October 2008


I’m guessing a picture of Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden just minutes before a hockey game isn’t exactly what the Photo Friday folks had in mind when they announced “Garden” as this week’s photo theme, but here you have it: the best “garden” picture I have from the past week, when things have suddenly gotten cold here in New England.

Click here for more pictures of last weekend’s game between the Boston Bruins and Atlanta Thrashers, where a hat trick from Milan Lucic helped Boston win 5-4. Woooooo!


It’s the great irony of living and teaching in New England. Autumn is the prettiest season in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but as an adjunct college instructor, fall is also my busiest time of year. So while the trees have been busy with their annual autumnal show, I’ve been busy grading, prepping, and planning: what teachers do this time of year.

Shade tree

Yesterday three of my online classes ended, so today I downshift from having taught a total of seven classes (three face-to-face, four online) the past two months to teaching “only” five classes for the rest of the semester. I’m looking forward to a lighter course-load from here until December, but before I can put my feet up, I have a hefty pile of end-term grading before final grades are due Tuesday night. Deciduous trees change colors without a deadline: when the proper time comes, leaves simply lose their chlorophyll and then fall. As we Zennies like to say, “When spring comes, the grass grows by itself.” But college teaching is different from fall foliage, with a bit more heavy lifting. Unlike spring grass and autumn leaves, students don’t simply come into awareness on their own, nor do papers grade themselves.

So pardon me while I head back to my paper pile. On Wednesday, after I’ve submitted this latest batch of grades, I’ll feel more leisurely, with time to look at leaves. In the meantime, this time is a busy season for both teachers and trees, but I’m not complaining. This Time, after all, is the only one any of us has.

Alien eyes

It’s the most unusual set of alien eyes I’ve ever seen, spotted yesterday morning on the side of the post office in Waban, MA. It makes sense that I’d see such an usual example of glowing window reflections now, though, given that end of October is when the oddest aliens appear.


Walking Reggie ’round the block has gotten infinitely more interesting now that various neighbors have gotten into the Halloween spirit. One house in Newton has a white filmy ghost on a stick that Reggie looks at, askance and uncertain, every time we pass…but this morning in Keene, Reggie walked by, oblivious, when a motion-sensitive tombstone outside one neighbor’s house started flashing and emitting creepy sounds as he approached. Apparently my four-legged ghost-buster isn’t fooled by high-tech decorations, but he is spooked by sheets.


I’m offering these ghoulish images by way of a “drive-by post” before heading back to this week’s paper pile (or one of them, at least). Taking a break between drafts, I clicked over to Jo(e)’s only to find that she, too, is facing (and blogging about) her latest paper pile. What Jo(e) says is entirely true. The biggest challenge in reading student papers isn’t actually reading them; it’s figuring out how to make insightful comments that help students move from a relatively weak early draft to a somewhat more workable next one.

In both my first-year and intermediate writing classes, I have the luxury of working with students who are writing sustained, semester-long projects I see in various incarnations over the course of fifteen weeks. By semester’s end, I’ll have seen the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…but not usually in that order. Right now, I’m typing second draft comment letters to give to my students in small-group conferences: tomorrow afternoon, pairs of students will sit down with me for fifteen minutes, during which time I’ll give them a typed sheet with my impressions of their draft so we can talk about where they’re going next.

This practice of typing rather than scribbling my second-draft comments is one I borrowed from one of my teaching colleagues: it turns out that both writing and the teaching of writing are works-in-progress. After years of writing too many nitpicky comments that never seemed to encourage students to re-see their papers in radically different ways, I’m borrowing a colleague’s strategy for getting students to look at the “big picture” when revising. It’s too easy, as an English teacher, to offer a line-by-line commentary on any given draft, which typically means getting bogged down in surface-level errors in paragraphs that might not even make it into the next draft. (Like Jo(e), I’m often tempted to write “You could improve this essay by cutting this paragraph out completely,” but that’s a dangerous statement to make when you find an entire string of dead-weight paragraphs.)

Cool ghoul

In reading this and last week’s sets of drafts, I’ve held my pen when it comes to surface-level edits. This time around, it’s about looking the Bad and the Ugly straight in the face and trying to figure out how to uncover the Good that’s in there trying to get out. “You have a lot of information to share about Topic X,” I find myself typing again and again, “so as a reader, I’m wondering what you want me to do with that information: what point about Topic X are you trying to prove?” From previous semesters, I know that many students won’t figure out What They’re Trying to Say until they’ve written a full 15- to 20-page draft…at which point many of them will sit up in their seats, the proverbial light-bulb illuminated above their head, and utter some version of “I totally know how to write my paper now, but only after I’ve already written it!”

