Sunday, August 31, 2008

Three-day heights

Today's post about knitting red scarves is at Toxophily.

Mid Labor Day weekend, we're looking forward to a big day of minor league baseball, pool party, and waiting for Gustav's rains to hit us later this week. Hope wherever you are is relaxing and safe.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Prize inside

Noel gets a lot of pre-release and new-release DVDs these days because he's writing a DVD roundup column weekly for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. Some of them come in elaborate packaging designed to catch the eyes of jaded journalists, like the huge When We Left Earth box we got this week with a cardboard nosecone inside holding the DVDs.

And some come with premiums: the Gossip Girl first season ice cream scoop, the Deal green eyeshade, the Fringe voice recorder with a cryptic dictated message about paranormal phenomena.

Best of all are the children's DVDs, which not only provide our kids with hours of entertainment courtesy of Scholastic or Children's Television Workshop, but also sometimes come with a toy. Right now Cady Gray is wearing the laminated fairy wings that came with the Abby Cadabby DVD.

Noticing that her fairy role play apparently included a mandate to be beneficent -- her first fairy act was to put pretend batteries in Archer after he claimed to be broken down and in need of "reprogramming" -- I dubbed her Helpful Fairy and sent her to clean her room. She flitted off cheerful as you please, and repeated the performance when asked to clean the front room. Nothing takes the edge off of chores like a DVD freebie.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Dear old golden rule days

After the usual summer scramble to keep the kids occupied in camps, daycare, or at home, both are now back in school. Archer is completing his second week of school (and has filled all the squares in his homemade two-week chart with the number of good as golds received). Cady Gray started this past Tuesday; she's going to the preschool affiliated with my university's early childhood education degree program, and she's attending full time, all day five days a week.

Neither of our kids have ever suffered from trepidation going to school. We've managed to convince them that they're going to love it, and then they just do. I'm so glad Cady Gray is going full time this year, because she needs those social skills and comfort with routine to go along with the academics she already has. (Two nights ago she read to me the entirety of The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything -- which is securely at her reading level -- and on the way to school this morning she figured out 12+29.)

Next year she'll be going to kindergarten, just slipping past the new birth date requirements by the skin of her teeth, and because she shares her brother's precociousness but not his social impairments, I wish I could skip right there so that she'll start being challenged that much sooner. (In terms of what I've seen of the curriculum in Archer's classes, and in terms of Cady Gray's current writing, spelling, reading, and math skills, it would take some of his second-grade sentence writing and story comprehension assignments to stretch her.)

But I know that this year will be an education in the nature of school -- in sitting still, working together, taking turns, all those skills that can only be honed by practice. I don't want to look past all the moments of discovery she can have in that setting by being too eager to move on to the big leagues.

On the first day ...

We walked to school together.

She put her things in her cubby.

The jungle gym proved immediately irresistible.

But don't send me off without a smile and a goodbye kiss, sweetie.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

End of an era

Today marked the end of a months-long drama on my university's campus, one that flashed into a public crisis that seemed to deepen weekly. Our embattled president, Lu Hardin, resigned this morning effective September 16.

Due to my administrative position, it would have been inadvisable for me to comment on the situation here. But now that it's over, I can provide a brief summary of the process that led to the resignation. It's been front-page news here in Arkansas for a couple of months, but undoubtedly none of my readers outside the Natural State's borders knows anything about it. Despite the provincial nature of the controversy, it is of some interest, I think, because of its illumination of the perennial divide between academics with their traditional values and administrators who might identify more with business or political values.

Back in June, faculty senators met with the president to discuss two issues. One was a hastily-called meeting of the board of trustees that had slashed current retirees' medical benefits under their pension plan. The other was a rumor that the president had received a raise, which if true would certainly stick in the craw of faculty who had not even received a cost of living adjustment in the past year.

