September 30, 2006

Don't ever call my daughter a coed

In my classroom we often analyze language, and the ways such things as gender stereotypes – or the myth of male superiority – are enforced by words and phrases. For instance, the other day, a student said that her friend's father had referred to her as a coed. She felt uncomfortable because he said it in a mocking way, but she didn't know why it was an insult.

The word coed was coined when colleges first began admitting women. The norm was that college students were male. So the word college student meant a male, and so female students were coeds. The term is still used today, often as an insult, as a reminder that colleges were founded to educate men, and that women were admitted later and perhaps shouldn't really be there. Calling a woman a coed is one way to adhere to an outdated and sexist norm. A few of my students, young as they are, acted surprised that there was a time in history when women barred from most colleges. "Ask your grandparents," I told them. "It wasn't that long ago."

One of my male students volunteered that he had seen the word coed used in a porn magazine, which often features such things as "Coed of the Month." He said, "I guess I thought the word coed meant sexy college chick." It did not surprise me to hear that porn magazines present female college students as sex objects. It makes good patriarchal sense to suggest that the reason for colleges admitting women was merely to serve the sexual needs of the male students.

One of my colleagues told me a story recently about taking her daughter to the dentist over the summer. The dentist asked the daughter the usually kind of trivial making-conversation questions, and when she said that she was in college, a prestigious college that he had surely heard of, he asked, "Going for your MRS?"

Colleague's daughter looked at him blankly. She had no idea what he was talking about.

"I'm getting a degree in marine biology," she said.

Young women in college are still being subjected to this cultural assumption: a woman goes to a prestigious college in order to find a rich husband, and not because she is intelligent or eager to learn or planning a career.

I get angry just thinking about it.

September 28, 2006

The Devil Wears Satin

I've been grading papers all day, an activity which sucks all the vital energy out of me, leaving me in zombie state, unable to even read, which ironically is the very activity I need to be doing. By this time of the semester, I know the students pretty well, and I have the bad habit of pulling out the papers that I know are going to be well-written and interesting – the kind of essays I love to read – and grading them first. That leaves me to slog through the unfocused essays when I am tired. Yes, it's a bad strategy, I know.

Late this afternoon, I read an introduction that included a line about the evils of satin, and I thought to myself, "Well, that's interesting." I didn't know the fabric was controversial. Maybe he was going to talk about sweatshops or classicism or the pressure for women to conform to gender roles. All kinds of interesting possibilities raced through my mind.

It wasn't until I reached the second paragraph and he started talking about God and nature that I realized who Satin was. Not the fabric. Not even a cool superpower or a comic book character.

I admit that I was a little disappointed.

September 27, 2006

Delicate wings


When I was a little kid, I would sometimes sit on the lawn on a lazy summer afternoon, making chains out of dandelions or looking for four-leaf clovers. And from that low vantage point, I would notice butterflies, skimming just above the grasses. My mother had warned me not to try to catch a butterfly – she said that my fingers would damage the wings – so I always just watched carefully until the butterfly was out of my sight.

As I grew older and taller, I stopped noticing butterflies. I think I was always moving too fast, or looking at bigger elements of the landscape. Until I met Artist Friend. When I take a walk with him, he always points out things that I wouldn't notice – an unusual fern, perhaps. And often, he points to butterflies. "Nice swallowtail," he'll say. And he'll pause to watch where the butterfly goes, his whole attention focused on those delicate wings.

Last weekend, while I was walking through the orchard at the monastery, I noticed a beautiful monarch butterfly flitting around the banks of wildflowers. I sat on the grass for a while and watched the butterfly, thinking about Artist Friend and taking the time to sort through all kings of things in my life. I took a photo for my blog friends because I figured I might have deep and profound things to say about this butterfly. After all, the butterfly figures prominently in the mythology of many cultures, sometimes as the messenger between heaven and earth, sometimes as the symbol of rebirth and regeneration. It seemed that the presence of this butterfly, which danced and flew and kept folding and unfolding its wings, might have some deep spiritual significance.

So I planned to write a post about butterflies today. I woke up at 6:30 am to spend time with my two youngest as they got ready for school. Then I hurried to campus, taught my first class, answered a bunch of emails, graded maybe one paper, talked to a colleague who needed advice, taught my second class, talked to a student, wrote several emails, ate half a bagel, taught my third class, met with an advisee, talked to another colleague, went to a long but productive meeting with an administrator, graded a few papers, ate the other half of my bagel, wrote an abstract, met with my 5 pm seminar class, raced home in time to join my husband for Meet-the-Teacher Night at Shaggy Hair's school, talked to Boy in Black, who had stopped home after his Wednesday drum lesson, read to my youngest child, helped my husband put away the groceries he had run out to get after we realized we had no bread for school lunches ... and then sat down after 10 pm to finally eat something substantial and write a profound post about the butterfly at the monastery.

But really, the only profound thought going through my head is this: I can't believe that just a few days ago I had time to sit quietly in an orchard and do nothing but watch a butterfly.

September 26, 2006

Photo from the monastery


If you look carefully at this photo, you can see just the tiniest bit of blue sky, like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle taken from another landscape.

Sometimes just a tiny bit of blue sky is all we get.

September 25, 2006

Walking the fenceline


When I visit the monastery in March, the farm is usually still buried in snow, with drifts of white spread across the fields, and a ripple of gold from the curving banks of dried grasses. And all summer, the sheep pastures are green, dotted with the fluffy white bodies of the sheep.

But September is early fall, and autumn colours are beginning to creep into the leaves of the maple trees. The wildflowers that grow in big untidy banks are yellow and purple. The sheep pastures are still green, and the grape arbor covered with green leaves, but that green serves only to make the bright yellow of the goldenrod that much more vivid.

