Puzzles and Classic Rock and a Picture of Pine Needles, Rocks, and Fried Rice

Although I’ve been a grad student and/or teacher for the last five years, this is the first winter in all that time that I’ve had a proper winter break.  I realize most people don’t get these breaks.  It’s a great aspect of being a teacher, though I suspect most teachers

I’m in the middle of winter break—my first real winter break in several years—and I’ve been doing a lot of puzzles while listening to classic rock.  I’ve been doing other things too—cooking, catching up with friends, working on writing projects,

OK, wait.  I feel like I have to apologize for having a winter break or make it known that I know what a privilege it is to have a winter break or explain defensively how I learned not to work through my winter breaks—why they’re so necessary for teachers—or show how I’m actually being kind of productive this winter break or

So, I want to talk about how I feel like I have to apologize for or defend taking a break and how problematic I think that is (and, by the way, I’ve lazily (barely) achieved that, all the while saying I don’t want to).  But more than that, I just want to talk about puzzles and classic rock.  So can I do that, and you can hold off on concluding I’m unaware of what a privilege a winter break is?  (Not to assume you’re all judgy or anything, but I’m supposed to at least not alienate you if I want you to keep reading.)  Maybe you could even let me off the hook of addressing this whole—I mean, I just don’t know that I want to address this.  I mean, it’s an important idea, the difficulty of taking a break, but I’m so so enjoying . . . I’m so so into just . . . I just . . . I just can’t even . . . I mean, it’s winter break.

So, I’ve done six puzzles so far and listened to Amazon’s classic rock dinner party playlist more times than that.  It’s a cozy groove I’m in.  Puzzles absorb me in a way that only visual projects do.  And I love the fact that I’m creating something that already has a complete outcome.  It’s like creating without any burdened sense of responsibility.  I suppose cooking is a bit like that for me too.  I trust the recipe the way I trust the puzzle makers.  I trust the process, have no real worries about the end product, and just lose myself in the making.  And there’s the satisfaction of creating something so tangible and whole.

Actually, I didn’t know I was going to write about this idea of creating with an unburdened sense of responsibility.  That idea came up as I wrote the last paragraph, which is something so cool about writing—how it lets ideas emerge.  But I digress.

I have long known that I get sucked into puzzles because of how the colors, patterns, and shapes catch my eye speak to me.  It’s almost like they’re telling me what to do: “try this,” “over here,” “me next.”  And it’s hard to keep up.  I scan the table hunting for a piece with a big whale-head shape or gather up pieces with purple next to white, I hear the satisfying click of one piece after another fitting into place, and before I know it, an hour has passed, two hours.  If only there was some way I could make money at this.

So, sitting at the table, zoning out, listening to Neil Young, Elton John, Chicago, Pink Floyd, Stephen Stills, the Stones, with a thin and heady winter light at the window like the carbonation in a glass of 7 UP, well it takes me back to my senior year of high school, 9th period—Mr. Duno’s sculpture class.  This class!!  Everyone, no matter who  The tables  One time in the hall  Every afternoon Mr. Duno, or Duno, as everyone  9th period was the last period of the day, which felt only natural—inevitable—in this class where we would just totally relax, where we felt so free.  Sitting on our metal stools at big wooden tables, we’d work in clay or lost wax, talking and joking with each other while the classic rock station played in the background.  The sculpture studio was a corner room with two walls of tall lead paned windows suspending us like the peaceful preciousness within a snow globe, first in that fine and heady light of winter and then in that fruitier yet still effervescent light of spring.

I swear every kid in that room was equal in the sight of sculpture.  In a big and cliqueish high school, this was a label-free zone.  I remember one day Duno called us all out into the hallway.  He had a huge iron hoop—something that would have been around a big barrel—and he just spun the thing and we all stood around it and watched it lope around and around making a zwombing noise, its arcs swooping lower and slower until it clanged on the cold floor and Duno said something like “That’s just so damn cool.”  I don’t actually remember if Duno swore, but if he didn’t he said something else that showed that he was just so himself around us, so real.  So that was it, and then we went back into the studio and picked up our pieces where we’d left off.

