking soooo different in dress clothes) be the shy little boy who would never let go of my hand, the toddler I carried on my hip, the chubby baby who nursed constantly?

Another child all grown up.

May 18, 2006

Mall daze

I hate shopping malls. It’s not just that they are a symbol of rampant consumerism. It's not just that they suck the life energy out of me. It’s because they confuse me. I have a bad sense of directions as it is, but my architect students tell me that malls are actually designed deliberately to get the shoppers lost, so that they will lose track of time and spend eternity in the hellish maze of stores where they will have no choice but to buy things.

Here in Snowstorm region, you can’t really go to a store of any type without going into a mall. (Grocery stores are the single exception.) Perhaps it’s the cold winter weather we get, but people here love malls. Even most of our movie theaters are located inside malls. I have lived near the same mall my whole life and I even worked there for a year in high school, but I still get lost trying to find my way around it.

When I do have to brave the mall, I usually take my Smart Wonderful Beautiful Daughter with me. She somehow has the skill necessary to negotiate the confusing maze of stores. And she knows enough, when she sees me get that glazed look on my face, to lead me gently out to the car before my head explodes.

This morning, we went on an unavoidable shopping trip to a music store that was deep inside the mall. After about thirty minutes, I was starting to feel that panicky claustrophobic feeling I always get when lost inside a building that has no windows at all, just racks and racks of brand new merchandise. We began making our way out, and my daughter said, "You know how sometimes at college, I’ll go to a party and I’ll have to walk home a friend who’s completely trashed? And I’ll have to watch out for her – no, don’t walk into that bush, here come this way, no, you can’t chase that kitty cat."

"Yeah?" I asked, wondering why she was taking the time to tell me that story at a time when I needed her expert guidance to get us out of the mall. I paused because we had just reached an escalator. In the midst of my mall daze, I knew that somehow we had to go down to the bottom floor to get to my car. My daughter tugged me away, "No, Mom, that one is COMING UP."

She guided me over to the right escalator and then laughed, "See, this is just like being with a drunk friend."

May 17, 2006

When I was a kid

On the last day of school, we carried home notebooks filled with writing and math problems, and pencil boxes filled with broken crayons, worn pink erasers, and that protractor that was never used for anything but tracing Ds. (Elementary school pencil boxes always came with protractors. I don’t know why.) I would take my notebooks – the spiralbound ones – and all the used notebooks that my siblings left dumped on the floor too – and rip out all the pages of school work. All the definitions and vocabulary words, the math problems, the book reports, the history facts.

Almost all the notebooks still had some clean usable pages left. I would work carefully to make sure my ripping didn’t unbend the wire spirals, which were often a bit kinky after a year’s worth of being jammed into small wooden desks. And I would end up with a stack of thin notebooks, ready to become my summer journals.

I still can remember that feeling of anticipation as I looked at the little stack of notebooks with their tattered covers and clean white pages. The whole summer stretched before me – camping trips, days at the beach, evenings filled with fireflies, and most of all, time to write.

May 16, 2006

Love your belly

Until now, my belly dancing class has been all women – mainly women in their twenties and thirties – but recently, two little girls joined the class. Their mother had brought them to one of our belly dancing parties, and they had been fascinated with the dancing, the rhythmic music, and the costumes. Belly dancing costumes are colorful and sparkly, with lots of flowing material. My pantaloons have five yards of material on them. Hip scarves are often lined with dangling coins that make cool noises as you move your hips.

The little girls begged their mother to talk to our instructor to let them into the class, and she said, "Sure. Let them try it."

I knew they would like the second part of class, which is lively and fun, when we dance in a circle and play the zills, but during the first half, we do stretches, and drills, and learn new moves. Learning to belly dance means isolating muscles, and the drills are not that exciting. It can be silly too – a whole room full of half-naked women just moving one hip, or one butt cheek, or just her chest and nothing else. Often after we work one muscle intensely, the instructor will tell us to rub the muscle or stretch it out or shake it out. When we do belly rolls, for instance, we always end with the instructor was saying, "Rub your belly! Love your belly!" while we all relax and rub our bare bellies.

