December 30, 2009

The weather outside is frightful

We've spent this week lounging by the fire, eating hot soup and playing games. We've had a constant stream of holiday company, including my daughter's friend Free Spirit. She's a massage therapist who loves to cook vegan food, which makes her an ideal addition to the household. She's baked vegan chocolate cake TWICE already. We're trying to bribe her to live with us indefinitely.

A crackling fire keeps the humans in the house happy, but the cats hate being confined to the house in this icy weather. I've tried to keep them on their good behavior by feeding them catnip, which makes them act stoned and happy. Unfortunately, neither catnip nor Feliway spray worked to keep Trouble, the grey male cat, out of the Christmas village under the tree. After he peed on it a second time, I packed up the village and put it away to prevent a third incident, which surely would have led to feline homicide.

One of the great things about having everyone home is that we have live music all the time. Usually either Shaggy Hair Boy, Quick, or With-a-Why is at the piano, so we've got a constant stream of classical music or jazz while the rest of us do the important work of lounging on the couch and eating leftover holiday food.

Holiday music

The cat in the photo is Emmy, not the evil Trouble. And that's With-a-Why at the piano.

December 29, 2009

Soup! Glorious soup!

My blog is five years old – and I think in all that time, I’ve only posted one recipe. So today I’ve decided to share my top-secret recipe for delicious vegetable soup.

The glory of vegetable soup is that you make it with whatever you happen to have in the house. It’s especially good for using up vegetables that are starting to get soft and wilt a bit around the edges. Making soup requires no talent and no concentration. Today, for example, I made soup while listening to Beautiful Smart Daughter, Boy in Black, and Free Spirit play the game Scattergories in front of the fire. I’ve often made it while supervising the little neighbor kids as they color pictures at the table.

To make the soup, I first yell for someone tall to get me the stockpot from the high shelf in our laundry room. (If no one tall is around, I have to drag over a kitchen chair.) Then I fill the stockpot partway with water – a couple of quarts or so. I rummage through the cupboards for any kind of tomato product. Today, for instance, I dumped in a big can of crushed tomatoes and a can of diced tomatoes.

Then I begin chopping up anything will give the soup some flavor: a couple of onions, some cloves of garlic, several stalks of celery. If I’m feeling especially ambitious, I’ll sautee the onions first, but most of the time, I don’t bother. I cut them up and dump them in. I’m a lazy cook.

Then I look through the refrigerator for any vegetables I can find. We always have carrots, which I like to add just for the color and texture. And usually we’ve got some peppers, too, some broccoli, and some squash. Today, I found a half a bag of fresh baby spinach and dumped that in too. If I have any overripe tomatoes on the counter, I chop them up as well. Sometimes I add potatoes, but only if I’m in the mood for chunks of potatoes. And they don’t freeze well, so I leave them out if I’m planning to freeze some of the soup.

I chop up vegetables and throw them in the pot until I get bored. Then I take a break to check my email, put another log on the fire, or unload the dishwasher. Then I decide to go the easy route and find veggies in the freezer: usually a bag of corn and a bag of lima beans. I dump those in and give the pot a stir. I add more water from the tea kettle if the soup isn’t liquidy enough. Then I make myself a cup of tea and sit down to read the mail.

At some point, I start adding spices: a handful of oregano, a big handful of basil, a pinch of fennel, a couple of bay leaves. The only thing I ever measure is the salt and pepper. I use ¼ teaspoon of pepper and a teaspoon of salt. I don’t know why I bother to measure them: it’s a tradition I guess.

Just as the soup is beginning to smell good, I start rummaging through the cupboards for beans. Always, I use a couple cans of kidney beans, but sometimes I add chickpeas too, or pretty much any kind of bean I can find. By then the stockpot will be getting pretty full. I only know how to make huge quantities of soup.

The last thing I chop up are scallions, if I have them, fresh basil if I have some, pretty much any herbs I can find. And then an entire bunch of parsley. I always buy parsley when I’m planning to make soup. I think the green makes the soup looks so much healthier. I dump in random spices as the mood strikes me: today, for instance, I dumped in some celery seed.

When the soup is done, I offer it to anyone in the house. “Eat some vegetable soup! It’s health food for Ultimate players.” The glory of soup is that it’s an entire meal, all in one pot. And it’s healthy! My household is very tired of hearing me say that. You have no idea.

December 28, 2009

New snow


The holidays go by in a blur of chatter and chocolate. I’ve spent the last ten days cooking and cleaning, sitting by the fire with family, eating all kinds of good food, talking and playing games. My house has been full of my kids, our extras, and my extended family. I’ve stayed up late with the college-aged gang, and I’ve been woken every morning by a pounding on the front door as the little neighbor kids arrive to play. Our next round of out-of-town visitors arrive this afternoon — my husband’s sister and niece.

This morning, I slipped out of the house by myself for a walk out back. Last night’s snowfall covered the trees with the kind of sticky snow that looks like it belongs in a corny movie. Snow muffles the woods so my steps were quiet as I trudged through piles of white. Branches held puffs of snow, and when a light breeze began, snowflakes swirled about, falling into my eyelashes and onto my coat. The cold air tasted clean. When the sun came out from behind the clouds, bits of snow began to sparkle.

December 26, 2009

Opening the time capsule

On Christmas Eve, when my extended family was gathered at my parents' house for the usual holiday frenzy of eating and talking, we decided that in addition to all of our usual traditions, we would open a time capsule that we’d put in the basement on New Year’s Eve, 1999. School Teacher Niece said that we’d agreed to open it every ten years.

The shoebox was filled with a variety of odd personal items, including several photographs and a cassette tape of music played by my father and his friends. The kids, who were of course ten years younger, had put in all kinds of strange writings and drawings that caused screams of laughter. Red-haired Niece had included a calendar in which she had written down what she’d done every single day in 1999. “You were ahead of your time,” Urban Sophisticate Sister told her. “This was pre-facebook, but you were writing status updates.”

The shoebox did contain some more serious items that were intended to show some of the significant events of the 20th century — a computer chip encased in plastic, a Susan B. Anthony coin, a pair of contact lenses, the Diary of Anne Frank — but some of the objects seemed like strange choices. The map of Louisiana, for instance. “I think I had to do a project on Louisiana that year in school,” Boy in Black said.

"The bottle cap was mine," Blond Brother-in-law said. "I'd just gotten out of work and opened a beer."

Urban Sophisticate and I spent a long time puzzling over a pair of black shoelaces. “Who in the family would have put these in?” she asked. “And why?”

“Shoelaces were invented before the 20th century,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Finally, Boy in Black pointed to the side of the shoebox that we were using for a time capsule. “It’s the same brand. I bet they were just in the shoebox.”

Urban Sophisticate laughed. “This is how archeologists get things wrong.”

December 23, 2009

Holiday time

The energy level in the household has been rising as out-of-town family and friends arrive. Quick took his last final exam and was in our living room 24 hours later, playing chess with With-a-Why. Sailor Boy, who took a week’s leave from the Coast Guard to be here for the holidays, spent last week training in Southern State That Cannot Handle Snow and had planned to fly here Friday. After 72 hours of traveling, or mostly sitting in airports sending pathetic text messages, he finally arrived here Monday afternoon. “I need a shower,” he said when he came through the door.

Blonde Niece arrived home in time to help me do some Christmas shopping. As long-time readers know, I’m terrified of the mall, but Blonde Niece is fearless. She efficiently steered me through the necessary stores, then we relaxed in the food court and talked about her first semester of college. (That evening, that same food court was the site of a holiday flashmob organized by a local college student. About 300 people, mostly college students, alerted by a notice on facebook, gathered in the mall. The loud speakers began playing Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you” and on cue, hundreds of young people began dancing, much to the surprise of all the holiday shoppers who had just come to get something to eat. As much as I hate the mall, I would have loved to see that event.)

I declared a week-long ban on computer games. In return, With-a-Why was allowed to skip school to be home with his siblings. The rest of us have the week off, so we’ve mostly been hanging out by the fire and getting ready for Christmas. Red-haired Sister, Tie-dye Brother-in-law, and their two kids arrived yesterday. They brought a bag of presents for the little neighbor kids; my sister’s plan is to leave them on the doorstep in the middle of the night.

But the real Christmas miracle? I haven’t yet killed any of the cats.

December 22, 2009

Fa la la la

Carol of the bells

A couple days ago, my husband decided it would be a good experience for my two youngest kids to do some community service at the assisted-living facility where my mother-in-law lives. With-a-Why is shy, and when he does volunteer work, he usually chooses something like setting up chairs in an empty room. But Spouse figured he could use music to coax With-a-Why out of his shell.

“We’d love to have your boys come and play some Christmas carols,” the social director said when my husband called.

This afternoon, I coerced the boys into taking showers, and we loaded the keyboard into the car, with With-a-Why complaining. “I need pedals. I can’t do most of my songs on this keyboard.”

“You don’t have to play the kind of music you do for recitals,” I said. “Mostly, the old folks just want to see you having fun.”

