Saturday, January 30, 2010


We awoke this morning to a few inches of snow. Most businesses are closed today, most churches are closed tomorrow, and we expect most public schools systems will be closed on Monday. We haven't drunk any of the milk yet, but S single-handedly ate most of a loaf of bread yesterday, so it was a good thing I went shopping.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Weather event countdown

On Wednesday, the National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch for almost the entire state of North Carolina beginning Friday afternoon and ending Saturday evening. According to, "WRAL chief meteorologist Greg Fishel said he 'can't stress how unusual' it is for a winter storm watch to be posted so far in advance." Other area meteorologists advise stocking up on supplies today, in anticipation of anywhere between half an inch of ice and ten or more inches of snow.

Will this be the sort of twice-or-thrice-in-a-decade Extreme Winter Weather Event I blogged about earlier this year, or another let-down following a hyperventilating forecasting frenzy? Let the countdown begin!

Update 4:36 p.m.: The waffling begins. Forecasters are backing off earlier predictions: instead of 10-12 inches of snow, they're anticipating 3-5. Neighbors on the go say grocery stores are too crowded to navigate. Woe to those who go shopping tomorrow: there won't be any milk left on the shelves.

Update 9:41 p.m.: Aging Reader astutely asks, "Why [is the clock counting down to] one minute before midnight on Friday? That is several hours after Friday afternoon." The answer is that, given the snow forecasting track record around here, I am trying to be gracious. The winter storm watch was due to begin at 4 p.m. Friday; I figured as long as it started to snow by midnight, the forecasters deserved to earn some points. The watch, incidentally, has now been replaced by a warning that begins at 6 p.m. Friday (so you can see that had I set the clock for 4 p.m., no one could win), and the snow isn't supposed to start until after midnight. Oh well.

When I was growing up in central Illinois, a watch meant conditions were ripe for the formation of some nasty weather phenomenon (usually a tornado), while a warning meant the phenomenon was taking place. Here in North Carolina, a warning means significant weather is "expected or occurring." And, well, not to be cynical, but there's a big difference between expecting something to happen and the fulfillment of that expectation.

Update Friday 2:29 p.m.: Well folks, it looks like this might be the real deal. The current forecast is 6-8 inches of snow, starting around 9 p.m. and continuing for 24 hours. "There is still time to prepare!" said this morning, so I pretended to be a Southerner and went shopping. On the top of my list were bread and milk, because when it snows in the South, you will die if you attempt to go 24 hours without them. I also bought some red wine on impulse, along with some celery and a few North Carolina sweet potatoes because they're tasty.'s leading headline right now declares "'Potent' winter storm on its way to N.C." I am enjoying the scare quotes around "potent." Do they mean the folks who called it potent don't really know what they're talking about? ("'Potent'? [snork] Yeah, right.") Do they mean "potent" is a particularly catchy turn of phrase that the author of the article couldn't possibly have arrived at him/herself, or that it's an adjective we should take especially seriously because it was spoken by an authority on winter storm types? Or do the scare quotes simply mean "Be scared! It is going to snow!"?

Update Friday 6:31 p.m.: Someone flipped the on/off switch and we suddenly have substantial snow coming down. Points will be awarded at midnight, unless the transformers have already exploded by then.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The G-word

As I was carpooling E and D to school this morning, E asked from the back seat, "Mama, is 'God' a bad word?"

"'God'? No, 'God' isn't a bad word," I said. "In fact, 'God' is usually a good word. But some people think it's disrespectful to use the word 'God' in certain ways."

"Yeah," chimed in D: "you shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain."

E and D have both heard kids at school chew one another out for doing that. Indeed, I was volunteering in E's classroom a couple years ago when I was privy to such a conversation between two first-graders who were working together at a small table. It went more or less like this:

Girl (shaking her head at some ridiculousness): "Oh God."
Boy (appalled): "You take that back!"
Girl: "What?"
Boy: "You said God."
Girl (realizing both that she's busted and that she's found the right button to push): "No."
Boy: "You're taking the Lord's name in vain! Take it back!"
Girl: "No. I can say 'God' if I want."
Boy: "You take it back!"
Girl: "God God God God God God God God!"
Boy: "You shut up now, you %#*!!@, or I'm gonna get my brother to whip your butt!"