In looking up where I’d blogged that statement, I see the proverbial light-bulb flashed last December, still about a month from where this semester’s students currently are. That means both my students and I have another month or so to stare the Bad and the Ugly in the face before the Good staggers through the door: “Were you looking for me?” Although Reggie is scared by spooky sheets, luckily I’m not scared of paper sheets, having seen more than a few dreadful drafts pass over my desk like Halloween shades.


This past week my Keene State College students and I turned an important corner, finishing Week 8 in our 15-week semester: past the halfway point toward Done.

Yellow on red

In high school, my guidance counselor lamented that I had a “terminal” personality, always looking forward to The End. How much longer until this school year is over? How much longer until I’m a senior? How much longer until I graduate? Instead of always counting the seconds until The End, he counseled, wouldn’t it be better to enjoy wherever it was I presently found myself? Like any typical teen, I thought my guidance counselor was a kindly simpleton: if he was so great at leading high school students toward promising futures, I figured, how come he’d ended up with what I considered to be a desperately dead-end job? In retrospect, I was an arrogant little know-it-all, like any typical teen…but perhaps it’s one of life’s great ironies that I find myself, more than 20 years after my own “are we there yet” graduation, a Zen teacher who espouses an in-the-moment philosophy not much different from my high school guidance counselor’s.

Autumn bikepath

I still look forward to the end of things, though. There’s at least one moment during every meditation session when I wonder when a chugpi crack will mark the end of this sitting and the start of What’s Next, and in my college teaching I’m constantly attuned to where we are, exactly, in the arc of any given semester. The only reason I espouse my Zennishly in-the-moment philosophy so strongly, after all, is I’m ever mindful of the Big End that awaits us, ultimately. Knowing that everything is destined to die inevitably is a pretty good reason, I think, to pay attention now.

My high school guidance counselor would probably still be disappointed by my “terminal” outlook, but I’d beg to differ. I think one’s appreciation of the Now can be heightened by a knowledge (or at least an acknowledgment) of the Not Yet. On long meditation retreats, for instance, I’ve learned that the first three days are the hardest: “Like going to hell,” my first Zen teacher used to say. Once I learned that meditation retreats, like marathons, have their own predictable path, I was able to withstand my initial difficulties with the retreat schedule, my own sleepiness, and the digestive upset of a new environment until that point on day three or four when I turned a corner, my body, bowels, and brain finally making peace with Here and Now. After the the first few days in Hell, I’ve found, you settle into a comfortable stride, and the way feels smoother beneath your proverbial feet.


This semester hasn’t exactly been a trip to Hell, but it’s had its wearying moments. Because I’ve taught college long enough to recognize a semester’s predictable pitfalls and pit-stops, I’ve been weathering the way better than I used to. This weekend, I’m grading midterms and commenting on research paper drafts; next weekend, I’ll be doing end-term grading for several of my online classes, their eight-week cycle coming to its inevitable end. After next weekend, my online teaching load will lessen, so November will be less loaded, work-wise, than October has been: a welcome respite. With apologies to my high school guidance counselor, I’m looking ahead to that approaching end-point–a welcome almost-rest–as I continue the work between Now and The End. Sometimes you have to know where your way is ultimately headed before you can fully appreciate the road immediately beneath your feet.


This weekend, looking for a close-to-home change of scenery, J and I took the T to Revere Beach to stroll, stare at the sand and surf, and collect snapshots of sun-soaked gulls, dog-walkers, and sailboats.

No dogs allowed

Both J and I are native inlanders: J grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, and I hail from Columbus, OH. Because we weren’t raised with the ocean at our doorstep, both J and I tend to forget how close to the edge we currently live. For us, the ocean is somewhere you visit on vacation, either via a ferry to Provincetown or a plane to San Francisco or Santa Monica; we typically forget, blithely, that in Boston, the beach perpetually beckons. I know native New Englanders who insist they could never live further than a short day-trip from the ocean, the smell of salt and sand being essential to their personal happiness and well-being. Although I can appreciate the sentiment, it’s not one I share: as an inlander, the seashore is an interesting but alien place, an exotic location appropriately peopled in my imagination by wild women and wise guys.

Seashell by the seashore

J and I envisioned this weekend’s walk along Revere Beach as a T-cation, a subway-centered, entirely pedestrian version of the staycations made popular by this summer’s high gas prices. While Columbus Day weekend is traditionally a time for Bostonians to go leaf-peeping by car in New Hampshire, this weekend J and I avoided rural traffic jams by heading into rather than out of town, toward an off-season shore where dog-walkers and beach-bums have reclaimed their resident rights. Revere Beach isn’t an upscale resort; instead, it’s a red-meat enclave where you hear the dropped R’s of quintessential working- and middle-class Bostonians, “Revere” pronounced with three syllables: “Re-VEE-aah.”

