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.