Monday, March 31, 2008

Joy

It was a stressful Spring Break at our house. Work continued apace for both of the bread-earners, but the kids were both out of school and needed to be entertained. When classes started back up, in one way it was a relief to be back in the routine; but in another way, all the tasks I failed to get accomplished during the break nagged at me, and I knew some tough deadlines and decisions were coming my way like a series of freight trains.

Happily for my blood pressure, it was Opening Day at the new Washington Nationals ballpark last night. And the Racing Presidents were on hand.



What is it about tall, costumed sausages and world leaders booking it toward the infield that sends me into flights of ecstasy? Honestly, these Presidents' Race YouTubes are better than Prozac. I take two of them and I'm giggling the rest of the night.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Back to school

Today's post, contemplating the magical marriage of yarn and stitch pattern, is at Toxophily.

Spring break is finally over, and while we'll all be happy to have the kids back at school, April's going to be a busy month. One big push to final exams, with a board meeting for me and a Vegas vacation for Noel and me smack dab in the middle of it. I'm taking a deep breath before plunging in.

(deep breath)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I'm not cute!

Today's post, celebrating the knitting of useless tiny things, is at Toxophily.

Bonus content: I'm dreadfully behind in reading of all kinds (books, blogs, magazines, student work), so I only just now finished a piece by David Owen in the February 11 New Yorker about nicknames -- but it's one of the best things I've read in months. It's not online in its full form, unfortunately, but if you have access to the magazine, check it out. I have half a mind to assign it to my writing students, even though it's not pop culture related. But it's everything I love in writing -- extraordinarily detailed, obsessively focused on minutiae and thoroughness, a kind of accumulation of specifics that is not forced into any point but indicates gently some larger idea.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Incredible, edible

If I could have only one food for the rest of my life, I'd be hard pressed to pick anything I enjoy more than eggs. Always smooth, satisfying, and creamy, eggs speak to me of home cooking, food prepared for everyday and special occasions alike. Eggs mean abundance -- they always come in batches. They're the perfect opportunity for spice and condiments like black pepper, sour cream, paprika, hot sauce.

I like eggs just about any way -- poached, scrambled, sunny-side-up, in an omelette. (I really like poached eggs, since my family rarely ate them at home and I associate them with hotels.) But my favorite way to have eggs is deviled. Hard-cooked eggs in and of themselves are nearly perfect; I could lunch every day on crusty bread, hard cheese, tart apples, peanut butter and hard boiled eggs with just a little salt. But when you mix the yolks with dijon mustard and mayonnaise and spoon them back into the perfect half-globe cups formed by the split whites, there's nothing I want more. You can put a little sweet pickle relish in if you want -- that additional crunch and salty brininess is welcome, in small doses.

I can't handle hard-cooked eggs without thinking of my mother's potato salad, which she sometimes let me help make. I see a brown stoneware bowl heaped high with boiled potatoes and white hard-cooked eggs, and my childhood self perched on a stool peeling the eggs one by one, then peeling and dicing the potatoes.

After Easter there are always hard-cooked eggs on hand, which provides the perfect excuse for breaking out deviled eggs, the perfect picnic food, a little ahead of season. Tonight I had Archer and Cady Gray doing their best approximation of an East Lawn egg roll in our hallway to warm up the eggs from the refrigerator and keep them out from underfoot while I peeled. A few days ago when I made our first post-Easter deviled eggs, I used four eggs, two halves for each of us, reasoning that I'd give Cady Gray and Archer one half each and then eat their other half myself. But they foiled me by buying the deviled egg hype I'd been building and demanding the other half. So this time I over-deviled in order to be sure to have plenty for me.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

And I'm wondering if it's still there

The Secret Knitter took a trip back to his hometown, and posted a moving, bittersweet photoessay on what he found there. It's been haunting me ever since I read it. We have such complicated relationships to the places we grew up. Popular culture often reduces the emotion to nostalgia, but I'll bet it's more mixed for most of us. On the one hand, we owe our very selves to that place and those people -- a debt we can never repay. On the other hand, it's often a place we're guiltily glad we escaped, a small and limited place that may have grown even more insular since we said goodbye. Or perhaps it's fallen upon hard times, the institutions that once sustained us in ruins, rats fleeing the sinking ship ... like we did, back when. We may feel angry or sad, because whatever its faults, our hometown never deserved this.

Or maybe there are other emotions, more positive, more poignant. Read the Secret Knitter's post, and then tell me about the last time you went back to your hometown.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Education without schools

Greg -- no, the other Greg! sorry, Gregs -- sent me this link a few days ago, and requested a discussion. Bob Cringely postulates that people as individuals and as generations are taking less and less time to fully adopt and adapt to empowering technologies -- that these technologies are achieving full saturation into our natural way of navigating our world with less and less lag.

