February 28, 2012

Dances with literature

One student stretched out stiffly on the classroom floor, staring straight up, her palms flat. “I’m concrete,” she whispered, by way of explanation. Another young woman stood up, stretching her arms out like branches. I sat on the floor beneath her, moving my arm as if it were a snake. Other students moved in, their bodies adding more trees, a cat, a brick wall, a wind turbine, a fountain, a car, even the moon hanging from the sky. One young man rocked his body back and forth, his palms pushing against the air. “I’m the wind.”

It was Interpretative Dance Day in my urban environmental literature class.

I wasn’t sure, as I walked to class, what to expect. The student who had asked to lead the class had said only, “Wear comfy clothes.” I think I’d expected music; for me the word dance means moving to music.

But we didn’t use music. Instead, Dancing Student asked us first to brainstorm some of the themes we’ve been talking about all semester. Then we broke into small groups, and she gave each group time to plan a dance to express a theme.

My group took the theme of relationships and community. “We need to be interwoven,” said Wavy-haired Woman. We decided that touch was important, so we stood with our feet touching, and we threaded our arms together to hold each others’ hands.

“This is too static,” said Plaid Shirt. “Communities are more fluid than this.”

“Yeah, a healthy community means people come and go,” said Dark-haired Woman. So we started moving around, sliding our feet towards each other to touch symbolically, reaching out with hands to form pairs or trios, then moving back.

“Let’s get the whole class involved when it’s our turn,” someone said. “Our dance isn’t over until all 20 of us are touching.”

We’d pushed the desks back, and in the middle of the room, each group performed their dance. My small group kept moving until we’d pulled every student into the middle of the room, all of us touching in some way.

Dancing Student asked us to take one element from each performance and create a dance we could all do together. By then, everyone had loosened up. I could feel the energy rising as even the quietest students in the class chimed in with ideas. I was surprised, actually, at how they kept returning to essays we’d read and themes we’d talked about. I’m not used to dance that involves so much thinking.

We danced themes. We danced parts of an essay we’d read. We danced pollution and development. We danced change, progress, growth. We danced a canoe paddling through a sea of floating condoms. We danced a scene of urban nature, complete with flora and fauna.

 We danced without words or music. And every single student joined in.

February 27, 2012

The old red barn

The old red barn

When I was a kid, we kept a horse in this barn, an appaloosa. I’d go out early in the morning on a winter day to bring her a coffee can of sweetfeed, a flat of hay, and a red bucket of water that had to be awkwardly lugged from the tap in our cellar. When I mucked out her stall, I’d fill a wheelbarrow with manure to toss into the compost pile, a heap that grew so warm that snakes loved to curl up there on cool spring days.

February 24, 2012

In the mailbox

A February rain is much colder than snow, and twice as miserable. The hems of my jeans were soaked by late afternoon because I’ve just never learned how to avoid puddles. As I lugged a stack of student portfolios into my office — ah, yes, papers to grade — I noticed a parcel in my mailbox.

Yes, really a parcel! It was an unexpected gift from Charming Canadian Professor Who Reads a Lot. And who, I might add, lives almost 3,000 miles away from me.

Twitter messages are nice. So are text messages and email. And phone calls and skype. But it was just lovely to open a package. My friend bought the book, asked the author to sign it for me, took out pen and paper, and wrote a note to put in the book. The book traveled across the border that runs between our countries, over the Rocky Mountains, across the Midwest, into Snowstorm Region, and finally into my hands.

Despite the stack of papers just begging to be graded, I opened the book and began reading right away. There are some things I just can’t resist: a new book is one of them. He’d send me Charlotte Gills’ Eating Dirt, the memoir of a tree-planter. Have you ever seen those big tree plantations in the Pacific Northwest and wondered who plants all those trees? This book tells the story. I read the first three chapters, totally hooked, before I had the self-discipline to turn back to the stacks of papers I was supposed to be grading.

My friend's note included the instructions that I wasn’t to reciprocate, but instead send a surprise gift to someone else. “Keep the karma moving,” he told me when I thanked him on twitter. I love the idea of choosing a book and just mailing it to a friend out of the blue, with no reason other than reminding her that a shared love of reading can make even the most miserable February day feel like spring.

February 22, 2012

Hot women

By the fire

When my Wild Women friends get together, I’m usually the firekeeper, and I take that job seriously, adding logs to the fire every time the flames burn down to coals. At last weekend’s Stone Soup party, I kept the fire burning. Soon the room, filled with women talking and eating, was toasty warm.

I don’t know if it was the warmth from the fire or the intimacy of the conversation or the fact that probably half the women in the room are somewhere around menopause, but it wasn’t long before women were taking off their clothes.

