December 30, 2013

Morning walk

Holiday celebrations in my family consist mostly eating food, playing games, and talking. We all gathered at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve to talk and eat, and we had a big dinner here on Christmas Day. I’ve spent the last week mostly sitting by the fire, with bowls of hot soup and plates of cookies, hanging out with everyone. It’s been wonderful to have kids home, extras here, and family in town.

On Saturday, I met some friends downtown at a café that serves vegan food. We crowded around a wooden table near a window that looked across at a little urban park. Since there were four of us, we decided we’d each order a different sandwich, cut them in four pieces, and each get to try all four. So while we talked about the holidays and our plans for the new year, we also rated each sandwich. I am proud to say that the sandwich I choose — made with a smoky-flavored tempeh bacon, tomato, and lettuce — finished first in our rating system.

Saturday night, my husband and I went to an Italian restaurant for a meal with his family. His sister and niece were in town, and his brother joined us with his wife and two of his sons. While we talked, I ate fresh Italian bread with dipping oil, salad with olives and peppers, and a bowl of angel hair pasta with veggies and marinara sauce.

After a week of holiday meals and snacks — and a pretty sedentary life — I woke up this morning ready for a long walk in the woods. I pulled on my boots, grabbed my winter coat, and headed out my back door. We’ve got snow, but just an inch or two, and the ice on the puddles is thin enough that it kept cracking under my boots. I wandered along deer trails, following their tracks back to the groves of hemlocks. The cold, fresh air felt great after so much time in by the fire.

The woods are mostly brown and white on a winter day. In a few places, I could glimpse some green mosses and green ferns beneath crystals of ice, and branches that were reddish in the sunlight. The young beech trees hold onto their leaves, a goldish-brown against the snow. In the winter, I can see far into the woods, catching a glimpse of a white-tail deer as it dashes away at my approach. I tramped around, not even following my trails, crashing loudly through the ice on the puddles, until finally, I was hungry for breakfast and hot tea back at my house.

December 27, 2013

Holiday music

No holiday is complete without live music. That's my youngest son at the piano.

December 25, 2013

Prayer flags on Christmas morning

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered red cloth napkins to use for Christmas dinner. When they arrived, though, I was horrified at the texture. Instead of soft cotton, each napkin was the texture of a waterproof tarp. I couldn't use them as napkins but they were perfect for another project I had in mind: prayer flags. I found some black markers and began writing on them.

I chose to write things like "peace" and "faith" on mine. Then I asked my sons to help. Boy-in-Black wrote "Life, the Universe, and Everything" on one, and "It's all right, ma. It's life and life only" on another, and "Don't Panic" on a third. We started adding pictures, including a drawing of the Lorax and another of a cat. With-a-Why added one that said, "Fascists" with hearts all around it. "That one only makes sense if you've seen the movie The Trotsky," said Boy-in-Black.

When the flags were done, I tied them together with twine, and Boy-in-Black helped me hang them in the front yard. This morning, when I woke up early and went out to take a walk, they were frosted with ice and snow, glittering in the sunlight.

December 24, 2013

Killing zombies for the holidays

When Boy-in-Black comes home, he sleeps on the couch or the living room floor to leave the upstairs bedrooms for his siblings and cousins. So when he moved home for winter break, he piled his stuff — laptop case, laundry basket full of Ultimate gear, winter clothing — in my office, right near the front door. His stuff included a present he'd gotten for his cousin Blonde Niece, a life-size cardboard figure of her favorite character from the show The Walking Dead, which they watch together every Sunday night. Every single time I opened the door to my office, I jumped and screamed.

Blonde Niece had the same reaction when he gave her the present last night. She loved it.

December 23, 2013

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling

Last August after my mother-in-law died, my husband and I went over to the nursing home near us to clear out her closet and pack up her belongings. This week, we went back with Shaggy Hair Boy and With-a-Why for a holiday celebration with the residents. Shaggy Hair Boy played the piano, while my husband and With-a-Why sang Christmas Carols. My job was to ring the jingle bells.

 When we first began this tradition, With-a-Why was very young and shy. What a difference, now, I thought, as I watched him standing confidently in front of the residents, singing in a loud, clear voice. He's all grown up. His grandmother would be proud.


December 17, 2013

Snow day

From my bedroom window

When I woke up this morning and looked out my bedroom window, snow was falling onto the pine trees, the cars in the driveway, and the river birches on the front lawn. Snow plows had come through during the night, but even so, the road was shining white, visible only because of the snow banks on either side. It’s warm enough that snow is sticking to the branches of the trees, outlining them with white.

My grades are handed in. The Christmas tree, decorated with white lights, gold garland, and a host of mismatched ornaments, fills the living room with a piney scent. The piano has been tuned. The garage is filled with firewood. The kitchen, thanks to Boy-in-Black and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter taking a late-night trip to the grocery store, is bursting with food. I can barely close the refrigerator, and bags of goodies are piled on the counter.

I love snowy days when I’m not obligated to be anywhere. My husband, who took the week off, sits at the kitchen table, writing Christmas cards. Boy-in-Black and With-a-Why are still asleep, since they spent the middle of the night hanging out with some of our extras, including Quick, who is home from grad school. I'm working on a manuscript, but earlier I took a break to shovel the driveway and take a walk in the cold air. Now I’m sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of hot tea. I think we're ready for the holidays.

The smallest of our Christmas trees

December 13, 2013

As soon as I finish grading

I’m looking forward to cleaning my house. Really. That’s what I’m thinking about while I’m reading student portfolios, grading papers, and going through my end-of-semester to-do list. I can’t wait to toss away stacks of junk, clear off the top of my desk, and get rid of all the clutter that has piled up over the last fifteen weeks.

Fall semester is busy for all of us, and that means the house just gets messier and messier. I’ve had academic colleagues say that they just lower their standards during the end-of-semester craziness, but let’s face it, our standards are already pretty low.

Last week, when Boy-in-Black came home for day to hang out with With-a-Why, he cleaned the kitchen. It was great to come home and see all the counters clean. “Thanks,” I said to him gratefully. “Things had really gotten out-of-hand.”

“It was kind of creepy,” he said. “Toast in the toaster that was made and never eaten. Partly filled cups on the counter. Like the lost colony of Roanoke.”

December 08, 2013

Beating swords into plowshares

Both huge gyms in the local high school were filled with tables and booths. Local craftspeople had set up shelves of pottery, racks of handmade scarves, tables of handmade wooden toys, and jewelry that sparkled under the bright lights. Activists had spread out posters and t-shirts and bumper stickers. There were petitions to sign, letters to write, and pamphlets filled with information.

One corner of the gym was set aside for musical events. When I arrived a troupe of belly dancers in colorful costumes were spinning and jingling to Middle Eastern music. They were followed by a community choir who sang, “Solar Power Inexpensive Energy” to the tune of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” In the first gym, a group of volunteers cooked up all kinds of delicious soups, burritos, and sandwiches. After coming in from the cold, I couldn’t resist the vegan chili, which was steaming hot and delicious.

I usually hate shopping of all types, but at the annual Plowshares Craftsfair and Peace Festival, I get to talk to the people who made the beautiful things they are selling. Besides, it’s more of a social event than a craftsfair. I’d just walked in when I got hugs from Mystic Woman and Healing Plumber Guy, who were shopping for gifts for the grandchildren. I made my way over to the booth where my friend Quilt Artist was selling her beautiful hanging quilts. I ate lunch with Nurse Friend, just one table over from some of my Two Row Wampum friends. I saw a friend from my environmental activist days, three colleagues from Little Green, two women who have come with me on monastery retreats, my friend Makes Bread, and a bunch of folks from the Peace Council, which is the group who sponsors the event.

I signed several petitions, bought some lovely handmade gifts, sat with friends to listen to music, got into long conversations everywhere, and hugged pretty much anyone who called out my name. It was wonderful on a wintry December day to spend an afternoon in the company of folks who care about peace, who work for justice, and who value lovely locally made work.

December 04, 2013

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 manage my time.

Biology exams are hard.

Tie dye is cool.

I now know why my brothers sleep until noon every day.

Due to the warming of the oceans and the higher temperatures, crabs are in Antarctic waters for the first time in 30 million years.