Anyway, back to this morning's conversation, I said, "that's right. So 'God' is a good word that people sometimes use badly, but it isn't a 'bad word' like some other things people say that I'm not going to say in the car right now."

"Oh!" said E brightly, "like the F-word, the A-word, the S-word, and the C-word?"

"Whoa, you know all those words?!"

"Yup," said E and D simultaneously, proud of their scandalous, alphabet-defined playground vocabulary. Then E, ever honest, confessed, "Actually, I don't know what the C-word is..." (D: "Me neither.") "...Or the D-word...Or the E-word..."

Four letters down, twenty-two left to go. Maybe after a few more years of schooling, they'll be able to tell me what the Z-word is.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Don't be doing that

Tonight at my pottery class, being the safety geek that I am, I advised a student intent on carving a nearly bone-dry pot to do it over the sink: "You really don't want to be breathing in all that clay dust," I said, observing the powdery accumulation on the table and in her lap.

As soon as I uttered it, I realized I had an authentic use of an acquired Southernism on my hands. I plucked it from the air, put it in my pocket, and present it now for you, gentle readers:

Don't + be + Verb-ing.

Try it:

Don't be leaving your coat on the floor!
Eww, gross, don't be licking that!

You can pretend to know other people's inner desires by inserting the verb want after don't, as in:

You don't want to be teasing the cat, he'll scratch you.

A little Googling reveals that such constructions belong to a broader category of be-usage called the habitual be. The habitual be is a way to indicate a continuous directive. When you say Don't be licking that, you mean it's a bad idea, now and in the future, to lick that, so don't do it. By comparison, the briefer command, don't lick that, is a more limited imperitive: certainly you should not lick that, but you don't necessarily need to make a habit of not licking it because, after all, how often is the opportunity to lick it going to present itself?

How the habitual be arrived in the southern U.S. is unclear: it's common in Irish English as well as African-American Vernacular English, among other dialects. And to be honest, I'm assuming it's Southern only because I don't remember it invading my own speech anywhere else in the country.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

You guys 'n' y'all

One of the more unfortunate shifts in the English language a few centuries back was the fusing of thou and ye into the single, all-encompassing you, a pronoun that now stands for both you-singular and you-plural. (One of the cleverer shifts has been the consequent elimination of you-formal, which is what you formerly was, but that's another story.) I thought Southerners had cornered the market on a solution with the brilliant second-person plural pronoun y'all, but thanks to my new copy of How We Talk: American Regional English Today by Allan Metcalf (2000), I am reminded that I grew up with the Northerner's version of the same: you guys.

You guys, like y'all, isn't something one sees in formal prose. Unlike y'all, it has the disadvantage of being blatantly gendered. Although one might hail a group of both males and females with the phrase hey you guys!, the word guys without a preceding you is distinctly masculine. (Metcalf explains that the word guys originated in reference to effigies of the 17th-century wannabe English Parliament blower-upper, Guy Fawkes. Fawkes' "Gunpowder Plot" was foiled on November 5, 1605, and celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day began in the 18th century. The OED dates the word guy to the early 19th century.)

You guys, because it includes an unadulterated you, is somewhat awkward when it comes to possessive forms. Turn down you guys's car radio sounds strange, even though it's dialectally correct, while Turn down your guys's car radio is just plain wrong, since it suggests that whoever you is controls guys rather than a shared car radio. Change the command to a simple Turn down your car radio and the editor breathes a concise sigh of relief, but the you-plural is lost.

Y'all has the benefit of dropping the -ou while retaining the y-, so the pronoun loses some of its obvious you-ness. One can thus derive possessive forms of y'all with relative ease, as in Turn down y'all's car radio. The especially enthusiastic speaker might emphasize the pluralness of y'all by making it y'alls, thus, Turn down y'alls's car radios. If more than about three folks are making a ruckus, one could say All y'all might should turn down the car radio. It's a bizarre twist, that all y'all, for its existence suggests y'all itself is on the way to becoming singular.

