My boys at Conn

One of the things I like about this time of year is that not every day is spoken for. From summer through Christmas it seems like every day is part of a countdown to a big goal or deadline, culminating with the vast unwrapping at 7 am on December 25th. But in winter, you don’t feel like you’re “wasting” great weather (because you didn’t have great weather plans), you don’t feel like you’re on deadline, you don’t need to get projects started, and following all the winter planning you did, you don’t really have anything planned.

So it was with great surprise that about two weeks ago I noticed we had a three day weekend coming up. “Hey!” I thought. “Lookie! A three day weekend!” After verifying that my brother was not up for visitors that weekend, I started to think about other things I might like to do. It occurred to me that the last time I brought Grey to our Alma Mater (Connecticut College, in New London), I was still nursing him. And I read this book by Susan Cooper which referenced Mystic Seaport. And then I read a great book to Grey about the Mary Celeste (a book which I would recommend to other parents of budding deductive reasoners!). So I got into a nautical mood and decided a trip to the Mystic Seaport was the thing. I found a hotel room for like $62 dollars, and decided to make a weekend of it. (Thane was very excited to go to Connecticate. His pronunciation was so charming I could hardly bring myself to correct it!)

We started off Sunday morning. I would say bright and early, but I’d be lying. How about bright and middlin?! We stopped to see the boys Great Aunt & Uncle, whom we haven’t seen in perhaps two years. And we made it to Conn in time to check out Harkness Chapel, walk around the Arboretum Pond, and facilitate our children rolling down a small hill for nearly 45 minutes. Then we went to Norm’s diner (Rosie’s having, apparently, been closed down and replaced by a Five Guys) and then to our hotel room where our children proceeded to not sleep. Ah! Vacations!

The Mystic Seaport was cool. By all rights, it should have been frigid out there on the water in mid-February. But we lucked into a sunny 40+ degree day, so while it was by no means warm, it was bearable. We checked out the Charles W. Morgan and got a special presentation on the kids who had lived on board the ship. The boys wielded hot glue guns with abandon, enthusiasm and little regard for seaworthiness as they constructed balsa wood boats. We took a horse drawn carriage ride. We played some cool instruments in the cool instrument exhibit. To sum up: a good time was had by all. After checking out a few more of our old haunts (and after Adam pawed threw many of the very same supplements he forebore to buy from Citadel back when we were students over a decade ago) we once again wended our weary way north to every day lives.

All of this is a boring description to explain all the pictures I’m about to post. Half the fun of outings like this is to take great pictures that, in retrospect, make it seem like life is full of cool adventures and fun things together as a family.

And you know what? There are cool adventures and fun things!

Here are the pictures!

Ten and a half years later

This year marks my decade on a number of milestones. I’ve now been married ten years and change. And it’s been a few months longer than that since I graduated from Connecticut College with a Double Major in English and Medieval Studies. It’s brought to mind because this month marks the very final time that Sallie Mae is authorized to take a chunk of change out of my checking account. It’s funny, that a form letter with a strongly serif font, printed in black and white, actually inspired a number of emotions in me.

First and foremost of course, is satisfaction. It’s nice to finish things. To finish paying off a debt, that’s extra nice. And then there’s the fact that I get a little bit more money now. (Not that much more. Thanks to good stewardship in the pre-kid era, I’d prepayed a significant amount of the loan and halved the payment from what it was originally.) And finally, I confess, I have a little chagrin that I’ve never gone back to school – not for even the smallest class. I vacillate between being slightly embarrassed by my lack of graduate degree and going through the logic again that shows it’s a sensible decision for me. In many programming careers, work experience is more valuable that education. Education is how you break in, but once you’re in it doesn’t matter as much.

I got to thinking, though, about what I’d gotten for that debt incurred. In serious retrospect, I think it was a superb investment in all the ways that matter. From a career investment point of view, I have no complaints about the career I’ve had so far, or about the opportunities for advancement that I have. In a surprising turn of events (another post for another day) I’ve even started to use some of those hard-won analysis and writing skills!

