November 2015


Head of the Charles regatta

Today is the last day of November, which means it’s the last day of National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo: a conscious commitment to post once a day, every day, during the month of November. I’ve done NaBloPoMo for several years now: it’s a good, annual nudge to get me blogging more at a point in the semester when I don’t have much time to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Since NaBloPomo is basically an experiment to see whether I can balance blogging atop a teetering pile of daily demands, at the end of the month I like to look back and see what (if anything) I’ve learned from the experience of posting something every day, even on days when I technically didn’t have the time or inspiration to write.

Head of the Charles regatta

Every year, I realize (again) that I can always find something to say, even on hurried and uninspired days, and every year, I discover (again) that I sometimes surprise myself with the posts that seemingly materialize out of thin air. There is, I’ve found, something magical about the simple action of setting your fingers on a keyboard: once you start typing, your mind will furnish you with something to say, even if you had no idea what you were going to blog about.

Head of the Charles regatta

I sometimes think of this as being the “stone soup” nature of blogging: even when you think your cupboard is bare, you can always find a little bit of something simmer. The magic, again, happens when you set fingers to keyboard or pen to paper…or when you open Google Drive on your phone and start tapping out a new Doc.

Head of the Charles regatta

(Yes, more than a few blog posts this month were initially composed on my phone, that ubiquitous device that doubles as a word processor if you don’t mind typing with your thumbs. You’d be surprised how much you can write during the spare minutes you’re waiting at the vet, at your favorite take-out place, or in line at the drugstore.)

Head of the Charles regatta

As in past years, I’m a bit relieved to be posting my last November blog entry for the year. Now that Thanksgiving break has come and gone, the busiest part of the semester looms, and I need to focus on things other than blogging. But before I press my nose to the proverbial grindstone, it feels good to look back on a solid month’s worth of blogging: proof of what I can do when I set my mind to it, even if my mind claims to be too busy and uninspired to write.

Today’s photos come from this year’s Head of the Charles regatta, which happened back in October. The best stone soups are sometimes simmered from long-overlooked leftovers.

Pots and pans

My Sunday nights are largely devoted to the mundane prep-work of the coming work week: in a word, housekeeping. I make sure my teaching bag contains whatever books and folders I’ll need, and I pack a week’s worth of lunches and plan a week’s worth of outfits. When I first started teaching, I underestimated the importance of mundane planning, thinking all I’d need to teach was a deep knowledge of my subject and the passion to share it. What I’ve learned more than 20 years later, however, is that a good teaching day depends on lots of little things, like having pens that work, a water bottle that’s full, and lots and lots of snacks, just in case.

Making a chocolate mouse

Last night J and I watched the 1960s episode of a History Channel program called “Christmas Through the Decades.” Both J and I were born at the end of the 1960s, so many of the advertisements, toys, and other pop culture artifacts mentioned on the show figured prominently in our 1970s childhoods. (Throughout my childhood and into my teens, for instance, I grew up with an aluminum Christmas tree my parents had bought when such trees were all the rage.)

Food porn for chocoholics

One of the quintessential Christmas touchstones mentioned on the show was the Sears “Wish Book” catalog that children of our generation used to pore over like Scripture in the months leading up to Christmas. Both J and I have vivid memories of paging through paper catalogs, making a mental list of the items we wanted. For J, Radio Shack catalogs were his preferred wish book, and for me, the Service Merchandise catalog pictured all the toys I could ever hope for. Although I knew better than to confront Santa with a long wishlist–Santa, like my parents, was frugal and tended to bring whatever toys were on clearance–simply looking at a well-illustrated catalog was almost as good as actually receiving the toys you wished for, the toys in your imagination never growing old or wearing out.

White chocolate snowman

Nowadays, I toss Christmas catalogs directly in the recycling bin, finding it much easier to browse and shop online. But in today’s mail, J received a catalog and calendar from L.A. Burdick Chocolate, and I swiftly claimed both. Just as a small child can spend hours poring over pictures of toys in a catalog, I as an adult can easily fill an afternoon looking at calendar-quality food porn.

After dark

The past few days, apropos of nothing, I’ve had Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” playing in my head. It’s an unlikely earworm: I don’t often listen to jazz, and I can’t remember the last time I heard Monk or anyone else play this particular tune. But its somber strains seem especially apt on these late November days when darkness falls early. By six o’clock, it’s dark as midnight, and the melancholy mood of late night descends early and lingers long.

After dark

On these late November days when it’s long-dark by dinnertime, I find myself peering into strangers’ windows as I drive past, attracted to their isolated but brightly-lit domestic scenes: a woman setting a table, a man playing table-tennis with an unseen opponent, a couple curled up on a couch, watching television. What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t concern me for most of the year, but in late November, even a glimpse of domestic warmth seen through strangers’ windows is cheering: a spot of encouragement in a dark time. And true to the logic of dreams, my inner DJ has chosen “Round Midnight” as the appropriate soundtrack for these dark days

View from the Skywalk Observatory

This year for Thanksgiving, J and I had dinner at the Top of the Hub, located on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Center in downtown Boston. Before we sat down to dinner, we strolled around the Skywalk Observatory, which offers a 360-degree bird’s eye view of Boston, Cambridge, and the outlying suburbs.

Pumpkin creme brulee

Life really does come into perspective when you see it from above, passing pedestrians and looming landmarks looking equally small and inconsequential. “Look at that guy trying to parallel park,” one woman whispered to her husband, and yes, directly below us there was an unfortunately-angled car trying unsuccessfully to squeeze into a parking spot on Boylston Street.

Top of the Hub after dark

At street level, trying to park in downtown Boston is a Big Deal; from 50 stories up, it’s the stuff of comedy. Sometimes all it takes to see your life from another perspective is an elevator ride and a taste of pumpkin creme brulee from 50 stories up.

Fashion design display

This afternoon, I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book about creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I ended up liking the book more in the end than I did in the beginning: early portions of the book where Gilbert emphasizes the mystical nature of creativity, with ideas floating in the ether just waiting for an artist to claim them, left me cold, but I resonated with those sections of the book where she describes the more mundane characteristics of a creative life.

Fashion display

I agree with Gilbert when she talks about the need to press on with undying commitment regardless of whether one’s creative endeavors seem to be bearing fruit: creativity, after all, is about doing, not judging. Writing, drawing, dancing, and other creative endeavors are enjoyable whether you do them well or not, so don’t worry about who’s watching while you do them. Creativity is something you do because the doing is intrinsically worth it: once you’ve been writing, drawing, or dancing for a while, you realize that you write, draw, or dance simply because these are the things that feed your soul.

Fashion design display

Gilbert rips to shreds the myth of the suffering artist, calling it out for its tendency to excuse bad and unhealthy behavior. Creativity, Gilbert suggests, isn’t about suffering: it’s about following your creative impulses with a sense of playful joy. Instead of worrying whether your work is meaningful, profound, or profitable, you continue doing it because the actual Doing It brings you satisfaction. Even in the face of rejection, criticism, or failure, you follow your curiosity because there’s honestly nothing else you’d rather be doing.

Fashion design display

Gilbert’s encouragements on this point seemed particularly apt because we live in an age that is perpetually starved for joy. So much of what we see on the news and in social media is inspired by hate, insecurity, and exclusion: by a desire to be seen as Right while everyone else is Wrong. In a world filled with so many attempts to get rich quick, so many attacks and insults, and so many pleas for attention and adulation, the only true antidote is joy: the seemingly frivolous things that creatives do for pure playful pleasure. This is why videos of children dancing or kittens cuddling go viral so quickly, attracting umpteen views and re-views. Deep down, we want to experience the joy that comes from doing something purely, with one’s whole-heart, and for its own reward.

Head to head

There’s a scene in the movie Stranger Than Fiction that chokes me up no matter how many times I see it. Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose boring existence is turned upside down when he discovers his life is being narrated by best-selling author Karen Eiffel, played to perfection by Emma Thompson. Because Eiffel lets Crick read the manuscript of his (doomed) life, Crick knows exactly how his story ends: he’ll die on his way to work, jumping in front of a bus to save the life of a young boy.

Meshed

The scene that inevitably gets me teary eyed shows Crick enjoying his last night on earth. Instead of sharing his ominous knowledge of what will happen the next day, Crick enjoys an otherwise ordinary night eating dinner and watching TV with his girlfriend, Ana Pascal (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Instead of causing Pascal to worry about the inevitable, Crick quietly savors the simple pleasures he learned to appreciate only after he learned his days are numbered.

Trio

This morning I made a euthanasia appointment for Groucho the cat: tomorrow morning, J and I will hold Groucho in our lap while our vet puts him quietly to sleep. Monday’s trip to the vet didn’t reveal anything clearly treatable, and Groucho continues to lose weight at an alarming rate, his bones jutting this way and that out of his thinning fur. Like Harold Crick, J and I know how Groucho’s story ends, and we see no need to delay the inevitable.

Brunette

Tonight is Groucho’s last night on earth, and I’ll follow our usual Tuesday routine, cleaning his and Nina’s litter box and then sitting on the loveseat to give Groucho his daily petting and head-scratches. Groucho has learned to jump onto my lap after I’ve cleaned his litter box, but he won’t know why tonight I’ll be weeping. Instead, he’ll purr under my caresses as he always does, without the burden of knowing what tomorrow brings.

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