December 31, 2012

Sleepy winter days

Napping in the Christmas Village

We've had a lovely, relaxed week during which we've mostly hung around and done -- well, we've pretty much done nothing at all, unless you consider finishing off leftover holiday food an accomplishment. We've watched movies, played games, read books, ate cookies, sat by the fire, and put together a jigsaw puzzle. We've got a couple feet of snow on the ground, so it's a good time to hibernate. Our cat Rogue, who spends most of her time outside in warmer weather, has chosen the little Christmas village as a fine place for a long winter's nap.



December 28, 2012

Twelve years old

Biker Boy’s birthday comes right after Christmas: this was his first birthday since he’s been in foster care. A storm dumped a couple feet of snow on our region this week, but the plows have been out in full force, and the roads were clear as I drove to the town where he's staying.

We went for pizza, of course: it’s our tradition. Then I took him to the store to pick out a birthday present, and we came back to my house for the rest of the day.

We didn’t really do anything special. We built a fire in the fireplace. We played with the remote control car he’s chosen for his birthday present. We went outside with shovels to clear away the snow the plows had pushed into the driveway. Red-haired Niece and Blonde Niece stopped by to borrow some snowshoes on their way to Pretty Colour Lakes so we talked to them for a few minutes. I had a couple of stitches in my arm that needed to come out today, and Biker Boy watched, fascinated, while Boy-in-Black took them out with scissors and tweezers.

Biker Boy had a new iPod Touch that someone (his foster parents, I'm assuming) had given him for Christmas, and he was eager to figure out how to use it. He gets frustrated easily with technology, but Shaggy Hair Boy came to his rescue and patiently helped him transfer music. That’s when I figured out that we could use the little device for video chatting.

It took us awhile to set up his account, but soon we had it in place. To practice, he went upstairs and I called him from my computer. Sure enough, his face appeared on my screen. “This is awesome,” he said. “I can see you! I can see the Christmas tree!” He was talking so loud that I could have heard him even without the computer.

It was getting dark when I drove him home. Lights were going on in the farmhouses that we passed. The pine trees held big curves of white. Biker Boy held the GPS in his hands, even though I assured him I know the way by now; he’s fascinated with the device.

I felt sad, like I usually do, after I dropped him off, but this time my drive home was interrupted three times by phone calls from him. “Are you home yet?” he kept asking, “I want to Skype with you!”

Once I was back in my living room, I opened my laptop, and soon his face appeared, grinning. “I can see you!” he called out. He began panning the iPod around the room to give me a tour. “Look! Here’s the television! Here’s a chair!”

I’m old enough — and he’s young enough — to be excited by the technology. It’s not the same as having him right across the street, but it will be a nice way to keep in touch while his uncertain future gets sorted out.

December 26, 2012

White Christmas


Help to make season bright

When Dandelion Niece and Taekwondo Nephew arrived on the morning of Christmas Eve, I put them to work immediately — chopping vegetables, ironing the white tablecloths, and carrying chairs in from the garage. We tried to figure out how many people would be here for Christmas dinner. Twenty? Twenty-one?

"We might have to shove the folding table up against the Christmas tree," I said.

"We can use the piano bench if we run out of chairs," said Taekwondo Nephew.

Boy-in-Black, who had taken a break from cleaning to obligingly taste the baked beans, looked up from his bowl. "Maybe more barbecue sauce. Or something spicy." He rooted through the spice drawer, pulling out cayenne and red pepper.

"You didn't bring me a holiday wreath?" I teased Dandelion Niece. "I saw on facebook that you were making them."

"There's a wreath on your door already," she said.

Puzzled, I went over to the front door and opened it. She'd hung a lovely, homemade wreath on the door on her way in. Busy with food preparations, I hadn't even noticed.

Holiday wreath

December 22, 2012

Worst holiday scent ever

Our youngest cat is almost fourteen years old. So I’m guessing it won’t be long before all of our cats die peaceful, natural deaths. And then after that, as God is my witness, I’m never going to let a cat in my house again.

I tried to be pro-active this holiday season and avoid feline mishaps. I don’t think anyone benefits from the tender holiday image of me swearing at the cats while wielding a bottle of Urine-off. So I did what I could.

I even moved our Christmas village – wooden buildings that my parents built and painted almost thirty years ago — out from under the tree and up onto a couple of tables by the window. This maneuver was in response to an ugly incident that happened a couple of years ago when Trouble, our aptly-named male cat, directed a blast of urine at the village. (If the village were on fire and he were a character in an eighteenth-century satire, I suppose his action would have been justified. Alas, it was not.)

This year’s incident happened on my husband’s birthday. With the house decorated for Christmas, our youngest in school, and the older kids at the castle, we planned to spend a romantic day home in front of the fire. I’d finished my grading for the semester, my husband had a couple of days off, and snow was beginning to fall. When we woke up that morning, everything was perfect — except for a strong stench that permeated our home.

“Where’s the smell coming from?” my husband asked, picking up a couch cushion and sniffing it. “It’s somewhere in this room.”

“I can’t find a wet spot,” I said. We both began frantically sniffing everything in the room. It wasn’t any of the pillows. It wasn't the Christmas village. I could smell the odor — the whole room stank— but I couldn’t find the exact spot.

We spent hours crawling around on the floor, smelling for a spot on the carpet, a urine-soaked pillow, anything. At least, it felt like hours. Time goes slowly when your living room reeks. Finally I opened the windows to let in fresh air, even though that made the room frigid. By then, I'd pulled sweatpants and a sweatshirt on over the lingerie I was wearing for the occasion. The day was getting less and less romantic with every passing minute.

We gave up and went out to lunch to get a respite from the awful smell and to stop at the pet store to buy more Urine-off. When we returned, the stench was worse than ever. I began moving things out of the room, just to eliminate them from our investigation: the pillows, the chair, stacks of piano music. We even moved the Christmas tree into the middle of the room to check the carpet underneath.

“Maybe the cat peed in the heat duct?” my husband said. “And it fills the room every time the heat goes on?” He went down into the crawlspace to check out the furnace.

I was sitting on the floor next to the Christmas tree, and I leaned over to breathe in the pine scent of the tree. That’s when I figured it out. That strand of garland? Those low branches? A whole section of the tree reeked.

Trouble had peed on the Christmas tree.

I grabbed my pruning shears and chopped off a branch. “I found it!” I yelled to my husband. When he appeared, I made him smell the branch — and the strand of contaminated garland. I started hacking branches off the tree like crazy.

I kept bringing bit of Christmas tree over to my husband, “See? Smell this!”

“Stop making me smell them,” he said finally. “Really, I believe you.”

I hacked a whole section of branches off the tree and tossed them outside. The room, thankfully, began to smell better. My husband began carrying in all the furniture and pillows we’d tossed tossed into the kitchen during our frantic search. I began to feel optimistic. “I’ll just turn this side of the tree to the wall,” I said. “It’ll look fine.”

I yanked the tree across the room, ornaments bouncing onto the carpet as I spun it into place. Then I reached down to plug in the lights. Only the very bottom stand lit: the rest of the tree was dark. I peered in at the branches as an awful thought crossed my mind. Yep, in my eagerness to hack away urine-soaked branches, I’d clipped the strand of Christmas lights with my pruning shears. Damned cats.

Christmas village

Note: The Christmas village — as seen in photo above — was not harmed in this year's holiday cat pee incident.

December 20, 2012

Bring us a figgy pudding


Most of the audience were in wheelchairs. But I could hear many of them singing the old familiar songs, and they applauded after every song. They even laughed at the corny jokes my husband told as he introduced each number.

Shaggy Hair Boy stayed at the piano, flipping the pages of Christmas music and playing. With-a-Why, Shy Smile, and my husband sang, and sometimes they jingled bells. I stayed in the audience next to my mother-in-law. She doesn’t have enough strength in her arms to clap her hands, but she whispered to me that she was proud.

They sang for an hour, and then it was time for the staff to start wheeling the residents back to the rooms so they could prepare the dining room for the evening meal. When we got home, the boys went immediately to the piano to continue playing and singing. They perform with or without an audience.

Musical duo

December 18, 2012

On stage

On stage

We all went to see the play at the local high school: my kids, my parents, Blonde Sister and her family, a bunch of our extras, even Brooklyn Friend. In fact, we bought 42 tickets altogether over the three nights that the play ran. My husband and I saw it three times.

It was a terrific production, filled with singing and dancing — and clever adlibs when things didn’t go exactly as planned. The cast wore rented costumes in bright colors, and a whole crew of teenagers dressed in black came out between scenes to shift big pieces of the set.

But you’ve probably guessed the big draw. Our youngest son was up on stage.

Longtime readers probably remember my stories about how shy With-a-Why was a child. Throughout first grade, he never said a single word to the teacher. Not one word. And even as a teenager, he often hid behind his long hair.

But music has drawn him gradually out. Piano Teacher was one of the first adults outside of the family that he would talk to. With her encouragement, he played recitals and exams often enough that he was no longer intimidated playing in front of an audience. Playing the piano was a way for a quiet child to express himself.

