Monday, December 31, 2007

The Archies 2007: Second Annual Now-It's-A-Tradition Edition

See here for an explanation and instructions. Remember: Much like Time Magazine's "Man Of The Year," these need not be your favorite things in the world, only the top things in the world. Play along at your own site or in the comments, anytime through the month of January.

The Archies: The Top 59 Things In The World, 2007

  1. The Amazon Kindle
  2. Etsy
  3. Delta Airlines
  4. The iPod Touch
  5. Ratatouille
  6. Google Reader
  7. Ravelry
  8. The Name Of The Wind
  9. How To Read The Bible: A Guide To Scripture, Then And Now
  10. Fetching
  11. Deb Barnhill
  12. The temperature outside (as in the phrase we hear several times a day: "Hey Mom, what's the temperature outside?")
  13. The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters
  14. A Song Of Ice And Fire
  15. The Florida land boom sequence in Gasoline Alley
  16. I Bet You
  17. High definition television
  18. Beijing Olympics (premature 2008 entry)
  19. Stephen Sondheim
  20. TiVo HD
  21. The Arcade Fire
  22. The Universal Life Church Monastery
  23. Dark chocolate
  24. "Almost Gothic"
  25. Malabrigo
  26. Harmony needles
  27. Popless (premature 2008 entry #2)
  28. Sixwire
  29. F. John Rickert
  30. Derek Powazek
  31. Casey Affleck
  32. The Interrupting Cow
  33. Tim Gunn
  34. Aliens In America
  35. Chicken Mango Habernero wrap at Tropical Smoothie Cafe
  36. The Dead Sea Scrolls
  37. Freecycle
  38. BookMooch
  39. Dish Rag Tag
  40. Las Vegas (premature 2008 entry #3)
  41. Sandy
  42. Ken Jennings
  43. Canon U.S.A.
  44. Jack Fitzmier
  45. Eric Cline
  46. Relax Riesling
  47. BAAM!
  48. Yo Gabba Gabba!
  49. The ol' six hundo
  50. FTW
  51. Legends Of The Hidden Temple (R.I.P. Nick Gas)
  52. Can-Am media cabinets
  53. The Tsocktzarina Learn To Knit Socks kit
  54. Jacques Derrida
  55. Ex Libris Anonymous
  56. Slim wallets
  57. Quicksilver
  58. Spray-on sunscreen
  59. The beach and all who love it:

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Through the snow

... well, not literally. But it was cold here this morning, and it's going to be colder as the New Year comes in. Today's post is a finished-object report at Toxophily, but while I've got you here, let me remind you about the Archies.

Inaugurated in last year's blockbuster list, the Archies garnered a handful of participants from my blogroll. This year I suppose I should have started beating the drum a little sooner than New Year's Eve Eve to get some more folks on board. How about if I give you the whole month of January to complete it? Although Petunia Town Girl beat me to it in only her second year of participation, so it seems we're all behind, really.

I'll be posting mine tomorrow to round out the year. In the meantime, here's the descript/instructions so you can start assembling your top however-many things in the world list now!

The religious studies blogekklesia participates sporadically in an exercise in list-making called "The Ralphies," named after the son blog of the guy who made them up. It's a typical year-end round-up of the blogger's media best-of's -- song, album, TV show, movie, book.

I spend all year writing about movies and books and TV shows (though, admittedly, not music). The Ralphies, for me, would be supremely redundant.

So I hereby institute and found a new tradition, to be engaged in by Friends of Mine, loosely defined as whoever happens across this post or subsequent annual editions, or whoever happens across the similar posts I encourage you and other readers to construct around the New Year and its anniversaries to come.

The Archies, named after my son (or the pride of Riverdale HIgh, take your pick), is a list of the Top ___ (your number here) Things in the World. Listed items must be things in the world, and must have played a significant role in your year. Significance, as will soon become clear, is to be defined solely by subjective criteria.

As in the non-existent previous years of this brand-new tradition, I refrain from mentioning the perennial Top Things in the World: Noel, Archer, and Cady Gray. To avoid tiresome repetition, immediate family members have been retired as members of the Archies Hall of Fame. Things done by said family members remain eligible for the annual list.
Gentlereaders, start your browsers!

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Today's post, celebrating successful knitgiving, is at Toxophily. Meanwhile, this brief update:

We went to dinner at a friend's house this evening, and when we returned, our luggage had been set neatly by our front door. Nice service, but we were kind of expecting a call when the deliveryman was ready to come by. It was a little odd to have luggage dumped on the driveway with no notice; what if we'd been gone for the whole night, instead of just a couple of hours?

Anyway, I'm happy to have my new luggage back 22 hours after our return. Aside from a bottle of saline solution that got squeezed empty, overwhelming the ziploc bag in which it was stored, everything was none the worse for wear.

We had Christmas Part II this morning, with all the presents from us and from Noel's side of the family, and I was showered with happiness (Achewood books! Cat Bordhi! Bob and Ray! Days Of Heaven!). If I didn't have to get back to work as soon as possible, I'd be in for days of happy listening, reading, knitting, and watching. Ah well -- at least I have enough clothes again to go for half a week without running the washer.

Friday, December 28, 2007

No place like it

Okay, so our flight back home was not exactly eventless. We made it home four hours late, and on Delta instead of Northwest. And with none of our brand new luggage (a Christmas gift from Noel to me, to replace the cracked and zipper-challenged bags we brought down to St. Simons). But we're just thrilled to be in the city we were aiming at on the same calendar day we started traveling.

