December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve

When we were talking in class one day about holiday rituals — both the cultural significance and the environmental impact — a student from Country Famous for Cigars said that his family always gathered around a bucket of water on New Year's Eve. They'd put their hands into the water to release all the stress and worry of the old year, and then the oldest family member would toss the bucket of water out the door.

Our tradition here is to spend a quiet evening at home, with a fire in the fireplace and the kids playing music. We have a big meal right after midnight, something that my mother's family always did. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy in Black went out this afternoon to get groceries for the meal: they are in charge of it this year.

We don't have a bucket of water, but we do have a fresh layer of snow, several inches of it. I like beginning each year in a landscape that is clean and white, like a new page of paper.

New snow

December 30, 2008



When I was a kid, my favorite place to dig a snow fort was under a pine tree. That way, instead of just a white cave of snow, I could have a roof made of pine branches, the green needles holding snow against sky. I'd dig out a spot near the trunk, just big enough for myself, and settle back into the snow, feeling cosy and comfortable and protected by the branches of the tree.

From marbles and piracies

From marbles and piracies

December 29, 2008

The world vanishes

The world vanishes

A rush of warm air created a thick fog that rose up from the melting snow as I took the two little neighbor kids, who are four and eight, on a hike through the woods. They'd both been feeling sad, but soon they were stomping through puddles of slush and screaming with laughter. We walked farther and farther into the woods until we were surrounded by snow and ice and the dark shapes of trees.

"Do you know how to get back?" Little Biker Boy asked nervously. I pointed out landmarks to him to show him that I knew where we were. "That's the dancing tree. And see the orange ribbon there? I put that on the tree myself. That's the boundary line." Finally, I asked him to look down and figure out how he could find his way home. After a few minutes, he noticed our footprints, which made a path through the wet snow. He sighed with relief at this knowledge.

Ponytail clung to her new Christmas doll as she stomped happily into slush and scrambled onto fallen trees. Little Biker Boy kept asking me the names of trees, and after I pointed out the tracks of a white-tailed deer, he was eager to follow its trail. He agreed with me that the trunks of the beech trees look just like the legs of elephants.

Both kids were soon wet up to their knees. I took them to the spot I come to when I'm feeling sad: a fallen tree which makes a great place to sit. Wet snow came dripping down off the scotch pines, landing with little splashes. The kids sat on the log for a few minutes while I walked around and took some photos.

"It works!" Biker Boy said. "I don't feel as sad!" Ponytail said nothing, just hugged her doll tighter and took a bite from a handful of snow.

Walking back through the snow was more difficult and decidedly less peaceful. Ponytail, obedient to the rule of four-year-olds everywhere, decided she needed to be carried, even though she'd been full of energy the whole way out. Little Biker Boy waded too far into a puddle, and his boots filled with icy water, which caused him to wail in agony until I took off my boots and gave him my dry socks. By the time we emerged from the woods, I was as wet and cold as the two kids, and happy to return to the warmth of the house.

When you're feeling sad

No secrets you could keep

No secrets you could keep

December 28, 2008

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

One morning back in November, I came downstairs in the morning to find Boy in Black in the living room, still awake, with his laptop. He's a nocturnal creature, so I wasn't terribly surprised. I mean, this is the kid who stayed up all night to design an R2D2 to go with his Halloween costume.

"What're you doing?" I asked casually as I went into the kitchen to feed the cats.

"Research," he said.

I looked at him in surprise. "Research?" It's true that he does some research with a physics professor, but it seemed unlikely that he'd be doing it until 7 am.

He gave me a sleepy grin. "Yeah, I'm researching light sabers."

Ever since dressing in a Star Wars theme for Halloween, he and his brothers have been playing with plastic light sabers — toys we bought the last time Star Wars paraphernalia was in vogue. They sometimes duel inches away from me in the living room. Yes, my youngest child is fourteen, and I still find myself saying, "Isn't that an OUTDOOR toy?"

Frustrated with how easily the cheap plastic toys broke, Boy in Black searched online and found two guys who made sturdy light sabers that were "duel-worthy." He showed me a youtube clip of the sabers being dropped out of a second-story window onto a cement sidewalk or being tossed into a pool. Clearly, these two guys had our family in mind when they designed the sabers.

So Boy in Black ordered four of the sabers: one for himself, one for each of his brothers, and an extra one for whichever extra was over at the time of battle. When the sabers came, he hid them in my closet and worked on small modifications, exchanging emails with Light Saber Dude about the details. He gave the sabers to his brothers on Christmas mornings, and the three boys retreated into a closet to test them out in the darkness.

An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

December 27, 2008

Hanging with the family

We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at my parents' house — mostly eating and talking and then eating some more. My family has the ability to devour enormous amounts of food. By the afternoon of Christmas Day, little groups had settled down to play games. Blonde Niece, Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Blond Brother-in-law were playing cards at the folding table that had been set up as the kids' table. Another group were playing a board game in front of the fire.

Dandelion Niece coerced a few family members to play the strangely addictive game "Set" in the living room. Anyone not involved in a game was busily talking — one group sitting at the kitchen table, finishing up the homemade pies, and another near the Christmas tree. Well, except for With-a-why and Suburban Nephew, who were running around with nerf guns, shooting people.

Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy had stayed up all night right before Christmas Eve to record a CD for the family. With Shaggy Hair on the piano and Boy in Black on the guitar, they played a dozen songs — some traditional holiday numbers and then some jazz favorites thrown in for good measure. The CD, which they called "Melodic Sea's Groovin' Sleigh Ride" played beneath the chatter in the house.

With her grandfather

My daughter and my father, planning their next music session.

December 26, 2008

Christmas present

Slab of chocolate

Dandelion Niece holds up the gift that her mother, who is my red-haired sister, got for Christmas. A five-pound slab of chocolate.

Baby of the family

At church on Christmas morning, With-a-Why leaned against me, his head snuggled against my shoulder. How sweet, I thought to myself. Even though he's a teenager now, he's still affectionate with me, especially when he's sleepy.

When we stood up to go to Communion, he turned and whispered to me, "I hope the lice is gone. Or else, you're screwed."

December 24, 2008

Happy holidays

Little red barn

At my parents' house yesterday, I looked the window to their backyard, to my father's snow-covered garden and little red barn that served long ago as a stable for an appaloosa horse. It looked like a holiday photo. I was thinking that I should put on my boots and go out outside with my camera.

Then I glanced at my parents' computer and noticed that the desktop photo was the scene that I was planning on shooting. My father had already taken the photo.

"Hey, email me that photo for my blog," I said.

My father looked at his computer and shrugged, "Okay."

Then I sat back down by the fire with a hot cup of tea.

December 23, 2008

Skiing along the edge

Let it snow

Today I went cross-country skiing behind my parents' house with six family members, plus Red-haired Sister's three crazy dogs. Beyond their backyard lies a wooded area, bounded on the east side by a highway fence. My mother, the oldest in the group, led the way, breaking a trail through the heavy snow. Snow clung to the branches of the trees, white against a light grey sky. When the kids began deliberately knocking into the branches of the pine trees, the air filled with swirling white.

A big section of the old apple orchard and the woods has been bulldozed for development. On this winter afternoon, a site construction crew were hard at work, despite several feet of snow on the ground. The thick whiteness was a big improvement over the field of mud we'd seen at Thanksgiving.

Dandelion Niece climbed to the top of a pile of slash that looked like a small white mountain. With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew skidded down off the snowbanks onto the snow-packed driveway that will eventually lead to a big medical center. A cement mixer came rolling by, and then a dump truck. Across the newly cleared field, I could see cars driving by on the highway. We waved to the truck drivers and then turned to go back into the woods, the remnant of wildness that gets narrower each year.

Through the woods

December 21, 2008

Along the tracks

Weekends in December are filled with holiday parties — gatherings where eating and talking are the main activities, and the standard costume is a red sweater. It's a time for catching up with old friends, hanging out with the extended family, and eating delicious treats. Last night, family and long-time friends gathered at my house, all crowded together by the fire and the Christmas tree, and in the kitchen, and hallway, and upstairs in the bedrooms. Our house was overflowing.

Today, Red-haired Sister picked up With-a-Why so he could go play with his cousins. My kids went off to do some errands, and my husband began working on his holiday newsletter. I decided that after the cleaning and cooking of the last couple of days, I deserved some quiet time to myself. Because the snow in my own woods was pretty deep, I went over to the main street of Traintrack Village and walked along the traintracks.

The landscape was mostly grey and white and pale blue; plows had piled the snow into banks along the street, and every roof was white with snow. Two kids were building a fort in the mountain of snow at the end of a driveway. A man in a dark overcoat was digging his car out of the snowbank near the post office. I climbed up on the railroad bridge to look out over the trainyard, and a train swooshed past underneath me, the bright orange cars swaying just slightly as they moved along.

