Sunday, November 30, 2008

Giddy up, jingle horse

Today's post about gifts I can't bear to give away is at Toxophily.

The long holiday weekend meant increased pressure on us to find things to do with the kids. When I got an e-mail announcing that the local Festival of Light was opening the day after Thanksgiving, complete with horse and buggy rides through the mile-long animated displays, we decided we'd go if it wasn't raining.

We arrived just as it opened, and all the lights weren't even up yet -- Santa was missing one or two reindeer from his sled, and the wire-frame tunnels that separate some of the displays had no colorful lights. But we drove along the familiar stations (Santa's workshop, nativity scene, toy train, twelve days of Christmas, ice skaters, frantically-waving snowman) and then stopped at the central building where model trains were set up and hot cocoa was available.

Mrs. Claus told us that Santa would be arriving by horse and carriage at 6:30, and families quickly lined up to take the ride around the fields. It started to spit rain, and we saw that the wait would be at least 15-20 minutes before we could have a turn. Thinking that the kids couldn't wait that long, we started to go home.

But Archer wouldn't let us go. His face crumpled, and he struggled to hold his emotions in check. "Can we have a ride?" he begged, on the verge of tears. We decided to stay.

And I'm so glad we did. Archer was transported during our trot around the grounds, his face split wide with a grin, his eyes alight. In the back of the large carriage, huddled together with a blanket over our laps, listening to the bells on the horse jingle as we seemed to fly along, the children were utterly charmed, and the adults were cheered seeing the delight on their faces. Although we sometimes see Archer's lack of flexibility as a problem to be overcome, in this case his insistence led us to change our plans -- and magic ensued. Thanks, big man.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Fall photo session

It's a measure of how excited I was all day about our evening out (dinner and Australia!) that I completely forgot I had a blog entry to write until 11 pm. So here's a very brief fall photo essay.

The best thing about the tailgate party outside the stadium on game days is the opportunity to run on the practice gridiron.

We went on a walk on Thanksgiving morning to pick colorful leaves for our centerpiece.

The kids get on each other's nerves like siblings do, but they demand to be in each other's company nonetheless.

And the results of our morning's labor.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The best turkey in the world

For the past several years, I've gone to great trouble (and Noel has gone to great expense) to brine my turkey, the Alton Brown way.

What kind of trouble? You have to defrost the turkey a day early. (For me, this usually means half a day spent changing the water every half hour while speed-defrosting.) You have to buy vegetable stock in such quantities that the price rivals the turkey itself. You have to soften brown sugar. (At least I have to, because I use brown sugar about twice a year; put a bowl of water in the microwave beside it and nuke for 2 minutes or so.) You have to numb your hands chucking a half-gallon of ice into a bucket. You have to get up in the middle of the night to turn the turkey over in the brine.

But I would never consider making a turkey without the brine treatment. A brined turkey is moist, juicy, and tasty all the way through. It's absolutely foolproof.

I also use the Alton Brown trick of putting the bird in at 500 degrees for half an hour to get a beautiful golden brown skin on the top, then turning the oven down to 350 and putting an aluminum foil shield over the breast to keep it from overcooking. Throw in an electronic probe thermometer that beeps when the turkey reaches the target temperature, and there is nothing that can ruin your meal except lumpy gravy.

And once again this year, our turkey was perfect inside and out. If you've never brined, you don't know what you're missing. Ditch the hit-and-miss recipes, go for the bucket and the kosher salt, and never serve dry turkey again.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

An Archer Thanksgiving

There are songs composed for the occasion.*

thanksgiving pocket mod

And there are wise sayings: "Turkey with stuffing is 88 times better than regular ol' turkey."

* Song lyrics:

Say Hello
Say hel-lo all day!
All day be-cause it's nice!

Craw Fish

It is a great day for catching craw fish.
I will study them right here.


Can't you smell the turkey in the oven?
The tur-key is rea-dy.


We give thanks on T'giving.
We give thanks on T'giving. That's it!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tip sheet