Shaggy Hair Boy grabbed a folder of Christmas music, and that’s mostly what the boys ended up playing. The elderly folks started singing along right away, and the social director ran to get a microphone for my husband, who has a beautiful voice and who warms up quickly to an audience who laughs at corny jokes.

It wasn’t a very polished performance. Shaggy Hair Boy kept rooting through the folder of music to find songs, accidentally dumping the whole thing onto the floor at one point. My husband joked with the boys and the residents as they moved from song to song. It was the kind of informal jam session my kids are used to.

When I saw that one woman knew the words to every song, I nudged my husband, and he rolled her wheelchair up to the microphone so they could sing a couple of duets. Shaggy Hair Boy good-naturedly took requests from the audience, even when they weren’t songs he knew very well. He and With-a-Why did a four-handed piece that got a round of applause from the crowd, who by then had figured out that With-a-Why was shy. They loved it when he played some of the score from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. My mother-in-law sat in the front row and looked proud.

“Admit it,” I said to the boys on our way home, “You had a good time. And doesn’t it feel good to know that everyone there enjoyed it?”

“I don’t really like nursing homes,” said Shaggy Hair Boy said.

“No one does,” I said. “That was the point. To make it feel like our living room instead.”

“If the world exploded right now,” Shaggy Hair Boy said, “I’d probably go right to heaven.”

Fa la la la

December 20, 2009

Takes a village

Under the tree

Yesterday, when the two little neighbor kids came over, I gave them the task of setting up the Christmas village on newly washed white sheets. “We’ll be in charge,” Little Biker Boy said importantly. I knew he and Ponytail would be eager to play with the little figurines and houses. He’d asked about the Christmas village just as soon as Christmas commercials began appearing on television.

I was busy cleaning the kitchen — we were getting ready for our annual Christmas party — but I could hear the kids talking as they played. “We need to put the castle HERE,” Little Biker Boy said to his sister emphatically. “That’s where it was last year. I remember.”

Friends and family might tease me about making the exact same food for every party, but Little Biker Boy loves that predictability. “You’re going to make that punch again? With lemons floating in it?”

He loves the seasonal rituals of our household. His own life has not been that stable. He spent almost a year in foster care when he was small. Then when he was about kindergarten age, his father kidnapped him for a couple of years. The details of his life during those years he was a missing child are murky: he remembers that he lived in the Florida for a while, and that he lived in an apartment over a bar.

Little Biker Boy is looking forward to our first big snowstorm. “I’m going to shovel a path for you. Remember how I did that last year?”

Whenever our furnace clicks on, he likes to come into the kitchen and sit on the floor near the register, to enjoy the warm air flowing out. I usually sit down with him and we talk for a few minutes. “You aren’t ever going to move, are you?” he’ll ask as he leans against me for a hug.

“Not likely,” I tell him. “We own this house, and we don’t have plans to sell it.”

That answer always comforts him, but I don’t have the heart to say aloud what he already knows. His life is less predictable than mine, and neither one of us can predict where he might be next year, or even next season.

December 18, 2009

Trouble in the Christmas village

Every year after we decorate the Christmas tree, I take a photo of the wooden village beneath it. The village was a gift from my parents many years ago. My father built the little houses, shops, church, museum, and castle; my mother painted them. Little kids who come to our house — and sometimes adults too — will spend hours lying on the floor, playing with the pieces and imagining life in this little utopian world.

As I pulled the village out of the box this year, spreading white sheets on the floor beneath the Christmas tree to simulate snow-covered ground, I imagined writing a nice blog post about the village. I figured I’d take a sweet photo of the neighbor kids playing with the village. Little Biker Boy had already asked about it. Or perhaps I’d take a picture of Rogue, the cat who had already curled up near the castle, as if she were guarding the village.

But last night, just as my husband and I were snuggling in bed with a laptop, ready to watch the latest Big Bang Theory, Shaggy Hair Boy burst into our bedroom. “Uh, something bad happened in the Christmas Village.”

I leaped up. “One of the cats?”


Trouble, a grey male cat, had walked over to the village, stood right on the tin foil skating pond, and sprayed urine across the houses, the figurines, the cotton drifts of snow. It’s not the first natural disaster to hit the Christmas village — one year Skater Boy fell into it and broke the ice pond mirror — but I think it might be the most foul. Those poor little ceramic ice skaters never knew what hit them.

I yanked up the wet sheets to throw them in the washer, ranted about how I hated all things feline, and piled the village on the kitchen counter to be washed. So instead of a lovely photo of the Christmas village nestled under the tree, here’s a photo of houses and figurines piled into a colander to be washed.

Damned cat.

Natural disaster hits the Christmas village

December 17, 2009

And found

I bought toothpaste at the grocery store. I know I did. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. I looked in the bathroom, opening drawers and checking to see if it had fallen to the floor. I went downstairs to the kitchen and searched the counter where I unload the groceries.

I went back upstairs. The toothpaste had still not materialized. I came back down and searched again. I was beginning to feel a little crazy. Had I left a bag of groceries in the car? I remembered the time that I found a gallon of milk in my trunk, ten hot summer days after I bought it. That was pretty nasty.

I turned to the gang in the living room. “Has anyone seen some brand new boxes of toothpaste?”

Shaggy Hair Boy looked up from his computer, “I remember seeing them somewhere."


He shrugged, “I don’t know.”

I went upstairs again and burst into my daughter’s bedroom. She and Sailor Boy were deep in conversation, both intently looking at something on her computer.

“I can’t find the boxes of toothpaste I bought at the store,” I announced dramatically. “I KNOW I bought some."

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter said, without hesitation: “Usually you set stuff like that on the stairs.”

The stairs? I’d run up and down the stairs about five times in my search. But I went back and looked anyhow.

Yep. There on the third step were two boxes of toothpaste.

It’s nice to have my daughter home.

December 16, 2009

All together

All my kids are home. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter arrived by train yesterday, after a week of writing papers and getting almost no sleep. She looked exhausted, but at least she didn’t have the flu.

“That’s the advantage of having no life,” she said cheerfully. “I haven’t been near anyone so I couldn’t catch anything.”

Tonight, we’re all hanging about the living room. Shaggy Hair Boy is at the piano, playing jazz. My daughter is on the couch, with a brother on either side. My husband is at the table with his laptop. I haven’t built a fire because I’m waiting to be over my cough, but the Christmas tree makes the room cozy.

I’ve been decorating the tree while the kids – as tradition dictates – make unhelpful comments that make me laugh. We bought an already-cut tree this year because it was pouring rain on Sunday, but the weather has gotten colder now and there’s snow outside the window, as there should be. My daughter had a paper to finish this afternoon, Shaggy Hair Boy has one more final, and I’m not done with my grading, but we’re gradually making the transition into the holiday season.

December 15, 2009

What I learned this semester

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

I learned how to write lab reports and do research.

I learned how to freewrite – and why.

I learned to get up on my own instead of my Mom waking me up.

It’s means it is. And that’s the only time the word needs an apostrophe.

I’ve learned how to work on an average of 13 hours of sleep per week.

The frustrating and amazing complexity of Biology. Not only the organisms, but also the numerous terminologies.

The really depressing effects of Chernobyl.

Facts about Lyme disease.

I learned that chameleon tongues are hydrostatic skeletons. Their short and fat tongues have a set of muscles that will stretch the tongue out so that the chameleon can catch its food.

This semester I learned that if I’m going to do something, I should take my time with it. Patience has a way of revealing answers.

Outdoor classes rule!

PowerPoints are BORING. And I want to stab myself every time I sit through one.

My high school math teachers were awesome.

Mountaintop removal really sucks.

How to use facebook.

I learned how to procrastinate. And that’s not a good thing.

How to make solar cells.

How to share a room with another person.

How very many hippies there are.

Why everyone loves the state fair.

Tiger Woods is a playa.

Budgeting your time is super important.

That it’s 2.3 miles from my dorm bed to the entrance of the library.

Snow is cute. So far.

Politics are hard to avoid.

I learned that you have to study way more in college than you do in high school.

I learned that there is never enough time to sleep AND get your homework done.

Also -- hugs are more necessary than you might think.

I learned to take more responsibility and to be more independent. I also learned what it feels like to be stressed, lonely, happy, confused, and what my family means to me.

I learned that squirrels can see in color.

Parasites have it easy.

December 14, 2009

Prayer flags

Moments of prayer

In our living room, these Tibetan prayer flags (miniature ones made by my friend Gorgeous Eyes) catch moments of afternoon sunshine. They hang from the orange tree that Shaggy Hair Boy planted when he was little.

December 13, 2009

Droopy household

Our holiday season has gotten off to a slow start. Thanks to this never-ending flu, I’ve missed the holiday piano recital and the first two holidays parties. But finally, I’m starting to feel better. I actually slept last night: the cough is getting better. I’m tired and achy, but I had the energy today to sit at my desk and make a to-do list. I'm leaving it out for elves to find.

I’m wondering who the household is going to get sick next. My husband already has a cough. Boy in Black complained last night that his ears and throat were hurting. We had planned to go get our Christmas tree this afternoon, but this afternoon, I looked around the house and noticed sleeping bodies everywhere. No one seems to have any energy. The kids and I are at the end of our semesters and my husband took the week of Christmas off. I think everyone is looking forward to a quiet time of eating warm food and catching up on sleep.