And the upshot is that schools are becoming obsolete.

When people can educate themselves with the help of these technologies, why would they bother with a curriculum that's not designed specifically for them? Already this has loosened the universal grip of primary and secondary educational institutions on children. Right now that college degree is still irreplaceable enough to pay thousands of dollars for, but Cringely wonders whether that might change.

As you might expect, I'm not upset about the idea of schools being superseded by other educational methods. A school is not a magical potion or an eternal essence. It is a technology for getting something done. And increasingly, with changes in how we handle information, it is an out-of-date technology. If we see schools as a way of filling students' heads with information, then there's no doubt that they are already getting in the way of their ostensible aim; there are quicker, more accurate, and more relevant ways for students to get the facts than to learn them at school.

What remains, of course, is learning how to use the information that's available -- how to ask meaningful questions, find and work with collaborators in the search for answers, and communicate what is found in words and images, in person and at a distance. And as I've said before, I think that's essentially what higher education is: an apprenticeship system whereby those who have mastered those processes model them for students, supervise students as they practice them, and finally certify that they are qualified to use them in real-world situations.

These skills are more and more critical in the situation Cringely describes, wherein information is plentiful and accessible. It's not information that is power anymore; it's the ability to use it effectively.

It's possible that those skills and methods will become available to students directly, without the intervention of the higher education institutions. I don't see it happening in the near term, because it's precisely that need to practice that currently requires human mentoring and monitoring. But I do think that much of what we traditionally do in university teaching bears little resemblance to what's actually needed. As my boss said to me the other day, "Think about it: a single person -- the professor -- both defines what needs to be learned in the class and measures whether students learn it." There's a circularity to that system that impoverishes the notion of educational success. Shouldn't student success be measured the same way that an apprentice blacksmith's success is measured -- by whether the horseshoe fits? In other words, the overwhelming system of evaluation in academia, which is currently centered on assignments and tests and other types of semi-proprietary instruments that have little to do with how success is achieved in the real world, needs to become more focused on projects that can be tested for their real-world viability: writing for audiences other than one's professor, presentations to extramural groups, research that is submitted to refereed journals.

Something wonderful happens when people realize that institutions aren't holy and inviolable and handed down from on high, never to be questioned. If our response to the wider distribution of the powers we have heretofore controlled is fear and embattlement, then all we're revealing is our own irrelevance.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Shine a little love

One consequence of Noel's epic Popless series is that commenters begin to look forward to the week when some favorite artist will appear. As Noel approached the end of the D's in this week's installment, a reader asked whether ELO will be featured next week. "Tune in and see!" Noel replied. "(Or I could just end the suspense. Yes.)"

That reader was not me posting incognito, but it could have been. I'm looking forward to seeing what Noel will write about Electric Light Orchestra, the first band other than the Beatles that I fell in love with. When I got my driver's license, one of my first solo stops was Cat's Records on Brainerd Road -- to buy Time.

Like all early loves, ELO came to me secondhand. Pop music wasn't a presence at my house; my parents tended more toward easy listening, non-contemporary Christian, and standards. I treasured the moments I spent riding with my older brother in his red Mustang II, equipped with a state-of-the-art eight-track player, into which Dwayne frequently slid Out Of The Blue. (I still expect "Summer and Lightning" to fade out about one and a half minutes in, as the tracks change.)

My high school music teacher, Mrs. Greene, was another influence; enamored of ELO's classical influences, she frequently played them in class. It was important to me, as a budding intellectual, that this wasn't just pop fluff. I had the same response to the Beatles, constantly bolstering my visceral thrill at the music with scholarly ammunition about how serious, significant, and high class it all was.

None of us choose the music that shapes our taste; it's chosen for us by those we look up to and emulate. What would I be listening to today if Dwayne had been a fan of Rush instead of Jeff Lynne? Or Springsteen (whom I only learned to love well into adulthood)? Or Elvis Costello?

Because of ELO, my taste buds were permanently skewed toward big, lushly orchestrated, Beatlesque pop. It's the musical equivalent of the sweet tooth I inherited from my father, who never failed to end a meal with dessert. That center of gravity of my musical universe broadened and widened and grew more complicated over time, of course; there's plenty of music I love and treasure that has very little to do with falsetto harmonies and ringing guitars.

