Monday, December 31, 2007

The last day of the year

Last night I asked my husband to help me remember what we were thinking about last year at this time.

Although I can readily recall historical events and a laundry list of literary theories, I have trouble placing moments in my own life. I have come to discover that I live very much in the future, not much in the present and almost never in the past. Thus, if I don't make a conscious effort to remember, moments often vanish into the foggy twilight of my life's memory.

Last year at this time, my husband reminded me, he was awaiting approval from Worker's Comp for the knee reconstruction surgery that eventually allowed him to run again. Now, he's considering doing another marathon, or perhaps a half one, this coming spring at my college on the hill.

Last year at this time, he also reminded me, I had applied to several dissertation fellowships and we had great uncertainty as to where 2007 would find us: here in Ohio, Vermont, Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Thus, my husband saved up a lot of his vacation time just in case he needed to go visit me at some other state where I'd be finishing my Monster. As it turned out, we stayed here in Ohio.

Because I don't want to forget this moment (shouldn't there be great excitement and anticipation on the last day of a year?), I'm going to set down some simple wishes for 2008. Next December 31st, I'll be able to come back here and look and be reminded of what I was thinking about and wishing for.

Unlike last year, I don't have any uncertainty as to where I'll be or what job I'll be doing. When 2008 ends, I'll have finished the first semester of my first tenure-track job at my college on the hill. This year, the uncertainty is more on my husband's side because of recent changes at his work. I wish that 2008 brings quick and positive resolution to those uncertainties so that my dearest of all husbands can be content and tranquilo.

I also wish for 2008 to continue to bring health and tranquilidad to my family and to my husband's family, and to all my friends and loved ones. I wish 2008 to be more peaceful and more environmentally friendly than 2007 was. I wish for this eighth year of the 21st century to balance out more positive than negative for everyone. For there to be less war, less disease, less hunger, less violence, less pain, less cruelty, less hate, less horror, less everything-bad than in 2007 and before.

I am a true believer that we can make the future better than the past and the clean slate that each new year bestows gives me the chance to believe again.

Looking back, the years 8 have always been very significant in my life. In 1978, I crossed the gates of Harvard Yard to begin an adventure that changed my life forever. In 1988, I arrived in Puerto Rico deathly ill to embark on a survival and then a recovery process that involved learning how to walk and drive again. Ten years later, in 1998, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Georges and after having to leave my house and husband to go do my job as city editor of the English-language newspaper (work for which the newspaper won an award), I swore off daily print journalism for good.

In 2008, I wish for continued health and to finish my Monster on time and defend, as planned, in June so that I am finally a Philosophiæ Doctor (not actually in philosophy but who's counting?) by the time summer rolls around. If I achieve this most anticipated of milestones, I might just take July and most of August off to celebrate and watch Oprah and take naps and work on a novel and read the new translation of War and Peace and learn to quilt. I haven't had a summer off since we moved here to Ohio in early 2001.

Although I can't remember much of what I'd hoped for in 2007, I know that, as of today, it wasn't a bad year at all. In fact, I have to count it among the very best for many reasons, especially because it was another year when I was healthy and tranquila (well, as tranquila as I can be, of course).

The least I can hope for 2008 if that it is as good (or better) to me and to mine and to everyone else as the year that ends tonight has been.

¡Feliz Año Nuevo!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Smart is as smart does

Yesterday, while I was playing with the youngest group of kids, I had a conversation with my nephew, who is all of 8 years old and thinks of himself as not being all that smart.

As four of us, including the two youngest nieces, were playing with my youngest niece's army of miniature wobbly-headed wide-eyed cats, dogs, horses, lizards, lady bugs and birds (who's brand name escapes me), and for whom she has an entire empire of houses, shops, doctors' offices, buildings, parks, etc., my nephew grumbled about something he hated.

"We should try to say we hate less things and try to say 'I love this or that' more often," I recommended, good titi that I try to be by setting the example.

"What do you you love?" I asked him, to get the process started.

"I love you!" he said immediately.

I hugged and kissed him almost to a smothering point because with my youngest nephew, as with most children that age, what they say is what they mean and they don't ever say what they don't mean.

"What do you hate?" he asked me.

I thought and thought and thought and couldn't come up with something I hated at that moment.

"Well, I hate people who hurt kids," I finally said.

"I hate bad words," he said.

"I do, too!" I agreed.

"So why do you say them?" he asked, quick to the draw.

"I don't say bad words!" I objected surprised, if a little chagrined, since I do have a reputation among my nieces and nephews for being a bit of a potty mouth.

My oldest niece is always telling the story of how I owe them more than $20 (about $1 a bad word) for all the times over the years that they've heard me involuntarily say the word shit.

"What bad word have you heard me say?" I asked, trying hard to remember whether any shits or stupids (which is a bad word in my sister's house) or anything worse had escaped my lips. But I could swear I'd behaved in a stellar manner during my short visit this time.

"You said hell," he said.

"But hell is the place where bad people go when they die!" I objected.

He thought on this a moment and he said: "Hell is a multi-meaning word."

Indeed! No doubt about it, my youngest nephew is decidedly the smartest kid his age I know. I'll just have to be even more careful now that he is not only aware that words have many different meanings but he also knows what all those different meanings are!

Maybe I can talk him into eschewing his dream of becoming a race-car driver so that he comes instead to my college on the hill to study English.

Friday, December 28, 2007

To be cherished

Today finds me visiting, for only a few days, with my entire family (sans my husband, who's doing cat-dog duty at home) at my sister's home in Maryland.

In true Puerto Rican family tradition, it's crazy and chaotic with 12 people trying to weigh in on what we might be doing next. This is a new policy implemented by my siblings, who decided that no one should have the final word in decision-making.

That policy seems to be a late declaration of independence after years of my father and/or my mother doing all the planning and making all the decisions. My mother has rallied on with the new policy admiringly, and even my father is (stunningly) going along with the flow.

Frankly, (and I guess spoken like a true older sibling) I have to say that I liked the former times much better. Being a I-don't-like-surprises kind of person, I'm not thrilled at not knowing where our posse will be going next or why. But it seems to work best for the much younger generations (especially those aged 16 to 8), who may equal us in numbers but who outnumber us in terms of energy and willingness to be excited.

For instance, tonight the posse decided to go to the movies. Then it changed its mind and decided to go home and watch DVDs. Then it changed its mind and decided that it would actually go to the movies. Then it changed its mind and decided to go home and watch DVDs. Then to go to the movies. Then to go home and watch DVDs. My oldest niece kept calling her friend, who wanted to meet up with her, and called her about five times before a final decision was ostensibly made.

"Welcome to our family," my father told my niece to tell her friend over the phone, and she did.

Despite the apparent chaos that permeates our family reunions, my heart can't help but warm at the sight of the six cousins, three on my brother's side and three on my sister's, getting along so well and enjoying each other's company so much.

That includes three teenagers who break the mold of what is traditionally expected of and evidenced by kids in that age group. Rather than sullen and apathetic, my oldest nephews and niece are fun-loving, caring and engaged.

My oldest niece takes the prize because at 13 she enjoys taking care of and playing with the younger ones, which range in ages from 10 to 8. Rather than disdaining them as uncool and uncouth, as I've heard so many teens often do, she enjoys her younger siblings and cousins. She's truly a star.

And while you'd think that with three boys and three girls from such diverse age groups you'd have a dangerous recipe for dissension and whining contests, you hardly ever hear a sí o no between them. It's truly an experience to be relished and I hope and pray that they can keep their ties strong even after they're all grown up.

Today, they had a basketball match at my sister's school's gym, and even my mother played, losing a nail de cuajo in the process. But it was a joy to see the grandchildren trying to block the grandmother's throws at the basket and their laughter ran across the largely empty school, like the ripples of stone on still water.

Of course, you won't catch me dead playing basketball (that's how much I suck at it) so my dad and I watched from the sidelines with my youngest niece, who seemed, like me, to prefer watching than playing.

