Friday, August 1, 2014

Vacation, all I ever wanted

Well, close enough, anyway. Noel and I divvied up the vacations this year; he took the kids to see their Tennessee grandparents back in June, and I am taking them to see their Georgia grandparents for the next few days. When we get back, it will be almost time for school to start, and my children will be nearing their 10th and 13th birthdays.

Traveling with the kids at this age reminds me forcefully, almost painfully, of traveling with my family when I was a child. The ages my children are now comprise the age ranges where I was most acutely aware in travel, most alert and alive to its adventure.  None of the responsibilities or decisions were mine; all the exploration was available. My brothers and I took off at every stop to reconnoiter the area.

We're staying in a hotel near the Little Rock airport tonight so that we don't have to drive down from Conway in the pitch blackness of 4 am to make our early morning flight. Of course, the kids are thrilled. In their shoes, I would be riding the elevators to every floor and trying to find an arcade machine and begging for change to get something from the vending area. It's hard to imagine me setting my kids free to roam the way we were at that age. Helicopter parenting? The natural concerns of parents about a special-needs kid? Or is it just that I've raised them to be happy homebodies, not pushing those boundaries, no urge to roam?

I surprised myself during the last few days by how much I've looked forward to this trip. And it's all because I know how excited the kids are to navigate airports, ride unfamiliar highways, nail down mental maps of new places. Oh, and see their Granny Lou and Papa, who are always happy to play games and whip up little snacks and go on long walks. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Writing about writing

I shared a couple of Archer's writing camp pieces last week. Now here are a few of Cady Gray's compositions.

First thing each morning, the campers had prompts on the board and did a little writing before the official start of the schedule. The first day's quickwrite prompts were about being a fabulous writer.

What makes you a fabulous writer?
My writing is fabulous because of description and tone. I love describing objects or animals or even people, with fancy words. However, you have to keep a friendly tone, and too many fancy words spoil that tone. It is like that old saying, "Too much spice spoils the broth," or something like that. Just stay the same person throughout your writing. Don't be dramatic in some parts and casual in others. 
What could cause a writer to lose their thrill of writing?
If a writer stops writing for a while, they may pick it up again later. Then, one of two things will probably happen. One, they will "come back with fresh eyes," which means to catch things you didn't before, like spelling mistakes. Two, they will fumble a lot more and get mad at themselves, not wanting to continue and be disappointed again, and again, and again.

I think that the last day's quickwrite was about seeing a glimmer out of the corner of your eye. What happens next? You can see the influence of the YA fantasy-adventure she loves to read in this one.

I slowly creep toward the glimmer, hoping silently for gold. I reach it, and it is as if the very sun has broken through the ground to peek up at the earth. The glimmer rises from the ground, too bright to look at, and everything goes to black ...
"I am in a dream," is my first thought. A rippling effect, pink and resonating. That is what I see in front of me, all around me. A voice, soft and innocent, speaks. "Help ... you ... You must save ... our world ... You are the only one ..." A shock passes through my spine as the ripple effect becomes more violent and the pink turns to purple. Another voice, desperate and echoing, screams. "HELP!" A fuzzy vision plays in my head. An oval-spheric pink blob is there, floating above the ground. It has large eyes and a flap-like mouth. It has no nose, and purpleish spots along its sides. It is being chased by a three-headed dragon-like creature. The middle head snaps at the blob, and it all fades into white ... 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Robotboy writing

Noel and I tag our tweets about Archer "#robotboy." It's an affectionate reference to his sometimes machine-like demeanor and behavior, as well as a shout-out to a favorite Guided by Voices song, "Gold Star for Robot Boy."

This past week, the kids went to Bearswrite, a writing camp at UCA.  Cady Gray went last year, and this year the grade range was expanded to secondary school. We were thrilled that CG enticed her brother to attend with mention of the cool technology they use.

Over the next several entries, I'll share some of their writing from camp. Today, a couple of Archer's pieces -- one that surprised me with its reach toward some kind of life wisdom, and one that shows that although he's come so very far, he's still the same kid with the same autistic obsessions.

