June 28, 2013

Watching the clouds go by


My parents drove up to camp this morning so that they'd be the first to arrive. My son Shaggy Hair Boy and his girlfriend Smiley Girl stopped here on their way to get the big tent out of the garage and their bicycles. Tie-Dye Brother-in-law and Taekwondo Nephew left this afternoon, pulling a boat on a trailer behind the car. My daughter drove with Sailor Boy and Boy-in-Black.

Reports came in by cell phone as family members arrived at camp. My husband, With-a-Why, and I will drive up in the morning. Other family members will arrive as the week goes on.

My parents' camp is a peninsula of oak trees surrounded by cattails on a river that runs between two countries. We all gather there every July, setting up tents under the trees for a week of living outside.

We'll play bocce and horseshoes and cornhole. I've packed my journal, several books, and my camera. We'll take out the canoes and the kayaks, and we'll swim in the cold river water. With-a-Why and I will be taking the two-person kayak out every morning to practice for a week-long trip we're taking in August.

At night, we'll play cards or sit by the campfire. Shaggy Hair Boy packed a keyboard, along with books of music. My father will have his clarinet with him, or perhaps his saxophone. My brother will bring his guitar. Probably no one will remember to bring a flashlight.

I'll be offline all week, and I'm looking forward to that. I love lazy summer days when there's nothing to do but take another swim, lounge about on sunheated rocks, and stare at the clouds in the sky.

June 26, 2013

Breakfast at the Eggplant

It’s a little diner that serves breakfast any time, night or day, and it’s been there for as long as I can remember. The wooden tables are lined up close together, so that you never know whom you might brush elbows with, and there are stools at the counter for folks in a hurry.

This morning I took a seat in the sunny corner by the window, my favorite spot, so that I could watch people as they came in the door. I was meeting my friend Brown Eyes for breakfast, but I kept seeing other people I knew. First, a colleague from Little Green who waved hello when I sat down. Then two of my students from last semester came in together: they reported that they’re having a great summer. Brown Eyes and I were deep in conversation when I heard someone else call my name — a poet friend I don’t see very often any more. I went over to give her a hug before getting back to my oatmeal and muffins.

Brown Eyes and I hadn’t seen each other in years, so we had a lot of catching up to do. She looks exactly the same, but it seemed a shock to hear how old her four kids were. “Your daughter is 25?” I kept saying. “How did that happen?”

I remember when her oldest child was a baby. Whenever we’d go out to a park, she’s put a little hat on him to protect him from the sun and wind, and her husband and mine would keep teasing her about the bonnet, which apparently was not sufficiently macho. I didn’t have any kids yet, so I spent a lot of time holding and playing with the baby. It’s hard to believe that was 28 years ago.

I think it’d been six years since we shared a meal together, but I didn’t feel any reserve. We plunged right into serious topics, skipping any preliminaries. She and I have always been honest with each other, and this conversation was no different. It’s amazing how much ground you can cover in just a couple of hours.

“This is a new stage of our lives,” she said, and I agreed. Our kids are grown up. And I guess that makes us old, although it doesn’t feel that way. Instead it feels like we’ve gone back in time, and we’ve got all this new space opening up in our lives.

June 24, 2013

Summertime Snack

DSC_0682 Fresh broccoli, steamed and eaten within hours of being picked.

June 21, 2013

Poison ivy: the price you pay


“No, it’s not leprosy,” I said to the teenager who kept sneaking horrified glances at my bare arms while she was ringing up my groceries. “It’s poison ivy rash.”

Last weekend, I wore the blue dress I wear to every wedding because the swirly skirt is great for dancing. The short sleeves showed off the oozing, bumpy rash on my legs and arms. I kept the itching at bay with my secret strategy: I periodically went into the restroom and ran hot water over my limbs. The hot water made my skin itch intensely, but then the nerves would go numb for an hour or so.

Artist Friend, who was sitting next to me, observed the rash with interest and began to reminisce about the bad cases of poison ivy he’s gotten over his lifetime. We both like shady places near rivers and streams, or the edges of the woods where just a little sunlight filters in. So does poison ivy.