I've always liked to watch trains go by. Influenced, perhaps, by childhood picture books, I imagined the railroad cars carrying food for Christmas dinner and presents wrapped in bright paper. I waved to the passengers on the Amtrack trains and pictured them arriving home for the holidays. The trains don't stop in Traintrack Village, they hurry past, going east and south to Big City Like No Other, or west to City on Great Lake. When I turned back to look at the town, I could see lights coming on already in the houses, preparing for the longest night of the year.

Rushing past

December 20, 2008

I wish those damned elves would stop making toys and come clean my house

My desire to have a sparkling clean house for our Christmas company creates some tension between me and my sons who have — how shall I say this? Different standards than I do. The holiday music in the house is often accompanied by me yelling at my kids to help clean RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.

"Why do you care what people think?" Boy in Black will argue as I am preparing to morph into Psycho Mom mode. I usually respond with a glare. "That's not it. At all. Having a clean house at Christmas is important to ME."

Yes, I do like a clean house at Christmas. I blame this on the holiday television specials from my childhood. These specials usually featured Some Semi-Famous Guy Who Sings, some of his family members (or at least a cast who pretended to be his family), and a whole bunch of holiday songs. The show always took place in some big old farmhouse or ski lodge with snow and pine trees and some kind of Christmas service that involved people walking through the dark with candles. The house would be decorated with pine boughs and red ribbons and a big Christmas tree. The show didn't create any tension or any suspense; it was reassuring and predictable, filled with corny conversations that were totally scripted. It always ended with Semi-Famous Guy singing a holiday song, staring at the camera with a sappy, sincere look on his face.

The problem is that these holiday specials still play in my head.

Most of the year, I don't mind the messiness of living in a house where about a dozen teenagers come and go constantly. But as soon as we bring in a tree and decorate it for Christmas, suddenly I remember the old farmhouse in that holiday special. Then I look around and think, "Wait! This isn't right! Andy Williams never had half-filled glasses of juice on his windowsills or pages of calculus homework strewn on the carpet or textbooks piled at the hearth!"

Then I turn into Psycho Mom and make all the kids clean.

One thing that makes our house look messy is the sheer amount of books, papers, and notebooks piled in odd spots. We all spend most of our time in the living room by the fire, and the piles tend to accumulate over the semester. As a result, the downstairs of the house looks the way my sixth grade classroom looked at the end of the year the teacher made us dump out our desks.

The other night, I had a brilliant idea. I put our names on six index cards which I spread across the living room floor. Then I took the stacks — the mail on the kitchen table, the schoolpapers on the counter, the pages of sheet music, the sketchpads and artwork, the books on the floor by the couch — and just sorted them into piles. The sorting went very quickly, and soon each person in the family had a pile of stuff that he or she could be responsible for putting away.

"Come take your pile!" I yelled.

I glanced over at the table. How much nicer it looked with nothing on the surface. "This worked really well," I said smugly to my daughter.

She nudged me. "Watch With-a-Why."

My youngest son obediently picked up his pile, an unwieldy mix of books and artwork and schoolpapers. He looked at it in kind of a puzzled way and then carried it over to the corner between the couch and the fireplace — which is where most of it had come from in the first place — and set it back down on the floor.


In his defense, With-a-Why doesn't have his own desk, or his own chest of drawers. He shares a room with two brothers, and there really isn't any place for him to keep his stuff. So I can see why he might consider a corner of the living room the place for his artwork and comic books and schoolpapers. But mostly, I blame the fact that that he's never seen one of those corny Christmas specials.

December 19, 2008

Snow day

My husband and I had planned a quiet day by the fire, just the two of us. Taking a day to ourselves right before the holidays is one of our Christmas traditions, something we do instead of exchanging presents. He had taken the day off from work: I'd gotten out the massage oil and lingerie.

Plans for the day changed just a bit when a snowstorm came through the region and the kids — oh, happy day — ended up home with us. We had a nice day, the six of us hanging out by the fire, eating and talking, mocking Christmas specials that my daughter had looked up on her laptop. But it wasn't quite what we had envisioned.

Before I step

Snow gathering on the back step, right at the beginning of the storm. I always stop to admire the pattern of the fresh snow before stepping into it.

December 18, 2008

Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat the sounding joy

In the evening, our piano is in constant use. Shaggy Hair Boy, With-a-Why, or Quick will leap up in the middle of a card game to play something if the mood strikes them. It's especially nice during the winter to sit by the fire and listen to the piano music mixing with the conversation in the room. The other night, while Shaggy Hair and With-a-Why were goofing around with the balance board, trying to see if they could balance each other's weight, they naturally decided to play the piano at the same time. They did a song they played at the holiday recital, a four-handed version of Joy to the World.

December 17, 2008


Film Guy once described the lifestyle in our household as "communal." Usually, that's a good thing. Our couch is always piled with kids (or young adults, you might call some of them), and on weekends, the floor is strewn with sleeping bodies. Any of the kids will just grab a pillow or blanket, and find a spot on the couch or floor. When the kids play Ultimate, they bring a pile of black shirts and white shirts to the field with them, and every time they choose teams, everyone switches shirts. We have shelves and hooks in the laundry room filled with warm clothing, too, that are used by anyone going outside in winter weather. With so many kids and extras, it makes sense to share.

When I found head lice on With-a-Why, the communal aspects of our life seemed suddenly ominous. When I tried to think of every place my youngest son's sweet head had been, I felt overwhelmed.

A reader asked, "Did you have to wash all his bedding?" Um, yeah. We had to wash EVERY PIECE of bedding in the ENTIRE house. My husband piled sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and quilts into his car and spent the evening at the laundromat. I took any decorative pillows that didn't have cases on them, put them in a big trash bag, and stuck them out in the garage, figuring that the frigid temperatures would eventually kill any lice. I don't know how long I need to leave them there, but likely, I'll forget about them altogether and find them in the spring. With hoodies and winter coats, we followed the "20 minutes in a clothes dryer" rule of thumb.

I've spent the last couple of days checking the scalps of every person who walks into the house: the little neighbor kids, the teenage boys, my parents. It's amazing how quickly we've all gotten used to this basic primate behavior. Everyone will be sitting by the fire, talking like usual, and I'll just walk over, hunker down like a chimp, and start inspecting Shaggy Hair's scalp. First Extra even asked me to check his scalp, "I felt itchy as soon as I heard." When the boys were playing a card game, I took the opportunity to probe their scalps with my fingernails. None of them even looked up. Checking for nits has become socially accepted behavior.

Somehow, incredibly, the lice has not spread past With-a-Why. Given the way we live, this seems miraculous. Thankfully, because he's the baby of the family, With-a-Why still asks me to comb the tangles out of his long hair in the morning: otherwise, I would never have caught the lice in time.

Killing the lice was the easy part. I slathered half a jar of mayonnaise on With-a-Why's head, gave him a plastic wrap turban, and topped that off with a washable winter hat. He looked so cute with all the hair off his face. Boy in Black, who was playing a game with him to keep him busy, said, "That smell makes me want a sandwich." But the mayonnaise worked, and the lice were smothered to death. (Since then, I've found that olive oil can also be used as a smothering agent. It probably smells better. But the mayonnaise does have the advantage of being easy to slather on. It doesn't drip, and I was able to pile all that hair on the top of his head and make it into cool sculptures before adding the plastic wrap.)

The harder part has been removing the nits — the translucent little eggs that cling tenaciously to the strands of hair. I measured With-a-Why's hair, just so I could get the credit I deserve for this task. It's 22 inches long. He has dark silky hair, very fine in texture, but lots and lots of it. Apparently, that's just what a louse looks for in a home. I have spent hours and hours combing nits out of that hair. Literally. And I am going to have to keep checking his head every night for weeks to make sure I've gotten them all.

Boy in Black keeps looking up facts about lice on the internet. Some are helpful: "You need a metal fine-tooth comb, not a cheap plastic one." He was right: the metal comb was way more effective. And I was hugely relieved when he reported that cats do not catch head lice from humans. I had already imagined putting each cat in the dryer for twenty minutes.

Red-haired Niece, who works at Ridiculously Expensive Pre-school in Big City Like No Other, reported that all her kids have had lice, and that lice don't like the smell of lavender. I rooted through my stash of essential oils for lavender, and soon all my teenage boys smelled nicer than they've smelled in a long time. And when we finally washed all the mayonnaise out of With-a-Why's hair, it was smooth and silky and beautiful. Apparently, all that gunk is really a beauty treatment.

So mostly, that's how I've spent the last few days. I've been going over and over With-a-Why's hair with a fine-tooth comb. I've been checking the scalps of all of our extras. I've been trying to train everyone in the house by showing them nits on With-a-Why's hair so they will know what they are looking for. And I keep making people check my scalp, since I am the person mostly likely to have caught the lice. When my daughter arrived home on Monday afternoon, I met her at the train station. "Hey, welcome home! Want to check my head for lice?"



