May 29, 2010



The tent is in the car, and we're just about to drive north to my parents' camp up on Big River That Runs Between Two Countries for the long weekend. The weather has been so warm that we're all bringing bathing suits. The river water is pretty cold this time of year, but I know from experience the only way to swim in icy water: you just jump right in.

May 27, 2010

Food for thought

I tend to be deeply influenced by the books I read. So last week when I was rereading a bunch of books about eating locally, I thought to myself, “These authors are right! It’s crazy for me to be eating an orange that’s been shipped hundreds of miles or lettuce that’s come all the way from the west coast.” Surely, I could find a way to reduce the amount of fossil fuel expended to feed the gang of hungry people at my house.

I immediately imagined myself growing all the food we need right here, in my own backyard. I mean, I read Farmer Boy over and over as a kid: I figured that qualified me to be a farmer.

I went outside to turn over the small vegetable garden behind the house. Obviously, I’d have to expand it. Right now, it’s only 12 feet by 24 feet, not enough to feed a houseful of Ultimate-playing young men.

After a couple of hours of working in the hot sun, the humid air and effort making me look like I’d entered a wet t-shirt contest, I tossed the shovel aside. Maybe I needed to convince my sons that gardening was more fun than Ultimate, and they could do all the work.

That possibility was as likely as me winning the lottery. My sons put 200 percent into anything they care about, whether it be Ultimate, jazz music, or physics. But that kind of intensity only extends to the passions they’ve chosen. I saw no sign that the highly theoretical physics research that Boy in Black does could be turned into a desire to farm, or that the hours that the younger two spend at the piano could suddenly be channeled into hoeing weeds. My husband wasn’t even an option: he’s at work in the daytime, and hordes of mosquitoes make evening gardening a type of blood sacrifice.

The solution, it turned out, was simple. I searched the internet for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. The closest one to me was less than four miles away: in fact, when I looked at the address, I realized that I’ve driven past the farm hundreds of times. I sent a frantic email to the farmer, saying, “I know this is really late to be asking, but can I buy a share for this season?”

An email chimed in only minutes later. “Sure, send us a check; we’ll have a bin ready for you this Tuesday.”

That’s the way it works. People like me, who simply don’t have the time to raise their own food, pay up front. Then for the next 26 weeks, I can stop at the farm every Tuesday afternoon on my way home from my piano lesson -- and pick up my bin of vegetables. We’ll get whatever is in season, whatever has grown well, and we’ll figure out how to make it into meals. If they give us too much dark green stuff, I’ll send it over to my mother, who would happily eat collard greens every day.

The best part is that I don’t have to do the planting, the hoeing, the weeding, the worrying about whether or not we’re going to have another frost. I don’t have to convert my geeky sons into farmers. And I won’t have to feel guilty when I eat delicious meals from food grown less than five miles from my house. Since the farm is on my way home, the amount of fossil fuel used to transport the food will be zero. I wish all decisions could be that simple.

May 25, 2010

"I don't believe in a lot of things, but I do believe in duct tape"

The only television in our house is upstairs in the boys’ bedroom, so that’s where we watched the finale of LOST. We fought for good spots to sit: the six of us, plus Blonde Niece and Sailor Boy. It’s an upstairs room, and it was ridiculously hot, especially with all of our warm bodies wedged in amongst the piles of pillows and blankets. If any of us had thought about it ahead of time, we could have carried the television down into the living room — it’s a pretty small television that is easy to lift. But we aren’t the kind of family that plans ahead of time.

So we spent six hours in a stuffy room that smells like dirty socks and Ultimate jerseys. Yes, six hours. We watched the pre-show, the post-show, and of course, the whole episode. It was like a year’s worth of television-watching for me.

