Sunday, September 30, 2007

Back to basics

Home again, home again. A long weekend of sitting in a chair around a table, trying not to eat too much of the food they kept shoving at us (seriously, Hello Dolly squares left out for the taking all afternoon? that's just cruel), and using the excuse that I'm working to avoid doing my normal work.

Actually, I knit all weekend (yes, even during the meetings), and the proof is over at Toxophily. Tomorrow, if I can find time amidst the film series and the TV blogging, I'll report on the pickings at the semi-annual Rhea Lana sale and the semi-annual joys of buying used clothing.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The vision thing

Spending 11 hours in the company of a "strategic planning consultant" who differentiates between "driving" and "inspiring" and uses the acronym BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) without shame doesn't sound like fun to this corporate-averse, jargon-allergic academic. But you know what? It's been great. We've learned stuff about ourselves as an organization, and we've thought together about where we want to go. And to my delight, it's got a lot to do with that complexity hangup I have. (Turns out I'm not the only one.) So I couldn't be happier.

Plus, as Sonny noted in the comments to the last post, this is a beautiful weekend to be in Atlanta, and a gorgeous place in Atlanta to land -- the Emory Conference Center and Hotel. Our meeting room even has a window-wall that opens onto a balcony; we kept the doors open most of the afternoon and enjoyed the fresh air. You can't ask for more from a committee meeting.

One rather facetious idea that bubbled up from our discussion of public understanding of religion, a part of the AAR mission that is so contentious and yet so tenaciously advocated by some leaders that it has its own acronym (PUR), is the creation of a religion-in-media list that could be widely disseminated, like Blackwell's worst dressed or the Darwin Awards. The list would be "______ Most Clueless Statements About Religion Made in the Public Media."

Two came up right away.

1. "The Bible teaches that marriage is a permanent relationship between one man and one woman."
2. "The Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our Constitution, Declaration of Independence, our educational system, and our entire history until the last 20 to 30 years."

I love the idea of this list, and I decided then and there that even if the Academy didn't compile it, I would. What would you add to the list?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Atlanta nights

I've been too busy being busy to pay much attention to it, much less let you readers in on it, but I have a professional meeting this weekend in Atlanta. My first official duty as a member of the AAR Board of Directors is to serve on a team that will spend the weekend brainstorming about the organization's vision for the next several years. Now doesn't that sound like something that will change the world?

Actually, it might be a step in that direction. Today I listened to one of my colleagues give a brilliant introduction to our freshman class on the topic of why Darwin matters. He pleaded with them not to allow fear to reduce their sense of the universe and their environment to a simple moral tale, or a Noah's Ark of friendly creatures. He spoke eloquently about the story told by nature, a story of change and utter strangeness -- and about the God for whom so many of his listeners wanted to call nature as witness, a God who (according to the picture painted by nature) achieves his mysterious ends through massive amounts of death and suffering and wastefulness to lavish his care on a tiny fraction of the tiny remnant of the totality of all living things that have ever existed on this earth.

As we were walking back to the office after class, I told my colleague and friend that he shouldn't have to bear the burden of awakening these students to the awe-inspiring beauty of complex explanations by himself. "My field," I said, "bears some responsibility here. We have to do a better job teaching people that religion is complex, strange, contingent, historical, and about as far away from the kind of simple message that can be conveyed through a Jack Chick tract or an Archie comic as the human eye is from the light-sensing cells of a flatworm."

Because it's not evolution that we fear. It's complexity. It's the loss of the simple answers that we can teach to everyone. It's the unavoidable consequence of a historical consciousness that reveals change and development and human motives, in all their venality and sincerity, in the message that has come down to us. Without the simplicity and finality and totalizing power of "God says it, I believe it, that settles it," we fear, how will we ever come to rest on solid ground?

Maybe the AAR can help. If scholars of religion can't do a better job of telling the world about its immeasurable richness and strangeness and awe-inspiring testimony to millennia of human effort to understand, motivate, control, and bear witness, then eighteen-year-olds will continue to show up at our doorstep clinging for dear life to their conviction that the ultimate answers are simple. Every semester I lay my cards on the table, telling students that I am making a key assumption in the way I look at the world and the way I'm asking them to try out looking at the world. Anything worth knowing, I say, is complex. Any question worth asking has a complex answer. I allow that I could be wrong about this -- that I might show up at the pearly gates and find out I was barking up the wrong tree all along. But the simple answers that have been given to me over the years have all decayed and fertilized the fascinating, developing, fractal richness of the complexity that now appears in their place. So here I stand -- I can do no other. And here I hope to act, with the combined power of my fellow scholars, to make the world safe for complexity.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Let them lead the way

There's been some discussion on Ravelry recently about posting photos of children on one's blog. Queasy stories about folks grabbing those pictures, altering them to have the appearance of child pornography, and posting or trading them. And the threat (although I don't know of any actual instances) of pedophiles tracking down your kids in real life after finding them on your blog.

I know a lot of parent-bloggers give their children blog-nicknames in order to avoid posting their real names (presumably for fear of child predators knowing too much about them). Some of those bloggers do post pictures of their kids; others refrain from doing so.

The range of opinion seems to be "you can't do too much to keep kids safe" on the one hand, to "you can't stop information about your kids getting out of your control, pretending you can promotes a false sense of security, and kids are actually safer today than they've ever been" on the other.

Obviously I use my children's names on this blog, and I post occasional pictures. I'm a proud parent, my kids are one of my primary topics, and I never bothered to change my original real-name practices from years ago when I started the old blog. But every time I read a blog that masks the identity of family members mentioned in the text, I wonder whether I should change my ways.

On the flip side, I don't want to hide my own identity on the blog. I tend to agree with Jeff Atwood that writing that's attributed to an identifiable person has a credibility advantage. I want to be associated with what I write, and I want what I write to be associated with me. And I want people who know me in real life to be able to find my blog, and those who know me through the blog to be able to find out more about my work. If I'm going to use my own real name, how anonymous are my children really going to be?

I'd like to hear your opinions about this, readers and friends. If you have a family, what's your practice about discussing them online, and why? If you're a reader of blogs with different strategies for addressing this situation, what do you think is most reasonable, readable, appealing, and appropriately security-conscious?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Life lessons

  • When you take your computer to the service people and they say, "do you need us to save anything?", do not assume that they mean save any files that might happen to be open before they start poking around. Because what they mean is whether they should feel free to wipe your hard drive.

  • Just because nobody ever told you that you were on the committee, doesn't mean you aren't on the committee.

  • Blocking out 90 minutes on your calendar with the heading "No appointments -- encyclopedia work" does little to deter others from making appointments for you during that time.

  • If a student has been planning privately for two years to teach a class in his final semester, or to secure funding for a trip during the last possible school break long enough for travel, he will feel entitled to fulfill these dreams despite having only informed those in charge about them too late to schedule the class or apply for the funds.

  • E-mails are the easiest form of communication for the recipient to ignore. (Although I have mastered the art of ignoring voice mail messages, phone call slips, post-it notes on my computer, and certified mail as well.)
  • To be empowered to make decisions is to have those decisions appear arbitrary to those they affect.

  • The only way to be assured of having time to do what you love, is to make doing what you love into a job.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Circling the drain

Last night at the vestry meeting:

Me: (thinking to myself) Hm, the seal on my MacBook is cracked and flaking off again, just like it did this spring. No problem, the repair is still under warranty. I'll call AppleCare and get them to send a box so I can mail it in. I can just carry my tablet to and from work.

This morning at breakfast:

Noel: Hey, the carpet's wet over here.
Me: Hm, maybe the dishwasher has a leak. Call the plumber and see what's up.

Around 11 am:

Me: (thinking to myself) Hey, my tablet won't boot up -- it says that some system file is missing or corrupted. I'll get our IT guy to look at it.


IT guy: Bad news -- your computer is saying that no hard drive is present. I think it may have crashed. You'll have to take it over to the Help Desk and see what they can do for you.
Me: Well, that blows. I need to start grading papers tonight and that's when I use the pen input on the tablet. I'll drop it off in the Business Building and see if they can fix it.

