August 30, 2006


This week, when I asked my first year students why they came to Small Green School, one young man said, "It's the only school that would let me bring my hawk." His hawk? Yep. He is a falconer. He'd made special arrangements with OrnithologistGuy, who is on our faculty, and the red-tailed hawk is now living in a room at the top of the science building.

So this afternoon after class, a handful of students and I met Falconer in the big, park-like cemetery that adjoins our campus. Falconer held up a thick cowhide glove – a gauntlet, he called it – and told me to put it on my left hand. Following his directions, I stood still, with my arm raised in front of my face, my hand just a little higher than my elbow. He stuffed a piece of raw chicken between my thumb and fingers. Then he whistled to the hawk that was perched on a rock across the grassy lawn.

The hawk flew into the air, straight towards me, fast, and then landed lightly on the glove, just inches from my face. His sharp talons gripped the thick glove as he balanced, and he reached down with his hooked beak to rip apart the meat, swallowing it in a few gulps. His eyes, spaced on either side of his head, seemed to see everything as he swivelled his head about. A hawk's eyesight is eight times better than a human's. When I shifted my hand, the hawk opened his gorgeous brown-and-white wings, flapping until he was balanced again.

Today was a long day which included meeting a student at 8 am in my office, teaching three sections of my writing course, meeting with advisees, getting together with a colleague to sort through archival material, meeting with several independent study students, and teaching a 5 pm seminar. But what I am remembering from the day was that single moment -- standing in the cemetery watching the wings of a red-tailed hawk open.

August 29, 2006


It was fall of 1982, and I was student teaching sixth grade at a middle school in North Country Town. One of my students was a girl named Linda, who was friendly and nice and smart, the kind of student who never caused trouble. I'd been there a few weeks and knew the students pretty well, when one morning, the strangest thing happened.

As the students were coming in, grabbing books and tossing off coats, Linda walked in and sat down at her desk. She looked up at me and smiled.

And I gasped. Because it wasn't Linda. She looked just like Linda -- the same light brown hair, the same blue eyes, the same mannerisms, the same type clothes -- but something was wrong. She looked exactly like Linda, and yet it was not her. I can't even explain how I knew, but I was sure. It was one of those weird moments out of Star Trek.

All kinds of scenarios went through my mind. Had Linda been kidnapped by aliens? Was this girl seated at the desk in front of me really an alien who had used her DNA to morph into her likeness? Had some creature slithered out of the deep to suck out her soul? What was going on?

"Hello Miss Jo(e)," the creature said calmly. It even knew my name!

"You ... you ... you aren't Linda, " I stammered.

Yeah, that is all I could come up with. Unlike Star Trek characters, I don't have a team of writers to come with good lines for me. Instead, I just stood there gaping like a fool.

Then I noticed the other kids in the room watching. They were smiling. And unafraid. They didn't see the least bit worried that the classmate they'd known for years had morphed into someone else. Were they all aliens too? Was this some kind of Night of the Living Dead situation?

"We knew she couldn't fool you," said PigtailGirl. She tossed her braids over her shoulders. "That's not Linda. It's Laura. They're twins."

Identical twins! For some reason that possibility had not occurred to me. But it did make just a little more sense than the whole alien kidnapping theory.

I hadn't thought about this in years, until yesterday, on the first day of class. I was taking attendance, trying to learn the names, and had gone through the whole list, when suddenly I glanced down and noticed that two students had the same last name. I looked to my right, at BoyWithDarkHair and then to my left, at BoyWithSameDarkHair.

Somehow I hadn't noticed the first time through how much alike they looked. In fact, they looked exactly alike.

BoyWithDarkHair noticed me looking.

"Yep," he said, "We're twins."
"No one can tell us apart," said BoyWithSameDarkHair.
"Even my mother gets us confused," said BoyWithDarkHair.

A new twist to the first week challenge of learning names. But at least they haven't played a practical joke on me. Yet.

August 28, 2006

Blogger meet-up

So what was it I am supposed to tell my kids about meeting strangers on the internet?

I tried to remember those safety rules as I drove home from campus today. It seemed to me I might have broken a few. Just a few days before, I had exchanged emails with a blogger who was planning a trip to Snowstorm region and I'd sent him directions to my house. I told him that I would be on campus all morning, and my two youngest kids would be home alone. I might have even said, "Don't worry, I will leave the house unlocked in case you get there ahead of me."

Luckily, he did not turn out to be an axe murderer.

We'd figured out through email and blogging that we had all kinds of things in common. And I had felt confident that anyone who had a Hawaiian nun in his background could not possibly be evil. I mean, what would be the chances?

And really, I had done an extensive background check. I had even talked to his fourth grade teacher.

So the blogger meet-up was more like running into a cousin I hadn't talked to in years. We jumped from topic to topic, talking about places and people we both knew, and what paths our lives had taken us to get us to where we were now. It was funny to see the parallels between our lives, and how we had come to some similar conclusions on a variety of issues.

And this blogger meet-up matched all the other blogger meet-ups I've had. Nothing about the blogger surprised me at all. I had not so much even talked to him on the phone, and yet he was exactly what his blog and emails had led me to imagine: smart, funny, articulate, warm. I am amazed once again at how well words can convey who a person is.

August 27, 2006

Since kindergarten

We've been friends for almost exactly forty years, since the beginning of kindergarten. I explained that to my kids as we drove to Kindergarten Friend's house for dinner on Saturday, but they have heard the story before so they weren't really listening. Such friendships are pretty common here in Snowstorm region; it's only my blog friends who are impressed. And actually, Kindergarten Friend's husband went to school with us, too, so I guess I've known him almost as long, but he doesn't count because he's a boy so I was too shy to talk to him until at least tenth grade or so.

Kindergarten Friend had invited my parents and her mother, a retired fourth grade teacher. I've know her mother since I was in kindergarten; she taught my siblings and then years later, my two oldest children. Boy in Black used to say she was his favorite teacher because she told stories about the "old days." She retired from teaching a few years back, so she never had a chance to teach Shaggy Hair or With-a-Why, but she still knows everything that goes on in the school community. And she's got a great story about what happens when you invite a bunch of nuns to your basement and get them drunk.

Kindergarten Friend has this gorgeous house, with a comfy living room that makes you want to curl up near the window with a book. She is the kind of person who actually plans things like wallpaper and paint and curtains, and coordinates things to match or contrast, and puts up shelves with decorative items on them, and walking into her house is like stepping into some kind of magazine. Except of course, she doesn't act at all like someone who lives in such a beautiful home; she didn't even flinch as my kids and her kids and one of her extra kids went tearing around the place, repeatedly knocking over a plant that is not likely to survive the year.

I couldn't help but notice the Snowstorm City china that my friend pulled from her cupboard. Her family must have a million sets of Snowstorm City china; I know the dishes well because I was really shy as a kid so when I ate at Kindergarten Friend's house, I spent most of my time staring down at the plates and eating all the food Kindergarten Friend's mother used to make for me. What's funny is now as an adult, I'll be at a conference in a strange city, and I'll notice that the restaurant is using Snowstorm City china, and suddenly, I'll have a flashback to that dinner table in Kindergarten Friend's house on a Friday evening, that familiar cosy kitchen where I used to sit listening to the family chatter while I ate a big plateful of food.

My father had brought over a CD of music that he, my daughter, and my oldest son recorded this summer -- at trio of clarinet, piano, and guitar. After dinner, we listened to the CD while we sat around the kitchen table and talked, and the little kids ran around as if they were at a playground instead of this perfectly decorated house.

