New Body Parts

Tonight while drawing at the kitchen table, Vivi had an itch on her back. She reached around to scratch it, then jumped in shock. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. Eyes wide but arm still reaching back, she said, “I felt something! What am I touching?”

I leaned over to look behind her, expecting her to have maybe squashed a mosquito or discovered a leaf stuck to her sweaty, sweaty skin. But no: she had discovered her shoulder blade, which was jutting out, like they do. I told her that she was just touching her shoulder blade, and she wondered in response, “Did I just grow it? Does everyone have them?” I pulled up my shirt and scrunched my scapulae to make them pop out. She touched them softly, perhaps worried they were going to bite, smiled, and reached around her own back to touch her own again.

Just wait’ll she discovers biceps (among other interesting body parts).

Reunion Seedlings

Carleton’s annual reunion is a huge deal, literally taking over campus for three days in the middle of June every year. The aftermath is always impressive: giant empty tents, scores of recycling bins, trodden-down grass… This year the aftermath included some new seedlings – maples by the look of the leaves – in a part of the Arboretum where the indefatigable Arb crew recently cleared away buckthorn and other underbrush. I think the seedlings look pretty cute in their little nets:


Jazz (History) Is Over (part II)

Following on yesterday’s post about my experience in Steve Kelly’s jazz history course, here are the best ten songs that I heard for the first time in the course.

10. Coleman Hawkins, “Body and Soul” (1939)

9. Nina Simone, “Love Me Or Leave Me” (ca. 1965)

8. Count Basie Orchestra, “One O’ Clock Jump” (1937)

7. Nat King Cole, “Just You, Just Me” (1957)

6. The Modern Jazz Quartet, “Django” (1960)

5. Count Basie & Jimmy Rushing, “I Left My Baby” (1939)

4. Joshua Redman, “Moose the Mooche” (1993)

3. Benny Goodman Orchestra, featuring Charlie Christian, “Solo Flight”

2. Duke Ellington, “Sepia Panorama” (1940)

1. Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues” (original Armstrong version, 1928)

Preschool Mathematician

Vivi, bless her heart (and mind), is obsessed with Julia’s homework. Thing is, she can do all the spelling/reading homework just as well as Julia, so that’s actually a breeze. But math is much more complicated, and so she gets awfully frustrated trying to figure out, say, how to work out “10 + 10” or “21 – 10” – even though she can readily do easier problems.

That doesn’t stop her, though. While Julia was doing her math homework tonight, Vivi grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote out a bunch of random numbers – 56, 75, 57, 81, NOP. (No, I didn’t understand how the last one was a number, either. And, endearingly, she writes all her 7’s backwards.) Then, she proudly pointed at the first one and asked me, “What equals 56, Daddy?” I wasn’t sure what she meant, though I assumed that she did actually mean what “equals” actually means. “What do you mean, honey? Lots of things equal 56, like 46 plus 10, or 55 plus 1.”

Instant rage. “NO, DADDY! WHAT EQUALS FIFTY-SIX? EQUALS IT! YOU KNOW WHAT EQUALS IS!” I weakly tried to contain the bomb. “One number can equal lots of different numbers, honey. Like 1 plus 3 equals 4, or 2 plus 2 equals 4.” I knew this wasn’t going to make a difference to her, but I had to try.

She threw her pencil across the table, crumpled up the sheet of paper, and screamed, “You don’t know anything, Daddy! Never talk to me again!”

Just then Shannon swooped in and gave her a kindergarten-level math workbook. Vivi instantly cheered up and got cracking – counting the number of items in various sets, doing one-digit addition and subtraction, etc. Poor kid needs to let her brain catch up with her ambition.


I was traipsing around the house this afternoon, just before dinner, when our neighbors pulled up in their car and leapt out excitedly, looking down at a spot in their driveway. “Christopher,” one called, “Did you see that snake?” I hadn’t, so I went over, expecting to see a footlong garter snake wriggling away.

Oh, no. It was not a garter snake, but a big spotted snake that I estimated to be about four feet long. It slithered away from us and hid under a bush in my neighbor’s yard, clearly saying in snake, “Nothin’ to see here! Move along!”

So after a few minutes of gawking (and me grabbing Vivi more than once to keep her from walking right up to it), we did. Though a quick Google search suggested that it was an Eastern hognose snake, a snake that’s common in Minnesota and harmless, others later said that it was probably a bullsnake, another ubiquitous and harmless snake, albeit one that eats lots of mice and rats. I checked back a bit later and didn’t see it there anymore. Time for dinner (not toads)!

