June 30, 2010

We braided each other's hair

We braided each other's hair

View from the deck

View from the deck

From the deck, we looked out over a lawn, a meadow, a forest, and mountains that glittered with snow. The mountains would disappear when clouds moved in, and then appear later in the day when the sun shone.

We cooked together, ate together, and hiked together — nine women from nine different states gathered for a retreat that included some creative writing, an intense discussion, a book of poetry, and about 6 pounds of peanut butter.

June 20, 2010

My bags are packed

Early tomorrow morning, I'm traveling to a far-away place, where I will meet up with eight wonderful women. We're going to spend the next week together -- hiking, cooking, writing, and talking. There will be dancing. And massages. And naked photos. I promise to return with stories. And some of them might even be true.

June 19, 2010

Sweet tooth

Good riddance

“I don’t do extractions,” the dentist said to me. “You need to go to an oral surgeon.”

An abscess had formed under one of my wisdom teeth, and I’d been in pain for almost a week, and at that point, I didn’t really care who pulled the damned tooth out. If the dentist had suggested tying a string to the tooth and attaching it to a door handle, I would have agreed.

But I liked the idea of an oral surgeon. An expert. I figured that an oral surgeon would have some kind of high-tech way of removing the problem tooth.

The office was well-lit and sterile, with a whole wall of equipment to my left and a high counter to my right. An assistant in a white lab coat brought out two trays of sterile instruments, discreetly hidden under paper cloth. “You want to be sedated?” asked Oral Surgeon. “Or shall we try this with novocaine?”

I assured him that I wanted to stay awake and watch the procedure. I find medical or dental techniques fascinating. My midwife taught me to do my own urinalysis because I liked figuring out my sugar levels. The aides at the nursing home where my aunt lived used to let me help out when they’d change her catheter. And I got to see all kinds of cool procedures during my husband’s last kidney stone episode. I’m the kind of person who is always curious to see how things work.

The novocaine took affect pretty quickly, and the throbbing pain of the abscess disappeared. It was the best I’d felt in days. Next time I have a toothache, I’m buying some novocaine on the street.

Then the oral surgeon took a pair of pliers and yanked the tooth out. Yep, really. That was the entire procedure.

“Seriously?” I said to him as he was trying to stuff gauze into my mouth. “A pair of pliers? You went to grad school for that?”

He laughed. “See, doing it right makes it look simple. If I’d botched it up, it would have become a complicated procedure.”

“Can I have the tooth?” I asked. I figured I’d show it to the little neighbor children. They were always showing me THEIR teeth.

The nurse shrugged and wrapped it up for me. “Going to put it under your pillow?”

“No, but maybe I’ll take a photo for my blog.”

June 17, 2010

From the top


Last weekend, my husband and I stayed at a retreat house high above a lake lined with summer cottages, gorgeous old houses, and moored sailboats. At night, we walked along the top of the cliff in the warm summer air and watched the lights below us flicking off as people went to bed.

June 16, 2010


Raising four kids has meant spending lots of time in waiting rooms. When my kids were little, I’d come up with ways to entertain them, like sending them searching through the outdated magazines at the dentist’s office on a photo scavenger hunt, or showing them how to spin paper cups on wooden tongue depressors at the doctor’s. I’d take a rubber glove and blow it into a balloon so they we could bat it back and forth. I never remembered to pack toys — heck, in those days I was so sleep-deprived that I was lucky if I remembered where the doctor's office was.

As the kids got older, we’d bring books or journals, and I enjoyed the quiet time in the waiting room. During the years when all my kids were taking music lessons every week, I used those weekly thirty-minute time slots to write. Waiting rooms are terrific places for writing because there are so few distractions. You'd be surprised at how much you can write in 30 minutes when all methods of procrastination have been removed.

Now that three of my kids can drive, I don’t spend much time in waiting rooms any more. Shaggy Hair Boy usually takes With-a-Why to his Friday piano lesson, and all four kids have long since had their braces off. I'm past the stage where I'm always pregnant so I only see the doctor when I break a bone or something. But today, With-a-Why had a dentist appointment, and I packed my laptop to bring with me. I was looking forward to a quiet half hour in the waiting room, an enforced time to write.

But alas, the waiting room, like all good things, had changed. A big, flat-screen television dominated the room. It was turned on, and the volume cranked up. I couldn’t get away from the blaring noise. These floating heads kept talking, talking, talking. It was horrible.  I couldn’t think, no less write.