This first is a series of haikus -- the prompt, I gather, was to write in the voice of an older person giving advice. AA was most proud of the way he put the introduction (with its reference to "glows and grows," camp-speak for praise and suggestions), in the form of a haiku.

Advice from an Old Man

I made this myself.
Post glows and grows you may have
In the comments list.
“I have seen long life,
The wisdom of existence
Can still be better.
“Humanity’s claim…
‘Everyone constantly learns.’
Now for what I think…
“‘Keep on improving.
Continue renovations.
Yearn for knowledge.’
“No-one is perfect,
But get as close as you can.
That is the spirit.
“Some are silly, yet
Others are intelligent.
Humans are diverse.
“Settle with yourself.
Don’t yearn to be someone else.
Just be who you are.”

I don't know if this is in response to a prompt. But it's so wonderfully typical.

Flash Fiction #1 :-)
I was just relaxing in my hotel room when I saw someone break in! The chase was on! We both proceeded to go in our cars. I had to catch the criminal before we reached his hideout, 4.7 miles from I-40 Exit 175A. We just passed Exit 148, so the chase was still far from over. He began to speed, suddenly and unexpectedly! The speed limit was 70 (65 for trucks), but he went 87 mph! I continued the chase anyway without calling the police, because I didn’t want to call while driving. 18.2 miles later, the criminal passed Exit 173—bad news for me, because I was still 0.4 miles behind him and he was only 6.7 miles away from his hideout. I sped up to 70 mph, right at the top of the speed limit! I was so close—only 315 feet away from him—when he got off on the wrong exit (Exit 175B)! I took the chance to get off on Exit 175A and travel the remaining 4.7 miles to his hideout. While he was still on the road, I called the police. They caught him for breaking in and speeding, so he had to pay a $9,999.99 fine and serve 3 months in jail. I finally returned to my hotel room afterward.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The promise of a path

I've been here at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the past three days as a guest of the Festival of Faith and Writing.  It's been a wonderful visit. The staff is welcoming and effortlessly competent, the students are enthusiastic and promising, and the attendees are somehow not only willing, but actually excited to show up at the crack of dawn on a weekend to hear some non-celebrity former TV critic from the boonies talk about theology and stuff.

It's a a beautiful campus, besides, dotted with low, rambling buildings whose unotrusiveness -- none are over a couple of stories high, all are the color of earth or sand -- seems to reflect the stated ethos of the college. I heard a faculty member mention that Calvin is a place where "we compete to be the most humble."

But what I love most about a college campus -- any campus, really, from corporate to clerical -- are the pathways. Curving through trees, skirting green spaces, circling fields, edging buildings.  When I set out on such a path, I always get a jolt of memory at some particular point, perhaps when the path crests a rise or veers away from structures. I remember vacations with my family, the campgrounds where we parked our rented RV, and the paths that my brothers and I immediately set off to explore.  I remember church camps, with the paths that led from cabins to dining halls to campfire pits to circles of benches out in the woods. At the end of the week, treading the now-familiar paths, I felt like a newly-minted expert in the ways of the place, a veteran ceding the ground to the next group like Charlie Brown: "I've done my hitch."

I'm not an adventurer. I don't strike out into the unknown. I like a path because a path says "this goes somewhere." I can never resist finding out where. But the greatest pleasure of a path isn't finding out for the first time where it leads.  It's knowing where it leads, the next time.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dear lady at La Huerta

When we came into the restaurant, you were already there, a middle-aged woman in a booth across from two teenagers with their heads bent over a shared phone. We sat at a table nearby, not our usual spot, but the place was unusually crowded.

Archer was carrying on his usual lopsided conversation with his sister about videogames. I think he was talking about his plans for constructing a tournament in Mario Party 9 that we could all play together, with multiple boards over several days and a scoring system based on the ministars (or in the case of the Donkey Kong board, bananas) earned on each board.