After dinner, Julia and Genevieve and I went outside for a few minutes. Vivi ran all around the yard, being her usual silly self, while Julia and I played pitch and catch. I absentmindedly scanned the yard for any legless reptiles, but forty-five minutes had passed, so I didn’t expect to see any.

Then, just after we finished playing, I did: the snake, slithering on a diagonal line from the back corner of our neighbors’ place to a small copse of trees at the back of our yard. It was moving fast, but the girls and I got up pretty close to it. Shannon came out and stayed well back. WIthout exaggerating too much, I can say that watching this snake cut through the grass felt primordial, an experience shared with our African forebears.

Backyard Visitor - 1

Though I was initially shocked, that sensation faded into simply being unsettled. The lateral-but-forward motion of a snake is just not right, somehow.

Backyard Visitor - 2

Regardless of my mammalian response, the snake crossed the grass, scooted effortlessly up a little rise to a lone evergreen, where it paused for a minute (“Nothin’ to see here! Move along!”) before continuing on to the trees.

Backyard Visitor - 3

We walked alongside it, maybe two or three feet away, until it reached the brush and quite magically disappeared, its spots blending perfectly into the grass, leaves, branches, and such. We stayed there for a while, catching occasional glimpses of it wriggling along. I hope the snake safely crossed the road near our house and is in the swath of grass and wetland that surrounds the nearest cornfield, happily snacking on toads.

Despite my palpitations at seeing the snake crossing the yard where my girls had just been standing literally 60 seconds before, overall I thought it was a pretty cool experience, at least on a par with our backyard encounters with a snapping turtle (May 2008) and a salamander (October 2007). Then again, I hope I don’t meet the snake again anytime soon.

Ten Bits of Kidness

1. Genevieve has been playing constantly with a tiny dog from one of her Little People playsets. She’s named him “Woofy Woofy” and spends a good chunk of each day feeding him(toy food from the girls’ kitchen, putting to sleep on one of the girls’ chairs, and especially hiding him in the couch cushions, then rediscovering him.

2. For her part, Julia has been enamored since Christmas with Pinky Pie, a My Little Pony which she carefully grooms, puts to sleep in a special “stable” made from of a toy bin and blankets in their room, and of course carries around nonstop.

3. Family friends recently gave us some hand-me-down clothes for Vivi, and she is besotted with a pair of red track pants. They’re lined, so they’re extremely warm, but they also make an interesting “swishswish” sound as she walks – so much so that she alters her gait to make the legs of the pants rub as much and as loudly as possible.

4. Both girls have revived a weird game of pretending that the last few bites of food at any meal is actually gum. The chew that mouthful up endlessly and murmur in a weird voice, “Look – I have gum.” Julia also pauses dramatically, opens her mouth, blows out, and then asks, “Did you see that big bubble?”

5. Genevieve insists on going out to the bus stop with me and Julia every day, no matter the weather, mostly to soak up the big-girl antics of Julia and the two first graders who also wait with us. Lately, Vivi has started getting in line when the other girls are getting on the bus, too. So far, she hasn’t actually walked up to the bus door – and she always turns away when the bus driver waves to her.

6. Genevieve is pretty much the only person in the house who really likes our grumpy old cat, Sabine, and she really likes her. She’ll interrupt her playing to go find Sabine, whom she calls “little buddy,” and just about goes over the moon if the cat deigns to sniff her face when she leans in. “Dabean gave me a kitsh!” (She also loves loves loves our friends’ cat, Juno.)

7. Many nights, Julia makes a point of going to the window to wish upon a star – which is sometimes an actual star but has also been the light on a nearby radio tower and even the wing lights on a descending airplane. She tries not to reveal what she’s wishing each night, but eventually she reveals that she’s wishing we could go to Disneyworld.

8. If she’s in an even passably good mood, Genevieve is probably singing a made-up song about whatever she’s doing – playing, reading a book, going to the bathroom, eating a snack. The songs – which I really have to try to record – are about 60% actual words and 40% crazy made-up nonsense – though Vivi also makes a point to find rhymes, some of which are positively inspired.

9. The girls continue their habit of eating in parallel: eating the same items at the same time, and pausing as needed for one to catch up with the other. This morning, I told them something, and they froze in identical poses as they listened: both were lifting their milk cups with their left hands and holding their slices of toast in their right hands. It was an eerie effect.