Afternoon nap

Boy in Black, napping on the couch.

December 11, 2009

Still sick

Yes, I’m still alive. But I don’t much else to report. I’ve got the kind of persistent cough that means I simply can’t sleep at all. My ears hurt. My throat hurts. My ribs hurt. I’m guessing that what I had was the H1N1 flu; the little neighbor kids were diagnosed with it in November, and I ended up taking care of them because their mother was very sick as well. So yeah, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised. I kept hoping it was just a cold, but that hope disappeared days ago.

Today is Day 11 of me being sick. Yes, I’m counting – I want credit for all these days of misery. At this point, I think it’s no longer the flu but all the secondary infections that are making me feel so miserable. I’m guessing that antiobiotics would clear these up pretty quickly. But unfortunately, antibiotics make me break out in hives. Perhaps someday, I’ll be in the mood to experiment and find an antibiotic that I’m not allergic to, but I right now I don’t feel like making that sacrifice for science. I’m hoping to get better without having to resort to any itchy experiments.

I’m sure I’ll be healthy again soon. Perhaps saying that confidently will make it happen. But in the meantime, thanks to all the bloggers who have sent emails of concern. I appreciate the messages. In the midst of feeling so utterly miserable, I have to say that it’s been wonderful to get emails from friends. What has made me feel really great is that some readers who have been concerned about the little neighbor kids have been sending me presents for the kids: I can’t tell you how much it touches me that people I’ve never met share my concern and are trying to help out from miles away.

December 06, 2009

Enough already

It turns out that I’m not so good at pretending I’m not sick. For most of last week, coworkers and students kept saying things like, “God, you look awful.” I made it through a poetry reading Wednesday night by taking drugs and eating really spicy foods to open up my sinuses. Even so, I fooled no one. Afterwards people said things like, “Nice poems. Go home and get some sleep.” By Thursday, the cold had moved from my head into my chest, resulting in the deep cough that makes even strangers say to me, “Are you okay?”

So on Friday, I gave in and declared myself to be sick. I’ve been drifting about the house in sweatpants and a t-shirt, clutching a cup of hot tea, a cross between Miss Havisham and the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can’t sleep because the cough starts up every time I lie down. So instead I’ve been watching videos on my laptop – reruns of the Big Bang Theory or Northern Exposure. I’ve pulled out my comfort books to reread them, including the whole Betsy-Tacy series that I’ve loved since I was a kid and all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. “At least I’m not stuck in a prairie blizzard in a claim shanty,” I tell myself. And that makes me feel better.

I missed today’s holiday piano recital. Since I get to hear Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why play the piano every single day – at my house, someone’s always playing — it didn’t make sense for me to go spread my cold to all the other families at the piano studio. I’ve had to send the neighbor kids home when they’ve knocked on the door: they hate me being sick.

But being officially sick does have its advantages. My husband has been waiting on me hand and foot, bringing me food, cough drops, and ginger ale. He’s good at giving me attention when I’m feeling miserable. It’s been nice to do nothing but read for long stretches of time, a treat to just close the door to my office and ignore all the stuff that I should be doing. It hasn’t all been bad. But still. My ribs hurt from coughing. I can’t really breathe. I’m very ready to be done with this cold and get back to life again.

December 04, 2009

What lies ahead

Early December is a busy time, so when I’m sick, I just pretend I’m not. I can’t afford to miss class because my students are giving presentations. I’ve got deadlines to meet and projects to complete. I stumble through the day and then collapse at night. I don’t recommend this strategy for anyone with a bad cold or flu, but it’s the reality of early December.

After a night of fevered coughing, I got out of bed this morning to take my youngest child to school. Breathing in the cold, moist air felt good on my sore lungs. I haven’t felt much like writing on my blog this week, so I figured I’d stop and take a photo, so long as I was awake in the early morning light. Traintrack Village is full of Christmas decorations, so I thought maybe I’d take a picture of something cheery.

But instead, as I came back along the traintracks, a route I travel every single day, I decided to snap a photo of the tracks. I’ve lived somewhere near these tracks all my life. They’ve always been there. I like that they curve. I never know a train is approaching until I hear the whistle and feel the rumbling. As I stood in the cold winter air, wondering when we’re going to get some snow, I looked down the tracks and wondered what might be coming along them next.

What lies ahead

December 02, 2009

Under the weather

When I’ve got a bad cold, everything seems miserable. Any kind of noise makes me want to scream. Even the cats in my household seem to absorb my miserable mood. They hiss and snarl at each other. The humans in my household don’t fare much better. I’d like to write something lyrical about being sick, but to be honest, it mainly just sucks.

December 01, 2009

Cold and flu

Every fall semester, I say to my students, "Get your work done ahead of time. Because at Thanksgiving, everyone goes home and exchanges germs, and then when you get back on campus, everyone will be sick."

Just this once, I would have loved to be wrong.

November 29, 2009

The old red barn

The old red barn

I was just a kid when my father built the red barn in our backyard. We were getting a horse, an appaloosa, and he built a three-sided stall, with the open side facing south for warmth. We fenced in about an acre of land so that the horse could wander as she pleased. I can remember getting up early on school mornings to lug a red bucket of water out to the horse. She’d get hay, tossed down from the hayloft, and a coffee can of sweetfeed that smelled like its name.

In later years, the barn housed my father’s sailboat. He built a new sailboat the year I was pregnant with my first child. That June afternoon when I was in labor, my husband and I left our small apartment to come over to my parents’ house to take a walk in the sunshine. The trees in the apple orchard were covered with blossoms, and my father was out in the barn, working on his new boat. He’d rolled the trailer out of the barn to lift the mast and see if he could raise the sails.

My parents’ backyard has shrunk over time, walled in by development. It’s surrounded now by highways and office parks and a big medical center rising in the middle of the field where we used to ride the horse. The apple orchards are gone now, and most of the woods. The deer disappeared with the last bunch of bulldozers and cement mixers. The red barn looks out of place now. But it’s still there.

November 27, 2009

Art and politics

Last night, the gang of young people at my house stayed up very late playing the game where you write the names of famous people on little slips of paper, and then yell clues to your team members until they guess the person on your slip of paper. So when the little neighbor kids came to visit this morning, the kitchen table was littered with slips of papers. Boy in Black, my nocturnal son, was asleep on the couch, and Shaggy Hair Boy was rolled up in a quilt on the floor. As Little Biker Boy sat down at the table to color pictures, he asked me about the slips.

Biker Boy: What’s that one say?
Me: (reading) Abraham Lincoln
Biker Boy: I know! He was a painter.
Me: A painter?
Biker Boy: Yep. He painted so fast that he didn’t have time to wash the paintbrushes. He’d just stick them in his mouth. Like this.
Me: Get that out of your mouth.
Biker Boy: Ask me another one.
Ponytail Girl: I need a pink crayon.
Me: (without looking at the slips) George Washington.
Biker Boy: Starry Night! That was his painting.
Biker Boy: We saw a picture of it.
Ponytail Girl: Can I have another cookie?
Boy in Black: (raising his head from the couch, where he’s sleeping) George Washington was the first president, and Abraham Lincoln was the 16th. (He goes back to sleep.)
Biker Boy: Presidents? We learned about presidents.
Ponytail Girl: Me too! I know the president.
Biker Boy: The black dude? What’s his name?
Me: Barack Obama
Biker Boy: Yeah. He painted this girl. And her eyes move and follow you around the room.
Me: Leonardo da Vinci? Have you heard of him?
Biker Boy: He was a ninja turtle guy. Teenage mutant ninja turtles, heroes in a half shell, turtle power —
Me: How about Claude Monet?
Biker Boy: Oh! A girl in a blue dress. And her butt sticks out.
Ponytail: Ha ha. Her butt sticks out.
Biker Boy: My art teacher showed us pictures.
Me: How about Vincent van Gogh?
Biker Boy: Yeah. I think he was a president too.



November 26, 2009

Holiday traditions

“I didn’t eat breakfast,” Shaggy Hair Boy said in the car.

“Me neither,” said Boy in Black. “I deliberately stopped eating some time last night.”

That’s the tradition when we’re going to my parents’ house for a holiday meal. We eat as little as possible that morning, just so we have room for the meal that awaits us.

My mother greeted us at the door with a “Happy Thanksgiving!” and then rushed back into the kitchen to finish making big pots of food. My father had set three tables with white cloths and candles, bringing in folding chairs from the back porch. We all milled about, drinking wine or cider, and talking about how hungry the delicious smells were making us.

We devoured a huge meal, and then an hour later, came back to the table for round two: homemade pies. It’s amazing how much food sixteen skinny people can eat if they haven’t had breakfast that day.

Blonde Sister, Blond Brother-in-law, and I took a walk out to my father’s garden while other family members crowded onto the couch or sprawled on the living room floor. At the kitchen table, a group gathered to play the New Yorker game: it’s a game in which everyone looks at the same cartoon and then they each have to write a funny caption. It’s the kind of game that’s fun whether you’re playing or just wandering through as a spectator. That’s how most holidays end up at my parents’ house: groups of people playing games or talking, resting between rounds of food.

