Day 17: Last Train

The end

The End

Day 17 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Maine, where I am approaching mile 8360, and the end of this incredible journey.  You can read previous entries about the trip on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Awoke in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. Spent most of the day writing.  It was delightful, and a little bit sad, to step onto my “home” train, the Downeaster, and begin the last, relatively short leg of this trip north.  I hope to be in Belgrade Lakes, Maine by 9.

Tomorrow I have to go to New York City for four days. I’m flying.

Thanks for traveling along with me on this journey. Hey, now it’s your turn.

You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel;
Get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down.
I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’,
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.”

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Day 16: I’ve Been Writing on the Railroad

The Coast Starlight passing Mt. Shasta

Day 16 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Albany, NY where I am now at mile 8028 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Slept, once more, like a baby on the Lake Shore Limited.  Awoke on the late side to find us east of Cleveland, west of Erie. Had scrambled eggs in the dining car and for the first time in two weeks my breakfast companion was someone plugged into a device, watching a movie over her French toast who did not wish to have a conversation or engage in any way. I couldn’t decide to be hurt by this (having had so many interesting and unexpected talks in the dining car) or relieved (remembering my breakfast with the Amish who did not approve of music).

Spent much of the day doing office work– wrote recommendations for students applying to grad school.  Then read the 100 pages of Falcon Quinn 3, my young adult series in progress;  I am about two-thirds of the way through that story.  I didn’t do any work on it today, but I did re-read what I’ve done till now, and tried to think about what will like ahead in the rest of the story, which I hope to write this winter and spring.

I’m holing up in a Boston hotel tonight before my final ride home tomorrow on Maine’s “Downeaster.”  As we approach the end of this voyage, here are a few tips for other travelers who do long distance train rides in the USA, and my other Amtrak Writers in Residence in Particular.

• Do bring a pair of slippers.  In the western trains, the bathroom is down the corridor, and you really want to have something on your feet for that journey.  They won’t let you leave the car in your socks.  I know: one morning, headed to breakfast, I was sent back to my room for shoes. You can only imagine my mortification.

• Do bring a power strip.  There’s usually only one outlet per roomette, and it sits not flush to the wall, but inside a strangely shaped indentation.  You want the kind of power strip that will plug in, and then give you three or four outlets on the other end; ideally some of these would be USB ports.

• There’s no wifi on the trains.  For vast stretches in the west, there is no cell service either.  The station master in San Francisco announced this happily, “So you will have to TALK to each other.  Or READ A BOOK.”   A mifi device or cell service will work a lot of the time, but not in the mountains, or in the tunnels.  And especially not in tunnels in the mountains.

Add water, makes its own sauce

• I brought a terry cloth robe for wearing over my pajamas in the morning.  I liked getting up very early out west, going into the observation car to write for an hour or two before sunrise.  The robe occupied a large chunk of my duffle bag, but I think it was worth it. So were the pajamas.  Mine were covered with little yellow stars, giving my friend Johnny in Seattle the chance to mock them as my “wizard pajamas” but I think he was just jealous he didn’t have any of his own.

• I brought two bags:  a small suitcase I kept in the roomette with me,  which I then refreshed and re-supplied from a huge duffle when I was off the train.  On the western trains, I kept the big duffle downstairs in the sleeper’s storage area; (not the baggage car); on the eastern trains, there’s an area in the top of the berth where you can shove a dufflebag–it’s just about that big.

• In Boston and Chicago, to name two, there are special lounges for the first class/sleeper car passengers, and this was really a lifesaver– especially in Chicago.  Folks doing the sleeper should take full advantage of these swanky chambers.