Out of five separate flights we took on this trip -- encompassing three airlines -- only two were on time: the U.S. Airways flights from Memphis to Charlotte and Charlotte to Jacksonville. Today's flights were all late: the Northwest flight we were suppoised to take from Jacksonville to Memphis was three hours late, the Delta flight from Jacksonville on which we got rebooked was almost two hours late, and the Atlanta-Little Rock leg was the same.

I don't think it was just our bad luck, since Chicago and Atlanta were experiencing horrible weather all day that made the whole system go crazy, and since we met plenty of people on our way out who were in the throes of an Airworld nightmare. This was not a good Christmas season to be depending on air travel. When Mom called tonight to check on us (and report the items we left behind -- some clothes and my sunglasses), she said what I was thinking but couldn't say: no more Christmas family get-togethers. When we're the only ones who have to fly, it's just too much of a handicap.

And to respond to Adam's comment yesterday, we have driven with the kids (or at least one of them) before. But two days down and two days back for four days there? It's too demanding. Sure, it took us two days to get down there this time, but at least our kids weren't strapped in carseats the whole time. Frankly, I dread the motel stay-over near Birmingham most of all; in a single room, none of us end up getting any sleep.

So enough about travel troubles. We're back. We have 197 pictures on our resurrected Canon. I promised to answer all those questions before the end of 2007. We have a pile of presents from Noel's side of the family (and from ourselves) to open on our secondary Christmas celebration tomorrow. We have some confidence that our baggage, which is probably still in the Northwest system and therefore made it to Memphis too late to get to Little Rock tonight, will be delivered tomorrow. And thus life resumes.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Exorcising the Northwest demons

In a superstitious effort to get all the bad juju out of our path tomorrow, I hereby present:

Nightmare At Zero Feet:
A Christmas Odyssey

The day began with peasoup fog and driving rain, the kind of weather that doesn't make one feel confident about an on-time departure. However, the perfunctory agent at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter in Little Rock assured me that everything was on time. I had to borrow some packing tape from her, because I'd discovered upon unloading my trusty blue hardshell American Tourister (established 1987) that it had a cracked and caved-in corner. Combined with the zipper coming apart on Noel's roller bag, I started to be concerned that our luggage would make it to Jacksonville without a disastrous fall-apart situation.

Our boarding time came and went, with no sign of the plane that was supposed to carry us to Memphis and our two and a half hour layover. The airport monitors still showed it on-time, but the free airport wireless gave us the real story -- about an hour delay. While we went to the brewpub for pizza and refreshments, another Northwest flight arrived to occupy the single gate that the airline operates in Little Rock. When our flight came, it had nowhere to park, and sat on the tarmac for 30 minutes until the Detroit flight got underway.

But our troubles were just beginning. With the plane at the gate and the passengers disembarked, now already past our estimated hour-late departure time, we stood for another forty-five minutes without any noticeable effort on the part of the staff to open the doors and get us boarded. No announcements of the flight's delay had ever been made, and no announcement was forthcoming about why we weren't being allowed to board. Finally the word filtered back via a passenger who went forward to inquire: Because the flight was delayed and people were going to miss their connections, the agent was asking people one by one, as they came up to the gate, whether they wanted to get on the plane for Memphis or rebook on the spot to try again tomorrow. Rather than letting those who might still have a shot at making their connections get on the plane and go, the staff was holding the entire plane while everyone who wanted to preemptively rebook made their arrangements.

And we were among those who still could have made the connection. Even after we left two hours late, and sat on the tarmac for half an hour after pulling away from the gate, we still arrived just in time to see, from our airplane windows, the plane we were supposed to be on pushing back from its gate. We missed it by ten minutes.

So we joined the crowd of unhappy people at special services, got rebooked on a 7:30 am U.S. Airways flight the next day, got hotel and meal vouchers, and went down to baggage services to get our luggage. After dealing with about half the people in line, the baggage folks announced that our bags would be transferred to our new airlines and flights tomorrow. Although we had little confidence in this, we at least had changes of clothes in our carry-ons and little choice but to head outside and wait for the shuttle.

Shuttles came and shuttles went. Because we were unable, after half an hour's wait, to tell Archer when we'd be getting on a van, he broke down. At this point we were at a low ebb. Our major parental function for Archer is establishing predictability -- "what time will that happen" is the question we hear twenty times a day. Now we couldn't even do that. Our poor, brave boy, who had persevered so patiently through the day's endless delays and waiting, was bolting for the open street, restrained only by our tired hands, moaning "Nooooo!" Everything was shattered. When the shuttle for our hotel finally arrived, the passengers mobbed it. I got on with Cady Gray, but a lady next to me was trying to save the only remaining seat for her sister. In my utter despair I yelled, "My autistic son is going to freak out if he does not get on this van!" As true as it was, I felt awful for playing the disability card. Noel and Archer got on, the lady and her sister perched on a single seat, and we rode thirty minutes to the hotel in silence.

Let us pass over the twenty minutes it took to actually get into our room because our keys didn't work, and the kids being undressed and put into their pajamas in the hallway, without comment. We got up at 5 am the next morning, the kids still game for adventure, thankfully, and took the shuttle back to the airport.

Here's where our vow to avoid Northwest at all costs in the future was solidified. We went to the U.S. Airways gate with our ticket receipts to check in. They called the ramp. The ramp had not received our bags. We can't check in unless the bags are with us. We go to the Northwest counter. The unhelpful personnel there suggest we check with baggage services downstairs. Down we go. Hey, my cracked blue suitcase is sitting there outside the door! One bag down, one to go. But after waiting around for someone to come unlock the door and look for our bag, it's nowhere to be found. The baggage services guy thinks he's probably already hauled it up to the ticket counter to be put through the TSA screening and sent on to the gate. But it's not up there either, at least not that we can see. Back to U.S. Airways -- check with the ramp -- not there. Although the surly Northwest Airways ticket agent says that he "doesn't do baggage" and can't find anyone who does, we finally hail a supervisor who takes our claim check and goes in search of the bag. Time is ticking -- we were here 90 minutes before our flight, but all of this has taken 45 minutes, and we need to check in quickly if we're going to make it.