Noel and I ordered and settled down to read the paper while Archer chattered away and Cady Gray gave the occasional response. Then you were suddenly standing by our table.

"I just wanted to tell you that your son reminds me so much of my son," you said. "My daughters noticed and were talking about it. My son is 21 and away at college."

"Just the way he's talking -- it's just like my boy," you said. I thought about mentioning the word "autism," but held back. There's no guarantee your son had a diagnosis. Maybe you just lived with his idiosyncrasies. Then you paused.

"Don't let anybody tell you ..." you said. Instantly we knew what you were trying to say. "Oh no, we would never," Noel said. "No, he's wonderful. We enjoy him so much," I said.

"Yes!" you exclaimed. "People don't understand how wonderful it can be." The waiter arrived with our food and you stepped back toward your booth. "Thank you so much," we said, and turned back to our meal.

When you left, as we were finishing up, you said "Take good care of that boy" and we all said thanks and goodbye. The waiter came to clear our table, and Noel asked for the check. "The lady at that table already paid," he said.

Lady at La Huerta, I wish I had asked about your son. One of the things we wonder about the most is what Archer might be like when he grows up. Your son must be doing well if he's away in college. I wish I knew more about him.

I know what it's like to recognize another autistic child in a public place. I sometimes want to say something, to empathize and make that connection, but I rarely do. It must have meant a lot to you, to do what you did. I wish I could tell you more about Archer, but maybe you saw everything you needed to see. You saw how his sister listens to him patiently. You saw how excited and articulate he is about what interests him. You saw how delighted he was to see something about March Madness on the TV, and to recite our March Madness motto: "Ten seconds is an eternity, dad."

Lady at La Huerta, you didn't look like you were noticeably wealthy. I'm sure $40 for our meal wasn't an insignificant expense for you. I apologize if I'm assuming too much, but I can't quite express all the ways your unprompted generosity touched me. The way you wanted to reach out, to show solidarity, to love your son by doing something nice for someone who reminded you of him -- it's so unexpected. And it seems to say everything about the experiences we probably share.

Conway is a small town. I'm sure we're not separated by six degrees; somebody I know knows somebody who knows you. Maybe this will make its way to you. I said "thank you" for your kind words when you passed by on your way out of the restaurant. If you see this, then I've got another chance: Thank you for much more, for your kind and generous actions. I hope that Archer grows up to be just like your son, and that I grow up to be just like you.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hail the Gatekeeper

Janus was the Roman god of transition. It's a strange thing to have a god for, at first glance. But anyone who's studied anthropology will recognize why he's needed. Any beginning or ending, any movement from one state to another, is fraught.

We've arrived at the annual moment where our culture recognizes this. And for me in particular, the transition into a new year, with its accompanying look back at 2013 and expression of hope for 2014, is an especially rich story of beginnings and endings.

I'm spending this last day of 2013 interviewing the 84th subject for my research into the prayer shawl ministry, and reviewing and tagging a transcript from one of my earlier interviews. It's hard to remember that eight months ago I had yet to do a single interview. I was nervously anticipating the inauguration of this new project, looking back with some regret at the phase of textual research -- a process I know how to do! -- that I was leaving behind for uncharted waters. One of the most unexpected rewards of this research has been learning that I am good at these qualitative interviews, and that when I'm doing them I am a better person -- a more empathetic person, a better listener, a more attentive and responsive dialogue partner. Another surprise: Just when I'm most concerned about how much I'm asking of those kind enough to agree to an interview, they tell me how much I've given to them, by prompting them to think, by valuing what they say and do, by opening a space for them to speak.

Now the trepidation moves to 2014, when I have to leave the data-gathering phase behind and produce the written analysis. I am optimistic, but still, the unknowns of the process are daunting.

In 2013, I started leaving behind the world of pop culture criticism that I have pursued, in some form or another, since college. I hit my high point in terms of audience and influence in the process of that exit, with my reviews of the last season of Breaking Bad for the A.V. Club. In 2014 I'll review the last 11 episodes of How I Met Your Mother and write an overview of the series for the A.V. Club's 100 Episodes feature. And then I'll be done.