I learned that I have a talent for beaning people in the head in racquetball.

Even though it’s fun, you can’t cuddle all of your time away.

How to function and make decisions without relying on my parents.

How to balance a social life with an academic life.

To embrace my failures.

I learned that when you look at your schedule, you think you are going to have all this free time, but really, you don’t.

I learned how to organize my ideas and write informational papers.

I learned how to use Excel. I can make graphs and charts now!

I should never take my mom’s cooking for granted.

How to find the molarity of a solution and the limiting reactants.

How important it is not to procrastinate.

There are endless opportunities: you just need to take them!

Bottled water is evil.

Don’t experiment with Ramen or Easy Mac.

College requires a lot more independent work than high school.

You can revive a dead hard drive by freezing it.

Don’t drink in the dorms. Oh, and I learned how to use Excel.

Rabbits eat their droppings in order to fully absorb the nutrients.

You should not expect a 90 or a 100 on everything even if that is how high school was. An 85 is a good grade you should be proud of.

Teaching others helps you retain information like nothing else.

All about phytoremediation — using plants to mitigate environmental damage.

How much things cost. They are expensive.

How much I relied on my parents.

In dueterostomes, the butt comes first.

Sticky notes are a great organizational tool.

I need to start doing work when it’s assigned instead of when it is due.

I’ve learned to be open about how I feel about environment issues.

If you don’t study for biology, you will FAIL.

I learned how to do laundry. And how much easier it would have been if I’d gone elsewhere.

I learned how a plant works. That includes its functions, hormones, evolution, and many more things.

If you put off doing your work, you get overwhelmed on projects.

The cemetery is a great place for shenanigans.

The environmental impacts of hydrofracking are huge and scary.

Pinecones are leaves. Also, an octopus is flexible enough to fit through your entire intestine.

Look out for yourself. Keep friends and family close. Study harder than you think you need to.

You never know how good your family food is until you eat at a dining hall for two months and then go home for Thanksgiving.

I learned more chemistry and biology than the human brain should be able to hold. Also, it is a good idea to always have extra toilet paper handy.

December 01, 2013

The holiday season begins with snow and cookies

Woodpile in snow

Thanksgiving often coincides with winter weather here. On Thursday, we all descended upon my mother’s house for the traditional Thanksgiving meal, followed by pumpkin pie and apple pie. The rest of the week, we’ve been mostly just hanging out in front of the fire. I love it when my kids and extras are home. My daughter’s boyfriend, Sailor Boy, made us all breakfast one morning — or perhaps brunch would be a better word since we ate mid-day. Shy Smile made two big pots of soup. California Girl brought pastries that her mother had sent her from the west coast. We’ve spent the days mostly just talking and eating.

Every once in a while one of us will say, “I need to get some work done,” and take out a laptop, but that surge of energy doesn’t last long.

“It’s the fire,” said Boy-in-Black, who was lounging on the couch between his girlfriend and his brother. “It sucks all the energy out of the room.”

Last night, we all went over to Sailor Boy’s parents’ house, just a couple of miles away, to join them for a tradition his family has kept for more than 50 years, the annual cookie-decorating party. Their house is on a long driveway that curves through snow-covered pine trees. When I came in the door, stamping the snow off my boots, I was greeted by the smell of mulled cider and spaghetti sauce. “Come have something to eat,” Sailor Boy’s mother said.

My daughter, Sailor Boy, and Pirate Boy had spent the afternoon making hundreds of cut-out sugar cookies. The aunts and grandparents who arrived brought more. Pirate Boy mixed up bowls of icing, and we gathered to frost the cookies and decorate them with bright-colored sprinkles. It’s fun to watch people’s different approaches to icing cookies. Shy Smile is the artist of the group, and her cookies were lovely, with details and carefully chosen colors. Boy-in-Black, on the other hand, kept just slapping on icing and cramming them into the sprinkles so that they looked like something a two-year-old would make. The sports fans of the group frosted just a few cookies before disappearing into the other room to watch a football game, but the rest of us persisted until we had filled a long table with hundreds of cookies.

It's official. The holiday season has begun.

Christmas cookies

November 28, 2013

A happy ending for Little Biker Boy

Little Biker Boy was seven years old when he moved into the little trailer down the street. For two years, he and his little sister visited my house just about every single day, staying until dark. I suspected right away they were living in an abusive situation, but I could do little about it, except to give them a safe place to come to when they needed it. I talked to caseworkers at Child Protective Services, but it seemed there was little they could do either. A smart blog reader suggested that I teach Biker Boy my phone number, and I did.

Three years ago, Biker Boy’s family was evicted from the trailer. His mother moved several times, first in with one boyfriend, then another. His sister and little brother disappeared: I was told they went off to live in another town with the sister’s father. Eventually, Little Biker Boy’s mother gave him up. Little Biker Boy moved to one foster home, then another.

During these years, Biker Boy would call me whenever he could. And I’d go pick up, wherever he was. We’d get a slice of pizza, or go for a walk outside somewhere, or go to the store to buy him whatever he needed. Once in foster care, he at least had a team of people working to help him. I had long talks with his newest caseworker and his therapist.

It was just about a year ago that a most wonderful thing happened. A young couple, looking to adopt a child, chose Little Biker Boy. He and I spent an afternoon looking at the photo album they’d put together, and he spent an evening playing board games with them, while his caseworker and therapist were present. Then, they began spending time together on a regular basis. Last spring, he moved in with them.

I couldn’t have picked a better situation for Little Biker Boy. His adoptive mother is a warm, genuine person with lots of energy. His adoptive father is an outdoorsy guy who happily takes Biker Boy fishing and camping. They live in a small town on the edge of a lake, about 40 minutes from my house. His adoptive father grew up in the town, so everyone knows the family and can keep an eye out for Biker Boy. In fact, his parents live next door, eager to be grandparents.

I have been so excited about this situation working out that I’ve been holding my breath, impatient for the adoption to go through. I was afraid to even write about my visits to Little Biker Boy on the blog, scared that I might jinx something. (The foster agency had rules about how his adoptive mother couldn’t put photos of him on facebook so I did think maybe I shouldn’t post anything on the internet either, even if it’s anonymous.)

But finally, it happened. The adoption is official. Little Biker Boy has a family now, who love him and treat him well. It’s appropriate, I think, that this all happened late in November because I am very, very thankful.

November 25, 2013

My Mom turns 80


When my mother bought a six-pack of beer at the grocery store this morning, the cashier asked to see her driver’s license to make sure she was old enough. I think the young cashier probably felt a little foolish when she looked at the date on Mom’s license.

My mother turned 80 years old today.

We celebrated last weekend. To begin, I picked my parents up at lunchtime on Friday. We drove to an old inn on the first of the Finger Lakes, where my parents ate fish sandwiches with beer while I enjoyed a salad. The inn is more than 200 years old, and my father says that he has a friend who used to work there back in the 1950s. I loved that the inn had put up a tall Christmas tree covered with white lights and old-fashioned ornaments right next to the tall, curving staircase.

When my parents asked the friendly waitress if the inn had any ghosts, she responded by bringing over another waitress, who had worked there for years and could tell us which chandeliers sometimes swayed mysteriously. She also told us about the time that a customer, who had been asking if the inn was haunted, left a digital camera by accident. The staff dressed like ghosts and filled the camera with ridiculous pictures before the customer returned to pick it up. That story almost made me want to leave my camera by mistake.

After a relaxed lunch, we continued driving past cornfields and old red barns, and past a wildlife refuge set aside for migratory birds. We stopped in the next major town to visit a beautiful old mansion, once owned by a nineteenth century politician. An enthusiastic young man gave us a tour of the cosy upstairs bedrooms, filled with fireplaces and little tables and beds draped in fabric, the elegant downstairs rooms, and even the basement, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Our destination was a hotel at the north end of a finger lake. The Finger Lakes are long thin lakes formed by glaciers, surrounded by farmland and vineyards, famous for wine tours. By the time we reached the hotel, the rest of the extended family were arriving. We gathered at the hotel bar, ordering more food and drinks every time more family members arrived, and making plans for the next day. Text messages kept chiming in on my phone as the various grandchildren checked in to the hotel.


