September 26, 2012

Another fall adventure

I'm heading off this morning to an academic conference in a city famous mostly for beer. I'll be arriving to the conference via ferryboat because Artist Friend convinced me that would be the cool way to travel. I'm not taking my laptop, but I'll have my camera with me so I'll try my hardest to coerce at least one friend into posing naked for me.

September 25, 2012

Early morning in the mountains

Early morning on a mountain lake

After sleeping in the little back room of the old mountain inn, I woke early and slipped outside with my camera. My sneakers and the bottoms of my sweatpants were soon wet with dew as I crossed the front lawn to the lake where a fog slow-danced across the water, softening the morning with wisps of white.


September 24, 2012

Fall ritual


This weekend, I drove my parents to the mountains. It’s an annual pilgrimage to visit the mountain towns where my father worked as a musician back in the 1950s. We began with breakfast at the Iron Kettle, where we watched the short order cook working furiously to fry bacon, scramble eggs, and flip pancakes. Then we followed a narrow road that curved past farms, through pine woods, and to small towns nestled in the mountains.

Even though it’s still only September, autumn has arrived in the mountains, bringing bright foliage and cold winds. We wore winter coats to walk in the woods. My parents even put on winter ski caps, but I decided it was just too early for such extreme measures.

That evening, we stayed at the old mountain inn where we’ve stayed so many times before. It’s got a porch filled with wooden rocking chairs, several docks, and windows that overlook the lake. After dinner, we sat in the big comfortable chairs near the fireplace, listening to the flames crackle. My mother and I flipped through the pile of guestbooks to find old entries I had written and to read aloud entries we thought especially funny.

My father kept saying that the inn was old enough to have ghosts, and he’s disappointed he’s never seen one. “I’d love to see a ghost,” he kept saying. But after an afternoon spent walking along lake trails, we all fell asleep pretty early. I’m guessing the crowd of locals who were still up talking and laughing at the bar kept away any ghosts.

September 21, 2012

Meeting with the Caseworker. Finally.

He was a burly guy with a dark hair, a big smile, and an arm covered with tattoos. He shook my hand, and I invited him into the house.

"Show me around,” he said.

“Um, what do you need to see?” I asked. “Here’s the piano, here’s the fireplace, here’s the kitchen table.” The downstairs of our house is one big room, so I could point to everything without moving. The only separate space is my office, just off the front door. I stepped in and waved my arm around. “Here’s my office.”

He peered in and said with surprise, “Wow, that’s a lot of books.”

Then we sat at the kitchen table and talked. I showed him the manila folder of information I’ve accumulated on Little Biker Boy over the last four years. I’ve got names and phone numbers for a bunch of other caseworkers, mostly from the Child Protective Division.

“You’ve got more information than I started with,” he said. “When Little Biker Boy was assigned to me, I was given a blank file.”

This was my first time meeting Dark-haired Caseworker. Little Biker Boy’s foster mother and I started the paperwork months ago to get me approved as someone who could take Little Biker Boy on outings and bring him to my house. But it’s a slow process that included background checks on my husband and me, and a mandatory visit from the department of social services to inspect my house, which gave me this chance to talk directly to the caseworker.

Dark-haired Caseworker confirmed that Little Biker Boy’s mother had signed away any rights: she will no longer have any contact with him at all. But it’s also unlikely that Little Biker Boy will stay indefinitely with his foster mother: the department likes to get these kids into adoptive homes whenever possible.

We talked for about an hour. So much is still uncertain, but at least Little Biker Boy is getting the help he needs – a team of people looking out for him. 

"I wish he could have had this sooner,” I said to Dark-haired Caseworker. “I mean, I saw the red flags four years ago. So did some of the social workers at Child Protective. It sucks that nothing can be done until after the child has been badly abused.”

He nodded. “I know. That’s the way the system works now. It’s frustrating.”

After he left, I added his name and phone number to the manila folder. Then I called Little Biker Boy to tell him the news: he’ll be able to visit us now.

