May 2010


Last night the New England Revolution enjoyed a Pyrrhic victory over the New York Red Bulls, as Revolution goalkeeper Preston Burpo (pictured above during a May 15th match against San Jose) went down during the first half with a catastrophic break to his right lower leg: a broken fibula and tibia reminiscent of the gruesome injury that ended Joe Theismann’s football career in 1985. The Revolution won last night’s match against the Red Bulls, 3 to 2–their first win since April 10th–but no one really felt like celebrating afterward. How can you celebrate after watching your goalkeeper writhing on the field with what could be a career-ending injury?


We normally watch Revolution home games from aisle seats about 20 rows behind the home bench: a front-and-center view of the action. Last night, however, we watched the game in a third-floor luxury suite along with 50 other season ticket holders: an informal event intended as a thank-you to the team’s most faithful fans. Watching last night’s match from Gillette Stadium’s swanky third floor meant we were too far up to clearly see what happened as Burpo landed in a impossibly tangled heap on the field…but since our suite was filled with wide-screen, high-definition televisions tuned to broadcast coverage of the game, we saw Burpo’s injury–or at least the gruesome aftermath of his injury–replayed over and over on TV.

Seeing someone completely break their leg–both of Burpo’s lower right leg-bones snapped so his lower leg jutted sideways at an impossible angle–is freakish and unnerving. You’re so accustomed to seeing how the body is supposed to work, your brain simply can’t understand what you’re seeing when a body assumes a position it clearly isn’t designed to assume. Simply put, legs are not designed to bend at the shin. If a leg happens to bend sideways at the shin, that’s shocking enough; if it then flops loosely in the opposite direction, as rubbery as a wet noodle, your brain boggles at the sight. Your brain simply can’t believe what your eyes seem to be seeing, and you watch the replays incredulously, as if seeing the evidence one more time will somehow help it make sense.


Reading one published account of the injury, we now know that “Burpo broke his right tibia and fibula after colliding with the New York Red Bulls’ Dane Richards,” but we didn’t know (or couldn’t process) that information at the time. Despite the numerous times we saw Burpo’s injury being replayed on those suite TVs, we couldn’t clearly figure out what caused the break, being too fixated on its horrific anatomical aftermath. Did Burpo run into someone? Did he take a hit? That previously mentioned published account of Burpo’s injury calmly notes that “Replays showed Richards stepping on Burpo’s leg above the ankle,” but frankly, that’s not what we saw in the replays. Instead, all we clearly saw (or all our brains allowed us to remember) was Burpo diving to the ground in an awkward slide, one leg bent uncomfortably (but not impossibly) beneath his body while the other leg flopped freakishly in his knee sock. Logically speaking, Burpo must have taken that sliding dive after colliding with Richards, but I honestly can’t say I saw that. All I saw–all I can clearly remember–is the anatomically impossible flopping of Preston Burpo’s right lower leg after he fell.

I was there to witness Burpo’s injury, but I’m not a reliable witness. Humans in general are unreliable witnesses: they focus on the wrong things, and their memories are muddled by emotions. In one famous experiment involving “inattentional blindness,” test subjects were asked to notice the number and kind of basketball passes in a short video, and half of these witnesses failed to notice a woman in a gorilla suit who wandered through the game. I don’t know what kind or number of basketball passes I was paying attention to last night, but I didn’t actually, immediately see Burpo’s injury when it happened: apparently my attention was directed elsewhere. What exactly was I doing–where exactly was I looking–when Burpo got hurt? I don’t know; I don’t remember. Was I taking a sip of soda or nibbling the last of my French fries? Was I glancing at the TV broadcast, which was on a several-second delay, or was I glancing at the scoreboard and its shots of rabid soccer fans? Was I looking down at my match program or up into the sky? Did I look away for one second or several? I don’t know; I don’t remember.


What I do remember, though, was being jolted back to the game–back to the gorilla I’d managed to ignore–by a sound I can’t quite describe. A collective gasp? A groan? A shriek? I didn’t hear the sickening pop of both of Burpo’s lower leg bones breaking, as some fans in the stands and certainly many players on the field reportedly did. Instead, I heard a shocked, stunned, horrified reaction from the crowd–a sound I can’t quite describe–that indicated in an instance that something was very, very wrong on the field three stories below.

