November 2010


Just like that, it’s the last day of November, and I’ve reached the end of another stint of National Blog Posting Month. Publishing thirty posts in thirty days seems easy enough when you start off, and it seems easy enough in retrospect…but there were days between then and now when “thirty in thirty” seemed an impossible goal.

Alfredo was here!

There are a few things I learned about blogging this past month. First, it really does help to have extra photos stockpiled for future usage. When I shot a handful of window-shopping images last December, for instance, I had no idea I’d end up blogging them this November. Rather than limiting yourself to taking only those pictures you immediately plan on using, go ahead and take the first picture, then the second, then the third. The photos you don’t use today might come in handy on a rainy day.

Second, preparation for blogging really does start the night before. If you write a rough draft of a blog-post the night before you plan to post it, you can take your time composing and revising it in your head, even when you aren’t at your computer or online. Just thinking about posting is typically the first step toward actually doing it…and actually starting a draft makes finishing that draft much easier and more likely.

The Hulk times two

Third, it’s a good idea to have at least one emergency post on hand just in case you need to post something quickly or at the last minute. There were many days this month when I wasn’t sure whether I’d find the time and opportunity to post. Even if I had something I wanted to post on a given day, I can never guarantee that I’ll make it online in time to publish a post. People get sick, laptops malfunction, work intervenes, and Internet connections get interrupted. On any given day, you might have plenty of time to write a long, detailed post…or you might have just enough time to sigh, shake your head, and envy those with more reliable schedules.

Now that I’ve officially fulfilled my NaBloPoMo commitment, I’m looking forward to blogging a bit less frequently these days. December is an extremely busy month for college writing instructors, so I’m looking forward to having some extra time each day to read student papers or do other teaching tasks rather than figuring out what to “feed the blog.” November is one of the year’s shorter months, but you’d never know that from the level of anxiety and self-doubt successful bloggers feel when considering how their journal scribblings relate to real, sharable stuff. There have been days this past month when something as simple as counting to thirty seemed entirely impossible.

Christmas window display

Now that Thanksgiving is past and December is imminent, I’ve begun listening to Christmas music on my weekly drives between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I have a handful of CDs I listen to during the Christmas season, including Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night” and my friend Frank Wallace’s “Joy: Carols and Songs.” But the recording I listen to time and again during December is the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Christmas window display

When most folks my age remember the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the song they’re most likely to remember is “Linus and Lucy,” the upbeat jazz number that is the Peanuts’ theme song. “Linus and Lucy” is catchy and infectious, with a tempo that causes beagles to dance…but it’s not my favorite song on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The reason I play this particular CD so often during the month of December has nothing to do with dancing beagles but with a relatively downbeat song called “Christmas Time Is Here.”

There are two versions of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The vocal version features a choir of children singing slow but sweet lyrics:

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Christmas window display

The instrumental version of the song, however, is the one I love…and what I love about it isn’t the fact that it’s sweet but the fact that it’s sad. Like all the Charlie Brown television specials, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” focuses on a lonely, loser kid; as I’ve said before, “As a ‘weird kid,’ I always related to Charlie Brown with his loser ways and ‘blockhead’ inferiority.” The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” captures the melancholy mood of being the one weird, lonely kid who sees Christmas as being a bittersweet time.

The instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” sounds like a Christmas song, but it doesn’t sound like a children’s song. That’s what I like about most of the tunes on “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: they sound like songs grown-ups would listen to. To my ear, “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to if you found yourself alone in a bar on Christmas Eve, a bartender and a stiff drink your only companions. “Christmas Time Is Here” acknowledges that the holidays are a sweet and happy time for most people…but it also admits that the holidays have a melancholy edge for folks who don’t have families, or are separated from their families, or are otherwise alone or outcast.

Christmas window display

What I don’t like about the Christmas songs that are played incessantly in shopping malls and on radio stations right about now is their forced frivolity. Yes, the holidays can be happy, but must they be? What about all the folks who aren’t happy over the holidays, or what about happy folks who occasionally like a break from general merriment?

Shopping mall Christmas songs always strike me as having an ulterior motive, as if they are designed to keep people manically happy, happy, happy so they’ll keep shopping, shopping, shopping. Songs like “Christmas Time Is Here,” on the other hand, allow room for bittersweet introspection. The song isn’t outright depressed or depressing, but it admits that grown-ups might face the holidays with mixed feelings as they remember with nostalgia their own childhoods and face the loneliness, disappointment, and other downbeat emotions that Christmas can inspire.