My father, who is 75 years old, has lived in this area for 75 years. Kindergarten Friend's mother has lived here all her life as well; in fact she lives within walking distance of the house she grew up in. They were talking about people they knew in common, and the places that were popular when they were young, and my father started talking about how, as a musician trying to pay his way through college, he played most of the dances in the area in the early 1950s.

"You went to Railroad Village High School? What year did you graduate?" he asked. When Kindergarten Friend's mother answered, he said, "I played at your prom."

"The fellow I was dating didn't like to dance much," Kindergarten Friend's mother recalled. We all smiled. They were talking about an event that took place 56 years ago.

The passage of time is a peculiar thing. It is a jolt to me to watch Kindergarten Friend's daughter, Blonde Ponytail, running around the house. She looks exactly like Kindergarten Friend -- or what Kindergarten Friend looked like when we were in elementary school.

How strange to watch the kids playing, and realize that we, sitting at the table with cups of tea and grown-up talk, are the adults.

August 26, 2006

School Memories Meme

I am feeling all nostalgic about my elementary school because it's the same school my own kids went to, and now for the first time in fifteen years, I have no children there. With-a-Why begins the big public junior high this year. So I started doing the RevGalBlogPal meme, but it quickly turned into a longer meme. I am very bad at following rules.

Smells that remind me of elementary school: Chalk dust. Paste. Magic markers. Wet rubber boots.

Things that remind me of elementary school: Nuns. Hawaiian shirts. Any kind of decoration made out of construction paper. Green knee socks. Ice cream sandwiches and those pre-wrapped ice cream cones with the chocolate and nuts on top.

How much milk cost when I began school: Three pennies. And ice cream was a dime.

Scariest thing about school: I dreaded oral reports. I was very shy, and the thought of standing in front of the room talking absolutely terrified me. It's funny because as an adult, I am not the least bit shy about talking in front of people.

Thing I didn't like about school: Waiting for the school bus on really cold winter days. And I was afraid of some of the big kids on the bus. Those eighth graders seemed so tall and loud.

Favorite school clothes: I wore the same outfit to school for nine years since we had school uniforms. It was a tradition to complain about the school uniform and say how much we hated it, but I actually didn't mind it at all. It was easy to just grab the same skirt and a clean blouse each morning, and not worry about clothes. The outfit was comfortable, and like most of the other girls, I wore shorts under the skirt so that I could still do cartwheels and stuff like that.

Party tricks I learned in elementary school: I can sing Silent Night in Hawaiian. I can dance an Irish jig. I used to know the capital of every state but that was before I killed all those brain cells in college.

Strangest thing: Whenever a kid vomited on the floor (and this seemed to happen fairly often), the janitor would come in with this bag of weird orange stuff, almost like kitty litter, that he would sprinkle all over the mess. This happened throughout my entire school career. It was some kind of weird vomit tradition that all janitors had sworn to uphold. I always use to think, "Why doesn't he just get the mop and clean it up?"

Favorite classroom: One teacher put a rug in the corner so that we could go and sit there to read. I loved that. And the main thing I loved about all the classrooms was that one whole wall was all windows. I spent many hours staring out those windows, watching snow fall or daydreaming.

A significant elementary school memory: We were walking down to the gym, and another teacher was coming up the same hall with her class. I can still remember the exact place I was standing -- in a patch of sunlight on that grey linoleum floor in the tunnel between the school and the gym. The two teachers stopped and practically bumped into each other, and started laughing and joking around about which class had the right of way. I can remember watching them and thinking, "They love this. They love being teachers. " And I decided right then that whatever I did when I grew up, it would be something I loved doing.

Favorite teacher: In second grade, my teacher loved to dance. Every afternoon, we would push back all the desks, and in the middle of the room, she would teach us to dance. I don't remember what else we learned that year, but that is the main thing I've remembered -- how good it feels to move my body to music.

Best seasonal memory: Every year, sometime late in October, we would get the first snow. We'd be sitting in the classroom, with this whole wall of windows right next to us, and snowflakes would start coming down. Nudges and whispers would begin moving around the room, and pretty soon we'd all be looking out at the snow. Even the teacher would say something.

Usually, the first snow doesn't stick, usually not enough for snowforts or sledding, but still that first snowfall did something to the classroom. Suddenly, the warm, well-lit room with its clusters of desks would seem cosy. I'd look around at my classmates, and realize how well we knew each other. Many of the kids I'd known since kindergarten, of course, but even any transfer students would be part of the group now. The room had become our classroom, decorated with our construction paper artwork and neatly stapled Friday spelling tests done on ditto masters that included seasonal pictures to color. That first snow always made us seem like a family.

What I wanted to be when I grew up: In first grade, I announced that I wanted to be a teacher and a writer. And have lots of kids.

August 25, 2006

Feet Photo for Friday


I remember taking this photo, although I couldn't tell you why. My extended family were all gathered on an island, taking a swim, and I yelled, "Who wants to be in a foot photo?" Within seconds, the rock I was standing on was crowded with family members jostling each other to get a foot into the picture. If I had said, "Who wants to be in a nice smiling photo?" no one would have come. The only way you can ever get people in my family to pose for a photo is to suggest something weird.

I can remember when I lying in bed at night when I was a little kid, and hearing my mother come up the stairs, and realizing that I could recognize that it was her, just from the sound of her footsteps. In the same way, it is easy for me to recognize each foot in this photo. What might look like random feet to anyone else represent ten family members to me. I could even tell you the stories behind each foot -- why that one foot is bandaged or why that other foot is particularly dirty -- although I am not sure I could explain why my mother always wears red nail polish in the summer. I've always mocked her for it, even when I was a little kid.

From the way the feet are positioned, I can even tell you how people are standing -- my daughter leaning on her brother, cousins balanced with their arms around each other, my niece crowding next to her grandmother. I recognize the towels on the rock, and I can tell you which cousins were relaxing there, letting their bodies soak in sunlight after a swim in the cold river while they chatted. And of course, I can also tell the story behind the feet that aren't in the photo: family members who were busy leaping off the cliff into the water, or taking a nap, or lounging on boat with a fishing pole.

That bit of grey rock beneath the feet is as familiar as the feet themselves. Many times over many summers, I have pulled myself from the icy cold river to lie on that rock, my body pressed against the warmth, my face leaning against the rock to warm myself, to feel all that wonderful sunlight the rock had absorbed all day long.

(Okay, I know that Mona and Sergei said that the theme for today was HAND but I didn't have a photo of a hand so I went with feet instead. Hey, when you pick a random body part for the theme, I don't think you can be picky about variations on that theme.)

August 24, 2006

Classroom Moment

In a post over at The Happy Feminist, she describes a light bulb moment her father had, which reminded me of a discussion in my classroom some years ago.

We were talking about a chapter in a bell hooks' book, a discussion of cultural attitudes towards homosexuality. One student was analyzing historical reasons for homophobia in southern communities -- slave owners wanted their slaves to reproduce -- while another student was analyzing what she thought were the dynamics behind homophobia -- fear and anger.

SmallTownBoy, who seemed visibly disturbed by the discussion, kept interjecting phrases like, "it's just wrong." His reaction seemed so emotional that it made me curious. I wondered if he would have any sort of anecdote or reasoning to back up his vehement opinion.

Finally, SmallTownBoy told us that he had worked at a pizza place over the summer, and that one of the other workers was gay. He paused at that point, clearly ready to give us the important part of the story.