Once I managed to direct my attention to the field beneath us, I saw that Burpo was down as another player (the Red Bulls’ Richards?) tumbled away from him, presumably from the momentum of their collision. I didn’t see the ball the two of them were presumably both racing toward; in the aftermath of the injury, the ball seemed entirely irrelevant, a gorilla worth ignoring. After Burpo went down, the Revs’ trainer darted onto the field, toting an orange carrier of green water bottles as he always does when a player is down. Since soccer is a sport without time-outs, the only chance players get to hydrate during a 45-minute half is when a player is down and the trainer races out with Gatorade. This time, though, the trainer was running so frantically onto the field, he tossed his Gatorade carrier, and green bottles flew everywhere. As silly as it is to admit it, that is my most vivid visual memory of Burpo’s injury, apart from the televised footage played and replayed on our suite’s wide-screen TVs. The moment I really realized that something bad was happening was when I saw a half dozen Gatorade bottles tossed to the ground.


If it seems odd that I could have witnessed such a gruesome injury without really realizing it, here’s even better proof of the power of inattentive blindness: for the first three or four times he saw Burpo’s injury replayed in high-definition, J failed to see the obvious (and alarming) flopping of Burpo’s foot in his sock. Time and again, our suite-mates winced and groaned when the footage was replayed…and time and again J claimed not to have seen the break. Finally, J named the gorilla in the room, noting incredulously, “I see he landed awkwardly on his leg, but I don’t see how his leg is necessarily broken.” During the first three or four times J saw Burpo’s fall, he was watching the wrong leg, entirely convinced that the goalkeeper must have broken the leg he’d landed on.

“The next time they show the footage,” I suggested, “watch the other leg, the one in the air.” And sure enough, they showed the footage again…and although by then I couldn’t bear to watch it, having replayed the gruesome scene too many times in my mind, I knew the second when J saw what the rest of us had. “Oh my God,” he exclaimed, then after a pause, “It looks like rubber.”


It looked like rubber indeed. This morning, I finally mustered the nerve to look through the pictures I’d taken of last night’s game, viewing them on my camera’s tiny view-screen as a way of bracing myself for when I download them to my laptop. In one grainy picture, I see Burpo crumpled on the field while one of the Red Bulls–Dane Richards?–careens away from him, his limbs flailing like a pinwheel; in the next blurry image, Burpo is on his back like a bug, his knees curled to his chest while his right foot juts to the side, his body a sickening swastika of ungodly angles.

Other hurried images show the team trainer, medics, and a team doctor racing onto the field; there is the requisite stretcher, and those half-dozen tossed water bottles. Revs captain Shalrie Joseph stands over Burpo in several pictures, his palms pressed together in front of his mouth: is he praying, or stifling sobs? In another image, Burpo’s right leg is covered with a towel, as if to shield it from horrified fans; in the next, it lies swollen and limp, monstrous, in the team doctor’s hand while Burpo lies on his side, his face twisted in pain. These are pictures I took but cannot share: they’re too raw and awful, a private moment of intense agony that should have never happened, much less in front of a cheering crowd. Our bodies are private places, and pain is an indescribable mystery. What kind of blasphemy is it that photos and video snippets Burppo’s injury will probably make the usual email rounds, a bit of YouTube freakishness shared over the work watercooler?


Last night I watched those video replays over and over the same way I watched footage of the Twin Towers crumble on 9/11: I watched because my brain couldn’t believe my eyes. There is a kind of watching that is voyeuristic, and there is a kind of watching that is sympathetic, like that shared gasp, moan, or shriek I heard from fellow fans while I was looking elsewhere.

Looking through my grainy photos of last night’s game, there’s one picture I’m glad to have snapped. It comes from early in the first half, as Preston Burpo dove sideways to deflect a ball headed toward but not into his goal. In the picture, several players blur in the background, as does the deflected ball; in the foreground, Burpo hangs aloft as he flies, his body and arms outstretched in a moment of lithe athletic mastery. Is it this image, not the one of him lying crumpled in an impossible, flopping tangle, that I want to remember of what might be Preston Burpo’s last professional soccer game. In this image, he is agile and triumphant, defying gravity as his arms reach and his back arches, both of his legs stretched long behind him, straight and strong.