December 16, 2008

The red chair

My favorite color has always been red. Partly, this was because red was one of the leftover colors. My oldest sister choose green as hers, and my next oldest sister chose blue as hers. So when my parents were color-coding things like duffel bags or scarves or camping pillows, I naturally ended up with the red ones.

More than that, though, I've always loved how bright the color red is — cheerful and full of energy. I live in a landscape that is lushly green for spring and summer, and brilliantly red-orange-yellow-gold in the fall. But from November through March, more than half the year, it's a landscape of mostly whites and greys. Oh, we have subtle colors in the winter — blues and browns and tinges of green — but still, white dominates.

I can appreciate the beauty of the winter landscape and those subtle colours. But still, my winter coat is red, my sweatshirt is red, my fleece is red, and my favorite sweater is red. My superhero cape is red. And just recently, we bought a bright red chair to put in a sunny spot in the living room. This winter, when everything outside is white and grey, I am going sit in that red chair and write.

Guarding the Christmas tree

Gretel guards the Christmas tree.

December 15, 2008

With a fine-tooth comb

This morning, as I was combing the tangles out of With-a-Why's long hair, I noticed oblong translucent beads clinging to the fine, dark strands. Head lice!

He was thrilled to hear that he could stay home from school. Boy in Black volunteered, nobly, to play computer games with him to keep him sitting still while I treated his hair and combed out the nits. My husband, who gets squirmy at even the thought of head lice, immediately began stripping the beds in the house.

With-a-Why has fine, straight hair — and lots of it. The first louse who leaped to his head must have been thrilled to find such prime real estate.

It's relaxing, really, grooming my youngest child, while he and his oldest brother talk strategy for the computer game they're playing. I'm reminded of the nature show I used to watch when I was a kid: they'd show a bunch of primates — chimps, maybe, or some kind of monkeys — just sitting around picking nits out of each other's hair.

And now when my extras, long-haired teenage boys mostly and two little neighbor kids, come over, I'll be asking them sit down so I can inspect their scalps. I try to think of it as a new way to make them feel welcome.

December 14, 2008

Early winter

Early winter

The streams and lakes aren't frozen yet, but it's beginning to look like winter.

December 12, 2008

Ice age coming ... and we still have school

Ice age is coming ... and we still have school

"Our superintendent is from Alaska. That's why." That was the bitter complaint, the rumor that spread on the bus as it rolled over icy, snow-covered roads.

When I was a kid, all the other schools got more snow days than us. It never seemed fair.

The hope for a snow day usually began when I'd come downstairs in the morning and hear the radio. That sound meant that my mother was listening for school closings. We kids would gather at the kitchen table while my mother spooned out bowls of hot oatmeal with canned peaches floating in it.

When the announcer would say, "These schools closed," my mother would turn the little nob to make the sound louder, and I'd put down my spoon to cross my fingers. How cruel it would be when our school didn't make the list.

We'd grumble as we put on boots, coats, and mittens, grabbing out lunches and books. (No one carried backpacks in those days: they hadn't been invented yet.) Any other day, we might have gone cheerfully out to wait for the bus, maybe even looked forward to seeing our friends, but the knowledge that OTHER KIDS had the day off, that OTHER KIDS were happily climbing back into bed or getting out their sleds or getting dressed to go build snowforts -- well, that was hard to take.

Of course, my kids' generation is more pro-active than mine. They have rituals around the wish for a snow day. When a snowstorm is predicted, they wear their pajamas inside out and backwards. This is supposed to guarantee a snow day. Sometimes it works, of course. We do get an awful lot of snow here.

But other times, like today, it doesn't. "It's because not enough kids wore their clothes inside out," Shaggy Hair Boy complained as I picked him after school. "EVERYONE BUT US had a snow day today."

The district has a new superintendent, as the other one retired years ago, but the rumor has not changed since my childhood: "It's because the superintendent is from Alaska. That's why."

The title of this post was With-a-Why's away message today.

December 11, 2008



Shaggy Hair Boy no longer wears braces.

I'd hate to add up how much time I've spent in the waiting room of the orthodontist's office over the last ten years. We've invested an awful lot of time and money in the pursuit of straight teeth for all four kids. But this spring, With-a-Why's braces should come off too.

And then I'm never setting foot in an orthodontist's office again.

December 10, 2008

Near a sunny window


The other day, I decided to stop feeling miserable about all the portfolios I needed to grade. I like teaching. I like my students. I enjoy reading their ideas. Surely, this process didn't need to be so painful.

So I built a fire, made myself a cup of hot tea, and settled onto the comfy couch. Boy in Black already occupied the other end of the couch. In fact, he had completely covered the coffee table with textbooks that had enticing titles like Electromagnetics and Introduction to Real Analysis and Thermal Physics and Analytical Mechanics. He has five final exams this week, and he was busy studying. "Studying" in this case meant gathering all his books together and taking a nap near them. When I moved his stuff to make room for my stack of portfolios, he stirred long enough to say, "Hey! What are you doing? That's my table of knowledge!"

I had a peaceful afternoon grading portfolios. I drank hot tea. I ate cookies I'd brought home from a campus bake sale. I looked out the window to see how sparkly the snow looked. When the fire got low, I put on more logs. I heated myself up some vegetable soup. I had a lazy conversation with Boy in Black. I graded a few portfolios.

I tried to enjoy the distractions rather than get annoyed by them. Quick brought over the sheet music to a rag called "Graceful Ghost," and With-a-Why played the first page of it over and over again. The neighbor kids came over late afternoon, and I spent an hour playing with the wooden blocks and train tracks. When it grew dark, I walked the neighbor kids home and made pasta. By then, Shaggy Hair was playing the piano, mostly just improvising. Boy in Black had woken up long enough to cover a piece of paper with formulas. I graded a few more portfolios. I ate the tofutti that my husband had gone out in a snowstorm to get for me.

It was an enjoyable day. I felt peaceful and content. Zenlike, almost. There was only one problem. I GOT HARDLY ANY WORK DONE. Out of the stack of portfolios balanced next to Boy in Black's textbooks, I had graded only a handful. At the rate I was going, I would be still grading portfolios well into the new year.

So the next day, I went back to my old way of doing things. I locked myself in my home office. I talked to no one, except to snap at anyone who dared come near me. I sat on an uncomfortable desk chair and felt miserable. I didn't build a fire. I ignored the teenagers when they came home from school. Between portfolios, I did nothing but stare miserably at the stack. But at least it got the job done.

In my next life, I want to be a cat.

December 09, 2008

And gathering swallows TWITTER in the skies

Over Thanksgiving, I was talking to my kids and a bunch of college-age extras about my experience with SuperPoke, a facebook application which lets you publicly send your online friends silly expressions. See, at first, I didn't grasp that much of the language on SuperPoke was taken from the world of online dating. And I didn't understand that many of the expressions were .... um, metaphors. Mostly metaphors for sexual activity. I pretty much had no idea. I thought "trout slapping" meant throwing fish. And "motorboating" meant giving people rides in a boat. And that "teabag" meant I would be giving someone a hot cup of tea.

Looking these phrases up in the urban slang dictionary was quite a revelation. I suddenly found out I'd been doing all kinds of perverse things with my blogging friends. (Some of my friends were as innocent as I was, while others were smiling at me and just waiting to see what happened when I figured it out.)

Anyhow, at Thanksgiving, when I was explaining my mistakes to the young people in the room, most of whom are also my facebook "friends," they laughed hysterically at my ignorance. They kept saying things like, "OMG! How could you not know?"

Then last weekend, I was sitting by the fire with my laptop when Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter glanced at my screen.

Daughter: What are you doing?
Me: I'm on twitter.
Daughter: Twitter?
Shaggy Hair Boy: (smirking) That's what she said.
Me: It's a social networking site.
Daughter: You want to know what twitter really means?
Me: Lots of people use it.
Daughter: People your age, who don't know what it means.
Boy in Black: (looking down at a page of physics) Stop! I don't want to hear it.
Me: There's nothing obscene about the word twitter.
Daughter: Okay, if you want to think that ....
Me: No, seriously. It's the sound birds make or something like that.
Me: It's even in that Keats' poem.
Daughter: Look it up.

(a few minutes later)

Me: Oh. My. God.
Daughter: (looking over my shoulder) They phrased it quite nicely.
Me: Well, I'd prefer the word perineum.
Boy in Black: (without looking up) I'm trying to study here.
Me: So when people use it as a verb ... I'm twittering ... what would that even mean?
Shaggy Hair Boy: We really don't need to hear any more.
Daughter: (laughs)
Me: Slang words that refer to women's body parts almost always —
Boy in Black: Can we stop talking about this?
Me: Maybe I should look up tweet or twit or —
Shaggy Hair Boy: MOM!
Daughter: Or maybe you should do it some other time.
Boy in Black: When I'm not here.

