Late Summer: The Fifth Season

overcast sky august 19 2019It is a hazy morning, with heavy, indistinct clouds as far as I can see, but I expect that will burn off to another splendid August day. The Chinese calendar has five seasons: Fall, Winter, Spring, Early Summer, and Late Summer. This summer, in particular, I can see the wisdom in that. These August days are nothing like the days of late June and early July. We have shifted to a calmer time, a moment in the year to appreciate the deep glory of late summer.

Book Review: Not Exactly Love

Not Exactly Love: A MemoirNot Exactly Love: A Memoir by Betty Hafner
I met Betty Hafner, author of Not Exactly Love: A Memoir, at a get-together for writers in Saranac Lake last year. It took me awhile to act on my good intentions to buy her book, and then to read it. It is an impressive book – for all the reasons other reviewers mentioned. Very skillful narration and selection of details, and evocative of a time (not entirely ended) when the pressure to be paired up was palpable and the momentum towards the altar pushed young people along and into disastrous commitments. Bravo!

A Micro-Memoir: The “Peent” Call of the Woodcock Returns

In this first week of April, the snow pack that illuminated the fields even on cloudy nights has at last given way to the incessant rain. Last night when I stepped out into the yard with my dog on our last venture of the evening, it was a misty rain that greeted us. I stood a moment to feel the mist, acknowledge the shift in seasons. And was rewarded with the buzzy “peent” call of the woodcock sounding from the field beyond the barn. There has been no return of the spring-warmth that visited us in February, but the woodcock’s arrival assures me – spring has arrived within its beating heart.

A Micro-Memoir: Title IX – Report From the Field

On the 45th anniversary of Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972 

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . .”

Report From the Field: 1977-78

Half a decade after the enactment of Title IX, in my senior year of college, a graduate student organized my university’s first women’s track team. I had been on the first girls’ cross country team at my high school and was glad for another opportunity to train and run, even at such short distances. When I joined the college team, what I knew about being on a team I knew from high school: the boys’ and girls’ teams sometimes practiced together and, when schedules allowed, cheered each other on at meets. And the introduction of the girls’ team meant the introduction of spin-the-bottle at team parties. It was all good.

College was different. In high school our team almost always won our meets – we were one of the few schools that had enough runners to actually qualify as a team. In college the problem wasn’t the size of the team, but the need to enter a minimum number of events. When coach asked for a volunteer to learn to run hurdles and no one else spoke, I volunteered. He was pleased, my teammates were in awe, and I was ready to try.

However, the athletics department wouldn’t give him the key to the equipment room. I was instructed to go to the gym during the men’s practice and use whatever equipment they were not using. Coach had a grad class during the times the men’s team practiced, so he could not go. Instead, he instructed me beforehand on warm-ups, the setting of the hurdles, the placement of my feet between the hurdles, and what to do with my arms, legs, and torso going over them.

My first day of practice set a pattern for every other practice. Because of my own class schedule, I arrived after the men had already started. No one greeted me, no one showed me where the equipment was stored. I found it myself and got out the three hurdles they weren’t using, brought them to one end of the gym, and, with my coach’s words in my head, paced off the spacing of the hurdles, set them up, and began the routine he had prescribed. No one in the gym ever spoke to me – not my classmates, not their coach. I, in turn, never spoke to them. They seemed not to even look at me, and after the first few minutes of that first session, I never looked at any of them.

I have no idea what I was to those young men in that gym, long ago, who did not acknowledge that I shared a sport with them. But I know I made them nothing to me. I was alone in the room, me and my two or three hurdles, with my coach’s words in my head while I counted off my pacing, and with my own words crafting my report to him. In memory, I see only my narrow end of the gym and my few hurdles, and I hear only the sound of my sneakers hitting the floor.

At each women’s team practice I described my latest solo session to my coach, and he offered his advice. Once when I was home for some reason, I walked across the street to the high school’s track that encircled the football field, set up the two hurdles that had been left out, and practiced. Except for track meets, it was the only time I ran the hurdles on a track’s surface. And while I think it is true that the only time my coach ever saw me jump a hurdle outside of a race was during warm ups at meets, I know it is true that the only time I ran a full set of hurdles was during a race.

Running hurdles is an amazing sport. To run at and over the first hurdle is not such a big thing, to land and keep going and set yourself up for the next hurdle is everything. Again, and then again, and again. To line up with other young women and launch out to hurdle myself over those metal bars as they multiplied out in front of me was to experience a shock of physical accomplishment.