My father takes credit for discovering that With-a-Why could sing. When he, Shaggy Hair Boy, and With-a-Why got together for jam sessions, he started giving With-a-Why some vocals. Then Choir Teacher convinced him to join the high school choir, invited him into the select Chamber Choir, set him up with voice lessons, and eventually began asking him to sing in front of people.

Music drew him to the high school play, and being in that play was a transformative experience. He even cut his hair for the part — and donated 18 inches of fine, black hair to a charity. The day he returned to school with short hair, Drama Teacher stopped me in the hall to say, “Thank you for cutting his hair!” Then she added, “You should see the attention he’s getting from the girls.” 

Hanging out with the bunch of creative, expressive students who are drawn to drama club turned out to be just what With-a-Why needed. I’ve watched these last couple of months as the last vestiges of his shyness disappeared.

He played Ralph Sheldrake, a fast-talking Big City professional. Not exactly the part I’d give a shy, small-town boy. But onstage, dressed sometimes in a suit and sometimes in a uniform, he delivered his lines with confidence, just like a smooth-talking Ladies' Man. He sang beautifully, and even danced at the end.

“He didn’t seem shy up there at all, did he?” Drama Teacher said to me afterwards. I could tell that she and Choir Teacher, as well as Piano Teacher who had come to watch the show, were all proud of how he’s blossomed. I wanted to put all three teachers up on the stage and give them a round of applause for what a difference they’ve made in one young man’s life.

The young man in the uniform dancing to the left is With-a-Why.

December 16, 2012

White lights

The drive from Biker Boy's foster home to my house takes about 45 minutes. That gave Biker Boy and me time alone to talk in the car this morning. He told me about stuff that had happened to him over the last week, and then he said, "I know about the shooting -- the kids getting killed."

I glanced over at his face. "I wondered how much you knew," I said. He's eleven, so I figured he would have heard the horrifying news.

He said his foster father had talked to him about it. "It's really sad," he said. "But there were good people there too. Like teachers who tried to save kids and hide them and stuff. Just one person who was shooting, but the other grown-ups wanted to stop him."

Unlike most of the adults I've talked to since Friday, he didn't express any shock or disbelief. He didn't say, "I can't believe something like this could happen." He's eleven, but he already knows that unspeakably bad things happen to kids. He's known that since he was small.

We talked as we drove past cornfields and red barns. But once we pulled into my driveway, we agreed to stop talking about topics that made us sad. It was time for a comforting seasonal ritual: getting our Christmas tree.

Once we were in the house, I made Biker Boy a cup of cocoa. Brooklyn Friend had come in for the weekend and she was already drinking a cup of hot tea. While we waited for my husband to get home from the gym, we ate cookies and moved furniture to make room for the Christmas tree. With-a-Why stopped texting his girlfriend long enough to play the piano — songs from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

We went to the same Christmas tree stand we always go to. The family who owns it are super nice. I like to walk through the rows of freshly cut trees, smelling them. Biker Boy likes to run up to each tree and yell, "This one! Can we buy this one?" and then change his mind two seconds later.

The teenage boy who came over to help us was patient and cheerful. When Biker Boy finally chose a tree, he showed him the machine that you push the tree through: the tree ends up magically tied up with twine.

Back at the house, we ate pizza (it's a tradition) and built a fire (another tradition). My daughter and Sailor Boy came over to help decorate — or rather watch while Biker Boy and I decorated the tree. Shaggy Hair Boy played Christmas music on the piano. We ended the day with a feast of Italian food that my husband picked up from a local restaurant.

It was dark by the time we got back on the highway to take Biker Boy back to his foster home. "You did a great job picking out the tree," I told him.

He leaned back against the car seat sleepily. "Yep. I did." Trimming the tree

December 13, 2012

That glorious song of old

At a holiday party on Saturday night, I wandered into the kitchen, where the best conversations always take place. Sure enough, a bunch of my friends were gathered by the stove, chomping on Christmas cookies while they talked. A long-time friend, Warm Smile, was explaining the Secret Santa tradition her extended family — about 30 relatives in all — chooses to do each holiday season instead of traditional gift-giving.

“My sister-in-law takes all of our names and pairs us up. So we get a buddy,” she said. “This year, for example, I’m paired with my nephew.”

The pairings are top secret. No one is supposed to know who your partner is. “But we talk to each other — each pair — and we tell our partners what kind of charitable contribution to make,” she said. 

“So you don’t buy gifts?” asked Christmas Sweater, helping herself to some taco dip.

“Nope,” Warm Smile said. “And the rule is that you can’t just donate money to the Sierra Club or some organization. It has to be a gift of time.”

For instance, an aunt could be paired with a teenage nephew. She could tell him that she worried about families who go hungry. He could respond by agreeing to volunteer in a local soup kitchen or help out with a canned food drive. Then he could tell her that he wanted to do something about the environment. She could agree to volunteer to be on a committee at her church that’s looking to install solar panels on the roof. 

“We talk over options until we figure something out,” she said.

“Does it all remain a secret?” I asked. “I think I’d want to know what everyone was doing.”

 “Oh, we all tell my sister-in-law, and then she publishes a family newsletter. It’s fun to see what everyone did,” Warm Smile said. “It’s really so much rewarding than opening presents.”

December 11, 2012

How the internet got me to bake cupcakes

Tiramisu cupcakes

Saturday was #DigiBakeDay. That meant that a bunch of my friends on twitter baked together. Well, not actually together. We decided we’d bake in our own homes but post photos of what we were baking to the internet. The online twitter baking party included hourly writing prompts that asked us to share memories and recipes. Somehow the prompt about heart-warming memories inspired jokes about cookies that looked like body parts. Ah, it’s the internet. Go figure.

I planned to participate by talking, rather than baking. That is, after all, my usual role. I tend to sit in other people’s kitchens, entertaining them while they bake, and then offering magnanimously to test the products. I figured my usual lazy approach would be even easier in virtual reality. I could just go on twitter and type stuff about baking, rather than actually getting out flour and sugar. 

Besides, I had student portfolios to grade. Twitter seemed an acceptable mode of procrastination -– I’m just going on the computer for a moment, I’d tell myself – whereas starting a baking project in the kitchen would be admitting that I’d abandoned the grading task altogether. The other good part about virtual baking, I figured, is that I wouldn’t have to clean afterwards.

When it came right down to it. I really couldn’t get into some big baking project anyhow. I had to leave the house midday to go to a piano recital that featured Piano Teacher wearing a Santa Hat, a whole bunch of aspiring little kid pianists dressed in their holiday best, and Shaggy Hair Boy as the guest pianist at the end.

All the seasonal piano music put me in the holiday spirit. The little kids played their songs with great enthusiasm. Then Shaggy Hair Boy sat down at the piano. He told the audience that he wanted to play something in honor of Dave Brubeck, who had died a few days earlier. Then he began with Take Five and continued with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in 5/4 time. His medley of holiday songs included a jazzed up version of Feliz Navidad, which he put in just to tease Piano Teacher since she says it’s a song she hates. He ended with Jingle Bell Rock.

I stopped at the Castle on my way home. That’s the nickname for the little house that my daughter, her boyfriend Sailor Boy, and my son Boy-in-Black share. I don’t know why they call it that: the house looks nothing like a castle. They showed me the last of the cupcakes that Sailor Boy and Shaggy Hair Boy had made the day before: fancy tiramisu cupcakes.

“They took HOURS to make,” Shaggy Hair Boy said dramatically. I didn’t eat the cupcakes because they definitely weren’t vegan, but I took a photo to post on twitter in honor of #DigiBakeDay.

When I came home from the recital, I opened up my laptop computer to see that all my twitter friends were posting photos of cookies. By then I was pretty hungry. With-a-Why came home from his play rehearsal saying that he was hungry too. But he and his girlfriend said they didn’t have time to bake: they were settled on the couch with books and computers, doing homework. 

That’s when I gave into the twitter pressure. Everyone on the internet was eating homemade holiday treats! Everyone except me! So I abandoned my grading, mixed up some vegan chocolate cupcakes, and soon the house smelled good.

“Are you going to put icing on them?” With-a-Why asked as I pulled the pan of cupcakes out of the oven. He likes them plain.

“I guess not,” I said. I didn’t have the patience to wait for the cupcakes to cool. We began eating them just as they were, warm and unfrosted. By the time my husband came home — he’d had to work on a Saturday on account of his computer deciding to crash — the cupcakes were gone. The afternoon was gone too, and it was time for me to change my clothes quickly for the holiday party we were going to.

“The house smells good,” my husband said as we left.

“Yeah, it was #DigiBakeDay,” I said. “A whole day of holiday baking with my friends.”

As the car headed towards our friends’ house, I said, “Oh, we ought to stop at the store and buy some kind of dessert to bring to this party.”

He looked over. “Didn’t you say you spent the day baking?”

 I shrugged. “It wasn’t that kind of baking day.”

December 08, 2012

What I learned this semester

On the last day of class, I gave each of my first year students an index card and asked them to write one thing they learned during their first semester in college. Then I shuffled the cards and read them aloud.

I learned how to finish homework in 15 minutes at 4 am.

Humans who dye their hair are putting themselves at a higher risk for cancer.

