November 2009

No more boring graffiti

I can’t promise to show you no more pictures of boring graffiti, but I can promise no more blog-posts for November, 2009.


When I announced my commitment to participate in November’s National Blog Posting Month by posting something (anything!) on each of November’s thirty days, I didn’t envision how quickly the month would fly by. But here I am on the brink of December with thirty posts under my belt: just like that, NaBloPoMo is no more.

Over the past thirty days, I learned it’s not too difficult to post something (anything!) every day if you keep a well-stocked photographic pantry to use on days when light is scarce and inspiration is scarcer. It also helps if you keep a daily journal you can plunder for posts.

More than anything, though, it helps to have an arbitrary commitment to post even when you feel you have nothing significant to say or share. There have been more than a few days this month when I’ve felt like Mother Hubbard looking at her proverbial bare cupboard, but I somehow posted anyway. In retrospect, it was good to have made the promise to post, because that promise kept me posting whether I felt like it or not. Some days you feel like you have something to say, and other days you don’t…but even on the days when you don’t feel particularly profound, you can almost always stir up something, even if it’s only a dirty, gritty version of stone soup.


Occasionally, it’s good to remind yourself that you don’t need huge, uninterrupted chunks of time to spend on your writing: just a few minutes here and a few minutes there can be “enough” if you’ve made a commitment to make good use of those minutes. A few weeks ago, at a particularly busy point in the semester, one of my teaching colleagues asked me if I’d found much time lately to write, and she seemed amazed when I replied that I’d been writing and posting every day. This particular colleague is a poet, and she says she works best when she can devote four or more hours to a work-in-progress…but I can’t remember the last time I had four straight hours that weren’t interrupted by work, chores, or social commitments. If I wrote only when I could steal four uninterrupted hours from my various demands, I’d never write at all. I’m lucky, I think, that prose is so much easier to write than poetry: a genre I can literally squeeze into the tiny gaps in otherwise busy days.


November is ending right in the nick of time, as December is the busiest, most grading-intensive time of the semester: it will be good to have one less arbitrary commitment to worry about these next few weeks, when I’ll be facing a seemingly endless series of seemingly bottomless paper piles. Whereas blogging can (and does) get squeezed into those occasional moments when I find or make time, paper-grading really does require the kind of uninterrupted concentration my aforementioned colleague devotes to poetry.

I don’t see any poem-writing in my immediate future, just a lot of paper-grading. Given the many to-do’s that stand between me and the end of my current semester, I’m happy to return to an unpredictably occasional blog-posting schedule, saying “no more, for now” to November’s NaBloPoMo commitment. It’s never too early, after all, to start stocking one’s pantry for next year.

Could use a coat of paint

They say the cobbler’s children have no shoes, and it seems the proprietors of Pill Hardware in Central Square, Cambridge are so busy helping other folks with their home improvement projects, they don’t have time to give their old sign a new coat of paint.

At rest

It’s become something of a holiday tradition for J and me to take a long walk on Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, we decided to leave the dogs at home and take a stroll to Newton Cemetery, where we’ve walked in the past.

One eye open, times two

J and I like to walk at Newton Cemetery for the same reason I like to walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Newton Cemetery is basically a pretty park where people happen to be buried. Because of the graves, the atmosphere at Newton Cemetery is quiet and tranquil: you can walk the roads without worrying that cars, joggers, or cyclists will run you down, and you can take your time looking at monuments without feeling like you’re hogging the view of other browsers, as I sometimes feel at museums. In a good garden cemetery, all the lanes are the slow lane, so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll admiring the landscape, remarking on the architecture, and paying your respects to strangers. Since Newton Cemetery is a gentle walk from J’s house, going for a cemetery-stroll feels like one way of meeting the neighbors, even if those “neighbors” no longer happen to be alive.