My parents’ room – a spacious corner room overlooking the lake — became the party room, where we all gathered to talk and play games. Saturday morning, we walked on the trail by the lake, enjoying the sunshine. We found a café in town for lunch, and we pretty much took over the place. One group went off to visit some wineries. Some of us swam in the hotel pool. Taekwondo Nephew actually swam in the lake, a pretty chilly endeavor. We all dressed up for dinner on Saturday night, 21 of us gathered for the meal, and we ended the night all gathered in my parents’ room, talking and eating again. Sunday morning, we woke to snow, and we took a blustery, winter walk out on the pier.

What I love about my family is that everyone is always concerned about whether or not everyone else is having a good time. Red-haired Sister took me aside and said, “Do you think everyone will want some snacks for late at night?” and then she went out to buy all kinds of goodies that we could munch on when we gathered that evening. The grandchildren kept asking me, “What do you think Grandma would like? A trip to a winery? A walk by the lake?” And my parents kept asking, “Are the young people having fun?” It seems like every person was mostly concerned with making sure that everyone else was having fun. And that made for a wonderful weekend.

  Winter morning

November 20, 2013

Evening comes early in November

Sunset from a car window

I hate how quickly it gets dark on a November evening. No matter how spectacular the sunset (and I snapped this one through a car window), it's hard to enjoy when it happens at 4:30 pm. I keep thinking that I should embrace the dark evenings of fall and enjoy the cozy evenings by the fire, but the truth is that I just keep thinking about how wonderful the long days of summer are.

We've had a little snow already, but what we really need is a foot or so, enough to cover the ground, create snowbanks along the roads, and make the night world brighter with all of that white.

November 17, 2013

At the docks

At the docks When I was a child and we went on vacation, my father always wanted to go look at boats. If we were near a marina or a fishing village or a yacht club – really, it didn't matter what kind of boats – he'd get up early every morning just to walk around on the docks and check out the boats. He's still like that, and now I am too. The second night of our west coast mini-vacation, my husband and I stayed a night at hotel on a sheltered bay. I got up just as it was getting light so that I spend an hour walking the docks. Below the mountains

November 13, 2013

Early morning


My favorite time at the beach is the early morning when I have it all to myself. I walked on the wet sand and looked out at the waves that kept crashing even though I was the only one there to hear them. I wandered about, exploring and taking photos, until the first people began to appear: a fisherman, who set up at the end of a pier, a woman walking a dog, a young man with a camera and tripod, and several surfers clad in black from head to toe, lugging their boards.

November 09, 2013

Totally worth it

It's become a tradition, at the end of every July, for my husband and me to take a vacation together, just the two of us. This year, we'd planned a great trip to the West Coast, where we'd stay at places along beaches or rocky shores. But a few days before we were to leave on the trip, my mother-in-law went into the hospital with pneumonia. So our summer vacation was spent in a hospital room, sleeping on the floor, eating meals the kids brought us, and just being with my mother-in-law during her last days. By the time we held her funeral in early August, the vacation we'd planned was a distant memory.

Then my husband found out that the airline would let him reschedule our flights, as long as we did it before the end of November. Given our work schedules, that meant flying to the West Coast for just a weekend. I wondered, to be honest, if it worth it to go all that way just for a couple of days by the ocean.

This morning, I woke at dawn, my body still on East Coast time. I could hear the sound of ocean waves crashing against the cliffs below the hotel. I dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and walked out into the misty morning to go explore. Paths led me down the cliffs to a long beach with a wooden pier. The salty ocean breeze was cool, but sun was just beginning to rise over the little oceanside town, making the wet sand glisten. Surfers were arriving, pulling on black wet suits in the parking lot, carrying their boards into the waves. I walked along the sand, listening to the waves, watching the surfers, and feeling happy we'd come.

November 05, 2013

Fairy Ring

Fairy ring

Yes, I have a lawn ornament.

That probably seems out of character. I’ve been known to mock such things. But then, in September, when I was in the mountains with my friends, I was given a fairy.

We each got a fairy, in fact. It was night time, and we were all standing around the fire, a group of women eating homemade treats and all talking at once, everyone excited that we had a whole weekend together. That’s when Signing Woman brought out the fairy ornaments she’d bought at the state fair.

I have to admit, I liked my fairy the minute Signing Woman handed it to me. It was metal, with a little ball of glass that shone in the firelight. We stood there, a circle of woman, each holding our fairy, and then Mystic Woman said, “Let’s put them out in the moonlight.”

I didn’t even bother with shoes. No one did. In bare feet we ran outside, where we could hear the lake crashing against the stone wall that edged the lawn. We stuck the fairies into the ground to form a circle. Even though it was late September, the breeze was warm. We all stood there, talking still, laughing at the way the fairies were twisting and turning in the wind, glistening with moonlight.

The next morning, when I woke up early, the fairies were dancing in the early morning sun. We left them there all weekend, while we sat in the sun and ate scrumptious meals and talked and talked and talked. When finally, we had to leave, we each took our fairy home.

“What do I do with this now?” I asked Long Beautiful Hair, when we arrived at my house and were taking my stuff out of the car. She took the fairy without hesitation and stuck it into my front garden. It’s there still, and I smile every time I walk by, thinking about that weekend with my friends.

November 03, 2013

Last outdoor naked photo of the season

Naked in the barberry bushes

So yeah, the first time I meet someone’s boyfriend? I ask him to pose naked for my blog. Totally appropriate.

In my own defense, he had offered ahead of time. And it wasn’t my fault that the weather turned cold, that temperatures had slid down into the 50s. Or maybe it was the 40s. I don’t have a thermometer, but I do know that I was wearing several layers of clothing when I took the picture. Well, there’s no reason for the photographer to suffer.

I’d expressed my concerns about the weather the night before, right after I checked the forecast and saw that we might be getting snow. But Practically Kin, who like a true friend had volunteered his partner for my project, brushed my worries aside. “This guy’s got Finnish blood,” he said. Clearly, Finnish ancestry makes a person impervious to the cold. That probably explains why I was already wearing winter clothing. I’m half-Italian.

Practically Kin and Finnish Blood stopped by my house in the early morning. They arrived with a whole pan of homemade goodies – sticky buns, apple betty, some kind of apple coffeecake – pretty much any kind of tasty treat you can make with apples. Some people in upstate New York get sick of all the apple-related desserts that surface every October, but I’m not one of them. I put the teakettle on right away, so I could start eating everything.

I liked Finnish Blood right away. He’d heard about my naked blog project, since Practically Kin had posed over the summer, and we jumped right into a discussion about nudity while we drank our tea. “Little kids are comfortable running around naked,” he said. “But then at some point these cultural taboos take hold.”

I told him about an incident that happened back when my kids were little, and I had a bunch of women over for a playgroup in my backyard. It was an unexpectedly warm day in spring, and the kids, all under the age of five, began taking off their clothes to run around in the sun. We get long winters in upstate New York, so that first feeling of sun on your skin is wonderful. But one of the women made her toddler put his clothes back on, saying that it was important to teach him modesty. I remember feeling sorry for the kid as he sat down on the edge of the sandbox, properly dressed, while the other kids ran around the yard in carefree abandon.

I know that both men and women are subject to cultural taboos about the body, and the presence of a female photographer can sometimes make men feel uncomfortable. When I take pictures of naked men, I’m usually careful to do what I can to make the man feel comfortable. While he’s getting undressed, I usually busy myself adjusting my camera settings so that he won’t feel like I’m staring. I don’t really get what the big deal is, to be honest, since in my experience, men all look pretty much alike without their clothes on. (Sorry, guys, but it's true. There really isn’t much variation.)

Of course, in this case, I needn't have bothered with discretion. Finnish Blood seems to have shed any cultural taboos about his body, and he was perfectly comfortable stripping off his clothes inside my warm house and then running outside into the backyard, where I’d have natural light for the photo. I called out ideas: “Try stretching! Or dancing! Or maybe you should jump!”

The barberry bushes had turned a bright red, the last brilliant color of the season, which led to my next bright idea: “Get closer to the bushes! Stand near the – WATCH OUT, THEY HAVE THORNS!”

With the exception of the icy temperatures and prickly bushes, the photo shoot went fine. “Totally relaxing,” Finnish Blood assured me. Then we went back into the house to warm up with hot tea and apple coffee cake.