My favorite list-minder, Sandy, is going out of business in a couple of weeks. While I hunt for a new to-do solution, I thought I'd share with you my go-to list of handy productivity sites.
  • I've just joined Zenbe, a site that allows you to create pages for projects with a shared calendar, task list, relevant tagged mail, links, and discussion. My office is hoping to use it to keep track of progress on various yearly events which have elements spread out among many staff members. Personally, I like having my Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail Talk interfaces always available in the same sidebar while I work. And the Favorites e-mail view, which shows conversations only involving those people you identify as top priority, is a nice way to quickly hone in on the mail that's relevant to particular initiatives.
  • While I've never used much else from the Backpack suite, I couldn't live without Writeboards. Nothing else makes collaborative writing as intuitive.
  • Thanks to a Ravelry thread, I discovered the PocketMod, a little customizable notebook that prints out on a single sheet of paper and folds to give you eight pages. If you need portable notation space on individual projects, this is the answer. You can add music staff paper, grids, lined paper, calendar pages, to-do lists and much more. I put one inside every knitting project to keep track of progress, make notes on problems or modifications, and even sketch charts.
  • Skitch is the screen capture and photo uploading software I've been waiting for. Take a screen snapshot or use photos from your iPhoto, then add annotations. Get an embeddable URL in one step. It's no-fuss image-making.
  • And for my personal (as opposed to project) to-do lists, I'm trying out the venerable Remember The Milk. I like having lots of ways to add items to my list; I typically send e-mails to add tasks right in the Gmail conversation about the project, and I also like to send them as tweets. RTM isn't as chirpy as Sandy was, which I find I kind of miss, but it provides similar task lists embedded into Google Calendar and as a gadget in the left sidebar of Gmail, and I'll add its calendar to my Zenbe agenda. Believe me, I need all the reminders I can get.
What websites make you more efficient and better organized?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

For miles and miles

Ever since my travels to Denmark and Chicago last month, I've realized that knee-high boots are not a luxury item, but an essential. The streets were full of women who know cold weather and style, and a lot of them were sporting boots.

I've never owned a pair of boots that weren't cowboy in nature. And although I've coveted the panache of the boot-wearing woman -- the way she strides through life, the way she's not shy about wearing skirts and showing her knees -- I never thought I could be her. I'm not a dashing person. I have no flair. I am functional at best. Boots, I figured, were for other people.

But Denmark and Chicago changed my mind. I started to see boots as a way to extend my skirt wardrobe into the colder weather, not to mention a way to deal with inclement conditions. I walk to work and back, sometimes several times a day, and my footwear needs a certain ruggedness, a can-do spirit.

On Sunday afternoon I took Cady Gray with me on some errands, and we hit the shoe store last of all. I had in mind to look over the selection of boots, and I even tried some on. Surprisingly, I felt like a boot woman all of a sudden. I didn't buy -- my weakness is endless comparison shopping -- but I acquired more confidence in my plan to become a boot wearer.

My trip to the shoe store wasn't just about boots, though. I needed a pair of dressy mules that I could wear to work, since my old reliable microfiber ones had long suffered from a bad case of sole separation. I pulled down a few, but my eye was caught by this number:


Becoming reconciled to boot-dom was having side effects. Heels were becoming acceptable, or even desirable -- despite decades of flatness. (Seriously, I haven't worn a heel above 2" since my twenties.) I didn't want another drably functional slip-on. I wanted ... style.

And I got it. I wore those shoes today, walking back and forth to the office twice, plus a turn around the east campus while Archer was in therapy. Although the shearling-lined interior is cozy and the square toe relatively unrestricting, my unused-to-heels feet suffered a bit. But I'm at the age where no one can criticize me for my choice of style over comfort. I've earned the right to decide what's more important on any given day. It's not what anyone is telling me to do -- it's what I want, and how I want to see myself.

Boots, here I come!

Monday, November 24, 2008


When I was the age of my freshman students, I felt like my life was about 90% interior and 10% exterior.  My thoughts and emotions seemed so huge that it was hard to believe my skin could contain them.  The world and everything in it felt like an appendix to the infinite landscape within.  And both the best and worst thing about that full-to-bursting self inside was that no one could see it.  No one could understand it.  There was so much of me that was invisible to the outside world, but nevertheless drove me in a way that no outside force ever could.

We discussed Michel Foucault today in class, and I was talking about his reduction of the self to a set of data points on a recording grid that completely defines the modern person.  And looking at those freshman faces and listening to their protests, I realized that one reason this did not hit home to them as powerfully as it does to me is that they have those huge interior lives.  They know viscerally that their selves are so much more than their grades and scores and demographic details.  They dwell within the larger-than-life self of thoughts and emotions every day -- within their cannot-be-denied identities that are far more real than any of the passing parade outside their skulls.

But I do not.  I can remember what it felt like to be that age, but it's a rare day when I feel an interior self at all.  (Mostly under the influence of literature and music.)  Now I am all surface.  My activity -- and the ways it's measured in productivity and evaluation -- completely exhaust what I am.  I no longer feel any dissonance between inside and outside, between how I feel and how I am seen.  I don't think big thoughts that no one knows about.  I don't feel tidal feelings that no one could possibly understand.  Instead, I throw myself fully into what I do.  I hold nothing back.  I focus all of myself into my actions.  It's no less a set of roles for all of that, of course, but they are roles that fit me perfectly, it seems, rather than the awkward, mismatched playacting that characterizes the teenaged years, and contributes to that feeling of vast, untapped depths of self unexpressed in public.