Metcalf mentions a few other you-plural options: yiz (in Philadelphia, where yous is the singular); yinz (in Pittsburgh, derived from you ones); and youse and you-uns, both regional Northern variants. Take y'alls's picks, but I'm sticking with the Southern solution.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The best answer

The other day, E, who is in third grade, had math homework. One of the problems read as follows:

Patrick purchased 12 books. He needed four books for each of his research projects at school. How many projects did he have? _____

The space designated for the answer was a short black line about one centimeter long. There wasn't enough room to write "This is a seriously messed up question," so E wrote "3."

The word problem asks a complex question, worth deconstructing. What assumptions are we to make about Patrick and his research projects in order to obtain what test-designers would likely call "the best answer"?

Consider: Who is Patrick? Presumably he is a student, for part of his life is spent "at school." There is, of course, the possibility that Patrick is a grown-up. Maybe he is a bearded Duke social scientist in a tweed jacket, or a bright, enthusiastic doctoral student in Education at UNC, conducting research projects on third graders. But since the whole point of word problems is to simulate real-life situations in which knowing rudimentary math is a useful skill, the pupil needs to be able to identify with Patrick. Let us assume, then, that Patrick is a third-grader, like E.

Where did Patrick get the money to buy 12 books? Even if they're cheap little paperback books, like the popular Pixi books in Germany, they probably cost at least $1 apiece. Where does a third grader get $12 to blow on books? Why doesn't Patrick want to spend his money on Legos instead? Perhaps Patrick is rolling in dough because he's engaged in a profitable little sales ring at Before- and After School. What is he selling that the other kids want? Is it legal? Why aren't responsible adults intervening?

But a third grader conducting illicit money-making schemes is hardly a third grader who would be responsible about schoolwork. Clearly, Patrick values education. Perhaps he bought the books because his wealthy parents have him so over-scheduled with character-building activities--violin lessons, soccer, dressage--that he does not have time to go to the library.

Or perhaps Patrick can't use library books for his research projects because he needs to deface the books. For a science project, he needs to distill the covers: Patrick will find that the liquid component smells like artificial smoke flavoring, and he'll capture the gaseous component (oxygen) in an inverted test tube, light a match under it, and produce water. For an art project, he'll make a collage out of ripped up pages, gluing them down and painting over them with acrylics or shellac. Patrick doesn't need to use brand new books for such projects, so he chose to shop at the used books store. Smart Patrick.

But is a collage necessarily "research"? And what elementary school has a science lab and the instructional expertise to allow third graders to distill anything? No, Patrick likely bought these books in order to read and glean information from them. Apparently Patrick lives in a community where funding for the public library ran out long ago: he has a better chance of finding relevant texts at the dusty used books store, so that is where he shops, even though it requires picking through a lot of duds before he finds the gems.

The wording of the math problem--four books for each project--hints that Patrick will use every book for one and only one research project. Poor Patrick has to do three completely different projects at once, and he's only in the third grade. None of the teachers at his school has ever heard of integrated thematic instruction. Patrick's school isn't great.

Or perhaps Patrick's teachers have reached their limit with third graders who think copying information from the internet and pasting it into a Word document constitutes research. Unlike E, Patrick knows how to type and how to surf. His teachers are wise to insist on bibliographies that include at least four print sources. They thought Patrick would go to the library, but instead he went to because he's part of the screen generation, glued to the chair in front of his computer, unable to find useful information without the help of Google.

Obviously, E couldn't fit all of these concerns onto the short black line; aside from which, they were my concerns, not his. He knew the authors of his math book wanted him to write "3."

Sometimes the math word problems do ask students to "Explain," and space is provided for a written response. Consider, for example, another problem from E's homework:

Explain It Evan told his class that the people in his family have 14 legs altogether. Quinton said that there must be 7 people in Evan's family. Is Quinton correct? Explain.