My best conversations nowadays are with my youngest niece, who tonight told me the plot to the sequel to National Treasure in a breathless, wide-eyed story-telling style that had me riveted, even when I didn't really grasp what happens in the movie.

"You and her are always talking a lot," my youngest nephew observed over dinner about our conversations.

I will miss those conversations as my youngest niece becomes a teenager and then a young woman. Those are the things that are lost with the passage of time, and that's why I cherish them so much now.

"Will you play with me?" she still asks and though I've promised to do so, I haven't had the chance to make good on my promise because the posse has been busy doing other things outside the house.

But I promised her again tonight that tomorrow I will come over to her house early in the morning and play with her to her heart's content. Now age 9, she won't be asking me to play with her much longer.

I want to make one more memory that both she and I can cherish forever.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Nochebuena

Tonight, with a full moon looking down and smiling on us, as my husband and I gave the dogs their Christmas Eve walk, I remembered an old song from childhood:

Arbolito, arbolito, cuántas cosas te pondré
quiero que seas bonito
porque al recién nacido te voy a ofrecer...

The song tells of two children who are going to the woods to cut down a little tree, which is going to be decorated with all kinds of beautiful ornaments because it will be taken as a present to the newborn Christ.

Of course, there are no tree-filled woods in the Middle East (at least that I know of). This is a song that, like the camels of the Three Kings of Orient, who were transformed into horses when the story arrived to Puerto Rico, shows how narratives retain their power and their meaning even when their contexts are radically altered.

It's a lovely song, as is the story of what this night, Nochebuena, the Good Night, represents for those who believe in such things. I know that the date itself was reportedly picked by the Vatican centuries ago to coincide with pagan celebrations so that Christianity's "take over" (so to speak) could be smoother.

Still, that doesn't diminish the beauty of the hope-filled story about a Saviour born on a night like this one.

Earlier this month, one of my best students told me how he was struggling against pessimism because there was so much wrong in the world and so much that wasn't righted and could never be made right.

"Pessimism is easy, as is giving up" I cautioned him. "It's hope and it's fighting for what is right and it's trying to make the world better even in the smallest way and it's struggling against apathy and against the impossible-to-correct that is hard. Pessimism is easy, as is giving up."

On a night like tonight, the story tellers tell of a Messiah born under the brightest star, one who would offer redemption for all those who believed; one who would die nailed to a cross so that all others could live. Nights like this are about the unassailable, the unfettered power of hope.

For those of us raised Catholic, even those who, like me, are way beyond lapsed, the beautiful stories of hope still retain their meaning and their emotional impact. If this God we were taught to believe in sent his only son to his death, even after the son begged to be spared, what won't we, mere mortals, have to endure? Oddly enough, that thought gives me strength and hope.

For good, and bad, I am a hopeful person. Even against all odds, I hope never to give up, never to give in to pessimism and self-complacency and self-absorption. I know what it feels to give in to despair and hopelessness because I crossed that threshold at least twice in my life. I have looked straight down at the abyss of No Return and know well the contours of its soul-killing depths.

Thus, on nights like tonight, Nochebuena, the Good Night, I celebrate hope. I clamor for hope and for the hard work that comes with hoping. I pray fervently for the strength and the wisdom to handle whatever comes my way. I pray humbly to always, as long as I breathe and think and feel, be guided by and fight for the hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

¡Feliz Navidad!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cheating Santa

I'm not sure how the pudgy little girl with the large, dark eyes and the disheveled curly, raven-black hair managed it. But, somehow, for a few Christmases at least, she found the way to climb over the metal railing of the stairs in their two-story house and all the way down to the first floor.

Once there, she found herself poised in front of all the toys organized around the living room, no Santa or another soul there to witness what she was up to, except the sunlit-yellow canary who would eye her with curiosity from his tall black cage set in a corner of the dining room.

I'm not sure when, how or why the pudgy little girl came up with the idea but she did. And she must have been quite Machiavellian about this, even at that early age, because she had to be absolutely certain that no one would catch her. I know she figured that as long as no one caught her, she could cheat Santa and no one would ever know.

The only witness, said canary, was the one who sometime later died at the paws of a cunning, stray cat that somehow toppled its gigantic black cage and got a hold of the little bird. The worst part, as I remember it, is that the little girl was coming down the stairs (the same ones she'd climb down for her Christmas wee-hours crime sprees) when she noticed a very cute cat playing with a yellow ball in their dining room.

The last thing that occurred to her was that this was no innocent yellow ball but that it was her beloved canary. This was one in a succession of canaries given to her by her titi Bebi, and it was providing the cat's entertainment. I vaguely recall grand hysterics at the realization and some psychologist would certainly jot down the fact that the pudgy little girl, who eventually turned into a capable woman, never had birds as pets again, only cats.

What a psychologist would say about the Christmas wee-hours crime sprees, I'm not so sure. Because what the pudgy little girl decided once she was in front of all the toys was that she could swap those that she wasn't so happy with. All she had to do was trade those she didn't want with those she wanted, which she found in the area where her little sister's toys were arrayed. (Santa was very organized back then, leaving the toys for the each of the sisters in the identical, green velvet sofas that faced each other in the living room, and the brother's toys in the chair that sat between the sofas.)

I remember how the pudgy little girl rummaged through her sister's Barbie shoes and selected those that she liked better than the ones Santa had left for her on her sofa. She never stole, since she never took more than she replaced. In her 5- or 6-year-old mind, she simply bartered. And her sister wasn't as much a Barbie fan as she was, being more the kind of little girl who drooled over the dolls that looked like babies. But those never interested the pudgy little girl at all. Not surprisingly, the sister became a model mom while the pudgy little girl, as a woman, was happy with her cats, and later her expensive-to-maintain senile mutts.

Many years later, when she confessed the Christmas wee-hours crime sprees to her family, her sister told of how she'd always find the same ugly stuffed donkey on her sofa. Even when she hadn't asked Santa for that toy and hadn't enjoyed it the first time the ugly stuffed donkey showed up. A woman now, the little pudgy girl doesn't remember bartering any donkeys and her sister has a penchant for inventing memories, so she's not very sure about the accuracy of this report.

I'm also not sure whether the little pudgy girl had stopped believing in Santa and was using this as an opportunity to test her parents' memory and see if they would notice something amiss. Or whether she simply figured that Santa was an old, fat gringo guy with a very poor sense of fashion, who just couldn't tell which sister loved Barbies and which sister didn't really.

I do remember one time when the little pudgy girl, not so little anymore, set a trap for Santa. She had seen in a TV ad how a pair of gringo children left cookies and a glass of milk with a note for Santa, asking Santa a question. By the ad's end, Santa penned down an answer, drank the milk and ate the cookies, never forgetting to leave them tons of toys.

The little pudgy girl thought that she'd imitate the ad so she set the glass and the cookies and the note. But her actual plan was to carefully examine the response the next morning to catch them unawares and finally prove that Santa was an alias for her parents. Of course, her parents were much smarter, and the handwriting on the note was unrecognizable. The little pudgy girl could not match it to anything her parents had ever written. Oh, well, she shrugged. And gave it up.

It sure has been many moons and sunrises and hurricanes and near-death experiences since that little pudgy girl went on her Christmas wee-hours crime sprees. But Christmas still retains that joyful, glowing feeling of anticipation and mischief for her. There is no multi-colored lighted tree with a bright star on top in her living room now (not after Darwin tried to chew on the lights and Magellan made it her personal project to bat each and every ornament off the tree), especially since her husband objects to the Christmas Tree Holocaust every holiday season.

But Christmas never loses that bated-breath sense of promise and happiness that it had when she was a little pudgy girl. For that privilege, and for everything else they have ever done for her, she'll always be eternally grateful to her parents.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unchangeable

Before I left my college on the hill this week, I took two of my favorite students out to dinner. They happen not to be my actual students, although one of them did take a class with me earlier this year.

I met both of them through Dr. S and they quickly became two of my favorite people at the college on the hill. One, who hasn't taken a class with me and vows she never will, is going to Denmark next semester. Thus, the dinner had a little bit of the goodbye-for-now tone.