December 07, 2008

I've been a sinner, I've been a scamp

We piled into my car: my daughter at the wheel, then my parents, Blonde Niece, and me. "Isn't this fun?" I said to my daughter. "A road trip with your grandparents, your mother, and your cousin!"

She rolled her eyes, "I guess this means I can't play MY music."

We stopped to get food and drink, and then we were off. It was pretty short, as far as road trips go. We were traveling to Camera City to stay with my brother and his wife, and they live less than 100 miles away.

The highlight of the visit, and really, the point of it, was to see Drama Niece in a play. She goes to Fancy Arts School, an urban high school that draws talented kids from the whole area and puts on the most amazing theater productions. The sets alone, built by kids in the school who take courses in set design, are worth seeing. The set we saw Friday night was a two-story set that looked like a luxury ship and included two curving staircases.

The production was "Anything Goes," a fast-paced play filled with jokes, silly plot twists, and the music of Cole Porter. Drama Niece played Reno, which meant she had a chance to perform numbers like "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Anything Goes" and "Let's Misbehave" and "Blow Gabriel Blow." The school orchestra, 32 musicians in all, backed her up on the songs. The role meant she wore glamorous, glittery outfits — I lost track of how many costume changes she had. The silly plot gave her the chance to get the audience laughing with gestures, expressions, and subtle body movements.

When Drama Niece is on stage, she gets so into character that I forget that it's her and simply get drawn into the play. As my readers (and certainly anyone who knows me in real life) know, I have no musical or acting talent at all — I can't even carry a tune — so the talent of family members just stuns me. It's fascinating to watch how Drama Niece can get a reaction from the whole audience with a simple uplift of a shoulder or raising of an eyebrow.

Drama Niece has had starring roles in just about every musical the school has put on, so we all knew she could sing and act. But this play presented a new challenge: tap dancing! When I saw her after the show, I said, "I didn't know you could tap dance," and she said, "I didn't either, until this show." She'd spend every study hall down in the music studio, practicing. The nine other girls dancing with her in the big tap-dancing scene number were mostly dance majors so they had set the bar pretty high, but she pulled it off.

Plays produced during the 1930s were almost always lively and fun, designed to take people's mind off financial troubles. As we left the play, the music of Cole Porter was still going through my head, and I felt like tap-dancing across the sidewalk in my winter boots. Tap dancing always has that affect on me. Back at my brother's house, the night ended quietly, with tea and coffee and a birthday cake. Drama Niece had just turned seventeen. Dressed in her less glamorous outfit of sweatpants and t-shirt, stage make-up still on, she blew out the candles on her cake.

Seventeen candles

December 05, 2008

What I learned this semester

At the end of the fall semester, I ask my first year students to each write on an index card one thing they learned their first semester in college. I tell them that they can include things they learned in the residence halls or from their friends or in any class. Then I shuffle the cards and read them aloud. Here's what they wrote this year.

Bugs are edible. Mushrooms are basidiocarps. Elephants don't actually have sex.

I learned that high school doesn't prepare you at all for college.

I learned that the liver can regenerate itself.

I've learned about the importance of time management.

I learned about downcycling and how some recyclables end up in the landfill after a slightly extended life.

Worms have brains, and college is really hard.

The value of a home-cooked meal.

There's a lot of shit involved with plants.

I learned that you get as much out of something as you put into it.

I learned how to derive a function.

You can get lead poisoning from lipstick.

I learned how hard calculus really is.

Dining hall food sucks. People live longer in Andorra. Muir and Pinchot were responsible for the environmental revolution. The clitoris is an undeveloped penis.

Time management is the most important thing, especially when it comes to homework.

I failed at things I am usually good at and succeeded at things I'm normally bad at.

Because of electron clouds, some atoms are bigger than others.

Your feet are healthiest without shoes. Most Americans have foot problems by the time they are 50. Barefeet rule!

Trying to get work done in a lounge filled with friends is impossible.

Willow trees are the next generation of biofuel.

You can die from a lack of sleep.

The graveyard is a great place for class.

Chemistry in college is way harder than it is in high school.

I learned to think about my audience when I write.

In a deuterostome, the anus forms before the mouth.

It's easy to catch a cold when you live in a dorm.

A banana is an herb.

Friends are really important. Especially ones who don't bullshit.

A single parade in New York City can generate 23 tons of trash.

December 03, 2008

Last minute

Scene: Shaggy Hair is playing the piano. Boy in Black is on the couch surrounded by textbooks, papers covered with physics problems, and his laptop computer. With-a-Why has wandered over to the kitchen area with the kind of stapled worksheet that eighth graders are given for school projects.

With-a-Why: I need an empty can.
Me: Shouldn't you be in bed?
With-a-Why: I have this project due tomorrow.
Boy in Black (without even looking up): Just finish up the Ovaltine and use that.
With-a-Why (dumping out the Ovaltine): I need a rubber band.
Me: Let me see that sheet.
Shaggy Hair: We need to get the piano tuned. Listen.
Me: (over the sound of piano music) You've had THREE WEEKS to work on this.
Boy in Black: (without looking up) It's fine.
Me: It's almost ten o'clock.

With-a-Why sits down on the floor and builds a rubber-band powered Ovaltine can, while his brothers chime in with helpful suggestions.

Shaggy Hair Boy: You gonna race them?
With-a-Why: Yeah, and you get points by how far it goes.
Me: Your grade depends on whether or not the vehicle works?
With-a-Why: I get at least a 60 for doing the worksheet. It needs to go at least two feet to get more than that.
Boy in Black: Where'd we put the skateboard bearings I got to fix the vacuum cleaner with? Try them.
Me: You've had THREE WEEKS and you're just doing this now?
Boy in Black: It's fine.

With-a-Why: The hole needs to be bigger.
Shaggy Hair Boy: That's what she said.
Me: None of you get enough sleep.
With-a-Why: There's too much friction.
Boy in Black: You need friction to make it go forward.
Shaggy Hair Boy: I think you're winding —
With-a-Why: I need a new rubber band.

Scene two: In the car. I've just picked With-a-Why up from school.

Me: How did you make out with the rubber band thing?
With-a-Why: Uh, it was on the fritz.
Me: Did it move?
With-a-Why: I got 60.
Me: It didn't work? At all?
With-a-Why: You're going to say, "That's what you get for doing it at the last minute."
Me: I didn't say that.
With-a-Why: You were thinking that.

Me: So tell me what happened. It didn't move at all?
With-a-Why: It went 60 feet.
Me: 60 feet?
With-a-Why: It would have gone even farther if the wall wasn't there.

Me: (laughing) I was hoping you'd learn some kind of lesson about not doing stuff at the last minute.
With-a-Why: Doing it at the last minute helped.
Me: How do you figure that?
With-a-Why: I didn't have time to do anything complicated so I had to go with a simple design.
Me: Well, I think you're lucky you had siblings to help.
With-a-Why: If it had curved to the left, it would have gone into the attendance office.
With-a-Why: You get bonus points if your vehicle goes into the attendance office and messes with things.
Me: So you didn't really get a 60.
With-a-Why: I got a 100.
With-a-Why: That's what you get when you do it at the last minute.

December 02, 2008

We're ready


I've put snow tires on my car. We've bought snowboarding passes. Last week, I pulled bags of winter clothing out of the cedar chest and tried to match up all the mittens and gloves. (I've gotten less picky about this over the years -- so long as each pair has a right and a left, they don't have to exactly match.) The warm socks are piled in a bin, ready to be worn. In a seasonal fit of binge-cleaning, I even tackled the garage, tossing junk and gathering recyclables and hanging the bikes from the ceiling. The snow shovels are on the front porch. The ice scrapers are in the cars. The firewood is stacked, ready to be carried into the living room, an armful at a time.

December 01, 2008

Hate mail, Club Libby Lu, and me

More than two years ago, I wrote a blog post about Club Libby Lu, the store that promotes "make-over" parties for little girls, parties where a girl as young as four or five is dressed as either a princess or a sex object, parties that end with the little girls dancing with "sexy moves" in the window of the mall store. Actually, my post wasn't so much about Club Libby Lu as it was about the conversations I have with my students during the ten minutes before class begins and about how two blog posts about Club Libby Lu led to a discussion about consumerism, the sexualization of pre-pubescent girls, and damaging gender stereotypes. But my post ended up being the target of many google searches, mostly from parents planning birthday parties. Because I'd dared to criticize Club Libby Lu, the post led to hundreds of hate emails.