I spent much of my time at the monastery wandering through sheep pastures, hiking along the fence lines, or just meandering about the apple orchard. I had no goal in mind, and no plan, just the idea that somehow I needed to absorb as much of this beauty as I could before winter gets here. And I was rewarded by all sorts of surprises – a lush display of wildflowers, a tree full of deep red apples, a persistent butterfly, and sheep that entertained me with all sort of antics.

I suppose my thoughts and prayers followed a similar meandering route. When I am on retreat, I leave behind all the day-to-day thinking that fills up my head, and I allow other thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface. As I walk along the sheep pasture fence, alone, I am often surprised at which path my own thoughts take. Just as leaves burst into bright red colour before they crumple and fall to the ground, long hidden emotions surface with a final bright flash before I can sort them and figure out where they belong.

The monastery is a safe place for that kind of sorting. After an afternoon of wandering through yellow and purple and green, I spent hours talking to Monking Friend and Nurse Friend, the three of us gathered in the comfy chairs in the old stone farmhouse, all of us relaxed after a quiet day of reflection, the three of us intent on putting our lives into balance.


September 21, 2006

Gone monking

The first month of fall semester was busy and exhausting, both physically and emotionally. My two oldest kids went off to college, my two youngest went back to school. I have spent all kinds of time with my 60 first year students, helping get them adjusted to college life. My husband and I have had to deal with his mother's transitional issues as she gets used to living in an assisted living home. I've already read 480 pages of student writing. And after 35 years of trying to correct my horribly near-sighted eyes, I've been struggling with contact lenses and glasses to correct the newest problem: I am now far-sighted as well. (Yeah, I have said how getting old would be cool, because I want to be one of those old women with all kinds of wisdom, but I am not so much in favor of the body falling apart. I suspect my deteriorating vision is just the beginning. Sigh.)

I feel ready for a retreat.

I'll be spending the next four days at a Benedictine monastery, a place that includes a working sheep farm, an octagonal chapel, and several guesthouses. The monastery, located high in the hills above a sleepy river, overlooks farm pastures and woods. The monks gather in the chapel seven times each day for prayer, but in between the services, they discard their dark robes to drive tractors, feed sheep, make beeswax candles, and pick apples.

Longtime readers know that the monastery is a place I return to, again and again, as a way to keep my life in balance. I'll be staying in an old stone farmhouse with two close friends, Monking Friend and Nurse Friend. We will talk on the drive there, catching up on each other's lives. At every meal in the guesthouse, we will talk about books and movies, about our children and our marriages, about our failings and our goals for ourselves.

But we will also have time, each of us, to be alone.

I'll walk through the sheep barns, breathing in the smell of hay and manure, and I'll spend hours sitting in the sun at the edge of the sheep pasture, watching the sheep trot along in single file like school kids. I'll take a nap in the afternoon, with no kids to interrupt my sleep. I'll lie on the grass in front of the chapel and read a book. I'll walk down the stone steps into the crypt to light a candle in front of a centuries-old stature and sit cross-legged on the stone floor, staring into flame.

Of course, I am an extrovert so I'll also seek out my monk friends. I'll go hiking with Brother Beekeeper, to hear what's been happening in his life. I'll wander into the candle-making workroom to hang out with Brother Joking, who is sure to tease me about the time I went skinny dipping in the river or the time that Monking Friend and I backed into a lamp post, knocking it down. At meal times, my friends and I will chat with the other guests, enjoying that intimacy that happens so quickly when women on retreat gather around the table.

I will return next week with beeswax candles, monastery cider, and stories to tell.


September 20, 2006

Walking through oil paint

Faced with a houseful of dirty dishes, a pile of wet logs that needed to be stacked, a miserable sort of headache, and a desk covered with folders of important stuff that had to be done immediately, I decided yesterday to do the only logical thing: I put down the to-do list and went with a close friend for a walk at Pretty Colour Lakes. These glacial lakes, part of a state park just a few miles from my house, were formed more than ten thousand years ago, two deep plunge pools carved into the limestone bedrock by waterfalls rushing from a melting glacier.

No matter how miserable my mood, I always feel better as soon as my sneakers touch the mulch trails of Pretty Colour Lake. The autumn smell of yellow leaves mixed with the scent of the cedar trees as Quilt Artist and I started around the lake. Some of the white cedar trees that edge the lake are more than a century old. They were here when my Dad came to the lake as a child. High in the hills just above the lake are remnants of old growth forest.

I've walked the trails at this lake hundreds, no, thousands of times. My earliest memories include family picnics with my parents and Picnic Family, the six of us children collecting bright red leaves and scrambling up the steep hills around the lake. I came to the lake as a teenager to swim, or to camp with Outdoor Girl and her family, or to take quiet walks with a boyfriend. When my own children were small, I usually nursed a baby in a sling as we walked. I come to the lake often in the evening with my husband, when we can sneak an hour or two to ourselves. I bring my out-of-town friends to this lake: I walked this trail with Artist Friend a few years ago, as a way to weave the landscape of cedar trees and green water into our friendship.

Pretty Colour Lakes are meromictic: unlike most lakes in the world, they don't turn over in the spring or fall. The water at the bottom never rises to the surface. I've heard all kinds of local legends about the lakes, including the idea that they are connected to other lakes by underground caves. These small lakes are so deep that they were once believed to be bottomless, although scientists now say that the depth is closer to 195 feet instead of infinity.

But the thing that everyone notices -- and no matter how many times each week I come to the lake, the beauty of it still shocks me -- is the colour of the lakes. Because the lakes are so deep and clear, with little suspended organic matter, and because calcium carbonate seeps from the limestone bedrock, the water is often a spectacular green blue colour that is hard to describe and almost impossible to photograph.