Christmas window display

I have nothing against dancing beagles, but this time of year more than ever, I find myself relating to the kind of kid whose best friends include that aforementioned beagle and a sensitive, blanket-toting philosopher. Charlie Brown is the kind of kid who chooses the puniest, most pathetic-looking twig for his Christmas tree just because it needs a home, and “Christmas Time Is Here” is the kind of song you’d listen to, stiff drink in hand, while you decorated that kind of tree.

Today’s photos come from the always-lovely Christmas displays at Creative Encounters in downtown Keene. Enjoy!

Close-up:  bathroom window frost-feathers

Every year, I go through the previous year’s photos to compile a calendar to give my family and close friends for Christmas. It’s a fun way to revisit a year’s worth of photos, and it makes for a personalized gift that shares a bit of my life with far-flung friends and relatives.

Sunning meerkats

Because the main audience for my annual calendar is my family in Ohio, I typically limit myself to scenes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, using my calendar as a way to share images from my two New England homes with my family in the Midwest. This year, however, I included two pictures from this year’s travels. July’s image is from a walk in the park J and I took while visiting my family in Columbus this past summer, and August’s image of two sunning meerkats (above) is from our wedding at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Both are photos I particularly like, and both have sentimental value, so qualify as exceptions to my usual “only in New England” rule. One fun part of making your own calendar is the freedom to pick whatever memories you’d like to re-visit over the course of the coming year.

Click here to see the complete set of 2011 calendar images: twelve months plus a cover. For previous years’ images, click here and here and here and here. Enjoy!

Heels over head

Yesterday was Black Friday, so while the rest of the world was shopping, J and I went to an afternoon Bruins game, as we have in the past. The first three Bruins games we’ve been to this season have all been on Saturday nights, so yesterday’s afternoon game gave us our first daytime chance to see (and photograph) the new statue of Bobby Orr that commemorates his headlong lunge across the Boston Garden ice after scoring the Bruins’ Stanley Cup-winning goal on May 10, 1970.


For most consumers, Black Friday marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season, and today at lunch, J and I watched the owners of our favorite pub as they put up this year’s Christmas wreaths and lights. J and I don’t do much Christmas shopping, however. For the past several years, we’ve earmarked our 10-game package of Bruins tickets as our mutual birthday and Christmas gifts to one another, and my nephews and niece are old enough that gift cards are more appropriate than toys. What few gifts J and I need to buy, we either buy online or at charity fundraisers, giving us little reason to venture into crowded malls. Instead of seeing Black Friday as the start of the retail shopping season, J and I welcome it as the start of something else entirely: the beginning of Double-Tipping Month.

Double-Tipping Month is inspired by J’s experience working as a busboy at an Italian restaurant when he was in college. During December, many of the restaurant’s regular customers would spread holiday cheer by tipping their waitstaff and busboys extra generously, and J always remembered the good-will this inspired. Most of the year, working at a restaurant is a thankless job: customers either ignore you or show you little courtesy, assuming your status as the “hired help” means they can treat you like servants. Because of his vivid memories of what it was like to be treated like a second-class citizen by restaurant patrons who thought they were better than their servers, J has always been kind to waiters, waitresses, and restaurant workers, showing them common courtesy and tipping them decently.


Over the years I’ve known J, Double-Tipping Month has grown from an informal attempt to tip generously during the month of December to an official commitment to tip double our usual rate from Black Friday through New Year’s Day: just over a month. J and I don’t eat out often, and we don’t typically go to fancy, expensive places: most weekends, we go to a nearby Irish pub for lunch on Saturdays and our neighborhood deli for brunch on Sundays. In both cases, our check usually comes to about $25, so Double-Tipping Month means we typically leave a $10 tip in place of $5. The expense of Double-Tipping Month, in other words, is minimal to us…but it makes a huge difference, it seems, to our waitstaff, who respond to a double-tip as if J and I had just made their day.

Over the years of our frequenting the same Irish pub and neighborhood deli, Double-Tip Month has begun to earn J and me some notoriety. One December morning several years ago, I rounded up when calculating the double-tip on our usual Sunday brunch, adding a few extra bucks to the already-doubled amount since I didn’t have exact change…and that particular waitress has been particularly nice to J and me ever since, apparently remembering small considerations. “They tip double in December,” J and I once heard her whisper to a new waitress one Sunday, thinking we were out of earshot, “and they try to give you the exact amount, so you don’t have to make change.” When she saw J and I were getting up to leave, this same waitress continued talking to the new girl: “They’re just what you want in customers: so nice and so easy!” When you work a backbreaking, often-thankless job, it takes far less than a Stanley Cup-winning goal to make you want to leap headlong; sometimes just some seasonal courtesy is enough.