Believe it or not, I actually had seen most of the series. We watched it during one of my husband’s kidney stone episodes when he was in pain, and we were just hanging out at home, trying to keep him hydrated, and we needed something to entertain ourselves with. We watched the first three seasons on DVD, all the episodes in a row, with no commercial breaks. I missed some of the details because I’d dash out of the room to get more drinks or food or whatever, but I got the gist of the show. It was a bit dark for my taste – and kind of confusing — and a bit surreal, because we watched it late at night, and the man next me in real life was in as much pain as whichever character was writhing in pain on the screen.

I liked the character development and I liked the theme of redemption that ran through the various subplots. Any intellectual appreciation I had for the show came mostly from listening to conversations between my daughter and Film Guy. Film Guy was getting a degree in Television-Radio-Film during the first four years of the show, so he always had these insightful and intelligent things to say.

So that’s where I was at the historic ending of the series LOST, crowded in the boys’ hot, humid bedroom, with all of my kids and my husband and a couple of extras. The boys have a little fan in the window, because With-a-Why likes to sleep with a fan blasting air at him. But everyone kept complaining that the fan made too much noise so we only used it during commercials. I know some people complained about all the commercials, but I looked forward to them. As soon as a commercial came on, Boy in Black would reach over to plug the fan back in, cool air would pour into the room, and everyone would start talking at once, analyzing what had happened or mocking out the characters they didn’t like. The funniest lines, and the most profound, didn’t come from any character on the screen but from people in the room. That’s always the best part of any television show.

May 24, 2010


When I was attending a fund-raising event on Saturday, I noticed some kind of kids’ event happening on the other side of the park. I could hear a woman talking over a microphone, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. The squeals from the cluster of kids made me curious.

“Go over and find out,” Retired Principal said to me. “I’ll stay with the table.”

When I walked over, I noticed a couple of big coolers near the Microphone Woman. I had no idea what she was saying: her words were garbled so I tuned them out. Perhaps she was giving out free drinks. I see that in parks all the time, and even at the ski slopes, companies promoting some new sugary, caffeine-filled drink.

But the kids weren’t drinking anything. and they seemed to be staring at a teenager in a green shirt who had her back to me. I edged my way over to the teenager to see what the attraction was. I was only a few feet away when she turned suddenly.

She was holding a snake.

She smiled at me and went over to put the snake back in the cooler. I felt relieved that I hadn’t opened a cooler to get a free drink.

Show and tell

May 22, 2010


From where we sat in our lawn chairs, we could look over the water past a pavilion where volunteers had set up the registration tables, and towards Snowstorm City, where church spires rose gracefully above the trees. Behind us, a group of volunteers were grilling hotdogs and hamburgers. For the hour before the fund-raising walk began, the little park was filled with people, many of them chatting, greeting each other with hugs, and calling out to each other across the lawn. Retired Principal and I were working the table that held the bowl of candy, so we had a chance to say hello to almost every child at the event. In fact, one little boy with dimples came over so many times that we ended up meeting his big sister, who had been assigned to drag him away from the candy bowl.

As the walkers began to arrive, I kept seeing people wearing red t-shirts imprinted with the name and picture of the same child. Then blue t-shirts with a photo of a different child. Then I noticed clumps of people everywhere with matching shirts. “Team Tessa” or “Team Michael,” the shirts would announce. As I began talking to people, I heard the stories behind the shirts. Cystic fibrosis is a disease that affects not just a child, but that child’s family and community, and behind every t-shirt, there seemed to be a network of support and caring.

One woman had a six-month old baby, who had been diagnosed at birth. “But she’s being treated already, and she’s the picture of health.” An older woman said she had a 29-year-old son with cystic fibrosis. The energetic woman who was serving everyone coffee had lost a daughter to the disease, but was determined to keep raising money to help other people’s kids. One man brought his year-old son over to say hello. He’d been diagnosed through newborn screening and was doing fine so far. “The new drugs are doing wonders,” one parent kept saying.

