June 30, 2006

Annual family vacation

Urban Sophisticate comes the farthest. From her tiny place on the upper east side of Big City Like No Other, she will lug her bag down the stairs, take a cab through the busy city streets to Famous Train Station, then ride a train filled with bored commuters reading their newspapers to Another Station, and then catch the monorail to Dead President Airport, stand in a security line with her bag, and then board an airplane to fly into Snowstorm City. My parents will pick her up at the airport, and she will make the rest of the journey in their car, driving away from Snowstorm City through miles of farmland and woods, until finally coming to the peninsula of oak trees surrounded by marsh on the big river that runs between two countries. The rest of us in the family have merely to toss tents and duffle bags into the car and drive north.

Every year at the beginning of July, my extended family gathers at camp for ten days of swimming, sailing, hiking, canoeing, and hanging together around the campfire. We are all hoping for sunny weather, of course. But even if it’s rainy or overcast, the week will still be filled with games of bocce and horseshoes, frisbee golf and ultimate frisbee. And a rainy week means countless card games that include everyone from my father, the oldest person at camp, to Dandelion Niece, the youngest.

My brother, my youngest sister, and my oldest son all love to plan sporting events for the annual family vacation week. A bocce tournament one year took an entire day, with a carefully planned org chart that told each two-person team when and who they would play next. My father and Schoolteacher Niece won that tournament handily, although Shaggy Hair and With-a-Why put in a surprisingly strong showing to claim second place. This was the tournament in which Shaggy Hair Boy became famous for his "poison" shot, a move in which you hurl the ball with all your strength for the express purpose of knocking everyone else’s balls out of play.

For the last month, emails have been chiming in several times each day as we all discuss this year’s sporting event: a family running race. Urban Sophisticate Sister planned this 10 K (just over six miles) event and has been urging everyone to train for several months now. She has even ordered t-shirts. (What color should I order? she asked in one email. And no, I will not consider black.)

Over Memorial Day weekend, my father and I drove around in the car to plot a course that would be exactly 10 K. It’s impossible to avoid hills, but we did find a relatively flat course along quiet country roads that wind through woods and past cornfields, past big red barns and white farmhouses. We plan to set up a card table at the halfway point, and volunteers from the family will have drinks to pass out and water to dump over the heads of the runners. There is some speculation as to what the local farmers might think of this scene.

Although this move was initially controversial, Urban Sophisticate has decreed that some of the youngest and oldest members of the family could join forces and run relays. The relay teams have been changing daily. And of course, the betting has begun as well.

Some think that Urban Sophisticate, who has run at least one marathon in under four hours and is in amazing condition, is guaranteed to win. My brother, who is himself a serious contender, ran the course over Memorial Day weekend with Boy in Black and thinks that the competitive eighteen-year-old with the long legs could win the race, despite the fact that he has not trained at all and has declared that "running is boring." Shaggy Hair Boy and Schoolteacher Niece, who did a practice run together, are also unknowns, and either has the potential to pull off a surprise win. No one has put any money on the relay teams, who have been accused of not taking the race very seriously at all. Urban Sophisticate keeps warning everyone that sending over-the-top bragging emails every night is not the same as actually training for a race, and that being quick with a funny comeback over email does not always translate into speed on the race course.

In one of the family emails, my brother noted that the relay team of Drama Niece, Blonde Niece, and Smart Wonderful Beautiful Daughter (three cousins from three different families) will be seriously hampered by their tendency to stop and answer their cell phones in the middle of a run. Drama Niece and Blonde Niece rarely go more than ten minutes without calling each other. They will also have used up some of their adrenaline before the race begins, as they are scheduled to sing the national anthem at the opening ceremony. We are still looking for someone to sing the anthem of Neighboring Country to the North.

The idea of a race seemed far more appealing to me before the hot weather arrived, and my team is thinking of switching our status to volunteer. In fact, my whole household gave up their enthusiastic running as soon as the temperatures went above 70. The kids seem confident that Ultimate Frisbee has kept them in shape, but I’m not sure that belly dancing has adequately prepared me for a running race. And I hate the heat. On a summer day, I would rather hand out drinks than run on hot pavement. But then again, I have to run at least two miles to get the t-shirt – the shirts are reportedly a very nice periwinkle colour – so certainly that is a factor to consider.

The tradition for runners at camp is to end any run by leaping off the dock right into the shallow muddy waters of the marsh. So I predict that no matter who wins, the race will end with triumphant runners splashing around, throwing mud and weeds at each other. Then we’ll pack up a picnic lunch, pile into the boats, and head out to an island for a swim. And the whole race will get re-hashed that night around the campfire, with individual runners telling stories that have been so embroidered over the day that running the quiet country roads will have become some kind of epic adventure.

June 29, 2006

Boat on water! Train on bridge!

Susan's request for car games over at Crunchy Granola brought back childhood memories for me. When I was a kid, I loved going on long car trips. Most of our family vacations were camping trips to the mountains or the river – and those did not count as long car rides because the trips were less than 100 miles – but every Easter and every August, we would take a day-long journey to visit my grandmother and aunt.

My siblings and I used to prepare for the trip a whole week ahead of time. We’d find a manilla envelope, and Blonde Sister would decorate it carefully, writing the words Travel Kit in fancy letters on the top. We’d make games to put in the travel kit, like Seek-a-Words or Hidden Pictures, and of course we played the usual verbal games like Twenty Questions, and a million variations on stuff that spells out the alphabet, but the most enduring game, the one that we did every single trip, was Car Bingo.

To make car bingo, we'd get two pieces of stiff white paper and draw a grid, much like a bingo card. Then in each little square, we’d draw pictures, neatly labelled. The key was to make the two cards different but equal so that each team had a shot at winning the game. For instance, if I drew woman walking dog on one card, I would add kid riding bicycle to the other card. And picnic table is clearly equal to trash can since both can be found at any rest area. Just like horse is equal to cow. We had these figured out pretty carefully, although sometimes we’d get into long and heated debates. I still say that barn with three silos is equal to swimming pool. And no matter what my brother says, school bus and green station wagon are not a match at all.

The family would divide into teams, with three people on each team, and each team would get a card. My father, the seventh person, always opted out, claiming he would be neutral because he was the driver and he would just shout out stuff that might be on either card. I can remember dozing off to sleep and being jolted awake when I’d hear my father shout something like, “Boat on trailer! Anyone need boat on trailer?”

The two hardest things to find, always the last two remaining on the cards, were treehouse and train on bridge. I think my mother, who grew up in an urban area, originally came up with the train on bridge one. You know how hard it is to see a train on a bridge driving through the countryside? Pretty impossible. I'm guessing my father came up with treehouse. And hardly anyone builds treehouses in places where they can be seen from the road.

The fact that some of things we put on the cards were almost impossible to find did not bother us at all. The hardest ones became kind of a tradition. You've got to have lofty goals. To this day, when I go to a conferences in a place like Chicago, I will excitedly grab the sleeve of someone walking near me and yell, "LOOK! LOOK! Train on bridge!" I suspect that this is why some of my academic friends think I’m flaky.

Someone told me that games like car bingo have actually been marketed now, but it seems to me that a pre-printed game would be a bit boring. The value of the game was the fun it was to create it, and the educational part was the negotiation skills we learned as we argued about what an equal pair was. Making the car games kept the group of us children busy around the kitchen table while my parents did the real work of doing laundry, cleaning, and packing for the trip. When I see a manilla envelope with magic marker lettering on it, I still think of those travel kits, and I remember that tingle of excitement, that feeling of anticipation.

