Massachusetts


Marathon Monday

J and I awoke this morning to thunderstorms and pouring rain, and as I write these words, the wind is rattling our windows. But this morning when we headed out to watch the Boston Marathon at our accustomed spot on Commonwealth Avenue between miles 18 and 19, the raindrops stopped. It was largely overcast with only occasional moments of sunshine, but it was nothing like the frigid washout we’d (briefly) weathered last year.

Wheelchair runners

Although J and I couldn’t stay and spectate as long as we have in past years, we observed our annual ritual of cheering for the last of the wheelchair runners, the elite women and men, and then the start of the stream of Everyone Else.

Women's winner Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia

When we saw her, front-runner (and eventual winner) Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia was nearly five minutes ahead of the rest of the elite women.

Elite women runners up

When the elite men passed, eventual winner Lawrence Cherono of Kenya was in (but not leading) a tight pack of fleet-footed fellows.

Men's winner Lawrence Cherono of Kenya

Elite marathon runners move so fast, it’s easy to imagine them outrunning even raindrops.

Gone past in a flash

J and I move a lot less quickly, but we were grateful to have found a spell between storms to observe Boston’s annual ritual of spring.

Fleet of foot

Click here for my full photo-set from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Lenten rose

Yesterday morning, I heard the first phoebe of spring, and as I write these words, I have one window open to let in fresh air and the sound of soft rains.

Glory of the snow

This is how spring arrives in New England. One wet day you decide your rain shoes will suffice instead of rubber boots, you shed your coat then your jacket in turn, and you realize all of a sudden that long sleeves are too warm and short sleeves are just right. I haven’t worn sandals yet this year; so far, the weather has been too indecisive. Yesterday was almost warm enough but a bit too breezy; today was briefly sunny until the rains came.

Red maple flower buds. #signsofspring

But the phoebes know which way the earth has tilted. The song of the Eastern phoebe is unremarkable–nothing more than their name repeated, incessantly–so it is easy to overlook among the whistling cardinals and warbling house finches. But when you hear the first phoebe of spring calling in the distance–like a rainbow, the first phoebe always seems far off, its actual location hidden in a shrubby suburban tangle–your heart thrills, not because it is a beautiful song but because it comes only when winter is almost over and spring has almost come.

Stump and toppled trunk

Today was a bright, breezy, spring-like day, so after lunch J and I went walking at Newton Cemetery. Most of the snow has melted, leaving the grass bare and blanched: mud season, the awkward pause before spring.

Fallen

Throughout the Cemetery, there were fresh stumps and piles of massive trunks and branches: cleanup from trees that had either fallen in winter storms or had been preemptively culled. It was sad to see massive tree-corpses lying among the gravestones: if these fallen giants could talk, what stories could they tell?

Stump

The lesson of any Cemetery, of course, is that impermanence surrounds us. Seeds sprout, trees tower, and winds wreak havoc: even evergreens can’t stay green forever. A neatly landscaped grave creates the illusion of immortality: as long as a headstone stands, one’s name and memory live on. But aren’t tombstones ultimately like so many tree stumps: dead reminders of a once-living thing?

Toppled

In a few weeks, the earth will erupt in green, landscape crews will have cleared away the last of these toppled trees, and both the mallards and Canada geese that swim the Cemetery ponds will have nestlings in tow. The annual death that is winter, in other words, will miraculously transform into the resurrection that is spring. In the meantime, I like to think the massive tree stumps J and I saw today aren’t dead, but sleeping: their cellulose selves dreaming of sunny skies and chlorophyll-fed days.

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.

Next Page »