July 31, 2006


After eight days on the west coast, I am back in my own home, here in Snowstorm region. We had a great week, putting over 1400 miles on the rental car, starting in the northwest and travelling south along the coast. Because I had my kids and husband with me, I didn't plan any blogger meet-ups (we didn’t even bring extras on this vacation because it was supposed to be concentrated family time), but every time I looked at the map, I would say to my kids, "Oh, a cool blogger lives here." It’s funny how many town names would seem familiar to me – and then I’d realize that I’d seen them on my sitemeter. I loved seeing the beautiful part of the country where some of my readers and favorite bloggers live.

At one point, I said to my kids, "You know, I could take a summer sometime and just plan a roadtrip around blogger meet-ups. I’ve got enough blogging friends scattered about to make that a really cool trip."

Boy in Black said, "You’re going to take a trip by yourself and stay with strangers you’ve met on the internet? Aren't you supposed to warn your kids about that kind of a thing?"

Oh, yeah.

But still, it's tempting.

This was a different kind of vacation for my family. We usually drive to someplace and camp for a week, spending all of our time in one place. Last week, we travelled every day, seeing a new landscape every couple of hours. My spouse had six free flights saved up from getting bumped so often, which is what made the trip possible, and it’s the only time the six of us have ever flown anywhere together. The downside was that flying killed a day on either end of the trip, especially since our layover both times was in Southern City that is the Same Age as Scarlett O'Hara, a city that apparently has thunderstorms any time someone from the northeast flies through, which meant that we spend a considerable amount of time sitting around in a not very exciting airport.

I hadn't planned to do any vacation blogging, but since my body stayed on east coast time the whole week, I found myself waking up early, with time to write a blog post before the rest of my family woke up. And it was surprisingly easy to find free wireless. If we wanted to look up directions to a state park on my laptop or someone in the family wanted to check their email, we'd just pull into a parking lot somewhere and I could almost always pick up a signal.

When we got home and I started reading blogs to see what had been going on when I was gone, I realized that I had driven right by the BlogHer conference. It's a good thing I didn't realize this until we were home, because I might have been tempted to desert my family to go meet some really cool bloggers. And that's hardly the right attitude for a family vacation.

July 30, 2006

Vacation blog: the coast


Although we journeyed inland several times to see waterfalls, caves, rare plants, tall trees, and a deep blue lake, we’ve spent most of our week moving south along the coast, stopping to stare down at the waves from far above or to hike down to a rocky beach or sandy cove. The weather kept changing, sometime a fog so thick we could barely see the rocks and waves, and the next minute, sunshine so bright that we stripped off clothing to feel the heat against our skin.


With-a-Why looking at rocks on the first morning of our trip.

The mood inside the rental car was equally quick to change as we argued and negotiated about where to go and what to do next, trying to accommodate six different people of different ages and interests. We stopped in a city with a famous orange bridge that was completely obscured by fog to eat lunch and gaze at a prison island that is apparently featured on some skateboarding video game my kids have played. We drove down the crookedest street in the world, looked at the boats in the harbor, and watched street performers. Boy in Black liked the beat-box artist who sat with a microphone outside a cafe while With-a-Why’s favorite was the man who hid behind tree branches and jumped out to scare people walking past. My daughter insisted that we needed to bring back presents for our extras so we spent one afternoon wandering through the shops of a coastal town, weaving our way underneath the yellow and green umbrellas and bright red awnings of outdoor cafes and past kiosks filled with cut flowers for sale.

But no matter what we did, we kept returning to the coast. And always, when I saw the ocean, I wanted to get near enough to smell the moist wind, hear the waves crashing, and feel the rush of water against my ankles. At every vista point, every dirt road, every place we could possibly park the rental car, I tried to convince my family that we needed to stop and explore. In one harbor, we saw seals and otters playing in the water. In another cove, we climbed down to the beach to find a wedding taking place, a whole group of men in ironed shirts and women in dresses that blew in the wind, a cluster of formally dressed people, most of whom had trouble climbing out of the cove because their footwear was totally inappropriate for hiking. In some coves we found surfers, all clad in black, bobbing in the water as they waited for the next big wave.

But at many of the beaches, especially on the mornings of deep fog, we were the only people for miles, free to wade in the water, listen to waves smashing against rock, run through the surf, nap in the sand, or simply sit and stare out at the ocean.


My daughter walking the beach on the last day of our trip.

July 28, 2006

Vacation Blog: Big trees

big tree

When my kids were young, I used to tell them bedtime stories in which we would pretend we had shrunk to a tiny size and we’d explore the house, seeing how different things felt when everything in the house was much bigger. This week, as we walked through groves of ancient redwoods, I felt like I was in one of my own stories. Or perhaps a movie set. The landscape seemed unreal: trees reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, and logs on the ground that were higher than my head. We walked through clumps of lush green ferns that were huge compared to the ones back at home.

Coast redwoods are the world’s tallest living trees. One tree can weigh more than 500 tons, with foot-thick bark that protects it from fire and insects, and some redwoods have reached more than 360 feet in height. When I looked up at the trees I walked underneath, I simply could not see the tops. More impressive than the height to me, though, was the age of the trees we saw. A coast redwood might live to be two thousand years old.