Dark-haired Woman was the first to strip off her sweater. “I’m hot,” she announced, by way of explanation.

“Yeah, baby, you’re hot,” Long Beautiful Hair said.

Dark-haired Woman laughed. “Of course, it might just be a hot flash.”

“Hot flashes are way sexy,” someone else called out. “All those waves of warm erotic energy pulsing through your body—”

“You taking off your clothes?” asked Quilt Artist in a practical voice. She looked over from the kitchen area, where she’d just ladled soup into a bowl. “The light’s just right for a naked photo.”

I hadn’t intended to take any naked photos at the potluck. Honestly. Contrary to what some of my blog readers think, I don’t spend most of my time at social events trying to get folks naked. But the situation was perfect: a beautiful woman taking off her clothes, diffuse winter light shining from the window, and a roomful of women who are so used to my camera that the flow of conversation didn’t even pause as Dark Hair obliging took off the rest of her clothes.

“No group naked shot?” asked Denim Woman teasingly. “We aren’t going to recreate the famous white butt shot?”

“No group shots,” I said firmly. “I think the individual photos are more empowering.” I meant that, actually. The group shots are fun and often silly, but there's something special about the individual photos. Often when I show a woman a naked photo of herself, the first thing she says is, “Wow. I didn’t realize I looked that good.”

So often women don’t know how beautiful they are. The point of these photos is to let them see it for themselves.

If you don't know the history of the naked photo tradition, you can check it out here. Or go look at the gallery of photos.

February 20, 2012

February potluck

Fifteen of us gathered yesterday, mostly women who have been friends for several decades. The plan was to make stone soup: we’d each contribute a vegetable, or perhaps some beans or rice, and toss them into the crockpot that was already simmering. But of course, this group of women is never content with just one pot of soup. We ended up with a whole counter filled with food: veggies and humus, several salads, five types of bread, hot bean soup, some kind of stew, and desserts, of course. We can’t get together without chocolate: it’s a rule.

During the early afternoon, we all talked like crazy, cooking and preparing food as we talked, catching up on news. “I caved and bought a puppy,” Dark-haired Woman announced as she arrived. She had photos, of course, on her phone. Gorgeous Eyes brought her sister, who was visiting from out of town. Signing Woman had just returned from an out-of-town trip, so we heard news about her mother. That’s always the first part of catching up: hearing details about siblings, spouses, parents, and kids.

Eight hours later, bellies filled with food, we lounged by the fire, no one wanting to leave. Long Beautiful Hair stretched out on the couch. Some of us piled on with her and some of us sat on the floor. We were still all talking, of course, but at a slower pace. The food and warmth had made us relaxed and sleepy. Sometimes we’d even have a lull long enough to hear the fire crackle.

“I wish we had a whole weekend,” Denim Woman said. We all nodded in agreement. But still, a whole day of friendship and food in the middle of February is something we treasure. It’s enough to get us through.

February 18, 2012

In the sauna

My feet are cold from about October to March. Even when I’m doing something like cross-country skiing, and my clothes are soaked with sweat and I’ve taken my hat off because I’m warm, my feet feel like I’ve got frozen peas shoved between my toes. None of that glow that comes from exercise makes it past my ankles. When I’m snowboarding, which requires wearing boots that fit very tightly, my feet can get so cold that it’s painful.

That’s why I love the sauna.

It’s just a small room lined with wood and the traditional wood-and-glass door tucked into the women’s locker room. Often I’m alone in there, and I just sit quietly, letting my muscles absorb all the heat. I’ll stretch my bare legs out and wriggle my toes, savoring the warmth. Sometimes another woman will come in, and we’ll exchange a smile, but the space feels meditative, so I don’t talk unless she says something first.

The other night, though, when I entered the sauna, I could hear laughter and chatter. As I shut the door behind me, I could see six young women draped on the wooden benches. “It’s a party,” Curly Hair said. She grinned and moved over to make room for me.

Once I sat down, all heads turned towards Frizzy Ponytail. She started to say something, then hesitated. “Tell us,” prodded the woman next to her. I looked at her and smiled, with just the slightest of nods, the way I do when I’m trying to get a shy student in class to speak up.

She launched into a hilarious story about a Valentine’s Day date that went horribly wrong. Curly Hair countered with an anecdote about a passive aggressive man she’d been dating. “Know how he broke up with me? He posted a picture of his new girlfriend on facebook.”

Each anecdote was met with exclamations, indignation, and then laughter from the rest of the women. They chimed in excitedly, gesturing with their arms, drops of water beading up on their bare skin as they talked, any residual hurt and sadness behind the stories gradually dissolving in the warmth.