I wondered if the first part of class would bore the little girls, but they did great. They stared intently at the instructor, who is an absolutely beautiful young woman, and followed right along. After the class was over, I walked out with their mother into the beautiful spring evening, and I could hear the two girls as they skipped ahead of us on the sidewalk, giggling and shimmying. They were chanting as they moved along: "Love your belly!"

May 15, 2006

In the Middle of the Night

My kids are incredibly single-minded when it comes to achieving goals. Boy in Black will stay up and practice his guitar in the middle of the night if he has a lesson the next day. He seems to need no sleep. During the first 48 hours of owning a set of harmonicas, he practiced non-stop. Lately, he’s been teaching music theory to his brothers and the extras, and he takes his role as teacher very seriously.

Last night, I woke in the middle of the night to hear music coming from my living room. On a school night. Not the usual drums and electric guitars that I hear on weekends, but gentle, pretty music from a guitar and piano.

I came down the stairs to find Shaggy Hair Boy at the piano, and Boy in Black next to him, with his guitar. I glared at them both. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"

Boy in Black looked up from his guitar and said patiently, in the kind of calm, rational voice usually reserved for small children and crazy people: "Well, I’m playing the chord progression from the song Let’s Dance. "


"It’s a Benny Goodman number."


"And he’s improvising in the key of E flat."


"Doesn’t it sound good? I’m pretty good at teaching music."

I had to admit that he was right. The music sounded great. Shaggy Hair looked up with a grin, and then back down at the keys. I sat on the comfy couch and listened, then took a photo. I love watching the two brothers work together, both so intent on their music.

I knew that they would both be tired in the morning. And so would I. But still, I couldn’t help but think they’ve got the right priorities. On a nice spring night, with the smell of lilacs coming through the window, making music seemed like the right thing to be doing.


May 14, 2006

The story my father told to my sons at dinner tonight

It was 1936. My father was five years old, and he lived on the north side of Snowstorm City, the Italian section. This was during the depression and he was used to seeing men wandering through the neighborhood, looking for work, and often for food. His mother gave them sandwiches sometimes.

One day when my father was hiding in the backyard, playing some kind of childhood game, he saw a man come and go through the trash can at the curb. This was a fairly common practice. He watched the man root through the garbage until he came to the halves of an orange that my father had had for breakfast. The man picked up the leftover rinds and eagerly ate the pulp that still stuck to them.

Seventy years later, my father still remembers this scene. "I remember thinking how hungry that man must have been."

May 13, 2006

Home with the boys

Yes, it's true. My husband and daughter are still, sadly, Chicago Cub fans. In fact, this weekend they traveled to the Big Midwestern City to watch their favorite team lose a game. This is a peculiarly torturous thing that Chicago Cub fans do periodically. They make pilgrimages to Wrigley Field to watch other teams hit balls out of the park. Then they take solace in the fact that Cub fans will retrieve the homerun balls and toss them scornfully back onto the field, refusing to keep a ball hit by the opposing team.

Since we don’t have cable television, going all the way to the midwest is the only way the two fans in this household ever see a game, so these pilgrimages are especially important to them. Myself, I don't see the value in traveling a long distance to watch men hit balls around a field while thousands of disappointed fans teeter between dejection and hope. But my husband and daughter think that the anguish of the loss will be a father/daughter bonding experience that will make them both stronger people.

And of course, their weekend away means I get a weekend home with the Pseudonymous Boy Band, a weekend filled with music and testosterone. Last night, they were all up late, playing until the early hours of the morning. Boy in Black and Older Neighbor Boy had many earnest discussions about what songs they were going to learn next. Our newest extra, NextHendrix, demonstrated for all of us his ability to play the guitar behind his back. This morning, the boys all rolled out of bed, or actually, stood up from the floor, since that is where they all sleep, and began playing again.

Boy in Black, when asked by a reporter last week what his goal in life was, said, "I want to be the next Bob Dylan." To help achieve that goal, he acquired a set of harmonicas for his birthday. With his usual determination, he has spent every spare minute learning to play them. When he drove with me to the garage so that we could pick up my car, for instance, he brought the harmonicas and the book and practiced as we drove along. Of course, it’s possible that he was just trying to drown out the sarcastic remarks I was making about paying seventy bucks to find out that my transmission is shot, but mostly that sort of intensity is typical of Boy in Black. Nothing stands in his way when he wants to do something.