The president had earlier denied getting a raise when asked about it by a reporter. But following the meeting with the faculty senators, he sent a letter to the school's administrative listserv explaining the retiree benefit cut as mandated by an accounting change that would have cost the university millions. He also said that a $300,000 deferred compensation package that the board of trustees had awarded him in 2005 on the condition that he stay for five more years had been moved up on the schedule. The board had voted to give it to him immediately in closed executive session at the end-of-semester meeting. There had not been a public vote on the matter; the board merely took a vote approving all (unspecified) personnel matters after they came back from executive session.

This revelation prompted a media investigation that took several different tacks. First was the matter of whether the undisclosed vote on the bonus violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Second was where the money had come from to pay the bonus; the board had paid it out of a discretionary fund that was set up some years ago with the express purpose of providing funds for scholarships and other university needs. The state of Arkansas caps by legislation the amount of money that can be paid through public funds to certain categories of state employees; President Hardin's state paycheck exceeds the maximum allowable by 25%, which is permitted under law for a certain percentage of any agency's employees. However, the bonus money was specified as deferred compensation, not salary, and was in addition to some tens of thousands of dollars annually that were paid to the President from private sources. The question of whether the board's fund was public or private money became a matter of contention. Turns out the fund consisted of "excess revenues" from the housing department and from the bookstore and food service concessions on campus. The university attorney queried the attorney general on whether those funds could be considered a private donation, and the answer was a resounding "no."

Third, what request or impetus prompted the board to accelerate the bonus? A letter from President Hardin to the board, prepared in response to a board request for a compensation package proposal "consistent with comparable universities," was made available. It compared the President's compensation packages to a few other university leaders, including the chancellor of the University of Arkansas system, the University of Mississippi, and Mississippi State University. It requested $150,000 of deferred compensation per year ongoing, in addition to the accelerated bonus. In executive session at the end of semester meeting on May 2, a memo of talking points about the compensation package was handed out to board members. This memo claimed that because the money was deferred compensation and not salary, a public vote of the board was not necessary. And at the bottom, it claimed to be "respectfully submitted" by three vice presidents whose names appeared without signatures.

Quite aside from the question of whether such a compensation package was fair, advisable, or politic, the investigation quickly honed in on the three vice presidents whose names appeared on the memo. In interviews with the media, all three said they had not been involved in drafting the memo. And subsequently, the President acknowledged that he had written the memo himself.

Whether or not he intended to mislead (he at one point referred to "mitigating factual circumstances" that he thought would explain the matter to an angry faculty), the perception of misconduct continued to grow. The memo even refers to one of the vice presidents in the first person, claiming that "I (Jack Gillean) helped draft ..." The faculty senate interviewed the three vice presidents whose names appeared on the memo, and the transcripts were made available on the faculty senate webpage. All denied writing the memo or holding many of opinions attributed to them.

When the first full faculty senate meeting was held last week, the controversy was the main topic of conversation. An ad hoc committee was formed to investigate further allegations of wrongdoing that had surfaced, including "preferential housing"; trustees' children and relatives of political allies had been allowed to live in university-owned houses, including one that had undergone a $50,000 renovation purportedly to house visiting speakers and other VIPs, none of which had so far stayed there in two years. Allegations that the president's office had changed grades were also under review.

Now that the president has resigned, citing both the mistakes he made with the memo and the return of a cancerous tumor of the eye, the resolution authorizing the investigation has been revoked. We have an interim president -- the university counsel -- and a brand new provost who has an uncompromising stance on the centrality of academics to the university's mission.

It has been an unhappy few months in the public eye. The President made publicity a centerpiece of his administration, aggressively advertising the university and making himself its public face in television commercials. When the lovefest ended, it ended quickly and spectacularly. We're all ready to move on.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

An Archers primer

On my review of the Criterion DVD of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Small Back Room, a commenter asked where he should start investigating their work. Noel offered some suggestions, and I facetiously opined that the A.V. Club should offer a primer on the subject. Since that's not likely to happen, I thought I'd provide an abbreviated one here.