Finally the supervisor returns. According to their records, the bag never left Little Rock. She earns the distinction of being the first Northwest employee in this whole affair to apologize to us for the trouble.

Back to the U.S. Airways counter. Even though we now know that our bag cannot accompany us on this flight because it is 180 miles away, the ticket agent is adamant that she cannot put us on the plane unless both of the bags we checked are coming on the plane with us. I demand to speak to her supervisor, and finally, we hear the first good news in about 16 hours: "Let them go."

From there, the story gets better. We make it to Charlotte on time (although there's more peasoup fog there which makes me wonder how anything is getting in and out). As we eat hotdogs in the Charlotte airport, the 24-hour mark of our misadventures inside Airworld passes. Our flight to Jacksonville is on time and trouble-free. The weather in Jacksonville is sunny and warm. My suitcase turns up at the baggage claim, and Noel files a claim with U.S. Airways to have his bag delivered to St. Simons once it arrives. The cousins are welcoming, the food is copious and tasty, and at about 10 pm Sunday night, a friendly U.S. Airways person knocks on the door with Noel's bag.

Tomorrow we have little choice but to take our chances with Northwest again for our return flight. There's not much margin for error in our Memphis connection this time -- 50 minutes. But if we make it there, we're pretty sure we can make it to Little Rock -- and the same day, too, since we're determined to rent a car and drive rather than stay overnight again. Pray for us, everyone, and let us speak no more of December 22-23, 2007.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas in paradise

As expected, there's no internet at the otherwise-wonderful house my folks rented to shelter the extended family here in St. Simons. We stayed pretty busy Sunday and Monday (Saturday was a washout -- the complete story later), but finally got away to Starbucks Christmas afternoon. There we were happy to pay $10 for daypasses to the T-Mobile network, download our RSS fees, welcome new Ravelers who had the good fortune to choose usernames beginning with O or G (I have that responsibility as part of the Welcome Wagon committee), check our e-mail, and enjoy beverages while listening to the surprisingly wonderful shape-note, gospel, and traditional sacred music that was on the Starbucks channel that day. Such a nice change from the contemporary Christian we had been reduced to employing as background radio noise for our kids' bedtimes.

There are stories to be told and pictures to be shared, but we've only managed to snatch an hour or so of internet time at the local airport FBO (now that it's open again, we can mooch their wireless because Mom is a part-time employee). I'll write it all up and post it in easy installments once we're back within the perimeter of our own home network again. Meanwhile it would be criminal to waste these blue skies, 60's temperatures, and easy beach access on any more indoor computer time.

Short version: travel woes, cousinly joy, loads o' food, Santa comes through. As long as I don't have to bracket that list with a repeat of "travel woes" on Friday, I'll consider it a net plus.

Merry, happy, and festive felicitations to all!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Quick notes before we fly

  • We're off to St. Simons Island tomorrow evening for Christmas with my side of the family -- if the cold front moving through will cooperate. Blogging may be sporadic to non-existent while we're there. I have no idea what kind of internet access will be available in our rented house. But certainly I'll try to keep writing daily, and posting when I can.
  • My little Christmas gift to myself: three episodes of Aliens In America on the DVR. Sample line: "If you join the Chastity Club, I'll let you go on the pill for Christmas." Ahhhhh ... middle-America comedy. If you're not watching it, set your recording devices now.
  • At Cady Gray's "church school" (St. Peter's Episcopal School), she drew a picture of a present she'd give to Jesus. Her idea: "I want to give Jesus a horn, because Jesus likes music." If Christmas is any indication, she's absolutely right!
  • Speaking of the Baby Jesus, is there any more reverent way to celebrate the Reason For The Season than this? I especially like the graham cracker and chocolate bar base on which the manger is resting.
  • If I don't see you before the big day, may your packages be bountiful, your relatives loving, your travel easy, and your feast satisfying. I'll let you know as soon as I can how it all worked out for us.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Side by side

A few months back, the A.V. Club started a featured called "Primer." The idea was to provide concise introductions to artists who had a large body of work -- Springsteen, for example.

Noel knew from the very beginning that he wanted to do a Primer for Stephen Sondheim, tied to the release of Tim Burton's film version of Sweeney Todd. It was a bit of a tough sell at first; the A.V. Club readership aren't, in the main, Broadway people. But I was always desperate for him to do it. What more valuable purpose could a Primer serve than to bridge the gap between the movie our readers are interested in and the stage from which it was drawn?

I'm not sure when Noel and I first became engrossed in Sondheim's work. Probably it was when we picked up a D.A. Pennebaker documentary called Original Cast Album: Company at our Charlottesville video store in the mid-nineties. The film portrayed the in-studio recording of the original Broadway production of Company, Sondheim's 1970 examination of marriage and single life in New York City at the end of the swinging sixties. We were enraptured by the music, the process of extracting it from its dramatic context for an album of separate tracks, and by the tortured struggles of Elaine Stritch trying to get the right world-weary bitterness into "Ladies Who Lunch." And we knew we had to hear more Sondheim, this composer and lyricist who didn't seem to write show tunes as we knew them.

Since then we've blossomed into world-class Sondheim fanboys. We've devoured every filmed version of his shows, and Noel's gone so far as to collect just about every concert and cast album of the various stagings. Sunday In The Park With George is probably my favorite -- a dozen of its songs can dissolve me into a sobbing, sodden puddle. But songs from almost every show fascinate and move me.