After lunch:

Noel: (on the phone) The plumber took everything apart and says that the leak's in the pipes that go through the wall in back of the sink. So we've moved all the furniture to the middle of the dining room and he's inside the wall working on it.
Me: At least he's found the problem. Let's just hope it doesn't cost an arm and a leg.


Me: (thinking to myself) Sure was smart of me to keep all my documents on Google Docs instead of on my hard drive. I won't even miss a beat while my tablet's in the shop. All I have to do is carry my MacBook back and forth from home every day ... (remembers first incident in sequence, slumps into insensibility)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Full moon

I spent most of the evening at a vestry meeting and the last 30 minutes hurriedly posting my TV Club post on How I Met Your Mother, so there's precious little blog energy left. Today has been a weird day. I've been flummoxed and bewildered all day by how people's minds work and what in heaven's name they are trying to accomplish with their bizarre strategies.

The radio summed it all up for me on the way home tonight. Our local NPR station was playing the usual evening jazz programming, but at the same time, a feed of All Things Considered was also going out over the air. This led to the strange combination of some cool west coast riffage under an interview about North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and (even better) pre-war big band swing under a story about germs that have been experimentally shot into space.

I drove home thinking about the on-air monitors in the station control room that were turned down for who knows how long while the station, presumably, ran itself; about the channel left up while some late feed of news programming downlinked from the satellite service; about the dark, empty radio station full of flickering red lights and cool blue displays, and its lone caretaker down the hall feeding his wrinkled dollar into an uncaring Coke machine over and over.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Swapping stuff

I'm a pack rat. I've long since come to terms with my reluctance to get rid of anything. Worse, even when I've resolved to get rid of it, I can't just throw it away -- it always seems to me that somebody could use it, and I should try to get it to that person. That leads to situations like me driving around for a month with three garbage bags of clothes for Goodwill in the back of my Outback. (Current status: Still there.) Because my determination to get it to the person who needs it is not matched by my follow-through. Yet it prevents me from just tossing it in the trash.

My pathology has been revealed anew by Freecycle, which I joined a couple of years ago but only recently began paying attention to. My Ravelry buddies dropped a couple of mentions of great yarn finds through Freecycle, so I hit the switch to get the Faulkner County Freecycle group e-mails delivered to my inbox.

The whole idea of Freecycle is that you post things you want to get rid of, and people who want them come and get them from you. Occasionally you might post about stuff you want, and if people have it to give, they'll get in touch with you and you can got get it. It keeps stuff out of the landfill, and you don't have to do anything but put the stuff on your porch. Sounds perfect for me. But I've found that I can't even pull that much of the trigger.

Somebody posted that they needed an office or task chair. Now I have an office chair that is currently sitting in our "nook," a niche beside the garage that used to be my office when I needed a home office. Now my desk is just a landing spot for random documents, one wall of the nook is the home to two particle-board bookcases groaning under the weight of about half of Noel's graphic novel collection, and my plan when I come into possession of a round tuit is to move the desk to Archer's room (he's got homework now!) and set up wire organizers for my knitting supplies in its place.

There is no place for that task chair in the plan. It's not suitable for Archer to use as a desk chair. So it needs to go.

But I couldn't send that Freecycler an e-mail that I had an office chair for her. Why? There is no good reason. I just can't get rid of stuff. The chair is missing a bolt on the seat, but it's an easy fix, and I should just tell her that and let her decide if she wants it. Why would I pass up a chance to get rid of something I know I'm going to get rid of eventually, something I have no use for, something that is Dead Chair Walking in our house, and to get rid of it with no more effort that sending an e-mail?

Because there's a finality to it. It's an admission that I'm committed. I can't commit. I have a disease.

Now along comes news of Paperback Book Swap, a group that facilitates getting rid of books you don't need and getting books you do. In theory, this sounds great to me. Nothing I love more than getting new books, and as a book reviewer, we sure do have a lot of books we don't need clogging our shelves. (Not many of them are paperback, but I have a lot of legacy paperbacks from my college and grad schools days haunting the used bookstores for genre fiction.)

But in practice, I know that the sheer effort of packing up books to send and getting them to the post office will defeat any will I have to participate. In fact, it defeats my will to even sign up. Noel did Sequential Swap for a while, but the effort -- and the fact that he wanted to get rid of comics much more than he wanted to get any in return -- ground him down. That provides a convenient excuse for me to conclude that those Paperback Book Swap grapes are probably sour, anyway, and not even try.

Help me, internet. I'm sick. I stop three steps short of ever getting rid of anything, justifying my failure by the effort, the expense, or the remote possibility that the item might be useful to somebody in the world someday. If this continues for a few more years, I'll be one of those people living in a maze of stacked newspapers, and I'll be forcibly put on medication and have my children taken away from me. Noel has to throw things out secretly to avoid my recriminations. If only Clean Sweep could come and save me -- I'm their target demographic, but I cannot do it without the TV cameras and the accompanying promise of public shaming.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

We'll ride painted horses with wind in our hair

Sophomore sock completion! The full story today at Toxophily.

The county fair ends today, and while I'm not generally enthusiastic about heat, dust, crowds, and infrequently-inspected traveling carnival rides, especially all at once, it seemed unfair to deprive the kids of their right to rustic entertainment. So this is the story of our trip to the fair.

We made our first attempt at about 9:30 am. The parking area was suspiciously empty, but we knew it couldn't be too long before the food stands and the midway opened up. To pass the time, we walked through the livestock barns. Then we wandered through the rest of the fairgrounds, which were deserted except for carnies grabbing a smoke. Then we sat under the pavilion and waited for our friends to show up (they had indicated a 9:45 ETA), and scanned the booths for signs of life. At 5 till 10, with absolutely no activity indicating imminent opening, we packed the kids back in the car and went home to seek alternative amusement while looking for information on the fair's hours. Such data was surprisingly hard to come by, but I finally located the fair's rulebook for animal and craft competitions, which included the timetable in the front. Midway opens at noon on Saturday. (And I might add, excuse me? It's Saturday morning; people are ready to get out and enjoy themselves. Roust yourselves out of your trailers and take their money already.)

So we recalibrated for an afternoon fair visit. At about 2:15 we rolled up for the second try.

Success! Like any county fair worth its salt, the Faulkner County Fair greeted us with the promise of funnel cakes.

First stop: the carousel, Cady Gray's favorite. There was much rejoicing.

Then we scoured the grounds for other age-appropriate rides on which to spend our $30 worth of tickets. We rode fake flying Dumbos, but my picture was out of focus. The kids drove this little jeep around on their own. (I remember being thrilled by the motion and relative speed of these kinds of rides as a kid. Just put me in something that locomotes and I'm blissed out.)

Money was spent on midway games, including a few with guaranteed prizes, which were duly won and enjoyed out of all proportion to their actual cash value.

I persuaded the group to spend our last ride tickets on the Super Slide, always my favorite. I took Cady Gray down after some anxious moments at the top when I couldn't sit both myself down and get her on my lap at the same time. Finally we were rescued by a carny. Archer went down by himself, to his evident delight, and Noel followed right on his heels.

Noel indulged in a fresh-squeezed limeade ...

... and shared it with everyone.

Despite the desires of some members of our party to stay at the fair forever ...

... we eventually packed up our plastic racecars, glittery tiaras, cornet-shaped kazoos, and giant novelty inflatable baseball bats and went home.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Archer thinks about things

Archer brought home an especially revealing -- or perhaps perplexing -- sheaf of school papers today. First up: the fruits of an apparent unit on space aliens.

Here we see a picture Archer drew of an alien who most closely resembles the letter M. He has labeled the elements of his portrait: eye, eye, nose, mouth, "alien," "space," and "light." As you'll see, stars form an important theme in his alien-related work this week.