Powell & Pressburger 101

One of the British duo's most accessible films is I Know Where I'm Going! (1945; Noel's review), a witty romance with Wendy Hiller's strong-willed, modern young lady falling under the spell of Roger Livesay's self-assured Scottish laird. In black and white and with far fewer of the artistic touches for which the pair is best known, the film provides one of the most charming and emotionally rich entry points into their work.

49th Parallel (1941) is a taut piece of action-adventure that is enhanced by its unusual Canadian setting. Many of the pair's favorite themes are here, but in a more conventional package than their later Technicolor extravaganzas

Of their most widely acclaimed films, I think Black Narcissus (1947; Noel's review) is the one to see first. Its color palette is more muted and natural, and despite its melodramatic plotline, the interactions tend to be equally contained and controlled. A viewer who falls in love with its colonial vistas and nationalist/religious critique is ready for the red meat of the catalogue.

Intermediate Work

The Red Shoes (1948) is without a doubt the Archers film that has been most widely seen. Yet its vision of the intersection of art and life is highly complex, rewarding multiple viewings. The melodrama is heightened, the colors are bright, the characters are theatrical. But the staging is so delicate and precise that nothing about it seems overbearing.

The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943; Keith Phipp's review) is probably my single favorite Archers film, thanks to the effortless magnetism of the magnificent Roger Livesay. This intimate epic portrays two world wars and several love affairs with versions of the same woman, and yet retains a wit and lightness that Powell and Pressburger never seem to lose, no matter how massive their stage.

Powell didn't direct all of The Thief Of Bagdad (1940; Scott Tobias' review), but his work stands out so sharply that the movie serves as a showcase for his style. The delight that he palpably receives from making magic with the camera is something that he never lost throughout his career. As he chases more and more transcendent artistic effects over the years, he retains a kind of stage performer's intimacy, a sense that we are going through an experience together that requires us both to keep our eyes open.

Advanced Studies

A Canterbury Tale (1944; Noel's review) is such an odd mix of village folklore and military drama that it's likely to throw all our attempts at characterization for a loop. But like so many of the lesser-known Archers films, it's so chock-a-block with inventive effects and down-to-earth energy that it's inimitable and well-nigh irresistible.

The Tales Of Hoffmann (1951; my review) represents the pinnacle of artistry in the Powell and Pressburger filmography, an elaborate filmed opera brimming with color, spectacle, and cinematic prowess. Yet even here, at the height of their attempt to blend high culture with film culture, Powell communicates with impressive clarity. He conveys his own enthusiasm and adventurousness in such an inviting way that we do not in the slightest feel condescended to. Hoffmann somehow manages to be thoroughly audacious without coming off as pretentious.

A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), known as Stairway To Heaven in the U.S. and not available on DVD, is a delightful fantasy with a barb hidden at the center, an extended philosophical meditation on the impact of war on unfinished lives. Its fantasy, like nearly every film on this list, comes with a small wry smile that conveys the essential groundedness of the story and themes.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


For the last seven or eight years, I've done an icebreaker game with my students on the first day of every class. I ask them to call out rapid fire, without thinking or dithering, the following information: hometown, major, favorite movie, last music they heard before they came to class, and the superpower they would choose if they could.

I've heard a lot of answers over the years -- two or three seminars a semester, two semesters a year. But Monday was the very first time a student named my favorite movie as his favorite movie.

"Lawrence of Arabia," said the eighteen-year-old freshman down at the other end of the room, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. How in the twenty-first century does Lawrence of Arabia become a kid's favorite movie before he gets to college?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Happy birthday, Cady Gray

Four years ago, just as I was getting Archer ready for bed (right around the time I'm posting this), my water broke. About three hours later, Cady Gray made her first appearance. She was a star from moment one.

Today she reads anything you throw at her, adds 16+17 ("It's simple, Mom!"), and loves her brother -- whom I suspect had a hand in teaching her the above.

Happy birthday, beautiful.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Medal ceremony

Ravelympic glory is mine. All the details are at Toxophily.