June 28, 2006


I had planned to spend a productive morning cleaning my office on campus. It's an office that I just moved into and I figured I would spend a couple of hours unpacking all the stuff I piled into boxes and sorting through some of the papers that seem to multiply when you put them into piles. I didn't actually get much done because I ended up talking to a friend instead – I am very easily drawn away from a task like cleaning – but I still figured that I had done enough to deserve a reward, like a nice lunch with PoetWoman.

We walked to a Middle Eastern restaurant in Snowstorm City, both of us pointing out landmarks as we walked along. I've live here for 45 years and Poet Woman for 60, so between us we can narrate the history of every tree and building. We both gave our approval to a street that was redesigned a few years ago, a design that includes places where students can gather to sit in the sun and talk. In fact we took a few minutes to sit there ourselves, talking in the sun. Poet Woman, who is a photographer, artist, and scientist as well as a poet, pulled out her camera to take photos of the flowers behind us, the yellow, purple, and green.

Few things are as relaxing and satisfying as talking to a friend who knows all your secrets. We talked about our relationships, our writing, and the things about ourselves we are working on. After filling ourselves with warm pita bread and falafels, with big spoonfuls of tabouli, hummus, and baba ganoush, we wandered back through the campus of Snowstorm University which is right next to the campus of Small Green, where I work. The warm summer air smelled so fragrant that I began looking for beds of flowers.

"I think it's a linden tree," said Poet Woman. Sure enough, as we rounded the brick building, we stepped into the shade of the sweet-smelling tree.

Poet Woman pointed to the beautiful brick building that holds small musical events. The main room is an intimate setting, polished wood railings and a balcony. "That’s where I saw Joni Mitchell,” she said, “Back in 1970. I was in the first row. I’ll never forget that.” In addition to all her other talents, Poet Woman can sing the words to any Joni Mitchell song ever recorded.

When we reached the big, ugly dome-like building that holds big sporting events and modern concerts, Poet Woman ran over to stand between two of the concrete supports – and then jumped up and down. I ran over to do the same. The way the building is designed, stomping in that spot causes reverberations that sound way cool. It's impossible to resist.

As we walked along the edge of the building, we both kept ducking between concrete supports to stomp up and down, until finally we started laughing.

"Some things you never outgrow," Poet Woman said.

"Didn't you just turn sixty?" I teased.

"I'm a hippie," she said. "Hippies don’t get old."

Poet Woman is, in fact, an authentic hippie, who has had some pretty amazing experiences. Every time I think I've heard all of her stories, she'll write another poem with some amazing narrative behind it. "Oh, yeah," she will say, "Did I ever tell you about the time I lived in an abandoned car for a few months?"

As we walked back toward my campus, the sun came out from behind the clouds and the sidewalk began sparkling with tiny shining bits that caught the sun. Glints of mica, most likely. Or even bits of quartz. That was Poet Woman's scientific explanation. But I've seen this kind of thing before -- sometimes when you are walking with a close friend, the very sidewalks beneath your feet can sparkle.

June 27, 2006


One of the games my kids play in the summer time is frisbee golf. I've never played the game myself, but as far as I can see, frisbee golf involves a bunch of teenagers winging frisbees at a target and then cheering when they hit it. They move around the yard in a gang, frisbees in hand, and they call the targets holes, perhaps to justify the name of the game since the targets are almost always trees and certainly not holes.

It's good to know when a game is in progress because walking out the back door can be dangerous.

Sometimes I'll be sitting peacefully on the couch, and I'll hear a serious of thuds as frisbees collide against the house, coming dangerously close to the glass windows behind me. "How can their aim be so bad that they are hitting the house?" I used to wonder. But often I was too caught up in the book I was reading to bother to check out the situation. It was easier to just keep my fingers crossed. One of my extras once put a golf ball through the sliding glass door, and you'd think I would have learned from experience, but hot weather makes my brain mushy.

Finally one time, after hearing repeated thuds, I stepped outside to check out the situation. No, it wasn't my imagination. As I watched, Shaggy Hair Boy took aim and flung a frisbee straight at the house.

"Hey, jo(e)! You ought to duck!" First Extra yelled helpfully as the object went hurtling past my head.


Boy in Black gave me a patient look, like a parent about to explain something to a very small child.

"Well, of course," he said. "The corner of the house is the sixth hole."

June 25, 2006

Look out kids

It all began a few weeks ago, when Boy in Black was asked to submit his valedictory speech to the high school administration for approval. He knew what he submitted would raise eyebrows and cause a commotion in this conservative community. And of course, he was right.

His speech, written as advice to his classmates, was about the music of Bob Dylan, and his own conviction that questioning authority and protesting against the dominant culture is more important now than ever. His speech included a song he had written with those beliefs in mind. His plan was to bring both guitar and harmonica to the podium, and sing the words he had written to the music of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

His submission of the speech led to a flurry of emails, with administrators suggesting changes and Boy in Black politely explaining why he wasn't going to change what he wrote. The revisions they suggested had nothing to do with making the song stronger, and everything to do with changing the content. Boy in Black’s refusal to comply with the suggested revisions led to several meetings with the principal and assistant principals. Boy in Black brought his guitar over to the high school and performed the song for some of the administrators. Some English teachers and the band director got involved, supporting what he intended to do. The school board and the superintendent were given copies of the song.

No one wanted to actually come out and say that they disagreed with his message: instead, they just kept picking at particular lines. Here are just a few examples.

One administrator didn’t like this line from the beginning of the speech: "Now I don’t think I did the song justice because, ironically, I was pretty busy getting my conscientious objector file together these past few weeks, but I think Dylan would be okay with that." Boy in Black’s view was that if the school was willing to allow members of the military, in full uniform, on stage at graduation in tacit support of the military, they certainly ought to allow him to voice an alternative view.

One administrator complained that the song was way too dark. The song contained references to the war in Iraq, to the No Child Left Behind Act, and the death of Emmet Till. "You are right," said Boy in Black. "The song is dark. That's my point. These are dark times."

One administrator didn't like the following lines: "Administrators still preach/To stifle students' free speech/Mold a puppet out of each." ("They gonna tell me to take those lines out?" asked Boy in Black. "That would certainly be ironic.")

Another administrator didn't like the line: "Don’t follow cheaters/Just because they’re leaders." Boy in Black was prepared to give hundreds of examples from both history and current times to explain why that line was good advice.

An assistant principal visited Spouse at work and showed him changes she wanted Boy in Black to make on the speech. Spouse told her that Boy in Black could make his own decisions, and he had complete confidence in his son. Boy in Black, angry that the administration would put pressure on his parent, called the school and politely asked for an appointment with the acting principal. He went in, calmly explained his reason for each lyric they had questioned, and stood his ground. He had decided that he would rather not give a speech than allow his words to be censored.

Eventually, thanks to at least one open-minded administrator, he was given the go-ahead for the speech.

And so this morning, at the big convention center downtown, in front of thousands of people, with the conservative members of the school board, the superintendent, all the principals, and several high-ranking members of the military sitting behind him on the stage, Boy in Black got up to the podium to give his speech. He choose not to wear the mortar board or his honor society sash. In black pants and a black shirt, his royal blue gown open and billowing behind him like a cape, he strode across the stage to pick up his electric guitar and put on his harmonica necklace, shaking his long hair out of his eyes as he did so.

He spoke directly to the hundreds of classmates who sat before him in their blue robes and caps, and told them why he thought Bob Dylan’s message was still important. When he said that he was a conscientious objector, a murmur rose from the crowd, sounds of both approval and disapproval, with some pockets of applause. And then he began singing, confidently and clearly, the lyrics he had written.

In the second verse, his classmates stopped him with a round of spontaneous applause. He paused, smiling, and waited until the applause died down before he finished the verse and went on to the next five. At the end, his classmates did something I’ve never seen before at a high school graduation. They gave him a standing ovation.