• The eastern trains are “Viewliners” and have single-decker sleepers with an upper berth that raises and lowers.  There are both high and low windows int he Viewliners that give the roomettes more light.  The “Superliners” are out west, and there is an upper level and a lower.  The upper level rooms have a slightly better view.  The Viewliners have a commode right in the roomette with you as well as a sink.  Some people will like the convenience of this; I kind of liked going down the hall to the powder room, and there was something a bit over-the-top about a commode right next to my easy chair. (Or maybe it’s under-the-bottom.)  The Western trains have the observation cars, and why not: there’s more to observe.  The Coast Starlight has the coolest cars of all– the “parlor” cars, with swivel easy chairs, a bar, and a movie theatre downstairs.

• But look, these rooms are really small.  There are larger ones, and riders will have to decide whether the extra money is worth it.  A couple would have to be really in love to enjoy the roomette, but then, lots of couples are.  How small are the rooms? A fellow from Texas said to me, “You couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of them things without getting fur in your mouth.”

• My own desire was to get a ton of work done, and I did just that.  I finished the last couple chapters of the first draft of a novel; wrote a 4000 word essay for an anthology;  wrote a syllabus for a new course at Barnard; did paperwork, and read Falcon Quinn 3.  I feel lucky and grateful. Trains really are great places for writers.

• The main challenge to all of this, though, is the great desire to stare out the window going Duh.  The best views on the routes, I think, are: crossing the Rockies on the California Zephyr; crossing the Sierras via the Donner Pass on the Zephyr; the view of Mt. Shasta from the Starlight; traversing Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder.  The Lake Shore Limited is a more efficient train, but the views are not quite as shockingly beautiful– or maybe it’s just that I’m from the east, and I’m familiar with the terrain.

• The Amtrak staff is kind of amazing.  From Lashawna on the Lake Shore going west, to Dennis on the Zephyr, to Alfreda ad Al on the Lake Shore east, the people working on the railroad are enthusiastic and professional and truly seem eager to help.  I was grateful for the way they made my voyage easier. I’m also grateful to Julia Quinn at Amtrak HQ for masterminding this whole project.

• You will encounter lots of people doing the sleeper route if you do this journey, but one thing they almost all seem to have in common is, THEY LOVE TRAINS.  They will talk your ear off about how great this all is, as if you have joined a very select group of lucky people. Which you have.

• This kind of voyage is not for everyone.  The quarters are small.  In some ways it will remind you of really elegant camping.  This is not the luxury train ride you are imagining from those movies in the 1940s, or perhaps even from trains in Europe.  The trains get delayed, routinely, especially out west; if you go the full route expect to be delayed, 2, 4, even 6 hours.  The only thing it is better than is any form of air travel whatsoever, and in comparison to that nightmare, it is like staying at the Waldorf.  You have an AC outlet, really good food, your own private room, and a window onto some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. There are literally places in this country you will never see if you do not take the train.  Would I do this again?  In a heartbeat.  And yes, next time, my family is coming with me.

This train is bound for glory.

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Day 15: At a Siding (VII.) Hunky Dory

I'm floating in a most peculiar way.

Day 15 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Chicago, where I am now at mile 7224 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Just a short entry here from Chicago’s Union Station as the Lake Shore Limited prepares to head out for the journey across Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, before pulling into Boston late tomorrow night.   I woke in the Public Chicago hotel this morning after arriving late yesterday and ending the day with a steak, a martini, and reading “The Red Haired League” at the bar.  Today I saw two people I have almost never met before in the flesh, Christina Karl (of the GLAAD board) and Jen Richards, of the Trans 100.

Jen Richards and Jenny Boylan. Two deep dishes.

Christina and I went to the David Bowie Is show at the Contemporary Art Museum.  Lots of memories for me, including one of my first concerts, seeing Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at the Tower Theatre in 1972.  Bowie had that androgynous thing going back in the day, and surely as a young trans woman he had my full attention.  Of course he “shed” Ziggy, and some of what was so important to me turned out to be just kind of like, fashion, or a phase, for him.  But that doesn’t lessen its power, then, or now.  But it does make me think that for many people, freedom means the ability to “create” an identity, and those identities can be colorful masks.  For others–like me, I think– freedom means taking off the mask, and identity means authenticity:  the true self.  You can imagine Christina and me talking about this until our eyes, like Bowie’s, appeared to be of different hues.