10. A few weeks ago, Genevieve invented the phrase “beebee baba” as nonsense to fill in any sentence or question. “What’re you doing, Viver?” “Oh, nuffin. Just beebee baba.” Now both girls are gleefully using the phrase at all times. They have entire conversations in which the only “words” are variants on “beebee baba.”

Ski Videos

(Cross-posted from my other blog)
Last week, the FIS linked to a video of one of Matti Heikkinen’s training days at Ramsau. The video’s sponsored by Polar, the Finnish heart-rate monitor company, so it is a bit Euro-cheesy and pretty heavy on the HR data, but it’s still an interesting look into an elite athlete’s training regimen. I guess his “long hard hill workout” (1:40 and 24km long, with an average HR of 160 bpm and 40 minutes over anaerobic threshold) had the desired effects, given that Heikkinen won the Davos skate race a few weeks after the video came out.

The Internet emitted another slick-and-cheesy training video this week, as well: a piece produced by NBC and the National Science Foundation that looks at the basic physiology of skiing and focuses on American Liz Stephen. An installment in a series that’s part of NBC’s Olympic coverage, the video is worth a look – if only to snicker when they use a clip of Virpi Kuitunen to show the body generating energy.

Vivi Art

While Julia makes “cooking chapter books”, Vivi is making more abstract works like this, which includes several “letters” (running left to right, a orangish V, a purplish S, a green L, a blue O, and a black “wowa case” B), a  nice black box in the center, and in the upper right, the jagged shape of a parrot. The pointiest jag, at the top right, is the parrot’s beak, of course. Click through for the usual notes on Flickr.


I’m jittery with excitement for tomorrow’s penultimate day of the Tour de France, an unprecedentedly late mountain stage which ends with a summit finish on Mont Ventoux, a colossal limestone ridge that, in dominating the skyline of Provence, has long been called le Géant Provençal – the Giant of Provence.

Ventoux is widely considered the hardest climb in France, which is remarkable given that the country also includes some not-insignificant hills in the Alps and the Pyrenees. But Ventoux stands alone. The mountain literally stands alone by being quite distant from the actual Alps of which it is the westernmost outcrop. Figuratively, Ventoux stands alone as the only Tour climb to have killed a man, the English racer Tom Simpson, who collapsed from exertion and a cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs on his way up the Ventoux in 1967.

2009 Tour de France: Stage 20
2009 Tour de France: Stage 20

Given the importance of Ventoux this year – the Tour has never had a mountain stage this close to the finish – it’s not surprising that the cycling press is pulling out all the stops. Velonews – which, back in the day, I would buy in hard copy for twice the cover price after special-0rdering it through the local B. Dalton store – has a great story about covering the climb as a photographer, trying to find the spots where the riders are suffering worst and most photogenically. Over at, the former pro Bobby Julich does a good job  describing the horrors of the climb. The experts at Cyclingnews look back at the other times Ventoux has figured in the Tour – six as a regular climb, seven as a summit finish. And at Pez Cycling, Lance Armstrong’s coach provides an excellent “pregame” analysis of the stakes for the top five riders, including Mr. Livestrong and the Yellow Jersey:

One thing makes it very difficult to make predictions about Stage 20, and that is its position as the penultimate stage of the 2009 Tour de France. Normally, riders have to evaluate the long-range impact of their tactical decisions because there are more stages to come, more mountains to climb, more time time trials to complete. But not tomorrow.

Now the riders just have to ride the damn thing. If the official Tour timetable can be believed, the peloton should reach the foot of the Giant around 8:30 a.m. Central time.

25 Random Things About Me

(This is a “meme” floating around Facebook, but by god I’m not going to author web content that can’t be repurposed. Apologies if you’ve seen this on FB. Links to responses – on FB or elsewhere – are welcome.)

1. I grew up in two snowy ex-mining towns in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – Ironwood (2008-2009 snowfall to date: 123 inches/10.25 feet) and Hancock (2008-2009 snowfall to date: 189 inches/15.75 feet). I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else from my hometowns whom I didn’t already know, and I rarely meet anyone who grew up in the U.P.

2. I love winter, especially sunny, cold days with a few flurries. I would vote in favor of six- or nine-month winters.

3. While I was growing up, my family slid out of the middle class, then climbed back into the bottom of the bottom. Experiencing this shaped my worldview and politics more than anything else.

4. My junior year at Macalester, I withdrew from an off-campus studies program to Vietnam at the last minute because the trip abroad would have coincided exactly with the last two terms on campus of someone I’d just fallen in love with. I’ve been married to her now for almost 14 years, so that worked out okay.

