August 31, 2007

Off to camp

Time to relax

The first week back on campus is exciting but exhausting, filled with all kinds of extra tasks, all while my body is getting used to getting back to the routine of classes and office hours and meetings. So it's nice that the week is followed by a long weekend. Already, I feel like I deserve a break.

We always spend Labor Day weekend up at camp. The river water will be warm from weeks of absorbing summer sunshine. But the nights will be cold, and we'll bring extra blankets to keep us warm inside the tent. We'll swim in the daytime, paddle the canoes through the marsh, and sit by a campfire at night. Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece will be frantically doing the summer homework that was assigned last June: school begins again for them on Wednesday. They've had all summer to do the homework, but naturally, they didn't start it until this week. My father is rebuilding his wooden sailboat, hurrying to get it done before winter. My husband and I will take long walks on the country roads and talk about our plans for the school year. On the bay, the geese will be gathering in big clumps, chattering and squawking, and acorns will begin to fall from the oak trees. Our Labor Day camping trip signals the end of summer.

August 29, 2007

First week

It's always exciting to meet my new first year students. This year, since my writing course is integrated with a botany course and a chemistry course, I asked that when they introduced themselves, they compare themselves to a plant – or an element from the periodic table. One woman, who moved here from her parents' home on the coast, said, "I'm like seaweed. And I'm worried that without the ocean nearby, I'm going to shrivel up and die." One man said, "I'm like grass. Down to earth." They compared themselves to tumbleweed, poison ivy, and dandelions. A few did choose elements, although most in a tongue-and-cheek way that brought laughs. "I'm oxygen; without me, you can't breathe" or "I'm carbon; I'm in all living matter" or "I'm hydrogen because I'm number one."

Because we're a state school, we get quite a few local kids. Almost always, I have a few students who announce on the first day that they have some connection to me. One student revealed that she had spent the summer working with Jedi Knight, one of my favourite former students, and that he said to say hello. One young man from Camera City said that his AP Physics teacher last year was my brother. When I name the local high school that I attended, students in the room nod in recognition. Somehow, it's part of the getting-to-know-you process: figuring out what we have in common.

And of course, I love seeing former students: they come to my office with stories about their summers, or I see them on the quad, looking tanned and relaxed and happy to be back. Most worked hard all summer, putting money in the bank to pay their tuition, but some did field work. A whole group of our students spend the summer at our biological station in the mountains, studying the flora and fauna of that ecosystem.

The first week brings all kinds of chaos and confusion: the new wireless system seems to be flawed, and no one in my building can get their laptops to work. I've had a constant stream of advisees coming to my office to juggle and rearrange their schedules, trying to fit in every course they need. My office is in the college library, which was renovated this summer, and furniture keeps appearing in odd places since the renovations aren't quite complete. The clock in my office has the wrong time on it, and I keep forgetting what day of week it is. My teaching schedule is different than the one I had last year, and I have to keep reminding myself when it's time to go to class.

The new students are eager and hopeful, the returning students full of stories, and the faculty and staff are energized after a low-key summer. The air is cool but the sun is warm, and the quad was filled today with groups of people laughing and talking. Despite the craziness of the first week, I love the shiny newness of fall semester beginning.

August 28, 2007

For the camera

As PPB pointed out in the comments of a recent post, our striped grey cat Gretel is a camera hog. It's hard, actually, to take any kind of photo inside my house without a cat in the photo, but Gretel is the cat who sneaks into photos most often. I have very few photos of Salem, our shy black cat, and most people who come to the house never even see her. She's never appeared on my blog; like my husband, she's a very private creature. But recently, Rachel, our striped orange cat, has been posing for pictures. I think she's looking for equal time.

In the sun

August 27, 2007

Making room

It's been three years since I did a thorough cleaning of my home office. This weekend, I decided it was time. I went through the piles of papers, the canvas bags of miscellaneous folders, the baskets of random stuff. I emptied the desk drawers and threw away anything I no longer needed. I weeded the files in the overstuffed file cabinet, making room for new files. I cleaned away the various items that had accumulated on the edges of the book shelves and rearranged the books to make room for the stacks on the floor.

During this archeological dig, I discovered bits and pieces of my life. I found conference nametags, stuffed with the cards and email addresses of colleagues, stirring memories of trips to other parts of the country. When my husband is out of town, he often sends me flowers, and I always save the little cards with the affectionate messages on them, even though it's always strange to see his words in someone else's handwriting. I found holiday cards made by my kids, artwork by With-a-Why, scribbled messages to myself, ticket stubs, play bills, a burned CD of sad music, and a worn friendship bracelet.

Perhaps the toughest part of cleaning my office are the feathers, rocks, and seashells that are gathered on the windowsill and bookshelves. I can't part with any of those, so they just keep getting moved around. I have a snakeskin draped across one shelf, as a reminder to myself that growing and changing sometimes means the painful shedding of old skin.

Of course, unlike my kids, who all have minimalistic tendencies, my inclination is to be a pack rat. Cleaning doesn't really mean, for me, putting anything in the trash or the recycling bin. Instead I filled a cardboard box with stuff and piled it neatly in the crawlspace below the house, near the other boxes I put down there the last time I cleaned. I am comforted somehow by the idea that I haven't really gotten rid of any of these bits and pieces of my life; they are safely stored. Someday after I die, my kids can toss this stuff away for me.