The reason why that student says she won't take a class with me, other than the fact that she might not take any more English classes period, is because it would be, in her words: "a conflict of interest." For her, any friendship between a professor and a student creates such a conflict.

And I totally agree, though I don't perceive that conflict to exist in our case because I'm not her friend. In fact, I'm not a friend to any of my students, period.

I tell every student who asks that, though friendly, friendship as I understand it (the sharing of personal situations, the relying on each other for company and solace, the absolute loyalty and honesty and hard work that friendship in my world implies) is likely not possible until they graduate and are gone from the college on the hill.

"But what if I was a student at Ohio University and I met you, would you be my friend then?" my former student asked, adding that she wanted to understand the limitations of my policy.

"No," I answered. "As long as there is any element of a student-professor relationship, I cannot be your friend. But I can offer you another relationship, that of mentor, and I think that's a very good one, too."

I told them that my advisor, who is younger than I am by several years and whom I admire immensely for helping me craft not only my Monster but also my own mind into its present scholarly mettle, told me early on that he doesn't become friends with his graduate students.

For him, friendship would get in the way of being able to tell it like it is. And he does talk tough when he needs to and I appreciate very much that he does. When things are crap, crap they must be called. I look forward to the time when, with Ph.D. in hand, I can be his friend. But for now, I like and respect our relationship very much.

Although I will always tell my friends the things they might not want to hear, I can't do so in the same way that I can tell a student why s/he is failing my class and what they need to do about it. And while I can, and will, fail a student who deserves it, I would never fail a true friend. That's not what friends do to friends in my world.

Further, and more importantly, while there should be no power differential between friends, even friends of different ages, there always exists a hierarchy between a professor and a student, even if that student is not that professor's student.

Instead of unconditional friendship, I told the students, I offer you a committed mentorship. That's OK, they both said, adding again that they just wanted to understand me.

But I have the feeling that the reason they insist on bringing up this issue may have to do with the fact that they don't see this as I do. That's alright, though, because while I can explain myself until I'm blue in the face, I'm not going to change.

I'm very wary of asymmetries in relationships where power is involved (that's why I teach about and do research on imperialism). Thus, I can't see the student-professor relation in any other way. There is a burden to friendship, of bearing the weight of my personal life, that I could not impose on a student.

In fact, I've realized that this burden of friendship I only place on very, very few people and only when it's inevitable. I've also come to realize that I wouldn't ask others to do what others, including siblings, relatives, friends, and colleagues, have felt free to ask from me. I guess that, like the possibility of friendship between students and professors, a lot has to do with age.

There comes a time, and I've been there for a while, when you don't want to depend on others as much as you did when you were younger. That's when self-reliance and the ability to solve your own problems, as difficult and complicated as they might be, become part of your personal constitution. Of what you take pride of in yourself.

Thus, (income and circumstances permitting) I don't foresee ever asking friends again to do the things I can pay someone else to do, like moving my things or cleaning my house, as I did ask them to do in the past. I work at not involving others (except my poor husband) in solving my major and even minor difficulties.

The pretty immense differential that age creates, I noted to my students as our conversation ended, means a lot more than they give it credit for. The difference of more than 25 years of life and living cannot be ignored. And that's even more so because of the difficulties and obstacles I've surmounted, many of which only my parents and my husband know about.

In some things I am pretty unchangeable. This student-professor-friendship thing is one of those. "Give it up," I told them jokingly. "This is never going to change."

I mean it. I cannot erase those 25-plus years of difference between us. And, truth be told, even if I could, I wouldn't. I like what I've learned and what I've become in that time.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Icescapes

I was spellbound. And, like it often happens nowadays, I deeply regretted not bringing my little digital camera with me in the car.

Driving up this morning to my college on the hill, the day was one of those rainy, cold, miserable Ohio ones that make me want to rage against the coming of winter, especially when official winter isn't even here yet.

But that all changed as I drove into the northern county where my college sits atop a considerable hill (considerable when you're going down it on a bicycle, as I've done, or coming up it jogging, as my husband has). The snow belt of Ohio, my husband calls that county.

As my car twisted and turned through the back roads that lead to my small college, I noticed something odd on the denuded trees. They all radiated white in the gray of day.

Slowly, I realized that their limbs and branches were encased in fine layers of ice, like frozen tears that transformed the homely leaf-less trees into a jewels without sparkle. I was entranced, like the time my husband took me to see the Christmas lights display at a 3,000-acre resort in West Virginia. I oohed and ahhed like I was 5 again. My husband, who claims he was born old, was largely unimpressed.

Driving through farm country today, even the barb wire on the fences shimmered encased in ice, which gave everything an other-worldly, ghostly look. I was spellbound at its beauty and I hope never to forget the sight.

Still, if I'd had my camera with me (like Dr. S used to do all the time as she drove up and down the same and other country roads) you'd be able to share the wonder. For now, you'll just have to imagine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Flying times

I wonder if, as we grow older, time does pass more swiftly. Or does it simply seem to do so, so that we don't have time to slow down and notice how much faster we are growing so much older.

Whatever the case may be, this year has vanished with a rapidity that takes my breath, like when you miss a step but catch yourself before you fall. Where, o where, did 2007 go?

December is almost half-way through and winter has set upon Ohio early, as it's wont to do in this part of the world. This literal middle-of-nowhere where the weather is the most changeable and the most temperamental of seasons.

"In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it," Toni Morrison, a native Ohioan, writes in Beloved.

I couldn't have said it better, of course. I like that about Ohio, though, it's theatricality. Still, good Caribbean-blooded woman that I am, I may have learned to appreciate winter's beauties but I will never, ever learn to appreciate the cold.

And cold it will be for a long time to come. Winter here lasts through March and early April so no matter how far I look into the future, cold is all I see for miles.

At least there are no robins around this year to cause me the same anxiety I had last year trying to make sure Mr. Robin survived the cruelest of winters in my memory. This time, the robins all flew away, as they should. That's a relief.

When I look into the past, I have to say that 2007, which only has 21 days to go in its life span, has been a wonderfully memorable one. Indeed, more memorable than most. Above all, I've had my health to face the challenges and joys that have come my way and as I leaf, mentally, through the year's pages, it's been a very good read as well.

Last Friday I taught my last class of the semester and it was a bittersweet day. Sweet, because I will appreciate and take advantage of the break from having to prepare classes and grade and build my world around my students. But this freedom also has a sharp, bitter flavor because I loved teaching that class and I loved being with those students and I had so much fun that I want to say it was the best class I've taught, ever.

But I can't trust myself on that score. Every time I teach a class I feel like it's the best one ever, so perhaps this one was just the latest in that long time of having passion for what I do and fun doing it. However, I don't think that's altogether true either. I think this class was especially special. Or at least I want to think it was.

In the next week or so, I'll take a break from going up to my college on the hill and will stay here, at home, with hubby, cats and dogs, until 2008 ushers itself in without an invitation. The expectation of a new year always has made me a little anxious because I don't know what it will bring and, as you know, I hate surprises.

But that's what a new year is, after all, a bag full of surprises. I can only hope and pray that, for all of us, the surprises are mostly on the fun side.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Brave in the snow

"You're mighty brave to be taking the dogs out in this weather," the elderly woman said as she shuffled uncertainly back to her house after checking for the newspaper. I had seen her earlier, as we passed her house, while she walked her small dog, holding on to the siding of her home for fear of slipping.

"They're old dogs but they demand their exercise, even in the snow," I explained.

"I guess that's good for them and for you," she said, smiling.

After wishing each other a good day, she shuffled uncertainly into her house and we continued on the way back here, the dogs and I barreling our way through about four inches of snow on the ground, and more falling.

This is the first major snow storm of December and the month has roared in, like a lion. So much so, that I've decided to walk to my department (less than a mile) rather than risk the barely snow-cleared roads and the steep hills all over my college on the hill in my beloved salsa red Scion.

That's another advantage of being in a residential college, although it does make the possibility that classes will be canceled almost nil. I remember how at Harvard they bragged that not even a blizzard would close down the college, and it was true. In all the years I was there, I only remember the college closing once and it was during one of the mightiest and history-making blizzards to hit the Northeast in the 1980s.

