Sunday, September 30, 2007

War zone

Last night, I was in a war zone. An indistinct one, perhaps Kosovo, perhaps somewhere else.

I was among a group of observers who had come to this unnamed country to do something unspecified with the self-assurance that it would be obvious that we were not part of the "bad guys," who supported the war.

Our collective naivete became immediately apparent when we got caught in a crossfire. As we rushed into cars that were to drive us out of the war zone, I wondered about the mortars being fired left and right.

"How will it feel if the car gets hit? Will I be blissfully oblivious or will there be a split second of reckoning and pain?"

In my dream, my almost-nightmare, I hoped for the former.

In an instant, we were out of the car and running through the streets of a city, pursued by those who were intent on making war upon us, the innocent ones.

Homemade grenades were lobbed and, unbelieving, I felt one fall, as things happen in dreams, inside my shirt and through my skirt (now who gets into a war zone in a skirt, pray tell?).

I asked my husband, or perhaps someone else: "How long do I have to get this off me?" Then I thought, better stop talking and get it done fast. So I did and I threw the explosive back in the direction of our pursuers.

Another grenade was thrown our way but we left it behind, as we ran and ran, faster than I remember ever running in real life.

When I awoke, my heart racing, I was eternally grateful that instead of in a war zone, I was safe, besides my husband, in my bed.

A Dream Reader I knew long ago told me that the important thing about nightmares was not how scary they were but their actual outcome and the resulting feeling we are left with after they're gone. She taught me that dreams are the messages we send ourselves about our selves, in code, so deciphering them is important.

"If in the nightmare you face up to the problem and solve it, that's a good thing," she would say, regardless of how bad the dream had been. "It's when you're overwhelmed within the nightmare or you feel powerless that you need to pay special attention to what's going on in your life."

I guess everything is alright then because I handled the situation in my war zone as best I could and never felt that I couldn't deal with what was going on, however bizarre.

My friend TK tells of the strange dreams she had while writing her dissertation, including shooting one of her committee members with a tater tot. My war zone wasn't remotely funny, like that, but I'm going to read the dream as a subconscious vote of confidence and peg it on dissertation-writing time.

But the dream also works well as a perspective check to remind me that none of the challenges I might face can ever be compared to living in an actual war zone, like so many people in our planet do every day.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Men 'o pause

Menopause is a type of insanity. A functional one, but a little insanity nonetheless.

Mine came about a decade early and while I'm past the typical hot flashes and other humiliating aspects of The Change, as it's euphemistically called in gringo culture, the crankiness remains in high gear a lot of the time. And for no valid reason at all, since my life couldn't be more perfect and more satisfying. It almost seems disloyal to my life to be so cranky so often.

I've recently sort of come to terms with the fact that I'm really not in control here, that there's someone else steering the vessel, so to speak, and it's my insane hormones. It's not easy to accept the fact that my friggin' hormones have thrown my female body into a maelstrom. It really goes against the total-control freak in me. But this is one fight I don't think I can win.

I've taken out book after book after book from the public library, looking for answers and I've basically come up with one realization: I'm just going to have to ride this one through.

"How long does menopause last?" my beleaguered husband asked me this afternoon.

"Until I'm past fifty," I said, pouting.

"Five more years of this!" he exclaimed, unbelieving. Then, only half in jest he wondered if he'd be able to survive it that long.

I guess menopause is well named because it does give men a lot of pause when dealing with women in the throes of its irrationality. But the library books promise great things to come (none of which I'm too clear about) so I'm going to try to be my erstwhile bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed self about this and ride it out and trust that the best is coming (although the cranky, menopausal part of me doesn't really believe that).

Maybe menopause is the female way of raging against the dying of the light. Not that I feel like my light is dying, by any means. But this must be that time when the body realizes that an important corner has been turned and that the slope going down might be shorter than the one we've taken to come up.

As for me, I present myself to the universe, men 'o pausing crankiness and all, and say "Bring it on." I just hope that my husband, who forever will be the best thing that ever happened to me, sees the next five years as a Zen-like and saint-in-training exercise in patience. God help me, that's all I can do!

Friday, September 28, 2007

The path least taken

On this perfect fall morning at the college on the hill, the dogs and I took a path we hadn't explored before and, for a while, the moon came along with us.

The white-yellow sun crept behind us and as he rose, slowly, he ignited the highest tops of the trees in hues of fire, like daytime corporsants. The air, finally seasonably brisk, was quiet and sleepy and not yet ready to stir.

But I was surprised to see the full moon shining, like a sparkling brooch on the breast of the baby-blue sky, with the dark dusty oceans of her surface showing clearly on her face. For a while, she walked beside us, we grounded and she aloft, on our newly discovered path.

When we turned a corner, she vanished and couldn't be found again, as if she'd intended to play a game of hide-and-seek with us all along. I enjoyed her briefest of companies and hope to catch up with her again some other appropriately brisk fall morning when we both walk the path least taken.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cross-species communication

Last evening, as the dogs and I walked around the outskirts of our college on the hill, we came upon the family of deer that we know and that know us.

Again, two of them made as if to come toward us, a large doe and her fawn, although I think the latter was just literally following in his/her mother's footsteps. Rusty and Geni were riveted, ears cocked, goofy-dog-looks on high, tongues hanging and much yelping and jumping and pulling at their leashes as the strange and beautiful large-dog-looking creatures continued to approach.

It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the doe wasn't approaching, as I've been thinking, out of curiosity and desire to engage in cross-species communication. Instead, perhaps she approaches us with every intention of charging us and ridding herself and her baby of our impending threat. This, I realized, would be unlikely, but ultimately possible. And leave it to me to be the one to run into the one assertive doe out there, for sure.

Thus, I decided to stop looking directly at her and to move sideways away, trying to convey through my movements at least (the dogs just wanted off leash so they could chase the strange and beautiful large-dog-looking creatures back into the forest) that we were absolutely no threat. The change in demeanor and direction stopped her in her tracks and she simply observed us warily for a few minutes.

