February 29, 2008


At the beginning of February, I told my students that I didn't like February because it was such a long month. February in Snowstorm Region, I explained, is about 94 days long. And all throughout the month of February, as my students straggled into class each morning, stamping snow off their boots, pulling wet mittens off, and apologizing for being late because the driving was so awful, I've kept saying, "See? Wasn't I right? Can you believe it's STILL February?"

My theory about February drove some of my literal, science-minded students crazy, but for the most part they've agreed with me. Then today, as we were talking the way we usually do before it's time to begin class, I announced that it was no longer February.

Chemistry Student Who Plans to Write a Science Fiction Novel Some Day looked at me in disbelief. "What? Of course it's still February."

I explained what a friend had suggested to me the day before. The month of February ends on the 28th, and leap day doesn't count because it's an extra day.

And I told them the new plan for leap day, the one that will be put into place when I become dictator of the world. Leap Day won't be on the calendar at all. That way, no one will schedule classes or appointments or anything at all. It'll be like that extra hour we get every fall. No one really thinks about it at all until it's Saturday night, and then someone remembers, "Oh, we get that extra hour! It's the night we turn the clocks back!" And then everyone changes their watches, and we get an extra hour.

I think that's what we deserve every four years. An extra day, a whole free day with nothing scheduled. It won't be on the calendar, it won't be a Friday or a Monday or any day of the week: it will just exist. Twenty-four extra hours!

Just the thought of having a whole day free to do nothing seemed to cheer my students up. They started talking about what they'd do with the time. Besides sleep, of course. They were all chatting happily as we started pulling out our books to begin class. And I could tell from the energy in the room that February was over.

February 28, 2008

Snow-covered and slippery

Snow-covered and slippery

One of the things that makes February such a long month here in Snowstorm Region is that it takes forever to get anywhere. A simple car trip that might take 15 minutes on dry pavement can take 45 minutes on icy, snow-covered roads. On a winter afternoon, even quiet country roads can get crowded with traffic because everyone is moving so slowly, and because we all have to maneuver around the cars stranded like big snowy lumps in the ditches.

In other parts of the world, this kind of weather would probably mean that people might cancel events, stay home from work or school. But that kind of solution would be impractical in Snowstorm Region; we might as well cancel the whole month of February. Actually, that's not a bad idea. I've often thought that if I were dictator of this region, I'd declare February a month of hibernation, a time to stay home by the fire, drinking hot tea and reading.

But unfortunately, that's not the thinking in this culture. Instead, we have huge snowplows that keep trying to clear the roads, even though the wind just blows the snow right back onto the roads, and big trucks that spread salt to melt the snow and corrode our vehicles. We put snowtires on our cars and go out anyhow, pretending that the storm didn't really happen.

I hate winter driving. By the time I make it to my destination, my eyes are tired from squinting through the blowing snow, my shoulders are tense from hunching over the steering wheel, and I've got a tension headache from all the times I almost went off the road.

We get plenty of snowstorms in March, but somehow that's different. Because in March, there's at least the possibility, the hope, that spring will come.

February 27, 2008

Another blogger gets naked

I hadn't intended to take a naked photo on the trip to the State Where People Eat Potatoes Less Than You Might Think. After all, this wasn't a conference; it was an executive council meeting. And I honestly didn't have time to blog. In our guilt over the carbon footprint of our meeting, we were determined to make every minute count, and that meant we were meeting over breakfast at 7 am, eating lunch while we worked, and continuing our discussions into the dark. We were making our way through a packed agenda, and there was no time for such frivolity as dancing naked on the tables, although we did take time out one morning to walk up the street and observe a fox eating a dead squirrel. Watching animals eat dead things is a high priority amongst Friendly Green Folks.

I'm not sure how the topic of my top-secret pseudonymous blog even came up.

It may have been at dinner when almost everyone was drinking wine, and some of us were talking about blogs as the "new" nature writing. It was a serious discussion about bloggers who write about place, who write about nature, albeit in a virtual medium. We were talking about blogs like Creek Running North by nature and science writer Chris Clarke and the blog Out with Ari: Life as a Canine Naturalist by Kathryn, who writes about what she has learned about the natural world through walks with her dog. We were discussing bloggers like Rana from Frogs and Ravens, who writes such wonderful descriptions of the natural world, or Lorianne DiSabato from Hoarded Ordinaries, who keeps a place-based blog, or Chas S. Clifton who writes about nature in the Southern Rockies.

This thoughtful discussion about blogs was interrupted by a waiter who arrived with long wooden pepper mill, asking each person if they would like some "fresh pepper." Unfortunately, I cannot hear a waiter asking a question like that without remembering the famous "Fresh-a-Pepper" skit from Saturday Night Live in which the pepper boy wields his phallic looking pepper mill in a highly suggestive way, causing the customers who asked for fresh pepper to writhe and moan in their seats. My attempt to insert a thoughtful analysis of that skit into the conversation was deeply appreciated by Colleague With Southern Accent, who kept sending the waiter over to give me more pepper, just to see how much I would blush.

I think it was the very literary discussion of the body and sexuality that followed that led me to declaring that someone at the table needed to pose naked for my blog. Strangely, no one questioned my purpose. In the tradition of literature professors everywhere, they jumped immediately to the relevant point: who should be the lucky person to get that place of honor?

An international argument ensued. British, Canadian, and American accents swirled about the table over the plates of food and glasses of wine, each person explaining why someone else at the table needed to be the chosen model. As usual, the men in the group did a whole lot of joking about the photo and made gallant statements about how naked photos were a tradition that needed to be upheld, but when faced with the prospect of stripping for the camera, they balked.

The newest member of the group, the Canadian professor — who had just met most of us for the first time that afternoon and who had been happily drawing a map for me on the paper table mat — went suddenly quiet. The British professor to my left , on the other hand, seemed tempted by the fame of being part of the first international naked blog shot, but he kept changing his mind. Colleague With Southern Accent, who had earlier declared that because he was the oldest person in the room, we need to all treat him with respect, or at least, considerably less derision, kept volunteering everyone but himself.