But those four years in college gave me some of the most important things in my life. For starters, and in the obvious camp, I met my husband there. That relationship has been the foundation on which so much of the rest of my life (and my joy!) has been built. I made many of the friends who still roll around for Mocksgiving and Piemas. Connecticut College gave me “Make We Joy” and Chaucer (at the same time – I’ve associated Chaucer with Christmas ever since). I wandered its hallowed greens under the faint luminescence of the Hale-Bopp comet, freezing time to memory. I read American Literature basking in the sun on the roof of Smith, becoming increasingly dismayed that Robert Service was completely unrepresented! I discovered that a hatred of science and mathematics was not actually inevitable for the literary-minded. I worshiped in a small, meaningful service on Wednesday nights with the faithful few. I learned how to write. I learned how to read. I learned that grilled bagels are way better than toasted bagels and had lobster for the first time ever.

In retrospect, my college experience lived up to the billing, and I’d likely be one of those nostalgic alumni who wandered through the gray-stoned campus stopping to tell sophomores to enjoy it because it’s the best four years of your life! … if I didn’t remember how alien and obnoxious those interlopers are to the currently-being-educated.

Staring at that last bill, I am completely satisfied with the investment I (and my parents) made and would decline to return the product, even if that was offered. I only wish my car loan and mortgage carried the same sense of satisfaction!

Senior year and eminent domain

When I came to interview for the job I currently hold, the first question my interviewer asked was, “So you’re a Camel?” This might seem odd, except I am, in fact a Camel. And as his question would imply, so is he. The Camel is, of course, the mascot of my distinguished New England Alma Mater, Connecticut College. Yes we have a good basketball team. No, you are thinking of UConn. This is the one in New London. Small, private, liberal arts? Like Wellesley and Bates? Never mind.

Anyway, this fellow alumnus of mine loaned me a book, Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage. I have detailed before how remarkable I find it that weather reports cover my zip code and that anything that happens in my life might get covered in any detail. This book took that concept to the next level. It is a discussion of the Supreme Court eminent domain case (Kelo vs. the City of New London), generated right there on the sleepy banks of the Thames. It takes place in large part during exactly my tenure at that fine institution. And it talks about people I know.

Claire Gaudiani was the president of the college during my full stay. She was about as far as you could get from tweed smoking jackets. She believed she was extremely sexy (that was up for debate among those of us under 40). She was extremely powerful and hated getting crossed in any way. She was eloquent, energetic, determined and dynamic. She did some excellent things for the college: much of the ambition, renovation and reconstruction of the college was her doing. She pushed to college forward to be a little less sleepy and complacent, and a little more willing to try to become a world class institution with a highly forgettable name. There was much she did for Conn that was to be commended.

Then there was the weird stuff. Her wardrobe was largely written off as a different version of academic eccentricity by many of we students. The art work, on the other hand… well, I personally liked “Synergy” which we called the kissing blue french fries. The sundial was ok. But some of the other random artwork (I’m looking at you styrofoam blocks in Cummings) was just weird.

Then there was the bad stuff. She ran roughshod over dissent. She once told me that she preferred to ask forgiveness rather than permission. She didn’t believe in balancing budgets. She was the sort of person who believed, “If you build it, the funding will come.” This was partially true, and partially not. The book I read was all about the bad stuff. Namely, she lead a redevelopment consortium (not really bad — it had some excellent goals) that used increasingly dire and destructive means in order to obtain those excellent goals. She never quite got that the ends did NOT justify the means, and paid for it dearly in the end.

If Claire (as we all called her — no one called her Dr. Gaudiani, ever), was the villain of the book, one of the heroes was a Connecticut College professor named Fred Paxton. The crux of their conflict was the year 2000. In the year 2000, Dr. Paxton and I spent a lot of time together. Every Thursday, he would eat dinner with me in the cafeteria, and we’d go over my honor’s thesis. He wasn’t actually my thesis advisor. (I remember one meal when he and I tried to work out how and why it had transpired that way.) After that, we’d go to “Death, Dying and the Dead” which was just about my favorite course in all of college. It was a 400 level history course, which I was taking as an elective. That year for spring break, I drove out to Missoula Montana with my family to meet up with him and tour the school of Music Thanatology where he taught during breaks from Conn. We had dinner. There’s a picture of the two of us standing overlooking Missoula on an early spring day.

Of all the fantastic and excellent professors at Conn, he was probably the one who gave me the most, with the least formal reasons for it. (He was never my advisor or had any formal assignment to me. And in addition to teaching a full load and running the opposition to the eminent domain in Fort Trumbull, he was the director for one of our big programs). At the time, I knew the whole NLDC thing was bad. I knew that there were tensions between him and Claire (this whole saga was a serious argument for the tenure system, let me assure you). I knew that he was catching heat.