"And he hit on me," he said. He sounded shocked. "This guy wanted to date me. And even after I said no, he kept after me."

He looked at his classmates, clearly expecting sympathy and perhaps horror.

The women and a few of the men in the classroom looked at each other. Some rolled their eyes. Most of the men in the classroom were silent, shifting uncomfortably in their seats.

Finally, a woman sitting behind SmallTownBoy spoke up. "Congratulations," she said. "Now you know what it is like to be a woman."

August 23, 2006

College begins

My Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter is putting up posters in her campus apartment. Efficient and organized, it took her about twenty minutes to unpack. This is her third year in college, and she is looking forward to seeing her friends as they return to campus.

Boy in Black is sitting on the bed in his dorm room, playing his guitar. He is not as efficient and organized as his sister, but he has very little stuff, so he too was unpacked in about twenty minutes. His bed is made with the new black sheets his sister picked out, and his meager wardrobe, which consists almost entirely of black band t-shirts, is hanging in his closet. His roommate hasn't arrived yet, so that side of the room is still blank and empty.

I'm back home, sitting at my desk, thinking about how I too need to organize things for the beginning of the semester. Classes begin Monday. I like the energy of fall, the cold crisp air, and the way it feels to have students back on campus. I am proud of my oldest two kids and excited for them. But still ... it seems strange that they will not be returning to sleep here tonight.

I am grieving.

August 22, 2006


I am shedding. Layers of translucent skin, white and ragged, scrape off as I wriggle my fingers.

Last week, I could barely use my hands, they had so reacted to the delicate toxins of the poison ivy plant. The skin between my fingers swelled up until my hands looked like they belonged in a Harry Potter book, a reaction to a spell or a potion gone wrong. When the itching drove me crazy, I held my hands under hot water. The hot water made the itching even worse, an intense urgency that is borderline erotic, but then when I pulled my hands away from the heat, I could feel the relief, sort of like the chemicals that come after a good cry or sex.

I've read that you should never break the blisters, but when some of them puffed to the size of kidney beans, I considered taking a sterilized needle to them. Of course, I did not have the patience to find the sewing kit or sterilize a needle -- I am not a patient person even when I don't have a weird itching rash all over my body -- so instead I took a thumbtack out of a band poster in the boys' room and popped the blisters with that. Yeah, all the oozing fluid was a bit disgusting, but at least I could close my fingers again.

Poison ivy rash keeps me awake on a hot August night, making me toss and turn and think about all about all the usual demons that come in the dark of the night -- doubts, insecurities, stupid mistakes. It's as if the plant knows how to trigger the fear and sadness trapped just under our skin.

But now, more than a week later, the skin is sloughing off, peeling away. The edges hurt, even after I soften my skin in the shower, and yet, it seems miraculous. All the soreness, the puffiness, the angry red welts have disappeared.

And underneath grows clear new skin, the colour of spring petals, smooth and beautiful.

August 20, 2006

Twin Towers

The movie theatre was crowded, and yet, it was strangely quiet. No shuffling of feet, no whispers, no munching of popcorn. Just the sounds of breathing. In the dim light, I could see faces, most curiously blank, almost as if the members of the audience were wearing masks to protect themselves. This was not a suspenseful movie: we all knew the ending before it even began. And yet, all around me, people were leaning forward, staring intently, their bodies tense.

Nothing exciting had happened on the screen yet, no action to advance the plot, just lovely scenes of the city on a sunny fall day. Ordinary people heading to work on an ordinary September day. And yet, at the sight of the familiar skyline, a scene hauntingly familiar even though it no longer exists, the way that your childhood home will always be accessible to your brain long after your parents have packed up and moved away, the air in the theater stirred softly as women and men began fumbling for tissues, raising their hands to wipe their faces.

I cannot tell you what I thought about the movie or the choices that the director made. I cannot even analyze the dialogue or offer a feminist critique in the way that usually annoys everyone around me. I cannot separate the movie from the memories.

The woman on the screen paced as she waited for a phone call about her husband, a cop trapped in the rubble. My mother called to say that Urban Sophisticate Sister was alive, still uptown because she hadn't gone to work yet -- but that her husband, a stock trader, was missing. A family gathered around a kitchen table, bracing themselves for bad news. An email chimed in to let me know that a friend's daughter, a dark-haired, hot-tempered young woman pregnant with her first child, had been last seen on the 92nd floor -- and was missing.

The energy that filled the room came from the audience and not the screen. For 129 minutes, people around me were breathing through their remembrances of that day: the waiting to hear, the not knowing, the frustration of jammed phone lines, the realizations that came gradually when names stayed on the Missing list. The most dramatic image in the room, the scene of the towers coming down, the one that played over and over all that long day while we here in Snowstorm region waited desperately to hear from family members and friends who may have been inside that building -- that scene never actually appeared on the screen.

My palms tingled.

I thought of Manhattan Man, the student who left my office in September of 2001 to drive to the city, to report for long hours of searching through rubble. Because he is a skinny guy, the rescue team kept sending him to crawl through tight places, desperately hoping to find some survivors. In one crevice, he and a firefighter spent long minutes retrieving what turned out to be a stuffed animal. His team went crazy trying to find the child that might have been with the toy, wiggling their way into every possible crack. A bigger guy held him by the ankles so he could descend into dark openings. But they never heard a voice or found the child. He wrote later in the journal he kept for me that this single realization changed the search profoundly for him: "There were kids in this building."

The movie ended, and groups of people began rising in the darkness to leave, slowly and quietly, as the credits rolled on the screen. There was none of the usual chatter and laughter, no talk of the movie or arguments about where to go to eat. People walked out into the hall, blinking at the bright light, and towards the exit signs without talking, the way people walk away from a gravesite.

August 19, 2006

The Answers Meme

Well, I am not sure whether or not this will work as a meme, but I like making up memes so I am going to try it anyhow. I hope this makes up for how bad I am at answering emails. The rules? You have to figure them out yourself.

1. No, I don't live near Bison City. I live near Snowstorm City. SNOWSTORM CITY GETS WAY MORE SNOW THAN BISON CITY. We get more snow than any other city our size in the lower 48. Don't confuse us with Bison City! Sheesh.

2. Yep, pretty much. It's easier than making stuff up.

3. Why does everyone ask that? 45.

4. Because he's a very reserved person. I don't think he wants a starring role on my blog. Besides, this is my space, not his. I think he reads the blog on occasion, but mostly he respects it as my space.

5. Since 1978. We've been married for 22 years.

6. I'm not telling.

7. I never seriously considered moving away. I am lucky that I have a job I love, because I can't imagine relocating for a job. I am rooted here.

8. I don't have one. But everyone thinks I do.

9. Yes. I love that. Often readers will email me with their own stories, often very personal stuff, and it makes me feel honored that they share that kind of thing with me.

10. Oh, yes. I know it's hard to imagine, but I do. I am often tempted to post hate email because it's written so badly, and it would be so much fun to just rip the writers apart in a blog post. But that would be mean. And mainly, I feel sorry for the hate mail writers. I guess I should feel sorry that they are filled with so much hate and anger, but mostly I feel bad that they are such terrible writers. Seriously, we need to do something about education in this country.

11. Yes. About five posts in all. They were really personal, and my blog was getting so much traffic that I felt it was time to take them down.