In the end, the woman who posed was the obvious choice. I needed to take the photo in natural light, before our early morning meeting, and she was getting up early to go running, a wholesome choice. She has a blog, a sense of humor, and a cool tattoo. And she's efficient. While our colleagues were still milling about after breakfast in the big living room of the B&B, she slipped away with me to one of the covered porches, where she stripped off her clothes despite the chilly air, posed for a photo, and then got dressed and back into our meeting room before anyone even noticed she was missing. If you read my blog carefully, you'll be able to figure out who she is, but I am trusting you all to keep it a secret. I promised her that my readers know how to be discreet.

Another naked blogger

Anonymous blogger, watching through the curtains for the first morning light.

(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.)

February 26, 2008

Northwestern snow


My first morning in Potato State, I woke up early, since my body was still on east coast time. I had a few hours to kill before my colleagues arrived for our long weekend of meetings, so I decided to go out exploring. I had been assured the climate was more mild than the one I was used to, but as I walked, snow began to fall. I was glad I had ignored everyone's advice and worn my red ski parka. I kept passing people dressed in just sweaters or light jackets, which seemed a bit peculiar.

I found a memorial to Anne Frank made of curving walls of stone, with quotes from all kinds of famous people, and I spent a quiet few minutes reading all the text before crossing a bridge over rushing green water. A flock of geese kept me company as I walked through a park filled with trees whose twisted branches were holding up little piles of new snow. There were two small museums, a history museum and an art museum, and I got to the history museum just as it opened. I walked in with two volunteers, and we all chatted in the lobby, since the woman who ran the front desk was just getting organized. They all kept talking about the snow: apparently this city only gets 12 to 15 inches each year. Since I come from a place that gets ten times that much snow, I didn't feel as excited as they did by the weather, but that did explain to me why most of the people I had passed were so inadequately dressed.

I'm used to the really big museums in Big City Like No Other, but it was fun to walk through a small museum, where I actually had a chance to look at every exhibit. I learned all about the Oregon Trail. Well, mostly I got the idea that the pioneers had lots of guns. When I got tired of looking at guns and wagon wheels and maps, I ducked out and went over to the art museum, which had the kind of random assortment of art you might expect in a small museum. One room was filled with ship models that looked very old and weathered, but the video in the side room showed the artist making them out of random things like curtain rods and computer keyboards. In the interview, Ship Building Artist said that his friends were always dropping off all kinds of broken stuff, and the video showed his garage just filled with bins of junk. I began to wish he was my neighbor because I could see how that would be a great way of getting rid of stuff.

The ship models were so cool that I figured I would take a picture. I thought my father would like them, and so would Artist Friend. The big windows that overlooked the park were letting in plenty of natural light. I pulled my camera from my pocket and was holding it to my eye when the lone security guy walked over to me.

"I'm sorry, but you can't take pictures of the artwork."

I looked at him in surprise. "But I'm not using a flash."

He looked apologetic. "I'm not supposed to let anyone take pictures of the artwork."

I put the camera back in my pocket, and he gestured at the big windows. "You could take pictures of the snow."

I laughed, and he gave me an odd look. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I live in Snowstorm Region, and by the end of February, I'm kind of tired of taking photos of the snow. When I told him that I was from out of town, he immediately said, "Oh, you're here to go skiing." Every person I'd met had said that, and I was flattering myself that I must look athletic, the kind of person who OF COURSE would be skiing, until finally it occurred to me that everyone was making that guess based on the coat I was wearing. I chatted with him for a few minutes, and then I wandered back through the museum. When I went outside, I obediently took a few photos of the snow.


February 25, 2008

On the airplane

Well, it turns out that traveling to State Famous for the Potato takes a very long time. I swear, I was on the airplane for about 600 hours. I am only exaggerating a little. The good thing is that the woman sitting next to me was traveling with a six-month-old baby. Yes, this young mother was trapped, a captive audience who had no choice but to listen while I gave unsolicited advice on everything from breastfeeding to Barbie dolls. I do so love to give advice.

And of course, I got to play with the baby. We spent the time passing him back and forth, dangling toys in front of his face to entertain him, singing to him and talking to him, and holding him across our laps to change his diaper. We did all kinds of silly things to make him happy: he had the cutest smile. Young Mother with Lovely Freckles kept saying, "Oh, I'm so glad I am next to someone who doesn't get weirded out when I breastfeed." That led me to regale her with stories of all the places I've breastfed babies: the bleacher seats in a baseball stadium rank right up there with airplanes as not very convenient for nursing an infant.

Young Mother With Freckles was traveling to visit her parents, who were eager to have a long visit with their grandson. Her husband, the father of the baby, is serving a tour of duty in the Middle East. "He was in the national guard," Young Mother said. "He wasn't supposed to be deployed." He has only seen his baby once.

In the baggage area, Young With Freckles had a happy reunion with her parents, who seemed thrilled to see the baby. I was still waiting for my luggage (fruitlessly, it turned out) when it was time for her to leave. She came over to say, "I'm so glad I got to sit next to you" just as I was saying the same thing to her, and we hugged before parting ways.

February 20, 2008

Flying away

I'm on my way to a different part of the country, leaving behind the bleak February landscape of Snowstorm Region. It will still be February where I'm going, but it'll be a different kind of February.

I've written before about Friendly Green Association, an organization that sponsors my favorite conference. I'm going now to the Officers' Retreat to spend a couple of days brainstorming ideas, solving problems, making plans for the future, and coming to decisions. I'm looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues; it's always wonderful to hang out with Friendly Green Folk.

I'll be back next week.



February 19, 2008

Both sides

When With-a-Why was a little kid, he'd wake up with night terrors. He'd look around the room with these terrified eyes and sometimes pace the room — scared, frantic, talking gibberish. I had night terrors myself as a kid (and I still wake up with nightmares) and so did my youngest sister, so I didn't find his behavior unusual, although I have to admit that it can be creepy to talk to someone who is not really awake and who is acting kind of possessed. Well, I don't think I've actually ever seen someone who is possessed but his eyes would roll back in the manner of possessed characters in movies.

