January 29, 2014

Waves of snow

The weather has been so cold that the snow hasn't got that soft texture that makes you feel like making a snowman. Instead, it swirled around my feet like chalk dust every time the wind blew. I didn't wear snowshoes when I took my walk through the woods because even though the snow was fairly deep, it wasn't very heavy: I just kept kicking it to the side as I walked. As I returned to the house and looked back across the yard, the snow that drifted in the blue afternoon shadows made me think of the sea.

January 23, 2014


The snow gets sparkly in subzero weather, like sugar tossed on the crust of a homemade apple pie. It’s been so cold this week that my cats have refused to venture outside, despite their fur coats, preferring instead to hiss at each other in the warm house. The snow squeaked under my feet as I walked across the yard, a sound heard only on the coldest of winter days.

My classroom is drafty: students keep their scarves wrapped around them even as they shed their bulky winter coats and thick mittens. As I walked across campus, I noticed something odd: I didn’t see a single student texting. No one wanted to expose their fingers in these temperatures.

When I stopped to see my parents yesterday, they were sitting near the fire. My mother asked as soon as I walked in the door, “Why aren’t you wearing a hat?" We ate homemade muffins and drank hot tea at the kitchen table, then moved naturally back to the fire as we talked.

Tonight temperatures have above zero, but just barely. As I scanned facebook and twitter, I noticed that most of my students are talking about a blackout. Whole neighhborhoods in the university area are without power. The students keep posting photos of candles and camping lanterns, and they seem cheerful about ditching their homework to cuddle under blankets, but I hope their furnaces start working before their pipes freeze.

In the meantime, we’re warm here in our living room. My husband is in the comfy chair with his laptop. With-a-Why is playing the piano. His girlfriend Shy Smile is doing homework on her laptop. I’m just about to feed the swarm of cats who are gathered in the kitchen, demanding more food than usual on these winter nights.

January 20, 2014


The snow has returned, which means that by late afternoon, the outside world turns blue. As I drove home this evening, I saw two dark shadows move suddenly across a snowy lawn: two deer leaped gracefully over the guardrail of a bridge and down the embankment toward the creek.

January 16, 2014

And the semester begins

I rode into work with my son With-a-Why, who goes to Snowstorm University, right next door to Little Green, where I work. The roads near my house were icy, but the microclimate gets warmer as you get near the city, so by the time we were halfway there, the driving was fine. With-a-Why is majoring in music, so he sings on the drive, sometimes bits of songs, often just the scales, warming up for his early morning class.

The campus was still quiet when we arrived. My office is in the college library, and the young woman at the circulation desk said hello as I came in. When I walked over to the cafe, my friend Scientist Guy was already at his table, with a cup of coffee and breakfast. I joined him with my usual breakfast — a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter and some apple juice. I don't need caffeine: our morning conversations usually wake me up. We were soon joined by Anthropologist Woman and several students.

Talking about winter break led to telling funny travel stories. Scientist Guy won with his story about the time he broke his elbow on the way to the premiere of Clockwork Orange, went to the movie anyhow, tried to slip out early and grab a cab, and ran into Johnny Carson, who was trying to slip out of the movie to avoid the press. Johnny Carson opened the cab door, jumped in without looking, and landed on Scientist Guy's lap.

By the time we'd finished breakfast, more students had arrived, tossing winter coats onto chairs and flinging backpacks onto the floor as they claimed seats. Some students had laptops open or papers spread out on the tables, but mostly, they were all happily talking and eating. I could feel the energy in the room rising each time a new wave of students came in.

When I got back to my office, a former student stopped in to see me. She's 28 now, but still comes back to visit. She arrived just as I was trying to tame the chaotic mess of papers on my desk. "I'm trying to get organized," I said. "So the students won't think I'm too flaky on the first day." "Oh, they'll figure it out," she said. "You ARE flaky and kinda crazy. But your overall awesomeness overrides that."

In the fall, the first day of class means meeting first year students who have just arrived. In the spring, my classes are mostly filled with students I've had before, so it's more like a family reunion. I'd brought xeroxed poems and discussion questions, and in every class, we jumped right in. By the end of the afternoon, I was tired but invigorated, and impressed by the smart things my students had said. It's going to be a good semester.

January 12, 2014

Rainy weekend

We've seen some wild swings in the weather so far this year. Last weekend, temperatures kept going below zero, with winds that made it feel far colder. Yesterday, I woke up to the sound of rain. Yes, rain in January! When I looked out the wind, I could see mist rising from the melting snow.

It was just as well. We all had work to do. My daughter, who was home for the weekend, took the kitchen table, spreading out a bunch of research papers next to her laptop. Boy-in Black and With-a-Why set up their matching Alienware computers side by side in front of the fireplace. My husband took the comfy chair, while I sat on the couch with my laptop. We worked mostly in silence, with breaks for food and chatter. (Well, most of us were working. I think With-a-Why was playing Starcraft. He's an undergrad so he won't have much work until classes start tomorrow.)

By evening we were all ready to take a break and watch a movie, but today, we were back at work. Tonight, Boy-in-Black and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter packed up their stuff and moved back to the Castle, which is what we call the little house they rent.

Winter break is over, and the semester has begun.