Later in October, the still lake will reflect gorgeous red and orange fall foliage. But yesterday, we saw just the beginnings of the fall changes: gold leaves drifting along the edge of the lake, a few yellow leaves on branches of green. Quilt Artist and I kept stopping to admire the way the branches that overhang the lake were reflected in the water. When a light wind rippled across the surface, the blur of vivid colours looked like a Monet painting.

We had just enough time to walk around both lakes. We talked about friendships and children and a fall weekend we have planned with some of our friends. And then we went back to our homes, refreshed by the conversation, the fresh air, and the colours of the lake.


Here's my attempt to take a photograph that looks like a painting.

September 19, 2006

Reason for hope

During the first four weeks of the semester, I ask my first year students to do all kinds of things outside of class time – an overnight retreat, lectures and workshops, and a play downtown. When I found out that Snowstorm University, the big college next to us, was bringing in Famous Woman Who Discovered that Chimpanzees Use Tools, I told them I would see if I could get us tickets, but that I had already taken up so many of their evenings that I was not making the lecture mandatory. They could come if they wanted. It was completely up to them.

Out of 60 students, all but two signed up for the lecture. The only two who did not come were two who had to work that night.

When I met my students outside their residence hall yesterday evening so that we could walk over to the lecture together, leaving 45 minutes ahead of time so that we could get good seats, some of the students were so excited about seeing Famous Chimpanzee Activist that they could not stand still. "I can't believe we are going to see her in person," one woman said, bouncing up and down as she talked. "She has been my hero all my life."

As we walked from Small Green Campus over to the much bigger campus of Snowstorm University, my students were chattering excitedly and moving so fast I had to practically run to keep up. One student demonstrated some Irish step dancing moves on the concrete steps we had to ascend, and many other students followed suit, dancing sideways up to the top. Some students had gone over even earlier, to wait in line before the doors opened and get the best seats, and they were in constant cell phone contact with the group of us who were walking over now.

We were so early that the big auditorium was still almost empty when we arrived. The first rows were reserved for people more important than us, but we filled in the whole area right behind the reserved section. All around me I could hear students exchanging what information they knew about Chimpanzee Expert: what books they'd read, what television programs they'd seen, and what impact she had had on their lives, bringing many of them to the field of wildlife biology. As we talked, the auditorium around us gradually filled with hundreds of Snowstorm University students.

When Woman Who Lived Near Chimpanzees approached the podium, she could not speak for several minutes because the applause from the first year students went on for so long. When she did speak, she was intelligent, articulate, and inspiring. Her facts were sometimes depressing, but she ended on a note of hope.

I too was thrilled to see Chimpanzee Expert, but the most exciting part of the evening for me was watching the attitudes of my students, who all jumped at the chance to attend the lecture, who sat forward in their seats listening to every word she said, and who afterwards filled the night air with talk of ecology and habitat destruction and grassroots activism. As we walked back to our own campus, following paths splashed with light from the windows of buildings, I could feel their energy rushing all around me, as they talked and danced and bounced their way back to their residence hall. Reason for hope.

September 17, 2006

I think I could rise from the ashes

With-a-Why and his father recently started reading comic books together. I've got mixed feelings about comic books, but I admit that I don't know much about them because I've never read them. So when With-a-Why starting talking about them on the way to his piano lesson the other day, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about my son's new interest.

"Mom, if you could choose any superpower, what would you choose?"
"Any power?"
"Like a supernatural power?"

I thought for a minute, and then remembered the motto of a local peace group about turning swords into ploughshares.

"I'd choose the power to turn weapons into loaves of bread."
"See, a war could be going on, and I'd snap my fingers, and people would just be throwing loaves of bread at each other. And then they could sit down and make sandwiches and talk to each other."
"That's not a superpower."
"It isn't?"
"No. You have to pick one that someone already has."
"Like shooting flames out of my butt or something like that?"
"Mom! You know what I mean."
"Like it has to be from a comic book? But I don't read comic books."

He decided to give me examples.

"You could be Wolverine. He heals."
"A healer? Like a shaman? That would be cool. I could heal people."
"No, he doesn't heal other people. He heals himself."
"Just himself?"
"Yeah, but he has claws. Made of adamantium. And he can hear and smell really well."
"But he can only heal himself?"
"Yeah. He heals himself. Mostly after he beats the shit out of people."
"Well, that does not sound like a healer."

He took the hint and moved onto another character.

"How about Magneto?"
"What does he do?"
"He can control metal. He's really good at it."
"Yeah, he wears a helmet that stops Professor X from seeing into his mind."
"What? The professor is a BAD GUY?"
"No, no. Professor X is a good guy. Magneto is a bad guy."

I felt relieved. And decided to take a different tack.

"Aren't there any women with superpowers?"
"Uh, Jubilee. She shoots fireworks."
"Shoots fireworks?"
"Yeah, that's it. She's kind of lame."

"Aren't there any strong women?"
"Oh, yeah, Phoenix. She's strong."
"Wait, I've heard of her. You all went to a movie, and Daughter said Phoenix reminded her of me."
"What does she do?"
"She gets angry and goes crazy and turns into a giant firebird."
"WHAT? That's like me?"
"It's not me who said it. Big Sister did."
"You think I'm like Phoenix?"
"You don't have as many powers."

I decided it was time to change the subject.

"Okay, which powers would you choose?"
"I'd be Night Crawler. He's blue and has a tail. He can teleport and he's mad acrobatic."
"You want to be blue?"
"I want to teleport and be mad acrobatic."
"I could snowboard down a mountain and whoosh! teleport to the top. I could hang out on top of buildings.
"That doesn't seem all that useful."
"Well, if bad guys chased me around a corner, I could teleport, and they'd think I went into a store or something."
"How often do bad guys chase you?"
"Well, if I'm messing up some evil guy's plan, he's gonna chase me."
"Do you know any evil men?"