I'm looking forward to exiting that grind and focusing on the grinds that are more directly related to my academic goals as a teacher and scholar. But I'll miss the push to reflect critically and to appreciate expansively. I'll miss the readers and the community of TV critics.

It's almost hard to remember how I fit it in, but the other thing I did last summer was compile a massive four-volume application for promotion to full professor. That rank represents the top of my profession. As of this moment the application has successfully wended its way through two committees and two administrative reviews, and awaits action in 2014 by the provost and the board of trustees. I expect to remove the "associate" from my title this spring, just in time to also remove the "dean."

I'll never get used to this process of looking back and forward. When I turn my gaze to the things already done or set in motion, I can't believe I found the time and energy. When I imagine what current efforts will look like when complete, I can't picture myself as the source and the agent. It's a pleasant shock, though, to glance back and be flummoxed by what you managed to accomplish, and to peek forward and get all excited about what it will feel like to glance back this time in 2014. I hope all of you are having similar feelings on this day -- Janus's Day Eve.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The holly and the ivy

It's Christmastime in Conway, and a couple of times recently Noel has reminded me what we were doing at this time last year. The forecast showed a snowstorm bearing down on us, and for almost a week ahead of time, I fretted and made contingency plans for our planned drive to Nashville and flight to St. Simons. Eventually we made the decision to open presents on Christmas Eve and drive to Nashville on Christmas Day, mere hours ahead of the storm which ended up dumping nine inches of snow on our empty home.

The contrast with this year couldn't be greater. With no place to go, we are baking cookies, watching movies, crafting with the kids, and paying attention to the weather only with respect to the best time to make a grocery run. Noel's folks are arriving on Christmas Eve. I'll play handbells at the midnight service. And we'll open our presents on Christmas morning, as the baby Jesus intended.

I'm highly aware of my stress level these days. Many of the big decisions I made about my future this year were based on observation of what stresses me out in bad and good ways. Whole-family travel is a high-stress affair for me. I worry and make multiple levels of plans and try to keep everything as under control as possible. It's not something I should try to avoid in order to make my life more relaxed, of course (although to my shame, I do). But when I am not obligated to trek with everyone to some far-off destination -- especially on a tight schedule at symbolically-charged and heavily-trafficked cultural moments rendezvousing with multiple branches of the family, like at Christmas -- my quality of life shoots through the roof as my level of stress stays comfortably low.

As the years go by, the kids grow up, and the parents get older, each year's holiday planning is haunted by the shrinking number of opportunities it's using up. A chance to see the grandparents. A chance to establish and reinforce traditions. A chance to give. A chance to enjoy. A chance to worship. A chance to reflect. With every chance taken, exchanged, or passed up, a chunk of our family's life slides into memory.

I know everyone experiences these tradeoffs at this time of life. I wish I handled them with more grace, less self-absorption, more generosity, less anxiety. What you don't expect, I think, is that these phases of transition just keep coming at you, at times when you once thought that you'd be settled and finished with all that. And whatever choice you make, there's no way to completely avoid regret.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Down the memory hole

I was listening to a podcast a few days ago, and the host made mocking mention of central vacuum systems. I don't remember the exact context, but the upshot was that the guests were asked if they lived in an early twentieth-century apartment building that had those outlets in the wall where you hooked up a hose and sucked dirt out of your life.

That's when I experience that sudden frisson of recognition, the kind that happens when a long-forgotten detail of your life swims up out of your memory, and you realize: I lived in a house that had those outlets.

When I was a kid, my family built a house on property we owned about twenty miles out of town. We moved to that house when I was in eighth grade. And that house had a central vacuum system. There were unobtrusive hinged wall plates in each room and along the hallways; you lifted the flap to find a hole. Plug a hose into that hole, attach the hose to a handle and the handle to a carpet sweeping head, and vacuum away. The dirt went into some collection device in the lower level of the house. I have vague memories that it was located in my dad's workshop, which was part of a small garage built to house his tractor, based on times when something that wasn't supposed to be vacuumed was, necessitating some foraging around in the collection bin to retrieve it.