But we are all eternally vulnerable, in ways that bypass reflective thought, to that which evokes those emotional and aesthetic experiences of our first budding maturity. And so I will never have much perspective on ELO or the power pop universe that I first entered through ELO. It's all pure pleasure for me, only slightly tinged with the nagging inferiority complex that once caused me to hoard positive reviews from magazines and newspapers. I knew my love was lightweight compared to the angst and sturm und drang of the music others were using to form their identity. But I was helplessly in thrall already; all I could do was defend myself as best I could from the ridicule of those with more respectable tastes.

It's a consolation, of course, that after a long period in which Lynne's success and ubiquity earned him the scorn of true music lovers, ELO is back in the critical mainstream. Wait long enough, and everything that was officially wrong with culture at any particular time will be revealed as somehow worthwhile. But just as nobody needs permission to enjoy chocolate ice cream, I'd be in love with that sparkling, pounding sound even if it were as disreputable as Milli Vanilli.

Naturally I'm grateful for the accidents that led me down this path, even as I realize that the alternative universe me whose brother listened to Blue Oyster Cult is equally grateful. I'm happy with the music that pushes my buttons and keeps my synapses from reuptaking that serotonin. And yet -- I also want it to be good. And so I wait somewhat anxiously to see what Noel will write, while remaining fairly confident that because he loves me, he must also have some affection for what I love. It's not the double-blind validation that I'll forever be seeking with some part of my anxious, other-directed psyche, but it's plenty good enough for a grown-up who's learned to accept her precritical pleasures.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Some people don't get a break

It's just me and the secretary at the office this week, which makes for a quiet day. Everybody has taken spring break off except us. Not that I wanted the vacation -- I'm going to get my own break in a few weeks, when Noel and I take our first longer-than-overnight trip away from the kids. I've been looking forward to a chance to catch up on belated work and to make some progress on long term projects.

Noel, of course, gets the short end of the spring break stick. Both the kids are out of school and at home, but he has his usual slate of viewing, writing, listening, and high-stakes file-rearranging to complete. I'm going to try to give him a couple of hours off, a couple of times this week, by taking the kids with me to the office in the morning. I know it's not enough, though -- not when his job is turning out incredible pieces like this week's Popless.

When I published my first book in 2002, I dedicated it to Noel with the words "the best writer I know." Not only am I still in awe of his skill, but the sheer volume of quality prose he turns out, week after week, would amaze even a professional. Every week I turn in a few hundred words and flatter myself that I'm a freelance writer. Noel turns in 15,000 words a week, I bet, on average -- I may be understating it; Popless alone is 7000 words -- working nonstop 16 hours days.

The rewards have been great. Readership for the A.V. Club is way up in the past year; there are literally millions of people reading Noel's work. He's working for some high-paying outlets that have given us a comfortable little bump in spending money. In many ways this was our dream -- to have two viable careers of our choosing, me teaching and him writing.

But there's a high cost in stress and reduced flexibility for our success -- not unexpectedly. We have to remind ourselves frequently that this is what we've wanted. After years of scrapping and fighting to make inroads in the freelance writing world, it's difficult figuring out the balance between how much work is available and how much work Noel needs or wants to take on.

I'm glad, in a way, that I don't have to make that choice. It's quite a responsibility deciding how to manage one's own career, not to mention the family that depends on it. I've always had confidence that Noel's talent and willingness to work would make him a success. Now the only question is how to make the most of it, while still making the most of our life.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter joy

Read all about my big Easter event -- the public debut of the very first garment I've ever made for myself -- at Toxophily.

Meanwhile, here's what our kids look like when we clean them up and put them in semi-nice clothes, and then send them running after eggs.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Aut cusine

After a busy day of Easter egg dying and furniture rearranging, all I really want to do is eat at Archer's restaurant. Here's his menu, presumably produced in response to a class assignment -- we picked it up at our parent-teacher conference on Friday.

Archer's RESTURANT

Entre├ęs
Mac 'n Cheese 3.99
Ribs Basket 5.99
Macaroni Soup 3.99
Alphabet in Chaz in Soup Style
3.99 each!

Drinks
Choose 1

Smoothie 4.50
Punch 1.79

Little MENU
For ages 10-

Kid sandwich .99
Corn Dog 1.50
Veggie Plt 3.29
Any 3 veggies.
Grilled Cheese
for 2.29
Chicken strips 2.00
2 chicken strips and 1 veggie

Other Stuff
Hamburger 1.99
Cheeseburger 7.49
Vegtable Plate 3.28

Desserts
Pie .45
3 bowls of Cream 1.49
Gingerbread Man
19.00 each
2 Pies 23.75
1 Desk cookie .39
2 Desk veggies also.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Spring break

Spring has well and truly sprung here in central Arkansas. The plum trees are in full bloom, the clover has all flowered, and yesterday on my walk home from the office I saw a monarch butterfly fluttering around the student center commons.