Procrastination comes in many forms, none of which are any more help than the other.

Sunscreen (because of the oxybenzone) does more harm to your body than sunshine could.

I learned to get all my ideas down on paper before micro-editing.

The green roof on our new building is one of the most advanced green roofs ever built.

Bill McKibben is the man.

I learned that I am easily distracted. Very easily distracted.

Having no parents around to tell you not to do things is fun, but bad … but still fun.

No good story begins with, “This one time when I was eating a salad…”

I learned that writing what you are passionate about is not as hard as it seems.

I learned that we can save the world …. jo(e) just needs to be dictator first.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly portrays a plausible prediction of humanity’s future.

I learned more than I ever wanted to know about every type of renewable energy. 

Mosses are non-vascular. I learned how to organize my life on my own really quick.

In a 2007 study of 33 major brands of lipstick, scientists discovered that 61% of the lipsticks contained lead.

Politicians care more about getting elected than what’s happening to the planet.

Be careful who you trust.

I learned that I don’t like living in the city.

That the safe limit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 ppm. We passed that already.

I learned how to write a biology lab report.

There are zombie wasps. Really.

I am nowhere near as smart as I was in high school.

That I love biology.

It’s best not to go shopping when there’s a holiday sale.

I learned that I go a little crazy and become a complete bitch when I am under a lot of pressure. And that I should not ever share a room with someone.

Bears don’t actually hibernate. They go into torpor.

A locotrophozoa has a lophophore, and a trochophore has a larva stage.

Missing the bus sucks.

I learned that there is a clear difference between primary and secondary forests.

I learned that being really tired all the time is normal in college.

I learned that it’s important to lean on new and old friends to get through things.

Snowstorm City isn’t as cold as everyone said it would be.

I learned that studying 15 minutes before a test is not enough.

December 05, 2012


Birthday present

For holidays and birthdays, Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl usually make each other presents rather than buy them. Homemade presents are more meaningful, and they want to take an eco-friendly approach. And also, neither one of them has any money.

Shaggy Hair Boy had heard Smiley Girl talk about these glass jars that they used to have at a restaurant in her hometown. The jars had handles on them – that’s what made them cool – and they were sold, filled with spices, at the front counter. But the restaurant has since switched to plastic jars, and they no longer sell the eco-friendly glass ones. So Shaggy Hair Boy decided to try to find a jar to give to Smiley Girl for her 21st birthday.

First, he checked ebay. But no one was selling the jars. It’s a small restaurant so that’s not a surprise. But he kept looking, and soon he found a cooking blog that showed the jars. He emailed the woman listed as the contact, who told him that the jars were no longer being sold. That started a chain of emails. “I wanted one for a birthday present for my girlfriend,” he told the woman.

“I might have one in my kitchen still,” she said. “I could wash that out.” And that’s what happened. This woman (a total stranger) washed out the jar that she had in her kitchen, wrapped it carefully, marked the package as “fragile” and sent it to my son. She said in her note that she was a romantic and the mother of three sons. She added, “I hope you are putting a ring in the jar.” 

"I'm a romantic as well," Shaggy Hair Boy wrote back. He told her that he and Smiley Girl will need to wait another year or so before getting engaged since they are both still in college. Then he finished making the gift. He bought a bag of starburst candies and figured out he could fit 66 into the jar. He wrote down 66 happy memories (or things he loved about his girlfriend), each one on a little slip of paper, and then wrapped each candy with a memory, before putting them in the jar.

The gift was a success. Smiley Girl was happy and surprised to get the jar, and she loved the little memory-wrapped candies. Shaggy Hair Boy sent a report back to the woman who had given him the jar. He added at the end: “Thank you so much for lending me your jar and maybe one day I'll lend this jar to someone else. You are sincerely the nicest stranger I have ever met.”

The woman emailed back that his sweet note had made her day. She loved the idea of him paying the favor forward someday. She added at the end, “Tell your mother that she raised a wonderful son. We mothers like to hear that.” So Shaggy Hair Boy forwarded the email to me. And Smiley Girl took a photo of the gift.

December 03, 2012

Dressed in holiday style

Ice skating downtown

"Let's pick an evening and go downtown to see the Christmas tree," my father said. I smiled when he said that because he sounded so much like my grandmother, who always loved to go downtown at Christmas time. When I was a kid, she used to take my siblings and me on a shopping trip downtown every December. In those days, the big department stores used to have windows filled with holiday decorations.

So tonight I drove my parents into Snowstorm City. Little trees along the sidewalks were wrapped in white lights, and some of the brick buildings were decorated with red and green lights shaped like poinsettas. The big tree stood near the skating rink, where about a dozen folks skated in a circle. Many of the skaters seemed to be struggling just to stay upright, but they were having fun despite their lack of expertise. Two little girls clinging to the railing were laughing even as they kept falling.

We walked around to admire the decorations, and we stopped at a craft store whose front window was filled with blown-glass balls hanging from the ceiling with ribbons. The woman behind the counter overheard me telling my mother the story of what Shaggy Hair Boy had gotten his girlfriend for her birthday, and she chimed into the conversation to say, "Oh, he's soooo sweet." We browsed through crafts made by local artists, ate some cookies from the plate set out near the window, and then walked back out into the night air.

December 02, 2012

Smashing ice

To the waterfall

“Maybe you can help him look at this,” Biker Boy’s foster mother said, handing me a photo album. “It’s making him anxious.”

Biker Boy, who had gone running off to find his sneakers, stopped in his tracks. He didn’t say anything, just turned and looked at me. I knew right away what the book was, and I tucked it into my bag.

“We’ll take a look,” I promised her. Then I looked up at Biker Boy. “But first, let’s go run around outside somewhere. Get your coat.”

I got to Biker Boy’s foster home early this morning, in hopes that we could go hiking before the rain started. Temperatures were still above freezing, and most of last week’s snow had melted, leaving pockets of white in the woods. I’d looked up some new hiking trails on the computer before I’d left home, but Biker Boy said, “We need to go to the waterfall again. It’s a tradition.”

He is a boy who loves traditions. We stopped to buy snacks (another tradition) and then I took a detour to look at one of the kettle lakes. It was a pretty lake, small enough for just canoes or rowboats. We passed several hand-painted signs advertising Christmas tree farms, and then we passed hillsides filled with Christmas trees, rows and rows of them spreading in all directions. We crossed the railroad track several times, with Biker Boy looking anxiously each way for trains before we drove over it.

When we got to the trailhead for the waterfall hike, we were the only car. “We have the whole place to ourselves,” I told Biker Boy. We both paused to listen to the stream rushing down over rocks.

“IT’S ALL OURS!” he yelled. He ran ahead on the trail, eager to lead the way. When we reached the waterfall, we could see chunks of ice that had melted and fallen into piles at the base of each little ledge. The rocks were slippery this week, and we both kept sliding back as we scrambled up and over them.

I handed Biker Boy my mittens so he could pick up the chunks of ice. “Go ahead and throw them,” I said. “It’s just ice and rock. You can’t hurt anything.”

He grinned and began throwing the chunks of ice. They smashed against the rock with a satisfying sound that echoed throughout the valley. After a few minutes, I took a second pair of gloves out of my camera bag and joined him: the thinner pieces of ice were the most fun because they crackled as they crashed.

The rain began while we were still climbing around the waterfall. The rocks and dead leaves were slippery, and we were soon covered with mud from sliding down on our butts. We’d hoped to find a trail to get to the top of the falls, but I think we went the wrong way. I probably should have looked at the trail map a little closer.

“I don’t know if hunting is allowed in these woods,” I said to Biker Boy as we started back to the car, “but we’re off the trail so we better sing just in case.” So we sang Christmas carols in the rain as we trudged back to the trailhead. I think any hunter could have heard us coming from miles away.

By then it was lunchtime. Pizza is another tradition, and it’s an easy one to keep. Every little town in this part of the country has a pizza place. We found a pizza parlor with a friendly owner, an electric fireplace, and vinyl booths that could accommodate two hikers whose clothes were wet. Once we were done eating, I pulled from the album from my bag -- a book put together by a couple could potentially adopt him. “Want to look at this now?” I asked. He nodded.

We looked at the photos of the people, their pets, and their house. We read the carefully typed words that revealed so much longing, and Biker Boy pointed out the details that he liked the best. Adoption is a slow process, and this is just the very beginning. Biker Boy and the team of people working with him know that there are many hurdles to overcome before he ends up in a family.

“Where’s their town? How far away from you?” asked Biker Boy.

“It’s about 40 minutes from my house,” I said. “Don’t worry, I could visit you there. It’s near a big lake – there are lots of beautiful places on the shore of that lake.”

“What if I go live far away?” he asked. “What if I go live in Miami?”

“I will take an airplane to visit you,” I said. “And we’ll go look at alligators.”

The pizza ovens made the little diner warm, the rain made a splattering sound on the windows, and we both felt sleepy. We split another piece of pizza, just because it tasted so good, and we put the album away. There was, really, no way to predict the future.

“Just keep an open mind,” I said to him. “There are good people in the world.”

“I know,” he said. “You and I – we’re good people.”

“That’s right,” I told him. “We are.”