Those wall plates fascinated me. The whole system did, really. Vacuuming was one of the more pleasant chores I was occasionally assigned, because I could use it. Was the suction always on? When you lifted the lid, it didn't seem to resist you, but when you removed the hose and flipped the lid down, it seemed to get sucked into place. Were there switches built into the lid mechanisms somehow that triggered the suction?

And then there were the holes themselves. They were tempting to a curious child in the way all openings to mysterious places seem to be. What would happen if I put a ping-pong ball or a Christmas ornament in there? The hose obscured what would surely be fascinating to witness directly, the sight of an item suddenly being whisked away, popped out of your hands like a message in a pneumatic tube.

I've never encountered another house with one of these systems, but I see online that they're marketed to residential customers. I had no idea until hearing the podcast that they were associated with a certain era of multifamily housing in the minds of some urbanites. I kinda wish my current house had one. Maybe I'd even vacuum once in a while.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Use it up, wear it out

When I step down from administration in a couple of months, I'll be taking a pay cut. That wasn't the hardest part of contemplating the decision, strangely enough. But it's a somewhat unprecedented event in my career. I've actually been very lucky in the past five years; faculty at many institutions lost their jobs or had their pay slashed or benefits cut during the recession, and all that happened to me and my colleagues was no raises. (Which actually dated to years before the recession because of financial mismanagement, so we were used to it.) So facing a future with fewer dollars in the paycheck isn't something I really know how to do.

It's spooked me a little. There's no logical reason for this. We're just a few mortgage payments away from being completely debt-free, and we have plenty of resources to draw upon in case of need. But I'm used to having more than enough, and those resources aren't currently liquid.

So right now I'm holding off on some purchases that, to be frank, would be smarter to make today. Since before we renovated the kitchen, our decades-old washing machine has been steadily deteriorating. Currently the wash selector knob is held together with duct tape, and the push-pull functionality that stops the cycle no longer works. So when it buzzes for an unbalanced load, I can't pull to stop it and rearrange the clothes; I have to turn it past the spin cycle and rearrange while it's filling or draining or whatever, a disconcerting race against time until I can turn it all the way back around to spin. And after the kitchen was finished and we put the dryer back in the laundry room, it's never worked right; the air doesn't seem to blow on most cycles, and I have to put it on high heat to get any drying at all. It takes three or four cycles to get a load of clothes dry. Given that and given the age of the washer, I'm throwing money down the drain every time I use them. But the new washer and dryer I want are expensive, and there's that pay cut looming. I can't afford to keep using these, but it's scary to contemplate the hit on the checking account from a huge purchase, given how slowly that account is recovering from the renovation costs, and how much more slowly it will grow once the new year starts and my paychecks are smaller by almost twenty percent.

If that were all ... but it's not, of course. We know that our wonderful plasma TV is on its last legs. I've needed a new Macbook for some time. Each of those purchases, if we did them right, would be four figures. We could do them cheaper, of course, but I resist that solution. You'd be amazed at how much of my happiness is bound up in things that work right and do what they're supposed to, and how much of my joy is sapped, on a daily basis, by things that don't. If we're going to replace stuff, I want to invest in the good stuff, not the as-good-as-we-can-afford stuff.

