I submitted the last of my spring semester grades on Sunday night, which means I’ve spent much of this week catching up with things that fell by the wayside while I was grading, like keeping track of who’s been spending time in our backyard.
May 14, 2013
On Sunday, J and I went to Waltham to check out the Watch City Festival, an annual celebration of steampunk culture.
Before Sunday, neither J nor I was hugely familiar with steampunk, which is a curious blend of Victorian-era style and industrial-age gadgetry: picture men in top hats and aviator goggles, women in long skirts and leather corsets, or members of both sexes wearing prosthetic limbs fashioned out of pistons. Despite our general unfamiliarity with the genre, however, J and I were curious to see what kind of steampunkery might erupt in a town with a long industrial history, and we figured (quite rightly) that the festival and its attendees would make for lots of interesting photos.
Waltham sits on the banks of the Charles River, and it once was a factory town, the site of an enormous textile mill established by Francis Cabot Lowell as well as a clock factory that inspired the nickname “Watch City.” The Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation now sits on the site of Lowell’s textile mill, and they organize the annual Watch City Festival as a way of celebrating the city’s industrial heritage while attracting folks of all ages to come to Waltham, either to show off their steampunk costumes or to gawk and take photos of same.
Although neither J nor I was very familiar with steampunk culture, we’d read enough about it to want to learn more. Steampunk is a bookish genre, inspired by both sci-fi and the fantastical fiction of classic authors such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Although I’m not an expert in Victorian literature, science fiction, or fantasy, I’ve had plenty of colleagues over the years who are, so the aesthetic and cultural sensibilities of the era aren’t entirely foreign to me. J first heard the term “steampunk” on an episode of “Oddities,” which is one of our favorite TV shows, and when he researched the term, he realized that one of his favorite childhood TV shows, “The Wild Wild West, is considered by many to be a prototypical example of steampunk culture with its curious coupling of Western adventure and fantastical gadgetry.
You might say, in other words, that both J and I were primed to be steampunk’d.
Walking around a historical mill town in the company of people wearing Victorian-era costumes is more than a bit surreal…and I say that in a good way. Watching men in silk vests and top hats strolling with women in full skirts and tailored shirtwaists felt a bit like being transported into an antique postcard showing gentlemen and ladies taking a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park, as urban Victorians were wont to do.
More than anything, J and I were impressed by the ingenuity of the various costumes and creations we saw, which obviously entailed hours of planning, antique-shopping, assembly, and upkeep. How exactly, for instance, did one fellow’s top hat feature moving gears and puffs of steam…
…or where exactly did another chap find not just one but two enormous, industrial-sized wrenches (one on his shoulder, and another on his tool-belt) to accessorize his working-man’s outfit?
In addition to wearable art, J and I admired the steampunk gadgetry of a Victorian-inspired (and fully functional) computer fashioned out of an antique typewriter, desk, and picture frame…
…and who wouldn’t adore an otherwise ordinary pooch who had been transformed into a high-flying steampup with wings, jetpack, and goggles?
J and I had so much fun admiring the creative costumes and gadgets we saw, we decided to attend the Watch City Festival next year, and already we’re wondering whether we’re brave enough to cobble together some costumes of our own between now and then.
Although I can’t imagine being entirely comfortable squeezing myself into in full steampunk regalia…
…it might be fun to experiment with odd accessories.
What would happen, for instance, if J tricked out one of his cameras with gears and pistons to transform himself into a steampunk photographer, or if I coupled a khaki safari dress with antique brass binoculars to transform myself into a Victorian ornithologist? With a full year between now and the next Watch City Festival, you never know what curious combinations we might devise.
Click here for more photos from this year’s Watch City Festival. Enjoy!
May 12, 2013
Every April-into-May while I’m preoccupied with the long, uphill push that invariably marks the end of the semester, something sly and subtle happens. While I’m busy with paper-piles and end-term grading, Spring somehow slips into Summer.
I know that the summer solstice doesn’t come until June, but I’m never fooled by what the calendar says. Something has shifted in the last week or so, with spring-green leaves ripening into a darker summer hue. The nights are warm rather than chilly now, and we sleep with the windows open. Already the leaves on our backyard hostas are tattered where rabbits have nibbled them, and our backyard tulips have dropped their petals, spent.
Already, in an instant, the neighborhood wisteria are hanging heavy with an abundance of blossoms, and the year no longer feels like a coil that is tightly wound, ready to spring. Instead, the season has sprung, and only a ripening of days stands between us and the fullness of summer: a transition so subtle, you’ll miss it if you blink.
May 8, 2013
Painters know that before you get down to work, you have to prepare your canvas. If you’re a street artist, this means painting over the work of those who preceded you, creating an empty space for your own design. Although graffiti might seem to be a hurried medium, creating a multicolored design takes time. Each layer of paint has to dry before you apply the next, so you can’t hurry the process. First you have to prepare your canvas, then you have to work through each stage to complete your work-in-progress.
This week is finals week at Framingham State, so I’m busy with end-term grading. I have two classes’ worth of essay portfolios and final exams to read along with quiz averages and participation grades to calculate. Every term, I tell myself I’ll finish these grading tasks early, keeping well ahead of my paper-piles, and every term, things go more slowly than I’d anticipated. It takes a while for layers of paint to dry, and it takes a while to read through a thick paper-pile.
Every finals week, I find myself checking off a whole list of tasks before I get settled down to the business of grading. On Monday, I balanced the checkbook and paid bills; yesterday, I went grocery-shopping and led practice at the Zen Center; today, I did laundry and caught up with my two online classes, which are at the start and middle-point of their respective terms. Just because I have a huge grading pile doesn’t mean the other aspects of my life grind to a halt: the dogs still need to go out, the dishes still need to be washed, and I still need (or at least prefer) to wear clean clothes.
When I first started teaching, I thought this urge to check off tasks before settling down to grade was pure procrastination: surely I was looking to keep myself busing doing anything but grading. Now, though, I’m not so sure. Just as it’s easier to paint a new work if you start with a fresh, empty canvas, it’s easier to focus on grading if you aren’t wondering whether the bills are overdue, the refrigerator is empty, or your students are filling your email inbox with confused queries.
These last few days, in other words, I’ve been preparing my canvas, creating a clean, clear space where I can concentrate on the task at hand. Today, I had a long to-do list; tomorrow, all that’s on my list is “grade.” Now that I can scratch “Feed the blog” off today’s list, I can focus without distraction on that looming paper-pile. Like the street artist who signed his work-in-progress “Will finish on Sunday,” I know the task at hand will be done in due time.
May 6, 2013
Yesterday J and I made our more-or-less yearly pilgrimage to Revere Beach, where we followed our established tradition of taking the T to Wonderland, eating seafood in the shady pavilion across the street from Kelly’s Roast Beef, then walking the beach back to the bathhouse, where we catch the T for home. We take this same trip strolling this same stretch of shore every year or so, usually in the off-season, when the beach is empty save for other walkers. Revere Beach has become a place J and I go to stroll rather than swim, counting ourselves among the long-sleeve beachcombers rather than the swimsuit-clad sunbathers.
Yesterday was a bright but brisk day, so there were few waders and even fewer sunbathers at Revere Beach. Instead, there were dog-walkers, seashell-seekers, kite-flyers, cyclists, parents puttering around with kids, guys kicking soccer balls, and guys playing volleyball. It was a shorts-and-sweatshirt kind of day—perfect for walking—and the ubiquitous seagulls seemed resigned to the fact that few folks were picnicking, so they had to forage food from the surf rather than begging handouts from humans. Without the distraction of beach blankets, beach umbrellas, beach balls, and an endless ocean of beach bodies, J and I enjoyed the relative solitude of a low-tide shoreline strewn with seaweed and seashells.
If J and I were tourists visiting from afar, we might have been disappointed by a beach day that was too cold for wading, much less swimming. But since Revere Beach is an easy T-ride away, we don’t have to hope for perfect beach weather to go stroll the shore. Any day, it turns out, is a good day to walk the beach, at least if you remember to bring a sweatshirt. Any day, it turns out, is a good day to take a good long walk on the sun-kissed edge of sea and sky.