The event organizer grabbed the microphone and herded everyone down to the waterfront for the beginning of the walk. From our table, we watched them: Some parents would be walking with strollers; one young man did the walk in a wheelchair. I could see the woman I’d talked to earlier, the mother of the six-month old baby with cystic fibrosis. Here she was, at the inner harbor on a lovely May morning, surrounded by about forty people who had arrived wearing a t-shirt that bore the name of her daughter. They stood around her, joking about who would carry the water bottles. At a signal from the event organizer, they all started forward, kids and parents and grandparents, coworkers and neighbors and friends, people of all ages, walking together.


May 21, 2010

Burning bright

The wedding my husband and I went to tonight was held at in a very old building that’s been turned into a restaurant and banquet hall. As we walked into the room where the ceremony would be held, the first thing I noticed were the candles. At the end of each row of chairs, three candles in glass votive jars burned. The dancing flames reflected off the hardwood floors, and the whole room was bathed in candlelight. How romantic, I thought. “The bride wanted candles,” the woman behind me said.

We’d been in our seats for just a moment when I heard a crashing noise – like the sound a bowling pin makes when it hits the floor. An older woman in a dark green dress, stopping to say hello to her nephew, had knocked into one of the candles. It rolled across the hardwood floor, leaving a streak of wax. She picked the candle up guiltily and took her seat. A young man walked over and relit the candle.

A minute later, another guest walked in, an older man scanning the crowd for familiar faces as he walked up the aisle. Clearly, he should have been looking at his feet. Three candles went tumbling over that time, rolling under the chairs and causing other guests to scramble about retrieving them. This time a young woman came over and patiently relit the candles.

It became a game. I couldn’t resist turning to watch as guests walked in. I’d whisper my predictions to my husband, “The woman in the flowered dress? The one talking to her husband? She’s not looking, she’s getting closer – there it goes!”

The bride, dressed in a traditional white gown, was lovely, and the groom was glowing. The ceremony included songs, touching speeches, and heartfelt vows. But what I remember most were the candles, crashing over again and again, falling and rolling and blowing out completely, while young people patiently retrieved them, set them back up, and lit them again. At the end of the ceremony, the young friends had won out, and every candle was burning nicely, shining on the bride and groom as they walked back up the aisle.

May 20, 2010

At the piano studio

At the piano studio

My long-haired piano-playing sons. That’s With-a-Why in the foreground and Shaggy Hair Boy in the background, warming up before it was time to go play in front of the judge. They can sit several feet away from each other, each playing completely different songs, and neither gets distracted by the other’s music. I think that comes from growing up in a crowded noisy household.

May 18, 2010

Clean sweep

I’ve been taking advantage of my daughter while she’s home — by getting her to read my manuscript. We’ve been going through the book one chapter at a time: taking pieces out, replacing sections, rearranging parts. Every time my daughter has said, “You should cut this,” I’ve listened. She’s a ruthless editor whereas I’m a pack rat, so it’s helpful.

The editing process is a bit like a household cleaning project. I start with a room that looks pretty good, and decided that maybe I ought to empty out the closet, dump out the drawers, pull stuff out from under the bed. I work hard for several hours, and then look around and notice that the whole room looks way worse than when I started. That’s when it’s time to put on the tea kettle and open up a new bar of chocolate.

This afternoon, we started on the last five chapters, which is the part of the book that I’ve worked on the least. “That vignette doesn’t fit,” said my daughter. She looked over at my computer as I selected the piece and shuffled it to an earlier chapter.

“Wait! Is THAT what you’ve been doing?” she asked, “Putting them back into the early part of the book?”

I looked up guiltily. “Not all of them. But I liked that piece.”

“Oh, my god,” she said. “This is like cleaning with you. I try to make you throw stuff away and you sneak it back into the house.”

“It’s why we make a good team,” I said. “Here, have more chocolate.”

May 17, 2010

In town

Snowstorm University

For just another week, I’ll have all my kids home, and then my daughter will go back to Bison City, where she needs to run a study, gather data, and write a master’s thesis before the end of July. But in August, she’ll return to enter a PhD program at Snowstorm University.