By the end of the weekend, the top of my desk was empty, the file drawers were no longer bulging, the shelves were organized, and all the carpet on the floor had been uncovered and vacuumed. I love the feel of new space, room for new projects and growth.

August 26, 2007


Living room on a summer morning

All summer the kids have been staying up late and sleeping late. They've been playing Ultimate Frisbee until dark, jamming for a couple of hours, and then playing card games into the early hours of the morning. With-a-Why has stayed up as late as the gang of college kids, even when he had to struggle to keep his eyes open. In the morning, I'd find either the living room or the boys' room filled with sleeping bodies, kids rolled up in blankets, taking up every bit of floor space.

Now that the college kids have left, the house is quieter, and we are shifting the younger kids away from that nocturnal schedule. With-a-Why didn't say anything about missing his older siblings, but the first night after Boy in Black moved out, I heard a tapping on our bedroom door in the middle of the night. With-a-Why walked in silently, climbed into bed with us, and fell back to sleep between me and my husband. In the morning, he slept late, catching up on much needed sleep, alone in the bed with only a cat to keep him company.


Back to college

It didn't take long. I opened the plastic bag of bedding and made the bed: black sheets, a red blanket, a black and white quilt, three pillows in red and black. My daughter carried in the laundry basket of clothes, mostly just black t-shirts although the Bob Dylan one is brown, and hung them in the closet. Two towels and two frisbees went on the top shelf. Boy in Black shoved the plastic crate of socks and underwear into the closet, leaving room for the empty laundry basket. He opened the cardboard box of desk supplies, took out his printer and his lamp, and then dumped a bag of pens and pencils and such into the drawer.

Moving Boy in Black back into his dorm room took less than fifteen minutes. I know monks who have more worldly possessions than he does.

August 25, 2007

While the sun shines

Getting ready for the winter

Nights are getting cool. It feels good to wear jeans again, after a summer in shorts or t-shirt dresses. Already the fall rituals are beginning: my syllabus has been copied, my class lists printed out, my books ordered. Classes start on Monday for my daughter, Boy in Black, and me; my youngest two go back to school right after Labor Day. Gardening stores are selling potted chrysanthemums and bags of tulip and daffodil bulbs. I've driven to the DPW several times to bring back carloads of free mulch for my gardens.

One afternoon this week, Shaggy Hair Boy, With-a-Why, and I moved a stack of firewood into the garage. Carrying the wood one armload at a time, we trudged back and forth in a lopsided circle, the stack in the garage growing higher and higher. We talked as we passed each other, our conversation following the rhythm of our movements. It was a warm day, sunny enough for short sleeves, but the firewood made us think already of winter. We talked about school and holidays and snowboarding.

Even though we live in a house with electricity, only six miles from the nearest grocery store, I still have this instinct in the fall to get in a winter's supply of wood, to stock up on food, to make all kinds of preparations for the cold snowy days ahead of us.

August 24, 2007

Another sign

I read a parenting book once which called the teenage years the "age of the critic." Teenagers will watch their parents sharply, ready to speak up with criticism or advice. I suppose it's a necessary stage, as the adolescent needs to figure out his own sense of self, separate from his parents. But it can be annoying. I can't tell you how often my boys will jump into a conversation to correct my grammar or politely point out something I've done wrong. Boy in Black has a way of pointing out things in a calm, logical way that I find maddening, and then grinning when he knows he's gotten to me. I probably encourage this behavior, too, because even when he is deliberately provoking me, I end up laughing.

Yesterday, I had just hung up the telephone when With-a-Why, my youngest, the sweet child who is not officially a teenager for a few more months, tugged at my elbow.

"Mom, I have to tell you something." He spoke in a calm, serious tone, as if he was about to impart important advice.

"What is it?"

"When you're on the phone, you don't have to make all those hand gestures. The other person can't see you."

He flashed me a smile and turned back to the piano.

So it begins.

August 23, 2007

Canoe trip

Sailboats on a rainy day

The sky was cloudy, and the streets in the neighborhood quiet. A light rain was falling as we lifted the canoe into the creek and picked up our paddles. I'd driven to Gorgeous Town to spend the morning with Chip, a blogging friend who is more like a real life friend because he hardly ever blogs any more.

First we did what Chip called the urban part of the tour. As we paddled through water speckled with raindrops, we glimpsed parts of the town most people don't usually get to see. We passed marinas where boats huddled under rain covers, a university boathouse with bright red doors, restaurants with big windows that faced us, and the picnic tables of a state park. The docks and pavilions of the Farmer's Market were empty on this rainy day, but I could imagine what they must look like on a sunny Saturday morning, filled with local farmers and merchants and townspeople, with stands filled with apples, sweet corn, tomatoes, and big heads of leafy lettuce. We glided under bridges of all types: narrow pedestrian bridges, wider bridges humming with automobile traffic, sturdy train bridges, high bridges decorated with graffiti, and old rusted bridges clearly not in use any more.