This afternoon, I drove the gang to the Cool Music Store so that Older Neighbor Boy could get his own set of harmonicas, and so that we could spend hours wandering around a store that actually encourages teenagers to just hang out and test the guitars and amps, a store so filled with noise that it actually makes my house seem quiet.

In return for my patience, I made them pose for the blog.


The Pseudonymous Boy Band: Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair Boy, Philosophical Boy, With-a-Why, Skater Boy, and Older Neighbor Boy.

May 12, 2006

Burning Woman

Spending an afternoon with my friend PoetWoman is always wonderful. We eat lunch together, we go for walks, we share poetry, and we talk about all kinds of stuff. Several years ago, she and I took classes in reiki together so sometimes when we get together, I set up the portable massage table at my house, and we do reiki.

Reiki is both a healing method and a spiritual practice, a centuries-old practice that resurfaced in Japan in the 1800s and came to this country much later. Loosely, translated, reiki means universal life force energy. The energy is channeled through the hands of the reiki practioner, who holds them just above or sometimes rests them on the other person.

A reiki session is usually quite relaxing, much like getting a massage. I always keep a candle burning nearby, and I rub my forearms with essential oils like ylang ylang or lavender. Reiki is done slowly, peacefully, gently. When I do reiki, my palms usually get so warm that they tingle.

I've had a bad cold all week, with a cough that keeps me awake all night, and I've been really overtired and miserable, in need of some healing energy. So yesterday after a walk in the woods and a nice lunch, we set up the massage table. I stretched out with my eyes closed, and PoetWoman did reiki on my sinuses, which felt just great. I could feel all this heat coming through her hands. Soon I was feeling all peaceful and zenlike.

"Wow, I can really feel the warmth," I said to her. It was relaxing to feel that warmth, and smell the candle burning. For some reason, the burning smell was especially strong.

"Yeah, I am getting really hot," she said, "The energy is really --- AAHH!"

I sat up quickly, and saw flames shooting from her long black t-shirt, which had been dangling near the candle. PoetWoman had backed into the candle and caught on fire.

So the reiki session ended with wild screams, hurried attempts to douse the flames, her stripping the shirt off and tossing it into the sink, and then both of us laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

Friday Poetry Blogging: Gary Snyder

Artist Friend left me a comment the other day with a quote from this poem.

For the Children

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light

— Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island

May 11, 2006

Almost eighteen

It came yesterday for my oldest son.

A red, white, and blue form from the selective service.

May 10, 2006

Blue green waters

My conference friends are used to eating with me in restaurants or talking late at night in a bar. They walk with me through art museums or snatch a bit of conversation in between sessions. We talk while clustered around tables full of white china coffee mugs and big urns of coffee – or smaller tables filled with cheese and crackers, cut-up fruit and tiny little plates that are impossible to balance food on. Always we meet in the lobby of a hotel, and many of our conversations have taken place there amidst a swirl of travelers and their luggage while we are waiting for more colleagues to join us.

It's wonderful when a conference friend comes to my hometown, to the place where I was born and have lived my whole life. It doesn't happen very often, since Snowstorm City is not exactly a cultural hotspot. Usually the conference friend has to make a special effort to make Snowstorm City part of a travel plan, like the time Artist Friend drove ten hours to get here to pick me up and take me to a conference six hours away. (Well, the conference should have been only six hours away, but then we stopped at a country stand to buy fresh fruit and then at a small town to watch part of a softball game and then at Famous Pond where the weather was so nice we had to take a long walk, which ended with me leaping into the water to try to save a duck that had fishing twine wrapped around its beak.)

Last week, two of my oldest conference friends came to town for a few days. I met Wild Hair and Peace-Loving Feminist twelve years ago, at my very first FourSeas Conference. At conferences, Wild Hair and I traditionally take an afternoon off to eat lunch together and explore an art museum, always going first to the Asian section, which he especially loves. Peace-Loving Feminist was the woman who first encouraged me to belly dance. At Creative Writing workshops, she is known for leading the group in movement practices that help integrate mind and body.