Then, the other fawn, smaller and more of a scaredy cat (or perhaps simply smarter in evolutionary terms) than his/her cousin or sibling, bounded into the woods with his/her mom hot in pursuit. My doe looked our way one more time and then followed her sister, followed closely by her kid.

There was no calming the dogs, who kept excitedly smelling every spot they found on our walk that offered an interesting odor, seemingly memorizing the difference between dog and deer smell and pondering the difference.

But I learned my lesson. Next time I see the family of deer that we know and that know us, I'll make sure not to romanticize the possibility of some kind of cross-species communication. Instead, I'll remember that if I were that wild doe, I'd be more than ready to attack the human and her strange little-deer-looking creatures at any hint that my kid was in danger.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Last night, I took a break from dissertating to take a class at Harvard, from my very comfy seat here in my basement study.

In a true stroke of genius and technological wizardry, my Alma Mater has made available to alumni, free of charge, online access to the understandably famous undergraduate class by Prof. Michael J. Sandel, titled "Justice."

Facing hundreds of students at the dark and medieval Sanders Theater, Prof. Sandel looked more like an actor delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy than a professor trying to keep his students awake. And he had no trouble doing that.

Cameras panned through his audience, who was riveted and spellbound by Prof. Sandel's engaging teaching style and commanding presence (Oh, what a good suit and tie will do for a man, too!). Plus, they were taking frantic notes, which is always a good sign.

I also was spellbound and taking notes. And not just notes about what he was saying but how he was saying it. That's because I could imagine myself sometime in the future delivering a lecture like that (although at my college on the hill I'll likely never have more than 30 or 40 students in a lecture). But the art of lecturing to an overflowing auditorium is one I saw in action many times at Harvard, and one which I would like to try my hand at sometime in the future.

Listening to Prof. Sandel for about 30 minutes, I learned about consequential and categorical moral philosophy and about the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant's belief in "the restlessness of reason." In explaining to the students the style and purpose of his course, Prof. Sandel inadvertently explained to me the political philosophy that undergirds my own teaching.

I'm not saying I'm at the level of Prof. Sandel by any stretch of the imagination. And that's totally cool with me. I know I have miles to go before I sleep on my laurels and I like that feeling. I don't ever want to feel arrived. I always want to be in mental motion, learning, changing, being challenged and stretched beyond my boundaries and capabilities.

I inherit not only the love of teaching but that unquenchable thirst for knowledge and that appreciation for being an eternal student from my parents. My father reads book after book after book every day of his life and my mother is also always reading and surfing the web and finding new things she wants to learn about and do.

Like Sandel, I believe that education (although he was referring to political philosophy in particular) should be an "exercise in self-knowledge" and one that "unsettles us." I also agree with Prof. Sandel that once we've been unsettled by knowledge, we can never go back to the moment of innocence, we can never unknow what we know.

Frederick Douglass said it best when he noted how he sometimes felt that learning to read "had been a curse rather than a blessing." For Douglass, reading:

had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit [of slavery], but to no ladder upon which to get out. In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every object within sight or hearing, animate or inanimate. The silver trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.

That's exactly how unsettling learning should be, it should give us all an irreversible taste of what freedom of the mind feels like. This thirst for freedom in thought (and, consequentially, in body as well) should be, to paraphrase Douglass, something that looks at us from every star and smiles at us in every calm; something that we feel breathing in every wind and moving in every storm.

Way back when I was a rookie at this I started my teaching philosophy by stating that "I teach freedom in my classroom." Snickering a bit unkindly, my graduate professor told me to take that out because it could be misinterpreted politically since "freedom" has so many connotations and denotations in U.S. culture. I did as she suggested but the feeling behind the statement remains fundamentally true.

Like Prof. Sandel, I set out to rock my students' world, to give them the tools to unbind their minds from any shackles that may keep them bound. But I also seek to rock my own world through them, through what my students learn and teach me in the process.

I can't wait to be unsettled and unbound and to have the map of my world expanded in the coming weeks as I sit in this chair and watch Prof. Sandel ignite the hearts and minds of his students, including mine.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sundays at home

Sundays at home are my most cherished luxury. It's a tradition I learned in childhood, when my parents would eschew any event or plan or outing in favor of staying home on Sundays and taking it easy.

They still do that so I come by it honestly. My mami always had a way of making Sundays special. I remember how she would cook fabulously tasty Italian dishes on Sundays. I especially recall her manicotti with ricotta cheese (or what I now think must have been ricotta), which were spectacular.

Sundays also was the day for all five of us to watch TV together. I recall the not-very-exciting evenings of watching operas in the little black and white TV in the back first-floor room of our house behind the hospital.

Sundays also was the day for Masterpiece Theater, which taught me most of the English I knew up to the time I went to college at 16. As I've mentioned before, Allistair Cooke's accent did a lot for my subconscious amor of English accents.

And Sunday was also the day for the National Geographic specials, which I looked forward to with almost as much anticipation as Christmas. The specials were always thrilling and I still remember the music associated with them and the ads for the company of furgones which underwrote the program in Puerto Rico.

Sundays nowadays is the day my parents order "take out" from their favorite seafood restaurant located on a busy city street, near their apartment. My mami calls in their choices (they know the menu by heart) and picks it up and I delight in hearing what they had for lunch when we talk on the phone. I know it's delicious, since I've been to the restaurant, so I can enjoy their lunch vicariously.

Sundays also is the day when I talk to my parents on the phone and has been so since I left home for college. That Sunday tradition has remained basically uninterrupted for nearly 30 years.

Thanks to my parents' example, I know how to enjoy a lazy Sunday. Not that I've been lazy, mind you, since I'm almost constitutionally incapable of that. But the pace of my Sundays is much slower and less agenda-driven than my weekdays, or even Saturdays.