The woods were softly lit with sunlight that had been filtered through a canopy far above our heads. I could see how so many writers have compared the redwood forests to a cathedral, or any space designed to make humans feel humble and reverent. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow in the same spot, season after season, for more than a thousand years.

Walking through the redwood forest made me feel all reflective and spiritual, but With-a-Why saw place as a huge playground. He was off and running down the soft trails, climbing up onto huge logs to race along the top, ducking behind big trees, and hiding inside hollow trees. For someone his size, the forest offered many places to hide and jump out at family members as they walked by. The ancient trees seemed to stir up all his pent-up energy, inviting him to run and play until his hair was sweaty and his face flushed. When I asked him the last night what his favorite part of the trip so far was, he said, "The redwoods."

July 26, 2006

Vacation Blog: Chilling

When the blazing sun made it too hot for a comfortable hike, we did the logical thing: we went underground.

The cave we visited was set aside as a national monument in 1909. It's a cave of gorgeous marble rocks, with formations carved by running water, with stalactites and stalagmites that formed over thousands of years. Chilly air rushed across my skin as we entered this dim underground environment to spend an hour and a half ducking under rocks and staring at fantastic shapes. The forest ranger who was our guide talked knowledgeably about geology and hydrology, while my teenage sons entertained each other with whispered comments about the phallic shapes they were seeing.

With-a-Why was fascinated by the water dripping from the roof of the cave. "I keep getting kissed!" he kept saying, as a drop would hit his face.

The temperature in the cave stays at 42 degrees Farenheit year around. It's been that way for ... well, since anyone human ever began recording temperatures in the cave. Except recently, it's changed. Over the last ten years, in response to global warming, the temperature in the cave has gone up a degree. As we stumbled out of the cave, relieved to be able to stand up straight, stepping up out of the dark and cold into a gorgeous remnant of an old-growth coniferous forest, I couldn't help thinking about this chilling fact and wondering how many of the beautiful places we've seen on this trip would still be there for my grandchildren.

July 25, 2006

Vacation Blog: Deep Blue


Yesterday, I saw the bluest lake I have ever seen.

My teenagers had been teasing me all week about how I was probably going to cry when I saw the lake. I'd made the mistake of telling them that my friend Plantswoman had cried the first time she finally saw this lake, a body of water many consider sacred, and that anecdote had caused them to roll their eyes and tease me mercilessly. In reality, my fear of heights helped prevent the tears. Watching my kids walk perilously close to the edge of sheer cliffs always makes me feel like screaming rather than crying.

It's the deepest lake in the country, more than 1930 feet deep. We gazed it from far above, admiring the way it is set into a rim of cliffs below a gorgeous summer sky. The brilliant sun kept changing the blueness of the lake, which reflected the moving clouds and the hemlock, fir, and pines that clustered at the edge.

Temperatures rose to the 90s, so we were thankful for the conifers that shaded many of the trails and lookout points. Perhaps most amazing were the patches of snow we found on the hills around the lake: how strange to be able to have a snowball fight on a sweltering hot summer day. Shaggy Hair Boy climbed up one snowy patch to come sliding down in his best snowboarding style, slipping right out of his sandals and getting himself soaking wet.

The lake is a six-mile wide caldera created by the eruption and collapse of a volcano almost 7,000 years ago. Lava flows sealed the bottom of the volcanic basin, allowing water from rainfall and snowmelt to fill it and form the lake. The island in the lake is a cinder cone that arose after the eruption.

I knew the unusual geological history of the lake, but nothing had prepared me for the blue colour that kept changing and deepening as the sun moved across the sky. I don’t think I could ever get tired of looking at it. But after hours of moving around the lake, gazing at the blue water from every possible angle, Boy in Black finally said, "Yeah, it’s beautiful, but how many times can we look at it?"

That's when I pulled myself away from the hypnotic blue of the lake to see that my husband and kids were tired, hungry, and hot. They had eaten all of the snack food and fruit, drunk all the water and juice. It was time to drive back to town for some food and a good night’s sleep.

But even as I closed my eyes that night, I could still see that shimmering blue.


July 24, 2006

Vacation Blog: Exploring


Yesterday, we explored part of the country that my spouse and children have never seen before. We saw tall cliffs, historic lighthouses, and beaches tucked into little coves. On one rocky beach, we listened to the rattling noise the waves made as they shifted piles of rounded rocks back and forth. We climbed down to ledges to feel the spray of waves as they came crashing against rock. We saw sea lions lying in the sun and listened to their characteristic bark – and then drove inland to see the darlingtonia, a lovely translucent green plant that lures insects to a murky death.


I find it hard to resist any beach, hiking trail, or scenic vista – but after a whole morning of stopping every mile, the teenagers began complaining that it might be nice to stay in the car for more than a few minutes at a time. They were still protesting that I had gotten them up at dawn, even though I kept explaining that it should not have felt like dawn because our bodies were still on east coast time. Spouse pulled out his secret weapon, a CD that contained everything from Barry Manilow to David Cassidy, and tortured the teenagers with sappy seventies music until they were begging to stop and get out of the car again.