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos. 

October 29, 2013

First snow!

First snow

When I woke up early my first morning at the monastery and looked out the window, I was surprised to see the green grass covered with drifts of snow. The first snow of the season. It was just a dusting, really, and I knew it would melt as soon as the day grew warm, but I liked the way the white contrasted with the green grass, the dark pine trees, and the hardwood trees that still held leaves of gold and yellow and orange. I dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and slipped out the front door for an early morning walk. I can’t sleep when the outside world is so beautiful.

The air was frosty. I hurriedly pulled the mittens and hat from my camera bag and zipped up the winter coat I’d thrown on. I passed a monk on his morning walk, and he gave me a smile. Down the hill, I could see the prior, walking his dog. Monastic days begin early, with vigils in the chapel at 4:45 am. I’ve attended vigils, which take place down below the chapel in the crypt, but most of the time, if I wake up and hear the bells ringing for vigils, I like to snuggle in my warm bed and think about the monks singing in the dawn.

Early morning at the monastery

Big clouds hung over the monastery buildings as I tramped down the hill, past the bright red sumac trees and the cemetery for oblates, past the huge old tree on the edge of the road and the fenced pasture where sheep turned to stare at me. By the time I reached the chapel, I’d pulled my hood up against the wind. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped gratefully into the warm air of the chapel, with its familiar musty smell of incense and melting wax.

No monks were in sight. I’d arrived after lauds and before mass, but I climbed down the long stone staircase to my favourite place at the monastery, the crypt where visitors come to light votive candles and place them in front of a 14th century stone statue of a young woman holding a baby. I love the candles. I tended to them, picking up a couple of the empty glass jars and carrying them over to the storage room, where I slid them back into a cardboard box. I carried a full box of candles out and refilled the supply on the wooden table near the entrance to the crypt. Then I slid some money into the donation box and carried my candles over to the middle of the room, where the statue stood.

Sitting cross-legged on the stone floor, I lit my candles with a wooden taper. I pushed them across the stone to mix them in with the other candles. More than a hundred little flames flickered in the dim crypt, each little flame rising from a pool of melting wax contained by a glass jar. I stared at the candles and felt the frazzled energy of mid-semester anxiety draining out of me. I could feel myself sinking below the thoughts and distractions of every day life, sinking into the peace that the monastery offers.

October 28, 2013

Monastery in fall

Monastery Crossroads

The women’s guesthouse at the monastery used to be a farmhouse, and the chimney from the old stone fireplace goes up through the bedroom at the top of the staircase, creating a little nook where the monks have placed a desk. That’s the room I stayed in last weekend. As soon as I arrived, I emptied out my backpack and spread my things on the desk: my monastery journals, my daily journal, the manila folder that holds the first three chapters of my manuscript, a yellow legal pad, several pens, three books, and my laptop. From the inside pocket of my cloth bag, I took out my purple-and-white Two Row Wampum bracelet, two long braids of sweetgrass, and the crystal that Mystic Woman gave me during a Full Moon ceremony several years ago. I arranged them just below the lamp.

Next I unpacked my bag of clothes, dumping most of them into the top drawer of the wooden dresser. I hung my winter coat in the closet, jammed my mittens and winter hat into my camera bag, put my wet sneakers near the heat register, and put on a pair of fuzzy socks. On top of the chest of drawers, I arranged my essentials: a toothbrush, the kind of toothpaste they make for old people with sensitive teeth, deodorant, and eyedrops. Plus, my cell phone. I didn’t plan on making any phone calls, but I use the alarm clock on the cell phone for timing sessions of daily meditation. (Twenty minutes exactly, if you must know.)

I picked up the puffy quilt that I had taken from Monking Friend’s room (she had extra), wrapped it around my shoulders, and sat down in the comfortable chair. The ceilings in the room are low, as if the room was designed for someone my height. I could hear the sounds of the house. The stairs creak, the floorboards shake, and the furnace rattles when it comes on. I could tell from these comfortable noises that my friends were unpacking in their rooms, and that the woman with the lovely British accent who lives in the house was running the dishwasher.

My journals and books glowed under the warm light of the lamp on the desk. The windows were dark, but outside, I knew, were sheep pastures stretching down the hill to the bookstore, the sheep barns, the big hay barn with the white cross on it, and the chapel where the monks would soon be gathering for Compline, the last service of the day. I looked around the simple room and I thought, “I have everything I need.”

Monastery in fall

October 24, 2013

Weekend retreat

Guarding the sheep

After my classes for the week are over, I'm getting into my car and driving south. I'll wind my way past cornfields and pumpkin patches, small towns and big red barns, and I'll keep going until I arrive at the sheep pastures of the monastery. It's a Benedictine monastery, built high in the hills above a sleepy river. I'll be staying at the women's guesthouse, the old farmhouse where we gather for meals. I'm bringing the manuscript I'm working on, plus some books and my journal. I'm looking forward to taking this break from my busy life to write, to meditate, and to take early morning walks through the sheep pastures.

October 22, 2013

Cat in a quiet house


Every two weeks, I get a Monday without meetings or classes — a day when I can stay home and write. I’ve been getting better about guarding my writing time, pushing aside my to-do lists and stacks of papers that need to be graded. I’ve learned to ignore the dishes in the sink, the lawn that needs to be mowed, and the living room that looks like it’s been ripped apart by vandals.

The only thing I can’t ignore is our cat Gretel. No matter where I sit down with my computer, she climbs onto my lap, swishing her tail across my keyboard, butting her head against me, purring until I pet her. If I take a break to get a snack, she follows me into the kitchen, meowing until I open a can of cat food.

She's lived with us for more than fourteen years, and this is the first that she has suddenly paid so much attention to me. She's the cat that used to always sleep right on top of Boy-in-Black whenever he took a nap on the couch, and I think she misses the older kids.

October 20, 2013

Sunday walk at the lake

Fall at the lake

I'm so busy during fall semester that sometimes it seems like I hardly have time to breathe. I'm preparing for classes, going to meetings, grading papers, teaching classes, and going to more meetings. In my spare time (which ends up being early Saturday mornings), I've been working on a revision of my manuscript.

But too much time indoors can make me miserable. So when the rain stopped and the sun came out, I said to my husband, "Quick! Let's jump in the car and go to Pretty Colour Lake! This could be the last nice day of autumn."

We weren't the only ones who had that idea. As we walked the trail around the lakes, we passed all kinds of people coming the other way: A man with three young kids, who kept wanting to stop and throw sticks in the water. An elderly couple who held hands while they walked. Two women who had three dogs between them, who were chatting while they walked. Some teenagers who were shoving and teasing each other. All of us, it seemed, had the same idea -- to enjoy this beautiful weather before the snow comes.

  The trail around the lake

October 16, 2013

Surprise vegan cupcakes

Last July, when my mother-in-law was dying, I spent many hours in a hospital room with my husband, his brother, his sister, and his niece. Other family members and visitors came and went, but we were the core group, the Hospital Five.

During the last days when my mother-in-law was unconscious, we spent hours playing games, like playing old television theme songs on the iPad and trying to guess them. Many of our conversations focused on food. None of us wanted to leave, so for every meal, we'd figure out where we could order food and then we'd call one of my kids to pick it up and deliver it to us. 

My sister-in-law and niece, who live in another state, kept talking about this great vegan bakery near them that makes really delicious cupcakes. "You would LOVE them," my niece said, and even showed me photos on her phone. But clearly, 300 miles is too far for cupcake delivery.

Until last Friday. Late afternoon, I heard a knock on the door. It was my out-of-town sister-in-law and her family, who had driven here for the weekend. As soon as I saw my niece carrying the white bakery box, I knew what she'd brought me. Delicious vegan cupcakes! They'd waited until the shop had opened and bought them fresh before making the trip to Snowstorm City. I put on a kettle of water for tea, and we sat right down for a cupcake taste-testing session. The chocolate cupcakes with the raspberry frosting and filling were the clear winners.

October 13, 2013

Naked under the arches

The conference last week was held on a Catholic campus that’s big into football, crucifixes, and shamrocks. So naturally, when it came time to choosing a lucky volunteer for the naked photo, I thought of Artist Friend. I mean, he actually watches football. I’d even found the perfect spot: the sidewalk in front of Touchdown Jesus.