Today, I walked the dogs in the late morning, cooked myself a good breakfast of scrambled eggs (which I never do), worked on my dissertation, cleaned the upstairs of the house, took a short nap, read several dissertation-related materials, read all the newspapers for last week and for today, and cooked myself a quick and surprisingly delicious Trader Joe's chicken burger before I cooked my hard-working husband a black bean frittata. The poor man spent the day away from home doing work-work at a motorcycle event.

Thus, it's not like I had a lazy Sunday. But, like most Sundays, I did what I did at a lower speed and led more by what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, rather than by I had to get done by a particular time.

I do so love my Sundays at home. I'm glad I decided to postpone for tomorrow the several errands I have to do before returning to the college on the hill this week. Slowing down isn't something I'm good at, but Sundays always give me the best excuse to get better at it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Of life and death

Four tit mice, 2 chickadees and 2 nuthatches. That's the sum total of birds that have been eating seeds at my window this morning. While they are busy getting their nourishment, flitting in and out of the woods to momentarily stare at me with curiosity before disappearing, I've been busy getting ready to return to our city home.

It's cleaning day at the apartment. Now that the throw rugs are washed, the carpets have been twice vacuumed and deodorized, and the tile floors are sparkling like new, I can sit down and take a break before finalizing all of the packing of totes and getting of car and ushering of dogs and filling up of car and getting on the road.

Earlier this morning, as my husband and I walked the dogs, we came upon a dead cat in the parking lot, one we hadn't seen at that spot the previous evening when we returned from walking the dogs before bedtime. We couldn't figure out what had caused its untimely death but we knew that we couldn't leave it where it was. Not only would it start rotting soon in the expected heat of the day, but the posses of crows that patrol the area would soon make use of it and not in a pleasant way for human eyes.

We borrowed a shovel and my husband buried the cat in the woods, placing a large dead trunk on top of the spot where it now lies. "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes," I murmured, as my husband climbed back up the ravine and got ready to go.

"I hope tomorrow is a day I don't have to bury anyone," he said.

"Who did you bury yesterday?" I asked, foolishly.

"My grand-aunt," he reminded me.

My husband came to visit us last night straight after her funeral. His grand-aunt was a lovely old widow, who during her life rescued an inordinate amount of animals and who always had a kind word and thought for everyone around her. Having no children of her own, she loved my husband dearly and he attended to her with the same care and love that he bestows on his grandmothers.

When I came into the family, his grand-aunt made a point to always remember my birthday and sent me a card every year to Puerto Rico and then here in Ohio, until she was too frail and ill to do so. She also included a little present in her cards. I always appreciated the thoughtfulness and the desire to make me feel appreciated that led her to go through all that needless trouble. I surely didn't expect such attentions from her. They were always a pleasant and sweet surprise.

I guess life and death are inevitable parts of each day we spend on this earth. But some days we are reminded of this truth more sharply than in others.

As I get ready to go home with the doggies, I like to think that my husband's grand-aunt, and even the big cat we just buried, are now happy in whatever place awaits all souls beyond this often bittersweet one.

Friday, September 21, 2007


This morning, as I sat watching the news before the clock struck 7 and the dogs awaited my command to take off in search of deer tracks, I heard emergency sirens wailing in the distance.

The city part of my brain said, "Oh, sure." But the more awake part of me remembered: "No, wait, we're not in the city. We're in the boonies!"

The sound of sirens wailing close enough to hear here means that something not-so-good is happening to someone in The Village. Oh, oh. I hope it was nothing as bad as all the ruckus suggested and I hope to find out once I'm in town in a few hours.

For my part, I'm glad that there's nothing close to an emergency here this morning. A piece of charred salmon I had for lunch at a village eatery yesterday didn't settle well with me so I wasn't too happy for most of the afternoon and early evening. Thankfully, by bedtime, all was well again.

My husband tells the tale of how, when he was younger, he went camping and took as provisions a slightly past best-by-this-date ham his dad gave him from the garage freezer. He ate the ham and promptly became sick. But after he'd puked his heart out, he was hungry again. I've always said that what would land anyone else in the hospital, is a simple nuisance to my husband. He has the health of an Arabian horse. God bless him.

I, with a less sturdy constitution (albeit an iron will) and several dietary restrictions, am very careful what I eat and where I eat it. Needless to say, I won't be having any salmon at that eatery again ever. But all is well that ends well, I say.

I was sorry that it was the lunch that didn't agree with me because we had gone there to celebrate the birthday of one of my former students, who is now the department's student assistant, who turned 19. The lunch itself was fun but the aftermath precluded my having a piece of the beautiful cake that the department administrator had procured for the birthday girl as a lovely surprise. But, again, it's not like I need any cake, so that's also not a bad thing.

But to add insult to injury, once I returned home looking forward to enjoying the quietude of my little apartment and the company of my peludos, my one-year-old laptop finally gave up the ghost. It refused to boot up even in Safe Mode. That's a Bad sign, with a capital b, indeed.

After tinkering with the laptop for a while, I decided that I had to go get my school laptop if I wanted to be able to finish my work for the night. Thus, I got Rusty in the car and drove less than a mile to my office. Rusty, of course, will volunteer for any adventure that involves getting in the car, so he was his goofy-looking-dog self not caring that we're not in the business of leaving our apartment after 9 o'clock at night.

Once I brought the school laptop home and got it to work, after another hour or so, all was well again, especially since my husband also called to say that he'd arrived safely from a work trip and was home with the very happy kitties.

While some days may start with the disturbing sounds of unusual disruption, or may hold disruption in their midst, I am truly grateful that all days, good and bad, do pass. And that all is well that ends well.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I'm not sure about the spelling, but that's the term my husband says his father used to describe those drivers who'll go below the speed limit, slowing everyone behind them in the process.