He thought for a moment. "George Bush?"

Let me be your doormat

Warning: Slight spoiler ahead if you haven't seen the movie The Last Kiss.

Often after a night at the movies, I end up analyzing how unhealthy Hollywood's version of a romantic relationship is. I especially hate the idea that a woman needs a man to "be complete," as if no woman could ever be a whole person on her own.

The movie we saw last night, The Last Kiss, avoided many of the romantic conventions that I so detest. It was certainly more realistic than the cheesy movie with a happy ending that usually falls into the romantic comedy genre. The characters seemed like real people, with real life problems – and completely dysfunctional ways of handling them. And they certainly did avoid the happy ending.

In the end, the main character, who has spent most of the movie sabotaging the relationship he is in, ends up lying for days on the doorstep of the woman he says he loves. She walks over him as she leaves for work, refusing even to talk to him. At one point, she takes pity on him and throws him a sandwich before storming past. When he shivers in the cold, she tosses him a blanket, which he clutches gratefully. The character is played by Zach Braff, and even though he's been a moody, immature jerk for most of the movie, he is still somehow likeable enough that he gets our sympathy. He lies pitifully on the front porch, a broken man, while the woman steps over him again and again.

I am not sure what to make of a romantic comedy in which the main character is counseled by an older male therapist to "do whatever it takes" to get his woman back and who becomes literally a doormat.

If that is a metaphor for relationships in our times, I would say that these are pretty dark times. A realistic movie, perhaps, but certainly a depressing one.

September 15, 2006

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes

When I was a kid, little girls were supposed to dress up for holidays. Little girls often wore pretty pastel-colored dresses, slippery useless patent leather shoes, and bows in their hair. They were supposed to stay pretty and clean, and smile for the camera. Little boys could wear pants and sensible shoes and run around like crazy, but little girls were supposed to act like little princesses. "Sit like a lady," girls were told, again and again, whereas "boys will be boys."

I can still remember some of the dresses that I wore – a purple one with puffy sleeves and polka dots that I just adored – or my very favorite, which was a First Communion dress that my mother dyed yellow after my sisters and I had all worn it. The skirt flared out when you twirled, which made it a fun dress to dance in. I can understand why anyone, male or female, could enjoy clothes, could love to experiment with color and texture and drape. I myself have lovely billowy pantaloons I wear for belly dancing.

But the idea that girls were supposed to dress pretty seemed silly to me as a kid. It seemed that mostly, the dresses were just for photos. I never stayed in them long. They looked pretty, but skirts and slippery shoes just aren't very practical for playing outside, at least not in my climate. Have you ever tried to climb a tree in a dress and patent leather shoes? Or gone on a hike on a cold windy day wearing only tights under a dress? Before Easter dinner was even out of the oven, my sisters and I would already be changing into pants and boots so that we could race around the muddy backyard. Luckily, my parents never cared if we got our dress-up clothes dirty or if we discarded them altogether. Any dress I wore had already been handed down twice, so I could rip clothing climbing over a fence and it didn't matter much at all. And my mother, with five kids to clothe in a climate where we sometimes still had snow on Easter, abandoned the convention of holiday dress-up clothes pretty early in my childhood.

When I see photographs of little girls, all dressed up in pretty clothes and smiling for the camera, I still sometimes wonder at the kind of gender stereotypes perpetrated by the photographs. I suspect that the girls in the photos, like the girls in my family, discard the pretty clothes quickly in favor of more practical clothing as soon as the photo is snapped. I know that Dandelion Niece will show up for Easter dinner in a frilly pastel-colored dress, which she will show everyone proudly, and that doesn't stop her from stomping through puddles and getting the dress covered with muddy spots moments later.

So I am not saying that these photographs directly harm the individual girls in the photos nor am I criticizing the parents who take the photographs. I've taken photos like that of my own daughter and nieces. But I do wonder about the cumulative effect of the images we get over and over again of little girls dressed pretty, smiling at the camera. It seems as a culture we have a need to examine the gendered roles we ask girls and boys to play even in early childhood. Sure, perhaps things have changed since my 1960s childhood days, but it still seems like girls have this social pressure to "look pretty." I'd like to say I have seen just as many photos – in the media, on the blogs, wherever – of little boys dressed up to look pretty, in wholly impractical clothing, asked to smile for the camera -- but to be honest, I haven't. Our female children are under societal pressures that do not extend to our male children.

This was a long way of saying that this video, of Fresh-Cut Flowers' beautiful little girl, pleased me immensely.

September 14, 2006

All Grown Up

Over the summer, when I'd be lounging in the living room with the kids, often lying on the floor complaining about the heat, I would take a few minutes to write a blog post and then I'd often pass my laptop over to my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter. "Want to read this?"

She'd read the post quickly. Sometimes she'd say, "Oh, it looks good." Other times she might say, "Oh, that ending doesn't seem right" or "Maybe you should cut that sentence out before you post it." She has an amazing ability to look at a piece of writing, and figure out immediately what it needs to make it stronger. And when we looked at photos together, she had that same quick, decisive reaction. Every night on our west coast vacation, she and I would look through the photos I had taken that day. Even if I had taken dozens of photos, she could immediately point to the photo that I should put on my blog – and explain to me why.

One night I said to her, "You know, you're really good at this. You could be an editor."

She looked at me kind of strangely: "Uh, that's what I'm planning."