During the second part of our tour, we paddled through creeks lined with big willow trees, clumps of ferns, and yellow wildflowers. We talked as we paddled, about our summer vacations, about our kids, about our plans for the year. An egret flew just ahead of us, flapping wings lazily. We wound around a narrow strip of land to enter the lake, following a breakwater covered with gulls. From the lake, we could look up into the hills above town. I could see the towers of the university and the highway that I'd driven in on.

In the last creek we explored, I could hear the roar of a waterfalls ahead. We'd come to the place where Chip had planned for us to take the canoe out, but the sound of rushing water was tempting, calling us to go farther. The creek was getting too shallow for the canoe, so I jumped out and started pulling it along. Chip hesitated, but soon realized that he had no choice but to join me. We pulled the canoe upstream, stumbling over rocks as we went.

In one clear spot, I almost stepped on some kind of creature that seemed to be just hanging out on the bottom: it was over a foot long, shaped like an eel, with a tail that fluttered in the moving water. Because it was the colour of rust, I'd mistaken it for a pipe of some sort.

"Hey, look at this," I said to Chip. I am used to being with wildlife biology students, who would pick such an eel up and identify it for me. He glanced at the creature, which I was now nudging with the wooden paddle. "Don't push it towards me."

We kept walking through water that was now rushing toward us, churning and white, with Chip pulling the canoe and me helping ineffectually because I had my camera in one hand. It was just like whitewater canoeing. Well, except that we weren't in the canoe and we were going upstream.

Ahead, the creek widened to an area of flat stones, paths, and a dramatic waterfall. The tall cliffs rose up on either side, and the sound of the churning water drowned any noise from the road I knew was nearby. I could just imagine kids jumping into the pools of water and scrambling about on the rocks on a hot summer day. A man and his very young son had walked down from the road and were standing near the edge of the water. I beckoned to the little boy and showed him how to find crayfish in still pools of water. I can remember how my own kids used to spend hours catching crayfish in a creek back at home.

The rain had stopped by the time we put the canoe on wheels and walked the couple of blocks back to Chip's house. "You're all wet," his son observed as we came into the house. After a hot summer, it felt good to be cold and shivering. I put on my dry fleece, and we retreated to a vegetarian restaurant in town where the hot lentil soup tasted great.


August 21, 2007

Mama Cat

Mama Cat

On a summer day ten years ago, my daughter and her friend came running excitedly into the house: "We found a mother cat! And her kittens! Three kittens! Can we adopt them? Please?"

We didn't have any pets at the time. Even though I loved cats, I wanted to wait until I knew that none of my kids were allergic before bringing an animal into my home. So up to then, I had resisted the kids' pleas every time someone found some abandoned kittens.

But this time was different. My youngest child was two, and none of the kids were allergic. They'd slept at my parents' house with no effects.

I walked down with my kids to see the cats, who were living near Obnoxious Fast Food Place That Sells Mostly Meat. The mother cat was black and white, and she had three kittens who seemed very lively and playful. One of the teenagers who worked at the Burger Place That Smells Like French Fries said that the cats had been there for weeks. The mother cat was living off the leftover burgers the teenagers fed her.

My husband was out of town so I decided to call and see what he thought about taking in a cat family. He was half-asleep and puzzled by the phone call.

Him: Cats? The kids want to adopt four cats?
Me: Oh, just three, really. We can probably get Blonde Sister to take one of the kittens.
Him: I thought we were waiting. Because of the allergies in my family.
Me: Well, none of the kids are allergic.
Me: And With-a-Why is two.
Him: Are we done having kids?
Me: Well, I guess we have a choice. Do you want to have another baby or take in some cats?
Him: Let's take the cats.

The next day, while my oldest two kids were in school, I enlisted my mother's help. With the two youngest kids strapped in the car and my mother's cat carrier in the back, we drove into the parking lot of Hamburger Place. The mother cat seemed skittish as we approached, but my mother just picked her up quickly and put her in the cat carrier. Then it was easy to get the kittens.

At first the cats were shy. They disappeared beneath the kids' bunkbed. When Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black came home, they burst in the door, still saying, in that persistent way of small children: "Can we adopt the cats?"

"Go look under the bed," I told them. I remember how excited their faces were as they peered under and saw the cats all cuddled up against the wall.

Mama Cat has lived with us ever since. She was never an affectionate cat – in fact, she would sometimes sit on the edge of the kitchen counter and swipe anyone who walked past. It was my husband who figured out Mama Cat's twelve second rule: you could pet her for ten seconds or eleven. But linger any longer, and she'd reach out a paw. I used to get scratches on my arms all the time before we figured that out. But she'd had a rough life, raising kittens on the street, and we never held her attitude against her.

This summer, Mama Cat's health began to fail. During hot spells especially, she'd look thin and frail, with little energy. She stopped hissing and scratching; she started acting mellow. Her beautiful black and white fur sometimes looked dirty. I knew she was dying.

The kids asked me to take her to the vet. The vet went through a list of diseases she could have. I listened carefully, but then shook my head. "No, none of those make sense. I think she's just old and dying."

