Massachusetts


Red-bellied woodpecker

I’ve been seeing one or more male red-bellied woodpeckers nearly every time I walk the dog these days: either several birds are staking territorial claims on several different side streets, or one bird has been faithfully following me.

Woodpeckers look funny from below

Red-bellied woodpeckers are large and vocal: it’s hard not to see them once you recognize their call and take the time to look for them. And right now, the male red-bellies in our neighborhood are perching on dead snags, excavating holes, and calling: almost begging to be seen. Although I can identify red-bellied woodpeckers by eye and ear, I’m realizing how little I know about their lives. Why am I only seeing male red-bellies right now, for example? Are the females just as plentiful as the males, but quieter? And are red-bellied woodpeckers conspicuously abundant every March, and this is the first year I’ve actually noticed them?

Red-bellied woodpecker

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s account of red-bellied woodpecker behavior, “When nesting, males choose the site and begin to excavate, then try to attract a female by calling and tapping softly on the wood around or in the cavity.” So apparently the calling males I’ve seen around our neighborhood are trying to attract mates to the nest holes they’ve begun to excavate. Now that I know the general areas where several male red-bellies are looking to nest, it’s likely I’ll see them in the same spots for years to come, as “The same pair may nest in the same tree year after year, but typically excavate a new cavity each year, often placing the new one beneath the previous year’s.”

Apparently, red-bellied woodpeckers have been calling, tapping, and nesting in our neighborhood for years, and I’m only now paying attention. What other creatures have led their not-so-secret lives while I’ve been hurrying around, unaware?

Snow into sleet

Today brought a day-long mix of snow, sleet, and rain, so J and I took a break from the wintery weather by going to the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College to see their current exhibit, Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America.

Eagle and clock tower

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a monumental bronze sculpture that was donated to the College in the 1950s by the estate of Larz and Isabel Anderson, who bought it in Japan during their honeymoon. A gilded replica of the statue sits atop a pillar near the main entrance to Boston College, and subsequent conservation of the original suggests it was crafted during the Meiji period, possibly by the celebrated sculptor Suzuki Chōkichi. The McMullen exhibit contextualizes the original bronze alongside Japanese sculptures and scrolls depicting birds of prey as well as other items from the Andersons’ personal collection.

Eagle with necktie

J and I enjoy going to the McMullen regardless of what’s on exhibit there. The Museum is small, so you can take your time examining individual artworks, and the exhibits are well-curated. We always leave the McMullen feeling like we learned something: today I learned, for instance, that samurai warriors practiced falconry, a pastime forbidden to commoners even though hawks and eagles often appear in Japanese art. Even though I’ve seen the BC eagle perched on a pillar by Gasson Hall countless times, today I learned how huge and impressive it is when viewed at eye-level.

Although I didn’t take any photos at the McMullen Museum today, you can view official press images from the exhibit here. Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America is on view at the McMullen Museum until June 2, 2019.

Skull

It’s a cold, rainy day–what started as sleet overnight has transitioned to rain, with strong winds. I brought my reverse umbrella with me when I went to the Zen Center this morning: not only does its inside-out design make it perfect for stepping into and out of cars, it holds up nicely against the wind, and its C-shaped handle hooks over one’s wrist, leaving one’s hands free.

The other side

On rainy days, there are far fewer pedestrians out and about. Before meditating at the Zen Center, I parked in Central and walked to Graffiti Alley and back, and there was hardly anyone on the streets: no panhandlers, cyclists, or passersby bustling with shopping bags. Many people stay home when it’s rainy, but if you own a good umbrella and a solid pair of boots, rain needn’t be an impediment. Instead, your umbrella gives you a heightened sense of privacy, like a superhero’s cloak. Stepping through and around puddles, you can peer from beneath your quiet canopy, seeing without being seen.

Teddy bear

Umbrellas are often characterized as the domain of the old and odd, which is perhaps why I am so fond of mine. According to wilderness magazines and the ads that fill them, truly outdoorsy types venture forth in parkas and ponchos made from high-tech synthetics. When is the last time you saw an intrepid weather reporter facing a snowstorm or blizzard with an umbrella?

Sonik

But Henry David Thoreau walked with an umbrella, and this points to the real reason for my own appreciation. You can’t climb a mountain or scale a cliff-face while holding an umbrella, and it’s all but impossible to run with one. But naturalists and flaneurs alike walk more deliberately than that: an umbrella, it turns out, is a perfect implement for saunterers. Forget about marching to the beat of a different drummer; strive to stride within the circle of your own umbrella.