12. My daughter does. And my mother and my sisters and my nieces. I think the males in the family -- particularly my teenage sons -- are worried that they might see a naked photo of me or something, and be scarred for life. So they don't usually read it.

13. Yep. Two siblings stumbled onto my blog while googling the name of this tiny island we swim on. I didn't give the island a fake name because its name already sounded like a pseudonym, and I figured no one would recognize it. And my daughter and niece found my blog when they used my computer. Anyone who has accidentally come upon a blog post of mine has recognized me immediately. I wasn't making a big effort to hide my blog -- I just hadn't announced it. But everyone in the family knows about it now.

14. Because I'm such a caretaker. It wouldn't be healthy for me.

15. Since September 11, 2001. See, eating lower on the food chain helps reduce poverty. And that can help reduce terrorism because poverty breeds terrorism. Yes, I know it's really a loose connection and mainly just symbolic but I wanted to do something. And it makes more sense than dropping bombs or voting conservative assholes into office.

16. Yeah, that was a result of 9/11 too. Reiki is a healing energy. It seems like we can use all the healing we can get.

17. Well, it's a way of being in solidarity with women in the Middle East. Besides, belly dancing is fun and a great way to keep the abdominal muscles in shape.

18. Roman Catholic. But now I am an eclectic mix of all kinds of beliefs and spiritual practices.

19. Benedictine. I go there on retreat every September and every March.

20. Red.

21. Oh, mostly I am being silly. But it fits with the way I take photos, since I don't particularly like posed pictures -- I like some posed photos but too often they seem fake to me. I think that's why so many people will act goofy when you ask them to pose. I was taking faceless photos long before I started blogging. But I also like that some of my blog entries could be about any family, anywhere .... well, any family with a bunch of kids who do stuff like duct tape small toys to the ceiling fans.

22. I choose pseudonyms that I can remember easily so that my blog will have consistent characters.

23. Of course not. Like if I have a fight with my husband, I am going to talk to some close friends about it. I am not going to write about it on my blog. Well, unless it's funny.

24. Well, people are surprised to find I'm not funny. I mean, sometimes I can write funny, but in real life, I am more like my serious blog posts. Sappy and rambling.

25. Why not?

August 18, 2006



I can remember the first night of With-a-Why's life outside the womb. Not yet even 24 hours old, he was already revealing his identity as the baby from hell who would never sleep. I'd been in labor with him for days (quite literally -- my water had broken nine days earlier), and although I was thrilled with this cute lively baby, I was exhausted and sore. Labor and delivery had been wonderful, but the afterpains that shrink the uterus back down to size get worse with each pregnancy, and this was my fourth full-term birth. And sensitive skin means that my nipples always took a few weeks to toughen up each time I had a new baby.

I hadn't had a good night sleep in more than nine days. In fact, I hadn't had any kind of sleep at all for 24 hours. So I was ready to hand this wide awake baby, cute as he was, off to someone more responsible.

I was at home on our king-sized bed, surrounded by children. Spouse had been cuddling three-year-old Shaggy Hair Boy, and they had both fallen asleep on the quilt on the floor. I hated to wake up Spouse. In his efforts to be supportive of me during labor, he hadn't gotten any sleep either. My eight-year-old daughter, who had spent the day rocking the baby and waiting on me, was asleep on the far side of the bed. I knew she too was exhausted from the excitement of a new baby in the house.

But one person was still wide awake -- our night owl, the kid who never sleeps, six-year-old Boy in Black. He was sitting cross-legged on the bed, dressed in a black t-shirt and shorts, his big brown eyes looking at the baby. He did not look tired in the least.

I handed him the baby. "Here, just hold him, and let him suck on your finger."

Boy in Black nodded solemnly. He and the newborn baby looked at each other, both with that same wide awake stare. The baby still had on that little knit cap that babies sometimes wear the first day to keep up their body heat, and Boy in Black pulled the cap off to kiss his brother's head.

"I like to kiss his head," I heard him say. He put his finger, upside down the way I'd shown him, in the baby's mouth and the baby began sucking vigorously.

"He's six," I thought to myself. "This is probably irresponsible." And then I drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up later, Boy in Black was still caring for the baby, both of them still wide awake. "I like having a baby brudder," Boy in Black kept saying. He sounded surprised.

I nursed the baby, handed him back to his six-year-old brother, and went back to sleep. And that night set the pattern for With-a-Why's life.

We always joke in the household that Boy in Black is the only person that With-a-Why listens to, and that is pretty much true. They've never had a fight, or even a squabble. They both have that same easy-going temperament and rational mindset that they inherited from their Dad. (Their mother, their sister, and their other brother all considerably more emotional.) Although they are six years apart, people always comment on the likeness between them.

Almost twelve years later, With-a-Why still looks up at his older brother with those big wide-awake eyes. Night owls both, they've been staying up ridiculously late all week, playing games, watching episodes of Futurama on the laptop, or playing with legos. They are prepping, I think, for what is going to be a dramatic change.

Boy in Black is going off to college.

His closeness to his siblings is one reason Boy in Black chose to go to Snowstorm University, rather than a more prestigious college. (Well, that and a full scholarship.) So Boy in Black will still be able to come home for a meal now and then, or to say hello, or to snowboard with his siblings. He will be living about nine miles away. With-a-Why will probably go spend the night with him in the dorm at least once this semester, just like he has with his sister, to charm all the college students and have the excitement of buying candy and soda from the vending machines.

My daughter, already a student at Snowstorm University, will be thrilled of course to have her brother on campus. But our household is going to feel a loss, as another child grows up and leaves home. It will be strange to check on my kids before I go to sleep and not find Boy in Black playing his guitar in the living room, or looking through music on the computer. Shaggy Hair is going to miss his company when he stays up late to work on a homework project. Spouse is going to miss the child who is more like him than any of the others. But the most difficult change will be for my youngest child, who bonded with Boy in Black his very first night, and who is going to sorely miss his role model, his buddy, his big brother.


Boy in Black teaching With-a-Why some guitar basics. (The guitar is upside down because With-a-Why plays left-handed.)

August 17, 2006

Finding his way

Last night before I went to bed, I went in to say good night to the kids. Boy in Black was sitting on the floor with his brand new laptop computer, loading onto it all the important things he might need for college, like every song that Bob Dylan ever recorded and every episode of Futurama. He was fascinated with the GPS (Global Positioning System) that came with the computer. "Look, the computer knows exactly where we are. See the map?"

I find that kind of technology creepy, but Boy in Black loves it.

"Watch, I'll put in an address and it'll tell me how to get there."

He typed in FirstExtra's address, and sure enough, a map to his house popped up on the screen. It's a neighborhood I've known my whole life, but how strange that this computer could provide such precise directions. Of course, I can't imagine what Boy in Black is going to use the GPS for, since he is going to Snowstorm University and he has lived in Snowstorm region his whole life. Perhaps he is planning to hike with the laptop? That seems kind of inconvenient.

As I stared at the map on the screen, that familiar neighborhood, I remembered the first September that Boy in Black was in kindergarten. He'd made a friend right away, and we had invited him over, and we were driving to pick up the new friend. Boy in Black assured me he knew how to get to the friend's house.

He gave me careful directions: "Turn right. Wait a minute at this corner. Turn right." He spoke with such confidence that I didn't question his directions at all, until I noticed that we seemed to be going up and down every street, crisscrossing the neighborhood methodically, stopping at every corner.

"Boy in Black! Are you sure you know where the house is?" I asked. I am terrible at directions myself, but even I could see that the route we were taking was pretty circuitous.