Click here for more photos from yesterday’s stroll at Revere Beach. Enjoy!
May 4, 2013
One surefire sign of spring in the Boston suburbs is the emergence of curbside lemonade stands: something straight out of Norman Rockwell. Earlier today, J and I drove past a couple of kids who were trying to wave down passing cars on a busy street. One of them was wearing a rainbow-colored clown wig and waving a sign, but we were driving the wrong way and traffic was too heavy for us to stop. Last week I’d seen a different set of kids selling lemonade on this same busy street, but they were lucky enough to have set up their stand before a stop sign at rush hour, so they had a captive audience. But in that case, too, I was going the wrong way and wasn’t able to stop.
When we’re exploring our neighborhood on foot, though, J and I make a point to stop at lemonade stands: how can you walk past cute kids trying to sell something? Parents in our neighborhood tend to be civic-minded, so most of the kids we’ve encountered sell lemonade to raise money for charity. Over the years, we’ve sipped lemonade to raise money for the earthquakes in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and endangered tigers in Asia. At each makeshift stand, I can imagine the conversation that led to its creation, with a kid asking Mom or Dad what they can do to help some horrible situation they’ve seen on TV, and Mom or Dad suggesting a lemonade stand as a worthwhile pursuit. Think globally, sell lemonade locally.
So this afternoon when J and I were out walking and saw a couple of kids selling sparkling pink lemonade to raise money for tomorrow’s Walk for Hunger, we couldn’t say no. Instead, we bought a couple cups, helped the kids met their fundraising goal, and walked on, the ice-cold pink beverage in our cups matching the bright flowering hue of the Boston suburbs in May.
May 2, 2013
Today was my last day teaching spring semester classes at Framingham State: on Saturday morning, my students will submit their final essay portfolios online, then on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I’ll proctor their final exams before spending the rest of the week grading, grading, grading. Through long experience, I’ve learned that semesters move forward as inexorably as seasons: in some ways, it feels like the end of the semester has been a long time coming, and in other ways, it feels like the end of the semester has come (again) before I’m really ready for it.
The last week of classes is always a bittersweet time. On the one hand, I’m always tired and eager for the (brief) respite that comes at the end of the semester; on the other hand, I’m always mindful of how much grading stands between the last week of the semester and Done.
When I taught at Keene State, the last week of the semester was typically when I’d find myself looking out my classroom windows at Old Silver, the sprawling silver maple I’d nicknamed the Failure Tree before he collapsed with an earth-shaking thud three years ago.
Old Silver had a lot of help in his final years from the Keene State College grounds crew, who tethered his trunks together with wire cables, and I always took quiet encouragement looking out the window at him during the final weeks of the semester, when I was daunted by my paper-piles and unsure whether my students had really “gotten” anything I’d tried to teach them.
Old Silver stood alongside me for most of my teaching career at Keene State, but he never really listened to any of my lectures, preferring to figure out his own approach to “tree-ness.” Sometimes the most lasting lessons happen despite everything a teacher does—or fails to do—in the classroom, and the last week of the semester is when I find myself quietly hoping that my students got something useful out of my class, if only by osmosis.
I haven’t (yet) found an acceptable equivalent to Old Silver at Framingham State: I’m still getting to know the trees there. The closest candidates are the two massively sprawling oak trees on Larned Beach, the grassy patch of real estate between Hemenway Hall and Whittemore Library. Both of these oaks are estimated to be a couple hundred years old: one is hale and hearty, the other is dying after being struck by lightning, and both are slated to be felled later this month to allow room for new construction.
If you’ve been alive and paying attention long enough, one of the lessons you eventually learn (if only by osmosis) is that even the oldest and sturdiest trees eventually fail and fall. Some, like Old Silver, choose their own time, defying gravity with a little help from attentive groundskeepers. Others, like Framingham State’s two massive oaks, have their times chosen for them, progress moving inexorably whether you’re ready for it or not.