Wednesday, December 10, 2008

christmas and spirits; or, a child's christmas in waltham

Dad was always giddy about Christmas. He was, without fail, the first one up on Christmas morning, rising when it was still dark. I remember waking up often to the sound of his footsteps in the hall; he was trying to be inconspicuous as he made just enough noise to rouse us. It was still dark outside; sometimes it was as early as 5:00 am when we opened our eyes, confusion slowly giving way to excitement. The four of us followed Dad down the hall while Mom took up the rear. “Hold on,” he would say as we got to the stairs. "I need to make sure the Big Guy came."

(Aside: This practice of my Dad's was especially important, because you never knew whether Santa might goof and actually skip your house. Seemed implausible, but we didn't want to take any chances. As a matter of fact, one Easter Sunday, my brother Joey and I were stunned to find that the other Big Guy, the Easter Bunny, really hadn't come. We sat down and mulled over this for a few minutes as we stared at the empty coffee table where our Easter Baskets should have been. Maybe, we thought, we should have listened to our parents when they told us to "Knock that off! The Easter Bunny's watching." As it turned out, the Bunny had forgotten his "special key," and was crafty enough to have left the loot in the trunk of Mom's car. Crisis averted.)

Back to Christmas morning. Dad crept down the stairs as our hands shook and our hearts fluttered nervously. "Hmmm, " he would mutter. "He didn't leave the presents here." We'd look at each other, trying to figure out whether or not he was serious. Was it possible Santa could have . . . .?

And then the light would go on and we would scurry down the stairs and the frenzied gift-grabbing would ensue. A Barbie Towne House for me, some Star Wars guys for Joey and Mike, a doll for Kaytie.

Santa was always far more generous to us than we were to each other. In the early years, we bought our gifts at the elementary school's Christmas bazaar. Each year, someone got a mini screwdriver set (and I don't mean vodka and orange juice), some crocheted mittens, and some pens. One year, Michael gave me a pad of paper. Another year, Joey gave me his old Led Zeppelin boxed set; he didn't bother to rewind the tapes. The most memorable sibling gift, however, was a 2-inch plastic rendering of Barney Rubble of the Flintstones, known hereafter as the Glass Barney, given to Joey from Michael.

(A year after Michael died, I searched for Glass Barney on Ebay, found it, paid about 100 times what Michael must have paid for it at the Fitch School, and gave it to Joey for Christmas again. It's now a permanent fixture in my parents' living room.)

This ritual of waking up at the crack of dawn continued into adulthood. One Christmas I was home from Colorado. Kaytie and I stayed up late, drinking wine we had received as a gift and catching up on the latest family gossip. It was probably 2:00 when we finally retired. I nestled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of Kaytie's room, as my former chamber had been taken over by Michael after I'd moved out.

Sometime during the night I felt a foot nudge me, and then I heard a gruff, smart-alecky voice. "Hey, booze-bags," Michael greeted. "Rise and shine."

Was I dreaming, or did the clock actually say 4:45am?

"Get out of here," I said to Michael. "It's too early."

"Get up," he said, nudging again. "Dad's waiting."

I crawled out of my sleeping bag, anticipating the hangover that was sure to follow. There was Dad, in the living room, waiting like an anxious kid. The smile on his face was half-jolly, half-mocking as Kaytie and I rubbed our red, red eyes.

In more recent years, we have done our gift-swapping on Christmas Eve, since Bryan and I want our children to wake up in their own home on Christmas morning. But this never quelled the Christmas Spirit in the Dowcett home. On the contrary; the arrival of grandchildren seemed only to foster my parents' excitement about the holidays. We often joked that my parents were going to need to put an addition on their home to accommodate all of the wooden carolers, nutcrackers, and other knick-knacks. I declared a moratorium on buying Christmas decorations as gifts.

Today, I was preparing lunch for Dylan and Alexa while Dylan perused the Christmas cards that had come in the mail. One was from my aunt Ann, my mom's sister. "Who's this from?" Dylan asked.

"From Auntie Ann and Uncle Bob. They're the ones whose house we go to on Christmas Eve."

And as I said "Christmas Eve," I was struck once again by Dad's absence; I immediately felt my eyes get hot. It's not the first time this season that I've been hit in this way, but for some reason, in that moment, my loss felt more poignant then ever. Christmas without Dad? I've scarcely gotten used to Christmas without Michael, even though he was far less active in my daily life than Dad was. Christmas, for me, is synonymous with Dad, with Dad and Mom. As it is, I can barely accept the vacant easy chair in the living room of my parents' house; I can hardly look at the tools and gardening supplies hanging neatly in the shed, or enjoy the back porch Dad finished only a few weeks before he passed away.

For my kids, I want Christmas to be about sharing, about social responsibility, about joy, and so for them I'm trying to keep my sadness covered up. But while I'm quite good at distracting myself, when left alone, even for a few moments, it feels raw once again, raw and recent and too real.

I'm playing this Buddhist mantra on an endless loop: Nothing is permanent; enjoy each moment of each day. Nothing is permanent; enjoy each moment of each day. Thicht Nacht Hahn says grief is easier if we accept from the beginning that everything is temporary. Accept life as it is, not as we wish it to be. I agree, but I wouldn't say it has made it easier.

I do have the memories, though, and through these, Dylan and Alexa can come to know the grandfather who adored them. Lexi still fondly recalls watching Frosty with Grampy last year while I went to watch Kaytie onstage in Boston. How much of this memory of hers is real and how much the result of our reminders is unclear, but it doesn't matter. I may be unclear as to my religious beliefs, but I do believe in Spirits, and I know that Dad's with them, with all of us, in some metaphysical way.

As human beings, we all want to be happy and free from misery.

We have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace. (Buddha)

human beings we all want to be happy and free from misery.
We have learned that the key to happiness is inner peace.

Friday, November 28, 2008


Over the past month, a nagging pain in my knee has forced me to take more time off from running than I have in the past ten years (not counting the time I took off during my two pregnancies, which really wasn't all that much). When the pain started, I would take a few days off, and then give it another go. Rather than improving the situation, the aching spread to other areas of my body, most noticeably, my lower back and my neck. “I think your body is trying to tell you something,” Bryan kept saying. The implication was unsettling.

I run, therefore I am (relatively) sane.

I shuddered to think about the psychological consequences of a week (weeks, even!) without the marvelous endorphin rush that comes from running, especially running in the fall, on the trails. I'll take another day off, I told Bryan. See what happens.

To get a better sense of just what might be causing this discomfort, I went to see an orthopedist. Diagnosis: misalignment. Meaning everything is out of whack, causing a grinding in the kneecap, sciatica, stiff neck, general malaise.

Recommendation: A focus on stability rather than speed. Strengthening the core instead of pounding the pavement.

The English teacher in me could not fail to see the metaphor in this. Many times have I chided myself for my inability to live in the moment, for my preoccupation with going and doing rather than being. As a result, my “core” had shriveled to something unstable and incomplete, in need of nurturing. While I have always thought of running as a sort of zen exercise, I have come to realize that when running, I'm thinking about essays, dinner, cleaning, child-rearing. I insist on being surrounded by physical beauty (trails) when I run, yet in the woods, I barely acknowledge the trees, the streams, the birds, except as a pleasant backdrop.

The initial reaction to this forced hiatus from running was panic. All my hard work! What would become of my body, my brain? Yes, there are other sports, but for a mother who works, it's hard to find anything with such quick and dirty results as running. It's free, I can do it early in the morning, and, if necessary, can do it pushing my kids in the jogging stroller. The perfect activity.