Noel wants "No One Is Alone" played at his funeral. Although I hope I'm not around to hear it, I wish I could be witness the room filling up with the song. Sondheim throws these lifelines out into the unknown -- these hopeful assertions that all is well, all will be well, that there is a way to move on and live with uncertainty and despair. Yet he is not at all sure about them, I think. You can carry them with you, but they only are truly meaningful as the story that surrounds them plays out again and again. There's no final word with Sondheim -- just a note hanging in the air that eventually will become the start of the next song that will try to find a way forward.

Noel's Sondheim Primer -- he's been working on it for over a month -- will appear on the A.V. Club site tomorrow. If you take a few minutes to read and listen (it contains downloadable songs from all the shows mentioned), you'll understand a lot more about our emotional lives and the art that moves us. And maybe you'll find something new to love.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bathtime follies

Today's post, in which the second pair of fingerless gloves go into the gift bag for the teacher, is at Toxophily.

Meanwhile it's time for our Bonus Feature: Kids Say The Darnedest Things, Personal Hygiene Edition!

1. While bathing Cady Gray, she was trying to "give" me squirts with her squeezy airplane. "Just what I wanted for Christmas!" I joked. "That's exactly what I told Santa when I sat on his lap."

"Mom, you're too big to sit on Santa's lap!" she objected.

"Oh no!" I exclaimed. "How am I going to tell him what I want for Christmas?"

"You can stand beside Santa and talk to him," she suggested.

2. Shortly after this helpful exchange, Archer came barreling into the bathroom to go to the potty. Engrossed in the bath, I paid little attention until I heard, "Uh, Mom? There's one of Cady Gray's socks in there."

"In the potty?" I asked, aghast. Then I remembered that she'd flung her clothes into the air after taking them off. She must have scored with one of her socks.

Before I could complete that thought, Archer reached in gingerly, fished out the sopping anklet, and tossed it into the hall. As he settled down to do his business, he announced triumphantly, "Mom, I am in the job of getting things out of the potty."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

I've been working

Tonight we drove the kids through the big Christmas lights display that our town sets up on its soccer fields every year. We watched the reindeer taking off with Santa's sleigh, the elves building toys at the workshop, the wise men coming to see the Baby Jesus, the twelve days of Christmas (complete with French hens sporting berets and calling birds holding telephones), and a squadron of toy soldiers popping corks out of their muskets.

Then we went into the fieldhouse where the local model railroad club had set up a big layout. The operator showed us all the little pieces of machinery -- log loader, sawmill (logs go in one side, planks come out the other), forklift to unload lumber, and my favorite: the nuclear reactor that used a magnet to pick up "fuel" (ball bearings), spun them through a sphere of flashing lights, and then dumped out "spent fuel" (glow-in-the-dark plastic pellets) into the train car.

Archer and Cady Gray got to go behind the scenes and push the buttons that made the animated pieces go, and Noel held the remote control and blew the train whistle. The kids loved it, but Noel probably loved it even more. His dad was a frustrated model train enthusiast, without a working setup. And I can appreciate the appeal. There are few things I love more than cunningly-fashioned machines, and if they're miniaturized, all the better.

Model railroad hobbyists get a bit of a bad rap for retreating to their basements, depriving their families of affection, and obsessing over toys. I always think of Reverend Lovejoy in the Simpsons episode "In Marge We Trust," playing the conductor as his model train circled the track: ""Attention, HO-scale passengers. The dining car is closed. Root beer is still available, but the cost is now six-fifty. If the passengers will look to their right, you will see a sad man. That is all."

But surely many of us want to build little worlds around ourselves, arranging their parts so they work smoothly, imagining the simplified interactions of their idealized inhabitants. Whether it's a well-ordered office, a fully-stocked TV nook, or a backyard workshop complete with tools hanging on the wall, we like to surround ourselves with an environment we control. One nice aspect of having kids is that we get to indulge in the purest form of this impulse -- driving little cars around towns made of blocks and snapping together train track. And maybe the truth is that we never outgrow it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The fabric of our lives

Read all about my week knitting baby bibs -- instead of buying them 3 for $5 at Target! -- at Toxophily.

Now I'm off to compose a defense of my iconoclastic #1 film on my 2007 critic's ballot. Out of more than 100 critics polled, not a single one, other than me, had this movie in their top slot. What is it? You'll have to wait and find out with the rest of the internet when the results are posted ...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grade season

Final grades in the two classes I taught this semester are due tomorrow. I dislike giving grades, partly because the Honors program in which I teach tries to wean students off reliance on grades as a measure of self-worth (training them to look to their own self-assessed learning outcomes rather than pestering the professor for quantitative measures of where they stand in the class), and partly because it's nearly impossible to communicate to students through the impoverished medium of the grade.

A few years ago I read this article about how professors try to use grades to send various messages to students. Try harder. Come to class more often. Do another revision. Thanks for the effort. You have potential. You're in the wrong major. Stop wasting my time. The very same letter grade is supposed to mean "even though your scores average a D, I know how hard you worked, so here's a passing grade!" to a student in one seat, and "even though your scores average a B, you slacked your way through this class demonstrating just how little you cared, so here's a C" to the student in the next.

How can a single letter carry all that communication? And how can we feel confident that what we mean to say by the grade is what students (and their parents, and financial aid committees, and graduate schools) will take out of it?

Grades are poor channels for carrying such complex messages -- nor do the reasons for the grade tend to survive the immediate context of the moment of grade-giving, although the grade itself persists for years on transcripts, affecting all kinds of processes.