And once out of the car, they could not resist exploring yet another combination of rock and water.


With-a-Why and Boy in Black go off exploring.

July 21, 2006

Just the six of us

No Friday poetry this week. No Friday memes. No time for blogging.

We are off on another vacation, eager to escape the hot, humid weather of Snowstorm region. This adventure will be for just the six of us – no other relatives, no extra kids, just the six of us together for ten days. We will spend the time talking, exploring part of the country we’ve never seen before, and fighting over what music to play in the car.

Every year, I say, "This might be the last time we can do this kind of vacation, all of us together." My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is twenty. Boy in Black is eighteen. Shaggy Hair is a teenager, and even With-a-Why is no longer a baby.

So I will savor these moments while they last – the teasing and joking, the disagreements over where to go next, the eye rolling that I get when I try to make things educational, the frequent stops to find food or bathrooms, the talking and singing and playing games, the laughing over inside jokes, and the long conversations that Spouse and I have in the front seat while our children sleep in the back of the car, safe and in our care as we travel down the highway together.

July 20, 2006

Afternoon in the Art Park

art park

It's a place where the wild and the pastoral mix, where nature and art get intertwined, where both naturalists and artists gather. An outdoor sculpture park. Not a neat managed garden, but acres and acres of open rural land, with pockets of woods and wetlands -- and ponds built decades ago, each pond evolving into something different than it began. The art park spreads across a hilltop, with panoramic views that look, as my friend Poet Woman says, "the way Tuscany looks in romantic movies." Miles of trails lead visitors to ambitious art installations, art created by hands and weathered by wind and rain.

Poet Woman and I only had an hour to spare on our way to the poetry reading in Little Town by Lake, but an hour in the art park would be an hour well spent. Within minutes, we were wandering along the trails, talking busily and running to check out art installations we could see from a distance. Poet Woman is a naturalist who identified plants and creatures as we walked along; thanks to a degree in science and years of working at a science museum, she knows all kinds of vital things about the natural world.

I am always getting yelled at for touching things in art museums. It’s so hard to resist! So I love art that I am allowed to touch. I like running my hands over sun-warmed metal or weathered china or solid clay. I love sculptures that invite the viewer to enter. As I climbed through lattices or under metal girders or crawled into a nest made of twisted branches, I could hear Poet Woman’s camera clicking, and I knew that my body, my image, had become part of the work.

The sky, which ranged from deep blue in the east to an angry grey in the west as a storm approached, became a changing backdrop to some of the dramatic sculptures. Sunlight kept changing the way each piece looked as late afternoon turned to evening. The welcome wind moved across the landscape, sending ripples through a whole field of timothy. Perhaps the artwork in the park made me more conscious of these changes in colour and light, these nuances of movement, just as the presence of Poet Woman and her scientific explanations made me think more carefully about the ecology of the place.

One art installation looked like a huge clay ear, about the size of my living room. Poet Woman talked about a poetry performance she gave once, standing on the earth ear, reading her poetry to her audience and into the ear. Musicians, dancers, and poets have all done performances here in this park: science teachers bring school children here as well. As we sat on the clay sculpture, talking, she stopped to identify bird calls. A redwing blackbird in the tree next to us kept trilling his call throughout our conversation.

We had the whole park – miles of trails and acres of land – to ourselves, and we soon discovered why. The recent rains had nourished the local population of mosquitoes, who seemed thrilled at our bare legs and arms, our sweaty hair and faces. I am sure that most of Poet Woman’s photos show me slapping at insects. Thank goodness she had no audio equipment with her.

We ran from the lovely little pond, with its calm surface that reflected back our own faces, ran from the cool installations in the deep woods that made me think of grape vine arbors, ran from anything wet and shaded. Upward, we hurried, following a mown trail up a sunny ripening field, climbing to the top of a hill that promised a panoramic view. At the top, we were able to stand still in a strong breeze that kept the insects away, gazing at the woods and meadows below us and the far-off little town on the lake, with the white steeple of the church rising above treetops.

We talked about our plans to return for a whole day, perhaps in the fall after the frost kills off the insect population, bringing our lunches and our journals. We’ll watch the way the seasons change the landscape. Poet Woman will identify flora and fauna. We’ll write, we’ll do reiki, we’ll climb into works of art. We’ll watch the chorophyll disappear from the leaves, disintegrating in the bright sun and cold air, allowing the carotene and anthocyanins to reveal the yellows and reds of autumn.

July 19, 2006


Summer mornings at camp, I wake up in my small tent to the sound of birdsong. The acres and acres of preserved wetlands to our west are matched by acres and acres of farmland to our east, and the birdcalls from the marsh mix with the piercing call of a rooster, who crows again and again. Nights are almost always cool at camp, but the morning sunshine warms the tent. Sunlight pouring in through nylon walls gets everyone up pretty early, even the teenagers.

Breakfast is eaten in shifts as people stumble out of tents. A few people at a time will gather in my parents’ tiny cabin, where my mother sometimes makes blueberry pancakes over a propane flame, three pancakes at a time in a cast iron frying pan. No one talks much in the morning besides the usual greeting, “Good morning,” and “How did you sleep?”