I've often told them both about Pretty Colour Lakes, a park I’ve gone to since before I was born. My mother walked around the lakes when she was pregnant with me; my father swam in these lakes when he was a boy in the 1930s. So it was wonderful to bring Wild Hair and Peace-Loving Feminist, and their dog Beagle, whom I was meeting for the very first time, for a leisurely walk around the lakes. We stopped at a bench where I've sat many, many times, and enjoyed a picnic lunch, while I rattled on and on about how special the lake is, quoting limnology professors, botanists, local historians, and my Dad. They admired the lakes, the unusual blue green colour of the water, the peaceful wooded trails, the scent of the cedar trees. And I spent time admiring Beagle, her floppy ears, her colouring, and her pleading eyes. Spring sunshine, sandwiches on fresh rolls, and great conversation made it a wonderful afternoon. Always it's nice to share the places we love.

May 09, 2006

Home for the Summer

Even though Snowstorm University, where my daughter goes to college, is not very far away – and is in fact right next door to Small Green College, where I work – it is still a world apart from the house where I live. During semesters, I keep in touch with her through phone calls, and instant messenger, and Friday lunches, but it’s not the same as having her in the house.

Tonight, I picked up my Smart Wonderful Beautiful Daughter and brought her home for the summer. At this very moment, she is back in her own bedroom (well, sort of her own – she shares a bed with With-a-Why) unpacking all her worldly possessions. The unpacking won’t take long since all her worldly possessions fit into a few laundry baskets.

Her brothers are flocking around her. When she came in, Boy in Black pushed back his long hair so she could inspect the black eye. Shaggy Hair Boy is showing off on the piano. With-a-Why keeps trying to get her to identify quotes from Futurama. Spouse is talking to her about a father/daughter trip they will be taking this weekend.

But tomorrow, they will all go to school or work, and I will have her to myself.

May 08, 2006

Lovely leaves of three


They unfolded last weekend, all through my woods, springing up underfoot and along vines that wrap every tree trunk. Beautiful reddish leaves, translucent in the sunshine, with lovely veins and rich colour. Within days, they will open fully, the red turning to glossy green, a gorgeously green layer of leaves lining the shady areas of the woods, climbing up trees and stumps. All summer, their green leaves will be visible everywhere – covering up the dead brown tree leaves on the floor of the forest, decorating grey tree trunks. In the fall, the green will drain from the leaves again, and the gorgeous red colour will glow from trees along the edge of my front yard. After the first hard frost of the fall, I will walk in the woods to find the leaves under my feet all turned a bright yellow, a cheerful glow that will remain until winter comes.

Perhaps the most famous of plants in my area, these leaves – and their clusters of three, with two leaves tight together and then a stem shooting out to show one more leaf – can be readily identified by even young children, often one of the first plants their parents teach them to identify. A most persistent plant, it crops up in gardens, along the edges of yards, and in all the shady places that beckon a weary hiker.

But poison ivy is just more than a pretty plant. The juice from the crushed leaves will spread a raw, bubbling, blistering rash across my wrists, my ankles, along the folds of skin between my fingers. The more often you get poison ivy, the worse the rash can be, and I’ve had poison ivy rash far too many times to count. The most painful places to get it, I’ve found, are the underneath of my neck, and on the white skin of my breasts, although I have male friends who say that they have had it in a place even worse. ("Always, always wash your hands before going to the outhouse – that’s all I’ve got to say," said North Country Boy when we discussed this in class.)

I've come to realize that poison ivy and I like the same places, the cool shady places beneath the trees, wonderful places to sprawl on a hot summer day. When I return from a walk in my woods, I stand on the edge of my front porch and take my sneakers off without touching them, kicking them off to lie in the sun, which will dry the juice. When I come in from mowing the lawn, I remove all my clothes immediately and wash my entire body.

Whether I am in the woods or in my own yard, I am always looking out for those pretty leaves, respectful of what they can do to me. Too much daydreaming on a hike or an impulsive roll on the ground can lead to days of painful itching. Poison ivy teaches me to be mindful -- to think before I reach to grab a vine, to notice what is on the ground before I impulsively take off my clothes, and most of all, to look at what is beneath my feet.

May 07, 2006

Whose Eye is it Anyhow?

