February 2008

Senor Snowman

This is the best image I have of the enormous campus snowman I’d mentioned in my last post. In addition to sporting sunglasses, scarf, and sombrero, this snowman is two-faced, sporting an expression on either side. The one above looks emotionally enigmatic, probably because of the aforementioned sunglasses and the frown-like remnants of what looks to be a drooping mustache. The one below looks more unambiguously happy, with a silly grin that speaks toward the contents of that red plastic cup.

Senor Snowman

Both Massachusetts and New Hampshire are supposed to get more snow tonight: it seems I can run from the wintry weather, but just I can’t hide. If you want to take a virtual trip to a far different climate, click over to From the Far Field, the blog of one of my Keene State teaching colleagues who’s spending a six month sabbatical in Pune, India. And if the long winter months make you feel old in your bones, check out Middle Ages, the blog of an anonymous friend who woke up one morning, found herself middle aged, and wondered aloud how that happened. Enjoy, and don’t forget to Chill Out regardless of what climate or age you find yourself in.

Whose woods are these?

Whose woods are these? I just don’t know. The “Private” sign keeps out no snow. Apologies to Robert Frost, but this morning I couldn’t help stopping by woods after last night’s snowy evening.

Snow scene

The storm that rained on Boston last night dropped some seven inches of snow here in Keene. The streets and sidewalks that had been impassably icy from last week’s wintry mix were snowy rather than slippery this morning, plow crews having worked through the night to make sure the morning commute (and my morning dog-walk) happened with minimal inconvenience. Snow is much easier than ice to walk on, and this morning’s snow was sticky rather than powdery, so it afforded good traction.

By this point in the winter, we should be sick of snow: earlier in the week, I was certainly sick of ice. But today, I noticed a friendly and even bemused attitude in the faces of passersby I met while walking Reggie downtown and back. “Do you think this will be the last one,” I asked one man shoveling his driveway. “Nope, there’ll be one more,” he answered. By this point in the season, New Englanders have grown resigned to and even perversely fond of interminable winters: if we’ve made it this far, we surely can make it another month, two, or three until the snow stops and the black-flies hatch.

Church Street

On campus today, I spotted an enormous snowman with sunglasses, scarf, and sombrero gripping a red plastic cup: apparently he (like many students) has gone to Margaritaville in his mind. Elsewhere, an entire family of snow folk stood lined larger than life in someone’s yard: a productive use, it seems, of an ample resource. When snowstorms show no sign of stopping–we’re supposed to get several more inches tonight and tomorrow, and potentially another Big Dump on Friday–you might as well hunker down, make yourself some snow-friends, and pour something tasty and appropriately alcoholic in your own red plastic cup. The snow’s not going much of anywhere, so visiting an imagined Margaritaville is the next best alternative.

Click here for a photo-set of yet more snow photos…and don’t forget to bring your own beverage in a red plastic cup.


On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I teach at 8:00, so instead of letting Reggie out to sniff the accumulated piles of snow in my yard and driveway, I take him for a quick walk: around the block and back, far enough for Reggie to sniff and pee and for me to snap a few pictures before coming back to prepare for class. This morning, the eastern horizon was capped with pink, trout-speckled clouds: sunrise.


On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I get home from teaching around 4:00, so instead of letting Reggie out to sniff the accumulated piles of snow in my yard and driveway, I take him for a somewhat longer walk: to downtown and back, far enough for more sniffing, peeing, and photo-snapping. This afternoon, the sky opened to release a confetti-drop of quickly accumulating white: snowfall.

As I type this, I’m tucked inside for the night and the sky is spitting a sizzle of wintry mix on my window panes: the last I checked, my car was nestled in four to six inches of new, wet snow. Tomorrow morning, after Reggie and I get back from our Wednesday morning walk downtown and back, I’ll dig out my car while Reggie sniffs the newly accumulated snow piles, then I’ll spend the day doing grading, laundry, and teaching prep: another February dawn-to-dusk in New England.


It’s hard not to snap a photo of a bird that’s sitting pretty and all but posing for you.

