Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Too much writing

When I committed to write every day, back in November of ought-six, I meant it. And aside from the occasional day without internet access, I've posted here at once in each twenty-four hour period.

But there are days when I spend almost all my waking time writing. And on those days I feel very much like I've fulfilled my write-every-day pledge, even though none of it has been for this site.

So far I've resisted using that as an excuse to skip the day's blogging, although regular readers will know that I sometimes come darn close. (I frequently post short entries organized around pictures or kid anecdotes or even just links to the other writing I did that day.) To me, the pledge to dailyblog isn't just a pledge to write every day -- it's a commitment to a certain set of readers. Not that those people are waiting with bated breath for my daily post; I'm not that conceited (or popular). But the way I keep myself committed to daily writing is by obligating myself publicly to my few (wonderful, faithful) readers. I can't make some private deal with myself that some other piece of writing "counts" for my daily output for that day. I've made a public vow; the public, then, gets to witness whether I live up to its terms or not, and the place they gather to check in is here.

Today I spent the entire afternoon writing the last five hundred words for a 2200-word encyclopedia article on "Films for Religious/Missionary Use." Encyclopedia work is highly rewarding, but that's largely because it's difficult. The encyclopedia article should be comprehensive, but not sterile. It's a challenge to craft a brief introduction to a topic on which multiple books could easily be written. After working and reworking the article, I certainly feel like I've done my writing for the day.

Nevertheless, that writing doesn't exercise the same muscles as this writing. The encyclopedia article must be precise, economical, authoritative, with just a hint of a personal point of view to make it readable. That's almost nobody's natural writing voice. And so it takes extra work. This writing -- the blog -- is all about my writing voice and my personal point of view. The whole reason I come here every day, to post a lot or post just a little, is to learn more about my writing voice and my personal point of view. And the way to do that is to write freely, without obsessing over perfection.

There are two or three more entries due (to different publications) over the next few weeks. I'll do a lot of writing, and I'll come home tired and in the mood to be done with this quickly. But in all probability, that's when I'll need this space -- and its attendant writing challenges -- most.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sitting in judgment

The strangeness of finals week was incapsulated in the day's activities. In the morning I answered e-mails, worked on an encyclopedia article that's due on Thursday, and wrote a letter to send to applicants to the Honors College who are being put on an alternate list. In the afternoon I sat in a staff meeting, then in a committee to pick the outstanding thesis award winners from thirteen nominees, then in a meeting to revise the fall freshman curriculum. This evening I went out with my family to eat Chinese food, gave my daughter a bath and put her to bed, then chopped apples, halved grapes, sliced bananas, and mixed them with pineapple, grapefruit, and orange slices to make fruit salad for my freshman exam potluck tomorrow.

Sitting on committees that judge student work, then coming home to make fruit salad to serve to other students the next day -- those are two extremes on the odd continuum of the faculty member. I confess that I don't feel perfectly comfortable in either role. The first sets me over the students as the gatekeeper guarding the world of scholarship, where only the best gain admittance. The second positions me as the students' servant, perhaps, or a host, offering them gifts and hoping that they'll enjoy my party.

Where I prefer to be is somewhere in the middle. My mentor Norb used to be fond of saying that we ought to be "a guide by the side, not a sage on the stage." And what I love to do is accompany my students on their journey.

At this time of the year, I find myself stepping back as the students take the reins. I work overtime setting up the structure of the collaborative writing/editing final project for the class, appointing student managers, social-engineering teams, and exhaustively describing the process. Then the class takes over completely for the last few weeks. I have little to do but marvel at their ability to teach themselves.

That can lead to a bit of a lonely feeling. Am I really needed? But that's what we all want, eventually -- for our students to grow up and out of our orbit. The more than can do it before graduation, the more confident and able they will be when they no longer have us at all.

Monday, April 28, 2008

What's it worth

There's a legend in my family that my older brother, assigned to write a 2000-word report sometime in middle school, turned in a page that read: "A picture is worth a thousand words. Here are two."

I have my doubts about the veracity of this tale (Dwayne, can you confirm or deny?). Nevertheless, I am taking it as my inspiration for this blog post. To coin a phrase: Here are two.

She's started drawing stereotypical little-kid pictures -- the sky, the sun, the house, the grass. It's so weird.

Here you see illustrated Cady Gray's half-scrunched-up "welll ..." face -- the one that precedes "I don't know!" or "I'm just doing nothing."

Sunday, April 27, 2008


The government in its infinite wisdom is going to give us $1800 in a couple of weeks. Since we're right in the middle class sweet spot and have two kids, we qualify for the maximum payout.

Last time the Bush administration sent us a check because the country was falling into recession (in 2001 if memory serves), we were incensed at the whole "spend a buck, save America" rhetoric. We gave the whole amount to our church.

But this year, even though I'm still just as cranky about the idea that consumerism is the golden-brick road to our national economic Emerald City, it's less appealing to sign over that check to charity. Noel had a successful year on the freelance front, and freelancers don't have the luxury of having income and Social Security tax withheld from their income -- plus they have to pay both the employer and employee shares. So our liquidity, shall we say, is a bit on the low side after April 15.

$1800 isn't a lot of money. I feel a bit soiled for even treating it with enough significance to think about what we would do with it. More than half of the potential recipients this year plan to save it or pay bills and debts with it -- not exactly the injection of cash into the economy that we were sold on. I imagine that if we don't end up giving the money away, it will almost make up one of our estimated tax payments for 2008. In other words, our choices are to give it away or give it back.

What will you do with your check -- and how do you feel about it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008


One of the nice things about working in academia is that the job changes according to the time of the year. The rhythms of starting a semester, midterm, and finals -- not to mention the relative downtime of summer -- provide a cycle to the year that an office job just can't match.