Walking in a cemetery also serves as an excellent reminder of how grateful you are simply to be alive. When J first suggested that we go to Newton Cemetery for our Thanksgiving walk, I quipped, “Ah, so we can spend Thanksgiving afternoon being thankful we’re not dead?” J immediately responded, “Yes, and that’s true everyday.” Ah, yes: a point well taken. Every time we’ve walked at Newton Cemetery, J and I have happened upon some particular marker that stops us cold, whether that’s been a tombstone with my name on it, the grave of a local victim of 9-11, or an entire field of war dead. This trip to the cemetery, we spent a lot of time looking at markers of the recently deceased, many of which had been decorated for the season by grieving family members. There’s nothing like a tombstone bearing a autumnal bouquet from a grieving widow (complete with a greeting card, “To my husband on his birthday”) or a yet-unveiled stone for a stillborn infant (freshly adorned with toys and with the carved inscription “Step softly, our dream lies buried here”) to make you realize how lucky you are.


And then there are the waterfowl. Like most garden cemeteries, Newton Cemetery has several ponds that add a quiet, contemplative tone to the landscape, and like most cemetery ponds, the ones at Newton Cemetery are popular with ducks and geese. During a cemetery stroll last spring, J and I chatted with one widow whose decision where to bury her husband was decided in part by the ducks and geese of Newton Cemetery. Over the years, whenever she’d visit her husband’s grave, she explained, she and her children would bring stale bread to feed the waterfowl, making an otherwise sad visit a bit more happy. “My children love it here,” she explained, gesturing toward her now-teenaged kids. “One of my sons said the other day that this cemetery isn’t a dead place, because there’s always something new to see here.”

Always something new to see, indeed. Just when I’d thought that the waterfowl of Newton Cemetery was limited to the usual mallards and Canada geese, on Thursday we spotted a half-dozen hooded mergansers who carefully kept an entire pond between themselves and our impertinent camera lenses. Apparently even a cemetery doesn’t always provide the privacy that wild ducks crave, at least when the local paparazzi are taking a stroll.

Hooded mergansers

Click here for a photo-set of the various waterfowl we saw on our Thanksgiving Day stroll at Newton Cemetery. Enjoy!


J and I are really low-key when it comes to the holidays. Our shared attitude toward Thanksgiving is very similar to our shared attitude toward Valentine’s Day: if you’re grateful (or in love) 365 days of the year, it’s not hugely important to feel extra grateful (or extra in-love) on an officially sanctioned holiday. If you’re grateful (or in love) 365 days of the year, Thanksgiving (or Valentine’s Day) really is like every other day.

Raindrops on spider web

Yesterday morning, for instance, I took Reggie on our usual morning dog-walk. Along the way, I saw (and photographed) two different spider webs outlined in water-droplets: remnants from this week’s drizzly weather. Spider webs are even more difficult to photograph than raindrops are: spider-webs are often invisible, and even when you can see a spider-web, it’s often difficult to get a point-and-shoot camera to focus on something so delicate and insubstantial. Point-and-shoot cameras like to focus on things that are big and obvious, so something as gossamer-fine as a spider web is a tough capture.

It feels silly to admit it, but when Reggie and I got home from yesterday’s otherwise ordinary dog-walk, I felt absurdly grateful to have seen and photographed spider-webs: not one but two instances of serendipity in a single morning! Counting “spider webs” among one’s Thanksgiving blessings seems insanely sappy, but that’s how I felt yesterday morning. At that moment, “Thanksgiving” wasn’t a matter of counting big blessings, it was a matter of realizing the silly little things I appreciate each day: small blessings other folks might overlook.

Flower with raindrops

On any given day, for example, I feel absurdly grateful to be healthy enough to walk the dog and tend to my work. When I come home from a long, tiring day teaching, I feel grateful to have a job that demands so much (every last bit sometimes) of my energy. Every time I go to the grocery store, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be able to fill my trunk with food, and I feel a similar sort of gratitude whenever I balance my checkbook or pay my bills. Beyond the basic blessings of having my health, a job, and enough money to provide food and shelter for myself, I find myself filling my journal day after day with scribbled sentences noting how satisfied I feel simply to sit at my kitchen table after another boring breakfast while Reggie lies sleeping on the floor. “I’m grateful for the sound of my dog breathing” sounds absurdly silly if you mention it as being one of this year’s blessings, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve said something similar in my journal, on plenty of days other than Thanksgiving.