Click here for the complete photoset from the New England Revolution’s May 15th match against the San Jose Earthquake. I’m not sure when–if ever–I’ll get around to sharing photos from last night’s Pyrrhic victory against the New York Red Bulls. Some pictures are just too gruesome to revisit.

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Overnight, one backyard peony has burst into full flower, hurried by yesterday’s suddenly summery heat. The neighborhood mountain laurels are also blooming, which always strikes me as incongruous, as I invariably associate laurels with cool summer mountaintops, not simmering summer hothouses.

Mountain laurel

I said the exact same thing about sudden summers, peonies, and mountain laurels last year, with similar illustrations…except this year, both our backyard peonies and the neighborhood mountain laurels have bloomed more than a week ahead of schedule. Summer has arrived just as suddenly this year as it did last, but this year it has arrived suddenly, sooner.

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Rowers and ripples

It’s been two weeks since I submitted grades for my spring semester classes at Keene State, and today I’m finally starting summer break in earnest after spending too many days waking up early to drive back and forth to Keene, attend faculty workshops, and otherwise fill my so-called free time with work-related obligations. This break feels like a long time coming.

Weeks Bridge

Leslee has already blogged our Thursday night meet-up in Harvard Square: the first we’d seen one another since January. Leslee described what we ate, as food is something she’s energized by. For me, place is just as energizing as food; as much as I enjoyed my fish and chips at the Grafton Street grill, what really nourished me on Thursday night was a postprandial stroll along the Charles River.

It’s fitting, I think, that Leslee and I celebrated my semester’s end with dinner followed by a walk along the Charles. I’ve lived on both sides of the Charles River, first on the Boston side during my Beacon Hill days, then on the Cambridge side when I lived at the Zen Center. Given how many times, with how many different walking companions, and in how many different contexts I’ve walked, biked, and driven alongside the Charles, it’s no wonder it feels like a literal landmark–a littoral watermark?–in my personal history.

Jogger, cyclist, and four rowers

This past semester, I spent a lot of time thinking about rivers as I taught a section of Environmental Literature titled “Rivers and Literary Imagination.” The basic premise of the class was that rivers are an inevitable metaphor for time’s passage, so we often measure our lives against the rivers we encounter. Initially, many of my students were skeptical when I asked them to write what I called a “Watershed Moment” essay, claiming they didn’t have a personal connection with any particular river. But after we’d spent a semester reading, discussing, and brainstorming about rivers, every one of my students was able to point to at least one time when a river or larger watershed served as a backdrop for a moment that, in retrospect, was life-defining, whether that be childhood fishing outings with a grandparent, a high school canoe trip with friends, or four years studying at a college campus with a river running through it.

Two rowers

They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but I’m not sure I completely agree. I suspect that as Leslee enjoyed her Ni├žoise salad, she wasn’t recalling every other time she ate the same dish, but for me rivers are different. As I walked along Thursday night’s Charles with the setting sun glinting off passing rowers and runners, I couldn’t help but think of all the other times I’ve walked along the Charles, in spring and other seasons, with friends or alone. The taste of food brings us back to the moment, but the sight of flowing water sweeps us into the flow of recollection and remembrance, this moment flowing into every other like it.

Rows of rowers

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Dew on iris

This first full week of my summer break has been almost as busy as the semester itself, with me juggling several day-trips back to Keene for faculty development workshops, meet-ups with friends in Boston, visits to the Zen Center, a mid-week soccer game, and other to-dos. Given several days of extra-early morning dog-walks, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sight of dewdrops glinting in spring sunlight: a tranquil start to another busy day.

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Street art isn’t a very portable medium, so if there’s a particular work or artist you want to see, you typically have to travel to it rather than waiting for it to come to you. Since the mysterious street artist known as Banksy is a Brit, I’d always assumed I’d never see one of his clever, politically pointed works in person, only online. That’s why last week, on my way to a Thursday night talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, I made a point to walk my usual beat through Central Square, knowing that others had spotted some of Banksy’s handiwork on a brick wall on Essex Street.