I'd just point out reassuring things in the room: "Here's the lamp. Here's the blanket. Here you are in your room." Usually my familiar voice and the sheer monotony of what I was saying would lull him back into the normal realm.

Once he was awake and talking normal, I'd try to get him back to sleep. It would be a relief to have my little boy back. I'd get in bed with him, hugging him and talking to him.

"Sleep on both sides of me," he'd say. So I'd put my arms and legs all the way around him, encircling him the best I could so that he would feel surrounded.

Today, With-a-Why has been asleep most of the day, his usually lively thirteen-year-old self felled by some kind of sickness that includes a high fever, a bad headache, and a hacking cough. He woke up early this evening with what seemed like a night terror. He began pacing the room with wide open eyes, but I could tell he wasn't seeing me. He was muttering gibberish, and his clammy skin was wet with sweat. His long hair was soaked.

Shaggy Hair, the only other person home, regarded him with interest. With-a-Why's eyes were kind of bulging out, and he was muttering, "Horrible. Horrible." At first, he wouldn't respond to anything I said, but I finally got him calmed down and snuggled onto the couch, drinking ginger ale. By then he could answer simple questions, but couldn't even articulate what had just happened. I sat on one side of him, holding his glass of ginger ale, and Shaggy Hair Boy sat on the other side, so that he could feel loved from both sides.

Ultimate in bags

They hold stuff

For the readers who wanted a photo to go with the post below.

February 18, 2008

Filled with groceries

Long ago, when the local grocery store switched from the brown paper bags of my childhood to the flimsy and disturbingly non-biodegradable plastic bags, I decided that I would bring my own canvas bags to the store. I would set an example for the community, for my kids, for the universe! My friend Soil Scientist had successfully switched over to canvas bags years before that. She had a handful of canvas bags, each with her name written in marker, that she used when she bought groceries. Whenever she came to a potluck, she'd stop at the store and bring food in a canvas bag. I thought I could do the same. I'd be Super Eco-Mom.

It didn't work that way. I buy a whole lot of groceries, way more than my single friend ever did. I'd buy expensive canvas bags and then use them for other things — a canvas bag is so handy — and then I wouldn't have enough. They were never sitting nicely on the front seat of my car when I'd stop at the store. And they were all different sizes, which made them annoyingly impractical. I loved the concept of re-using bags, but I could never manage the practice successfully. In the end, I would get the plastic bags and just feel guilty about it. Too often that is the way awareness works with me: it adds to my guilt but has little impact on my life.

But then last year, the local grocery store began selling black re-usable bags, just the same size as the old brown paper bags, except sturdier and with handles. They were reasonably priced, just $.99. The first time I saw them, I bought a dozen. Of course, my family couldn't resist using the bags for other things, like carrying stuff to the beach, so the black bags disappeared from my car, but then the next time I went to the store, I just bought more. And whenever I forgot to carry the bags into the store, I would buy more of them. I can't imagine how many black bags I've bought in the last year, but it's probably like 60 or 70. For a while, it seemed like I would just keep buying more black bags every week for the rest of my life, which would defeat that whole smug saving-the-planet idea I had going. And while it's cheap to buy one black bag, it begins to add up when you are buying five more every time you enter the store.

But eventually, my house and community became saturated with black bags. They are everywhere, as ubiquitous as the old brown paper bags used to be. You can find them in my kids' bedrooms, filled with books or toys. You can find empty ones in my kitchen or laundry room. My mother has black bags in her house and in her car: so does my sister. When we go snowboarding on Sundays, I bring food in a black bag, and so does Neighbor Guy. Whoever is the last to leave makes sure to grab whatever black bags are lying on the table. You can find black bags in the front seat of my car, and another stash in the back. When I eat lunch at my daughter's off-campus apartment, I see black bags sitting on a chair. I've got black bags at my office at school, ready to be filled with student portfolios. When I go to a potluck, black bags are piled on the counter. No need for anyone to ever write their name on the black bags: they are everywhere and everyone's and communal property. They have become part of our lives. I haven't had to buy a black bag in months now.

The black bags seem to be working for everyone. The local grocery store saves money because they don't have to buy so many of those plastic bags. It's better for the environment, obviously. It's easier for the consumer because the bags are way sturdier than the flimsy plastic ones, which when carried by exuberant but well-meaning teenagers often sent glass jars of food flying onto the ground. It's a situation in which everyone wins.

Even the footsteps melt

Even the footsteps melt

February 17, 2008

Baby of the family

When With-a-Why runs a fever, his skin turns so pale that it's translucent, white behind those long black eyelashes and the black silky hair that falls against his neck. When he's sick, I notice that he — like all of my kids — is painfully thin, so skinny that I can noticed the shape of his bones. (It's a mystery to me how teenage boys who eat so damned much can be so very thin.)

With-a-Why is thirteen years old. He's an expert snowboarder, a good Ultimate player, an accomplished musician, a teenager with a sophisticated sense of humor that comes from being the youngest of four kids. And he's almost as tall as I am.

But when he's sick, he becomes a small child once again, cuddling against me in the big bed, where I've set him up for the night. My husband is out of town, which means With-a-Why will sleep with me, waking up to ask for juice or another cold wet cloth for his head. I read to him a little, did reiki on him, and brought him some mints to suck on. Now, I'm about to snuggle next to him and sleep for the night, just like I did when he was a baby.

Every twig touched

Every twig touched

February 16, 2008

When we give ourselves wings

In my part of the world, February is a long month that stretches for at least 94 days. The roads are snow-covered and icy for most of the month, which means that by the time I get to any destination, I have a tension headache from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. By February, the mittens and gloves we hang in racks above a heating vent are beginning to smell sour from getting wet repeatedly. And despite expensive snowboarding socks, my feet are always cold. But the worst part of February is that it's a month of dark nights and re-opening emotional scars. Long winter nights can bring hours of melancholy introspection and self-hate.

That's why it's become a February tradition for my Wild Women friends to have a pajama party. Slumber parties, we decided a few years ago, should not be reserved for the junior high crowd. Women of all ages need giggling and dancing and chocolate to ward off those February blues.