We're entering final exam week for the spring semester now. Some of the features and feelings of this time of year are easily understood by anyone who's ever been in school. There's pressure to respond quickly to student work, to get everything graded. Exams have to be created, proctored, and graded in short order. (Since I give assignments for collaborative final projects in lieu of individual tests given at a specific final exam period, I end up doing a lot more preparation and structuring ahead of time and monitoring of student progress during the two weeks or so that they are working, and much less reading through stacks of essays after the students have emptied the dorms.) There are commencements and banquets and deadlines for turning in final grades.

But here's what I'm up to that people who've never been on this side of the desk might not expect:
  • Awards. Many departments give awards for outstanding student, or hold competitions for the best student work in a given area. My college gives special recognition to the senior theses that meet exacting criteria -- we can give as many awards as we like, or none at all. This year there are thirteen theses nominated by their advisers. The entire faculty reads the nominated theses, and the vote has to be unanimous for a thesis to win the award. One of the theses this year is a 200-page novel.
  • Commencement x 3. Each faculty member is supposed to attend one of the 90-minute ceremonies held next Saturday. But as longtime readers of this blog will recall, the administration (including deans and associate deans) attend all three.
  • Summer research. Every year I begin the summer break with plans to finish papers, submit proposals, and get an administrative handle on my various external duties with boards, encyclopediae, etc. And every year my year-round administrative position winds up actually taking twelve months instead of nine, and the stuff that gets me promoted but for which I am not paid takes a back seat. I've got high hopes for July, despite previous experience.
How does your life change as summer approaches?

Friday, April 25, 2008

The swarm

Unlike my alma mater, Wake Forest University, my current institution doesn't have any central area to the campus where students tend to congregate. The corridor between my building and the student center sees pretty heavy walking traffic, though. And when I've gone out this week, I've noticed that one of our spring scourges has arrived. The gnats are swarming.

They're too small to see until you're right on top of a cloud of them -- dancing in a chaotic group, probably in some mating ritual. There's not much you can do but walk through them, swatting as you go to keep them out of your hair and eyes and nose as much as possible.

The gnats here are a minor nuisance. But they always bring to mind the infamous "quad bugs" that plagued the Wake Forest central campus every spring, as soon as the weather warmed. These were not isolated clumps of insects, but a dense miasma of black dots that coated the entire quad. When walking in the area, a sheaf of papers or magazine was an absolute must for self-defense. Everyone on the quad fanned constantly, like denizens of Regency romances, in a last-ditch attempt to keep the bugs from attaching themselves to one's person. Even so, a walk across the quad invariably ended by shaking the bugs out of your hair. And woe to the person who dared wear a light-colored summer top. It would be sprinkled with irregular black pinpricks and stains at the end of even the shortest stroll, since the bugs seemed incapable of avoiding people and impossible to brush off once they'd blundered into you.

I don't know what caused the Wake Forest quad to be the premier gnat courtship ground in the Piedmont. It probably had nothing to do with the majestic rows of elms that marched down the long axis of the quad, the other feature I remember most -- especially since they succumbed to Dutch Elm disease and were cut down the semester I graduated, replaced by spindly saplings. My graduation on the quad might not have been the most elegant, out in the heat instead of shaded by ancient trees, but luckily by May the worst of the quad bug infestation tends to be over.

ObArcherAnecdote: During a short visit to the playground this afternoon, Archer enrolled me in a team for some game he was making up. I was on the All-Star Tardy Moms, and Archer put himself on the Data Deletes.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

An easy summer meal

Another installment in our continuing series: What Archer Brings Home In His Backpack.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar


Activity #2

Pick from the foods that the caterpillar ate and plan a delicious meal. What kind of meal will you make?

a piece of Swiss cheese, watermelon, and a piece of salami.

What things will you need to prepare the meal? (Food - Dishes)

a plate to hold the cheese, watermelon, and salami.

List the steps in order to prepare your meal.
  1. Get a piece (square) of swiss cheese.
  2. Punch holes in the cheese.
  3. Add a melon and salami.
What problems may you have? No problems.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Let's pretend

While we were vacationing, Noel and I frequently spoke to each other in the voices of our children -- what we imagined they would say if they were there.

But upon our return, I've realized just how impoverished are the versions of the kids that we carry around in our heads. There's simply no way for us to come up with the ideas and utterances they generate seemingly on a whim.

With Archer it's easier -- he has his stock phrases and his predictable reactions. His autism means that he needs the stimuli around him to be familiar and categorizable, and he's developed regular ways of responding to them, ways that work and give him pleasure and comfort. When planning our days or suggesting a spontaneous deviation, we often said Archer's "Oh-kay," his drawled answer to any change of plan, the time it takes to get it out seemingly encompassing the time it takes for him to reconfigure his expectations.

But Cady Gray is bursting with imagination, going through ten private games in the space of a walk around the neighborhood. Most three-year-olds are like that, no doubt, but it's the first time we've encountered it. Our efforts to impersonate her on our trip were so two-dimensional, compared to the bursts of creativity she exhibits during every waking moment.

Tonight it was a rock. She picked it up and announced the intention of throwing it in the next puddle we encountered. Then she started practicing her throws. Then she decided to kick it. Next thing we knew, she'd announced it was a "soccer rock" and we all needed to take turns kicking it down the street. If we're not paying close attention, we might suddenly realize that she stopped halfway down the block and is intently stirring the pollen-coated pool of runoff in a rain gutter with a stick, singing a little song to herself.

