August 29, 2008

Off to camp

The green bench waits

.... to enjoy the last rays of summer sun. Because after a chaotic week back on campus — meeting my new students, teaching classes, straightening out problems for advisees, attending meetings, and setting up fall programs — it's going to feel good to just sit on the green bench in front of the water and listen to the quiet.

August 27, 2008

Unless, of course, you are raising robots

My architect students call it the "universal design solution." That's a strategy in which you design a product so that it will work for every situation so that way you can mass-produce it cheaply and efficiently.

Of course, there are all kinds of problems inherent with the universal design solution. In the book Cradle to Cradle, the authors use detergent as an example of a product designed without a particular landscape in mind. Water quality varies from place to place, but a mass-produced detergent will be designed for the most difficult situation, like washing grease in hard water. A product designed for universal use needs to work in the worst case scenario. That means even someone in a community with soft water, who is just washing watermelon juice off a plate, will be using a high-strength detergent, dumping into the waste stream (and eventually, the local water supply) chemicals that were completely unnecessary in the first place.

More difficult, but perhaps smarter and better for the environment, is designing products that take into account the landscape and the local culture.

What I was thinking about, when I was discussing this with some of my students, was not about soap or office buildings or any of the other bland, mass-produced products in our culture. I was thinking about the parenting advice I used to get when my kids were little. Often the advice was given to me by people who hadn't even met my kids. They'd say thing like, "Well, it's important to make sure kids do X," or "Of course, it isn't good to do Y." They'd make these sweeping statements about how to raise kids, even if they didn't know much about me or my particular kids.

I always question these generalizations about what "good" parenting is, even when it's something accepted as conventional wisdom. So much depends on getting to know your child. The kind of parenting that worked with my quiet, analytical Boy in Black may not have been the best approach for an outgoing, impulsive kid. The kind of laidback approach I used when my daughter was in elementary school, letting her take days off from school whenever she felt she needed to, worked for a smart, self-motivated over-achiever, but perhaps wouldn't have been the best strategy if she were a child who needed encouragement to do well in school.

Even now, when I have teenagers, I often get parenting advice from well-meaning people who tell me, in all seriousness: "Well, teenagers should do X, " or "it's good for teenagers to do Y." Mostly, I just shrug and ignore these sweeping generalizations.

Because the universal design solution doesn't work so well with parenting.

Near the end of summer

Late August

August 26, 2008

Young and old and little

When I'm at a meeting with residential life staff, and we're talking about ways to help our first year students adjust to living on campus, I try to be helpful. I share what I've learned after 25 years of teaching first year students. I enthusiastically endorse student programs on topics like diversity, stress, and alcohol use.

But often I think, quietly and to myself, that we aren't addressing the real issue. It's completely unnatural to take hundreds of eighteen-year-olds and put them all in a building by themselves. It's crazy, really. No amount of programming is going to make that an ideal situation.

I've often thought we could solve a whole bunch of problems in this community by ripping down a few walls and redesigning a few buildings. What would happen if we could combine daycare centers and senior citizen housing with college dorms?

College students would behave so much better if they had a bunch of pseudo grandparents living on their floor. They could benefit from the wisdom of their elders, while they infused the old age community with much-needed energy. College students would act responsible if they had little kids to play with, to be role models for. I think the elderly could benefit from having college students nearby to run errands for them or push their wheelchairs.

Heaven knows, when I'm old, I don't want to live with a bunch of old people. I'd much rather be near the energy of college students and little kids. Sure, the building would have to be carefully designed, with some community spaces and some private spaces, but how much healthy the situation would be for everyone.

When I was talking about this on the phone with LovesWolves, I said, "We'd have to rebuild some buildings, but in this country, we're always ripping buildings down and building new ones."

She laughed and said, "I think the walls you have to rip down are inside people's minds."

But that's always the way it is.

August 24, 2008


Daughter: I almost stepped on a snake today.
Me: A snake?
Daughter: Yeah, right as I was getting into the Buick. It scared the hell outta me. That's all I thought about for a good half hour afterward.
Me: (laughing) I keep seeing snakes too.
Daughter: I know what you're going to say. They're a symbol of change, transformation, blah, blah, blah.
Me: Well, my friends say that. But they're mostly talking about dream snakes.
Daughter: This snake was in real life.
Me: I don't like change.
Daughter: They don't have legs!
Me: We're both going through big changes in our lives.
Daughter: Yeah.
Me: What's wrong with not having legs?
Daughter: It's creepy and weird.

