March 30, 2013

Computer crisis

Tech Support

When the computer doesn’t do what my father wants it to do, he’ll shrug and say, “Digital Fatigue. That’s the problem.” It’s a diagnosis that delights my children. They love the idea of a computer just getting tired and cranky, the way an eight-year-old might.

My parents have needed a new computer for a while now. When any of the grandchildren send them a link to a photo album, it takes them hours to actually see the photos because they load so slowly. And they can’t watch vidoes at all. My father will say. “Our machine isn’t powerful enough.”

The computer they’ve been using is the first one they’ve ever had, a gift from their kids and grandkids, and they’ve hung onto it loyally, far longer than they should have. Partly, this is because they have a hard time grasping how quickly computers become outdated and non-functional. “It’s only eight years old,” my father will say. To him, that’s practically brand new.

My father is the kind of person who builds things to last forever. The wooden doll furniture that he built for me in 1960s? It’s as sturdy as ever, waiting in my basement for the grandchildren I’ll have some day. If Apple ever hires my father, people will be passing computers down through generations.

My parents’ most recent computer crisis began last week when my father sent an email out to the family, saying that his computer had “picked up a terrible virus” and that they’d lost all of their photos. He said that when he tried to find the photos, he just saw a bunch of words in German. His tech savvy grandchildren were delighted with his vision of a mysterious German virus. With-a-Why immediately pulled up this reassuring Venn diagram. The younger generation were also adamant that the aging computer needed to be replaced.

I went to their house, picked up their computer, and brought it to the Apple store. It was easy enough to find a comparable computer to replace the old one, but I ran into problems when I asked about retrieving the old data. The crew at the Genius Bar, it turns out, are not geniuses at all. They seemed to know less about computers than me. “It’s a vintage computer,” said one young man. “We can’t retrieve the data.”

“All their photos?” I asked. “They’re just gone?” He shrugged.

“What about the music?” I asked. My father has hundreds of songs. These aren’t songs taken off commercial CDs, but numbers that he’s arranged, played with the grandchildren, and recorded. Many of them are backed up on my computer and on CDs he’s burned, but I know he’d still prefer to just log on and have his music files still there on his hard drive.

“I guess you could try using a thumb drive,” he said.

I texted Boy-in-Black, who was driving home from a physics conference, where he’d just given a paper on “Minimal Spanning Trees on Percolation Clusters.” (Yep, that’s really the title.)

 “A thumb drive?” he asked. “Who calls it that? An ethernet cord would be far more efficient.”

By the time Boy-in-Black arrived, I had everything set up in the living room: my parents’ old computer, which was not really functioning, and the new computer, which was running fine but completely blank. My husband rummaged through his laptop case and found an ethernet cord.

“We have to make the new computer look almost exactly like the old one,” I said. “I don’t want this to be too big of a learning curve.”

Boy-in-Black set up his own computer, connected everything, and went to work. He rescued the photos. He transferred the data. He even looked at their POP mail and rebuilt all the mailboxes, although my father’s organizational system made him grin. “Seriously? Why does he have all these mailboxes?” he said. “We need to set them up with gmail and teach him how to use search.”

“One thing at a time,” I said.

Boy-in-Black was thorough. He even went through their photos to find the same screensaver so that the new computer looked exactly like the old one. I doublechecked applications to make sure the settings matched the ones on the old computer. Then I set my parents up with a gmail account and I made a facebook page for my mother.

And now — my parents are back online. In fact, they’re probably reading this post. My mother sent Boy-in-Black a batch of homemade cookies, a gesture which has probably assured her a lifetime of tech support. She’s friended everyone in the family on facebook. My father has been getting adjusted to the newly updated iPhoto and has been working on the project of sorting all his photographs. He reports that the new “machine” is working just fine.

March 27, 2013

Fifteen miles

Fifteen miles

To celebrate the first weekend of spring, I decided to take a walk along Historic Canal. Some of my students have chosen the canal for their research site, so they’ve been talking about the canal in class. “People all over the world have heard the song,” one local student said. “They come here, and they get excited to see the canal. They’re always looking for a mule named Sal.”

No mules were in sight as I walked along the bank. No people either. The trees were still bare, and I needed mittens, but at least the sun was shining. I had to settle for that as my sign of spring.