Anything that happened during the night is recounted – thunderstorms, boats going by in the channel, the call of the great horned owl. Since I am a sound sleeper, I rarely can contribute to the conversation as I grab a bowl of cereal and some soy milk. The teenagers exchange inside jokes about all that went on in their tent as they devour pancakes or cereal. My kids are always still wearing whatever t-shirts they had on the day before, with their hair sticking in all directions. Blonde Sister’s girls, who have that silky hair that always looks perfect, manage to look neat and clean even when camping.

My father, who is obnoxiously cheerful in the morning, will try to get everyone to make plans for the day. "What island should we go to today?" He is largely ignored by the rest of the family, none of whom have inherited his cheerful morning attitude and who prefer to skulk about silently until they are fully awake.

Our dock, surrounded by cattails and shaded by oak trees, is a fairly private place for washing up in the morning. If you get a quiet moment before the dogs start jumping in and stirring up the muck, the water will be calm and clear. A quick swim or a splash of cool water on the face wakes up even the sleepiest camper.

washing face

Urban Sophisticate Sister washes her face at the end of the dock.

July 18, 2006

By its cover

My kids all seem to have the ability to focus intently on one task, even in the midst of a crowded room. Perhaps it's a survival instinct, nurtured by growing up in a chaotic noisy household. Recently, I've noticed that my youngest son, With-a-Why, in the midst of the living room full of kids playing poker and blackjack or jamming on their guitars, has been working intently on a folder full of papers, drawing and writing something. And he keeps asking for newly sharpened pencils.

The other day, he asked me, "Want to see my graphic novel?"

A graphic novel? I was curious to see what this would be.

Then he showed me his sheaf of papers. We went through each one by one. He had divided most of the pages into grids, and each little box contained an illustration. In some cases, for emphasis, he used the whole page.

The drawings were simple stick figures, but the novel had a complicated plot that seemed to have its basis in Greek mythology. The narrative was suspenseful, with a new conflict presented just about every new page. The dialogue, suspended in ovals above the stick figures, not only helped the plot progress but served to develop the characters of the stick figures, who seemed to have both distinct personalities and distinct supernatural powers.

I was impressed. With-a-Why seemed pleased with my reaction, giving me one of his rare smiles before he sat down to work on the novel some more.

Later I said to my daughter, "Hey, did you see With-a-Why’s graphic novel?"

She nodded. "Yeah, isn’t it cool?"

Then she laughed. "I told him to call it a graphic novel. I figured that no one would take him seriously if he said he was making a comic book."

July 17, 2006

Heat Wave

It's in the 90s here. Still. Another hot, humid day. It's hard to even use the laptop because it radiates heat and it's sticking to my bare legs. Right now, I would pay big money for some kind of laptop with a built-in cooling device.

The poison ivy rash on the back of my legs itches. Always, during a heat wave, I am covered with poison ivy rash. It is some sort of rule of the universe. Right behind the knees is a particularly annoying spot for poison ivy, although mercifully, my arms are both free from rash right now.

The teenagers have somehow summoned the energy to jam, even in this dreadful heat: Skater Boy on the drums, Older Neighbor Boy and Philosophical Boy on guitar, Shaggy Hair at the keyboard. Boy in Black and Blonde Niece just returned from running errands, which was brave of them, since the car is even hotter than the house. With-a-Why is working on his graphic novel. His hair is wet with sweat, the long dark strands sticking every which way, but he is concentrating so hard he does not seem to notice the heat.

I am too lethargic to walk over to the sink and get my hair wet, or get something cold to drink, or anything remotely sensible. Instead, I am looking at the photos I have on my laptop. I’ve got a whole series of weird distorted underwater photos of Blonde Niece swimming in the Big River That Runs Between Two Countries.

I am remembering how it feels to dive into that deep icy water, my whole body plunging through the wetness, a chill so sudden that all my muscles would feel as if they’d just been massaged, and all my nerve endings would be stimulated, alive.



Yesterday was ridiculously hot and humid, one of those days when everyone walks in slow motion because it takes such energy to move through the thick air. Even the gang of teenagers who hang out here in the evening seemed lethargic as they played cards and joked around and slapped at the mosquitoes that kept coming into the house because so many of our window screens are bent and broken.

Usually, evening brings some coolness, but last night the house still felt like someone had just opened a giant dishwasher partway through the hot water cycle.

We started talking about the newest movies that were playing, and I said that I would go see any movie just to sit in an air conditioned movie theater for a few hours.

"My house is air conditioned," said CoolKid.

He picked up a couple of poker chips, looked around at his friends, and shrugged. "I’d rather be here."

July 16, 2006

Day of Rest

Yesterday, the morning of Boy in Black’s graduation party, I woke up to a thunderstorm. Usually I love the power and energy of a summer storm, but when you are planning to entertain a bunch of people in your backyard, all that drenching rain is not such a great thing. I knew that the moisture would get the mosquitoes stirring, so I called family members and asked them to bring electric fans to use under the white canopy the kids had set up the day before. "You want me to bring a fan?" my mother asked. "Uh .. have you noticed that it’s raining out?"