In other news, Cady Gray learned to pump herself on the swings. It's surprisingly hard to photograph, but the results are worth it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The rocket's red glare

Our local paper reprinted this fascinating Washington Post piece by Philip Pennicott on the arrangements of the various national anthems that have been playing at medal ceremonies in Beijing.

I've been struck by the interesting, often unusual orchestrations you've heard as athletes stand on the podium, especially by the lovely strings and nimble, light arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner. And those with a better ear than mine probably recognized it, and maybe others, from the Athens games in 2004. The article mentions that in that improbably distant age, the podium version was criticized by conservative commentators for not being jingoistic enough.

The anthems have been a bit more on my radar screen than usual, thanks to this NPR story I heard a few weeks ago in which a music critic discusses the aesthetics of the genre.

Friday, August 22, 2008

State of the Archer, Second Grade edition

When your kid goes to school, you get to start collecting the "all about me!" assignments from the introductions to each successive grade. Here's what Archer did for this occasion last year.

And here it is this year:

There's the drawing of himself, there's the drawing of the family. He feels happy about reading, watching TV, etc. He likes "Good as Golds." He does not like "Folder Marks." He is good at "Typing." And he wishes he could Read a book & I will be a "bookworm."

Almost like a normal kid, right? Then you turn the sheet over.

The day's Single Jeopardy categories were SLEEEP BUDDY; NOW!; MANY "FINGS"; LET'S GO!; and RR-EVERSE.

That's my boy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Filling in the gaps

We all learn about pop culture in such a haphazard, piecemeal way. What we encounter in our formative years -- necessarily the sources of the standards we use to judge everything else we encounter later -- depends on where we happen to live, the people we happen to associate with, the tastes of our parents and peers, the random twirling of the television and radio dials.

One of the joys of having a vocation or avocation involved with popular culture is the opportunity to fill in those gaps, for yourself and for others. There's a palpable sense of depth and knowledge that comes from knowing where the pieces of your pop culture past fit on a larger map.

Today at lunch we were talking about the canon in the context of the battles over cultural literacy that took place in the eighties. I'm a great defender of the canon as an evolving collection of artistic standards, a cloud constantly growing and changing shape, an environment where we can place any work we can think of in relation to others over time. But because its purpose is expressed in the last phrase -- to serve as a multifaceted set of standards against which we can measure other work and ultimately our own work -- the kinds of canon lists that proliferated during those debates defeat the purpose. They present the canon as complete and closed, or at the very last as the work of aliens of ineluctable genius.

The canon should be an invitation for us to contribute, to find out where our talents fit in the universe of human accomplishment. It's valuable precisely because it protects from relativism, guarding against the reduction of creative excellence to mere taste or opinion. But it's dangerous to the extent that it's used to emphasize the vast gulf between the masters and us mere mortals. When we fill in those gaps and get that deep sense of where our scattered experiences fit into the vast starscape of popular culture, we should understand that the world we're exploring starts right at our front door -- and that all we have to do to be a part of it is take a single step.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Learning from football

The liberal arts make a habit of sneering at certain parts of the university -- vocational training and athletic departments, to be precise. I've certainly done my share of eyerolling about the deviation of those departments from the grand traditions of academe.

But I also take delight in any reversal of the expected that helps us see something familiar in a new light. And the truth is that there's at least one way in which the football team and the college of education and the business school are far ahead of the liberal arts. Their students perform and are evaluated in public. The coach's work with the players bears immediate results visible to crowds every weekend. The student teachers are judged by real teachers in real elementary and secondary schools. The business students do required internships out in the corporate world, and the reputation of the faculty and the curriculum is on trial every time one of those students sets foot in an office. Undergraduates in the health sciences spend their final years engaged in practicums and clinicals, putting their education to the test.

In the liberal arts, the tradition is still largely internal. A faculty member sets the curriculum for what should be learned about a subject. That same faculty member delivers the knowledge through lectures and texts. And that same faculty member tests the students' mastery of the content. A perfect closed loop.