I find it fittingly ironic that mere days after arguing the utter artlessness of the photos I post here, Hoarded Ordinaries took home two Blogisattva Awards, both of them for visual rather than literary merit. According to the folks responsible for this year’s Blogisattvas, which recognize “excellence in English-language Buddhist blogging,” Hoarded Ordinaries is noteworthy for its “Clean, Straightforward, Unaffected Design” and “Creation or Use of Graphics in a Blog.”

Snow lion

I should promptly point out that the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of this blog has nothing in particular to do with me: Hoarded Ordinaries looks the way it does because when I moved my site to WordPress last year, I picked an off-the-rack template designed by Vanilla Mist (a.k.a. Patricia Muller). I don’t know if Muller is a Buddhist, but I think she deserves more design credit than I do for any presumed “Buddhist” virtues underlying the look of my blog.

I also find it amusing that my “creation or use of graphics” here on Hoarded Ordinaries should be deemed somehow inherently Buddhist: two years ago, when I was creating and using graphics exactly as I do today, one of the folks behind the Blogisattvas pointed out that Hoarded Ordinaries didn’t actually qualify as either a “Zen” or “Buddhist” blog. I wonder what has changed between now and then to make the “look and feel” of Hoarded Ordinaries seem suddenly (and award-winningly) Buddhist? Have the pictures I post suddenly become more intrinsically Zen-like, or does the fact that I now have a category tag pointing to Zen posts make my site more overtly Buddhist? Perhaps I should ruin the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of Hoarded Ordinaries by tacking a label at the top proclaiming that it now boasts “New and Improved Zen Flavor,” given how the word “Zen” makes even household cleansers seem cool.


I never was one of the popular girls, I’ve never understood the politics behind awards ceremonies, and I certainly have never entered much less won a beauty contest, so this year’s Blogisattva Awards and the suggestion that the look of Hoarded Ordinaries is downright pretty has left me a bit flummoxed. I guess the appropriate response is to smile and thank the Academy, Buddha, and all the little people who stood beside me on my way to the top. For good or ill, it seems that as a Buddhist blogger I’m more effective (or at least more award-worthy) when I’m choosing blog templates and posting pictures than when I’m actually talking about Buddhism. If nothing else, I guess these two awards go to show that when it comes to the Zen of Buddhist blogging, silence is better than holiness, especially if you’re lucky enough to sit pretty.


J was the one to spot “my” grave during our stroll through Newton Cemetery this afternoon. As much as I enjoy exploring cemeteries, today was the first time I’ve ever encountered a tombstone with my name on it. As far as I know, I don’t have any relatives living (or once living) in Newton, Massachusetts, so I’ll assume “DiSabato” is more common a name than I knew. Still, it’s a bit creepy to turn around and see a carved-in-stone reminder of your own mortality. There eventually go I, and you, and all of us.

War memorial

I don’t normally find cemeteries to be creepy places…and yet, I occasionally see memorials that stop me cold, offering as they do a tangible reminder of the mortality we all share. Tombstones marking the graves of children always give me pause, and today, J and I saw several graves that were adorned with Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers, a sign that the Dearly Departed really are dear. After seeing the usual His and Hers grave markers with the name of a still-living widow or widower next to the birth and death dates of a deceased spouse, J talked of visiting his grandfather’s grave with his grandmother, her name chiseled alongside her husband’s. I suppose there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing where and with whom your ultimate resting place will be,visits to your own (eventual) grave being one way of getting to know your (eventual) neighborhood.

Both J and I grew quiet when we approached a field of war dead, that portion of any cemetery always seeming too large. But the memorial that stunned us both into silence was this one, the death date (September 11, 2001) explaining why this particular loss happened far too prematurely:

Rest in peace

After we got home, J went online find the face and story behind the stone. Some souls continue to be mourned even by those of us who never knew them in the flesh.

Local color

I’ve already posed the philosophical question of whether graffiti qualifies as art, so I won’t go there again. But given today’s Photo Friday theme of Art–and given the fact that it’s snowing again here in New England, so I didn’t take any photos on this morning’s dog-walk–I’m taking this opportunity to re-visit several more images I snapped on my way to the Cambridge Zen Center this past Sunday.