I’ve been a fan of stenciled street art since spotting the little listener a street artist named chalkoner left on the stairway entrance to a record store in downtown Keene several years ago. Stenciled street art is a more controlled, composed medium than freehand pieces, with the artist sketching a design and then creating poster board stencils before using spray-paint to apply the various colors and shapes. A stencil artist can apply a particular creation in multiple locations, as Shepard Fairey did with his infamous Obey/Andre the Giant theme, but Banksy is known for site-specific creations that typically employ a combination of stenciled images and freehand slogans.

Anonymous passerby

The particular wall on Essex Street that Banksy chose for his tongue-in-cheek critique on the coddled, contained nature of today’s society is right around the corner from the graffiti-wall on Modica Way I’ve photographed so often, and it’s the same wall where I’d spotted Shepard Fairey’s Barack Obama mingling with Goldenstash in November, 2008…at least until that iconic image was defaced. (Click here for Steve’s earlier image of that Obama-art.) In other words, this is a wall I know, having watched various bits of graffiti appear, disappear, and be replaced over the years. (Further down Essex Street, for instance, there once was an endearing stenciled image of two camera- and binocular-toting sightseers which has since been cleaned up.)

Street art appreciation

It was a bit weird to see this otherwise bland brick wall on an otherwise nondescript Cambridge side street suddenly become a sightseeing destination because the usual graffiti had been replaced by Street Art By Somebody Famous. As I approached Essex Street on Thursday evening, there was a throng of pedestrians and cyclists stopped to snap photos with cell phones, and several passing cars slowed down to look, confused, in the direction everyone else was looking, trying to figure out what exactly was so special about this brick wall compared to any other.

After snapping my own handful of pictures, I took a stroll over to Modica Way to see what was new there, then I circled back to Essex Street, where a young couple was now standing in front of the wall, talking and pointing. Had I not known they were there to admire the famous Banksy, I would have thought I’d stumbled upon the site of some obscure religious apparition, the faces of Jesus and Mary on a blank wall.

Instead, it’s just what you get when you combine some stenciled spray-paint, chalk, and more than an ounce of audacious creativity.


Click here for the half-dozen images I shot of the Essex Street Banksy in Cambridge’s Central Square.

While in Boston, Banksy also left some social commentary on a wall in Chinatown. The buzz online is that Banksy is trying to create publicity for his new movie, which sounds interesting in its own right.

One of the best things about street art, of course, is that you never know what random goodness any brick wall will offer.

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Mightier than the sword

On Monday night, I submitted the last batch of grades for my face-to-face classes at Keene State, officially ending a busier-than-usual Spring semester: time to re-introduce myself to my own life.

Phillis Wheatley

I’ve written before about the weird let-down I experience twice a year, in December and May, at the end of a busy semester, “the transition from super-busy to leisurely shocking me with its suddenness.” For the past few weeks, I’ve been juggling four classes, and for several months before that, I was juggling five; now, suddenly, I’m teaching only one. Now that I’ve submitted grades, I’m revisiting long-procrastinated tasks and reintroducing myself to friends I haven’t seen all semester, both my to-do lists and my social life tending to fall by the wayside at the height of the academic year, when the effort of juggling two jobs and living in two states takes most of my mental focus. The sudden switch from “on” to “off” is welcome, but disorienting in its own way.

Lucy Stone, made of stone

One of the things I’ve been itching to have more time for is writing, both here on-blog and in my offline journal. I managed to keep up (mostly) with my morning journal-pages this semester, as I’ve learned over the years not to postpone the important stuff. But for the past month or so, during the always-busy month of April, I’ve downsized my morning routine, writing two pages rather than my usual four. Writing only two pages doesn’t save that much time from writing four, but when I’m busy, I find myself spending most of my journal-pages simply reiterating the to-dos I’ve listed elsewhere, spinning my wheels just thinking about the upcoming day’s tasks. At a certain point, it’s less frustrating to put down the pen and actually get down to doing the things you need to do rather than scribbling on about them, and writing two journal-pages a day is my compromise in the face of that fact: a nod to my busy schedule, but a conscious decision to keep in daily touch (literally) with the blank page.