We have a lot to learn about letting our students -- and therefore our teaching -- be judged by somebody other than us. It's an exciting and frightening prospect for faculty. We lose control. None of us want to be the football coach, with our win-loss records on display, our success or failure a matter of the unchangeable public record. In fact, we resist most proposals to measure what we do at all, preferring to believe that our results are ineluctable and unquantifiable.

But if we lack the confidence to open our classroom doors to extramural evaluation, are we protecting students or shortchanging them?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Happy birthday, Archer

Today's post, featuring my first Ravelympics achievement, is at Toxophily.

And today my son turns seven. He's special in so many ways, and I feel privileged to witness his maturation. Thanks to all of you who've read and commented on my posts about him over the years.

In case you were wondering, his birthday wish was a printing calculator. After getting one this afternoon, he promptly made us all receipts.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The human drama of athletic competition

People of a certain age tend to associate the Olympics with ABC's Wide World Of Sports, because so many sports we now see only every four years used to appear on our televisions regularly on Saturdays -- gymnastics, diving, weightlifting. Everybody remembers the "agony of defeat" guy in the program's opening; the web is full of tributes to Vinko Bogataj, the ski jumper whose wipeout was featured week after week. But I remember just as vividly the close-up of a gymnast's face as she grimaced with her chin on the balance beam, her legs arching back over her head until her feet were at eye level. A quick googling turns up nothing about her identity.

Of course, those of us who watched Wide World (and its lighthearted Sunday cousin Superstars) also grew up with a decidedly skewed idea of what counts as a sport. Cliff diving? Motorcycle jumping? The Harlem Globetrotters? Check, check, check. I imagine that Jim McKay and Keith Jackson would have been right on top of the Olympics' recent flirtation with "junk sports": trampoline, rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized diving.

Not that I don't watch all those with fascination -- hey, I couldn't do it, and it sure is fun to listen to Bart Conner pretend that he knows what makes for a good "tramp" routine -- but you can't help but feel like the athletes in those sports are the ones who couldn't quite cut it in their older, more respectable traditions.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

All planned out

Any kid would be excited about the day of his birthday party. Archer's anticipation manifested itself in a schedule he presented to us that morning:

Aug 16 #1:
6:45 Wake up
6:57 Breakfast
7:10 TV time
8:00 Dress up
8:05 Play time
10:00 Library #2:
11:15 Lunch
12:00 Jeopardy! Video
12:30 Naptime
2:00 Wake up
2:30 Party -- 15 students, arriving for presents, games, cake, etc.
3:45 Home -- Juice drink
4:00 Practice bike
4:05 Return home
5:00 Dinner
5:30 Get the 4 people get on their pajammys on
6:00 Wheel Of Fortune #3:
6:26 Brush teeth

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Present presents

The kids had their joint birthday party at JumpZone this afternoon. It's the first birthday party I've had with the traditional bring-a-present setup, and in a way I'm sorry I capitulated to that paradigm. Everyone brought absolutely great stuff that delighted the kids. But once you set up that expectation, you can never go back. We're doomed to a deluge of toys every August. Oh, well -- it was a great ride with the book exchange parties while they lasted.

Meanwhile, bring on the loot!

I always freeze up when it's time to decide on a theme for the cake. Curious George is a perfectly wonderful children's book series and an above-average PBS animated series. But it's not like my kids have any special affinity for it over and above other themes. I guess it's time to start making homemade cakes so that candles and frosting carry the day rather than trademarked characters.

White cake with chocolate icing, by the way. I didn't get to have any because to my surprise and delight, the fifteen guests and two birthday children polished off the quarter sheet in no time.

Cady Gray was especially delighted to spend time with her friend Cora from St. Peter's Episcopal Preschool, whom she hadn't seen all summer. They're completely simpatico -- cutest couple around.

We squeezed both of them together into the Razorback-themed throne in their party room ...