June 24, 2006

Nothin' but blue skies

When I was a kid, I wore glasses – and I hated them. They fogged up every time I walked outside in the winter, they got sweaty and slippery in the summer, and they were always breaking. I can't tell you how many times a game of pond hockey would have to come to a halt because my glasses had just gone flying across the rink. And I hated the way the frames cut off my peripheral vision. My father used to make all kinds of repairs to the glasses when they broke on weekends, one time even drilling holes on either side of a broken nose piece and wiring them together. The people who worked at the eye doctor’s took my glasses and passed them all around the office, marveling at how ridiculous they looked.

When I turned sixteen and could get a job, the very first thing I saved my money for was a pair of contact lenses. These were the old rigid contacts that took weeks to get used to, but I loved them from the start. It seemed like magic to be able to run and swim and do all kinds of activities – and be able to see clearly the whole time.

Last winter, With-a-Why's eyes went from slightly near-sighted to very near-sighted, just like mine. He continued to leave his glasses off for sports like snowboarding, but I could see that he was squinting and struggling to see the whole time. I told him that when summer came and he had the leisure to practice putting them in, we'd get him some contact lenses.

When school ended this week, we headed straight for the eye doctor's. The nice young woman there told me he would have to take a class from her -- and put them in and take them out and put them in again before he could take them home. I wondered how my very shy child would do with learning from a stranger, but the policy made sense to me.

On Wednesday we went back for the class and With-a-Why tried for an entire hour to put the contact lens in his eye. He focused intently the whole time, following Contact Woman’s directions exactly, but never got a lens into his eye. He just kept flinching when his finger got near the eye. And then his long black eyelashes would catch the lens. "I think you are thinking too much," Contact Woman said. By the end of the hour, his eyes were both sore from pulling his lids up and down continually.

"Do you think it’s making you nervous that we are watching?" I asked, wondering if he would do better in an empty room.

"The problem is not that you’re watching," he said. "The problem is that I am trying to stick something in my eye."

I used to be grateful that my kids were the cautious types not likely to stick strange objects into body orifices. This desirable quality saved us many trips to the emergency room. But now that same strong instinct was preventing With-a-Why from getting the contact lens into his eye.

At home that night, I made sure he watched while I took my contacts out and put them in again. He practiced in front of the mirror, opening his eye wide with his fingers. With-a-Why is a smart, intense kid who is used to being able to do everything right the first time, so I could tell that this was bothering him.

"What happens when I finally get one in?" he asked. "If getting them out is just as hard, I could end up with a contact lens in my eye for eternity."

Yesterday, we went back to the eye doctor's. Again, he tried for a whole hour, focusing intently the whole time. Contact Woman and I cheered him on. He was clearly getting much closer. He knew how to open the eye wide; he just didn’t like sticking anything in the eye. Again, we left without the contact lenses.

This morning we went back to the eye doctor's for the fourth time this week. I tied With-a-Why's longish hair back with a red bandana so that he would not have to worry about the hair in his eyes. He looked like a pirate. An intent, serious pirate. By this time, everyone in the office knew us, and they all smiled encouragingly at him.

Again, he sat down at the white table, following the instructions exactly, patiently trying again and again. And this time – success! He got a lens into his left eye! Contact Woman and I cheered. He smiled his shy smile. And then he got the lens into his right eye! He’d made the breakthrough of sticking something into his eye.

For the first time, he looked around and could see the world clearly without glasses. Excitedly, he read the signs on the walls. He stood shyly near the register while I filled out the paperwork to order him a supply of contacts. He kept glancing up now and then with his big dark eyes. I remember that feeling of being able to see without glasses for the first time – it's like magic.

Then he took off the bandana, shook the hair back into his eyes, and we drove home.

June 23, 2006

Friday Poetry Blogging

The theme of Friday poetry blogging this week comes from the recent controversy stirred up by Twisty. Here's my contribution to the discussion.


I like the way it tangles and glistens
in my hair. Dream fluid. Milky words. Unspoken
secrets from your cloudy interior self. Words you never
tell me. Droplets of salt marsh at dusk. Your meteor
showers. Your hidden pools.

I want what is inside you. What percolates beneath the layers.

(I need your drowning)

Streams of hazy dream words. Silken
condensation of your voice. The beating
of the wings of crow. The burst pods of milkweed.
The broken doorways. Warm white tears.

(I look into this doorway of you
and I say, something is broken.)

Snow trickling from pines. Melt drops
splashing. I hold them gently in my mouth.

(You drown in me)

Spit them into my hands. Glistening self
words. Rubbed into my palms. Memories melted
and viscous. I feel your fingers touch
the person you need me to be.

(the woman I am not)

I cannot swallow
the wet, shining, jagged, silent syllables

cannot take in
all that darkness

all that starry light

June 22, 2006

Fruit Salad

When my kids were little and the weather was hot, I used to forget about making any kind of meal. Instead, I'd get out the cutting board and compost bucket, and stand at the kitchen table chopping up fruit. The kids would cluster around, eating fruit as I worked, smooshing the chunks of watermelon all over their faces and underneath their feet, and by the time I was done, they would be full – and I'd have a container of fruit salad to put in the refrigerator for later. All of us would end up sticky with fruit juice so then we would go outside to the little wading pool, leaving behind a sticky kitchen table that would later attract all kinds of ants.

I never had the patience to supervise a bunch of small children using sharp knives so I did all the cutting up. I can remember thinking, though, of how nice it would be when the kids were old enough to help.

I thought of this the other night as I stood at my kitchen table and cut up fruit: a whole watermelon, several cantaloupes, mangoes, big bags of grapes, several quarts of strawberries, pints of blueberries, pints of raspberries, a dozen kiwi, a pineapple, a bag of cherries, enough fruit to fill a couple of grocery bags. The gang of teenagers who were intently playing music would stop on occasion to wander over and grab some fruit. Teenagers eat more neatly than toddlers but they also eat alarming quantities so I had to chop fruit pretty fast to make any sort of progress. In the end, I was left with one small container of fruit salad.

What I can't figure out is how I somehow went from having toddlers who couldn't use sharp knives to teenagers who are busy jamming with their friends. Surely, there should have been a golden age somewhere in between where my children happily did all the chopping and cutting while I sat in front of the fan with a good book, looking up when they came over to put grapes into my mouth. The funny thing is that I somehow seemed to have missed that stage altogether.

June 21, 2006

Fishing poles

When my kids were little, I used to take them camping whenever I could. Sometimes my husband would be able to come with us, and sometimes I'd bring the kids up to my parents' camp. In August, I'd spend a week camping at Huge Lake with Monking Friend after our husbands had run out of vacation time. Monking Friend and I have eight children between us, all pretty close in age.

Each year, the eight kids would get obsessed with some kind of activity. One year it was diving, one year kite flying. Another year, they spend hours and hours playing cards. One year, her kids had fishing poles, and the kids spent all kinds of time fishing. Near the end of the week, her twin boys, LookingForward and DryHumor, asked me to get up at dawn one morning and take them fishing at the pier.

I love early summer mornings. We crept out of our tents while it was still dark. With-a-Why was just a toddler, and I left him curled up sleeping next to his sister, but my middle two kids stumbled out of the tent sleepily. LookingForward was wide awake, his fishing pole in his hand.

The wide concrete pier at the beach was often crowded in the evening with people looking at the famous sunset over Huge Lake, but at dawn it was empty of humans and covered with seagulls. The sun was rising slowly, but both the sky and water were such a misty blue that you could not see where the water ended and the sky began. The boys settled on a spot near on the pier and sat down close together, the four of them huddled together as if for warmth, their legs dangling above the water.