Spring break, which began this afternoon for my students, is one of those collegiate traditions in which I never fully partook. My parents would never have paid for me to go on a beach vacation with a bunch of other kids -- it never would have occurred to me to ask. I always just went home for spring break. (Other collegiate traditions that passed me by: frat parties, all-nighters, tailgating.)

And having seen what we've all seen now on MTV and The Real Cancun and Ocean Force, I can't imagine a situation where I'd let a child of mine go to a spring break location, much less buy a plane ticket and pay the hotel bills. Every time I see images of spring break, I wonder how this ends up happening. Who are these parents who indulge their children's demands for passports to wild parties, binge drinking, and rampant hookups?

But I freely admit that my upbringing was sheltered, and that my notions may therefore be a bit prudish. It's up to you to correct me, dear reader. What was your experience of the collegiate spring break, and what's your impression of the reality, then and now, for most breakers?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Quaffing root beer with Bill Mauldin

When I was a kid, I read and reread fifty-cent Fawcett paperback collections of Peanuts cartoons until they fell apart in my hands. My seven-year-old self didn't understand the cultural references that Schulz occasionally threw into the strip. I didn't know who Andrew Wyeth was, or Willie McCovey. But their mysterious specificity spoke deeply to me. It never occurred to me to wonder who they were. They were perfect as complete ciphers. To this day, nothing delights me more than unexplained jargon in entertainment -- highly particularized references that entirely fail to refer, a world where everyone understands the code except me.



One of those Peanuts references from my youth was Bill Mauldin, someone whom Snoopy was perpetually on the way to meet for a root beer. When I became interested in comics history, I developed a vague sense of who Bill Mauldin was -- a cartoonist whose iconic soldier characters had become emblematic of infantry life. But it wasn't until I read Todd DePastino's passionate biography of Mauldin, a youngster who became an unlikely voice of his generation, that I appreciated the complexities of the place he holds in history: a foot soldier who fled combat but guiltily applied himself to documenting its grim reality, a celebrity whose Depression-era boyhood left him unable to deal with wealth and success, an angry crusader whose scathing cartoons about Communist witch-hunting and Southern racial oppression were routinely eviscerated by many of the newspapers who belonged to his syndicate.

Fantagraphics is producing a collection of Bill Mauldin cartoons to coincide with W.W. Norton's publication of the biography. (My review of Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front appeared today on the A.V. Club site.) Together, they're an essential reminder of the complicated stories of the war and its aftermath, and a portrait of an unlikely hero who made himself such by rejecting heroic myths wholesale.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Give a hoot, read a book

Today's post -- about zigzag socks and conference knitting -- is at Toxophily.

Two notes for you here: First, my friends at Ex Libris Anonymous are moving their studio, and they need to get rid of a few of their amazing journals made from old library books. The more you buy, the fewer they have to tote. As my former teaching assistants can attest, they make great gifts.

Second, I've got to fill out my tourney brackets tonight, and between my travel over the weekend and desperate pre-Spring Break teachenating and administramationing, I've done zero preparation. So I'll be going with pure instinct. Last year I came up with a name for my brackets that I do not expect ever to surpass: Boom Goes The Donnamite. And with avid research and careful bracketology, I did pretty well. I didn't win my brackets, but I finished quite high.

I can't help but use Boom Goes The Donnamite for my bracket name again. It's just too perfect. In a few weeks, however, the name will be stuck near the bottom of the standings in both my pools, looking all soiled and shopworm, its cultural reference cheapening by the minute.

In short, my goals for the tournament are modest but achievable. I will ruin the perfect bracket name.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rain, rain, go away

We've got torrential rain approaching from the west, and the weather reports are frantic with warnings about flooding. I tend to worry when severe weather is forecast, spending a lot of time staring out the window and refreshing the weather.com radar map page, trying to decide whether it's getting better or worse.

When Hurricane Katrina's remnants were coming through Arkansas, back in 2005, I was terrified about the prospects of flooding because of the extended heavy rain. Some safety book that I had read with Archer mentioned always having shoes under your bed. I put my rain boots and socks under my bed that night, and fully expected to wake up and find that my bedroom looked like a kiddie pool.

We live in the middle of our block, right where the storm drain takes runoff into the sewers. For years after we got here, heavy rain could flood the street right at the foot of our driveway. On one strange afternoon, the water came all the way up to our garage -- and the storms weren't even very bad that day. The Conway storm sewers are beset by beaver dams in some parts of the city, and blockages used to be common.