Family tradition

The boy with the long dark hair and purple shirt is my youngest son, With-a-Why. Then following him clockwise: Schoolteacher Niece, Drama Niece, Blonde Niece, my mother, my father, and Red-haired Niece.

November 25, 2009

Everyone home

I’ve got a fire blazing at the hearth, a couchful of college students, and a half-dozen laptops in my living room. Boy in Black is doing some kind of internet quiz game by reading aloud the questions while everyone in the room yells out answers. Sailor Boy is stretched out in the red chair with a cat on his lap. Smart Beautiful Wonderful Daughter is reading me aloud a text message from her phone. “Blue-eyed Ultimate Player says he wants to make an apple pie. He's at the store and needs you to tell him what to buy.”

Skater Boy has come home from college with a beard. (A beard! When did he get old enough for a beard?) Film Guy is using my camera to take a picture of a cake that’s got the name of his blog on it. Quick is talking to With-a-Why about chess. First Extra is bragging that he dominated a game of Candy Land. The group of young men at the kitchen table have discovered the crayons and coloring books I keep her for the little neighbor kids. Butters is talking about making pancakes.

The day before Thanksgiving is officially the start of the holiday season, which leads to weeks of eating, talking, and hanging out by the fire. I’d like to describe exciting and exotic traditions but really, talking and eating is mostly what we do.

End of the rainbow

End of the rainbow

November 23, 2009

Never too old

Child's play

I’ve introduced the two little neighbor kids to some of my favourite childhood board games: Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders. I love games that involve no skill. You just choose a card or spin the arrow, and move the little figure accordingly. No choices. No stress. It’s all so relaxing.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Friday night, I left the games out on the kitchen counter. My three sons plus Blue-eyed Ultimate player were all here, lured by the apple pie I’d made for Blue-eyed Ultimate’s birthday. The four young men were just starting a card game when my husband and I went to bed. But in the morning, I found the children’s board games out on the table.

“You were playing Candy Land?” I asked Shaggy Hair Boy.

He looked up from his laptop. “Only once. Mostly, we played Chutes & Ladders. It’s way more fun.”

November 22, 2009

Waiting his turn

Waiting his turn

Piano recitals that take place during daylight hours can be tough on a nocturnal college student. Here's Shaggy Hair Boy, taking a nap while waiting his turn.

It's so rare to see him in anything but flannel pajama pants or sports shorts that I couldn't resist sneaking a photo of him.

November 20, 2009

At the kitchen table

Most days, I come home to find Little Biker Boy and Ponytail, the two little neighbor kids, playing with the toys on my front porch. On sunny days during September and October, I’d take a break to sit outside with them, asking about their day, inspecting bruises, and admiring lego block creations. Now that the days are getting colder and the dark comes early, I come home to find them riding up and down the driveway on their bikes, their cheeks red with the cold. When they see me, they run to give me hugs and come inside to color pictures at the kitchen table.

When I bought the coloring books, sketch pads, and crayons, I wondered if the two kids could sit still long enough to color. They’re very active kids, very rough and tumble. They’ve always been mystified by the way members of my household spend their time writing, reading, sketching, working on laptop computers, playing quiet games like chess, or doing schoolwork. They’re puzzled by the lack of television and the fact that we call spending time on the computer “work.”

I’d been a little worried about how the transition to playing indoors would work out, but it turns out the kids love sitting at the kitchen table, drinking milk and eating cookies while they color and talk. “I’m going to use pink today,” Ponytail will say importantly as she settles down at the table. “This one is for you,” Little Biker Boy will say as he begins drawing. He’ll glance over at Boy in Black, sitting on the couch doing research on his computer, and smile. I think the quiet work makes the two kids feel like they fit into the household.

Today, we were talking about the little orange kitten that we found this summer. Film Guy’s brother adopted her in July, and I’d seen a picture of her recently. “She’s gotten bigger,” I told the kids, “And she’s happy.”

“I miss her,” Little Biker Boy said. Ponytail said nothing. She simply put her head down on the table and began crying. That happens sometimes with her: a conversation can trigger overwhelming sadness. She’s a child with deep pockets of sadness. I moved to the red chair by the fireplace so she could sit in my lap and cry as long as she needed to. Little Biker Boy went on coloring. Ponytail sobbed for several minutes, cuddling up to me. Then she stood up, wiped the tears from her face, and went back to her spot at the table.

November 19, 2009

Fall hours


During a busy week, when I'm on campus all day with a heavy schedule of classes to teach, meetings to attend, and appointments to keep, a glimpse of sky in the morning as I'm getting into my car is the only daylight I get. By the time I drive home at night, it's dark.

November 18, 2009

Red pen, hot tea, and slabs of chocolate

For the last three days, I’ve done nothing but read student portfolios.

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. I did other things. I drank some tea. I ate some meals. I took a shower.

I stepped outside to look at the meteor showers. I went to some meetings. I taught some classes. I saw my husband in passing. I drove my youngest son to school.

But mostly, I’ve been focused on getting through the portfolios. I wanted to give them back to students in class tomorrow so they would still have time to make an appointment with me before Thanksgiving if they had questions about their grade. I want to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving break next week with a clear conscience, with no backlog of student papers.

My students are smart and creative – and they’re pretty good writers. I’ve read all kinds of papers in the last 72 hours, mostly focused on environmental issues. I’ve read about wind turbines and photovoltaic cells and biodiesel fuel. They’ve been proposing solutions, ways to save the earth.

Spending every waking minute immersed in student papers leaves me feeling dazed, overwhelmed, and oddly hopeful.

November 17, 2009

Inside by the fire

“It kills the flu germs,” explained With-a-Why. He’d been talking to Philosophical Boy about how we should drink hot liquids to prevent ourselves from getting the H1N1 flu.

So that’s what we’ve been doing on these dark November evenings. I build a fire, and we settle down in front of it with books, laptops, and homework papers. Then I put on the tea kettle – cocoa for my husband and the boys, herbal tea for me. I don’t know whether or not all the hot liquid is warding off the flu, but I love the coziness of the ritual.

The cold fall weather makes me crave fall foods: steaming squash soup, squares of cornbread, pie made with tart apples. I’m busy most evenings – reading student papers, working on stuff for class – but already I’m looking forward to the winter break when all the kids will be home and we can just hang out in front of the fire, talking and reading and doing nothing much at all.



November 16, 2009

Fire, chocolate cake, and swine flu

With my husband out of town and my college sons at an Ultimate tournament, the house felt quiet this weekend – and uncharacteristically clean. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter was home, so we had many cups of hot tea, along with vegan chocolate cake. Film Guy came to hang out, of course. With-a-Why and Philosophical Boy sat on the floor to play Scrabble and chess: they both have the quiet, intense personalities that lead to long, serious games. My daughter didn’t have much to say about grad school. “All I do is work,” she said. “I'm so busy that when I get to Friday, I think, oh, wow, I've got some free time, maybe I'll take a shower."

Saturday afternoon, I got a text message from Blue-eyed Ultimate Player. “Want to meet my mother?” His mother was in town, and he brought her over to the house for a visit. We sat by the fire and talked: she was just as warm and friendly as her son. He goes to school at Snowstorm University, of course, but their home is hours away, in a town called Sandwich, which is such a cool name that I haven’t even bothered to make up a pseudonym.

The little neighbor kids tested positive for the H1N1 flu this week, but that has not stopped them from coming over. “I’m not contagious any more,” Little Biker Boy will say optimistically as he coughs on me and rubs his fevered head against me to give me a hug. I tend to be resigned about sickness: if it’s going through the community, I’m going to get it. But With-a-Why keeps getting up and disinfecting surfaces in the house every time the kids leave. And he keeps putting up facebook status messages to alert the rest of the family. “Swine Flu kids are grabbing and touching everything in the house.”

Of course, Red-haired Sister should be coming down with the flu any day now. Last week, when she was in town, she took the little neighbor kids out shopping. I think their mother, Woman with Many Tattoos, thought my sister was taking them to the dollar store. Instead, my sister bought them clothes, toys, hats, mittens, winter boots, sneakers, bicycle helmets – pretty much everything they need for the winter months.

“It’s like having a fairy godmother,” Woman with Many Tattoos said to me later. “I wish there were more people in the world like your sister.”

Red-haired Sister is one of the most generous people I know. (And her husband, Tie-dye Brother-in-law, is the same.) If only she could wave her fairy godmother wand and keep those kids safe: I’m sure that’s what she really wishes she could do. But during her visit, she did what was within her powers to do: she’s outfitted them with warm clothes so that they can play safely outdoors during the long winter months ahead.

From stillness

From stillness

November 14, 2009

Sunny moments

Southern city

Each day at my conference, I’d find time in the early morning to sneak out of the hotel, away from all the recirculated air and fluorescent lights, to wander around outside in the sunshine. I’ve learned to take care of myself to prevent conference migraines.