But the rain stopped before noon, and Shaggy Hair Boy helped me run extension cords out to the backyard so we could use the electric fans outside for mosquito control. Since the day was rapidly turning hot, we set up a few fans inside the house too.

The heat did not prevent the teenagers from being active. As soon as Boy in Black’s cousins and friends arrived, a whole group of them went to the field across the street to play Ultimate Frisbee, skidding dramatically into big puddles of water during the game. When the frisbee players eventually returned to the backyard, most of them were red from heat and covered with mud. Once they had revived themselves with food and drink, they moved to the basketball court for basketball and then four square, before drifting back to the white canopy for another round of eating and drinking.

Other relatives and friends preferred to cluster in the shade of the white canopy, where the electric fans made things surprisingly cool. We’d set up a blackjack table in the living room, and that is where the teenagers ended up eventually, gambling for chips that could earn them prizes. One of my husband’s secret talents is dealing blackjack. That's how we met, actually. I went with friends to a casino night at a local high school 28 years ago. A senior at the high school, he was working a blackjack table.

Despite the humidity and heat, Boy in Black's party was a success. During the afternoon, we ate and drank and talked in the shade of the canopy, and as evening approached, almost everyone over the age of 25 left and the party moved indoors. The teenagers and kids stayed up all night playing blackjack and poker and some other card game, happily devouring the party leftovers.

And today? Walk through my house and you can find sleeping bodies everywhere.



This photo, a glimpse of my backyard on the morning of Boy in Black's graduation party, represents the only quiet moment I had yesterday.

July 14, 2006

Pet Peeves: the cathartic meme

The Friday Five meme from the RevGalBlogPals was particularly cathartic this week.

1. Grammatical pet peeve. It drives me crazy when I hear parents correct their children’s grammar. It just seems so rude. And pointless.

My teenage sons correct me if I make a grammatical error, and that drives me crazy too, which is exactly why they do it. I have the habit of saying, "There's ... some plural noun." Perhaps it's a regional grammatical construction because since Boy in Black first started pointing it out, I noticed that pretty much everyone I know does it. Even my mother. And yes, it's just wonderful to have a smart alec teenager say, "IS THERE some apples? Aren't you an English teacher?"

2. Household pet peeve. I hate it when the kids clean the kitchen counter simply by sweeping dirty dishes into the sink. Do they think the sink is magic and the dishes will disappear? Surely, they must know that hours later, someone will have to take all the dishes back out of the sink, and they will be all stuck together with food and cat food. Ugh.

3. Arts & Entertainment pet peeve. The way Hollywood promotes consumerism. Yes, every woman needs thirty pairs of shoes. Yes, money and clothing and a nice car and a huge house will bring you happiness. I hate how Hollywood portrays dysfunctional relationships as "romantic" (You complete me ... ... ugh) and promotes rigid gender stereotypes. I hate how women are portrayed as sex objects. These pet peeves actually make movie going fun for me, though. I love to go to a movie and then rip it apart. I’ve also been known to make snarky comments all through the movie, which is one of my husband’s pet peeves about me. Isn’t it great how all the pet peeves can be connected?

4. Liturgical pet peeve. Well, I grew up Catholic so I’ve got a whole list. But my top one, of course, the obvious one, the one that is way more than just a pet peeve and more like a major disagreement that has forced me to question and ultimately reject the church I was raised in, is the absence of women clergy at any Catholic Mass.

5. Wild card. When women put themselves down, especially when they say negative things about their bodies. It makes me sad -- and angry at the culture we live in.

Bonus: Things that I do that become other people's pet peeves? Let's see. I will often eat off other people's plates, asking for just a bite or sip of something. Drives my husband crazy. I never finish a drink of anything, always leaving just half an inch in the bottom of the glass. Drives my mother crazy.

I finish other people's sentences if they trail off. Some people don't like that. I am an impulsive, overlapping talker, which drives some people nuts. I am one of the most opinionated people on the planet, and some people don't find that charming. (I am genuinely puzzled by this because I love to talk to opinionated people.)

What else? When I am reading, it is almost impossible to get my attention. You have to say my name loudly, five or six times, in a tone of voice that indicates someone is bleeding before I will put down the book and look up. My kids think that's annoying.

Here’s the nice thing though. For every trait I have that annoys someone in my life, I have at least one friend who finds that trait endearing. Thank goodness for eccentric friends.

July 13, 2006

Always greener

I am really hard on lawn mowers. The average lawn mower seems to be designed for someone taller than me so I push at the handle at the wrong angle. Perhaps the bigger problem is that I'm an impatient person who runs over rocks and tree stumps and toys that have been left outside. I can't even count how many lawn mowers I've totalled over the years. One of them even caught on fire, although I swear, I have no idea how that happened.

As soon as we buy a lawn mower, it morphs into a decrepit machine with flaws that will annoy me. Our current mower stalls out about every ten minutes and has a wheel that falls off after about half an hour. When the wheel falls off, I kick it and start swearing, which surprisingly does nothing to fix the problem, but does make me feel better. Lawn mowing is a great sport for releasing aggression.