He looked at me, surprised, but with the complete self-assurance of a five-year-old.

"This is the right way," he said, "It's how the school bus goes."

August 16, 2006

Game over

When Boy in Black chooses an activity, he pursues it passionately. And the rest of the household, his siblings and extras, always follow. This summer his passion has been Ultimate Frisbee.

Neighbors have given the kids permission to play in the huge empty field across the road, a green lawn that is perfect for this sort of game. It seems strange that the neighbors keep the lawn so nicely mown because I've never seen anyone but my own kids use it, but it’s great for the kids to have their own private Ultimate Frisbee field.

Every afternoon, as soon as they get out of work, teenagers begin arriving for the game. They play in the heat, they play in the rain, they play despite the mosquitoes. They gather on the field, and try to match players up fairly to make two even teams, but no matter what they do, it's never completely even. Boy in Black's team almost always wins.

What's funny is that Boy in Black doesn't seem competitive. He's gentle and compassionate, and during a game, he yells encouraging things to people on both teams. He'll give me a compliment if I make a good catch, and he does the same with With-a-Why, who is the youngest and shortest player. I never hear him yelling for people to throw to him. And yet somehow, no matter where the frisbee goes, Boy in Black is there, his tall lanky body appearing out of nowhere, leaping high into the air or diving right onto the ground to make a dramatic catch. It's an exciting game -- filled with running and diving -- but it's a graceful game too, all the players moving and changing directions together like dancers each time the frisbee gets thrown.

Boy in Black prefers to play in bare feet -- and that means everyone plays in barefeet. Luckily, the grass is soft. On rainy nights, everyone comes into the house, soaking wet and muddy, the guys stripping off their clothes to wrap beach towels around their waists. On hot nights, they are red-faced and drenched with sweat. And no matter what the weather, everyone is thirsty, ready to gulp down big glasses of juice or water, ready to devour cut-up slices of watermelon.

I think we've had an Ultimate Frisbee game here every day that we've been home this summer, even during the heat wave. Every person in the household has played, including Spouse, me, and all of our extras. My daughter's friends have been recruited to play, and neighbor kids as well.

But this is the last week of Ultimate Frisbee. Already, the sun is setting earlier each evening, darkness closing in long before the frisbee players have tired. And other changes, inevitably, are creeping in as well. Sweet Funny Extra left for college Monday, the first of Boy in Black's friends to leave. Within the week, other frisbee players will disappear, one by one, leaving for colleges in the northeast. And a week from today, my two oldest children will pile their belongings into the car and move up to campus.

Ultimate Frisbee will be over for the season, at least for this household.

August 15, 2006

Falling water


I can't take the heat. So on August weekends, I prefer hiking trails that wind along streams, trails that lead to waterfalls and pools of cold water. Just the sound of water beating against rock and sloshing downstream makes me feel cooler. Even though trails that follow gorges tend to be a bit more strenuous -- we are always walking up or down a steep incline -- it's worth the extra sweat to be able to stop to wade in cold clear water or duck our heads into the spraying mist of a waterfall or plunge right into rushing chilly water.

Last weekend, we explored a quiet trail that took us past several waterfalls, with a shallow stream that was perfect for wading. Shaggy Hair Boy looked at the first waterfall carefully before deciding to slide down the rock with all that water. Even just sitting on the rocks near the waterfalls was delightfully cool, and the patches of sun on the flat rock felt great after we were wet.

The kids had started the hike at a fast pace, pulling way ahead of their parents, but soon they stopped to skip stones and play in the water. On a bridge that crossed the stream, the kids began playing a game with Shaggy Hair's sandals -- tossing the sandals upstream and letting them float downstream a little way before performing dramatic rescues. I took some photos, explored one of the waterfalls, and then sat on a rock in the shade with my husband. A lazy August afternoon.


If you look carefully, you can see all four of my children in this photo. Boy in Black is in the black shirt, of course, With-a-Why in the red shirt, Shaggy Hair in the blue shirt, and my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter is sitting in the shadows under the bridge.

August 14, 2006

No sympathy

It happens every August. I get careless. During a heat wave, I can't stand to wear long pants or long-sleeved shirts or protective clothing of any type. Or sometimes, I am in a hurry, and I take my sneakers off with my hands instead of using the edge of the porch to yank them off.

And then I wake up one morning covered with poison ivy rash.

I've had the rash on every part of my body. One drop of that evil fluid, transferred from my sneakers to my hands, can slide onto any available patch of skin, causing a bubbling, oozing rash. When the rash covers a sensitive part of my body like my breasts, the itching is painful.

One of the most annoying place to get the rash is between my fingers. Today I can barely type because my fingers are so swollen, and fluid from the sores keeps dripping onto the keyboard. During a hike with my family yesterday, the bubbles between my fingers swelled up until I had a blister the size of a kidney bean.

Spouse, who doesn't get poison ivy, looked at the rash with a combination of sympathy and horror. Yet my children, who have inherited my genes and get poison ivy just as badly, were not even one bit sympathetic. Quite the opposite. They treated me like I had leprosy.

My youngest son refused to hold my hand, declaring, "That's gross."

My daughter said helpfully, "I've even seen all those scary films about STI's and that's worse than anything in those health class movies."

"You've ruined my lunch," said Shaggy Hair Boy, "I can't even eat anything after seeing that hand."

"Please put your hand away so we don't have to look at it," said my oldest son.

My husband tried to interject some kind of sympathetic comment but my daughter cut him off. "How can you even sleep in the same bed with that woman? That's just sickening."

That evening, as our extras began arrive for the nightly game of Ultimate Frisbee, I heard one of my kids say, "Hey, want to see something really disgusting?"

And then, "MOM! Com'ere for a minute."

At least they weren't selling tickets.

August 12, 2006



When I told PlantsWoman that I'd be driving down the west coast with my family, she told me I would have the opportunity to see a rare plant that doesn't grow here in the northeast. See, this is what happens when your friends are scientists. Tell them you are going on vacation, and they don't recommend restaurants or amusement parks or beaches. No, they tell you what unusual plant you can see. I love that.

The darlingtonia californica is a carnivorous plant.

I immediately imagined something like the plant from the The Little Shop of Horrors but she explained that the plant ate insects rather than large mammals. I was a little disappointed, of course, because I think my teenagers would have been more excited by a man-eating plant, but I told her I would look for the road sign as we came down the coast.

Usually I find it hard to pronounce, no less remember, the Latin names that my scientist friends and students toss off so casually, but this one was easy. My Darling Tonia could even be some kind of movie title, I thought. Or certainly a tragically romantic song. "Oh, my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling tonia." And when I checked the internet, I discovered that drowning tragedies happen inside these plants all the time. Perhaps Clementine was an insect.

Sure enough, as we came down the coast, I saw a brown sign that said, "Darlingtonia Wayside." When we pulled into the parking lot, my teenagers were muttering about the fact that we'd already stopped at every scenic lookout or historical marker in the entire state. They were hungry, tired, and ready for lunch. I assured them that they could just stay in the comfort of the car (the rental vehicle, unlike my car at home, had air conditioning), while I popped out to take a look at this unusual plant.

I felt my body relax as I left behind the hot parking lot and cranky children. The trail was deeply shaded by conifers, their aroma released by the summer sun, and lovely green ferns grew in clumps along the edges. I was wondering if I would recognize the plant from my quick glance at an internet photo, which is not the most precise method of plant identification. I kept thinking I should have at least looked up the size of the plant since PlantsWoman, a bryologist, has been known to give enthusiastic descriptions of things that cannot be seen without a magnifying lens. Then I came around a bend in the trail and saw what was, unmistakably a clump of darlingtonia.