Despite the gorgeous weather, I couldn’t help but notice all the sadness in the city: the abandoned buildings, the homeless guy wrapped in the quilt on the park bench, the bored security guards with their day-glo vests, and the construction crews who never seem to be actually constructing anything, but rather tearing down, bull-dozing over, dragging stuff off to a landfill.

I did find a park nearby, where geese gathered on a pond and swam eagerly over to anyone who might throw them food. I walked through that park each morning, sometimes with friends and sometimes by myself. And one day, I went up to the botanical gardens, a place that I visit every single time I’m in City the Same Age as Scarlett O’Hara.

I like to return again and again to the same place, especially if it’s a place with trees and plants and flowers. I sat on a bench in the sun and thought about all that’s changed in my life since the last time I sat on that very same bench. Surrounding myself with plants makes sense because that’s what I’m always looking for in myself – signs of growth.

Of course, the most cheerful place in this southern city turned out to be – ironically – a cemetery. On the very last day of my trip, after the conference was officially over, a local friend took me to a cemetery with rolling hills and trees the colour of muted gold. The afternoon sun was shining off old tombstones and the shiny green leaves of magnolias, and we played for a couple of hours with his kids, reading the tombstones and climbing over graves and letting magnolia leaves crunch under our feet. Away from the office buildings, the hotels, the tunnels and malls of the city, we could just sit on the grass and watch geese fly over our heads as they rose from a small pond. When we walked, the sun made our bodies into shadows, connected like paper dolls.

Despite how much I love the intellectual stimulation of a conference – all the new ideas, the conversations, the incredible presentations – what I often remember most from my conference travels are those brief moments of peace in a park, a garden, or even a cemetery.



November 12, 2009

Men get naked too

Often when I’m discussing the naked photo project with colleagues, they say, “You need to include men in this project. Men have issues with body and self-esteem too.” So as soon as I snapped the photo of Geeky Mom, I looked for a man who would be willing to strip.

You’d think my male friends would be the obvious choice, but you’d be wrong. Oh, I’ve asked, but they’ve been decidedly uncooperative. The excuses I get range from “I don’t have tenure yet” to “No one needs to see me naked.”

Then I met Artist Friend’s roommate. He was young, not much older than my daughter. When I walked in, he was sitting on the floor in front of the window, cross-legged. He spoke in a relaxed, understated way. “Yeah, after I got off the MARTA, I got kind of lost,” he said. “I wandered around and couldn’t find the hotel … so then eventually I paid a homeless guy to show me where it was.”

He’d come to the conference to present a paper on gaming. He was smart and funny, with a laidback personality. He described a lame presentation he'd just seen as Chicken Soup for the Programmer's Soul. After admitting to him that I’ve never even played a computer game, I pulled out my laptop and began showing him naked photos on my blog. “Want to pose for me?”

He shrugged, “Okay.”

“I don’t need to be part of this,” said Artist Friend. He was sprawled out on his bed, and he pulled a pillow over his head. It’s funny; he’s so much more eager to take part in the photo shoots when they involve women. Go figure.

Their room had a lovely corner window, and Gaming Friend was most cooperative in posing. But the photo we choose was the first one I snapped: an unposed moment when he was just looking out the window, contemplating what to do next, and he’d turned to look at something that caught his attention.

As we discussed the photos, I said to him, “I think most people feel more comfortable posing naked the older they get. So you’re much younger than most people who pose for my blog.”

He said that just a few years earlier, he wouldn't have posed. And the context mattered: it was easier to pose because he didn't know any of us. We were all strangers. We talked about how when you live in an apartment in the city, strangers often know more intimate details about your life than your friends or colleagues. The person in the apartment next door, for instance, might hear you having sex – and certainly knows what hours you keep.

I was talking with him about how older women seem more comfortable with their bodies than young woman -- you'd think, given the way our culture values youthful female bodies, it would be the opposite. He said, "Oh, but older women don't have as much pressure on them to look a certain way." Good point.

“Are you done yet?” Artist Friend asked. Gaming Friend put his clothes back on, including a white dress shirt. He had only twenty minutes before his conference presentation. “Should I tuck my shirt in or leave it untucked?” he asked. We discussed his wardrobe while Artist Friend sat up and began leafing through the program. Time to get back to the conference.

Gaming Friend

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

November 11, 2009

Conference tradition: the naked blogger

My roommate at this conference, Dancing LitWoman, has roomed with me several times before. She knows what to expect. That is, she knows I’m nuts. She even knows about the blog. That first morning in the room, while we were both getting ready for the day, I explained that she was supposed to pose naked for the blog – it’s a tradition, after all – and she laughed like crazy.

“I don’t know if this is such good timing,” she said. “I’m on the job market.”

She threw open her towel and smiled broadly. “Here I am! Hire me!”

“But my readers EXPECT a naked photo. I’d hate to let them down.”

“Couldn’t we talk someone else into posing?”

Just then a text message chimed in on my cell phone. It was Geeky Mom, a blogger I’ve been wanting to meet for years. She was attending the very same conference, and we’d already agreed to meet for lunch.

I looked up at Dancing LitWoman. “I think you’re off the hook.”

Geeky Mom was as wonderful as I thought she would be. She’s warm, friendly, smart – and loves poetry the way I do. We met in the lobby at noon, and as we left the building, we crowded into the same little portion of the revolving glass door.

“I’m okay with little personal space,” she said.

She’ll pose for me, I thought.

We’ve known each other online for five years, but this was the first time meeting face to face. We found a deli with outdoor tables and sat together in the sunshine, eating sandwiches and talking in that intimate way that women do when they are alone together. We walked to a nearby park to watch the geese swimming in a man-made lake, and then hurried back to my hotel room to take the photo before the conference started.

My roommate was at the desk, doing some last-minute editing on her conference paper.

“Don’t mind us,” I said as I dragged a chair over into a sunny spot near the window. “We’ve just got to take a quick photo.”

Geeky Mom introduced herself as she pulled off her clothes. “Nice to meet you,” said Dancing Lit Woman.

As I yanked on the chair, the back folded towards me. “Hey, it’s a lounger!”

“Mmm. This is comfortable,” said Geeky Mom, as she stretched out in the sun. “I could take a nap.”

We were tempted to just hang out all afternoon in the sun in the intimate atmosphere that somehow arises when women are undressed. So much we could have talked about: gender roles, raising children, self-esteem, body issues, feminist issues in literature. But the conference began in only fifteen minutes. I snapped a few photos, we chose the one we liked the best, and Geeky Mom put her clothes back on. The conversation would have to come later, in moments stolen between sessions and late-night meals in restaurants.

Geeky Mom poses naked for the blog

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

November 10, 2009

Home again

Academic conferences are an exercise in sleep deprivation for me. Always, there’s so much to see and do. Concurrent sessions run all day, beginning at 8 am, and every evening brings a plenary session or event. Leisurely dinners begin at 9 pm or so, and stretch way past coffee and dessert as long-term friends and just-met colleagues talk excitedly about books and ideas. And in any spare time – which for me is in the very early morning when all my friends are still sleeping – there’s a whole city to explore. I got up early one morning to walk through the nearest park, which was filled with green lawns, trees in muted yellow, and benches occupied by sound asleep homeless men.

In City That Burned During the Civil War, the sunshine and warm breezes felt like summer. Thankfully, the organizers of the conference had scheduled a generous 90-minute slot for lunch so that each afternoon my friends and I could find a restaurant with outside tables and soak up the last sunshine we might see for months. It was hard to leave – in fact I stayed until the last possible minute and came home on a very late flight. I’ve got photos to post and stories to tell but first, I need to catch up on a week’s worth of sleep.

Urban park

The park nearest my hotel.

November 04, 2009

Flying south

Last night, I raced about doing all the things I needed to get done before leaving for a conference: catching up on emails, clearing my desk off, packing clothes, and printing my paper out in a really large font so I can actually read the damn thing. Of course, most importantly, I kept checking the weather forecast in Southern City Where They Actually Have a Museum Dedicated to Soda. Sunny weather expected all week! I’m sure I’ll be able to talk Artist Friend and Philadelphia Guy to sneak out of the conference and walk around the city with me if we’re going to have weather like that.

While I’m gone, you can check out the blog that one of my extra kids started. We’ve known Film Guy since he was in seventh grade, and he’s the reason my kids have cool taste in music. Every year, he makes CDs of the best music of the year, and we listen to those CDs on our drive to the ski slopes. When he sent me the link his blog, he said, “Hey, now your kids will have another person to mock for blogging, thereby shifting some of the burden from you.” Really, it was thoughtful of him to want to share my pain.

His blog is all about music, of course. He's come up with a list of the top 151 songs of the decade, and he writes about one each day, with a youtube clip so that you can listen to the song. If like me, you’re a middle-aged woman who wants to know what your kids are listening to, go check it out: TheListomania. I'm not sure that we're exactly the target audience he's looking for, but I have no doubt he'll welcome comments from us.

November 02, 2009


Saturday evening, our only trick-or-treaters arrived early, before it was even dark. Little Biker Boy, Ponytail Girl, and Third Kid Wearing a Mask came to show me their costumes and talk excitedly about their plans for walking through the village and getting “tons and tons of candy.”