Since 1951

Revere Beach is a place where “townie” isn’t an epithet but a badge of honor. As we stood in line at Kelly’s Roast Beef–a culinary landmark since 1951–I gestured discreetly toward the people around us, asking J a simple question: “McCain or Obama?” The folks waiting in line at Kelly’s represented a mix, J and I guessed, of red- and blue-state: middle- and working-class white folks with conservative values and Democratic loyalties. During my weekdays in Keene, I work alongside academics who automatically assume everyone’s for Obama; if I want to remind myself how the other half votes, I envision the flatlands of my Midwestern youth, where Joe Six-Pack lives. But even a state as blue as Massachusetts, the quintessential home of northeast liberals, contains political pockets as far removed from the Cambridge intelligentsia as Ohio is from New England. You don’t have to travel far to experience a completely different world and worldview if you’re willing to eat, when in Rome, as the red-meat Romans do.

Revere Beach

Sometimes even a short staycation–a subway ride there and back, capped with an afternoon stroll–is all you need to shake yourself out of your sameness, a subtle change of scenery reminding you that the entire world doesn’t look like your backyard. It takes all kinds, not just my kind, to make a world, and both the ocean and sky are infinitely wider than anyone’s worldview. Beaches are big and afford enough space for all kinds: dog-walkers and sailors, beach bums and bookworms. Beaches, like God’s mind, are wide enough to contain seagulls, surf, and infinite grains of sand, each bespeaking the myriad souls who have strode the edge between this world and beyond.

Click here for a photo-set of images from a sunny Sunday at Revere Beach. Enjoy!

Kick it!

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Athletic, which gives me a perfect excuse to share some photos from a sunny September football game between Boston College and UCF. Enjoy!

Sunset View Farm

Don’t let the picture fool you. As I type these words, it’s a dark and rainy morning, and I’m nestled under a blanket with my laptop to keep me warm against the pre-dawn autumn chill.

Pick a pumpkin

Blogging can be a deceptive genre. Just because I post a picture of sun-drenched pumpkins doesn’t mean it’s sunny here, and even the concept of “here” is murky in cyberspace. I snapped these photos on Monday afternoon on my weekly drive back to New Hampshire after another weekend in Newton. I lingered at Sunset View Farm in Winchendon, Massachusetts only long enough to snap a few pictures; the farm-stand isn’t open on Mondays, so I couldn’t buy anything even though I have purchased pumpkins here in the past. Thursday or Monday, New Hampshire or Massachusetts? If you’re not from around these parts and thus knowledgeable about local landmarks and weather, you’d have little way of knowing when or where, exactly, I took this picture; if you don’t know me in the flesh, you have even less reason to think you can surmise my state of mind–my inner weather–while typing these words. All you have is this tiny blog-window to gaze through, and as keeper of the house whose windows you’re peeping, I get to choose what I do or don’t display.


I occasionally get emails from regular or first-time readers who express envy over the presumably pastoral life I lead. Based upon the pictures I post and the sentiments I share, some readers surmise I’m living the life they’ve always wanted. A year or so ago, for instance, one woman wrote from her desk at work, where she’d been idly Googling to pass the time. “You live such a wonderful life,” she enthused, “traveling and taking pictures and writing. How can I get such a life?” I had to stifle a chuckle when I read these words, this woman’s email coming on a grading day when I was stuck at home facing another seemingly interminable paper pile. Oh, I can tell you how to live the life I lead: quit your 9-to-5 job with its health benefits, year-round salary, free weekends, and endless opportunities for idle Googling; accept adjunct teaching gigs at three different institutions; and spend both your weekdays and weekends grading papers, answering student emails, and prepping a seemingly endless string of classes. How do you like them pumpkins?

Autumn inventory

I don’t typically get angry with folks who envy my life, which in many ways is truly enviable. I don’t have to spend endless hours at a desk, I can do much of my work at home, and I don’t have much daily contact with clueless co-workers, supervisors, and the office politics that go with them. But with every enviable bit comes an accompanying sacrifice. Yes, the academic year affords long breaks in winter and summer…but I don’t get paid when I’m not teaching. Yes, I can do much of my work from home…but that also means I always have my work before me: the trips that reader envied were taken with laptop in tow so I could teach even while I was on “vacation.” Yes, I make a decent living doing what I do, even in tough economic times…but as an adjunct, I have minimal job security, and I make a “decent living” only because I teach a more-than-fulltime course-load, relying upon moonlighting and multi-tasking to save up for the lean, paycheck-free “breaks” some folks apparently envy me for.