Yes, my two oldest kids will both be attending grad school here in Snowstorm Region. They’ll be sharing an off-campus apartment with First Extra, whom we’ve known since he was a kid and who will also be going to grad school at Snowstorm University. “We can start having lunch together on Fridays!” I told them all when I heard the news. It’s going to be great to my daughter back in town.

When I ran into First Extra's parents at the grocery store last week, we reminisced about how it had been ten years since Boy in Black and First Extra had graduated from their little elementary school. "And now our kids are going to live together like one happy family," First Extra's Mother said, laughing.

We’ll have a bunch of family members attending Snowstorm University at the undergraduate level: Shaggy Hair Boy, of course, and Blonde Niece, and Skater Boy, whom we’ve known since he was tiny, will begin their sophomore year. Drama Niece, my brother’s daughter, will come from Camera City to attend Snowstorm University, the first she’s lived here. She’s already a fan of the basketball team, so we figure she’ll adjust pretty quickly.

“We’re going to have five grandchildren at Snowstorm University,” my mother said when she heard the news. She’ll see them all pretty often: no hungry student would ever turn down one of my mother’s homecooked meals. Shaggy Hair Boy already goes over to his grandparents’ house once a week to record music with his grandfather and eat lunch.

“You can’t keep us here forever, you know,” my daughter warned me last fall, as she was looking at PhD programs. And yes, I know that parenting is all about letting go. But even so, I’m thrilled right now at the choices my kids have made: they’ll be here in town for now. I’m going to enjoy that while it lasts.

May 15, 2010

A diploma and a disc

It seems just the other day that Boy in Black was giving his high school valedictory speech. But if you remember him giving that speech, that means you’ve been reading this blog for four years. He graduated from college today, with degrees in physics and math.

Boy in Black hasn’t really changed much. The outfit he wore to the Scholars Reception this afternoon was a black shirt, a black tie, and black pants, the same clothes he wore to awards ceremonies all through high school. He’s still got uncombed dark hair that hangs into his face; he’s still tall and skinny and gentle, with an easy-going manner. The math department gives an award to the best student in the department, and so does the physics department. He won both awards. And he’s already begun work towards a PhD in Physics at Snowstorm University. He’s as academically gifted as he ever was.

The biggest change, his biggest gain from college, was not in the classroom, but on the Ultimate Frisbee field. When he entered college, he was just learning the sport, just learning all the throws and rules of the game. He didn’t even own a pair of cleats. Now he’s obsessed.

Ultimate taught him all kinds of skills. He learned how to coach, how to teach, how to be a leader. During an injury that took months to diagnose, he learned how to be assertive with doctors and how to trust his instincts about his body. As one of the captains of the team, he learned how to deal with paperwork, get practice fields, set up tournaments, order jerseys, and collect money from teammates. He learned how to sleep on the floor of a small hotel room, wedged between other sleeping bodies. He learned how to handle frustration, disappointment, and elation.

Boy in Black will continue to play Ultimate as a grad student. Each player gets five years of eligibility so he’s got another year. His plans for this summer include research in computational physics with his major professor, but more importantly, “learning nasty Ultimate skills.” I wonder if Snowstorm University, when they gave him a scholarship four years ago, realized that his most valued lessons would take place in a grassy field with a bunch of other students and a ten-dollar disc.

May 11, 2010

What our cats are thinking

Birthday card

For every birthday in the family, my mother gets out her watercolours and makes a homemade card. It’s a tradition. Anyone of us would be insulted to get a store-bought card.

Here is the inside of this year’s birthday card to Boy in Black, my tall son who has devoted most of his energy this year to Ultimate Frisbee. The card shows five of the cats in our household — Salem, Trouble, Rachel, Rogue, and Emmy — talking to each other. Here’s the dialogue.

“Hey, Trouble. I hear it’s the tall one’s birthday. He is pretty old.”

“No, Salem, humans live longer than we do. I hear he is very smart. Right, Rachel?”

“Then why is he always chasing that round thing that he can’t eat when he catches it?”