So ironically, I keep on making do with stuff that barely works at all. The great, in this case, is the enemy of the good. My comfort level with spending a lot of money has never been high, but I could always talk myself into it when I knew from experience that my account balance would bounce back within a few months, and when I knew what I wanted. Now I have an additional mental barrier: the uncertainty of what it will feel like to have less money coming in. It's not an objectively significant problem, compared to people who have actual financial issues. It's just my personal problem, rooted in my personal emotional history with money. But there it is, nagging at me every time I walk back to the dryer, check to see if the clothes are still damp, and start another cycle.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A city that the damned call home

This year I've cut way back on my conference travel. Ordinarily this time of year I'd be juggling presentations and meetings at the national Honors education meeting, followed closely by the American Academy of Religion. But following my exit from most official posts at these organizations, I'm strangely passive about their yearly demands to gather in vibrant cities at big hotels and attend multiple parties. Back in the distant spring, before I made the decision to step down from administration, my boss included me as co-presenter on a session for this year's National Collegiate Honors Society meeting in New Orleans, so I've known for quite some time I would attend. But I've been otherwise content just to let it happen, and hope someone would tell me where to show up. (That's almost too much to expect, it seems; I somehow got left off the list of recipients when the big conference agenda was shared, so I didn't even know when our group dinner was until my boss happened to mention it earlier that day.)

The lack of business suits my mood -- and the mood of the city. I attend some sessions, do some thinking, grab a couple of hours off site to sample the city's food (from beignets to po'boys to gumbo), and try not to add to the self-important bustle of the conference. I support my colleagues and get a little work done and have the football game playing in my shared hotel room by 8:30 pm. And occasionally I wonder: Do I miss being at the center of the action? Having a bunch of special ribbons on my nametag? (The NCHC is crazy for one-off ribbons; there are at least a dozen that I've seen that only one attendee is entitled to wear.) I note that some of the decisions and work are quite important, not only to the organization and its members, but quite literally in the sphere of life and death. But of course, removed from that context as I am, it is undeniably pleasant to leave the worrying and the detail-obsessions to someone else.

This will be the first time I haven't been at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in many, many years. I believe the last one I missed was probably 1997. I went when my children were babes in arms, I went when I had interviews, I went when I had papers to give, and for the last six years, I went as a member of the board of directors. This year I have no committees to staff and I have no papers to give, so there was no rationale for me to ask for my department's support with travel expenses. I let it go. I'll miss it when my friends post to Facebook or tweet about the meeting, but I doubt I will spend a lot of time feeling left out. I have plenty on my plate.

But I confess that sitting in a business meeting here at NCHC this morning, my mind wandered to the AAR office I told many people I might run for in the future. I thought I might do it sooner rather than later. A year out of the trenches and away from the social whirl feels like a vacation. Two years, a well-earned sabbatical. When it starts getting to be a habit, though, you might start feeling sidelined. Irrelevent. Give me a chance to recuperate a bit longer, and then if you have a committee that needs a member or an office that needs a candidate, call me. I don't want to need that kind of status; I hope I'm beyond ever needing to feel important. And I'm way past wanting to have people pile responsibilities on me just so I can stay at the center of things. But on my own terms? I could see it happening again. And I'm betting it will feel as different as night and day, after having climbed the ladder once and been truly grateful to step off the rungs back to solid ground.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Radio on

I'll bet a lot of people who know me well think of me as an early adopter. I enjoy new technology, I like to try new ways of doing things, and figuring out how to integrate new processes into my life and work. I tend to be enthusiastic about innovation.

So it's got to be a little confusing to those people that some of the commonplace technologies of the last five or ten years are things that I've only recently, maybe even reluctantly, adopted. I've told many people the story of how I finally started carrying a cell phone only three or four years ago, fully a decade after most people in my shoes had become tethered to them. Some people wear their refusal to give in to cell phones or some other type of networking or availability technology as a badge of pride. Me, I'm embarrassed at how long it took me to join in. I inconvenienced everyone else for years because of my belief that I was different, that there was no need for me to be like them.

Similarly, I heard my friends talking about listening to podcasts for years and years. They'd talk about the ones they enjoyed, the ones they learned from, the ones that they follow week after week. And although I understood the concept, and I've had an iPod since they were invented, I never thought they were for me. When did people listen to these things? I didn't have a commute. When I exercised, I needed energetic music, not people talking. If I tried to listen to something other than music while working, I lose the thread of it, and suddenly I remember to listen and I have no idea what they're talking about. When else could I put on headphones and listen to some program? It would take time that I would rather use for doing other things, for writing or reading or watching something, none of which I can do while listening to a podcast.