Abigail Adams stands up for herself

I find there’s a substantial difference between writing two journal-pages and writing four, a kind of degree of depth you achieve after you’ve run out of superficial things to say. Once you’ve spent two pages describing the weather or noting the current behaviors of any of a number of pets, you then turn the page and have to dig a bit deeper to fill two more pages. Once you’ve stated the obvious–once you’ve repeated the same mundane observations you note pretty much every day–you have to go beneath these superficial details to figure out what’s “really” on your mind. Once you’ve gotten over the introductory pleasantries, you can tackle the question of how you’re doing, really.

In the past, I’ve looked forward to summer as a chance to write longer and more thoughtful blog-posts, and I’m looking forward to that this summer, too. But I’m also looking forward to having time to write longer and more thoughtful journal entries, the writing I do simply and entirely for me. When I don’t have time to craft long or thoughtful blog-posts, I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt, as if I’m neglecting my blog and its readers; when I don’t have time to devote myself fully to my morning journal pages, I feel a twinge of sadness, as if I’m letting my own self down. Now that my summer is here, I’m truly happy to be write back in the rhythm of my own life.

Click here for more photos from the Boston Women’s Memorial, which I photographed last month on the way to Symphony Hall for a BSO concert. Enjoy!

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Raindrops on hosta

On Tuesday, I spent most of the day collecting take-home final exams and essay portfolios from my classes at Keene State, where an almost-constant sound of chainsaws chronicled the final cleanup of the Silver Maple that had fallen on Monday. As much as I hated to see the rest of Old Silver fall to the chainsaw, I knew it was coming: once the cable snapped that held his four trunks together, there was nothing but brittle wood supporting the rest of him. Having half a tree leaning precariously close to a classroom building is too risky for even a tree-loving campus, so we either watched or kept one another informed as Old Silver was incrementally reduced to a big fat stump. There but for the grace of Gravity go us all.

Raindrops on hosta

Now that I’ve collected those take-home exams and essay portfolios from my Keene State classes, I’ve spent the rest of the week either grading these assignments or keeping up with my SNHU Online classes, which are in the second week of their term: as usual, as one of my semesters is ending, another is just beginning. At this time every year, I automatically slip into Grading Mode, a hyper-focused state which is an effective way to read lots of student papers but isn’t very conducive to social interaction or having much of interest to say on-blog. This afternoon, I submitted two batches of final grades, and I have one last pile of student portfolios between me and Tuesday’s grading deadline, when my summer officially begins. While I continue with my nose to the grading grindstone, here are a handful of pictures from the rain-dotted Hostas in our backyard, which I shot this afternoon while taking a break from my paper-piles: a visual break from the grading-grind.


I can’t speak to the age-old conundrum about a tree falling in the forest with no one around, but this much I can say: when a tree falls in the middle of a college campus, it definitely makes a sound.


Old Silver, the sprawling Silver Maple that formerly stood at one corner of Keene State College’s Fisk Quad and which I’ve fondly photographed and blogged over the years, came toppling down this afternoon while I was in my basement office in Parker Hall grading papers. I didn’t see Old Silver fall, but I definitely heard it: there was a loud grinding sound that made me look up from my grading, as if someone or something had slid off the roof of nearby Morrison Hall. What I heard as a sliding or scraping sound was actually the splintering of two of Old Silver’s sprawling trunks, and when I looked out my ground-level window, all I could see were the shocked faces of passing students looking in the direction where Old Silver used to stand.

This was the maple I’d sometimes refer to as the Failure Tree because of the comfort it always brought me at the end of a long semester when I sometimes feel like I’ve failed to reach my students. At the end of a long semester, I often feel like I want to collapse into a shattered heap, and the fact that Old Silver was still standing has often given me a kind of quiet encouragement. As long as I’ve taught at Keene State, Old Silver has stood tall, but only with help, its four sprawling trunks held together with metal cables. Sometimes, you need a little help keeping things together, and it’s nice to think there are folks out there who will lend either a cable or a hand.