Stencilled sightseers

Annette recently shared a humorous video that tackles the vexing question of What Is Art? It’s a question I ask in a slightly modified form in a Literary Theory class I occasionally teach online: before we address the subject of literary theory, can we first determine exactly what literature is?

It helps, of course, that one of the books we read in this same class–Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction–begins with a chapter titled “What is literature?” It either does or doesn’t help that Eagleton duly refuses to answer his own question. “What is literature,” Eagleton asks; “What do you think it is,” Eagleton responds, as do I. One coy way of answering Eagleton’s question is to note that literature is a field of inquiry focused on questions that have more than one answer. Whenever students press me for “the answer” to Eagleton’s question, I note that my copy of the book doesn’t come with an Answer Key, the question “What is literature?” being a question I ask because I’m genuinely interested in discovering some decent answers, not because I’m looking for students to read my mind.

Here's looking at you

After we spend about a week grappling with the most basic of literary questions–how, after all, can you move on to the sticky task of interpreting literature if you don’t even know what literature is?–I’ll eventually observe that I personally think the very discussion and debate we’re engaged in is in large part what defines “literature.” Given a blank brick wall, most folks won’t find much to argue or analyze; given a brick wall with some sort of image painted therein, we can begin to pose (and debate) questions such as why is the image there, what does it mean, and what value or significance does it have in our lives?

And yet, even this answer is incomplete and unsatisfactory, for it ignores issues of intent. If audiences define art, then an accidentally spilled bucket of paint can qualify if onlookers subsequently wonder why or to what purpose said paint was spilled. Right now in New England, many winter-weary folks are shaking their fists at the sky and wondering “Why”: does that mean Yet Another Snowfall could qualify as Art if enough of us got together and started debating its meaning?

The eyes have it

Things are complicated even further when I realize I have contradictory views about my own blog, which may or may not qualify as “art” or “literature” depending on whom and how you ask. If you were to ask me if my written posts qualify as literature, I’d probably say yes…but if you were to ask me if my posted pictures qualify as art, I’d probably say no. As a writer, I see my words as being consciously crafted to communicate an artful intent: yes, it does my writerly heart proud to think that someone might read my words and ponder issues of meaning or significance in response. But as shutter-snapper, I don’t see the pictures I post as having the same intentional import: the fact that I shot this rather than that is almost always accidental, and art (in my mind at least) is about authorial intention. If I snapped an interesting image by accident, would that image be art, or simply fortuitous? In my mind at least, the pictures I post are illustrations, but they aren’t art, for they don’t rise to the same level of conscious craft that my carefully chosen words do.

And yet, as a literary critic, I also know that authors themselves are often the least credible source when it comes to interpreting their own art, which again suggests a certain element of accident (or at least surprise) when it comes to creative matters. If an author or artist was thinking Idea A when she or he crafted a given work, does that preclude the possibility that Ideas B, C, and/or D might be appropriate interpretations as well? It seems the very questions “What is art” and “What is literature” are themselves rather artful and literary, inspiring as they do a complex internal debate that appears to be ongoing. My copy of Terry Eagleton’s book definitely does not come with an answer key, and I ask these questions because the more I think about them, the further it seems I am from actually answering them.

Interior demolition

Yesterday morning’s dog-walk was sunny, with the kind of low-angled light that makes for good shadows. When you walk the same streets nearly every day, you become a connoisseur of local light, someone who notices when the light is shining this way rather than that. Yesterday’s dog-walk was sunny, and Reggie and I walked early, so the rising sun was glinting through the east-facing window of storefront in downtown Keene that’s in the process of being gutted. In low-angled morning light, the dirty window that had shrouded this process the afternoon before suddenly became transparent, and I could see the previous day’s demolition illuminated as if on stage.

Alien eye

I don’t go looking for local light shows; they just happen to happen when I’m out and about. If you walk the same old streets enough times in enough weathers, you’ll grow accustomed to the same old sights, and that makes it easy to see something Different and Unusual when that sort of thing decides to happen. I’m sure that there have been alien eyes my entire life and then some, but I started to notice them only upon moving to Keene with an antsy dog. Several weeks ago while walking with friends in a new-to-me-neighborhood, I found myself interrupting the usual conversation to point out an afternoon specimen.  “See? There. The same old light reflected and refracted in an unusual way. Now that you’ve seen it, you’ll start seeing it everywhere.”