November 30, 2012

At the twilight's last gleaming

Tonight, my husband and I went downtown to watch a professional soccer game. Well, to be honest, we weren’t actually there to watch soccer. Unlike the hundreds of sports fans who crowded into the stands, we went mostly to hear the national anthem. It was sung by three high school kids — two girls and my son With-a-Why.

I wondered he’d be nervous singing in front of a couple thousand people. I think I would have been. When the announcer said, “Please rise for the national anthem,” everyone in the stadium stood up, went silent, and stared right at the three kids. If it was me, I would have turned and run from the field. But all three kids seemed completely calm. With-a-Why stood at the microphone just as if he was standing in our living room and sang his part in a clear voice.

With-a-Why was a shy child, and as a teenager, he’s still pretty quiet. He doesn’t talk unless he has something to say. But he’s not the least bit shy when he sits down at the piano, or stands up to sing. Music has transformed him from the kid who used to hide behind his hair to the poised, self-confident young man who has played piano for many recitals and has sung solos in front of crowds.

With-a-Why has many different talents -- he's smart, creative, athletic, and artistic -- and I have no doubt he will succeed at anything he does in life. But music is the passion that pulls him out of his shell, challenges him, and makes him believe he can be part of something larger than himself.



 Shaggy Hair Boy, making breakfast.

November 27, 2012

Le réveil

You’d think that students and faculty on a college campus would all be rested and relaxed after a nice Thanksgiving break. But no, that’s not how it works. That week off is a mirage. When you’re approaching it, the week beckons with the promise of a desert-like expanse of time for those projects you’ve been putting off. But alas, no one ever gets done the work they thought they were going to. When Thanksgiving week is over, and the cold reality of the work week hits, students and faculty alike come back to campus with long to-do lists, heaps of guilt, and very little holiday cheer.

Thanksgiving doesn’t give students enough time to really catch up on sleep or work. Nope, they really just have enough time to go back to their home communities and exchange viruses, which they bring back to campus to share. So yeah. It’s the Tuesday after Thanksgiving and everyone on campus is sick, sleep-deprived, and overwhelmed. The dark, cold evenings we get in November don’t help one bit.

The one bright spot I had today was during class. A group of students were doing a presentation about educating children to connect with nature. Even though it was cold, the students insisted we all go outside for the first ten minutes of the presentation. “Because that’s our point,” said Long Brown Hair. “All education should include the outdoors.” We huddled together near a cemetery filled with trees and tombstones. Red Beard asked us to close our eyes, and he led us through what he called a “Senses Meditation.”

First we had to listen. I could hear the wind pushing the bare tree boughs, the breathing of the students on either side of me. Then we were asked to taste. The sweet taste of the grapes and cereal I eat between classes was still inside my mouth. Then, while holding those sensations in our mind, we had to smell. The wind brought me the scent of dead leaves and of mud, plus a whiff of laundry detergent from the jacket of the student next to me. Just as Red Beard got to the part where he asked us to feel sensations on our skin, the sun came out from behind the clouds. I could hear the sighs around me as we all turned our faces towards the warmth.

That meditation was the best ten minutes of my day.

November 24, 2012

A kiss is still a kiss

View from the front porch

We woke up this morning to snow. We didn't get much, but still the weather was cold enough to send me out to the garage for an armful of logs. We've spent the last few days eating, talking, and playing games by the fire. I saw no reason to change that pattern.

It was a good day to make soup from leftovers. I searched through the refrigerator to find some leftover squash that Shaggy Hair Boy had roasted, a bag of leeks from our CSA, and some celery stalks. I grabbed some potatoes, onions, and apples from the counter, chopped everything up, and then threw in a bunch of spices. There's really no way to make soup wrong.

When With-a-Why arrived home from his voice lesson, he had his girlfriend Shy Smile with him -- and two bags of groceries. "We're going to make soup," he announced.

"Two different kinds," Shy Smile said. She'd brought her mother's recipes with her.

I moved my pot of soup to the back burner. "I'm done with the kitchen," I said. "You can use the two front burners." You can never have too much soup.

Dandelion Niece and Taekwondo Nephew joined us around the table for the game where everyone writes names of famous people on slips of paper and then we have to guess them in teams. "We've been told not to eat here," Tawkwondo Nephew said every time I offered him food. "We're supposed to eat at Grandma's house."

"I love that everyone's cooking so much," said Boy-in-Black as he finished a bowl of soup.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Sailor Boy arrived with a big tin of homemade cookies. Sailor Boy's family, who live in our town, always spend the Saturday after Christmas making huge batches of Christmas cookies, an event that we usually benefit from. They're sugar cookies, decorated with icing and sprinkles. I put on the kettle for tea.

Taekwondo Nephew and Dandelion Niece gave us hugs as they left. "We're driving back home after we eat supper at Grandma's house," Tawkwondo Nephew said.

"We'll see you again at Christmas time!" everyone called as they headed out the door.

Shaggy Hair Boy has a job Monday night, so he settled down at the piano to practice. He'll be playing for an older crowd so we heard stuff like  As Time Goes By, After You've Gone, and Rose Room. Boy-in-Black found a trivia game online so as many people as possible crowded around him on the couch, everyone shouting out answers while he typed as fast as he could. I think our household must have the record for how many people we usually manage to fit on one couch.

When we heard a knock on the door, everyone knew who it was. Quick is the only extra who ever knocks — everyone else just walks in. That's one of the nice things about Thanksgiving week: all of our college-age extras are home.

Our downstairs is one big room so there's not much privacy. Luckily, none of the young couples are at all self-conscious. When With-a-Why and Shy Smile were cooking, I looked over to see that they'd put down their knives and were dancing by the stove.

Dancing in the kitchen

November 22, 2012

Food, conversation, and a dramatic haircut

My husband had to work yesterday, but the rest of us were in holiday mode.

Shaggy Hair Boy has been on a cooking streak. We get two bins of vegetables from the CSA farm each week, which means we often have piles of leftover veggies on the counter and in the refrigerator. Shaggy Hair Boy decided to tackle the squash, onion, and brussel sprouts. He went on the internet to find a recipe so that he had a general idea of what ingredients to use. Soon he was chopping every thing up, adding a glaze made of oil, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices, then putting it all in the oven to roast.

 Boy-in-Black, who finished his research paper earlier this week, decided to relax by taking apart Blonde Niece’s computer, which had crashed. He got out his set of little screwdrivers and soon her laptop was in pieces. “I hope you can save all the data,” Blonde Niece said, “because if not, I’m screwed.”

I got out my favorite jigsaw puzzle and dumped the pieces out on our large wooden table. Jigsaw puzzles are perfect for a family who likes to hang out and talk. When Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Sailor Boy arrived, they sat down at the table to help me with the puzzle. Well, Sailor Boy began working on the puzzle, while my daughter grabbed a fork and began eating from my plate of food.

Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl left to drive back to her family’s hometown: she wanted to be home for an event she calls Pie Night. It’s a tradition each year for her friends from high school to get together the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and spend the whole night making pies. Judging from the photos that get posted on facebook each year, the night includes lots of joking and silliness as well as serious baking.

My daughter baked sugar cookies, decorated with little candy pieces, which made the house smell nice. With-a-Why and Shy Smile snuggled in their usual spot on the end of the couch, playing music and watching clips on his laptop. When my husband came home, he joined them for an episode of the Walking Dead, which meant that this cosy scene was punctuated by the sound of zombies getting killed.

We ended the day with a haircutting party. Boy-in-Black and my daughter only needed trims, but With-a-Why’s hair was all the way down to his waist. I offered to take him to an actual haircut place for the dramatic haircut, but he shrugged and said, “No, you do it.” My kids all think it’s stupid to pay money for a haircut, and the fact that I don’t really know how to cut hair doesn’t stop them from asking me to do the honors.

Everyone gathered around to watch me cut With-a-Why’s hair – it was pretty much the most exciting thing that had happened all day. He decided to donate his hair, so I tied it into four ponytails, and then just snipped each one off. The crowd exclaimed as the ponytails came away. His thick, dark hair stuck out in all directions. He looked to me just like the anime character L from the show Death Note. 

“You’re so cute,” my daughter said. “It looks so good.” Shy Smile was nodding in agreement.

I measured the ponytails that now lay on the table. “Eighteen inches of hair to donate.” I loved how crazy With-a-Why’s hair looked, sticking out in all different directions, but he wanted more of a normal haircut, so I set to work snipping it off, evening it up. His hair is baby fine and straight, but there’s lots of it, and the more I cut, the more hair there seemed to be. Soon his chair was surrounded by piles of dark hair.

By the time Film Guy arrived, the floor had been swept and the jigsaw puzzle was almost done. My daughter poured glasses of milk and cider so that we could finish the cookies. I pulled the lamp at the end of the couch over to the table, and we gathered around to finish the puzzle. Then it was time to go to bed, to rest up for another day of eating and talking.

November 19, 2012

Standing in a rainbow


It’s 31 miles, but it’s a mostly familiar drive. It’s along the route I take to the monastery, a landscape of red barns, cornfields close-cropped for the winter season, and woods that fill steep hillsides. I passed the turn-off to the small mountain where I used to ski and snowboard with my kids. I passed the little white church where I attended the funeral for my friend Ornithologist Guy. Then I followed the emotionless voice of my GPS to the foster home where Biker Boy lives now.

