February 2010

A sight no one wants to see

As much as I would have liked to see the U.S. men’s hockey team win Olympic gold in Vancouver today, I was happy to see Patrice Bergeron receive his gold medal as a member of Team Canada a little more than a year after a hit left him lifeless on the ice before stunned fans at a game between the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes in December, 2008.

Racing and reaching

Hockey is a rough and sometimes brutal sport, so you don’t reach the Olympic level without taking your share of bumps and bruises. After lying motionless after that 2008 hit, Bergeron left the game with help of several of his teammates; today, just over a year later, Bergeron skated off another sheet of ice triumphant and golden, metaphorically buoyed by a team of his countrymen.

I would have loved to have seen Bruins goalie Tim Thomas and other members of Team U.S.A. win gold in today’s game, but it was quiet consolation to know how hard all members of both teams have worked to get their chance at gold. Every athlete knows you win some and you lose some, and hockey players in particular know any game can leave you face-flat on the ice. Second-place silver isn’t as precious as champion gold, but any day that ends with a medal is still pretty sweet.

Beaded snowmelt

It feels like we’ve experienced every conceivable kind of precipitation in New Hampshire and Massachusetts this week, and plenty of it. On Tuesday, the snow flurries in New Hampshire pelted like scatter-shot; on Wednesday, I used a snow-shovel to scoop a dense, sticky snow better measured by weight than by height. On Thursday, it drizzled all day in New Hampshire, and I drove to Massachusetts on Thursday night through a torrential downpour. It feels like we’ve experienced several distinct seasons in New England this week, all of them wet.

First snowdrops

There’s nothing particularly natural about snowdrops blooming during this week’s February thaw. Snowdrops aren’t native to New England, but they are a popular perennial in yards and gardens, given the jolt of hope they provide after another long winter. This year’s winter hasn’t been particularly natural, or normal: we’ve had relatively little snow, and these snowdrops are blooming a full two weeks ahead of last year. It just doesn’t seem right to have so little snow-cover and blooming snow-drops in February, an unsettling reminder that global climate change causes all sorts of unpredictable weirdness.

Budding snowdrops

Year after year, snowdrops obediently bloom where they are planted: J and I aren’t gardeners, but every year we enjoy the perennials planted by our house’s previous inhabitants. Perennials are a bit spooky that way: their cellular memory easily outlasts the lives (or at least the addresses) of the folks who plant them, and their annual appearance serves as a reminder of time’s brevity. As much as we long for spring flowers in the depths of winter, when snowdrops appear, there’s always a sense of untimely surprise: you, already?

There’s nothing particularly natural about non-native, ornamental flowers blooming exactly where they were planted along the edge of a neighbor’s walled yard, but there’s something intrinsically natural about perennial tenacity. I once attended a housewarming party where the hosts asked their guests to bring any sort of flower bulb which they collected, mixed, and planted at random throughout their yard and garden: a sort of spring surprise. What kind of world do we live in where housewarmings never end, the ghosts of guests returning every year via the bursting bulbs they left behind?

Snowdrops aren’t native to New England, and neither are most New Englanders. Long after you and I have moved on to the grave or other climes, these tough, tenacious flowers will continue to bloom, naturally.

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Nature.

Snow, slats, and shadows

We’ve reached that point of the semester when keeping up with work feels a bit like trotting on a treadmill running several steps faster than my usual stride. I’ve given up hope of catching up, so all I hope for is not to fall too far behind.

Courthouse with snow

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just a busy one. Yesterday morning, after Tuesday night’s snow, I shoveled my driveway when I’d normally meditate, replacing one sort of repetitive, mindless activity for another. It felt good to be moving, and it felt good to see my car and driveway emerge from a half-foot of fresh snow, one shovelful at a time. Now that I’ve settled into the stride of yet another busy semester, the repetitive tasks of paper-reading and class prep are almost soothing as snow-shoveling in their monotony: just like this, each week greets the next, and no sooner do I dig out from one to-do list than I find myself facing another.