Black Eye

The eye meme has been going around again (I think it's seasonal), and Bright Star has decreed we are doing variations on the theme.

Here is an eye photo taken just this morning. My question to my readers is this: Which member of the household does this eye belong to?

1)jo(e) who was attacked by a falling branch in her own woods
2) Boy in Black after taking a frisbee in the eye
3) Shaggy Hair Boy during a risky dance move
4) Skater Boy after attempting a pop shove-it
5) With-a-Why putting on eye make-up for a school play
6) Sailor Boy catching the boom after an uncontrolled jibe
7) Older Neighbor Boy after a face plant into asphalt
8) Philosophical Boy catching an elbow while playing the guitar
9) First Extra jabbed with his own golf club
10) Blonde Niece after a fierce lacrosse game

May 06, 2006

Parenting philosophy

A while ago, a reader emailed me asking about my parenting philosophy because she thought my way of raising my children seemed unusual. I am not sure how much of my philosophy I can articulate in a blog post, but I will give it a try.

Twenty years ago, pregnant with my first child, I was reading every parenting book on the planet. And my head was swirling with conflicting advice. Let the baby sleep with you! No, make sure that baby sleeps in a crib! Your children should see punishment as a logical consequence. No, don't ever punish your child. Don’t yell. Always talk in a calm voice. No, let the child see your anger. Don’t bribe. No, offer rewards. Above all, never lose your temper because if you do so even once, your kid will grow up to be an axe murderer.

Oh, I’m exaggerating, and I did glean all sorts of useful information from the books, but the most useful revelation came one night at an open house for the sixth grade students I was teaching. What surprised me is how I could figure out which kids matched up with which parents before the parents even introduced themselves.

The quiet smart girl? Yep, that quiet smart woman must be her mother. The obnoxious kid who interrupts class with stupid jokes? I could find his father immediately – that man over there loudly telling an inappropriate joke. Again and again, a parent would walk over to talk to me, and the likeness would startle me.

And that’s when I figured it out. Children grow up to be like their parents.

I know exceptions of course. I have friends from abusive homes who managed to distance themselves early on from their parents, who chose other role models in their community or even sometimes role models in books they read. I do know people who are nothing like either of their parents.

But in fairly stable homes, more often then not, children grow up to become adults who are surprising like their own parents. I’ve seen it over and over again as my friends’ children reach adulthood. And it has confirmed the realization that I had on that night of sixth grade open house twenty years ago: the best thing a parent can do for her kids is to be come the person that she wants her kids to be.

Parenting books so often focus on the children, and what you should tell them or what you should do with them. Sometimes young parents get the idea that there is just one right way to parent, and if only they could find that perfect parenting manual, their kids will turn out perfect. This is silly, of course. My friends cover a range of parenting styles – all over the board – and yet their kids have for the most part all turned out well.

Probably the most important thing parents can do is work on themselves, their own issues, their own stuff. I admire parents who do the hard work of going to therapy or 12-step programs or intensive transformational workshops – who are determined to break patterns and to not pass their baggage on to their children. I admire parents who work hard at their relationships, who cultivate nourishing friendships, who read self-help books, who take time periodically for introspection, who think about their own emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs.

Sometimes the best thing parents can do for their children is to focus not on the children, but on themselves.

May 05, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging

This is a poem about my sister-in-law, who died of breast cancer four years ago.


I had been instructed not to touch,
one cold could kill her, that’s what they said,
obediently, I washed my hands, kept a distance,
which wasn’t hard, really, there had been
silence between us for so long, I sat in the stiff chair
near her hospital bed, we talked about her children
and mine, growing up so fast.

Her death did not creep
into any niche of the chatter,
but eight years of silence stretched its weight
into the room, pinning her to the bed, me to the chair,
then when it was time to say goodbye, she walked me
to the elevator and just before I got on,
she hugged me.

I said, like a catholic school girl, oh no,
we are not supposed to touch, and she shrugged,
smoothed the hospital gown against her bloated
body, she smiled, held me for a moment
with the same blue eyes her kids have,
she said, sometimes there are things
you have to do anyway.