Because we’re on a deadend country road with houses spaced pretty far apart, I knew we wouldn’t get any other visitors so we decided to go to the theater to see Where the Wild Things Are. I admit that I felt a pang as our car crawled slowly through Traintrack Village, carefully skirting the groups of costumed children.

I can still remember how much fun Halloween was when I was a kid. We’d travel to Picnic Family’s neighborhood, and the six of us kids would form a crazy gang, dashing from house to house in the dark. Sometimes it would rain or even snow, but that just made the night more exciting. I never had any idea where we were – I’ve never had a good sense of directions – and I can remember the shivers of excitement as we’d duck past a dark wooded area or take a shortcut across a moonlit lawn. Sometimes the doors we knocked on were opened by smiling mothers, who looked reassuringly normal, but other times, we’d hear haunting music and shrieks of terror, and we’d all get ready to run like crazy at whatever scary apparition might appear.

My husband and I were reminiscing about childhood Halloweens as we pulled into the mall, which is where the movie theaters are. To our surprise, the foodcourt was filled with children, wearing costumes and clutching bags of candy. “It’s Halloween at the mall,” explained the guy at the ticket counter. “All the merchants give out candy. It’s a safe alternative.”

As I looked around the brightly lit mall, with its stores and fastfood places, I felt sorry for the kids who weren’t out in the October air, racing through piles of fallen leaves, screaming at the sight of dark figures on porches, admiring the flickering candlelight of jack-o-lanterns, or running crazily from house to house. All kids deserve some excitement and mystery.

November 01, 2009

Sunday afternoon

Sunday afternoon

Boy in Black, Shaggy Hair Boy, and Blue-eyed Ultimate Player are driving back from an Ultimate tournament, a trip that included a visit to Blonde Niece. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is on a train back to Bison City. Free Spirit has headed home, still wearing her elf ears. My husband is at the grocery store. With-a-Why is doing homework.

The sunlight on the hammock in the backyard beckons. This could be the last sunny afternoon before winter. Soon I'll be taking the traditional blog photos of my backyard filled with snow. A nap in the sun would be so perfect after a busy weekend.

But I've got papers to grade. Sigh.

October 31, 2009

Streaks of silver

My daughter’s train arrived yesterday morning. A few minutes later, a car pulled into the driveway, and her friend Free Spirit stepped out. She was dressed in an earthy green outfit that looked like something a female Peter Pan would wear to a Renaissance Fair. That’s when I remembered that it was Halloween weekend.

“I’m an elf,” Free Spirit explained. I guess the pointy ears should have tipped me off.

She’d brought an extra pair of elf ears for my daughter, who was pulling on a long garment she’d bought from some online costume store. “The advantage of being small is that I can wear a costume meant for a twelve-year-old,” said my daughter as she pulled it over her head.

The two friends, reunited for the weekend, took over the kitchen. Well, mostly Free Spirit baked while Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter hung out and talked to her. You can see that my daughter takes after me.

I put on the tea kettle, and the three of us ate the vegan chocolate cake while it was still warm.

“I should have baked something today,” I said. “I’m going to a potluck tonight.”

“Here, bring some grapes,” said my daughter. I grabbed the bag of grapes she was offering. That seemed as good a plan as any.

Free Spirit was rummaging through the costume stuff they’d bought put on their faces and hair.

“We can put silver in your hair for the potluck,” my daughter offered.

“I already have silver in my hair.”

“That’s not silver, that’s grey.”

At least I raised her to be honest.

I declined their offer to dress me up and went to my potluck wearing normal clothes. After all, it wasn’t Halloween yet.

October 29, 2009


For the last couple of months, I’ve been on a pie-making kick. I’ve been experimenting to see if I can perfect the apple pie: I’ve tried putting the water in the freezer to make it colder, I’ve tried using the pastry cutting tool that my mother swears by, and I’ve asked my mother a million questions about how she makes pie, trying to get every detail right.

I always ask the gang who eats the pies, “Is this one better than the last? Do you think the crust is more tender?” It’s not exactly the right conditions for a controlled experiment, and every pie disappears while it’s still warm, so it’s been hard to tell if my pie-making skills are improving or not.

Yesterday was the real test. My mother left me a phone message that she’d made an apple pie. Long-time readers might remember that my mother makes the best apple pie in the world. Seriously. Everyone says so.

I went to an evening event on campus – a poetry reading with my students – but I stopped at my parents’ house on my way home. My mother put on the tea kettle, and she and my father joined me at the kitchen table. Then she cut me a piece of apple pie. I took sips of the hot tea as we talked and ate apple pie.

And damn. Her pie is still better than mine.

October 28, 2009


It rained all day, the kind of driving rain that forms puddles quickly and makes my front yard look like a cool place to fish. The sky was grey, as the skies here generally are in the late fall, and dark. I had errands to run. I drove Shaggy Hair Boy into the city to take his road test; I stood in the pouring rain for fifteen minutes while he took the test. I drove to the post office to pick up a package that had come for With-a-Why, only to find our little post office had closed for lunch. I went into campus to copy materials I needed for class.

Despite the grey skies and rain, the landscape I drove through was glowing yellow. Golden leaves hung from trees, blew across the road, spread wetly across lawns. I stopped on my second trip to the post office to snap a photo of one house that was completely surrounded by yellow leaves.

I had to wait at the post office — the postmaster had left a sign in the lobby that read “Back in a few minutes.” Another customer was already waiting, an older man. We chatted and looked at the back of my camera to see the photo. “Yeah, I drove by that house too,” he said. “Some years, I notice the red and orange maples, but this year, it’s the yellow that’s fantastic. It’s been a golden fall.”


October 27, 2009

Reason #58 Why the human body is superior to the computer.

I’ve been feeling pretty awful lately — a bad headache, a low-grade fever, nausea. Yesterday, since it wasn’t a teaching day, I took the day off. I stayed home in bed and slept. Between naps, I ate pasta, drank ginger ale, and watched youtube clips from the Big Bang Theory. (My celebrity crush used to be Dana Carvey, but now it’s Jim Parsons.)

This morning, I woke up feeling better, able to tackle a long day of classes and meetings. Before I left the house, I switched off my laptop, figuring I’d let it rest for the day.

When I came home, I switched on my computer, went to check a document, and realized that once again, ALMOST ALL MY FOLDERS WERE EMPTY. Unlike the human body, the computer does not heal itself.

Once again, I pulled all the data from the back-up on my external hard drive — and then called technical support. The first two people I talked to didn’t know what was going on, but then I talked to someone who seemed to have a good guess. I told him that the only folders that weren’t deleted were folders I’d created recently, and he said it was most likely a permissions problem. So we tried changing the permissions on all the newly restored folders.

And now I’m typing with my fingers crossed.

Lake edge

Lake edge

October 26, 2009

Fevered ramblings

All semester we’ve been getting emails about the status of the H1N1 flu. Students and faculty are told to stay home if they have the flu and isolate themselves from the rest of the population. This marks a big change in the campus culture. We’ve mostly always just gone to class no matter what.

But of course, now we’re hitting the season where everyone’s getting colds, sore throats, coughs, stomach viruses, sinus headaches — and all the normal stuff we get this time of year. All this newfound sensitivity to sickness raises a dilemma. Do we heed the warnings and stay home when we’re sick, even if it’s not something exotic like the swine flu?

I had a dreadful headache today, with nausea and a fever. But it’s probably not H1N1. Shaggy Hair Boy arrived home announcing that his roommate has the flu. Or at least, he’s pretty sure he does. Students are being told not to go to the health center, so he’s just making his best eighteen-year-old guess. Boy in Black says he doesn’t know if what he had a few weeks ago was the flu or something else: “I always have aches and pains from playing Ultimate hard.” He definitely had a high fever that made him kind of delirious.

I keep getting emails from students, who are sick, but aren’t sure if they are “that sick.” A colleague tells me he thinks he had the H1N1 flu, but it wasn’t that bad, and now he hopes he’s immune. In the meantime, it’s the busiest time of the semester: end of the month deadlines are looming, advising for next semester begins soon, and I’ve got stacks of papers to grade. I’ve got a long to-do list of stuff that needs to be done before I head south next week for a conference in Southern City at the Beginning of the Alphabet. My plan is to wake up in the morning feeling all better. Like my students, I just don’t have time right now to get sick.

October 25, 2009


The room was filled with music and chatter and food.

Quick played the piano – like only he can — while he was waiting for With-a-Why to take a turn in the chess game they were playing, With-a-Why’s new birthday chess board set up on the living room floor. Skater Boy and his girlfriend, whom I was meeting for the first time, talked quietly on the couch. FirstExtra, whom we’ve barely seen this semester because he’s having a busy senior year, joined Boy in Black in mocking me for owning a MacIntosh computer. (“You’ve never had a virus? Apparently, you don’t need one. The Mac deleted all your files without a virus.”)

Blue-eyed Ultimate Player ate a piece of my homemade pie and talked about the party he’d been to. Philosophical Boy and my husband watched the chess game unfolding on the living floor. Shaggy Hair Boy snagged a second piece of pie while Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter, home from grad school for a weekend with her family, poured a mug of tea.