The moment that changed was last year, when I decided I need to stop running. I had injured myself a couple of times, and the effort of pushing past that pain to keep on doing something I really didn't enjoy that much, just didn't seem worth it. I couldn't seem to break through the plateau and lose any more weight, or get any noticeable increase in endurance or speed. At the same time, I had known for years that I needed to find a way to integrate strength training into my life, but because just getting through the cardio was so time-consuming and took so much willpower, I couldn't stomach adding a whole other regimen on top of it.

What I decided to do was replace running with walking, and to do my walking in a practical fashion. Instead of walking around a track or around town, for exercise only, I would walk to places I needed to go anyway. Then my workout time could be devoted to weight training.

So I started walking Cady Gray to school, a thirty-minute round trip. On the way there we talk together, but on my way back, I'm alone. Then frequently I pick up my satchel and head on to my office, another fifteen minutes. When I go to the gym, I don't need uptempo music in the weight room. You lift for a minute or two, and then you rest. There's a lot of downtime.

And that's when I started listening to podcasts. And because they're stories, I didn't want to just turn them off when I'm done with the walk or the workout. I turn on the speaker to my phone, or hook them up to the stereo in the car, and keep listening while I run errands, or walk from one side of campus to the other. Podcast listening went from no part of my life, to seeping into more and more parts of my life from the gym and the sidewalk where they started.

There's nothing more annoying that the person who just got into something trying to tell you all about that thing. I'm just scratching the surface of the world of podcasts. What I really like about them, though, is that essentially they're radio on your time rather than broadcast time. I've always loved radio. (Maybe that's another post.) When DVRs came around for TV, I wondered whether such a thing would ever be possible for radio, and I felt a little pang to think that nobody would spend time building anything like that for what was considered a moribund medium. But now I understand. The energy to make radio timeshiftable and portable went in a different direction than the DVR, one that's not as closely tied to the continuous, clockbound nature of broadcast radio. People are making more radio than ever. I'm glad I figured out how to fit it into my life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

One voice

Yesterday was our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I got Noel a new phone. He got me (in addition to some book that hasn't appeared yet, but hey, I'm not going to be the first to bring it up) a day alone with my daughter while he went along with Archer to the All-Region Choir tryouts.

I sang in choirs throughout my childhood. But I never competed for a spot in any of these mass choirs. My elementary school didn't have a choir or an orchestra, and my secondary school didn't participate in whatever organization oversees these things. So this whole world of honor choirs and orchestras and bands and cheer squads and who knows what all is completely new to me.

I do know the choir world well, though. I know the music and the rehearsals and the participants. And I was hopeful, when we chose Archer's electives for this seventh grade year, that he would get into it. He is fascinated by the technical side of music -- notation, theory, structure -- and he has perfect pitch. I didn't know if he'd like the process of learning, rehearsing, and performing. But his teacher (who also leads the music programs at our church) says that he's a classroom leader, grasping the music quickly and helping others to get it and stay on track.

Noel followed the school bus up to Clarksville on Saturday, and stayed with Archer while waiting for his group to be called and to make their way in stages back to the audition rooms. It was hard for us to imagine what Archer would do with the long, long of waiting. I'm still nervous about sending him off into unstructured situations, where there's no one around who can keep an eye on him. He almost certainly would handled it fine. Without some firsthand experience of the setup, though, there was no way for us to know that.

It's reportedly unusual for first-timers to make the grade in these auditions. When I asked Archer to rate his performance, he reported that he would give it a 98%. For the last couple of weeks, he's been telling us about the pieces they chose, what key they're in, how many vocal parts, their suggested tempo in beats per minute, the song structure. He seems positive about the whole experience. I wouldn't be at all disappointed if choir became one of his things, like it was always one of mine.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Shuffling in the dark

For the past three years, I've run a short race on our campus called "Trick Or Trot." As you might gather, it's Halloween themed; costumes are encouraged but thankfully, not required.

