Green blueberry

In one of this week’s classes, I asked the icebreaker question “What word or phrase do you overuse,” and while “awesome” was my official answer, I now realize “like” is a close runner-up.

Last semester, I casually mentioned my fondness for the word “awesome.” One of my students made note of this, and whenever I’d subsequently say “awesome” in class–which was often–she would either repeat the word back to me (“Awesome!”), or she would look at me with a raised eyebrow.

There’s nothing like a student parroting your linguistic quirks to make you realize how often you use a particular word.

This week, several of my students listed “like” as their most overused word, up there with “right” and “bruh” and “okay.” And I was, like, a bit surprised because I always thought “like” was, like, a remnant from being a teenager in the Valley Girl ‘80s.

It turns out the linguistic quirks of Gen Xers live on, bleeding into the speech patterns of both Millenials and Gen Z. Now I’m noticing how often I say “like” when I’m lecturing: it’s, like, a constant verbal tic. Turns out “Awesome” is the least of my worries.


Spruce

Today was a sunny day, and the birds think it’s spring. This morning I heard both a tufted titmouse and a white-throated sparrow singing. The white-throat was whistling softly and tentatively, as if trying to remember the words to a tune he hadn’t sung in a while: “Old…old Sam…old…old Sam Peeeaaa!”

The titmouse, on the other hand, was singing emphatically–so emphatically, in fact, I didn’t immediately notice the urgent whistles trickling through my barely-open bathroom window: “Peter! Peter! Peter!” It’s a song I hear constantly here in the suburbs in the spring and summer, but not now–not recently–so it was a jolt when my consciousness clicked to recognize it. Titmouse!

Then on this morning’s dogwalk, I saw a large shadow slice across the street, followed by soaring wings overhead: four turkey vultures circling over a neighbor’s house, roused from their roost when he took his elderly Shih Tzu outside.

“Are they coming for Patchy?” he worried.

“Oh, no,” I reassured. “Their beaks and feet are too weak to grasp and kill live prey, so they’re looking for roadkill.”

More alarming than a vulture’s appetite, though, is their very presence so early in the year. Mass Audubon tells me turkey vultures typically return to New England in March or maybe February, but here we are in late January, and at least some vultures have returned: another sign of a warming world where the birds think January is Spring.


Holly in snow

If my eyes were a camera I could use while driving, I’d show you yesterday’s bald eagle soaring over Route 9, its path bisecting a flannel-gray sky fringed with snowy trees.

Good day for (rubber) ducks

Spring semester started last week at both Babson and Framingham State, so I’ve spent the past week getting my proverbial ducks in a row. My syllabi, assignment prompts, and Canvas sites were ready on day one, and I’ve spent the past week and weekend setting up attendance records and updating studio schedules for my Comp I students.

Although there have been semesters when I’ve built my pedagogical plane as I was flying it, this semester I’m revisiting classes I’ve already taught. I know from long experience the more planning and preparation I can do early in the semester, the easier things will go later. There will be weeks when I’ll be buried in grading, and at those times I’ll need the guardrails of a well-designed course to keep me on track. A detailed syllabus and course calendar are for my benefit as much as my students’.

”Executive function” is the term psychologists use for the planning and processing skills both students and instructors alike need to stay organized and on-task. Many first-year students struggle with executive function, with college being the first time they’ve had to juggle school, socializing, and other aspects of adulting without a parent present. This is especially true in Spring semester Comp I classes, where many students are repeating the class because they got derailed last semester.

I am not a naturally organized person, as anyone who has seen my messy desk can testify. Over the years, I’ve learned I need a scaffold of to-do lists, calendar reminders, and So Many Alarms to remind me what I need to do when. I’m only as organized as the structure surrounding me.

They say second marriages represent a triumph of hope over experience, and I’d argue that students’ second or third attempts to pass a class represent a combination of hope and experience: my students’ hope, and my experience knowing what it takes to stay on-track. As lead duck leading a flock of younger ducks, it’s my job to keep everyone on task and on target: ducks, meet row.


Wintry mix

It continues to be an unusually warm, rainy winter. On Monday, we got several inches of dense, sludgy snow: the first time J has used the snow-blower all season. By Tuesday, the snow had melted, and now we’re in a pattern where we get a slick coating of sleet, snow, or slush overnight that disappears by mid-morning.

Wintry mix is the term New Englanders use for mixed precipitation: a messy combination of snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Given this week’s warm temperatures, the weather has been heavy on “mix” and light on “wintry.”


Raindrop

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to a two-hour radio show dedicated to G, the father of my friend A (not her real initial), who died in December after fighting dementia. G loved to play and listen to music, so A’s aunt in Oregon used her weekly public radio show to air a playlist of songs her brother loved: lots of Chet Atkins, an occasional Willie Nelson tune, some Charlie Pride and a delightfully palate-cleansing Frank Yankovic, and a handful of songs from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

It was a moving and joy-filled tribute to a man with many friends, and I woke this morning with “I’ll Fly Away” singing in my head. During the past three pandemic years, we’ve all become accustomed to creative ways to celebrate safe and socially-distanced milestone events, including drive-by birthday parties and too many CardMyYard displays to count.