First day teaching

This semester, after a two-year stint as a full-time visiting professor at Framingham State University, I’m back to teaching there part-time: basically the same job, but with a smaller teaching load, fewer departmental responsibilities, and significantly less pay. To make up some of the financial difference, I’ve taken a part-time position as an adjunct lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, a college whose campus is conveniently located on my way to Framingham. Two days a week, I teach at Babson in the morning and Framingham State in the afternoon, and on the other days, I grade papers, prep classes, and answer student emails from home.

This way / that way

This is how contingent faculty far off the tenure track make their living; my situation is in no way unique. Throughout graduate school and beyond, I was a roads scholar, juggling classes at multiple institutions: drive in, teach, drive somewhere else, repeat. My two years of full-time teaching at Framingham State were the exception, not the rule. Even during the decade I was employed as a full-time instructor at Keene State College, I didn’t receive benefits and taught online to cover my health insurance premiums. Long before the gig economy had a name, I’ve supported myself for decades with a long string of side-hustles.

This way

In the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday, I spent a lot of time quietly lamenting the sorry state of my contingent career. I love teaching, but it often feels like the academy doesn’t love me back. I didn’t go to grad school, after all, with dreams of being a perpetual part-timer, and there is something quaintly pathetic about middle-aged adjuncts like me: we’re the folks at the party who have long overstayed our welcome.

Adjuncting is a rite of passage when you’re in graduate school, and most folks either merge onto the tenure track or move onto other things. But for better or worse, I’ve made a lasting living out of temporary employment. Out of necessity, I’ve become the person who can step in at the last minute when someone suddenly goes on leave or moves onto a better job. If I were a basketball player rather than a college instructor, I’d be the role player way down the bench who can plug into any team mid-season: a quintessential team-player who will never be an All-Star.

This way

I sometimes think of myself as an itinerant, like the pioneer preachers who rode from town to town on horseback with nothing but a Bible and a head full of homilies. Nobody becomes a superstar through circuit riding, but there are plenty of communities that relied upon preachers who passed through intermittently, but with great faith. The need for itinerants always outstrips the resources to compensate them.

What I lack in lasting job security, I make up for in breadth of experience. Almost a month into the semester, I’ve quickly realized that Babson and Framingham State are very different institutionally and in terms of student demographics, so twice a week when I steer my Subaru from one campus to the other, I move from world to world, culture to culture, gaining a perspective that professors who teach at only one college necessarily lack. The best college professors make a conscious effort to teach the students in front of them, not some theoretical idea of what a student “should” be. When you’re contingent faculty, the nature of the students in front of you changes from day to day and hour to hour, depending on where you find yourself.

Mannequins thinking of spring

This morning for the second Sunday in a row, I woke up early, did my morning chores, then drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I meditated for one session before heading to Harvard Square, where I wrote my morning journal pages over a small cup of Burdick’s dark hot chocolate.

Respect art / Not art

Sitting one rather than four Sunday morning meditation sessions means your practice is necessarily concentrated. You can’t space out for minutes at a time, figuring you’ll pay attention later. Knowing you have only thirty minutes to sit following your breath, you pay close attention to every minute, saving nothing for “later.”

This, in my experience, is the difference between living at a Zen Center and simply visiting. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I quickly grew accustomed to the mundane nature of Dharma room practice, taking it for granted and not paying as close attention over time. When you live in a Zen Center, it’s easy to show up in body but not fully in mind. When you drive in from the suburbs to sit a brief half hour, on the other hand, you take care to pay close attention to that time, recognizing it as a precious respite in a sea of hurry.

Outside Warby Parker

A cup of dark hot chocolate is like this too. Burdick’s chocolate is rich, intensely flavored, and delivers a day-long buzz: a whole day of energy in one small cup. If I lived next door to Burdick’s, I might take it for granted, growing too accustomed to a mid-morning pick-me-up. Instead, a concentrated cup of dark chocolate is an occasional reward I give myself on those Sundays when I get up early and go to the Zen Center as planned: a good start to a new week, capped with something strong and just a little bit sweet.

Burdicks

This morning after sitting a single session at the Cambridge Zen Center, I slipped out of practice and walked to Harvard Square, where I treated myself to a small dark hot chocolate, just as I did several weeks ago on my birthday.

