Boston


You looking at me?

I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:

Finch

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.

This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.

Black swan

Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?

Baby gorilla throws hay on mom

It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.

Peekaboo prairie dog

Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.

Camel

So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.

Baby wildebeest

Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.

Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.

All out

When J and I went to Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, we had no idea it would be the last time we’d watch live horse racing in Revere. Last week the Massachusetts Gaming Commission granted permission for a swanky new casino in Everett, thereby dashing Suffolk Downs’ hopes of building a casino there. Casinos bring in big bucks; live horse racing does not. After the casino decision was made, Suffolk Downs made an announcement that saddened but didn’t surprise me: the 79-year-old track will be closing, with live racing ceasing at the end of the month and simulcast betting continuing through December.

They're off!

The part about horse racing that interests me is the horse part, not the gambling part, so neither simulcast betting nor swanky new casinos interest me. Had Suffolk Downs won a casino contract, J and I would have gone there to slide a quarter or two into the slot machines, briefly ogle the table games, and otherwise mind our business on our way to the track, where the horses are. But there will be no horses or horse racing at Everett’s new casino, so I’m unimpressed by the proposed development. Why do we need a casino in Everett when the casinos in Connecticut are such a short drive away?

Into the Winner's Circle

When J and I arrived at Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, there was a little girl loudly cheering for her favorite jockey as she made her way into the Winner’s Circle: Janelle Campbell, the same jockey I’d photographed last year as she sat beaming atop her mount. Being a jockey, I explained in that post, is every horse-crazy girl’s dream job. After Suffolk Downs is shuttered, who will horse-crazy little girls cheer for? Their favorite poker stars or blackjack dealers?

Winner's circle

Suffolk Downs is a place past its prime: it’s clean and well-kept, but clearly run down. Every time we’ve gone to Suffolk Downs, J and I have wandered the grandstand, meekly exploring the empty upper concourses and wide, carpeted entryways. In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was packed with enthusiastic race fans; today, sparse handfuls of people watch horses race outside while the serious gamblers stay indoors, where races from other tracks are simulcast on rows of TV screens.

Jockeying for position

Simulcast races are something you can watch (and bet on) anywhere, including online…and simulcast racing is where the big gaming money is. My personal preference to watch horse racing in person might be shared by horse-crazy little girls, but apparently it’s not shared by the adult population at large. Why do we need live horses racing at Suffolk Downs when it’s so easy to watch (and bet on) horse races on TV? Why even leave the house when you can gamble online?

The winner

It’s too bad that Suffolk Downs is closing, as it was a place with a history. Both Seabiscuit and Cigar raced there, back when horse racing was glamorous and fast horses were celebrities. The racetrack where my father used to watch (and, yes, bet on) harness horses in Ohio added a casino several years ago, and the place never felt the same. Men now drop their wives at the casino while they go to wager on simulcast races, and my dad stays home to follow the stock market: a different kind of gambling.

Muddied

I’m saddened to think of all the horse-folks who will be out of a job when Suffolk Downs closes for good. The new casino in Everett will provide jobs for waitresses, cashiers, and card dealers, but where’s a good groom, jockey, or trainer going to go for a new job?

A dirty job

The horses who raced at Suffolk Downs will move on to other tracks, or they’ll retire from racing and find homes with folks looking to adopt sleek saddle horses. It’s a slower life after you’ve been put out to pasture. The world races on, and you get left behind.

Heading north

One of my favorite vistas in Boston is one you see when you’re headed northbound out of the city toward either New Hampshire or the northern suburbs. After you’ve snaked through the subterranean labyrinth that is the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, you suddenly are above ground and bathed in light as you ascend the Zakim Bridge with its gleaming white cables.

Zakim Bridge

I don’t know if heaven has a gate, but if it does, surely it can’t be any lovelier than the Zakim Bridge arching overhead on a sunny afternoon.

Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

Yarnbombed

It’s been two years since I quit my adjunct teaching job at Keene State College, and it’s been two weeks since I quit my online teaching job for Southern New Hampshire University. This means that after having spent a dozen years in the Granite State, I no longer have any official New Hampshire ties: I now live and work entirely in Massachusetts rather than leading a divided life shuttling between two states.

Yarnbombed

I taught at Keene State for ten years, I taught online for SNHU for eleven years, and I lived in New Hampshire for twelve years. I mention these details because this summer feels like the end of an era: the end of one life and the beginning of another. Henry David Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years before deciding it was time to move on: he had, he said, other lives to lead. I seem to be on a slower schedule than Thoreau, needing a decade or more before realizing I’m ready for a change.

Yarnbombed

Over the past twenty years, I’ve proven I can patch together a livelihood as an adjunct instructor; now, I’m wondering what I want to do with the rest of my life outside of working. Teaching online was a great moonlighting gig while I taught full-time at Keene State, and it was a good supplemental income while I got settled into my part-time job at Framingham State, but teaching online can be grueling if you do it long-term. For the past eleven years, I’ve taught online classes year-round, taking my laptop on every vacation and checking my classes at least once a day, every day: weekdays, weekends, and sick days included. One of the benefits of teaching online is you can do it anywhere…but one of the drawbacks of teaching online is you feel like you must do it, everywhere.

Yarnbombed

Now I find myself wondering what I’d like my life to look like now that I’ve said “no” to year-round, around-the-clock teaching. In a previous lifetime when I worked for a church, one of my colleagues warned me about what she called the caring professions. Anytime that your job involves caring for other people, it’s easy to forget your own self-care. When you’re doing “the Lord’s work” at a church—or when you’re focusing on student success at a college—you feel guilty leaving your work at the office, as if it were “just” a job. But at the end of the day, that’s exactly what being an adjunct instructor is: it’s a job, and a part-time one at that. Looking back on the past decade or two, I realize I’ve regularly put my students before myself, pouring more time and energy into my job than my part-time status deserved.

Yarnbombed

The other day I brainstormed a list of things I want now that my days teaching for SNHU are over. “I want my life back” was the first thing I typed: a hyperbolic statement that popped out the instant I set fingers to keys. There are a lot of things I’ve let fall by the wayside in the past decade: I want to practice more, exercise more, and write more. I want to finish that book I’ve started then set aside umpteen times. I want to see myself as a writer and human being first and a teacher second: I want to remember that even the caring professions are, ultimately, just jobs. Now that I’ve fully crossed from one state to another, I want to settle into life in the here and now, spending less energy Earning-a-Living and more time Simply Living.

Art glass

Earlier this month, J and I went to two open-air art festivals: the Beacon Hill Art Walk at the beginning of the month, and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival the following weekend. I’d been to the Beacon Hill Art Walk before–on previous visits, I primarily enjoyed the opportunity to explore hidden courtyards and alleys not typically open to the public—but J and I had never even heard of the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival even though it’s been around for more than 30 years.

Glass figure

“En plein air” is a French term that refers to the practice of painting outside in the open air, as a landscape artist with an easel might. Although the Beacon Hill Art Walk and Coolidge Corner Arts Festival featured a handful of landscape painters and photographers, there were also many glassblowers, potters, welders, and other artisans who typically ply their crafts inside. But even though many of the works J and I saw might have been created inside, they seemed to come into full bloom when displayed outside in the open air, where tents provided shade while encouraging the free circulation of both breezes and browsers.

Historical Society parking only

Another term that the French use for painting outdoors is “peinture sur le motif,” which translates as “painting on the ground.” I love this phrase for the simple image it creates of artists who are literally grounded, both their bodies and their easels rooting them to the scenes they capture. “Painting on the ground” pins you to a particular spot: instead of painting metaphorical castles in the sky, you paint whatever you see right here, right now, in this present place and time.