Writing in a music studio with lovely, classical piano music playing on the other side of a wall is one thing. Trying to write under the loud blare of journalists talking about the oil leak and flashing horrific images is quite another.

June 11, 2010

Just the two of us

When my kids were little, they took up most of my time and energy in the summer. We’d go camping, or go swimming at the beach, or go to parks like Pretty Colour Lakes. The living room was always cluttered with toys and kids.

But my kids are mostly adults now. Laptop computers have replaced Lego blocks in the living room. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter is in Bison City for two more months, finishing her Master’s degree. Boy in Black is playing on three different Ultimate teams and doing physics research in his spare time. Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why play Ultimate and spend their leisure time at the piano. We still have a gang of young people hanging out in the living room, especially late at night after everyone has gotten out of work, but they play poker now rather than Pokemon.

Perhaps the biggest change is that my husband and I have planned some summer trips vacations for just the two of us. After years of traveling with four kids — making sure every kid had a duffle bag packed, filling the car with camping gear for six people, and planning a schedule to accommodate kids of different ages and sizes — it feels strange to be making plans for two.

We’re doing that this morning, piling our stuff into bags and packing the car, heading off for a long weekend together. It feels good to roll back the clock 25 years and be able to take off whenever we feel like it, without lining up babysitters or packing diapers or trying to cram way too much stuff into a car that had to also hold six people. I’m looking forward to having long conversations with my husband without being interrupted by crying children or sarcastic teenagers.

But it’s also bittersweet. 

June 08, 2010

On my way home

I spent from 9 am until 4 pm inside a conference room, meeting with colleagues and making plans for the next academic year. My day was productive and the work I did necessary, but as I drove home, I felt like I’d missed the whole day because I’d spent it inside. The weather was sunny and cool, and it would have been perfect for gardening.

Then I remembered that it was Tuesday.

Just a few miles from my house, I turned into a gravel driveway, and drove up past a bunch of silos, then down a hill and around the side of a barn. Another woman was already there, lifting a bin of vegetables into her car. “Do you need anything extra?” Mrs. Farmer asked as I approached.

“Tomatoes,” I said. “I used them all up within three days last week.” I didn’t mention to her that I’d eaten them all myself: no one else in my family got any at all.

My two boxes were already filled with vegetables, but she lifted the lid to add a few more tomatoes. “Which greens do you want?” she asked. “Pick two bunches.” I chose the swiss chard with its bright red/purple lines and the kale with its curly green ruffles. Greens pretty much taste alike to me so I just pick the prettiest ones.

We chatted for a few minutes. It was her birthday: she’s four years older than me. We went to the same high school, just up the road. “This is the first week for beets,” she said. “We’re having some for dinner tonight.”

The two boxes of veggies fit nicely onto the back seat. The car filled with the scent of fresh basil. I waved goodbye and pulled out of the driveway, looking forward to the salad I’d be eating in just a few minutes.

June 07, 2010

Old and faded

I’ve had the same pair of jeans shorts for about 25 years. I don’t even remember when I bought them, although I’m pretty sure I got them secondhand. They were never new; they were always comfortable and faded. They used to be too big, but over the years, I’ve grown and they’ve shrunk, and we’ve met halfway. There was a big stretch during the 1980s when I was always pregnant and the jeans shorts were shoved into the back of the closet, replaced by a pair of shorts with stretchy fabric for my belly, but sometime after With-a-Why was born, I rediscovered the old jeans shorts and I’ve worn them happily ever since.

But lately, the shorts have been looking a little frayed and faded, even for me. I know from experience that when denim gets so thin that it’s almost white, an embarrassing hole is about to appear, and often at the most inconvenient moment. So when my daughter suggested we stop at an outlet mall on a drive back from Bison City, I said, “Great. I need a new pair of shorts.”

I found jeans shorts in the first store we looked. They were short shorts, like the ones I was wearing, and were just as comfortable. I’m happy to see short shorts back in the stores: I remember the decade when long shorts were in style and every pair I tried on came down to my knees. Long shorts only make sense if you’re the height of Boy in Black, which I am not.

Here’s the oddest thing though. The shorts that I tried on were practically as beat up as the shorts I was wearing. The denim was faded. The shorts had wrinkle marks on the fabric as if elves had been wearing them. Then I noticed a hole on the right side, just at the hip. Yes, a hole. I could poke my finger through and touch skin.