This isn't a blizzard, not even close, and it actually seems to have finally stopped snowing.

Looking outside my picture window into the woods, everything looks like a Winter Wonderland. Hot-blooded Caribbean woman that I am, I'm not sure why my soul finds such aesthetic affinity in a snow-covered landscape. But it does.

Even my Puerto Rican sato dogs don't mind the snow and walk through it like they had been doing it all their lives, which I guess is not a bad estimate since, especially in dog years, they've spent almost half their lives in Ohio already.

I've learned to live with the cold outside as long as it's warm inside. Of course, I'm greatly aided by good winter gear: a parka (my "personal flotation device" a friend once called it) that purportedly resists cold below minus 20 degrees, snow boots that are lined with fleece inside and fleece-lined, water proof gloves. The goofy red hat, made of fleece with a big fabric flower on top, may have been a lapse in fashion judgment, but it keeps my hair dry and my ears covered.

The blanket of snow creates the quietest of silences and it allows the bird calls to reverberate as if they were being sung in the most glorious opera house. There's an undeniable beauty to winter, especially when you can appreciate it without having to worry about sliding cars, slipping on ice or having to live outside in the cold.

Since I'm privileged to be in those categories, I'm going to appreciate the day to the fullest and brave the snow.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Crepuscular

"Know the quantitee of thy crepusculis," Chaucer admonished in the 14th century.

Now, I don't pretend to know what Chaucer had in mind when he said this or whether I'm even interpreting Chaucer the right way (I'm as far from a Medievalist as you can get). But I like the idea of knowing the quantity of my crepuscles.

Lately, crespuscles have been a lot on my mind. The crepuscle of my six years as a graduate student, the crepuscle of the seemingly never-ending work for the past two years on my Monster, the crepuscle of my pre-professional life, which will end in July 2008 when I start my tenure-track job, the crepuscle of this fence-straddling place I inhabit between professor and graduate student. These are some of the more obvious crepuscles I see approaching.

Today's actual crepuscle was breathtaking. The pink-orange edge on the horizon had a neon-sign intensity that demanded attention and prompted musings about the significance and the meaning of crepuscles.

I've decided that my favorite time of day is the crepuscular hour, when the sky and the sun put on their final give-us-a-standing-ovation show. I think the dogs really like it, too, if not for the same reasons.

I think they love it because they can still see enough to be able to bark at and pull hard on their leashes when they make out the camouflaged deer in the encroaching darkness. I don't think Geni likes to go out once it's completely dark; she never wants to walk as far in the darkness as she's eager to do when there's still a degree of visibility.

Visibility and knowledge helped me this morning, during our early walk, when the dogs noticed something moving among some cars near a student dorm. I thought it was a cat when the two dogs got all excited and started pulling on their leashes, ears pointed and noses twitching.

But it was nothing as innocuous as a cat. It was a humongous skunk that ran faster than I ever thought something that fat could move toward the other side of the street. Afraid that it might come our way, I pulled the dogs away despite their uncooperative attempts to break free so they could go after what to them must have looked a particularly big cat. The ramifications of that encounter, I didn't even want to consider.

Trying to avoid a close encounter of the very-bad kind with a skunk, during my walk with the dogs near the woods of my college on the hill, is one of the things I won't forget of this year, which continues to careen toward it's own coming-too-fast, coming-too-soon crepuscle.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Creature of habit

Thanksgiving break over, the dogs and I are back in the apartment in the woods, settling into our academic-year routines, the ones that belong to our lives in the small college on the hill.

A colleague asked me recently whether I minded this divided life, this living in two different locations, this dividing myself into two each week. I do miss my husband and the cats when I'm here, and I would rather not have to haul so much stuff back and forth (I was a gypsy in another life so that's wishful thinking, indeed!).

But I don't actually mind this dual life, this half the week in one place, half in another. It serves almost as a metaphor for the two parts of my professional life this year: the dissertating and the teaching. Not that the twine never meet but that it's mostly about dissertating while I'm home and mostly about teaching while I'm here.

This separate, if related, duality of purpose in my weekly schedules has certainly altered my life. I, like the dogs, am a creature of habit and, basically, for the same reasons. Probably unlike the dogs, I sometimes do wish that I didn't have to do a certain thing at a certain time (today, for instance, I would've rather taken a nap in the afternoon, like I did during break week, instead of holding class). But, like the dogs, I really appreciate the constancy, the reliance, the solidity of structure and routine. Nowadays, I and the dogs, have two different schedules depending on where we are.

I find it intriguing to rediscover how much a creature of habit I am because my intellectual and emotional lives are so much about shaking things up, about constant discovery and self-discovery. But, in the same breadth, I realize that perhaps I love the habits I have created as a frame around my life because the picture itself is always changing, always in flux. I like that thought.

Today, my college-on-the-hill routine was shifted for one of the best reasons there can be. I had a long, wonderful chat with one of my best students this semester. What was supposed to be a talk about majors and advisors and revising papers and academic things turned into a this-and-that discussion about what we are impassioned about, about our responsibilities toward ourselves and others, about changing the world and ourselves, about the fun and burden of being a lone wolf, howling her song in the wilderness for those who will listen and follow.

Vanity, thy name is teacher: I was inordinately pleased to hear that she enjoys my class because she's so bright and so well read and she is challenging in the way that only the very best students are, the ones who push our boundaries as teachers and thinkers and people.

Before I knew it, the chat had become a one-hour-and-a-half conversation and evening had settled upon the hill and was pressing against the windows of my small lit-up office. The student apologized since I'd told her I needed to be home before dark but I told her not to worry.

"It's my two elderly dogs that I need to get home to," I confessed.

Although I got in later than expected, the dogs, as always, were thrilled to see me and immediately forgave me. Rusty was a little anxious that I was late so he needed coaxing to eat his dinner. Like so many times before, I found myself having the patience of Job, holding little bits of his food to his mouth until he got the knack of it on his own. As usual, once his appetite stabilized, he cleaned out his plate. Geni, of course, ate all her food and wanted his and mine and all I have in the refrigerator.

I had something quick to eat and we were off on our daily evening walk. I guess I could mind that my life is so predictable in so many ways but, as a person who doesn't like the concept of surprises (I am the one who wants to know the end of a movie or a novel before deciding to see or read it), I cherish the nearly clockwork routines of both my lives.

Perhaps it's also because my life for so many years was what happened to me despite the fact that I had made totally different plans. Perhaps now that life is -- gracias a Dios -- just as I would have it be, I also am able to appreciate that stability.

That's another gift I share with the dogs, appreciating the today, the here, the now, so that, with only minor variations, we can do it all over again tomorrow.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Action of thanks

I like our translation of Thanksgiving Day, our Día de Acción de Gracias, because it adds the word "action" to the concept of giving thanks.

As those who know me know, I am thankful for so much:

For my health, which enables me both to enjoy and to face anything that comes my way;

For my handsome husband, who continues to be the best thing that ever happened to me and who gives me a better life than I could ever ask for;

For my parents, who have always been the wind beneath my wings, and who taught me to have faith in myself and to be a hopeful person;

For my siblings, who have gifted me with wonderful nieces and nephews;

For my frail 97-year-old grandmother and my 80-something grandaunt, and my uncle and titis, who always make me feel loved and important;

For my friends, who are few but constant, and who are always there for the good, the bad and the fun;

For my small college on the hill and my students, who help give my life purpose and joy;

For my peludos, who bestow on me a love that is uninterested in my failings and limitations, and who always give me reasons to laugh;

And for all those anonymous or even forgotten people who, in one way or another, have helped shape me and the life I lead today -- for good or ill.

I remember, many years ago, when the therapist who helped drag me from the edge of the precipice of self-pity, said that one day I would give thanks for the disease that ravaged my body and nearly ended my life.

I stared at her as if she were delusional. But a few years later, I came to understand what she meant, and saw that she was right.