"Maybe it's something we can cure," the young vet said. He seemed so hopeful that I let him take a blood sample and run a bunch of expensive tests. They all came back negative.

Mama Cat was comfortable most of the summer. She'd sleep on the couch near the kids or under the keyboard, at Shaggy Hair's feet. When we were on vacation, FilmGuy came over and took care of her, trying to get her to eat some soft food. On cool days, she would perk up and walk around the yard or sit on the front porch to watch the wild turkeys go buy.

Today, she went out to hide herself in a drainage pipe, a shady spot filled with soft mud. Like most cats, she chose a quiet, dark place, a comfortable spot where death could find her. The neighbor across the street saw her and came to tell me. I wrapped her in a towel and carried her home. In the woods behind our house on this overcast day at the end of summer, we said our goodbyes and buried Mama Cat.

August 20, 2007



Our campus is quiet all summer: we don't offer undergraduate courses. When I went in for a meeting last week, I had no trouble finding a parking spot. The library, which has just been renovated, was filled with empty chairs, new wooden tables, clean carpeting. Most of the faculty offices near mine were empty, too, the doors closed and the lights off.

Tonight I went in to meet with the group of students who came back early because they have agreed to act as mentors to the first year students. Most of them are students I've known since their first year: some are seniors now. When I walked in, they were all sitting on the floor of the lounge, tired from a full day of training, but when one student yelled my name, the rest looked up eagerly to greet me. How good it was to see students again, tanned and relaxed, filled with stories about what they did over the summer. One student spent the summer doing field work up in the mountains with PlantsWoman; she was excited to discover that ethnobotany is something she wants to pursue in grad school.

The campus will awaken slowly over the next few days, as faculty members rush to copy syllabi, the library staff begins putting books on reserve, and student life staff train the student orientation leaders. By the end of the week, all the students will return, moving back into residence halls or off-campus housing, bringing with them duffle bags of clothes, laptop computers and guitars, books and CDs and snowboards. By next week at this time, students will be gathering in clumps in the library or on the quad, talking, hugging, and laughing, their energy filling all the empty spaces.

August 19, 2007

Sunset and evening star

Some of us decided to drive to the calling hours together. Makes Bread said she'd be home by 6 o'clock with a babysitter, so we met at her house. We sat for a few moments on her deck, with Beautiful Hair filling us in on details we hadn't heard, and talked quietly until Makes Bread pulled into the driveway.

"You better take the front seat," Quilt Artist told me, "so you don't get motion sickness." We talked, of course, as we drove through the countryside, past cornfields that shimmered green and gold, and farmhouses with tall sunflowers in their front yards.

We are a group of women who have been friends for years: we get together for potlucks or walks or movies or full moon ceremonies – and sometimes whole weekends away. Gorgeous Eyes, just forty years old, is the youngest member of the group. And she is the first to be widowed.

Her partner, Beautiful&Funny, has been fighting cancer for seven years. During July, the two women travelled to the ocean on what they knew would be their last trip together, a trip filled with moments both painful and special. When they returned home, hospice nurses provided pain medication and Beautiful&Funny began the last stage of dying. Gorgeous Eyes knew that their nineteen years together was coming to an end.

She died last week.

We gathered at a big house in the country to talk, to hug, to look at photographs. Gorgeous Eyes pointed out some especially silly pictures, and Southern Accent told some funny stories. Family and friends clustered in groups on the deck, talking, listening, feeling the coolness as evening descended. "This is the easy part," Gorgeous Eyes said. "I am surrounded by people who love me." She's right of course. The hardest part will be the months to come.

August 18, 2007

The painted ponies go up and down

Black-eyed susies

I've had a wonderful summer: two incredible trips with my husband, camping with my family, a week at my favourite conference with some of my closest friends and some new friends as well, a week at camp with the extended family, evening walks and lunches with friends, plus days of quiet time at home with just kids and cats and books to keep me company. I've been to the river, to the mountains, to the ocean. I've taken one trip to the mountains in the northwest and one trip to the south.

But it's gone by fast, as summers do. The evenings are getting cool, the black-eyed susies are in bloom, and already I am thinking about fall semester. My daughter moved this week into the apartment near campus where she will be living for her senior year in college, Boy in Black moves back onto campus this week, and my new students will be arriving for orientation. I love summers, and I hate to see them end. Perhaps it's the climate I live in, but it seems that February, which is almost always a difficult month for me, is 93 days long. Whereas summer, which is filled with sunshine and swimming and hiking and everything I love, goes by way too fast. I swear, there are only three days between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.

One good thing about these last weeks of August is that my hometown friends are back from their vacations now. We've been scattered about all summer. It's fun to get together now and hear all the news. We can chat about family weddings, look at photographs, commiserate about frustrating moments with teenagers, laugh at cute things kids did at the beach, talk about plans for the winter, and tell each other that yeah, we look great, that we are aging really well.