Mannequin's hand

My favorite short story in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio–one of my favorite stories ever–is titled “Hands.” The protagonist, Wing Biddlebaum, is a social outcast in a small town populated with misfits. Awkward and inarticulate, Wing talks with his hands, which are delicate and nervous: he owes his nickname, in fact, to their quirky fluttering. Wing, it seems, can’t quite control his hands: when he gets upset, he pounds them on any available surface, and when he’s nervous, he runs them through his hair.

Plastic people, with shades

Wing, however, is a gentle man who doesn’t get upset much. When he was young, readers learn, Wing Biddlebaum lived in Pennsylvania and was a teacher. In that previous lifetime, he used his hands to show affection toward his students, touching and caressing them as he strove to teach them:

Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.

Plastic mannequin's hand

You can see, I’m sure, where this story is headed. Male teachers aren’t supposed to caress their students, and there were rumors and accusations. The man who became Wing Biddlebaum left Pennsylvania in disgrace, arriving in Winesburg, Ohio to serve a kind of exile, changing his name and abandoning his career. The man who once used his hands to inspire young minds ends up living on the outskirts of town, alone and misunderstood. Is the man known as Wing Biddlebaum a poet or a pedophile, an idealist or a predator? Sherwood Anderson never says, leaving Wing’s story open to interpretation. In the story’s final scene, Wing is alone in his empty house, picking breadcrumbs from his kitchen floor with his deft fingers: “The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.”

Plastic people

Our hands say so much, it’s no wonder chiromancers use them to foresee the future. One man’s hands are calloused and worn, with dirt under the nails; another’s are delicate and thin-skinned, with long, elegant fingers. When I myself was a student, I’d regularly spend class lectures watching my teachers’ hands, watching as they underscored important points through gestures and gesticulations. Try as I might, I can’t stop myself from talking with my hands: once one of my high school teachers, in fact, approached me in the hallway between classes, clasped my hands in his, and dared me to say something–anything–while they were immobilized. And indeed, all I could do was laugh, speechless, while the wings of my hands lay helplessly pinioned: a teenage Wing Biddlebaum without a voice.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Hands. Today’s pictures come a from a window-shopping trip at Boston’s Copley Plaza and Prudential Center last December. Enjoy!


Every now and then, I like to take pictures at the grocery store as a way of reminding myself of the abundance so many of us enjoy.


Today is Thanksgiving, a day officially devoted an attitude we should cultivate every day. As I explained last year, I always feel a bit tongue-tied at Thanksgiving, when one is officially expected to count one’s blessings. In my mind, I’ve been blessed with gifts too numerous to count: a loving husband, meaningful work, healthy pets, a roof over my head. Those are the obvious blessings, but less obvious are the simple pleasures that grace one’s life in unexpected ways.

Sometimes while I’m grocery shopping, for instance, I’m stunned by the simple wonder of so many choices–so many pumpkins, so many gourds, so many apples–that surround us daily. Isn’t every pumpkin, every gourd, every apple itself an infinite blessing? And yet we live in a world where we are surrounded by fruit and fruitfulness like leaves pouring down in the fall, the very picture of plenty. How is it, then, that we need an annual holiday to remind us of such riches?

Here’s wishing you and yours a happy Thanksgiving, filled to overflowing with a cornucopia of contentment.

Blue Christmas

This year, it seems I’ve been remiss about showing you the November shop windows in downtown Keene. Exactly one year ago, I showed you the always spectacular Christmas display at Creative Encounters, an art-supply and frame shop on Main Street in downtown Keene where I’ve taken lots of pictures in the past. Earlier last November, I showed you the marvelous mannequins at Miranda’s Verandah, another of my favorite photo subjects.

True blue cookware

Whereas last year, Reggie and I regularly took two walks downtown–one in the morning and another in the evening–thereby giving me plenty of chance to window-shop, this year Reggie and I have been sticking closer to home. Now that Reggie is one year older and that much slower, we still take two dog-walks a day…but these slow-puttering, long-sniffing strolls usually center around our immediate neighborhood rather than venturing all the way downtown and back. When you walk at the speed of an old dog, you learn to measure your walks by depth rather than length.

Yesterday morning, however, Reggie and I walked all the way downtown and back, taking our time and making a point to check out the sights along the way. It was before sunrise, so Main Street’s illuminated shop windows were particularly eye-catching.