“I’m tempted,” he said. Then he began hemming and hawing. “Can I just take off my shirt? You could take the photo from the waist up.”

I sighed. Partial nudity is not in the spirit of Project Naked. Too often in advertisements, the human body is reduced to a single body part. That drives me crazy. So I always try to include the whole body in my photographs.

A beautiful woman named Fire came to Artist Friend’s rescue. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I like the idea of an outdoor shot. But I don’t want Jesus in it.”

“I’ve heard that there’s a lake nearby,” I said to her. We figured out that if we woke up early on Sunday, we could walk to the lake 7 am, take the shot, and still be back for breakfast by 8 am. Sure, it would mean rising early after a late Saturday night, but a lovely naked photo in the morning sunlight would be worth it.

By the time 7 am Sunday morning arrived, I was seriously sleep-deprived, thanks to friends who like to stay out late talking. But I woke up promptly, dressed quickly, grabbed my camera, and went down the hall to Fire’s room. She’d already showered. And her bag for the airport was packed. There was just one problem.

It was still dark. We hadn’t taken into account how far we’d traveled to this conference, right to the western edge of the time zone. I felt a little panicky. This was the last morning of the conference, and everyone was leaving. The lobby was filled with people rolling suitcases along the tiled floors. I didn’t have a back-up plan.

As we left the building, prospects didn’t look good. It was raining. And dark. The nice man in the uniform at the front door handed us umbrellas and said cheerily, “Have a good time!”

Fire whispered to me. “I wonder what he thinks we’re doing.”
I shrugged. “I think there’s some kind of early morning church service.”

Ignoring the rain, we started briskly off in the direction of the lake. But I have no sense of direction and soon we were lost. Fire, dressed in jeans and a sweater, was shivering already, and she hadn’t even taken off her clothes. Clearly, we should have thought this through.

Wandering around the dark campus in search of a lake didn’t seem like such a great idea. I abandoned the idea and gestured to a building with lovely arches, lit by a bunch of spotlights. It might have been a dorm, or a library, or a chapel. All the campus buildings, with their vaguely gothic architecture, looked alike to me.

“We can use that light,” I said. “It’ll just be a silhouette, but I bet the arches will make a great background. Just take off your clothes and climb up on that ledge.”

“Here?” she asked. We were on the main part of the campus, on a well-used walkway. “I’m kind of worried they might arrest me.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “If anyone comes near, I’ll hold up my umbrella.”

Surprisingly, she seemed to have confidence in my ability to fight off the campus police with an umbrella. Stepping onto the porch, she began stripping off her clothes. “Do I need to take off my Tevas?” she called.

“Yes, of course!” I said. “No sandals!” It’s true that sandals would kind of fit the theme of the campus — I think Touchdown Jesus was wearing them — but I do think full nudity is important for this project.

Fire climbed up onto the ledge, balanced precariously, her naked body silhouetted against the glaring lights. It occurred to me that the bright lights were a beacon that would pull people toward us. We needed to be fast.

 “Put your hands up over your head!” I yelled.
 “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my balance!” she yelled back.

She steadied herself on the stone wall, and I snapped quickly. Within minutes, we were back on the sidewalk, moving along with our umbrellas while the sky around us turned from black to dark blue.

Naked under the arches

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos. 

October 09, 2013


I had an aisle seat on my flight home. Next to me sat a young woman, about the age of my college students. She had blond hair that hung into her face and stylish plastic glasses. I knew something was wrong when she began searching the seat pockets frantically.

“Where’s the airsick bag?” she asked. “I’m going to need one.”

I pulled mine out. “Here.”

She opened the bag and held it near her mouth. The plane hadn’t even taken off yet, so this precaution seemed strange.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She burst into tears. Not just a few tears rolling down her cheeks, but anguished sobs. I patted her back until she was able to breathe.

“My grandmother died,” she said. “I tried to get there in time, but I didn’t make it.”

I talked to her soothingly while the flight attendant was walking up and down the aisles, telling everyone to put on their seatbelts. It was during take-off, when the plane was ascending with sickening lurches that I realized that the young woman was pretty drunk. The flight had been delayed for several hours, and she’d spent that time in the airport bar.

“I tried to drink my problems away, but it didn’t work,” she said to me tearfully. By the time the plane had risen above the clouds, she was vomiting, repeatedly, into the airsick bag. The flight attendant brought us more bags and some napkins, plus a glass of ginger ale. Flight Attendant wasn’t much older than Drunk Young Woman, and she seemed relieved when I assured her I’d keep an eye on her sick passenger.

Outside the window, the sky was dark. Inside, the plane was mostly dark, too, filled with sleeping passengers. In the dim light, I took the hair tie from Drunk Young Woman’s wrist, and pulled her hair back from her face so it wouldn’t get drenched in vomit. She spilled the glass of ginger ale into my lap. I wiped her face with wet towels I’d gotten from the airplane bathroom. She leaned against me, saying things like, “I’m not usually like this. I’m just really sad.”

Pretty soon, she stopped talking. She slumped over the airsick bag. Her skin was pale. I talked quietly to the Flight Attendant, who assured me that she’d have medical personnel meet the plane when we landed. I kept talking to Drunk Young Woman, and she usually would at least nod in answer to my questions.

When we landed, the Flight Attendant asked everyone to stay in their seats. I found Drunk Young Woman’s purse, put her glasses and phone safely in there, and closed it. Three men in EMT uniforms hurried down the aisle towards me. I gave them her purse, and two of them lifted her to her feet and carried her off the plane. I sat back down and attempted to clean up the area – stuffing all the vomit bags and wet cloths into the plastic bag Flight Attendant had given me.

That’s when, to my surprise, all the passengers around me began talking to me. I’d thought most of them were asleep during the flight, but it seemed they’d all been listening the whole time. The older man in front of me stood up, turned to lean over the seat, and said, “I just want to tell you that you handled that REALLY well.”

The woman across the aisle, who had given me her extra airsick bag, said, “I was so impressed. You were really great with her.” And the woman on the other side of her chimed in, “If I’m ever sick on an airplane, I want you sitting next to me.”

It was lovely, really, to get such affirmations from strangers. As I stepped off the plane into the cold night air, I could see the ambulance: the girl was sitting up, at least, so I hoped she’d be okay. As I came though the gate into the baggage area, I saw an older man and a woman who looked like they were waiting for someone. I knew they must be the uncle and cousin who had promised to pick Drunken Young Woman up. I went over to tell them what had happened, and they rushed off to the counter to figure out how to get to her.

I hope by today, she’s recovered. I know she wanted to be at her grandmother's funeral, and I hope her family and friends are helping her grieve.

October 05, 2013

Conference life

I’ve been going to talks, looking at art, watching video clips, talking to friends, getting into arguments, making lists of books I need to read, meeting new people, exploring a campus I’ve never been to before, and eating delicious food off little china plates. The only drawback to the last few days is that I just haven’t made much time for sleep.

This afternoon, Artist Friend and I took a short break to walk around campus and find a shady bench where we could just sit and talk. It's still warm enough here for short sleeves, but we saw signs of fall. When the wind rose, leaves from the trees came swirling down, landing on us. We talked until dark clouds moved in, and we got back to the conference center just as the rain began.

I feel like I spend the first few days of any conference just hugging friends hello, but then our time always goes by so quickly. Tomorrow, most of us will begin the journey home, so tonight will be another night of talking late, savoring these last moments together.

September 30, 2013

Dancing Woman poses naked

Dancing Woman, at rest

I no longer have to bribe or cajole my friends into posing naked for my blog. "I love posing," Dancing Woman said to me, as she stripped off her clothes last weekend. "Your readers always say such nice things."

It’s true. I have wonderful readers.

People often complain about how many trolls – or complete assholes — there are on the internet. It’s amazing what jerks people can be in a medium that allows them to be anonymous. Popular Science recently turned off comments on their website because “the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine” was being done beneath their own stories, on a website designed to promote science.