“I don’t get it as often as I used to,” Artist Friend said.

That made me think. The same thing is true of me. But it doesn’t quite make sense. Humans don’t build up a tolerance for poison ivy. In fact, the reverse is true. The more you get it, the worse your next case will be.

Perhaps it’s that my habits have changed as I’ve gotten older. I tend to sit in chairs instead of sprawling on the ground. I’m more careful as I hike, and I watch where I’m going instead of just running recklessly through the woods. I spend more time inside on the computer during the summer than I used to. I rarely play hide-and-seek in the dark, or stumble through the underbrush while chasing friends. It’s not that often that I flop to the ground without looking first to see what’s there.

When I was a kid, I can remember looking down at my legs in the bathtub after returning from a camping trip. Once the dirt was washed away, I saw bruises, scabs, mosquito bites, and patches of poison ivy rash. Usually, the more beat-up my legs looked, the more fun I'd had that week.

So this summer, I'm making a resolution. I'm going to try to get poison ivy more often.

June 19, 2013

When two literature professors marry

In the ballroom

My husband can attest to the fact that I often spend weddings making snarky comments under my breath, horrified at sexist traditions and outdated rituals. He was off at a conference last weekend, so he missed a wedding where instead I kept saying, “This is so perfect! This makes me so happy!”

The wedding of Philadelphia Guy and Medieval Woman was perfectly wonderful. They chose wedding traditions carefully, dropping anything sexist and swapping outdated customs with new obervances. Instead of readings from the Bible, for example, they picked passages from their favorite authors. (Choosing the texts took some negotiation. The bride said to me in an email, “This is what happens when two English professors of vastly different periods try to write a wedding ceremony!” They gave me passages from Rilke to read, and I took the precaution of printing it out in a huge font ahead of time.)

The rehearsal dinner was in a French restaurant that we had all to ourselves. How fun it was to meet Philadelphia Guy’s sister for the first time, and his Dad. I’d heard stories about his friend Broadcast Journalist for years: finally, I could talk to her in person and trade stories. Medieval Woman’s parents were lovely and gracious, local friends were super helpful at explaining where to go and what to do, and old friends didn’t hesitate to give me the dirt on Philadelphia Guy’s childhood. His sister had even brought an album of baby pictures.

The venue for the wedding ceremony and reception was a beautiful old building with arched windows, high ceilings, fireplaces, a long open staircase, and so many grand pianos that I lost count. It’s a music hall built in the 1890s by a group of women, for the “study, appreciation, and performance of music.” It seems like people who are passionate about music also care about elegance, soft colour, and natural light.

The bride looked gorgeous in a vintage dress, and I knew she’d been up the night before hemming the skirt that the adorable flower girl wore. During the solemn parts of the ceremony, I could see people around me wiping away tears, although we all laughed during the vows when Medieval Woman looked lovingly at Philadelphia Guy and said, “I promise to read everything you write.”

The reception took place in a ballroom filled with early evening sunlight. Chicago Friend had brought his family, including a six-year-old daughter who insisted on sitting right next to Artist Friend. After dinner, Philadelphia Guy picked up his guitar and sang a song for his new wife. Then a rockbilly band took the stage, and everyone danced: old people, little kids, and everyone in between. Artist Friend was at least four feet taller than his dancing partner, but they twirled and spun to the music. The wedding favors were CDs of songs chosen by the groom.

When we gathered for brunch the next day, after a late night of dancing and talking, we were all dressed more informally, mostly in jeans and t-shirts. We ate bagels, fruit, homemade cinnamon rolls and scones. By then, the family members I’d met 48 hours earlier felt like old friends, and we all kept exchanging hugs as each group took their leave.

The best part of the weekend, though, wasn’t the great food or the gorgeous light or the cute ringbearer who turned out to be a fantastic dancer. It was the way we all kept saying, in pairs or little groups, in confidential tones at the table or standing outside the bathroom, “Philadelphia Guy and Medieval Woman are so perfect for each other.” And it’s true. Absolutely true.