Our house is set back from the road, which makes for a big front yard, and our big backyard is a septic field that needs to be mown. It's not really a lawn, or at least nothing like the kind of lawns you might see in surburbia, all flat and level and filled with grass. Our lawn has hills and groves of trees and lots of little gardens in odd places, and the ground is covered with tree branches and stalky things like purple loosestrife. It's mostly weeds and wildflowers and clover, with the glossy leaves of poison ivy at all the edges.

Normally, I don't mind mowing the lawn – I just go out in the morning, pick a random patch to mow, stop after about half an hour of nice exercise, kick my sneakers off to leave in the sun, and then go in to take a shower to wash off the poison ivy juice. Then the next time the mood to mow strikes me, I pick another random patch. Shaggy Hair Boy, who got assigned the chore of mowing lawn after both his older siblings complained about how badly they get poison ivy, has the same random method of lawn mowing. So at any given time, parts of our lawn are all different lengths.

Today, though, we decided to mow the entire lawn. See, we are having a graduation party for Boy in Black on Saturday, which gave us the ambitious idea to cut the whole lawn at once. The grass was pretty long because we’ve been on vacation, and some of the weird stalky things were quite high. The nice thing to do would have been to mow in the cool of the evening, but the only way I could do that here is if I tried to mow the lawn while wrapped in yards of mosquito netting.

So instead we ended up mowing the lawn in the hot sun when the air was so humid that I felt like I was moving in slow motion, pulling through thick layers of wet heat. I’d mow for about half an hour, shoving the mower through what amounted to a thick field of weeds, while big drops of sweat slithered down my face and back. When I felt like I was so thirsty that I couldn’t stand it another minute, I would go into the sweltering hot house for a drink, and let Shaggy Hair Boy take a turn.

At the end of the afternoon, I stripped off my sweat-soaked clothes and took a cool shower. I admired how nice the lawn looked, all ready for party, and I was feeling all heroic about the effort we’d made. I felt I deserved a break, a few hours in some air conditioning, so I made plans with my daughter, my niece, and my mother to go out to the movies.

In the car on the way to the movies, my mother mentioned that she had mowed lawn today too. She is in her seventies. Her lawn is bigger than mine. And she somehow mows it all without swearing, losing her temper, or breaking her lawn mower. She's had the same lawn mower my whole life, I think, whereas I seem to break one every couple of years. The conversation made me feel less heroic, but I enjoyed the evening out in a cool movie theater anyhow. And I still felt I deserved some popcorn and lemonade for all my hard work.

July 12, 2006

Time for contemplation


"Must you analyze everything?" my students will ask me sometimes, exasperated. The answer, of course, is yes. I’m not a big believer in turning off the brain and just accepting whatever the dominant culture hands me. My students complain that I spend too much time thinking, and that it is a contagious disease. They say I keep ruining things for them; I’ve wrecked their enjoyment of everything from television to high heels to fast food.

I even have a philosophy about vacation time. I'm not a fan of theme parks and environments that are carefully controlled by a big corporation. When we talk about this kind of thing in class, students will often defend Biggest Theme Park in the Country because it is "fun." That always seems a peculiar defense to me. Anyone who knows me can see that both the kids and adults in my family know how to have fun; I don't feel as a parent that fun is something I am obligated to provide. Sure, any vacation we take will include all kinds of fun. We have fun even when we are all locked in a vehicle on a highway, playing games. But I am wary of vacations that seem like an escape from life, rather than a way to embrace life.

On vacation, I want my kids to learn how to relax, how to enjoy quiet time, how to connect to the natural world. I suppose this is because that is the way I was raised. When I was a kid, summer was always about camping, hiking, swimming, and sailing. Summer was a time for reading, for thinking, and for relaxing. And I think that more than ever, in the busy, stressful world we live in, the ability to slow down and take time to think about life is an important survival skill. It's important to know how to make use of silence.

One of my friends actually said to me once, "You know what I like about your family? You all know how to do nothing." I think she meant it as a compliment.

That's one of the things I love about camp. Despite the whirl of activities like bocce and frisbee, sailing and canoeing and swimming, we have all kinds of quiet time. Time to take a nap, write in a journal, or stare into the water. Being in a beautiful outdoors setting teaches us how to be reflective. I'll often find one of the kids just sitting on the dock, staring at the little frogs, or lying in the sun, or relaxing on a rock. Even the youngest child in the family knows how to take a moment for contemplation.

July 11, 2006


evening sail

My parents' camp faces west across the Big River, which means that in the evening, we enjoy spectacular sunsets, the whole bay glistening bright red as the waters reflect the sky. But as much as I love the vivid colours of sunset, I also love more subdued hues of the evening, when the colour leaks slowly from the sky, with the marshes and forests turning black, the islands going grey, the water silver.

Our shallow, weedy bay is quiet, especially in the evening. Tourists in speedboats rarely come to our end of the bay: the big marsh with its acres of cattails and muddy creeks does not seem to appeal to them. I feel sorry for the kids I see in big powerboats, cruising in the river, who never get a chance to see the marsh, to play with turtles or snakes, or to have mudfight. But it’s nice, especially in a beautiful region that does attract tourists, that we have always gotten the south end of the bay to ourselves.