I wish I could stop giving grades. But my institution demands it. I'm stuck with this five-fold (no pluses or minuses in our system) scale that is supposed to sum up the learning that occurred in my classroom. Tomorrow morning I'll make the semiannual compromises and suffer the nausea that comes from distilling my students into this attenuated set of outcomes. Pray for my soul.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A hat for all occasions

Today's post, celebrating Christmas surprises from afar, is at Toxophily. Here's a bonus Cady Gray anecdote to tide you over:

I went to two commencement ceremonies today, in the misty chill. For the morning event, I wore my academic regalia over my sweater, but I was pretty cold by the time I finished the ten-minute walk to the basketball arena. So for the afternoon event, I wore a jacket and scarf, and carried my robe, hood, tote bag (for some pre-ceremony knitting), and umbrella. My blue velvet doctoral tam, though, I wore, since my hands were too full to carry another item.

When I arrived back home from the afternoon ceremony, Cady Gray came running. "Mom! You came home from school! And you're wearing your science hat!"

Friday, December 14, 2007

The critic's life

It's the time of year when people start asking us about the big prestige movies that haven't come out yet, and we admit that we've seen them on screener DVDs sent to us by the studios. And then they say, "Wow, tough life, watching movies for your job!"

Yes, it's wonderful to have seen Atonement, a movie genetically engineered to plug into my critical fireworks receptors, before it opens in theaters (and before it was nominated for seven Golden Globes, putting it suddenly on the average Showbiz Tonight-watching American's radar screen. Yes, it's fantastic to get a jump on The Kite Runner, or to be able to talk up The Orphanage before most people even know it exists.

But just as the good is the enemy of the great, seeing a selected portion of the well-regarded, important, or heavily-hyped movies of the year just makes you realize how many you don't have time to see. Critics have a professional and probably also temperamental drive for completism. How can we make our top ten lists, for starters, let alone put the culture of our day in its larger context, without seeing everything? Or at least most things?

Even if the studios and their publicists were in a mood to indulge our compulsive fear of missing out on something -- which they are not unless your last name happens to be Ebert -- there's no time. Noel watches a couple of movies a day, most days including weekends, and he's still not close. I'm down to less than 50 movies a year since the kids were born, barely enough to keep my union card.

However, my selectivity has gone way up. I see movies, for the most part, that I'm pretty sure I'm going to like or love. This year I saw only one movie that I wouldn't recommend -- a movie I thought was bad. Having to sit through stinkers is usually part of the job description, but as a critic only when I choose to be, I get all the benefits with none of the drawbacks.

Well, almost none. I'm still infuriated by all the movies I didn't see. When I learn to let go of my anger at all the books I'll never get to read and all the movies I'll never get to see -- and they keep making more every day, darn them to heck! -- maybe the secret of happiness will be revealed to me. Meanwhile, like King Midas, I find the riches that surround me hard to enjoy because they are not all the riches in the world, and I suspect many critics feel the same.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The book of forgiveness

For my class on scripture this semester, each student collected texts that were personally significant to him or her -- song lyrics, aphorisms, short stories, quotations, poetry, jokes, and the like. Then their collections were given to groups of other students, who had to use them as source material to create a text that said something about the group's values, conveyed a message, or told a meaningful story.

Today each group gave a presentation that communicated the theme of their texts, both to the group as a collective and to each member individually. One group passed out their text, divided into five books, and taught each one to us through Sunday-school type activities. We drew pictures of what love meant to us, and took turns reading from the scripture.

At one point, we were asked to write down a list of people who had hurt us, or at least descriptions of what they had done. I thought and thought. But I couldn't get past the certainty that I'm more the sinner than the sinned against in my life. I think I've hurt more people than have hurt me.

Now I don't think I'm a cruel person. But the longer you live, the more the pain you've dealt to others weighs upon you, perhaps. I was struck by the way the task was framed in the opposite direction. Sure, the theme of the exercise was forgiveness. But we were asked to try to forgive others and let go of the bitterness in our hearts, rather than to imagine ourselves as in need of forgiveness from others.

Maybe when you're nineteen and twenty, like these students, the pain inflicted by others in those intense relationships of the teenage years is so fresh that one assumes the position of the victim by default. I know that when I was their age, that's how I would have felt. You brood on the injustices done to you, and rehearse your own innocence to yourself and to others. For me, the balances probably didn't begin to tip in the other direction until about age thirty.

I couldn't help but wonder whether my sense of being more in need of forgiveness than entitled to forgive was related to my personal history, or to a stage of life that others might experience in the same way. If you were asked to list people who've wronged you, would you feel like you were looking through the wrong end of the telescope?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Communication breakdown

The lack of substantive content on this blog is due to the need to reserve normal evening blogging hours for watching awesome year-end movies that might be put on top ten lists that are due on Friday.

However, I still aim to provoke thought. Here's a puzzler for you:

Cady Gray received these two items from her secret santa at preschool today. What message is being conveyed by the combination?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Must be Santa

A bounty of Christmas miracles today:

1. Archer sang "Away In A Manger" with his fellow first-graders at Starbucks.

2. Cady Gray played along from her seat just as if she were in the show.

3. Cady Gray told yet another patient volunteer that she wanted a tutu.

4. Archer held an actual conversation with Santa (although the jolly old elf probably comprehended little of it).

5. The three-year-old camera that took those pictures returned to our house by FedEx today, completely repaired at no charge -- right down to the case fastening that was bent during summer 2005 when I dropped it on a hardwood floor. Canon: Better than Santa.

6. There's still one slot open in my Movie-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name offer, detailed in yesterday's post. Take advantage of me when I'm feeling generous.

7. Archer did an outstanding job focusing and participating in his music class's performance at Starbucks tonight. He was late with most of the words and hand motion, but he stayed with it and had a great time performing. It was a marked improvement from the last time I saw him sing with a group in public (this summer at SuperKids camp).