June 14, 2013

River walk

River walk

I woke up this morning to sunlight bursting through the curtains of my hotel room. I had a busy day yesterday — leaving home at 4 am to catch an airplane, racing to make my connection in the airport of Big Midwestern City, and then an afternoon of catching up with friends before going to the rehearsal for a friend’s wedding. The rehearsal was followed by dinner at a lovely French restaurant, and then an after-dinner trip to a brewpub that had stained glass windows, a church-like ceiling, long wooden tables, and patrons who brought their own steins. The young man who sat next to me at the long wooden table told me the pub had been a funeral parlor, which explained the chapel-like design.

Today I had the luxury of a lazy morning with no obligations. So I did what I usually do my first day in a new city. I grabbed my camera and went for a walk. I love exploring urban areas: you never know what you might find.

I’d seen a river during our drive in, so I knew it wasn’t far away. Sure enough, a path led me down below the bridge and along the edge of the river. I passed several runners, who nodded hello as they went by, and two men in suits, carrying cups of coffee. Just past the next curve, I heard music – a solo trumpet. I expected to see a street performer, but instead, the musician turned out to be a college student, dressed for an audition. He’d stopped by the river to warm up. After wishing the kid luck, I kept walking.

Farther along, I heard the unmistakable sound of a mallet on a metal pole. Sure enough, as I rounded the curve, I saw workers setting up white tents, along with stacks of folding chairs and tables, on a grassy lawn by the river. Dozens of people in matching bright shirts were carrying piles of stuff, talking excitedly, and working hard to set up what looked like some kind of fund-raising event.

I left behind the flurry of activity and walked under another bridge, this time close enough to watch the muddy water as it surged past. A little farther, and I saw two old men, both dressed as if for a winter day, sitting on a bench, talking and raising their faces to the sun.

The path led me up and over the next bridge, and that’s when I heard carousel music. I peered through glass windows, and sure enough, I could see painted horses moving up and down. Too curious to just keep walking, I made my way around to the front of the building, which turned out to be a big museum. I can never resist a museum, so soon I was wandering through an exhibit of old dolls, looking at some artifacts from the Titanic, and walking through a whole street of stores that made me feel like Laura Ingalls.

Eventually, I pulled myself away from the museum and returned to my hotel room, satisfied with the morning's discoveries.

The painted ponies go up and down

June 11, 2013

The season begins

First CSA pickup of the season

After an all-day meeting on campus today, I stopped on my way home at our CSA farm for the first pick-up of the season. Today's boxes held piles of greens (swiss chard, kale, bok choy), some peppers and cucumbers, a bunch of just-pulled beets, and two boxes of fresh strawberries. I piled everything into my trunk — except for the strawberries, which I put on the front seat of the car, where I could keep an eye on them.

I have no control when it comes to sweets, and I couldn't resist sampling the fruit as I drove. Local strawberries taste so different than shipped-across-the-country ones that we really ought to have a different name for them. Other CSA members were talking about making strawberry shortcake or strawberry pie or other culinary delights, but in this household, it's unlikely the fruit will last long enough for anything that fancy. In fact, it's only because we live so near the farm that the strawberries even made it home.

June 09, 2013

Sneaking out of the conference for more naked photos

Naked against the sky

The Friendly Green Conference program was packed with so many interesting sessions to choose from that I found myself wishing for that little time-turner device Hermione used to magically attend multiple classes in the same time slot. But by the fourth day of the conference, my brain felt saturated and my body was longing for some fresh air.

I was itchy to get outside and see some of the landscape. Every hallway and staircase had a sign informing me what I should do in the event of tornado, and those warnings that I should head to the basement just made me want to go outside. Besides, all my visual images of the state came from The Wizard of Oz, and I felt like those images could use some updating.

When a friend suggested renting bikes so that we could ride along the river, I hesitated for just a moment and flipped through the program to see what I would be missing. I do hate to miss anything. But then he upped the ante. “Plenty of natural light on the levee,” he said. “I’ll pose naked.”

That did it. I owed it to my blog readers to come with a photo of a naked man. I stuffed the conference program back into my backpack. Really, I didn’t have a choice. It was my moral obligation to spend the biking outside in the gentle wind, the sunshine, and the sky filled with clouds that seemed to stretch forever in this land of prairies and twisters and little dogs named Toto.