Booth after booth

Although J and I didn’t see anyone “painting on the ground” at either the Beacon Hill Art Walk or the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival this year, I’d like to think the artists we saw are metaphorically grounded: local artists and artisans proudly sharing their work with an appreciative community out in the open air.

Click here for more photos from this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival. Enjoy!

Rowboats

Yesterday J and I had an errand to run in Jamaica Plain, so we took a leisurely stroll around Jamaica Pond, one of the jewels in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The Emerald Necklace is a string of parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and although J and I have spent a lot of time exploring the Necklace’s easternmost jewels, I’d only been to Jamaica Pond once and J had never been there at all. We were, in other words, long overdue for a visit.

Pond with clouds

On Friday night, J and I had watched a PBS documentary about Olmsted’s work designing parks all over America. The documentary was an hour long, but we thought it should have been twice as long, given Olmsted’s incredible body of work. New York’s Central Park was the first landscape Olmsted designed, working in partnership with Calvert Vaux, and that project alone would have been enough to make most designers’ career. But the green gem Olmsted and Vaux set at the heart of Manhattan proved to be so popular, a long list of other cities hired Olmsted to design similar landscapes, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a system of parks in Buffalo, the Niagara Reservation in New York, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, the Chicago World’s Fair, and the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Yellow iris

Olmsted began work on Boston’s Emerald Necklace relatively late in his career, after he’d established a home and landscape architectural firm in Brookline, Massachusetts. The goal of the Emerald Necklace was to connect Boston’s existing Common and Public Garden with the sprawling woods of Franklin Park, and it involved transforming the Muddy River, a sluggish stream wending from Jamaica Pond through the saltmarsh of the Back Bay Fens, into a scenic waterway bordered by wooded trails.

Mallard silhouettes

Whereas Olmsted completely transformed the Back Bay Fens from a stagnant backwater to a scenic lagoon, he did relatively little to re-engineer Jamaica Pond. A glacial kettle hole that once supplied both drinking water and ice to local residents, Jamaica Pond didn’t need the sanitary improvements that the Back Bay Fens required. Instead, Olmsted’s engineering at Jamaica Pond primarily involved the planting of trees and the placing of paths. Today, a paved pedestrian pathway surrounds the pond, which attracts a steady stream of locals looking to walk, fish, row, or simply relax in the sun.

Rowboat and geese

When you stroll through Central Park, you’re interacting with an entirely manmade landscape: before Olmsted and Vaux got their hands on it, Central Park was a featureless wasteland filled with shanties and pigsties. Central Park’s underlying terrain—its hills, stone outcrops, and waterways—were all designed and then assembled from the ground up to provide an intentionally picturesque backdrop for soothing strolls. When you look at Central Park, you’re not looking at a natural landscape as much as a landscape painting: a picturesque scene, that is, that was intentionally composed.

Turtle with reflection

Jamaica Pond, on the other hand, is a natural jewel, but even the most precious gem looks better in a well-designed setting. More than a century’s worth of fishermen, dog-walkers, joggers, baby-strollers, and sun bathers have flocked to Jamaica Pond, but the pond and its environs still look natural and even pristine. As J and I walked, I marveled at how simultaneously well-used and tranquil the park seemed. On our entire circuit of the pond, J and I were never out of immediate earshot of other park-goers, and for most of the way we could hear and even see passing traffic on nearby roads. But despite these omnipresent reminders we were in a popular and even bustling park, the pond and paths felt quiet and serene, as if we were further away from civilization than we actually were.

Pedestrian path

A well-designed park doesn’t shy from aesthetic deception, and visitors to an urban park are happy to be deceived. About halfway around the pond, J noted that all the people we encountered automatically observed the cornerstone of urban protocol, quietly smiling or gently nodding at passersby but otherwise giving them no notice, allowing strangers the privacy of their own personal escapes. Whether you’re on a bike, on foot, in a boat, or on a bench, you won’t be alone at Jamaica Pond, but you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away. The park’s that way by design.

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