But my readers are an exception to that. About 99 percent of the comments I get here are supportive or positive or add to the conversation in a thoughtful way. The emails I get are even better. Ever since I began posting naked photos, women have been writing to me about their body issues. I've heard about bulimia, abortion, pregnancy, menopause, you name it. Oh, sure, I occasionally get the obnoxious email from some guy who feels obligated to send me a naked photo of himself. But those emails are easily deleted, and far outweighed by the wonderful emails from women (and some men) all over the world who write to confide in me about the struggles they've had with their own body image.

These stories don't go on my blog. But I read them, listen to them, try to honor them. And I love it when I get to take a photo of a friend. We already know each other's stories, the scars and baggage we carry with us.

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos. 

September 26, 2013

Dances with fabric

Dances with fabric

When Quilt Artist volunteered to be my roommate last weekend in the mountains, she knew full well the responsibility that came with that role. Yes, that’s right. She would have to pose naked for the blog. It’s a tradition.

She didn’t protest when I asked. In fact, she’d come prepared. “I’m going to pose with a piece of fabric,” she said, pulling a long blue-and-green cloth out of her bag. That’s what I call cooperation. A roommate who brings a prop.

Quilt Artist works with fabric every day. Her studio bursts gorgeously with colour, piles of fabric with lovely textures that make you want to touch them. I’ve heard her talk about the relationship between humans and fabric, a relationship that begins immediately after birth, when an infant is wrapped in a soft cloth. In her case, it's a relationship that she's cultivated. Making beautiful quilts began as a hobby but became her career and established her as a serious artist.

To pose for my blog, Quilt Artist stripped off her clothes, went out into the deck of the camp, and began dancing with the piece of fabric, with the wind from the lake blowing her hair about. It seemed utterly appropriate, at least to me. The folks moving up and down the lake in boats may have thought otherwise.

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos. 

September 25, 2013

Early morning on a mountain lake

Mountain lake

Even though we'd stayed up late by the fire, talking and eating, I woke up early Saturday morning. Through the open window, I could hear the lake splashing against the shore. The clouds kept shifting and moving across the sun. I pulled on sweatpants, grabbed my camera, and went out, barefoot, into the misty blue morning.

September 23, 2013

Weekend in the mountains

For the weekend

“I made soup,” Quilt Artist said when she arrived at my house Friday afternoon. As I piled my stuff in her car – sleeping bag, pillow, clothes, books – I smiled at the pot of soup wedged tightly in the back seat. Homemade soup is the perfect food for a fall weekend in the mountains.

The trip went quickly, since we talked the whole time, but still it was dark by the time we wound past the last couple of mountain lakes and into the driveway of the beautiful old camp that belongs to Signing Woman’s family. Dancing Woman and Makes Bread had arrived earlier, and they were busy in the kitchen, roasting vegetables and squeezing lemon onto hunks of salmon. They hadn’t turned on the lights in the rest of the building, and it seemed a little spooky as I went off to explore and figure out which room I wanted to sleep in. We usually stayed in a smaller building next door; this would be my first time sleeping in the big building.

Built in the days when wealthy families wanted luxurious “camps” in the mountains for summer vacations, the summer cottage is over 100 years old. The kitchen where my friends were busy chopping vegetables included a butler’s pantry and a back staircase that once led up to the servants’ quarters. The main room is lined with huge windows, as well as four sets of double doors. I opened just a few to feel the wind from the lake rush right through the house.

The tower holds a spiral staircase with railings made from birch logs. I couldn't find the light switch, but I loved the way the smell of wood greeted me as I walked up. In the dimly lit hallway at the top, I felt like my eyes were playing tricks with me. I saw what seemed to be a person duck quickly out of sight. When I turned, the same thing happened again. I quickly decided that I’d explored enough.

“I want a roommate,” I announced when I got back to the kitchen. “I’m not sleeping alone.”

The spooky feeling disappeared when another carload of my friends arrived. Signing Woman went quickly around to switch on lights. She’s come to this summer cottage her whole life: she knows where everything is. Quilt Artist offered to be my roommate and we picked out the large bedroom at the top of the stairs: I fell in love with the big wooden desk and the wooden balcony outside the room. Mystic Woman chose one of the little bedrooms, once a maid’s room. “Yeah, lots of spirits moving around up here,” she said casually, as she tossed her blanket and pillow on the bed. Nothing fazes her.

Downstairs, the wind that rushed through the many windows felt a bit cool, so I found the woodbox and began a fire in the huge stone fireplace. We spent the rest of the evening eating and talking in front of the crackling flames. I felt content as I crawled into my bed at the end of the night, filled with soup, and listened to the water lapping outside the window.

September 20, 2013

On the way home

Late afternoon

Often in the evening, I'm frustrated by how fast other drivers are moving, zig-zagging to pass every car they can. But yesterday, as I turned onto the road near the railroad track, I noticed that the car ahead of me had slowed almost to a stop. Curious, I slowed down as well.

A deer had stopped from a stand of trees and stood motionless, watching us. I pulled over and sat for several minutes, just watching until the deer finally turned and ran back into the woods. The car ahead of me speeded up then, and I drove home.

September 18, 2013



“Do I have to take off my shoes?” he asked.

I’d been looking down discreetly, fiddling with the settings on my camera the way I often do when a man is stripping off his clothes to pose naked for my blog. I mean, I don’t want to stare. But his question made me look up — and then roll my eyes.

“Yes, OF COURSE you need to take off your shoes,” I said. “It’s the NAKED photo project. Sheesh.” We were standing within twenty feet of a very public parking lot – but PracticallyKin seemed unconcerned about any people that might come strolling by. No, he was worried about the tender soles of his feet.

“I always try to include the whole body in the photo,” I explained. “I don’t photoshop the photos – or crop out body parts. Even feet. That sort of defeats the purpose.”

We’d just taken a walk around Pretty Colour Lake, a park we’ve both known since childlhood. Our conversation had jumped from kids to jobs to friends and landed somehow, inevitably, onto the naked photo project. “One reader complained that I don’t have enough diversity,” I said to him. “But I think the real problem is that when you take off people’s clothes, they mostly all look alike.”

That’s when he said, “Do you have any gay men in the mix? Take my photo.”

I’d left my camera in the car (I know! What was I thinking?) so I couldn’t take the picture until we were back at the parking lot, which was filling up with cars as we neared the supper hour. I grabbed my camera and looked around for something, anything, that would give us just a bit of privacy. The old stone building near the picnic area would have to work. We stepped behind it, and he took off his clothes – and then, with some reluctance, his shoes. I stressed that we might want to take the photo fast before families began arriving with charcoal and burgers.

“Jump up and down,” I said to him. “We can make it an action shot. Like you’re about to fly to the roof of that building.” He jumped obligingly, his body in fluid motion against the solid stone building that’s been there since before either of us were born.

“Perfect!” I called to him. We looked at the photo on the back of the camera — and it did seem perfect. PracticallyKin is in his 50s, at the point in his life when he feels free to be himself. It seemed appropriate that his naked photo shows his body in flight.

You can read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

September 15, 2013

What Zombies and Ropes have in common

High ropes

Usually, my students come to Little Green College because they want to study science. None of them are English majors, since we don’t even have an English department. But they have to write for every class and share their writing with each other. I’m always asking them to move out of their comfort zone. I try to push them away from safe, formulaic ways of writing and encourage them to experiment, to play with language, to be ambitious.

And that means I have to push myself in those same ways.

This weekend I’ve been playing Twitter vs Zombies with my students. Most of them are eighteen years old. Most of them have been using computers since before they can remember. I, on the other hand, used a typewriter when I was in college and grad school. When it comes to digital proficiency, most of my students are way ahead of me. I don’t even own a smartphone.

So playing #TvsZ (that’s the hashtag that marks the game on twitter) means I’ve had to be willing to learn and make mistakes and stumble in front of my students. I’ve survived in the game so far by talking backchannel to a nineteen-year-old gamer who has shared strategy with me and given me smart tips for survival. Battling virtual zombies means learning to use the internet to communicate with people I’ve never met.

Then yesterday, smack in the middle of the #TvsZ game, I spent the day in the woods with first year students, an event that included a ropes or challenge course, in which we had to climb up into trees and dangle from ropes. I’m afraid of heights so when I climbed forty feet into the air, with only a rope holding me, I had a ridiculous amount of adrenaline in my veins. But the wonderful part is that my students helped me, cheering me on, holding my hands, giving tips as I climbed higher and higher.