It amazes and saddens me that I'll never be able to capture her in a stereotypical phrase or mannerism, the way Archer's more simplified mode of interaction is capturable. As she grows, she's leaving behind every day a million momentary flashes of creativity, sparked and abandoned in an instant. The only consolation is that there will always be more to come.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Observations at tourist level

I'm determined to wring one more blog post out of our long Las Vegas weekend. Here are some things about Vegas that I didn't necessarily anticipate.
  • Do you miss the days when everybody smoked? Then Vegas is the place for you. The casino floors are liberally supplied with ashtrays, although the poker rooms tend to be non-smoking. But if you really want to marinate in nicotine, spend some time in the sports book area, where tubby old men light up stogies and puff away like it was 1952.
  • Do you wish you lived on Bourbon Street? You might want to move to Vegas. Try as I might, I could not get used to the sight of ordinarily people walking down the street at midday with gigantic tubes, often supported by lanyards around their necks, sucking down alcohol. I kept waiting for the police to come break it up.
  • Remember when Las Vegas was the home of the all-you-can-eat buffet for pennies, and you got your hotel room practically for free? That was before the Strip got eaten up by destination resorts. It might still be possible to get a cheap room and eats at some of the older hotels -- the Sahara was advertising $50 rooms -- or downtown, but at the resorts, they've given up on the idea that the casino will pay for everything. (Instead, you pay for everything.)
  • Architects and construction firms must be making out like bandits in Vegas. Nearly every space is under constant renovation, often into a stunning space with nigh-miraculous engineering. Everything is so oversized, including the huge open rooms and high ceilings, that it feels like the laws of physics have been inflated by a factor of 75%, along with everything else in the town.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Las Vegas in pictures

When you don't get your bags, American Airlines gives you the inaptly named "Spa In The Sky."

I was not seduced away from my beloved dark chocolate M&Ms by all the fancy colors and flavors on display.

Yay! Clean clothes, only twelve hours late!

Things we wanted to do in Vegas, Part I: Fruity frozen drinks by the pool.

Things we wanted to do in Vegas, Part II: See Penn and Teller. (Pictured: Penn.)

Does the real Brooklyn Bridge have an ESPN Zone at one end?

Things we didn't know we wanted to do in Vegas: Eat under a large model of the Starship Enterprise.

How's it hangin', Green?

Vegas was awesome.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Wee tiny home

We spent a relatively uneventful day in Airworld, flying from Las Vegas's McCarren Airport ("The Loosest Slots Inside The Security Barrier!") to Dallas-Fort Worth ("WiFi That's Worth Paying For!") to Little Rock ("Shops Close At 8 PM!").

And when I got home, I had a wee tiny sock waiting for me amid Noel's stacks and stacks of media mail. Thanks, Megan! (I'd link to your blog but ... I don't know what it is. Enlighten me, so I can send my two score and ten readers your way.)

According to the grandparents, the kids barely even registered our absence. We'll see how much they say they missed us when they eat the chocolate quarters and wave the promotional game-show fan and wear the neon-flashing bracelet we brought home for them, won't we?

Now it's 8:30 in Vegas, but 10:30 pm and bedtime here. Back to school for the kids, back to work for me, back to the routine. I'm thankful for my wonderful life, even more precious after the fantastic time we had on vacation -- a vacation where I did every single thing I wanted to do on vacation. More reflections (and pictures) coming.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Doing dinner theater with Jon Davidson

After two jam-packed Vegas days, we took it a little easier today. Here's the rundown:
  • Spinach egg white omelet for breakfast at the Red White and Blue. Noel got sparkling water that came in a big tube.
  • Poker tourney, at which I played more aggressively, saw more flops, and lost more quickly (but less stressfully).
  • Trammed it up to the Strip and then walked through the MGM Grand to get to the monorail.
  • Yes, the Las Vegas monorail! We relaxed, listened to the smart-aleck recorded intercom announcements ("This southbound train's next stop is the Convention Center. If you've forgotten your convention badge, a northbound train will be leaving from the other platform in five minutes"), and went almost from one end of the line to the other, getting off at the Hilton.
  • Our inner geeks were delighted by the Trekkie paraphenalia surrounding Star Trek: The Experience, a museum and motion-control ride. We didn't do the Experience, but we did eat at the Star Trek themed Quark Cafe. It was tempting to order the big neon-blue sci-fi drinks, served in huge globes with dry-ice smoke coming off the top, but we stuck to Earth food.
  • Off to the sports book area, where we watched the Braves game and the NBA playoffs and listened to cigar-chomping bettors right out of central casting cursing a blue streak.
  • Because we had not spent enough time on this trip with the squarer denizens of Vegas, we went to the $250,000 Game Show Spectacular and spent an immensely entertaining 90 minutes with Jamie Farr guiding audience members through simulacra of popular TV game shows. Noel was very upset he didn't get picked for the "Name That Tune" segment; he coulda beat any two of the three rather clueless women playing, and we could have gone home $250 richer.
  • By the time we rode the monorail and the tram back to the hotel (with a stop-off at the M&M Store to pick up Ethel's chocolates and watch the free 3-D movie), we were famished and ready for some fruity drinks with Mexican food on the patio at the poolside Border Grill. Elsewhere in the convention complex, Van Halen was getting ready to play.
  • After a delicious dinner, retired to our room to relax for our last night in Vegas. We did everything here we wanted to do -- saw a great show, played some poker, ate some fantastic food, lounged by the pool with frozen concoctions, and soaked up the Strip atmosphere. By all reports our kids are happy and well at home, and we're looking forward to seeing them. I'll catch you back in Conway.

Friday, April 18, 2008


Overheard in the surreal Grand Canal indoor shopping mall on the second floor of the Venetian (where there is a full-fledged canal complete with singing gondoliers): "Guy! Come on! You and me. Gondola."