True blue Christmas tree

Since last year, several of the shops downtown have changed, or at least shifted. Cool Jewels has gone out of business, its colorful facade now fronting an empty store. Pocketful of Rye has moved to Main Street from its previous spot at the Colony Mill, as has Your Kitchen Store, which moved into the space left vacant when Cheshire Music moved to the Center at Keene. Walking downtown this November feels like a game of musical chairs, with familiar faces suddenly sitting in new places. Yesterday I was happy to discover that Your Kitchen Store features Christmas window displays that rival those of their neighbors, this year’s theme featuring stacks of blue bakeware and a blue-illumined Christmas tree decorated with shiny utensils and kitchen accessories: gift ideas for the chef who has almost everything.

"Pastiche" stencil on campus bus stop shelter

Last Thursday afternoon was sunny, so after my Thinking and Writing students had spent about an hour working on the next draft of their semester-long research projects, we took our nature journals and headed toward athletic fields where the home team plays.

"Pastiche" stencil with shadow self-portrait

We’d read in Henry David Thoreau’s 1851 journal that he had heard great-horned owls calling this time of year, and the Keene State athletic fields aren’t far from the rail-trail where I’ve seen barred owls. We didn’t hear any owls in the slanting light of a late November afternoon, but we did see several crows, a pair of flitting juncos, and evidence of beavers.

My teaching colleagues and I have been talking a lot lately about outcome-based pedagogy, which is the practice of designing assignments and assessments focused on the intellectual end result you want to encourage. There was no official pedagogical outcome I tried to achieve in taking my students on a walk on Thursday: we walked because the weather was nice and the practice of keeping a nature journal gave us an excuse. Without an official outcome, we walked with no expectation of assessment: no, this sunny November day won’t be on the test, and there’s no quantifiable way of determining whether Taking a Walk has a measurable impact on a first-year student’s Thinking and Writing skills. In the absence of officially empirical evidence, however, I still believe that walking is good for writing and that being bipedal is good for the soul.

Krejci takes a shot

J and I had hoped for a fairytale finish to Saturday night’s hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings. After the Bruins clambered back from a three-goal deficit to tie the game in the third period, it all came down to a sudden-death shoot-out. It would have been storybook-perfect had the Bruins’ David Krejci scored the game-winning goal in his first game back after suffering a concussion two weeks ago, but he missed, and the Kings’ Michal Handzus made his shot: game over.

The game-deciding goal

After the game, it was cold as J and I walked to Government Center to catch a subway home, shivering in our hockey jerseys and autumn-weight jackets. As we walked home from our stop, the full moon beamed brilliantly overhead, as white as ice as it cast cold moonshadows of bare, twiggy branches on the sidewalks and pavement.

Already this season, we’ve been to three Bruins’ games, and they’ve lost all three times: twice in nail-biter shootouts, and once in regulation. All that was forgotten, though, in the crystal-bright light of an almost-winter moon as Orion in his spangled belt skated headlong across the frozen sky, stars glittering like sparks from his skate-blades.

Suburban turkeys

I suppose J and I could find our Thanksgiving meal simply by walking around the neighborhood in search of suburban turkeys, but we have a tradition of eating pasta for Thanksgiving. So tonight I went to the grocery store to do the weekly shopping.

Turkey trot

The store wasn’t frantic–I purposefully chose a time when I felt there wouldn’t be mobs of holiday shoppers–but the aisles were crowded with people taking their time as they loaded their carts. You could tell everyone was preparing meals they don’t regularly cook, as everyone was poring over labels and consulting with companions about their selections. One woman was on a cell phone making sure she got just the right kind of pumpkin puree; elsewhere, I overheard a pair of college-aged women (roommates?) wondering how they’d cook various side-dishes given their relative lack of cookware.


One item on my list was cold-cuts for the dogs’ Thanksgiving platter. In the past, J and I have prepared a plate of dog treats and sliced meats to give to the dogs as their Christmas present, and this year we decided to extend the tradition to Thanksgiving, too. So while other shoppers pored over a case of frozen turkeys trying to find just the right size and shape of bird, I spent a long time poring over packages of bologna, sliced turkey, and ham trying to find the smallest, cheapest package of each. Only after I’d made my selections did I look up and realize another shopper was watching me with a concerned look, worried I was a poor soul who could afford to eat only bologna sandwiches for Thanksgiving.

Yes, we really do have wild turkeys that live in suburban Newton, as evidenced here and here.

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