Jenny Boylan tries out her new "identity" as Jack Benny

Later I joined Jen Richards for deep dish pizza at Giordano’s.  We talked about this same issue, in a roundabout way.  There must be a way of bringing all of us together,  both those who fight to find their true gender as well as those who fight to be free of gender.  It is all one dream, I think, reinterpreted through different souls.

Well, anyway, a real blessing to meet and hang with these two today.  Plenty for me to think about as I pull out of Chicago, and head back toward home, and the land of dreams.

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Day 14: Ghost Train

Crossing the Mississippi at sunset. The tears I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.

Day 14 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Wisconsin Dells, WI, where I am now at mile 7013 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Awoke in Fargo ND, after another strangely soothing night in the sleeper.  It really is an odd way of sleeping– rocking back and forth, waking to roll over, but I can tell you I am addicted to it and sleeping in a bed that is not moving is going to be one of the things I will most miss. It’s kind of like “Magic Fingers” for the unconscious.  For the first day I did NOT arise before sunrise, which perhaps just means we’re back in Central Time.  Or perhaps it means I finished the draft of my novel, and did not feel the same urgency.

We rolled across Minnesota and Wisconsin today, the land more populous than the high plains of the day before.  We travelled along the western banks of the Mississippi for much of the afternoon, which gave this east coast girl quite a thrill.  I thought about Mark Twain.  At sunset we crossed the river at La Crosse, WI.  It was all very beautiful.

The views from the Empire Builder are decidedly more somber and meditative than the fireworks of the California Zephyr.  I’d choose the Zephyr’s route from Denver to Sacramento for sheer jaw-dropping scenery.  But the Empire Builder is good for working.

I received word this morning that the editor who read the piece I wrote the first draft of yesterday likes it a lot– great news, and rare for me: I almost never get it right the first time any more.  Part of that piece concerns the adventures of the Amtrak Residency, so it’s funny to see a piece lined up for publication that addresses a thing that is still, in fact, happening.

Also spent many hours today writing and polishing up syllabi and agenda for spring courses at Barnard– my class on “Gendered Memoir,” and the “Advanced Studies in Prose.”  I had the general sketch already done, but now I have the week-by-week road map of the courses, no small accomplishment, and kind of a great thing to do while the northern plains roll by, all dusted with snow.

I arrive in Chicago tonight. I am looking forward to a martini and a thick steak. Tomorrow a friend is taking me to a David Bowie show at a contemporary art museum, and I’ll eat deep dish pizza with another friend, before boarding the Lake Shore Limited tomorrow night for the final ride to the east coast.  Boston by Sunday night.

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Days 12 & 13: Glory Train

Looking back at the Rockies bursting out of the Montana plains. A dusting of snow .

Days 12 & 13 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Williston, ND,  where I am at mile 6197 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

I woke in the fabulous “Author Suite” of the Alexis Hotel in Seattle yesterday morning– my absolute favorite place to stay in the world.  They buy your book when you’re a guest, and you sign it and it becomes part of the library in that huge room.  Once, I picked a book by David Sedaris off of the shelf, and found that it had been signed:  ”I stayed in the same bed as Toni Morrison. And she kept stealing all the covers.”

I had dinner last night with a woman who taught music theory at a college in North Dakota.  This morning, I had breakfast with an Amish couple who said they don’t approve of music.  We were something of an odd threesome, but I was delighted to break bread with them.  The man, with his abundant beard, noted, “We have 77 grandchildren!” His wife, in her bonnet and plain dress, nodded. She seemed tired.

Mountains in Glacier Ntl Park, and a steaming caldera. From the weather observation station high atop the Empire Builder heading east.