In case you were wondering about this M-shaped alien, Archer has provided a fact sheet.
  1. What is this alien's name? The nail
  2. Where is this alien from? space
  3. How old is this alien? Sixty years
  4. What was this alien's life like before it came to Earth? A good life that is fun
  5. What does this alien like to eat? space salad
  6. What does this alien like to do for fun? Play a "Memory" game
  7. What is one thing you hope to learn from your alien friend? A "Signing Time" Video
  8. What is one thing you hope to teach your alien friend? An "Elephanting" Lesson
This next drawing on a small sheet of blue paper may be related to the alien unit, since it appears to depict Archer's route to the stars through such items as a math test, a yellow blob, and an American flag.

In non-alien schoolwork, Archer imagined what this happy little boy wanted from his friend the tree (did they read The Giving Tree?). Answer: "an apple. a love heart. and a blue ball."

And finally, I was intrigued by Archer's definition of freedom -- and I believe I agree with him, though I would mark him down for redundancy.

I think freedom is: going to school. Going to school is what I think freedom is.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Four letters: Online diary

Sometimes I think childhood is just an accumulation of obsessions. Archer's latest is Merv Griffin's Crosswords, a new game show in a sort of combined Lingo/Scrabble mode. Contestants are given a crossword element with one or no letters filled in, and a clue. They have to provide and spell the word. (Our online acquaintance Tom the Dog got to be a contestant, and writes about it here.)

On our walk tonight, Archer took along his magnadoodle so he could play puzzlemaster for us. He drew the blocks for the number of letters and kept the score in the corner. What amused us were the clues he provided. Here are a few:

8 letters, "Birth for kids" (birthday)
3 letters, "Tall boy" (man)
4 letters, "long street" (road)
3 letters, "Seven plus" (age, referring to the recommended ages on games and toys)

I like watching his mind work as he tries to assemble crossword-style clues for whatever word he's thought up. He also made the "doot-DOOO!" ascending notes of triumph when we got it right, and the "doot-dooooooo" descending notes of failure when we got it wrong. And naturally, he told us how much the questions were worth ($100, $200, etc.) and kept a running total. Just like on TV, we lost the amount when we missed a question. At one point on the walk Noel was up above $1000, but we ended back below $500. We did, however, win the Crosswords Getaway, and we're going to Jamaica!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Breaking all the rules

I had a normal day yesterday. I went to work, I taught a class, I had lunch, I attended three back-to-back meetings, I went home, I took Archer to therapy, we all went out to dinner, I bathed Cady Gray and put the kids to bed, and I stayed up too late watching WSOP, Kitchen Nightmares, and The Daily Show with Noel while knitting the second Essential Vog and accumulating Ask the A.V. Club questions.

First normal day I've had in a while. There was that whole expatriate-husband thing. Then I took off to the top of a mountain for two days. And Monday night I came back to work after dinner and showed a movie. I define normal as "spend 7-10 pm with Noel watching TV, blogging, and knitting."

So much for normality, then. I'll be here at work until at least 8:30 pm, missing dinner and the kids in order to represent the Honors College at RFK Jr.'s lecture on campus tonight. I spent the morning writing a book review and three emergency ATAVC answers, went to class at noon, forgot that I hadn't eaten lunch before class like I usually do, felt peckish about 2 pm and thought about a snack before realizing that I was 3 hours late for the midday meal, and in anticipation of getting no food tonight other than the hors d'oeuvres I'll have to fight 150 people for at the pre-lecture reception, I bought a piece of pie to go with my club sandwich.

That's pretty momentous. I think it's the first time I've broken the No-S "no sweets" rule in months. I might have nibbled on a cookie at a party mid-week -- I can't recall -- but there's a difference between having sweets thrust at you and deliberately selecting one off the shelf and spending money on it.

I justified my libertinism pretty easily. The day was already topsy-turvy, and promised to become only more so. I was hungry and wanted compact calories. But mostly, it all just seemed like a good excuse -- so many rules had already been broken by the day that a violation of this self-imposed one seemed pretty minor by comparison.

And the fudge pecan pie was good. I should have eaten it backwards, outer-crust edge first, since the crust was nothing special. But the fudginess was extremely satisfying.

Perhaps I just wanted something I could enjoy wholeheartedly before the appearance by RFK Jr. tonight. He's a problematic figure for me. His promotion of the baseless vaccine-autism link calls into question the other malfeasance he purports to uncover, like election fraud in the 2004 Ohio presidential election. Without a doubt I agree with the thrust of his stances on the imperial executive and the need for action on climate change, but his strident rhetoric and tendency to frame all issues in terms of cover-ups, cabals, and powerful conspirators, instead of rational investigation, turns me off. Tune in tomorrow to see if I'm won over by his Kennedy charm. (Quoth my divorcée colleague upon seeing the picture that graces our advertisements for his talk: "Is he married?")

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

25 words or less

I asked the students in my "Scripture Unscripted" class to complete this sentence in 25 words or less: "Scripture is ..."

Here are their answers, with links to the blogs where they are chronicling their reactions to the class. If you're intrigued by any of the approaches or definitions you see below, visit that student's blog, read, and leave a comment. It'll do 'em good to know that they are being read by interested strangers in farflung places.

Scripture is ...
  • "…words on a page until you believe it’s something more, then I think it’s our most direct access to God’s desires for his people." (artgirl)

  • "... a divine, historical work which people of all kinds look to for knowledge, advice, and answers." (cmoore)

  • "...important...and not only for Christians and Jews. Why would so many people trouble to understand its origins and interpretations? It's kinda a big deal!!!" (ashleybear)

  • "... a compilation of religious texts by many authors all trying to convey a message which pertained to their own time and community." (kate)

  • "... according to the writings of man, it is words inspired by God. " (lindsay)

  • "... man's attempt to connect with God and interpret God's word, but the connection seems a bit blurred and fuzzy sometimes, which is why we're just people and God is divine." (nat)

  • "... humanity’s attempt to preserve the spirit in concrete form. It is our physical link to the spiritual world." (elizabeth)

  • "... where some search for truth, others search for purpose, and I search for understanding." (arizonasky)

  • "... the inspired word of God, a guidebook for how we should live, and currently ... a little confusing." (ehester)

  • "... something to ponder; it can be puzzling or completely invigorating. It is a bridge that aims to connect individuals to the higher power." (imizell)

  • "... God's divinely inspired message to his people that has been interpreted differently and modified for many centuries." (madreid)

  • "... the written record of personal, theological, historical, prayerful, experiential, and scholarly revelations of God, the Father, God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit." (subumbrafloreo)

  • "... an ancient yet remarkable and relevant compilation of beautiful thoughts and stories which opens human eyes to the heart of God." (nuancedreligion)

  • "... God's expectations for humankind, best understood, in my opinion, through a nonliteral Biblical interpretation and with an eager heart." (lburton)

  • "... a written representation of God’s ideas and man’s guidelines that act as a comfort to the down-hearted and an inspiration to the discouraged." (jerene)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Another link in the chain

After spending the early evening (my usual blogging time) at school watching Gabrielle, I feel a link post comin' on. Here's what I've written recently round about the ol' webbarino:

  • A "sneak preview" edition of the new A.V. Club feature T.V. Club, a television blog. I'll be covering How I Met Your Mother, Viva Laughlin, and, in the preview that went online last week, the premiere of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
  • As mentioned in this As It Happens! blog post, a review of Irene Spencer's memoir of plural marriage, Shattered Dreams: My Life As A Polygamist's Wife.
  • A review of Nicholas Christopher's moody novel about mythological creatures, The Bestiary.
  • Two entries in this Fall TV Preview -- Viva Laughlin and Gossip Girl.
  • The usual motley assemblage of "Ask the A.V. Club" answers. In this column: whether a critic should read other reviews + that lake monster movie everybody seems to have seen. In that column, a dissertation on the origin of banana peels as shorthand for comedic pratfalls. Here, an anti-drug video from the eighties starring Lou Gossett, Jr. There, the genesis of the sax hook from "Rump Shaker." And finally, a film about a toy boat wending its way toward the open sea.
  • And (as previously alluded to) a review of Eric H. Cline's level-headed, informative, and drily humorous look at biblical history, From Eden To Exile: Unlocking Mysteries Of The Bible.
  • Elsewhere, an article on the doctrine of assurance in process theology, solicited by a student putting together an online collection.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Today I am a photographer

Archer's uncle answered my call for a surplus digital camera for his birthday, and ever since Archer has lived for the days he is allowed to take pictures with his Olympus D-380 (2 megapixels) -- a "real camera," he likes to point out, as opposed to the Viewmaster that we encourage Cady Gray to pretend is her camera. Today he finally filled up the memory card and it was time to download.