Yesterday, as I was driving to my college on the hill with the dogs, with not a lot of time to spare before I had to be ready to teach my class, I swear I ended up behind every single piddlydonker in America (and I'm speaking hemispherically).

One slow driver isn't too much of a challenge, since the several two-way country roads that I must take after leaving the four-lane highway have passing areas, and my salsa red Scion is ready and able to pass the piddlydonkers.

But when a caravan of six piddlydonkers, one right after another, looms ahead of you on a no-passing two-way road there's nothing to do but rage against the fates (and piddlydonkers). From the back seat, Rusty kept looking at me with his "What's wrong with mami?" expression.

I finally arrived at my apartment in the woods with nary 45 minutes to spare before I was due in the classroom. After I'd unloaded the dogs, the cooler, the sundry totes filled to their respective rims with clothes and books and dog stuff, and parked the car, I had only minutes to have lunch, change into my teaching clothes, put some heels and makeup on and rush out the door.

One thing I didn't get the chance to do was print my very detailed lesson plan, as I always do, but I remembered the wise words of Dr. S, who reminded me this summer (on another crazy day when I didn't have time to print it out) that I really didn't need the lesson plan to do my job.

"You know what you're doing," she said. "Just do it."

And, of course, she was right. I prepare my über-perfectionist lesson plans as part of my maniacal, control-freak attempt to have everything laid out, preferably years in advance. But the actual "doing it," after more than a decade of teaching, is almost second-nature now.

I scribbled some notes on the trusty little black notebook that I carry in my bag (which more resembles a saddle bag than a purse) and all went smoothly in class. I'm sure the students couldn't tell the difference between the "I have my lesson plan printed" and the "I'm winging it" day, which is always reassuring.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm going to get in the habit of plan-less living. In fact, I'm going to cut this post short now so I can finish and print my lesson plan for tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Literary sacrileges

I have to confess to a literary sacrilege.

I often (more in the past than now that I'm reading scholarly books for my dissertation) will peruse the pages of a novel and look at the ending before I decide if I want to read it.

Yeah, that's right. I'll first find out what happens in the end (does the girl get the guy, does the revolution succeed, does the heroine die) and then I'll determine whether I want to invest the emotional and psychic energy necessary to get through the story.

I know that for many (including my husband) this kind of an approach is near heresy. But that's also my approach to movie-watching. I'll first try to find out what happens at the end (I actually love spoilers) and then I'll decide if I want to sit through the hour-and-a-half or two-hours-plus.

The truth is that I hate surprises. I don't mean that I hate all surprises (I was quite giddy when my then-boyfriend-now-husband proposed out of the blue). But I don't like to be in the dark about things that might affect me emotionally. I like to be prepared psychically for whatever might come my way. Surprise is simply not conducive to that measure of control-freakness.

My problem is that because I feel I mustn't read any novels now that I'm on the fast track to finishing The Monster, I'm left with audiobooks to keep abreast of new writers or old writers who I've never read (or heard). And you can't fast-forward to the end of an audiobook to find out what happens with the same ease as with a physical book.

Because I didn't know the ending, and for some mysterious reason I can't fully comprehend since the book is more depressing than a long funeral mass for a dearly departed, I started listening to Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

I guess I might have picked it up because Oprah recommended it (I love Oprah!) but boy is the story a downer sin remedio. Released last year, the story follows a dying father (who's coughing up blood) and his young son on a post-apocalyptic trip down a road, possibly a highway, to the coast. On the way, the pair must survive acute hunger and cold as they avoid coming into contact with the people-eating "bad guys" that seem to be what's left of "humanity" (the book sort of questions the applicability of that term) as they trudge through a perilous landscape burned to the crisp several years before by some unknown cataclysm.

Now what leads a man to write such a story? At a visceral level, I think that this is a white man's nightmare. It seems to me that only white men are capable of coming up with these bleak, horrid tales and actually enjoy the experience of writing them. That's because anyone with black or brown in them has blood-memory that recalls many actual cataclysms (the Middle Passage, slavery, war, Removal, invasion, just to name a few) so that there's no need to explore hopelessness as a psychic exercise through fiction.

I know that's a pretty broad generalization and I'm not suggesting that black-brown writers don't explore cataclysm or apocalypse. I immediately think of Sherman Alexie's fabulous short story "The Sin Eaters." But Alexie only modernized and fictionalized the centuries-long campaign of extermination embarked on by the U.S. government against American Indian nations in this country.

Another thing that bothers me about The Road is not only the absence of anyone non-white, but also the absence of women. Early in the story we find out that the mother, tired of simply surviving, commits suicide, leading us to believe that the father and the son are the strong ones because they're willing to bear the unbearable simply to survive.

That's another male fantasy: that men are stronger than women when faced with hardship. Or that women will give up their children's wellbeing for their own.

I haven't finished listening to the novel yet and probably will get through the end today as I drive up to my apartment in the woods with the dogs. But I already know the ending. I made my husband ask a friend who read the book so I would know whether I wanted to invest the time of listening and suffering with the father and the son.

So far, I'm still undecided on whether I made the right choice this time. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. Well, I finished the novel and I have very mixed feelings. Although it does end on a hopeful note, none of my concerns are erased, especially the one about women. A woman is present in the end, but she's also a "true believer" in God in that wholly God-less world. Perhaps the novel intended that to be a salient point for her nameless character. I find it rather foolish and sad.

Monday, September 17, 2007

If you want something done

You know that adage: If you want something done well, do it yourself? Well, it's not always true.

Especially when it comes to pruning bushes with a pruner that's almost as tall and heavy as you are.

Still, if I didn't know me, I'd have to give it to me. I'll tackle most any project I set my mind to without nary a second thought like: "Can I actually do this?"

I remember how, after taking indoor cycling classes at my gym in Puerto Rico for several months, I decided to join the gym's weekend cycling expedition with my very cheap, Sears-bought bike. They had said all levels were welcome, and I, foolish girl that I am, took them at their word.