And although I don't miss that romantic, misunderstood, invisible teenage self, I know that many do.  That's why they have secret lives, affairs, conspiracies, neuroses.  It makes them feel alive.  More than that, it makes them feel like they are something more than the sum of their actions.  It makes them feel bigger inside than outside.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Giving thanks

It's not quite the official holiday yet. But given the precariousness of the American enterprise at this moment, every little blessing seems like reason enough to celebrate daily. So here's what I'm thankful for.
  1. A relatively secure job. Tenure in a unit that is almost universally regarded as a bright spot in the university's operations is certainly a rare privilege these days.
  2. Beautiful, intelligent, healthy children who amaze me every day.
  3. Our new garage door opener. I can't believe how happy this makes me.
  4. Cashmere yarn 70% off.
  5. Tarzan of the Apes on my Kindle.
  6. Kirby's Pinball Land on the Super Game Boy, and Cady Gray talking about spelling "Scarfy" while she plays her favorite land, "Kracko!"
  7. My Macbook Air.
  8. Christmas knitting -- fingerless gloves, scarves, and mug cozies for everyone I can think of.
  9. A new Bed Buddy after mine sprang a leak.
  10. Hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Suddenly I'm an artisan

On three separate occasions in the last two weeks, I've received requests for knitted items. Up until now, I've knit for myself or for gifts. But I suppose there's a moment when (a) it becomes widely known among one's circle that one knits, and (b) one's knitted items are admired as rivaling professional quality.

First, a colleague organizing a craft fair as a fundraiser for our church's preschool asked me if I wanted a booth to sell my handmade goods. The distance between my actual work (piecemeal and slow) and the perception that I might have a stockpile of stuff I could use as inventory for a small storefront really threw me for a loop.

Recently as I was walking Archer into the speech therapy building for his usual Tuesday appointment, the mother of a tweener who often comments on my knitting came running out of her van. She asked me if I could knit her daughter some fingerless mitts like the Endpaper Mitts I was wearing, and offered to pay me.

Just yesterday, a student approached me at the end of a co-curricular event and told me the story of a lost scarf a friend had brought her from Peru. She had put colored hash marks representing the scarf's colors and striping pattern on a sheet of paper. "I don't know anything about yarn, but could you possibly make me one like the one I lost?" she asked. "I'll be happy to pay you."

I promised to do my best for all three petitioners. For the craft fair, I said I'd try to make something to donate, knowing I couldn't stock a booth in a year, much less three weeks. I can whip out a pair of fingerless mitts quickly for the mother, although not colorwork ones in sock yarn like the ones she admired. And I'm willing to take on the challenge of recreating the lost scarf if the student can provide a picture of her wearing it, to give me an idea about the yarn weight, stitch pattern, and fringe style.

Of course I wouldn't want to be paid; I'm not that good, and knitting isn't my business, and these are acquaintances. I'd only do it if I thought I was doing them a favor. It would be nice to get a favor or gift in return, but I wouldn't make it an exchange.

It seems I've crossed the threshold of semi-pro knitting. Will the requests come regularly from now on, or is this some kind of holiday madness? And as nice as it is to have one's handiwork admired, I'd hate to spend more than a small fraction of my knitting time filling requests, as it were. In the unlikely event that this isn't a fluke, I'd have to learn some polite way to decline. "No, I don't take commissions," perhaps?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Two dates

Ordinarily Noel and I divide up the kids the same way every day. Cady Gray is especially attached to me, so I take care of her while Noel supervises Archer.

But Noel had a great idea last month. He promised Cady Gray that they would go out to a movie one Saturday, whenever a good kid's flick might come out. Archer doesn't like movies -- he says they're like videos but "too long and too loud" -- so Noel has been frustrated in his dreams of taking his kids to the theater as a special treat.

As a daddy-daughter outing, though, the movie idea has gotten serious traction. Cady has been talking about it ever since Noel told her. "Oh, it's only six days until I get to go to a movie with Dad!" she says, literally wringing her hands with delight. Bolt has finally come out, and the big day is tomorrow.

Which raises the question: What will Archer and I do with our mother-son afternoon? I asked him that question. He thought about it, and then asked, "Can I go to mommy's school?" You can't put one over on me -- I'd already thought about that possibility.

You see, Archer is obsessed with the number of floors in buildings. He asks us constantly if we can go to New York so we can go to the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, and he's pinning his summer '09 hopes on a trip to Chicago that we might take -- a city with many skyscrapers, you see.

