Back to School

September has always meant big changes for me. My parents are both teachers, so Back to School marked the end of vacation for all of us when I was a kid. In elementary, middle, and high school, it signaled a return to early morning wake-ups and homework and after-school programs, sports practice, or play rehearsals. In college, it meant packing up my room and moving across the state. I've been out of school for over two years now, but because I work at a university, back to school still brings changes-- students return, and the workload picks up.

The new class of students arrived on campus yesterday. The Quad was abuzz with nervous energy and excitement. Even though I no longer work at my alma mater, the sights and sounds of the day brought me back to my own first day of college. I remember feeling so many things--I wanted to set up my room and meet my roommates, wanted to explore my new school, wanted to sit alone and think, wanted to spend time with my parents because I wouldn't see them again for a month. A month seemed like such a long time. I stood outside the dorm as they drove away that afternoon, and didn't go in again until they were out of sight.

Yesterday, as we sat on the lawn and watched the students and their parents swarm over the lawn, I asked a co-worker what she remembered about her first day of college. "Fear," she said. "A lot of fear. Everyone was afraid."

That's how it often is for me. I think dread is my default setting when it comes to new experiences. I've been feeling it a lot lately, because today was Back to School for me, too, in a big way: I started grad school.

Honestly, I'm not even sure why I was so nervous about it. When I critically examined each element that might inspire fear--the specter of getting lost, or of not knowing anyone--none really seemed intimidating. I knew I wouldn't get lost, and I didn't really care that I wouldn't know anyone. And yet, when I wasn't staring the fear down, it would creep back in.

Orientation went swimmingly, though. Everyone was friendly, we had a delicious lunch of dim sum, and I got my schedule for the fall all straightened out. Piece of cake. You would think that this experience--and an accumulation of similar experiences over time--would teach me not to worry like I do. But this fear clings tightly, and won't be pacified by reasoned thinking.

Nevertheless, I am excited about grad school. I think it will make my life bigger, in a way. Sitting in my quiet office, in a quiet corner of campus, I sometimes feel like the world I inhabit has grown small--smaller than me. It's nice to be expanding again, moving out into new places. Finding new challenges.



What was I just saying, about not being ready for fall? Something about needing "a little more time to soak in the honey-colored, sun-saturated end of summer"? Well, I got it. And how. We've had record-breaking high temperatures over the last few days. Now I remember exactly what it was like in July, when the humidity made even my eyelids sweat, and it took two or three showers a day just to make life bearable. Trips to Herrell's every afternoon. Dreaming of the beach. That line from To Kill a Mockingbird.

I'm really grateful for this little reprieve. It was a great weekend, full of small surprises. On Friday, we escaped into the cool of a movie theater to see The King of Kong, a documentary about the race to break the top score on the classic arcade version of Donkey Kong. (If that sounds official, it's because I paraphrased the synopsis. I myself know nothing of arcade games.) The film was surprisingly moving and engaging. At first, I thought it was a mockumentary, because the people it featured were such caricatures of video game fanatics. But the filmmakers did such a good job of drawing us into this little world of gaming that I was soon rooting for the hero, and booing the villain, and laughing at the funny parts, and crying at the heartbreaking ones. The entire audience was caught up in the story, and people broke into spontaneous applause at more than one moment. I think we were all surprised at how much we liked it.

On Saturday, Stephen and I went back to the theater to see The Nanny Diaries, which...well, was amusing enough. The surprising part, though, was when we left the movie and found an exuberant band playing jazz and swing music in the lobby. I think they had just finished a concert on the performance stage at the theater, and they were pretty pumped--as was the crowd that quickly formed around them, ourselves included.

There were other nice surprises, too, like the offbeat ice cream flavors we tried on Friday and Saturday--Earl Grey, Mexican Chocolate, Cinnamon Banana, and Negative Chocolate Chip (chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chunks). And the bubble machine we passed on the way home from dinner last night--all of a sudden, I looked up to see a waterfall of bubbles cascading over the sidewalk from a high window above the ice cream shop.

We went out to the garden this afternoon to water our poor wilting plants. The tomatoes are producing like crazy, and the nasturtiums are in full bloom, but the corn looks sad and dry. I think it will be good for them all when temperatures cool down tonight. As Stephen says, the fever of this weekend has broken. It's already much cooler than it was at this time yesterday. So maybe that was the last "real" bit of summer, but that's okay. I'm starting to get excited for things ahead.