The usual suspects

And so here I sit in the pre-dawn chill, having gotten up unspeakably early so I can grade one more batch of papers before heading off to teach another full day of classes. If I worked a simple 9-to-5 job, I’d still be sleeping, having left my work at the office last night…but I know that 9-to-5 desk jobs require their own kind of sacrifice in exchange for free weekends, health insurance, and other perks. If you’ve landed here through some idle Googling of your own, I don’t envy you for your life, so please don’t envy me for mine. Every life has its own hidden heartaches, and the life you imagine while you peek through my blog-window is probably far different from my own. You don’t know how or where I live, when or why I write, or what or who sustains me. All you know for sure is that I lingered long enough at Sunset View Farms in Winchendon on Monday to snap a handful of pictures of pretty pumpkins. More than that is mere imagining.


…like smiling!

Last night, J and I took the T into town, where we attended the Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, a short documentary on the work of Bren Bataclan. I’ve blogged about Bataclan before: first when he brought his whimsical paintings to Keene to cheer us after the dismal floods of October, 2005, and next when J commissioned him to paint charmingly cartoonish portrait of Reggie.

The premise behind Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is simple enough, and he’s translated the basic concept to dozens of locales far from Boston. In an attempt to spread the love, Bataclan leaves original paintings of his brightly colored characters in public spaces–on benches, inside college student centers, and elsewhere–with notes attached telling people they can have the paintings for free if they “promise to smile at random people more.”

Bren Bataclan with friends

In Tamés’ documentary, a camera chronicles one painting as it sits on a bench in a crowded Boston park, passersby pausing to consider it while others go about their business and at least one homeless man sleeps on a nearby bench. In interviews with people who were brave enough to take one of the paintings, Tamés shows how most folks’ initial reaction to the notion of paintings free for the taking was one of disbelief: surely there isn’t someone out there who is handing out art in exchange for a simple promise!

Bren Bataclan with friends

And yet, the promise behind the paintings is true. Tamés documentary explains how Bataclan, who went to college in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, was surprised to discover when he moved to Boston that people here don’t make eye contact, smile, and say hello the way they do in the Midwest. More than 15 years after my own move to New England, I still share Bataclan’s reaction: when J and I walk with or without our dogs on the streets of lush and leafy Newton, we’re continually amazed at how many folks do not return our gaze or respond to our hellos. A graphic artist who, after the dot-com bubble burst, was relieved to discover that Boston art-appreciators would actually buy his paintings, Bataclan has spent the past five years trying to thank the people of Boston and beyond by literally giving people something to smile about.

Characters galore

Several of the “serious art critics” who discuss Bataclan’s work in Tamés’ documentary raise the question of whether his cartoonish characters, painted in a “primitive” style that changes little from painting to painting, are “really” art. And yet the gushingly appreciative folks who actually claimed Bataclan’s paintings–and the satisfied customers who willingly spend money to buy Bataclan’s gallery pieces–universally agree that the paintings make them happy. Do paintings qualify as “Art” only if they are serious and somber? Are brightly colored paintings that try for nothing more than to make viewers smile too simple to be “Art”?

Notebook doodles

In Smile Boston Project, Bataclan lists Keith Haring, who made fine art out of street art, as one of his inspirations, and the connection between Bataclan and Haring is apparent. In several previous posts, I’ve grappled with the question of whether street art is “Art,” and you can infer my own stance in the debate from the fact that I have an entire blog category dedicated to graffiti. The first time I snapped photos of the graffiti-covered walls of Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge, I went specifically to see Bataclan’s work there. Although his images have long since been covered with those by other spray-can-wielding street artists, Bataclan’s paintings feature the same bold colors and clean lines you’ll see in larger-than-life street murals, the eye-grabbing “pop” of this kind of Pop Art deriving more from the bold statement of in-your-face images than from the subtle nuance of more “refined” works.

High tech, low tech

Bren Bataclan’s “Smile Boston Project” is definitely fun…but is it art? Whether or not the stern-faced critics nod in the affirmative is, to me, beside the point. Like performance art, Bataclan’s street-freebies invite viewers to get actively involved in the message by passing on the smiles the paintings inspire. Skeptics say it’s not possible for an artist to survive by giving his work away for free; one critic interviewed in Smile Boston Project suggests that Bataclan is more a marketer than an artist, his free paintings being nothing more than a public relations gimmick. But if we decry gimmickry for its superficiality, shouldn’t we also decry the kind of smug superiority that suggests skepticism is more valuable than smiles? One of the welcome outcomes of art is the way it conquers skepticism to suggest anything is possible, even the seemingly impossible task of melting New England reserve to bring a child-like glee to the streets of Boston.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, I’m feeling… Today’s photos are from an assortment of Bren Bataclan encounters: the first from last night’s Boston premiere of David Tamés’ Smile Boston Project, the next two from Bataclan’s appearance at this year’s Beacon Hill Art Walk, and the rest from a January visit to Bataclan’s studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!


Autumn is a good time of year to be short, the ground being blanketed with colorful delights on even a gray and drizzly day.


Autumn blanket