It was my favourite kind of Saturday night — all my kids home, and a bunch of extras too.

October 23, 2009

Just before dusk

Just before dusk

Little Biker Boy, the eight-year-old neighbor boy, can be a difficult child. He’s got deep pockets of rage – and he’s had some terrible role models. Because he comes from a very different household, it’s hard for him to learn the rules of my household, rules that I haven’t often articulated because they seem like common sense to me. “No, you can’t bang on the piano with your elbows.”

But outside, on a walk at Pretty Colour Lakes, he is easier to handle. He can run and yell and kick logs — and his behavior won’t bother anyone. He can throw rocks into the lake, and no one gets hurt. He can be as loud as he want because the trees and sky will just swallow the noise.

Always, he tires himself out fairly quickly, and then he settles down and walks around the lake with my husband and me. He’ll point to rocks and squirrels, pick up acorns, and scream with delight when he sees something cool. As we circle the lake, tramping along the mulch paths lined by cedar trees, I can feel the stress seeping from his body. At the lake he can be – simply – an eight-year-old boy enjoying a fall afternoon. By the time we get back to the beach, to the parking lot and the car, he’s so relaxed that he’s ready to take a nap way home, even though it’s just a few minutes.

October 22, 2009


“I’ve never seen this happen before.”

That’s a sentence I never like to hear from my doctor, my dentist, or the tech guy who fixes my computer. But sadly, I heard it once again yesterday morning.

Luckily, it was my computer and not my body that was malfunctioning.

In the “documents” section of my computer, I’ve got 16 folders of data. One folder, for instance, contains the manuscript of the book I’ve been writing. Another folder contains all of my poetry. Another has all of my teaching stuff: syllabi, assignments, etc. You get the idea. Each folder contains realms of stuff I’ve written over the last 20 years.

On Tuesday night, I noticed that 12 of the 16 folders were empty. Everything in them had simply vanished. It was that moment just before drowning, when your life flashes before your eyes: all my writing, my correspondence, my teaching, all of it gone.

My sons were sympathetic, but unhelpful. “If you had a real computer, I could help you,” said Boy in Black. “But you’ve got a MacIntosh.”

The Tech Guy at the computer place, who supposedly specializes in Apple computers, had nothing helpful to say either. “Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen that before.”

“On any other computer, I’d think it was a virus,” I said. “Have you seen any viruses written for the Mac?”

“Nope,” he said. “You’d be on the front page of the news.”

“Maybe this will be my fifteen minutes of fame.”

“Eh, better that than pretending to send your kid off in a balloon.”

I do have a hard drive that backs up my data so I was able to go the back-up from Sunday morning and find – to my great relief — all my data still intact. But now I’m going to have to plan a little vacation for my computer, a few days when I can leave it with Tech Guy so he can run some tests.

I wish it was me taking a little vacation instead. I could use it right about now.

October 20, 2009

Tree huggers

All semester, my first year students been joking about how people call them tree huggers and hippies – and how they're claiming those stereotypes in positive way. Little Green is, after all, a college dedicated to environmental science and forestry.

Last week, I brought the newest issue of National Geographic to class because I knew that my students would love to see the amazing fold-out photo in the magazine: it’s a composite photo, made from 84 photos stitched together, that shows an entire redwood tree. The tree is more than 300 feet tall, with a 100-foot wide crown. It’s more than 1500 years old.

Little Green students love stuff like this. During the ten minutes before class began, we passed the magazine around and talked about what the photo said about our relationship to the earth.

Three students were holding the poster up, talking about it, when another walked in the door. “What are you guys looking at?”

“A redwood,” said Outgoing Guy. He flipped the poster around and grinned, “Yeah, here at Little Green, our pin-ups are of trees.”

October 19, 2009

Family and firelight

When I had lunch with FireAnt the other day, she said, “Your nest doesn’t seem empty in the slightest.”

And so far, she’s right. Yesterday, for example, I spent the afternoon stacking firewood with Little Biker Boy. He’s a rambunctious kid who likes to help with outdoor chores, and he loves the fact that snakes hide in the woodpile. He lugged logs for me, chattering non-stop. About every three minutes, he’d throw his log down and yell, “I see a snake!”

I ate dinner with my husband and all three sons. Since they’re only at Snowstorm University, Shaggy Hair Boy and Boy in Black are home pretty often, at least on the weekends when there isn’t an Ultimate tournament. This weekend, my daughter and Quick will be home as well.

We were all lounging around the fire when Blue-eyed Ultimate Player and his girlfriend arrived, bearing an apple pie and a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream. Shaggy Hair Boy was quick to reassure me that the pie (which was obviously store-bought) was not nearly as good as mine. He knows that flattery is the way to keep those pies coming. But we all devoured the pie anyhow.

When my husband and I finally convinced With-a-Why that he needed to go to bed and started upstairs ourselves, Boy in Black was just settling down on the couch with his laptop to do some research and Shaggy Hair Boy was at the piano, playing a jazz tune that followed me all the way up the stairs. So far, the semester has not seemed lonely at all.



October 17, 2009

When home is not safe

“You haven’t written much on your blog this week,” a friend said to me. “What is it you aren’t saying?”

The weather here has turned dark and cold: the sunny days of summer are gone. We’ve had our first snow, although it melted quickly. Students are tired and stressed. Most of my fun trips – retreats and get-togethers with friends – are over for the season. Red-haired Sister canceled her visit because of bad driving weather. Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy’s Ultimate tournament was canceled because the fields were too wet.

But that’s all a normal part of seasonal change.

The bleak news this week has to do with the little neighbor kids, the ones who visit every day and spent hours this summer playing on my front porch. Little Biker Boy is the eight-year-old who knocked on my door on a cold night last April, in bare feet and boxer shorts, asking me to call the police because his mother’s boyfriend was in a drunken rage.

In the intervening months, I’ve talked to social workers at Child Protective and at the local women’s shelter about the family. Their power was shut off for several weeks this summer because the bill had not been paid. Even worse, another man moved in. The kids kept saying they liked Man With Green Pick-up, but then they told me about an incident in which he was abusive to their pet cat. I know from the many stories I’ve heard that a man who abuses a cat will abuse a woman or child. I talked to the social worker at Child Protective to alert the agency that another abusive man was living in their home, but of course, they can’t do much without proof.

We’ve given the kids a safe place to come to here at my house, but there has been little else we could do. It’s frustrating as a neighbor to feel so powerless. The two kids can be difficult to deal with, but these last few months, Little Biker Boy has really been acting out his anger. He’s a child with deep pockets of rage. And Ponytail will dart into our house like a scared animal, refusing to leave. “I wish I could live here,” Little Biker Boy always says. It’s heart-wrenching.

This week, the police have been back to their trailer again, this time to arrest Man With Green Pick-up. He had been sexually abusing five-year-old Ponytail Girl. I first heard the story from Little Biker Boy, who told me it all in a numb, matter-of-fact way. The elementary school has been alerted, and they’ve set up counseling for the kids.

I’m not sure what will happen next. Child Protective may well step in and put the kids in foster care. Their mother loves the kids, but her own childhood – in which she was abused and she watched her mother being abused – affects how she views the world. It’s as if the red flags that are so obvious to me are invisible to her. Totally invisible. And like most victims of abuse, she is vigilant about keeping secrets, about keeping out the community that could help her. She would punish Little Biker Boy if she knew that he was always telling me everything, and she would forbid the kids to come over here if she knew I was talking to social workers at Child Protective. She loves her children, I have no doubt about that, but she seems incapable of protecting them. She eventually did make the call to the police about Man With Green Pick-up, but so much damage had been done first.

I’ve watched this cycle of abuse in my own community. I’ve watched it in my online community. I’ve read narratives in books and listened to poems at readings sponsored by the local women’s shelter. I’ve watched the pattern repeat itself: the child who is abused grows up to think abusive relationships are normal and learns denial as a survivor skill. Survivors of abuse are masters at pretending that everything is okay. I do have friends who have broken the cycle, usually with a network of support that includes professional therapists, a twelve-step program, a strong community, and healthy friends. But they seem to be exceptions to the rule.

I continue to write about abuse on my blog because I know that silence is not the answer. Silence does not protect the victims: it helps perpetrate the cycle. I don’t know what the answer is — I feel helpless and powerless this week — but I do know that we have to keep talking about abuse, keep analyzing it, keep at it until we do come up with solutions. I do know this: a five-year-old girl should be safe in her own home.

October 15, 2009

Target practice

Target practice

Even though I visit Signing Woman’s camp in the mountains every fall, I still keep discovering new things. On one of my walks, I took a shortcut through a property owned by the YMCA and came across a row of targets. It’s good, I suppose, that I was headed in the right direction when I stumbled on the archery range: the disadvantage of trespassing is that you lose your right to be indignant when you get hit by an errant arrow.

A couple of kids had bows and arrows and were practicing. An old man stood nearby, keeping a watchful eye. I smiled at him and started asking questions.

He worked for the YMCA, it turned out. “I started coming here when I was a baby,” he said. His parents met at the camp back in the 1930s.

“My parents met in the mountains, too,” I told him. “At a resort in the late 1950s. My mother was a guest, and my father was a musician.”

We chatted and compared notes, and he told me more about the camp, whose grounds cover more than 600 acres. I’d seen some of the more public parts of the camp, actually. The labyrinth down by the lake is one of my favorite places: walking the labyrinth is a form of spirituality that suits me well. When the kids ran out of arrows, our conversation came to an end, and I kept on walking, taking photos as I wandered past cottages, tennis courts, and a lovely stone wall.

Just before the killing frost

Just before the hard frost

October 13, 2009

Grandmothers get naked too

Meditation Woman

Some of my close friends are grandmothers already. That means that every time they take out a digital camera to capture fall foliage, they stop and say, “Hey! Want to see a cute photo?” Then they go scrolling through all these tiny photos in the back of their camera to find the latest pictures of their grandchildren. Half the time, they are so distracted by the cuteness of their grandchild that they never do take the photo of that maple tree.

“I need some naked photos of grandmothers,” I told my friends this weekend. “For my blog.”

“It’s too cold,” said Meditation Woman. She’s got a bunch of grandchildren already, and she’s the oldest in this group of friends. She’s fine with getting naked but she hates being chilled. Even inside the lodge, she was wearing thick socks, several shirts, and a fleece that was probably meant for the Arctic Circle.

“I’ll put more wood on the fire,” I said.

I grabbed my laptop computer and showed her the naked photos I’d already put on my blog. Age, I explained, is an important factor. “I’m trying to shatter stereotypes about women and their bodies.”

Once the fire was blazing, Meditation Woman stripped off her clothes and sat near the hearth, the firelight dancing across her skin. “This warmth feels great!” I snapped the photo while the rest of our friends lounged and talked. They’re used to the naked photo shoots by now, and the conversations that inevitably result. We talked about body image and how most women feel more comfortable with our bodies as we age, in contrast to the messages of the dominant culture, which values youthful bodies.

The next morning, Quilt Artist -- another grandmother in the group -- chose her own pose. “I’ll go out on the deck with a mug of tea.” Since she’s an artist, she was a stickler for getting all the details right. “Let me get naked first, then pour the tea. So it’s just boiling. You can capture the steam coming out of the mug.”

She was clearly overestimating my skill as a photographer. I had no idea how to make the steam rising from the cup visible in the morning light. Besides, my experience with photos of naked women suggests that no one will be looking at the tea mug.

She relaxed in her chair, sipping the tea, while I backed up against the glass window to take the picture. Our other friends, gathered at the breakfast table, started pounding on the window. I turned to see what the problem was.

“Kayakers!” They were waving and pointing to a bunch of kayakers paddling toward us across the lake. I tried to shush them and turned back to Quilt Artist.

She dismissed their concerns with a shrug. “Eh. I’m getting cold. Let’s just take the photo.” We took a bunch of shots, and then I tossed her a blanket just as the kayak family paddled into view, coming out from under the trees near the edge of the lake.

Morning tea

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

October 12, 2009

Along the lake


One morning in the mountains, I decided to wander along the shore of the lake, weaving in and out of the trees that grow right up to the edge. Many of the lake-front camps were closed for the season; it’s already pretty cold in the mountains. I didn’t hesitate to walk out on docks or follow paths that led onto private property. I have a back-up plan that I follow whenever I’m caught trespassing: I just introduce myself and ask a million questions, and the next thing you know, I’m deep into a great conversation. I’ve met lots of cool people while I’m out with my camera.

I wandered along little beaches, and across some docks, and around boat houses and cottages, and through little sections of pine woods. Eventually I came to the cluster of buildings run by the YMCA. The main building has a long porch filled with rocking chairs, where local people and visitors can sit in the sun while they look out at the lake. The grounds of the place were quiet – I think some of the cottages were locked up for the season – but there were still hanging baskets of flower on the porch, where an old man in a rocking chair was telling a friend about a fish he’d caught many years ago in this very lake.

Fall colours

Fall colours

October 10, 2009

Back in the mountains

It’s the weekend – and I’m back in the mountains again, this time with the group of friends I call the Wild Women. It’s our annual fall retreat at the summer home owned by Signing Woman’s family. Four of us drove up last night though dark green pine trees and hardwoods that have turned red-gold-yellow. We arrived just as the day was turning dark and cold, and soon we were gathered by a crackling fire with bowls of squash soup. Another four friends will join us sometime today.

We woke up this morning to a light rain and fog moving across the water. I built a fire in the big stone fireplace and put on the tea kettle. We’ve had a lazy morning, lounging by the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the lake. Sun is just coming out now to burn off the morning mist, and we’re talking about which hike to take.

October 09, 2009

Always, a lake

We jump from that rock on hot summer days

When I'm with my parents in the mountains, we spend lots of time just taking old roads and seeing where they lead. My father will say something like, "I think there used to be a Girl Scout Camp here somewhere" or "Yeah, there was a resort over there, but I think it's closed now." He usually has at least a vague sense of where we are. The narrow roads wind through woods filled with pine trees and hardwoods, and the ride itself is always beautiful, no matter where we end up.

My theory, based on a lifetime of traveling twisty mountain roads, is that every road in the mountains leads to a lake. It doesn't matter whether you take a right or a left, whether you go up hill or down. Every road eventually will take you to the edge of a lovely mountain lake.

Here's a spot where my husband and I used to come in the summer when our kids were young. We'd camp on the edge of the lake and canoe out to that island you see in the distance. The kids would scramble up that big rock and jump gleefully into the water.

On a cold day in the fall, the campsites on the edge of the lake were empty, and we were the only people for miles.

October 07, 2009

Why Ultimate Frisbee is more exciting than football

Recently, I went to a college football game, the first in decades, and it was hard not to compare it to the many Ultimate games I’ve been to in the last couple of years.

1. A disc is superior to a ball. In every way. In Ultimate, the players will go leaping into the air to make a one-handed grab. Because they can. It's exciting to see a player go suddenly flying into the air, his arms reaching way above other players, to snatch the disc out of the sky.

Football players make two-handed catches, and the damn ball keeps popping out of their hands like a wet bar of soap. People shout, “Fumble!” Because apparently football fans think it’s exciting to watch someone fumble the ball. Yes, that’s truly pathetic.

2. Parking. At Ultimate games, it’s free. And you can park about ten feet from the game. At the football game, we had to park miles from the stadium, and were saved only by Blond Brother-in-law who gave us a ride in the back of a police car, which unfortunately left some of my students with the impression that I’d been arrested.

3. An Ultimate player will come off the field when he’s tired, and stand on the sidelines until he’s rested and ready to go in again, at which point another player gets to take a break. Ultimate players actually play most of the game. At the football game, there seem to be thirty or forty guys on each team – seriously, a whole crowd of them – standing around doing nothing for the whole game. I mean, they got to wear uniforms and be on television and all that, but when it comes right down to it, they weren’t actually getting to play the game.

Everyone around me kept talking about this great “kicker” the team had. At a dramatic moment, this kid came out on the field and everyone watched while he kicked the ball. That was his big moment. He kicked the ball once. Then he went off to stand around for another whole hour until they brought him out to kick the ball a second time. Really. They should have let him bring his textbooks onto the field: he could have gotten some studying down in the downtime.

4. In Ultimate, an hour of playing time takes … about sixty minutes. At the football game, an hour of gametime took MORE THAN THREE HOURS. Seriously. I’m all for bathroom breaks and all that, but two hours worth of bathroom breaks? No one’s bladder is that sensitive.

5. Football uniforms are ugly. I bet the men we were watching had toned, muscular bodies, but with all that stupid padding on, there was no way to tell. And the helmets hid their faces. You could have replaced a couple of the players with androids and really, I wouldn’t have noticed. From where I was sitting, they looked more like wind-up toys than human beings. Ultimate players, on the other hand, wear shorts and t-shirts. When an Ultimate player leaps into the air to make a grab, you see bare legs stretching to their utmost, long arms curving towards sky, the grace and agility of the human body. It’s like watching dance.

6. Football games are really loud. Especially when they pump in loud 70s music for the cheerleaders and give microphones to obnoxious old men. At an Ultimate game, it’s so quiet that I can listen to the chatter as the players talk to each other.

7. Ultimate fans are not expected to dress like idiots. At the game I was at last weekend, there were something like 46,000 fans in attendance. About 35,000 of these people were wearing ugly orange t-shirts. Seriously. When someone like me notices how ugly the clothes are, that’s really bad.

8. Ultimate players never just pile on top of each other and lie on the field.

9. No annoying men in black-and-white shirts, stopping the game. Ultimate is self-officiated. Calls are decided with a few brief words. “Contest?” “No contest.”

10. No offensive mascots.

11. You don’t have to worry that some cheerleader is going to die every time she gets tossed ten feet into the air.

12. Ultimate players never run time off the clock.

13. Women play Ultimate.

14. No television timeouts.

15. Ultimate players don’t pat each other on the butt.