The first order of business was deleting the 60+ shots that look like this:

Archer's favorite subject is his own feet, followed closely by anything about 24 inches off the floor. Not out of any artistic choice, I assume, but because he likes to hold the camera tilted down so he can look at the screen. But occasionally we cajoled him into lifting the axis somewhere close to vertical, and this is the result:

I must admit that I had visions of a Rain Man-like photographic eye, something that would reveal what was going on in his head, external evidence of the world that exists in his private perceptions. Unless that world is dominated by his feet and the torsos of those around him, I didn't get my wish. But it's early yet. It probably took Dustin Hoffman 40 years to learn how to absentmindedly snap perfectly composed random images.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A perfect afternoon

After this morning's writing workshop for the Core I students, the afternoon was ours to spend any way we pleased. I did exactly what I had planned to do for months -- strolled to the little boathouse by the pond, sat under an umbrella, knitted, and watched students, alumni, and assorted hangers-on take the paddleboats out for a spin. Several impromptu discussion groups formed, disintegrated and reformed again during the three hours I spent in the perfect 72-degree cloudless weather, under the perfect slate-blue sky. My feet were up, the breeze was cool, and I didn't completely lose count of my stitches.

Of course, perfection is all in the juxtaposition. Even though it would nearly always be relaxing to sit and knit on a coolish late summer day, the hectic pace of my Toronto widowhood over the last ten days made me long for such a scene more than I usually would. In fact, although I crave do-nothing vacations in the abstract -- my perfect holiday is a cruise or a beach resort -- I usually feel some compunction to get stuff accomplished, to have Experiences, when I'm traveling. It's rare that I can turn all that off and really just sink into long stretches of unscheduled time without guilt or restlessness.

Thanks to the happy accident of juxtaposition, this is one of those days.

I miss my kids, certainly, but I'm too aware of my own weariness and need for rejuvenation to feel bad about spending a day away from them. I shed a little tear reading an e-mail this morning that Noel passed along from Archer's teacher. It seems that on Friday the class was doing an experiment about electricity -- rubbing a balloon to give it a static charge, then touching it to the fluorescent bulb in the bathroom to make it light up. The kids were going into the dark bathroom in small groups and closing the door, and Archer didn't want to go in. So the teacher let him stand by the door and be the "door man." After a few groups had gone in and come out, one of the entering students asked Archer if he wanted to do it, and said that he could hold her hand. He took her hand, went inside, and participated. He changed his mind, and he trusted his friend. Making that kind of connection with a child his age is another step forward. My boy can do all kinds of things, and there are people who will help him along, and he will let them lead him somewhere new.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Now with even less content!

Noel's home, the kids are ecstatic, and I took advantage of the chaos to sneak away to the beautiful Winthrop Rockefeller Conference Center on Petitjean Mountain, where our annual fall retreat for incoming Honors students is happening. Can't get wireless access to work anywhere at the moment (although it's supposed to be everywhere), so I'm on a computer in a small lab. Maybe dailyblogging, maybe not, depending on how the weekend goes. Expect lots of knitting progress reports at Toxophily early next week, because if nothing else happens up here, I'm gonna knit.

Right now the overwhelming feeling is relief and giddy, giddy freedom. Hoople out!

Update! Through some weird combination of Network Diagnostics, the Network Preferences Pane, and the mojo of this bench I'm sitting on -- the same bench I sat on last year to get wireless leaking out of the conference -- I'm now on the wireless network. So a quick Archer story before I dive back into the freshman scrum.

I picked Archer and Cady Gray up from school this afternoon before Noel got home, and as we drove back to the house I asked them if they thought Dad would be there when we arrived. We made it into the Prediction Game, where Archer took the "Dad will be there" side and Cady Gray the "Dad won't be there" side. "And then we'll see what happens," I explained. "Yeah, and if Dad is there, I win," Archer insisted. "Yep, we'll see who made the right prediction," I answered brightly. (This is as close to gambling as we've gotten in our household. I really wanted to give Archer odds, but I'm afraid of creating a monster.)

When we pulled into the garage, Archer and Cady Gray ran to the door to see who was right. Noel poked his head around the hallway and they squealed in glee. Before he went in, though, Archer had to stick his face in mine and make sure I heard him say, "I win!"

The kids ran back and forth between me and Noel in unbridled mayhem for a few minutes. Archer kept draping himself over Noel and saying, "Dad, I am so great!" But what got us both was when he finally, after a couple of minutes of incoherent happiness, looked at Noel and said, "Dad, I missed you! I love you, Dad." There are still few enough of those spontaneous expressions of Archer's true inner states -- not echoed from somebody else's prompt -- that we keep every one of them locked away in our hearts.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 9 (Wherein I Get Sneaky)

Spirits were high throughout most of our last full day of Toronto Exile '07. Even though Noel's mom left this morning, I knew I could manage. I took both kids to Archer's therapy at 4 pm, and while he was playing games with his therapists, Cady Gray and I took a walk around the fountain. We went to the Chinese buffet afterwards, where the kids behaved beautifully and got their usual two desserts (soft serve ice cream + fortune cookie). No problem with pajama time, then they settled in for their daily dose of Legends of the Hidden Temple.

When Noel called, I paused the show and let Cady Gray talk to him first. She handed the phone to Archer when she was done, but in the process of fumbling it to his ear, he hung it up. I assured Archer that Dad would call back, but it took an agonizing minute (during which Noel called the wrong number), and Archer kept saying, with mounting anxiety, "I need to call Dad!" When the phone finally rang, both children were in full-on freakout mode, Archer's screaming having sent Cady Gray over the edge as well. Archer toned it down long enough to talk to Dad, but the damage was done. Even after turning the show back on, I couldn't retreat to discuss pickup plans with Noel because Cady Gray was coming to me in tears about Archer sitting in her chair.

Poor Noel could barely get a word in edgewise between the two kids' crying fits, even in a short conversation. My first thought was, "Oh crap, Noel probably doesn't want to come home now." My second thought was, "Actually, he probably feels really guilty right now about leaving me alone to deal with this for 10 days." And you know, the truth is doubtless closer to the latter than the former. At least, that's how I always feel when I call from work or a trip and discover that Noel's had to weather some rough childcare seas.

But the fact is that we had an excellent day, without a smidgen of trouble from either child, until the unfortunately phone mishap. Yes, one mishap tends to lead to another, as the children get anxious that none of their needs will be met and respond by making increasingly shrill demands. But if it all starts 20 minutes before bedtime, hey, I can handle it. It'll be over soon, one way or another.

It's been a very smooth week and a half for all of us (I say confidently, tempting the fates to challenge that conclusion during the remaining 20 hours of the ordeal). I got frustrated on Saturday and came close to the frayed end of the rope. There were a couple of blood-pressure raising moments in the last hour today. But other than that -- and in all sincerity -- I've felt happy, relaxed, and glad to be spending so much time with my smart, funny, happy, adorable, loving children. There are surely no other two siblings on the face of the earth that could have made this so easy.

Now come on home, honey, so I can toss my overnight bag in the car and zoom off to Petitjean Mountain for a weekend of reading, knitting, and socializing with people old enough to vote.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 8 (Bugles!)

Thanks to the good graces of Faithful Readers Ali and Dave, we were treated to hamburgers and hot dogs off the grill, sweet corn, and the spectacle of kids running blissfully free in somebody else's backyard. Thanks to the vigilance of Grandma Libby (who never lets down her guard even after two glasses of cab sav) Archer's magnadoodle was retrieved from the toy pile before we pulled out of the driveway. Thanks to Father Time, we're only two days away from Noel's return. It's a day to be grateful.