... and set them to opening presents. Best Archer moment: the Price Is Right electronic game that his first grade teacher gave him. Can you say most appropriate present ever? Best Cady Gray moment: Pulling a spiral notebook out of a wonderful bag of art supplies that Cora gave her and yelling, "It's homework!"

Keep your eyes on those balloons, kids.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Process people

Every Thursday, the three members of the administrative team in the Honors College have lunch together and discuss ideas and plans. These lunches -- and other occasions when Rick, Phil and I brainstorm, vent, and get all excited about what we do -- have become my favorite thing about my job.

Yesterday I sat down with my boss for my long-delayed yearly evaluation, we got to talking about our felicitous collaboration. What makes the three of us such a compatible team, I realized, is that we're all builders. We love the process of imagining something new and breaking down what it would take to accomplish it. We get a charge out of spinning structures out of concepts, functions, and mission.

Not everybody is interested in that kind of stuff. Some people are process people, and some people are product people. Product people want to cut to the chase. Product people are sometimes suspicious of process people because they worry about losing sight of the process's motivations and aims. Process people are sometimes suspicious of product people because they believe that all the pieces of the machine have to work toward the aim, and that an inordinate interest in getting down to business leads to shoddy, unsustainable, isolated, and idiosyncratic practices.

A commenter on my review of the disappointing Dirk Wittenborn novel Pharmakon quoted a passage where I praise the book's grasp of fifties and sixties psychology, and noted snidely, "Maybe we should just watch Mad Men instead of reading this." I started to fire back a reply about how I watch and love Mad Men but there is room in the world for more than one representation of the time period, and then I gave it up in disgust. Now I realize what my response should have been: "Spoken like a true product person." And never the twain shall meet.

One reason I get such a charge out of teaching is that I love leading students through a process -- a process of gaining insight, a process of communication, a process of collaboration. When I read something that comes from someone who's obviously a deeply process person, I can lose myself in the twists and turns of the mind of a kindred soul. I started reading David Carr's The Night Of The Gun today, a book more about the process of a journalist trying to reconstruct his life as an addict than about any conclusions or truths that might thereby come to life. Only a few chapters in, I'm already delighted and absorbed by the way he undercuts the cliches of his own narrative with his process-related conviction that the cliches themselves prove his point.

A few days ago, I opened up Lynda Barry's oversized collage-comic book What It Is, intending to read it like a normal person. But I ended up examining the endpapers for several minutes, never actually turning a page to get to the text itself. Barry collects dozens of scraps of paper on which she's written notes, questions, and insights about the process of writing. As I nodded in recognition at her scrap heap of minutiae, all I could think about was giving these endpapers to a class and talking about the ideas Barry is clearly obsessed with.

The ultimate proof of my identity and my eternal fate -- to be a process person -- is this blog itself. Writing every day isn't about what I write. If it were, I would stop once I'd written it. No, its wheels-within-wheels, windmills-of-my-mind nature screams "process." There's nowhere to get to, no answer, no finish line. Just the next day and the next building block of what to a product person can only be a folly, an endlessly morphing Xanadu.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Ravelympics continues to devour my free time, and there's an update (on the actual knitting, for a change) in today's post over at Toxophily.

Meanwhile, Cady Gray has decided to become a math genius like her brother. She demands multiplication problems from us, then laboriously (but with astounding accuracy) figures them out with a combination of counting on her fingers, skip counting and adding when she gets past her memorization zone, and somehow remembering where she is the whole time.

Tonight at dinner she boasted that she could add 24+4 (a relatively straightforward one). "28!" she announced. "How do you know that?" I demanded. "My brain is connecting to my smarties," she explained. Then, in a dramatic whisper: "It's connecting right now!"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All new

For the last several days, leading up to her fourth birthday party this weekend, Cady Gray has been telling me that she is "improved." This morning she told us exactly how.

Improvement Rule Number 1: "Not crying."

Improvement Rule Number 2: "Helping."