E does not care much for writing, so he wrote: "yes 2+2+2+2+2+2+2=14," and then, for good measure, "14 / 7 = 2." Then E and I had an interesting discussion about "underlying assumptions" and Quinton's assumption that everyone in Evan's family has two legs. Is Quinton correct?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The incredible shrinking newspaper

We are all vertical and able to breathe through our nostrils again, following a particularly evil manifestation of the common cold. Incidentally, there is no point trying to get used to brand new bifocals when you have a cold, as you can't tell the difference between a world distorted by profusely watery eyes and a world distorted by that irritating line in the middle of the glasses lenses.

We've been back in the U.S. for almost three weeks now. One aspect of reverse culture shock that still hasn't gone away is the apparent narrowness of the Triangle newspaper, The News and Observer (a.k.a. the N&O). I'm referring to its size as opposed to its news coverage, although the latter seems pretty slight at the moment as well.

When we moved to Freiburg, we immediately noticed that the Badische Zeitung (BZ) was wider and shorter than the N&O--no doubt measurable in some nice round sum of centimeters rather than inches. Nonetheless, coming back to Durham, I wasn't prepared for the startling difference in paper widths.

So today I finally pulled out a late 2008 edition of the N&O that just happened to be lying around inside our secret Important Documents and Mementos hiding spot. I put it on the floor above this past Friday's unmemorable Real Estate section. Eureka! The newspaper looks narrower than I remember it because it is narrower than I remember it.

The narrower width doesn't really diminish the quality of the N&O, for McClatchy has already handled that task by significantly cutting local reporting, reducing staff, and yielding most of the available print space to advertisements. But in conjunction with these other money-saving measures, the disturbing weight loss suggests a bleak prognosis: the newspaper--an invention with a 320-year history in North America--is wasting away before our very eyes, heading inexorably toward a 21st-century demise.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The diminutive Walker

The mighty diminutive Walker (1992):

Swell: 8', 4', and 2' flutes
Great: 8' flute, 4' principal, 2' flute, mixture
Pedal: 16' bourdon, 8' flute
Couplers: Swell to Great, Swell to Pedal, Great to Pedal

Likes: 69oF, 50% humidity, metal polish and soft cloth
Dislikes: Humid air, dry air, cold air, hot air, mice in the blower box

I thought perhaps if I photographed the organ from below, aiming upward, the pipes would look more imposing, but it was impossible to get more than about three pipes in the field of view from that angle, and it made them look quite short. So here is a picture of the Walker that is like the instrument itself: honest, direct, and unpretentious.

The Walker prefers a diet of Baroque music with occasional Classical sides. Sometimes it tries to give up German music for Lent, but it usually caves before the six weeks are out. Alas, it has a somewhat puritanical sense of timbral propriety that discourages several centuries and nationalities of repertoire. Brahms? If you must. Widor? Acceptable in small doses. Dupre, Alain, Langlais? Really now. Messaien? Don't even think of it.

But Mendelssohn, ah, Mendelssohn. For all its starchy sonorous sensibilities, the Walker has a surprising soft spot for that particular German Romantic, to whom I am, consequently, eternally grateful.


The common cold is making its way through our household. Wash your hands and eyeballs after reading this blog.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Back at the wheel

I'm teaching a "Continuing Wheel" class at the local pottery studio: seven Mondays, three hours per class. All of my students this time are new to me (though not to the studio), and they're a friendly, enthusiastic bunch.

Not much has changed at Claymakers in the past seven months. They've installed new faucets on the sinks (notice the thrill-inducing plural, sinks; the pottery studio I found in Freiburg had but one), become more confident about ditching ancient unclaimed bisque and greenware, and revised the studio guidelines to increase the emphasis on safety and dust control. Healthy potters are happy potters.

To my surprise, my long absence from clay (discounting a brief fling with a flock of German chickens) has made me a proselytizer for the minimal-water school of throwing, and my pedagogy has become all about physics, physics, physics. Friction! torque! pressure! counterpressure! centrifugal force! Analyze, analyze, analyze! You can do it! Rah, rah, go team! I was a little surprised by my zealousness. The students may have been surprised too, but everyone ended up with a few good cylinders by the end of the evening.