Oh, right. Snowstorm University has a Journalism School, and she is majoring in magazine journalism. I've even read the stories she wrote last semester, and I know that she is assistant editor for a magazine on campus. But for some reason, I had never made the connection between the advice my daughter would give me, as we were both snuggled on the couch looking at photos or text on my laptop, and the courses she was taking at college – or the career she was planning.

When my kids were little, people would often ask them what they wanted to be when they grew up. As I listened to the kids' answers, their futures always seemed comfortably far away. And yet, now, I have a grown-up daughter who clearly has the skills she needs for the career she is choosing. She is smart, confident, and educated.

How strange to think that for one of my children "when I grow up" is almost here.

September 13, 2006

Why I am bringing dramamine to class on Friday

I know that when it's time to assign a formal paper, it's fairly typical for a composition teacher to hand out specific essay topics, but I don't always do that. I prefer that my students go through the painful process of figuring out their own topics. After all, they've already read eleven essays, written five short response papers, and discussed all kinds of ideas in class. It's the third week of the semester. By now, each one of them ought to have something to say.

Besides, I tell them, college is not high school. From now on, they need to come up with topics on their own. It's more like real life. In real life, an English teacher does not appear in the clouds and hand you essay topics.

We walked through the brainstorming process today – coming up with a whole blackboard full of ideas. By the end of the class, many of the students were coming up with paper topics and scribbling them down. Stealing a phrase from Julie, I told them I expected them to bring an elevator pitch to class on Friday. As Julie explained over on her blog, an elevator pitch is an overview that can be delivered in the time span of an elevator ride, say thirty seconds or less.

Hollywood loves the elevator pitch. Through some twist in the plot, the underdog gets into an elevator with some important person, and he's got thirty seconds to convince Important Person that his idea is brilliant. We don't see the whole thirty seconds, we simply hear the first ten words, and then we cut to the next scene: the underdog walking out of the elevator with a triumphant smile. Oh, that's not the end of the movie, because always there is some love triangle that further complicates the plot, but that is the essence of the elevator pitch.

My students loved my dramatic explanation -- it's possible I included way more of the movie plot than I strictly needed to -- and I figured elevator pitch sounded way cooler than thesis statement.

But then my mid-morning class decided to be literal about the whole thing.

"Okay, let's actually do it on the elevator."

"WHAT?" I said. I hate elevators; they know this about me.

"Sure," one kid said, "We can all fit on the elevator."

"Let's do them on the elevator!" everyone started chiming in. My students never miss an opportunity to tease me.

"I hate riding the elevator!" I said. "I'm claustrophic. I get motion sick."

"We will help you face your fears, " Curly Hair said, in the kind of fake calm voice that these kids have heard their whole lives. "We are here for you. Remember, in a writing class, you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable."

"You're all crazy," I said. "Why would we want to stand all crowded together in a box that moves up and down? How does that even make sense?"

"It'll be more realistic," said Dark-haired Woman.


"I'm asking you to challenge yourself," said Curly Hair, still in the fake teacher voice.

I tried to glare at him, but his imitation of me was too funny. I had to laugh.

They left happily chatting about their paper topics and assuring me that on Friday, they were going to help me face my fear of the elevator. I think they are kidding. I mean, I am pretty sure they don't really want to do these on the elevator.

But I am thinking I should have just called it a thesis statement.

September 12, 2006


I remember the silence. It was five years ago, but I can still see their faces. They were all eighteen years old, most living away from home for the first time. Most had been awake all night, unable to pull themselves away from the horrific images on the television screen, trying desperately to get through jammed phone lines, and waiting, waiting for news, waiting to hear who was alive and who was dead. The early morning truck had delivered newspapers to the building, and a few students carried the papers into class with them.

These students have all graduated and all gone onto grad school or jobs. Many have returned home, to the City Like No Other, the city whose skyline was changed dramatically that day. This week, I am thinking of them.


for nick
a jedi knight from brooklyn
who wants to change the world
who during class once took a vote
on which body part he should pierce

for brooklyn mike and long island sean
who claimed on the botany hike
that they were getting attacked
by flesh-eating spiders

for manhattan nick
who almost got thrown out of school
for rock-climbing in the elevator shaft

for jen who says the symbol
of her home community is the staten island landfill

for crissy who will forever clash with her feminist teacher
about whether or not she should work at hooters

for eldon and donald
who had to explain to me what a ho was

for dave from queens who thinks pot should be legal

for phil who says
gay men rock

for hugh who is not afraid to wear a badge of silence

i want to write a poem for my students
but today there is nothing i can teach them
that they do not already know
more deeply than i do

for evan who once swam in the fountain outside the world trade center
for lauren who wears a ny city transit card on her sleeve
who plans to be a vet
although we all think she should run for president

"it’s amazing" lauren writes "how close people
get to one another when they are scared"

for ellie who puts exquisite tiny drawings
inside the pupil of an eye
who sees things no one else sees

for gena who says that leaving her neighborhood
was escaping the abyss

"i felt so guilty" writes gena "safe here upstate
when everyone i love was in danger"

for sasha who has sad eyes
who doesn’t want to be here

for andrew who finds wildlife in queens

for greg who looks way too young on his military id
who is so skinny
that they will send him into the crevices
to search for bodies

if i could write a poem today
if i had words for this silence
i would dedicate it to my students

for mike who lost his uncle
for steve who lost his cousin
for daven who will go to two funerals in one day

for wellington
who taught me the spanish word for hope

for all these kids who always looked to the sky
to find the twin towers
to orient themselves
to find their way home

September 10, 2006

Leaving the classroom


When I take my students outside of the classroom, different aspects of their personalities emerge. After an overnight retreat to a nature center, I can see which students have established themselves as leaders. I can see which ones are shy, which ones are extroverts. I learn which ones love a bonfire, which ones play the guitar, and which ones are homesick. I learn about their families, their secret talents, and which card games they play. I know which ones are afraid of heights, and which ones are willing to dangle from the treetops without hesitation.