One night this week, I met Kindergarten Friend at a local restaurant so that we could have a relaxed meal together. We met on the first day of kindergarten which means that she and I have been friends for 41 years. We know each other's parents and siblings: we used to sleep at each other's houses every Friday night all through elementary school. We would do things like empty a closet to make it into a fort, or string a whole room with yarn so that we could open doors and turn light switches by yanking on the yarn, or rollerskate while knitting on two ends of a long scarf. As adults, we're both the type who are willing to analyze ourselves, to step back and try to look at patterns in our lives, and it's great to do that with someone who knows your history almost as well as you do.

We talked non-stop while we ate pasta and tomato sauce and vegetables. Well, to be perfectly accurate, I'm the only one who ate any vegetables. Honestly, Kindergarten Friend's eating habits have not changed one bit since kindergarten. And despite all the personal growth for which we were congratulating ourselves, our friendship hasn't changed much either in 41 years. We never run out of stuff to say, we jump from serious to funny in about two seconds flat, and we were both delighted to play with the discarded plastic handles from the take-home containers that the waitress accidentally left on the table. The bunched up handles looked like some kind of mysterious face: we both saw it.

We'd told our families we'd be gone for a couple of hours. But of course, we both forgot about the time. It was pretty late when I suddenly noticed that all the tables around us in the restaurant were empty, the waitress had taken her tip and left, and someone was cleaning the carpet near us. It's true what they say, I guess. The older you get, the faster time goes by.

August 17, 2007

On the way home

Earlier this summer, at a family meeting during which we were planning our August vacation, a session which was like a cross between comedy show and a horror movie since the six people in my family have very different ideas about what constitutes a fun family vacation, With-a-Why kept saying, "Hotel! I want to stay in a hotel!"

My other kids, too, used to get thrilled about hotels when they were younger. They'd get excited about the ice machine, and they'd fight over who got to fill up the ice bucket, even though we rarely had any use for the ice. They loved hotel pools: heated water, warm and shallow and clear. And of course, there was the novelty of cable televison: dozens and dozens of different channels. I have never understood the excitement of holding a remote control and changing channels every twenty seconds, but for some reason, my kids would find it fascinating.

So on the last day of our vacation, when he checked the forecast and saw that the next morning was going to bring rain, my husband suggested we pack up the tents while they were dry and find a hotel on our way home. He'd knew With-a-Why would be excited, and at that point, the thought of a hot shower and a real bed was appealing to me as well.

I felt a bit self-conscious as my family trooped into the lobby of the hotel. I know that there are families who bring a neatly packed "hotel bag" with everything they need in one suitcase, but that is not us. We straggled in, clutching duffle bags of clothes and plastic bags full of random food. Boy in Black had a blanket over his shoulders and a guitar under his arm, while With-a-Why chose to carry an armload of stuffed animals rather than anything that might contain clean clothes and a toothbrush. It had been more than a week since any of us had had a shower. After a week of camping, all of our stuff looked – well, dirty – and we left a trail of sand and pine needles as we made our way to the elevators.

But my kids are not self-conscious in the least. When we came down to swim in the pool, they spotted the beautiful piano in the lobby. Shaggy Hair Boy, wearing his bathing suit and a wrinkled t-shirt, his uncombed hair pulled back into a ponytail, sat down at the piano and began playing. When Boy in Black emerged from the elevator, wearing the same black t-shirt he'd had on all week, his unwashed hair tied back with a bandana, he joined his brother at the piano bench, and they played several numbers together. The woman at the front desk looked over and smiled, and a man reading a newspaper in one of the chairs in the lobby, looked up in an approving sort of way.

The rest of us had the pool to ourselves. My daughter settled in a chair with a book while my husband and I went swimming with With-a-Why. After about an hour of music, the boys joined us, and we hung out together in the water until the pool closed. Then we went back upstairs, my husband and me to our own room – with a clean bathroom, dry white towels, and a bed that seemed ridiculously luxurious after a week in a tiny two-person tent – while the kids retreated to their room to play guitars, read books, and watch With-a-Why surf from channel to channel on the big television screen.

Through the water

With-a-Why in the hotel pool.

August 16, 2007


Cliff walk

Any vacation we take involves a body of water: a river, a lake, a marsh, a waterfall, a pond or creek. One of the best parts of our vacation to Ocean State was, simply, the ocean. Whether we were walking along a cliff and looking down at the waves, or at the beach, swimming and skimboarding and playing in the surf, building sandcastles or digging holes at the water's edge, or simply sitting on the sand and staring into the waves, the rhythmic sound and salty smell of the ocean was a constant presence. Whether the day was foggy and cool, or bright and sunny, it was wonderful just to be at the shore, feeling small and humble in the presence of that vast expanse of water.

Playing in the sand

Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why at the water's edge.

August 15, 2007

Sightseeing. With teenagers. Sigh.

 For years when I was vacationing with little kids, a toddler, and a baby, I'd think about how much easier sightseeing would be when the kids were older. How nice it would be when I no longer had to stop to change diapers, or try to nurse a baby in a sling as I walked along, or keep a watchful eye on a toddler who liked to run close to the edge of a pier. And yet, during our vacation I found myself missing the little kids who have been replaced, practically overnight it seems, by these tall teenagers. 

Despite their many demands, small children are fun to travel with because they get excited about anything new. Staking a tent is fun! Seeing a deer is exciting! Boats are cool! I can remember my kids being so thrilled by the automatic flushing toilets at a rest stop that they chatted about them for miles. 