Ah.  I’ve been wondering how I was going to incorporate this photo into this blog post and had decided that, in the spirit of “I’m on winter break” I didn’t need any connection, transition, or whatever—that randomness was the order of the day.  But now I see that the connection is that I just think this picture is just so damn cool.

Tree Stump With

I was walking home from a café on Tuesday and something caught my eye called out to me.  It was freezing.  But I pulled over, scuttled down a bank of grass, and bared my hands to take this photo because it’s just so damn cool.  It is Tree Stump with Pine Needles, Rocks, and Fried Rice.  Watch it spin.

So, yeah, I’m not going to talk about the difficulty of taking a break. I’m on break.

Erasure Season

One of my favorite blog posts has been Balance, in which I made erasure poems from my students’ final projects at the end of last spring semester.  I found myself thinking about it a lot last week, at the end of a rigorous fall semester and in the thick of grading final papers.  I was itching to erase!

Grading can be so serious, and this has felt especially true the last few weeks.  Taking these pieces of writing that have been wrapped up in layers of bullet-pointed requirements, comment bubbles of feedback, and ppt slides of prompts and pitfalls, and cutting through it all with a laser beam focus on a few words and phrases,  playing with it all in the face of so much seriousness–this is more than some fun preoccupation, this is

Oh gosh, what is it?  Do I really have to think this hard right now?  Ok, ok.  An act of rebellion, maybe?  A necessary measure to preserve sanity?  A rescue mission?

Whatever it is, I confess it felt more urgent last week when I was still grading–maybe because of the seriousness of grading or maybe out of a desire to procrastinate.  And maybe those things aren’t so separate.  At any rate, I did finally get around to these after the grades were in, which seems somehow less than satisfactory.  I wonder what I would have come up with if I’d thrown on the brakes in the middle of all that work to erase.  Then again, maybe the promise of erasure helped me get through my work.

Erasure Watching Eyes


Erasure Budding Heart


Erasure Other Words


Erasure Genius Brains

These strike me as wintry and peaceful, as calm in their uniqueness as snowflakes.

Do any of you teachers and students out there want to join me?  Is there anyone out there, regardless of jobish label, who wants to take the texts in their lives back from all seriousness?  Send me your photos or poems, and I will publish them on this blog of mine.

Leaf Picking along 10th Street

leaves 1

This last day of September was a windy one, and more of fall’s fledgling foliage made its meandering way to the sidewalks, streets, and grassy margins of Arlington.  I was walking to a cafe to do some grading and found myself picking up leaves from the ground.  I’d been thinking about a project from my childhood in which fall leaves were pressed between sheets of wax paper with an iron and then hung in the window.  In fact, I’d thought of it several times in the last week and assumed it would probably stay just a thought since there’s grading and dishes and a dozen other more sensible things to do than iron leaves and wax paper.  But . . .

Call it the kid in me, or the one-time art major who collected found objects from dumpster detritus, or the poet who rebels against the hegemony of analysis that is grading–some me in me heard the call of a yellow spade-shaped leaf and answered.  One leaf in hand, it was easy to keep going.  In fact, it was hard to stop, though ardently ignoring every passer-by seemed an important part of leaf picking along 10th street.  After all, this is no Amherst, Mass, no Taos, New Mexico, no Portland, Oregon.  This is D.C.–a place for getting things done and being somebody.  What frivolity–this staring at the ground, this tarrying on the way to work, this collecting colors–colors!

Back at home a few hours later, the ironing did not go so well.  I could only get one composition to stick.  The internet only helped me surmise that the project had never been quite what I remembered.

Then I went for a run down to the Netherlands Carillon.  I sat on the base of the tower and looked out at the Lincoln and Washington Memorials blazing white against the blue sky.  And then a bald eagle flew overhead and circled and bobbed and seemed to be surfing the wind, and I thought, so someone else is enjoying some frivolity today.  Then I second-guessed myself.  Maybe the eagle had been struggling with the wind.  Maybe it had been knocked of course.  But then, doesn’t frivolity look just like that?




Rocket finned, red moon petaled and many mouthed,
bursts bursting bursts, begonia, your hearts and spades
and chicken feet flying saucer me.  Your artichoke blood
bake sugar sprinkled tender leather paper lantern me,
pink lip and baby finger tip me, begonia.