One of its common names is the cobra lily, and I could see why. The bed of plants rose like a group of translucent green cobras, reminding me of an animated version of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.

Insects are lured into the plant by nectar and by plant windows that give them a false sense of security. The windows are translucent, like stained glass windows I guess, and for the insects, I suppose it's like getting lost in the kind of maze of glass that they used to have at the boardwalk, with so many false exits that it's impossible to get out. The upper surface of the tube is glassy and smooth, and insects slide gradually down the slippery slope into the lower tube, where downward pointing hairs trap them. Their bodies disappear into the liquid at the base of the leaf, dissolving into nutrients that can be absorbed by the thin lower walls of the plant.

I could see the temptation. The plant was such a lovely translucent green, glowing in the sunlight that filtered down through the forest canopy. If I could shrink myself small, I would be tempted to explore, to climb inside the hood of the plant to bathe myself in soft green light. The color of the plant windows was more delicate and subtle than stained glass cathedral windows, which seem almost garish in comparison. I could see myself getting lured in by those beautiful windows, scrambling around on the smooth surface, barefoot to get a better grip, but then slipping inevitably down. Lost and gone forever. Oh, my darling tonia.

I stared at the plant, trying to picture the scene: would I struggle and beat my wings against the hairs that trapped me? Or give in to the inevitable and slide gracefully as if I were on a toboggan run, entering the pool with a splash?

Then I looked up and realized that my family, lured by the darlingtonia, had left the car, followed the trail, and were clustered on the boardwalk next to me. They, too, seemed mesmerized by the plant. With-a-Why leaned over the railing to get a closer look, his face just centimeters away those translucent green hoods.

A very seductive plant.

August 11, 2006



With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew were born only a few weeks apart. It's the kind of thing that happens in my family: whenever I get pregnant, one of my sisters will conveniently get pregnant so that my kid will have a playmate close in age. When Red-haired Sister is in town, With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew play together for hours every day. Two small boys can find all kinds of things to do on a lazy summer day.

We spent this afternoon at the Very Big Lake, visiting a little nature center and then hiking down to a beach full of smooth rounded rocks. My parents brought a picnic lunch for all of us. (Yes, that's right. I am 45 and my Mom still makes my lunch. Well, only on outings.) Dandelion Niece and Neighbor Girl stripped off their clothes to play in the surf, since the crashing waves were just the right size for their small bodies.

But With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew had purchased bamboo flutes at the nature center. With-a-Why, who plays the piano and jams with his brothers, figured out quickly how to play notes and then a tune, and Suburban Nephew caught on quickly. Delighted with themselves, they played the high-pitched instruments as loudly as they could, all the way down the trail through the woods and down to the rocky beach, where thankfully the crash of waves helped muffled their song.


August 10, 2006

The red room

We found it quite by accident. It was April of 2000 and for reasons I cannot disclose (although I suppose my Four Seas friends will guess), I was wandering in the dark and cold and bitter winds of Twin City.

Mentor Poet and Brooklyn Friend were with me, and we were lost. Completely lost. We'd been to a couple of bars already, and the last one had been a strange warehouse place filled with teenagers wearing black, and music so loud that my head was throbbing. I had a bad cold, the start of a migraine, and no coat. We started back in the general direction of our hotel, or where we thought our hotel might be, but nothing looked familiar, and the cold wind just kept slapping against my neck. Brooklyn Friend said that we would go into the next bar we saw, no matter what it looked like, just so we could get warm and use the bathrooms.

We turned the corner, saw a door, and walked in.

It was like stepping into a television set. The people in this place had silky hair and fancy clothes, and the kind of sheen that goes with privilege. White cloths covered the small tables, and the vases held red roses, real roses, and all of this was set against a background of varnished wood. Feeling completely out of place, with our shivering red fingers and wind-tangled hair, we moved quickly through the room, desperate to get to the warm bathrooms in the back.

As soon as we entered the back room, I realized that those customers out in front, all seated near the main window, were just window dressing, perhaps hired to make the place look classy, and that the heart of the place was in the back.

A polished wood bar ran the length of the back room, with seats all along the edge and several cosy niches. Three friends were clustered over by a fireplace, talking and laughing. Waiters, tired of serving the rich people out front, were gathered by the kitchen door, joking around. One couple had found a romantic spot, over in the corner, half-hidden from view. Above us were high ceilings and a loft that held a pool table. The loft looked like a section taken off an old sailing vessel. Even the bathrooms were cool, filled with old photographs.

It didn't take me long to find the best spot. Halfway between the wooden bar and the swinging kitchen door, right along the path the waiters had to take, was an open doorway to a small separate room. The room, painted deep red, held a couch and two chairs, and an old lamp with a yellowed shade. Some young couple were in there, taking advantage of the dim light. Right then and there I decided that our goal should be to get to this bar early on Saturday and claim the red room for the evening.

Mentor Poet and Brooklyn Friend agreed. So we returned early the next evening, with Wisconsin Woman, and went straight to the red room.

We sat all night in that glowing red room, talking, drinking, eating potatoes and cheese and weird appetizers that Brooklyn Friend kept ordering. We confided in each other. We talked about relationships, about work, about sex, about marriage, about family and childhood. We moved from topic to topic, a serious although not linear conversation, and yet it did not seem serious. Mentor Poet kept joking around, and our laughter filled the room again and again. I was sprawled on the couch, and sometimes I just had to put my head down into the pillows because I was laughing so hard.

Mentor Poet has a contagious laugh, and the waiters could not resist stopping at the doorway to talk to us. One young waiter kept telling us that he wanted to be a stand-up comic, but when asked to tell a joke, he completely blanked out. Was it cruel for us to laugh? He kept returning at intervals for the rest of the night with lame jokes.

It was just the right combination – the glow from the lamp and the deep red walls holding us close – the intimacy of a small space, yet the view of the bar and the constant hustle of waiters going by. We could hear the clink of glasses from the bar, the murmur of conversations, and the faint knocking of pool balls. The route to the bathrooms went just past the door so the room was perfect for people watching. A woman in a black dress, very elegant, appeared out of nowhere and burst out, "Oh, you have the red room. You're so lucky. I love the red room." Her envy put the finishing touch on the evening.

August 08, 2006

A friend tells a friend

It was a gathering of poets and artists, survivors and friends of survivors, grandmothers and urban professionals and high school students. We met last night at a coffeehouse in Snowstorm City for a poetry reading that would raise money for the Women's Shelter.

Poet Woman and I went out to dinner first, a slow meal at a downtown restaurant that serves the most wonderful bread and hot tomato dipping sauce. We talked and ate and talked, and the waiter kept bringing us more bread and dipping sauce. Afterwards, we walked through the city, taking our shoes off to splash barefoot through the fountain that was shooting jets of white water against the sunset.

Then for the next three hours, in a cosy coffeehouse filled with women and artwork, we listened as one by one, people approached the microphone and told their stories We were celebrating the survivors of domestic abuse, their strength and resilience, and the room was filled with survivors. But when Poet Woman got up to read, she asked for a moment of silence, for some of the women she remembered from the shelter, women who were warm and loving and wonderful, women who did not survive. I closed my eyes during the moment of silence, hiding behind my hair, because I could not bear to look at the faces around me.

The room was quiet as Poet Woman read a poem about the time many years ago when she was getting beaten by her husband, and someone called the cops. The cops arrived and asked one question: "Is this your husband?" And when she said yes, they left, and the beating continued. It was 1966, and that was the law then.

The evening went late, and it was close to midnight before everyone had spoken. I kept thinking how important it was for our community to say those words aloud, to name abuse and acknowledge pain.

The rule of silence in a dysfunctional family is a powerful force that feeds the cycle of abuse. "Don't air the dirty laundry." The clothesline project draws on that symbolism: women write their pain onto shirts which are then hung on a clothesline. Speaking up and speaking out is an act of incredible courage that helps break the pattern of abuse.

That step of finding words for the pain, for acknowledging the abuse, seems to be an important moment in every survivor's story. It's the way cycles get broken, patterns get changed. A friend tells a friend. Secrets lose their power when they are no longer secrets. Words rip apart the silence.

A friend tells a friend. I don't understand completely the healing process but I have seen it work. I could feel it last night as women and men spoke into the microphone, and everyone in the room listened, trying with their bodies to absorb the pain, to pull it into their bodies so that that the pain could become diffuse and shared. I tried to think of all the experiences I've stored in my body -- lazy summer days at camp, a drive around a deep blue lake, strolls along a coastal beach, a walk through ancient trees -- and use those sunny moments as a way to buffer the painful words I was listening to with my whole self.

August 07, 2006

It's a bird! It's a plane!

I wrote my syllabus this morning, complete with assignment schedule. THREE WEEKS BEFORE THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS. A major accomplishment.

I usually wait until the very last minute to do this kind of thing. In fact, I can think of only two other times I've done my fall prep ahead of time. In the year 1994, I was expecting a baby, my fourth child, in the middle of the semester, and I knew that I wouldn't have a whole lot of energy after the heat of August sapped the strength out of my hugely pregnant body, so I did all my class prep in May, while I was in the happy high-energy phase of pregnancy and the weather was still cool. And last year, I was planning to spend two weeks on a whitewater raft trip and needed to get my work done ahead of time.

This year, I have neither a new baby or an exciting raft trip in my future, but we weren't able to go to go to camp this weekend – we stayed close to home to field phone calls from my mother-in-law and help her make the transition to her new living arrangement – so I figured I might as well get some work done so that I can relax and enjoy the rest of my summer.

One disadvantage of doing my fall prep way ahead of time is that I tend to be a bit unrealistic about fall semester. I'll look at the first week of October and say to myself, "Let's see. I'll have the students hand in this paper on Monday, I'll grade them on Tuesday, and I should be able to hand them all back on Wednesday, and I'll have Thursday to write." Because yeah, it is totally realistic to think that I will be able to grade 65 essays, writing careful inspiring comments on them, in a matter of hours on a single Tuesday at home.

On lazy summer days, though, I have this vision of myself turning into superwoman once the cooler fall weather gets here. I convince myself that a simple drop in temperature will turn me from sloth to overachiever. Sure, I will be turning papers back the same week they are handed in.

And I haven't met my students yet, so of course I imagine them participating in amazing discussions and writing fantastic papers. It's fun to write a syllabus for imaginary students and an imaginary superwoman teacher.

But once I finished the syllabus, I stopped to do the numbers. I will be assigning five formal papers, and 21 short response papers. Yes, I am sure 21 short papers seems like a lot, but I assign a short paper to go with every single reading. My official reason is that all that writing is good for the students. Mostly though, I don't have the patience to hold class with students who haven't done the reading. I hate when they do stupid things like try to discuss the title all class because yeah, they think somehow the teacher won't know that they haven't gotten beyond the title. It drives me nuts when I am prepared for class and they aren't.

Forcing students to write does force them to do the reading and to think about the reading. It also means that this fall I will read and respond to 2665 pages of student writing. I like to calculate these numbers so that I can repeatedly toss them into conversations with the academic dean. He's a scientist, and numbers are what get through to him. Those kind of numbers help stop anyone who has ideas about giving me another section to teach.

But they also serve to bring me back to reality.

And now I am going back into summertime sloth mode before I think about it too much.

August 06, 2006


Laura over at 11D asked her readers to tell stories about their involvement with the local political process. I could tell a number of stories about rallies I've gone to, or issues I was involved in during my years as editor of an alternative publication, but instead I'd like to tell the story that involves something that seems pretty mundane: road signs.

When I was in my twenties, with three small kids (With-a-Why came later), I lived in a quiet neighborhood of small houses lined up close to the road, a neighborhood not far from where I had grown up. Many of my elderly neighbors had lived in the neighborhood for more than forty years, and on summer evenings, they would sit outside on their paved driveways in metal lawn chairs. Sprinkled amidst the somber old houses with their neat lawns and flower-filled window boxes were also houses in which the short front driveways were filled with bright-coloured toys and red tricycles and playpens. Every time a long-time resident of the neighborhood died, the house would get sold by the estate and a young family would move in.

The road we lived on was the back route to a big manufacturing plant, one of the big employers in the area, and twice each day, our quiet street would fill with cars racing by at high speeds, as shift workers took the short cut to get to work on time, many of them traveling more than 30 mph over the posted speed limit. The traffic made the street a dangerous place for both children and old people. The woman next door to me, who was in her eighties and who still walked to the laundromat and the store, had several bad scares, nearly getting run down by fast-moving cars. I kept my own children in our fenced-in back yard, but had to let them walk in our small front yard if I wanted to go someplace in the car. I couldn’t carry three kids at a time, and I always felt fearful until all three kids were safely strapped into the car. If the kids wanted to ride tricycles and play on the paved driveway, I would sit at the end of the driveway, worried the whole time that a kid might dart into the road. But mostly, it wasn’t my own children who were in danger. A couple of houses down lived three boys in a difficult household, whose parents did not supervise them at all. I kept those three boys in my backyard whenever I could, but I knew that they had no one to protect them when we were off on one of our camping trips, and that they often played in the road.

I knew that other residential neighborhoods had stop signs on every corner in order to slow traffic down and make the place safe. It seemed to me that stop signs would solve the problem.

So I drew up a petition to the town, asking for stop signs, and went from door-to-door with the petition. I picked a sunny weekend and left the kids home with my spouse, while I walked from house to house.

Many of the nearest neighbors knew me, but as I moved farther down the street, I found I needed to introduce myself. Since I'd lived in the area my whole life, that wasn't hard. I’d talk about which schools I'd attended – some of my neighbors had kids who had gone to school with me – and I'd mention my father, because most people remembered the office he’d had on the main street for years. Almost everyone was friendly and nice: many asked me to sit down and chat. They offered me cookies and juice, or coffee.

Even as I chatted with the neighbors, I realized I was sort of playing a role. These were white conservative working-class people. In every case, I made a point of mentioning what I had in common with them. Never once did I mention my affiliation with the university, which would have made them mistrust me, and most certainly, nothing about my liberal politics. If my skin had been a different color, or if I had a lesbian partner, or if I was a young professor from out of town who had just moved into the neighborhood, would I have gotten such a warm reception? I suspect not.

Most of the neighbors signed the petition, but mostly just to humor me. I kept hearing things like, "Honey, that traffic's been a problem ever since that plant opened. It's been like that for years. It's dangerous but nothing we can do about it." Almost every one of my neighbors warned me that I was wasting my time. Everyone agreed that the speeding cars were a problem, but they all seemed resigned to just accept the situation.

