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.
Close to home
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.
Apr 30, 2013
On Sunday when J and I took the T into Boston to see the samurai at the Museum of Fine Arts, we stopped at Copley Square to visit the makeshift memorial that has arisen near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings. I wanted to see where it all happened—I wanted to stand on the very spot—even though the bombings happened in a place where I’ve stood many times before. Somehow, I hoped that being there, now, would help me understand what it must have been like to be there, then.
The Marathon bombings happened in a place where I’ve frequently been. Years ago, during the first year of my Master’s program at Boston College, I lived in a depressing, ant-infested apartment in Malden—a lifetime away from campus, it seemed—and the Boston Public Library at Copley Square was like a second home to me.
During the second year of my Master’s program, I lived in a garden flat in Beacon Hill, a stone’s throw from Boston’s Back Bay, so I’d regularly watch the marathon near the finish line on Boylston Street, right across from the library. In those days, I’d typically show up in the afternoon, after the elite front runners and fleet-of-foot had already finished, when the injured, the underdogs, and the unlikely—the folks, in other words, who really needed an audience to cheer them on—were gamely limping their way to the finish line.
Revisiting Boylston Street cemented the realization that the only thing separating me and countless other Marathon spectators from being at the Right Place at the Wrong Time was simply time and chance. If tragedy struck at 2:50 pm on April 15, 2013, it could have easily struck minutes, hours, or even years earlier: then rather than now, that year rather than this.
Why did tragedy strike here and now, with these particular people and passersby present? That is the great unanswerable question in the aftermath of tragedy, a version of the scandal of particularity, as theologians call it. If either grace or grief (take your pick) can happen anywhere and at any time, why did one or the other happen Now and Here? It’s not morbid curiosity that has been driving Bostonians to visit the bombing site in droves: it is the abiding, unanswerable question every survivor at some point asks: “Why not me?”
In the aftermath of tragedy, there is also a curious desire—one that might seem counter-intuitive, if you’re observing it secondhand—to immerse oneself in a large, anonymous crowd, or to simply be outside with others. Since the Boston Marathon happens on a state holiday, many of us watched coverage of the bombings in the relative isolation of our homes, with only our closest loved ones present. “Stay away from crowds” was one of the warnings issued in the immediate aftermath of the attack, as Boylston Street was blocked, the Marathon was cancelled, and confused runners were re-routed to safety.
This isolationist message was underscored on Lockdown Friday, when venturing outside and gathering in crowds were officially verboten. After the second bombing suspect was captured and the city-wide lockdown was rescinded, the collective psyche gravitated irresistibly in the opposite direction. Now, there is something hugely soothing about being outside and with others, whether at a memorial service, candlelight vigil, or bustling baseball game. The impulse is insistent: we will get through this together, and we will do it by coming together.
Sunday was a positively gorgeous spring day, a perfect day to take the T into town and walk around with throngs of placid pedestrians. Our trolley was packed with Red Sox fans and a woman who was proudly taking her grand-daughter to the Big Apple Circus, just as she had taken the girl’s mother years before. On Sunday there was a home Celtics game in the afternoon, a home Bruins game in the evening, and “Art in Bloom” all day at the MFA: a little something for everyone on a mild and sunny day when it felt like all of Boston was finally blooming.
It was, in other words, a bustling day in the city, with the entire world (it seemed) showing up stroll down Boylston Street and pay their respects at a makeshift, open-air memorial.
After arriving in Copley Square, J and I had to wait in line to view the piles of offerings left along a quadrangle of metal barricades set up in Copley Plaza to contain a teeming outpouring of flowers, running shoes, stuffed animals, handwritten notes, signs, paintings, T-shirts, rosaries, ball-caps, and origami cranes adorning every available surface.
In one corner of the memorial area, there was a heap of bracelets and meditation beads; atop another pile of flowers, someone had left a waterlogged copy of a favorite children’s book. Elsewhere, someone had left an unopened box of spaghetti and a tin of cookies—a nod, perhaps, to a marathoner’s pre-race stint of carbo-loading—and I saw several separate piles of coins, as if the impulse to leave a memento led onlookers to empty their pockets, offering anything at hand.