Today's activities:
  • A modest breakfast at Starbucks.
  • Poker tournament. Noel lasted about 40 minutes; me, about 15 minutes longer. Full details below for the poker nerds.
  • Buzzing with poker excitement, we went over to New York New York to scope out the Big Apple theming, and had some outstanding fries at Nathan's.
  • Finally figured out the proper fruity-drink strategy: stroll over to the frozen-drink place in the shopping court before heading poolside.
  • Beach time ... sun ... wave pool ... more sun ... lazy river round and round and round ... more sun.
  • Our big expensive dinner at Trattoria Lupo's, the Wolfgang Puck Italian eatery in the hotel. Delicious.
  • A serious hike to the other end of a very crowded Strip, through a nearly continuous gauntlet of men handing out cards for escort services. Their methodology was to snap the cards with their fingers then extend them toward you -- snap, snap, snap, handoff. Passing the Eiffel tower at the Paris, the illusion was somewhat compromised because the ground was littered with tiny pictures of naked women.
  • "Gondola."
  • Back up the other side of the Strip, now in the dark, on the slightly more classy side with the Mirage and Caesar's Palace. We stopped at the Bellagio to see the fountains, which were just as spectacular as advertised.
  • I ruminated on the oddly-constituted groups one sees roaming Vegas: chick cliques, braces of vaguely thuggish lads, frat boy packs, slicks in collared shirts and sport coats, hipsters in sharkskin suits. And of course, the fanny-packed elderly, who are the only ones who don't seem to be fond of carrying yard-long daiquiris.
  • Back to the hotel room where we nursed our aching feet.
Tomorrow: Games of chance and skill!

(So, the poker. I got only four playable hands during my brief tourney foray.
  1. Pocket fives. I bet 3x the big blind, didn't hit the flop which was all overcards, folded (correctly).
  2. KQ offsuit. Limped in, didn't hit the flop which had an ace, folded (again correctly -- winning hand paired the ace).
  3. Pocket aces. Bet 3x the big blind, didn't hit the flop which had two hearts. Called a 2x minimum bet. Turn came another heart. Folded (correctly -- winning hand was a flush.)
  4. Pocket tens. Down to 300 in chips, went all in, got sucked out by KJ when a king came on the river.
I had fun, I didn't embarrass myself, I plan to play again tomorrow if I can get a seat.)

It's all misdirection

Yes, we made it to Vegas. And our bags caught up with us this morning at about 10 am. Then the vacation really began!

I'll enumerate our activities in bullet form.
  • Had eggs Benedict in bed.
  • Went up to the Strip in the morning, walked down about as far as the MGM Grand and back.
  • Bought wacky M&M flavors and colors at the M&M store.
  • Rode the tram that runs between the Excalibur and Mandalay Bay; noted its extremely slow deceleration.
  • Got all happy when our bags showed up.
  • Read my book and knitted on the beach in surprisingly warm sunshine while Noel went to the half-price ticket booth.
  • Ate an outstanding Black Angus burger with bleu cheese, cinnamon bacon, and pickled beet root at the Burger Bar.
  • Got a new room (the kind we reserved wasn't available when we checked in, so they moved us today).
  • Sat by the pool with a fruity drink.
  • Napped.
  • Went to the Rio and walked around the Brazilian themed casino before eating some Chinese food.
  • Played poker (I lost my stake, but Noel doubled his).
  • Saw Penn & Teller's terrific show.
  • Congratulated ourselves on a successful first day of vacation.
Tomorrow: rinse and repeat.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

High above the Strip

Made it to Vegas. Had to run to our connecting flight in Dallas; bags didn't make it. Maybe tomorrow. Tired. Sleep now.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Scripting a life

We're off to Vegas tomorrow on vacation, and that means tonight and tomorrow are frantic dress rehearsals to make sure that the grandparents understand everything they're supposed to do. So I'm writing out the entire schedule for four days. You'd think it would be easier as the kids get more self-reliant and flexible, but I'm finding that I have to remember to put in every little thing. Granny Lou and Papa want a full script to follow, nothing left to chance.

I can see why, putting myself in their shoes. Kids have so many idiosyncracies, so many obdurate preferences. Every interaction is a potential slip-up. And the pressure's on -- there's nothing like an unfamiliar kid to make you feel like you're at an audition.

There's some of that in my kids. Archer is so dependent on things being in their proper place and time that he can be quite demanding: "You need to do that," he frequently directs us with a pointing finger. Cady Gray is at the age where she has some definite ideas about what should happen and when, and she's not shy about sharing them.

But in general they aren't picky or whiny. They tend to receive suggestions enthusiastically (if they are proferred enthusiastically). If I think about specific situations that might occur while we're gone, I can imagine them getting frustrated or unhappy or angry. Most days around here are so even-keeled, however, that the possibility feels remote.

I'll offer as much guidance as I can, and then I've got to let go and head for the desert. My mom's anxiety over being left in charge, manifested in her requests for minute detailed instructions, is tending to make me more anxious about leaving. But we've waited too long for this. Next time you hear from me, we'll be at the airport, free and clear if not yet ex-Arkansas.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hot summer nights

I believe I've blogged before about my favorite radio station here in central Arkansas, a fly-by-night operation connected to a broadcasting corporation that owns a motley collection of basic cable TV affiliates. The DJ-less radio station plays second-tier pop from the seventies and eighties, occasionally interrupted by a five-second promo for one of the TV networks.

The music heard on this channel is the stuff that didn't make it onto classic rock radio because it was too genre-bound (disco, mostly), too MOR (Olivia Newton-John), or just too weird. Normally I love hearing this underexposed side of my musical upbringing, presented in such an unadorned, context-free setting. But driving home from the airport last night, I heard the dark side. A bar-band riff. Cubic-zirconia vocal polish. Lyrics that didn't make a lick of sense until I realized they were composed by someone who didn't speak English as his first language.