For the record (and to repeat what I said in some of the comments on my posts), I am completely in favor of kids, both boys and girls, playing dress-up and experimenting with all kinds of costumes and roles. But Club Libby Lu gives the girls only two options: you can be the pretty princess (and a princess by definition is someone born into power and wealth, not an empowered woman who chooses her path) or you can be the sex object rock star who dresses slutty for an audience. Girls at Club Libby Lu parties aren't given the option of scientist, or pilot, or doctor, or firefighter.

And yes, I'm appalled at the way how young children are sexualized at a place like Club Libby Lu. When sexuality is forced on kids before they are ready, it is artificial, and not at all empowering. The first couple of strange comments I got about Club Libby Lu, I made an honest effort to explain some of this, but soon I figured out that commenters never came back to hear what I had to say. When I turned the comments off on the post, I began getting the hate email.

Much of the hatemail begins or ends with an insult to my character. If I look critically at Club Libby Lu, then surely, there must be something wrong with me. Anonymous readers tell me that they feel sorry for my husband, with the implication that anyone who criticizes Club Libby Lu must be frigid. They tell me that I'm an "uptight bitch" and that they feel sorry for my children, who clearly never get to have any fun at all because of their evil feminist mother.

Many of the emails tell me that I need to "lighten up." Why is that whenever feminists analyze gender roles, someone tells them to "lighten up"? The implication is that it is better to just go through life with your brain turned off. My favorite insult was the anonymous person (hate mail is almost always anonymous) who called me a "childless prude who clearly has no clue what it takes to raise kids." That made me laugh.

What appalls me most about the hate mail is not the venom that pours out; that's just misdirected anger and I shrug it off. No, what's shocking is how poorly the emails are written. Has the state of public education in this country sunk to such a level that adults can't communicate in whole sentences? Must their insults be so unoriginal? And what ever happened to making a logical argument?

The biggest defense of Club Libby Lu — well, actually, the only defense I can glean from any of these rambling and poorly written emails — is that the girls have "fun" at the parties. Yep, that's the whole defense. "But it's fun." One parent said he had reservations about the place because of the sexist messages it seemed to be sending, but that he was glad he kept his mouth shut because his daughter "had fun." That seems a curious defense to me. I know people who think that torturing animals is fun — I knew kids when I was growing up who shot birds for fun — and the fact that the kids think it's "fun" doesn't make it okay.

I've yet to receive an email that had any sort of logical defense for Club Libby Lu. And the hate emails are about to come to an end. As many of my readers already know, Saks is closing all their Club Libby Lu stores. By May of 2009, all 98 stores — including the one that opened here in April of 2006 — will be closed. The Saks news release said simply that the stores were "not profitable." I suspect it is the economy more than cultural change that has brought about the end of Club Libby Lu, but still, I am relieved to see those doors shutting.

November 30, 2008

Sunday afternoon

Thanksgiving weekend is when all the college kids — well, the ones who aren't local —come home for the first time since August. How good it was to see Older Neighbor Boy! He had let his hair grown, thick and curling and falling into his face. It looked great, and he seemed so much older all of a sudden. He told us stories about living with five other guys in a suite so small that he had to keep his bike in the bathroom.

"What? You keep your bike in the bathroom? Don't the other guys care?"

"Well, I got there first, so I just slipped the bike in. So as far as they know, it's always been there.

"So they don't know what it's like to not have a bike in the bathroom."

"Exactly. They think it's normal."

Blonde Niece's friend NextHendrix hadn't cut his hair either; it hung dark and straight into the collar of his jacket. Pirate Boy had done the opposite; he had cut his long hair shorter, although it's still shaggy. Otherwise, he still seemed the same. We looked at the photos on his laptop, and he showed me how he had switched the "language" on his facebook page to Pirate.

FirstExtra was home, too, most of the weekend. But since he goes to Snowstorm University, rooms with Boy in Black, and comes here pretty often, none of us felt any surprise when we saw him. Plus, he's had the same haircut his whole life. He's our token "respectable" extra, who looks cleancut and has a steady job. Well, I guess Sailor Boy technically fits that category, since he has a military haircut and all kinds of responsibilities in the Coast Guard. But his recent promotion from seaman to coxswain led to a new influx of "That's what she said" jokes that didn't make him seem particularly respectable.

It was nice to see everyone for a few days, and they'll all be back soon for the long Christmas break. In the meantime, everyone is doing the work they need to get done before the semester ends. Boy in Black is settled on the couch with a physics textbook. Skater Boy, Blonde Niece, and Shaggy Hair are doing their calculus homework at the table, comparing answers and strategies as they work. I've started the binge-cleaning that I usually do this time of year, a chore preferable to the paper grading I'll be doing next weekend.

My parents were just here, minutes ago, to drop off a container of the turkey soup my mother always makes after Thanksgiving and to discuss our trip this weekend to see Drama Niece's play. The two little neighbor kids, Ponytail and Biker Boy, are playing on the floor with our wooden traintrack set. My husband and youngest son have gone out to the comic bookstore. Snow is falling outside. It's time to build a fire in the fireplace. Advent has begun.

What d'ya get for number six?

Blonde Niece and Shaggy Hair Boy compare answers.

November 28, 2008

Moving day

Today, my friend MakesBread left the house she used to share with the man who is now her ex-husband and moved just a few miles into the home where she'll be living with her young son. Even though she wasn't traveling very far, she still had to take apart furniture, empty every closet, and pack all that she owned into what seemed like thousands of cardboard boxes. When we arrived at 9 am — me, my husband, my daughter, and Blonde Niece — the house was filled with furniture and boxes. Other friends and family members were pulling into the driveway. MakesBread had baked muffins, made a crockpot of vegetarian chili, and rented a big moving truck for the day.

It felt like a puzzle or perhaps the game Tetris — packing pieces of furniture and cardboard boxes, wedging in blankets and rugs, fitting everything into the moving van. Once the truck was partially loaded, I climbed up onto the furniture and sat atop a bookshelf that was balanced on a wooden dresser. I grabbed boxes that friends handed up to me and pushed them into high places, shifting and shoving them until they fit tightly.

When we arrived at the new house, we inspected it eagerly. How clean and empty it looked! But of course, that didn't last long. Soon every room was piled with furniture and boxes, and piles of miscellaneous items. MakesBread began unpacking the coolers to put food into the refrigerator. The potted bush basil filled the house with that spicy smell. A few of us took a break to sit on the couch, which was strangely positioned against the fireplace, and tell horror stories about the times we've moved. As it began getting dark, we unearthed a few lamps and plugged them in.

MakesBread has a long weekend of unpacking ahead, but she's home.

November 27, 2008

Over the river and through the woods

Over the river and through the woods

to grandmother's house we go!

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday. Because it requires no work on my part. At about noon today, we hitch up the horse, pile into the sleigh, and drive just a few miles to my mother's house. Well, maybe it's really a car and not a sleigh, but we can pretend we've got sleigh bells. Although nowadays I have to keep my pretending to myself because my kids are old and cynical. ("MOM! You aren't going to keep singing that stupid song, are you?") We do really cross over the river in this photo although technically, it's a creek, and not a river.

My parents' house will be filled with the warm smell of roasting turkey. My mother will be in the kitchen, wearing her holiday apron, stirring stuff on the stove, basting the turkey. My father will be setting up folding chairs to make room for everyone around the two tables. It's a small group for Thanksgiving — only ten of us. Blonde Sister's family has gone to Big City Like No Other to join the urban contingent of the family, while Red-haired Sister's family is vacationing in Someplace Warm With Beaches and my brother celebrates with his family in Camera City. But we've got Blonde Niece staying with us this year, and we'll pick up my mother-in-law on our way.

I know what the meal will be: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, rolls, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. A small cut-glass bowl will hold celery, black olives, and green olives. My mother has made the exact same meal every year for Thanksgiving my whole life long. It's the same meal her mother used to make every year. As my mother has said, "Once you've got the perfect meal down, why change it?"

The vegetarians in the family will fill up on the side dishes. And we like to believe we have an advantage over the meat eaters in the family because we are the ones who will have room for dessert: homemade pies.

November 26, 2008

Little Drummer Girl

Little Drummer Girl

Our home is crowded, most of the time, with teenagers and young adults, playing music, dueling with light sabers, or hanging out in the living room with their laptops. As much as I love teenage energy, it's also nice to have extras who are still small enough to sit on my lap and read books. Here's one of our newest extras: four-year-old Ponytail. She lives down the street and often comes over with her seven-year-old brother to hang out with us in the afternoon.

November 25, 2008

Late afternoon

Late afternoon

During the winter, evening sneaks into afternoon. I'll be sitting on the comfy couch, reading a book or writing on my laptop computer, or maybe sitting on the floor playing blocks with the two little neighbor kids who have been coming over a lot lately. Sunlight will be coming in the west windows, touching the piano and bookcases with gold. But moments later, I'll look up from the page or the screen or the block pile, and I'll notice that the room is filled with shadows, that the sunlight has gone.