On reflection, I know my younger self was fueled by curiosity and desire, and I feel neither anger nor indignation on her behalf. What I feel instead is gratitude for her stubbornness, appreciation that in those quiet practices I learned how to adjust my stride and place my feet, learned how, in midair, to judge the quality of my effort and shift my physical and mental attention so that with each landing I was already at work on the next hurdle. And in my races, when I had run my accustomed few hurdles and began on the others, I learned I was not bound by the limits of my experience. I could take what I knew from three hurdles and go beyond: during my practices I may have learned how to take to the air, but during the meets I was introduced to the deep well of my endurance. It is a well I have returned to, and will continue to turn to, again and again.

Winter Poetry: “Whiteout Conditions”

Today I saw the first robin of the year, but she flew from branches dusted with snow and will have to tolerate degrees in the teens before she is done with this week. But her arrival is a sign that spring will win soon, and mornings of waking to a wonderland of snow that brightens the landscape and records the paths of critters that cross the back field are coming to a close. While it is still winter-like I thought I would share this winter poetry, “Whiteout Conditions.” It was selected by poet Maurice Kenny to appear in a collection he edited, On the Quad.    

Whiteout Conditions

Through the country night snow falls
two inches an hour, warp speed at my windshield.

Star Trek star fields have nothing on these
bulleted flakes
accelerating toward the glass.
All speed ahead
All speed mine
To the left, to the right, flakes drift
casual, to the ground.


A Micro-Memoir: Where I Live

Where I live, the day after you decide that most of life has hunkered down to a private realm of winter-slowed heartbeats, a white weasel scales the rough-cut siding outside the kitchen window to perch below the eave, and a Barred Owl hunts the daylight hours on a low branch just the other side of the garden.

Where I live, if you discover on your country road an old half-ton truck stopped in its tracks with a flat tire, and part of its load of split wood strewn onto the road behind it, pull over and, in imitation of the luckless driver, begin to toss pieces of firewood to the roadside. Nod when he explains, “They’re gonna have to unload it all anyway to fix that flat.”  When another person pulls over and bends, wordless, to the work, nod to him as well. Some other day, doing some other thing, each of you would ease your way with banter. But today there is the task at hand for ease, and you three move, quiet, within the measured beat of rural life.

Winter Deserves Its Own Reading List: A Book Review

It’s odd that summer is the only season to inspire reading lists. Doesn’t winter lend itself just as well, if not better, to a cozy read? Long nights and snow-covered gardens ought to be at least as conducive to losing yourself in a book as long days and inviting weather. And, if summer is for light – even guilty – reading, might not winter lend itself to reading of more heft, more words that will stay with you long after you set the book down?

Gardeners know one sort of winter reading, of course – seed catalogs. They find their way to our mail boxes right about now and parade the lush possibilities of spring and summer. With their bright colors and perfect blooms, they provide a temporary escape from winter, a dreamy state of what might be – a sharp contrast to the no-nonsense realities of long nights, winds whipping with snow, and nose-hair freezing temperatures.

But I don’t want always to escape from winter – where is a book that indulges my love of the stark, uncompromising season in which I will never need to mow the grass or pull a weed? A book that celebrates our long winter season here in Northern New York, that makes our heart glad to look out the window to the riches of life when we might otherwise have seen just a barren blanket of snow?

I discovered just such a book in a drugstore rack of works by local writers: Adirondack Nature Notes. Written by Tom Kalinowski and illustrated by Sheri Amsel, this is a book to keep us company in the winter and beyond: it begins with January and moves through the year from there. What can there be to say about January? Moose, muskrat, shews and moles; the Gray Jay and the Snowy Owl; oxygen levels, tracks, and life beneath the snow and under the ice.

Tom is skilled at anticipating what the reader might be wondering about and presenting information in a logical, understandable way. For example, I was wondering about the occasional dead vole I’ve found on top of the snow. Did it go up there to die? Why hadn’t some wild creature eaten it?  And I was wondering too, why my dog had no more than passing interest: it seemed like something he would pounce on and gulp down before I could stop him. This book has the answer: turns out that the little creature was caught, and then, when the predator identified what it had caught, it was rejected. Why? Because moles and voles have a horrible taste. So, as Tom points out, that little brown corpse on the snow tells me two things – there is a predator around and food is plentiful enough that it didn’t need to eat this unsavory meal. And that bad taste explains why no other creature, including my dog, made a meal of it. Of course, I knew there were predators around – but now I’ll look more carefully for signs of that particular predator when I see this sort of evidence.

I love to fall in love with a book, to find one I know I will read and come back to again and again. Thank you Tom, Sheri, and North Country Books for Adirondack Nature Notes – it’s the first book on my 2017 Winter Reading List.