August 23, 2008

Captive on the carousel of time

Captive on the carousel of time

When the gang here is jamming, with someone at the drums, someone on the keyboard, and more guitars out than I can count, the vocalist at the microphone is most often Older Neighbor Boy. He sings dramatically, who moving his whole body with the lyrics. "Oh, 4, 5, 6, come on and get your kicks." He throws himself, quite literally, into anything he does, whether it's music or biking or snowboarding. He gets injured a lot, but heals quickly. He's a young man now, but we've known him since he was a little kid. In fact, nine years ago, we moved in with his family for the summer, living in the upstairs of their house while our own home was being built.

Older Neighbor Boy and Boy in Black have snowboarded together every Sunday for the last eight winters. I'll watch them from the chairlift. They are easy to spot because they are always together, usually moving faster than anyone else on the black diamond slopes. At the end of a day of snowboarding, after we've packed up our stuff, we are always waiting impatiently for those two. They always go to take the last run together just as the lifts were closing.

Older Neighbor has always been willing to help out with any kind of work that needs to be done. He'll jump up to help unload the car if I came home with groceries, or coming up to camp with us to help work on the dock. He even volunteeers to eat leftovers that no one else will eat. One year when a late afternoon class schedule meant I wouldn't be home when With-a-Why got off the bus, Older Neighbor Boy rode his bike home from his high school every Tuesday and Thursday to get to my house in time so that my youngest wouldn't have to come home to an empty house.

We're going to miss him. He's gone off to college, hours away in another state, which means we won't see him again until the holidays. We had a candle ceremony for him before he left, all of us jammed into the living room, kids piled on the couch, the comfy chair, and the hearth of the fireplace, everyone joking and telling stories, beeswax dripping onto the furniture and carpet in the darkness.

Semesters are short, I know, and he'll be back here before we know it, but still, it's another change from for the household. And the changes just keep happening. Boy in Black and First Extra are moving into their campus apartment to begin their junior year. Pirate Boy leaves for college next week. And we've got four — Shaggy Hair Boy, Blonde Niece, Skater Boy, and Quick — who are seniors in high school this year, their last year at home. The kids in the household just keep growing up.

August 22, 2008

Just below the stars

The roof of my two-story house is high up, and I don't think about it very often, except sometimes during the full moon when I'm looking out the window, waiting for the moon to move across the sky, shining on the roof and then down into my bedroom window. And even then, I'm not so much thinking about the roof, but the moonlight resting on it, the night sky holding my home close.

But then this summer, during a storm, the kids noticed rainwater dripping into our living room — and suddenly I did think about the roof. The repair work wasn't a big deal, but what was surprising was what we found on the roof.

A snake. A snake curled up on the roof shingles, as if it was sleeping. If I stand in the backyard, all the way back against the woods, I can see the dead snake, a coil plunked onto the bare roof. Somehow I hadn't looked up and noticed it before now.

At a new year's gathering with friends on the first day of the year, I was talking to my friends about the presence of snakes in my life. Two of my close friends, Poet Woman and Healing Plumber Guy, tell me that the snake dreams I have are a sign of change and transformation. It was my new year's resolution to think about change this year, and the way that I need to strip away layers, shedding old habits, wriggling into new growth.

I've had snake dreams repeatedly this year. And all spring and summer, I've seen real snakes, everywhere. On a walk with my brother. On a walk with a blogging friend. During a canoe ride with Quilt Artist. Repeatedly, I keep seeing garter snakes and water snakes, not the exotic snakes of my nightmares, but the snakes that are part of the landscape I live in. And now, it seems, I have even a snake on the roof of my home, dropped there no doubt by some creature with powerful wings.

August 20, 2008

The generation that never sleeps

The question that has been floating about amongst my colleagues — and we could make this a meme, I guess — has been, "How have college students changed since you first began teaching, or since you were in college yourself?" Here's my answer.