So he wants to go to Mommy's school because it's the location of the tallest buildings in Conway -- four floors. We'll send our day riding elevators in every hall and dormitory that has an open door. And I imagine it will be a wonderful day for him, just as it will for Cady Gray.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


There's something about knowing you're going to be extremely busy for a given period of time that focuses the mind. Suddenly productivity skyrockets. Projects that have been budgeted for a morning take only half the time, making one feel mighty accomplished. Tiny snippets of leisure time seem decadent in the extreme.

Tonight will mark my fourth evening this week with a work obligation -- either attending a function at school or writing for the TV Club. I've cranked out enough work on deadline in the past seven days to equal a normal writing month for me. And with the semester rapidly coming to an end, the demands on my teaching and administrative time have never been greater. I've designed a collaborative final exam, drafted a syllabus for next semester, evaluated dozens of applications from prospective students, and assembled a program for a conference next March -- all since Monday.

In that context, something like a half-hour lunch spent reading for pleasure takes on a new intensity of meaning. Earlier this week, I went to the cafeteria, made myself a salad and sandwich, and settled down in a corner booth to finish reading Newsweek's in-depth series on the election. For twenty minutes, I was barely aware that anyone else was in the crowded dining hall.

Not long thereafter, I entered my freshman classroom. One of my students greeted me, "What were you reading so intensely in the caf? It looked like you were trying to bore a hole through it with your eyes."

I suppose I should be glad it was political coverage, and not that sample chapter of Twilight that's still on my Kindle. Makes a better answer to impressionable students. Although I have no doubt that it could have been the daily farm report -- given the preciousness of every moment at times of such full-bore activity, anything other than work would receive a similar level of blissful concentration.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A few things I know about Chuck Klosterman

  1. The Klosterman persona is not an act. It's truly the way he's trying to make sense of the world.
  2. He doesn't want to convince you that things are the way he says they are. He's condensing his own experiences into an argument primarily aimed at himself.
  3. His salient characteristic is passion. He cares deeply about his subjects. Which is why I respond to his writing, and which is why people who believe it's all some sort of ironic hipster pose are so completely off the mark.
  4. He doesn't care about criticism per se. He cares about music and sports, and he cares about writing, and the union of the two happens to be criticism.
  5. His first golden rule of good writing is: Be interesting. This means that you should make your reader care about your subject, if not as much as you do, at least more than they did before they started reading.
  6. His second golden rule of good writing is: Be entertaining. Try to find a way to infuse the spirit of what you're writing about into your writing. Make the experience of reading your writing similar in some way to the experience of what you're writing about.
  7. His third golden rule of good writing is: Be clear. Writing is a communicative art. If you are not getting your ideas across to your reader, you are failing. Great writing communicates the complex with such transparency that it seems like a revelation.
  8. He used to care about making lists and ranking things, but not so much anymore.
  9. He believes that everyone has an authentic self that their writing, if it's good, will express. He therefore doesn't think you can learn to write well by reading the writing of other authors with strong, unique voices. This can only lead to an attempt to imitate them, to the detriment of the discovery of your own voice.
  10. He tries to illuminate attitudes and perspectives on particular phenomena by grabbing metaphors from every part of life and piling them on almost indiscriminately. Somewhere in the world of publicly accessible examples -- from movies, music, sports, history, celebrity culture, books, whatever -- is the key that will unlock the private mystery of an internal life, and render it transferable to another mind.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I'm going to hear Chuck Klosterman read tonight.

My interview with Malcolm Gladwell was published on the A.V. Club today.

Does being in the presence of a bunch of writers excuse me from today's blog post? Can we just pretend they wrote it for me?

Monday, November 17, 2008

On the dark side

Tonight I had a meeting on campus that ran past 5 pm, and when I emerged from the building, the sky was darkening and the street lamps were glowing.

During the day, the college campus is an academic domain. Students wax and wane on the sidewalks according to the timing of the day's class period. The cafeteria and coffee shops host as much studying as socializing. As I walk the halls and the paths, I feel like this is my home -- a place where everyone is doing what I am doing.

But at night, I was reminded during my walk home, the campus belongs to the students. Only a few stray classes are still meeting. Instead of going from classroom to classroom, students are congregating around their residence halls. Sorority girls in evening dresses are climbing the steps to Main Hall to attend a function in the auditorium. A praise band is setting up for a campus ministry event near the registrar's office.

It's not my place anymore when night falls. I am just an tourist passing through, tolerated by the locals but with no special claim on the place. Every so often, it's good to be reminded that the college campus exists for the sake of academics, but as a community where people spend whole years of their lives much more goes on than the academic realm can circumscribe.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Through her eyes

Random Cady Gray pronouncements of the last few days:
  • In the middle of ordering at the Mexican restaurant: "Twice is the number of times they fry the beans."
  • After a children's church lesson about the parable of the talents: "We just put all the money in the bank."
  • After going to the Playworld indoor maze: "When I'm five years old, I will climb all the way to the third rung ... and just lean my head on it."
  • As a football game played on the big screen during a dinner at home: "Mom, TV is just a one-of-a-kind friend to you."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

72 hour alert

Today's post about the gift of a handknit scarf is at Toxophily.