It was tantalizingly familiar, but I certainly couldn't sing along with it. It was like a song that I had heard three times in my whole life, a song that just didn't stick. But only now could I realize that it was the worst song ever committed to vinyl.

It was "Sausalito Summernights" by the Dutch one-hit-wonder Diesel. Click here to listen (if you dare).

Why is this the worst song ever recorded? It takes elements that I am inclined to defend in the music of my life and proves the point of the people who cringe at them. Let me count the ways:
  1. You may think you know what "over-produced" sounds like, but this song has been marinated in Turtlewax until the shiny surface could hold its shape without any music underneath.
  2. The supposed story of a California road trip has clearly been written by someone who's never been to California. It reminds me of number 17 on the Willesden Herald's trenchant "Common faults in short stories submitted" for their literary prize.
  3. Interminable.
  4. The early eighties Steve Miller Band sound was marginal even when performed by talented musicians. Why would anyone want to adopt it as their inspiration?
  5. Inaudible, sibilant, synthesizer-processed backing vocals on the chorus had me straining to understand them on every (interminable) repetition. "All aboard .... ssss-th-sss-ess ..." ??
  6. Just when you think it's ground to a halt -- a reprise of that opening riff. It's starting over! (See #4.) The version I linked to is not the five-minute version. Be grateful.
Let me know if you live through it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On beyond e-mail

For those of us over forty, electronic mail has revolutionized our lives. We communicate more frequently, and with more clarity and accountability, than when paper or the telephone served as our primary media. Items to be read and acted upon wait patiently in inbox, yet remain accessible from almost any remote location. If we've been smart enough to move to an e-mail platform that keeps conversations together in one message stream (like Gmail) and has no attachment size limit (like Gmail), and is robustly searchable (like Gmail), then we use our e-mail account as our external brain -- it keeps track of what we decided and who we contacted and what information we shared, and it never forgets.

But it's always the case that when we adopt a tool, even one as powerful as e-mail, we become aware of its limitations. E-mail is good for broadcasting information to a group of people, but it's not good for conducting conversations among more than two people. Some are responding to earlier messages after the conversation has moved on, because their e-mail client (unlike Gmail) lists all the messages separately, and they tend to start with the oldest one and deal with them in order. Some forget to hit "reply all" and end up starting a side conversation without meaning to, then not understanding why their contribution wasn't heard by everyone (or the opposite -- they meant (or should have intended) to start a side conversation, but mistakenly (or unwisely) sent their reply to the whole group). Documents to be read and annotated, when sent by e-mail, cannot have the annotations easily collected -- the e-mail exchange ends up with multiple attached documents, all different, that someone will have to compare and sort out. Sending large documents to an e-mail list typically runs into server limitations at somebody's end, necessitating breaking apart the attachments into smaller chunks and resending (creating the potential for version confusion). And not everyone is in the practice of saving e-mail indefinitely; almost certainly for some participants the record of decisions reached, information shared, issues raised gets destroyed (or becomes difficult to find) within a relatively short period of time.

Yet all these shortcomings of e-mail represent kinds of communication that organizations need to conduct all the time. No single tool solves all of them and delivers the universality of e-mail. So we decide to live with the limitations in order to avoid asking people to learn and utilize new tools -- online workspaces, document libraries, wikis, bulletin boards.

For people of a certain age -- mine -- we feel powerfully modern asking, "could you e-mail that to me?" (or worse, "Can you e-mail that to everyone in the group?"). But it's frequently the case that our 1993 suggestion is actually a bad idea in this twenty-first-century world, where there are betters tools to address the particular communication need (i.e., "Can you share that Google document with me?", "Can you start a thread about that in our Yahoo! group?", "Can you post that on the wiki?"). Yes, these changes require the flexibility to learn new processes, something in shorter and shorter supply as we age. But why should my personal limitations be the determiner of how my organization does business?

A like-minded colleague and I have spent most of the meeting discussing effective communication (and planning to take the discussion to the next level by working on a project and grant to showcase its pedagogical implications). Here are some of the features of effective organizational communication I've gleaned from this weekend's work:
  1. Effective communication is distributed. Various persons empowered with leadership and participation roles in the organization need to be given appropriate levels of ability to initiate and carry out communication directly, without passing through an administrative, staff, or technological bottleneck.
  2. Effective communication is structured. Brainstorming space/time is needed, but not all space is brainstorming space/time. Structure sends us important messages about the goal of the communication, and about the nature of the process that will achieve that goal.
  3. Effective communication is targeted. Not all information is needed by everyone. The more information that is relevant to me is cluttered by or buried under irrelevant information, the less likely it is that I'll absorb and be able to act on the relevant information.
  4. Effective communication is cross-referenced. Links lead to complete previous discussions or decisions, which are pithily summarized in the present communication. Links lead to background information or possible models for action, which are pithily summarized in the present communication.
  5. Effective communication is archived. The previous discussions, decisions, versions, etc., must be available to be referenced.
  6. Effective communication is efficient. Time spent reiterating, resending, getting the new participants up to speed, going off-topic, etc., is time that is not available for doing productive work.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

I'll be missed

Apropos of Adam Villani's discussion of escalators in the comments to yesterday's post, and of the escalators I will ride down into the Atlanta airport train tunnels and back up into the concourses tomorrow:

I love escalators with a white-hot passion, and would gladly sit all day and watch the stairs disappear into the floor, flattening as they do so, trying to picture their sudden flip around the belt which takes place unseen, beneath the surface. I love how the toothed steps rise out of a flat plane and become flat again at the top before they slide under the plate. It's a little technological/topological magic trick that I can never quite wrap my mind around.