March 25, 2013

On the other side of the camera: flipping the naked photo shoot

Flipping the naked photo project

I was looking over my conference schedule to plan a blogger meet-up. I’ve known Beautiful Photographer for years: I’ve read her book, I read her blog, and I’ve admired her photographs. But we’ve never met face to face, so I was looking forward to talking in real life over breakfast.

That’s when a text message chimed in: “Just so you know, I will NOT be getting naked for you.”

It’s possible I’ve given readers the wrong impression. I don’t spend every conference coercing innocent people into taking their clothes off. Honest. Those rumors about bribes and blackmail are completely false. Or at least, wildly exaggerated. That story about me running through the bookfair wearing nothing but a red cape is fiction. I’d never run barefoot on that filthy hotel carpet.

The naked photos happen quite naturally, usually when I meet someone whose been reading my blog for a long time. I’ll be innocently making small talk, chatting about their kids or mine, talking about blogs we both read and which bloggers we’ve met in real life. The woman I’ve just met will go quiet for a second. She’ll look around the room to make sure we’re alone, lean forward to look me in the eyes, and whisper, “I’ll pose for you.”

Honest. Readers volunteer willingly, often before I even ask. And some, like Beautiful Photographer, turn me down before I even ask.

I had suspected, to be honest, that she wouldn’t pose for me. I mean, at least not on our first meeting. I had planned to work up to the naked photo gradually. So when I got her text, I asked, “Did you bring your camera? Want to take a picture of me?” 

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be on the other side of the camera during a naked photo shoot. The last woman I photographed sent me a text saying, “It was a wonderful experience. I hope it was good for you too.” Okay, maybe I’m paraphrasing.

The night before the breakfast meet-up, I stood in front of the mirror to try to figure out a good pose. “I feel a little nervous about this blogger meet-up,” I said to my conference roommate. “Maybe I ought to shave my legs.”

She laughed. “Now you know what it feels like to be on the other side.”

Of course, once I met Beautiful Photographer, my fears disappeared. She was as warm and friendly in person as she was online. We’d had several discussions over the years about our bodies. I knew she’d be gentle.

We didn’t have much time. We both had plans for a 9:30 am session. During breakfast, I sent my roommate a text to make sure she was awake. “I need the room for a photo shoot,” I said. I knew she'd understand. She’s used to coming back to the room to find a naked body sprawled on the bed or balanced on a table.

Morning light was filtering in through the window. Perfect. I stripped off my clothes. Beautiful Photographer climbed up on the bed to get a better angle. “Try sitting on the window ledge,” she called out.

The window ledge was cold against my bare skin. It really wasn’t all that comfortable. I got the idea that I wanted to pose with my journal – although to be honest, the situation was a little artificial. I do write in my journal when I’m naked sometimes, but I’m more likely to be snuggled in bed then sitting on a cold window sill. And of course, I had to hold the journal at arm’s length to accommodate my aging eyes.

“I’m not sure about this angle,” I said, “Let me sit up straight so I don’t look fat.”

“I can’t believe I hear you saying that,” said my roommate. “You hate it when women say they’re fat.” 

“But I’m NOT fat,” I said in defense. “I want a photo that shows me as I really am. It’s all about being true to reality.” That's the truth about this project. I always want to take a photo that shows each woman how beautiful she really is.

“Shake your head so I can see your hair,” Beautiful Photographer called. I loved that she wanted to feature my hair, with all its silvery strands.

She snapped quickly. I jumped off the ledge to peer at the photos in her camera, and she loaded them efficiently onto my computer. Another naked photo shoot complete.

To read more about the Naked Photo Project, check out this page — and the gallery of photos. You can click the link under each photo to read the story behind it.

March 23, 2013

Spring in Snowstorm Region

Spring snow

In class, students keep saying, hopefully, "We should be hearing the spring peepers soon." In the meantime, they've been building snowmen on the quad. I'm still wearing mittens, and snowboots, and a winter coat. I woke up this morning to yet another six inches of snow on my backstep.

Back step

March 20, 2013

The trip from hell

Monday morning, I was feeling all zen-like and relaxed after a week of warm weather and relaxation. In the airport, I posted a photo to this blog and thought to myself, “Oh, I’ll write something profound and meaningful when I get home tonight.” I thought, of course, that I’d be home in just a few hours. Silly me.