I don’t have a whole lot of biking experience, but luckily, History Buff had everything figured out. We walked to the bike shop, signed some release forms that we didn’t read because they were clearly not meant for two people with aging eyesight, grabbed the bikes, and were soon on our way. Within a couple of blocks, we’d left the town behind and were riding easily along the top of a levee that stretched alongside a river.

To our left stretched farmland, just flat fields with no trees, and in that landscape, the sky dominated. It was a magnificent sky that kept changing as the sun moved in and out of clouds. I admit that I'd half-expected the landscape to be in black-and-white, so all the colour surprised me. The clouds shifted and shoved each other to make more room, with sections of the sky darkening as more and more clouds crowded in. I tried to imagine what it might be like to see a twister on the horizon, and that made me shiver. It would be terrifying and awesome and incredible, all at the same time.

We talked as we rode, about our lives and our families and the way our bodies have changed as we've gotten older. History Buff stopped patiently every time I wanted to take photographs. We ended up taking naked photos in two different locations. Clearly, we are over-achievers. Or maybe we just really didn’t want to go back to the conference. I love the intellectual stimulation of a plenary talk, but it can’t beat riding a bike under skies rolling with clouds.

  Down by the river

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.

June 05, 2013

Project Naked continues

Long-time readers know that I always come home from conferences with naked photos to post on my bog. It’s a tradition. 

Half the time, the naked photos aren’t even my idea. Honest. I’ll just be hanging out with colleagues, making small talk while they drink wine, and someone will bring up the topic. “Have you found your victim yet? Whose turn is it to pose naked?”

My friends like to tease me about the naked photos. Anonymous Midwestern Writer Who Was Once Almost Killed by a Pheasant, for instance, never fails to ask me about the project, even though it’s clear he has no intention of ever posing. But Project Naked is also a catalyst that leads to intimate conversations about the human body and the way we see ourselves. That’s the best part of the project: the stories that strangers share with me when they hear about the project.

It’s usually pretty easy to get a volunteer. It’s almost as if the gang of folks who have posed naked for me are a secret club: they are the cool kids and everyone wants in. By the second day of the conference, I was sneaking away from an afternoon session to meet with a friend who had agreed to pose. We walked to her hotel, which she assured me would be an upgrade from my dorm room, which featured harsh florescent lights and a narrow bed that squeaked and jounced so loudly that I felt self-conscious every time I rolled over.

The hotel room was lovely, but a bit small for taking photographs. And a big-ass television, square and black, hung in the corner like a huge spider waiting to lure unsuspecting visitors into its web. I moved away from it cautiously. I didn’t want THAT in the shot.

Fire shed her clothes and sat down on the bed. She had the easy part. I decided to climb onto a window sill to get a better angle in the tight quarters. I slung the camera around my neck, grasped the edge of the headboard, and pulled my body up onto the ledge, knocking pillows to the floor as I moved awkwardly across.

“Do you think the nightstand will hold my weight?” I called out as I tried to shift into a better position. Fire glanced over her shoulder. The nightstand was just a flimsy shelf attached to the wall.

“Um, maybe not,” she said.

I braced myself against the wall with one hand and lifted up my camera with the other. “Okay, relax. Try to look natural.”

I’m guessing that it might be difficult to feel comfortable when you’re sitting naked on the bed and a clumsy photographer might come crashing down on top of you at any moment. But Fire complied, resting her arms on her knees and gazing out the window as if I wasn’t there.

I snapped quickly, knowing that I was going to lose my balance at any second, and then I jumped down onto the bed, startling Fire out of her contemplative pose. That’s when it occurred to me that I could just take a picture from where I was, sitting on the bed.

When I sent the photos to Fire by email, after getting home from the conference, the picture she chose was the simplest one — the photo I’d snapped while sitting on the bed. Apparently, my heroic climb onto the window sill, risking life and limb for the photo shoot, wasn’t necessary at all.

Looking ahead

Read more about the history of the naked blogging project and check out the gallery of photos.