We gathered yesterday evening, each woman following the long-established tradition of bringing way too much food. Both the counter and table were soon filled with veggies and dips and salads and sushi, enough food to last us about a week, rather than the 24 hours we actually had. It's hard to feel blue when I am surrounded by close friends, with a bowl of hot soup in my hands and guacamole at my elbow, and the sound of laughter rising above the crackling of the fire.

In the long-respected tradition of slumber parties across the country, we stayed up late, talking and eating, dressed in flannel and fleece. I am pledged to secrecy as to what exactly went on during those late night hours. ("Did you dance naked?" one of the husbands sometimes asks, with this sort of hopeful tone in his voice.) And in the morning sunshine, we stayed by the fire for hours more, still in our pajamas, carrying through with some of the deep conversations from the night before.

By lunch time, I was just coming to the realization that four hours of sleep is not enough for a woman my age. But we brushed aside the sleepiness with a hike in the woods, walking through about six inches of fresh snow that had fallen the night before while we were busy with massages and conversation. Puffy clumps of snow decorated the bare branches in the woods, and three of my friends could not resist beginning a snowball fight. We hiked to a grove of hemlocks, and Quilt Artist kept looking up at the branches above us, saying, "See, I could use that pattern for a quilt."

As we walked back to the house for another meal, a valiant attempt to finish up the leftover food, Makes Bread and Quilt Artist stopped to make angels in the snow.

When we give ourselves wings

February 14, 2008

River birch in February

River birch in February

These branches belong to the river birch I planted in my front yard last May. I've planted all kinds of trees and bushes since we moved into this house eight years ago, and each tree reminds me of a particular spring, of feelings associated with the ritual of planting a tree. Or more accurately, the trees represent the introspective thoughts that I have each February, which is when I begin to tire of the cold weather and, looking forward to the warm gardening days of May, began planning what I want to plant that year. When I planted this river birch last May, I was thinking about a friend who was going through a difficult time, a friend whose life was about to unravel in dramatic ways.

I chose to plant a river birch (betula nigra) because river birches are survivors.

I've seen river birches flattened to the ground under ice storms, branches glistening and heavy to the point of breaking, and then I've watched those trees spring back, unharmed, in afternoon sun. The trees may look fragile, but those flexible trunks can handle stormy weather. The high winds that send the scotch pines toppling down don't hurt a river birch at all. I've seen river birches growing in heavy clay soils, which many trees can't handle, and I've seen them survive in standing water, at the edges of lots or streams.

The bark of the river birch, as the tree matures, will curl up and pull away, like a snake shedding its skin in a ritual of transformation. The rough edges of the bark, the scars and torn pieces, and the vulnerable pink smoothness beneath make each tree unique and beautiful.

This tree grows near my driveway, the first thing I see when I arrive home at the end of a day. During the hot months of July and August, I unraveled a long hose from the side of my house and watered the new river birch, letting the spray touch the slender branches, the green leaves. Standing in the dappled, shifting shade, I held the nozzle of the hose to the ground until the roots were completely saturated. During October, I watched as the leaves turned bright yellow and fell quickly to the ground, leaving only thin, bare branches.

In the snowy February yard, the tree looks small compared to the woods around us, the branches still just twigs, really. We've got weeks and weeks of snow ahead of us, too, that heavy wet snow that comes from fronts moving across the great lakes, the stormiest part of the winter. Ice and snow will bend the tree close to the ground, testing the flexibility and strength of the limbs.

But I have no doubt that this tree will survive. And when spring comes, and the green leaves began to come out again, the tree will grow anywhere from three to five feet, a rapid maturation. In only a few years, the tree will stretch higher than my house.

Because that is what river birches are most known for. Growth.

February 13, 2008

Street edge

My daughter, a magazine journalism student, is always writing and editing stories for her classes and for campus magazines. It's fun to listen to her talk about her writing — what angle she's going to take, what she is going to emphasize. Last week, her assignment was to interview someone from the local community for her travel writing class. The rule was that she couldn't talk to anyone connected to the university. The teacher wanted students to go beyond campus.

Of course, Wonderful Smart Beautiful Daughter has lived here her whole life so, unlike many of her classmates, she knows all kinds of people in the community. She has all kinds of contacts.

"But I didn't want to do anything with a public official," she told me later. "And I didn't want to talk about snow."

She paused. "Or salt. Or the canal. Or the mall."

Those stories have all been done before.

On the way to my daughter's off-campus apartment, right near the ramp coming off the highway, a homeless man often stands with a big sign that reads, "God Bless You." The on-ramps and off-ramps are popular places for street people to beg for money; when the light is red, they have a captive audience.

My daughter decided that a person who lived on the streets of Snowstorm City might best the best person to interview for her story. She parked at a gas station and watched Man With God Bless You Sign for almost two hours. "It seemed weird at first," she said, "like .... was I just going to go up to a stranger and say, hey, can I talk to you?"

But finally she just walked up to him and said, "Hey, want to go get something to eat?" and gestured towards the gas station. He smiled and said, "That would be nice."

"And after that, it felt normal," she said. "Once we started talking, it was fine." She introduced herself and told him that she was a student at the university. They went into the gas station and bought coffee, chips, cigarettes, and hot cocoa. ("Nothing nutritious?" I asked. She laughed. "I kept asking him that too, and then he kept saying to me, 'Are you sure you aren't hungry?'")

It was a cold day, so they sat inside her car and talked. He pointed out the other street people. He said he knew which ones were really homeless and which were not. One man had a disability and slept under the bridge at night. But then he pointed out one man who isn't really homeless. His wife has a job, and when he makes about $40, he give her $5, and then spends the rest on alcohol.

Then he told his own story. He'd been in prison, he said. For two years. He was with his cousin when the cousin was stealing tools from a high school tool shed. He was just an accomplice, he said, but he already had a record, so he went to prison. Before prison, he had family and friends.

When he got out, he had no one.

After talking for awhile, my daughter asked Man With God Bless You Sign if he needed a ride, and then drove him to the next place he wanted to be. When she said goodbye, he said, "If you ever want to come and hang out, you know where to find me."

February 09, 2008

Block this!