Today two of Old Silver’s tall trunks gave way to gravity; luckily, no one was sitting or lounging nearby at the time, and even more fortunately, Old Silver didn’t fall during graduation, when it overhangs rows of folding chairs. When one of my colleagues came down to my office to let me know of Old Silver’s demise, he noted with amazement that another of our colleagues occasionally meets beneath Old Silver with students in his Thoreau class for open-air discussions; can you imagine the life-long lesson you’d take from a class where a towering giant toppled right alongside your copy of Walden or The Maine Woods?

I’ve occasionally gathered with my Art of Natural History students beneath Old Silver; I and probably several of my students have sketched him with varying degrees of skill. “Some of my students were in the library,” another teaching colleague noted with amazement, “and they actually saw it fall.” It somehow seems appropriate that Old Silver took his dive during Finals Week, when so many of us feel like succumbing to gravity ourselves. Had Old Silver fallen in a few weeks, after most students have gone home, there would have been few witnesses to his demise. Instead, a throng of students watched as campus grounds crews first circled the area with yellow Caution tape and then began clearing the wreckage with chainsaws and a Bobcat forklift. By tomorrow, I’m sure, most of the arborial wreckage will be cleared, and students who weren’t there to witness Old Silver’s fall won’t believe how quickly it all came down.


It feels appropriate that I was grading papers when my so-called Failure Tree fell, as these were papers where I didn’t feel as if I’d failed my students. Over the weekend, I graded papers from my “Rivers and Literary Imagination Class,” and today, I graded papers from “The Literature of Birds and Birding.” In both of these sections of Environmental Literature, I tried to emphasize the way humans derive meaning from natural objects: looking at a river, we imagine the flow of time, or watching the migration of birds, we consider the passing of our own lives.

Old Silver was a natural object that I derived meaning from; Old Silver was both an actual tree and a symbolic one, a being that shared my campus habitat as I’ve tried to teach countless students over the years. This semester, I put a lot of time into helping my Environmental Literature students succeed with the very papers I was grading when Old Silver fell: my students and I spent an entire class period brainstorming potential essay topics, we spent part of another class meeting doing peer reviews, and we spent a good portion of a third class session doing revisions based on my draft comments, followed by a second peer review. I’m gradually learning that although trees sometimes fail for no apparent reason, success is never an accident. If I want to enjoy the papers I’m reading–and today when Old Silver fell, I was largely satisfied with the essays in my paper-pile–I have to take care in designing assignments and actively helping my students produce the kind of work I want to read. Good papers don’t just happen by chance.

Lift and separate

Students, like old maple trees, are prone to becoming prone: both gravity and inertia are forces of nature, and at a wearisome point of the semester, it’s easier to give up than stand up. Old Silver has stood for years with a little help from the Keene State College grounds crew, and I’m learning that students also need an occasional prop or prod. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like students just aren’t getting the lessons you’re trying to teach; it’s easy to think it’s somehow your students’ fault, or the fault of their previous teachers. Why don’t students come to us, we lament, already knowing the Big and Basic Lessons we see as being so vital? Why does teaching always feel like starting from scratch as we emphasize and re-emphasize the lessons we think our students should have already learned?

I no longer expect students to understand difficult ideas the first time I explain them, and I no longer expect students to master complex skills without repeated opportunities for practice. I no longer expect students’ previous teachers to have taught them the skills I want them to have…or, more accurately, I no longer expect students to recall the lessons their previous teachers taught. The business of teaching is grueling work: it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of failing before you can succeed; sometimes your approaches to teaching–just like your students’ papers–need to be revised.

Loading zone

I’ll be eager to see whether the Keene State grounds crew fells Old Silver’s two remaining trunks: these might be stronger and more stable without the weight of their now-fallen companions, or they might have been structurally damaged by their peers’ collapse. Whether or not a remnant of this old tree can be salvaged, I feel Old Silver has ultimately done his job. Countless students and at least one instructor have been encouraged under his shade, and that’s all we really can expect from a tired old giant.

Click here for more images showing the collapse and clean-up of the Silver Maple I call Old Silver; enjoy!