January 07, 2014

Back to campus tomorrow

Now that With-a-Why is in college, everyone in the family except my husband is on an academic schedule. So for the last three weeks, we’ve been mostly hanging out at home, eating and talking by the fire. My daughter, her boyfriend Sailor Boy, and Boy-in-Black have been living here, mostly, and extras like Quick and Film Guy have been coming over every night.

Grad school hasn’t changed the gang too much. Quick still always gets everyone to play games: the latest is an app which involves holding the smartphone to your forehead while everyone in room tries to make you guess what’s on it. Film Guy always makes brownies, which makes the whole house smell like chocolate.

When Shaggy Hair Boy was home last weekend, the kids had a Starcraft tournament, complete with brackets that matched up players and a viewing area in an upstairs bedroom. I don’t know much about how the game is played, but as we watched each pair battle on a screen, the kids provided commentary, which was often hilarious. With-a-Why is by far the best player, and everyone who had to face him was resigned about losing.

“Oh, come on," my husband said. "He must have a weakness."

“When it comes to Starcraft, his only weakness is that his parents are always telling him to get off the computer,” said Quick. “There’s really no way to turn that against him in this tournament.”

The last couple of days, we’ve been shifting back into working mode. Boy-in-Black has been doing research on his computer, I’ve been writing syllabi, and my daughter has been writing something that she refers to as her “quals.” Tomorrow, I need to actually go into campus for an afternoon-long colloquium. I guess that means I need to change out of my sweatpants and put on some real clothes.

January 04, 2014

It's cold outside

Whenever Poet Woman and her husband Tall-With-White-Beard come to town, we set aside time to take a walk at Pretty Colour Lakes. It’s a tradition. So yesterday, even though the temperatures were below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, we left the warm fire to head over to the park.

The big parking lots at the lake had been plowed. But they were mostly empty. I saw only one other car as we pulled in. Through the fringe of cedar trees that ring the beach area, I could catch a glimpse of the lake — or at least the very end of it. A mist seemed to be rising from the water and through the mist I could see hundreds, no thousands of objects. They looked like frozen chunks of ice, except they were dark.

As we approached the beach, stamping through about a foot of snow as we went, we could hear music. Not human music but the calling and honking of geese, thousands of geese all clustered in one place. Just a bit of open water remained at the very end of the frozen lake, and all the geese were clustered there. We didn’t want to go too near and disturb them, but we stood for a long time in the snow, entranced by the sight. Despite the frigid temperatures, the sun shone down on us, and I even took my mittens off for a few seconds to take some photos.

“How many geese do you think there are?” I asked Tall-With-White-Beard.
He looked out across the beach. “Thousands. Maybe five thousand altogether.”

The snow sparkled the way snow does on a very cold day. We saw no footprints on the beach except for our own. We started down the path, hiking through cedar trees that held snow in their branches and sometimes opened to spectacular views of the frozen lake. We had the whole park to ourselves. “It’s so incredibly beautiful,” I kept saying. “I can’t believe no one else is here.”

We talked as we hiked, and we stopped to take photos, and we kept going until we had reached the very farthest spot. That’s when I began to notice that my feet were getting cold. Despite my insulated boots and winter socks, my toes were aching. The wind had come up a little bit, brushing the snow off trees in whirls of white that looked really cool but felt painfully cold.

Soon we reached the part of the trail that was shaded by the hillside, so we lost any warmth the sun could provide. My feet turned to chunks of ice that wouldn’t warm up no matter how I tried to wriggle my toes. I kept trudging ahead, breaking a trail through the snow. I thought of Almanzo Wilder that time he went searching for the wheat raised south of town: I tried to imagine that I was on some kind of similar heroic trek. Poet Woman, whose circulation is clearly better than mine even though she’s at least a decade older, was still happily taking photos, but I tucked my camera into my coat and forged ahead, stopping only when I came to a patch of sun.

Back at the beach, when we finally arrived, the geese were still honking and squawking, all crowded into the little remaining open water. We walked past, not stopping to take photos this time. We passed one other set of tracks on the beach: the double lines of a lone cross country skier. By then, we’d been outside in the frigid air for several hours. My feet had gone numb and it took all my effort just lift them up and set them down again. All I could think about was getting into the car, which we’d conveniently parked in the full sun.

My feet began to thaw in the car, which meant they hurt like crazy. By the time we had pulled into the parking lot of our favourite diner, the feeling had returned in full, and I stumbled into the diner like a drunk person. I was greeted by the smell of hot coffee and fried potatoes. The diner was warm, wonderfully warm, and as we sat down, I pulled my aching feet out of my boots to expose them to the warm air. The waitress brought us coffee and tea. I clutched the china cup of lemon-scented tea, which was so hot that I nearly dropped it.

Probably the best part of a cold-weather hike is how wonderful it feels afterwards. I kept shivering, which felt great, like waves of warmth going over my body. I pulled my feet up onto the bench to warm them with my thighs. My clothes were wet from the snow, so I felt chilled but no longer frozen. The waitress brought us warm food and more hot tea. A fourth friend joined us, and as we excitedly told him about the geese and how gorgeous the park had looked in the snow, he looked envious. As well he should be.