Empty classroom with mannequins

It’s Halloween night, and as usual our quiet suburban neighborhood has transformed itself into an eerie landscape adorned with fake tombstones, plastic skeletons, and all sorts of dangling ghosts, witches, and ghouls. But sometimes the simplest things can be the creepiest, like this quiet coven of dress forms clustered in an empty classroom at Framingham State. What do naked dummies do after their fashion design students have gone home for the night?

Trees as tresses

I posted only three times in February–an all-time monthly low for me, I think–so I’ve resolved to blog more frequently in March, even on days like today when I don’t have much to say. When “posting more frequently” is defined as “posting more than three times a month,” it feels like an attainable goal: pretty much any posting is more than mostly not posting.


Usually, I drive to and from New Hampshire to teach face-to-face classes on Thursday, but today was a snow day at Keene State: an unplanned windfall (snowfall?) of found time. Here in Newton, we’ve gotten more rain, slush, and sleet than snow, so I’ve spent the day grading online papers, feeling a sense of accomplishment with every finished one. Pretty much any grading on a Thursday is more than mostly not grading on Thursdays, so I’ve appreciated the chance to catch up.


For most of February, I kept my heart set on March, telling myself if I could weather the onslaught of a busier-than-normal online term, things would get better by month’s end. The two undergraduate classes that have caused so much confusion among my students (and so much extra work for me) end on Sunday, followed on Monday by two undergrad classes that promise to be more user-friendly and familiar. Next week, my online graduate class is on break; the week after that, Keene State is on break. Most winters, we claw, crawl, and scramble toward spring, counting each frigid and snow-choked day as being that much closer to warmth. This year, it hasn’t been the weather that’s been trying, but other concerns, and those too (I trust) will pass in time.

Signs and wonders

I’ve remembered this semester that there’s not much I can’t weather if I take each day as it comes, checking off today’s to-dos and letting the rest slide. You can, I’ve learned, survive even the bleakest winter with no more complicated a philosophy than “Every day is a day closer to spring,” and you can survive even the toughest semester with an attitude of “Every paper graded is a paper closer to done.” And just like that, I’ve finished today’s blog-post: one more step in marching on.

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!

Mannequins and reflections

The moment I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, “Sharp,” I started humming ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.” What better excuse to revisit the sharp-dressed mannequins from a Christmas Day walk down Boston’s boutique-studded Newbury Street, which I blogged last December. Enjoy!


One of the things I sometimes say about a particularly gorgeous woman is “She’d look great wearing a trash bag.” The implication, of course, is that most of us would look, well, trashy wearing a trash bag, but a woman of style and beauty would be able to pull off any outfit. In high school, it bothered me to no end that I was tagged “odd” and “awkward” because I often wore my older sisters’ hand-me-downs…but if one of the popular girls wore second-hand clothing bought at a “retro” boutique, she was hailed for being “hip” and “stylish.” The stylishness of an outfit, in other words, had more to do with who was wearing it than with what the outfit itself actually looked like.

Perhaps this explains why I’ve never been a slave to fashion. Even in high school, I suspected that it didn’t matter what I wore: I’d never be as “hip” and “stylish” as the popular girls, so I might as well not even try. So while my slightly-more-trendy friends tried to keep up, sartorially, with the popular Joneses, I recognized a doomed endeavor when I saw one and wore whatever was available. Growing up in a frugal family with four daughters, “whatever was available” was usually whatever my sisters had outgrown, grown tired of, or otherwise castoff: in other words, not the most trendy or (currently) stylish stuff.

Through the cracks

Perhaps this also explains why Christ’s parable about the “lilies of the field” was always one of my favorite Bible stories (and perhaps the fact that I had a favorite Bible story helps explain why I wasn’t a popular teenager). Christ’s admonition to “consider the lilies of the field,” after all, is simultaneously an exhortation to avoid anxiety and a reassurance that some parts of creation look perfectly fine in their natural state. If wild daisies and sunflowers were better dressed than King Solomon in all his glory, why then did my high school peers spend so much time fixing, fussing, and fiddling over their hair, clothing, and makeup? If birds, flowers, and other natural beings looked just fine how they were born–and if, furthermore, guys looked perfectly fine in T-shirts, jeans, ball-caps, and no makeup–why did teenage girls have to pour so much time, money, and effort into dressing, coiffing, and painting themselves?

I still opt for a lazy-woman’s approach to personal grooming: I wear what’s comfortable, pull back my hair and shield my eyes with a baseball cap, don’t wear makeup, and don’t color my hair. I don’t have philosophical objections against women who choose to take the time to do these things; I just don’t see the point in my spending time that way. Perhaps if I were taller, thinner, blonder, or bustier–perhaps if I came closer, in other words, to what a well-dressed, properly made-up woman is “supposed to” look like, judging from fashion magazines and Barbie dolls–I’d see merit in the effort. But given the “lilies” that God granted me, I don’t see how its worth my worry trying to fix, fuss, or fiddle myself into something I’m not. Given that I don’t have a thing to wear that would morph me into one of the popular girls, I’ll content myself with being an odd, awkward, and ultimately natural wallflower.

The other side of the fence

It's Keene to shop locally

Yesterday was sunny, clear, and cold, but the combination of sunshine and singing birds made it feel warm and spring-like: a perfect day for shutter-snapping. While stopping to snap a shot of a red “It’s Keene to shop locally” bumper-sticker in the window of a downtown menswear store, I managed to catch the reflection of a trio of pedestrians doing some window shopping of their own, the physics of reflection making it look like they’re checking out the same suit-clad mannequin I was photographing. How Keene is that?