But truth be told, I’m not sure my friends or anyone will start seeing alien eyes everywhere: my predilection for noticing light and shadow seems to be an acquired thing, an obsession that few others share. Yes, there are the likes of Shadow Steve walking the streets of New York, but elsewhere and among other folks, you have to point to something a bit more exciting than reflected light on a wall to make headlines. What’s the big deal behind another bit of reflected light?

Tree with shadow

And so you may or may not be surprised to hear that my own viewing of last night’s total lunar eclipse was only partial. Around 9:00, I checked the skies from inside my warm apartment to see whether it was clear, and yes, I could see the celestial bangles of Orion’s belt. At 9:30, I pulled boots and coat over my pajamas–yes, by that time of night, my own moon is surely settling toward the horizon called sleep–and went outside to see a half-slivered, half-silvered sphere hovering above my backyard. By 10:00 pm and beyond, I was nestled inside, imagining the half-slivered moon as completely shade-stained as I remembered past eclipses and the way something as simple as a shadow turns the usual flat white disk into a smoky orange popping from the sky with three-dimensional intensity.  In other words, my desire to see last night’s total eclipse was itself eclipsed by other desires, the warmth of my own apartment and its awaiting bed exerting a gravitational pull I couldn’t resist. Nestled in for the night, I knew someone like Dave would take and share pictures better than any I could. A lunar eclipse, after all, is something everyone stops to take note of, giving someone like me the night off from noticing.

This morning, though, was something else entirely. Walking Reggie before sunrise, we both were greeted by the same old non-eclipsing moon shining its flatly white, entirely ordinary face over the the center of the street as we set out in the frigid chill. Did this morning’s moon look a bit sheepish as it shone with the usual monthly fullness, embarrassed at the unaccustomed attention it garnered last night? Shadows are an everyday occurrence, but eclipses are rare: this isn’t the fault of the moon but of our imperfect and obstructed view, purely a matter of perspective. This morning, the only other folks out were drivers headed toward the morning shift at the local factory, and I doubt they’d stop for something as simple as shadows on the moon.

Squirrels love pizza

In case you’ve ever worried about the amount of food that goes to waste on college campuses, rest assured that it doesn’t all go to waste.

One of the books I read with my first-year “Thinking & Writing: The Art of Natural History” students is Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, which gets them thinking about the other creatures that share human habitats and taste our trash. Rats, according to Sullivan, like pretty much the same foods we do, with pizza and other cheesy dishes topping their list of favorites. Now I have photographic proof that squirrels share their ratty cousins’ preference for pizza, this fellow stopping to eat a slice he’d scavenged from a trash dumpster but couldn’t carry up a tree. Maybe next time, he should choose to have his pizza delivered?

Modica Way

Yesterday morning on my way to Zen practice, I stopped to photograph Modica Way, the alley in Central Square, Cambridge, that has been taken over by street artists.

Modica Way

The most democratic of genres, graffiti is an extremely random art form: anyone with a spray can, paint brush, or inedible marker can add their scrawl. Not only is Modica a collaborative work incorporating the efforts of several different artists, the wall reflects various media of street art, with stencil work, free-hand tags, and all sorts of stickers covering the bricks, exposed ductwork, and other building surfaces.

Even at its most random, the Modica mural shows some semblance of order, with different sections being dominated by different artists, including Bren Bataclan, the Boston artist who painted my Christmas present. When I first visited (and photographed) Modica Way over a month ago, I wasn’t sure where the “real art” of the wall’s sanctioned artists ended and the popular editorializing of random punks began. On a wiki-like wall where everyone can write and revise, which version is the truest? After staring a while, I realized the point of pastiche is the ultimate randomness of it all. When your parchment is a palimpsest, every painting is pentimento: every iteration is a literal do-over, today’s version writing over yesterday’s.