Winter Street in winter

There’s a certain, albeit circular, sense of accomplishment that comes when you surrender to the task at hand, no matter how boring. Shoveling snow, walking the dog, grading papers: none of these tasks is particularly interesting, but each is essential. No sooner do you cross off one of these tasks Today, you have to do it Tomorrow. But when you come inside after shoveling the driveway, walking the dog, or teaching another full day of classes, you have a sense of contentment knowing you did what needed to be done, and now it’s time to relax. Coming home from a full day’s teaching, or a good long dog-walk, or another stint of snow-shoveling feels like a good kind of tired, like when a basketball team gives every ounce of energy on the court and then walks off to the showers knowing they left it all on the court. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost, and it doesn’t matter if tomorrow you have to play the same damn game all over again. What matters is that for whatever span of time you ran on your own metaphorical treadmill, you gave all your attention and energy to every blessed step.

Feather on frozen sidewalk

Although I don’t typically enjoy walking on frozen sidewalks, I never would have spotted this fallen feather had I not been watching my (icy) step.

This is my day-late contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Lightness.

Ashuelot River ice

I walked Reggie along the Ashuelot River early this morning, figuring we’d spend the rest of my usual grading day at home hunkered down against the predicted snow. Instead, the predicted snow never showed up, this morning’s flurry of dandruff-flakes leaving nothing to shovel or even sweep: a tease of a snowstorm that swerved south.

February sunset

Because, perhaps, my Thursday night commutes to Massachusetts happen in the dark, on Monday afternoons I’m eager to arrive back in New Hampshire while it’s still light: a chance to get settled into my workweek apartment before darkness falls.

Sunset clouds

Today, I left Massachusetts later than usual, so I had to chase the sunset all the way back to New Hampshire, the sinking sun and a single sun dog blinding me with their double-barreled glare. Sun dogs, I decided, look like a sliver of rainbow; I wish my car had its own camera so I could have photographed the low-leaning sun with its polychromatic twin. Instead, I shot these photos of twilight clouds after arriving in Keene and stopping at the store for this week’s groceries, for woman cannot live on sunsets alone.

Clear bottom

When I saw yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Surfaces, I immediately thought of water. On Thursday night in my “Rivers & Literary Imagination” class, we discussed the way water works metaphorically in Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord & Merrimack Rivers. Thoreau is fascinated with the tension between a river’s surface and its depths, and he is obsessed with the way water is both transparent and reflective. In all his works, Thoreau shows a penchant for puns, and A Week is no different: when Thoreau uses words such as “reflection” and “depth,” he implies these words’ figurative as well as literal meanings, and he repeatedly puns on the word “current,” referring both to the flow of a river and the Present Moment in the flow of time.

Fluid or frozen?

Time can’t be frozen, but water can, and the Current of Time can be freeze-framed through a camera’s transparent lens. I shot the photo at the top of today’s post in August of 2007, while walking (and wading with) Reggie at Goose Pond in Keene, and the rest of today’s images come from December of 2006, when my fascination with the surface tension, reflections, and textures of freezing water influenced several blog posts. I can’t fish December, 2006 or August, 2007 from the depths of time, but I can rely upon these photos and blog posts to remind me of what was Current then. The images I sketched resonate with what was going on in my life at the time, and they provide a surface through with I can see, via the eye of memory, the depths which lay beneath.


In December of 2006, I’d just stuck a tentative toe into the waters of online dating, and I was left cold by its superficiality. The image of a religious icon might serve as a window into a deeper, more spiritual realm, but when your own self is reduced to a clickable thumbnail displayed alongside other lonely-hearts, it’s hard to believe anyone will see through the skin-thin veil of appearance to perceive the depths of personality lurking below.


I first clicked on J in January, 2007, and what attracted my scanning eye wasn’t his photo but the wry humor of his profile itself: in a sea of online romantics all claiming to enjoy sunset walks along the beach, J’s profile was the only one that made me laugh by making fun of the absurdity of so many people all trying to stand out by sounding exactly the same. When I emailed J to tell him I was grateful for a spot of humor to enliven an otherwise demoralizing activity, I wasn’t intending to flirt; having already given up hope that online dating could ever work for me, all I wanted was to share a laugh with another drowning soul.


