November 2007

Hope, framed

Just like Santa Claus, I’m a huge fan of lists. This past weekend, overwhelmed by the number of teaching deadlines I need to juggle from now until Christmas, I sat down and made a list of lists. From now through mid-December, every day has a dedicated page in my teaching notebook, and each day has its own list. Simply by flipping to a given day’s list, I can see what is due when and when I plan to work on any given item.

Also this weekend, I updated my Christmas card list: the first step toward actually sending Christmas cards this year. Last year, I postponed my Christmas cards until New Year’s, and even then I never got around to sending them: another uncrossed item on yet another to-do list. This year, though, I’m hopeful; hope springs eternal, as the saying goes.

Extraordinary framing

If the Grading Grind between now and the day after Christmas, when my last batch of online grades is due, isn’t too bad, maybe I’ll send this year’s Christmas cards in time for Christmas…or maybe New Year’s…or maybe “whenever.” It strikes me that Santa seems perpetually jolly during December, which is technically his busy season. How does he withstand his own daunting workload? The answer, I think, is in those lists, duly checked twice, that show a time for everything and everything in its time.

Both of today’s images are from a photo-set of Christmas shop windows in downtown Keene. Enjoy!

Too Many Men

I’m going to guess a man was working the Kelly Rink scoreboard in Boston College’s Conte Forum on Friday night, when the BC men’s hockey team lost in overtime to Northeastern University. Only a man would think having “too many men” is a bad thing!

Starting lineup

After having gone to two Boston Bruins games this year, J and I decided to give college hockey a try. Boston College is within (healthy) walking distance of J’s house, so we figured a day-after-Thankgiving stroll to and from BC would be a good way to celebrate Black Friday on foot. Whereas NHL games are memorable for their drunken fans and on-ice fights, college hockey is much more staid. Not only are college referees more strict when it comes to controlling player roughhousing, the announcer at Friday night’s game reminded fans that they should uphold BC’s reputation by exhibiting proper sportsmanship. That and the absence of beer–Conte Forum is a dry arena–meant that a sober time was had by all.

BC rafters

Whereas J and I enthusiastically root for the Bruins, on Friday night my loyalties were divided. I have hanging on my office wall diplomas from both Boston College and Northeastern University: BC is where I got my Masters degree, and NU is where I got my PhD. So although J and I agreed to cheer for BC since its Chestnut Hill campus is closer to home than NU’s downtown Boston one, I found myself watching Friday night’s game without any rabid attachment to either team. When you watch a sober game with an attitude of “may the best team win,” you can enjoy good plays regardless of which team executes them.

Shot on goal

Because college hockey games are less rowdy–and significantly cheaper–than professional games, they attract a good number of families. Sitting next to me was a man shepherding a handful of boys; next to J was a man with his son. As much as I enjoy the pomp and festivity of professional sporting events, I realize that many fans can’t afford their high-class prices. Part of the appeal of a BC hockey game was the fact we could walk to and from the arena, but another big draw was the fact that on eBay, J bought tickets for our mid-level seats for what we would have spent on hotdogs alone at a Bruins game. We might be super-fans, but that doesn’t mean we’re super-rich.

Baldwin Eagle works the crowd

One great irony of Friday night’s game was the fact it was the first BC or Northeastern game of any kind I’d ever attended. Yes, I went to and graduated from both schools…but as a grad student at each, I didn’t have time to watch sporting events. And so as J and I approached the Boston College campus and tried to find Conte Forum, I had to admit the only time I’d been inside was when I’d lined up in cap and gown before marching at graduation. Extracurricular activities are a fun part of any undergraduate experience, but one of the shocks you experience when you enter grad school–and especially when you start teaching–is the realization that grown up grad students don’t typically have time for undergraduate games.

Dropping the puck

So perhaps Friday night was my chance to reclaim some of the grad school glory I missed the first time around. When I was a grad student and teaching fellow at Boston College, I had too many books and papers, not too many men, to occupy me; there wasn’t world enough nor time to play or watch games. And when I was a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, I lived too far from campus–at times, a full state away–to take a leisurely Friday night stroll there and back.

Now that my student days are over and I’ll forever be an eagle/husky hybrid-alumna, I can enjoy rooting for either or both of my alma maters. Having too many men might be a bad thing, but you can never have too many allegiances.