I hope you've been reading Noel's dispatches from Toronto on the A.V. Club blog. (And my pal Scott's, too, of course -- both of them are earning their keep up there.) He's seen a number of big fall releases that live up to the hype, but not as many discoveries to champion, promote, and feel passionate ownership about as in previous years. Even though I know he was probably ready to come home, in some ways, right around 6 pm Monday, I still envy him the chance to absolutely wallow in film in a city that is temporarily the cinematic capital of the world. It will be a long time before we get to do that together, if ever.

On the bright side, here's my list of Things I've Gotten Around To During My Husband's Absence:
  • reading all my 153 RSS feeds
  • transferring all my 153 RSS feeds into a new aggregator
  • obsessively checking each episode of The Soup that records on the &*#$% DVR to make sure it's a repeat of the one I already have saved so I can delete it
  • thinking seriously about whether I need these
  • wishing I had a copy of this so I could just spend all night popping through them one by one like salted peanuts
  • reading a book that made me cry every time I picked it up
  • rediscovering what happens when you don't bathe every day
  • going to bed with earrings and a watch on, and waking up in the morning with one of the earrings missing
  • temporarily setting aside guilt about 24/7 kidblogging
  • marking the fourth anniversary of my annual failure to get said husband anything for his birthday, which always falls in the middle of Toronto, providing me a convenient excuse for laxness which actually has nothing to do with the trip.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 7 (Wherein Normalcy Returns)

Quick bullet-y post because there's no overall narrative to the day:
  • Yesterday Archer came home with his first homework ever. My boy has crossed the threshold from play-school to work-school, and he's excited about it. I glanced over the papers on the way home from school and saw that they apparently had a long lead time ... they represented homework for the whole week. Long after the kids and their grandma were in bed, I emptied his backpack and took a closer look at that homework. There was a sheaf of math worksheets with an accompanying note that said they were due on Friday. Check. There was a book in a plastic bag with a reading record to be filled out and signed, a worksheet to be completed, and a note that said ... it was due back the next day. Oops. Before I could go to sleep I had to work out in my head a way for Archer to read the book and answer the sheet's questions the next morning (solution: let him out of his room 20 minutes early, since he's always awake and playing at that time anyway). Archer sat at the dining room table and read the book (Level 21 of some reading curriculum -- it was relatively elaborate) out loud, with great verve. Then he answered the worksheet questions ("What was the problem? How was it solved?") in his best printing. Since there were still 10 minutes left before Cady Gray got up for breakfast, I gave him his math sheets and he plowed through most of them. I got a glimpse of Archer in school mode -- and it was a beautiful thing. The work-school transition is not going to be a melancholy event for him. Work gives him the opportunity to achieve -- and Archer loves to achieve.
  • Cady Gray stayed home all day with Grandma Libby, and the toileting went well ... on the way back to normal. They started out with 30-minute intervals, and then when she wasn't producing anything, abandoned the timer altogether. She stayed dry all morning, but had an accident right after lunch while watching a video. A couple of more incidents after I came home -- not full-fledged accidents, just leaks -- were probably related to the disruption of her routine. Her first time-out, after dinner, falls into the same category, and in her slightly fragile state, she also cried at bedtime -- not because she was protesting the situation, but because I wasn't available to come tuck her in on time, due to a longer-than-usual Archer book. In truth, her behavior was a lot more like we'd see on a regular two-person day. I'd take a few more days of careful sweetness, but I'll settle for my usual very good girl.
  • Archer's new obsession is Grandma Libby's sewing machine. "Mom, you remember: If you want the stitches to be bigger, press the 3.0 button. If you want the stitches to be smaller, press the 2.0 button. The 2.5 button makes the stitches just the perfect size."
  • We had our first session of speech therapy for this new semester this afternoon. For the third semester in a row, Archer's in a pragmatics group with another client, a 3rd-grader named Abby. Today he played a getting-to-know-you game where he had to answer questions about himself, and as usual, he had some trouble summoning up enough ego to answer accurately. For instance, he claimed that his favorite cartoon character was Spongebob Squarepants, when he has never seen this popular fellow on the teevee. Such answers are derived solely from what he's heard other kids say in response to similar questions. These confabulations aren't attempts to fit in or boast -- they have no identity content whatsoever. Their function is to get the question answered, when Archer is stumped for how to answer out of his own knowledge base.
  • I had the pleasure today of getting an e-mail from the author of a book I recently raved about in the A.V. Club. He apologized for contacting me to thank me, and I understand that it might seem a little gauche to do so, especially in the academic world to which we both belong, but I get so much pleasure out of knowing that my little efforts to spread the word about terrific and valuable work have been appreciated by the authors. He also noted that at least one of my students wrote about the book in their class blog -- I assigned them the chapter on Noah's Ark for one of their first class sessions. I wrote back with my thanks for his thanks, and dropped the hint that my students would be totally freaked out if the author of one of the course readings commented on one of their blogs. Freaked out in a good way -- what better reminder that these blogs are real-world writing, not just an assignment for that miniscule and oddball professorial audience? More on the student blogs soon, faithful readers -- I'll be calling upon you, as well, to show the students what it means to have a vast and unknown audience.
  • In related news, the vanity Google Alert I have set up sent me a new hit today -- this blog. Good to know that I'm providing the web with news about myself, even if this information took 69 posts for the Google spiders to absorb.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 6 (Wherein We're Over The Hump)

I'm as exhausted with the kid status reports as you are, so, mirabile dictu, I'm going to write a real entry. (OK, I can't dispense with the kid-news entirely, so I'll give it to you telegraph style. No Good As Golds stop. No UTI stop. First-grade homework debuts stop. Meat loaf stop. What hath God wrought stop. End message.)

Cady Gray has been picking up Pat The Bunny every time she takes a ride in the car (where the book has ended up in the backseat) and reading it out loud to all and sundry. She instructs Archer to pat the bunny, smell the flowers, put his finger in Mummy's ring, et cetera.

But every time she gets to the page where Judy reads her book, and then you (the reader) get to read Judy's book, I'm delighted anew. If there's a better children's book moment than the revelation of that little four-page book, with little hand-puppet-like illustrations, pasted right onto the page of your book, I'd like to know what it is. It appears like a postmodern miracle, boldly labeled JUDY'S BOOK, pitched precisely one reading level lower than itself -- baby talk rather than toddler talk. And while Pat The Bunny is about Paul and Judy and their little accomplishments, JUDY'S BOOK is about Bunny himself, the bunny that appears on the first page of that book you're in the middle of reading, suddenly not a furry animal to be petted but an anthropomorphic creature who eats his good supper and gets tucked into bed.

Maybe it's my own childhood desire to fall into a book that kept opening more and more books within, so that I would never have to climb out. I remember the heart-in-my-throat thrill of reading the Arabian Nights and realizing for the first time that the stories would just keep getting nested, one inside the other, and I wished that none ever had to end. I'm still in love with books about books, and books inside of books -- my most recent A.V. Club review was about a novel of this kind -- because they perpetuate that illusion, for me the most magical and hopeful of all human thoughts, that there is no end to the story, that every page will lead to another.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 5 (Wherein I Successfully Maintain)

Nota Bene: For the next five days, this blog will function primarily as a Remote Parental Communication Device. Do not expect reflective content. School behavior, potty-related issues, bathing schedules, and bedtime crying jags will be faithfully recorded for the benefit of the Temporarily Canadian Spouse. All other visitors should plan to read this instead, for the duration.

Concerned readers will be happy to know that I still have my health, although I'm not positive I could say the same for Cady Gray. Kerry (bless her) opined in the comments to my last rather hysterical update that my sweetie might have a urinary tract infection, and the longer I spend thinking about it (and tossing wet underpants into an ever-growing laundry pile), the more I think she's right. CG clearly can't stop herself, she just basically leaks all day, and there's a whole lot more urine that she'd normally produce -- everything's just soaked, all the time. That's not a willpower problem. So I'm tentatively planning to take her to the doctor tomorrow afternoon, after her school and my school both let out.