I just had no idea how much, or what this all signified, until I read about it in a book.

I’ve admired Professor Paxton for 12 years. I’ve never admired him more than I do now, having finished this book. The activism, that’s awesome. The community organizing. The taking on of burdens of people who were not his obligation. (Recognize a theme there?) But you know what really, really caught me up short in this book? When he comes back from Sabbatical, Professor Paxton returns to a hornet’s nest. He tries to figure out what’s up. He goes to the NLDC offices and spends hours upon hours reading source documents to understand the plan the NLDC is putting forth. Having read all this raw material, he digests it and comes to his own conclusions on what it means, where the opportunities are, and what the consequences will be.

THAT’S the bit that floors me. That might be the hardest thing to do. It is so easy to listen to an interpretation of an event or conflict, and follow along. It’s simple to take comparisons of rhetoric, and go with the best sounding. But to go to the sources, do the work of extrapolation yourself, figure out what it means, and then figure out what the consequences are for you and your values? I can hardly think of any examples of when I’ve seen that. I know, to my chagrin, I’ve hardly ever done that. That is so hard. But can you imagine how much better the world would be if we all pulled a Paxton, went to the sources and interpreted them for ourselves? What if we all actually read the Healthcare bill, offered constructive criticism based on our expertise, and figured out what we thought for ourselves? What if we took the hornet’s nests in our own lives, and instead of just listening to our favorite and trusted sources, took a neutral investigative look? Man, I’d settle for even our journalists doing that!

I take the example seriously. It’s a good thing to remember, as the rhetoric gets more heated and polarized. Dig into the policies. Avoid the rhetoric. Look at what underlies the politics, not the personalities expressed. Find out how this all lines up with your values. Then take the actions that are right, without recklessness or fear.

Thank you again, Dr. Paxton, for teaching me.

I saw a shooting star
The stars over Mt. Rainier

Saturday night, I saw a shooting star.

That may not sound significant or momentous to you. Perhaps you live in a place where you can see stars in the night sky — more than the 20 or so that outshine the ambient light of cities. Perhaps you have ample opportunity, on your drives home, to pull over and admire a particularly brilliant night. Perhaps you can’t exactly recall the last time you saw a shooting star — you’re sure you have, sometime — but it doesn’t matter because astronomical events just aren’t that important to you.

These may be some of the ways you and I are different, then.

Ten years, now, I have lived in places where you could not see shooting stars. For ten years, I have lived within a ten mile radius of the City of Boston, with the orange omnipresent glow that ranges, with the humidity, between present and overwhelming. Ten years, the same feeble 20 stars have been my rare nightly companions. For nearly half that time, approaching five years now, I have been tethered to my home at night. It’s not entirely safe to walk alone in the dark, although I do so. And almost always, one of us (my husband or I) must be at home to listen for the late night cries of our children. I could not see the stars even if they were clear, because I cannot look.

Before that ten years, the stars were very much a part of my life. New London, Connecticut has lights. Certainly. But many fewer and weaker and further down the hill. I used to love walking around Harkness Green in the evenings – from the soft first evenings of September through the bitter colds of February and back to the noisy darkness of May. Sometimes alone, often with friends, I would walk: South overlooking the estuary of the Thames, West towards Winged Victory and the party noises emanating from Freeman, North facing Harkness Chapel then East across the new sun dial. My eyes ranged out and up. It was dark there (with one particular light that always seemed to either go on or off as we approached). The stars were present in greater numbers. For one glorious year, the Hale-Bopp comet hung directly over Knowlton, where young girls had danced with Coast Guard cadets in long-gone times.

My love of the skies had not started with college, though. Even before that, I lived high in the mountains. Growing up, I could see the Milky Way spread out across the sky. I didn’t know that for the urban world it was an unthought-of myth. I remember one particular night when I was driving home, late, and the astonishing brilliance of a moonless starry sky was so incredibly distracting that I pulled over and just looked until I was thoroughly chilled. I used to go to the graveyard — a flat, long horizoned space with no lights — to watch the stars in the dark of the night. I recall one rather ominous occasion when a herd of elk traveled across the clearing while I was there. I rarely brought a flashlight, and the large thumping shapes were frightening in the dark of the cemetery.