Golden glow

Yesterday afternoon, before driving to a Thanksgiving potluck with friends, J and I took a walk around his golden-leafy neighborhood. “Everyone goes walking on Thanksgiving,” J noted, “even if they don’t walk any other day in the year.” He was right. On a typical day in Newton, you’ll see people walking dogs, people jogging singly or in pairs, and an occasional couple, walking. But yesterday it was balmy and beautiful–warm enough for several convertible-owners to drive with their tops down–and we saw several loose clusters of people walking the streets without dogs or exercise togs: just walking. Apparently Thanksgiving is a day when you gather with family, eat inordinate amounts of food, and then spend time engaging in the simple activities (such as walking) you wish you took the time for the rest of the year.

Japanese maple leaves on ground cover

J and I spend much of our time together walking, even when it’s not Thanksgiving. Yesterday J mapped a two-mile afternoon walk for us to take; last weekend, we walked four miles on Sunday and a total of twelve miles between Thursday night and Monday morning. Some people spend Thanksgiving watching the Macy’s parade on TV; others watch football games. On Thanksgiving like other days, J and I walk because it’s something we enjoy: it’s good for you, it costs nothing, and it’s a leisurely way to spend time together, with or without dogs or cameras. If you live in a golden-leafy neighborhood with plenty of pretty, safe streets to stroll, why wouldn’t you spend as much time as you are able ambling?

Falling and fallen

And yet, not everyone lives to walk: walking, after all, is slow-paced and lacks the thrills and chills of, say, drag-racing. Why walk when you can run, roller-blade, bike, or skateboard? Why walk when you can sleep, watch TV, or shop? Every time I visit my parents in Ohio, my mom and I go walking together; my dad prefers bench-sitting to walking, and “walking the dog” always provides my mom and me with ample excuse to escape. “Why aren’t there more people out here,” my mom will ask, gesturing toward almost-empty paths in the close-to-home suburban parks we explore whenever I go home. “They put in all these nice walking trails, and people are too busy watching TV, playing video games, or going to movies to find time for a walk.”

I never know how to answer my mom’s rhetorical question since it demands I speak for the “they” who do not walk, and how can I understand “their” motives? “Why do people spend good money,” my mom will ask, “to sit inside watching some stupid movie when they can be out walking?” At this point in the conversation, Reggie is typically tugging his leash and I’m pulled in two directions, part of me following the path of conversation and another part of me paying attention to the literal path ahead of me. “I don’t know,” I’ll admit. “Some people like movies, and some people like walking. To each his own, you know?”

Old man's beard

This morning, I went to Zen practice in Lexington for the first time in months. Fall semester has been a busy time: I’m teaching what amounts to a double course-load at several schools, in October there were the late nights and lost sleep of a Red Sox championship run, and by November a teaching overload necessarily results in grading gridlock. At some point you begin to cut yourself slack by replacing things you’d like to do with the things you must do. “In December, after the semester is over,” you tell yourself, “I’ll start writing, practicing, and working out again.” Next semester, you tell yourself, your teaching load will be lighter, and there will be more time for everything you’ve been postponing…if only you can get to the end of this hectic time.

Confused flower

If it weren’t for Reggie and J, I suppose I’d have postponed walking these past months, too, figuring I didn’t have time. And if it weren’t from an email last week from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) asking someone to lead practice today, I suppose I’d have slept in this morning. But knowing that ZM Mark is in Korea and needed someone to lead practice–knowing that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to drag myself out of bed, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and have the satisfaction of knowing I’d both practiced and helped Mark out by covering practice for him–I responded to the email. “No problem: I’ll be there. Have a good, safe trip!”

Japanese maple leaves & samara

And so this morning, I got up at 5:30 to crawl into meditation clothes, drive the 15 minutes or so from Newton to Lexington, and make sure the lights were on when other folks arrived for practice. About 95 percent of Zen practice is simply showing up, and the other 5 percent is simply staying. On Black Friday, when other folks dragged themselves out of bed to drive to malls and stores offering door-buster bargains, I tried to find no better deal than my own breath, attentively watched. There will be time in December to catch up with writing, practicing, and working out; there will be time, come Cyber Monday, to shop. But this morning, thoughts of all those classes headed into their final weeks were shoved to the back-burner, just as they are when J and I stroll the streets in our golden-leafy neighborhood. Some people like to watch movies, and others like to walk. Some people like to shop for door-buster bargains; others choose to spend the morning after Thanksgiving meditating. To each his own, you know?