One woman, LikesQuiet, whom I knew because I'd gone to school with her kids, said she didn't want the stop signs because it would make her life more difficult. She'd have to drive slower going through the neighborhood. She'd raised her own kids with that traffic, and none of them had been hit by a car, and she figured that if mothers didn't keep an eye on her kids, well, that was their problem. I knew I wasn't going to get her signature as soon as she started her spiel, so I shrugged, admired her garden, talked about how nice her dog was, and then moved onto the next house.

Pretty much everyone else signed the petition. I sent it to the town, and they put the stop signs on the agenda for the next town board meeting.

Five other couples went to the town meeting, all of them older residents. When it was time for discussion, I noticed another strange dynamic, something that will likely indicate what a conservative community I come from. When it was time to talk, the husband would stand up and say, "We are Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor. We think ...."

It happened five times. Not one of the women said a word. In each case, the husband would stand up and say something in first person plural, and that would be it. It drives me crazy when married people talk in the first person plural, as if they aren't separate people, but on top of that, I remember thinking it was a poor strategy. Even if both spouses agreed on the issue, having only one person talk effectively gave them one voice instead of two.

As soon as I saw what was happening, I moved a chair away from my husband. I knew he was planning to speak up, and I didn't want anyone to assume he was speaking for me. He and I did agree on the issue, but I wanted us to count as two voices, and not one. I knew I could trust him not to speak in first person plural. And I was deliberately waiting until everyone had spoken, because I wanted to be last.

Four men (including my husband) said they were in favor of the stop signs. And two men, including LikesQuiet's husband, came up with reasons why the stop signs shouldn’t be there. One man said he thought the stop signs would make people drive faster, because they would get angry that the signs were making them even later for work.

When all the men in the audience had spoken and it became clear to me that none of the women were going to speak, I stood up and said that I had circulated the petition. I explained my reasons, saying that the speeding cars were a danger especially to the children and older people in the neighborhood, and that as a community we needed to protect both the young and the old. I said: "We can't risk an accident happening."

The board discussed the issue briefly, but I knew my last sentence would seal the deal. As long as it doesn't conflict with a significant economic issue, local governments will usually act to avoid risk. Installing four stop signs would be pretty cheap. They could not afford the risk of an accident happening after residents had specifically asked for a measure that would make the neighborhood safer.

They voted unanimously in favor of the motion. And several days later, the neighborhood kids and I watched while workers from the town unloaded stop signs from their truck and pounded them in.

August 04, 2006


The assisted living home is lovely, with big windows that let in sunshine, a courtyard with flower gardens, a dining area that looks more like a nice restaurant, a cheerful staff, beautiful efficiency apartments, and everything an elderly person could ask for. And yet, it was a difficult move.

My mother-in-law had toured the facility and agreed that she wanted to move there. She needs help with everything from taking a shower to sorting out her medications. Her eyesight is failing. She liked the place and all the services it has to offer. The building is only about a mile from where she lives now, within fifteen miles of both of her sons. And yet, it was a difficult move.

Today we moved my mother-in-law out of a home she's lived in for 47 years. It's the home she moved into soon after she married, the home where she raised her children, the home of 47 Christmas trees, 47 Easter celebrations, and 47 summers. It's a home she can no longer take care of, with a driveway that becomes dangerous on icy winter days, a garage that holds a car she can no longer drive. It is no longer a house that is safe for someone with failing eyesight and shaky limbs. And yet, it was difficult for her to leave.

Her children and children-in-law and grandchildren all agreed that this was the best move. We all agreed that new place was wonderful. We knew she would cry this morning when we arrived to move her in, but that in the long run she would be pleased with the move. We all knew it was the right thing to do, that she needs the help of a staff who is there 24 hours each day. For the last few years, her three kids have spent endless hours taking care of her house, driving her places, shopping for her, doing errands for her, answering her phone calls in the middle of the night, taking her to countless doctors, and reassuring her when she gets scared by a thunderstorm or anxious over some medication. We all knew the time had come to move her, that the care we could provide on an almost daily basis was no longer enough.

And still, it was a difficult move.

August 03, 2006

Summer Storm

After two days of unbearable heat and humidity, two days of lying on the floor, two days of drinking juice and eating nothing, two days of going nowhere because I couldn't bear to get into a car that was so hot it hurt to touch the metal handles, I could feel the headache beginning: my vision getting blurry and throbbing inside my skull and my eyes unable to handle even the gentlest light. But when the air is so thick that walking feels like swimming and the heat so intense that it's hard to breathe, I almost welcome a migraine because I know what it means. A low pressure system moving towards us. A thunderstorm.

A change in weather.

This morning, the wind is blowing through the branches of the trees outside my window, sending a flurry of raindrops to the ground, and cool air is moving through the house. The pressure in my head has subsided. The windowsills are wet, and mosquitoes have wiggled their way through the many holes in our battered screens, and the air in the house tastes sweet again.

August 01, 2006

Heat Wave

Here is the scene at my house: everywhere you see the dead bodies of cats, sprawled out limp on the linoleum. Oh, okay, maybe they aren’t really dead, they are just sleeping, but that's the effect. Seven limp cats, draped on the floor, unable to move in the heat. They aren't even hissing at each other. In this heat, they've called some kind of truce.

Of course, the bigger lumps on the floor, clad mostly in black t-shirts and shorts, are kids. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair decided yesterday evening that their strategy for handling the heat wave would be to stay up all night celebrating the fact that July was over. (Their evil mother had banned computer games for the month of July.) Their plan was to play computer games all night and then spend the day sleeping on the floor. Every once in a while, Shaggy Hair will sit up and complain, "It’s too hot to sleep," before falling back into a sound sleep.

The voice on the radio tells us that a running race has been cancelled. And we are supposed to check on elderly neighbors. We are a region well-prepared to deal with snowstorms: heat waves, not so much.

Skater Boy is lying on the floor with an ice pack on his head, which makes him look wounded even though he is not. Pirate Boy, unbelievably, is sitting at the computer. I say unbelievably because the kids' computer is in an upstairs bedroom with a southeast exposure and the room feels like the inside of a dishwasher. The even more unbelievable part is that both these kids live in homes that have air conditioning and for some inexplicable reason are at my house instead. Blonde Niece, clad in a bathing suit, with her hair wet and pulled back from her face, is lying on the floor in the hallway, where she claims she is catching a breeze from one of two electric fans that we own.

My Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is talking happily on her cell phone to Film Guy, whose grandmother has a pool and has invited her over. She volunteers at a women's shelter and spent a sweaty morning lugging bags of clothes and boxes of belongings over sizzling city sidewalks to move several women into apartments. So she probably deserves a swim. With-a-Why, on the other hand, has not moved all day: he is lying on the floor, reading a book. I don’t think anyone in the house has eaten anything, although the kitchen counter is crowded with glasses from the many glasses of juice we've had. Oh, Blonde Niece did cut up the watermelon. Can we count that as lunch?

As I lie on the floor, I tell myself to soak in the heat, let it somehow enter my bones, where I will store it for the cold winter ahead. Next January, when I am sitting on a chairlift, after several runs down the ski slope, and I am shivering with cold, the wind sending chills through my wet clothes and my feet so icy that they are painful, I will try to remember this heat.

I tell one of my kids this theory about heat, how we can store it up in our bones the way plants turn summer sunlight into food for the winter. He lifts his head from the floor and mutters, "Humans don’t have chlorophyll."