September 18, 2012

Where women are pizza

Where women are pizza

“You’re going to hate it here,” my husband warned me. It was May in Gambling City in the Desert. I’d just joined him at the end of his conference, and we had one night in the city before picking up our rental car.

It was the most bizarre city I’ve ever been in. Our hotel had this weird Paris theme, complete with a huge fake Eiffel Tower and a fake Arc de Triomphe. It was like a Disney theme park, except with booze, gambling, and hookers.

From our window on the 28th floor of the hotel, I could look down at a huge pool surrounded by lounge chairs. I figured I’d go down and have some quiet time by the water while my husband was at his meeting. That was a mistake. As I walked into the pool area, I was greeted by music so loud that the cement was vibrating. No matter where I went, I couldn’t escape the pounding noise or the merciless desert sun. And no one in the pool was swimming. They were standing up, drinks in hand, and from the snippet of conversation that I got whenever there was a pause in the screech of lyrics, I gathered that they were mostly trying to hook up.

Outside the hotel, throngs of tourists moved up and down the sidewalks. Several men were snapping cards – they looked from a distance like playing cards – and handing them out. When I got close enough, I saw that the cards were pictures of naked women. Well, they weren’t totally naked. The women on the cards were wearing bras that made their breasts pop up so much that their bodies looked distorted and painful, sort of like a breastfeeding mother with mastitis. Along with the image of the semi-naked woman, each card was emblazoned with a phone number and a message: “Hot women delivered straight to you.”

The casinos – and every building seemed to be a casinos, there were even slot machines in the rental car place – were designed like malls, which meant that I got hopelessly lost within minutes. Inside, the constant ringing of slot machines made me feel like my head was going to explode. Outside, everything was cemented and paved over. The bridges went over traffic instead of rivers. It was all very confusing.

I kept seeing plump young women, usually wearing make-up and showing cleavage, paired with old white men who in a parallel universe would have been their uncles. I did see some groups of friends who seemed to be having fun, talking and laughing as they pointed to gaudy signs and lit fountains. But I also saw a lot of people with deep sadness in their eyes.

The next morning, as we tried to drive away, traffic on the strip came to a stop. I peered out of the rental car to see what the problem was. A man, standing at the back of U-Haul, was emptying what looked like the contents of a house onto the pavement. He tossed each item angrily – couch cushions, dresser drawers, picture frames, dishes. A crowd gathered to watch as these possessions smashed and broke open in the hot desert sun.

September 16, 2012

By the hearth

My husband and With-a-Why are in Big City Like No Other for the weekend, so I figured I might be all alone in the house on Saturday night. When I returned from a long day in the woods with my students, I was chilled through. I brought some firewood in from the garage and built a fire, the first of the season.

I think there’s something magic about crackling flames in the fireplace. Within the hour, my living room began filling up with people.

Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl had gone apple picking with Dandelion Niece and Taekwondo Nephew. They lugged a big bag of apples into the kitchen and began immediately cutting up the apples. “We’re going to leave the skins on,” Shaggy Hair Boy announced. “That’s how Smiley Girl’s Mom does it.”

The method was certainly faster. Within minutes, they’d filled a huge pot with apple chunks. As the applesauce began to simmer, the house filled with the scent of cinnamon.

Tall Boy returned from a Pro Disc Golf tournament with a trophy. He’s apparently really good at the sport; the champion in this part of the state. He showed me his winnings —$600 in cash stuffed into an envelope. Disc golf is still a pretty new sport, which may explain why the prizes look like drug money.

Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter arrived by train. She’d gone to a wedding with Sailor Boy, who is still living about five hours away. Boy-in-Black came home by airplane. He’d spent the week in Germany at a conference for computational physics.

Dimple and First Extra were last to arrive. Dimple showed us all a photo on her phone: First Extra holding a trophy. Apparently, he’d been first in HIS category of disc golf at the tournament.