February 14, 2012

Cartwheels turn to car wheels

My sons have always been the most talkative late at night, just as I'm about to go to sleep. Shaggy Hair Boy will come into our bedroom just as my husband and I are climbing into bed. "Hey, Mom, want to read over the essay I'm writing? It's due tomorrow."

Boy in Black, who is so nocturnal that he often goes to bed just as I'm waking up, will look at me at midnight, just as I'm about to drag my tired self upstairs, and say, "Hey, want to see this youtube clip?"

So it's not surprising that With-a-Why, my youngest son, came into the bathroom to talk to me last night while I was brushing my teeth. Clearly, the best time to talk to Mom is when she's half asleep and has a mouth full of suds.

But it did shock me when I looked up and caught sight of our images, reflected in the bathroom mirror. I had just spit out the toothpaste and straightened up, automatically smiling at the mirror as I did so. With-a-Why, standing behind me, grinned at the mirror too. Over the top of my head.

That’s right. My youngest son, my baby, is a head taller than me. When did that happen?

February 12, 2012

The little girl who used to sit in my lap and cry

It’s been months since I’ve seen Ponytail, the little girl who used to live down the street from me. About once a week, I pick her brother up from the apartment where he lives with his mother. But Ponytail was sent off to live her father in another town, and I have no way of contacting her.

Her father is the man who attacked the family in a drunken rage one cold April night. That’s the night that Little Biker Boy rode over to my house in his boxer shorts screaming for help. That night, I called 911 and cops came, and they had to taser the man before they could get him into a patrol car.

Little Biker Boy doesn’t see his sister very often any more, but we talk about her. The two kids were always together when they lived down the road from me, riding bikes or playing in the ditches, and I know he misses her.

Today is her eighth birthday.

Little Biker Boy called me this morning. He has my phone number memorized, and he calls whenever he can take someone’s cell phone. I could tell from the background noise that he wasn’t at his mother’s apartment. He told me he was going to see Ponytail, that someone was going to take him over for a birthday party.

“I asked if you could come, but no, they said you can’t,” he said.

“Give her a hug for me,” I said. “Teach her my phone number. She’s old enough.”

“I think she’s learned the first part,” he said. “She almost knows it.”

Someone in the background yelled at him. “I have to go,” he said quickly, and hung up. Our calls usually end when someone discovers their cell phone missing.

It’s Ponytail’s birthday. Wherever she is, I’m thinking about her today.

February 10, 2012

Except for the cat pee

So far, February has been a good month. My calendar is filled with the star stickers I’ve been giving myself for self-care. I’ve given myself a sticker every time I practiced the piano, or read for pleasure, or worked out at the gym. I’ve gotten stickers for outdoor walks, for working on a writing project, and for skyping with a friend. Of course, the bizarrely mild weather has helped. It doesn’t seem like February. I haven’t had to shovel the driveway or brush off my car. Usually by this time of the winter, I’m sick of the snow and cold, but this year, we’ve had so little that I would welcome a snowstorm.

I’m happier this year, but the cats of the household are still going through the February blues. Even during a warm winter, it’s really too cold outside for them, and so they are crowded into the house all day long, hissing and fighting over territory. I wouldn’t mind the hissing if they’d just learn to keep their bodily fluids to themselves.

The latest cat pee incident happened the other night, just as we were all leaving to go to the gym. My husband went out to warm up the car while I ran upstairs to get my coat, which I had left on the bed. I rushed in, grabbed the coat, and began putting it on while shoving my feet into boots, automatic motions I do without even thinking. Just as I began pulling the coat over my arms, a strong stench hit my nose. Far too late, my mind registered the image of a shimmering liquid puddled into the hood of my coat, warm yellow liquid that splashed into my hair, down my neck, onto my shirt and jeans.

Maybe I need to get the cats some behavior modification charts. And give them stars for using the damned litter box instead of my coat.

February 08, 2012

February evening

Our living room is messy, filled with books and papers and laptop computers. It’s the fourth week of the semester, which means we’re all busy. Piano music is piled on top of Shaggy Hair Boy’s laptop. My husband has a yellow legal pad at his side, a long to-do list filling the whole first page.

Boy in Black, stripped down to a pair of black shorts, is taking up the only available floor space: he’s doing push-ups. With-a-Why is flipping through the graphic novel he wrote for a school project. The room smells like homemade applesauce. It’s not the season for applesauce, but I wanted to send food over to a friend who is going through chemotherapy, and applesauce is something she can eat. Boy in Black’s phone is playing “One More Cup of Coffee.”

Shaggy Hair Boy arrives, carrying two tins of homemade cookies. He’s been to his grandparents’ house. “Here you go,” he says, handing one of the tins to Boy in Black. “That one’s for the apartment.” Then he opens the other tin, and we all grab some of my mother’s delicious cookies.