Improvement Rule Number 3: "Not climbing on things that are not supposed to be climbed on."

Improvement Rule Number 4: "Loving."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Military smokescreen

In today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Letter Of The Week!, the most charitable interpretation one could make is that Olen Grant of Hot Springs is trying to argue that John McCain, being ex-military, is best qualified to lead the country in a time of war. But on the off chance that charitable interpretation isn't merited, I must say that the copy editor was quite astute to give this letter the headline "White men only, please."
It’s really sad, and I hate to say it, but our Founding Fathers were not perfect and therefore did not create a perfect political system.

What they did do is lock us into an iron-bound document of stagnation. Though it freezes us in time, it does not prevent change—the wrong kind of change. If we would take the path left open to us, we would amend the document when it becomes necessary. Congress needs more leeway, more power.

Never in our history has this need been greater. Napoleon created in his world the fear of military rule, that it couldn’t be trusted with political power. But war calls for military thinking if we are to continue to let wars settle all of our disagreements with our neighbors.

To settle the question of who should be the commander-in-chief in time of war, it would seem fitting that the leader of our armed forces should take responsibility for making military decisions. As for fear of a junta by the military, that may be justified if it is all professional. But in World War II at least 75 percent were street lads, and I can assure you that their only desire was to exit it as soon as possible and get back on the streets once more.

I shudder to think that the recently liberated female or freed slave as civilian president would one day command our military. Can they be trusted?

Hot Springs

Monday, August 11, 2008

Under neat that

I know I'm late to the Cake Wrecks train. But c'mon ... Cake Wrecks! As funny as I thought the fireman-with-dripping-hose "Good luck in China" cake was before, when I read the story of its creation and unfortunate coloration, I was shaking with silent, helpless laughter -- sadly, all alone while Noel and the kids went to the grocery store.

Remember, all cakes were bought from actual professional purveyors of cakes.

If you are not sick to death of me yammering on about the Ravelympics changing lives, hearts, and minds, then today's real post is over here at Toxophily.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Imagine all the people

Today's post, marking another knitting milestone crossed, is at Toxophily.

This morning at church I went to get Cady Gray from the nursery when it was time for Eucharist. We came back into the sanctuary as the congregation was saying the Lord's Prayer, and I set her down beside me with a doodle card and a black pen. She immediately set to writing. "I ... LOVE ..."

I watched her with benevolent pride, looking forward to a nice souvenir commemorating the special bond between a mother and a daughter. Then she leaned over to me, just as the church went quiet while the acolytes and deacons received the elements, and in a stage whisper audible for several rows in either direction, asked urgently:

"Hey Mom! How do you spell everybody?"

(I helped her with "every," but then she took over: "Now buddy!" she announced.)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

And she's always gone too long

Our long Conwegian nightmare is over. Noel and the kids returned just in time for dinner tonight.

And just in time for my reverse psychology trick to stop working, too. When I told Cady Gray that I missed her because I didn't have anybody to read to me, she replied helpfully, "Well, you should have just read to yourself."

I stayed up until after midnight watching the opening ceremonies from Beijing, delayed on TiVo since I had to be at summer commencement until about 8:30 pm. Even Noel, who notoriously hates the empty pageantry of the opening ceremonies, was astounded at the spectacle of such technology, human precision, and imagination. I thought that the massive event unfolded more like a personal statement than any other such ceremony I'd witnessed.

Kudos to NBC for its addition of an articulate, informative Chinese cultural commentator to its broadcast last night. It was so refreshing to feel like you were getting insights -- almost like a expert commentary track to the opening ceremonies -- rather than listening to morning show hosts read off a script. And of course, it will take an Olympiad at least for cineastes to recover from the world-turned-upside oddness of 30 million Americans hearing the name Zhang Yimou repeated twenty times an hour throughout prime time. Go rent To Live, people!