I think we Americans need a holiday like Thanksgiving because most days, we live in a culture of complaint. When you turn on the TV, you’ll see talking heads shouting to see which political party can complain the loudest; when you turn on the radio, you’ll hear callers who have spent precious hours of their life waiting to voice their dissatisfaction with local sports, politics, or whatever. Around the office water cooler, workers whine about the boss, the workload, or the clients. At the local bar, you’ll hear folks complaining over cocktails about their partner, their mother-in-law, or their kids. Surfing the Internet, you’ll find a good portion of both the blog- and Twitter-sphere devoted to online rants and workday frustration. Venting is an important part of one’s emotional well-being, we tell ourselves, and complaining is one of the central ways we bond with other people. But why exactly should this be so? Why do we spend 364 days of our lives talking amongst ourselves about what’s wrong and only a single day-long holiday counting what’s right?

Raindrops on flower

On this morning’s dog-walk, I noticed that both of the spider-webs I’d photographed yesterday were gone, having broken or been washed away under the weight of overnight rain. Now that those webs are no longer there, I’m even more grateful that I saw and photographed them yesterday when I had the chance. An annual Thanksgiving is like a point-and-shoot camera that focuses on blessings that are big and obvious, but most of the things we have to be grateful for are small, easy to overlook, and gossamer-thin. Today’s blessings might not be around tomorrow, so why wait another year to count those serendipities that can’t be numbered?

Click here for twelve random images from yesterday’s morning and afternoon walks around the neighborhood: a dozen ordinary blessings I’m grateful for.


In case you’ve ever wondered what the berries in your Thanksgiving cranberry sauce looked like before they got sauced, here’s your answer.

Water reel

At last month’s final regular-season New England Revolution soccer match, the folks from Ocean Spray set up an artificial cranberry bog outside the entrance to Gillette Stadium, where soccer fans could see what a New England cranberry harvest really looks like. Cranberry vines grow in marshy areas, and the fastest way to harvest cranberries is to flood the entire area, a process called wet harvesting. Once the vines are covered with water, machines called water reels rake the berries from the vines, and the cranberries–which contain pockets of air–float to the surface of the water, where they are gathered by growers.

Cranberry growers chat with passersby

The artificial bog outside Gillette Stadium had all the accoutrements of an actual cranberry bog: potted cranberry vines along the border of the bog, thousands of floating cranberries, a working water reel, and three men in hip-waders who stood up to their shins in wet cranberries while answering questions and chatting with passersby. In mid-October, it seems there isn’t anything lovelier than a New England cranberry bog, even if that cranberry bog is only a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.

Although I’ve never been much of a fan of cranberry sauce, I regularly drink cranberry juice. When I was growing up, my mom raved about the health benefits of cranberries, especially noting cranberries’ legendary ability to help women avoid bladder infections. The folks from Ocean Spray weren’t handing out any free samples of cranberry sauce or cranberry juice, but they were handing out packets of dried cranberries, which are just as tasty as a tall glass of cranberry juice. I guess that’s one more thing to be thankful for.

Click here for a complete photo set from the cranberry bog at Gillette Stadium last month. Whether or not you’re eating cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, I hope your holiday is safe, restful, and happy.


This morning, I dropped my camera…again. Today was another gray, drizzly day, so I was taking more pictures of raindrops, and while I was fumbling with one gloved hand trying to slip my camera into a rain-protected pocket in my purse, my camera slipped out of my hand and crashed onto the wet sidewalk below.


Again. My everyday-use camera already looks like it’s been through a battle, and perhaps it has: I use it, after all, nearly every day and in nearly every weather. I first dropped it last December, when I fell down some steps while taking an oddly angled shot, and ever since my everyday-use camera has had a badly dented lens housing that prevents the lens cover from opening and closing completely. Today, at least, my camera was off when I dropped it, so the telescoping lens-housing wasn’t extended and thus didn’t get banged up any more than it already was. But the impact of the drop was hard enough to jostle the memory card out of place, and now the lens cover doesn’t move at all when I turn the camera on or off. Ooops.