Even the worst moments in our life, the ones that seem endless and unfair and unbearable, once they are overcome, or at least coped with, can turn into lessons that mold us into better human beings, as well as contribute to our arsenals of strength.

It's true that not everyone translates such experiences into those lessons. I have seen people go through devastating events and come out not better, but worse, or the same, as before. I, however, refuse to remain unchanged, unimproved, untransformed by life.

That's why, at least for me, it's not enough to just say thanks and feel thankful.

We have to act on that thankfulness by contributing something, however small, to improve our collective time on this earth.

We also act on that thankfulness by keeping our life on the track that the universe meant us to have, the road toward our own spiritual fulfillment and growth.

We act on that thankfulness, too, by saying what we mean and meaning what we say and acting on both our meaning and our words.

Ultimately, it is our selves that we must love, appreciate, care and be grateful for before we can ever feel or receive such gifts from anyone else.

With being thankful, as with anything else, actions speak louder than words.

Have a Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Herding cats (and dogs)


Some mornings, like this one, none of the animals cooperates with me as I attempt to herd them all to their respective dishes and special-diet foods although I am coffee-less and feel like I have telarañas en el cerebro, as my mami says.

Rusty, who is getting more ancient by the day, doesn't seem to know what to do with the plate of food in front of him. He stares at me, anxiously, as if asking me to remind him what he's supposed to do. Thus, I take a fork and fork-feed him his food, until he remembers how to do it himself (sans the fork, of course).

Uncharacteristically, Darwin doesn't want his food although I try two different kinds of canned food (truly the most expensive grocery item I buy, another proof of how I spoil these cat brats). He just won't eat what's in his plate. But, of course, he pushes Magellan off her plate because he wants to eat the exact same thing in hers.

I have to herd him away so she can finish eating and then I have to hide his mostly uneaten plate so she can't find it. Magellan, bulimic that she is, cannot eat too much food or she'll grace every other floor of the house with a disgusting pool of puke.

Meanwhile, Geni has scarfed down her food in record time, like we're never ever going to feed her again, and is looking yearningly at Rusty's still unfinished plate. She'll get to lick his, once he's done (well, once I'm done fork-feeding him). But she's overweight and has a pot belly so I have to make sure she doesn't eat like there's no tomorrow so that her no-tomorrow doesn't get here earlier rather than later.

To that end, the cat bowls have to be placed on top of one of the dining room side tables, so Geni can't eat what's left. Rusty also must be herded away from the cat bowls because his always hungry brain will lead him to eat all that the cats have rejected but his sensitive stomach will lead him to puke it up all up, in various disgusting pools located near or far Magellan's own.

No wonder my husband misses me so much (a little more than normal, I'd say) when I go visit my parents in Puerto Rico. Taking care of a herd of four animals, each with his or her own set of different needs, medications and instructions (and each equipped with a willful streak) is a full-time job, indeed.

Still, after breakfast, the dogs and I go on an extra-long walk and when I see Rusty's smiling, goofy face and see them bounding down the streets as they get to smell and mark spot after spot after spot, I feel infected with happiness, which I guess makes it all worthwhile. I imagine that's how mothers often feel about motherhood.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mission possible

Achieving what may sometimes seem impossible, or at least improbable, is a great feeling. I bet that for the crazy people who scale Everest or for the insane teams of Europeans who raced to be the first to plant their flags in the inhospitable Antarctica way back when (most of them perishing in the attempt), it's that rush of achievement, of winning against all odds, that makes those missions impossible so seductive.

My mission, to finish a 400-page dissertation and to become one of the handfuls of Latin@s (never mind Puerto Ricans) with a Ph.D. in the States (or anywhere else, for that matter), isn't as heroic or as insane as risking your life to be the first to do something globally amazing or life threatening.

But, today, as I've just typed the last page of a 105-page mamotreto that is the first chapter of the dissertation (but the second I have completed) I feel (a little) like someone who has scaled the highest mountain or has planted her flag on the sun (in a totally non-colonial way in my case, of course).

It's true that this is just a draft of what my department chair proudly described as a "phone book" back when it was 90 pages long. And it's true that this now goes to my advisor who will surely tear it to pieces and find all the places and ideas that need reworking, rethinking, or just plain discarding.

Still, right now I can feel every cell inside of me having a party. I can imagine my brain cells, which are especially exhausted, embracing each other and doing high-fives and loudly singing rancheras of victory.

I can actually hear those tiny cells in my brain singing that fabulous ranchera, "El rey," about an overly confident man who may have nothing, but still feels like a king.

Con dinero y sin dinero, hago siempre lo que quiero
y mi palabra es la ley.
No tengo trono, ni reina, ni nadie que me comprenda
pero sigo siendo el rey.

Una piedra en el camino, me enseñó que mi destino
era rodar y rodar, rodar, y rodar, rodar y rodar.
Después me dijo un arriero que no hay que llegar primero
pero hay que saber llegar.

I guess that's the greatest truth, no? You don't have to get there first, you just have to know how to get there.

Thus, today is a day I'm planting a small flag of victory on the map of my life. Or, at least, I am going to celebrate it as if I was "El rey." Technically, this means I am halfway done with my Monster. That, in turn, means that the fat lady is practicing her scales, getting to ready to sing.

And when she sings, she'll sing me a ranchera of victory. Soon enough, soon enough.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fat flakes of snow

This morning, as the dogs and I made our way through the streets of our college on the hill (it's just as much theirs now as it is mine because they've basically marked every nook and cranny of the place as theirs), fat flakes of snow began to drop on us from the sky.

When snowflakes are big and heavy they splatter, like the large drops of a tropical rain in the forest. The dogs prefer snow to rain, of course, because it takes longer to get them wet.

I remember when we first moved the dogs to Ohio and I was anxious to see how they would react to their first encounter with snow. Being island dogs, snow wasn't a thing that they'd ever even imagined. But when that first day came, shortly after they'd arrived here in February 2001, it was as if they'd known snow all their lives. It must be their wolf brains, surely, which remember snow, even when they'd lived all their lives as Caribbean dogs.

They're totally acclimated to Ohio winters by now. Well, except that Geni doesn't like it when little balls of snow wedge in her not-made-for-snow paws. If that happens, she just stops and sits, mid-walk, and raises her back leg (the one usually affected) to signal the need for one of us to get the little snow ball out so she can continue.

Their favorite pastime in late fall is to wade into large piles of dead leaves. They can't very well do that in our small city streets because those piles have meant someone has spent time and effort collecting all the leaves in a pile for removal. But here, in the forest on the side of the roads we walk on, they have free rein and can wade as long and as deep as they want.

When they do so, they look as if they're pretending that they're swimming. Rusty and Geni both hate water and wouldn't wade into the real thing if you paid them, but a lake of leaves is another thing altogether.

Rusty, especially, likes to wade in and mark almost every other dead leaf (I think leaves, like perfume bottles, must encapsulate smells better than bare ground does) and then do his Alpha dance. He scrapes his front and hind legs hard on the ground several times, scattering leaves everywhere, making chewing motions with his mouth and boasting a look that says, unequivocably:

"This here is all mine, mine! And you'd better believe it!"

Mid-November in the forest is still pretty. While most leaves have dropped and the ground is a carpet of yellows and browns there are still a few bushes near the back of my apartment whose leaves have turned from a dull green to a luminous yellowish pink. They lit up the landscape like lanterns, especially on a gray, cold day like today.

Now, back in the little apartment in the forest, the dogs are pooped and happy. Geni is curled up in her favorite spot, awaiting the warm throw rugs that are drying after their weekly washing. Rusty is cleaning his paws and doing other general grooming on his bed by the large red chair where I like to sit and read.

The walk done, the morning of a busy day stretching ahead of me, it's time to get back to the eternally pending business at hand and dissertate.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Memoirs

There's something sweet and sad about how Fall writes a memoir of its passing in leaf language.

Like the hand prints in cave paintings, the leaves leave an indelible imprint, a memoir, a recordatorio of their passing.

It's almost as if the leaves knew that their organic form becomes dust but that by sketching themselves on the pavement, they achieve momentary eternity.