This is happening in about three days, and I have yet to wrap my mind around it. Attention central Arkansas: Be there or suffer the tragically uninformed consequences.

Klosterman promo 2

Image created by my new best friend Skitch.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sign that kid up

Cassandra Lives, 2006-2007. In this video, doomsayer Peter Schiff is openly mocked -- laughed out of the room -- by the other financial analysts on Neil Cavuto's Fox News show, all because he says tougher economic times are coming. Talk about being vindicated by history.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Music of the mind

Archer has asked a few times in the past month whether he can have piano lessons. He's added musical notation to his list of obsessions, clearly delighted with the mathematical and symbolic possibilities.

When I tuck him in for bedtime, he sometimes holds me in the room to tell me about time signatures and fractional note values. On his magnadoodle, he writes a note with many lines about a staff and tells us it's the highest note. As we pick up the pieces of paper he leaves scattered around the house, we sometimes see songs that he has written out in imitation of the music he sees at school and in the church hymnal.

I started piano at his age, and while I didn't have perfect pitch or any extraordinary abilities, I did have a good ear. My piano and choir teacher, Mr. Alexander, made us name intervals and chords before he would dismiss us, and I took great pride in being among the first to get out. To this day, one of the proudest memories of my childhood is the time he gave me a new song and I sight-read it without accompaniment all the way through, missing only one note.

What I hope for Archer in learning an instrument is that he will be able to translate the patterns in his head into physical movements and gestures of his body through space. That's the essential skill for my strange little boy, who lives so much inside those patterns -- numerical, abstract, often complexly folded and arcane -- that I sometimes worry that he'll get lost in there, missing the possible correspondences between his sense of order and the world all around him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Longing for leisure

I'm at the point in the semester when all the little tasks of teaching and administration -- grading papers, reading journals, preparing class notes, writing recommendations, meeting with students and faculty and staf -- begin to feel especially pressurized. The end of the term is coming, and that means that everything needs to be done right now. And although the holidays will be here soon, the pressure to prepare for next semester continues to build without let-up.

At times like these, I experience an almost physical longing to be reading one of the many books and comics that are stacked up by my bed and listed on my Kindle home page. It's a yearning for escape -- the desire to pause the world and recreate.

I give in to it much too often for my guilty conscience, but instead of the lost-weekend-style literary feast of my dreams, it's stolen moments: the stunning science-fiction short story that opens the latest volume of Acme Novelty Library before bed, a chapter of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire during lunch, a free sample of Twilight (gotta keep up with the latest YA crazes) while waiting for Archer to finish therapy.

But those nibbles always fail to satisfy my hunger at times like these. I have recurring visions of a scenario I once read in a short story (title and author long forgotten), in which a couple finds that when they are in bed, time stops. They start going to their bed for little vacations, stocking up the room with food and escaping the world outside, frozen in place. Of course the story is tragic; at one crucial point, the woman complains to the man that he needs to hurry back to bed because she's aging for no reason. They wind up starving to death due to their unwillingness to return to the flow of time.

I can't help but think, at pressure-packed moments like this when the urge to escape into books is the strongest, that it might not be too high a price to pay...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Aspects of my life and work that were mocked during the Honors Professor Roast staged this evening by The Laughing Stock, the student comedy troupe:
  • my blog
  • my writing about pop culture
  • my advice to students to embrace the disreputable
  • my 2004 pregnancy
  • my intimidating demeanor
  • my piercing, unblinking, lizard-like gaze
  • my tendency to attract acolytes
  • other stuff that I was laughing too hard to remember

Monday, November 10, 2008

Back to the classics

I got my Kindle right before my series of October trips, and in the 24 hours before I left town, I loaded it up with public-domain texts from Project Gutenberg. My first strategy was to download the books in plain text (by right-clicking the page), then transferring the .txt files to the Kindle via USB cable. I reread Mansfield Park on my Denmark trip after getting the text that way.

But before my Chicago trip, while experimenting with putting my panel presentation and board materials on the device, I ran across the directions for the Amazon free conversion service. Send a file in just about any format -- JPEG, PDF, HTML, Word, etc. -- to your Kindle's free e-mail address, and Amazon sends you back a link to download the same document translated into an .azw file (that's the Kindle's propriety format). Then attach the Kindle via USB cable and drag the file into the documents folder. Boom -- Kindle-native "books" out of your own files. (For ten cents, Amazon will deliver the converted document wirelessly to your Kindle -- no connection required.) I loaded up the Kindle with the hundreds of pages of information for the the Board of Directors meeting, sent to me as PDFs, through this service.