He got the biggest laugh of the whole twenty-minute program, too. One of his classmates was decked out in reindeer antlers and a battery-powered flashing red nose. During "Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer," Archer jumped forward right after "... had a very shiny nose," jabbed his finger toward the girl, and called out in the brief pause before the next line: "Like Macy!"

Monday, December 10, 2007

Gifting it in a generally progressive direction

When the Secret Knitter did a little Pay It Forward thing earlier this year, I thought about participating for about five seconds. And then I thought: I hate the whole treacly idea of paying it forward. Besides, I'm not done knitting for ME yet! I will sit on the sidelines and curmudge instead.

Then came Christmas gift knitting for assorted relations who cannot yet be revealed. And teacher gift knitting. And possibly baby shower knitting this week. And suddenly I am enamored of the idea of giving stuff away. I get the joy of knitting it, you get the finished object.

So when Tracey posted on Ravelry announcing that she was starting a new round, I jumped before I had time to think. Let's hope I land on something soft (like yarn) and not something pointy (like needles).

So if you want something handmade by me -- knitter's choice, no requests, but you can see most of the possible range over here -- be one of the first three commenters promising to, um, Remit It Ventrally. I.e., to make (sew, craft, bead, whatever you do) a gift for the first three people to comment to your own, um, Compensating-It-Onwards post making the same promise.

Since my handmade holiday pledge musings fell victim to my usual shopping procrastination and recent oh-no-I-have-to-ship-Christmas-to-Georgia realization, maybe this will get enough of the handcrafting love going around to reimburse my karma for all the corporations that are getting my money this month.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Behold the power of cheese

I somehow turned off comments on the last post until faithful reader (and questioner) Eric pointed it out at about noon today. So please return to yesterday and submit your nominations in our two categories.

For now I will just point out that the first song I mentioned came up on the CD again today while Cady Gray and I were returning from an afternoon-long birthday party and Starbucks outing. (Why don't four-year-olds have their birthday parties at Starbucks? That would have saved me a trip.) I began belting out the chorus and grooving insofar as safe driving would allow. With no prompting, Cady Gray starting singing along from the back seat, as if compelled by a Jose Feliciano tractor beam. And when I looked in the review mirror, she was doing a passable imitation of Mom's driving boogie.

The power cannot be denied. What moves you this season?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Beginning to sound a lot like Christmas: Secular edition

Noel has slipped a holiday CD into every available player in the house and car, so I have spent the last few days humming, swaying, singing, and bopping along to the sounds of the season. Some thoughts on my favorite danceable Christmas tunes:
  • "Feliz Navidad": You know, Jose Feliciano, you got no complaints. Is it possible to control the urge shake imaginary maracas when the English language part kicks in?
  • "Jingle Bell Rock": Of all the rockin' Christmas songs, I think I like this one the best. I usually wind up singing the "Giddyup jingle horse, pick up your feet" round the clock. And speaking of "round the clock," a close listen to the lyrics today revealed that the song alludes to "Rock Around The Clock," which makes sense since it was written in 1957.
  • "Little Saint Nick": The other essential rock-era Christmas song -- a transfer of the concept of "Little Deuce Coupe" to Santa's awesome sled. In the case of both these songs, I respond to their laid-back swing and solid melodies, neither of which attempt to be overtly Christmas-y.
  • "Santa Claus Is Back In Town": I managed to hear the Elvis version of this Leiber-Stoller blues twice driving back from the office Christmas party last night with the kids (the Elvis Christmas album is short). Even though this is standard faux-blues fare, Elvis really gets into it, and that drony "Christmaaaas ... Christmaaaas ..." in the background is just weird enough to be charming.
  • "This Christmas": The Danny Hathaway R&B number is as close as we've come to a new holiday standard in almost forty years. When the soaring chorus kicks in, almost nobody can resist singing along.
Two questions for you, dear readers:
  1. What are your favorite Christmas songs of the rock era?
  2. In honor of yesterday's photo, what is the most perplexing, bizarre, or inappropriate item you have seen immortalized on a Christmas ornament?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Batman may smell, but he's plenty festive

Today's post is over at Toxophily -- one teacher's gift down, one to go, with the possibility of some minor ones still to come. In lieu of non-knitting content, I give you: Christmas in the pop culture museum.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Travel and complications

On the first day of my trip to San Diego three weeks ago, I had problems. I arrived at the airport and found that my reservation had not been booked. I couldn't reach the travel agency on the phone, so desperate to make it to my evening meetings in time, I bought a $1500 ticket to replace the $450 one that hadn't gotten purchased.

I still don't know what happened to that ticket. The procedure for travel in our office is complex, involving at least three separate agencies: our staff, the university travel office, and the travel agency.

When I wrote my blog entry at the end of that stressful, frustrating day, I relied on the reconstruction of a staff member in my office that I e-mailed in the heat of the moment to report the missing ticket and my personal outlay of funds. Her opinion was that the university travel office had been the crack that the ticket slipped through. I have no way of knowing that, and some digging by our staff hasn't been able to locate the misstep.

While I didn't definitively accuse the university travel office of being the source of the error, I wrote at the time that it "looks like" the university credit card hadn't gotten relayed to the travel agency (which was the initial explanation I got from our staff). That language was obviously still too strong, given that I had nothing but our staff's speculation to go on. The travel office oversees a complicated process, and has implemented several new procedures in the last year, including changing the travel agency that the university deals with between the time that this ticket was originally negotiated and the time I traveled. They didn't deserve to be blamed for the error, in public, on the basis of nothing but conjecture.