My subsequent crankiness did not go unnoticed. Any runner who has had to take time off understands this feeling: pent-up energy swirling around, looking for an outlet. A walk isn't enough, nor is twenty minutes on the elliptical. Now what?

Stabilize the core. If I'm going to run again, I need to focus now on stability. So on Wednesday night, instead of meeting up with my running group in Wallingford, I went to a yoga class, something I haven't done since I was pregnant with Alexa. At first, it was an immense amount of effort to slow my brain and body down. I had to rush to class because Bryan was a few minutes late and traffic was heavy. The other participants were already seated on their mats, eyes closed, breathing slowly.

And then everything came together. I am by no means graceful, nor am I limber, but if nothing else, during class I was mindful. Yoga is such an exquisite dance, one in which mind and muscles work together, stretching to expand consciousness and strengthen the core. The poses did not involve the same kind of endurance I have come to relish when I run trails, especially hills, but the soft voice of the instructor, the low lights, and the quiet allowed me to silence, if only for a short time, the endless “shoulds.” I didn't need to worry about what I should be doing, or what time it was. I needed only to be mindful: of body, of presence in the moment.

So, for the time being, I am forcing myself to slow down, and to nurture my core. This means that instead of joining my running buddies on Saturday morning for a 10-12 mile outing, I went for a hike with Dylan while Bryan took Alexa to her class at Rascal's gym. As we walked to the trail (how fortunate we are to have trails we can walk to), Dylan noticed a stream beside the road and said, “I've never seen that stream before.”

“Of course you have,” I replied. “We've been by here many times.” And then it occurred to me that, while we had passed down this road on many occasions, Dylan's vantage point was from the seat of the jogging stroller, which is usually whizzing by the stream. So, he was probably right about never having seen the stream before.

On the trail, a trail I know well, I had the same experience. There were side trails I had never seen, because I had always been looking ahead, down the trail, or at my watch. There were backyards in the distance. Dylan pointed out a robin. “They have red bellies,” he added.

I felt the same sort of mindfulness I had experienced in yoga class. Rather than thinking, “I should be running,” rather than worrying about the kind of workout I was getting, I let Dylan lead the way. He paused often to look at moss, or a footprint, or just to rest. I was cold—I had dressed for running, not walking—but I loved experiencing one of my favorite running routes through Dylan. We would race up a hill, only to slow down again to pick up an oak leaf, or to look at how the ground had frozen over the mud. We went home and had hot chocolate while Dylan told Bryan and Alexa all the things he had seen.

There's something to be said for slowing down once in a while, even though, for me at least, this takes an incredible effort. I'm hoping it's a transformation of some sort, this focus on mindfulness, on slowness, on my present surroundings rather than my desire to be in motion. Before I started running marathons, I never wore a watch; I insisted that running, for me, was not about time. I don't run on treadmills, because running, for me, is also about communion with nature. I would rather run in sheets of freezing rain than in a gym. But while I do enjoy the competitiveness of racing, in many ways it has made me too focused on time, and on the end result. I'm always training for something, trying to qualify for Boston, trying to beat my previous times. Maybe, after this sabbatical, running will once again be more about being, less about going.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering; which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going √† la sainte terre" — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a sainte-terrer", a saunterer — a holy-lander. (Henry David Thoreau, from “Walking)

Monday, November 17, 2008

budding photographer

Dylan, "Self Portrait with Grammy's Camera" (2008)

why i prefer my bike

After school today, the kids and I headed over to Cafe Ra in Wallingford to meet Bryan for lunch. Just before getting on to Route 15, I came to a traffic light, where I had just missed the left-turn arrow. I still had the green light, but noontime traffic was thick, and it didn't look as though an opportunity for turning was going to present itself. No big deal; I wasn't in a rush, and it's a pretty quick light. I could wait.

Now, by no means am I a tentative driver. I'm not aggressive; just generally impatient. Hey, I grew up in the Boston area; it's in my blood. But when I have my kids in the car, I don't take any chances. I'd rather suffer through another cycle of red-yellow-green than bear the guilt of putting my children's safety at risk.

So I was quite surprised when, after having resigned myself to waiting with somewhat forced patience, I was assaulted by the sound of an angry horn from behind. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw an older woman, probably in her late sixties, yelling and gesturing wildly. I looked back at the light. It turned red. She beeped again, this time with more emphasis.

I turned around to confront her through my back windshield. She looked me square in the eye and gave me the finger. This respectable looking upper-middle-aged woman in a shiny Mercedes. Flipping me off because I hadn't pulled out in front of traffic.

I didn't want to alarm the kids, but I did want to have a word. I threw up my hands and mouthed, "Where could I have gone?"

She screamed back, "I don't know! I don't know!" But this acknowledgment seemed only to fuel her anger. She fired up her other middle finger, so that while she was screaming and convulsing, she was giving me the "double flip."

"Classy," I mouthed. Her reply was the verbal version of the finger.

As I said, I'm generally not a patient person, so on some level, I should probably "get" road rage. But I don't. Haven't since I was in my mid-twenties, when I finally realized what a selfish driver I'd become: tailgating other drivers because I hadn't left myself enough time to get to where I was going and now blamed the slower cars in front of me for making me late; swearing in frustration every time I had to sit in traffic; speeding just because there didn't seem to be a reason not to. Somewhere during that time I picked up a book on the "Buddha within," and realized how much negative energy I was storing, and exhaling into the universe.

I've often felt that, when driving on Connecticut highways, I'm an unwitting participant in a game to which I don't know the rules. Bryan, who has lived here his whole life, is far more tuned in. He knows what other drivers are thinking, and, as it turns out, most of them have an underlying agenda, usually one that does not have Bryan's best interests in mind. Before moving here, I had no idea that a highway was really a complex web of mind games in which automobile operators sought to outwit their fellow commuters--otherwise known as opponents--by employing such tactics as the Variable Speed Maneuver, the Cell Phone Shuffle, and the Box-In. All of these moves are executed while the driver feigns nonchalance, which is probably why I had been naive enough to believe they were mostly just driving.

Crazy Mercedes Lady is in need of some guidance, it seems, as she hasn't quite mastered the mask of indifference--or was she employing some other, more devious strategy? So much to learn, so much to learn. . . .

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

autumn, etc.

Recently, I have taken advantage of our gorgeous Indian Summer by riding my bike to work. The foliage is brilliant this season, and my route consists almost entirely of bike path, which is laden with maple and oak trees. As I pedaled home on Friday, there was a slight breeze blowing, and this, combined with my modest speed, caused the leaves to come at my diagonally, hitting me in the face, sometimes poking me with a sharp edge. This was a little disorienting for the first few minutes, but after several batterings I was able to dodge the leaves by bobbing my head from side to side.

Autumn is, hands down, my favorite season. But this year, it is, like the leaves, tinged with sharp edges. It’s impossible to think of autumn without thinking of Dad. He adored this season. When most people were lamenting the passing of summer, Dad was shopping for mums and pumpkins, adhering leaf decorations to the windows, making flower arrangements in vibrant oranges and yellows. So now that the season is here, the absence of Dad is palpable.

And today would have been Michael’s 34th birthday, which makes the air feel even heavier.