Once I notice the darkness, it moves in quickly. Shaggy Hair Boy, doing homework in the chair, will turn on the lamp. I'll carry in some wood and build a fire. The windows turn into dark mirrors that reflect the flames, the lamps, the kids on the couch. This is where we will be, mostly, all winter long, settled in front of the fire every evening with books and laptop computers and plates of food. Outside, snow falls through bare branches. All around the house, the woods hold onto the darkness.

November 24, 2008

Picnic table in November

Before it disappears

It's become a tradition for me to post a photo of my picnic table in November, before it disappears beneath drifts of snow.

November 23, 2008

November snow

By March, or even February, we'll be sick of the snow. I'll be tired of mopping up puddles on the linoleum, and hanging mittens to dry above the heat vent, and clomping around in heavy winter boots. I'll be especially weary of how tense I get behind the wheel of a car when the roads are snow-covered and slippery. I'll be sick of taking photos that are blue and white, or grey and white, or white and white.

But in November, I'm still able to appreciate snow, the way it puts a clean layer of sparkle across muddy yards, the way the curves soften square edges. The lilac bushes and barberry bushes near the house catch the snow, letting it pile up on their branches, and the river birches bend under the snow as if worshipping the season. The brilliant foliage of autumn is gone, but bare branches hold mounds of white against the winter sky.

November snow

November 22, 2008


The first night of my trip, I stayed alone in Southern City Hotel. I had planned, actually, to have a day to explore and take photos before going on to my conference. I almost always try to stretch out conference trips to include some sightseeing of the region. If I'm going to get on an airplane, I'm going to make the trip count.

Instead, I came down with the most miserable cold. My sightseeing including mostly an early morning trip to the nearest drugstore to stock up on drugs, tissues, and comfort food. The outside air was warm, but even so, I just didn't have the energy to go wandering about with my camera as I had planned. Instead, I curled up like a cat on the window ledge in my room, just waiting for the sun to come and warm me.

When I talked to a friend on the phone, I lamented the fact that I wouldn't have any cool photos to put on my blog. Really, I'd done nothing all day but sleep. The only photos I'd taken were of the building across the way, with all its cool reflecting windows.

She said, "Oh, just take a photo of yourself sleeping in the window."

In my drugged state, her idea made sense. I didn't have a tripod with me, but I immediately thought of two items that can be found in any hotel room: an ironing board and a Bible. They worked nicely to bring the camera to just the right height. From my spot on the window sill, I could look down on the city: people rushing about on sidewalks, lights coming on inside buildings, cabs pulling up to the front of the hotel. When the sun came out, I stretched out luxuriously, and went back to sleep.


November 20, 2008

Rocking and rolling

On the Saturday night of the conference, we danced. The organizers had hired some musicians and set up a dance floor and bar in the largest room. After several days packed with speakers and sessions, my body cramped from sitting in stiff conference chairs, I welcome the chance to move my muscles to music. Intellectual stimulation is wonderful, but my body needs more. And I love to dance. I'm not a particularly good dancer, really, but that doesn't matter. Dancing isn't about what you look like, I always explain to my friends, dancing is about how you feel.

When I was little, we'd dance around while my father and his friends were jamming, and dancing always puts me back into that mood of just a carefree kid letting music move me around the room. I don't even care if I'm the worst dancer on the dance floor: I figure my presence will help other people feel less self-conscious. And I'm not self-conscious in the least.

Artist Friend always claims that he doesn't like to dance. He rolls his eyes when I drag him into the music. And Philadelphia Guy, who plays in band when he's not being a professor, always says he'd rather be playing the guitar. But because they are my friends, they dance with me anyhow.

Of course, I dance with not just my friends but everyone: the group of young female grad students who are the first on the floor, the older guys who actually know some steps, my roommate, people on my panel, the guy I sat near at lunch, and strangers I don't even remember seeing at the conference. I feel it's my responsibility to pull the shy guys away from the bar and get them out onto the dance floor. You can tell when someone really wants to dance and just needs a little urging.

I love the energy of a crowded dance floor, where grad students teach cool moves to tenured professors, and long-time friends smile to each other as they twirl about. The nametags come off, and the academic hierarchy gets subverted. Even the most stuffy academic will loosen up after he's had a few drinks, taken off the tie, and jumped out in front of the band.

At a dance, you can see a new side to old friends. Take ShaNaNa Guy, for example. At lunch, I'd watched him accept a plaque for his contributions to this academic conference. At an afternoon session, I'd listened to him "interrogate the ongoing shift in biological paradigms towards a mind-set attuned toward systematic processes." But that night, he took off his button-down shirt, picked up the bass, and sang into the mike. He'd intended to play just a song or two, but he hit it off with the band, and ended up playing every set. He's been an academic for decades now, but a musician even longer (he was only 19 when he played Woodstock), and it was clear from watching him that music was his first love.

Dancing builds community. No matter how much I might bond with my friends over books and ideas, no matter how many long geeky conversations we might have over lunch, no matter what exciting plenary sessions we attend or sights we see in the host city, the conference dance is when we come together, without nametags or powerpoint or pin-striped blazers, to just act like humans who enjoy being together. It's a great way to end a conference.



November 19, 2008


By the time I arrived at my conference, I had a bad cold, which just kept getting worse. I spent the second day of the conference sneezing and spreading the virus to all my friends. I sat at sessions rooting through my bag for dry tissues and trying to be as quiet as possible as I blew my nose. Eventually, I gave up trying to get my brain to function, and I skipped some sessions to take an afternoon nap.

By evening, I was pretty pathetic. My head ached, my nose was red, and my lips hurt. I had given up trying to look professional and was wandering around the hotel in sweatpants and a t-shirt, with my glasses on instead of my contact lenses, with Vaseline rubbed onto my nose and lips. When I'm sick, even my hair looks bad. Instead of a conference program, I clutched handfuls of tissues and a box of tylenol.

I kept apologizing to everyone who came near me. "I'm probably giving you this cold."

To his credit, Philadelphia Guy, who is TOTALLY losing his urban edge, kept saying, "I'll hug you anyhow."

I rallied to attend the evening plenary session, a talk called "Baboon Metaphysics: the Evolution of a Social Mind." Afterwards, one group of friends were heading out to the bars. That was the last thing I felt like doing. Well, maybe if I drank alcohol, the medicinal effect would have been worth it, but being sober AND miserably sick at a bar is not that fun.

Then Artist Friend said, "Want some reiki?"

In my suitcase, I had a small beeswax candle from the monastery. My roommate, who said she knew both reiki and massage, found a soap dish we could put the candle in.

The candle spread warm light across the impersonal hotel room. I stretched out on the bed, still clutching my tissues. Artist Friend pulled the desk chair over, sat near the edge of the bed, and put his hands on my head. Immediately, I could feel this surge of warm energy just pouring over me, sweeping through my clogged skull.

My body relaxed under the tingling heat. I didn't move. Beautiful Italian Woman sat on the bed next to me and massaged my shoulders. Artist Friend kept his hands in my hair, energy flowing through his palms. I snuggled into the quilt on the bed, my headache disappearing. They worked on me — a woman I'd known for less than a day and a man who is one of my dearest friends — until my muscles were melty and my head clear.

A single candle

I took a photo of the candle the next morning, after a good night sleep.

November 18, 2008

Conference tradition: the nude photo

At the conference I just attended, most of my friends are guys. This in itself is not such a bad thing. It means, for instance, that I never have to feel guilty about leaving unfinished food on my plate at a restaurant. As soon as I'm done eating — or sometimes even before — their long arms will swoop in and finish everything on the plate. And since I've got a houseful of teenage boys at home, I'm quite used to living in a cloud of testosterone.

But then there is the duty I have to my readers; my need to come up with a nude photo for my blog. And therein lies the problem. My male friends are terribly squeamish about posing naked for my blog. It's funny. All that is written about women and body image would lead you to think men in this culture would be eager to get naked for the blog. I mean, it's women who are supposed to have self-esteem issues about the body.

I broached the topic of the nude photo at dinner the first night of the conference, figuring that ShaNaNaGuy, who lived the free spirit life of a musician in the 1970s, would be a likely candidate. But the men at the table all had excuses. Philadelphia Guy said no because he's on the job market: "You hook me up with a tenure-track job in the northeast and then I'll let you take as many naked photos as you want." Artist Friend feels he's already done his share: two years ago, he brought his younger brother to the conference and let HIM pose naked on a city balcony. "You aren't going to get ME naked." He tried to switch the topic to football before I could ask again. Then my cell phone rang.