February 06, 2012

Without mittens

We walked around both lakes, but it took us twice as long as usual. That's because we had to stop to smell tree trunks and park benches, throw sticks into the melting ice, eat handfuls of goldfish crackers and candy, scour the woods for the perfect walking stick, pause to think of the words to silly childhood songs with surprisingly bleak lyrics, and chase every squirrel that we saw.

When Signing Woman picked me up for the weekend walk we'd planned, she brought her border collie and her granddaughter, as well as our friend Makes Bread. Kids and dogs turn a simple walk into an afternoon outing, and the unseasonably warm weather meant that we could linger along the trail. It wasn't until we were back in the parking lot that I began to feel a winter chill. Signing Woman's husband called her cell phone to say that he'd put the tea kettle on, and we stopped back at her house for cookies and steaming cups of tea, while he fussed over us and his oldest grandchild.

  Lake in February

February 04, 2012

All of the macro, none of the creep jacking

I often complain that my youngest son, With-a-Why, spends too much time playing computer games. Boy in Black always defends With-a-Why’s gaming habit, explaining it’s really not much different than what he experiences when he plays chess with a friend — he’s doing analytical thinking, he’s being strategic, he socializes with other players, he discusses the games with his brothers and friends, which is bonding. I get all that, and it’s true that my academically gifted son isn’t challenged by anything at school, but still, I worry.

“He’s really good at Starcraft II,” Boy in Black will say to me. “He’s made it to Masters. You should be proud.”

Despite Boy in Black’s reasoning, it drives me crazy to watch With-a-Why stare so intently at a computer screen. So I was pleased when I saw that he was using the behavior modification calendar his sister had given him. It’s in the living room right next to his laptop computer and I’ve watched him put stars on it every day. I figure the behavior modification chart will push him to spend time away from the computer. He gives himself a star for each hour of an activity he does.

“I read for three hours today,” he announced yesterday. That meant three green stars for him. I know he’s been giving himself a gold star for every hour of playing the piano, and a silver star for working out at the gym.

Last night my husband and I were leaving to go out to dinner just as Boy in Black arrived home for the weekend. “I need to work on my purple stars,” Boy in Black said to With-a-Why, grinning, as he unpacked his laptop computer. While everyone else in the country is moving to thinner, lighter laptops, Boy in Black has gone in the opposite direction. His laptop looks like the controls of a spaceship.

“I know,” said With-a-Why. “I’m falling behind. I haven’t had time.” He opened his laptop, pulling the little table it’s balanced on closer to the couch. I looked at him suspiciously.

“I got more than eight hours of sleep last night,” Boy in Black said to me. “I got a red star for going to bed before midnight.”

“For you, that’s a good goal,” I said. He rarely gets enough sleep. “What about the purple stars? What are they for?”

“Starcraft,” With-a-Why said, without looking up. He was already starting intently at the screen.

“Playing computer games?” I asked incredulously. “You’re giving yourselves stars for playing computer games? That’s one of your goals?”

“Of course,” said Boy in Black. “We’re building skills.” He grinned at me as he slid into place next to his little brother on the couch. “I’ve been slacking this week because of my research.”

“I’ll work on my Protoss while you work on your Zerg,” With-a-Why said to his brother, “I still need to get those forge fast expands down.”

“Just don’t rage quit when the roaches show up at your door,” Boy in Black replied.

“GG, N00BS,” I said as I left. It’s pretty much the only phrase of computer game speak that I know.

February 01, 2012

Filling February with stars

Setting goals

Last semester, I kept hearing Boy in Black tease his sister about how many gold stars she was getting each day. At first, I thought he was joking.

But it turned out he wasn’t. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter had set specific goals for the semester and a system of rewarding herself by putting stars on the calendar each day when she did something specific towards each goal. The stick-on stars came in five colours, so she had five different categories. Working out, for example, got a gold star while trying a new recipe got a red one.

Since my daughter is already incredibly organized and self-disciplined, it’s hard to know how much the stars on the calendar made a difference, but by the end of the semester, she had achieved her goals. She’d worked out five times each week, for example, and successfully defended her thesis proposal.

By the time this semester began, we’d all gone from teasing her about the stars to wanting behavior modification charts of our own. So she printed out calendars for all of us, put them in folders, and bought us packets of star stickers. We were instructed to choose five goals to match the colors of the stars.

I decided to wait until February 1 to begin my chart. February is always a difficult month for me, so I figure that maybe the stars will help motivate me to take good care of myself. The categories I've chosen give me credit for things like playing the piano, taking a walk in the woods, and meditating. I admit that it was a little disconcerting to pull out the calendar and realize that we had an extra day in February this year (like the month wasn’t long enough already!), but I hope that filling the days with stars as I achieve my goals will make February easier.