While they fished, I wrote in my journal and read part of a book. As the sun rose higher, the mist began to burn off and the grey blue sky turned blue. I walked to the end of the long pier, hundreds of yards, and I noticed that as I walked the seagulls would rise up and then settle back down as soon as I passed. I tried running from one end of the pier to the other, and it was the coolest thing – as I ran, seagulls would rise all around me, their white and grey wings scraping the morning sky, and then drop back down after I passed through.

I checked on the boys, who were still huddled in the same spot, although they had stripped off their sweatshirts and eaten some of their donuts. They were talking lazily, in hushed tones, all of them staring into the water, almost as if the lake had mesmerized them.

An old woman, the first person we’d seen that day, came walking down the pier. She was dressed in pink and khaki, with a white cardigan sweater wound tightly around her middle. Her white hair was curly. She stopped to watch the boys, who were all oblivious to her presence. When she came near where I sat cross-legged, reading my book, I smiled and said hello.

"Are they your kids?"
"Yeah. Well, sort of. I mean, two of them are."

She paused, as if about to tell me something important. "I'm so delighted to see them," she said. "I've been wondering if kids still did that – if kids ever went fishing off this pier. I was beginning to think they didn't."

She turned again to look at the boys, and I could see that she was remembering those lazy summer mornings of childhood spent with a fishing pole and a couple of buddies. She continued down the pier, seagulls rising and falling as she went.

June 20, 2006

Eve of the Solstice

It's the last week of school for my boys, the beginning of summer. Boy in Black and his friends graduate this weekend. Shaggy Hair, Blonde Niece, and Skater Boy took their last Statewide Exam this morning. With-a-Why went this morning to his very last school picnic at the small neighborhood school that has been so wonderful for this shy smart child. In the fall, he will go to the big public school, where he will be one of hundreds of children in his grade.

All the spring concerts and piano recitals are over for the year. I've been going to concerts at With-a-Why's school since the early 1960s, since it is the elementary school I attended, and I admit I felt nostalgic as I sat on the bleachers for one last time, watching the kids pull back the worn green curtains. That old brick building, with its big windows full of sunshine, holds so many warm childhood memories for me.

I took With-a-Why to an eye appointment this afternoon – to get the kid contact lenses so he won’t have to look like Harry Potter any more. Because he was worn out from running around at his picnic, he actually sprawled onto my lap in the waiting room, his head cushioned against me, and fell asleep. I looked down at his long black eyelashes and long dangling legs. I know he won't fit on my lap much longer.

When we returned home, I found Boy in Black at the piano, playing and singing a Leonard Cohen song.

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

I listened to his deep voice draw out the words: "Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah."

When he noticed me standing there listening, he looked up. "Bob Dylan covered this song," he explained. "And the Rufus Wainwright version is pretty popular too because it was in the movie Shrek."

I cannot explain why it happens but certain songs get into my head. For the rest of my life, when I hear that song, I will remember this day on the edge of summer, with sunlight reaching through the windows to touch my son at the piano, my daughter sitting on the stairs tying her running shoes and leaning close to confide in me, the rest of the boys out on the basketball court tossing a ball around -- all of my children living here in my home, safe and carefree, with options still spread before them like dandelions on a spring lawn.

June 19, 2006

Beach Meme

I saw this at BeachMama's. I don't know if she intended it to be a meme, but I could not resist.

Ten Things that Remind me of the Beach

These are all childhood memories of the crowded beaches at the Jersey shore. We used to go there every August to visit my grandmother and aunt. A week at the beach was a novelty, since we spent the rest of the summer swimming in the marsh or off rock ledges. I’ve been to many other beaches since, but I guess those early impressions are the ones that stick.

1. The smell of Coppertone suntan lotion. When I was a kid, no one in regular life used sunscreen (had it been invented yet?), but the tanned bodies of people around us at the beach were slathered with Coppertone. We all thought sun tan oil was something glamorous, invented so that in the movies hot male actors could rub their hands suggestively over women’s bodies.

2. The way the inside of a car smells on a very hot day. My parents' driveway was shaded, and they parked in the shade wherever they went. But when we went down to the shore, the parking lots were in the direct summer sun. The seats of the car would be so hot that we would have to put towels down before we could sit on them. We would roll the windows down so before even getting into the car. (Air conditioning hadn't been invented yet either.)

3. The smell of salty wind. I can remember that on our first trip of the season over to the ocean, my father would say, "Roll down the windows! Can you smell that great salty smell?"

4. Root beer. We would be driving from my grandmother's house to the beach on a dreadfully hot day, and the bridge we had to cross to get to the beach was a drawbridge. When the drawbridge opened to let boats go safely through, traffic would back up for miles. We'd be all sweltering in the hot car, a whole bunch of us kids crammed into the airless back of a station wagon, and we'd look out the window at this restaurant where people were sitting outside in the shade drinking icy glass mugs of root beer. You could even see the condensation on the glasses. Nothing ever looked so good.

5. Seagulls.

6. Airplanes that pull words across the sky. Small airplanes would fly by the crowded beach, pulling a one-sentence ad. I was always fascinated by the strings of letters, and I'd sound them out until I could read what they said. One time, I had a lot of trouble (I was pretty young) until my aunt pointed out that they were all backwards. The plane looped around, and then I could read them. I still have this idea that I'd like to write a poem that could be performed by several small air planes. Wouldn't that be cool?

7. The smell of straw. I don't know if they even make them any more, but my grandmother and aunt had these straw mats that they always used at the beach. The advantage to the straw mats, which were not as soft as towels, is that sand just shook right off them.

8. Sun hats. You don't see many sun hats where I'm from. We have trees, lots of shade, and many overcast days. But I can remember that down the shore, many women wore sunhats at the beach – big and floppy or wide-rimmed. Whenever I see an old-fashioned hat like that, it reminds me of the fair-skinned Irish women in my mother's family, who wore hats even as they stood at the water’s edge in bathing suits.

9. Beach umbrellas. Big, colorful umbrellas that would make a small patch of shade. No one uses them here, on small beaches on lakes or rivers, and certainly not on the islands of solid rock where we swim up at camp, but down the shore, they were everywhere. I always memorized the umbrellas nearest to me when I was a kid, because I needed to take my glasses off to swim, and the bright colors of the umbrellas were the only way I could find my way back to the right clump of towels and blurry shapes that were bodies. Sometimes while I was swimming, some family near us would pack up their umbrella and go home, and I would be left wandering around in a blur, unable to find my family until someone would notice me stumbling about and come rescue me.

10. Kites. I come from a place where trees and powerlines make kite flying difficult. But at the beach, all kinds of gorgeous and colorful kites would be zooming about above our heads. It's hard not to feel happy when you are flying a kite.

Things change as they get older

Every time one of my children has a birthday, I ask the night before for "the last four-year-old kiss" or the "last eight-year-old kiss." When the kids were little, I always managed to get that last kiss because I was usually the person putting them to bed. As the kids have gotten older, I have not always been the one to get that last kiss.

This year, my daughter is not even home on the eve of her birthday. On her last day as a teenager, she is driving home from a concert miles and miles away.

So instead of getting a kiss, I got her last nineteen-year-old text message.

June 18, 2006

When it's hot and miserable

Today the temperatures were in the 90s and the humidity was high. Everyone in the household was tired and miserable and hissing at each other. Eventually, teenagers and cats flopped on the floor to nap. I got in the car and drove off by myself to find someplace cool and quiet, some place where I could write in my journal and think. I rolled down my windows to let the warm air rush into the car, the breeze making my sweaty hair feel at least a little bit cool.