At the memorial, there were rubber ducks and stone angels, a plaster Pieta and candles. One tree was draped with rosaries and faded prayer flags, and another had seemingly sprouted a bouquet of American flags from its base.
The sheer volume of stuff was both amazing and overwhelming: such an outpouring of love for the dead, the injured, and for Boston on the whole.
As large as it was, the memorial mound continued to grow as we wended our way through the piles, pointing and reading notes and snapping photos.
One father helped his little girl add her contribution to the pile—it was shiny and sparkly, decorated with ribbons and glitter—while a loose cluster of twenty-somethings wrote messages on blue and yellow strips of paper that they added to an ever-growing chain, every link a prayer.
It was incredibly moving to see such an abundant, seemingly worldwide outpouring of love: a tidal surge of well-wishes from everywhere, as if a wave had overwhelmed us with a great teeming detritus of remembrance.
When we witness tragedy from afar, whether from across town or across the country, we want to do something in response, even if all we can do is sign a banner or leave a handwritten note.
Examining the neatly arranged assortment of offerings felt like browsing a giant yard sale or flea market where every item carried words of encouragement rather than a price tag: priceless.
But out of the many came the occasional one, individual messages that stopped me short with their poignancy: the note, for instance, from police officers in Colorado promising to take over the watch for slain MIT police officer Sean Collier…
…or the child who drew the “poisonous bomb” the only way he knew how, which was like something out of a Road Runner cartoon.
But the individual item that hit me hardest—a surprise surge of sentiment that threatened to turn my Boston Strong into Boston Sobs—was a still-packaged plaque showing a young boy with hands folded in prayer: the kind of thing you’d give a little boy for his First Communion.
I don’t know if eight-year-old Martin Richard was Catholic, but this much I know: he won’t be taking Communion with his classmates this year, having achieved a premature oneness with eternity instead.
I’m not sure I found any answers by visiting the Boston Marathon bombing site, but what I found was an upsurge of hope. Whether they acted alone or with accomplices, the Boston bombing suspects can’t possibly outnumber the people who came out to walk on Sunday or the people who continue to heap their blessings on a city it’s easy to fall in love with all over again.
Apr 29, 2013
Yesterday J and I took the T into Boston to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where we saw Paul Cezanne’s “The Large Bathers,” which is currently on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as an exhibit of samurai armor. Although I don’t know much about Cezanne or the samurai, I was enchanted by both exhibits, albeit in entirely different ways.
Cezanne’s “Bathers” are calmly monumental with their bold, blurry pastels. Although the painting is in oil, Cezanne creates a watercolor-like effect that is simultaneously provocative and mesmerizing: the kind of painting you could study for an eternity, drawn into the depths of its soothing pastoral vision.
Displayed alongside Paul Gauguin’s equally evocative “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going,” Cezanne’s “Bathers” represents a turn away from the classical nude, which seems almost too-perfect in its idealized timelessness, and toward a more embodied Modernist vision. The bodies Cezanne and Gauguin depict look like actual, earthly bodies at rest, and it seems natural to rest a while in their presence.
The pieces of samurai armor currently on display at the MFA, on the other hand, are almost cartoonishly quirky, and I immediately fell in love with them. After walking through several galleries containing glass-case examples of helmets, breastplates, shin-guards, and other armature, J and I entered a room with two life-size free-standing displays: on one side, a trio of fully-bedecked warriors galloping on heavily-armored steeds…
…and on the other, a gang of walking warriors, their ornate armature letting enemies know in an instant that these guys mean business.
When you look like a bad-ass space alien and carry a big sword, you can let your appearance do the talking.