“I think it’s a game like when we chase a catnip mouse. What do you think, Emmy?”

“I don’t have a clue, but I think I peed on it.”

May 09, 2010

Embedded in the landscape

During my walk through Traintrack Village, I stopped to say hello to Retired Principal and his wife, Mother of Six. They live in a house that’s more than hundred years old, on the corner near the Elementary School where Retired Principal used to work. They were just sitting down for an afternoon glass of wine when I arrived so they invited me to come in and chat. Their house is lovely, with hardwood floors and big windows. “The only problem with these windows is that’s no place to put furniture,” said Mother of Six. They’ve never had room for a couch, just a collection of chairs.

We sat near the front window, where we could watch anyone walking by on the street. “A bunch of young families have just moved onto the street,” said Retired Principal. “It’s fun to see little kids playing out there again.”

They were both eager to tell me about the 80th birthday celebration their kids had thrown last month for Retired Principal. They’d rented two buses that were designed to look like trolley cars, and the whole family – kids, grandchildren, and some of his siblings, about 40 people in all – had spent a whole day traveling around the small town where he’d grown up.

They stopped at the house he lived in as a child, and they all climbed out, peering in to the yard, brushing dirt off the sidewalk to look for initials. They stopped at the little church where he’d been an altar boy and at the bridge where he and his friends used to jump into the canal. “That bridge would make any parent nervous,” Mother of Six said.

Strangely enough, no one in the small town said anything at all when they saw this mob of people, all laughing and talking and wearing matching t-shirts, get out to gather on a street corner or in the cemetery or at what might seem a random house. “We got some looks,” Mother of Six said. “But mostly people just smiled. I think we looked pretty harmless.”

“We told stories all day,” Retired Principal said. “They’ve all heard my stories before, of course, but this time, I got to tell them in the places where they’d actually taken place.” He laughed, remembering, and I could tell what a success the birthday celebration had been, a whole weekend spent with family, telling and retelling the stories embedded in the landscape of his childhood.

May 07, 2010

Lunch at the lake

Early in the season

The snow is gone, green is bursting out everywhere, and the sun was shining, so my parents and I drove to out to the lake, to the bar/restaurant where we often eat lunch. It’s the same building where my husband and I had our wedding reception, more than 25 years ago. We’ve got lots of lakes in Snowstorm Region, but this lake is the largest one that’s entirely in the state. It’s 21 miles long and five miles wide. The native people in the area called it White Water Lake, and as we drove along the shoreline, it was easy to see why. A strong wind swept across the lake, kicking up whitecaps.

We stopped at a marina that isn’t open for the season yet so that I could walk out onto the piers and take some pictures. My mother reminisced about the time we were all sailing on the lake, my family and Picnic Family, four adults and six small kids on a small sailboat, and we got caught in some rough weather. I was pretty young, and I don’t even remember the incident. But my mother remembers it vividly. “We were planning out who would grab which kids if we capsized. It was terrifying.”

The restaurant on White Water Lake has big windows that look out over the lake, so we sat in the sun, safely sheltered from the wind and enjoyed our meal. I always think of my father’s friend, Drumming Grandfather, when we’re at this restaurant because one time we all ate here together while they celebrated their birthdays. They’re both 79, with birthdays the same week in February, and they’ve been friends since high school. My mother told me the latest news about Drumming Grandfather. A widower, he’s been reunited with a high school friend, and they’re dating, together after 60 years apart.

We talked lazily as we watched a boat out on the lake try to make its way up the lake, bouncing up and crashing down onto big waves. “It makes me seasick just watching,” I said. I don’t get seasick on sailboats and canoes, but motorboats are a different story. My father and I reminisced about the many times we’d gone sailing on White Water Lake. We used to bring Kindergarten Friend sometimes or Outdoor Girl.

The wind was dying down a bit as we left. The sunshine was warm as we got back into the car, me carrying my leftovers, and drove back to my parents’ house, with my father pointing out landmarks from his childhood as we went.