5. My wife has been far more important in shaping my personality than my parents.

6. Except for two brief trips to Toronto and Winnipeg, I have never been out of the United States, and I haven’t been to many places within the U.S., either.

7. Though I have been a lifelong fan of the Green Bay Packers, the only sport I really follow anymore is the cross-country skiing World Cup, which is finally accessible in North America thanks to the internet.

8. I’ve blogged at least once a day since 2005. Thanks to blogging, Twitter, FaceBook, and the like, I have a wider and deeper set of friends and acquaintances now than I have ever had before.

9. When I think about places I’ve lived, I often think about the pizza I ate there: Fontecchio’s Bell Chalet in Ironwood (okay, Hurley, next door), Jim’s and Ambassador in Hancock (okay, Ambassador is in Houghton, next door), Risimini’s and Checkerboard in St. Paul (college), Giordano’s and Gino’s East and Uno in Chicago (grad school), Ginelli’s and Punch in Minneapolis (working life), and, uh, B&L in Northfield (ditto).

10. I have had a teenage boy’s appetite since I was actually a teenage boy. There is basically no time in any day when I’m not pretty hungry, except maybe right after Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve been the same height and weight since I was about 16, and have had size 12 feet since then, too. If I had a dollar for every time a salesperson has looked at me doubtfully when I asked for a size 12 shoe, I’d have enough cash for some hand-cobbled wingtips or for the next two years’ running shoes.

11. The strangest thing that has ever happened to me involved my big feet. While I was walking home late one night to my apartment in Chicago – which was in “Boy’s Town,” a gay neighborhood near Wrigley Field – a man about my age stopped me to ask for directions to a nearby bar. I gave him the information, and he asked if I’d walk there with him. When I passed on that offer, he made a different one: paying me to go back to his apartment to let him look at my feet, which he claimed to like very much. I passed on this offer, too, and used my size twelves to get the hell home.

12. My 20s were all about my brain (being married, going grad school), while my 30s are turning out to be all about my body (various more-or-less minor ailments, training seriously as a runner and skier, serving as a pack animal for my kids).

13. Seeing my two girls happily playing together is as near to perfect happiness as I can probably get, and the culmination of every bit of parenting I’ve done.

14. I always feel a sharp sense of missing my girls about 15 minutes after they fall asleep, no matter how easy or difficult it was to get them to that point and despite the fact that they’re just a few steps away.

15. I get more extroverted every year, mostly because doing my job and raising my kids would be painfully difficult if I were as introverted now as I was ten years ago.

16. Talking with my kids reminds me how little I *really* see, remember, or know. They’re not sponges, soaking everything up, so much as incredibly powerful computers. A little buggy, though.

17. I am a huge fan of Apple, currently owning two Mac laptops and three iPods, and Google, daily using at least seven distinct Google services (not including search).

18. I started going deaf sometime in my 30s. I’d gladly trade worse eyesight for normal hearing, since there’s no LASIK for ears and wearing two hearing aids is a big pain. On the other hand, being hard of hearing can be an advantage as a parent.

19. I am daily amazed that I have a PhD. Earning it is a distant memory, and its benefits are at best oblique.

20. I’m fascinated by my heritage – roughly half Finnish and half Belgian – in spite, or because, of the fact that neither set of grandparents were very “ethnic.” Someday, I want to visit the places in Finland and Belgium where my ancestors came from.

21. Based on my survey of male relatives, it’s equally unlikely that I’ll ever be either bald or bearded. Which seems right.

22. I could, and sometimes do, happily spend all day talking to people about the work they do. People’s jobs are endlessly fascinating to me. My worst-ever job required me to clean out the meat locker and the incinerator at a local grocery store.

23. I had never written a grant proposal before getting my current job, but I somehow wasn’t surprised to find grantwriting to be so engrossing and enjoyable. Every proposal is like an elaborate verbal puzzle, with a direct, measurable outcome. Money, I mean.

24. As much as I enjoy – and practice – writing, I want to acquire some sort of visual skill in the next few years, such as drawing or graphic design. If only I worked somewhere that provided free classes…

25. Cross-country skiing feels as natural to me as walking, even though I only started skiing since high school, didn’t do it for ten years, and am not very fast. My “life list” includes racing in two big ski marathons: the Marcialonga in northern Italy (70km/43 miles) and the Vasaloppet in Sweden (90 kilometers/56 miles). Hopefully I can do this sometime in the next decade.