Dad dealt with his grief over Michael by tilling the soil. He visited the cemetery nearly every day, tending to the flowers he would plant according to the season, sometimes adding a photo or a trinket. He was as attentive to the tiny plot in front of Mike’s headstone as he was to his luscious lawn. By doing this, by feeding the soil and nurturing the plants, he was able to take care of his son in a way Michael never allowed him to in his last years.

Since Michael’s death, I have spent every October 14 in the company of my family: usually, I drive up to Waltham. One year, I ran the Hartford Marathon, and Mom and Dad came to cheer me on; last year, we camped in the Berkshires.

This year, with Dad gone, Kaytie, Joey and I decided to carry on Dad’s tradition of working the earth as a way of healing our souls. Joey dug up the perfectly-planted impatiens that had blossomed so beautifully all summer, thanks to Dad’s extraordinarily green thumb. Kaytie and I bought mums and pumpkins, and set upon the task of adorning the front of the house (and, later, the headstone, which now belongs to Michael and Dad).

I love gardening, love digging up soil and planting flowers. That said, I have inherited nothing of Dad’s plant panache. After a couple of hours of work today, the mums I planted looked scraggly and ill-spaced, compared to the impeccably groomed flower beds of my memory, and to add to the sense of comic chaos, I dug so hard into what I had thought was a rock that I broke a valve on the sprinkler system, and water came shooting out at me and into the flower bed, flooding the hole I had just dug. I yelled to Mom, who thought I was running from a bee. Once I had gotten my message across, she searched the basement, trying unsuccessfully to find the correct valve so that she might stop the shower. She found it after ten minutes or so, and we had a good chuckle. I imagined Dad groaning, good-naturedly, over the state of his front yard.

In spite of the mess, it was therapeutic. I feel closest to Dad when I’m working in his yard, digging with his tools, my hands in the gloves that used to be his. I marvel at his organization. I aspire to his sense of perfection, though realistically I know I’ll never achieve it. His yard, his shed, my family’s house: all are a reflection of Dad’s love and devotion to his family.

So, we were grieving two family members today. But also celebrating lives, remembering birthdays, and enjoying each other’s company, however briefly, however chaotically.

Happy 34th, Mike. Love ya.

Monday, September 15, 2008

you may be a redneck if. . .

Everyone knows Bryan as a car guy. Cars are more than a hobby for him; they are his life force. Our barn and driveway are filled with cars, most of them "projects," "works-in-progress," or "parts cars." Some of them are registered, and usually we have a spare car or two, just in case (I know this sounds frivolous, but with the exception of the GTV-6, which is completely apart at the moment, most of the cars are beaters with fancy brand names).

So there is much humor and irony in the fact that, although there are 5 cars in the driveway, we are down to one driveable car. Bryan's '87 BMW (in whose bumper I put a nice dent back in February) has been showing signs of revolt as of late. Ever resourceful, Bryan installed some kind of switch on the motor. "If the car stalls," he instructed last week, "pull over, pop the hood, and see if the red light is on. If it isn't, switch it on, and the car should start."

Let me back up a bit. It was already "funny" (okay, not so much to Bryan) that, Bryan's love of cars being what it is, we were driving a dented '87 model (okay, so it is a BMW, but still) and a big old down-home Chevy pickup truck. A far cry from the stately old Porsches Bryan likes to ogle on the web (not that we could ever afford one of those).

So today, just as I was leaving school, the car stalled. And wouldn't start again. I thought of calling a tow truck, but figured Bryan would have another solution. No surprise there. We got the truck, attached a bright yellow strap from the trailer hitch to the front of the BMW, and towed the car (me driving the truck, Bryan steering the sedan) from Quinnipiac back to our house. I kept my fingers crossed every time I took a corner, because as I was adjusting the rear view mirror, it came right off its perch, making it difficult to know for sure whether Bryan was behind me. Fortunately, after turning off Mount Carmel Ave., it's pretty much a straight shot.

Okay, so maybe towing our own car doesn't earn us redneck status, but it is something you don't see in this town every day, as was evidenced by the amused looks we received along the way. So, folks, if you ever need a tow, forget Triple A--just give us a holler.

heart walk

This past Saturday, I participated in the Start! Boston Heart Walk with Steph, my best friend from high school. Steph came up with the idea about a month ago, having seen the flier somewhere, and we've decided to do the walk every year in memory of our dads (Steph lost hers when we were teenagers). The 6.2 mile course started and finished at the Esplanade, right alongside the Charles River.

Before the event, friends kept asking, "So when's your race?" "It's a walk," I had to keep reminding them. And yes, walking, rather than sprinting, across the finish line was a rather new experience for me. But I have to say that I really enjoyed the pace. It's not often that I take the time to stroll along the river with a good friend, especially one I don't get to see very often. Despite all forecasts to the contrary, the weather was lovely, the Boston skyline was picturesque, and the conversation was easy and constant.

On the Hatch Shell, one or some of the members of the J. Geils Band were playing old J. Geils hits. Crossing the finish line to the tune of "Love Stinks" was a little anti-climactic, but overall, the event was well-organized and fun. Thanks again to all who supported me.

(not so) exotic visitor

On Thursday, I was trimming the shrubs in the front of our house when I came upon this long-legged arachnid. He was perched on a parchment-thin web, and when he heard me exclaim, "Wow!" he moved on top of his prey, as you see him doing in the photo. I hadn't ever encountered a spider this glamorous in Connecticut. Bryan suggested that the spider had ridden in on an imported bush, and we decided that a spider so colorful must be poisonous.

On Saturday, my mom looked him up on the web. Based on the markings, he seems to be a Yellow Argiope, also known as a Garden Spider, or Writing Spider (apparently there is a legend in which the Argiope writes a person's name in zig-zag the night before the unfortunate victim's death). We were all a little disappointed to discover that the spider is actually quite common, distributed fairly evenly throughout the lower 48. But it was a neat encounter nonetheless, and the little creature takes quite a stunning photograph.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Two weeks ago, we took down the 30-foot spruce tree that adorned our side yard. Bryan had talked about doing this for years, but I was resistant to the idea. I loved the tree. It was very north woods, and if I blocked out the surrounding suburban capes, I could pretend, as I sat on the patio, that we were living somewhere in Vermont.

Bryan doesn't like to hire professionals. And to his credit, he is a jack-of-all trades. But that didn't make me any less apprehensive about his insistence on taking on the task himself. But he was right: the tree did need to come down. When he took a few branches off, I could see that it was leaning quite precariously in the direction of our bedroom.

My friend Anne and I returned from a trail run on the designated morning to find the kids running in the yard, and Bryan heading for the tree with a chainsaw. Anne looked frightened, but tried to keep her composure. "He's, uh, really just gonna go right at it, huh?" She looked at the kids, who were oblivious to the scene.
I laughed, because I knew he was just making a few cuts. Anne was relieved.

After clearing off all of the bottom branches, Bryan found some straps and tied the tree to the trailer hitch on the pickup truck. We sent the kids and the dog next door, and I was instructed to "put my foot on the gas, gently, until the tree starts to lean."

Not a difficult task, but one I was hesitant to take on nonetheless. I did as Bryan said, then turned back. I was aware of two things happening in the same moment: Bryan yelling either "Noooo!" or "Go!"(the distinction seemed an important one), and the tree falling straight toward the bed of the truck, and, by association, me.

I was motionless for a few seconds, stunned. The tree is falling, I thought. The tree is going to fall on me.

And then I heard a "thump," and it was over. And the tree was in the middle of the yard, having just missed the truck's bumper. No damage to the garden. A perfect bullseye.
Here are the part-time arborists cleaning up the mess.