Their ghostly outlines are heartbreaking in their perfection, in their promise.

I always thought New England falls were the best. But I have to say that Fall in Ohio is just as breathtaking.

As winter approaches, colors merge and greens and oranges and yellows blend into browns and purples and blacks.

Soon, the feast of colors will be over and we'll face the return of the long, long winter.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Disco Shakespeare

Midsummer's Night Dream is my least favorite Shakespeare play so when my husband informed me that we were going to attend a high school disco version, I nearly wept.

But we were going for a good cause. My husband's best friend's youngest son was playing Lysander and we attended in support of his art.

A month or so ago, I also attended my first ever Friday night high school football game to support this same kid's band performance at half-time, which was pretty nifty. The bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed cheerleaders were incredibly annoying, though, and my mumbled feminist critiques caused my husband to warn me that I was going to get us expelled from the game. While no such thing happened, I won't be going to any more high school football games. And I sure am glad that I don't have a high-school aged girl who wants to be a cheerleader.

Surprisingly, the play tonight was sometimes delightful. The play itself remains boring, stupid and long as hell, but the disco version was actually hilarious at moments and I couldn't help but remember with a certain degree of fondness my own stint as a disco queen when I was in college, a gazillion years ago.

And there was a lot of creativity in the idea of making Shakespeare more accessible by disco-izing him and it was obvious that the kids were having a ball. Some were actually excellent, including my husband's best friend's son, who acquitted himself admirably as a credible Lysander.

The drama teacher decided to keep Shakespeare's dialogue unmodernized, noting in the play's program that this was so because his words are "hallowed." But I found myself disagreeing somewhat. If you're going to modernize Shakespeare to the point that you set him to disco music, then keeping the Old English version seems contrived.

Plus, while some kids, like my husband's best friend's son, learned his lines well and enunciated them perfectly, other kids ran through Shakespeare's words like they were a foreign language, and they couldn't be understood, even when they were speaking English. One girl, who played one of the female leads, had a voice so high that we couldn't make out her lines.

"I think the bats are the only ones who can hear her," my husband's best friend said, and I concurred, thinking that the director should've helped her lower her voice a few notches, at the very least.

Being in a high school auditorium also reminded me of my high school graduation play, which I wrote and directed. I loved that experience and, because something was going on with our high school's auditorium (I think it was flooded after some heavy rains), we got to stage our play at the University of Puerto Rico theater. I was thrilled to direct my play in a real, wonderful theater, with as much mystique and beauty as that one has.

That was the last of my theater career, though. Well, the one on the actual stage. A lot of what I do as a teacher is theater, especially when I act out scenes of the books we read. I do modernize them a bit for my students, re-staging the dialogue as if the characters were contemporary people. My students crack up when I do that and it allows the actress in me a moment in the spotlight, so to speak.

Still, I won't go as far as teaching Jane Eyre or Heart of Darkness to a disco beat. I have to admit that while the idea of a Disco Shakespeare sounded preposterous at first, the actual event was a lot more fun than I thought. Kudos to the teacher who thought of setting Shakespeare to the beat of Donna Summer!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Indian trails

Biking on a perfectly maintained trail next to the quiet gurgling of a river with an Indian-sounding name on a perfect November day. That's how my husband and I spent most of our afternoon today and it was memorable.

When all was said and done, we'd biked almost 10 miles, which for most committed bikers is a pittance, but which for my motorcyclist husband (who didn't feel as in control of the much, much lighter two-wheel cousin of the motorcycle as he does on his almost 500-pound bike) and for absolutely non-athlete me, it was a true feat.

Near the end of our journey, my husband tackled one of the highest hills in my small college and waited for me at the very top while I walked, bike by my side, because there was no way in hell that my tired legs (or my less than capacious lungs) were going to pedal me up any hill at that point.

A bike borrowed from wonderfully friendly professor colleagues allowed my husband to enjoy one of the longest bicycle rides he's had in 20 years. As for me, my trusty $14 bike acquitted herself wonderfully in the endeavor, especially after my husband fitted it with a pretty new white basket where I carried my water bottle and, later, the few groceries we got after the ride at the village market for our dinner.

The trail, at the foot of the hill atop which the college sits, cuts through corn fields and nearly pristine tracts of land and was built on top of what used to be the railroad's right of way in another century. There are still old wood telegraph wire poles along the trail, which are spooky in their ancientness.

Because of the Indian-sounding name of the river, I thought we were surely on what used to be Indian lands and at the end of the trail my conjectures were confirmed when a large sign explains that the area was known as "Little Indian Fields" because it was first populated by the indigenous settlers of this land. The marker, of course, does not mention those indigenous peoples by name or nation, but does provide the names of the first Euroamerican settlers and the dates in which they arrived.

I shuddered a little because I thought I could feel the presence of those gone by so long ago, especially in the eerie silence of the trail, where not even the river or the birds (except for the loud-mouthed crow, of course) or the wind riffling through the trees could be heard.

By the time we made it back to the apartment, which is on top of another hill, our legs were sore and pulsating with the effort and we were both winded and exhilarated (although I had gotten a little whiny earlier when my husband decided to take the longer way home).

Tonight, during a college-wide activity (to which we drove), a professor colleague told us that the trail goes for another 8 miles in the opposite direction.

"You should do that next," he said.

"I could never do that!" I exclaimed.

"Sure you could!" he answered.

While I do appreciate his vote of confidence (since it would be 16 miles round trip), I'm definitely going to wait until my muscles have forgotten this bicycle ride before I embark on the next one. Although, now that I've had some time to rest, it sure does sound like a great idea.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shades of winter

Today, as the dogs and I made our way back to my college on the hill, our little car was pelted several times with the first snow showers of the year, that strange mix of rain and snow that is neither and it's both.

I'm good about soldiering on and facing whatever comes, not wanting to waste time with melancholia or wishful thinking. But there's something about those first few flurries and snow showers on a gray November day that basically sets the tone for the next four long months of winter.

And there's something about winter that invites my Caribbean soul to yearn.

Still, snow showers isn't snow. And 30-degree weather, which has set the old heaters in this small apartment to groaning, like old men being woken up from slumber, isn't minus-15 or minus-20.

So I'm not complaining (really, I'm not).

Today, and appropriately so for November, we had our first shades of winter. But, heck, there's still plenty of colored leaves on the trees (more still on the trees than on the ground). Not for long, though.

Thus, I say Fall ain't over until Winter's fat lady sings and all the leaves fall off the trees in one fell swoop.

Monday, November 5, 2007

On intellectual honesty

Birthday celebrations are finally over (well, nearly) and my mami is back in our tropical patria so I've spent the past two days ensconced down here, in my little basement office, typing away and producing what I hope will be about 45 pages of new, field-expanding work.

What I'm working on now will be added to another 40 or so pages already in existence to finalize the first chronological chapter of my Monster but the second chapter I'll have finished so far this year.

The more I work on this, the more I wish I was faster, smarter, clearer, sharper in my thinking and my writing. The words fail me or repeat themselves annoyingly or play tricks on me and say what I don't mean and mean what I don't say.

But I know that the important thing is to force those little black letters to make their indelible marks on the paper. Once that is achieved on my part, the process of revision and consultation with my committee will take its course. The excellence, if it's there (and I sure am flexing my brain muscles hard to that end), will shine through eventually.

Right now, the words, the thoughts, the creativity needs to get on the page or else all the thinking and pondering and reading is pretty much worthless. I've come to realize that it doesn't matter how excited I am about my project, if it doesn't make it onto the page, if I don't force myself to give up "Heroes" and "Journeyman" and even "Ugly Betty," so that I can sit my ass on this chair for hours on end, it's as if what I have to say didn't actually exist.

And I want it to exist, I will it to exist. I want my Monster to see the light, to come alive, to breathe and to scream a los cuatro vientos that I have created Her. I want my Monster to -- as I hope it will -- rock my field and serve to place my name among those who are thought to have something interesting and new to say.