Traveling with teenagers is different. Way different. I admit that mine are smart and funny. They have a language of their own, filled with phrases that make no sense to me and so many inside jokes that I rarely know what they are laughing at. Shaggy Hair Boy, for instance, uses the word "hors d'oeuvre" the way most teenagers use the word "whatever." Teenagers can be entertaining if you like sarcasm and double entendres, and they can use public restrooms all by themselves, which is a huge plus, but they simply don't have the happy enthusiasm of small children. 

Take, for instance, the morning that we drove to a seaport to see some old sailing ships. 

Me: It's a whole village, with wooden ships and — 
Boy in Black: Colonial times? Historical stuff? 
Shaggy Hair: Oh god. 
Boy in Black: I hate that shit. 
Me: It's nineteenth century. That's after colonial times, isn't it? 
Shaggy Hair: Hors d'oeuvre. 
Daughter: It'll be like a history lesson. 
Boy in Black: Except half of it will be wrong. Tour guides just make stuff up.
Shaggy Hair: I hate stuff that's supposed to be educational. 
Boy in Black: Historical re-enactments are depressing. 
Me: Depressing? 
Boy in Black: Yeah. Depressing. 
Boy in Black: Let's see how they lived their sad little lives in the olden days. Daughter: Remember the time we went to Gettysburg? 
Boy in Black: Yeah, all those dead people. 
Boy in Black: THAT was a fun thing to do on vacation. 
Me: Well, I think this will be fun. 
Me: I like to go to places like this and imagine what it would be like to live in those times. 
Boy in Black: You want to know what it would be like? It'd be depressing. 
Shaggy Hair: I'd be sooooo bored. 
Me: What if you went back in a time machine? 
Boy in Black: I'd have to invent frisbee or something. 
Shaggy Hair: I'd want to kill myself. 

 With-a-Why said nothing during this whole exchange, but leaned his head against his oldest brother in an obvious gesture of solidarity. My husband's strategy was to avoid the topic and say cheerful things about the weather as we pulled into the parking lot of what the kids were now calling "Another Colonial Village! This Time With Boats!" 

Despite their claim that visiting a restored seaport was some form of torture imposed by an evil mother with an unhealthy obsession with sailboats, I think the kids enjoyed the morning. Well, except for the injuries. I always love climbing into old wooden sailing ships and exploring below the decks, but that proved dangerous for the men in the family, who are tall. My husband and Boy in Black are used to ducking when they see a low beam, but Shaggy Hair, who has only recently turned into a tall person, bashed his head several times, with dramatic falls that greatly amused his unsympathetic siblings. Strangely, he did not even once complain about the bumps and bruises to his head, preferring to focus his energy on sarcasm: "Hey! Another boat! We haven't seen enough boats yet!" 

In the village square, several college-age kids dressed in "authentic nineteenth century clothing" were performing a corny play with a predictable narrative line and many random facts about whaling, blubber, and wooden sailing ships. The play proved so painful to watch that two of my kids shielded their eyes. 

With-a-Why went into a shop to buy a wooden toy that made an obnoxious popping noise so that he could annoy people the same way that kids did in the nineteenth century. Boy in Black, in an attempt to make the day more interesting, took off the bandana he usually wears to tie back his hair, blindfolded himself, and had his sister lead him around the village. I don't know if this strategy added to his enjoyment of the village, but it seemed to entertain his sister, who laughed every time he stubbed his toe or tripped on a step. 

I tried to amuse myself by taking photographs, even though the harsh noonday sun wasn't really great for photography. Taking out my camera caused another bout of eye rolling from the kids. "Those are barrels, Mom. You're going to stop and take a photo of them? So we can remember how much fun we had looking at wooden barrels from the olden days?"

  Beneath the deck

August 14, 2007

Too soon

Last week, I was standing in the surf, enjoying the waves and ocean breeze and smell of the salt air, feeling relaxed and carefree. Then my youngest son, the boy who is still young enough to want to snuggle in the evening, the child who will still hold my hand, the one who will still ask me to read aloud to him, the baby of the family, strode into my line of vision. He stood there with his skimboard, shaking his wet hair from his eyes and intently watching the waves to catch one just right.

And suddenly, it hit me. It's happened again, to one of my darling children.

He's turning into a teenager.



We don't have much camping equipment – just two tents, an ice chest, and a bunch of flashlights which are always missing batteries. We've never gotten around to buying sleeping bags for everyone in the family: we take along sheets and blankets off our beds at home. We still have the camp stove we borrowed from my parents a few years ago and never returned, so I bring that along with six bowls, six spoons, and six cups from our kitchen cupboards. I always mean to be prepared and make a list and be organized, but it seems that we are always packing in some kind of heat wave, and I am too hot to be bothered, so we end up just tossing stuff into the car until it's full and then leaving.

We're usually the most ill-prepared family at any campgrounds. I'll walk by other sites and see families with ice chests full of food and drink, with niceties like tablecloths and citronella candles, with chairs and screen rooms, with elaborate meals they've made over the fire. Our site always looks a bit bare in comparison.