The parking lot of the county park was surprisingly empty. It's a park that used to be crowded on summer days when I was a kid, but I suppose the prevalence of air conditioning keeps people indoors nowadays. The shady pine grove filled with picnic tables and grills was quiet.

When I was a kid, we used to clamber into the stream, close enough to the waterfall to get wet. Chain link fences have gone up since then, with big warnings that going off the trail means risking injury or death. I rolled my eyes at the signs and climbed over the fence. The park is by no means a wilderness area, and my footsteps on bare rock were not going to hurt anything. The deep shade of the forest felt cool and calming as I picked my way across rocks toward the sound of falling water.

The 137-foot waterfall has not changed in my lifetime. Water foams white as it rushes down over the rocks, a wonderful rolling, dancing stream, half-hidden by all the lush green foliage. Listening to the rush of water and feeling the spray on my face, I could feel my whole body relax.


Party season begins

In my community, pretty much every kid who graduates from high school gets some kind of party – well, more or less the same party, actually, in the backyard with a white rented canopy for rain showers, folding tables full of food, and some kind of activity like volleyball. Since Boy in Black and his friends graduate this year, we will be invited to parties every weekend all summer long.

Yesterday was the first of the parties. First Extra and Boy in Black have been close friends since second grade, and First Extra comes to our house every weekend. The two boys have stayed close friends even though they have gone to different schools for the last six years. They will go to different colleges as well, but everyone knows that this is a friendship for life. Like Boy in Black, First Extra is smart, compassionate, and funny -- and somehow immune to the macho attitudes that permeate this community. He’s been a member of our family since the beginning.

We all went to the party, not just my husband and kids, but all of my extras at well. At one point, an older relative who didn’t know me asked, "Now do you have kids here?" I gestured to the volleyball court, where a dozen kids were playing volleyball, and said, "Uh, all of the kids on the volleyball court came with me. The three boys in black t-shirts are my sons, the blonde girl is my niece, and the others are extras."

First Extra’s mother came over to me later to say that a puzzled aunt had asked her: "Just how many kids does that women have?"

Perhaps the nicest part of the party was that most of the people know my son, Boy in Black, and it was like being the mother of a celebrity. "You are Boy in Black’s mother? Congratulations! He’s soooo smart and such a wonderful young man. You must be so proud of him."

A parent just never gets tired of hearing that.


With-a-Why on the volleyball court

June 17, 2006

With claws

The seven cats at our house do not get along with each other. They are all former strays, which means – well, they have issues. Those of us who live here are used to the occasional hissing, screeching battles as a couple of cats fight over territory. Guests to the house are sometimes startled at the savage noises they might hear coming from another room. I grew up with cats like this so it never occurs to me that anyone else might find the spitting, hissing creatures at all frightening.

I remember the time Shaggy Hair Boy had his friend Quiet Kid stay over night for the first time. They were both about eight years old. Quiet Kid kept asking me all kinds of questions about the cats, which I answered kind of nonchalantly.

"Where do they sleep at night?"
"Oh, anywhere they want."
"They don't have claws, do they?"
"Sure, they do. I think it's cruel to declaw a cat."

His interest did not seem that unusual, since many kids love animals, although I did find it strange that he didn't want to pet any of the cats. I usually watch when kids new to the household are petting our cats for the first time, and I give them some warnings: "Remember, these cats are former strays. They sometimes scratch. Go ahead and pet them, but keep your face out of scratching distance." When I said this to Quiet Boy, he gave a startled look and moved about ten feet away from the nearest cat.

That night, Quiet Boy joined my boys in the bedroom, two of them on beds, and everyone else on the floor. Quiet Boy seemed nervous about sleeping over, which did not make sense to me. I went to school with both his parents, have known both of them since kindergarten, and so it's not like we were strangers. He'd always been fine coming over to play for the afternoon.

In the middle of the night, my husband woke me up. "You know, Quiet Boy is still awake."

I went down the hall to check. The boys' room looked peaceful to me. Two cats were scuffling in the corner, and one cat lazily leaped from bed to floor. In the dim light, the silhouettes of the cats looked kind of cool, like the jungle scene of an animated movie. Another cat was curled atop the legs of Shaggy Hair Boy as he slept.

Then I saw Quiet Boy standing against the wall, his whole body rigid. Even in the dark, I could see the look of terror on his face.

"What's the matter?" I asked. “Did you have a nightmare?”

He shook his head. Finally, he summoned a single sentence. "I'm afraid of cats."

June 16, 2006

The funeral

The wake was Wednesday night. Hundreds of people came, crowding into the small funeral parlor, everyone standing in line to talk to the family. I hugged Shiny Personality, and we both cried. She told me that on the last day, her mother tried to hang on, she did not want to leave the people she loved even though she was in pain, and she finally said to her,"Mom, let go! You've had enough, go to heaven." Her mother died moments later.

Her mother, Generous Hyper Woman, had been an excitable, energetic woman, given to loud exclamations of emotion, the kind of person who never sits still. How strange to see her lying in the coffin, with no movement, all that energy gone. As we drove away from the funeral parlor, driving home in early evening, a double rainbow stretched across the sky ahead of us.

Thursday morning, we gathered at an old stone church for the funeral service. When she was alive, her family and friends always teased Generous Hyper Woman affectionately about the crazy, funny things she did. And her death did not change the telling of those stories. Almost everyone had a story to tell about her generosity, but the stories also included things catching on fire and ridiculous escapades that thankfully had happy endings. One time, for instance, Generous Hyper Woman was walking downtown, and a man snatched her purse. She ran after him, yelling and screaming hysterically, and chased him for three blocks. He eventually dropped the purse.

The cemetery is on the main street of Traintrack Village, a place I drive by every single day. I stood with my brother, who had driven in from Camera City, and my parents, and a big group of people in the beautiful summer sunlight, and listened while the pastor prayed. We put pink roses on the coffin as we left, one of her sons kneeling down to kiss the casket before he walked away.

When we gathered at Shiny Personality’s house, where trays and trays of food were being rapidly unwrapped by family and friends, it seemed strange to think it had been less than four months since we’d gathered for a party, with Generous Hyper Woman still healthy enough to talk and eat and scream excitedly when someone gave her an autographed copy of a photo of one of her favorite baseball players. I talked to people I’ve known my whole life, and some friends I’d gone to school with from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

When it was finally time to drive home, I hugged Shiny Personality and told her how much I admired her for the way that she took her mother into her home and cared for her so patiently, so cheerfully. I hope some day when it is my turn to care for a dying parent, I can do so with the same unselfishness and grace.

June 15, 2006

Peony Meditation


When I stare into a peony, I imagine myself small enough to crawl amongst the petals. I climb into the middle, pushing and pulling silky pink petals higher than my head. I bounce up and down to make the flower sway. I run and slide through secret paths of changing colour, shaking my head to let the pollen fall from my hair. I breathe in scent, letting living flower energy vibrate through me, my own human smell mixing with damp plant smell. I curl my body into a comfy spot for a nap, here, in the very center. Petals hold me close. Wind sways the stem but the sepals are strong. I am safe. The light glows pink and red, sunshine filtered through ragged petal edges. This is a time for sleeping, for dreaming, for praying. As my body relaxes, feelings seep from deep inside me. Nestled amongst the petals, I am not afraid. On a rainy day in June, when the peonies have opened to their fullest, I hide myself inside a flower.

June 14, 2006

Adolescent energy

Today, as a public service for parents who are wondering what they can expect when their kids become teenaagers, I am going to post one of Skater Boy's videos. (Skater Boy, if you recall, is one of our extra kids.) The quality of the images is poor, because the equipment he uses is really old -- the battery runs out almost as soon as he starts the camera -- and most of the shots were taken in the middle of the night, which is when teenagers are most energetic. The action is in slow motion, too, so you have to just imagine the speed. Despite these flaws, I think this video clip captures the energy of adolescence.