Little did I know that I was about to begin the trip from hell. What should have been a simple flight home evolved into 33-hour journey in which brilliant airline agents kept putting me onto planes that flew into cities at exactly the same time they were getting hit by snowstorms. The journey took four separate flights, dozens of frantic phone calls, and my whole supply of Dramamine.

The adventure began when I got bumped from my original flight, and the agent rerouted me to Newark, where it was apparently snowing hard. The plane took off several hours late, but I was still hopeful that I’d make my connecting flight and get home in time for supper.

But then the disembodied voice of the pilot came over the intercom, announcing bad news in a voice that was so cheerful that I began to question his grip on reality. “Folks, we’re on hold. We can’t land until they plow the runways.”

Apparently “on hold” means circling endlessly through the turbulent air until you are in danger of running out of fuel. That fun activity lend to more Dramamine for me and then another announcement from the cheerful pilot: “Folks, we’re going to stop off in Boston to refuel.”

Well, that got the attention of every single passenger. We all looked at each other in disbelief. Boston? We had connecting flights in Newark, not Boston. The cheerful announcements just kept coming. “Folks, it looks like our flight crew has timed out. It’s illegal for them to work for more than 12 hours.” and “Folks, looks like we’ve got a maintenance issue. We’re going to need to deplane.”

It felt good to get out of the cramped airplane, but it was the wrong airport. And it was night time. The stores and restaurants were all closed. We’d all missed our connections. My cell phone had died. And through the windows of the airport, we could see the worst news of all: the snowstorm had followed us.

The other passengers and I began bonding, much in the same way that the characters on Lost bonded when they realized the island was out to get them. British Fellow began telling Worst Ever Travel Stories. I’d spent the flight talking with College Kid Going to Oslo, and by now, we were family. I helped him answer frantic texts from his mother, and he lent me his cell phone charger. I watched his stuff while he went off in search of a vending machine: he brought me back a candy bar.

The lone airline agent kept doling out bad news about flight possibilities. One by one, we approached her with our sad stories, but she pretty much refused to help. She kept saying, “Your best bet is to fly back to Newark. Many of those flights haven’t left yet. You might still make those connections.”

We were a sizable crowd of hungry, angry passengers who were beginning to mutter and stamp our feet. I realize now that she was just doing whatever she could to send us away before she got trampled by the herd.

Eventually, we all got back on the plane. We trudged on silently, like a team who’d just lost the championship game. No one asked whether or not the maintenance issue had been solved. We were all too tired to care.

Then the plane sat on the runway for a couple of hours. Every half hour or so, trucks would come over to dump orange liquid over the windows, and College Boy would say hopefully, "We're de-iced. Now we can go." Then nothing would happen. The cheerful pilot had gone strangely silent.

Sleep deprivation affects me like alcohol, and by the time we got to Newark airport, I was stumbling around, talking to strangers in a loud voice and making comments that seemed witty at the time, but probably weren’t. I took a nap on the floor of the airport, right in front of the customer service counter, which was scheduled to open at 5 am. I could no longer remember what life outside an airport was like. Every once in a while I’d imagine my bed – the pillows, the silky sheets, the down comforter – and it was like a dream I’d had a very long time ago.

When morning came, new people began to arrive — travelers who weren’t stranded, people who walked with a bouncy step and who looked like they’d had showers. That gave us hope. An agent finally handed me a new ticket, a guaranteed seat. The flight wouldn’t leave for another six hours, but by then, time seemed irrelevant. I went to the gate hours early. I talked to everyone I could find. “Are you on my flight? Will you make sure I’m awake when it’s time to board?” I must have looked pathetic, because people responded gently, even offered me their leftover snacks. Then I tried to nap by using my backpack as a pillow. The glaring lights and dreadful music pumped in from the 1970s didn’t help my efforts.

I woke up to the cheerful announcement that our flight would be delayed another couple of hours because they “were waiting for a plane.” Apparently, whoever had scheduled the flight had forgotten that they might need a plane carry out the task. By then I was resigned to living out my remaining days in an airport. I amused myself by doing math. I could have driven home, going 30 mph, and gotten there faster.