We had no idea the Yankees did charity yard work.

We put a cute little dogwood in place of the spruce. In the end, I think the yard is much more aesthetically pleasing. I'm not in Vermont, but suburban CT has its charms, I guess.

Friday, August 29, 2008

shout out

How can I even begin to express my gratitude to everyone, for everything? I've been buying thank-you notes with every intention of sitting down and filling them out, but the quiet moments are so few and far between that when they offer themselves, all I want is quiet. I will write them, I promise, but in the meantime, I wanted to give a shout out:

--to the aunts who sat with me through the whole ordeal, who made me laugh and let me cry, and who provided the necessary words, hugs, babysitting, and meals.

--to my cousin Karen, who slipped into my house while we were on vacation, mustering up the courage to go through our dirty, ancient basement by the light of her cell phone, and then cleaning our house, top to bottom, so that we wouldn't have to return to squalor.

--to the friends and acquaintances who brought meals when I didn't feel like cooking, and to my pal Stacey, who made the arrangements..

--to my Wednesday night running group, and to the parents of two of Dylan's classmates, who sent Edible Arrangements.

--to the friends who made the drive from CT (and NH), logging 300-400 miles in a day just to pay their respects and lend a shoulder (this means you, Kristen,Fran, Anne, Kim, Sarah, and Stacey!).

--to the many, many wonderful folks who called, mailed cards, sent positive energy, gave me space when I needed it and company when I craved it.

--to Bryan, who whisked the kids off to Vermont when my father first passed--even though he was grieving, too--so that Dylan and Lexi might salvage a little of their vacation.

--and to everyone who has donated to the Heart Walk, which I'm doing on Sept. 13 in memory of Dad. Thanks to my generous cousins, aunts, friends, and in-laws, we've already raised over 700 dollars. You rock!

Have I forgotten anyone? I'm sure I have. You can bet this entry will have some amendments. In the meantime, though, just wanted to say a big, hearty thanks. How blessed I am.

Friday, August 22, 2008

treat family camping trip

We spent a few days camping in Jamaica State Park, VT. What a lovely campground--and that's coming from a curmudgeon who prefers wilderness camping.Dylan and Alexa with cousin Emma Treat, who was visiting from Seattle.
We met this dude on the hike up to Hamilton Falls.
Alexa contemplating whether to put her feet into the icy water.
Dylan makes a face for cousin Kylie (Treat).
Bryan dipping Dylan into the drink.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

on trail running

On weekend mornings, before the sun gets too hot and the air too heavy, I like to visit my personal temple, the trail. When I discovered trail running, back when I was living in Colorado, it was like a revelation: how wonderful to be able to marry my two favorite activities, running and hiking. It added to my running a spiritual dimension, as I have always felt closest to "God" in the woods and on the trail. There's something so invigorating about the feeling of mud on my calves, of leaves under my feet, and something rejuvenating about the mental challenge of negotiating roots and rocks and streams without any time to plan my next move.

The solitude of the trail is much like the solitude of the temple: it gives me time to breathe, to contemplate, to meditate. When my brother Michael died, I was very pregnant with Dylan, and so trail running was out of the question; however, I took long walks in the woods of Brooksvale Park, and often, during my rambles, I could feel Michael's presence beside me. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes I would smile, and sometimes I was simply complacent as I experienced this closeness, however real or imagined.

Since Dad died last month, I have muddled through my runs, forcing myself to put in the miles because I know I'll feel worse if I neglect my routines. But with the New Haven 20k on the horizon, this morning I awoke and said, "12 miles, baby, whether you want to or not." I fed Sasha and we headed to Brooksvale. Midway up the first hill, I thought of Dad, thought of how the woods will always bring me closer to Dad because he loved being in the forest, especially when it included sitting by a campfire with his family. Once, after we had quarrelled, he wrote me a long, beautiful letter in which he said that the crackle of a fire always brought him back to the camping trips we took in our younger days, and went on to say how overjoyed he was that his children had inherited his love of the woods.

Of course, thinking of Dad made me cry, but it was a cathartic cry (which made my nervous dog throw her ears back and look at me sideways), and in my grief I could really appreciate the time that I did have with my Dad. I was grateful that he had gotten to take at least one camping trip with my children (and two with Dylan), even if it is likely that Alexa's memories of him will be muddy at best. Such remembrances don't really make his passing any easier, but they are a welcome distraction from the sadness.

Lately, I've been reading Thich Nacht Hahn, the Buddhist philosopher, who says, to paraphrase, that if you accept that all things are impermanent, you will be able to fully appreciate them while they grace your lives. He adds that thinking deeply about this concept and embracing it as part of your consciousness will allow you to "smile through your grief." Now the last part feels a little farfetched to me, but I have been trying to focus on the memories rather than the loss.

Okay, so I've digressed a bit from my original topic--trail running--but it was the run on the trail this morning that brought me here.

I've also been re-reading Wordsworth, one of my old favorites, and I stumbled upon a poem I hadn't read before, one I found slightly amusing: "To a Young Lady, Who Had Been Reproached for Taking Long Walks in the Country." It called to mind 18th and 19th century novels, where women often "take ill" because they dared to walk a quarter-mile in the rain and their soaked layers of clothing (petticoats, bloomers, stockings) brought on a "deathly chill"(likely a pretty good case of hypothermia) . I considered how I would have appeared to a 19th century gentleman at the end of my run today: sweat-soaked shirt and bandana, socks and shins covered with mud, face red with effort and exhilaration. Surely I would have been reproached. Would Wordsworth have spoken up for me, or would the horror of such an image have caused him to faint?

In typical fashion, the poet lets his emotions overflow, and idealizes the daring young lady in his passionate pastoral:

Dear Child of Nature, let them rail!
--There is a nest in a green dale,
A harbour and a hold;
Where thou, a Wife and Friend, shalt see
Thy own heart-stirring days, and be
A light to young and old.

There, healthy as a shepherd boy,
And treading among flowers of joy
Which at no season fade,
Thou, while thy babes around thee cling,
Shalt show us how divine a thing
A Woman may be made.

Though I sometimes find Wordsworth a bit overdone, I've always felt a kinship with him for that very reason: in all honesty, I, too, am about as sappy as they come, especially when it comes to my emotional reactions to nature. When I first visited the Grand Canyon, I wept; same thing happened when I stood beside the Colorado River in Moab, Utah.

So, it makes sense that the trail is my temple. I'm thinking of becoming a "religious fanatic" and forsaking road races for trail runs, but I'm sure the racing bug will return, as it always does. And trail running doesn't always necessitate solitude: at least once a week, I'm joined by my running pals, most of them female, and the sense of community, too, is a wonderful thing. In fact, it seems as if more and more of my running friends are putting aside their fears of broken ankles and coming to appreciate the wonders of the trail.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.--Thoreau

Monday, July 28, 2008

snail surprise

This afternoon, as Dylan was eating his sandwich, I brought in some lettuce from our garden for a lunch time salad. After a few minutes of chopping and slicing, I had a bowl full of vegetables we had grown ourselves: along with the lettuce, there were fat cucumbers, plump cherry tomatoes, snap peas bursting from their shells, and lush green beans. I garnished the salad with some craisins and walnuts. "Look, Dylan," I said proudly. "Almost everything in my lunch was grown right in our backyard."