The video shows my kids and my extras playing in my front yard on a winter night. You can catch glimpses of them tubing over jumps, garbage cans, a Christmas tree, and in one shot -- over five teenagers huddled on the ground. Surprisingly, no one was harmed in the making of this video.

June 13, 2006

Water song

The cliffs and waterfalls in this part of the country illustrate the word gorgeous. The gorge we walked through last weekend was beautiful to look at, the lush green mosses and vegetation brilliant against the grey rock and white churning water. But perhaps my favorite part of the park was the music.

I’ve always loved the sounds and moods of moving water.

When I was little, I would crawl into the bow of my father’s sailboat, wriggling my way amongst all the orange life jackets and the white canvas sailbags to find a comfortable spot to nap. With my head resting against the white painted wood, I’d fall asleep to the gurgle and murmur of water rushing against the hull.

Sometime we've traveled to the shore to camp in the sand dunes, so that at night we could listen to the steady and rhythmic crashing of the ocean waves.

I’ve gone underground with my students, descending into a cool dark cavern, to hear the dripping, carving song of an underground stream.

On humid days in August, when I am hiking, hot and tired and thirsty, it's wonderful to hear the splash and dance of a waterfall nearby, luring me into the spray. Always it feels great to let the cold water surge over my head, soaking me until my whole body tingles.

Last summer, when I spent two weeks away from my family, my friends, and my home, on a raft trip through the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River was a constant presence in my life, the rushing, restless sound of it moving even through my dreams as I slept on the bank of the river at night. I was not lonely at all on that trip because the river was always present.

Whether I am just lying on a bridge, thinking about life,


or staring into the gorge below,

water and rock

or walking underneath a waterfall, to let the spray slap against my face,


the sound of water soothes me, wakes me -- pulls me into a conversation about all that I do not understand.

June 12, 2006


At the end of February, I wrote a post about a friend of my mother's, a woman I've known my whole life, Generous Hyper Woman. She had just been diagnosed with cancer, and her daughter Shiny Personality, who was in my grade in school, had thrown a big party so that everyone could spend time with her mother while she was still alive. That party took place on a stormy winter day, with howling winds and swirling snow, but Shiny Personality's lovely house was filled with warmth and laughter.

I can remember Opera Singer, the man who has been married to Generous Hyper Woman for 47 years, stopping me and gesturing toward the living room, where small children were running around, aunts were carrying trays of cookies, groups of relatives and friends were joking and laughing. "Can you just feel how much love is in this room?" he asked. Men of his generation are not given to expansive expressions of emotion, but he choked up several times that day as he watched his wife moving slowly through the knot of friends and family who were there to support her.

Generous Hyper Woman died yesterday.

The four months since her diagnosis have been peaceful. She and her husband have stayed at her daughter’s home, high in the hills, in a room filled with sunshine and a view of spring arriving. Close friends, like my parents, came to visit on days when she was able to talk, to sit up on the couch and recount the old stories. Her daughter, Shiny Personality, with unfailing patience, filled her last days with love and attention and warmth. Last week, when death grew near, the grandchildren came over for one last visit. My parents went over for one last conversation. Relatives flew back from all over the country for one last visit. The room filled with flowers. Her three adult children and her husband were with her as she slid into death.

June 11, 2006

Photo from the honeymoon suite

My husband and I so rarely travel without the kids that for our long weekend we decided not to bring the tent but to treat ourselves to a nice hotel. (I sleep great in a tent but Spouse is a light sleeper who very much prefers a bed.) Unfortunately, when you plan your vacation around a place with great hiking trails, you can end up in the middle of nowhere, where nice hotels are scarce, or even non-existent. The room we were given when we arrived on Thursday night in Town Named After Dead Animal Parts looked nothing like the photo we had seen on the internet. The bed was a cross between a broken trampoline and a medievel instrument of torture.

We decided the next day over breakfast to complain to the owner of the motel about the bed that seemed designed to cause backaches. The owner turned out to be a very excitable man who was horrified that we were thinking of checking out of his fine establishment. He gave us a long speech about the type of customers he usually gets – by his account, boorish party types who sometimes arrive with kegs and who spill chicken wings on the bed -- and he kept saying things like, "Yeah, that bed's probably 20 years old." At least he was honest. And an optimist as well. He followed his tirade about what horrible things customers do to the beds with the hopeful line, "Did you notice that the TV is new? Brand new TV."

Finally, he walked us over to another building and offered us his "honeymoon suite." I’m not sure why it was called a suite, since it was just one room, but it did have a king-size bed with a firm mattress, big mirrors, nice wallpaper, and a jacuzzi in the corner, a huge improvement over the dark little room we had stayed in the night before. Both the teenage girl who was cleaning the rooms and the owner's wife had trailed along to see how we would like the honeymoon suite, and they kept smiling and winking, and saying, "Oh, you'll like it."

Since my husband and I are in our mid-forties and have been married for 22 years, I doubt anyone thought we were actually on our honeymoon, but we saw no reason not to graciously accept the upgrade. The teenage girl with the cart of mops said as she left, "Didja want me to close the drapes for ya?"

It was a cold, grey morning with a drenching rain, so we abandoned the idea of an early hike in favor of enjoying the honeymoon suite. I did wonder what to do with the digital camera, since I had planned to take a whole bunch of photos while we were hiking. I had promised my readers a photo, so I had this sense of obligation. I offered to take a photo of my husband in the jacuzzi, explaining to him that my blog audience was almost all women, they would just love such a shot, and he could be the first man to post nude for the blog. He turned down my generous offer to make him famous, and offered to take a photo of me instead. The tub was slow to fill so he snapped a photo of me balanced on the edge, waiting impatiently for the water to be high enough so we could turn the jets on and see how it worked. Then we put the camera away for the rest of the morning.


June 08, 2006


As much as I love living in houseful of crazy teenagers and kids, sometimes it's nice to get away from the noise and confusion. For the next four days, I am leaving behind my children and my extras. I will be leaving behind the kitchen full of teenagers scavenging for food, the living room filled with musical instruments, and the desk piled with stuff that needs to be done. I will be leaving behind the computer, the telephone, the mailbox.

I will be visiting a state park that has great hiking trails, complete with nineteen waterfalls, gorges cut through rock, plunge pools filled with cold water, scenic bridges high above creeks, 200-foot cliffs, tunnels, and twisting staircases. When my mother went to this park for the first time in the late 1950s, local children were asking tourists to pay them a dollar to leap off high cliffs into the water below. This made my grandfather so nervous that he started paying the kids a dollar NOT to jump. It’s a park I’ve avoided for years because chasing toddlers, small children, and even teenagers – okay, especially teenagers -– around on the edges of cliffs is too nerve-wracking to be fun.

I will be hiking this park with just one other adult, someone I can trust not to make me nervous by dangling off the edge of a cliff. I will be traveling with someone I've known since 1978. We’ll be driving there, with plenty of time for long, lazy conversations. We'll be stopping to eat in cafes or small restaurants.

I am packing hiking boots, my new bathing suit, and my nicest lingerie.

June 07, 2006

Report from Club Libby Lu

After I wrote a post about Club Libby Lu last April, many readers chimed in with horrified stories about the place, but several people emailed me saying that I was too harsh, that what I had described was not the Club Libby Lu they had heard about and I shouldn't criticize a place if I had never been to it. Several of my students did actually walk through the place and came back to report that it looked like an attempt to indoctrinate girls early with the idea that they needed to spend all kinds of money on cosmetics. After all, how can the multi-million-dollar cosmetic industry survive unless we convince girls at a very early age that they need make-overs to look pretty?