Having fought my way to a rough draft of my novel before I left Big Sur, today I began the revisions.  I cut 10,000 words, and yes, that’s a lot, although no one should be surprised that occasionally I use 10,000 words when zero will do just as well.  In the afternoon today, I turned my attention to a commissioned project for a new anthology, and I cranked out 4000 not terrible words before declaring it time for a beer.

I settled into the observation car and looked out at the plains and drank a Sierra Nevada and listened to Beethoven’s Third on headphones.  That morning, I’d seen the sun come up over the Rockies, watched the sun glimmer off the crystalline moonscape peaks of Glacier National Park.  By noon, though, we’d come down into the plains, where everything was white and frosty and empty.  I had never quite gotten my mind around the vast emptiness of the plains, but I got my mind around it now.  The horizon goes on to infinity.

Cut 10,000 words from the novel today, wrote 4000 new ones for a nonfiction project. As the sun set over the plains, I thought: time for a beer.

I had dinner with an Irishman from Indiana and a young woman who appeared to be on her way home for Thanksgiving after seven years away from her family.  ”They sent me a train ticket,” she said.  ”They wanted me to come home.”  The Irishman and I tenderly tried to note how much parents love their children, and how glad they will be to have her home once more.  We noted that neither of regretted anything about our twenties except the worry.  ”I would do it all again the same way,” said the Irishman, “just this time I wouldn’t worry about the future.”

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Day 11: Slow Train Coming

Mt. Shasta from the California Starlight

Day 11 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Salem, OR where I am at mile 4843 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

I awoke on the California Starlight this morning just shy of Dunsmuir, CA to find our train stopped dead.  Tunnel construction on the mountains near Shasta Lake had us sitting unmoving for hours, as one giant freight after another occupied the tunnel before us. At last we found ourselves underway once more, but by the time that came to pass, we were five hours behind schedule.

(This is a good moment to note that passenger rail service in this country usually takes place upon tracks that are leased, not owned, by Amtrak, meaning that trains carrying actual human beings are put in the queue all behind ones carrying pig iron.  Our rail system would be much more efficient, and be able to serve a much larger number of people, and with more efficiency, if Amtrak’s budget were larger, and if we, American taxpayers, ACTUALLY OWNED THE RAILS WE TRAVEL UPON.)

Interestingly, no one seemed too terribly disturbed by this.  For one thing, the sidetrack enabled us to see by daylight what normally we’d pass by under dark of night– namely, Mt. Shasta for one (and, for the ladies, Mt. Shastina!), and Shasta Lake– the latter shockingly low as the drought years in California take their toll.  I had breakfast with a couple from Texas who described the small roomettes (which I call our “coffinettes”)  this way: “They’re so small you couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of ‘em without getting fur in your mouth.”  And yet:  they– and, really, everyone I’ve met, LOVES BEING ON THE TRAIN.  Yes, we’d have been happier if we weren’t stuck behind all those freights.  But this is the reality of train travel in this country, and it’s clear the Starlight, like the Zephyr before it, is full of people who feel that making this journey is one of the great adventures of their lives. Including the people who do it all the time.

The "parlor car" only exists on the Coast Starlight line. If you look carefully you can see the bartender there. What'll ya have?

I spent the day revising the work I’d sort-of finished yesterday at Big Sur.  No fatal flaws yet,  but lots of little stupidies.  I sat in the “parlor car” in the afternoon– these 50+ year old cars have been refurbished, and exist only on the Starlight line– cushy seats, a bar, polished wood paneling, really like something from a more elegant era.  I started talking with folks in that car at 3 PM and stayed until the “wine tasting” began at 4.  And then I had dinner in the parlor car with the same group of people.  Delightful.  Someone asked me if I was the Amtrak Writer in Residence, and I admitted to it, and they were all over me– they’d read about the program, they’d read the blog, and so on.  As a result of this program, they’d decided to do a month of business travel BY TRAIN.  It all made me very happy:  the conversation, the amazing vistas, the short ribs for dinner. This life is very tasty.