Our tax dollars have paid for lots of improvements since then. This past summer road crews dug up our neighborhood streets and installed deeper drainage channels and higher curbs. There have been some hard rains and big storms since then, but no flooded streets. Tonight will certainly test those systems; over two inches of rain is forecast, with some storms possibly dumping much more, very quickly.

As we were driving through a gullywasher to pick up dinner after Archer's speech therapy, Cady Gray confidently started singing "Rain, rain, go away" to make the rain go away. Ah, the confidence of youth. She also said that it was raining cats and dogs, and Noel told a story about how he used to say it was "raining ducks" when he was a kid because he thought the drops splashing looked like ducks.

Archer processed that for a beat. "The ducks are the puddles," he opined. "And the cats are the soft rain, and the dogs are the hard rain."

Monday, March 17, 2008

Girls in their summer dresses

One of the best features of having a little girl in the family is dressing her in the summer. Fill her wardrobe with simple, sleeveless cotton dresses in yellows and greens and denims. Then slip one over her head in the morning, and you're done.

At the end of each warm season -- sometime in October -- I mourn the dresses of the summer past. I put them back on her shelf, unable to accept that next summer she'll be too big for the apple dress ...



... or the denim jumper ...



... flower dress ...



... and paisley dress.



That all lasts until the spring Rhea Lana Consignment Sale. As soon as I stock up on slightly used summer dresses, the mourning ends. I stuffed the station wagon full of $5 seersucker and cotton twill on my lunch break and trucked 'em home.

Not two hours later, all last year's dresses were out of the closet and stuffed in big sacks. (Big sacks that will sit in some corner mocking me because I think I might want to consign them this time next year, but still). So much for the stages of grief. Now comes the season of watching the forecast obsessively to see when the morning temperatures will edge up past the long-pants line. (65 degrees? She can wear a sweater over it, right?)

Goodbye, summer '07! Hurry up, summer '08!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Waiting

People do many things when they're waiting in airports. Some do crossword puzzles or sudoku. Some read books. Some (like me) knit toe-up jaywalker socks (Ravelry link).

And then there are those who do nothing at all.

I cannot figure these people out. Three of them sat in the little DFW chair pod with me for one solid hour while we were waiting for our flight to Little Rock. Two of them occasionally checked their cell phone messages, at least. But one of them literally did nothing. He sat with his boarding pass in his shirt pocket and stared into space. Sometimes he looked around. Sometimes he checked his watch. For sixty long minutes -- nothing. And my cell-phone-bearing seatmates, likewise, crossed their arms and waited without anything to pass their time.

There are plenty of bookstores and newsstands in the airport, mind. However, I understand that getting lost in a book and a bag of trail mix can cause dire consequences. In my three hours at the airport today, I saw a woman sit a couple of seats from me reading and eating throughout all the many, many, many boarding calls for her flight to Milwaukee originating twenty feet away. Then ten minutes after the plane pushed back, she came up to the desk needing to be rebooked because she missed her flight.

Maybe those people sitting in my pod had the right idea. There's no reason to do anything while you wait, and every reason not to. I'm lucky I'm not still sitting in the airport wondering why my flight never got announced.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The suite life

If you've ever been to a conference, in business or academia, you know how isolating it can be. After my long day of meetings, meals, and responsibilities, I grabbed a moment to call Noel at home. It was a surprise to learn that there had been heavy thunderstorms there the night before, and even more shocking to hear about the terrifying tornado impact on Atlanta, including on the Georgia Dome where the SEC Tournament was being played at the time. Here in Hoteldom (a suburb of Airworld), there's no weather and no time and no outside -- just windowless rooms and complimentary coffee and twenty-minute presentations with ten minutes for questions afterwards.

Because it seems a waste to have a suite and not to sit on all the available chairs, I've been watching basketball in the living area and spreading my folders around on the dining table. But let's be frank -- I don't belong in a suite by myself. Despite the positions I hold in these organizations, I'm no VIP. It's fun to play one for a weekend, though.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Lap of luxury

I read student work at the airport, flew to Dallas, was picked up and taken to a hotel visit for a possible 2010 meeting site, checked in at the conference hotel and immediately went to a dinner planning session with the ad hoc executive committee of the meeting's governing body which just now adjourned at quarter to ten. Tomorrow's business meeting starts at 7:15 am.

But as one of the bigwigs at the meeting (secretary of one of the two major learned societies), I have a killer suite. I'm not used to such amenities or space, so I don't quite know what to do with it. I do know posh when I see it, though.

Just to give you an idea: The bathroom features a bidet.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Logistics

Tomorrow I'll be on my way to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for my annual trip to the regional religious studies conference. Since I came to Arkansas, this March weekend has become a familiar tradition.