Extreme Closeup

Here’s one last picture before I power-down the laptop for Thanksgiving: an extreme closeup of a rain-soaked fashion magazine, one of several in an abandoned pile outside a Waban, Massachusetts hair salon.  Enjoy!

Fallen leaf on snow

By the time I left Keene last night, the several inches of snow we’d gotten throughout the day had already begun to melt. There was enough accumulation that I had to brush off my car…but the snow was wet, destined to melt. By the time I got to Newton last night, the half-inch of snow they’d gotten was gone, with nothing left as proof but cold, wet leaves.

That’s the trick with autumnal snow: it’s ephemeral, merely a harbinger of snowfalls to come. Soon enough, I’ll be tired of digging out my car, but last night, the novelty of the season’s first snow prevented any sense of tedium. On the roads yesterday, drivers seemed careful and unsure, spinning wheels when they accelerated too roughly. “How are the roads,” the woman at the apothecary asked yesterday afternoon when I arrived in a snow-sprinkled hat. “I don’t know,” I answered, “I’ve only walked in it.” In a matter of weeks, drivers will revert to their usual carelessness, and clerks won’t ask how you got to their shops. Yesterday, though, there was a mood of awe-inspired fragility as everyone re-remembered how to walk, drive, and cavort on snow. Thank goodness we’ve had months of leaf-fall to practice for the snowfalls to come.

Click here for a photo-set from yesterday’s snowfall. Enjoy!

First snow...

So far, it’s only a dusting. But that didn’t stop these college students from making the year’s first snow angels.

Extension corded

It’s beginning to look a lot like…extension cords. J tells me they keep the lights wrapped around the towering spruce tree in downtown Waban year ’round, and he’s probably right. But I don’t remember seeing these extension cords on previous dog-walks, so I’m guessing they don’t keep Festive Holiday Tree plugged in all year, just during the Festive Holiday Months of November through February-ish.


Yes, February-ish. I met J last January, and the first time he gave me directions to his house, Festive Holiday Tree was a notable (and conveniently illuminated) landmark. Newton is a largely Jewish suburb of Boston, and Waban is a largely Jewish section of Newton. This means there aren’t many Christmas trees in Waban, but Festive Holiday Trees are a different story. If you keep your Festive Holiday Tree lit until sometime in February, no one can accuse you of celebrating Christmas at the expense of other sectarian holidays. Instead, Festive Holiday Time, like Festivus, is a celebration for the rest of us.

Plugged in

Apparently it takes a lot of extension cords to keep a Festive Holiday Tree lit. In the past, I’ve used the metaphor of laptop power cords to refer to the way different religions tap into the same unnameable power source, and I suppose that applies to Festive Holiday Trees as well. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Buddha’s Enlightenment, or any of a number of light-focused winter festivals, you have to light your fire somewhere. It’s heartening to know a nice Jewish neighborhood like Waban makes room for both a Festive Holiday Tree and a Catholic born-again Buddhist who believes in truly eclectic holiday decor.

Every year, I think “they” (i.e. the Powers That Be who put up and plug in Festive Holiday Trees) are getting an earlier start on the season…but then I realize it’s later than I think. While I’m still getting used to the fact that it’s November already, the rest of the world is zooming into Thanksgiving. If Thanksgiving is here, can Festive Holiday Time be far behind? A quick check of my blog archive shows I posted a similar picture of the Festive Holiday trees in Keene on–you guessed it–November 18 last year. Whether “they” live in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, “they” have an impeccable sense of timing.

So whether your Festive Holiday Tree is a ginkgo with a light-lined trunk or a spruce with bulb-bedecked branches, ’tis the season for everyone.

Towering, with extension cords

Milkweed pods

Wednesday afternoon was gray and colorless; on Thursday it rained incessantly. Neither “gray” nor “wet” makes for good pictures, nor does spending most of several days reading, commenting on, and returning student essay drafts. The colors in these pictures are muted, and that seems appropriate. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael described the “damp, drizzly November in my soul” that drove him to sea, but in my case, gray November days drive me to a long list of tasks. Does it matter if it gets dark by 5:00 if you’ll be spending the evening grading papers inside?