As a parent I have heard one too many horror stories about children's clothing being caught in those teeth, and I'm not nearly as cavalier about my kids riding the escalators as my rapturous joy in them suggests that I should be. In fact, I admit to being a bit of an escalator tyrant, insisting on holding their hands and warning them to step carefully as they exit, breathing a little sigh of relief when we navigate the dismount successfully.

I'm also an impatient rider. I subscribe to the D.C. Metro creed: stand to the right, walk on the left. Escalators full of people just standing, not climbing, drive me a little batty. What's the point if you're not going to climb at twice the rate you could under your own power? It's an escalator, not a merry-go-round; we're trying to get somewhere, so why would you treat it as a rest period?

And on a completely different note, here's a homefront story from Noel via e-mail:
Around 10 this morning, as we're gathering our things to go to the library...

ARCHER (in an amazed tone): What time's Mom gonna wake up?

ME: Mom's in Atlanta, big man.


ARCHER: I'm going to miss her.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Elevator story

From the time I was a kid, elevators have been magical to me. They were machines that were intimately connected to adulthood -- only found in adult places, like office buildings and hotels. They were rooms that, as moviemakers well know, might not be moving at all -- perhaps the stagehands are just rearranging the sets behind the doors so that they seem to be taking us to different places.

When my older brother and I stayed in hotels on vacation with my folks, we took off as soon as we could to ride the elevators. Up and down we went, dashing across floors to go to the elevators in the other tower, darting for the open doors on a whim to exit or enter. We must have been quite annoying to the paying guests.

Much as I feel like a young interloper in the world of adults when walking through an airport, there's something about being in an elevator that makes me feel like I'm playing a role that I'm not quite suited for. The polite greeting when other riders get on, the option to lean on the brass rails, the implication that you choose your destination, that you have a goal, that you know where you want to go. Those are markers of the grownup world that I've never felt truly belonged to me -- but always enjoyed pretending to have.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ahhhhhh ....

I'm in Atlanta for the next three days to attend the spring meeting of the AAR Board of Directors. Driving to the airport was an adventure -- such torrential rain and wind at one point that I had to pull off the interstate and shelter under an overpass. There was a tornado in the storm, but it was off to the southeast and I didn't see it. Luckily I was on Delta airlines, so my flight wasn't canceled, and even though the car service that was supposed to meet me at the airport didn't show, I enjoyed the taxi ride through the beautiful North Druid Hills and Emory neighborhoods, decked out in spring colors.

Tomorrow starts two and a half days of 9 to 5 meetings, complete with working lunches and followed by group dinners. Tonight I'm relaxing in my hotel room, finishing up a documentary I'm blurbing for the Nashville Film Festival, watching television, knitting, and enjoying my freedom. It's an enticing foretaste of next week's Vegas vacation, during which I plan to do as much nothing as I possibly can. My ideal would be to post a series of very boring blog posts, e.g. "10 am ... breakfast in bed ... 11 am ... by the pool ... 3 pm ... penny slots ... 5 pm ... by the pool ..."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Come on down!

Noel has a new review of a The Price Is Right DVD set on the A.V. Club site today. That game show has become Archer's current obsession, and nearly every spare moment turns into a pricing game (with him as the host, and his ever-present Magnadoodle as the various electronic signs, gameboards, and price tags.

This afternoon Cady Gray wanted to play bedtime with me. It's one of her favorite games: she gets pillow, blanket, and stuffed animals from her bed and curls up on the floor, announcing, "When you say wake up, I'll wake up." That is far too tempting to a parent looking for a few moments of peace, as you can imagine.

She said that when we got up, we could go to the fair, referring to a lullaby on one of her CDs which promises fairgoing to a sleepy child. So when it was time to "get up," we went to the "fair" (front room) to ride the "rides" (couch pillows). Archer, playing ticketseller (Cady Gray bought 1495 tickets) and ride operator, announced that we would have to guess the price of the merry-go-round before we could board. As Cady Gray and I made our wild guesses, Archer held up his Magnadoodle with a big boxed "CF" on it, in the manner of the Showcase Showdown podium label.

"What's the CF stand for?" I asked.

Without missing a beat, still holding the Magnadoodle up to request my bid, Archer quickly explained, "County Fair."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Citius, at least

I've been an Olympics buff ever since I can remember. ABC's Wide World Of Sports, with its frequent broadcasts of international sporting events, was a weekend staple on our TV growing up. I loved the pageantry and exoticism of the unfamiliar sports, and the international cast of characters. The Olympics were like a two-week smorgasbord of that feeling, and I gorged myself every four years.

In 1984, my family went to several events at the Los Angeles summer games. When Atlanta got the bid for the 1996 Centennial games, I celebrated by geeking out at the Olympic stores that opened around town, stocking up on memorabilia featuring Barcelona's superbly cute mascot, Cobi. Noel and I attended the games in '96, too. I always look forward to sixteen days of round-the-clock Olympic broadcasting glory on the TV -- heck, I wish they'd bring back the Triplecast.

So it's with deep fascination and ambivalence that I watch the massive turmoil surrounding this year's torch relay. In one sense, it's thrilling to see such a large population come together in solidarity to protest the world's collusion in China's Olympic farce. The country does not deserve a free propaganda platform in light of its regime's disregard for the Olympic ideals of peace, equality, and brotherhood. You can feel the excitement of activists sensing that for once, they have the upper hand -- that they control the message of this moment, not the managers who sought to carefully orchestrate it.