When I was in college (back in the medieval times we call the 1980s), I'd sometimes stay up late because I was writing a paper or because I'd gotten into a long conversation with a friend, looking for the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Certainly, I can remember feeling drowsy in class because I hadn't gotten enough sleep. And yes, it's true that I skipped calculus class most of my first semester because it met at 8 am and that was just too early for me. Yes, college for me was the first time I really experienced the joys of sleep deprivation.

But I can also remember nights of going to bed before midnight. Many students did. The snack bar on campus closed at 10 pm, the dorms quieted down, and if you weren't hanging out in a friend's room or doing some kind of studying, there wasn't much else to do. We had no cell phones, no computers. Nothing in my dorm room really connected me to the outside world. Once in awhile, some of us would stay up to go to the one place open at 5 am — the local bakery — but that was pretty much the only option. It was a different culture from today. We still had this idea that nights were for sleeping, and all-nighters were a novelty.

Technology has changed the nature of night. Sure, some students are still staying up late because they are writing a paper or talking to a friend. Those elements of college life — procrastination and friendship — are still there. But more than that, the presence of the computer (and associated technologies) has changed the dorm room forever.

With computers, there is always something going on. Students can get online and talk to their friends back at home — or down the hall — or across the ocean. They can check out websites and download music and watch funny clips on youtube. They can chat on their cell phones and send text messages. They can play a computer game, facing opponents in other states, or watch a movie they've already seen a million times. Never are they faced with the option of an empty room, a quiet space, and nothing to do but go to sleep.

The whole world, seemingly, is at their fingertips — all night long every night.

This generation of students are smart and savvy and far more sophisticated than mine ever was. Ask them a question, and they can come up with an answer without even glancing away from their laptop. I have students who care passionately about global issues, who maintain their connections to their hometown communities, who are experts on all kinds of things. They can multi-task; they can talk to ten different friends at the same time, juggling ten different conversations.

But they never ever seem to get enough sleep.

August 19, 2008

Let me see

Let me see

Urban Sophisticate Sister and Dandelion Niece looking at — actually, I don't remember what they were looking at, but I thought the photo captured a nice moment between aunt and niece.

August 18, 2008

Almost over

I've lived by an academic calendar most of my life, and every August, I feel sad. I hate to see the summer end.

It's true that summer has changed as my kids have gotten older. I miss going to the beach with little kids and building sand castles or playing in a plastic wading pool or hearing their squeals of excitement over the discovery of a frog or snake or vending machine. But teenage kids are fun too; I've enjoyed the games of Ultimate that took place almost every night we were home. And I can't really complain about the summer I've had, which began with a trip to the City of Gondolas and has included visits with friends and blogger meet-ups and many trips. My summer has included hiking, canoeing, swimming, and sailing. I've been to the river, to the mountains, and to the ocean.

I didn't go to my 25-year college reunion because I had other plans that weekend, but I did get a nice visit from my freshman year roommate, who came early and stayed overnight so that I had time to get used to the southern accent she's acquired over the last 25 years. I met, at long last, one of my closest blogging friends, the Famous Phantom Scribbler. I even took a road trip to the Ultimate Frisbee Capitol of the Universe.

I did do some work. I chaired a search committee, which entailed all kinds of emails, phone calls, and paperwork. I even had to dress up in grown-up clothes and go into campus every day one week for interviews. I wrote a journal article that was due the end of June, and I organized an event for first year students that will take place in September. I read books in my field and planned out my courses.

But mostly, I've had a relaxing summer, spending time with family and friends or going off by myself on occasion. I spent a weekend at the monastery in June, playing with my new camera, and we went to my parents' camp four times. One July evening, my women friends gathered under the full moon for a ceremony, the same group of friends who will be going off to the mountains together this fall. I spent last week at my sister's house, where I was waited on hand and foot: she made me delicious meals and Tie-dye Brother-in-law kept handing me squares of dark chocolate. Instead of taking care of little kids, I've had a summer of laziness, with everyone else waiting on me. That's been nice.

My life is changing rapidly as my kids get older. My daughter graduated from college. Boy in Black turned twenty. Shaggy Hair Boy will be a senior in high school. Even With-a-Why is a teenager now. So this was a different kind of summer, one in which I had time for myself, time with my husband, and time with friends. It was a summer of transition, a summer of sunshine and thunderstorms and rainbows.