Reflective self portrait

This time, I brought a full-size notebook, tucking it in my purse so I could sit alongside the anonymous women of Cambridge: young women in pairs, chatting, and middle-aged women like me, shrouded in invisibility as we sit writing or reading over our solitary beverages. Early on a Sunday morning, men seem to venture into Burdicks only briefly to purchase coffee or chocolates to go, or they hurry in to join a wife or daughter after having accomplished the manly work of parking the car.

This, I’ve decided, is one of the key differences between women and men in our culture. Women willingly go places alone, sit alone, and are perfectly content to be left alone as long as they have a book, magazine, or notebook to occupy themselves. Men, on the other hand, need women to accompany them. A man needs a woman to pull him out of his isolation, to drag him into chocolate shops he’d never venture into on his own, and to make introductions and small talk and niceties. A man needs a woman (in other words) to do the emotional labor of socializing.

Letter writing

A lone woman–particularly a lone woman of a certain age–embraces her invisibility; she cherishes it, in fact, after so many years of being the object of others’ eyes. A man, on the other hand, needs a woman on his arm–the younger and prettier the better–to become visible, to be noticed, to make both an entrance and an impression. A lone man loitering is a threat–an object of suspicion–but a lone woman slips unobtrusively under the radar. The proverbial fly on the wall was, I am certain, female. Who better to observe and record the actions of others than a creature who is small, insignificant, and overlooked: a mousy creature, not a preening peacock.

Chocolate pigs??

There are, of course, exceptions; the differences I’ve outlined between women and men are, after all, conditioned, not innate. When I first arrived at Burdicks this morning, there was a young man sitting alone at a table across from me. Before I could wonder whether he was waiting for a wife or girlfriend, however, this young man pulled out a camera: a large SLR with a fancy lens that served to justify his presence. Snapping a shot of the delicate, dangling lights overhead–the same lights I’d surreptitiously shot with my phone, with no fancy lens necessary–this young man promptly packed his expensive camera into his backpack and left: mission accomplished.

Journal pages

When I chose a table this morning, I didn’t sit alongside this man or at the row of empty tables near him; instead, I squeezed into a single table between two lone women, one on either side. The ways that women and men behave in public are conditioned, not innate, but they are conditioned deeply. Men take up space with their backpacks and large cameras, and women (especially those of a certain age) shrink into the spaces between, our invisibility a silent, secret strength that allows us to see.

Eeyore

Yesterday after months of secret angst, I turned fifty. Now that I’ve passed that venerable milestone, I realize what I had been dreading wasn’t being fifty by turning fifty. Among women of a certain age, there is a widespread expectation (spoken or implied) that you should Do Something Grand for milestone birthdays, and my usual low-key celebratory style felt completely inadequate, at least in my imagined build up to The Event.

You are enough

But now that the auspicious occasion is officially over, I can say I celebrated as I (if nobody else) saw fit. In the morning, I went to the Zen Center, left after one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square, where I explored the old burying ground–there is nothing like visiting graves of the centuries-ago deceased to put your life in perspective–before stopping at Burdick’s, where I treated myself to half a slice of raspberry-chocolate cake and a small dark hot chocolate. And under the combined influence of meditation, a brisk walk, and high octane chocolate, I did something I love to do but hadn’t done in ages: I sat in a cafe and wrote, starting with nothing to say and eventually finding words to describe why turning fifty has been unsettling. I wrote my way, in other words, into my own sort of clarity.

Street salamander

This is how I’ve navigated the first fifty years of my life, so why wouldn’t it be an apt way to celebrate the commencement of the next? After that first decadent treat, the rest of the day unspooled like any other Sunday: J and I walked to lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant, where our waiter surprised us with ice cream, and then we played with the dogs in the yard in the afternoon, as we normally do.

It was a quiet and contemplative day–no grand trips or parties or eye-popping spectacles to advertise on social media–but it was a day with all the things I love: walking and meditating and time with J and the dogs. And it was a day, too, with not one but three deserts: Burdicks cake and hot chocolate in the morning, Thai ice cream at lunch, and a slice of chocolate peanut butter cake in the evening. It was a day, in other words, with an abundance of delights.

Pooh and Eeyore

At some point, I’ll blog the journal entry I wrote yesterday at Burdicks, but for now all that’s necessary is to note I had a quietly delightful day and couldn’t have wished for anything better. If the way you spend your birthday is the way you’ll spend the coming year, please sign me up for fifty more.

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