I even look forward to seeing how NBC handles the touchy political and publicity issues of the Beijing games -- how much attention will they give to the controversies and contradictions, and how much will they seek to downplay the conflict in favor of Wheaties-ready stars in waiting? It would delight me to no end to see an opening ceremony pockmarked by boycotting teams, a spectacle crippled by the refusal of the world to collude in its lies.

But of course, I want my Olympic drama, too. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. The up close and personals. The unlikely heroes and tragic falls from grace.

The Olympic torch has now been extinguished and rerouted to keep it from falling into the hands of the people it is supposed to inspire. How much of my Olympic idealism will follow suit?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Adulthood: Financial edition

One of the stranger side effects of growing older and becoming more involved in various organizations is being asked to oversee the financial affairs of such groups. I'm currently serving on the vestry at my church and on the finance subcommittee of the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Religion.

Now my dad is a CPA and a longtime small business owner, who for as long as I can remember kept the books for the churches we attended, big and small. I don't know if he naturally has a head for figures; his heart was always in the humanities, but he did the money stuff to make a living. I think sometimes he found it fascinating to know the ins and outs, the financial complexities.

As do I. I've always wanted to be an insider and see how the sausage is made. But I've never sought out positions that require me to understand balance sheets, because other than "debits on the left, credits on the right," I don't have that expertise.

So how I got into a position of approving budgets and so forth for multi-million dollar operations, I'm not at all sure. (The fact that it happened should make you feel a little uneasy about those large associations to which you belong.) I think I can see when expenses are rising and revenues are falling, and I even manage to listen closely enough to understand explanations of line items like "Net Revenue From Temporarily Restricted Funds." Maybe it's enough to be able to pay attention in short bursts, long enough to comprehend the big picture and its component pieces. But I sure am glad that there are people with better heads for numbers than mine minding the store the other 364 days of the year.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In between days

I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours today with a former student, a poised, accomplished, and beautiful young lady who is nearing the completion of her Ph.D. program and is back in the state doing research. We talked about teaching, scholarship, family, and all kinds of matters of mutual interest.

As she approaches the end of her graduate school career and thinks about going on the job market in a year, she has many conflicting plans and possibilities in mind. What does she want to do? Where does she want to live? What kinds of colleagues does she want to have? Would going back to places she's lived and worked before be a step backward?

I did my best to give her the advice she was seeking, but the truth is that it's very hard for me to put myself back in her shoes. I can call up the memory of that year I spent on the job hunt and the anxiety of wondering whether anybody would want to hire me to do the kind of work I wanted to do, but I can't feel that suspension, that precipice, anymore. In retrospect it just feels as if I was always moving toward what I'm doing now -- there's a kind of inevitability to it all that leads me to believe, at some level, that I was always securely on this path.

Probably that's exacerbated by the way I just floated into the study of religion and into academia, never really stopping to think whether it was feasible. The couple of years where I wondered if the rubber was finally going to hit the road after all that preparation are relatively short in comparison to more than a decade of confidently pursuing my academic specialty without regard to the future.

My student P. has so many gifts; she's already bequeathed them to several students whom I've pointed in her direction when they needed her expertise and experience. I want her to be in a place and among people where what she has to give is valued. It's the idealist and optimist in me, bred of my own incredibly luck breaks, that believes such an outcome is likely, despite the cascade of decisions that have to be made and the scores of people that have to agree to bring it into being.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Four feet tall, one foot wide, and a half inch thick

As I've said before, one of the chief joys of parenthood is being able to discover all the terrific children's literature that you somehow missed when you were a child yourself. This weekend Archer brought home a bag of activities related to Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. The kids in his class are passing a paper cutout of Stanley from home to home in a roaming-gnome fashion (it's a modified stay-at-home version of the full Flat Stanley project detailed here). While he's at your house, you can take him along on your travels and take pictures of him to be included in an eventual scrapbook, write in his journal about what he did while visiting, create postcards of places you think he ought to go, make your own Flat Stanleys and send them off to relatives or friends in far off places, etc.

This afternoon we read the book, much to Archer's delight. (We had checked the picturebook version out of the library before, but the original is a short chapter book.) I was charmed by the effusive, slightly mannered style of the writing. A short excerpt will make my point: In chapter 4, "The Museum Thieves," Stanley and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Lambchop, are distressed to learn that their neighbor, who is the director of the Famous Museum of Art in town, is being plagued by theft. Mr. Lambchop reads a quote from the Chief of Police in the newspaper:
"We suspect a gang of sneak thieves. These are the worst kind. They work by sneakery, which makes them very difficult to catch. However, my men and I will keep trying. Meanwhile, I hope people will buy tickets for the Policemen's Ball and not park their cars where signs say don't."
I'm not sure why Archer was so enthralled by this story -- perhaps because he already knew it from discussions at school or our previous picturebook version. But during the brief episode where Arthur, Stanley's brother, piles encyclopedias on himself in a fit of jealousy, Archer interrupted me to observe: "He's trying to get flat." It's highly unusual for Archer to even understand motivations in a story; most often when asked about why someone is doing something, he's stymied. The fact that he not only comprehended this, but was interested enough to comment on it -- combined with his spirited rendition of the final chapter, which he read aloud to Cady Gray and me -- made this particular storytime very special indeed.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Constant refrains

Do you find yourself saying the same things to yourself, day after day?

Some of them are things you haven't gotten around to doing. As I lug our old plastic laundry basket around the house for the thousandth time, I think to myself: "I've got to get those flexible tubs I read about on Cool Tools."

Some of them are voices from your past. As a teenager I read some fashion magazine where Jaclyn Smith was asked about her makeup regimen. She said that she regarded foundation as her defense against the elements -- the sun, the wind, etc. I think about that nearly every time I put on foundation.