The UPS truck came today, but instead of delivering my eagerly anticipated new (used) book on regional dialects in the United States, the driver handed me some boxes from L.L. Bean. Oh well.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Snow in the Triangle

According to local news media this morning, some 220 schools, businesses, and organizations in the North Carolina Triangle area are operating on a two-hour delay or have decided not to open at all today. This is because the weather forecast yesterday evening was for the possibility of "a light dusting to one inch of snow." Thanks to this advance warning, everyone went out and bought milk and bread, the two staples no Southerner wants to be caught without when an inch of snow falls.

Just after the first flakes appeared at 10:30 p.m. (so the rumors say), an unexpected surge of warm air blew in, with the consequence that there's no snow on the ground this morning (see photo above). Fret not: there are a few icy patches on outlying country roads. These patches have caused some drivers to skid, justifying the two-hour delays to work, school, and the local economy.

One reason for the flurry of cancellations and delays is that two or three times a decade, rather than overestimating winter precipitation, forecasters underestimate it, and the world as we know it grinds to a halt. Our first year in North Carolina, we heard stories about the legendary Blizzard of '00. With voices full of awe and eyes wide, friends described how the city shut down, immobilized under a blanket of snow for two solid weeks.

Generally, massively disruptive local events like blizzards, floods, and the invasion of giant cockroaches occur when S is not around, a trend that began with the Great Ice Storm of '02. S had been gone for a few days--at the Materials Research Society conference in sunny Boston, I do believe--when Triangle meteorologists started mentioning the possibility of snow. As the inclement weather approached, the forecast became more specific: sleet, Tuesday, 3 p.m. Citizens were advised to get their bread and milk before the doomsday hour.

I was holed up in a coffee shop near campus, grading essays. As the drizzle transformed into tiny pellets of hail, a murmur spread through the room. I sipped on my decaf latte and shook my head, wondering, with the smugness of a transplanted Midwesterner, why a little ice was such a big deal in the South. When the sleet became snow, I headed back to the office, where I was intercepted by an anxious receptionist: my son's daycare had closed early, and I needed to pick him up three hours ago.

The freeway was clogged, not by the snow but by drivers who were perplexed by the curious white stuff. A drive that usually took ten minutes took an hour. When I arrived at Kidspace, E and the daycare director were the only two people left in the normally bustling building. I apologized for being late and said something about regional weather differences, and then E and I went home and continued life as usual. Play time, dinner, a toddler's bedtime routine.

I went to bed shortly after the transformer box near our house exploded. All night long, I listened to the sounds outside. ShhhhhhhhhhhHHHHH--BANG...shhhhhhhhhHHHHH--BANG. I thought it was ice sliding off our steep metal roof and crashing onto the driveway, but it turned out to be branches falling off trees all over town. When we got up in the morning, the power was out.

I called my parents in Illinois. "We're fine," I told them. "Don't worry about what you hear on the news. People here get overexcited about real winter weather." I hung up, and then a huge branch fell off the tree in the front yard and knocked out the phone line. (That's the branch, to the right; of course, I forgot to take a photo of it before all the ice melted.)

E and I bundled up and went outside, where we met bewildered neighbors in the street. Every surface was coated in a thick layer of ice, radiant and beautiful in the bright morning sunlight. No one had power. Falling branches had punched holes in roofs; toppling trees had raised great mounds of earth as the weight of the ice pulled them up by their roots. Streets were impassable.

Ice storms build community. That evening, everyone on the block gathered at the home of the only neighbors with a wood-burning stove. I borrowed another neighbor's telephone and called American Airlines to ask whether my husband had boarded his flight home; the sympathetic operator violated post-9/11 security policies and confirmed that he had. S returned home to a ravaged town with no street lights and a mandatory curfew.

Some friends camped out in offices at the university (a prosperous private institution with its own backup generators), while other friends left town. We alternated between sleeping at home and bumming shelter from friends with power.

Our house had warm water but, for six days, no heat or electricity. Our old-fashioned radiators ran on a gas boiler, but our thermostat was electric. S kept the fish in our aquarium alive by filling milk bottles with warm water and floating them in the tank.