I sat by the fire with a bowl of homemade applesauce, slowly growing warm again after the day in the woods. When I went to bed, there was still a gang at the kitchen table, playing cards.

"That's where you want to be, boy"

With-a-Why in Washington Square With-a-Why is always looking for people to play chess with. So when my husband took him to Big City Like No Other this weekend, I suggested they go to Washington Square so he could play against the old men who spend hours playing chess in the sunshine. Here's the photo my husband snapped with his phone.

September 14, 2012

That wriggled and wriggled and tickled inside her

My students were in groups, working on collaborative projects, when I heard a young woman say, “Ew. A spider.”

“I’ll kill it for you,” offered the kid next to her.

“No, don’t kill it!” protested a third student. She looked up from her notebook. “Spiders are living creatures. And they’re valuable.”

This kind of debate is common in a classroom at Little Green, where some students are hunters and others are animal rights activists. Currently, all of our first year students take a biology course taught by an entomologist who finds bugs fascinationg, and that enthusiasm tends to be contagious.

I watched to see what the students would do next. I figured they’d either smash the spider or carry it outside. The young man in the tie-dyed shirt picked the little spider up by letting it crawl on his finger. He held it so we could all take a look. 

“It’s awfully small, but you see all the legs,” Dark Glasses said. They spent a couple minutes trading facts about spiders.

Then Long Braid tried to get them back on task, “Come on, we need to finish this.”

Tie-Dye Shirt shrugged, popped the spider into his mouth, and looked back down at his notebook.

Yep, that’s right. He ATE the spider. That’s an option I hadn’t even thought of.

September 12, 2012

Pausing to take a breath

It’s the third week of fall semester, and already my life is crazy busy, with courses and meetings and piles of student papers. The nights are getting cool, which reminds me I need to freeze tomatoes and stack firewood and get ready for winter. Most days it seems I barely have a spare moment to stop and take a breath.

I think longingly to summertime, when my life moved at a more leisurely pace. I remember in particular the couple of days my husband and I spent at an inn on the west coast. We slept in a cosy bed nook that had windows on three sides: it felt like we were sleeping in a tree house. I woke up early each morning to walk down to the cove and listen to the ocean waves. I’d walk around the pier, check rocks for starfish, and then go into the little coffeeshop to get the day’s gossip from the local teenagers before climbing back up the hill and going back to bed.


September 09, 2012

No matter what the weather

Into the woods

Every website we consulted predicted thunderstorms, but we had already planned to spend Saturday out in the woods. With 170 students. It’s not easy to reschedule an event that size. So we handed out rain ponchos and kept our fingers crossed.

Luckily, Little Green students tend to be hardy souls, who fully expect to do field work in any kind of weather. They arrived wearing hiking boots and rain gear and big smiles. The winds were already whipping the treetops so furiously that we could barely hear each other. The thunderstorms veered north and south, just barely missing us, but we did get rain — first a steady, light rain that was enjoyable, and then a torrential downpour that caused laughing and squealing and a mad dash for cover.

The rain kept coming, but we somehow managed to keep all the events we’d planned. On the low ropes course, students climbed around on wires in the rain, their bright orange ponchos and bulky yellow raincoats adding to the challenge. Faculty members clad in rain ponchos led nature walks, students stomping through puddles as they went. The book discussion was a popular activity this year, as it was held in the dry enclosure of the yurt. The high ropes course is always the students’ favorite, no matter what the weather. Students happily tossed off their raincoats to put on harnesses and climb high into the trees.

By mid-afternoon, everyone was wet and muddy. Two of the mentors – that is, the older students who come to help out – asked me if they could make a fire. “Let’s make it a teamwork challenge,” I said. I looked around at the group of first-year students who had just returned from their nature walk. “Everyone! Go find tinder and kindling!” Some students went off into the woods, while others began scavenging through the garbage cans where we’d had our lunch.

