Maple Fest

This past Saturday, the boys and I were some of the earliest arrivals for Maple Fest at the Ashokan Center. This is unusual for us—it’s usually a challenge to get two young boys out the door—but I convinced Toby that if we were there first, we’d get the freshest of the pancakes. In hindsight, I was wrong: being there first meant we did get the first pancakes, but the first pancakes were the ones that had been sitting out on the warmer for a while. Nevertheless, Toby ate two servings of them, after running around the empty music hall.


Then we made sure to wash all the Ashokan maple syrup off our hands. Although rustic, the Ashokan Center features the joys of Xlerator hand dryers.

the joy of an Xlerator

We listened to Jay Ungar and Molly Mason do their sound check. I hope they didn’t mind.

Then we went for a walk on this beautiful, disturbingly pleasant, early spring day. First, the boys explored ruins on the property.

exploring ruins

Then we walked down a switchback trail to a covered bridge over the Esopus River that dated from the late nineteenth century. It had a great view of the waterfall coming off the mill pond just a little ways upriver.


Even though it was a strange and mild winter, the Esopus still looked swollen—presumably from runoff, although I think the Ashokan Center is downriver from the Ashokan Reservoir, so presumably the volume of water there is not entirely natural, and controlled by the reservoir’s spillway to some degree (if that’s the right way to describe it).

In any event, it was a perfect opportunity for throwing rocks.


We got back from the river in time to hear Jay and Molly’s first set. They closed with Jay’s most famous composition, “Ashokan Farewell,” the theme song to Ken Burns’s The Civil War (and one of the reasons for the Ashokan Center’s very existence). I got a little choked up.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason

We also got to hear an Ashokan Center environmental educator perform the work of John Burroughs. Unsurprisingly, Toby was more interested in this than Emmett.

Then we hiked out into the woods on the mile-long path to the sugar shack. Along the way, our guides taught us that although hemlock is the name of a genus of flowering plant famous for being poisonous, it’s also the name of genus of evergreens. Eastern Hemlock, they taught us, is delicious and nutritious.

When we got there, they taught us the history of tapping maples. The kids got to help drill a hole in one of the trees.

tapping a maple, one of two

And they got to help hammer a tin tap into the tree as well.


The strange winter meant that the season was short and early—but the sugar shack was still warm and homey, and it smelled absolutely delicious.

the sugar shack, looking up

Not everyone was as impressed with the place as I was, though.

Toby in the sugar shack

Memorial Day

Here’s what I wrote in my essay “Memorial Day,” published about a year ago in Tablet, about a month and a half before my dad died:

Elizabeth Hopkins, my father’s mother, is buried in a cemetery in Lyndeborough. I called the town’s tiny government offices a few years ago to ask them about the grave, when we were trying to figure out what to do with my dad’s remains when he dies. The Hopkins family plot, the kind man who answered the phone told me, does not have enough room for another body, but it does have room for ashes and one more marker. Once the electrodes and wires and titanium-enclosed battery pack are at last removed from my father’s head and chest, and his body is placed in a plain pine box (“like Ann’s,” he wrote in funeral arrangement checklist, when he could still write), then cremated, it’s my wish to bury his ashes there. It’s also my wish to have a stone there with text carved into it that makes it both a headstone for my dad and a cenotaph for my mom—so long as I can convince myself that this will not offend the living or the dead.

And here’s what we did—which ended up being not all that different from what I thought we’d do, really—this past Memorial Day weekend; this is Emily, Toby, and me, honoring my son’s grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother:

May their memories be a blessing.

What I Said Last Night About What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Last night, at the new student orientation in the Low Library Rotunda at Columbia, all of us teaching in the university’s graduate writing program got up to introduce ourselves.

When I write “all of us,” it’s an awe-inspiring list: Deborah Eisenberg and Richard Ford were sitting next to each other, just to name two fiction writers.

We were all asked to respond to the prompt “What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” and to keep our remarks under a minute; to accomplish that, we were urged to think about what we wanted to say in advance, or even to prepare some notes on paper.

Out of a few dozen writers, all lined up in a row, I went second. Here’s roughly what I said (and what I didn’t say):

My name is Tom Hopkins, and I’m teaching a seminar this fall that I’m calling “Faking It.”

I* spent a week this summer on an island off the coast of Maine. I stayed in a cottage on a lake. The cottage had a canoe. One day, I took the canoe out in the water until I came to an island—an island smaller than** about exactly the same size as this room. I found a place to come ashore, and a tree branch where I could tie up the canoe. I walked on paths soft with pine needles up a slight hill. Then I came to a clearing, a small vale.*** At the bottom of the vale, [I]n the middle of the clearing, I saw a loon. I realized that it was nesting. It was facing away from me, but then it turned its neck, slowly and deliberately, until one bright, burning-coal red eye was aimed right at me.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been that close to a nesting loon, but she looked ready and able to take me out if she wanted to.

I got within ten feet of something as precious as new life, protected by love that fierce, a beautiful thing, protected by layer upon layer, hidden in a vale clearing on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean.

And that**** is what I’m hoping my seminar this fall is like.*****

* It was actually my son and me, the first time I saw the loon. But I thought the story would sound better—more fairy tale-like—if I told it in the first person. (It’s not factually inaccurate in the first person, but it is not as true as it could be.)

** I’d never been to the Low Library Rotunda before. What an incredible room! And it seemed about exactly the same size as Rum Island, in the middle of the northwestern finger of Long Pond, on the western half of Mount Desert Island, which was where we found the loon.

*** When I wrote down my notes, I wasn’t anywhere near a dictionary, either electronic or hard copy. I wasn’t completely confident that I was using the word “vale” correctly, so although I wrote it down in my notes, I didn’t read it out loud. I think the clearing where we saw the loon was too small to be a vale, technically, so omitting the word in the reading was probably the right decision.

**** I tapped the podium when I said the word “that”; the microphone was either jostled by the tap, or picked up the sound of the tap. Either way, it was audible through the speakers.

***** This feels right—it feels intuitively true—although I don’t know if I’m able to articulate the connection in a completely rational way. Since the fiction we’ll be reading in the seminar is work that either makes use of not-fictional forms within a work of fiction, or that takes on another form entirely, it seems like it’s not wrong to say that the truth or the meaning of the work is thereby buried an additional layer deep than it would be in a work of fiction that does not costume itself that way—that takes on the form, rather, of conventional storytelling (which is itself a costume or mask, but one that strives to be invisible to contemporary readers).

Addendum: the loon! Thanks, Madeline! More photos of Maine here and here.

(photo by and © Madeline Stevens)

A Year and a Few Days Ago

When we went to the hospital, we had no idea that Toby was going to be born three hours later (it was a scheduled ECV, and the Searses never mention oligohydramnios)—so the only camera we had was the one on my RAZR.

It took me a while to find the time to figure out how to get the pictures from my phone to my Mac.

Nine minutes old:

Two hours old:

Four hours old:

A day old:

Two days old:

Happy Halloween

I’ve been meaning for a while to post some older photos of Toby here—some of the cute pictures we’ve been taking for the past six and a half months. But part of the problem with having a grand plan and no time (I think at some point I’ll be able to get up early and write again, but now and for the foreseeable future I get up early and worry about money) is that the grand plan becomes even grander and more impossible the longer it lingers on the to-do list (especially when coupled with a dangerous tendency toward procrastination).

I’m still hopeful I’ll get around to this project. But in the meantime, for now, for today, here’s our boy:

Toby Hop tiger, vert

And also:

Toby Hop tiger, horz