“I used to come out this way as a teenager,” I told Biker Boy, after he’d gotten into my car and buckled his seat belt. Ski resorts used to make money in the summer by running cement chutes down the sides of the mountain. We’d pay money to ride the chairlift up and then careen down the mountain in these wheeled carts that went crazy fast. I suspect lawsuits are what put an end to the alpine slide: people were always getting hurt.

“But it was fun,” I told Biker Boy. “You would have loved it.”

He grinned. “I know! And I wouldn’t have minded getting hurt.”

Even though it’s November, the sunlight shining down on the hills made for a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Biker Boy’s newest foster mother — who seemed pleasant and grandmotherly — said he didn’t need to be home until 4:30 pm so we had the whole afternoon to spend outside. We stopped at the little convenience store in the center of town to buy fruit and chocolate. Snacks are a necessary part of any hike I take.

“Look!” Biker Boy said in a whisper as we pulled into the parking lot. The pick-up truck next to us had a dead deer strapped to the back. We walked up to it slowly, and Biker Boy reached out to touch a dangling hoof. “It’s the first weekend of hunting season,” I told him. Another pick-up truck pulled up: this one had antlers lashed to the grill in front.

Our next stop was a place that I’ve hiked many times before. The trail includes a long boardwalk that winds through a boggy area and then eventually out along a lake. Biker Boy kept pointing out things – the green moss that appeared like magic after the summer foliage fell away, the woodpecker holes on dead tree, and a half-submerged log that looked like an alligator, although of course it wasn’t.

We found a bench in the sun and ate some of the fruit and all of the chocolate, and then Biker Boy told me about his week. I’d had a long talk with his therapist, whom I really liked. “I think you can trust Therapist,” I told him. “She reminds me of my daughter.”

He considered that. “Yeah, she is like her. But I still don’t know her very well.”

“And Dark-haired Caseworker? I like him too,” I said. “You have a whole bunch of people looking out for you.”

“I know,” he said. He leaned his head against me. “But still ….”

DSC_0650But still. He doesn’t know what his future holds, and neither do I. The foster home where he’s staying now will not be permanent.

After walking around the boardwalk, we drove to another nearby trail that runs along a creek. It wasn’t long before Biker Boy had found a stick and was poking in the water, splashing and turning rocks over. I found a tree that had fallen over the water and showed off my mad balance beam skills: Biker Boy was suitably impressed.

“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” I asked him as we hiked along the trail. He nodded and took my hand. “You always find beautiful places.”

As we neared the end of the trail, the water noise got louder and louder. Finally, we rounded a bend and saw it – water crashing down from a steep cliff. “A waterfall!” yelled Biker Boy. “I LOVE waterfalls!”

It’s a small waterfall: the stream cascades over a lip of rock and then falls about eighty feet over boulders to the floor of the forest. What’s fun is that you can climb part of the way up. Biker Boy took the lead, scrambling over wet rocks, grabbing tree trunks to steady himself. I could hear him muttering to himself, “Come, on, Biker Boy. You can do it.”

Our goal was a little ledge, part way up, right where the spray formed a rainbow. Biker Boy got there first and he walked right into the spray, with a fine disregard for his sneakers or clothing. “You’re standing in the rainbow,” I yelled to him.

He waved me over. “Put away your camera – it’ll get wet!” I shoved the camera into my bag and joined him in the spray from the waterfall.

There was no one else around, so we both yelled and jumped up and down. Our voices echoed off the overhanging cliffs, barely noticeable beneath the sound of crashing water.

“We’re standing in a rainbow!” Biker Boy yelled. “We made it!”

We stayed until the rocks were in deep shade and drove back to the foster home, with Biker Boy taking charge of the GPS. “You just put in an address? And you can find it?” he said, fascinated.

I nodded. “Yep. That’s how I found you today."

“Anywhere? You can find me anywhere?” he repeated.

“Yep,” I said. “Just about anywhere.” He put the GPS back on the windshield, satisfied,  and then we drove back through the winding hills to his foster home.


November 18, 2012


Ah, Thanksgiving week. It’s been such a busy semester that I’ve looked forward to just hanging out at home, crossing things off my to-do list. I began yesterday by making a big pot of lentil soup, since soup is my favorite meal and snack. Besides, I’ve got portfolios to grade, and cooking is an ideal form of procrastination.

Boy-in-Black, who moved home for the week, sat at his usual spot at the end of the couch with his laptop, writing a research paper. It’s been a busy semester for him as well, and he looked like he hadn’t slept in days. His hair stuck straight up in the back, the way it did when he was a kid. “I’ll take a shower after this paper is done,” he said.

“What’s the paper about?” I asked, looking across the counter while I chopped onions and celery. Boy-in-Black clicked something on his keyboard and showed me the title of his paper: ““Minimal spanning trees at the percolation threshold: a numerical calculation.”

Um, yeah. I went back to chopping veggies.

"Maybe you should make the lentils spicy this time,” Boy-in-Black suggested. “Kick it up a notch.”

I split the lentil soup into two pots: “Here, you can take over the pot on the left. Add as many spices as you want.” Soon Boy-in-Black was over at the stove, rooting through the cupboards and refrigerator for ingredients: cayenne pepper, black pepper, paprika, chili powder, barbecue sauce. Hey, physicists need to procrastinate just as much as composition teachers.

That’s what we ate yesterday – plain lentil soup and spicy lentil soup, many bowls of it. I graded some portfolios, began cleaning my office, and practiced the holiday song I’m learning on the piano: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” With-a-Why went to play practice, then he and Shy Smile snuggled on the couch with a bunch of books and his laptop computer. My husband got out his laptop and spent hours catching up on work emails.

Shaggy Hair Boy went off to work: he’s helping his jazz piano teacher move stuff. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Sailor Boy came over for a while: they’d been at a fabric store, looking at material to make curtains with. “Fabric is really expensive,” Sailor Boy reported.

My parents came by after a long walk at Green Lakes. “Lots of people with dogs,” my mother said. She was trying to get a head count for Thanksgiving dinner. Red-haired Sister and her family are coming later this week, although no one knows when.

I did get some work done – a few portfolios graded, a little writing, a little cleaning – and I played the first page of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” at least 37 times. It was nice to feel relaxed and not rushed. We’ve still got a whole week ahead of us.

November 16, 2012

Rules to live by

Every kitchen needs rules

During the day, the various members of our household are mostly at work or school, so it is puzzling when I come home to find the kitchen counters filled with dirty dishes. It’s like a bunch of thirsty elves sneak in and use every glass in the house.

“How can this place possibly be such a mess?” I asked the other night in frustration.

My husband looked up as he dumped pasta into a strainer. “Well, we’ve got so many people using the kitchen, and everyone with different eating habits.”

He’s right. When Shaggy Hair and Smiley Girl are here, they’ll often tackle the box of veggies we get from our CSA farm, cooking up squash or fresh potatoes or those oddly shaped root vegetables that mystify me. With-a-Why and his girlfriend bake cookies and once, an apple pie. My husband makes goulash: that’s pretty much his go-to meal. I’m mostly likely to make a big pot of soup from whatever veggies we have on hand, with the idea that it can be eaten for any meal or even as a snack. Tall Boy seems to make pork chops a lot, which excites the cats, who swarm to the kitchen at the smell of cooking meat. Blue-eyed Ultimate Player specializes in macaroni and cheese, or any meal that can be heated up in the microwave. When Boy-in-Black is here, he mostly eats granola, fruit, and yoghurt.

“No one ever knows whether or not the stuff in the dishwasher is clean or dirty,” said With-a-Why. “It’s confusing.”

“THAT’S the problem?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “We need some kind of signal to let people know.”

The next thing you know, he was sitting on the floor in front of the dishwasher, creating a color-coded system with index cards. Blue means dirty, pink means clean, and white means in process. Then he began writing up rules. The general ideas was that all members of the household were expected to clean up after themselves, but he had a precise formula for each situation:

If there is no room for your dish in the dishwasher, you are obligated to run it. In the meantime (while it is running), rinse your dish and put it to the left of the sink. 

If the dishes in the dishwasher are clean, unload it and then put your dish in. You are obligated to unload it if you need to put your dish in and it’s clean but not running. 

If you ABSOLUTELY do not have time to unload the dishwasher when you are obligated to, you may either get someone else to do it with their consent, or you may do it when you have time. If, when you find you have the time to unload it, you find someone else already has, you must seek out said person and make it known that they can now make you unload the dishwasher at a time of their choosing. 

Big dishes must be cleaned and put away in a timely fashion by he who has dirtied (cooked in them). 

If cooking for others, you may make them clean the dishes, as you have cooked. They are obligated to obey this request if they ingest any amount of the food. 

You are obligated to move your dishes to the appropriate area (rinsed out) in a timely fashion. No leaving them around the house for extended periods of time. 

