October 2013


The folks in our neighborhood go all out for Halloween, decorating their yards with spider webs, tombstones, and all manner of ghouls, witches, and goblins. It’s funny to see how even a few fake body parts or scattered skulls and skeletons can transform an otherwise normal yard in an otherwise quiet neighborhood into Something Spooky, or at least something eye-catching.

Rainbow skeletons

J and I have decided that decorating for Halloween is particularly popular in our neighborhood because Halloween is all-American in its inclusivity. Although originally a Christian feast day, All Hallows’ Eve has been both secularized and stripped of Christian overtones—or, more accurately, it has been papered over with pagan connotations—so there’s no outcry among conservatives about a presumed War on Halloween. We all have skeletons in our bodies if not our closets, and we all are going to die, eventually: this is universal. Decorating for Halloween advertises nothing about your religious affiliation or lack thereof; it simply adds a bit of weirdness and whimsy to a season we all know ends bleakly.

Skulls and skeleton

Yesterday, J suggested another reason for a recent upsurge in neighborhood Halloween decorations. Besides an unspoken desire to keep up with the Joneses—even J and I have succumbed, perching a trio of pumpkins on our porch and investing in a few Styrofoam tombstones for our yard—there seem to be more young kids in our neighborhood than there were when J first moved here, a wave of families with teens and young adults being gradually replaced by families with younger kids. So far tonight, more of our trick-or-treaters have been little ones shepherded by parents than tweens and teens wandering the streets alone. Maybe trick-or-treating isn’t as cool as it used to be, no longer as popular with kids more interested in Facebook and video games: maybe kids today simply grow up more quickly than they used to.


We’ve had nearly thirty children come to our door this trick-or-treat night, and we’ve told them they each can choose four small candy bars from an assorted bowl. The handful of tweens who rang the doorbell quickly grabbed random fistfuls of candy, said their thank-yous, and left, but the little folks are much more deliberate, carefully choosing candies while their parental chaperones help them count.

Haunted cemetery

One little cowboy carefully selected one candy bar, dropped it in his bag, then turned to go. “He can choose three more,” I explained to his dad, who simply smiled and said, “He’s already happy enough.”

Golden oaks

The fall foliage in Massachusetts is presently past its prime, which means the brightest leaves have already fallen. Every autumn in New England features a predictable parade, with the maples’ reds and yellows presenting the brightest—and earliest—color while the oaks bring up the burnished rear. We’ve now entered the bronze age, the time of year when hearty oaks prevail over flamboyant maples, and the landscape is cloaked in brown and gold. This is autumn’s ripening time, when all of nature is either seedy or going to seed.

Yellow bus with golden foliage

These weeks of late October and early November are probably my favorite time of year for this very reason of being past-prime. Anyone can be charmed by the eye-popping spectacle of early autumn, its yellow and red color scheme as garishly obvious as a McDonald’s sign: golden arches at every turn. But in October, the oaks come into their heyday with colors that are more somber and subtle: burnt gold, burnished brown, and hammered bronze. In these weeks of October-into-November, most of the leaf-peeping tourists have headed home, and only the locals are around to relish and rake the leaves that remain. On the ground, oak leaves look dead, but while clinging to the trees, they shimmer with a subtle sheen of tans, beiges, and browns: earth colors in all their flesh-toned glory.

Surving Massive Oak inside construction zone

Although two of Framingham State’s massive oaks were cut down last summer to make room for an ongoing construction project, campus has not been completely bereft of old oaks. These belated days of autumn boast a well-ripened beauty that is striking precisely because it looks its age. Spring is the season for lush young lovelies, and September offers the newly ripening edge of maturing fecundity. The weeks of late October, on the other hand, lean deep toward death and decay: neither a bride nor young mother, but a middle-aged matron who soughs and settles into increasingly chilly nights, her wooden bones creaking. I cherish these weeks of late October because the passage of time is so apparent now, every burst of wind uncovering another branch, another bough, another wrinkle on the earth’s aging face.

Flaming foliage

In autumn, every place feels sacred. The light slants at a low, golden angle, refracting through foliage like stained glass. At every step you are reminded of mortality by the crunch of leaves underfoot while you harbor the hidden hope that this too will be green (again) in spring.

Waiting for the light to change

Autumn air is crisp and scented with a potpourri of dried leaves: who needs either incense or censer in this open-air cathedral, the now-bare limbs of early-turning maples arching overhead like beams. In autumn, the whole landscape is gilded, tricked in light and color, consecrated by the passage of time: a cathedral as old and as sacred as ages. Why do you need to step inside a church in autumn when being inside right now feels like its own kind of sacrilege? New England churches should be required to have skylights–or better yet, removable roofs–to let in as much golden light as possible: light straight from heaven, filtered through falling leaves.

(I wrote these two paragraphs in one of this morning’s First Year Writing Seminars, given the five-minute writing prompt of “Sacred Space.” I’ve been buried in papers these past few weeks, so I haven’t had much time to go leaf-peeping. Today’s photos prove, however, that you needn’t go far to see leaves in New England, as I shot the first photo in a grocery store parking lot and the second while I was waiting for a traffic light to change on my way home from buying pet supplies.)