Both the #TvsZ game and the ropes course fit into my teaching philosophy. What I want to do in the classroom is create an atmosphere for learning, a place where we aren’t afraid to be vulnerable, to talk about our struggles with writing, share our work with each other, give each other feedback, and learn from each other. Learning to write means experimenting, making mistakes and trying again, and writing ridiculous narratives about the post-apocalyptic zombie world just because it’s great fun to do so. I love the adrenaline that flows through my veins when I’m using #dodge to save myself from a zombie on twitter, when I’m swinging on a rope high above the ground, and when I’m typing words that appear on a computer screen.

September 14, 2013

Writing in the post-apocalyptic digital zombie world


I felt fearful today every time I opened my laptop, every time I sent a message out over twitter. I held my breath as I scrolled through my twitter feed, watching carefully to see if a zombie had bitten me, worried that I might soon be infected and dragged into the horde of walking dead. I sent secret messages to friends on twitter — and sometimes to strangers — to form secret alliances.

Yes. I’m playing again. Twitter vs Zombies 3.0.

Playing the game involves all kinds of learning.I could write a long post about how the game teaches twitter literacy, and how having to respond in only 140 characters can teach editing skills, and how the whole game itself forms a narrative that's like an amazing collaborative writing experience.

But mostly, I just have to say that I'm having fun. It's such a cool community of people, linked only by a common hashtag: #TvsZ. Almost 200 people are playing the game — and that group includes lots of faculty, lots of college students, as well as people from many different walks of life. At least one of the players is still in elementary school. Another has retired from a fairly prestigious job. What's great is that in the post-apocalyptic digital zombie world, we're all equals. If anything, I'd say the younger you are on twitter, the quicker you probably are at dodging zombies. I bet none of my students are reaching for reading glasses every time they sign onto twitter.

Too often, when I'm writing something, I spend way too much time editing and rewriting — and pretty much driving myself crazy. Playing Twitter vs Zombies is a different kind of writing. The fast pace of the game means I have to keep producing tweets, responding to the narrative other players are constructing. I'm writing in public – and making mistakes in public, just like everyone else. It's just not the students new to twitter who are forgetting hashtags or making silly typos, it's all of us. I love that.

You may be wondering why I began this post with a photo of a library. Well, in the imaginary world of the virtual zombie apocalypse, I've decided I'm going to hide with my friends in a library. And according to the rules of the game, I need to post an original photo with this post, which is earning me a one-hour #safezone. So if you want to find me online any time in the next hour, that's where I'll be -- just chillin' with a bunch of books.

September 11, 2013

A moment of silence, a few links

No one really talked about it much on campus today. My eighteen-year-old students? They were pretty young when the towers fell. They remember that tragic day the way I remember Kennedy's assassination: it was something that made grown-ups cry. 

This afternoon I heard the man in the next office talking to his officemate: back in 2001, he was working in Big City Like No Other, close enough to smell the burning and be part of the panic. I saw remembrances on twitter and facebook; I felt that twinge every time I looked at the date. I know two students who lost parents on that Tuesday in September.

I posted on twitter a link to my own poem about teaching the day after September 11. A friend and former student from Little Green responded by writing up a memory that will not fade: where on campus she was when she heard the news. Later in the day, I read a piece by a friend and colleague from my days at Snowstorm University, who writes about losing her daughter.

This evening, a storm is sweeping through the region. I am sitting alone in my living room, just watching out the window, listening to the rumbling and crashing of thunder, watching the jolts of light that break apart the whole sky.  

September 09, 2013

Weekend road trip

For the last couple of years, Boy-in-Black has been telling people, “I’ve got a friend in the CIA.” And it’s true. That’s what one of our extras has been doing. We see him, from time to time, when he's in town, and he usually shows up in the middle of the night.

Long-time readers will remember him as Older Neighbor Boy. That’s what I used to call him back in the days when the Pseudonymous Boy Band jammed in my living room every weekend. Sometimes I called him Snowboarding Neighbor Boy, since he was part of the gang of teenage boys we went to the ski slopes with every Sunday during the winter. But now I guess he’s Chef Extra.

That’s right. He graduated last weekend from the Culinary Institute of America, and we drove down on Saturday for a graduation party. The party was mostly family, but we’ve known Chef Extra long enough to count as family. We had to take two cars, since there were ten of us.

It wasn’t long before Shaggy Hair Boy and Boy-in-Black began texting between the cars, and soon we were playing the potato game. That’s the game where you send a couple people out of the room, choose a famous person, and then answer questions when they come back into the room. The questions can’t be normal stuff; it’s got to be weird metaphors like, “What vegetable would I be?” or “What musical instrument would I be?” or “What kind of potato would I be?” It’s a game we often play around the campfire, but it can be easily adapted to a car game, especially when everyone in both vehicles has a cell phone for secret conversations.

By the time we arrived at the party, we’d been playing the potato game for four hours. But of course, Boy-in-Black continued the game at the party, just pulling in the other guests, who were mostly standing around in the sunshine, talking and eating. The table on the patio was loaded with incredible food: grilled corn-on-the-cob, piles of pork, barbecued chicken, pasta salad made with pesto, cucumber salad, fruit salad, plus all kind of appetizers.

Eating was main activity of this event. We ate appetizers, then snacks, then a big meal, then more snacks, then leftovers, then dessert. Even simple foods were amazing, like the fruit salad in which fruits had been carefully chosen and diced and marinated in juices. The cake was filled with strawberries and cream. By the time we left the party to go to our hotel, I felt saturated with sunshine and conversation and good food.

September 05, 2013

Evening meal


It gets dark earlier and earlier each night as we move towards fall.

At camp, Urban Sophisticate Sister and my new brother-in-law, Tall Architect, decided to prepare a feast for us all — and the sun went down while they were still cooking. Red-haired Niece's boyfriend lent Tall Architect a headlamp so that he could see the chicken and vegetables he was grilling. My mother scrounged up some emergency candles, which she balanced on paper plates.

We couldn't see the food but we could smell it cooking. Urban Sophisticate Sister had marinated the vegetables and chicken with some kind of curry sauce (of course!), and she'd reduced some of the sauce into a glaze. One grill was filled with corn-on-the-cob, picked at a local farm and steamed in the husks.

The night air was warm, and the mosquitoes gone. Someone opened the wine. We crowded around the table, with plates filled, everyone talking and joking as we ate all of that delicious food.

September 02, 2013

View from the dock

My father arrives at the dock

The family gathered, as we always do, at my parents' camp for Labor Day weekend. Saturday was mostly overcast, with intermittent rain showers, and we spent the day sitting by the fire. But Sunday, we woke up to sunshine — and the smell of the blueberry pancakes my mother was making.

 Here's my Dad, coming in from his morning trip out to the river.

August 30, 2013

And another semester begins

Foggy morning

It seemed appropriate that my drive to campus today was through a thick fog. The windshield wipers kept brushing wet drops off the windshield while I strained to see what might be in front of me: a tree, a mailbox, the tail lights of another car.

The first week of classes tends to be a blur of activity, with so many things happening that I can barely see what’s right in front of me. I’m trying to memorize the names of more than 80 students, scrambling to make sure my syllabi and class blogs have all the right information on them, and dealing with the hundreds of emails that I ignored while I was busy camping or kayaking or attending weddings.

Figuring out how to share cars and juggle schedules has meant multiple phone calls every evening. Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter needs to be on campus bright and early every day. She lives in the next town with her boyfriend Sailor Boy and her brother Boy-in-Black, who also go to campus every day, but usually much later in the day. My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his girlfriend Smiley Girl live within walking distance of campus, but Shaggy Hair Boy will be teaching in a city school so he’ll need a car. The added complication this semester is that my youngest son With-a-Why is in college now, so he needs to go to campus every day as well.

Snowstorm University doesn't have enough parking for all of its students, and that's what makes juggling all of this so difficult. My car has a parking sticker for certain parking lots, my kids' car has a parking sticker for a specific parking garage near campus, and the third car we share needs to be parked on the street, although those spaces fill up fast. If you approach campus anytime after 9 am, you can spend hours circling the streets looking for parking, unless you're Boy-in-Black, who is willing to park illegally and worry later about what tickets he might get.