In all my sky-gazing youth, the most precious moments were the shooting stars. Have you ever seen one? Do you remember it? My passion for them started during a summer camp. We’d gotten rained out from our backpacking trip, and were sleeping under the stars in fields just to the north of Mt. Rainier. It was during the Perseid meteor shower, although I didn’t know that at the time. It was a super clear, high, moonless night and the stars fell nearly every minute. I loved them. I loved the surprise gift – the reward of watching and waiting with alertness. They were thrilling. Since then I’ve considered meteors to be gifts, benedictions, blessings from a loving creator.

I do not know exactly how long it’s been since I last saw a shooting star. More than three years, almost certainly. Perhaps more than five. I do make visits to places where stars can be seen, but often it’s cloudy that particular night, or I cannot leave my sleeping babes, or the moon steals the stars from my sight. But on Saturday, after all my boys had gone to bed, I crept away from the dying embers of my New Hampshire campfire and walked in darkness to a small clearing near the lake where the loons mournfully cried. I laid on my back in the grass on a warm summer’s evening, marveling at how many more star there were than even my memories portrayed, still knowing I was seeing only a portion. And just before I stood to return, there across the sky sped a streak of light, gone before my eyes could turn fully to take it in. A shooting star. A blessing and a benediction. And I returned with joy to my family.

Prayer at the Close of Day

When I was in college, there was an evening service in our chapel. It was at 10 pm on Wednesday nights. The first semester I was there, still trying to figure things out, our chaplain left. But before he did, he taught me how to set up the service and how to sing the chants. For the next three and a half years, in close connection with the college organist John Anthony, I led that weekly service.

It remains one of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life.

We were a small , extremely ecumenical group that met late on those Wednesday nights. There was me the Protestant, a handful of Catholics, a Greek Orthodox girl and an agnostic. Harkness Chapel was always airy and dark on those nights. I’d enter in the back door and light the candelabras. They made a pool of yellow light below the vaulted ceiling. We’d begin in silence with muffled greetings. Then song, chant, prayer, more silence, song and chant again. We’d end holding hands and singing, before scattering back to our homework and brightly lit dorm rooms.

In the four years I was at college, I believe I missed fewer than five of these Wednesday night services.

During that brief period of velvet night, I felt peace, fellowship, contentment. I made room for silence. I listened. I slowed down. There was room for the Spirit to move in me and to speak to me. There was space for me to slide back inside my own skin, and remember who I am. There was a tremendous connection with those few other pilgrims, coming to find the same thing.

I suspect many of us want to get back what we had in college. There were our collegiate figures, our somehow ample time for fun, the energy of youth, the proximity of all our friends… heck, just getting to sleep in and have someone else do all the cooking. But the thing I’d like to get back from college is that service — that peace.

Happily, unlike my youth, this may be something attainable. I can aspire to this connection to the Almighty. As my living is concentrated down to the most necessary, I find I need to stop taking away and start adding. This is something I will add.

So. Next Wednesday night at 9 pm (a nod to my now-elderly status), I will open the doors of Burlington Presbyterian Church and light candles. I will sing “The Spirit within us moves us to pray”. I will make room for silence. And if you would like to come, I will smile and worship with you.

Prayer at the Close of Day
Wednesday nights
9 – 9:30 pm
Burlington Presbyterian Church

May the spirit of the Lord remain with us throughout the night.

A jumble of me

I just finished writing a note to a friend from college — a friend I met during Freshman orientation. He’s one of the few people I met at college before I met the man I would marry. We used to take long night walks around Harkness Green and talk about where we had come from, where we thought we were going (we were both wrong) and what a big world it was.

The note, much belated, is really to his daughter. In it I speak for my sons. I don’t think those 18 year olds watching the Hale-Bopp comet on Harkness Green could even conceive of such a thing.

When I picked Thane up from nursery on Sunday, I was greeted with the words “You’re in deep trouble”. He’s not 8 months old yet. He’s pulling up to standing and crawling FAST. Let the childproofing be in earnest!

On Saturday I got to go to a graduation party for two kids I’d taught Sunday School/confirmation/youth group to. It was an awesome party, and a wonderful time to hang out with people I really like, talking about our shared experiences and future hopes. Also, other people played with my sons and seemed to enjoy themselves.