When I finally boarded the plane for home, 32 hours after my trip had begun, the other passengers were saying things like, “Hurray! You’re finally going home.” They all seemed to know me. It was like waking up with a hangover and wondering just what the heck I’d said to all of them. But they were smiling and happy for me, so it was all good.

March 17, 2013

On my way home after spring break

Afternoon walk

I’ve been offline, taking my annual writing retreat in a southern city where the trees are flowering. After a winter of wearing heavy socks and multiple layers of clothing, it’s felt wonderful to strip down to just a t-shirt and jeans. I’ve spend my mornings writing in the quiet, and my afternoons hiking along the river. Yesterday in the afternoon sun, I lay down on the sun-heated flagstones in the courtyard of the retreat place, close enough to listen to the water falling from the fountain, and took a nap.

Naked Writers Week will resume as soon as I return home and sleep off the dramamine that’s currently coursing through my veins. I have one more naked photo to post, this one with a surprise twist.

March 13, 2013

Naked for art's sake


We’re the yin and yang of roommates. Take, for example, the way we dressed for an evening reading. Maine Writer looked sleek and chic in a dark cocktail dress, her hair smoothed down, an elegant purse slung over her shoulder. I trudged in from the snow in hiking boots and jeans, my hair blown into a tangled mess, my ski parka bulging awkwardly with cell phone, wallet, and a bunch of pens I'd gotten for free.

Our friendship works because we're good for each other. Plus, we’ve got 73 mutual friends on facebook, and surely that counts for something.

Sharing a hotel room with Maine Writer is like rooming with a tornado, except that instead of smashing houses, she crashes parties. She’s a swirl of energy and ideas, and she moves fluidly from topic to topic. Nothing stands in her way: she can charm any editor, sneak into the heart of the most fierce colleague, and talk her way into the most exclusive party.

I didn't know Maine Writer very well the first time I roomed with her, four years ago. At that conference, she stopped back at our room between sessions to find a naked writer sitting on top of our desk, posing in the natural light that filtered through the curtains. If Maine Writer was startled, she didn’t show it. She looked at the camera I was holding and assessed the situation quickly. “Are you going to leave the bracelets on?” she asked our naked colleague. “I think they are a nice touch.”

Then she turned towards me. “Who else is on your list? I can pose if you need me to.” That’s the kind of spirit I like in a roommate.

This year in celebration of our fifth year rooming together at Big Creative Writing Conference, we decided we wanted a special location for the photo shoot. “I’m tired of getting naked just to lie on hotel bed,” Maine Writer said. “Maybe we could sneak into an art museum or something.” The night before, we’d crashed an exclusive party, a feat that required serious detective work, glasses of wine to lubricate our informants, rapid-fire text messages, and careful study of the hotel design. We were feeling confident.

“It’s a brilliant idea,” I said. “Let’s find some contemporary art you can get naked with.”

I can’t tell the whole story. It’s all top secret. Our adventure may or may not have included bribes, the police, a drunk security guard, or a flock of geese that tried to stand in our way. But it ended with my lovely roommate removing her clothes, me crouching in the most awkward position ever, and this year’s naked photograph.

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

March 12, 2013

The naked photo tradition continues: Copper John poses

Copper John poses for the blog

“It’s got to be a little strange for you – the only sober person in a mob of drunk writers,” said Maine Writer, my conference roommate, the morning after a late night at the hotel bar. “The promises these men make! Your heart must just get broken again and again.”

She was talking, of course, about my naked photo project. She was right. A drunk friend will often ramble on about how he would love to pose for me, how he’s got cool scars to show, how he’s totally comfortable being naked in front of the camera. Then the next day? I get a text message about how he had to leave the conference early, to go wash his hair or something. The friends who willingly hang out with me in the dark of night, downing beers in a hotel bar, are never to be seen when I’m wandering about in daylight with camera in hand, looking for a volunteer.

It happened again on Friday night, as we were jostling to fit everyone around a table in a crowded bar. We started talking about the naked photo project, and the men made bold proclamations about how they were going to pose for me. They knew they were safe. I won’t take photos of anyone who isn’t sober. And I insist on natural light.

“These pictures are pretty innocent,” said Copper John, peering at the photo he’d pulled up on a smartphone.