Sailing on the bay, with a light evening wind, we ghost around between the big mats of weeds, the wooden hull of the boat brushing over the tangled vegetation. As the light dims, the shoreline on all sides of us turns to darkness. I still remember the time we took one of my father’s friend sailing once at dusk. He looked at the grey cattails, the dark shoreline, and asked, "How do you know how to get back? It all looks the same to me."

My father and I have been sailing in that bay since the 1960s, and every rock, every cliff, every bit of marsh looks familiar to us, even in the dimmest light. We don’t talk much as we sail, which is probably one reason we get along so well on the boat. My father and I have been known to get into arguments at the suppertime, much to the amusement and annoyance of other family members, but in all of our many sails together, I can not recall a single argument. Sometimes we just glide along in silence, with murmured commands from whoever is at the helm: "ready about" or "hard to lee" or "get ready to jibe." Sometimes we talk over changes to the familiar summer landscape, whether it be someone on the other end of the bay building a new dock, or one of the grandchildren bringing a new boyfriend to camp. But mostly, the wind keeps us company, and the sound of the water gurgling against the hull.



With-a-Why was the youngest member of the family to run in the family race last week. He's an unusually quiet kid so no one was surprised that he didn't say much about the race, although we'd catch a glimpse of his shy smile when we all told him how well he had done. Since the race, he has worn his t-shirt and medal every single day. It’s been nice to see him in blue, instead of the usual black. (He worships his older brother, Boy in Black – and gets his hand-me-downs.) But today, a full week after the race, I am trying to convince him that really, the shirt needs to be washed.

July 10, 2006

Photo Finish

As dawn arrived at camp on the day of the Great Race, I yelled into the big tent to wake the teenagers. Nocturnal creatures, they had not been sleeping for long. In fact my oldest son, Boy in Black, had said that the only way he could possibly be up in time for the race was if he stayed up all night.

"This is the stupidest idea our family has had yet," my daughter declared. "It’s vacation! Let's wake up at 6 a.m. and run six miles! WHAT KIND OF FAMILY DOES THAT?" She was smiling, though, and looking bright-eyed. Her brothers, on the other hand, stumbled about in slow motion like weird dead pirates, pulling off their black band t-shirts and pulling on their official periwinkle blue race t-shirts.

To warm everyone up, my niece opened the door of her car and cranked up the music. The runners danced wildly for a few minutes, some of them adding in a few stretching exercises. Many of the volunteers danced, too, in solidarity with the runners. The sun was already started to feel hot.

We’d made all the plans the evening before, even driving around to pound in mile markers. You would be surprised to see how many families in a rural area sit outside on a warm summer evening, all watching curiously as the pick-up truck filled with screaming teenagers and children went by. Dandelion Niece and Suburban Nephew had made medals for everyone who finished the race, but the medals were carefully hidden and kept secret until the day of the race.

"They look like Olympic medals," Dandelion Niece had confided in me.
"Is the first place medal made of real gold?" I asked.
She gave me a serious look. "It’s authentic foam."

The whole family was participating. We had eleven runners in all and nine volunteers who would help with the race details, plus four dogs who were likely to get in the way. Blond Brother-in-law, a runner sidelined by injuries, took charge of the volunteers. I’d given my spot on a relay team to my husband, whose plantar fascitis flared up to prevent him from running the full race. This move was less noble than it sounds, since I really don’t like running, preferring to drive around and take photos instead. Since the other five members of my family were running, I knew I could snag a t-shirt when they came through the wash.

Urban Sophisticate Sister, the experienced runner who had planned the race, told me she intended to run eight-minute miles, which would be a challenging but achievable pace for the rest of the family, most of whom are not runners. She predicted that my brother, the other runner in the family, would try to stay twenty paces ahead of her. “It’s the testosterone factor.”

She teased Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy, who both went running a few times in April and gave then gave it up as a boring sport, preferring to play Ultimate Frisbee with their friends instead. She wasn’t sure that playing frisbee was sufficient training for a 10K race. Boy in Black himself said he had no way of knowing how well he would do, but he did have a secret plan for the race, which he told me in the boat on the way home from an afternoon swim the day before. He was just going to stick with whoever the front runner was and save some energy for sprinting at the end. He had no chance of beating Urban Sophisticate at distance – she is a marathon runner – but his long legs give him a big advantage when it comes to sprinting.

Since our camp is on the river, the terrain would be inevitably difficult for the first half of the race – 3.1 miles uphill, leaving behind the marshes and shady woods and climbing up to the high farmland with cow pastures and cornfields. The Midpoint Volunteer Team (mainly Red-haired Sister, her two little kids, and my mother) parked a discreet distance from the white farmhouse that marked the turning point and got ready with cups of water for the runners. We tied balloons to a couple of lawn chairs to indicate to anyone who happened by with a shotgun (the owners of the land, for instance) that we had come in peace.