I remember once being surprised when someone described me as "driven." At this moment, I really appreciate that I learned early on in my life to be driven and, later in life, how to be driven in a good way. Unlike my driven youth, when I was trying to achieve impossible perfection, I don't obsess and give up all pleasure or make the Monster my Calvary. Now, being driven means knowing when to work and when to play, although most of my play time now is for shorter periods of time and the greatest of play times is being postponed until next year.

After my defense in June 2008, I'm going to learn quilting, and photography, and I'm going to get myself to a spa in the desert and get a hot stone massage. How different my life is going to be, I told my husband last night, when my dissertation isn't always pending, and hanging over me, and when I'm not always working on it to get it finished.

That's when my husband said he admired me (very high praise from him, indeed) because I work so hard every day. "That's a good thing about both of us," he said. "We're both intellectually honest. We mean what we say and we act on the things we say."

Neither of us understands people who say they believe in something or describe themselves as a certain kind of person but then their actions point to the complete opposite of what they say.

At any rate, I like to see myself in those terms, as intellectually honest. And, honestly, as much as I have a passion for teaching, I also have profound love for sitting here and putting my thoughts on paper and for getting my intellectual gears churning. It's not that I don't find ways to procrastinate -- heck, I even scrubbed the tub yesterday (which I absolutely hate doing) rather than come back downstairs -- but I won't allow distraction to prevail.

I definitely look forward to the day (sooner rather than later, I hope!) when I don't have my Monster hanging over me. But something tells me that I might just miss the darned thing. After all, it sure has a way of making an honest woman out of me these days.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

One of the finest ever

Yesterday's Halloween was among the finest I've had in recent memory.

Unlike previous years, when I've bought industrial quantities of candy to feed the mobs of children and adolescents who invade our small city streets on Halloween, this year my mami, my husband and I dispensed a small, sane amount of candy to the handfuls of tiny tots who prowled the outskirts of my small college on the hill.

Because of its miniature scale, the experience was even more delightful. Our neighbor's little girl, dressed as a pumpkin, kept coming over to ogle and point at my large, orange, electrically illuminated pumpkin, which glowed in the window as darkness fell.

She also pointed to one of my candle-lit luminaria, which has the smiling face of a friendly white ghost. When her mother asked her what ghosts say, she puckered her lips to whisper the cutest "boo" I've ever heard.

Kids dressed in all kinds of costumes came by -- a Ninja, a Spiderman, a Dragon who refused to wear his dragon head and his friend, the Knight, and a Piglet who spoke Spanish and asked us to comment on her pretty, shiny bracelet.

"Estoy muy elegante," she said, as her mother -- who is a colleague in Spanish -- my mami and I did all we could to stop ourselves from laughing too loud at her self-assurance and her obviously eccentric sense of fashion given that she was dressed in a pink-and-white outfit with ears and a glowing green necklace.

Another set of kids came by and they were all dressed as various kinds of dead people. When I complimented one on his white-faced spookiness, his friend came up to me and said, with pride: "I'm a dead soccer player!"

When they had moved on, my husband wondered just which soccer player he had in mind...

After they'd visited the other apartments in the complex, one kid from that group came back toward us bellowing in a clear tone of indignation: "Don't go to that apartment, all they gave me was a banana! Can you believe it? A banana!"

"That's good for you," my mami, true to form, pointed out.

"You can use it with your breakfast tomorrow," I said, thinking that he could have it with cereal.

"I have eggs and bacon for breakfast!" he said, obviously clueless as to what he could possibly do with the banana.

After about an hour of dolling out candy and greeting colleagues and neighbors, the trick-or-treaters were gone and another Halloween was about to end. Not so soon, though, since I dragged my poor husband and a student up to the south side of the campus to hear the security staff tell ghost stories over a camp fire and hot chocolate and apple cider.

The stories were spooky, the night was windy and perfectly eerie, and we were all appropriately creeped out (well, at least I was and so was the student, as she told me today) when we made our way home late that night.

I didn't have a very restful sleep since I kept praying that no ghosts would show up to visit and then chastised myself for thinking that way (since there's no better way to summon a ghost than to wish it wasn't near you). But it made Halloween appropriately Halloweeny.

As Halloweens go, this one was one of the finest ever. That shouldn't be surprising, though. Another student told me today that this small college on the hill is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the U.S. No wonder...

Monday, October 29, 2007

Milestones

Today, I finally turned 46. And the earth didn't quake. The seas didn't part. The moon didn't fall from the sky. Actually, the whole day didn't look or feel much unlike the day before. That's a very good thing, for sure.

This year I asked my husband not to give me a present. I already have so much that it seemed selfish to ask for anything else. Still, he got me a cute wood carving of a black bear, like the ones I'd fallen in love with in Montana during an anniversary visit a few years back. Although I generally dislike surprises, this one was a very good one. The black bear now sits proudly in our living room, mystifying my mami who just doesn't see the point to it.

This evening, after I'd worked most of the day on my Monster, my mami, my husband and I went to dinner to a nearby restaurant. My mami told us the story of how she decided to have me without painkillers. Way back then, in 1961, she was one of the first women in Boston to follow a natural birth trend that was only just beginning to catch on.

I was in awe as I heard her tell how she repeatedly refused the anesthesia that her woman gynecologist (another unusual first for 46 years ago!) and the nurses offered her at crucial intervals. Unafraid but bothered by the screaming women around her, my mami asked to be moved to another part of the delivery room where she wouldn't have to hear the moans and groans and screams of other women.

"I told them that I was having a natural birth and all those women were eventually going to get anesthesia," my mami said. "I wasn't afraid, but their constant screams were making me worried that perhaps I should be screaming, too!"

No wonder, I thought, I am a mujer de armas tomar, or a flaming sword, like Dr. S says. At 23, my mother, so young when she had me, her first born, was already fearless. She has always been fearless. No wonder, I thought. That's where I get it, fair and square. Lo que se hereda no se hurta, as we say.

Along with my mami's stories today was a day of calls and e-mails from my papi, my brother, my sister, my friends, even my students. A day to be thankful that so much love surrounds me. A day to be thankful that I am healthy and that I can not only feel but appreciate and return the love that is given me.

Today, I finally turned 46, and as the day's night comes to a close, there is only one overwhelming feeling in me, a feeling that mixes both gratitude and joy, like bright colors in a palette. Gracias a la vida por darme tanto, tanto.

Bring on 47. I await with bated breath.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Promises to keep

On my last day of being 45, my mami (who is visiting for my birthday), my husband and I went hiking at a regional park that's (appropriately) about 45 minutes away.

We all wanted to enjoy the last weekend of peak colors in this area before the forecast first frost tonight denudes the trees.

Walking through the woods, we were reminded of Robert Frost's famous poem about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening. It wasn't snowing or evening, more like an early fall afternoon, so the woods weren't dark, but they were lovely and deep.

My husband told the story of how Frost was once asked by a scholar about his decision to repeat the line: "And miles to go before I sleep," at the close of the poem.

"Was that to underline the fleetingness of life and the impending march toward death?" the scholar asked Frost.

The room fell silent as everyone awaited Frost's answer, as if an Oracle were to speak.

"I needed another rhyme to end the poem," Frost is reputed to have said, matter-of-factly.

There is nothing more matter-of-fact than the woods.


The hike, which took us through on a path much-taken alongside old oaks that towered toward the white puffy clouds and young sugar maples festooned in their cotton-candy colors, offered surprise after surprise of sunlit greens and fiery yellows and flamboyant oranges, all rippling in the shadows of dappled sunshine.

My mami pointed to a sign, in front of a grove of sugar maples, which said the trees were young, at age 60-something.

"That's a good attitude to have," my mami said.

"I'll think of myself as being young, like a sugar maple," I determined.

The canvas against which the trees painted themselves was an azure-bright sky. The canvas against which the forest sketched itself was greyish-black.

After about an hour of feasting our eyes and our senses in the quietude of the woods, the path ended. Our hike over, we were reminded that we all had promises to keep, and miles to go before bedtime.

It was time to return home just as sun began its slow descent into sleep.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Transformations

The small college on the hill has effected an unexpected transformation in me.