It was a colleague who had agreed to share a room with me and split expenses, a woman I'd never met before. She had just arrived and wanted to meet us in the hotel bar. Artist Friend motioned with his fork. "There you go. She'll do it." And the men at the table breathed a collective sigh of relief.

My roommate turned out to be a sophisticated and beautiful woman with a lovely accent that revealed her roots: she was born in Country Shaped Like Footwear. She had the most wonderful habit of randomly handing me squares of organic dark chocolate and saying, "Here, eat this." She was eager to see my blog, since she was thinking of starting one of her own, to match the website that advertises the many books she's written.

On Saturday, she was sitting on her bed, looking over the forty-page chapter she needed to condense into a twenty-minute talk, when I realized that I needed to take the photo fast before we ran out of natural light. The timing wasn't great, as her talk was in just a couple of hours, but I knew I couldn't let my readers down. "Um, I know you're busy writing your talk, but could you just take off all your clothes and pose for me?"

To her credit, Beautiful Italian Woman seemed to understand my dilemma. She set down her paper and stripped off her clothes in one fluid motion. "Where do you want me?"

We'd been talking earlier about meditation so I'd already planned the shot. "Just sit on the bed as if you were meditating." She sat down in the light that was coming in the window, I snapped the photo, and she went back to the paper she was working on. It was as easy as that.

Yep, that's how it goes. Male friends I've known for years, men who have often assured me that they will do ANYTHING for me, balk at the suggestion that they need to do a simple favor like pose for my blog. But a woman I've just met strips her clothes off without hesitation.


(Readers who want to know the history of the naked photo tradition can check it out here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.)

It's a bird, it's a plane


During my visit to several southern cities, I finally had a chance to meet a blogger I've been wanting to meet for a while — Science Woman. Doesn't her name make her sound like a superhero? And really, she pretty much is. She's a scientist who juggles all kinds of stuff including an almost two-year-old daughter. I did half-expect her to be wearing spandex, with a long cape and SW emblazoned on her chest.

The difficult thing about blogger meet-ups is they almost always take place when I'm traveling. And I'm a terrible traveler. By the time I get off an airplane, I'm usually feeling queasy and I'm partially deaf because of the pressure in my ears. On top of everything else, I'm in a drugged state from the dramamine and sudafed that I took hoping to ward off the other conditions. On this trip, I was also coming down with a bad cold, which reduced me to a zombie state.

But Science Woman was willing to have dinner with me anyway. We met in the lobby of my hotel. And like a good scientist, she was very prepared. She had looked up several different restaurants that served vegan food. She had maps and directions all printed out.

We got into her car, and she handed me her map. This was a serious mistake.

I can get anyone lost. It's a skill that I have. One of my superpowers, you could say.

Partly, it's because I can't read maps when I'm in a moving vehicle because then I'll get motion sick. So what I usually do is take a quick glance at that map and then look back out the window. I try to create the illusion of helpfulness by reading aloud the names of every street sign I see. But since I don't like to look back down at the map, the street names have almost no relevance.

Besides, I think it's fun to get lost. I'm never particularly motivated to get us back on track. So while Science Woman was trying to drive around construction while simultaneously reading the map spread across the steering wheel and making an honest effort to actually find the restaurant, I was happily talking about my kids and my conference and looking at the buildings we were going past. "Look at the church! It's got a NEON cross on it!"

So I ended up getting a tour of the city, while we driving in circles. Cities look prettiest at night, with light spilling from windows and reflecting off wet sidewalks and mirror-like windows. Eventually, we ended up at an Ethiopian Restaurant, where a man in a white apron announced that we wouldn't be getting any silverware and then served us all kinds of delicious vegan food that we ate by scooping it up with bits of soft, thin bread.

Science Woman was warm and friendly and easy to talk to. The time went by too fast, and before I knew it, we were heading back to my hotel — a much shorter route this time — so that I could climb into bed after a long day of traveling.

November 17, 2008

Airplane blogging


I've been sitting on an airplane for several hours, and my ears don't hurt. I haven't yet felt that agonizing pressure that makes me feel like my head is going to explode. I don't feel motion sick either. The plane is not jerking wildly from side to side, or dropping suddenly with that motion that makes my stomach twist. So far, I'm feeling fine, although a bit cramped from sitting in this small seat and a bit drowsy from the dramamine I've taken.

Of course, the plane is still on the ground.

We are supposedly "in line" to use the runway. We've been "in line" all evening. And if I look out the window, I can see that the phrase is not a metaphor. I can see several big airplanes ahead of us. Every once in a while, the plane ahead of us rolls a few hundred yards farther, and we follow.

A young boy several seats ahead of me keeps twisting and turning and crying about how he hates being on the plane. He's pretty young, and it's socially acceptable for him to voice his complaints. I'm envious.

Whenever I mention to my friends that air travel makes me nervous, that it's a completely unnatural way to travel, they reassure me that the air planes are built with all kinds of amazing technology. I am repeatedly assured that the air traffic controllers use the most advanced computer systems to keep us safe in the air, preventing us from crashing into other planes.

And yet ... the best system for getting a whole bunch of big airplanes out of an airport is to literally roll them into a line, like kindergarten kids waiting to use the bathroom?

Yes, this gives me confidence in the whole endeavor.

November 11, 2008

Flying south

Despite the rumors that I have super powers and need only a cape to zoom across the sky, I will be taking a plane as I fly to Someplace Warmer Than Snowstorm City for an academic conference. I'll be leaving behind dark, rainy weather and a desk piled with important stuff that needs to be done immediately. I left my students with a project to work on and told them I'd see them on Tuesday. I'll be going to all kinds of sessions, hearing some amazing speakers, and reading a chapter from my manuscript. I'll be meeting up with colleagues and friends, including Artist Friend and Philadelphia Guy, and some bloggers as well. Hopefully I'll return next week feeling well-rested and inspired and ready to tackle the rest of the semester.

November 09, 2008

How I spent my weekend

I worked on my manuscript this weekend. Doesn't that sound impressive? You too can dazzle your friends with that kind of statement. Here's how: just print out a bunch of stuff you've written and stick it in a manilla folder. If you want to be really ambitious, you can buy a black binder with a special clippy thing. You don't have to actually work on it, just carry it around and refer to it as "my manuscript." Yep. You will be amazed how much credit you can get for just carrying around a bunch of papers.

The drawback is that once in awhile someone might ask you to actually come up with something to read from the manuscript. It happens. For instance, next week, I'm going to a conference in Southern City Where I'm Hoping It Will Be Warm. And I made a commitment long ago, like last spring or something, to read a chapter of the manuscript at the conference. I had, theoretically, months and months of time to write this chapter, including the whole summer, but it wasn't until after election day, after I was able to breathe a sigh of relief that our country might finally be headed in the right direction, that I looked at the to-do list on my desk and thought, "Oh, yeah. Guess I better write something."

So that's what I've been doing. I began on Friday by taking out a clean new manilla folder and a fresh yellow legal pad. (I seriously have some kind of fetish for office supplies.) I wrote the title of the chapter — Snake Dreams— on the side of the manilla folder. I didn't write anything new, exactly, because that would be way too much work, but I've been piecing together bits of writing, including some old blog posts — mixing, matching, and re-arranging in hopes a theme will emerge. I guess I'm hoping that the theme will in some way match the title that has already been inserted into a printed program for the conference, but I don't let those kind of details worry me too much.

I keep reading the pieces aloud, a habit that has stayed with me after years of writing poetry, a practice I find very helpful even though it makes me look like the crazy woman who talks to herself. I keep changing my mind about which pieces I want to include. I keep coming up with brilliant new ideas. Like ... maybe I should wear a cape to the conference! Wouldn't that be cool?

My husband is out of town, the weather has been dark and rainy, and it's been a good weekend to stay at my desk. In between bouts of writing, I've hung out in the living room with the gang of teenage boys, who are having some kind of geekfest with laptops and light sabers, and who say, "That's what she said," so often that I'm worried the phrase is going to sneak into my chapter. Although come to think of it, sexual innuendo isn't such a bad theme. Maybe I could work it in there....

November 07, 2008

At piano lessons

Every Friday

My kids' piano teacher is beautiful woman with a lovely Russian accent who grew up in Cold War Country. She's recently been working with Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why on a song they are playing together. Sitting in the studio with my laptop, I can hear their music and their chatter. My boys talk to her just the way they talk to their aunts. She'll tease Shaggy Hair Boy for the way he'll just grab anything handy to use as a belt: a measuring tape, for instance, or a telephone cord. She gives him effusive compliments about his long hair and the way he can improvise when he's playing jazz. She's one of the first adults that my very shy With-a-Why would ever talk to.

Last year, she said to With-a-Why one day, "I have news for you." She held up the weekend's newspaper, folded to a photo of a group of people getting sworn in as American citizens. She was one of them. At the time, I was feeling angry at the Bush administration and ashamed of how my country was acting, and I was touched by the idea that someone still wanted to be part of this country, despite all of our problems.