But there are a few differences from years past. The conference has moved across the street to a new hotel. More importantly, I've got a new role. I'm now the secretary-treasurer of the region, meaning that I have to make decisions, distribute agendas, prepare reports. What used to be a weekend of self-directed scholarly and recreational activity, alternately stimulating and relaxing, is now a non-stop schedule of business meetings.

Case in point: I won't even get to check into the hotel tomorrow until I've had two meetings. My colleagues are picking me up at the airport to go visit yet another hotel that might bid on the conference for 2010. Then we're having a working dinner as soon as we get back to our host hotel. I might be in my room by 9 pm ... and there's an 8 am meeting the next day.

Packing for such an event is an exercise in highly unlikely contingencies. Workout clothes and athletic shoes? Sure, why not -- although there's no hour for a visit to the fitness room on the horizon.

Dallas will be 82 degrees, sunny, and a high pollen count tomorrow. And I'll be buckling down to work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Narrative Archer-style

Archer wrote this story on January 11, but it apparently has been hanging on the wall in his classroom (evidence: scotch tape remnants), and he only just brought it home. Yet another piece of the puzzle that is the way our number-obsessed, sequence-obsessed boy sees the world.

Author: Archer Date: 1-11-08

Title: How to make 8 snowmen

6 snowy days in a row I built eight snowmen.

First roll 8 big snowballs.

Then roll 16 more.

Lastly, Make sixteen raisins for the eyes and eight carrots for the nose. Then make 8 bananas for the smile.

I'll built 8 more next year.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cool drink of water

Today's post is over at Toxophily, where a pair of cozy mittens arrive a few days too late for winter.

For my faithful UTC readers, here's an update on my new no-soda plan. Yes, I've been sticking to it. Diet Coke has been replaced with juice, flavored water, and the occasional unsweetened iced tea (the more lemon you can squeeze into it, the better).

The first couple of days were pretty much one continuous headache. But three days after taking the plunge, I got my first reward. I put on a fitted t-shirt on Saturday and was astounded to find that my gut was noticeably smaller. Such immediate shrinkage was unanticipated -- I didn't take any before-and-after measurements -- but the evidence of my clothes was a huge boost for my willpower.

My craving for that artificially sweetened brown necter diminished after just a few days. Naturally, I've had to replace one addiction with another slightly less dangerous one. Junkies have their methadone; I have vitamin water. I've tried various kinds, so here's a rundown of the selection.
  • Aquafina Alive: This is my favorite. The peach-mango flavor is not overwhelming, but I prefer it to the orange-lime flavor which tastes like a watered-down, flat Sunkist soda. 10 calories, sweetened with Splenda.
  • Propel: Second favorite. More flavor, so I feel less like I'm drinking water (not really a good thing). More Splenda.
  • Glaceau: I got some "Rescue Green Tea" out of a drink machine on Saturday. Kinda weird, but very refreshing. Not really low calorie (I think it was 50 calories per serving.
I can really chug these things down. There's still artificial sweetener in there ... which is the reason I got away from diet soda. But surely there's not nearly as much. I'm not drinking them in the huge quantities I drank Diet Coke and Pepsi and Coke Zero, either -- about two twenty-ounce bottles a day of water, versus three or four 20 oz. to 44 oz. servings of diet soda a day.

I feel good about it, too. I know it's not the ultimate in healthy living yet. Baby steps.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Things Cady Gray says that raise red flags at Child Protective Services

  • "Mom, remember when we went to the store to get drinks for you and Daddy, and the lady gave me a lollipop?"
  • "Mommy, get your hand out of my pants!"
  • "Mom, do you want to sniff my bottom? It's not stinky!"
  • and her favorite made-up song: "Don't Get Hit By The Dad-DEE!"

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Treats

A tip to readers with small children: One of the easiest and most satisfying ways to feel like a successful parent is to give your kids a special treat.

Now this is a delicate matter, and one where diminishing returns are obviously a danger. You cannot treat your kids every day and expect the glow of good parenting to last. (All too quickly you realize that such indulgence is bad parenting.)

But there's a special sense of doing-well that comes from realizing when it's the right time for a treat, and carrying through with said treat. Case in point: Friday was a snow day for the local schools, the second this week (even though the roads never even got a coating of frozen stuff). I bundled up the kids and took them out in the blowing snow and freezing temperatures to spend the morning at my office, giving Noel a chance to get some work finished. We made our way laboriously across campus, our faces and hands getting red from the wind and wet from the flakes.