Modica Way

I’ve had randomness on my mind all weekend as I’ve been spending a surprising amount of time staring at the gift I gave J for Valentine’s day: a digital frame for him to display his photographs. I figured a digital photo frame was a perfect gift for a photographer who has everything; what I didn’t foresee was the way I’d enjoy revisiting a couple hundred of J’s favorite images from the last year. Now that there’s a frame on J’s kitchen counter cycling in random rotation his various photos of me, our pets, and the places the two of us have explored together over the past year, I find myself stopping to watch these scenes from our shared life, marveling at how many memories two people can cobble together without really trying.

At Zen practice yesterday, I gave consulting interviews, and one practitioner asked about the difference between good thoughts and bad. How can you encourage the former and get rid of the latter?

Modica Way

“There is no difference between good thoughts and bad thoughts,” I explained. “The mind is a sense organ that perceives an endless series of thoughts, just as the eyes perceive an endless supply of visual stimuli, the nose perceives an endless series of olfactory signals, and the ears perceive an endless stream of sound.” Just as we don’t blame our nose for bad smells or gouge out our eyes when they see something ugly, we can’t blame or give credit to our minds for their thoughts. Thinking is what minds do, so it makes no sense to judge our thoughts or to cling to presumably good thoughts while pushing presumably bad ones away. Instead, thoughts will be thoughts, and our minds will be minds: like a digital frame set to “random,” our minds endlessly loop the thoughts and images they’ve taken and stored whether we like them or not.

And so the answer I’d give in response to Annette‘s request that I describe my life in six words or less would be the following Zen-inspired definition of consciousness: an endless series of random stimuli. Some folks wait until their dying breath to see their life flash before their eyes, but I say watching your life is as easy as walking down a graffiti-covered alley or flipping through the virtual pages of an electronic photo album, the accident of your life appearing in all its random glory.

Click here for a photo-set of images from Modica Way, taken yesterday and in January. Enjoy!

True romance

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke about what women really want from the men in their lives. What every woman secretly fantasizes about, the old joke claims, is to be with two men at the same time: one to cook, and one to clean. Finding a man who shares his feelings or puts down the toilet seat is merely icing on the (wedding?) cake.

What women want?

I’ve never been a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. Yes, it’s nice to take an annual opportunity to do something special for your loved one(s), but a day devoted to the commercial shilling of hearts, chocolate, and roses always seemed a bit tacky to me. When I lived in an all-women’s dorm during my senior year of college, I was dismayed by the sheer amount of misery one simple day could cause. Girls without boyfriends felt dejected, and girls with boyfriends felt a strange need to flaunt whatever their sweetie had gotten them, leading to a huge competition where Boyfriend A’s chocolates paled alongside Boyfriend B’s long-stemmed roses, which were outdone in turn by Boyfriend C’s diamond earrings. Otherwise demur girls turned downright vindictive, it seemed, knowing that the worth of their relationship would be judged (by a jury of their peers, of course) on the basis of what their boyfriend bought. Heaven help those creative and/or impoverished college guys who tried to get away with writing a poem, painting a picture, or singing a song to express their affection: those non-commercial gifts just couldn’t compete in the annual round of Whose Boyfriend Is the Best.

For my Valentine

Tonight, J and I have nothing special planned for Valentine’s Day. Thursday is my usual night for making the weekly drive from Keene to Newton for the weekend, so Reggie and I will arrive at J’s house later tonight just in time for dinner, just as we always do. Instead of eating out, we’ll eat in, Thursday being soup and salad night: something light and easy as we settle into the downside of another work week. When you have a man who cooks and cleans, there’s no need to go out for wining and dining: at this point, heaven sounds like another Thursday night on J’s couch watching Whatever’s On over a couple glasses of wine.

Early tonight, J emailed to ask when I’d be arriving for what he’s termed my “multi-staged” Valentine’s Day gift, adding that he’d told a female friend what he’d gotten me, and she responded, “While it isn’t your ‘traditional’ gift, it could be fun.” Right about now, a man who cooks, cleans, and dreams up nontraditional gifts sounds just right, those college games of Whose Boyfriend Is the Best notwithstanding.

The box on the left is my gift for J, which isn’t exactly a traditional Valentine’s Day gift, either, although it’s gaily masquerading as one. I’ll let you know what it is tomorrow, after J’s unwrapped it…

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