Here are some pictures

We’re starting to use a new technology – Flex – at work. Knowing I learn best when I (duh) concentrate on learning, I scheduled a training class for myself. I asked if anyone wanted to come. The entire technical team — including DBAs — did. So we are having a three day onsite training course starting tomorrow. I keep wondering how I managed to pull this off. But I did. So I will be BUSY in the heart of this week. That’s a polite way of saying, “No I haven’t fallen on the face of the Earth but you probably won’t be hearing from me.” And when next you do, I’ll be a “Flexpert”.

And then I took Friday off. We’re going camping. Yes, in a tent. Yes, overnight. Yes, with Grey and Thane.

I CAN’T WAIT. I love camping.

I think that’s the important stuff!

The centers of attention
The centers of attention

My coming of age

A friend was recently talking about their graduation from college and how it had been a difficult and uprooting experience for them. That got me thinking about MY graduation from college. In retrospect, my graduation actually was a coming of age and a sweet memory to boot.

Let me set the stage. Four years prior, my father, brother and I had driven from Washington to Connecticut. (In four days. Another story for another time.) My mother had flown out to Connecticut to join us. They were dropping me off at Connecticut College, 3000 miles from home, where I knew no one. This graduation ceremony was the next time they came out. They brought with them my recently widower grandfather — the first time he’d flown since the 50s — and my godfather (he of the had-quintuple-bypass-surgery-yesterday fame).

I was 21. I had been engaged for just over a year and was going to get married in August. I had lined up a “real job” which I had already begun working at as a programmer.

The graduation ceremony itself was typical. Hot. Long speeches. Parents hearing for the first and last times the full names they had graced upon their children on their birth certificates. My litany read “Major in English (distinction) and Medieval Studies (honors and distinction), Cum Laude”. Not the most fantastic of bylines, but respectable. I was and am proud of it. My godfather bought me this truly remarkable frame for my diploma.

The coming of age, though, begins the next day. We had rented a van with room for my grandfather’s scooter, but no room for my fiancee. We started early in the morning. I remember as we pulled out onto Mohegan Drive, I had just gotten my thesis back and was digesting the comments thereon — my last college paper. (I was affronted to have gotten an A-. If he’d told me what he wanted earlier, I could’ve gotten a A. Pbbblft.)

We drove through the Connecticut countryside towards Worcester, where we had breakfast.

It’s funny, but there are moments where you transition. That breakfast was a great breakfast. We sat at a big table and ate eggs and bacon and talked. I recall that we got into a heated discussion on when gunpowder had been widely used in Europe. Then I sneaked away from the table. For my entire life, these people had taken care of me. They had fed me, housed me, clothed me, transported me. (Including my godfather.) I went to see the waitress, to pay the bill for my family’s breakfast. It was my way of saying, “Look at me. I’m a grownup too!” It had the desired satisfying outcome of amazing the assembled, and causing them to pause for a moment to think, “Why yes, she is a grownup.”

In an aside, while I was waiting to pay, a woman came up to me and asked if we were part of some history club. No. We’re just family. But man, I love that about my family.

After our desultory and educational meal, we went up 495 to Lowell and Lawrence. We went on a tour of the historic mills, saving up facts for future breakfast arguments. We stood in the bright May sun in the brick alleyways. I think of that part often. I now work in one of those old mill buildings like those we toured. The floorboards below my desk are nailed down with handmade nails and have captured, between the cracks, hundreds of tiny shoe-nails.

Thus educated, we wended our way up to St. Johnsbury Vermont where we stayed at a terrible dive of a motel. We didn’t always stay at terrible dives of motels growing up. No, sometimes, well often, we decided that it was too much work and just kept driving.

Starting the next morning in the Northwest corner of New England, we proceeded to drive through every New England state. We drove backroads across Vermont and New Hampshire up to Portland Maine, and then 95 down to Burlington MA where we had dinner with my beau. After dinner, we continued down 95 through Rhode Island, and I was deposited back in Connecticut.

There were some other moments — my grandfather slipping off a bar stool at Rosie’s in Groton and nearly killing himself, my parents taking me shopping for my graduation-present bicycle. But soon they left. I had a month or two of in-between time, after graduation and before my wedding. But it was on that trip with the folks who raised me that I stepped forward out of dependency and into full adulthood.

It was also the moment when my grandfather realized that 86 was too young to be bounded by two oceans. He started laying plans immediately, which culminated with him and my godfather going to Scotland for a month, where he wrecked a van, broke his leg, reconnected with long-lost relatives and generally had the time of his life. I was so glad that he had these opportunities, and so impressed at his willingness to take big risks in order to live out his life to the fullest.