While in Chicago I read My Antonia, an American classic that's intrigued me ever since I read a long New Yorker piece about Cather some years ago. And now I'm a few chapters into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There's something about the Kindle, frankly, that makes these celebrated books easier to swallow. I think there are two reasons for that unexpected effect.

First, the physical package of "a work of great literature" -- a musty library book, a publisher's classics edition (instantly recognizable by the cover designs), a volume meant to be used in a classroom -- isn't present. On the Kindle, all books are equal. They have no sensory qualities, accidental or intentional, to signal how their content is to be approached. When that canon-indicative package gets in the way of actually reading the book, as I expect it does for many of us, the Kindle removes the obstacle.

Second, while reading, all books are the same length on the Kindle. Well, not really; they just appear that way. The Kindle indicates your progress through the book through a tiny row of dots at the bottom of the page. In all books, the row goes all the way across -- but of course, you will fill up the dots more quickly while reading a short book than a long one. It's a relative indicator, not an absolute one. This has the effect of masking the actual length of the book from the reader.

The actual length of the text, and how far you've gotten, is indicated in the Kindle's Home view, which shows a row of dots under each document that differs in size; a two-page document you upload will have only a dot or two, while an 800-page novel will have dots almost all the way across. But this view disappears while reading, replaced by the full-length progress indicator. If, like many of us, you tend to be discouraged by the bulk of a book -- especially one of the cultural-literacy variety -- and disheartened by the many pages remaining to make any significant progress, the Kindle seems to help. Only one page is visible at a time. The device doesn't get slimmer or fatter. Again, the playing field is leveled.

Sure, many of us fetishize the physical object of the book. And there's something wonderful about a very fat book that you can't wait to read; well do I remember picking books at the library based on page count, unwilling to run out of pleasure too quickly.

But for classics and anointed denizens of the canon, even when we want to read them, their status puts the task into the category of a chore. When our attraction to the work is tenuous, almost anything can distract and discourage us. For me, the Kindle removes those distractions and lets me focus on the content of the work, not its packaging.

And what a reward. I doubt I would have gotten around to My Antonia for decades to come if it meant buying a copy or getting it out of the library. But on the Kindle, its magnificence was plainly evident. It was brilliant, intensely beautiful, pleasurable in a way I didn't expect at all. I savored every word.

I would have done the same if I had read it on paper, of course. But I would have had to get over the obstacles that the characteristics of the printed book present. That's my failing, of course, but I suspect it's a failing shared by many, despite their best intentions. The triumph of the Kindle is that it removed those obstacles. And the result is simple: I read a great book that I'd been meaning to read for years. And I loved it.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Monday's coming

Today's post resurrecting a fortnight-old scarf is at Toxophily.

I put off grading essays as long as I can. I've developed eminently workable strategies for getting them done (mark on a tablet, read three a day -- no more, no less, recruit a teaching assistant to take care of the grammatical minutiae). But I still dread it.

The truth is, I don't dislike it while engaged in the task. Sure, it's labor-intensive and takes more concentration than other educational tasks; it's impossible to multitask while grading. But I usually find that I'm passionate about what I'm communicating to the student, and often I feel gracious as I find something to praise them about.

The problem is that it's such a solitary activity. When you do it, you have to shut everybody out and just get down to business for as long as it takes. It feels like a trip to the salt mines, a difficult job with no social niceties to redeem it, a stack of jobs that it's hard to make a dent in.

But today, while listening to Teri's sermon and thinking about the joy of listening attentively to an interesting, wise person speak, I realized that I was letting the lonely aspects of grading blind me to its real nature. Everyone needs a balance between communicating and being communicated to. I love putting myself in the power of a storyteller or a thinker, being the listener who's silently turning over information in her head. But I also love being the communicator, the lecturer, the leader. I have things to say that I think are important. It's exhausting, and I can't keep it up all day -- so I view my listening time as recreation. Reverse the proportions of my usual routine, though, and I see lecturing, writing, leading as recreation. I need both, and I enjoy both.

Grading essays is actually communication. It's an active mode, a mode of being in control of the discourse, a leadership mode. But because of the way it's done, alone and intense, under deadline pressure, in frantic bursts of gotta-get-it-done activity, it's easy to forget that grading has an audience. The communicative aspects of reading and marking essays get lost because the workflow seems stuck on my desk, cycling from in-stack to out-stack. It feels like pushing papers, not making a connection -- but actually, it's a moment of individualized, sequential control and leadership.