“Yeah,” agreed Poetry Guy. He sounded a bit disappointed. He scrolled through my blog, searching for naked photos like a seagull after a french fry. I’d mentioned casually that at least three people in the room had already posed for me — all women, of course — and he was trying to match these anonymous photos with the women sitting at the table.

“You don’t really show anything risqué,” said Poetry Guy, looking at the photos. “I’d pose. With a prop to hide —”

“You could use your phone as a prop,” said Tall Editor, helpfully. He demonstrated with his own phone, holding it in front of himself as if it were a fig leaf.

“Please,” said Poetry Guy. “That phone is not going to be big enough.”

That’s the way it is with guys. They love to make seventh grade jokes about the naked blogging project, but when it’s time to actually off their clothes, they balk and make excuses. Women are way easier.

“That’s because you're a woman,” Poetry Guy said when we talking about this the next morning in the harsh light of day, by which I mean the dreadful fluorescent lights of the bookfair. “It’s no big deal for a woman to take her clothes off in front of another woman. But a man getting naked for you? That’s got to be a little weird.”

“I’ve got a husband and three sons,” I said. “The sight of a penis doesn’t send me into a tizzy.”

The mention of male body parts didn’t reassure him. He looked at his watch and mumbled something about at 10:30 panel he wanted to go to. I’d seen that look before — on the face of an eleventh grade boy who really didn’t want to go to prom. He looked nervously around the room, casting about for a friend who might rescue him. “Maybe Tall Editor will pose.”

“Not going to happen,” said Tall Editor. “I’ve said that all along. It wasn’t me making promises in the bar last night.”

That’s when Copper John strolled into the scene. I’d had my sights on him all along. He fit the profile — that is, if there is a profile of men willing to pose naked for my blog. He’s in a solid marriage and he seems comfortable with his body. He listened closely when I talked about my silent retreats at Southern Monastery. I could tell he was listening — and observing — when I talked about the naked photo project. He watched me exchanging smiles with two of the women at the table when we talked about the project, and he said, “It’s like a secret club, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” I told him. “The world is divided into two types of people. Those who have posed for me, and those who have not.”

His promise to pose hadn’t been a drunken declaration; I think he’d only had a single beer. And he kept the promise. On a gorgeously sunny morning, we walked back to his hotel room, where there was plenty of natural light.

“You could pose with your laptop,” I said. “I’m sure that happens all the time – you get out of the shower and need to write something right away.”

He nodded. “Sure. All the time. I’m always sitting naked with a computer.”

We hung a sheet from the top of the bed, with bottles of water carefully balanced to hold the sheet in place. “It looks just like a portrait studio,” I assured him. “Totally professional. Your roommate will never know that you were sitting naked on his bed.”

He sat cross-legged on the bed in a pose that looked so natural that I asked, “Do you meditate?” He does. So we chatted about our meditation practices, comparing Christian-based meditation techniques to Buddhist-based ones, while he adjusted the computer for maximum coverage.

"You need to look down,” I said. “You don’t have any hair to hide your face. And don’t pull at the sheet or you’re going to get hit in the head with a water bottle.”

He looked down at his computer and began clicking away while I snapped the shot. Once the photo was taken, he put his clothes back on, and he showed me the files he’d been looking for: some pictures of his wife and kids, all of them smiling at the camera in that relaxed way families do when they’re on vacation. We strolled back to the conference, talking about our kids, our spouses, and the work it takes to keep those relationships strong.

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

March 11, 2013

Conference Snowstorm

Boston in the snow

Last week 12,000 writers descended upon Baked Beans City. Well, at least, that’s how many had registered for the conference. When a storm began dumping heavy wet snow on the northeast, some folks were stranded in airports or trains stations, and some chose to stay home with a good book.

By the second morning of the conference, I felt claustrophobic from too many hours spent in windowless hotel rooms with harsh flourscent lights and recycled air. I needed a walk outside. I made my way through the lobby, which was crawling with hungover writers, their nametags swinging as they searched frantically for coffee.

When I burst out through the revolving glass doors, a gust of winter wind blew my hair into my face. The wet snow stuck to trees, to cabs, to my eyelashes. I saw no other humans as I walked the quiet streets, the cold waking me up. I breathed the winter air deeply in preparation for the hectic day ahead of me.