I don't know what happened, although I'm still mad that it happened. A trip that should have cost my department $500 -- my hotel room was being paid for by the AAR -- ended up costing us more than $2000. As a person who administers that money, I'm angry that it was wasted. But I'm not directing my anger at anyone in the process, because I don't know where it belongs. I apologize to the good folks in the travel office for implying at all that their department was responsible.

Instead, I'll direct my anger back at myself -- for posting when I was still steaming about the screw-up, and for not triple-checking personally that everything was in place before I started packing my bags. Lessons learned.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The perils of teaching

One of the unexpected traits about college professors -- and perhaps teachers at other levels as well, though I don't know for sure -- is that we are deeply needy people.

The professors that students see as the best are charismatic and confident performers. They confront their students with difficult questions and crystal-clear insights, and they lead their flocks with superior knowledge and a talent for letting students feel like they've been let in on a great secret.

Yet those larger-than-life personalities to which students are attracted cultivate this persona precisely because it gets them what they need -- the adulation of their audience. They're like actors, a group famous for their fragile egos and temperamental love-hate relationships with their public. How is such a person ever to step out of the limelight, down from the podium? They cannot be what they've been praised for being, what they've based their entire self-image on being, without that class full of admiring undergraduates. In reality, there is very little to us except what we're given by our crowd of disciples. Take that away, and we panic.

Our reaction to the failure of our students to worship us comes in two basic forms (with variations). We can decide that they are lazy peons -- so much worse than when we were undergraduates, a different and inferior breed altogether, and going downhill every year. Naturally they don't appreciate our genius; naturally they moan at our increasingly arduous assignments. We become the bitter antagonists to our students.

Or we desperately try to win their love with open-book tests, non-research assignments, loose structure, few requirements. We become the easy prof who teaches the fun class. If they grumble, we give in. Our chief goal is the glowing student evaluation at the end of the course.

Being a good teacher when you're a needy person is a counterintuitive procedure. Both of the reactions above are natural, but neither of them is conducive to good teaching. In the first reaction -- bitterness -- you attempt to take back the control over your ego that you've ceded to the students, by asserting your complete control over the class and pretending that you neither want nor care about their love. In the second reaction, you give up any pretense of authority and allow the students to run roughshod over you, admitting that they are in complete control of your happiness.

The trick involves a kind of reversal. Control is not the issue. A class is not about who's in charge, where the authority should lie. We cannot stop caring about being loved -- but we can stop acting as if that were the only motivation for our teaching.

I have a mantra that I repeat to students. Our relationship is a collaboration, I tell them. That means that your success is my success. I cannot succeed unless you succeed. And the definition of success is contained in the objectives for the class -- learning, appreciating, creating. The list most definitely does not include "having fun" or "acknowledging my genius."

Only by helping them succeed on the terms of the class -- and on the larger terms of academic values of inquiry, scholarship, and contributing to the community -- can I succeed as a teacher. So I must become their cheerleader on the sidelines of a set of tasks designed to fulfill those objectives.

The biggest reversal is in the direction of praise. The needy teacher craves the praise of students flowing toward her, collecting in a file of student evaluations that confirm over and over how great she is. But the successful teacher directs praise toward her students. Think about how stingy most academic experiences are with approbation. A few grades, maybe a felt-tip "good work" at the top of a paper, a nod or smile of appreciation from the teacher for a penetrating question or insightful comment (and all of these are colored by the relationship between the teacher and the class, such that they can be devalued or overvalued by being connected to the over-dependent reactions enumerated above). What would it be like to be praised frequently and sincerely -- as a class -- by a professor whose learning your respect and whose rigor cannot be gainsaid? Would it give you the confidence to attempt great things? Would it make real that relationship of mutual success, where the teacher who has yoked his accomplishments to you assures you that his investment has not been foolish or fruitless?

I often say that the most surprising thing I've learned as a parent is that you cannot overpraise your children. Assuring them how wonderful they are gives them the strength to be wonderful -- to be smart and strong and brave, in the words of the litany Cady Gray likes to repeat about herself. Of course I don't mean flattering them at others' expense; we've all seen spoiled children whose parents assure them that the only reason they're on a pedestal is that everyone else is milling around in the muck. But while I haven't bought into all the attachment parenting psychology, I do believe and have observed that children that are loved and praised unconditionally tend to believe in themselves and their capacities to achieve.

I've started to apply that methodology to my students. At regular intervals in the class -- after they've turned in papers, as they're working on group projects, often early and again often late -- I tell the group, with great seriousness and emotion, how extraordinary they are. (Because my students are extraordinary, I mean it every time). Except in extreme cases of disappointment, I save my corrections for individual meetings, and I always temper them with praise for the student's capabilities.

I see them looking back at me during these talks, earnest and vulnerable, and I know that they may not believe me. But as the class goes on, they come to know with certainty that I am going to act on my high opinion of them. I'm going to give them the power and authority to create and lead in this class, because they're so accomplished and because their potential is so great. They may be fearful, but they have no choice but to try to rise to the occasion -- after all, they have accepted my praise. I am only asking them to be what they've acknowledged publicly that they are. And maybe it's my unusual student population -- I'm sure it is -- but ninety percent of them come through. Then they can't write off my praise as flattery, because they actually did it. The praise starts with me, but they confirm it. And I think they take it with them as their own.

Because you see, the students I work with are just like me. They are deeply needy people. They need the A, the felt-tip "good job," the nod of approval from the professor, the 4.0 transcript. They are used to an economy of scarcity in academic rewards, where only a few get the goodies. I try to change the environment altogether -- an economy of abundance, where the rewards are copious, but the expectation is that they be invested in new construction, new infrastructure. If they accomplish something real, beyond the A paper and the 4.0 GPA, then the dependency relationships changes. They are not empty, waiting for me to fill them, bereft without my praise. They have done it, and they can do it again.