With-a-Why has a crazy busy schedule because he wants to do the full music program in addition to majoring in either math or physics, and he’ll get rides with whoever is going to campus the earliest in the morning or leaving the latest in the evening. This week, With-a-Why slept at the Castle on Sunday night so that he could get a ride with his sister on Monday morning, slept here on Monday night so that he could get a ride with me on Tuesday morning, and then slept at Shaggy Hair Boy and Smiley Girl’s apartment Tuesday night so he could walk to campus the next day. This nomadic life would suit him fine except for one thing: he's a music major and some of his homework has to be done on a piano, which means he needs to be here.

In a few weeks, we'll have this all figured out. In the meantime, we're using all the skills we learned doing brainteasers. If we've got to get a chicken, a fox, and some corn across a river, and we can only take two at a time, and we can't leave the fox with the chicken or the chicken with the corn, which do we put in the canoe first?

August 25, 2013

Family wedding in Big City Like No Other

At the end of our kayak trip on the River That Flows Both Ways, With-a-Why and I were met by Red-haired Sister, who lives just outside Big City Like No Other. We tied the yellow kayak to the roof of her van, piled the camping gear inside, and then headed to her house. We needed to switch gears quickly. The whole family was gathering in the city for a celebration: the wedding of Urban Sophisticate Sister and Tall Architect.

My first priority was to take a hot shower, but With-a-Why didn’t even change out of his paddling clothes. He sat down at the piano in Red-haired Sister’s house and began to practice. My sister had asked him to play Clare De Lune at the ceremony. And he’d be singing and playing after the ceremony as well. Five of the musicians in the family – With-a-Why, Shaggy Hair Boy, Tawkwondo Nephew, my brother, and Drama Niece — were providing the music for the reception. My brother had even come up with a name for the group: the Upstate Five.

“We’ve come up with a set list,” Taekwondo Nephew said, as he pulled out his guitar. “I can fill you in.” With-a-Why nodded and switched playing mid-song as his cousin set music in front of him.

“You need a haircut,” Red-haired Sister said to me. “No split ends at Urban Sophisticate’s wedding!” I happen to like how blonde the tips of my hair get during the summer, but everyone else calls it sun damage. So we raced off to get haircuts, then Red-haired Sister left me double-parked outside city flower markets while she ran into grab big batches of fresh flowers.

“Okay, I’ve got everything for the bouquet, the corsages, the buttonnieres,” she said, checking off her list. “Text and see if the flower girl would like some kind of floral headpiece,”

That was the first in a flurry of text messages. The minister wanted to see a copy of the poem I’d written for the service. The cousin who was singing at the ceremony wanted to meet her accompanist – that is, my son Shaggy Hair Boy — at 4 pm. The little flower girl said she’d love a floral headpiece. Tall Architect’s family wanted to know if I’d be taking photographs. My parents were arriving at the train station in about half an hour. Oh, and could With-a-Why pick out a song to play as the bride and groom walked down the aisle?

“I know just the song,” With-a-Why said. “But I need to find the music — and then learn it.”

“I know a store that sells sheet music, but it’ll be closed already,” said his cousin. “We’ll have to find it on the internet.”

“Shouldn’t you just play something you already know?” I asked. “I mean, you know tons of classical music – you could play just a section.”

“You can’t just play a bit of classical music. It builds to a crescendo – that takes time,” With-a-Why’s eyes were scanning the computer screen. “Besides, this song is perfect. It’s from the Lion King.”

“The Lion King?”

 “Yeah, don’t tell her. It’s going to be a surprise.”

That’s when I began to question my youngest sister’s blind faith in her family members.

But I needn’t have worried. It all came together beautifully. Red-haired Sister worked furiously on the flower arrangements, and they were lovely. The older woman who was singing relaxed as soon as she met Shaggy Hair Boy, who is both charming and talented. With-a-Why’s rendition of Clare de Lune, played on a Steinway baby grand, brought tears to people’s eyes even before the ceremony began. My sister claims that she had actually thought of asking him to play the very piece he chose for the processional: Can you feel the love tonight. I’d crowdsourced my poem by asking everyone in the family what they thought the secret to a good marriage was: the audience laughed at the funny parts and went silent at the serious parts, which is always a good sign.

The venue for the wedding was a very old literary club, housed in a most beautiful old building. We ate dinner in the library, a gorgeous room with bookshelves so tall that they had ladders. After dinner, we went back into the ballroom, which had been transformed into a cabaret, with small tables set up near the piano and leather couches near the fireplace.

The Upstate Five were an instant hit. My brother played his trumpet. Drama Niece still has the same amazing voice that wowed us all during her Drama Club days. The wild dancing began as soon as they played “Brown-eyed Girl” and my sister led a conga line to “When the Saints Come Marching in.” We all had a wonderful time talking, dancing, listening to music, and getting to know Tall Architect’s family. It’s very easy to take a liking to people when they keep coming up and saying, “Oh, your kids are so talented.”

The best part of the day, though, came earlier when my sister and her new husband asked me to take photos of them. I needed natural light — and so we spent twenty minutes strolling through Central Park, flower girl in tow. The park was crowded, as it would be on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and it felt like everyone in the city had come out to congratulate my sister. As we entered the park, a street musician switched to the song “Here Comes the Bride,” a runner waved and yelled her congratulations, and a woman pushing a baby stroller called out to compliment the wedding dress. The big urban park where people usually walk around in their own little bubbles became one big happy party, with strangers calling out their marriage advice and good wishes.

  Wedding couple with flower girl, in Central Park

August 21, 2013



Everywhere we went — whether it was a suburban neighborhood, a fancy yacht club, or the grassy banks of the river — we brought two flags with us. The top flag represents the Haudenosaunee, the native people in my area. The bottom flag represents, of course, the Two Row Wampum belt. Many of us put Two Row Wampum bumperstickers on our canoes and kayaks (I’ve actually never seen so many boats with bumperstickers before), and wore purple shirts or bandanas in solidarity.

August 19, 2013

No matter the weather


Every day before going to our boats, we gathered for a morning meeting. Paddlers would stand around in clusters, putting on sunscreen or packing rain gear, cramming cameras and snacks into dry bags. Sometimes Hickory, the lead paddler, would tell us something about the tides or the winds, and let us know what to expect.

One of the organizers would tell us where we'd be stopping for lunch. And often we got messages that stuck with me all day just because they were so simple. "Remember, " Chief Edwards would say before we got into our boats. "Be kind to each other." Be kind to each other. I loved that.

I can remember one morning, when the sky looked ominous, a nervous paddler who had just joined the day before said, "Last night, the news said a 40 percent chance of rain. Do we have an updated weather report?"

Chief Jake Edwards looked at him and said in his deep voice, "There's a 100 percent chance of AWESOME."

Everyone cheered.

It did rain sometimes. The most spectacular storm happened after we'd already landed and were setting up our tents on a grassy lawn near the edge of the river. The wind suddenly rose, and the sky above the river turned white. We could see the storm coming. When it hit, it was spectacular: driving rain, thunder and lightning, winds that twisted ropes and tossed clothing off lines. As I ducked into the tent to stay drive, I could hear a bunch of the teenagers yelling, yipping, cheering.

The storm came and went, and it meant that our afternoon program became an evening program instead. The speaker was a clan mother from the Beaver Clan who began by saying, "We had to delay the program because of a storm. I guess that shows us where the real power is."

A late afternoon storm on the Hudson.

August 18, 2013

The wind at our backs


The best morning of the Two Row Wampum trip was a bit windy -- but the wind and tide were both with us. The waves bounced us up and down, splashing water into my face, until I felt like I was on an amusement ride. I kept yelling "Sorry" every time we crashed into another kayak or canoe, and other paddlers would just look back and laugh. We were all having so much fun.

"It's like bumper canoe!" one woman kept saying. It's lovely when the wind and the tide are working with you. We went a couple of miles in record time.

"I feel so much stronger all of a sudden," a woman my age yelled over to me as her canoe went sailing along.

Two kayaks did flip, but our safety paddlers got to them quickly, and by mid-afternoon, we had all arrived safely at the next stop, hungry and eager to share our stories.