Little Green students are good at this kind of thing – some of them have had wilderness survival training even – and soon we had a nice campfire going despite the rain. When the next group of students returned from the high ropes course, exhilarated and sopping wet, they clustered about the fire gratefully. Some removed their wet socks and began drying them over the flames, the way you might roast some marshmallows.

It was almost 7 pm before we loaded the students back onto the buses to go back to campus, but we all agreed that despite the weather, it had been a good day.

Flames in the rain

September 07, 2012


When I visited Little Biker Boy in the hospital last Friday, he was already out of bed and walking around, although a bit unsteady on his feet. The surgeon had taken some bone out of his hip to repair his cleft palate, an operation that was long overdue. His face was swollen, and his walking painful, but the surgery had gone well, and everyone was pleased at how quickly he was recovering.

When I visited him yesterday evening at his foster home, he was back to his usual self. Well, he was supposed to still be taking it easy, but for Biker Boy that just means walking instead of running. He did sit still long enough to play a couple games of cards with me. Then we went out into the backyard to play with his remote control car. His foster mother is a nurse who is taking good care of him, and he’s healing in all kinds of ways.

September 04, 2012

Yep, he's a senior

Summer homework

No self-respecting teenager does his summer homework during June or July or August. At least, not in my family. The tradition is to wait until the very last minute to read the assigned books, do the work, and write the essays. When Shaggy Hair Boy and Blonde Niece were in high school, they would spend Labor Day weekend at camp working feverishly on the work they’d put off for months.

With-a-Why kept to that tradition. His summer was filled with projects: the mural he’s painting, a pile of books a friend had recommended, classical piano music he’s learning, a novel he’s writing, and chess games with anyone he could get to play with him. He was plenty busy, but with projects of his own choosing and not school assignments.

In keeping with family tradition, he brought his summer homework to camp for Labor Day. Sprawled in a lawn chair by the firepit, he wrote furiously while his siblings gave sympathetic support and sarcastic comments about the value of the assignments. “Just write a whole lot of bullshit,” said Boy-in-Black. He gave me a crooked grin:  “English teachers love that.”

With-a-Why finished the work just in time. Public schools opened today. He tossed his everything into his backpack and went off to begin his senior year in high school.

September 03, 2012

End of the season

Last canoe trip of the season

For Labor Day weekend, we went up to my parents' camp, just as we have every year for as long as I can remember. Because 2012 was such a dry year, we had very little water at the end of the dock: only the canoes and kayaks could make it in and out through the marsh. The lily pads rose high above the shallow water, and most of the flowers were gone.

Acorns have already started to fall from the trees, and some of the leaves were already yellow. It was warm enough to swim in the daytime, but at night, we put on sweatshirts and gathered around a campfire. Autumn is here.

September 01, 2012

Celebrating the blue moon

Blue moon

When I arrived, the kitchen was already filling with chatter, laughter, and the smell of sautéed onions. Quilt Artist stirred a pot of lentil soup. “The greens are from my garden,” she said. Math Teacher set out a salad covered with blueberries and walnuts. I began cutting up the baguette I’d bought on my way.

It was still warm enough to sit outside in short sleeves. We carried our full plates out to the backyard, where pine trees surrounded us, a circle of eight women who talked busily as we ate, catching up on the news of the summer. It was getting dark by the time we tackled the plate of homemade brownies. Every good potluck includes chocolate.

Quilt Artist had given us each a tobacco tie: just a pinch of tobacco wrapped in a square of fabric. She’d brought a talking stick, too, and a smudgestick so that we could cleanse the night air with the scent of burning sage. Gathered around a crackling fire, we watched the moon rise through the conifers and passed the talking stick from woman to woman. We began with gratitude, of course, as is the tradition in this region. Then, quietly, each woman said aloud her wishes, her difficulties, her prayers. 

When I was done talking, I knelt by the fire to set my tobacco tie on a log. I like to hear the tobacco crackle and smell the burning. Then I sat back my chair to watch the flames and listen as the women around me shared their stories.