Green and gold

The camera itself continues to work, however, as these shots prove. I’ve learned over this past year that a camera doesn’t have to look good to take decent pictures as long as you remember a few simple things. If your automatic lens cover no longer works, for instance, you’ll occasionally have to open it by hand; otherwise, you’ll get shots with a dark shadow in one or more corners from where the lens cover was still partially extended. Similarly, if you’re shooting with a banged-up camera, you have to remember that a camera without a fully functional lens cover will fog up after you come inside from carrying it in your pocket on a cold day. But these limitations aren’t too troublesome if you accept them as a necessary part of using a well-used camera.

Now that I’ve taken a year’s worth of pictures with a banged-up camera, I’ve grown rather fond of the thing. We all have our battle scars, and I’d like to think that they attest to the strength of our character as well as the depth of our experience. Now that I’ve taken a year’s worth of pictures with a banged-up camera, I’ve determined to continue using it until it is truly is worn out…or until I’ve dropped it one too many times and dies completely. In the meantime, I’ll keep shooting in all weathers, undeterred.

Christmas display

Usually, I have an attitude of “bah humbug” when stores debut their Christmas displays before Thanksgiving. In my mind, displaying too much Christmas too early simply pushes the hand of time, and that’s never a good thing. Instead of pushing consumers to think about Christmas months before the first snowflake falls, I personally believe businesses and their customers alike should follow “a predictable and leisurely seasonal succession, with September bringing fall foliage, October bringing pumpkins, November bringing turkeys, and December bringing Santa.” No need to rush into a season that will arrive on its own eventually.

All that being said, I make a blanket exception for the Christmas shop windows at Creative Encounters, an art-supply and frame shop on Main Street in downtown Keene. Over the years and in various seasons, I’ve taken lots of pictures of their window displays. The windows at Creative Encounters aren’t large, but they are always colorful, interesting, and attractive. Just as the mannequins at Miranda’s Verandah always catch my eye, I always find myself admiring whatever is on display at Creative Encounters.

Christmas display

The Christmas windows at Creative Encounters debuted last week, more than a week before Thanksgiving, and I for once am not complaining. On these dark and increasingly gray days, I’m grateful for the spot of color and sparkle these well-designed windows offer. This year’s display at Creative Encounters features a three-sided kiosk that rotates before a wall with several framed mirrors, an arrangement that highlights the various products on sale while also providing a moving, changing display of colors, shapes, and reflections. It might sound strange for me to admit that I stood several moments so I could see the colorful kiosk cycle through its various arrangements, but I wasn’t the only one. Before I could approach the window to snap these shots, Reggie and I held back for about five minutes while a woman and her daughter stood transfixed in front of the display, watching the artfully decorated kiosk turn around and around, offering a kaleidoscopic allure of light and color.


It’s been a gray day, as was yesterday afternoon. The mail carrier whom Reggie and I often see on our morning walk said it feels like snow, and she’s exactly right: the clouds and even air have felt heavy all day, as if the very weight of the atmosphere will out of necessity crystallize and fall in the form of snowflakes.


Someday soon, perhaps, but not yet. This afternoon when I went to the grocery store, it was drizzly and cold, but still well above freezing: chilblain weather. Now that most (but not all) of the leaves have fallen–now that most (but not all) of the fallen leaves have been raked, blown, and bagged–we’re settling into the monochrome monotony of Stick Season. Sometime in the next few weeks, after we’ve grown tired of the muted grays and browns of late autumn, we’ll gladly welcome a dusting of snow to brighten things up a bit. Just not yet.

DeLuca's Market

Last night, A (not her real initial) and I took the T into Boston, where we took an afternoon stroll down Newbury Street, across the Public Garden, and up and down Charles Street, where we explored the lobby in the swanky Liberty Hotel before refreshing ourselves with tea, dessert, and conversation at the Cafe Bella Vita.


When my then-husband and I lived in Beacon Hill more than a decade ago, we spent a lifetime measured out in coffee spoons at the Bella Vita. I was a graduate student at the time, and my ex was a computer programmer, so we’d sit at a table for two with our individual work: I would sit with a textbook, notebook, or stack of student papers, and he would sit with his laptop. We were young and hungry, and the Cafe Bella Vita was a clean, well-lighted place where we could engage in our individual pursuits together, in public, as if to persuade ourselves that we weren’t just toiling alone.