The race began with an official "Ready, Set, Go" and the runners were off. By the end of the first mile, they had spread out and were running in packs. Some cousins chose slower times just to keep pace with their favorite running partners. Drama Niece and Blonde Niece ran the first couple of miles together, using a debatable strategy of singing loudly as they went up the hills. Schoolteacher Niece and Shaggy Hair Boy stayed together, with her shouting encouragement as he attempted to run through stomach cramps. He’d been feeling poorly anyhow, and at the midpoint, he looked so green that my sister tried to convince him to drop out, but he refused, finishing the race a valiant fifth just behind Schoolteacher Niece.

The matching shirts that Urban Sophisticate had brought, plus the numbered running bibs that my brother had provided, helped make the runners look official as they moved along the country roads. As she had predicted, my sister ran eight-minute miles, keeping a steady pace, running comfortably. My brother stayed just ahead of her – and at his elbow, Boy in Black. During the last mile, my brother began picking up the pace – and so did Boy in Black. They did not stop to check for traffic as they crossed the highway near camp, and my sister claims she heard my brother say to his nephew, "If we cross now, we can lose her in the traffic."

As they came down the stretch, both running full speed toward the yellow tape that I had stretched between two trees, Boy in Black pulled ahead of my brother. But then one of my sister’s annoying dogs leapt into his path, giving my brother an advantage, and the two runners were even as they approached the finish line. With a final surge of energy, Boy in Black threw himself at the yellow tape, reaching just ahead of his uncle to grab it, diving ahead of him and rolling to the ground with the finish line wrapped around him. A close win.

As each runner came across the finish line, we cheered and clapped and took photos. My mother dumped water on runners who lay sprawled on the grass. Red-haired Niece, who crossed the line last, decided to do it in style by running backwards and pulling her shorts down so that she would break the yellow tape with her bare butt. Urban Sophisticate Sister took the traditional plunge off the dock but most of the kids just flopped facedown in the grass, unwilling to move even one more step.

The medal ceremony was held near the firepit, with Dandelion Niece presenting a medal to each person who completed the race. As Boy in Black, Brother, and Urban Sophisticate Sister, the top three runners, stood on the picnic bench that was serving as podium, wearing their foam medals proudly, we all sang the national anthem, some members of the crowd swaying back and forth. Boy in Black held a frisbee in his hand, in tribute to the sport that had served him well in training.

July 09, 2006

Summertime Tent Blogging

Well, if Profgrrrrl can airport blog when she is on vacation, I figure I can tent blog. I brought my laptop on this camping trip because the memory card on my digital camera isn’t very big. We’ve just returned from a swim on an island, and I am transferring photos to my computer – the modern equivalent to putting in a new roll of film. My tent has no internet connection, but I figure I can write this now and post it when I get home, and it will still count.


It's easy to lose track of the days when you are camping for more than a week. We've had sunny weather all week so the days are a blur of canoeing, swimming, and sailing. As I pull off my damp bathing suit, I notice the contrast between my brown limbs and the white protected skin of my body. I can just barely sit up, my head brushing the sides of the tent as I prop the laptop onto a blanket. The afternoon sun, filtered by the pine trees, casts shadows against the light blue walls of the tent. My husband went back to Snowstorm City to work for a few days, which means I am alone as I settle against the blankets for a nap.

After swimming in the cold deep water of the river, the sun-warmed air inside the tent feels great against my bare skin. Pine needles seem especially fragrant on a summer afternoon, as if the sunshine somehow releases the aroma. My tent is off by itself, but I can hear noises in the background: the clink of horseshoes against the metal stake as my father plays a game with his grandsons over in the grove of oak trees, the thud of bocce balls as the some of the youngest grandchildren play a game in the field near the pine trees, the faraway voices of my sisters who are sitting in the chairs over near the firepit.

I am lying on an old red sleeping bag, opened and spread out to fill the whole tent. I bought this sleeping bag the first year of my marriage, and I can remember lying on this same sleeping bag, in this same spot, on a sunny spring day twenty years ago. I was pregnant with my first child, and my husband and I had driven to camp to enjoy a last quiet weekend together before we became parents. The weather was so warm that I stripped off all my clothes, hoping the sunlight and air would help toughen up my nipples for breastfeeding. I can remember thinking that my child’s first glimpse of spring sunshine came muted through layers of my flesh.

Some weeks after that, of course, I came here with my newborn daughter, and I've got photos of her sleeping on that same red sleeping bag, in the shade of the white pines. That infant has grown into the young woman who comes to the tent now and asks for my car keys. On a cool morning, she and her cousins still drag the red sleeping bags out into the sun so that they can sun themselves, talking and eating the whole time.

My parents' land is a peninsula, surrounded by marsh on three sides, and so I am surrounded by birdsong as I drowse in my tent. The birds are loud at dawn, but in late afternoon, the songs are mellow, the notes muted. The combination of sun and cold water always makes me sleepy, ready for a late afternoon nap, or at least a quiet time of writing in my journal, here in the shade of the pine trees. Camp means all kinds of activities – at any moment, a group of family members are doing something – but it also means time for rest, for reflection, for quiet moments of meditation.