Then, as I went to pick up my bowl, there it was: a snail, lounging casually on a piece of lettuce, its slimy body stretched out to its full length so that I might admire its dimensions. Somehow the Escargot Special seemed a little less appetizing than the salad I had envisioned. But it was a welcome bit of comic relief.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Mornings are the hardest. Especially this morning: a dark, humid, gloomy morning when I was dragged from my sleep by the sound of heavy raindrops hitting the windows. In the morning, it’s real all over again, and I have to work through my tears and talk myself into breakfast, laundry, dishes, and even play. A few deep breaths, a few cups of coffee, and we’re off. I can go through the motions, but it’s hard to imagine that I will ever experience joy in the same way I did before last week.

The audacity of the world, that it should continue to turn.

Around midday, I try to become a Zen Buddhist. Death is part of life. In spite of my emotional nature, I have always been able to rationalize tragedy. Things are meant to happen. With Michael’s death, I was devastated, but it was logical, if not comforting, to say he was “better off.” He’d struggled with addiction for so many years, and it was leading him down some very dangerous paths. “He’s in a better place,” Joey said to me, and though I was grieving, I had to agree. Michael had never been at peace with himself, and now he was resting peacefully.

But Dad? I’ve been unable to utter such platitudes. I think there must be a reason, but what it is, I have no idea. At times like these, I wish I were religious, wish I could put unquestioning faith in something, some deity, so that I wouldn’t have to question. I do find comfort in thinking that Dad is with Michael now, that maybe Michael needed some guidance in the great beyond, and the great power, or powers, chose Dad as his angel. I guess that makes some sense, brings some solace.

Two weeks ago, as we were getting ready to go on vacation, I thought about my connection to my parents, and felt, in some ways, like a kid: I often called my Dad for advice, talked to both of my parents a couple of times a week, made the two-hour drive to Waltham on a regular basis. “Is this normal?” I wondered. But then I didn’t care. I enjoy their company, enjoy seeing their delight in their grandchildren. A few days later, I lost Dad. Does this mean I’m a real adult now?

There’s a sense of panic that comes from losing a parent. I feel it most intensely in the early hours of the morning, when everyone else is sleeping and I try to imagine life without Dad. I convince myself I’m in the midst of a very long nightmare, but no matter how hard I pinch myself, I can’t wake up.

But I know this grief, at least as I’m experiencing it now, is temporary. I know I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had such a close relationship with my Dad, to have created so many memories with him—good, bad, humorous, sad, tender, silly. And I’m fortunate to have had a father who was loved by more people than I ever imagined, as evidenced by the never-ending line of people at his wake, friends and acquaintances who uttered phrases like “wonderful man,” “real gentleman,” “proud father,” “hard worker,” “funny bastard.” And the outpouring of support and goodwill has been more than touching. Once again, I am grateful for my oversized extended family, the multitude of aunts and cousins and uncles who have provided comfort, food, babysitting, anecdotes, levity, tissues. I love my chaotic clan.

And I’ve learned not to question how people grieve, or how people respond to grief. It’s touchy and awkward, and sometimes people simply don’t know how to respond. My good friend Steph said, when I called her, “I don’t know what to say.” And I was so grateful for that, for her honesty, for crying instead of trying to find the right clich√©.

Another friend, the daughter of my Dad’s old buddy (who is also my godfather), was even more primal in her response. Although we hadn’t spoken in 20 years, she called to offer her condolences: “That #@*%ing sucks!” she exclaimed. And after 20 years, we were easily re-connected by a couple of appropriate expletives.

And then there is Mom, my incredibly strong Mom, who has lost a brother and a sister and a mother and a father and a son and a husband but who still finds the strength to comfort her children, to play with her grandchildren, when even getting out of bed in the morning must feel like an insurmountable task. Amazing, wonderful, Mom.

The philosopher Kierkegaard said that suffering is the origin of human consciousness, but sometimes I’d rather be oblivious. Nevertheless, I know that even if the grief doesn’t pass, it will diminish until it is merely a dull ache, an ache that will eventually be overshadowed by the memory and spirit of “the old man.”

I thought he’d live forever
He seemed so big and strong
But the minutes fly
And the years roll by

I never will forget him
For he made me what I am
Though he may be gone
Memories linger on
And I miss him, the old man

--from “The Old Man” by John McDermott

Friday, July 18, 2008


Frederick J. Dowcett
June 18, 1946-July 13, 2008

Dear Dad:
Ever since you left us five days ago, I have been thinking about how to commemorate you in a way that truly honors your spirit. Given your legacy, I knew this would be no easy task.

The other night, as I threw pitches to my son in the park near your house, I was suddenly back in our yard on Dartmouth Street, where you threw me endless line drives, grounders, and pop flies in an attempt to bring me a little closer to my dream of being half as good as my teammate and brother, Joey.

When I set off to write your eulogy, I started walking, looking for solitude but not quite sure where I was headed. My feet took me to Nipper Maher Park, the site of so many childhood memories. I passed by the hill where you took us sledding. I passed Diamond 3, where you watched me play baseball. I sat at a picnic table near the Senior Field, within view of our first house, the house you rebuilt from the bathroom up.

I could simply list your virtues, but anyone who knows you can attest to your capacity for hard work, for fun, for love. So instead I will just share a few favorite memories that illustrate the kind of person you were: you taking my amateur novel and turning it into a beautifully bound book; you flying out to Colorado for my graduation even though you were terrified of planes; you swinging Dylan around in the surf on Cape Cod, and you snuggling on the sofa with Alexa, holding hands and watching Frosty the Snowman.

And I would definitely be remiss if I did not mention your lawn, that gorgeous lush green carpet of grass that was the envy of all your neighbors.

Your friends and family, in expressing their condolences, keep saying the same thing: “He was so proud of you kids. He talked about nothing else.” This sums you up, Dad: you were a true family man, full of selfless love and compassion, and my gratitude runs as deep as my love for you. We have been so blessed. I can’t imagine my life without you, but I know you will take good care of Michael. Rest in peace.

Friday, July 11, 2008


On this day six years ago, Bryan and I woke up single for the last time. Thought I'd take a little stroll down into July 11, 2002.

We woke up on the lumpy bed of our VW Westfalia, which was parked in the driveway of our friend Matt's place in Anchorage, Alaska. I peeked out of the pop-top to check the weather: overcast. Not a good sign, considering we were planning a ceremony on top of Flat top Mountain that evening. I wasn't too worried, though; good fortune seems to follow Matt everywhere, so I figured we had that on our side.

Inside Matt's, we drank coffee and planned our day. Matt emerged from his room. "You guys write your vows yet?" he asked.

Bryan and I looked at each other guiltily. "No," we admitted, swishing our spoons around in our granola. "But that's the first thing on our list today!" I added optimistically.

We'd chosen Matt to perform the ceremony. In Alaska, anyone who fills out the proper forms can be a certified Marriage Commissioner for one day only. Matt had enthusiastically agreed to perform this duty, but we knew our lack of preparation had him concerned. He wanted a speech he could read in advance, something he could look over at work that day. But we were in vacation mode, perpetually procrastinating.

"Don't worry," I assured him. "There will only be a few of us there. You don't have to say anything profound." He looked dubious.

We promised to get on it right away. And we had the best intentions. Matt suggested the coffee shop inside Title Wave books, which had good ambience and decent space. We followed his advice and headed down to Northern Lights Boulevard.