We’ll be arriving in Seattle too late tonight for me to see my friends, alas;  I’ll scurry to the hotel and hunker down for a few hours before visiting North Seattle Community College tomorrow and teaching a class (!)  Then my friend from college, Johnny C., will get me to King Street station, where I’ll step onto the Empire Builder tomorrow for the trip that leads across Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and home.

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Days 9 & 10: At a Siding (V. & VI.)

Days 9 & 10 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur  where I am pausing at mile 4005 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

How do I feel? Lucky.

This morning, I finished the first draft of my novel.  Over two years work, 450 pages, 100,000 words.

Later today I will pack up my things from Big Sur and get back on the tracks.  Next leg of this journey will take me north, to Seattle via the Coast Starlight.  I’ll board that train late this afternoon, and then spend tonight slumbering as we hurtle north.  In the morning tomorrow I’ll awaken in northern California and spend the day looking out the window at Oregon and Washington.  Arrive in SEA in mid-evening Tuesday.  A night with friends, and then it’s on to the Empire Builder heading east on Wednesday.

All of that lies ahead.  This morning, after finishing the last sentence of this long story, I went for a walk in the mist.  I came upon a horseshoe shaped ring of moss on a redwood stump.  How did I feel?  Lucky.

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Day 8: At a Siding (IV.)

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began.

Day 8 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur  where I am pausing at mile 4005 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Up at 5 AM in this retreat on Big Sur, where I am holed up trying to finish a novel.  I walked out on the back porch in the early morning light. An owl said, Whoo-whoo, whoo, whoo. I believe that’s a great horned owl, but I don’t know.

Made coffee and started writing.  I was deep in it for quite a while.  When I looked up it was lunchtime.  A salad of local greens.

Always remember the helpful rhyme: "Snake any day, run far away." I saw this fella by the side of the road as I climbed up the mountain.

Then a hike up Big Sur, through the canyon filled with redwoods, some of them bearing the marks of a recent fire.  Went up two and a half miles and looked out toward the sea, which was covered with thick fog, all of it below me. There I stood, in the hot sun, surrounded by

Oh deer. What can the matter be?

mountains and the smell of bay laurel and salt, with the clouds below.

Hiked down the mountain and went to the “clothing optional” part of the spa with my clothes on. So embarrassing.

Sat down on a hill and watched the sunset.

You are my flower, a-bloomin there for me

I hope to write the final scenes in my book tomorrow or Monday.  I’m so close.

I’m posting half a dozen photos from today’s adventure.  Hope they bring a smile to your face.

Inspiration, move me brightly. Light the song with sense and color, that holds away despair. More than this I will not ask, faced with mysteries dark and vast.

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Day 7: At a Siding (III.)

The fathers of trees

Day 7 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Big Sur  where I am now at mile 4005 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

I’m “at a siding” for a few days, here at the midpoint of the trip.  Having crossed the Rockies and the Sierras, I arrived in San Francisco last night where my friend Zoe scooped me up, took me to the Rex Hotel, where we drank a couple of Moscow Mules and at 7:30, dear hearts, I was in bed.

In San Francisco town there lived a whale; she ate pork chops by the pail.

Took the Coast Starlight to Salinas this morning, scooped up by car then and taken to my inn here in Big Sur.  We are surrounded by redwoods, and perched upon the side of a mountain overlooking the sea.  This weekend I will write and think and meditate and not say very much.  So if it gets a little quiet, know that I am working and resting, and that I am right where I want to be.  I hope to be up early in the morning and to finish the climactic chapter of my novel this weekend.  I will also hike the high ridge.  And finish reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior,” which I am teaching this spring at Barnard.

JFB drenched in California sunshine.

A couple photos to hold you over.  I stood at the foot of some of these California redwoods and pointed the camera up.  The fathers of trees!  I sat myself down by a lookout point– you can see the layer of Pacific fog that is actually below the level of where I am perched.  And finally there’s a shot of the ocean and the coast and the not-phallic-at-all whale sculpture at the front of the inn.