We all met at the gym parking lot at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning and I set off with a large group of serious-minded, Tour de France-looking, cycling-attired cyclists. Pretty quickly, they had left me in the miles-behind dust and even the gym's SUV, with all the expedition's water, food, gear, etc., was ahead of me.

Soon enough, I had to give up, after riding more miles than I ever thought possible, but way short of the goal the others were on their way to meeting. They were riding about 30 miles to the coast. I gave up somewhere around the 10th mile, near the banking district.

Thank God for cell phones since I was able to call my husband and he came to pick me up, unsurprised at the outcome.

Strangely, I didn't feel defeated, although I was a bit sad. I had hoped I could accomplish the ride and I hadn't been able to do so. But the important thing, I reminded myself, was that I had believed in myself enough to give it -- even if the effort was beyond my capabilities -- my very best try.

I'm a hopeful person, my mom says. And she's absolutely right. Too hopeful, sometimes.

That's also why I won't let stupid redneck bullies in their huge black pick-up trucks push me out of my right of way in the highway, just because my car and me are less than a quarter their size.
It's almost instinctual, meaning I don't much think about it. Like a tiny chi-hua-hua that bites first, and asks questions later. Short and small as I am, I'm almost fearless (which I don't mean to say is always such a good thing) when it comes to standing my ground.

When I tell those road warrior stories to my husband, he reminds of the Ballad of John O'Day.

Here's lies the body of John O'Day
He died defending his right of way
He was in the right as the day is long
But he's just as dead as if he were wrong.

Well, Johnny was probably short and small, like me, and he died with some satisfaction, I think.

In that spirit, before the church bells had pealed 8 o'clock this morning, I was out there a duras penas trying to control said gigantic pruner, playing Edward Scissorhands with the two overgrown bushes in front of our small deck.

Those bushes are hideous, the result of some previous gardener's big mistake. They produce no fruit, no flowers and their leaves are sticky and raspy with a white dust that makes me sneeze uncontrollably. They're not even an attractive color of green. They're more like a sick-baby-poop green.

The bush, however, is a prolific and enthusiastic grower who likes to cover the entire back of the deck and reach onward toward its neighboring crab apple tree. If left to its own devices, it would take over the world. I have no doubt.

So I took on the project with my usual hopeful gusto, wielding the gigantic pruner like anything but a pro (or someone with a few more inches of height and upper-body strength). About 30 minutes later I was exhausted, covered in white dust and ugly green leaves, but the two offending bushes were nicely (well, perhaps that's an exaggeration) trimmed and you can now see down the back yard again.

The birds, of course, are wondering what happened to the bushes since they now don't have all those ugly branches to poop on or sit on and squabble with one another in comfort. But I figure I do a lot for those birds so giving myself the pleasure of cutting back The Ugly Bushes is not a bad compromise.

Once I had half of the bushes in pieces on the ground, I still had to fill up the large plastic garbage can we use for garden waste and then drag it to the front curb. But I did it and lived to tell the tale.

Yeah, I guess that even when I take on more than I can manage, or than I'm remotely good at, I still prefer to have the hope (nevermind how misguided) that I will prevail.

That's better than conceding defeat even before I've begun.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Beauty in all things

Last night, as my husband and I walked the dogs in the rapidly advancing autumn dusk, the finger-nail-moon shone bright against the canvas of a sharply clear and chilly night.

The sky was a shawl thrown around the shoulders of the earth in darkening hues of indigo with a streak of the palest yellow on the edge where the night and the ground grazed each other.

It was breathtaking.

Finding beauty in the things of fall isn't hard and it fills my heart with a glee that surprises me.

That's because the beauty of fall things is bittersweet, like the birds that begin their flocking exercises so they can be ready to hit their aerial roads before the cold arrives, in search of warmer temperatures to the south.

Each time the birds paint their figure-eights in the sky, like miniature black kittens chasing an indiscernible toy around, winter becomes more of a looming certainty and less of an unpleasant memory.

I saw a robin recently and prayed that my robin, whom I have not seen for most of this late summer, takes off early for more temperate climes so I don't have to agonize over him once again.

This year, I'm going to try the approach of a fellow Puerto Rican colleague at my small college, who told me how she changed her psychic approach to winter.

"I used to be afraid of the cold in winter," she told me recently, in all seriousness. "But I decided to change my attitude and to appreciate the beauty of light on snow and of its texture and of the bare trees against a cloudless sky."

I know well the wisdom of realizing that while we can't change some things that happen or how some people treat us, we do have the power to change our attitude and our response toward such things. But I also know that it's always easier to tell others how to do this, than to do it ourselves.

Still, as I continue to enjoy the beauty in fall things, like the way the sun shifts and instead of the abrasive, roasting fire of August, it becomes the pleasant shimmering light of mid-September, dappling the trees with sparkles, I will attempt to aplicarme el cuento so that I don't end up predicando la moral en calzoncillos.

This year, I plan to work at finding the beauty in all things, even in the approaching winter.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The perks of college life

One of the perks of staying overnight at my small college on the hill is that I get to attend activities that I would otherwise miss if I had to face a 50-plus-miles commute in the dark through mostly country roads.

But having an apartment in the woods (which is becoming more and more attractive each week), allows me to say "yes" when I'm invited by colleagues or students to do things in The Village.

This week, I had the privilege of meeting a Chicana artist, Kim Martínez, who absolutely rocks. Not only is her art provocative and smart, but she's un encanto de mujer. She's politically active, a born teacher and she's funny and engaging, not at all like the Anglo tortured-soul artists I've known.

During her evening talk, she presented a series of paintings based on her experiences in the Utah penal system. They were impressive and disturbing. Ms. Martínez works at a grand scale, with huge canvases, and in a style that merges the real with the surreal and then veers away into the abstract for another of her series. No series of paintings is like another, which I found fascinating because many artists tend to have a main leitmotif that makes their works very similar.