After coming to that conclusion and resolving therefore to treat her like a sick little girl rather than a bad little girl (a change of perspective that makes all the difference in my frustration level), I awoke refreshed and played happily with the kids all morning. We broke out the Connect Four game that Archer had gotten for his birthday and the kids spent a happy hour taking turns dropping the checkers in the slot. Getting the hang of how to get a diagonal four-in-a-row, Archer began suggesting that Cady Gray make a "stool" for him -- which I finally figured out meant drop one where he could stack his on top. Given our family focus on bathroom issues of late, that wasn't really my first thought, I admit.

Before church today, I reminded Archer that Father Jack was the teacher, and so he needed to listen to Father Jack during the children's sermon just like he does to his teacher. "Maybe he'll ask a question," I bribed, "and you can raise your hand and answer it, if you're listening." (Archer loves to know the right answer.) Imagine my delight when halfway through the children's sermon, Father Jack asked, "Now who can tell me what friends do?" From where I was sitting, I couldn't see down into the assembly of kids sitting on the floor in the center aisle, but my fondest hopes were realized when the priest turned to his left and said, "Archer?" My boy said, haltingly but clearly, "A friend ... joins you at recess." From my questioning of Archer in other contexts, I knew he was talking about Savannah, who draws Archer into her games during recess at school. Actually, Archer says that Savannah gives him "hard lessons," which sounds rather ominous, but apparently just means that she poses math problems to him. I asked him for an example of these hard lessons, and he said, "12+12."

My mother-in-law arrived about 3 pm, and the kids immediately set upon her. Reading, playing games, eating dinner, taking a walk -- everybody wanted Grandma Libby's attention. A nice break for me, but maybe not what she was hoping for. I took the opportunity to take the kids to Playworld -- it doesn't work well with one person because the kids play in two different areas. Aside from the inevitable potty problems, that went well. As usual, the kids enjoyed playing a few arcade games, ending as always with the "play till you win" candy crane. Cady Gray got a little plastic fish on the first try, but Archer had to drop the grabber six times before he came up with a SweeTart and a Spree packet (at least he got two for one). Normally you'd think that more play = more fun, but I was actually afraid after several futile efforts that he'd start getting upset. I suppose the one thing "play till you win" can't guarantee you is that you'll ever win. Sounds like a Twilight Zone premise.

Barbecue sandwiches and salad for dinner, bathtime for Cady Gray, and everybody's in bed just like normal. I have to read my mini-lecture over a few more times (a lot of it was written off the top of my head, and I need to make sure it's sound), and then read student work before going to bed. But my backup has arrived, I'm feeling fine, and we're re-entering the school week. I will not tempt fate by saying the worst is over, but I will say that confidence is high.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 4 (Wherein I Apparently Reach My Limit)

Nota Bene: For the next six days, this blog will function primarily as a Remote Parental Communication Device. Do not expect reflective content. School behavior, potty-related issues, bathing schedules, and bedtime crying jags will be faithfully recorded for the benefit of the Temporarily Canadian Spouse. All other visitors should plan to read this instead, for the duration.

I always knew that today, Saturday, would be the hardest day of Noel's absence. Tomorrow my mother-in-law should be arriving, and all next week the kids and I are in school part or all day.

We had a pleasant enough morning. After breakfast and getting dressed, we went out to Laurel Park for some outdoor play before the day got too hot and sticky. Archer took along his "new" digital camera (kindly passed along by Uncle Dwayne) to snap some pictures. At this point most of his pictures show people's torsos or a generous helping of ground, since he tends to angle the camera down as he shoots to keep an eye on the viewscreen. But he very much enjoys taking pictures -- as he said with great delight, "Mom, you and I are both photographers!"

Back to the house by 9:20 to watch an episode of The Electric Company, while I gathered library books and made sure I had everything I needed to take to lunch. We arrived at the library at about 10:25, only to find that Ann, the storytelling lady, had been bitten by a spider (!) and was out of commission. It was like old home week in the children's book room, with at least four families there who count as our friends or acquaintances. We filled up a tote bag with books, checked out with some difficulty (the system was down), and headed off to Chili's for lunch. Although I got Cady Gray to use the potty there not once but twice, she still managed to have an accident; I'm starting to wonder if she's got some physical problem. Suddenly in the last week the girl can't go 20 minutes without wetting her pants. (Update: Since I typed that sentence, we have tried intervals of 20 and 15 minutes without success. We are now seeing if she can make it 10 minutes.)

Frustrated by the constant toilet troubles, I was snappish with the kids when we got home, and hustled them off to their naptimes early. Probably I should be working on the lecture I have to give on Monday, but mentally I've reserved that to be done after Libby gets here. I read blogs and websites for the 90 minutes they were in their rooms.

When they got up, we went to the grocery store. In normal life we've stopped taking them on grocery shopping trips together, because they inevitably get wild and uncontrollable before we're done. But there was no help for it today. For the most part they stayed on track, but by the end they were clambering around the cart and making insistent demands. The last straw was in the checkout line when Cady Gray -- you guessed it -- had an accident. This after we had had a looooong talk before leaving the house about our New Deal, wherein every time she managed to make it to the next potty time with her pants dry she would get two special stickers, and after we had just picked out said stickers in the store with her input. At the same time, Archer was telling me that he had to go, but in the checkout line it seemed impossible to go all the way back to the other end of the store with a paid-for cart of food and take them both in. I told Archer he needed to wait until we got home, and prayed he could manage it.

It was when I was pushing the cart full of kids and groceries briskly back to the car that I felt the sharp pain in the back of my left hip, right at the top of the pelvic bone. It stabbed with every step, just intense enough to make me say "ow" out loud and shorten my stride. What the heck was this? Suddenly terrified that this was the harbinger of some kind of debilitating pain that could get worse, I focused on getting the kids in the car and the groceries in the trunk, moving gingerly and slowly to try to avoid whatever had triggered the pain. While pushing the cart back to the corral, I carefully tested my limits. Slow walking -- fine, although I could still feel the twinge there just under the threshold of pain. A little faster -- oh, there it goes again. OwowowOW. OK, slow down, just get home where you can rest.

An hour of trying my best to relax and unkink all the stress seems to have improved the situation, although I'm still gunshy. One step at a time -- get the dinner fixed, get the kids in bed -- and I'll be able to see whether a more serious regimen of destressification puts me back on my feet in a normal fashion. Meanwhile, if you happen to be thousands of miles away -- don't worry about me. (Ha ha.) I'm sure it was a temporary something-or-other -- it felt pinched-nervy -- that will fix itself with the proper care.

What it told me was that I'm not immune to my own emotions ... that I need to not get upset and tense about stuff that doesn't matter while we're just trying to make it through the week. I tend to get very serious about setting boundaries and then taking it personally when they fall apart. None of that is as important as being 100% so that the kids are taken care of. I'll be working on my meditation techniques tonight and enjoying a novel and early bedtime, with the expectation that Libby's arrival will free me tomorrow to ramp up normal activity. Like that pesky lecture.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 3 (Wherein There Are Two Accidents)

Nota Bene: For the next eight days, this blog will function primarily as a Remote Parental Communication Device. Although reflective content is not to be expected, in the unlikely event of well-behaved children and uneventful timespans (such as today) the text may be of interest to more than one other human being on the planet.

Because I don't want to alarm anyone unduly, let me point out (before I begin the ponderous recitation of my day with the kids )that the accidents to which the post title refers had to do with the personal hygiene of a three-year-old. The title seems apropos only because this accounting is usually the first thing I hear from CG when I pick her up at daycare and ask her how her day was: "Um, I had two accidents."