October parking lot, one week later

If you believe what you read on the Internet, a new menace is ravaging the peace of people across the nation: FoMO, or the fear of missing out. The term refers to the anxiety that pushes people to incessantly check their phones for texts, Tweets, or Facebook updates, a compulsion fueled by the suspicion that something exciting is happening somewhere other than here. If a FOMO-afflicted person were to unplug for an hour or even an instant, who knows what sort of essential information they might miss during that down time. FOMO rests on the assumption that interesting things frequently happen elsewhere to other people but seldom happen wherever I am, right now.

Framed by foliage

Every autumn, I experience my own low-tech version of FOMO, but instead of worrying that I’m missing the status updates of others, I worry that I’ll blink and miss the ephemeral instant that is fall. New England has been gradually ripening for weeks, with a hint of color here and a burnish of color there. Every year, I worry that this year’s autumnal display will somehow not live up to my memory of autumns past: maybe this year will be one of those subpar seasons where the leaves get blown down before reaching their peak color, or maybe I simply will miss the best of the fall foliage because I’m too busy grading papers.

Through a library window

Maybe this year, in other words, I’ll Miss Out on the kaleidoscopic show that is autumn in New England, a sad scenario that would leave me ill-equipped to deal with the bleak monochrome monotony that is winter. If I fail to absorb every last hue of fall, how will I ever cope with the dismal days to come?

Autumn is spectacular in New England, but it’s a fast-paced performance with many costume changes. As a photographer, I know that if I wait to get the perfect shot, it’s likely I’ll miss that fleeting moment of perfection: leaves change, fall, and blow away too quickly for that. Appreciating autumn is like aiming for a moving target: the tree that was breathtakingly beautiful yesterday might very well stand stripped of leaves today. If you missed getting this morning’s shot of a handful of red maple leaves stippled with raindrops, you’ll find they have dried and blown away by afternoon.

Wahoo fruit

Last week on my way to my office at Framingham State, I noticed a hot-pink cluster of burning bush (Euonymus atropurpureus, or wahoo) berries ripening above head-level behind O’Connor Hall. I don’t remember seeing burning bush in this spot last fall: I don’t remember seeing wahoo berries anywhere on campus last year. How did I ever make it through the gray days of this past winter without the memory of burning wahoo berries to cheer me? Just think what I would have missed out on had I had my nose glued to my phone.

Someone forgot the milk

I don’t know what it is that compels me to reach for my camera whenever I see a lost or forgotten object, like this gallon of milk someone left behind in their grocery cart at the Auburndale Shaw’s this afternoon. There’s something lonesome and forlorn about castoff things. I always wonder about the story behind these objects, and I feel sad for the people who left them behind. Is someone upset now that they’re home and find themselves with a full refrigerator of food, but no milk? Is some harried parent making an emergency trip back to the store right now because the kids will need milk with their Saturday morning cartoons-and-cereal tomorrow?

Angry Pig

I guess I feel a kind of sympathy for lost objects and the unseen folks who might be looking for them: who among us, after all, hasn’t lost something, and who among us hasn’t, at some point, felt lost? Often the lost objects I find (and compulsively photograph) are prominently displayed on fences, benches, or other eye-level perches: someone took the time not only to retrieve this lost thing but to place it somewhere that it might be found. The sight of such kindness from one stranger to another always cheers me: it seems inherently hopeful to think that a frantic searcher might find a castoff thing, all because of the kindness of an anonymous stranger.

Castoff glasses

One day last week while J and I were in New York, a woman dropped her sweater as she bustled down a busy Chelsea sidewalk, and no sooner had the sweater landed but a handful of strangers each lunged forward, separately, to retrieve the garment and alert the woman: “Ma’am!” “Miss!” “Hey, lady!” J noted how this instantaneous rush to help an anonymous passerby belies everything you hear about brusque New Yorkers. Although city-dwellers might walk fast and avoid eye-contact, there still lies within us an instinctive urge to reach out, retrieve, and reunite lost objects with their owners. Perhaps we all know, intrinsically, the ache of lonesomeness, and this compels us to reunite lost objects and lost souls whenever we can.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Lonesome.

Half submerged

A colleague recently told me he’d explored my blog and admired my discipline, a word I don’t really associate with myself. “What discipline,” I quietly wondered. On a good day, my blogging feels like so much twaddle; on a bad day, I don’t blog at all. But I guess all the years I’ve been keeping both a journal and a blog amount to something: at least these entries reflect an intention to show up and chronicle what I can, as I’m able. It’s an intention to be faithful, most days, to my commitment to my craft, regardless of what kind of product that commitment produces.


I don’t consider myself to be a particularly disciplined person in the sense of having willpower to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy. I’m not particularly disciplined when it comes to exercise, diet, or other things I know I “should” do, and I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to things I find monotonous, like tackling a grading pile. When I’m doing things I like or find intriguing, I can concentrate for long stretches, but otherwise I’m antsy and easily distracted, finding all kinds of ways of filling my time with the things I shouldn’t be doing rather than the things I should.