May 06, 2010

Afternoon in early May

We're nearing the end of the semester. Boy in Black has taken over one end of the couch; the little table in front of him holds textbooks, his cellphone, a cup of cocoa, and his laptop. He’s working on a physics problem. With-a-Why, on the other end of the couch, has a sketch pad in his lap and a laptop in front of him. Shaggy Hair Boy is in the comfy chair, and he’s writing a paper on his laptop. I’m arranging student portfolios into piles, a move that makes me look organized but really just puts off actually grading them. The kitchen counter is littered with empty cups, plates, and bowls.

It’s mostly quiet in the room, except that all of us have surges of playing the piano when we need a break, and short bits of conversations that we never finish.

With-a-Why looks up from his sketch pad, “Are you going out to the store? I need some m&m’s for school.”

“You need candy?” I ask.

“It has to be m&m’s. I need 100 of them,”

“What for?” I ask, but he is no longer listening. He’s concentrating on the sketchpad.

Boy in Black looks up from his computer: “He must be learning about radioactive decay.”

I look at him. “What?”

“I mean, it’s obvious,” he looks back down at his computer, mumbling something the concept of the half-life and how you can demonstrate this with m&m’s but already his mind has gone back to the physics problem.

“Does this look like an egg?” With-a-Why asks, holding up his sketch pad.

“Not really. Shouldn’t it be more oval?”

Shaggy Hair Boy goes into the kitchen area to get a drink, then sits down to play the piano. With-a-Why is singing to himself as he sketches. "Pardon me boys, is that the Chattanooga Choo choo?" Boy in Black has opened a book called Statistical Mechanics; he’s looking at the pages so intensely that I suspect he’s memorizing it.

My daughter calls from Bison City to say she’s done with all her coursework. Her semester ended a week before ours. All she needs to do now is run a study and write a master’s thesis. She’ll come next weekend for Boy in Black’s college graduation.

And then summer will begin.

May 04, 2010

Don’t it always seem to go

“Semesters end with a whimper,” I complained to my students. We’re a small science school, and most of our courses finish with cumulative final exams and big research projects. Students have so much work to do during the last two weeks of class that they often resemble zombies, stumbling about in a sleep-deprived state. Faculty, facing grant deadlines, contentious faculty meetings, and stacks of papers to be graded, are usually functioning at an even lower level, since their older bodies can’t be jump-started with a jolt of caffeine.

But yesterday, for the last class of the semester, one of my students brought her guitar. At the end of the hour, she took the guitar out of the case and came to the front of the room. We formed a circle around her, a roomful of sophomores, juniors, and seniors from all different departments on campus who have been reading, talking, and exploring ideas together all semester. We've shared stories and food and poetry.

She played Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and sang every verse, while two other classmates drummed the rhythm and classmates chimed in on the chorus.

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

A lovely end to the semester.

May 02, 2010



Signing Woman called me this morning to say, “Want to go for a walk before the rainy weather arrives?” She lives nearby, and her dog Border Collie gives us a great excuse to get outside for some fresh air all year around.

Twenty minutes later, we were walking around Pretty Colour Lakes. Signing Woman is a naturalist who holds the leash in one hand and binoculars in the other, and is always saying, “Did you hear that?” I am terrible at identifying birds by their calls, unless it’s something really obvious like a blue jay, so I’m not sure why she even bothers to ask me, but I always nod like I know what she’s talking about. Then while she’s staring at a bird or slowing down to look at scat, I spend my time taking photos.

The park was filled with local folks, many sitting by themselves, deep in thought. Really, it was a bit like being at a silent retreat. After a winter of being crowded into homes and buildings, jammed in with their families and coworkers, people appreciate the freedom that warm weather brings: the chance to sit by a lake and think.


May 01, 2010



On Tuesday, we had snow, big white flakes of it covering cars and roads. Today was a humid day in the high 80s, and by the time I finished mowing the front lawn, my clothes were drenched in sweat. Leaves and blossoms are bursting out everywhere, and the air is filled with pollen.