That first email was a great way, I realize now, of breaking the ice: instead of starting with the usual online pick-up lines and virtual winks, J’s and my relationship began with a shared laugh. Ultimately–countless emails and three years of laughter later–it didn’t much matter what either of us looked like in our clickable profile-pictures: what made our relationship click was a quirky sense of humor that continues to the present. J made me laugh when I first met him in January, 2007, and he still makes me laugh now. Under the surface of a frigid February, I can look through the water of time to see a pattern that is still current.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Surfaces. You can click here to see my photo-set of “Frozen reflections,” shot at Goose Pond in December, 2006.

Apartment for rent...with squirrel

Apparently the apartment complex across from the Waban T-station has units for rent. I can’t quite tell if this squirrel is a prospective tenant or just a nosy neighbor.

Heard me?

On Tuesday, one of my Keene State teaching colleagues remarked with amazement that it’s already the third week of the semester: didn’t the semester just start? Perhaps we’ve both slipped into the same time-warp, or maybe the short days of winter fly faster than other, longer days.

Two Warhols

Already this year, it’s February; already this week, we’re turning the corner toward the weekend. I shot these images last Sunday, on a frigid morning walk before giving consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center; already, Sunday morning seems a lifetime away, with so many teaching tasks, household chores, and other to-list items being checked off between Then and Now.

This semester is fuller than usual for me, as I’m teaching three classes that are new to me. My old “Expository Writing” class has been reborn as “Creative Nonfiction,” and the two Environmental Literature classes I’ve mentioned previously–the “Literature of Birds and Birding,” and “Rivers and Literary Imagination”–are keeping me on my toes as I teach a tall stack of texts I’ve read but never previously taught. When I designed my syllabi for this term, I knew I’d be scrambling throughout the term: it’s one thing to have read a book before, even several times; it’s an entirely different thing to teach that text. When you prepare to teach a text, you read it in a different, more attentive way than when you read (or re-read) for pleasure, and this kind of super-attentive re-reading is keeping me busy.

El gato y el raton

Teaching a semester on the fly is a delicate game of cat-and-mouse: you spend a good portion of your class-prep time simply trying to keep one step ahead of your students. It’s a challenging task that demands mental energy and focus…and like any sort of chase, it can be exhilarating. When planning the three new-to-me classes I’m teaching this term, I consciously chose texts I’d want to read and designed assignments I’d want to write. Preparing to teach a class you’d love to take makes a huge difference, I’m finding. When I look at my to-do list and consider the texts I need to re-visit, re-read, and review for this class, the next, and the next, I feel more excited than exhausted. When other than this semester would I be paid to discuss interesting, interdisciplinary texts such as Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, John James Audubon’s Ornithological Biographies, and Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers?


Several semesters ago, the first time I taught a class on “The Frontier in American Literature,” I told yet another teaching colleague that I felt I was making the class up as I went along. “Maybe that’s the best way to teach about the frontier,” he noted, and I think he might be right. Once you’ve taught a class a couple times, you get settled in your ways; like Thoreau at Walden Pond, you find your feet have beaten a path from your cabin to the water’s edge. The first time you teach a class, there’s no path: you’re like an Intellectual Pioneer venturing into the Virgin Land of your own mind. What happens if we approach tonight’s class this way rather than that? And how about we try something completely different next week?

Blue heads

My inner Neat Freak–the part of me that makes to-do lists, color-coordinates class folders, and designs and distributes elaborately detailed syllabi every term–can’t stand the thought of teaching on the fly: spontaneity sounds too much like wild, wanton disorder. But my inner Artist–the part of me that thrills to look at Audubon prints and thinks it’s really cool to teach a class on Creative Nonfiction–loves the fact that teaching is always an experiment: what happens when you read this text alongside that one, and what happens when you ask your class genuine questions that you don’t have pre-prepared answers for?

Teaching a semester on the fly–teaching a semester when out of necessity you’re making things up as you go along–is an excellent reminder that in a good class–in the kind of class I’d want to take–the teacher often learns as much if not more than the students. Teaching a semester on the fly feels a bit like flying by the seat of your pants, but when other than this semester would I be paid to do something so exciting?