Then last month, Kindergarten Friend offered her services as a spy when her young daughter was invited to a party at Club Libby Lu. Here is her report:

We walked in and were instantly ushered into the back of the store. There the girls were given a 'menu' of looks they could turn into. [The five choices were: Rocker, Priceless Princess, Tween Idol, Super Star, and Royal Heiress. ]

Three of the girls wanted to be rock stars, and two wanted to be princesses. The other mothers were oohing and aahing over the pictures and couldn't wait to see the results. The children were taken into a back room and emerged with their costumes on. The princesses were adorable. They wore rainbow colored dresses with wings on the back. Then my daughter, one of the "rock stars," came out of the room. She was wearing black silk pants with silver sequins around the waist. The top was worn diagonally, over one shoulder and bare on the other, edged in silver sequins. I realized quickly what a mistake I had made, and then decided to make this a learning experience.

What surprised me the most was how the other mothers were excited at seeing their sweet young ones dressed as whores. After pasting a semi-smile on my face, I excused myself while the girls got their make-overs.

I wandered around the mall, trying to be interested in all the merchandise I was seeing. I wandered downstairs. I wandered upstairs. When I looked over the railing at the LIBBY LU place, my mouth opened in disbelief.

There, in the window of the "club" were the girls. Even from my high perch, I could see the make-up on the little whor-; whoops, I mean girls. I immediately rushed down for a little damage control.

When I got to the club, I was just in time to see the girls dance to a rap song. There they were; glitter on their faces and hair, fake hair with curls and pink strands clipped in their hair. Their faces were covered in make-up. They had eye shadow, mascara, lipstick and blush with a sheen of glitter to finish off the look. They were carefully following the steps that the teenage girl pimps were doing.

[How old were the girls at this party? Six. That’s right, these were girls just finishing kindergarten.]

In summary, your students were right on the mark. I will not allow my daughter to attend any more Libby Lu parties. I thought you might be interested in how the place works, so you can despise it more than you had already.

June 06, 2006


training dog

When my extended family gathers at camp, the group usually includes at least four dogs. And always fairly big dogs. German shepherds, collies, labrador retrievers, or mutts that are a mix about that size. And since family members tend to get dogs from rescue groups or shelters, they are almost always dogs with issues. Since we have plenty of room at camp, the dogs usually get along okay, but meal times can be dangerous. Many a meal over the years has ended with people leaping up onto the picnic table to avoid the snarling dogs going at each other underneath the table, fighting over a piece of food that has been dropped. At some point, my Red-haired Sister instituted the policy of putting the dogs on lines during meals, and that solved the problem. Now the main fights at the picnic table are between my father and me.

When I was growing up, we always had a dog. Well, we had cats too, and a horse, and gerbils. But as I got older, I realized I was more of a cat person than a dog person, and so now I live in a household with seven cats and no dog at all. Oh, I like dogs well enough, but they are just so much responsibility. I figured I didn't need to get a dog for my kids because they can always play with the family dogs at camp.

Red-haired Sister will often ask me to go with her when she walks her dogs. This ritual of walking her dogs makes some sense where she lives, but makes no sense at all at camp, where the dogs are racing around, chasing chipmunks, leaping off the dock, and running free all day. But I've never questioned the ritual because I enjoy the walks. I usually volunteer to take Zip, a gentle old collie, and we set off along the backcountry roads.

The road we walk on is narrow and curving, crossing over high meadows and then down through the woods, with quiet bridges over cattails and creeks. Bright orange day lilies bloom along the road, and the occasional house often will have a neat garden. We pass the old farmhouse with the apple orchard where we used to sometime go to gather the drops, the apples on the ground. Many years ago, my sister was riding a bike near the orchard in the rain, and she saw a tree get struck by lightning. The tree split down the middle with a loud crack. Walking the dogs gives us an excuse to take a nice walk, away from the crowd back at camp, and have lazy conversations on summer morning.

In the late afternoon, when we've all returned tired and sunburned from swimming out at one of the islands, the dogs are usually looking for some attention. They gather around us at the picnic table, where we gather to devour cookies, fruit, cheese, and crackers. You can easily spend hours throwing sticks or balls or frisbees for the dogs to retrieve. Some of them never tire of this sort of game. My youngest sister had one dog who loved the stick game so much that it was impossible to break up kindling for the fire. I'd pick up a stick and before I could even do anything, he would have his teeth around one end of it. I gradually got into the rhythm of throwing one stick, then breaking one.

At night time, the dogs join us around the campfire, usually content to lie still and keep an eye on things. Sometimes in the dark, I've stepped on a dog by mistake. I’ll get up innocently to go get another log for the fire, and suddenly I’ll have this snarling, snapping dog yowling in pain. A few of these incidents have taught me to be more careful. And though I am not a dog person, I like the presence of the dogs at camp, these creatures who get so excited about smells, who swim in the marsh with such enthusiasm, and who run through the wood with such crazy abandon.

June 05, 2006

When we pack for camp

One of the great things about camping is that it involves no housework. It takes ten minutes to set up a tent and toss duffle bags inside. At the end of the week, we shove all the clothes and beach towels into a big laundry bag, shake the dirt out of the tent, and put it all back in the car. The key, of course, is to pack very little for a camping trip. Whatever you pack will come home dirty, whether you used it or not, so it is important to pack only what you know you will use.

Packing light is an absolute necessity for us anyhow because our vehicle is so filled with kids that we have little room for anything else. We can pack for camp in about fifteen minutes: two tents, a duffle bag per person, a bag of beach towels and sunscreen, a backpack of books and journals, one plastic box of camping stuff, some old blankets, frisbees and balls, and an ice chest. The toughest part is making room for the guitar, which gets carefully balanced on top of everything else.

I have this theory that the more camping equipment people own, the less often they will actually go camping because taking a long time to pack and unpack is a pain. Seriously. I see this all the time – people who spend hours packing for a camping trip, even when they are going to a place that has bathrooms and a camp store and towns nearby. I have a friend, whom I love dearly, who grew up in the Big City Like No Other, who never went camping as a kid, and who has no idea how to pack for a camping trip. She will take a whole day to prepare for a weekend at a state park. When we went camping together one summer, we arrived at the place at the same time and took two adjoining sites. My kids and I set up our tent, tossed some old blankets and duffle bags inside, and were done in about ten minutes. Her family spent hours setting up a pop-up trailer, putting up some kind of screen house thing, putting a tablecloth on the picnic table (yes, a table cloth!), unloading plastic boxes of stuff, unfolding chairs. They had brought games, chairs, lanterns, firewood even. And at the end of the week, they spent hours again packing the stuff all up.

Of course, when I camp with friends like that, my teasing them about all the stuff they brought does not prevent me from happily using their chairs or eating their food or burning their firewood. I mean, if they took the time to pack the stuff, it might as well get used. And it’s fun once in a while to have the luxury camping experience.

One thing that slows my family down when we are packing for camp is my insistence that we should clean the house so that we can come back to a clean house. I mean, wouldn't it be nice after a week of camping to return to a house that didn't look like a bunch of teenagers had been partying all night? Sadly, no one in the house but my husband agrees with this theory, so packing for a trip involves a series of threats to get the kids to do some cleaning.

One time we were packing for a long trip, and I was wandering around the house, pointing out stuff that still needed to be cleaned, when I noticed the kids seemed to be taking bets. "I've got 9:36," I heard Boy in Black say.

"What’s going on?" I asked suspiciously.

He shrugged. "Oh, we are just taking bets as to what time Psycho Mom will arrive."