Summer Jam

I can't stop buying raspberries. It's something to do with wanting to capture the summer. There's lots of talk about capturing the moment, but I'm not exactly sure how to do it. If I focus too much on each individual moment as a unit of time, it becomes like counting. The only other way I can think of is to do all things deliberately, and try to be genuine, and not zone out. To use all five senses. Raspberries make that easy. They're so red and sweet and soft. Do they smell? Well, they do when you cook them. They don't make much of a sound, but who cares if they're quiet?

I did end up making raspberry jam a couple of weeks back. Pickles, too. It was almost embarrassingly easy. I thought there would be lots of complicated sterilization business involved, but it turns out you don't have to worry about that unless you want jars of preserved food lining your larder shelves. (Not a problem for me since I don't have a larder.) The raspberry jam making went like this:

Wash the raspberries. Dump them in a sauce pot. Add a little sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. Crush the berries up a little with a fork. Turn the heat on. Stir the jam occasionally. Taste it. Put it in jars. Let it cool, then keep it in the freezer until you're ready to eat it. So simple, don't you think?

Well, if you thought that was easy, wait until you hear how I made the pickles. Basically, you throw some cucumbers into a bowl with water, salt, garlic and dill and wait for them to turn into pickles. Like the jam, these don't last for very long in the fridge (about a week), but we didn't have a problem eating them up before the deadline.

By the way, I got both recipes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which I highly recommend.


Dress Up

Stephen is making me a dress. I'm very excited about it. I'm not sure it will be done in time to wear before cool temperatures set in, so I may have to wait until next summer. Nevermind; this season has certainly not lacked for dresses. I have about half a dozen that I've been wearing in regular rotation. I can't remember wearing dresses this frequently since... kindergarten, really. I wore them every single day back then. I remember one in particular, with long sleeves and a yellow skirt and a rainbow across the front with a heart button. I wore it for school picture day.

Then, in first grade, I suddenly stopped wearing dresses. I think I got self-conscious about it. The next time I bought a skirt was in my junior or senior year of high school. It seemed like a really big deal, and I made a huge production out of it. My best friend and I went to the mall and looked all day for the perfect skirt. We finally found just what I was looking for--something knee-length and batiked. The skirt cost $40, which seemed like a fortune. It was really fun to wear, though. So much more flattering and comfortable than shorts.

In college, I had a million skirts, most of them thrift store finds. Several were clearly homemade. I wore them around campus with flip flops and felt very Bohemian. I bought a sundress here and there over the years, but I didn't start wearing them in earnest until this summer.

It started with an intolerable heat wave in June. I couldn't stand wearing khakis to work every day, so I stormed into H&M one afternoon and stormed out again with a bag full of dresses. I got three with polka dots, one with puffed sleeves, one with flowers, and a plain black one. Soon (or not), I'll have another to add to the line-up. Hurry, Stephen, hurry!

I also started to develop an interest in shoes this summer. I can see why some people are so into them; they're really fun. So many colors and shapes! If I suddenly started making a million dollars a year, I might be in danger of buying an inordinate number of them. Red patent leather flats and tall brown boots and vintage pumps from the 1940s. Fortunately (for my wallet), most fancy shoes are also extraordinarily uncomfortable, and I can't survive in un-walkable shoes. My feet have felt the effects of too much sandal-shod power walking this season, so I'm switching to humble scuffed sneakers for awhile. All for the best, I guess. I'm starting graduate school in a couple of weeks, and I'll need to start putting my money into less material things.



Back, back, back. I'm back. I've been through one week of crazy last-minute preparations and two weeks of blissful summer fun. Several adventures. I rode for four hours on the back of a Vespa carrying a 25 pound backpack. I spent another 4 hours on a ferry. I visited three states and two islands. I swam in the ocean. I hiked in the rain. I visited the trout pond at the LL Bean store in Freeport. I went to an outdoor wedding in Vermont. I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I read Freakonomics. I saw Rocket Science.

And I can't believe how much it feels like autumn now. I had a dream last night that I had just returned to New England and found the fall foliage at its peak, and I was devastated that I'd missed the lovely beginning of the season, when the leaves just start to turn. When I left work today, I noticed that a red maple outside of our office had already begun to change color, and temperatures have been unseasonably cool since Saturday. Is fall really here already?