This week was the first time she was able to vote for an American president.

When we talked before the kids' lessons this afternoon, I asked what she thought of the election. "It was so exciting!" she said. "I took 56 photos!"

She sat next to me with her little camera, and we looked at the photos on the viewfinder — 56 photos of the television screen. They were surprisingly clear, and looking at them brought back the emotions of the night. "There's McCain giving his concession speech! There's Jesse Jackson crying! Look! Barack Obama!" We kept saying the same things at the same time. "And he's SMART! We are going to have a president who's SMART!"

We sat there for a few minutes, two women who grew up on opposite sides of the world, on opposite sides of the Cold War, two women raising our children in a country that had just elected a leader who is giving us reasons to hope. She clicked off her camera and breathed the words people all over the world have been saying this week. "Finally."

November 06, 2008


Even though he's in college, Boy in Black comes home pretty often. Well, the campus apartment he shares with FirstExtra is about twelve miles away, so he's not traveling a huge distance. His drum set is here, and his electric guitar, and the piano. He uses our washer and dryer, and he raids our cupboards for food. But mostly, I think, he comes often for the same reason my daughter tries to get home whenever she can. His younger brothers are here.

I'll come home from work and find Boy in Black settled in the comfy chair, helping Shaggy Hair with his physics homework. I'll look out into the backyard and see him throwing a frisbee with Shaggy Hair, or having a light saber battle with With-a-Why. Sometimes he'll bring his laptop home and settle down by the fire with us to do his own work. He's got a bunch of close friends on the college Ultimate team, and he'll disappear on weekends sometimes to hang out with them, but always, he returns a few days later, often on a week night, and I'll find him lounging on the couch, joking with Skater Boy or talking to Quick.

His presence is especially important to With-a-Why, that quiet, intense boy who adores his older brother. Even though they are six years apart, they've always been close. They can still stay up all night together, drawn into games or projects. I'll come downstairs sometimes on a Saturday morning and find them both on the comfy couch, asleep in whatever positions they fell into when their intense energy finally gave out.


November 05, 2008

In print

I watched the coverage on the television set last night. I talked with twitter friends and blog friends. My daughter kept reading aloud text messages from Film Guy, who was following the election from the west coast. With my four kids beside me, I watched the concession speech and the acceptance speech. I read jubilant status messages on facebook and instant messenger.

But I don't think the news really sunk in until I stopped at a newspaper box on my way to work, put in some quarters, and held this morning's paper in my hands.

In print

November 03, 2008

Finishing with a fight

For Saturday's Halloween party, Red-haired Sister and her kids worked hard making Alice in Wonderland costumes, mostly from stuff they'd gotten at a thrift store. When I asked my sister over email if my outfit would be flattering, she said, "Well, male caterpillars will find you attractive." THAT was reassuring.

So, yes, I went to the party dressed as a shapeless blue caterpillar. The puffy velour clothing was comfy, I have to admit. And the bonus was that I had all these extra arms and legs. When I danced, I could just spin around and slap people around me. As my dances got more wild, the thick, comfy outfit became a little warm, and some of the arms popped right off. Soon I had body parts scattered all over the dance floor.

Urban Sophisticate had the most abstract costume. She painted her face white so that she would look dead and wore all black. Dandelion Niece helped her (just minutes before the party) sew 50 dollar bills into a skirt. I used masking tape to make the words RIP on her back. She dramatically announced that she was "the death of capitalism."

Halfway through Saturday night's Halloween party, the kids began switching costumes. With-a-Why, when he saw which way the wind was blowing, switched allegiance from the Alice in Wonderland group to the Star Wars gang by putting some kind of burlap garment over his Cheshire cat outfit and grabbing a light saber. Everyone wanted a turn spinning about the dance floor in one of the cardboard dice outfits. I saw the Madhatter's huge green hat on several different people.

When the crowded dance floor finally cleared, the light sabers came out. A party isn't a party without a dramatic battle at the end.

And the party ends with a battle

November 02, 2008

Best prop


Boy in Black finally found an application for all the stuff he's been learning in college physics courses. My brother and sister-in-law don't actually give out an award for Best Prop, but I think Boy in Black's version of R2D2 would have won it. He moves, lights up, plays music, and says things like, "That's what she said."

Golden Gourd goes to Star Wars group

The competition for the Best Group Costume prize was fierce this year. The defending champions, a team that included all of Red-haired Sister's family, plus my parents, me, and With-a-Why, chose "Alice in Wonderland" as their theme. My sister and her kids spent weeks making the costumes. Dandelion Niece looks like Alice even before she puts on a blue dress, and we figured her cuteness would gain us all kinds of points. My father was typecast as the Mad Hatter, while my mother made a glamorous Queen of Hearts. Tie-dye Brother-in-law good-naturedly donned a white rabbit suit, while Suburban Nephew made his own costume — a playing card. My sister turned into a rose bush, I became a stoned caterpillar, and With-a-Why wore a glow-in-the-dark smile as the Cheshire cat. We thought we had the coveted Golden Gourd award in the bag.

But the teenage/young people group, who went with a Star Wars theme, had their own secret weapons. First, there was a robot that Boy in Black built Thursday night, all from junk he found in our garage. He used the wheels from a skateboard. He fitted a red light from a broken remote control. He mounted an iPod and speakers so that it played Star Wars music. And he taped a cell phone inside so that it could talk on command. (Yes, apparently R2D2 says, "That's What She Said" now.) And second, the group had numbers: my three oldest kids, plus four extras. Quick happens to look just like Hans Solo anyhow. And Philosophical Boy stood patiently for hours while they used gold wrapping paper to turn him into C3PO. But some say that what got the group the most votes was a simple trick: the gender switch. Sailor Boy dressed as Princess Leia while my daughter dressed as Luke Skywalker. "People like to see skin," Sailor Boy explained, as he sauntered past his girlfriend's aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker pose for the blog

Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker pose for the blog.

Dancing dice

Dancing dice

Blonde Sister, her husband, her three daughters, and her daughter's boyfriend came to last night's Halloween party as Yahtzee, a group costume that was quite effective. The only difficult was that they had a bit of trouble eating, drinking, or clapping while wearing the cardboard boxes. But the costumes were great for spinning about on the dance floor.

November 01, 2008

Costume-making frenzy

Middle of the night project

Rolls of duct tape, flattened cereal boxes, and bottles of paint are piled on the living room carpet. Old clothes and random tools fill the couch. All manner of items have been brought in from the garage: an old telephone, a red plastic bucket, a skateboard, a hack saw. Kitchen items are scattered about as well: the colander, for instance. Boy in Black keeps asking me questions: "Do you've a tan-coloured shirt that would fit me? Where are Dad's belts? Okay if I take apart this phone?"

Yes, it's that time of year. The big family Halloween party that my brother and his wife host will be tonight, and the party features a costume contest, which everyone takes quite seriously. Red-haired Sister and her family (plus my parents and With-a-Why) won the best group costume prize last year for their Wizard of Oz entry, and they are considered the group to beat this year. It's pretty stiff competition: they've got the multi-generational factor that includes the oldest people at the party (my parents), plus the cute factor — Dandelion Niece. She's been practicing going up to people, throwing back her blonde hair, widening her eyes, and saying in a pleading voice, "Will you vote for me?"

My three oldest kids, plus five of our extras, are putting together a top-secret entry in an effort to beat Red-haired Sister's group. The "young person team" is counting on humor and elaborate detail to pull them over the top. That, and amazing props. Boy in Black has finally found an application for all the high-level physics he's been learning in college, and he stayed up all night creating some pretty cool special effects. Of course, Shaggy Hair Boy has been planning some dance moves that may well get the whole group kicked out of the contest for inappropriate content. (If the older generation voting block could hear the joking that has accompanied the costume-making, I think they would have lost that vote long ago.)

I can't reveal what any of the costumes are because too many family members read this blog. I will say that Urban Sophisticate Sister, who arrives by plane any minute now, has got a timely and abstract costume idea that should score points for "Best Individual Costume" amongst the more sophisticated crowd. All three of Blonde Sister's daughters are in town for the party, and that family are planning an entry in the group costume category, although the young people in this household do not consider them serious competition. That may be a mistake since Blonde Sister is an intensely competitive person, as anyone who has ever played Monopoly with her can attest.

Last night, after trick-or-treating in the village with Dandelion Niece and Neighbor Girl, Red-haired Sister and I hung out on the comfy couch talking, while the youngest four kids ran in circles, playing an abridged form of monster, and the high school/college crowd hid out in my bedroom, working on their top-secret costumes. I could tell my sister was worried. "Boy in Black's working on special effects?" she asked. She sighed and turned to her son. "We might have to resort to sabotage."