I rolled my eyes and ignored him, and continued my tour of the house. Shaggy Hair Boy still hadn’t cleaned the bathroom. The kids had packed their duffle bags and Spouse was out in the driveway piling everything into the car, but the house was nowhere near clean. Who was supposed to be doing the kitchen? And why was With-a-Why lolling on the couch, not doing anything?

Half an hour later, I took another quick run through the house and saw that nothing had been done. That's when I started screaming at all the kids. "I thought we were going to get an early start! How come none of you are doing your chores? Now we are going to be stuck driving during the nicest part of the day! Who was supposed to clean the kitchen? The bathroom is still a mess! DON'T ANY OF YOU WANT TO GO ON THIS TRIP?"

As I was ranting and raving, Boy in Black looked at his watch and grinned triumphantly. It was 9:37 am. "I got it within a minute!"

June 04, 2006

Blogger visit

I've got a houseful of teenagers. So in the middle of the night, my home is filled with music and laughter and all kinds of activity, but on a Saturday morning, the house is quiet and empty. The teenagers do emerge eventually, but during daylight hours, they tend to be slothlike, often moving slowly about the kitchen to get food. That's why it was especially wonderful that when my favorite North Country blogger, Rob Helpy-Chalk, came to visit, he brought his family – his warm, beautiful wife and two small children who are exceptionally cute.

I had forgotten how much fun it is to be around small children. When the Little Boy with the Gorgeous Green Eyes warmed up and actually sat in my lap, I just wanted to keep him. He was wearing one of those one-piece outfits that fits over a diaper – how is it that just the other day I was putting outfits like that on Boy in Black? When was the last time I had a son who wore something other than black band t-shirts? Glitter Girl had the cutest way of talking – she was telling us about her trip to the zoo, and the careful way she pronounced the names of animals she had seen, with long pauses and wide eyes before she would say something like, Wing-tailed Lemur -- well, it was adorable.

Rob was just what I expected from his blog – smart and funny and ready to switch to serious topics when asked about his work – except his voice was different. I associate him with the North Country because that is where he lives and works right now, but his voice is not North Country at all. Turns out he is from Virginia originally. That’s one of the most interesting things about a blogger meet-up: changing the image inside your head to match the person sitting in the room.

His wife was warm and friendly and very easy to talk to, even though we had never met before. And she was beautiful. It’s easy to see where the kids get their looks from. (Sorry, Rob, but it’s true.) I tried to impress her by blowing up balloons she had brought for the kids, but was so distracted by conversation that the balloon burst in my face. Little Green-eyed Boy was not at all disturbed by the loud bang of me destroying his toy, but then burst into tears when I attempted to save his life by sweeping a round white cap out of his mouth before he could choke to death. As he glared at me from his mother’s arms, his face flushed and his blond hair sticking up over his gorgeous eyes, he was just so ridiculously cute that it was impossible not to smile.

Glitter Girl had these little tubes of body glitter, and she very carefully rubbed the glitter all over her own arms, and then all over her mother, and then on my arms and face. She even left me some so that I could use it with my belly dancing outfit. When I explained to her that I needed a photo for my blog that did not include her face, she posed cooperatively, careful to hold out the clover flower she was clutching proudly in her hand.


June 03, 2006

Camp music


The quickest way to win the hearts of the crowd at the campfire is to bring a guitar. Honestly, you don’t even have to play very well. Somehow music sounds better outside in the cool night air when you’ve got a whole crowd of people talking and laughing around the fire. Anyone who can strum a few chords of a popular song will be welcomed and encouraged to play.

When I was a kid and we would camp up in the mountains at a state park, my father and his friend TrumpetPlayer would sometimes start a jam session right on the camp site. No one around us ever seemed to mind: no one ever complained. In fact strangers we met in the bathrooms the next day would tell us how much they enjoyed it. When I took my students on a weekend retreat one year, one student brought the bagpipes. He stood near the campfire and played, while students got up and danced wildly around the fire, these dark figures silhouetted against the flames.

For many years, it was a tradition for my brother to walk to the end of the dock with his trumpet at sunset and play taps. Nowadays, my father, brother, and son are the threesome who play together most often at camp. In this photo, Boy in Black is practicing guitar and harmonica over near the firepit.

June 02, 2006

Lazy mornings at camp


A long weekend at camp can be filled with activities – swimming and hiking, sailing and canoeing, bocce and frisbee – but one of the nice things about camp is having time to do nothing. Time to read a book or write in a journal or just lie on the grass and take a nap. It's wonderful to be away from the responsibilities of work or home or school. Days are long at camp because when you sleep in a tent, you tend to wake up as soon as the sun is up.

Usually, right after breakfast, someone in the family will pick a spot at the edge of the grassy field and spread some old quilts on the ground. That's where everyone gathers. My nieces and my youngest sister will cover themselves with suntan lotion and stretch out in the sun. My mother will pull her chair into a shady spot and settle down with a book. Before long, food will appear on the scene – bags of chips, cookies, and fruit. No one in my family can go more than an hour without food.

I will settle in a chair with my journal, half listening to the lazy conversations going on. The smell of suntan lotion mixes with the scent of dried grasses and pine needles. Boy in Black and my brother are always organizing games so the background noise will include the thud of running feet, arguments over rules to whatever game they are playing, and the occasional, "Watch out!" as a frisbee or ball comes hurtling toward us. When my mother announces it's time for bocce, almost all of us leave our spots to play. I don't know whether it's because bocce is a fun family game that a six-year-old just learning can play with her grandfather who has been playing all his life, or whether we all get up from our comfy spots out of necessity because it is kind of dangerous to lie on the ground while everyone is tossing heavy bocce balls around.

As the sun gets higher, I will leave my journal to go for a sail with my father, or to go canoeing through the marsh with one of the kids, or to go for a walk with my husband. Blond Brother-in-law, who can be kind of restless at camp, will drive to town for a newspaper, which we then all fight over. My oldest sister in particular has a real competitive streak when it comes to grabbing choice sections of the paper. Don't ever try to steal the newspaper from her if she's got a weapon in her hand. When the paper has been read by everyone, she will start the crossword puzzle, and then pass it on to someone else when she gets bored. Eventually, with input from the oldest members at camp – my parents, who are good at the questions about old movie stars and such – and from the youngest, who often have the kind of trivial knowledge you learn in elementary school and never use for anything but crossword puzzles – the puzzle gets completed.

As the sun gets warmer, the newspaper and quilts are abandoned as we all move to the dock area to splash in the water, or pile into the boats to go out to an island to swim, or gather in the deep shade of the oak trees for lunch. That evening, when we are all tired and sunburned, someone folds up the quilts and tosses them into one of the tents, and the newspaper is used to start the campfire.

June 01, 2006

The traditional JESS photo

My extended family spends quite a bit of time together both at home and up at camp so the cousins know each other very well. The grandchildren are sort of naturally divided into groups. The oldest four call themselves JESS, an acronym based on their names. The fifteen-year-old group, Shaggy Hair Boy, Blonde Niece, and Drama Niece, are called the middles. Then the youngest three are called the littles, a nickname that they are protesting as they get older. Eleven-year-old Suburban Nephew considers it an insult to be called little. I mean, eleven years old is practically a grown up.

Although I told no one about it, some family members have gradually discovered my blog, and this last weekend when we were all together at camp, it became apparent that the younger generation at least all know about it. I was taking a quick photo of JESS when one of them yelled, "Hey, everyone turn and hide your face so she can put us on the blog."

So here they are. Boy in Black, although he is by far the tallest, is still somehow overshadowed by his sister and his cousins. You can just see the top of his head. And the women in the photo, from left to right, are Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter, Schoolteacher Niece, and Red-haired Niece.