Which is the home of one of the largest REI stores in the U.S. So of course we got distracted. But we didn't entirely neglect our duties: I bought a white technical shirt to wear up the mountain, as well as some white hiking shorts, and Bryan bought himself a black top. There: we had our tux and gown.

And we did finally make it to Title Wave. Armed with coffee, notebooks, and pens, we sat down to write our vows. We knew what we wanted to say, but we didn't want it to sound corny or contrived. Here we were discussing the goals for the rest of our lives a few hours before our wedding. I had performance anxiety. "You're the writer," people always say in these situations. "What would you say?" The pressure was on. I had so many opinions about marriage and relationships, yet at the moment, I was at a loss for the right words. We looked at each other. Why was this so hard?

It was hard because it seemed redundant. When Bryan and I decided to get married, we had known each other for almost ten years, as friends and as a couple, and we were so in tune with each other's values and desires that writing vows seemed like an afterthought.

But we wanted to do this right. So we took big sips of coffee and wrote down our promises to one another.

The clouds drifted away as the morning dwindled into afternoon, and then evening. We met up with Matt and two other friends in the Flat top parking lot at 6:00. We had left a message for our good buddy Jon, a.k.a. "Burly," earlier that day, but figured he was off on a climbing trip, since he never returned our call. The sun, a near-constant presence in Anchorage in July, was still high in the sky. The alpine wildflowers were vibrant: purple, white, yellow. Sasha, our dog, took the lead, watching out for bear scat and moose tracks and other signs of wildlife. Having spent so many hours on the couch in the VW, she was exuberant, and she danced over the rocks like a deer.

We weren't the only ones who had chosen Flat top as a celebratory destination: when we arrived at the peak, around 7:30 pm, there was a child's birthday party in progress. Fortunately, the summit is large enough for several events.

Just as we were about to begin, a tall, lean figure in a button-down shirt came into view, running toward the summit, and then stopping to look around. It was Burly!

"Just got your message two hours ago," he said, out of breath. And then he walked me down the "aisle."

Matt's friend Dean filmed the ceremony. Matt gave a short, unprepared speech about how he had come to know me, and then Bryan, and then we moved on to our own words, recounting the evolution of our friendship, how we had come together, drifted apart, and come together again.
And then, of course, the vows. The sky was open, and the views were stunning: the Chugach range, Cook Inlet, downtown Anchorage draped in the orange rays of the sun. It was a perfect evening, a perfect spot.

After we exchanged rings and kisses, Matt pulled from his backpack a bottle of champagne and a pint of Ben&Jerry's ice cream. The wedding of my dreams.

And afterwards: beer and pizza at the Moose's Tooth, which has a fantastic selection of both. Matt's roommate, Brandy, and her boyfriend (now husband), Ben, had gotten there early to decorate a booth with streamers and bells.

Six years and two kids later, I still feel blessed, and though I probably (okay, definitely) would not have chosen Connecticut as my home, I really can't imagine spending my life with anyone else. Happy Anniversary.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

hush, little baby

Recently, my friend Stacey quit her job in order to stay home with her kids, who are 3 and 1. Almost every semester, I have considered following the same path, especially when my briefcase is full of unread essays and my children are visibly frustrated by my preoccupation with work. "If I stayed home," I often think, "I'd have more of myself to give to the kids, and more time to write." Sure, it would require some financial finagling, but it would be a worthy sacrifice.

Last week, I was putting books in the bookshelf, clearing away the pile of Little Critter and Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle books that Alexa had strewn about the floor. During the school year, when it's nap time, I'm running around like a crazy woman, trying to organize and read papers and write lesson plans, always looking anxiously at the clock and hoping this isn't the day Lexi decides to give up her naps. But last week as I cleaned up kids toys, I realized, quite suddenly, that I wasn't stressed out. Wow! I thought. I could really get used to this. I'm more patient. I'm writing. I'm sleeping better at night. Now why, I thought, did I decide to sign on for that Writing Fellowship?

I talked to Stacey. "You know," I said, "I'm really envious of your decision. I think I could find staying at home fulfilling."

Stacey looked at me sideways. "Is Dylan out of school yet?"

"No," I replied. "One more week."

"Talk to me in two weeks."

So Dylan has been out of school since last Friday. And I love that kid dearly, I really do, love his energy and his sweet temperament and his quirky humor.

But damn, that kid is garrulous. Extremely garrulous.

I can hear my mom laughing and saying, "It's payback time, baby!" From what I'm told, I started talking at 18 months and never stopped. And Bryan and Kaytie can testify to my late night bouts of chatter, episodes that required them to pull the plug or threaten me with duct tape. So I shouldn't be surprised. And I should be more patient. But it's the end of Week One, and I'm going batty. I don't think I can count the number of times in a day that I hear "Mom, guess what?" And often the response is something like, "I washed my hands," or "I put my cup in the sink." I've tried to express to Dylan that there is poetic value in silence, that it can be a beautiful thing, but I probably haven't been a very good role model. Tennessee Williams once wrote that "Silence about a thing magnifies it," but Dylan is a firm believer in the power of the Word, or words--lots and lots of words.

So I guess I'd better get zen, because if Dylan is anything like his mom, this isn't going to be a phase. But on the positive side, he has a lyrical soul, and often uses creative--and appropriate--adjectives to enrich his stories, and that, of course, warms my literary heart. And he's teaching me patience, I hope, because I know that it's my job not just to listen, but to hear, and to draw him out rather than shut him down.

And yeah, sometimes it's hard to say something other than, "Oh, really?" even though he knows when I'm appeasing him. Even his sister has been known to throw a superficial, "Wow--cool!" in his direction without looking up from her book or her Little People. But I know we need to nurture his little spirit, as noisy as it may be. And even if Dylan can barely spare me a moment to blow my nose without showing me something or asking me a question, I'll take the constant chatter over reticence any day.

He's quiet now. Whew.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

21 for a night

Before this past Monday night, it had been several years since I had seen a show in a venue as large as the Comcast Center (formerly Tweeter Center, formerly Great Woods) in Mansfield, MA. And the last time I had seen Pearl Jam there was in, I think, '91, during the Lollapalooza tour, when they played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and several grunge-era bands (Soundgarden? Alice in Chains? Who can remember?). So I experienced quite a bit of culture shock as I entered the grounds of the outdoor stadium on a sweltering June evening, surrounded by an eclectic mix of fans: middle-aged couples of respectable income; bandana-sporting transients from Seattle and Vancouver; testosterone-laden twentysomethings from the 128 belt, and the four of us: Bryan, my sister Kaytie, her friend Jess, and me.

I confess that I was almost giddy with anticipation. Pearl Jam tends to sell out shows in about 10 minutes, so in all honesty, I'm so out of the loop these days that I don't usually even hear about a show until it's too late. And I generally try to avoid large concert crowds, which means that when we see shows, we tend to go to quaint little music spaces such as the Calvin Theatre in Northampton and the Somerville Theatre outside of Boston.

I'll spare you the details of the parking lot (not much has changed, except that there is now a "premium parking" lot where you can pay $40 and be in and out, as opposed to waiting in a long line of cars. Extortion!).

As we filed slowly up to our seats, sweat and beer and cigarette breath surrounding us on all sides, I wondered, "Was it always like this? And what exactly am I doing here?" But once I was able to breathe again, and once the band took the stage, there was no question. I didn't stop to think "am I too old for this" as I whooped and danced and sang along to old classics like "Elderly Woman behind a Counter in Small Town" and new protest songs like "No More War". And as Eddie Vedder belted out, in his hypnotic baritone, the opening lyrics to "animal," and I leaned over to Kaytie and yelled, "How does he do that?" she responded, "I don't know, but it's funny how easily I can be reduced to a lovestruck adolescent."