When I first began blogging, I told no one about my blog. I wanted to keep the space for me. I am often protective of my own spaces, perhaps as a result of growing up in a small house with a bunch of siblings and extras. But gradually, as blogging became part of my life, people started finding out about it. I live in a crowded house with very little privacy, and I am not much for keeping secrets. My college-age daughter started reading the blog. And I gave the address to a few close friends who live in other places and who like to get these daily glimpses of my life. My husband knows about the blog, but is good about respecting the space as mine, and he does not usually read the blog unless I ask him to read a post. My sons don’t read the blog but they know that it exists, and they tease me about it, often in front of other people. Most of the extra kids who come to the house know about the blog, and join in the teasing.

One way or the other, my blog is becoming more public all the time. And an awful lot of people seem to read it. So this week I did something I’ve never done before. I read through my archives and took down some posts. The posts weren’t offensive or untrue, but they were deeply personal. I sometimes use writing as a way of working through issues, of sorting out my feelings, a way to move toward healing. The posts were important and painful to write – and I treasure the comments and support this community of bloggers gave me in response. But it was time to take them down.

May 04, 2006

Something about May

May might just be my favorite month. It’s a nice relaxed month. The semester has ended, and I can choose what work I want to do. We will get some lovely spring weather – cool sunny days. The snow shovels have been put away. The days will be warm enough for t-shirts and maybe even shorts. The apple blossoms have burst forth, and the lilacs will be blooming soon. May is the month for gardening and yard work and all kinds of things that let me have my hands in the earth. My Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter will move back home soon. She and I will do some household projects together – and on sunny mornings, sit outside on the grass drinking smoothies.

But most days, I will have the house to myself. The boys are still in school, my spouse is at work, and my daughter will be doing volunteer work at the women’s shelter. So I can put on the music and belly dance, or sunbathe naked, or call my husband to come home on his lunch hour for leisurely daytime sex. I will have time to write, to meditate, to think. My schedule becomes flexible so I can meet friends for lunch or spend a few hours on the telephone talking to a long distance friend.

I’ll be driving to Camera City one weekend to see Drama Niece star in a play. And I’ll be going to my sister’s house for a graduation party: Red-haired Niece graduates from Snowstorm University this year. I’ll meeting a bunch of my women friends for an annual brunch that involves bringing plants from the garden for a plant exchange. I’ll be going to spring concerts for several of my kids. And the month will end with the first camping trip of the season on Memorial Day weekend.

May 03, 2006

Peanut Butter Stains

I hate it when students haven't done the reading. I can always tell.

So I require my students to write response pieces, informal writing in which they discuss that day's reading. I read the response pieces, date stamp them, and perhaps add a comment or two, before handing them back the next class. Students will sometimes read their pieces aloud during class. At the end of the semester, the students' portfolios include 22 of these response pieces.

On the last day of class, as my students were looking over the portfolios they were about to hand in, which included putting all their response pieces in chronological order, one woman said teasingly, "jo(e), how come I always find peanut butter stains on my response pieces?"

"Yeah," said another student, "I’ve got chocolate stains on mine."

Suddenly, everyone in the class was looking through their response pieces and attributing every little smudge to one of the five major food groups. These are students who have gotten to know me pretty well over the semester, and they don’t hesitate to tease me.

"You should take the food stains as a compliment," I said. They looked at me.

"See," I explained. "I usually complain about grading papers. I hate grading papers. But the response pieces are different. Because I don't put grades on them, I actually enjoy reading them. So on winter evenings, I would sit down by the fire with a cup of hot tea, a bagel and peanut butter, and savor the stuff you’ve all written. Really. It was always a nice part of my day. Especially during February, which is always such a long month for me."

And the thing is – I did enjoy reading their ideas, their insights, their perspectives on the literature that I love. I was telling the truth. And they knew it.

May 02, 2006

Spring flowers


As the semester ends, my thoughts turn to gardening and yard work. We are just now getting some warm weather here. The blossoms on my crabapple trees burst forth yesterday. The lilacs will open in another week or so. I haven’t yet mowed the lawn yet, and I hate to do so, for I love the cheery yellow dandelions that are so beautiful and resilient.