Take a look at her prison series here.

After seeing her presentation and then enjoying a quick hot chocolate while she had her morning coffee, I couldn't get over the glee of being back in college again. Except that this time, decades removed from the first go-around, I definitely have the ability, the maturity and the presence of mind to take advantage of all that the privilege entails.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Two mornings in one day

Today, I've had two mornings in one day. One in pitch darkness and one way past my regular wake-up time.

Last night, my husband came to visit us and because I was under the mistaken impression that there was no coffee in the apartment (I remembered that before England-ing more than a week ago, Dr. S had mentioned that she was taking the Puerto Rican café I gave her as a present), my husband and I decided to get up at 6 a.m. so we would have time to go to The Village in search of his coffee and some breakfast.

I walked the dogs in pitch darkness and by 6:30 my husband and I were on our way to The Village guided by my again-mistaken impression that the coffee shop there opens before dawn, like most coffee shops do in the city. That the village coffeehouse is not Starbucks was evident since it was nearly 6:45 but the place was totally dark and there were not only no signs of human habitation but no signs either of intention-to-open-soon.

We realized that having no coffeehouse that opens before 7:30 is one of the downsides of being out of the city. Thus, my poor husband departed without having his morning coffee, which is as necessary for him as fuel is to his motorcycle.

"It's alright," he said, trying to assuage my dismay. "I'll stop at a McDonald's on the way to work and get coffee."

Poor man, I thought, having to have fast-food coffee because of my rookie-village-inhabitant mistakes. I felt even worse when I came back to the apartment not only to find that Rusty had been barking God-knows-for-how-long to register his protest that we both left him behind, but also that Dr. S did have a tin of very nice-smelling coffee in the tea cupboard. Oh, well.

What could I do with a day that started that way other than get back in bed and hope that a second waking would make the day less silly-mistake-prone?

I did just that and it was 10 a.m. by the time I got up from bed, much more rested and ready to give the dogs their second walk. But now it was plain daylight and a bit more warm than what the low 40s had offered several hours before.

So far, I've made no other stupid mistakes (or any mistake that I know of) and I've had many productive hours of working on class planning and dissertating. I have to say that I like the days, like today, when I get to have two mornings in one day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

First day of fall

This is definitely the first day of fall even if, officially, that orange-and-yellow season doesn't start for another 10 days.

The dogs and I are back in the apartment in the woods and by 7 a.m., when we were up and strolling at the outskirts of The Village, it was all of a brisk and fallish 46 degrees.

The old dogs love the cooler weather and they seemed young and spry in their enthusiasm for our daily morning walk. I took advantage of that energy and we walked almost a mile this morning, rather than just the usual 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile we walk back in our city home.

We were the only ones around, except for the loudly crowing crows, the faint tik-tikitit-tik of a woodpecker going at it in a faraway tree, and a family of deer, mostly does and a fawn, who hang out near the apartments. We see them almost every time we walk, day or evening, and they see us. One of them always makes like s/he wants to come over and meet us, but then thinks better of it once the other 4 or 5 have sprinted away, white tails twitching into the woods.

But today, for the first time, only the fawn and another doe ran. The larger three just stood their ground, and I thought they were wagging their puffy tails as they watched us pass. Maybe they'll get used to us, I thought, when they figure out we mean them no harm.

The morning walks are always invigorating here and now more so because they've built a sidewalk on the main road into The Village that the dogs and I make good use of. Before, the walk could feel like a death-defying feat when the large pickup trucks of country folk sped by us. But now we stroll leisurely on a nice, wide sidewalk, well removed from the road and the barreling trucks. Quite an improvement, we all agree.

As we walked out into the chilly air of this first fall morning, I was thankful that I brought a light jacket with me. Otherwise, I would've had to wear one of my nice work blazers on my morning stroll, which would've surely made me feel absolutely overdressed.

The large picture windows are still fogged up but I can hear the birds outside, already, like me, having started their day. I sprinkled bird seed on the window sill and I'm sitting here, doing my work, ready to greet the tit mice, Blue Jays, chickadees, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches that breakfast at my table, so to speak.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Of rain and sparrows

My husband says that when it rains heavily and the birds seek shelter, the rain will stop soon. But that when it rains heavily and the birds continue as if nothing was going on, it's going to rain for a while.

It's been raining now for two days here, but I can't complain because the temperatures dropped from the 90s to the 70s and the flowers and the trees and the grass and all that's green and colorful is drinking it in gratefully.

But if the sparrow prediction system is accurate, it appears we will have rain for days. That's because every single sparrow in our neighborhood, in the hundreds it seems, appears to have come to our yard to feed. And they're doing so happily and unconcernedly despite the pouring rain.

This morning, my husband had to chase away a big, fluffy dark cat who has taken to prowling around our porch for birds. We now know the cat is also after something else: our chipmunk, who moved her/his whereabouts from our backyard to our front porch.

I hadn't seen the chipmunk in weeks and had begun to fear he was a casualty of the Garage Mahal construction but today I saw a quick, little shadow scurrying around the porch and thought it was the chipmunk. Later, my husband confirmed my suspicions when he said he'd seen the chipmunk on the porch, digging in the potted plants.

After brunch, my husband saw the cat, which is fat and obviously not in need of sustenance, chasing the chipmunk. He went out in the pouring rain to shoo the cat and succeeded. Happily, the chipmunk will live to see another day (and to dig in my potted plants!).

It's a jungle out there, let me tell you, even in this urban setting. What with the cats and the hawks, we have a veritable Discovery or Animal Channel special going on all the time. Instead of Meerkat Manor, we have a sort of Chateau Sparrow.

And the cute, active sparrows make a rainy Sunday even nicer. There's a siesta quality to rainy Sundays that makes the gray skies and the pit patter of the raindrops outside the window not only bearable, but enjoyable.