The one preparation we do usually make is a trip to the bookstore to make sure every family member has a few books to bring on the family vacation. When it comes to ensuring harmony, books are far more important than sleeping bags or bug spray. When we hit a rainy day, and we're crammed into a car or tent, and we start driving each other crazy, it's important for each person to be able retreat and find space between the pages of a good book.


My daughter reading on a cool, overcast day at the beach.

August 13, 2007

Little cat feet


One afternoon during our vacation, a change in weather brought a thick mist across the sand. The red lifeguard chair and a bright beach umbrella stood out against the greyness. The other people on the beach became dark silhouettes. My daughter went walking along the shore and disappeared into the whiteness. Waves came crashing out of grey sky, the foam especially white against the sand. The salty moistness touched my arms, my neck, my face. It made my hair curly.

Shaggy Hair was digging a hole for himself near the water's edge. For some reason, as my kids have gotten older, they've lost the urge to build castles and instead just dig big holes that they can climb into. Sitting on the sand near him, I watched With-a-Why skimboard across the wet sand, listened to the surf, and admired the way the fog blurred the edges of the world.

Boys at the beach

With-a-Why trying out the skimboard, with encouragement from Boy in Black.

August 12, 2007

Return to Ocean State


When my kids were little, summertime parenting meant pitching a tent and then sitting in the woods with my journal while the kids climbed up rocks, threw pine cones at each other, and played tag through the trees. My daughter was a week old the first time I took her camping. Now that my kids are older, with responsibilities and social lives, we don't camp as much as we used to, but more than ever, I appreciate it when we can get away from home and spend the week outdoors.

One of the places we used to go every August was Huge Campground With a Pine Forest near the beaches of Ocean State, a place I first came to as a teenager. We haven't been there in more than a decade, but we returned last week to find the campsite just the same. We set up our tents under tall white pines that covered the sandy soil with orange-brown pine needles.

Trying to please six different people means all kinds of negotiations, but over the week, we tried to figure out activities that would make everyone happy. We went to the beach, of course, to swim and skimboard, to fly kites and dig holes in the sand, to play frisbee and gather seashells. We took a long walk along a cliff above the ocean. We played minature golf, visited an old seaport, and stopped at scenic overlooks.

One morning we found a place that rented two-person kayaks, and we went paddling through the ponds and tidal flats near the breachway. We saw birds of all kinds, and seaweed that looked like snakes curled on the sandy bottom. When we hit sandbars, we'd climb out into the shallow, warm water and pull the boats, a situation that led inevitably to races and water fights and all kinds of antics. I saw Boy in Black running and leaping onto the back of his kayak, the way you would with a toboggan, and With-a-Why spent more time swimming than paddling. By the time we returned to the rental hut, we were all soaking wet and the boats were filled with brackish water.

At night we built campfires. We didn't have any chairs, of course, since trying to wedge six people, two tents, and three guitars into one vehicle leaves room for almost nothing else, but we pulled the picnic table over to the firepit. Boy in Black sat on top of the picnic table with his guitar, his long legs dangling down. My daughter and With-a-Why spread a beach towel over the sticky sap on the bench and settled there with flashlights and books. My husband and I shared the ice chest, which made a small but sturdy bench, while Shaggy Hair Boy balanced his self and his guitar on a pile of logs.

We'd picked a secluded site, with the pine woods behind us and no other tents nearby. If any other campers objected to the soft guitar music drifting through the pines, they didn't say so. I told my boys I can remember my father and his friend Trumpet Guy having a jam session in this very spot one time when we were camping here with Picnic Family, and no one objected to that either. So each day ended quietly, with guitar music or the sound of falling rain, before the kids retired to their tent to play cards and read books by flashlight, and my husband and I retreated into our own tent to talk over the day and make plans for the morning.

Listening to the waves

Shaggy Hair Boy, listening to the waves.

August 04, 2007

To the ocean

We're packing the beach towels and the beach umbrella, the tents and the ice chest, and whatever camping equipment we can fit into our vehicle. It's time for our August vacation, the week we traditionally take with just the six of us. Our house is so often filled with extras or extended family that it's nice once each year to spend a week with my husband and kids.

I don't know how much longer this kind of vacation will be possible: this coming year is my daughter's senior year in college. It's slowly starting to hit me that my kids just might grow up and move away someday. Then again, I still take vacations with my parents. And Schoolteacher Niece, who recently finished her grad work at Big City School With a Name That Sounds Like a South American Country, just accepted a job teaching in Snowstorm Region, proof that maybe not all of the younger generation will desert us.

August means that soon my oldest two will be moving back to campus, leaving the house much quieter. But for another week at least, we'll all be together, jammed in a car or tent or huddled in the tiny shade of a beach umbrella, arguing about where to go next or what activity we want to do. We'll swim in the ocean, take a ferryboat to an island where we'll rent bikes, walk marinas and fishing piers in the evening, hike along a cliff, explore an old seaport, fly kites on the beach, sit by the campfire at night, and play cards in the tent long after dark. Boy in Black says there will be some Ultimate Frisbee playing as well, even if the teams are small. One more week of camping and swimming and sunshine before it's time to think about fall semester.