After the world thawed, S went down to the basement and wired two car batteries and an AC/DC converter to the thermostat switch and the fish tank power supply, so they'd have backup power the next time there was a blackout. That's the engineer's version of going out to buy bread and milk.

Is it overreacting for several counties to delay the start of school, twelve hours in advance, due to the possibility of a light dusting of snow? In the car on the way to school, E and his friend D tried to explain their unexpected windfall this morning. "Maybe people are just dumb," suggested D, fresh off a visit to Connecticut, where she saw life continue as usual despite two feet of snow. "Or maybe," she conceded, "they were worried there might be ice on the roads." We'll make Southerners of these kids yet.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Southern living in a cold snap

We live in a modest two-story Victorian farmhouse with a big front porch, very Southern. The house is quite old by local standards, dating to no later than 1889. The first confirmed occupants were a prominent Durham dentist and his wife (a farmer's daughter from Orange County), and our street is named after them. Although they seem to have purchased the house from a farmer, as far as we can tell, they didn't farm the land themselves. 1891 tax records indicate they owned "1 cattle" valued at $15, kitchen and household furniture at $300, and scientific instruments at $500.

In 1889, the house was out in the boonies north of town. By the early 1890s, all of the surrounding land, with the exception of three other parcels, had been bought up by Brodie Leonidas Duke, eldest son of tobacco and cigarette magnate Washington Duke. Brodie may have been a bit of a lush, an embarrassment to the rest of his family, but he certainly had vision when it came to real estate.

In the early 1900s, a street car line shrank distances and the north Durham boonies became a fashionable, flourishing suburb. Today, the street car is gone, its tracks paved over, and Durham has expanded so much that our one-time suburb is now considered a downtown neighborhood.

One of the disadvantages of living in an old Victorian farmhouse is that it's drafty. When there's a cold snap, you have to remember to leave the pantry door open overnight to prevent the washing machine plumbing from freezing. When you forget, the washing machine valves freeze. (In our house, whenever something stops working, "it's the valves"). Water leaks onto the floor, where it runs under the wicker laundry basket and behind the 2-gallon jug of cat-pee-odor-be-gone before puddling against the wood molding along the outside wall. Then it freezes into a nice little skating rink for the mice, who don't take advantage of it because they're bundled up inside the wall of the study, trying to stay warm.

This morning, long after S had finished cursing in Bairisch about the broken valves and the frozen puddle, I received an email message--too late, alas--from the City of Durham entitled "Durham Offers Advice To Help Residents’ [sic] Protect Their Pipes From Freezing This Winter: Quick Tips to Prevent Extensive Water Waste and Property Damage." One of the many linguistically interesting things about the message was that it mentioned "busted water pipes in the home." It has been a long time since I've read about "busted" anything. "Busted" is an American colloquialism that the OED dates to the early 1800s. By definition, colloquialisms are informal, but here in the southern U.S., folks are pretty laid back. When the city writes to you about busted pipes, you know they have only your best interest at heart.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Back on the bench

Today I was back on the bench in Duke Chapel, playing for a noon-time demo on the Flentrop following a six-month hiatus. In Freiburg, I devoted my practice time almost exclusively to two pieces: Mendelssohn's sixth organ sonata, and Franck's Grand Pièce Symphonique. I told myself the latter was off limits today, since I didn't have anyone to pull stops for me--but who am I to listen to myself? I succumbed to the ethereal second movement. Alas, my pitiful registrations were anything but French, and I've clearly been spoiled by the swell box and sequencer on the Rieger organ at St. Petrus Canisius in Freiburg.

On the bright side, practically no one was in the Chapel to hear the Franck--or is that the down side?--and those who were there probably didn't know the timbres that should have been. And if failed registrations on a four-manual, 5033-pipe organ are my greatest disappointments (after the Second Amendment and global warming), my life must be pretty good.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Today I went to see Dr. M., the swell optometrist next to Costco, for as I've always liked to say (at least, since 3 p.m. this afternoon), there's no better way to kick off a new year than ordering your very first pair of bifocals.