I’ve written before about my married days in Beacon Hill, the place where I learned to realize the depths of hunger. When my ex looked back on the lifetime in coffee spoons we’d spent at the Bella Vita, he remembered it as the happiest time in our marriage; when I recall those days, I recall them as being among my darkest. How can two people share the same tiny apartment, the same neighborhood, and even the same tiny table for two and still live in entirely different universes?

Savenor's Market

The swanky Liberty Hotel used to be a prison, and that fact gave A a creepy feeling when we walked into the lobby, trying to maintain the illusion that we were actually guests at the hotel rather than sightseeing locals. A is sensitive to the psychology of shared spaces: to her sensibilities, the very walls around us were imbued with the decades of suffering accumulated by the place’s previous, unwilling occupants. How could you check into a room (or even sit swilling drinks in the hotel bar) knowing that countless souls before you had wept and wailed behind these walls?

To my eye, the Liberty Hotel is an interesting example of prison architecture, a topic that has interested me since I read Michel Foucault in graduate school and later visited Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol. Whether you re-purpose a jail as a hotel or a museum, you are making a conscious decision to redefine the emotional architecture of the place, redeeming it from a lifetime of bad memories. A and I walked into the same swanky lobby last night, in other words, but we inhabited completely different spaces therein, with me marveling at an architectural wonder and A feeling the ghosts of time past.

Private courtyard

I can understand A’s discomfort, for all of Beacon Hill is a haunted place for me, given the lifetime in coffee spoons I once spent there. If I allowed myself to focus on the psychology of the neighborhood’s shared spaces, I’d find reason to weep on every street, there being ghosts behind every lamppost and old bones under every cobblestone. There’s no need, in my mind, to search for the paranormal, as there’s not a single spot on God’s green earth that isn’t haunted by heartbreak. Why else can’t I enjoy the simple refreshment of tea and dessert with a friend without remembering the woman I was all the other times I sat in the same cafe?

Last night, as A and I refreshed ourselves at the Bella Vita, there was a twenty-something couple sitting at the next table from ours, each of them working individually on their own laptop. The entire time they sat beside us with gadgets and coffee spoons crowded onto their tiny table, I found myself wondering about the psychology of that shared space. Will one day they look back on last night as being the best of times or the worst of times? Will they someday agree about this time in retrospect, or will they each someday discover that sharing a single table doesn’t mean you’re inhabiting the same world?

I didn’t take any photos during yesterday’s trip to Beacon Hill, so the photos illustrating this post come from my photo archives: a whole other kind of ghost.

Dried hydrangea

It’s probably not surprising that, as a birder, I occasionally dream about birds. Almost always, the birds I see in my dreams are unidentifiable. Instead of dreaming I saw actual tanagers, buntings, or grosbeaks, I often dream of seeing some weird creature I’ve never seen in books: the kind of creature you’d say you’d never dreamed of.

Rain on hydrangea leaves

In these dreams, I’m always without a field guide, so I spend most of the dream staring at the unusual bird and reciting its field marks to myself, forcing myself to remember a combination of colors that seems so striking, you’d think it would be easy to identify later. In nearly all instances, though, I wake up without remembering exactly what I saw. Was it an orange bird with green wings and a purple head? Or was it a purple bird with green wing-bars and an orange rump? Whether or not I actually remember any of the details, though, the simple fact remains: the birds of my dreams don’t exist. Even if I could remember their field marks, I’ll never find them in any field guide because they represent an idea that doesn’t exist outside of dreams.

One night last week, I dreamed I saw an unbelievably bright, lemon-colored bird, the size and stockiness of a large sparrow. It literally glowed in the tree it was in, its plumage similar in color to the reflective, Day-Glo vests that runners wear after dark to avoid getting hit by cars. More incredible, though, was the texture of its individual feathers, which were curly, giving the bird the nubbled appearance of a close-cropped poodle or short-tufted Berber rug. In my dream, the astonishing nature of this bird’s plumage reminded me of the overlapping, crowded and curled petals of dry hydrangea flowers, leading me to repeat to myself over and over, astonished, this most remarkable of field marks: “It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head! It looks like a yellow hydrangea-head!” And then I woke up.

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