August 03, 2007

Blue light


Earlier this week, when I was vacationing in the mountains with my husband, I woke early one morning and slipped quietly out the back door of the inn. The rocking chairs on the porch were empty, although still clustered in friendly little groups, with empty glasses sitting on the porch railing. The grass was wet as I crossed the lawn to get to the shore. A mist drifted over the surface of the lake like the breath of friendly dragon.

I like a little time to myself in the morning, while the air is still chilly enough for me to need a fleece and the light is blue. How quiet the docks seemed, with all the canoes pulled up, the motorboats tied fast. I felt as if I were the only person in the world as I wandered along the edge of the lake, watching as the breeze made ripples through the eel grass. When I returned to the inn, I could see a light in one of the windows: someone just waking. My sneakers were soaked, and the bottoms of my jeans as well, and I felt chilled through as I climbed the crooked wooden stairs to the room where a dry bed and warm husband awaited me.

August 02, 2007



At Bryophyte Lake, my husband and I walked a trail that goes around the lake, often so deep into the woods that we couldn't see the lake at all. We followed one trail down to a wooden dock where a little boy was fishing. The boy seemed eager for company so I stopped and chatted with him, while my husband went off to figure out why the trail markers didn't seem to match the map we had. The boy kept telling me how good the fishing was and how much he knew about fishing. He was still bragging about his fishing experiences when he pulled up his hook and noticed the worm missing. Without missing a beat, he turned and said to me, "Will you put another worm on for me? I don't know how."

It's been years since I put a wriggling earthworm on a fish hook, but I guess it's one of those skills you never lose.

We figured out which trail to take and continued on our way, leaving the boy to fish by himself. At the far end of the lake, a low wooden bridge made a nice place to sit in the sun. Taking off our socks and hiking boots, we put our feet into the water. Three women came by on a mountain bike: the first one hesitated at the beginning of the bridge, but my husband cheered her on, and all three negotiated the bumpy on-and-off ramps just fine. Another woman walked by with a beautiful dog, who leaped into the water and then came out to shake water all over us. A man went by in a kayak, skimming peacefully along the surface. But mostly, we were alone in the sunshine with our thoughts and dreams.

Paddling by

Sheets of Egyptian Cotton


The trailheads in the mountains are marked by little brown signs with yellow letters, signs sometimes hidden by the lush summer vegetation. Earlier this week when my husband and I were looking for a trailhead, we got lost and ended up instead in the backyard of a big summer resort. Like many of the resorts in the mountains, the manicured lawns and gazebos and gravel pathways that could be considered the front of the resort face the lake, and if you come by car, you can see people carrying in food, hanging out laundry, and taking care of all the details that the guests take for granted.

I'm used to driving into these places with my parents: my father played at many of these resorts during summers in the 50s, and he will strike up a conversation with anyone who remembers those days. As a former employee, he never hesitates to walk around and take a look. But my husband was seeing some of these resorts for the first time.

"I know what it reminds me of," he said. "The movie Dirty Dancing. It's as if these places are imitating that corny movie."

Of course, it's the other way around. Some of these resorts were built long before that movie, and Hollywood has imitated them. Still, I couldn't help feeling, as I looked at hundreds of white bedsheets hanging in the sunshine, that we had stepped into a movie, or perhaps a bygone era. I've spent years camping in the mountains, in tents that always end up smelling like wet sneakers, and clean cotton sheets that have been hanging all day in the sunshine and mountain breezes seemed like the ultimate luxury.

August 01, 2007

Childhood landscape


When I was a kid, I sometimes came to the mountains with Kindergarten Friend and her family, to stay in their camp on Snowshoe Lake. We'd play with her cousin and her sister at the big table by the side window, or we'd put on plays in the woodshed down near the dock. We'd go out in the lake in an aluminum rowboat, or one time we made some kind of strange pulley system in the woods with yarn and clothespins and pieces of paper with messages on them. I can remember walking to town on a sunshiny day to buy maple sugar candy and these "Seek-a-Word" puzzlebooks, filled with pages of scrambled letters you had to search through to find words. For some reason, we loved "Seek-a-Words" and they became a staple of our own puzzlebooks when we created them.

Kindergarten Friend's camp is still on that lake, and she comes there now with her husband and kids. The town – which consists mostly of a general store, a church, and a post office – looks the same as it always did. Even the maple sugar candy, shaped like a maple leaf and packaged against red paper, tastes the same. As we crossed the bridge that leads into the town, I took this photograph. The lake itself, with a 99-mile shoreline, is spectacular, but I've always liked the view in the other direction: those creeks that go meandering off to meet the smudged sky.


Too much rain in the woods can be dreary, but an afternoon of rain can be a welcome change from bright sun. It felt cosy to drive in the rain, just the two of us, stopping to get trail mix and juice at the little store in town. I like canoeing in a light rain or hiking in the rain, and the misty way the lake looks on rainy days. The roof outside our window at the inn was metal and amplified the sound of the rain, which made the bed inside the room that much cosier as we snuggled at night.


View through a rain-splattered windshield.