I think if I can remember that grading fits on the active side of my balance, I'll be more eager to seize that opportunity. It's a gestalt switch for me -- one that I'm looking forward to trying out in order to change the way I look at this necessary task.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A chill in the air

Today's post chalking up another LYS in another city is at Toxophily.

Cold air finally caught up with us today. Although the official high was supposed to be 62, the chilly wind counteracted the brilliant sunshine. At our Family Day event around noon, it was so cold under the tents that the guests ate their barbeque as quickly as possible so they could stand in the courtyard and get as much radiant heat as they could.

I love cold evenings. While sitting on the couch working through our TiVo queue, I throw a quilt over my legs and wrap a Bed Buddy around my neck. When it's time to go to bed, there's nothing better than pulling the covers up around your neck and enjoying the pocket of body heat that slowly grows more comfortable.

Even though we've had a beautiful Indian summer, I'm ready for fall to slide closer to winter. Bring on the jackets, mittens, and flannel pajamas!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Brushes with greatness

Noel gets to talk to famous people all this time. Just this week it's been Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield), Dennis Hopper, and almost John Updike (before he got sick).

But I don't usually get to talk to people who are not famous for being religious scholars or artists-in-residence at my university (Chuck Klosterman in eleven days!). However, circumstances conspired today to put me on the phone with Malcolm Gladwell, author of such bestsellers as The Tipping Point, Blink, and his latest, Outliers.

It's the first interview I've done for the A.V. Club, and as often happens with these phoners, it was kind of a mess to set up. We actually had two people standing by to do the interview at one point, covering all possible hours of the workday. But at the last minute, the publicist offered a time that fit with my schedule.

So I took Cady Gray to school, went to the office, worked for 90 minutes, then walked home with my sheet of questions tucked into my uncorrected proof copy of Outliers. Noel showed me what buttons to push on the digital recorder. I called at the appointed time, but got Gladwell's voice mail; left a message, and he called back five minutes later.

Doing a phone interview is really hard. You've got one eye on your recorder to make sure it's working. If the person's on a cell phone, sometimes it breaks up. I didn't realize that the battery doesn't hold a charge on our cordless phone in the back -- the one the recorder is hooked up to -- so ten minutes in, when it started beeping for low battery, I was glad Noel had brought the other handset into the room, but I didn't know whether I could turn the low-batt handset off without disrupting the recording.

Thanks to all those concerns, I wasn't able to be extremely attentive to what Gladwell was saying, although I did get in a few follow-up questions in addition to my prewritten ones. He was pleasant, appropriately talkative, and said some interesting things about applications of his outlier thesis. When I get the transcript back from the interns in Chicago, I'll be able to see whether it all makes sense.

I think I'll be able to do a better job on the next one. It's nervewracking to talk to famous people, though.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Three, two, one

  • Archer has suddenly developed an obsession with the presidential election, spawned when he realized that it relies on electoral vote totals. He now spends his time telling all of us how many electoral votes we have, and acting as some kind of election master of ceremonies: "The voters are voting for 30 minutes! And the score right now: Donna Bowman has 75 electoral votes, Noel Murray as 98 electoral votes, Cady Gray Murray has 150 electoral votes, and Archer Murray has 150 electoral votes!" (To keep peace between the siblings, Archer has learned that he and Cady Gray need to be tied.) "And now there is no voting because the voters have all gone to lunch. But there are baskets on the table so they can keep voting while they eat their lunch!"

  • There's been a lot of talk about Obama's somewhat subdued acceptance speech Tuesday night. I think the real reason is the burden of governance -- the heavy responsibility that he is assuming. But I also think, in retrospect, that it's a good thing to be subdued in victory during a moment of such multidimensional crisis. Obama supporters were dancing in the street, but the man himself seemed to demonstrate that it's not about doing a touchdown dance, but getting ready for a very hard road ahead.

  • I'm talking to Malcolm Gladwell tomorrow for the A.V. Club (unless the interview gets scheduled for the two hours I'm unavailable). If you've got any questions for him, leave me a comment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes we can

I know those of you who read this blog are of varying political persuasions. But let's take our cue from John McCain today:
In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.
Whatever you think of President-Elect Barack Obama's policies or convictions, he -- and the moment that spawned him -- has transformed the American electorate.

And whatever you think of Senator John McCain's policies or convictions, in the end he did his best to rise above a desperate, attacking campaign and counteract the fear strategy. This one moment is what I will take away from his run for the presidency:

Most Americans do not want to be divided. Most Americans do not want to be cleaved by strategists and herded into opposing fortresses. And in this unscripted, honest moment, John McCain stood up for the truth and for most Americans, even though many of his supporters seemed to desire otherwise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day agenda

Today I led a class discussion about democracy and virtual worlds.