He kept adding more rules as he thought of every possible situation. Pretty soon both sides of the folder he'd taped to the dishwasher were full. Then he looked up, “Do you think it’s sufficient to use the phrase in a timely fashion? Or do I need to be more precise?”

“Um, I think that’s probably good,” I said. I had just read the rule at the bottom, which was: We reserve the right to make anyone who does not abide by these rules clean the kitchen.

He added another sign over the kitchen sink, informing all members of the household that they needed to read the rules and sign them. Then he went back to over to his spot on the couch and opened his computer to finish his homework.

November 14, 2012

New computer for an old customer

The salesman was skinny, with curly hair that hung into his eyes. He seemed awfully young, but he did a great job answering my questions. I'd already gone online to figure out which laptop I wanted so it didn't take long to choose.

"We have one in stock," he said. "Someone will bring it right out."

We chatted we waited. He seemed eager to reveal his wealth of computer experience. "I've only been working here for a few months," he said. "But I've been using Mac computers for years."

"My first computer was the Mac Classic," I told him. I saw no flash of recognition in his eyes.

"I bought it in 1991," I added.

 He flashed a shy grin. "I wasn't even born yet."

November 12, 2012

Another change for Biker Boy


“I hate how things change,” Biker Boy said to me. We were sitting at the pond yesterday, watching ducks swim on a summer day that had trickled into November by mistake. The scene was peaceful, but that’s not what was going on inside Biker Boy's eleven-year-old head.

Longtime readers know that Biker Boy used to live on my street. I’ve known him for four years. When he lived nearby, he and his little sister used to come visit me every day, escaping from a home in which he was not safe. A smart reader told me once that I should teach him my phone number – and I did. “I’ve got your phone number in my heart,” Biker Boy always says.

For the last nine months, Biker Boy has been living in a foster home on the other side of the city. It’s been a safe place for him. But it wasn’t a permanent situation. This week he will move again – to a new foster home in a small town about 25 miles away from me. The change was sudden news for him: he found out at school on Friday.

Yesterday, Biker Boy and I ate pizza because that’s our tradition. Then I asked what he wanted to do. He wanted first to come to my house. For a little while, he acted like his old self – joking around while we took zombie photos to put on twitter. Then he wanted to drive to the railroad track that we used to walk to. Then we stopped to see the little house that my older two kids rent so he could say hello to them. Then we stopped at my parents’ house.

Biker Boy is usually a high-energy kid, but yesterday he was not. After we visited everyone in my family, we drove to the duck pond and took a walk. He didn’t run around like crazy the way he usually does. I didn’t have to tell him even once not to chase the swans. He sat quietly in the sun and leaned his head against me.

“I hate change too,” I told him. I rubbed his back. Then we kept walking around the pond.

November 10, 2012

I was on twitter during the zombie apocalypse

A scary-looking zombie leapt at me, trying to bite my shoulder. I dodged just in time. Then another attacked. I cried for help and three humans came to my rescue: a former student who has all kinds of zombie-fighting experience, a friend who lives on the other side of the continent, and the other, a person I know only in virtual reality. The battle was a blur, but thanks my rescuers, I survived to see another day.

I spent the morning perched high in a tree, watching helplessly as the zombie horde swarmed through the twitterverse, biting innocent humans and converting them into hungry, mindless bodies searching for another meal. “I need to find the other humans and make a plan,” I thought to myself. But alas, I’m too impulsive. I leaped into the fray to save a friend and soon I was fighting for my life.

That’s when a text message from my sister chimed in: “Hey, what’s with all the crazy messages on your twitter account -- ?”

Twitter vs Zombies is an online game taking place this weekend on twitter. It’s based on the Humans vs Zombies game that students have been playing in real life on college campuses across the country. (Well, as “real life” as a zombie game ever is.)

Here’s the way the game goes. All but one begin as humans. Any human “bitten” by a zombie turns into a zombie. And once you’re a zombie, there’s no going back. The zombie horde keeps getting bigger, and the human population gets smaller.

Star Trek fans have no doubt heard of Kobayashi Maru, the no-win scenario that’s used as a training exercise. It’s supposed to test your character – or something like that – to be put in a situation where you just can’t win. This human vs zombies games feel a bit like that.

You know, I’ve long wondered about my students’ fascination with the zombie apocalypse. And after playing the game this weekend, I think I’m beginning to understand. The Kobayashi Maru is a relevant game to play when you look at the earth we are living on, a planet in which human influence is so large that we’ve actually changed the climate.

We’ve warmed up the planet just one degree so far– and yet, look at how disastrous it's been. This year has been filled with record-setting temperatures, droughts, floods, and weather-related disasters. Even Big City Like No Other, that invincible city, was hit with a storm that flooded subway tunnels and turned the whole south end of the island black. When it comes to climate disruption, the future for our species looks pretty grim. Forget about the zombies, we are killing ourselves with a reckless unwillingness to give up our dependence on fossil fuels.

My students haven’t given up hope, I know. Many are joining the newest campaign to fight climate disruption. But I can see how playing laser tag with zombies – or even fighting zombies in virtual reality – might be an important training for the world they are going to inherit.

November 07, 2012

The day after the election

I’d thought students on campus would be talking about the election today, but for the most part, they really weren’t. They’d been confident all semester about who would win the presidential race, and naturally, they were right.

“OF COURSE Obama was re-elected,” Green T-shirt said. “I mean, Mitt Romney? Seriously?”

They seemed pleased with the results, but not surprised. “It’s ridiculous that gay marriage was even up for vote,” said Purple Glasses. “That should be an automatic.” The students around her nodded.

What students were still talking about is the damage from the storm Sandy. Some students have family and friends back home who were affected – some without power, some without homes. Last week, there was an initial surge of relief as text messages and facebook updates brought the news that their relatives and friends were safe. This week, the phone calls are more somber as families are beginning to realize just how much damage the storm did and how long it’s going to be before any measure of normalcy returns to some of these towns.

At a meeting this afternoon, students weren’t talking about the election or gloating over victories. They had already moved to what they considered the important issue, brainstorming ways to raise money for the relief effort, ways to help their friends and families back home.

November 05, 2012

A few days of sunshine

From the kayak</

It was a brief respite. I had just a weekend in the Sunshine State. Then I had to fly home while my husband stayed on for a conference. But we had two wonderful days of sunshine and warm weather, and we made the most of it.

We went kayaking at an island state park, visited a lighthouse, explored some beaches, walked trails in the Everglades, and wandered through an amazing botanical garden. We even ate our meals outside to soak in as much sunshine as we could before returning to our own cold climate. As I walked barefoot in the sand, I kept saying dramatically, “This is the last time my feet will be warm for months.”

Everywhere we went, people were still talking about Hurricane Sandy. When the woman ringing up my purchases in the little grocery store heard where I was from, she asked immediately, “Is your family okay? After the storm?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Some family members are without power still, but everyone is safe.”

She’d lived her whole life in the islands: she’d seen any number of hurricanes. “We’re used to them down here,” she said. The woman at the next register began chiming in with hurricane stories, both women jumping back and forth between Spanish and English while they talked.

“We don’t usually get them up in the northeast,” I said. “Or at least, we didn’t used to. But I guess with climate change, things are changing.”

“Yeah,” the first woman said sympathetically. “You’re like us now.”

November 02, 2012

Sneaking away

Soon we'll be entering the winter, the season when it makes sense to stay home by the fire with a bowl of hot soup and a good book. I'm looking forward to the holidays and all the crazy stuff my family does simply because it's tradition. Red-haired Sister and her family will be coming for Thanksgiving, and I think pretty much everyone in my extended family will be here over Christmas. From mid-November to January, the house will be filled with food and company.

But the snow isn't here yet. The trees are mostly bare and the nights are cold, but we still have a few fall days left. I'm sneaking off for a weekend away with my husband, time for just the two of us to spend together before the winter begins.

October 31, 2012

I’m all zen until the first cat pees

After a weekend retreat at a monastery, I always come home with all kinds of new resolutions. I’m going to be nicer to everyone. I’m going to make more time for writing. I’m going to eat more kale and be less sarcastic and stop whining about how long it takes me to grade papers.

On Sunday night, I tried hard to stay in monking mode. I greeted my family with the kind of loving cheerfulness that would make Carol Brady look like a grouch. I didn’t make a single sarcastic comment about the dried cat barf in the hallway and how I seem to be the only person in the house with the necessary skill to clean something like that up. Clicking onto my computer to see that a hurricane was heading towards the northeast did not snap me out of my zen mood. “I can’t do anything about that,” I told myself calmly as I looked at the storm tracker.

But then Gretel, our old grey-striped cat, wandered into my home office. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of her sniffing the lowest shelf of the bookcase by the door. I’ve got about thirty journals shoved into that shelf. This pile of spiral-bound books, filled with scribbled phrases and messy paragraphs, represents years of my life.

I had just risen from my chair when I heard an unmistakable sound, which broke me out of my peaceful mood. The damned cat was peeing right with what seemed like deliberate aim – right at my journals.

I think the whole household heard me screaming. And ranting. And using choice phrases that I didn’t learn at the monastery.

 At least I didn’t kill the cat. I guess she can thank the monks for that.