From a typical Puerto Rican who drove herself everywhere in my little car around this miniature town, thereby incurring the derision of my environmentally and walking-minded husband, I've become a committed cyclist.

Since I bought the bike at a yard sale and my husband refurbished it, the bycicle has spent most of its life in the garage or the basement, likely itching to be taken out for a ride but never getting the chance. I bet it's very happy now that it goes out almost daily.

I must say that the transformation feels really good, and not just for the bike.

I love parking the car and leaving it in the same spot for days while I traipse around campus and The Village in my trusty $14 bike, goofy black helmet and all. I joke with my husband that, given my renowned klutziness, I hope I don't end up on the front cover of the student newspaper as the professor who managed to crash her bike onto a tree.

With that concern (and self-knowledge) in mind, I am extra careful when cycling and I take roads that aren't the most frequented by students so that if I have a percance it won't be one that's particularly public. And I always bring my cellphone, too.

This morning, I packed up my backpack and biked to a meeting, then I biked to the post office to mail something for Dr. S, from there I walked across the street to the bookstore where the cashier saw my biking helmet and praised me for being environmentally friendly, then I biked to my office, then to the library (which is awesome because I can actually leave the bike right in front of the building), then back to my office, then back here to my dogs in the apartment in the woods.

My legs are so tired after all that hill climbing that I'm staying home for the night, eschewing yoga for rest on the couch and reading (with the Red Sox's game as background music, of course). But I'm already sorry that tomorrow the forecast is for rain because I won't be doing any cycling then. Instead, I'll have to recur to the hooded and heated shelter of my little car.

I do hope the good fall weather lasts a long time so I can continue enjoying the cool breeze on my face, the physical workout and the rush of going at 15 mph speeds (downhill, of course) that cycling offers me. Wow, talk about transformations of the nunca es tarde cuando la dicha es buena kind.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Perspective

Yesterday, a colleague from my college on the hill ran the Columbus Marathon. By a matter of seconds, her time wasn't good enough to qualify her, as she wished, for the Boston Marathon. But my husband and I were in awe at the athlete-strong time she finished this race with.

The night before, after going with a group of other colleagues to enjoy a wonderful performance of Ballet Met's Dracula (which is worth coming to Columbus just for that October treat), my marathoner colleague spent the night at our city home. We were up before dawn on Sunday so I could drive her to the nearby start of the 26-mile-plus race.

Once the event started, my husband, who ran a marathon at age 40, suggested that we walk to a spot in our small city where the marathoners would be running by so we could cheer her on. We leashed the dogs and set off at a fast pace but the marathon website was way behind in keeping track of her progress. By the time we got there we realized she had long passed us.

As I saw the hundreds of people racing by, I felt a little like weeping. With some surprise, I realized that I wanted to weep a little for myself, because I won't be running a marathon. The feeling lasted only for a few seconds and it's one of those rare moments of self pity I permit myself in a year.

More than a decade of near-experimental levels of medication to combat an evil disease took their expected toll and the bones in my knees have dead spots, which led my doctor to ban me from running. That was two years ago, when I was running up to 10 to 12 miles a week. Oh, well, as I say. I only have to remind myself that I am a medical miracle to place everything quickly into perspective.

Mostly, when I saw the runners pass us by, I wanted to weep a little for them, for the sheer physical heroics of the deed. Human heroics always make me want to shed tears (as does any animal show, too).

On the way home my husband re-told the funny (well, funny now) stories of what happened during his race, which I missed because I was home recovering from major surgery. Later, once we figured out when my colleague would be finished, I set off for the marathon finish line to meet her.

After some difficulty because of closed off streets and no available parking, I finally was able to edge my way to the finish line. Any encounter seemed miraculous because of the throngs of people that were there, but we finally met up. She was, as expected, in pain and exhausted, but she was alright, if much disappointed that she hadn't reached her goal for Boston.

Most of all, she was thankful and appreciative as she leaned on me for support and we walked slowly and gingerly back to the car. She had no family or close friends here for the marathon, so we were her stand-ins. My husband always says that complete strangers made him feel welcome in all of the Latin American countries he's visited, so he was glad we could pay it forward. I was glad, too, although it meant giving up a chunk of my precious dissertation-writing time.

As for my colleague, a tri-athlete who also cycles competitively, this was her sixth marathon. On the way home, I tried to cheer her up by putting things in perspective, reminding her of all that she has accomplished. But I don't think I did much good. And I can understand.

Ultimately, perspective is personal. For me, getting 3rd place in a 5K two years ago was the pinnacle of my physical achievement. For a sixth-time marathoner, who's already run Boston once, getting there a second time is the zenith.

I do admire her discipline and her perseverance and the fact that, on top of being a serious and successful scholar, she also trains herself as an athlete. She was sorry she didn't achieve what she set out to do but she didn't strike me as the kind of person who wallows in defeat. I was impressed with her resilience and her aplomb. And I got the sense that she was able to put things in perspective, finally.

A marathoner friend of hers, who was running the 26 miles despite a long-ago injured knee, almost didn't finish and told her, when they re-connected over the phone, that he had to walk backwards to the finish line to manage the feat. When she left our house, she was on her way to his house to cheer him up.

There's nothing better to take us outside of ourselves than to help others, and there's always someone out there who needs our support. Taking action outside of and unrelated to our selves, especially when it's not convenient for us, is the true value of perspective.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Leaves of color

These days, I like to get up close and personal with trees.

My favorite past time is
walking under a blazing maple and looking up.

It's like being in a Wonderland of Color.

It makes me want to giggle and twirl.


Getting up close and personal with leaves is also good.



They don't mind it.

They sway in the cool breeze and whisper.


They're not self-conscious about their radiant beauty.


And they're all together, regardless of creed or color.


Even looking at the ground is fun.

An embarassment of colors


Yesterday was one of the most beautiful days of fall I've had the fortune of seeing.

Thus, my husband and I took my little digital camera and we walked a few miles around my college on the hill, searching for color.

And we found it everywhere!


The sun was high and bright and the sky shone brilliantly blue. All the colors we saw were in sharp relief, almost neon-like in their radiance.


The blacks were blacker, the greens greener, the yellows and oranges sparkled, and the reds - oh, the reds! my very favorites - were blazing.

Even the shadows glimmered.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Safe - Part 2

Today I made a return of a kind. I returned to yoga.

After so many weeks (8 to be precise) of always having something to do on a Thursday evening, I finally organized myself well enough to leave the late afternoon class time open. And so I went to yoga. Hatha yoga, nonetheless. Once more, with feeling, as my mami would say.

My history with yoga is uneven, at best. Although I've tried to become a committed yogi, going two and three times a week to a yoga center and taking on Ashtanga with the same wide-eyed-and-bushy-tailed enthusiasm with which I embark on all my projects, all I got was muscle pains and sprains and the unshakable feeling that I was too short, too stumpy and too awkward to ever be a good yogi.

Plus, since I'm always living five years ahead of myself (in my mind's eye I'm already Dr. G and only months away from celebrating tenure), this "be in the moment" philosophy is basically alien to my psychic constitution.

I much more preferred trotting on the elliptical machine or cycling my heart out on an indoor bike or going to a choreographed weight-training class. But since I haven't been able to go to the gym for a while, I decided I'd try yoga again. Also, since a colleague teaches the class, I thought it would be supportive of me to go (and I was the only faculty member there, so I was glad for that).

Actually, I'm very glad for all of it. She is a careful teacher, who spends time explaining poses so one doesn't end up injured and hurting, and her pace was good. Maybe not as frantic as the Jane Fonda-aerobics-craze-trained part of me would like, but then, frantic isn't yoga, right?

The best part was that I rode my trusty old bike to the athletic center, riding up and down the hills of my small college on the hill (well, some hills I had to walk up, to tell the truth) and I arrived home sweaty, red in the face and exhilarated, and pretty relaxed (well, for me) after the yoga class.

The rains cleared out, the afternoon was gorgeous, the windows are open and the dogs and I are expecting my husband who's coming to visit. Could a day be any better? Not this day.