Years ago, when I first began going to conferences by myself, I found that traveling on my own also meant sometimes walking alone in an unfamiliar city. I loved these opportunities to explore a city by myself, but I wanted to do something to make that experience safer. So I signed up for karate lessons.

I went three times each week, very early in the morning, to a dojo near my house. The dojo had a shining hardwood floor and huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors. I'd take off my shoes when I came in, go to the dressing room to change into my white gi, and then take a spot, sitting cross-legged on the floor. The class was small, about eight people at that time of day, and I was the only woman.

Mr. Macho, the guy who owned the dojo, was the younger brother of someone I'd gone to high school with. He was apparently quite good at karate tournaments. When he came into the dojo, all the students would bow to him, calling him "Sensei," and acting like he was royalty or something. I had a hard time conjuring up the proper subservient attitude toward him: to me he was still someone's snot-nosed kid brother. His wife ran the office, doing the administrative work of the dojo, and when she was in, I'd go chat with her, she's tell me funny stories about what it was like to live with Mr. Macho, and we'd both get into fits of giggles. When I came out of the office, the other men would look at me suspiciously. "What are you two laughing about in there?"

I liked karate right from the start. The katas were lovely and graceful: all of us moving in the same way at the same time, and it did feel empowering to punch and kick. I'd never punched anyone before, or defended myself from a punch or kick, and it felt good to know that I could. Although I was the smallest person in the class, I'm strong for my size and I could do everything easily. And I had the advantage of having a female body: I was more flexible than anyone, even the blackbelts.

Sometimes I'd get tips from Mr. Macho. He knew what he was doing when it came to karate, but he wasn't a very deep thinker. Almost every week, he'd look at my long hair swishing all around as I did the katas (most of the men had shaved heads), and he'd say: "You should put your hair in a ponytail."

"But this is how I wear my hair in real life," I'd explain. "If someone attacks me on the street, I'm not going to have time to put my hair in a ponytail before I defend myself."

He'd watch me spar, and say, "Are you left-handed? How come your left hook is so much stronger than your right?"

I'd explain patiently. "No, I'm right-handed. But that means my right hand is valuable to me. I hit harder with my left because I'm less afraid of hurting it."

For the most of the exercises, we'd be told to choose partners. The men would always turn and look at me, waiting to see who I'd pick, as if being a woman gave me first dibs. I always chose the same guy. He was the least macho of the men and the smallest, which meant he was closest to my size. He also had the loveliest British accent. For months, I partnered with him, doing these oddly intimate stretching exercises. We'd sit on the floor, for instance, our legs opened and feet touching each other, and then hold hands and pull our bodies first one way, than the other.

We'd exchange just a sentence or two, but often they'd be revealing. I found out he had a wife, two small kids. I had been hoping, from his accent, that he was a British rock star or something cool like that, but one day he told me he was a college professor who taught computer science. A computer geek! It was such a letdown. And he continued to give me scraps of his life in an understated way. We'd be sitting on the floor stretching, and he'd say just one sentence. "I'm getting divorced" or "I've had a dreadful week."

It did give me confidence to learn karate, to learn how to eye a situation, figure out my best tactic, to practice blocking a kick or punch, to learn how to put a wristlock on someone much bigger than I was. No, I never turned into one of those people you see in the movies — able to fly into the air while simultaneously dodging swords and kicking five different enemies — but still I felt more confident about the strength of my own body. The men in the class, who all had way more experience than I did, were helpful, giving me tips and encouraging me.

"Punch harder!" Shaved Head would say, grinning after I'd just punched him in the stomach. "Pretend I'm someone who did you wrong." Of course, then when it was his turn to play the role of the attacker, he'd pause and push my hair tenderly off my shoulder before grabbing me and flipping me onto the floor.

Sometimes the instructor would try to give us lessons about the culture of karate. We'd gather on the hardwood floor, sitting cross-legged, and he'd stand at the front of the room. For all his karate expertise, it was obvious to me that he had no training as a teacher. He seemed always to be looking for canned answers.

For example, I can remember him asking, "Why do we bow to Sensei?"

Around me, the men sitting on the floor in their white uniforms chorused: "Respect." That was the standard one-word answer to anything the instructor asked. He nodded approvingly.

Then I spoke up. "I think who we bow to shows a lot about the values of a culture."

The men turned to look at me. I was the only one who ever answered with whole sentences. "Sensei could beat any of us in a one-on-one physical battle. That seems to be the reason everyone bows to him. Obviously, we live in a culture that values the ability to beat the hell out of someone."

By now, all the men were listening, and Sparring Partner With the Lovely Accent was trying hard not to grin. I continued, just to make my point. "If we lived in a culture that valued life – well, I've given birth four times. You'd all be bowing to me."

Sparring Partner laughed. As usual, my response seemed to cut the teaching session short, and soon we were back on our feet, kicking and punching each other.

Another time, the instructor tried to talk to us about the formal rituals that we were taught to observe in the dojo. "Why do we bow to each other? And use formal titles?"

Again, the men chorused, "Respect." They had that one-word answer down cold.

I spoke up. "I've got a theory about that." Sparring Partner, sitting cross-legged next to me in his white gi, caught my eyes.

"I think it's because we have a situation here in which men are paired up to do intimate exercises with each other. And men are culturally ingrained to feel uncomfortable with intimacy between two males. So we need these formalities — these rigid rules, these formal titles — to make that acceptable. Learning karate can be very sensual and the formalities are put into place to counter balance that."

My words were followed by a deep silence.

Sparring Partner turned to smile at me. Then Shaved Head spoke up. "How about we ... not let her answer any more questions?"

February 07, 2008


I like to go back to the same places again and again, doing the same things over and over, until my feelings are embedded in the landscape. The spectacular clear water of Pretty Colour Lake, for instance, holds many of my brooding thoughts, my sad moments, my dreams and crazy ideas. Hundreds of times over the last 46 years, I've walked the trails by myself, deep in my own thoughts, or circled the lake with a friend or family member important to me. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the traditional fall leaf-gathering picnic with my family and Picnic Family at Pretty Colour Lake, and those memories hug me when I walk by myself.

I have a group of friends — the ones I call the Wild Women — who are equally fond of rituals. We sometimes gather for a full moon ceremony. We've celebrated marriages and divorces as well as births; we've many times burned tobacco ties in the ritual of release. We go off to the mountains together the same weekend every year, to a place where we have a chance to walk a labyrinth, which is a walking meditation. I have other friends I go to a monastery with, and they too share my respect for tradition. Twice each year, we go to the same monastery, that cluster of buildings high in the hills, bringing with us the same food, the same books, the same faults and issues and struggles. And I love the rituals of the monastery, the group of monks gathering for prayer seven times each day, every day, all year long. I love the incense, the chanting, the psalms.

I have celebrated both winter and summer solstices with PlantsWoman, who always has a bonfire for a solstice, and whose rituals include storytelling. My extended family has so damned many traditions that holiday gatherings are days long, filled with rituals that extend from musical performances to fishing for popcorn balls behind my parents' couch. And in my home, we've created our own rituals, like the candle ceremony for birthdays, a ritual in which we gather in a dark room with candles and each say something nice about the person who is having the birthday. Some of my rituals are borrowed from the native people in this area, some come from my own upbringing as a Catholic, a religious tradition that is steeped in ritual, and most involve some kind of natural element, especially fire. I do so love to burn things.

In a book I read recently, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, I came across a wonderful description of what a ritual can do.

"We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn't have the specific ritual you're craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your broken-down emotional system with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet. If you bring the right earnestness to your homemade ceremony, God will provide the grace."


Apple orchard in February

Apple orchard in February

February 06, 2008

Teaching in the dark

My classroom during spring semester is a small, square, airless space that could serve as a torture chamber for someone who gets migraines. The walls, which contain no windows, no windows at all, are made of cinder blocks painted with a glossy paint that reflects light from overhead fixtures which hum and vibrate until I swear I could get motion sick just by trying to focus my eyes on a text. In most classrooms, I avoid the horrible migraine-inducing lights by keeping them off and using natural light, but it's sort of tough to do that in a room with no windows.

Today, as soon as we'd gathered in a circle, I said to the student closest to the door, "Hey, can you shut the door and turn off at least one strip of lights?" It's one of my peculiarities that I simply can't teach with the door open. It drives me crazy.

Swishy Hair got up and shut the door, and switched off not one, but both strips of lights. Suddenly, the whole room was dark. Really dark. As I may have mentioned, it's a room with no windows.

"This is so much better," said one of the students. See, I'm not the only one who gets migraines.

"Want to have class in the dark?" I asked.

Two of the students laughed. I could hear Swishy Hair moving back to his seat, the scrape of his chair against the linoleum as he sat down. The lights stayed off.

We were discussing several essays from an anthology of urban nature literature, including a piece by bell hooks that explored connections between racism and the environmental movement, a piece that I knew had made some of the students uncomfortable. I figured that it might be easier to talk in the dark, just as people find it easier to talk when they are sitting by the campfire and no one can see their faces.

We usually begin class with students reading excerpts from their response pieces. I hesitated for a moment, wondering how we could do that in the dark. "That's not a problem, " said one woman. I noticed then that students were pulling out their cell phones, using them like little flashlights. All around the circle of desks, cell phones winked and glowed as students opened and shut them.

I thought it would make me nervous to teach without my notes, without being able to see the text. But the three essays we were discussing were ones I know well, ones I've taught before, and I didn't have any trouble remembering what points I wanted to make or what questions I wanted to raise. Of course, I am someone who talks with my hands, making all kinds of gestures and motions, which made no sense when no one could see me. The student next to me said, "I can feel you waving your hands in the air."

The hardest part was not seeing the eyes of the students. I normally spend so much time scanning their faces, watching to see who is engaged, who needs to be nudged into speaking up, and noticing the blank look that reveals a student who has not done the reading. Instead, I had to rely on the voices that came out of the darkness.

Some students did speak up more, assertive because no one could see their faces. And it was easier to listen somehow, with no distractions at all. We talked about the implications of bell hooks' ideas, we talked about white privilege and racism and prejudice. Students spoke up honestly, frankly, in this dark and quiet atmosphere. It felt like we were sitting around a campfire on a summer night.

I felt startled when a student looked at his cell phone and said, "Hey, I think class must be over." I had forgotten all about the time.

Swishy Hair stood up and turned on the lights. Ouch. Glaring brightness bounced off the cinder block walls, the linoleum, the shiny desktops. It was a dreadful, abrupt return. The only good thing was that I could see again the faces of my students as they packed up their backpacks, their cell phones, their books. Most of them were smiling.

Clip clop

Clip clop

February 05, 2008

Notes from my Conference Journal

It might seem to my readers that I was on vacation last week. It's true that I did manage to spend a good amount of time wandering parks and museums. And I ate the most fantastic meals. The first night in the city, my sister took me to a restaurant that advertised "Asian food for the sophisticated vegan." I'm vegan and she's sophisticated, so that made the restaurant a perfect match for us. Then Ianqui took me to a place that served great "vegan comfort food" and Sarah Sometimes took me to a Mexican restaurant that made the best vegan burrito I've ever had. The night I ate out with a group of Friendly Green Folk (which is what I call my colleagues from Friendly Green Conference), I had pasta with a deliciously spicy marinara sauce. The best part is that repeatedly I ate in restaurants that offered vegan desserts. I had chocolate cake three times in one week.

But I wasn't on vacation. In between eating great food and exploring Big City Like No Other, I was attending conference sessions, going to poetry readings, and networking with colleagues. And Friendly Green Conference had a table at the book exhibit, so I had to work a few shifts at the table. "Working a shift" in this instance means taking advantage of the free wireless in the room to post some stuff to my blog.

The huge conference hotel had very peculiar characteristics. For example, there were little televisions in every elevator, so that we all had to keep watching CNN whether we wanted to or not. One British colleague kept saying, "How very American." I don't think she meant it as a compliment. The second night, my roommate and I kept talking about how strange it was that the maze-like first floor didn't have a restaurant in it. "You would think a hotel this size would," Fire Ant kept saying. "And yet, I don't even smell food."

That's why it was very peculiar, the next day, as she and I were walking through same first floor of the the very same hotel, to come across a huge restaurant, filled with people eating lunch, complete with the smell of roast beef and the clink of silverware. "Where did this whole restaurant come from?" she said. "It wasn't here before." Really, it was much like a Harry Potter novel. Other things began to appear after that: gift shops, escalators, even a parking garage. And no, we weren't drinking at all.

The conference was attended by all kinds of writers, including swarms of MFA kids, mostly about the age of my daughter, who sat in clumps on the floor of the lobby with their laptops, and who crowded into sessions with titles like "How to Get Your Novel Published" even though the titles should have been more like "You Will Never Get Your Novel Published Unless You Start Sucking Up to Editors Now." I met several bloggers, including Susan from ReadingWritingLiving, who gave a really wonderful talk.

Many of the sessions I attended were filled with graceful and poised older women, who wore flowing skirts, long scarves, dangling jewelry. Fabric swayed as they talked. I've often thought that maybe I would turn into one of those women as I got older, but I'm 46 now, and I still dress more like the MFA kids. Jeans are so much easier than skirts. And I talk so much with my hands that I think I'd get tangled in all them scarves and long necklaces. I did make a vow that when my hair turns completely grey, I'll grow the layers long so that I look like Sharon Olds. Her long silver hair looked just gorgeous under the chandelier lights as she read.

At a session filled with Friendly Green Folk talking about the future of the environmental essay, Crazy-Hair Clarinet Player, who claimed that his talk was pretty much a "low end book report," read quotes from various nature writers. It's possible he watched way too much Saturday Night Live as a teenager, because he could not resist doing imitations of each writer he mentioned. The disappointing moment came when he referred, in his conclusion, to a scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean and failed to follow up with an imitation of Johnny Depp. "It's not that I can't do a good Jack Sparrow imitation," he explained later. "It's that I couldn't find a worthwhile quote."

The conference was great, but I can spend only so much time inside a big hotel. There were no windows in the conference rooms, and the big ballrooms were decorated in Poseidon Adventure motif, which just added to the sense of doom that would pervade the audience as an editor would explain why he no longer even bothers to look at unsolicited manuscripts. On the last morning of the conference, I sneaked out early to take a walk to Park in the Middle of the Universe, where I followed curving paths, listened to the sound of kids ice skating, saw a man happily feeding the ducks next to a sign that said "Do Not Feed the Birds or Other Wildlife," watched horse-drawn carriages go by, and stopped to listen to an old man playing a saxophone.

Well, often it is

Well, often it is

February 04, 2008

That naked blogger

Rooming with a poet can be tricky. Poets spend way too much time obsessing over words. My roommate at this conference, Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend, kept complaining about the pseudonym I'd given her. "It's confusing," she said. "Am I only SOMETIMES your friend? And what's with the word often? I like to think I'm ALWAYS erotic."

Of course, the advantage of rooming with a poet is that those creative types will do anything for art.

Fire Ant, which is the pseudonym my roommate uses on her blog, was busy writing a blog post on my laptop computer when I decided that it was time to inform her that she had to pose naked for my blog. She didn't really have a choice. My blog is, after all, the number five hit for the google search "photos of naked middle-aged women." I have a reputation to uphold. (Readers who want to know the history of this tradition can check it out here and here and here and here.) She reads my blog, so surely she knew what she was in for when she agreed to share a room with me.

I announced, without preamble, "I need to take a naked photo of you. For my blog."

She didn't hesitate. Without even looking away from the screen, she stripped her shirt off, flung it onto the floor, and kept on typing. "Let me just proofread this, and I'll take off my pants."

The room we shared was something leftover from the seventies, complete with mood lighting, funky furniture, and a weird pattern on the carpeting. The little table near the window looked just like the pedestals I'd seen the day before in the Museum With Statues of Naked Folks. "Hey, climb up on that pedestal," I said, inspired. "We can take a classic shot! A silhouette in the window."

Fire Ant stopped typing. "I'm too tall. My head will be higher than the window, and the silhoutte will be headless."

"But you could be a Greek Goddess."

The blue light from the computer screen glowed in her eyes. "I could be ... Aphrodite."

Of course, she couldn't resist. I grabbed my camera, and she hopped up on the pedestal. Or at least, she tried too. It turns out the fancy flimsy pedestal was not meant to hold any kind of goddess. Fire Ant screamed, grabbed the curtains, and came tumbling down, which completely ruined the shot and possibly the curtain rod.

As I stepped back to look for other possibilities, she sat back down to continue writing. That's when it occurred to me that I should just take a photo of her writing a blog post. I mean, who needs to be Aphrodite when you can pose as That Naked Blogger? It's the perfect new pseudonym.

"Just keep typing," I said, picking up my camera.

That Naked Blogger looked over her screen at the office building across the way. We'd both been fascinated at how we were able to look right into the offices, seeing every detail in each room. By the third day of the conference, we felt a kinship with the guy in the corner office, who came to work so promptly, and the two guys in the narrow office, who both seemed to spend most of their time on the telephone.

"This is ridiculous," she said. "Here I am, stark naked, and not one of them office workers have so much as looked up. What's up with that?"

That naked blogger

  Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

February 03, 2008

Bigger than ourselves

White and black

At the Museum of Cool Contemporary Art, part of the fun was looking at the people who were looking at the art. Some would study each work seriously but briefly, while others moved rapidly, stopping only when they came to certain pieces. One couple kept turning to each other with incredulous looks. One young girl with her father was so excited when she came to a Rothko that she yelled to him across the room, disturbing the church-like hush that usually fills the space. The people moving through the museum, whether they were walking up staircases with glass on either side, or lying on black couches that can be seen from above, or moving their bodies through a room filled with crazy sculptures, became part of the art, part of the experience.

The one difficult part about this museum is that the art comes in all kinds of textures, and I find it hard to resist touching rough fabric or shiny metal. I could feel the eyes of the security guards watching me every time I edged near something woven or hammered: they knew I had sticky fingers, just dying to transfer some of my skin oil onto these precious works. Somehow, I managed to restrain myself. I wandered about for hours, without getting kicked out, and even saw only a fraction of the museum. It's a big museum with clean line and big empty spaces — long corridors of space, big white walls of space —room for all the art that hasn't yet been created.

Daughter and father

Father and daughter, looking at a Rothko.

February 01, 2008

Afternoon in the art museum

I spent Wednesday morning wandering around city neighborhoods and parks, taking photos, looking into windows and peeking through fences. My father, who lived in Big City Like No Other as a young man, always says that if you want people to leave you alone in the city, you need to dress "one step up from homeless." I've always just shrugged off his advice, but as I glanced in the mirror before leaving my sister's apartment, it occurred to me I had probably achieved the right look. It's so much warmer in the city that we were getting a misty rain, so I had abandoned my wool winter coat for a wrinkle purple raincoat, with all kinds of things like my camera and wallet and cell phone stuffed into the pockets, over a red fleece with a long knitted multi-colored scarf and — naturally — sturdy hiking boots.

After wandering around for hours, I stopped at my favorite Big City Like No Other Cafe, which is conveniently just a block away from one of my favorite museums. It's a cafe that holds memories — I've eaten there with Wild Curly Hair, who first introduced me to the place, with Urban Sophisticate Sister, of course, and with Artist Friend. I've many times sat at one of their little tables, just staring out the window and writing in my journal. I am a creature of habit who loves to go back to the same place over and over again, even when I'm just visiting. I fortified myself with hot lentil soup, grilled vegetables, and bread that was so good I wanted to steal some to take home to Shaggy Hair Boy. And then I went to the Museum With Many Rooms of Amazing Art.

I always take one of the floor maps, but I am completely incapable of following it. I am too easily distracted, moving from sculptures to pottery to landscape paintings to photographs to stained glass windows. There's a rhythm to my wandering, really. When I'm tired, I'll find a bench so I can sit and gaze at a painting that takes up a whole wall. Once I've rested, I'll peer into glass cases to admire intricate details.

I do often read the little white signs next to works of art: I always want to know the story behind the piece. But the narrative is sometimes disappointing. I saw a Pieta, for example, in which the Blessed Mother looked like she was about to slap her dying son. I went over eagerly to read the text, wondering what artist finally dared to show the Mother of Christ with a righteous edge, but the text didn't mention anything about the raised hand.

As I wandered through a room filled with sculptures of naked men and women, I couldn't help but think about a friend of mine, who back in the 80s when his son was born, kept trying to convince his wife that they should circumcise the child. He kept arguing that he's been on all kinds of sports teams, and he had never seen an uncircumcised male. Clearly, he should have been looking in art museums instead of locker rooms.

My wanderings led me eventually into a maze of dark green rooms, filled with masks made by the Kwele people of Africa. I found a comfortable bench set in a dark alcove, where I watched a film about initiation rites for adolescent boys. I loved the chanting, the words, the symbolism. Perhaps, I thought, we need more rituals like that in our culture, ways to guide the energy of young people and help them make the transition into adulthood. The masks themselves, lit by spot lights in the dim room, were eerily beautiful.

When I glanced at my watch, I realized that hours had gone by, and it was time for me to get my suitcase from my sister's house and take the subway to mid-town to check into the conference hotel. I left the museum at the same time as a school group, a whole gang of teenagers and their weary-looking teacher. The teenagers were bumping into each other and teasing each other and jabbing each other with rolled-up umbrellas. I walked amongst them, absorbing all that energy and feeling right at home.


Meeting Ianqui

We met in the Village, of course.

She took me first to a crowded coffeehouse that could have been a television set because it looked exactly like a Big City Like No Other coffeehouse should look. The big room was filled with young people, some with laptops, some with books and papers, some gathered in talkative groups on comfy couches. They had pushed the chairs and couches around, clumping and crowding them together, in the way that people do when they feel at home. They drank coffee and talked and worked on their computers, and the energy felt much like the energy in my own living room when all my kids and extras are home.

It was wonderful to meet Ianqui for the first time. I began reading her blog before I had a blog, which means I've been reading her blog for more than three years. And I've admired her photographs for almost as long. I still remember the fantastic photos she posted just about three years ago of Christo's art installation in Central Park: the Gates. I didn't make it into the city to see the Gates myself, but I felt like I was there just by looking at her photos. Last year, she did the 365 project: she took and posted a photo every single day, many of them just fantastic photos of life in Big City Like No Other. Her fans include my parents, who check her photoblog everyday.

The wonderful thing about meeting a blogger is you don't have to bother with backstory; you've already read that. We dived right into all kinds of conversations about our lives, our jobs, her pregnancy, my kids. We did the usual obligatory blogger meet-up routine, comparing what blogs we read, which bloggers we've met, which bloggers we want to meet. Influenced perhaps by my bird-watching mother, who has a life list of birds she's seen, I keep a life list of bloggers I've met, and Ianqui is number 37 on my list. (My blogging conference roommate, Often Erotic Sometimes Blogging Friend, has contested the validity of the life list, arguing that four of the people on there are people I already knew in real life before they before they began blogging. But I think, since I started them blogging, I should really get to count them twice. She says that's like taking credit for selling crack cocaine.)

Ianqui and I were so busy talking that I didn't even notice that the place had emptied around us. "I think they are going to kick us out," Ianqui said. I looked up to see that the staff were rearranging the furniture for some kind of event. So we went out into the windy night and walked a few blocks to a restaurant that served what Ianqui called vegan comfort food. In a strange coincidence, the restaurant was the place one of my students had recommended when she heard that I was going into the city for a few days.

By the time we got to the restaurant, we were already acting like old friends, confiding in each other about unbloggable issues. And by the end of the meal, we were eating off the same plate, sharing a huge piece of unbelievable decadent chocolate cake, which the waitress assured me was vegan. By that time we'd been talking for nearly five hours, and I hadn't even had a chance to take a nude photo. We hadn't even taken out our cameras. But I assured her that my conference roommate would cooperate and pose naked, which meant she was off the hook. I said I'd to try to come back in May and take a photo when the weather was warmer. By then the contours of her body will be that much more interesting.