Unlike the sparrows, who scoff at rain and will go about their daily business under the downpour, I'm finally going to venture outside to do what I have get accomplished today. But that's only because the rain has abated.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The woods are lovely

When viewed from a picture window, of course.

I've spent a few days in the apartment in the woods that will again be my temporary home almost half of each week for the rest of this year. I'll be up here the days when I teach and I already appreciate how spending nights near The Village (as people refer to this place) allows me to be a part of this community.

Last night, I attended a poetry reading by Cherokee poet Diane Glancy, which was enthralling. I'm teaching her novel, Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, at the end of the semester as part of my postcolonial class this term (which, BTW, is going awesomely because my students are awesome).

As I listened to her astounding poetry, I felt the immense privilege and excitement that I remember feeling at Harvard as an undergraduate and graduate student. That feeling came with realizing how fortunate I was to have access to incalculable resources and opportunities. As a young African American professor I know likes to quote, with great privilege comes great responsibility, and I hope that I take that axiom as seriously as I should in life.

After Glancy concluded, I asked her about her inclusion of the unglossed (unstranslated) Cherokee language in her novel and her answer astounded me. Many Latin@ authors use unglossed Spanish in their literature as a sign of resistance, basically to place their Anglo readers in the uncomfortable position that most Spanish-speakers (or any-language-other-than-English speakers) find themselves in this country.

But Glancy said she included the Cherokee language, which had an alphabet that was completely different to the Latin-based one, not only to give the story authenticity but also to rescue the language from near oblivion.

"I could not write the novel in that language, since I don't speak it and it's not a language that's used anymore, it's more like Medieval English at this point," Glancy said, adding that she did archival research at the Newberry Library in Chicago and consulted with experts so she could use the Cherokee language in her novel.

Wow, I thought, admiring her even more.

After hearing her, I wished more than ever that I had the facility to write poetry. I can write well enough, I know, but never like she does, and like other of my favorite poets do. But that's alright, I guess. I don't have to be the best at everything. I'm not in competition with myself (or anyone else, for that matter). I can be content with the things I do well and with those I don't do so well. Still, maybe some time I'll take a poetry workshop and see how that goes.

Once the reading concluded, the two wonderful professors who teach the eighteenth century here invited me to accompany them to the village cafe for dinner. I had already had my meager dinner at home before the reading, but I very much appreciated the offer of company (the dogs aren't great conversationalists, of course) and I had a very nice hour or so, chatting about Jane Austen and about dogs.

They have a beautiful, huge husky who likes to stand up from his preferred seat at the base of the large picture windows in their living room when I walk Rusty and Geni by in the evenings. My dogs love it here. Rusty, I'm sure, appreciates that there are no steps to climb or to go down on and that we now take three walks a day, not just two. Geni, as usual, is just along for the ride.

I also have a large picture window and have set my laptop on a small table in front of it so that I can look out into the woods. Their bewitching loveliness reminds me of Robert Frost's caution about having "promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep."

Just now, two ocean-blue Blue Jays have noticed the bird seed I put outside the window but they're not so sure about me so they're staying at a safe distance, hopping around in the woods. A diminutive but braver chickadee has come by several times and a tit-mouse, which I don't get to see back home, also flits in and out, fearless.

Later this afternoon the dogs and I will return to our real home, where my husband and the two cats await us. But we'll be back again this way next week and both the dogs and I will look forward to that, just as much as we look forward to going back home today.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The devil is in the baseboards

Have you heard what the baseboards of a home have to say?

I'm definitely no Martha Stewart but I do put work into being a credible housekeeper. I derive both pleasure and pride from maintaining a well-appointed, livable house.

It's not easy with a busy teaching and dissertation schedule, or with four furry animals shedding multiply textured hair and leaving their imprints throughout the house each and every day, including discarded shells of claws, the occasional pool of pee or worse, and hard-to-identify multiply colored pukes. But I manage as well as I can and my husband pitches in, too.

I definitely don't see housekeeping as "woman's work," or believe that women are genetically programmed to do the laundry or wash the dishes. And it's not that I particularly enjoy house cleaning, which I don't, especially cleaning bathtubs, which is literally back-breaking work.

Still, house keeping is one of those few projects that gives me a complete sense of accomplishment when I'm done. What was dirty and disorganized becomes sparkly and orderly and like the rain that cleanses a humid day's air into transparency, I like the lighter air that suffuses a cleaned space (especially since I have rather bad dust allergies).

The space I call "home" has been very important to me ever since I moved out of my parents' home at 16 to attend college. Undoubtedly, my first-year room in Harvard Yard was truly ugly: a rectangular space with no distinctive features except for two twin beds, two large wooden desks, two built-in dressers and two large windows with no view to speak of.

But after sharing a room with my younger sister for most of my childhood and adolescence, it was the first space I got to decorate and maintain on my own and I enjoyed that.

By the end of that first year, the room looked like it had a split personality. My end was postered with images of Che Guevara and a large flag of Puerto Rico, while my roommate's end was decorated in soft Impressionist pastels. The room told everyone who entered (mostly my Puerto Rican friends, angling for some fresh, hot coffee prepared with the hot plate and the greca I brought from home) that no two more different people could be living together.

When I finally got to live by myself in my 20s, I had a tiny studio apartment with a one-person bathroom and a standing-room-only shower, in which the living room was the bedroom (my bed was a cheap flip-open couch) and the kitchen oven functioned as the heating system. It was so small that I and my two cats, Nube and Lawrence, barely fit. But I absolutely adored that studio.

I think living in such a compact space helped me learn to maintain my place tidy and relatively clean because, otherwise, it would easily become unlivable. And it wasn't so much for the benefit of anyone else, since I hardly ever had visitors, but for myself. I learned to take pleasure in maintaining a space that was clean and organized and inviting, even if mostly to me.