But if remaining faithful to something I enjoy counts as discipline, then I guess my colleague’s remark is true. I suppose there’s a certain kind of discipline involved in returning to one thing over and over for a long stretch of time, “writing” being a thing I always find myself coming back to. Still, I think there are other, better words to describe this kind of blind, unswerving faithfulness: “tenacity” is one word that comes to mind, and “stubbornness” is another. “Bull-headed” is the term my mother often used to describe my headstrong teenage self: I don’t know if bulls are particularly disciplined, but they are renowned for having hard heads.

Sea lion

I do sometimes think there’s something ox-like in my plodding commitment to the monotonies of my daily routine, writing and blogging included. Young cattle are flighty and skittish, so the way to train a young ox is to yoke it to an older and more steadfast one. A mature, well-trained ox knows to pull straight and steady in his harness, but a youngster will champ and frolic after every butterfly. Farmers know, though, that mature oxen are both stronger and heavier than youngsters, so with one shake of his shoulders, an old ox can yank frisky Youngblood back in line. There’s no moving or budging an old ox who has settled in his traces, a lesson that generation after generation of youngsters has learned in the yokes, and I think my daily writing routines serve as a kind of metaphoric “yoke,” bringing me back to more or less the same thing almost every day, regardless of what other distractions beckon.

Three mergansers

My challenge as a teacher is to serve as an old ox to my young and energetic students, who much of the time would rather do anything in the world rather than schoolwork. I try instill a kind of creative discipline in my students by following the furrows of our course syllabus, acclimating them to the “yoke” of reading, writing, and revising assignment after assignment. Old oxen can become obnoxiously stubborn, however, with “discipline” quickly becoming “drudgery” if there is no spark of interest enlivening our steps. There’s a fine line between being disciplined and being too predictable, and that line is, I think, one of the roughest rows to hoe.

Click here for more photos from last week’s trip to the Central Park Zoo. Enjoy!

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last week while J and I were in New York, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’d been to the Museum of Natural History in the morning, grabbing a quick lunch from a Central Park vendor on our walk from one museum to the other. Had I but world enough and time, I could spend days rambling in either the Museum of Natural History or the Met, but last week J and I had only a few short hours to devote to each. We didn’t, in other words, have time to ramble: instead, we made a short list of things we absolutely wanted to see, then we made a beeline to those things, leaving leisurely exploration for our next visit.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

What’s interesting about a museum like the Met, however, is how difficult it is to avoid rambling. J had two specific eras he wanted to explore—Modern and 19th century—and these were housed in sprawling galleries on different floors. It took a fair bit of wandering, in other words, to arrive to the specific sites we were making a beeline for, and once we were there, we engaged in more wandering, roaming from one gallery to another without a clearly delineated path or plan.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Appreciating art at the Metropolitan Museum is like looking for a good place to eat in Boston’s North End: you can’t make a bad choice because everything around you is excellent. By the time J and I succumbed to museum fatigue and decided to head back to our hotel, a detour to find a restroom on our way to the Museum’s main entrance led us straight into the mazy corridors of a place I swear I’ve never been before: the Museum’s visible storage area, where seemingly endless artifacts and decorative objects are meticulously arranged in glass cabinets, like a closed closet or catalogue turned inside-out.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Had I but world enough and time—had my feet not been aching from an entire day of Museum-rambles—I could have easily spent hours looking at this stunning array of objects—an embarrassment of riches—with only curiosity rather than curatorial captions to guide me. Without the narrative storyline of an curated exhibit to tell viewers what they “should” get out of these objects, museum goers are left to sift through the troves on their own, picking and choosing their own masterpieces from the aisles.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

How could I have missed on previous visits these cabinets of wonder, their shiny surfaces like a natural historian’s curio cabinet stocked with specimens: an infinite world of riches contained in glass?

Whale's tail

Last week, J and I took the train to New York City, where he attended a conference and I kept in touch online with my classes, both of us working in the mornings then exploring in the afternoons.

American Museum of Natural History

Some of the places we explored were new to us: we went to a taping of The Daily Show, for instance, and we spent an afternoon wandering around the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. But other places we visited are familiar sites that have achieved an almost ritual significance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Central Park Zoo or Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance: these are places I want to re-visit no matter how many times I’ve already been, each new encounter feeling a bit like going home even though I’ve never lived in New York.

One place in New York that has an irresistible pull on my imagination–a place I visit with almost religious fervor–is the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, where you can walk under a life-sized fiberglass replica of a full-grown female blue whale.

American Museum of Natural History

I could probably spend a week or more in the American Museum of Natural History staring at the dioramas in the Hall of Mammals, letting my imagination take me to exotic locations, each meticulously detailed set a portal into another world. But even though I brace myself, it’s always the blue whale that amazes me the most, each visit a jaw-dropping surprise. Is there any place on the planet, I wonder, that could be as awe-inspiring as the shadow beneath a blue whale?

American Museum of Natural History