At the height of pandemic lockdown, J and I attended our first (and so far only) Zoom wedding, a gathering in a Texas hotel ballroom with remote attendees in Pakistan, Qatar, and beyond. It was an event we wouldn’t have attended in any other context, but Zoom literally opened the ceremony to folks like us in far-flung places, giving us a chance to witness an otherwise private family event.

The week after G died, I “attended” his New York memorial service via Zoom, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be there virtually if not in person. Yesterday’s radio show felt similarly–and surprisingly–immediate. Although a radio playlist dedicated to G wasn’t a nod to pandemic protocol–I’m sure his sister would have dedicated a show to him even without a pandemic–the technologies we’ve become so accustomed to these past few years are a perfect way to gather far-flung friends and family in a shared act of remembrance.

Yesterday as I listened to an Oregon radio live stream on my phone here in eastern Massachusetts, I occasionally traded text comments and emoji with A in western Mass as we listened: not quite the same as being in the same room, but a way to share a real-time experience across the miles.


Watching

Last night I went to the Zen Center to teach a brief meditation intro class. While the Zen Center was closed during the height of the pandemic, this class happened virtually via Zoom and has only recently moved back in-person.

Teaching meditation online is…interesting. It’s perfectly possible to tell someone the basics of Zen meditation via Zoom: here is how to keep your body, breath, and mind. But when you teach meditation in person, you can hear the person next to you breathing, and you have a peripheral sense of their posture: are they nodding, slouching, or slumping?

When you teach meditation on Zoom, you can see your students’ faces, but you don’t have a three-dimensional, multisensory sense of their physical presence. Watching someone meditate is about as interesting as watching paint dry, but meditating alongside someone gives you a much more intimate understanding of how present they are.

Teaching a thing is only partly about talking: telling students about Zen is as helpful as telling someone about a delicious and nourishing meal. If you want to learn how to meditate, sit beside someone else who is meditating, and like an old ox teaching a youngster how to pull a straight furrow, your yoke-mate will teach you more than words can say.


Roxy with military dog stamps

Last week I ordered an empty stamp binder and set of two-row stamp pages, so now I can easily page through my small collection of first-day covers. And with this modest bit of philatelist organization accomplished, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much joy it brings me to gather my treasures in this way.

Anything becomes a treasure–a cherished collectible–if you put it in an album. Last night I received another presentation book I’d ordered to archive the pictures, cards, and silly printouts J posts on our refrigerator. A saner soul would toss these out in the name of decluttering, but it brings me joy (again) to flip through an album of memories: an archive of random moments.

Yesterday I heard part of an NPR story about a journalist who wrote a New York Times op-ed in praise of clutter, arguing that sentimental objects and decor help personalize our homes, apartments, and offices. This isn’t to advocate for hoarding, he was quick to add…but I’d argue that one person’s hoard is another person’s treasure.

It’s not accidental that the title of my blog includes the word “hoarded,” as I have always been a collector. A child’s inclination to collect stamps or dolls or coins (or, in the case of my childhood, model horses) is an early manifestation of an archivist’s urge. An archive is a repository of texts and artifacts that are clutter today but will be history tomorrow.

And although I doubt historians will be interested in my ragtag collections, my intended audience isn’t them but me in the future: someone who will be interested in unpacking the archaeology of my younger life.


Two redtails with crow

On this morning’s dogwalk, I heard a murder of crows cawing loudly from a cluster of backyard pine trees. There were a dozen or more birds flying and calling, but I couldn’t see what was triggering their reaction. The crows were clearly upset, but instead of ganging up against a specific antagonist, their distress was unfocused, as if they sensed danger but couldn’t locate its exact location.

Suddenly a red-tailed hawk zoomed from the opposite side of the street, flying low with a fringe of crows on its tail. And just like that, the cawing stopped: once the hawk had flown out of sight, the crows quieted and returned one by one to the pine they’d claimed as their own: hawk gone, mission accomplished.

I didn’t capture any photos of this morning’s interaction, but years ago I snapped a photo of a single crow harassing a pair of red-tails: an enmity that goes way back.


Atrium

After last week’s rain and sloppy snow, today was brisk and bright. J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see an exhibit of early photography in China, and after we’d had our fill of looking, we ordered lunch and ate in the museum’s sun-drenched atrium: the closest thing to al fresco dining you can get in January in New England.

Atrium

Even though it’s been a mild winter in terms of temperature and snow accumulation, the days are still despairingly short. In winter, I am heliotropic, my inner sunflower turning toward the sun or any reasonable facsimile offering light, warmth, and color.

After we’d finished our lunch, J and I briefly browsed in the museum gift shop, admiring a display of Mova globes like the one J gave me for Christmas, each a beautiful ball that spontaneously spins through a combination of magnetism, solar power, and magic. My Mova globe sits on a shelf in my bathroom, away from electromagnetic interference from electronic devices and near a window where sunlight suffuses even on gloomy days. Every time I see it, my heart hearkens with recognition: keep turning toward the light, little world.