Matters continued to go suspiciously swimmingly here at "12," as Archer calls our house. I'm tending to focus more on getting a lot accomplished at the office (reading student work, preparing for class, answering administrative queries, etc.) that I might in other circumstances have put off until evening, because I covet work-free evening time to knit and watch TV. (Top Chef last night ... oh my Lord, Noel. You'll want to grab Howie and shake him until he grows hair.) Sure, I have the same desire for a leisure zone when I'm not alone, but I seem to be more comfortable with multitasking and less desirous of a clear work/life separation when Noel is around multitasking right alongside me. Maybe it's that alone time feels like "me time" -- I have this sense of almost guilty entitlement to enjoy and indulge myself. (That has not extended to breaking the No S Diet rules, however, although each alone night so far I have thought fleetingly about having some chocolate because these are special circumstances, darn it.)


We can carry on pretty good conversations with Archer these days, as Noel will attest from talking with him on the phone. Ask him a question, and as long as it's something he's interested in, he'll try to give you an answer. But it's what answer he gives that's revealing of his autism. Several exchanges just like this happen in our house every day:

Parent: What did you do in school today, Archer?
Archer: I watched a video in the library.
Parent: What was the video about?
Archer: The total time was 30 minutes and 52 seconds.

Parent: Did you sing a song in music class today?
Archer: I sang track 2 of 11. That CD counts down from 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

Parent: What book did Mrs. McKenna read to you today?
Archer: Mom, that book has 65 pages.

It's a simple matter of relevant details. What you and I assume are the salient features of an event are not what Archer focuses on. Sometimes we can't get any information about the plot of the video or the subject matter of the book; those just weren't the details that Archer found important, so they're not what he noticed. He was too busy watching the display on the VCR, or counting the pages as they go by.

He's learned that he's supposed to pay attention to the story (so he can answer questions and get rewards), but the story is obviously a distant second best to the real experience -- the enumeration of its structural quantities. Ever since we can remember, he's kept time with his hands (flashing his private number signs at breakneck speed) while watching videos, singing songs in church, or just running around the house. Since he became attached to electronic calculators, he's been using them to time things -- keying in 1+1, and then hitting equals over and over again to make the numbers advance. At speech therapy, he got so attached to the therapist's stopwatch whenever testing was being done that he insisted on seeing it at all times. We finally got him weaned off of it to the extent that he gets a timer from the supply closet when he arrives, sets it for 50 minutes, then leaves it outside the room so he's not constantly interrupting the scheduled activities to check on it. Noel bought him a kitchen timer last week, and he sets it up whenever he's watching TV so that he can keep track of the time.

Maybe somewhere, sometime, that obsession with time and changing numbers will translate into socially useful activity. While watching football on TV last week, Archer suggested that he could start and stop the clock when he grew up. Doesn't sound half bad at this point, and I can guarantee he'd be a conscientious -- some might say single-minded -- timekeeper.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Report from Hoople: Day 2 (Wherein I Fear Electricity)

Nota Bene: For the next eight days, this blog will function primarily as a Remote Parental Communication Device. Do not expect reflective content. School behavior, potty-related issues, bathing schedules, and bedtime crying jags will be faithfully recorded for the benefit of the Temporarily Canadian Spouse. All other visitors should plan to read this instead, for the duration.

I always forget how guilty I feel being at work, acting like I can carry on life normally and interact with other people, when I'm the sole responsible parent. Dropping Archer off at school and Cady Gray off at daycare (or, as we put it to her to differentiate it from the preschool she started part-time last week, "old school") feels illicit, like abandonment. Surely the child welfare authorities will know that I'm not sitting at home by the phone ready to jump into action when their teachers call. How I can justify going to class, to lunch, to meetings, on the off chance that the kids might need me?

After leading a graduating senior information session in the early afternoon, I went home to fix the kids cups of juice, and then got back in the car to drive over to Archer's school. Even though I was going to get there a few minutes early, I looked forward to the chance to knit a few rounds on my sock with the cool breeze coming through the window. But when I turned the key in the ignition, nothing happened.

You can imagine how that made my heart skip a beat, after the mysterious car troubles just two days ago. That incident involved the other car; this time, I was driving our Civic Hybrid. I stared at the dashboard in confusion. All the instrument lights were on, the radio came on, the A/C started blowing, but the car hadn't started.

With a sinking feeling, I turned the key again. This time it chugged three times and started. As I pulled out, relief quickly gave way to anxiety. This car never huffs and puffs -- it starts smoothly and immediately, like turning a switch from off to on. What if its battery was about to die, just like the Subaru's? I started worrying that if I turned it off while waiting for Archer, it wouldn't start back up, and we'd be stuck at his school. Then I realized that even if I left it running while waiting for Archer to come out, I'd still have to turn it off at my second stop at CG's daycare. I'd never leave the car running while I went inside a public place -- it just seems like an invitation to have the thing stolen.

Undoubtedly I was jittery about automotive ignitions and their related electrical systems after the experience on Tuesday afternoon. I ended up sitting in the car with the engine running while I knitted a little and waited for Archer, but then parking and turning it off while we went inside. After I got them back in their car seats, I sat down and turned the key firmly. It seemed like a took a fraction of a second longer than usual to hum to life, but that's probably my imagination. No cranking noises, no other signs of trouble. Once we got home (where there's an extra car -- with a new battery, no less -- waiting in case of need), I felt a lot better about our transportation.

But that's the unnerving thing about parenting alone. There's no backup. At any sign of trouble, your mind starts racing about who you would call, and how you would manage. You're driving the same streets, going to the same office, but the brink is much closer than it seems when there are two of you.

On the way home from the school pickups, Archer mentioned that he would talk to Daddy on the phone tonight. "We probably won't talk to Daddy today," I told them, "but we can send him an e-mail." Archer piped up: "Mom, remember: A phone ... cuts ... the world in half." Befuddled, I asked, "How does it do that?" He answered: "In a phone call, there is only one place." Oh, I think I get it -- he's trying to describe a connection. Or maybe cyberspace. Either way, I know what he means.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Report From Hoople: Day One (Wherein I Build An Ark)

Nota Bene: For the next nine days, this blog will function primarily as a Remote Parental Communication Device. Do not expect reflective content. School behavior, potty-related issues, bathing schedules, and bedtime crying jags will be faithfully recorded for the benefit of the Temporarily Canadian Spouse. All other visitors should plan to read this instead, for the duration.

Nothing like a little car trouble to start TIFF '07 on a stressful note. And my jangled nerves were not improved by the Hurricane Henriette-related deluge that hit us this morning. I waded to work through ankle-deep water flowing over every paved surface and actually cried out in shock when a lightning strike about a half-mile away split my eardrums. I fretted much of the morning worrying that the steady downpour would flood our street and make it difficult to get back to the house, where a kindly friend (hey, Ali!) was watching Cady Gray.

But the rain had slackened by 1 pm, when I drove home after my freshman class, and the new drainage channels that the street department put in this summer evidently performed like a champ. Cady Gray was still sitting at the table carefully eating raisins out of her Lunchable, one by one, as she'd been doing for nearly an hour. Ali said that they talked about "opposites" and "science."

Being the mooch that I am, I traded on Ali's inherent goodness a bit more before I let her leave. She had picked up and fed my child; now I asked her to drive with us to the garage where the Subaru sat with a new battery (grrr, that really couldn't have been it), waiting to be retrieved. That being accomplished, I removed my vehicle from its strategic position blocking her in the driveway (under the theory that even goodness such as Ali's might need a little persuading).

Two cars in the garage, no waiting. Cady Gray took a late nap with minimal protests. An hour and twenty minutes to myself in the early afternoon! What better way to fill it than happily setting up Google Reader with my 153 subscriptions? For some reason Safari won't connect to any of my feeds anymore, and besides I'm getting tired of navigating very long bookmark menus over and over again to page through all my reading material. It's suddenly also apparent to me that I don't need to be reliant on a browser platform to bring me my preferred feeds -- when I'm at work, using Firefox, or otherwise surfing on another computer than my MacBook, I'm unable to access those Safari menus where the complete list is stored. Like so many technological tools, the true usefulness of Google Reader (or another web-based aggregator) doesn't become evident until you've committed to thinking inside a new box. The greatest genius of Google Reader? A "Next >>" bookmarklet you can drag to your browser menu bar. Click on it anytime, and it will take you to the next site in your subscription list (not to the feed -- to the actual site). Is there any easier way to page through the list of sites you read every day?