Morning walk in the city

March 08, 2013

Moderate pressure. No spinning. You heard it here first.

It’s been more than two years since the last time I visited Phantom Scribbler but it didn’t seem like that at all. I walked into her home, she put the kettle on for tea, and we sat right down at the table, talking like crazy. She’d even made my favourite vegan chocolate cake. It's a delicious tradition.

Her kids came home from school – BB from third grade and LG from sixth grade – and we settled cozily near the bay window, chatting in the afternoon light. BB told me about the novel she’s writing. Phantom and I talked about blogging days of yore. LG brought down his homework, an odd graphing assignment that resulted in a picture of what was either a banana or a cob of corn — we couldn't tell which even after a considerable amount of time debating the issue. "I don't think real scientists use graphs for dot-to-dot pictures anyhow," I assured him. "At least, I'm pretty sure they don't."

Then LG brought out a cool vertical pencil sharpener, an electric one that sharpened pencils like magic. Of course, I had to try it. After a couple of pencils, I asked him, “Are you supposed to let the pencil spin – or hold it still?”

He wasn’t sure. But we thought the question was worth researching. If we could figure out how to most efficiently sharpen a pencil, that might revolutionize the field of pencil sharpening. BB offered to join our research team. “It could save kids from standing in line to sharpen their pencils,” she said. That seemed a worthy goal.

We set up a controlled experiment in which we sharpened pencils, holding some still and letting others spin, and timing how long it took to get them sharp. Soon the window seat was filled with pencils in various stages of sharpness. LG kept track of time while BB carefully recorded the results. But then our simple experiment got complicated. The amount of pressure we put on the pencils was skewing the results. Clearly, we need to take our research to another level.

We decided we could keep the pressure consistent by balancing a book on top of the pencil, letting just the weight of the book provide the pressure. That brilliant idea led to a heated debate amongst the research team as to which book to use. “It’s important that we choose carefully,” said LG. “After we publish our findings, people will want to replicate the experiment.”

He was right, of course. I could imagine scientists all of the world wanting to test our hypothesis. And what if they used the wrong Harry Potter book? The Goblet of Fire is so heavy it could totally mess up the results.

Then we stumbled on the idea of using canned goods. The weight is listed right on every can, which made them the perfect lab equipment. "And they're organic,"said BB, selecting a big can of tomatoes and a little one. It seemed important that we use only products we felt comfortable promoting.  We chose three different sizes for light, moderate, and heavy pressure. LG opened his computer so we could record the data in Excel.

We worked hard that afternoon, balancing cans of tomatoes and jars of minced ginger on pencils while the little motor of the sharpener whirred. At one point, we had to call in an expert to empty the container, since we'd pretty much filled it to the top with pencil shavings, and we had to pause to eat the delicious dinner that that same expert had prepared while we were conducting our research.

It was an exciting study. We came up with results that will change the way people all over the world sharpen pencils. We’re planning to publish our findings, of course, and in fact, we recorded a video that featured a pencil-sharpening demonstration by the two youngest members of the research team as well as some cool sliding across the hardword floor, but I’m going to announce our conclusions here on my blog for the whole world to see.

Moderate pressure. No spinning. That’s the winning combination. Remember that, the next time you sharpen a pencil.

March 05, 2013

For the record

For the record

By federal law, all male citizens of this country must register with the Selective Service within thirty days of their eighteenth birthday. Failure to register is a felony.

The hands in this photo belong to my youngest son, With-a-Why, who is eighteen years old. He wrote on his registration card: "I am opposed to war in all forms." Then he signed it, made a photocopy, and sent it in.

March 02, 2013

Starting to feel human again

I changed the sheets on the bed and then got back in just to smell the clean cotton.

My husband gathered up the half-empty glasses of ginger ale, water, and gatorade that I'd scattered all over the house. He dumped dead flowers into the compost pile and stuck the vase into the dishwasher. He gathered towels and clothes for the washing machine. He cleaned the bathroom.

I cleared away the books and papers that had accumulated by my bedside. I put away the heating pad. I moved my laptop from the bed down to my desk.

I ate a bowl of rice.

And then? I took a shower.