Originally, I’d planned to drive to Ohio this weekend. I have plans here in New England for Thanksgiving, and I typically visit Ohio in November: one last chance to travel before winter weather gets too unpredictable. But this year, the thought of scurrying to finish face-to-face teaching tasks before packing my car with a daunting load of online work seemed foolish. If I’m not hurrying home for a particular Thursday in November, wouldn’t it be easier travel home in January when my teaching load is lighter?

Defaced display

When my mom returned my message explaining I wouldn’t be driving home this weekend, she was supportive and sympathetic. “It gets dark so early these days,” she remarked. “At least when you drove here in August, there was light to drive in.” This morning as I was walking Reggie here in Newton, the still-colorful leaves underfoot were wet with last night’s rain: muted. It felt good to be walking rather than driving, and I felt strangely happy to be heading into a weekend where all I have to do is work. What kind of person enjoys gray November walks and working weekends? The kind, I think, who enjoys muted colors for their quiet calm.

Now in late November, I remember all those years when my ex-husband’s moods took a marked turn for the worse as winter approached. The period between our anniversary in early November and his birthday in late March was always a tenuous time; along with the constant undercurrent of seasonal depression, there was the sporadic drama of manic surges and surly slumps. Like the fabled hare, my ex was prone to fits and spurts of productivity punctuated by sudden urges to travel as an escape from the routine. I, on the other hand, was a tortoise who preferred to stay at home precisely because my shell was my home: why do you need to dash off anywhere when all you need is right at hand?

Defaced display

In those mismatched, married days, I remember coming home from teaching with a nervous dread: what Mood would I encounter upon arrival? Would my husband be upbeat or sullen, mad as a March hare or hopping with enthusiasm? This morning as I walked Reggie on the same sidewalks we take every morning we’re in Newton, I realized how thoroughly predictable my life has become. Tortoises thrive on stability, and here I am surviving a workload that would crush those with thinner shells. This morning, I felt grateful for the dependable monotony of my own incessant presence, Reggie’s nonstop dogginess, and J’s routine reliability: whereas C dreaded winter, J loves it. These days, I’ve traded the excitement of mood swings for the merry-go-round of the routine, and I love the slow, steady spin of that predictability.

It would have been fun to see my family this weekend; a change of scenery always offers its own kind of thrill. But Ohio in November is a known entity, and so is the experience of coming home to a daunting to-do list. Many times in the past I’ve returned from a whirlwind weekend away then pulled an all-nighter to prepare for class the next day: being married to a hare will do that to you. But I, it turns out, am a tortoise, and this weekend in Newton is my turtle-time. This weekend, I’ll enjoy the quiet tranquility of essay drafts and lecture notes as the semester heads into the backstretch of its last month. In January, there will be time for fun and family; for now, working slow and steady offers its own reward.

Picnic squirrel

You might remember this picnic table, sans squirrel, from about a month ago. Back then, I mentioned the shade under which this picnic table sits; what I didn’t mention was the walnut-laden source of that shade. If you’re a squirrel laying up provisions for winter, it’s mighty convenient to have a picnic table right under a walnut tree upon which you can sample your collection. And if you’re a strolling blogger who never goes out without a camera, these days blog-fodder is ripe for the taking.

On campus today, I saw more students in each of my classes than I’ve seen in months. Now that we’re heading into Thanksgiving with the end of the semester soon thereafter, students are getting serious about their studies. I’ve often joked that I do more real teaching–and to students who are actually listening–during the last two or three weeks of the semester than during all the other weeks combined. Weeks one through eleven are purely preparatory; weeks twelve through fifteen are when students sit up in their seats, listen to what you have to say, and actually seek you out for extra help.

Walnut squirrel

I guess it makes sense that students, like squirrels, get serious about stockpiling only when there’s a bite of briskness in the air. When the semester starts, it still feels like summer, so it’s easy to think “I’ll do it later” when considering assignments or even class attendance. As the days grow shorter and colder, things heat up academically. The next few weeks are when the intellectual rubber hits the road with term-long research papers and other projects approaching full ripeness. Which squirrels have been faithful hoarders and which have been only acting squirrely? We’ll find out in a few weeks. In the meantime, I still look forward every marathon Tuesday to the brief midday break I take to consider squirrels and other shade-loving creatures.