In addition to paving the way for clearer vision, a prescription for bifocals gives you an instant bond with the friendly eye-glasses salesperson at Costco. "Oooh, nice frames, Ms. Paley," she said approvingly; "and let me tell you, bifocals are the best. You're really gonna like these."

So now, catapulting to the top of my list of Things You Can Do in the U.S. That You Can't Do in Germany, is Seeing an optometrist for a routine appointment on a Sunday. The Costco experience deserves a nod, of course, so I'll add Shopping in abundance at warehouse stores, Paying with credit cards, and Parking in a surface lot with more square footage than a dozen overcrowded elementary schools.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Saturday night dreams

My very first regular church gig was at a Catholic church in Madison, Wisconsin. Until I auditioned, I had never touched an organ. "Church Musician" certainly wasn't a career path I had ever considered while we were lighting the Hanukkah candles at home, but I needed a job and the church needed a capable sight-reader. It was a match made in...well, Madison, but I think I said that already.

The church had three services every Sunday morning, the earliest beginning at 8:00 a.m. In the winter, 8:00 was pre-dawn. So it didn't take long for the dreams to start:

I had overslept: it was 8:40, the first service would be over in twenty minutes. I leapt out of bed in a panic and ran to church, naked, through the rain, striving to move forward even as the wind and viscous air held me back. I arrived inside the dimly lit church just before the final verse of the third hymn. The organ loft had disappeared, and the console was situated in the middle of the mostly empty theater seats (upholstered in burgundy velvet), leaving me exposed (so to speak) as I finally slid onto the bench in my underwear (not sure where the clothes came from, but I was happy to take what I could get). Yet no one noticed my embarrassed entrance: the congregation had their eyes on the altar and their voices raised to Heaven. There was no time to leaf through the hymnal--the second verse was almost over--hurry, hurry! Thank goodness I still had perfect pitch back then. I immediately recognized the key of the hymn, but--oh curse you, you crappy electropneumatic Austin!--the organ was out of tune, a full quarter tone sharp, so that when I joined in on the last verse (timing my entrance so it would be as subtle as possible), the entire congregation took note and turned to scowl at me.

Eventually, I found a cure for the recurring dream. To this day, I set two alarm clocks before I go to bed on Saturday nights: an electric one and a battery powered one. Neither is sufficient on its own, for there's always a risk the power will go out or the batteries will die. The electric clock has two different alarms that can be set independently, and it sits next to my bed. The battery powered clock sits across the room to prevent snooze-button accidents.

Tomorrow morning I will play my first church service since our return to the U.S. It's a rare one-service Sunday. I won't be late until 10:01, and the tail end of jetlag will be on my side. Nonetheless, I know what I'll be dreaming about tonight.

Friends shrink the grass

In November, with two months still remaining on our sabbatical stay in Freiburg, S flew back to the U.S. for a conference, stopping off briefly in North Carolina to check on his lab, his students, and our house. During a Skype call, he fretted about how the renters hadn't been taking care of the yard: "it's in really bad shape; the grass is knee high, and it's filled with leaves." We made a half-hearted effort to arrange yard work from abroad but eventually realized it would have to wait until we came home.

When we returned earlier this week, I was focused mainly on the dead houseplants and on putting the rearranged kitchen cabinets back in order. The front yard looked more or less OK, and I didn't bother looking at the back yard. On Wednesday, S came inside after doing some work in the basement and miserably gave me a yard update: "the leaves are a few inches deep and they're going to be nearly impossible to rake because they're wet and the grass is waist high. It's a wreck."

So I put out a call to friends: Linzer Torte and coffee in exchange for raking help. And a few hours later, friends arrived, bringing tarps and ladders and rakes and pruners and children and appetites. As we dragged the leaves from the lawn to the now overfull compost pile, the intimidating grass retracted its claws and closed its maw, shrinking from being as tall as a sky scraper to being as short as scruffy winter grass is supposed to be.

When we were done, we went inside and ate Linzer Torte, apples, and cheese, and chatted until the sun set. It's good to be home.