What does this stuff have to do with teaching?

Students, especially those who are majoring in a hard science, often think of themselves as bad writers. In fact, they are often scared of writing. So I try to create an atmosphere in the classroom in which students can talk about their fears, in which they aren't afraid to be vulnerable by sharing their writing with their peers. So when we do a high ropes course, each of us in turn climbing high into the trees to tightrope walk across a wire or jump off a platform forty feet in the air, and we talk about our fear of heights, it is really just a practice run for the academic fears we will face in the classroom. All of us need to feel comfortable feeling vulnerable with each other.

This includes me, of course. The week before we leave on the retreat, I make a point of telling the students that I am afraid of heights. And it's true. When I have to climb forty feet into the air, I have so much adrenaline going through my veins that it's ridiculous. And when I have to leave the comforting trunk of a tree to tightrope walk across a strand of wire, I cannot look down. Despite the belay line, I am terrified. What's nice is how encouraging and supportive my students will be, all cheering from down below and yelling supportive comments.

Any college student needs to learn how to work in a group. Scientists collaborate, business people collaborate, firefighters collaborate. I tell my students that any career they go into will likely involve some element of working with other people -- unless of course, one of them gets hired as the person who sits all by himself in the tower in the mountain and watches for smoke. So from the beginning, I watch the students to be conscious of the groups they form and the roles they play, in hopes that I can help them be aware of some of these roles, to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and to sometimes even step out of those roles.

Sometimes I will get students who are pretty self-aware. For instance, Brown Baseball Cap was silent as he climbed up the spikes on the tree to get to the wire on the high ropes. After he walked across the wire and it was time to come down, he began to joke around, twisting his body, fluttering his arms, and talking in the voice of Glinda, the good witch from the Wizard of Oz. When he reached the ground, his classmates were laughing at his antics, and he said, "See? Humor is one way to mask your fear."

Of course, developing critical thinking skills in the classroom means that my students need to learn how to engage in discussion, to analyze what we've read, to put information into a context, and to evaluate information. As I get to know my students, I can steer the discussion towards issues and topics they care passionately about. It helps, of course, that most of my students have chosen to come to a specialized college, but it's even better when I know why they are interested in environmental issues and which topics within that realm interest them the most. It helps me to know which students hunt, which ones plan to go to vet school, and which ones are vegan. Informal conversations often lead to a paper topics.

The other reason, of course, for taking my students out of the classroom is the most obvious one: it's fun. And I learn so much from my conversations with them, from the stories they tell about their own life experiences. Teaching works best when it's reciprocal.


September 08, 2006

Avoiding bloodshed

On the first day of class, my three sections of first year students – sixty students who all live together on one floor of a residence hall – are a blur of faces, most of them quiet at this start of their college careers. But by the second week, I've learned their names and personalities. I can even tell the identical twins apart. And it no longer seems strange when one student talks about how he is flying his bird after class.

Last week, my students read aloud essays in which they each described something that could serve as a symbol of their home community. My urban students chose such things as the metro card, the Famous Alliterative Bridge, or the Huge Island Landfill. Other students in the class chose a cow, a pitchfork, or a pine tree. These discussions about our home community are the first step in forming this group of sixty students into a learning community.

By now our classroom discussions have turned lively. Once I know the students, I can figure out how to engage them. By the second week, I know which students like to debate and play devil's advocate, which students can be counted on to play peacemaker, which students love to go off on crazy tangents that can be surprisingly productive, and which students I can rely on to keep us on track. I know which students will come up with a sophisticated response and which ones will want to joke around. By now too, students have moved around the classroom and settled into seating choices that are incredibly revealing. I have twenty students in each section and we sit around a square of tables. Students who aren't getting along with their peers and who feel the need to be protected usually sit very close to me. A bully will sit in the far corner. The academically gifted students almost always sit right in the middle of either side table.

Later in the semester, we will talk about the roles we play in the classroom, and I will invite students to move out of their comfort zones: for a talkative student, this might mean staying quiet and listening more. For a quiet student, this might mean speaking up more, taking that risk. But for now, I am just watching their personalities emerge as we wrestle with the issues raised by our readings: what is nature? what is wilderness? how are landscape and story connected?

"Are we allowed to talk about politics in here?" one student asked today, a bit hesitantly. I get this all the time from students. Many claim that they come from high schools or communities where talking about politics is taboo.

"Well, we are reading a book about environmental issues," I said. "I don't see how we could possibly make it through the semester without talking about the Bush administration."

"There's going to be bloodshed," one student said dramatically.

And he was only partly kidding. The urban/rural geographic divide between my students means that the class contains students from very different cultures. Before we even get into a discussion, I know we will have a real range of political opinions in the room.

Is it possible for staunch conservatives and progressive liberals to have a discussion in which they both listen and learn? I promised them that we would begin class on Monday with that topic, and the we would brainstorm ways to make it happen. "World peace by the end of the semester" is our motto. In the meantime, I am leaving at 7:30 am tomorrow morning to take all sixty students on an overnight retreat at a nature center located near Gorgeous Town. I am guessing that a few political discussions might creep into our conversations around the campfire.

Those email requests

I've got this little red circle on my screen that shows the number of unread emails I've got, and during the first two weeks of the semester, so many emails get sent to faculty that red circle spins like a roulette wheel. Mostly, the emails say something vaguely positive about the summer and then ask, in what is always a deliberately cheerful way, for our time. We can volunteer to judge contests, run workshops, work with elementary school kids, or help out at an educational booth at the state fair. Of course, it is not always just our time we are asked to give: a chemistry professor sent out an email saying that he is looking for people who can donate fingernail clippings. Yes, fingernail clippings, to be analyzed in a graduate course in stable isotypes. I don't know what all goes in our chemistry department, but I will say that they write the most concise and endearingly bizarre emails, always straight to the point, with little embellishment or even explanation.

September 07, 2006

Paper clips for Algernon

On Tuesday, the night before the public schools opened, I went shopping for school supplies. Yes, it is true that the school supply lists had been on our bulletin board since June but somehow I never get around to shopping until I absolutely have to. I tried to palm the task off on my husband, but he did all the back-to-school shopping last year while I was on a raft trip, so he seemed to think it was my turn this year. Of course, I still think I should get massive credit for the fact that I took With-a-Why clothes shopping last week-- and even got him to try on pants -- a feat more formidable than anything I did on the white water rafting trip.

To be honest, I was impressed with myself that I went the night before, which in my book counts as ahead of time. I knew that I would end up going back to the store once the kids came home from school with new items to add to the list, which means the trip was a waste of time, but going the night before gave me that virtuous feeling that I am a good parent who does stuff ahead of time for my darling children. And even though I hate most kinds of shopping, I have to admit that I kind of like the office supplies store. Even though I now do most of my writing on a computer, I still get a thrill from seeing reams of blank paper, boxes of new pens, and stacks of clean new notebooks.

Tuesday night, many of the other parents in the store were clutching the same list that I had in my hand. I must looked like an expert on school supplies (how sad is that?), because many of them kept consulting me, rather than the teenagers in the red shirts who clearly worked in the store.

One woman, whose oldest son is the same age as my youngest, said to me nervously, "The list says he needs a red 2-inch binder."

She gave me a look of panic. "They are out of red binders!"

She was right. There were black binders, blue ones, and white ones, but no red ones left. I suspect the red ones were snatched up by the other hundreds of sixth grade parents who didn't wait until the last minute to buy supplies.

I shrugged. "Yeah, With-a-Why needs one too. I think I'll get the white one with the plastic sleeve and stick red construction paper in there."

She looked at me, aghast at my daring. "Would that be allowed?"

"I don't know," I said seriously. "Many a sixth grader has failed science because his binder wasn't red enough."

She laughed.

"Don't worry too much about getting everything on the list," I told her. "Hyper Son will come home with a whole different list tomorrow."

"What?" She looked at the list and back at me.

"Yep," I said. "The September list never exactly matches the one they give out in June. Some of it depends on which teachers they get."

She looked betrayed. "Really?"


"Then why do they give us the list?"

That's a good question. Why do schools bother to sent out these lists in June when everyone (except the new parents) knows darn well that the kids will come home with a different list on the first day of school?

Maybe it's just a tradition. I come from a community that is big on tradition. The words "We've always done it this way" are an accepted explanation for everything from asking English teachers to stick to a list of "classics" (that is, literature by anyone with pale skin and a penis) to scheduling parent/teacher conferences during the day when most parents are at work. There is seemingly no need to recognize that anything has changed since the 1950s.

Maybe it's to appease the nervous parents who call the school asking what their child needs. I mean, I was feeling all virtuous about buying supplies the night before, but many of the parents in the store acted like they felt guilty, as if somehow they should have bought paper and notebooks in June and let them season over the summer like firewood.

Maybe it's a racket thought up by the office supply store to get us to buy stuff our children won't ever use. I mean, think of all the families who now possess 2-inch red binders, which did not show up on the September list that our sixth graders brought home Wednesday.

Or maybe it's someone in the administration conducting a long-term scientific experiment. Come of to think of it, the parents scurrying all around the office supplies store did kind of remind me of rats in a maze.

September 06, 2006


Public schools in this area opened today.

Shaggy Hair Boy, Blonde Niece, and Skater Boy are in tenth grade, their second year over at the high school, which means they weren't even a bit nervous about school opening. With-a-Why joined about a thousand other students in the junior high building, which will be a change from the small elementary school he attended.

The biggest change, though, is in our household. All summer, we've had extra kids here just about every night. Teenagers would stop over as soon as they got out of work to come for the evening Ultimate Frisbee game. Older Neighbor Boy, Philosophical Boy, and Skater Boy left their guitars and amps and mikes in our living room for the late night jam sessions that went on almost every night. Sailor Boy and Pirate Boy were here every day, as was Blonde Niece. Even after all the older kids left for college, we've still had half a dozen kids here most nights.

But on school nights, most kids sleep in their own homes. Last night, as I was idly surfing blogs on my laptop, I could feel the quietness of the house creeping up on me.

With-a-Why and Shaggy Hair Boy were both reading intently, neither making a sound. My husband was working at the kitchen table, his laptop open.

How empty the house seemed with just the four of us. I missed Boy in Black's music, his constant drumming and strumming. I missed his gang of friends, with their teasing and joking. I missed my Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter; I kept thinking I could just walk into her room to tell her something.

I know we will get used to this new routine, this new quieter lifestyle. I know that on Friday afternoon, a bunch of extra kids will arrive to make the house noisy again. But right now, we are listening to the quietness and feeling a little sad.

September 05, 2006

Summer's end

Yesterday at camp, Blonde Niece and I paddled one of the canoes across the bay and up Cattail Creek. We had to paddle against the wind to get to the mouth of the creek, so it was a relief to turn into the creek and drift quietly. The canoe swished over mats of tangled weeds and lily pads, moving through only inches of water above the layers of silky muck. The creek winds through acres and acres of cattails, a preserved wetlands, and when you are in a canoe, the cattails rise high above your heads so it's easy to feel like you are in the middle of nowhere.