And as corny as it is, I had to agree. "I know!" I squawked. "I want to marry Eddie Vedder right now!" And we both swooned over his long, sweat-soaked locks and scruffy beard. The man is sexy, there's no question.

And now it's too days later and I can recollect my emotions with tranquility, as Wordsworth would say, and reflect with amusement on my silly girlish declaration. But it's fun to be 21 every now and then, and what better outlet for that energy than a Pearl Jam show? A little bouncing and howling every now and then keeps it fresh, no?

And in keeping with the decadent spirit, Kaytie and I, staunch advocates of the "whole foods diet," punctuated the show with a mustard-covered hot dog. Guess that's what passes for radical in our world these days :]/

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

before and after II

the labor: harvesting strawberries in the fields of North Haven
reaping the fruits: there's nothing like home-made strawberry milk! (except, of course, Quik)

before and after

"Mommy, I wanna go on the tire swing!"
"Wheee! Tire swing fun!"

"I don't feel so well. . . ."

peanuts and crackerjacks

Summer in our house means lots of baseball, and here's how our little enthusiasts are responding:

Despite looking like a devoted citizen of Red Sox Nation in the above photo, Dylan's favorite activity is pretending to be Derek Jeter. He's wearing his glove right now as he watches TV, and he'd probably wear it in the bathtub if he could. So, given Jeter's sportsmanlike nature (yeah, I said it), and Dylan's mild demeanor, I was a little surprised at where his imagination took him the other day. He ran into the house with his glove and ball and said, "Mom! You know your favorite pitcher on the Cincinnati Reds?"

He meant Bronson Arroyo, who used to play for the Sox, and on whom I have a bit of a crush. I nodded.

"Well, he just got knocked down by a ball that Derek Jeter hit!"

"Dylan!" I said, surprised. "That's not very nice."

He looked confused. "But Derek Jeter didn't mean to. He didn't know where the ball would go!"

"But Dylan," I reminded him, "you made the story up." He had no response to that one. No word yet on Arroyo's condition.

Today, when I went to pick Alexa up from daycare, Miss Ann told me that they had been talking about friends: friends' names, favorite friends, what it means to be a friend, etc. When asked who were her favorite friends, Alexa replied, "Morgan, and Josh Beckett." Who knew? Maybe she can get me Red Sox tickets.

for the love of dog

Studies have shown that pet-owners live longer, happier lives. Apparently, the joy one experiences from petting a dog, snuggling with a cat, or caressing a ferret (?) triggers the "happiness" chemical, which in turn reduces stress, which in turn contributes to one's longevity. And I get this, I do: what's better than consistently being greeted by a panting, exuberant, ridiculously jiggly pup? And black labs, in my experience, make great running partners.

So here's how my dog brought me joy yesterday: I arrived home from strawberry picking to find chewed-up foil packets scattered about the floors. It took me a moment to discern what they had once been. A quick investigation proved that they were packets of sweet, sugary, sticky (this being the operative word here) flavoring for coffee, accessories for the Flavia instant coffee machine we received as a gift a couple of years ago. These packets were stashed in a box underneath three other boxes in our extra bedroom. They've been stacked there for at least a year, and we generally leave this door open.

Let me backtrack a bit to tell you how I had spent the previous day. While Alexa napped and Dylan read books on the couch, I put on the gloves (well, not really) and did a relatively thorough cleaning (for me) of the extra bedroom in preparation for some guests who will be arriving on Saturday. I moved bags and boxes to the basement, washed and vacuumed the carpets, rearranged furniture. At the end of the day, I proudly displayed my work for Bryan, who was visibly impressed with the room.

Back to our life-enriching pet. Something must have been in the air on Tuesday, something that smelled enticingly like vanilla and chocolate and Snickers. And what was in the air ended up in Sasha's teeth, and then, of course, all over the carpet, so that walking in the extra bedroom was like wading through a marvelous sticky morass. And oh, how I expressed my joy in that moment!

To many more years of dog-owning bliss!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

it's official: the boy is a convert

On Sunday, Dylan took his Dad to "Ankees" Stadium for his birthday. It was about 102 degrees in the Bronx, but Dylan was a real trooper. It was painful for me to have to play a role in Dylan's conversion, but I thought he should see the original Yankee Stadium with his Dad before it gets torn down.
And it was bat day! So, Dylan made off with a fancy Louisville Slugger, his new favorite toy (watch out, Alexa!). This photo conveys the effects of the heat rather than Dylan's excitement, but you get the idea.
Now I'm no Yankees fan, but Derek Jeter does have a nice, um, uniform, doesn't he?

if you build it, they will come

For the past several months, the residents of Cheshire have been watching the construction of a new playground next to the town pool with eager anticipation. A few weeks ago, the playground finally opened, with much pomp and circumstance, and man, did people come! The Cheshire Herald reported that 800 people showed up to the ribbon cutting (we were included in that number).

I know, I know: a lot of hoopla for a playground, you're thinking. But what a playground! Most of the funds came from companies and private donors, and it was great to see so many folks come together with a common interest: a safe (but not obsessively so), friendly, and enclosed play place for kids--active kids.
The climbing wall looks so real you expect to see water trickling through the crevices. This, and the spider web (below) are, by far, Dylan's favorite attractions. He's a pretty natural climber, so this is definitely the park for him.
The spider web is actually quite tall, so tall that when Dylan made his first full ascent, I was biting my nail and trying to disguise my rising sense of panic as my mind calculated the potential damage to a 4-year-old body. But he was extremely proud, and yelled to everyone who could hear, "Look at me! I'm at the top!"

With gas at 4.35 a gallon in this area, and with the park in walking distance, I'm pretty sure we'll be hanging out here a lot this summer. And did I mention the town pool is right next door? So, instead of going to Colorado as originally planned, we'll be staycationing at Bartlem Park (and spending a week at a cabin in Vermont--ahhhhhh. Can't wait).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