This is the last week of the semester at Framingham State, which means I’ll be swamped with paper-grading for the next two weeks. It felt good to take a virtual vacation at the MFA yesterday, traveling first to France to lounge with Cezanne and then to imperial Japan to stand with samurai. I’ve set the photo at the top of this post as my desktop background: a silent reminder to stay samurai strong over the next few, tiring weeks.
Click here to see my complete photo-set from yesterday’s MFA outing. Enjoy!
Apr 27, 2013
Last night A (not her real initial) and I met at Mount Auburn Cemetery to take a quick walk before heading to the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown for pancakes and conversation: something we’ve done more than a few times in the past. Last night’s cemetery stroll and diner date was more than just another chance to chat over comfort food: it was an intentional act of purification. Ever since Watertown, Massachusetts made the national news a week ago for being the site of the Boston bombing manhunt, I’ve been wanting to reclaim a sleepy little city that’s just one town over from mine: a normally quiet suburb that most folks outside of Boston probably never heard of until the Tsarnaev brothers made it infamous.
Yesterday marked one week since the day-long lockdown that turned the greater Boston area into a ghost town. Lockdown Friday started with emails and recorded phone messages from the mayor telling us to stay indoors, and it ended with us watching televised coverage of people cheering in the streets after the remaining bombing suspect had been captured. In between, J and I did indeed stay inside, remaining glued to CNN and local televised news reports as we waited for some sense of closure to end a truly terrible week.
Lockdown Friday was a gorgeous spring day, which made staying inside that much more difficult; what made the day surreal was watching television coverage of places that are both nearby and familiar. Although I typically describe Mount Auburn Cemetery as being in Cambridge since that’s where the main entrance is, most of the cemetery actually lies in Watertown. To get to Mount Auburn from Cambridge, you take a Watertown bus from Harvard Square; to get to Mount Auburn from Newton, you drive down Watertown Avenue. During last week’s manhunt, local and federal law enforcement used the parking lot at the Watertown Mall as a staging area, and as I watched each televised press conference, I remembered the various times I’d parked there to buy socks, underwear, or other “essentials” at the Watertown Target.
J probably can tell you exactly how many times I said “Look, that’s the diner!” as CNN showed one of their reporters standing on Mount Auburn Street, reporting on every gunshot or dog bark she heard. (Jon Stewart on The Daily Show rightly skewered this same reporter for remarking that the streets of Watertown were eerily quiet, as if someone had dropped a bomb somewhere.) J didn’t need to be told again and again and again that the shiny silver building visible in the background was “the” diner where A and I go for pancakes after our cemetery strolls: he could clearly see that for himself. But I kept pointing it out because I couldn’t quite believe a quiet little neighborhood just one town over from ours was suddenly the site of Breaking News.
Last night A and I went walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery followed by dinner at the Deluxe Town Diner as a way of reclaiming Watertown: now that Suspect One is dead and Suspect Two has been captured, it’s time for Watertown to go back to being a sleepy little suburb about six miles outside of Boston. For the most part, Watertown seems to be returning to normal: last night, Mount Auburn was as lovely as always, and the diner was bustling with Friday night customers. The only indications that Watertown hasn’t completely returned to normal were the “Boston Strong” and “Boston We are One” slogans on MBTA bus marquees and a curious rush-hour traffic jam I experienced near the intersection of Watertown and Galen Streets. From my vantage point near the end of a long queue of cars, I could see flashing lights as several police vehicles escorted something large and white out of Watertown. Only later did I figure out I’d probably witnessed police moving the infamous boat that Suspect Number Two was captured in.
Apart from traffic delays caused by evidence removal, it felt good to return to the familiar calm of Mount Auburn Cemetery, and it felt even better to enjoy comfort food at a diner that was bustling with Friday night customers. Like other businesses in the greater Boston area, the Deluxe Town Diner lost a day’s worth of business on Lockdown Friday, so A and I made a point to leave our waitress an extra-generous tip: a small token of appreciation for a sleepy little suburb that I’m guessing is eager to return to relative obscurity.
Click here for more photos from last night’s purification trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Deluxe Town Diner. Enjoy!