When I was little, my father used to give us red buckets to fill with dandelion flowers, and from all these flowers, he would make dandelion wine in his basement. I haven’t had dandelion wine in maybe thirty years, but I still remember what it tastes like: it tastes like summer. I can remember sitting on the grassy hill in front of my parents’ house waiting for my grandmother and aunt to come for their Easter visit – they were driving in from out of town – and my mother and siblings and I whiled away an afternoon making chains from dandelions, lovely flower necklaces to wear around our necks and wreaths of dandelions for our hair.

We always played the game of holding a dandelion flower under your sibling’s chin to see if she liked butter. If you saw a yellow reflection, that meant she did. Of course, that was silly – in those days, we all liked butter. Summer foods – corn on the cob, little salt potatoes, clams in their shells – always were served with tin bowls of melted butter. Those lazy summer afternoons came long before my mother started worrying about cholesterol or I considered the ethics of being a vegan.

Of course, even earlier in the spring, before the yellow flowers came out, my mother would send us out with a plastic bowl to pick dandelion greens for a salad for dinner. As a kid, I found the greens bitter and tough to chew compared to store-bought lettuce, but as an adult, I love dandelion greens. My father calls them a "spring tonic." When I was a teenager, I used to roll my eyes when he would go on and on about how great a dandelion salad was, but a botanist friend assures me that he is right: dandelion greens are more nutritious than pretty much anything I could buy at the store, filled with iron and calcium, all sorts of vitamins and minerals.

The sight of all those bright yellow flowers happily popping up all over my lawn, and along the roadsides and ditches, makes me smile because they mean that summer is coming. I almost hate to get out the lawnmower this week, but I know that I need not worry too much. The dandelion is, above all else, persistent and reliable. It always comes back.

May 01, 2006

Fun at the Rabies Clinic

It seemed like a simple task. Round up the seven cats that live at my house, drive them over to the rabies clinic for their shots, and cross one big item off my summer to-do list.

The three boys agreed to help. Well, that is, after I told them they had to. And I planned ahead of time. I borrowed cat carriers from my parents, found the one we own, and then rigged some makeshift cat carriers by putting laundry baskets upside down on plastic laundry hampers. I kept the cat carriers out in the car so that the cats would not see them ahead of time. I taped big signs on the front and back door telling everyone that that if they let a cat outside today, they would risk the eternal wrath of an angry mother.

All of our cats are former strays, kind of wild in temperament, and they don’t like being put into carriers. My daughter is pretty good at getting the cats to cooperate, but she wasn't here. And I was stupidly wearing a short sleeve shirt in honor of the first warm day we've had this year. That was a mistake. By the time we finally had all the cats loaded into the car, my arms were covered with scratches, and I had lost my temper with several of the cats -- and two of the humans. Our efforts to capture all of the cats had led to overturned beds, screams of pain, and a broken glass. I insisted the boys come along to help, so they wedged themselves sideways into the car, fitting their bodies against plastic boxes of hissing, scratching cats, some of whom smelled like urine by now, since at least one of the cats pees whenever she gets put into a closed container.

As we drove along, I apologized to the occupants of the car and tried to talk in a cheerful tone, as if somehow this was a fun outing. But the kind of technique that works with toddlers most certainly does not work with teenagers or cats. The cats continued to claw and hiss, and I could tell without looking that the boys were rolling their eyes, and giving each other the kind of look that said, "Yeah, she’s crazy." As I pulled into the parking lot, Boy in Black said, "Oh, look at all the dogs in line. That ought to help the situation."

The line stretched across the parking lot, and the animals in the line far outnumbered the humans. And most of the dogs were big dogs, straining at their leashes and barking wildly. While the boys stood guard over the cat containers, grabbing the edges of the makeshift ones every time a cat tried to escape, I attempted to make pleasant conversation with the pet owners around me. Some of our cats went silent, while others hissed and scratched. Thankfully, we stood in line for only twenty minutes or so, and the vet was able to give the cats their shots quickly.

It was a relief to finally get home, and let the cats loose. They disappeared to hide in their favorite spots, reappearing only when I opened some cat food. I felt worn out from the effort, and I know I smelled like cat pee. Spouse was conveniently working late tonight and missed the whole thing. When got home, he seemed surprised by my mood. "You were in such a happy mood when I came home from lunch – wanting to celebrate the last day of class and all that. How is that you are so miserable now?"

I hissed in return.