As we approached the student center, I saw lights in the coffee shop. The campus was closed, so I hadn't expected any of the food service locations to be operating -- but come to think of it, the students on campus still needed to eat, so it made sense. We diverted into the student center to escape the weather, and I realized in quick succession: (1) I can get a hot chai, which would be great; and (2) I bet the kids can get hot chocolate.

I ordered and got the kids out of their snowy outer clothes. Before you could say "mini marshmallows," the kids each had small cups of hot chocolate -- the perfect accompaniment to a snow day. It was a little tricky for them to sip out of the cup without it being too hot for them, so we used straws.



Suddenly what had been a day with vanishing prospects of outdoor fun (the snow never even covered most grassy surfaces), a day where my only ambition was to keep the kids occupied until naptime without serious incident, became something special. I felt like a hero for capping off the blustery walk through the falling snow with the traditional reward of hot chocolate. The kids enjoyed setting out the Chinese checkers game in the lounge area while pausing for sips of their drinks. I sipped my chai and congratulated myself for my success at playing the role of snow-day mom.

You can't do it every day, but if you time it right, you can make an ordinary day special for your children. And when you're the all-powerful dictator ruling their lives, you should use that power to dispense joy every so often.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Everything on hold

Whenever I teach the Course of Study School for part-time United Methodist pastors in Arkansas, I feel like a couple of days of my life simply drop out of existence. There's the time spent preparing for class -- lecture notes for six solid hours of teaching usually take me about a week to compile, working straight through for three hours or so every evening. Then there's the day of teaching itself, a Saturday, which seems to stand out of time like some kind of extradimensional trial by fire.

Few people would want to sit in a classroom from sunup to sundown listening to some yahoo drone on and on about ancient and medieval Christianity (my topic for this spring course). I enjoy teaching these classes because they give me a chance to communicate the parts of Christian history I find especially fascinating. My perennial themes are the diversity of Christian communities in the pre-Constantinian period and the sincere struggle of people in various cultural contexts to make sense of a tradition they received as mostly foreign but tantalizingly resonant.

After talking about it all day, though, and only barely getting up to a description of the Gnostic sects that flourished in the second and third centuries, I sometimes feel like I've spouted hours worth of words without saying a thing. It's hard to believe the graciousness of these pastors, who not only sit patiently while I scrawl madly on the chalkboard and go off on digressions about transubstantiation, but also reassure me that these ideas are indeed relevant to their lives tending to circuits of small churches in rural Arkansas.

When it's over and done and I'm on my way home, it's almost like I went straight from morning to evening without traversing the day in between. The words are evaporated into the ether, the pastors have gone back to Paragould and Shiloh and Fox. Only the sheaf of homework papers in my bag and the ache between my shoulder blades remain as evidence of the day's work.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Famous for two and a half minutes

Thanks to the enterprising and all-powerful Stephen Thompson, Noel's Popless series is getting some nationwide exposure. This afternoon Noel was interviewed by Scott Simon (the NPR geek in me swoons) for a segment to appear on Weekend Edition Saturday tomorrow. Tune in to your local NPR affiliate for the full program tomorrow -- or just wait until it's over, click on the link in the last sentence, and scroll down to find Noel's segment. Edited to add: Here's the direct link to the story.

And if you don't know what Popless is -- where you been, dude? If Scott Simon's talking about it, everybody's talking about it. Go here to catch up before you embarrass yourself.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

In like a lion, indeed

A whole winter without snow. Then on March 4 we got an inch or two. The next day was 60 degrees. And what's the forecast for the next 36 hours?

Snow. Snow. And additional snow.

I expect everything to be closed tomorrow, as more snow accumulates. The question is what will happen to my Saturday gig teaching the part-time Methodist pastors, who have to come from all over the state; up north there's already half a foot of snow.

Well, I for one will be preparing for the impending snowpocalypse by remedying a glaring lack revealed by Tuesday's snow photos.



We're going to find out how fast I can knit a pair of mittens.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cutest Google Alert ever

Like all vain people, I have a Google Alert for my name. That's how I know about my supporting role in this 2/3 disturbing, 1/3 heartwarming story out of Richmond, Virginia: Man who stole kitten guilty of misdemeanor.

The reporter tsk-tsks over the light sentence received by the perp, Carlos Marshall, who stole a kitten named Ernie from the local Humane Society. Marshall said that he fell in love with Ernie but couldn't afford the $100 adoption fee, so he sneaked out with the kitten. A volunteer saw him and informed SPCA officials, who left a message on Marshall's answering machine. Marshall called them back and arranged a meeting to hand Ernie back over.