October 29, 2012

Weekend in the clouds

View from the cottage window

We drove to the monastery through a blue-and-gold evening, the cornfields and maple trees and old red barns shining with the very last bit of lovely autumn light. By the time we were driving up the winding road to the monastery, a chill was creeping into the air, and I could see that flowers alongside the road had been killed by a hard frost.

Retreat Friend and I took a few minutes to unpack, carrying our bags into the little bedroom we’d share, and then we sat down to eat the sandwiches we’d bought in at the Gorgeous City bakery. The little guest cottage is small, but one whole wall is a big window that looks out over the sheep pastures, facing the winding road we’d just driven up. We ate and talked while the sky above the treeline grew dark and then we walked over for evening prayer with the monks.

The octogon-shaped chapel has a stone floor, with plain wooden benches set in concentric circles around a simple stone altar. Four doors lead outside in the four directions. Retreat Friend and I came in the east door; monks in dark robes were walking in through the northern door. At night, the chapel is lit only by candles. In the dimness, Brother Tractor took his place by the big harp that has stayed in the same spot for the fifteen years that I’ve been coming to this monastery.

As the monks chanted and sang, accompanied by the harp music, I scanned their faces to see how they’d survived the summer. Brother Beekeeper gave me a smile; he’s always the same. Brother Silence, who celebrated his 85th birthday over the summer, wasn’t at the service so I worried whether or not he was well. I was happy to see that Brother Sculptor, who’d come from a monastery in Vietnam last year, was still here. The youngest of the group, a postulant the same age as Boy-in-Black, stood serious and solemn in the semi-circle of monks, most of whom are old enough to be his grandfathers.

When I woke up Saturday morning, a thick fog had descended on the hills of the sheep farm. Misty grey swirled across the chapel, the guesthouses, the barns, and the pastures. From where I sat drinking my morning cup of hot tea, cozy in the chair by the big window, I could see the blurred shapes of sheep climbing the pasture hill. The crooked old trees in the apple orchard looked like they just might come to life and start pelting apples.

The fog stayed all weekend, accompanied by a misty rain that touched my face every time I walked over to the chapel or up to the women’s guesthouse for meals. It was as if the hills of the monastery had risen into the clouds, and the rest of the world simply disappeared. I built a fire in the little stove in the guest cottage and spent Saturday afternoon doing a jigsaw puzzle in front of the window, watching the sheep as they meandered around the pasture.

 Unfortunately, time doesn’t stand still at the monastery. Too soon, Sunday afternoon came. Retreat Friend and I packed our bags, cleaned the little cottage for the next guests, and drove down through the grey mist to find our way back home.

Hay barn in the fog

October 26, 2012

Gone monking

The monastery farmyard

I am going to visit the sheep! And the monks! And the sleepy river that winds through woods that will be golden with autumn.

Tonight after work, I’ll drive with a friend past cornfields and hayfields, past old barns and little towns, past white churches and old stone fences. We’ll talk as we drive, catching up on several months of conversation. We’ve been friends for a couple of decades, which means we are able to discuss pretty much every aspect of our lives.

It’ll be dusk by the time we arrive at the monastery. The monks will be pulling long dark robes on over their workclothes in preparation for the evening service. The sheep will be gathered near the barn, their white wool glowing in the dim light.

We’ll carry our stuff into the old stone house, turn on the lights, and sit down for a cup of tea before the bell rings for compline. After talking non-stop for several hours in the car, Monking Friend and I will be ready for some quiet. I’ll unpack my journal; she usually brings a whole stack of books.

When the bell at the top of the chapel rings, we’ll walk over the the octogan-shaped chapel that was built with stone from the monastery land. When I open the heavy wooden door, the familiar smell will rush out at me – the smell of incense and melting wax, the scent of prayer. That is the moment that my weekend retreat begins.

October 25, 2012

Bright and growing

The mural

This summer With-a-Why, my youngest son, decided to begin painting a mural on a wall upstairs. It's still unfinished. His schedule is pretty busy — he's got a part in the school play, he sings in the chamber choir, he takes piano and voice lessons, and he's taking a bunch of AP and college courses. Plus, he's got a girlfriend now, and romance takes time.

Even though the mural isn't not done yet, I'm enjoying the bright yellows and oranges on the wall. As the cold winds whip the leaves off the trees outside the house, I like having this brightness inside. I think I'm especially going to like it during the grey and white month of February. Of course, I'm hoping by then, the project is done so I'm not still tripping over cans of paint and the big pieces of cardboard we scattered on the floor to protect the rug.

A tree takes time<

That's With-a-Why in the top photo. That's his girlfriend, Shy Smile, in the bottom photo. Yes, she's been drafted to help with the project.

October 23, 2012

Twilfitt and Tatting's

My piano teacher, who is always dressed beautifully, with clothes that match (and accessories even!) keeps trying to teach me some fashion sense. When I appeared at my lesson last week in my favorite blue sweater, she took one look and said gently, “I really don’t think you should wear that in public.” 

My protests about how comfortable the sweater was did not sway her. She may have even used the phrase “shapeless and horrible.” We’ve been friends for years, and she knew I wouldn’t be offended.

Then she came up with the idea of dragging me into a clothing store and helping me choose a sweater. I say, “help me choose” but actually she did the choosing. All I did was try the sweater on. It was one of those long, drapey sweaters that looked like someone forgot to cut off all the extra fabric. But it was a pretty color and extremely comfortable.

“You like it?” she asked, pleased.

I nodded. “It’s like carrying around an extra blanket.” In this climate, that’s a plus.

“You have to wear it home,” Piano Teacher insisted. “And make sure you tell me what your family thinks. Send me a text.”

I wore the sweater proudly into the living room to see my family’s reaction. Unfortunately, my daughter was off visiting her boyfriend and my husband wasn’t home from work yet, so I ended up modeling the sweater for my sons, the three people on earth who know less about fashion than I do.

“What do you think of this sweater?” I asked. I knew that inviting my sons to comment on my clothing was a bad idea, giving their willingness to tease me, but I had strict instructions from Piano Teacher. She was expecting a text message.

But Boy-in-Black's reaction surprised me. He looked over and said, “Oh, nice. I like that.”

I looked at him suspiciously. “You do?”

“Yeah,” he said, looking up again from his computer. “It looks like some kind of wizarding garb.”

 I’m going to take that as a compliment.

October 22, 2012


Even though the weather has been warm, we’ve been getting ready for winter. Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl helped me stack a couple of cords of wood in the garage. My husband fixed the lawn mower so that Tall Boy could cut the lawn one last time before the snow. I put up a new set of shelves in our laundry room. I’ve been cleaning and re-organizing the house to accommodate the ever-changing flow of people who live here.

It turns out that my worries about empty nest syndrome were a little premature.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter and Boy-in-Black moved to a little house in the next town, but they sometimes spend the weekend here. Tall Boy and Blue-eyed Ultimate Player are living with us for the semester. We’ve been seeing a lot of Shy Smile, the girl who is dating With-a-Why: I think she’s officially an extra now. My daughter’s boyfriend will be moving back to the area next month, and Shaggy Hair Boy’s girlfriend is usually here whenever he is. I never really know who might be here on any given night. Luckily, they’re all fine with sleeping on the floor because we really don’t have many beds.

My theory about keeping the house clean with so many people coming and going is – well, mostly it’s impossible. The only way to survive is to limit how much stuff is in the house. So I’ve been going through cupboards and closets, packing up stuff and taking it to donation centers. This all sounds quite virtuous, but mostly it’s because I’ve had papers to grade. There’s nothing like a stack of student papers to send me on a cleaning binge.

The midst of all the busyness of fall semester, we’ve had some spectacularly beautiful fall days, with bright foliage and blue skies and sunshine. I’ve been savoring all this colour before the dark rains of November begin.


October 21, 2012

Some moments last forever

“I think I’m the oldest person here,” I said to Boy-in-Black. The concert venue, a bar in Gorgeous City, seemed to be filled with students from two nearby colleges. He looked across the crowd, over the heads of a whole flock of girls who were giggling and whispering at his presence. “Nah,” he said, grinning. “There’s a guy at the bar who might be older.”

We’d arrived ten minutes before the doors opened, and I’d claimed a spot right up front, leaning against the stage, with Boy-in-Black right behind me. He’s tall enough to look right over the top of my head.

It’s the first time I’ve gone to a show with Boy-in-Black, and having him along was a definite advantage. He’s pretty intimidating. The crowd of young people were jostling each other, spilling drinks and pushing in closer as more people came in, but Boy-in-Black didn’t move so much as an inch in any direction. He stood absolutely still, arms folded like a security guard. Usually, by the end of a Mountain Goats concert, the whole crowd is pressing me against the edge of the stage, but not this time. Boy-in-Black served as a human shield that gave me plenty of room.

John Darnielle began with the song from Sunset Tree, an album released back in 2005. When he sang the first line into the microphone, “King Saul fell on his sword when it all went wrong,” I looked around the crowd and thought, “Most of these young people were in about sixth grade when that album was released.”

Darnielle paused for just a split second, and the whole crowd sang the next line, “And Joseph’s brother sold him down the river for a song.” Darnielle grinned as his own words came back to him. Somehow even those young college students knew the song. That’s when I knew it would be a great show.