Love to everyone.  More soon.

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Day 6: Blue Trane

Here comes the sun: dawn over the desert near Winnemucca, NV

Day 6 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from just outside Martinez, California,  where I am now at mile 3795 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Once more I woke before dawn; we had just pulled into Winnemucca, Nevada.  I had spent the night safe and warm in my California Zephyr roomette.  I have had curious, but strangely comforting dreams on the train, perhaps the result of the effect of being gently rocked all night long.  I got myself to the observation car where for the second day in a row I watched the sun rise, this time over the desert of western Nevada.  I wrote a good 1300 words this morning, and when I finished, the dawn came up like thunder.  The woman next to me began to sing, “Here Comes the Sun,” and for a few seconds all of us were singing there in the observation car in the intense morning light.

I had breakfast with a woman who designs video games, and a librarian from Provo, Utah.  We spoke about “Gamergate” and children’s books, and the world of fantasy.

After breakfast–”Railroad French Toast” with bacon, yow! — I engaged with the Amtrak shower, and I can report that the water was HOT and the pressure was GOOD and that I was surprisingly refreshed.  Again, if you go: remember to bring your own shampoo and conditioner.  No, there’s not a blow dryer.  Please.

I settled into the observation car as we ascended the Donner Pass.  Crossing the Sierra Nevadas was almost as spectacular as the Rockies the day before. Although, gazing down at Donner Lake, it did make me think about the settlers of this country. It’s a miracle to me than anyone survived.  It’s impossible to imagine pioneers spending five, six, seven months crossing the plains, and then the Rockies, and then the Sierras. How on earth are any of us here?

JFB and Dennis Byrne, manager of my sleeping car on the California Zephyr. It was Dennis who, in summing up the ride, simply said "It's phantasmagorical."

After lunch, I wrote another 1200 words.  I’m so close to finishing the climax of this novel.  The extended time alone has enabled me to do this kind of sustained work– such a precious gift.  The only obstacle to the work– and I say this for the writers who will follow me– is that you really want to spend your time looking out the window.  Every second there is something new to see.

We are crossing the Cartinez Straights, and out the window to my left I can see big ships– oceangoing tankers out on Suisun Bay, and evidence, if any more were needed, that we are drawing near the end of the western leg of the trip.  Tonight, an SF hotel for me, and an author book signing and party.

Ships in Suisun Bay mean we have arrived at the waters of the Pacific.

Tomorrow morning I’ll board the Coast Starlight south, bound for Salinas., and then Big Sur, where I will hole up for the weekend:  hiking, writing, meditating, thinking.  I’ll be “On a Siding” for a few days, but I’ll try to connect back up before departing on the next leg of the trip– the northern leg from Salinas to Seattle, which begins on Monday the 10th.

In a way I am very sorry to be leaving the Zephyr.  What can I tell you:  you should do this, if you can swing it.  As my sleeping car manager Dennis said yesterday, “It’s phantasmagorical.”

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  • The Boylan Family, summer 2010

    DSC_0063 "You hang around our family, you learn all kinds of stuff."
  • Will Forte as Jennifer Finney Boylan on “Saturday Night Live”

    WiFo-Jennifer Finney Boylan-1
  • Jenny with Barbara Walters, December, 2008

  • Jenny atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin

    2036947979_34bfbec240 August, 2002.
  • Surrounded

    boylanWith President Clinton and Maine's Governor John Baldacci, fall 2006.
  • JFB and Edward Albee


    Edward had been my teacher at Johns Hopkins in the winter of 1986. He visited Colby in fall, 2007. As we took our leave of each other, he kissed me on both cheeks and said, "We have done well. You and I."

  • Jenny and her teacher, the great John Barth


    Jack was my professor at JHU when I did my thesis, back in the day. After many years, I can now confidently say I finally understand his definition of plot. Which is, of course, "the perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium."