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Archive for October, 2014

My family spent the Columbus Day weekend in Franconia, New Hampshire, through the beneficence of an acquaintance with an available condo there. Franconia itself is just north of Franconia Notch, access point for the trails up Franconia Ridge, a hike I’ve wanted to do for years. Malcolm, at seven, is supremely confident in his hiking abilities, and I am too often susceptible to his suggestions for overly ambitious trips. This time, I bowed to the realities of two young children, a husband with an unreliable knee, and the ever encroaching darkness at either end of the day gnawing away at the available hiking hours. I scrapped my hopes of hiking the ridge. Instead, we climbed Cannon Mountain, a 4100 foot peak across the notch from the Ridge.

The trail is short, and, typical of White Mountain paths, heads just about straight up the mountain, regardless of the obstacles. No switchbacks, no effort to avoid boulders or slab, so the trail sometimes resembles not so much a path as a dry creek bed. The route was direct, but difficult. Arguably, our trails are like our people in that regard.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

The view of Lafayette from Cannon.

There were other people on the trail, a few knots of college students with dogs, a passel of hedge fund types talking loudly about their returns, but overall, it was quiet and not crowded as we wound our way up the steep side and then the level secondary peak and little dip of a col before the final rise to the summit. At the end of the trail, we came to a gravel path, well-groomed and wide, which was disorienting enough. Then, a steady flow of people emerged from around a bend. They had just disembarked from the aerial tramway that conveys tourists up to the summit’s observation tower. A distance we had covered in two hours, with multiple snack and water breaks, and nagging thoughts of my whinging Achilles and overtensed hamstring, these people had traversed in twenty minutes. The coffee and hot chocolate they’d bought at the bottom hadn’t had time to cool. They wore leather equestrian boots and carried red purses. They tugged at insufficient sweatshirts or jackets and breathed into their hands. They crowded onto the deck of the observation tower and tried to coax their children to smile before the backdrop of the mountains.

The disorientation of emerging into this scene is not unique to Cannon. When Christophe and I climbed Mount Washington, we had a similar feeling as we crossed the last, barren scree field and came up over a ridge to see throngs of people ill-dressed for the conditions, but unconcerned in their flip flops and t-shirts, snapping photos and buying souvenirs before returning to their cars or the cog railway for transport back down the mountain. We put on our extra layers of fleece and contemplated the hours ahead of us to get back to the trailhead in Pinkham Notch.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

Nor is Christophe immune to taking panoramic shots.

What is that feeling, coming up into such a group when they’ve been carried up and I’ve walked? The fall foliage was a bit past peak as we sat there, but the yellow of the beeches was still licking up the flanks of Lafayette across to the east. Sitting on the only available bench, we received a glowering look from a harried mother with two kids of her own fresh off the tram. Christophe leaned over to me and said, “I don’t feel the least bit guilty about taking this bench.” Watching these people take panoramic pictures with their phones and jostle and cajole their kids, and rub their cold arms in the brief time they had before the return trip, I had the distinct sense of moving at half speed compared with them. They were still paced for the ordinary world–everything at least quick, mostly instantaneous. We’d climbed for two hours, and had two hours yet to climb back down. Our whole day was consumed by this mountain. I’m glad to see people get outside and into the mountains however they can. Those kids may, having seen the mountains from this perch, someday decide to climb them on their own power. It’s good for people to get outside. And there are other mountains that offer solitude, and no tramways or roads. I am still a few years from being able to climb them with any regularity, so they preoccupy me. While I’m preparing lectures or grading homework, the breaks I take are to read stories about hiking or long backpacking trips. I look at a lot of pictures. Someone, a family friend, once took me for a hike up a small mountain to a fire tower. Ever since then, I was captivated by the idea of walking up mountains. Taking kids up a mountain on the tramway is better than nothing.

15539742431_6d01846359_o-2The next day, we waited three hours for a seat at Polly’s Pancake Parlor. It was a cool, sunny day, and from outside the restaurant, there is a clear view across the notch at Franconia Ridge. As the morning progressed, clouds descended on the peaks. Not on little cat feet, but with broad, leonine paws, and then, lowering its full bulk down until the peaks were all obscured. How many years before I can walk up there myself and traverse that ridge? Maybe two or three, and my boys will be able to hike it without much trouble. For now, I look at it from any angle I can. From Cannon, across the notch, from a clearing in Sugar Hill, from Route 93 creeping along its base. We’ll get up there one of these days. But you can’t see the summit from the summit itself. The views are better at this remove.

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I’m now five or so weeks into my teaching semester, and my own kids even longer into their elementary school year. Simon, our five year old, boarded the school bus for the first time in August. I’d thought I might feel at least some little twinge: our younger child off to school, no more babies for real now. But I felt no particular emotion (aside from the sense of freedom that came with his getting on that bus). When I tell people that, many of them appear a little unnerved, as if it indicates an overall lack of sensitivity to the passage of time, or to the bittersweet nature of kids growing up. As to that last, so far, it’s really only been sweet since I genuinely disliked caring for babies and toddlers. From here on, I suspect it may get harder.

With our elder son, we focused on the firsts. With our younger, the lasts. It’s a typical pattern, and one probably partly responsible for the defining personality characteristics of birth order. I am attuned to all the lasts in my second child like I never was with my first son. A couple months ago, Simon said, “Wow, now I can have gum like a big boy,” and it must have been that he’s gradually stopped using the phrase “big boy” or I wouldn’t have noticed it this time. But he doesn’t usually talk like that anymore, and he hasn’t used the term since. I was, at that moment, I think, listening to him describe himself as a big boy for the last time, and as he stopped calling himself one, he became one.

Kids aren’t good at understanding these subtle and slow sorts of shifts. They like the grand gestures, the clear delineations. One day, when Simon was much younger, I was carrying him down the stairs and reciting a poem to him. “And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow, imagine being Kevin. Which is he? Self-forgetful, or in agony all the time?” and before I could give the next line, Simon blurted, “in agony all the time.” It had to be one or the other, and I suppose he heard more music in that one.

This fall, I started a new job on the science faculty at my local community college. I moved into my office, set up my science books and my posters of marine life, and settled into my schedule teaching chemistry. Settling down to something has never been my strong suit. After my undergraduate degree in English literature, I went off to veterinary school for a general sense of how animals are put together, and how they fall apart. After that, teaching biology, animal science, and now chemistry. Unlike my colleagues with PhDs, my knowledge has never delved very deep, but has stretched very wide, my interests ever broadening. I couldn’t settle to one thing, drill down the way they needed to, become immersed in an exclusive subject. This job though, has an air of permanence. I’ve signed the pension papers with every expectation that I will be here no less than ten years, and hopefully far longer. I have stepped onto the tenure track. If all goes well, I will still be teaching here in thirty years.

across disciplines: drawings in the science halls.

Across disciplines: the drawings in the science halls.

Some people, when they hear about my educational trajectory, assume I got my English degree and then came to my senses and found something more practical, more marketable.  But I have been veering like this all my life. I have a notebook from when I was 11 and assiduously recorded everything I heard on a PBS special about neuroscience. By high school, I had vague ideas about being a writer instead. At the end of college, I thought maybe a poem-writing veterinarian– the animal doctor version of William Carlos Williams, but I could find fewer and fewer people who said anything aside from “pick one.” The English background was a benefit of course (“We need more scientists who can write,” one professor told me) but it was meant to be only background. Whatever I settled to for my graduate degree would be who I really was intellectually.

My office is on the third floor of the science building, but our hallway shares space with the art department. Our big corner classroom is a studio, and the bulletin boards outside are a revolving gallery. This week, it was figure drawings, skeletons in charcoal, and paintings of some large, bovine skull. Some of my colleagues find it irritating that so much of our hallway is consumed by art, but I love it. I’ve spent this first fifteen years or so of my adult life deflecting off one thing and veering into another. The longer I stay in this job, and the greater the proportion of my life I devote to science, the more I wonder what happens to that humanities part of me. The English major part that was not, despite what anyone thinks, a frivolity, or a luxury I indulged in before I got down to serious, marketable work. I am fortunate that I also love science, since the gods right now are smiling down on science education. Blessed be the STEM instructors. But I will always have my secret affinities, however many years of science teaching may encase them. Science is what I do, it’s what I teach, and I love it. But the humanities are who I am. And when I wonder if that true self can survive this commitment to a fundamentally different way of looking at the world, I suppose I know it will. It’s not a choice after all. Things grade into things. Little boys become big boys, a writer teaches science, and what we call everything is not always by its true name.

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