What pieces of advice, information, or eternal reminders run through your mind on a regular basis?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Red carpet

I received definitive word today that Chuck Klosterman will be an artist-in-residence at UCA in the fall. (Although that sounds like he'll be hanging out for the whole semester teaching and hanging out in the office and whatnot, it's actually a glorified campus visit that includes holding a couple of special classes.)

It was exciting to see him on the list of possibilities provided to us as co-sponsorship opportunities by the College of Fine Arts and Communication. Noel and I have been assigning his books in our classes on popular culture for several years now. I always point out to wide-eyed students that the blurb on the front cover of their paperback Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs -- "ONE OF THE BRIGHTEST PIECES OF POP ANALYSIS TO APPEAR THIS CENTURY" -- was written by Noel.

Now the task becomes creating advertising and word-of-mouth that will turn out 200+ students for his public lecture. I plan to comb his ouevre for provocative quotations to be turned into fliers and posters. With the right promotion, we can generate huge buzz and pack the medium-sized room we've booked. Thinking back to our experience hosting Slavoj Zizek in fall 2006 -- a name that most Arkansas college students had never heard before we started blitzing them with information -- I believe we can make it work.

Most exciting, of course, is that he'll be doing a talk or roundtable or Q&A especially for Honors students. For that, I plan to post longer selections or even whole essays on our online community, so that students who haven't been in my classes and been assigned "Every Drunk Must Have His Drink" can get his writing style and approach to pop culture under their belts before the event.

Noel's 2006 interview with Klosterman points out that he's dismissed and even actively reviled by many in the critical community. But I've always loved his tendentious, unapologetic, and yet self-aware championing of the disreputable. It's exactly what I'm looking for from my students: writing that offers a discursive argument in support of a surprising thesis, no objection left overturned and no weakness left unacknowledged.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A voice crying in the wilderness

Two or three times a semester, we are visited by traveling evangelists who see our campus as a hotbed of sin in need of some fire and brimstone. Many of them hop from college campus to college campus, hoping to goad the administration into acting against them, so that they can file a lawsuit and trumpet their martyrdom on their ministry homepages. Some come with an entourage of women and children bearing signs with pictures of aborted fetuses. Some come alone. All stand on the steps of the chapel, in the center of campus, which has been designated the free speech zone. And they preach.

Today it was one of the lone wolves out there, in a dark suit with the coat unbuttoned. When I first walked by on my way to pick up lunch at the student center, he was talking loudly to an empty courtyard, listing off the people who are not going to heaven (fornicators, pot-smokers, homosexuals, etc.). Later in the day I walked back by, and he had gathered the usual crowd of jeering, combative students. He was screaming "Do you masturbate?!" at them as I ducked into the building.

I'm no big fan of the "free speech zone" notion. It was implemented on our campus after one of these preachers poked a finger in a student's chest and called him a faggot. (He was actually arrested by city police and eventually fined.) But I'm also sick and tired of listening involuntarily to someone sing about being a "happy homophobe" and accuse every female within earshot of being a whore.

My students tend to tsk-tsk excitedly every time one of the preachers makes an appearance. They give Christians a bad name. Their methods are hateful, not loving. They should preach by example, not by words. They pass judgment, as Jesus explicit told us not to do.

But at that point I want to push back a little bit. Many of my students share the preachers' convictions that homosexuality is immoral and abortion is murder. The only thing they don't share is the willingness to shout about it in public to strangers. Much as I think their tolerance makes the campus a more pleasant place, I have to wonder whether it is internally consistent. How can you believe that homosexuality is a sin dooming its practitioners to hell, and that abortion is a national tragedy, and still consider them private opinions or alternative lifestyles that shouldn't be called out or condemned?

For all the self-righteous, equal-opportunity hatred they spew, at least the preachers have a valid syllogism behind their behavior. I wish I knew how the live-and-let-live behavior of my students jibes with their moralistic, purity-obsessed Christianity.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I got a book in the mail the other day -- a book that had come into the A.V. Club offices for review. It wasn't a book I had asked for, and examining it, I couldn't imagine that it would be suitable to write about on the site.

But I started reading it, because the book I had been working on had bogged down, and the subject matter was certainly right up my alley. It's called A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit.

Almost against my will, I got caught up in the stories of women's struggles to be ministers. The author, who had gone through the process of becoming an Episcopal priest herself, both comments on various aspects of ministerial training and experience and integrates interviews she's done with other women. While the tone is somewhat earnest and psychoanalytic, I was moved by the many ways its subjects dealt with the entrenched traditions of their churches, and tried to be honest with themselves and others about their call.

As Noel noted when I discussed it with him the other day, that language of "call" is part of the problem. Talking that way is sure to limit the book's audience to those who take for granted that God taps certain particular folks to do the divine work on earth. But as someone who's always struggled to understand my own undeniable sense of being called, I responded to Sarah Sentilles' description of vocation as the point where one's greatest desire meets the world's greatest need. It doesn't have to be a personal God donating a particular mission to specially chosen individuals -- that sense of knowing what needs to be done in terms of what I need to do is the sense of vocation.

I've never gotten rid of my young adult fascination with that notion of calling. Even though I wrote my dissertation about it, I still spend a lot of time thinking about that experience and how it continues to shape me. Reading about how these women felt about ministry resonated with me, even though I know that the clergy is not the place I need to be. Yet the way they feel about the pulpit and the altar, I feel about the classroom and the college.

I'm probably also fascinated because female ministers were not even conceived of in the churches of my upbringing. Our own church is about to get a woman priest, and reading about the struggles of women to become ministers and perform ministry, I have a new perspective on what she is facing.

There's no way to deny that I've succumbed to this book, so much so that I'm probably going to write about it despite its apparent unsuitability for the A.V. Club demographic. Call it a mission.