When I moved to D.C. I also took care of my apartments, and I would unpack and organize everything immediately so that the space looked lived-in even if I'd just moved in. Living in a mess is one of those few things that has the power to heavily depress me, so I simply don't allow a mess around me.

Now that I live in the house of my dreams, which is much larger than any other space I've ever had, it takes a lot more to get it to where it's alright. But I take it one step at a time and try to keep it so that I'm not too embarrassed if someone has to come in unexpectedly.

That includes fits of moving furniture around, just to give rooms a fresh look (it's a madness my poor husband puts up with, as with every other madness I have). It's gotten so that my husband's 7-year-old nephew, who visits about twice a year, always remarks on the furniture being in a different place.

"Is she ever going to stop moving furniture around?," he asked my husband in an audible whisper the last time my sister-in-law was here.

The answer to that question is probably not, especially now that I'm hooked on HGTV, which has shows like "Designed to Sell." In that show, people on a tight budget redo spaces to make them more functional and attractive. Inspired by this, I am now on a crusade to un-clutter our space here, something my ascetic-tending husband does appreciate.

But it's the baseboards that issue the ultimate challenge. Yesterday, I found myself noticing and cleaning the baseboards around the house and I actually enjoyed it. The ones in the kitchen are white, so their complaints of inattention are much louder than those of the wood baseboards in other parts of the house. Thus, I took them on with a vengeance and they were singing my praises by the time I was done.

If the devil is in the details, then the devil in the home is in the baseboards. Baseboards in a home are like fingernails (and toenails) in the body. I try to keep my fingernails well trimmed and, at the very least, with a coat of clear polish on them because fingernails say a lot. I used to chew my fingernails to the quick as a girl but when I became a woman I realized that I'd rather have fingernails that were functional and that told this story about me: "She takes care of herself."

Now that September is inching along toward October, I will soon pass the mid point of the 40s on my way to 50. And while I don't particularly celebrate that numbers game so much, I do like being in a time of life when my fingernails look good and the baseboards in my house are happy.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Of tools and bicycles

I am the farthest thing from being handy with tools that I can imagine so when our young neighbor rang the bell this afternoon, I was worried.

He's the only boy in a house of women, his grandmother and mother, and while many women are knowledgeable about and good with tools (Dr. S being the closest one to me), the women in his home don't appear to be in that category.

Thus, every time he has a problem with his bicycle (which is often) he comes over and gets my husband to fix it.

Actually, I think he reveres my husband a little, because of the motorcycles, of course, so the boy will use pretty much any excuse to come over and do some male-bonding with my husband.

As I thought, the problem this time was again the bicycle (his old one was stolen and my husband helped him refurbish an old one but now he has a newer one).

"Do you have an Allen wrench?," he asked, pointing to the seat of his newer bike, which was bent and he couldn't sit on it like that.

"Would you recognize one if you saw one?," I asked in return, adding that I had no idea what such a tool looked like and that my husband was not here to help this time.

"Yes. They're 'L' shaped and they do this and that," he elaborated.

"OK, let's go find one," I said, escorting him to our new Garage Mahal in the back of the house.

Neither of us could see any Allen wrenches (I, because I had no clue what we were looking for, and he, because there apparently were none visible), so I called my husband, who's at a motorcycle race.

"Are you busy?," I asked. "Yes, what's up?," he answered a little anxiously, probably imagining I was calling about some household emergency.

I told him what was going on and he told me where to find the Allen wrenches and I let him off the hook, literally, so he could watch his race (which I could hear roaring in the background) in peace.

I took the Allen wrenches and marched back to the front of the house with my young neighbor to attempt to fix his seat. He instructed me how to do it and, incredibly for me, I fixed the seat nice and tight.

"Wow! My husband would be impressed," I told the boy.

"Why?," he asked, curious.

"Because I'm not a tool girl, I'm more of a shoe girl."

"Well, you fixed it," he said nicely, bestowing on me a smile shiny with braces.

Off went our neighbor and his friend to bicycle the afternoon away and I returned the tools to the garage, feeling somewhat empowered and a lot wiser because I now know what an Allen wrench is.

How I managed to live all these years without knowing that, I do not know.

Morning glories

On Saturday mornings during the summer I like to meet up with my bestest-of-friends, Ms. K, at the farmer's market and stroll around in search of treasures for our respective tables.

Today, I finally remember to bring along my trusty little digital camera so I can capture the beautiful images that abound.

"Is she a photographer?," I overhear one vendor ask Ms. K after I request permission to snap her glorious gladiolas.

"Oh, God, no!," I say, laughing. "I just like to pretend."

"She's going to put them in her blog," Ms. K informs her.

"Thank you!," the vendor says, smiling with pride.

On a sunny, cool day, like today, the colors at the market are striking. And taking pictures feels like playing with a box of Crayolas, which I absolutely loved doing as a child.

The red peppers glisten in the sun, like jewels.

And the green peppers could not be any greener, even if they tried.

A basket of sweet onions regales us with purples and greens and whites and light browns, arrayed like the eggs of a happy hen.

The sunflowers are a feast for the eyes with their bright yellow leaves against the dark, velvety centers.

And there are gigantic dried sunflower heads, which people take to feed the birds. I'll make sure to get one of those next time.

The tomatoes not only look scrumptiously juicy and sweet, but their colors are playful.

I buy one of the baskets with multi-colored tomatoes, which summon me over with their intensity, as if they were smiling at me.

The eggplants are truly at their best, with their sparkling purple gowns and dark green caps.

"Look at this one!," Ms. K says as she points to a spirally eggplant that was too coquettish to ignore.

The fresh lettuce, for its part, looks like a sea of cresting greens and purples.

There is even a gigantic pumpkin, selling for a whopping $10. It's a reminder that pumpkin season is coming soon and that the colors of the farmer's market won't be with us much longer.