At 3 pm I got Cady Gray up, secured her in the car with juice, and went to school to pick up Archer. He came out beaming, with three Good As Gold stickers on his chest, and told me the story of how he got them ("good job being a leader," "paying attention in music class," "good job playing a game in P.E." -- the game in question apparently being Pac-Man (!) wherein "if the ghosts catch Ms. Miller, game over!"). A trip to Sonic for my usual gargantuan soda, and then home for Yo Gabba Gabba and playtime. Then I solidified my mommy credentials by putting food on the table for my children, getting one bathed and both in pajamas, brushing their teeth, supervising the reading of two bedtime stories, and tucking them into bed.

Cady Gray has developed the unpleasant habit of insisting that I be the one to read her bedtime books to her, then whining and crying when the reading is over and it's time for me to leave. With negligible success, we've started asking her to promise us that she won't whine and cry at bedtime. Before she and I depart for her bedroom, Noel takes both of her little hands in his and asks for her solemn promise.

Tonight after we read our books in her rocking chair, after Archer said his goodnights and went to his room, Cady Gray said, "I'll make a solemn promise, Mom." So I took her hands and she said, "I will not whine and cry, Mom." "Great," I said, "do you want me to tuck you in?" This is usually where it all goes south as she begins to protest incoherently -- promises be damned -- against the end of our time together. But tonight, apparently realizing there was no Daddy to come in and finalize the bedtime deal, she just nodded happily and let me put her under her covers. I praised her extravagantly for her bravery. Twice so far she's called out to me for "a toy" (her usual request when she demands a return parental visit to her room), but with nary a frown or a tear in sight. It's early yet, but our experience has been that when the custodial situation shifts due to the absence of Mom or Dayd, the kids feel some additional pressure to behave. At the very least, bedtime was a markedly more tranquil experience than it's been anytime in the last month.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Everything changes

Today we had our first measurable rainfall in over a month.

Today, after driving home from work and running inside for 90 seconds to grab the food for Bethlehem House, the car wouldn't start. Wouldn't even turn over. This is the car Noel was going to take to the airport tomorrow,

Today I hunted down a screwdriver and pried the little cover off the transmission override switch so I could put the dead car in neutral and push it out of the way of the working car it was blocking, so I could take the food to Bethlehem House. In the rain, the first rain we've had in a month.

Today I didn't get the parking tag out of the dead car as it was being towed, the parking tag that will allow me to park the working car at work tomorrow after I take the kids to school.

Today we suddenly have no plan for how to get Noel home for the airport in 10 days. (A kindly neighbor is leaving for work an hour and a half early in order to drop him by on her way.)

Today I suddenly realize that I was always one dead car away from disaster, whether that car is in the shop here in town or sitting in an airport parking lot.

Tomorrow the experiment in improvisation that is Noel's annual trip to TIFF '07 begins. Let's hope most of the big surprises arrived 12 hours early.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Information on the sophomore sock in progress over at Toxophily today.

Saturday afternoon after the kids got up from their naps, Noel took off for the grocery store solo and I took the rest of the family to the library. But when we got there, we discovered that the library was closed for the entire Labor Day weekend, not just for the day itself. Which led to the following conversation:

Me: The library is closed. We'll have to go back home.

Cady Gray: Mom, where are we going?

Me: Back to our house, honey.

Archer: Is our house closed?

Me: No, a house doesn't close. Offices and stores are sometimes closed and sometimes open, but a house is always open.

Archer: Mom, a house is not open or closed. A house is just normal.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Long weekend

For single and childless folk, holiday weekends are times to get away and escape a day or two of work. For those of us with school-age kids, it's an added day that we have to entertain the rugrats instead of letting the teachers do it. To add insult to injury, places that we depend upon for weekly rounds of kidutainment, like the public library, close all weekend long. Even getting some chores done -- like the haircut Archer needs -- have proven beyond our powers, as service establishments shut their doors in our faces and fire up the barbecues.

So we've made do with a rather steamy playground visit and a largely unnecessary Target run to get the kids out of the house. Tomorrow, though, we've got bookings -- a picnic by the lake and a birthday party -- backloaded in the late afternoon. Zilch for the long, long morning, though. Probably another trip to Target for birthday presents (nothing like going on a whim to produce three or four more trips, since you have no idea what you really need to get), maybe a stroll down the Tucker Creek trail, and lunch at some establishment too strapped for cash to be able to close down for the holiday.

And then le deluge. Tuesday Archer and I are back in school, both kids have their yearly check-ups, and Noel will be making final preparations to fly to Toronto early Wednesday morning for his annual TIFF vacation. 10 days, 2 kids, 1 grandma (for 4 of those days), 4 schools (Archer's, mine, and 2 different ones for CG depending on what day it is), 10 breakfasts, 8 sack lunches, 9 what-am-I-going-to-make-for dinners, 13 drop-offs, 11 pick-ups, 18 bedtimes. Number of wet or soiled underpants, toy crises, trips to the emergency room, etc. yet to be determined. We've been mentally preparing ourselves for a week -- Noel to leave (he's been collecting clothes and toiletries for his suitcase since this past Wednesday) and me to stay (rehearsing as I walk to school the order in which I need to take the kids to their various destinations for maximum timeliness, and resolutely refusing to think about things like dinnertimes).

Since I'm still enthralled by my polygamy memoir -- in which the writer spends months at a time in Mexican adobe huts caring for the 25 children in the plural brood on her own, while the other wives and her husband work in the States -- I'm not inclined to exaggerate the difficulties I will face. Nevertheless, I'm sure the burden will be quite enough for my pampered behind.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Auteur theory

In this A.V. Club Crosstalk, Noel made a valiant effort to defend reality television against the charge that it is uniformly worthless. A thankless task, to be sure. But one commenter said something about American Idol that bears some scrutiny:
And my biggest problem with Idol is that I think being a musician isnt (sic) about being able to do "entertaining" covers. I think musicianship is about writing songs, playing instruments and working hard, not being gifted with a contract because you happened to carry a tune for one song, four or five weeks in a row.
That seems to be a widespread assumption, at least here in America -- that the more the song is the product of one person's efforts (writing, playing instruments, and singing), the more worthwhile it is. We have a theory of singular genius in this country which holds that the ideal form of creativity is that which springs from one person, working alone, or at the very least contributing all the ideas and using others simply as tools to get tasks done.

When we map that theory onto popular music, though, it privileges singer-songwriters and the rock tradition. I wonder if people who reserve true musicianship for these lone auteurs realize that they are excluding just about all of rhythm and blues, soul, and dance music. (It also excludes most country music, though I doubt the people who make these claims care -- they're usually urbanists who claim they like "anything but country.") Until the seventies, almost no one performing in the black pop streams wrote their own material, and only a few more played instruments. And even though a stronger auteur strain emerged thereafter, it's still merely an eddy in an industry that relies on packaging together writers, producers, instrumentalists, and performers, all drawn from different pools.

We do love our jacks-of-all-trades. I'll admit that when an artist carries off two or more jobs with flair, my respect rises (the director who serves as his own DP, the pop star who plays every instrument). But do you want to say that the entire stable of Motown stars don't count? How about the singers of the Brill Building pop factory? What about Donna Summer, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Elvis Presley?

I hate to say it, but the denigration of the well-pedigreed pop tradition of singers who are not songwriters or instrumentalists is a subtle form of racism and classism. It privileges a kind of "authenticity" that arises from one strand of the American experience -- that of the white entrepreneur, the self-made man. Even the folk traditions that eventually gave rise to this dominant assumption were built almost entirely on collaboration (the performers didn't write their own songs) -- it's just that we now elevate to the top of those traditions the ones who were the midwives of the rock tradition: the auteurs like Dylan. Surely we can appreciate what those artists do so well without relegating to the trash heap all the other ways great popular music comes to be.