“What poor quality,” I thought and grabbed another pair off the rack. But this pair had a hole IN THE VERY SAME SPOT. I looked through the shorts. Every single pair had a hole.

“They’re distressed,” my daughter told me. “That’s in style.”

She wasn’t kidding. The holes were on purpose. Yes, some company makes denim shorts, then deliberately fades them, adds ugly wrinkle marks, and even rips holes in them.

I was muttering about the ridiculousness of it all, when suddenly, the thought hit me. I didn’t need a new pair of shorts. It turns out that the pair I’ve been wearing are in style! And when the inevitable hole appears, they will be even more stylish!

Clearly, I’ve been setting some kind of fashion trend and didn’t even know it.

Old and faded

I was setting up the tripod to take a picture of the shorts when the little neighbor girl arrived and begged to take the photo. She’s kind of wild with my camera, so it’s just as well that I planned to crop out my face for the blog. I was trying to smile, but instead, I was muttering through clenched teeth: “Put the strap back around your neck! Don’t touch the lens. Stop swinging the camera! Just snap the photo!”

June 06, 2010


When I woke up, rain was pounding the roof outside our bedroom window. A strong wind filled our room with fresh air and made the boughs of the river birch dance.

I could hear Boy in Black’s cell phone alarm going off, so I woke him up. He needed to leave at 7 am for an Ultimate tournament. 

“It’s been raining for hours,” I told him as he stumbled sleepily through the kitchen.

“Good,” he said. “That will make the fields softer. It’s been like playing on cement.”

Once he’d left, the house was quiet. The teenagers who had been up late playing cards were asleep on the floor, each body rolled into a quilt. Poker chips and empty cups were still scattered over the kitchen table; they’d used a bedsheet as a tablecloth. Outside the glass door, I could see the lilacs bending into the rain.

I thought of all the projects I could get started on. I’ve been on a spring cleaning binge lately, and I’ve also vowed to work on my book every day. I’ve got stuff to prepare for some meetings this week as well.

But rainy days are for sleeping. When I went back up to the bedroom, the windowsill was wet from the splashing rain, but I didn’t close the window. The house has been so hot and humid lately that the cool air was welcome. I’d find a cloth later, and wipe the windowsill dry, but for now, I left the window open and went back to bed.

June 04, 2010

Father and son

Father and son

My husband and With-a-Why, on the hammock at camp, reading a comic book together.

June 03, 2010

Low water


Usually in May, the river water is high enough to cover the dock at my parents' camp, and we pile rocks on the top to keep sections from floating away. Then the water level drops as the summer goes on, with more rocks appearing in the river as August comes to a close.

This year, the water is unusually low, about a foot and a half lower than last year. We had less snowfall this winter and a dry spring — and I'm not really sure what all the factors are. The water level is partially controlled by climate and partially controlled by human institutions. Commercial interests -- the need to produce hydro-electic power, the need to keep the Seaway functioning as a shipping lane, the money made by tourism that relies on recreational boating -- often dictate the water level, which can be controlled at the locks. I'd like to think that local ecology, and the needs of the creatures of the marshes, come into play, but I think environmental issues are secondary to commercial interests.

In the 42 years we've had the camp, we've never seen water quite this low on Memorial Day.

June 02, 2010

Edge of summer

Island edge

Memorial Day weekend at camp is usually cold: it’s still spring in this part of the world. But this year, the weather was hot and sunny, warm enough for swimming. “It feels like summer,” I kept saying, and my father, who has come to the river since he was a boy, kept saying, “Yeah, it’s not quite right. It shouldn’t be this warm.”

Saturday’s canoeing expedition took us out to a little island where we could take a swim. My father and Shaggy Hair Boy shared one canoe: they are 60 years apart, but they get together every week to play music together and I could hear them chatting at the canoe whished past us. My daughter, With-a-Why, and my mother were in another canoe, and they sang most of the way. “Here’s another one you might know,” I heard With-a-Why say to his grandmother, and then he launched into the song Ain’t Misbehavin.” She joined him on the chorus.

At the island, which was little more than a rock jutting up at the edge of the bay, we pulled up the canoes and all got out to take a swim. The sun-warmed rock makes a nice place to take a nap. My husband grabbed a life jacket to use as a pillow, while I rested my head on the dry bag that I’d brought my camera in. I could hear Shaggy Hair Boy splashing in the water as I closed my eyes.

That's Shaggy Hair Boy on the right, and With-a-Why on the left.