I ate barbecue for lunch and discussed tenure.

I kept one ear open at a staff meeting while posting announcements for upcoming programs on the Honors online community front page.

I made suggestions to improve the personal statement of a former student who's applying for graduate school.

I answered questions from freshmen about sources and topics for the paper that they have due on Friday.

I invited a hundred of my closest Facebook friends to the Chuck Klosterman reading and signing two weeks from now.

I heard about Noel's successful Dennis Hopper interview today, and about a possible Malcolm Gladwell interview I might be doing on Friday.

I asked Archer about his good-as-gold sticker while taking him to speech therapy. (He said he got it for doing "really hard math problems" like 5 times pi.)

I took cookies to the local homeless shelter.

I ate hot dogs and watched a game show.

I took a walk with my family.

I marvelled at the golden leaves on our huge oak tree, which rebounded after the dry summers of years past.

I knit a scarf for charity.

I braced myself for change.

I took a deep breath on the cusp of history.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Exit stage left

It's the day before Election Day, and the country trembles on the edge of change. Here in Chicago, the city is already celebrating. Everywhere people wear their Obama T-shirts and buttons with a kind of defiant pride, daring the world to caution them against breaking out the champagne too soon.

The morning was impossibly beautiful. I got a pastry and a chai latte, and sat on a bench on the north end of Grant Park for half an hour. The air was 72 degrees, so perfectly balanced it did not feel like it had any temperature at all. The sun shone with autumn brightness, the sky appeared scribbled with pastels, the breeze barely ruffled the luminous yellow leaves. On Michigan Avenue, the buses rumbled and the music students lugged their instruments to class. I felt surrounded by such perfection that I wasn't sure I hadn't died in my sleep and was in some Chicago-themed heaven.

Before boarding the Orange Line for Midway, I walked a couple of blocks over to Loopy Yarns, a legendary Chicago yarn store. Although I wanted to buy one of everything (Noro Silk Garden! Misti Alpaca laceweight! Lorna's Laces Shepherd Sock! Claudia Handpainted! Handmaiden Sea Silk!), I restricted myself to a hank of mmmmmmMalabrigo worsted in green, and two skeins of KPPPM in a blue-purple colorway. The nice ladies at Loopy threw in a tote bag to mark my visit, and gave me the student/teacher discount.

At the airport, walking from the train to the terminal, I complimented a TSA worker on her sparkly scarf as I passed. Seconds later, she handed it to me as a gift.

If only my family could somehow magically join me here, I'd stay forever. Thank you, Chicago.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ready to go home

Another day of non-stop meetings, sessions, an appearance on a panel, then complete collapse. I know Noel is worn out taking care of the kids and doing his work; he probably would be skeptical of just how tired I was at 5:45 pm today.

I had a leisurely Thai dinner and a relaxing conversation with a colleague. And then I felt energetic enough to drop in on a reception or two before heading back up to the twenty-second floor.

Tomorrow I'll be home almost in time for dinner, and as nice as it is to eat meals in restaurants and impress people with the number of ribbons on your nametag, I'll be so glad to get back to Arkansas -- and stay there. We'll be spending the holidays in Conway, with nary an interstate or airport in sight. I can't wait to be a homebody.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tonight is kinda special

After a day of meetings, sessions, reunions with colleagues, papers, and (I must admit) a 90-minute nap in the early afternoon, I had the singular pleasure of visiting the Chicago home of my dear old friend and A.V. Club colleague Scott for drinks, dinner, and baby playtime tonight.

I've known Scott since the early nineties, when we were both at the University of Georgia. There's no one who's stood by me so consistently through good times and bad. He was there for me when I married Noel in 1996; I was there for him when he married Allison in 2004.

Now he has the most beautiful nine-month-old girl, Isabel. Her big eyes and curious, fearless personality captivated me. Keith and Stevie were there, and we ate fajitas, drank margaritas, and talked politics and family vacations for hours. (Keith's story about his family trip to Terre Haute had me gasping for air.)

I'm scheduled to the hilt at this meeting -- witness the second 7 am breakfast meeting in a row tomorrow. It's a very different experience than the freedom of my first decade or so of annual meetings, when I would go to whatever sessions I chose, pop into the receptions for my alma mater and publishing house and theological institute on various evenings, and set my own schedule otherwise. When more people know you, when you are in positions of responsibility, you are obligated to many groups, and free time is minimal.

But thank goodness there are non-academic friends to whom I am also obligated, who whisk me away from the professors and plans and papers for an evening of pure friendship. I'm invigorated and comforted by their hospitality. Scott and Alli, Keith and Stevie -- my thanks.