There are many things I love about September and October. I love putting on sweaters again. I love looking forward to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I love picking apples and carving pumpkins and roasting brussels sprouts. But I'm not quite ready for that to start yet. I need a little more time to soak in the honey-colored, sun-saturated end of summer. Can't it wait just a few more weeks?



Summer vacation is finally here for me, so I'm out and about and on short-term blog hiatus. But I'll be back soon.



We found a cockroach in the office yesterday. Specifically, a 1.5 inch long sucker fell out of the ceiling tiles onto a co-worker's desk. If she'd been sitting in her chair, it would have hit her head on the way down. I guess the roach was as startled by the incident as we were, because it spent the next five minutes (until we lost track of it) scuttling around the floor with surprising animation, trying desperately to hide under recycling bins and behind doors. We finally cornered it, ready to pounce with an overturned cup ('cause no one wanted to squish the thing in their sandals). While we lay in wait, that crafty bug snuck behind the filing cabinets and tried to scamper passed our turned backs. Suddenly, someone noticed and shouted "Oh my GOD! It's RIGHT BEHIND YOU!" and much panicked re-staking of defensive positions ensued. The whole episode was like the (movie) love child of a slasher flick (much suspenseful anticipation punctuated by violent bursts of action and screaming reaction) and the lobster scene from Annie Hall. We never caught the roach, but no more have turned up since then, so I hope it was an isolated incident rather than an infestation-type scenario.

Speaking of which, the exterminator is coming on Friday to make sure we don't get any bug-type visitors in our aparment. We haven't had any pest problems at home, for which I'm truly, truly grateful. It's one thing to have a roach fall on your desk (as unappealing as that is); it's quite another to have to sleep with one eye open.

This morning, I undertook a pre-emptive strike against much smaller nasties: got all my immunizations for grad school. Three shots, three little sore spots on my arms. It's nice that I don't have to worry about getting meningitis or diptheria or anything like that. Aren't immunizations amazing? I mean, except for the rare cases where they fail, it's like magic: get a little injection, and you don't have to worry about catching a deadly disease. Smallpox is eradicated. Polio is almost history. Pretty crazy.

In other news, something reminded me the other day of a great Dar Williams song. Maybe it was the puttering I did over the rainy weekend? Anyway, this really speaks to me because I went to college in central/western New York state, and four members of my family were or are SUNY students. I've never been to southern California, but I love how she tried to capture rural New York's intangible charm in the lyrics.

Southern California Wants to be Western New York

There's a part of the country could drop off tomorrow in an earthquake,
Yeah it's out there on the cutting edge, the people move, the sidewalks shake.
And there's another part of the country with a land that gently creaks and thuds,
Where the heavy snows make faucets leak in bathrooms with free-standing tubs.
They're in houses that are haunted, with kids who lie awake and think
all the generations past who used to use that dripping sink.

And sometimes one place wants to slip into the other just to see
What it's like to trade its demons for the restless ghost of Mrs. Ogilvey,
She used to pick the mint from her front yard to dress the Sunday pork,
Sometimes southern California wants to be western New York.

It wants to have a family business in sheet metal or power tools,
It wants to have a diner where the coffee tastes like diesel fuel,
And it wants to find the glory of a town they say has hit the skids,
And it wants to have a snow day that will turn its parents into kids,
And it's embarrassed, but it's lusting after a SUNY student with mousy brown hair
Who is
taking out the compost, making coffee in long underwear.

And southern California says to save a place, I'll meet you there,
And it tried to pack up its Miata, all it could fit was a prayer,
Sometimes the stakes are bogus, sometimes the fast lane hits a fork,
Sometimes southern California wants to be western New York.

Tempe, Arizona thinks the Everglades are greener and wetter,
And Washington, D. C. thinks that Atlanta integrated better,
But I think that southern California has more pain that we can say,
Cause it wants to travel back in time, but it just can't leave L. A.

But now I hear they've got a theme park planned, designed to make you gasp and say,
Oh, I bet that crumbling mill town was a booming mill town in its day,
And the old investors scoff at this, but the young ones hope they'll take a chance,
And they promise it will make more dough than Mickey Mouse in northern France,
And the planners planned an opening day, a town historian will host,
And the waitresses look like waitresses who want to leave for the west coast.

And they'll have puttering on rainy weekends, autumn days that make you feel sad,
They'll have hundred year old plumbing and the family you never had,
And a Hudson River clean-up concert and a bundle-bearing stork,
And I hear they've got a menu planned, it's trés western New York.