True brew Bruin

If you pour enough beer into die-hard hockey fans, they’ll put nearly anything on their heads. This true-blue (or make that true brew?) fan sat next to J at Saturday’s game between the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. Mr. True-Blue Bruin was one of a handful of middle-aged adults (some of them women) who sat on one side of us wearing foam bear-heads throughout the game; on the other side of us, two Army guys and a young family dressed in Sabres jerseys tried their best to cheer against the home team. Sitting between super-fans of opposing camps, J and I were something of a de-militarized zone, making sure True Blue Bruins didn’t claw any Invading Sabres. Hockey is, after all, only a game, so it’s best to leave the roughing to the pros.

Hat trick

This isn’t to say J and I weren’t dressed for the occasion. In the spirit of Almost-True-Blue fans, we both wore Bruins ball-caps, which seem to be the headgear of choice for the well-dressed fan; J additionally wore a long-sleeve Bruins T-shirt and fleece jacket while I sported a Patrice Bergeron jersey. During a year when the Red Sox are champions, the Patriots are undefeated, and Celtic pride has been resurrected by the signing of two new celebrity phenoms, it’s difficult to be a lowly Bruins fan. While every other Boston sports team is kicking butt, the Bruins are merely mediocre. When J and I went in search of Bruins-wear before our first home-game back in October, we had a hard time finding any. After finally finding a tiny section of Bruins paraphernalia at a local sporting goods store filled to the rafters with Red Sox and Patriots logos, we found most of their Bruins-wear was priced at clearance rates. “This is the first Bruins hat I’ve sold in three years,” a bemused cashier remarked as we bought two $15 ball-caps for $5 a piece and an $80 fleece jacket priced at only $10.

Funky headgear

Sporting goods store prices notwithstanding, on Saturday there were plenty of fans sporting Bruins logos. On the T ride from Newton to the TD North Garden, J and I sat surrounded by other gold-and-black bedecked fans. In Boston, Red Sox hats are as common as blue jeans, especially in the aftermath of another World Series win. But when you see someone wearing anything Bruin, you know they grew up playing hockey, have followed the sport since the Bruins dominated, or are simply trying to go against the Everyone-Loves-the-Red-Sox/Go-Patriots grain. At time when everyone is saying how easy it is to be a Boston sports fan, rooting for the Boston Bruins is still something of a statement.

Well-dressed hockey hooligans

Although it’s easy to laugh at well-dressed super-fans, I suspect wearing the colors of your chosen team has a kind of ritual significance. During the rest of our lives, we try to stand out as individuals, striving to excel, outperform, and otherwise shine in our academic, professional, and personal life. When you don the colors of your favorite sports team, though, you immediately assume a group identity with anyone with similar loyalties: with one glance, you can spot your virtual kin by the colors they sport on their sleeves. Last summer in Dublin, I rode a train crammed with soccer fans on their way to watch a national tournament, each wearing the colors of their beloved county. As an outsider, it was fascinating to see regional loyalties literally emblazoned on people’s bodies: “This is who I am; this is who I root for.” One of my favorite sights from the standing-room-only T-ride home from Saturday’s win was that of a foam Bruins bear-claw clinging to one of the trolley hand-holds. We fans not only root as one, we take public transit as a team, too. There is no “I,” after all, in “MBTA.”

Sharing a hockey game with your kid = Priceless

My favorite picture of well-dressed and hatted Bruins fans is this one. Super-fandom is only partly about hats, jerseys, and other logo-laden products; after the cost of your wardrobe has been tallied, spending some one-on-one time with your kid at a hockey game really is priceless. Hockey is, after all, only a game, but the bonds of family and fandom go more than jersey-deep. In a world that admonishes children not to talk to strangers, sporting events allow and even encourage us to scream our lungs out with folks we’ve never seen before. What better sign of unity, at least among fans of the home team, is that split second when the similarly hatted all jump to their feet in response to a well-earned goal?

Bruins win again!

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