The irony is that this can't happen unless I make real and explicit the needy relationship that is at the root of our problem. We are dependent on each other -- but not because I am failing in my job to control the situation. Because, instead, we can't succeed without each other. As a teacher, the vulnerability that comes from admitting that, rather than disguising it under a power grab or a naked plea for affection, is profound. It does not come easily. And I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it was the only way for me, with my deep neediness, can turn this pathological relationship into something that can fulfill its supposed academic purposes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Christmas Tragedy

Cady Gray's preschool was scheduled to go to visit Santa Claus at a nearby retirement community this week. When Noel picked her up yesterday, however, he learned that the trip had been canceled -- in the exact words of the teacher -- "because Santa had a death in the family."

Monday, December 3, 2007

Well met

I am something of a meeting nazi. Late in life, I discovered what it means to run a meeting. It means that you are the agent of the desires of the meeting participants in toto. They do not have the power to change the topic; you do. They do not have the power to end the meeting; you do. Your position comes with a responsibility to those on whose behalf you act. A good chairperson runs a meeting according to the Golden Rule: Preside as you would wish to be presided over.

When I preside at conference sessions, I rule with an iron hand. I announce ahead of time how much time each paper will be allowed, give five minute and one minute warnings, and do not hesitate to cut the speaker off politely when they are out of time. I moderate discussion by mentioning at the outset how many minutes are available for the question and answer period, and announcing "one more question" when there are only one or two minutes left in that timeframe.

When I run meetings, I move through the agenda steadily, not allowing early items to eat up all the time available. If discussion is not over when it's time to move on, I invite the participants to continue through e-mail or on our forum. If issues are brought up out of turn, I ask that discussion be delayed until we get to that item. If issues are brought up that are not on the agenda, I ask until they be held until we reach the time for consideration of other business at the end of the meeting.

I do this because I have been to a lot of meetings and conference sessions where the presider acted like he had no power whatsoever. Such moderators believe they are helpless in the face of rude, egotistical, or just well-meaning but clueless people who don't stick to their allotted time or pay attention to the agenda. Their apologetic impotence tends to infuriate those being presided over, whose time is being eaten up, wasted, imprudently rearranged, or simply disregarded by a few participants.

The greatest courtesy one can pay to the people attending your meeting is to respect their time. That's why I act like a polite dictator when I'm in charge of the meeting. A successful meeting is not one where everybody gets their say on everything on the agenda; a successful conference session is not one where the presenters hold court for however long they choose. Nor is such a conference session even possible, considering that each one will end on time no matter how poorly the time has been managed within it -- usually meaning that the poor sap whose paper was scheduled last ends up with ten minutes and no discussion for her twenty minute paper. In a meeting, more's the pity, sometimes there's no end in sight. So the moderator in a conference session must act decisively to preserve the time of the last presenter, and the chair of a meeting must act decisively to keep the meeting within its announced parameters, lest we all be trapped indefinitely.

I don't know how other people experience my benevolent reign of terror in meetings, but I believe the majority of them are grateful. I adopt that persona not because it comes naturally to me, but because the best meetings I've attended have been run that way, and the worst have not. I'm happiest in a meeting that's somewhat overstructured rather than not, happiest in a conference session where I can relax and listen to the papers rather than worrying that Professor X is going to end up with a truncated presentation, watching attendees streaming out in droves as his time expires. Someone taking charge on my behalf -- that's what I want when I attend a meeting. So that's what I try to do when I'm at the head of the table.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What's in a name

Starting on the bunny hill of the unanswered questions ...

Eric asks, "You've mentioned where you got Cady Gray's name from, but what about Archer's?"

I'm rather attached to my surname, Bowman. It's not that I think it's particularly beautiful, or even that it points to a distinguished ancestry of which I'm proud. Mostly it's that I was 31 before I got married, giving me a relatively long time to envision a career and develop an identity connected to my last name that I was loath to relinquish upon marriage. So I kept my name.

When we were expecting our first child, I was happy to agree that his surname should be my husband's. But I wanted him to be named after my side of the family as well. I don't remember which of us happened upon Archer as a first name, but we both knew immediately it was an inspired solution. Not only was it a synonym for my family name, but it was also a reference to my favorite filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger -- the Archers.

The name has the advantage as well of being extremely uncommon -- it hasn't cracked the top 1000 male given names in the U.S. baby names in the last century. Its chief disadvantage is related; many people mishear or misread it as "Arthur."

Archer seems to like his name -- he certainly proclaims it loudly and with precise articulation. Cady Gray is enamored of hers as well -- most of the time when we call her a pet name, she rejects it with a happy grin: "No! I'm Cady Gray!" What may happen when they grow up and have choices about what they will be called and whose name they will take on, I don't know. But I hope they remain as proud of their names, first and last, as I am of mine.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

31 days of Christmas

Cables! Cables! Cables! at Toxophily.

'Tis the season at the Bowman-Murray household when unsolicited items of varying provenance arrive daily in the mail. Some are awesome (3:10 To Yuma screener!). Some are placeholders until the real item shows up (movie tie-in edition of The Kite Runner, about a week before a screener of The Kite Runner).

And some are inexplicable until you read the fine print.

The floppy A1 envelope had PAR AVION stickers and other evidence of its Canadian origin plastered all over it. It was obviously a t-shirt. But I hadn't ordered any tees from across the border that I could remember.

When I unfolded it, the relevance was obvious -- my love of How I Met Your Mother in general and the "Slap Bet" episode (sometimes known as "Robin Sparkles") from season 2 in particular.

(The backstory is here.)

But I had to scrutinize the packing label carefully before the shirt's sender became apparent.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year, Keith -- you impulsive devil, you.