Near the fork in the creek where the beaver lodge is, we saw movement in the water, so we decided to just stay still for a while to see if we could see a beaver. Sometimes you can see their fat bodies turning in the water, their tails slapping the surface. After a few moments, we saw a sleek small head duck under the lily pads. Not a beaver, but an otter. We watched quietly, the canoe drifting along, bumping up against the mats of water lily pads. The otter disappeared and we paddled lazily, talking a little about the school year that begins on Wednesday. Blonde Niece, Shaggy Hair, and Skater Boy are all in tenth grade this year.

Even the sounds of the creek are peaceful -- wind rustling the cattails, the hum of traffic on the far-off highway, birds flapping and twittering, the dip and splash of canoe paddles, the rustle of creatures coming through the reeds, the humming vibration of a big vessel going through the channel on the other side of the big island that separates this marsh from the river. In September, the lily pads crowd against each other, their edges curling and turning yellow, some of them even standing up sideways to flap in the wind. The cool air felt like fall, although when the sun came out for just a few minutes, we both removed our fleeces eagerly to feel that warmth on our bare arms.

Blonde Niece kept saying, "I wish I had a pond or something in my backyard. I'd canoe out to the middle every day after school just to be all peaceful."

When we returned to the dock, we both commented on how strange it looked to see the dock empty. On hot summer days, the dock is always crowded with family members sunning themselves, or washing their hair, or crowding into the boats to go out to an island for a swim. My father is often sitting on his sailboat, fixing something. The docks are usually piled with bright orange life jackets, and sneakers left behind by anyone climbing into a boat, and beach towels that have been used and dropped into a heap.

But in September, the dock looks bare. All the boats – my Dad's sailboat, the two small motorboats, all the canoes – have been pulled up onto the land, where they will remain for the winter. The season is over.

dock in september

September 04, 2006

Rainy day at camp

The sound of rain hitting the nylon walls of a tent is as soothing as a lullabye, a music meant for daydreaming. An all-day rain gives me reason to snuggle under blankets, warm and dry, and take a nap in the middle of the day. On a rainy day at camp, family members disappear into tents and cars, some with books or journals, some with pillows, some with spouses. I can spend hours in my little tent just talking and snuggling with my husband, listening to the patter of the raindrops, or alone with my journal, thinking about the year. A lazy rain at camp is something to savor.

So when a storm moving north arrived at camp on Saturday, I welcomed the cool winds and rain. When the sky cleared for just a bit, I took a sail on my brother's new sailboat, a Rhodes Bantam. All three of us – me, my brother, and my brother's girlfriend – were soon wet just from launching the boat, but we had a great sail, despite the wet clothes that made the fall wind seem chilly. I have years of sailing experience, but my father's boat is the only boat I've ever sailed so it was fun to try sailing a smaller boat that is built for racing. It was less stable than my Dad's boat, but faster. My brother's girlfriend suggested we sail to an island owned by someone she knows, and it took us several tacks to get there. On our way home, the wind was gusty, and we came across the wide river pretty fast, even almost putting the rail under at one point. It's been over thirty years since those faraway summer days when my father used to take my brother and me out on his boat to teach us to sail, but I couldn't help but remember those childhood summers as my brother and I fell into the familiar sailing talk and consulted each other about what to do next: "Hey, let's do a controlled jibe. Then we can go across in a broad reach."

After sailing for a couple of hours I felt chilled through. Back at camp, I peeled off my wet clothes and wet sneakers. Over the goosebumps on my bare skin, I pulled dry socks, dry underwear, dry sweat pants, and the most luxurious item I own, down booties. It is worth it to get cold and wet to have that wonderful sensation of warmth.

The rain let up again briefly early evening, and everyone emerged from tents and vehicles for hot vegetable soup, pasta salad, and cookies. My brother-in-law grilled chicken and veggie burgers. We gathered around the firepit, pulling lawn chairs and picnic table benches close to get near the warmth of a crackling fire. Everyone's socks and sneakers were wet from walking through the wet grasses – or stomping through the many muddy puddles scattered about – so we all shifted to get our cold feet as near as we could to the glowing coals. And despite the nap I had had earlier that day, it still felt good to crawl into my small tent and fall asleep to the pattering of raindrops.

September 01, 2006

Off to camp


This first week of the semester is always tiring. My body is adjusting to the routine of getting to campus in time to teach early morning classes, my mind is adjusting to the flurry of questions from advisees and the routine of preparing for class, and my whole self is agonizing at all the mandatory meetings. I am ready for a long weekend at camp.

At the end of August, the water level is low, and the bay is filled with weeds and lily pads. It's a perfect time for canoeing through the marsh, for swimming in the sun-warmed river, and for sitting around a campfire at night. The mosquitoes should be gone -- and the nights will be cool, just right for a sweatshirt and long pants, cold enough that snuggling up to a spouse in a small tent will feel great.

The extended family that gathers for Labor Day will be smaller than usual -- two of my nieces have already moved back to grad school in the Big City Like No Other, and my two oldest kids will be spending the weekend on a college retreat with other students from Snowstorm University. But my younger two kids will have cousins to play with. My husband and I will have time to take long afternoon walks, just the two of us, to talk over all that happened this summer and make plans for the fall.

Labor Day weekend is my transition from summer to fall. And camp provides space for thinking, for planning, for reflection. It will feel good to get away from the computer, the telephone, the radio, and all the demands of campus. I'll lie in the hammock and watch the geese gathering in the bay, or sit under the oak trees, listening to the acorns as they fall to the ground. And if we get some sunny weather, we will soak in as much sun as we can. Because this is the last weekend of summer.