Of course, the Mountain Goats are pretty much always a great show. John Darnielle is charming and humble, and filled with frantic, happy energy, even while he’s singing the dark poetry he’s famous for writing. He did nine songs from the new album that was just released, and the crowd knew those words too. And of course, when he sang old favourites like, “This Year,” everyone in the room jumped up and down, yelling out the words.

Afterwards, Boy-in-Black and I decided to go over to the merchandise table and see if we could talk to Darnielle. When I walked over, he said, “Hey, Front Row!” and gave me a hug. That’s the cool thing about Darnielle – he manages to make every single member of the audience feel like he’s cares that you’re there. I sat down next to him and said, “This kid who looks like my bodyguard is my son.” He laughed and said, “Wow. My son is only 18 months old, and yours is towering above us.”

We only talked for a few minutes, but I passed along a message from a friend, and we managed to take a bunch of ridiculous photos with Boy-in-Black’s phone. It was past midnight when Boy-in-Black and I walked out to my car. I rummaged through the car to find the chocolate bar I’d opened earlier, Boy-in-Black hooked up his iPod to play some Mountain Goats music, and we talked as we made the long drive home past barns and cornfields and little country towns.

October 17, 2012

Birthday candles

Candle ceremony

Last weekend With-a-Why, my youngest child, turned eighteen. And Skater Boy, who has been an extra in our household since before kindergarten, turned twenty-one.

Such milestone birthdays meant that our house was filled with young people and extras all weekend. The gang spent Saturday doing crazy stunts outside in an old wheelchair that we found when we cleaned the garage. By evening, more extras had arrived to join the party. Philosophical Boy, on midterm break, showed up unexpectedly. Blonde Niece arrived with her boyfriend. First Extra brought lottery tickets, the same gift he gave to Boy-in-Black and Shaggy Hair Boy when they turned eighteen. It’s a tradition.

Boy-in-Black came up with a new way of gathering everyone for the candle ceremony. He pulled the living furniture into a circle and began batting a ball back and forth. No one could resist the “keep the ball in the air” game. The circle quickly expanded to a gang of fourteen young people leaping up, making dramatic dives, and knocking into each other to swat at the ball. On several occasions, the entire loveseat went tumbling over. You might say that we’re a little competitive.

By the time the room had gotten dim enough to light candles, everyone was hot and sweaty from competing over a little foam ball. I wondered whether Shy Smile, With-a-Why’s girlfriend, would find our noisy, crowded household a bit overwhelming, but she seemed to be handling the chaos just fine. It’s easy to find nice things to say about With-a-Why and Skater Boy, but of course as we went around the circle, there were also teasing insults and jokes. That’s the tradition.

October 15, 2012

Another naked woman


Last week was supposed to be “Photos of Naked Middle-Aged Women” week on my blog. After all, I have to keep up my google rating. I used to be the number one hit in that category, but recently a surge of creepy porn has tried to take the spot, so I was trying to be pro-active. But Blogger (the blog-publishing service I use) shut down when I was trying to post the photo above. Maybe all the naked photos were just too much for blogger. I gave up when I started getting emails from folks telling me they couldn’t post comments.

To be honest, most of the women I take photos are a bit past middle age. In fact, two of the last three women in my photos are grandmothers. Yep, it’s true. Grandmothers wear cowboy hats to celebrated their naked bodies and go skinny dipping in cold mountain lakes, even in October.

Now that Blogger seems to be working again, I figured I’d start the week with another naked picture. Here’s my friend Makes Bread. It looks like she’s all relaxed as she’s walking into the water, but the reality is that she was saying, “Hurry up and take the photo before those kayaks get any closer.”

It’s a weird thing about kayakers. When they see a bunch of women skinny dipping, they tend to paddle over just for the heck of it. It's happened before. I was all for waiting on the shore so we could introduce ourselves to the kayakers but my friends decided the skinny dipping was over. Makes Bread climbed out, dried herself off, and pulled her clothes on before any boats were within earshot.

For the history of the naked blog photo project, go to this page and click on each photo, beginning with the first. Each photo has a link that will bring you back to a post on this blog that tells the story of how the photo was taken.

October 12, 2012

Holding up the clouds

Holding up the clouds

Some of my friends are quick to pose naked while others need a few minutes — or even a few years — to make up their minds. The naked photo is inevitable, of course. Resistance is futile. Everyone gives in eventually.

Last weekend on our retreat, Signing Woman and Makes Bread decided to do some yard work and weed the wildflower garden during a stretch of sunny weather. The breeze still felt cool to me, but they declared after a couple hours of work that they were hot and sweaty.

“We’re going skinny dipping,” Signing Woman said. She smiled at me, and I knew she was ready to pose. I grabbed my camera and followed her out to the lake.

We’d been talking earlier about butterflies, how they are the messengers between heaven and earth. We’d discussed the possibility of Signing Woman’s ancestors’ spirits wandering around this lovely property where her family has come for so many years. Signing Woman herself has such a emotional and spiritual connection to this place that I could well imagine her coming back as a ghost someday.

As Signing Woman stripped off her clothes and stepped into the Mountain Lake, her body looked as natural as a tree or a rock or a deer, completely at home in the clear cold water. With her feet firmly on the earth, the lake lapping her legs, she reached up into the heavens to touch the sky.

For the history of the naked blog photo project, go to this page and click on each photo, beginning with the first. Each photo has a link that will bring you back to a post on this blog that tells the story of how the photo was taken.

October 11, 2012

Those long, elegant legs

Long legs

“I’ll pose for you,” said Dancing Woman. “But I’m not going outside naked.” Her concern, it turned out, wasn’t the neighboring camps or the cars that sometimes drove slowly past, but the cold breeze blowing off the lake. The obligations of friendship apparently do not include setting your bare butt on wet ground on a cold fall day.

“How about the red chair by the fireplace?” she asked. It was probably the warmest spot in the house.

I nodded. “Sure. We can turn it toward the window to get some natural light.”

Dancing Woman stripped off her clothes, tossed them aside, and sat down in the chair. None of my other friends even looked up. Signing Woman went on reading her book, and Long Beautiful Hair wandered back into the kitchen for another cup of tea. Denim Woman, coming down the stairs, didn’t even look surprised to find a naked woman sitting by the fire.

In deference to Signing Woman’s family, who own the house we were staying in, I moved the photos behind the red chair. I wasn’t sure if any of her ancestors, with their stern black-and-white faces, would like to be included in the naked photo. She comes from an amazing family of missionaries and Sunday school teachers, physicians and academics and ministers. I suspect many of them would be most happy to participate in my project. I mean, really, who in the world wouldn’t want to be in a naked photo and get that fifteen minutes of internet fame? But my own rules include asking folks permission before I include them, and that was impossible since the people in the photos are dead. I certainly didn't want to take advantage of dead people.

“Put your legs up,” I said as I looked through the camera, “I want them in the picture.”

Pretty much every woman in the room looked up then to chime and say how much they loved Dancing Woman’s legs. That’s the fun part of taking a naked photo in a room full of women friends: they all start saying things about how beautiful you are. That part of this project never gets old.

For the history of the naked blog photo project, go to this page and click on each photo, beginning with the first. Each photo has a link that will bring you back to a post on this blog that tells the story of how the photo was taken.

October 09, 2012

Naked. With a cowboy hat.

The kitchen was filled with women. Quilt Artist stirred a pot of soup on the stove. Makes Bread knelt on the floor in front of the refrigerator, re-arranging everything to make more room on the shelves. Long Beautiful Hair waved a jar of pickles. Denim Woman pulled out a big bag of Dark Chocolate Bark and handed it to Signing Woman. Everyone was talking excitedly, nine voices echoing against the wooden cupboards and high ceilings.

Under the swirl of conversation, I said to Quilt Artist, “You going to pose naked for me this year?”

“Of course,” she said. “I’ve even brought a hat. To use as a prop.”

I love this about my friends. They are so very cooperative.

We decided the stone steps of the old house we were staying in would be a nice backdrop for a naked photo. The fact that the steps faced a public road did not phase Quilt Artist. “I’ll just duck down when a car goes by,” she said. Several cars did go by, and I snapped some photos in which she looked like Indiana Jones, slinking stealthily behind the stonewall.

Back inside, I pulled the photos up on my laptop, and friends gathered around to help vote on which photo we should use. “I like how the brown hat is repeated in the brown stones,” I said, pointing to my favorite. “And I like the curve of your body."

Wearing her cowboi hat

Almost everyone else voted for that photo, but Quilt Artist kept pointing to a photo in which she’s sitting on the edge of the steps. “I like how you can see all the silver in my hair. And I like how the wrinkles in my stomach are reflected in the stones. I know women aren’t supposed to like all those lines on their body, but I do.”

She and I smiled at each other. We’ve been friends for a couple of decades now, and I know the long journey she undertook to accept her body and love her self.

So I’m putting both photos on my blog. Readers can choose which one they like best.


For the history of the naked blog photo project, go to this page and click on each photo, beginning with the first. Each photo has a link that will bring you back to a post on this blog that tells the story of how the photo was taken.