This year I signed up even though I haven't run hardly a step in over a year. I stopped running because (a) I really hate running (although I love having run), and (b) I felt like I was destroying what was left of my knees and ankles every time I pounded around the track. In place of my slow, painful jog, I joined many people many age in walking. I racked up as many miles, or more, by walking my daughter to school and walking myself to work, as I used to accumulate at the gym. I took up weightlifting, too, and experienced that gratifying surge of strength, so quantifiable by the heavier and heavier plates you can pile onto the bar.

So why sign up for Trick Or Trot? The most simple reason is that I don't want to break the streak. Not signing up feels like capitulating to age. And I don't have to run; a lot of people walk the short two-mile circuit around campus after dark, peppered with glowstick-waving volunteers and cheerleaders.

But I'd like to run. Here's where I'm at with running: I'd like to think I could crank out a slow, steady mile or two even though I haven't done it in a year. Even though the thought of actually training to run is unbearable. I'd like to see how much I'm fooling myself with that notion.

So I'll line up at the back with the walkers, and I'll jog as far as I can go, and then the moment will come that I consider walking. It might be after a hundred yards, or after half a mile. Maybe I'll astound myself and be able to press on farther. But at some point I'll find out just how thin a soap bubble my abandoned veneer of "runner" really is. How long can I pretend, and what will I think of myself when I can't pretend any longer? Oh, I'll finish, walking, jogging, or crawling. I'll start my 49th year with a new t-shirt and a feeling of accomplishment. The question is whether that accomplishment will be a pleasant surprise, or a salvage job.

Update: I ran about 1.1 miles before walking, and only walked two stretches. A very pleasant surprise!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A new season

Tomorrow I turn 48 years old. You know, as long as there's a four in that tens column, I still feel young. And in two years when that changes, I'll probably feel young anyway.

I haven't written much in the last year. A post a quarter, maybe two. It's because I've been busy, of course; in my down moments I haven't felt like doing much other than knitting, sitting, watching TV, hugging my daughter. But it's also because this past year has been All About Me, and even though this is my blog, I've never been comfortable treating it as a therapist's couch. I haven't wanted to show up every few days and repeat the same stuff about my mid-life crisis.

But you know what? I think that's finally over. I made the decision to leave administration, and despite some lingering backward glances at the extra money, I'm happy about that every day. I couldn't be prouder of Noel and the awesome work he's doing at his brand new publication. I'm bringing to a close a period in my life where I practiced weekly television criticism, and reclaiming those evenings as time to do something other than work. And I've gotten an immense, humbling outpouring of praise for that work as the series I cover come to a close -- a thousand times more readers than I ever could have imagined, and hundreds of people saying nice things about what the work has meant to them. My promotion application for full professor is making its way up the chain of command. I've even gotten a couple of recent invitations to speak at conferences, related both to my theological work and my criticism. My research excites me, my book is underway, and there's a stack of other projects I hope to get to someday. It feels very much like I've made it to where I wanted to be when I started out.

Maybe it's the end of weekly writing about television that has prompted me to come back here. I've learned a lot about writing from blogging every day for years; I put much of it to use writing on short deadlines two and three times a week. I wouldn't like to see those muscles atrophy. (I'll need them for all the books I have to write.)

And while I've been away, my kids have been growing. I love to write about my kids. They are endlessly fascinating. People tell me they like to read about my kids -- well, about Archer particularly. He's done amazing things while I've been writing elsewhere. I don't want to miss the chance to get the stories down, and to share them. (I'm inspired here by, Matthew Baldwin's lovely project about how his classically-autistic boy interacts with the world.)

So let's see if we can meet here more often, shall we? Teaching, writing, television, kids, theology, movies, sports, and the occasional self-indulgent state-of-the-Donna report. Hope it turns out well for all of us.