August 17, 2008

To market, to market

Kitchen counter

"SUNFLOWER! Pick out your own for a dollar," read the red magic marker words on the poster board sign. Pots of flowers crowded the pavement near the folding tables of vegetables and fruits, near the open backs of trucks and folding chairs of families who had come to sell their produce.

This summer I read a bunch of books in which the authors extoll the wonders of going to the farmers' market to find out what vegetables can be obtained from local farmers. Writers like Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and Barbara Kingsolver stress that eating locally is the responsible ecological choice. In the book Plenty, a couple in Vancouver, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, chronicle their year of eating only foods that came from within a 100 miles of their home. Eating locally makes all kinds of sense, way more ecological than eating food that has been shipped across the country, so it didn't take much to convince me that these authors were right. (The average bite of food travels 1500 miles before it reaches your mouth — how crazy is that?) I like the idea of eating locally and seasonally. And I have to say that reading about food almost always makes me hungry.

All the authors describe trips to the farmers' market that sound downright exotic as the authors discover the joys of eating locally grown produce. I've been waiting for a weekend when I'd be home so that I could go to the farmers' market on a Saurday morning. I was eager to feel the magic these authors talked about. Who knows what exciting new vegetable I might discover?

So yesterday, we went, canvas bags in hand. Yes, it was fun to walk around, talking to vendors as I chose fruit and veggies. But the disappointing part was the realization that "local food" means the same stuff that I've eaten every August. Since I've lived in the same place my whole life, I guess that shouldn't have been a surprise, but somehow I had imagined that I would be transported magically to the farmers' markets inside the pages of the books I'd read. I expected to find something unexpected.

The tables were piled with sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and all kinds of bright-colored vegetables. Oh, they looked pretty and the clumps of basil smelled just wonderful but mostly, they were the same vegetables that grow in my garden or my parents' garden. They were the same vegetables that I can buy at the stand at the corner or get free from neighbors who can't eat as fast as zucchini grows.

I guess it was silly to think that I could live in the same place for 47 years, growing up with parents who raise almost all their own vegetables, and discover some exotic new fruit at the farmers' market. And driving from my rural area into the city to buy vegetables — yeah, now that strikes me as just a little bit crazy.

Still, it was a good experience. I liked talking to the people who are selling me food. My husband found a couple who were selling his favorite homemade cookies. I ran into several friends I know. And the best part of the morning was the way the fresh basil filled the car with its pungent scent, making the drive home smell wonderful.

August 15, 2008



On a summer afternoon at Red-haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law's, you can find all kinds of creatures, mostly running around in bathing suits and leaping into the pool, some of them barking like crazy. But inside a small tent, hanging quietly from the mesh, are some of the quietest but most spectacular creatures in the household: monarch butterflies.

The monarchs begin as tiny eggs clinging to the underside of milkweed plants. Then they hatch into caterpillars which eat the milkweed like crazy. The caterpillars pupate into these beautiful little cocoon things that hang from the sides of the tent. Eventually, a butterfly emerges from each chrysalis, flapping his or her wings until the wings are dry.

Then at some point, the butterflies mate like crazy. Yes, butterflies have sex. I guess I should have known that, but I'd never thought about it. I never actually pictured them having sex. Now of course, I can.

The monarch caterpillars are truly picky eaters. Milkweed is pretty much all they eat. And contrary to what your mother might have told you, being a picky eater isn't so bad. All that milkweed apparently makes monarchs taste bad to predators. I guess once you've eaten a monarch, you gag and swear off them for life.

While I was visiting Red-haired Sister, she would pick elaborate bouquets of flowers to put in with the butterflies. And she knew pretty much where every patch of milkweed in the county was. We'd be driving to the grocery store and she'd head down a side road, "Hey, I just need to pick some milkweed for the butterflies."

One morning, when she had pulled the vases of flowers and milkweeds out of the little mesh tent to add water and such, I folded myself up as small as I could and crawled into the tent. Inches from my face, the monarchs flapped their orange and black wings. One landed on my knee, a strange ticklish feeling, and another on my bare toes. The newest one was still flapping her wet wings, flying sluggishly because they weren't yet dry. Others hung quietly, unfolding with flashes of color whenever I moved. As I sat there watching, I couldn't help but feel envious of those bright and fragile wings.

August 14, 2008

The way sand captures sunwarmth

The warmth of sand

At the end of an afternoon at the beach, Dandelion Niece and I took a walk along the boardwalk. We'd been swimming in the ocean, and the late afternoon breeze was cool. She jumped down onto the sand and rolled into the warmth of it, and then began sifting hot sand between her fingers and onto her bare legs.

I too love the texture and feel and warmth of sand against my skin, especially sand that has been heated by the sun. I figured I'd put this photo on my blog. I thought it would give blog readers that feeling — the coolness of ocean wind, the shivery way your body feels after a day of swimming, and the shifting warmth of soft sand under bare legs.

When I showed this photo to one of my sisters, she recoiled and said, "I HATE the feel of sand against my skin." A friend who saw the photo said in horror: "Throwing sand around so close a camera makes me nervous. Do you KNOW how bad sand is for your camera?"

I guess it's like what I always tell my students about writing for an audience: you have to take into account the associations your audience brings to a text or a photo.

Not everyone loves the feeling of sand. This photo is for the readers who do.

August 13, 2008

Salty breeze

Salty breeze

Saturday morning, while staying with Red-haired Sister's family in Small Town Near the Ocean, I woke early, while the kids and dogs were still sleeping, and walked down to the little local beach. Boats splattered with dew crowded along the docks of the marina, bumping against the piers when waves came through. Something in the rigging made a chiming noise. The beach itself was empty, except for a cop parked near the entrance and a woman doing tai chi forms under a tree.

I swam at this same beach as a child, more than forty years ago, during our August vacations to the shore to visit my mother's family. I can remember pretending to swim by pushing my body along with my hands on the sandy bottom, trying to fool my grandmother and Aunt Seashell. Older braver kids would jump off the wooden dock, but I always stayed close to shore. There's a new pier now, and a curving boardwalk the runs from the marina to beach, but the sand is still the same, brown with little pebbles, and the water is still the color of pine needles. The air still smells like salt.

August 12, 2008

With style

Across the dunes

On Sunday's walk, we followed a nature trail through a thicket of red cedar trees, blueberry bushes, beach plums, and poison ivy. The trail ended at the top of sand dune overlooking the ocean. Golden grasses covered the sides of the sand dunes, but a path led down to the beach. Most family members took off their shoes and went running down, their feet kicking up the sand. Suburban Nephew choose to tumble down, head over heels. At the bottom, he stood up, brushed the sand off his legs, and said: "That's how I roll."

"That's how I roll"

August 11, 2008


We began the Weekend Gathering of Random Family Members by watching the The Sound of Music, with running commentary from family members. My sisters and I love to talk during movies, a trait that not everyone appreciates, although I am always puzzled as to why. I mean, some people would PAY for such brilliant and insightful commentary. Of course, the subtle conversations between the characters in the movie caused much hilarity amongst the younger generation, who said things like, "Yeah, she's really thinking: you bitch!" Everyone but Urban Sophisticate kept saying, "Shouldn't the male lead have at least one attractive quality?" Since Red-haired Sister and I have memorized Maria von Trapp's autobiography, we kept chiming in to explain to the kids what REALLY happened.

Most of us have memories associated with The Sound of Music. Urban Sophisticate remembers watching it over and over again years ago during her semester abroad back in 1991. Red-haired Sister and I can remember going to see it with Kindergarten Friend and her sister at the movie theater, back in the seventies. My parents had the album so we heard the songs growing up. And my daughter sang the songs back in fifth grade, in her elementary school choir.

Watching the musical together had a peculiar and lingering effect on my family, causing them to burst into spontaneous songs at odd moments for the rest of the weekend. No one in the family suffers from self-consciousness so being in public places like the boardwalk did nothing to stop the singing. In fact, the mere sight of a pavilion would cause people to dance around singing, "I am sixteen going on seventeen." On Sunday, my sisters and I came out of the women's bathroom at a nature center to find the kids mysteriously hidden in these wooden boxes built to hold planters or trash cans. Then Dandelion Niece popped up, singing, "Doe a deer, a female deer" and the rest of the kids followed suit, each popping up with a line from the song. Most of the family have beautiful voices (I'm a notable exception), so we have no doubt that anyone overhearing us probably mistook us for descendants of the Von Trapp family.

Beach art

Beach art

Down the shore

Down the shore

Last weekend, With-a-Why and I traveled to the shore with Red-haired Sister's family and their three dogs. Saturday morning, Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Urban Sophisticate Sister came together by bus from Big City Like No Other to join us for a couple days at the beach. "I like these gatherings of random family members," Urban Sophisticate announced as the nine of us sat down to a feast prepared by Red-Haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law.

The beach we went to on Saturday is part of a big state park. The two swimming beaches were filled with colorful umbrellas and kids in bright bathing suits, but when we took a walk to collect seashells, we found stretches of empty beach and sand dunes. We all had fun body surfing and jumping in the ocean waves.


In this photo, from left to right: Dandelion Niece, Urban Sophisticate Sister, Russian Girl, Girl Who Happened to be Swimming Near Us, Suburban Nephew, With-a-Why, and Tie-dye Brother-in-law.

August 08, 2008

Cousins to play with


Because he's the youngest in the family, With-a-Why has always hung out with older kids. When he was in kindergarten, he'd play chess with fifth graders. As a seventh grader, he plays Ultimate Frisbee with college students. When he was a little, I could never get him interested in age-appropriate toys; he always wanted what the older kids were playing with.

At Red-haired Sister's house, With-a-Why can play with kids his own age and younger. He's been having fun with his cousins, Suburban Nephew and Dandelion Niece, and Russian Girl, who lives with their family, and various extra kids his age. The household also includes a host of other creatures: birds that fly above our heads, three dogs that bark like crazy, some rabbits and a hen who live out near the pool, a black cat who slinks about quietly, and a whole mesh tent of monarch butterflies that have been hatching from cocoons.

Yesterday's activities included playing on the tire swing, jumping on the trampoline, and swimming in the pool. The river where we usually swim in the summer is deep and cold, with a strong current, not a good place for learning, which means that With-a-Why hasn't yet become a strong swimmer. Here in the warm pool, with his cousin to teach him, he's been learning new strokes quickly. Yesterday, he was practicing jumps off the diving board.


August 07, 2008

The pleasantest thing ever a child can do

The pleasantest thing ever a child can do

Dandelion Niece on the tire swing.

Another road trip

Yesterday morning, with a sleepy With-a-Why in the seat next to me, a bag of clothes in the back, and a handful of CDs on the floor, I drove past cornfields and red barns and through shady mountain roads. For the first couple of hours, With-a-Why slept while I listened to music. At the halfway point, we stopped for sandwiches and juice, and after that, he kept me company. I gave him the map so he could navigate the last part of our journey: he was so busy doing his imitation of a flight attendant that he almost forgot to tell me where to turn. But by mid-afternoon we had arrived safely at the home of Red-haired Sister and Tie-dye Brother-in-law, where we're now hanging out with kids, dogs, birds, rabbits, butterflies, and various other creatures.

August 06, 2008

Frogs and turtles and snakes

Did you see that?

Here's a new development happening in my life as my own children get older: some of hometown friends have grandchildren. Yep. Grandchildren. Many of my conference friends still have babies and toddlers because they waited until their thirties to have children, but some of my hometown friends married soon after high school and had children right away, which makes it completely possible for them to have grandchildren in their forties. The bonus, of course, is now that my own youngest is a teenager, I can still find little kids to play with. Because really, there's nothing quite like the intense curiosity and energy of a small child on a summer day.

Yesterday, my friend Quilt Artist and I spent the day with Inquisitive Boy, her lively six-year-old grandson. He's been begging to try the canoes at Big Rodent Lake Nature Center, and she wisely thought two adults in the boat might be a good idea. How excited he was as he put on his life vest and proudly carried the paddles down to the dock! Quilt Artist showed him how to keep his weight low, and he crouched immediately. He clambered into the canoe nimbly, and then sat perfectly still at first as the boat moved alongside the dock. I showed him how the canoe tipped if he leaned one way or the other, and he nodded. Kids learn so much faster than adults! How fun it was to watch his eyes as he put his hands in the water and felt the ripple against his skin. He tried paddling for the first time — and even though the paddle was much too big, I noticed him looking back to watch how I held the paddle and then adjusting his grip.

We saw a great blue heron the shore, just a few yards ahead of us, and Inquisitive Boy gasped as it flew off, cutting across the bow of the canoe. The great blue heron is most definitely an impressive bird, more like something in a dinosaur book than anything you'd expect to see in real life. In a marshy area, a fat water snake swam out of our way and into the cattails. Quilt Artist, who knows about the snake dreams I often have, laughed. "I knew we'd see a snake if we came with you."

A patch of water lilies drew our attention to the mouth of a little creek, a curving path with overhanging branches, a waterway so narrow that on a few bends it was difficult to maneuver the canoe. We made our slowly through, with Quilt Artist pointing to plants she liked and Inquisitive Boy excitedly picking up a bird's feather. In the green speckled shade, I could hear birdsong and the croaking of a bullfrog. True to the map that Quilt Artist was carrying, the loop eventually brought us back to the lake, which seemed deep and wide after the creek.

We were all content by the time we pulled the canoe up on the shore. We ate lunch on a bench by the water and skipped stones across the calm surface. We walked the boardwalk on the bog trail, stopping to look at plants and bugs and frogs, and spent half an hour lying on our stomachs to watch a big snapping turtle moving in the water. We hiked in the woods, with Inquisitive Boy pointing out poison ivy to me, a plant his grandmother had been careful to teach him to respect. Before we knew it, the sun was slanting long shadows and it was time to go home.

Look closely

When you are with a little kid, you can spend a whole lot of time just looking at frogs and turtles.

August 05, 2008

Another water lily photo


My mother is rapidly becoming my favorite person in the family to canoe with. Oh, she's got all kinds of good qualities, but the thing that puts her above the rest is the fact that she doesn't complain if I want to take a photo. She's even been known to encourage me to take pictures, whereas members of the family seem to think that me stopping to set down my paddle and take my camera out of the dry bag is some kind of act of craziness or even treason. They say things like, "Oh, god. Don't you already have a photo of a water lily?"

In fact, the first photo I ever put on this blog was a picture of a water lily. I've used a water lily as my haloscan icon and my facebook photo, and I like to leave multiple comments so that I can see a whole row of water lilies. I just don't think you can ever have too many water lily images.

Water lilies look like exotic hothouse flowers, with such perfect petals, yet they live in muddy, shallow water. I'll be canoeing through beds of matted weeds, the boat sliding past cattails and rotting duckblinds and last year's brown punks, my paddle stirring up water so murky I can't see the shallow bottom, and there, nestled up against the green lily pads, just above the tangle of weeds, I'll see a perfect water lily. In August, under the full heat of summer sun, the lily pads will often be crowded and curling at the edges, no longer as green as they were in the spring, but the water lily will still be fresh. On this flower, the petals were bent almost backwards so fully was the flower willing to open to the sun.

August 04, 2008

Island snack

Island snack

I come from a family of skinny people who can't go more than an hour or two without eating, so we almost always bring food wherever we go. On a summer afternoon when we pile into the boats to go out to an island to swim, the easiest snack to bring is a watermelon. You can toss a melon into the bilge of a boat, let it roll around underfoot, and then just put it in the cold river water to chill. When everyone gets hungry, one of the adults will grab a knife and begin cutting it up. On an island where the relentless sun beats against the rock, nothing quite tastes as good as a juicy piece of watermelon. Minutes later, we pile the rinds into a bag to take back and toss the sticky children back into the water to get clean.

August 03, 2008

Mermaid hair

We swim every afternoon at camp, taking boats out to a nearby island so that everyone can jump into the deep water. Because the River That Runs Between Two Countries is deep and wide, it takes months for the water to warm up, and in early July, the water is still what my family euphemistically calls "refreshing." The river works well for chilling watermelons or drinks, but it's been known to cause unsuspecting swimmers to scream in surprise when they hit the water. Some members of the family are oblivious to the cold and will play in the water until their lips turn blue, but I usually swim just long enough to get my body chilled through, and then clamber out onto the rocks to bake in the sun.

But it's August now, and the river water has warmed enough that I could dive in without my body registering the shock of coldness. It felt luxurious to be able to swim from island to rock without the usual hurry to climb out of the icy coldness. Shaggy Hair Boy and his grandmother both took the time to wash their hair in the river, sudsing up their long hair and then diving under to rinse the shampoo out. Shaggy Hair Boy stretched out on the shallow rock shelf, his hair drifting behind him like a mermaid.