Doesn't sound like the actions of a hardened criminal to me, but the story is full of righteous indignation about how the book couldn't be thrown at Marshall, as he clearly deserved, because cat theft is a misdemeanor in Virginia (although dog theft is a felony). Luckily the SPCA chief is making a push to increase the penalties for cat-snatching, reintroducing legislation now dubbed "Ernie's Law."

Where do I come in? I'm the "all's well that ends well" part at the end:

While yesterday's trial may not have ended with the desired outcome for Starr, all seems to have worked out well for Ernie.

He subsequently was adopted by Rachel Bowman, and he now spends his days waiting for the 14-year-old Chesterfield girl to return home from school.

"The second she walks in the door, he leaps up on her," Donna Bowman said of a cat that her daughter has renamed Louie.

"He jumps right into her arms just like a baby. This one wants to be in your arms -- not my arms but hers. It definitely knows who its caretaker is, and it's definitely Rachel."
Louie?! I hate to say it, but Rachel just dealt a fatal blow to the whole movement. Nobody's going to vote for a bill called "Ernie aka Louie's Law." It sounds like a push for stricter penalties on assaults against fifties mobsters.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Sudden changes

Remember three days ago, when it was 70 degrees outside, and mischievous boys chalked height charts on fences to determine whether their little sisters were tall enough to push them around on the tricycle?



Today it snowed.



The city school system was awkwardly canceled thirty minutes before the opening bell, and the snow was melted by noon. But not before Archer and Cady Gray squeezed the only snowballs of the season in their tube-sock-clad hands. And threw them at their father.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Postcards from Archer

Here's a sampling of what Archer is bringing home in his backpack lately.

1. The assignment must have been something like, What was Dr. Seuss saying in this book?

(Under a drawing of a Sneetch, complete with star on belly) I think Doctor Seuss was saiyng, "Hold Control Z, for 3 sec. Press 8 and 6, for 1 sec. Click on your Xclock, and Hold 5 for 6 1/2 sec.

2. Using spelling words in a sentence: (underlining in the original)

Teachers everywhere, teaching meat.
Hot heat! Sweet.
Green tempratures make me sleep.

3. How To Make A Sandwich

By Archer (pretend invented spelling in the original)

1. Get som do ot. Free: Find it.
2. Mix it (The do) Free: Mix 2x.
3. Mrat 1: Always mix carefully. (1) You got som bred! Mrat 2: Always be careful when cooking. (2) Put the bred in ve oven. Mrat 3: Cook for about 7 hours. (3) Slice.
4. Put jam on.
5. (bred on)
Free: Eat last!

4. A Biography. Use this page to plan a story about a person. Fill in each oval with pictures and words.

Here is:
Cinnamon (mom) King
29 years old
Born August 16, 1978
There was 7 kids in her famle

Job: Speech ... pathologist.

Family: four kids
Kennedy is 10
Kameron is 9
Keaton is 6
Karyna 4

Interests: Go to Little Rock River Market

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Smoking: A personal history

I took the kids to one of the local parks today, and as I sat knitting a sock on the bench and they played on the slides and ladders, a couple of locals rested their elbows on a picnic table nearby. Every once in a while the smaller one in the Razorbacks sweatshirt said something funny to the bigger one in overalls, and I'd hear a phelgmy, wheezy laugh.

That sound reminded me of my fond history with smoking. I've never smoked -- not even a puff. My family considered smoking a vice akin to drinking, which meant that I was convinced for a long time that no Christian did either. (This led to some headscratching when I saw a member of our church hanging out at the porte cuchere between Sunday School and the worship service, grabbing a quick smoke.)

But as a teenager I started to know personally people who smoked, including at least one boyfriend. I found it rebellious and romantic, of course, but preferred to get just a contact high. (What was I scared of? Coughing, I guess -- in any case, I've always been sure I just wouldn't be able to breathe the stuff in.)

Now I disapprove, with all the power of my maternal and mentoring positions, of the students and staff members who gather at the doorways and puff away, ignoring the stencils on the doors reading "No Smoking Within 25 Yards" and dragging the gray plastic ash collectors closer to the entrances. I have a Puritan and upper-middle-class disdain for those who can't control their addictions.

But I also love the rasp of a smoke-ravaged voice, and the damp, breathy heaving of smoker's laughter. You hear it a lot around here, and despite its connection to an unhealthy habit, I associate it with a certain salt-of-the-earthness -- something real, like the solid, uncomplicated people of my state.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Something in the air

It was 70 degrees today. The sun was out, the sky was blue. Kids ran around in backyards chasing bubbles. College basketball teams angled for position in their conference tournaments.



Everything just seems a little lighter.