nipmuck trail marathon: a gathering of friendly die-hards

Warning: It is possible to get a serious injury in this race. If you run recklessly you'll increase your chances but even if you are careful it's still possible to get tripped up or slip on something. This could result in an immobilizing injury that could put you a few hours away from medical attention. It could mean expensive medical care and an extended period of time away from work. To run this race you have to accept full responsibility for what happens to you. If you don't have health insurance don't do this race. No matter how careful you are plan on falling.
(excerpt from NipMuck Trail Marathon application)
On Sunday, June 1, I ran my first trail marathon: 26.4 miles on the NipMuck Trail in northeastern Connecticut. This year marked the race's 25th year anniversary, and some of the runners looked as though they had been running it since its inception: in the last third of the race, I caught up to a lean, muscular, grey-haired fellow who informed me that he had recently celebrated his 79th birthday. And it took me four hours to catch up to him. Hope I'm still dodging roots and rocks and landing softly in muck when I'm approaching my octogenarian age!
This photo of the inside of the port-a-potty, taken by running photographer Scott Livingston, really captures the spirit of the race. Race director "NipMuck Dave" brings an in-your-face humor to the event that keeps die-hard trail fanatics coming back. The application declares that "All complaints about getting lost will be laughed at." Fortunately, the trail is very clearly marked, and Dave manages to round up scores of volunteers who really make the event possible. Many, many times during the race I thought I was done; my legs would lock up in protest and insist they couldn't take me another step. A few minutes later, I would stumble upon an aid station, load up on Gatorade, potatoes, bananas, and chocolate, and somehow I would get through another hour.
A trail marathon has been an aspiration of mine ever since I discovered that such things existed, which I think was back when I was living in Anchorage and hiked Crow Pass, the site of the infamous Crow Pass Crossing, a trail marathon rife with black bears and bees and water crossings. I never did run that marathon, and at this point probably never will, but NipMuck was an incredibly exhilarating--if excruciating-- experience. Trail races are, in my experience, more informal affairs than road races: they have to be, as the measurements are inevitably imprecise, a runner's performance is subject to any number of obstacles, from twisted ankles to wildlife to slippery rocks, and it's even possible to lose your way, in spite of the bright blue blazes. After a few hours, you begin to hallucinate a bit, and it's easier than one might think to get turned around. But the genuine camaraderie that one encounters on the trail gives an exhausted runner a mental push. While it is a race, and folks are vying for position, the runners look out for one another, so you never feel as though you are out there alone.
The application states that if you add an hour to your slowest marathon time, you'll get a rough estimate of your NipMuck Marathon time. This was pretty true for me: I managed to finish in 4:54, which allowed me to meet my goal of running in under five hours. But holy hell! I was more tired and sore than I have ever been in any other marathon, including Boston, which always does me in. When I called Bryan to tell him I'd made it out alive, I was biting my lip to keep from crying. But when it was over I proudly carried my souvenir trophy--a piece of wood with a blue blaze painted on it and a laminated piece of paper that read "25th Annual NipMuck Trail Marathon--to the car and drove my aching body home.
When I ran my first marathon, my friend Amos said, when it was over, "Now you never have to do that again!" I felt that way immediately following NipMuck, but now I'm starting to think about shunning all road races and sticking exclusively to the trails. So maybe another NipMuck will make the race calendar. We'll see how I feel when I recover. . . .

Thursday, May 29, 2008

riding in cars with noise

Something happens to me when I get into the car without my kids. When I put the key in the ignition and back out of the driveway, away from the endless loop of "Mom?" and the cute but sometimes tiresome questions about who makes the road and why the sky is blue and when can I go to the bathroom, I am suddenly overcome with a craving, a need for really loud music. And generally really raucous music. Yes, my musical tastes have mellowed and matured as I've gotten older, but when I'm alone in the driver's seat, I am suddenly nineteen again, at a Lollapalooza concert with my long crimson hair and nose ring, rocking out to the Smashing Pumpkins or the Beastie Boys or Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (who I still love, by the way). Alone in the driver's seat, I summon my old pals Pearl Jam or the Red Hot Chili Peppers and press the "+" on the volume button until electric guitar is streaming wildly from the speakers. On the road, especially the highway, where I'm less likely to be spotted by a parent of one of my kids' friends, or a student, I can bellow along to Eddie Vedder with feverish abandon, until my throat is scratchy (this used to happen often when I was commuting back and forth from Burlington, VT every other weekend to visit Bryan here in CT) and my ears are ringing and I'm out of breath.

And there is another kind of freedom that comes with these solo car rides: the freedom to swear, to --dare I say it?--yell the "f" word as the lyrics require. Now, I'm not given to dropping expletives in my every day speech, but there's something liberating about being able to belt them out without fear of having them repeated back to me in toddler-ese. In the car alone, my inner twentysomething is released, and it feels soooo good. Each tune is like one of Proust's petite madeleines: my whole body shudders with the memory of a city where I once lived, a mountain I once hiked, a friend I once had. The other morning, on my way to physical therapy, Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" dropped me into 1984, when I was on the cusp of adolescence, fervently writing fiction on my typewriter in the basement of my parents' house, imagining novels drawn from Springsteen's motley characters and New Jersey backroads; driving later that afternoon, Widespread Panic's "Travelin' Light" transported me to Red Rocks Stadium in Denver on a hot July day in the mid-90's, the air pungent with sweat and draft beer and sweet gange fumes; on another drive, Pearl Jam's "Rearview Mirror" has me driving a minivan from Boulder to Portland, Oregon with five other folks from Sierra Club, on our way to a conference. At twenty-two, the Age of Narcissism, I didn't need to be alone in the car to sing without restraint, to let the lyrics punctuate my mood: Saw things clearer/Once you were in my/Rearview mirror

On the way home from nursery school, of course, we're back to the Wiggles or "Baby Bunglebee," as Lexi likes to call it, but that's okay, too, because, truth be known, I'll sing along to anything. Well, almost anything. And belting out "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" requires a certain shrugging off of inhibition, too, and there's no shortage of memory-association with these innocent tracks, whose words seem to have been preserved in the far recesses of my brain all these years.

After silence, that which comes closest to expressing the inexpressible is music. --Aldous Huxley

Friday, May 9, 2008


Free man, you will forever love the sea!

The sea's your mirror, you observe your soul
Perpetually as its waves unroll
(Baudelaire, "Free Man and the Sea")

There's almost nothing I enjoy so much as watching Dylan and Alexa on the beach. The wide open expanse of sand and sea seems to incite in them a primal joy that ignites their spirits from the moment their little toes touch the shore. And those same little toes are impervious to the water's icy chill: while I quickly withdrew my own foot about a nanosecond after I decided to test the temperature, they raced toward the waves without hesitation, not stopping until they were waist-deep.

Alexa became one with the ocean: she emerged with hair full of sand and seaweed, her skirt and diaper soaked through, her skin glistening with salt and granules. "That's a big pool," she declared happily.

It was Dylan who initiated the impromptu yoga session (see above photo). I guess the sound of the surf reminded him of those "sounds of nature" yoga cd's.

I used to worry about how being a parent would inhibit my innate love of spontaneity. All that planning: diapers, food, extra clothing, bathroom stops, et cetera. But we drove out to Hammonassett State Beach on a whim, in the middle of a Friday afternoon. I threw a few necessities into a bag, grabbed the sunscreen, and we were off. And as I sat back on the sand watching my children frolic, I realized that while I can't exactly run off to Colorado or even New York on a moment's notice, I can still derive great pleasure from basking in Dylan and Lexi's unbridled joie de vivre. It's spontaneity of a different nature: the thrill of being "surprised by joy" in observing the simple beauty of kids at play. None of the photos I snapped accurately captured the vivacity of the moment, and by summer's end, the kids will likely have forgotten the trip altogether, but for me, so much of what makes the memory precious in the pure sense of the word is that I'm acutely aware of the fleeting nature of little kid joy. Before long, Dylan will be checking out the chicks in bikinis, and Alexa will be worried about how her behind looks in her own two-piece (which, by the way, had better not have anything scrawled across the butt! God, how I hate that fashion trend!).

But there's no point in dwelling on the future when the present is so much fun.

Live in the sunshine, drink the sea, swim in the wild air. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

in the contact zone

In class, we have been discussing "contact zones," which writer Mary Louise Pratt defines as "social spaces where different cultures meet, clash, and grapple with one another." Here, Dylan, our perpetual peace-maker and product of a "mixed" family, emerges from the contact zone as one very confused child.

"It's all good," he says with genial defiance. "I like the Red Sox and the 'Ankees'."

In his innocent attempts at neutrality, he struggles to understand the groans and grimaces that always follow this statement.

A budding Mets fan, to be sure!