Friday, August 8, 2008

I'm having fun, sweetie

When you need to give Cady Gray news that might not be welcome -- say, that she's going to Nashville without Mommy -- here's a surefire way to get her on your side: Put yourself pre-emptively on hers.

CG has a hair-trigger mothering instinct. Suggest that something is making you sad or afraid, and she is by your side instantly to tell you it's okay. When her cousins were here Monday night, she proudly sat on the side of her bed with a book to read to them, patiently waiting for them to pay attention to her as they played with dolls on the floor.

So when I told her that she was going to see Grandma and Grandpa with Dad and Archer while Mom stayed at home, I ended with: "And I'm going to miss you so much." She immediately tucked her chin under, pulled me down to her level and began patting me on the shoulder. "Mom, I want you to make a promise," she said, "that you will have fun while I'm gone. You have to promise to play some computer games and have fun."

That's why I'm ditching this blog for I made a promise, after all.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ravelympian oath

Today's post, anticipating the torch lighting ceremony of Ravelympics 2008, is at Toxophily.

What does a temporarily single woman do in Conway, Arkansas? Glad you asked:
  • works until after 5 pm
  • has sushi for lunch
  • has a peanut butter sandwich for dinner
  • contemplates her colorwork mitts fearfully
  • enjoys the first rain in weeks

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The single life

Noel and the kids took off this morning for Nashville to visit Grandma Libby and Grandpa Alex. I was originally supposed to go with them, but my boss needed to go out of town this weekend for a family matter and I was needed to take his place on the podium at the summer commencement ceremony.

So here I am with four days of singlehood. And I can't help but remember the long years of singlehood after college, when I lived in apartments alone. I enjoyed being in control of my destiny. I liked my self-concocted routine. I felt comfortable being accountable for my time to myself and no one else, at least during my off hours.

It's been more than a decade since I've lived that way, though. Marriage, initially, is almost like living alone -- just with two people. By that I mean that as a couple you are in control of your destiny, as a couple you have a self-concocted routine, as a couple you are accountable for your time to yourself and no one else. As long as you reach agreement on those matters, you live life independent of alien agendas.

Almost seven years of parenthood, however, have put me in a psychic place far, far away from that lifestyle. Being a parent is the opposite of being accountable to an authority figure like a parent; power to set the rules is beside the point, because the responsibility flows from the weakness and vulnerability of the other party. One quickly adapts to being tied down to other people, with only stolen hours of respite -- a night out, a getaway when the grandparents are visiting, etc.

When my boss initially asked if I could take his place, I thought of the option of sending Noel to Nashville alone. It had its attractions: several days to myself to get work done and to enjoy leisure time, just two weeks before the start of classes. But I didn't feel like I could ask him to take on that burden of solo parenting and travel when we had confidently planned to go as a family. So I didn't even mention it. Instead I presented the option of delaying the trip by a few days, until after commencement. That didn't work for him because of his writing schedule, which he'd already juggled to fit the original dates. "Why don't I take them by myself?" he suggested.

He may be regretting that offer now, as he tries to squeeze into his visit the hours of concentrated work he's going to need to meet his professional commitments, all the while parenting two kids. The grandparents provide backup, but not at the same level as a spouse; foisting the kids off on them while begging for time to work is a bit harder when they are your hosts, hoping to have fun with the grandchildren but not be overburdened with them.

And I was regretting the offer, too, at 8 this morning when they drove away with what seemed like far too little fuss or preparation. Toss some clothes in a bag, make sure their backpacks have crayons and stuffed animals, and then suddenly, without any buildup, they're receding southward, out of my control. I was briefly convinced that I'd made a major mistake -- the loneliness that hit me was like a battering ram. That tiny car, those little people in the back -- how could I let them go?

Yet even as I composed myself, went on about my day, and started to revisit the rhythms of the single life, they still have a hold on me. They've given me four days -- a gift of time. I have to use it to make progress on important work, to indulge in recreation, to revitalize and prepare myself for the coming academic year, to organize their birthday party next weekend, to buy their school supplies and plot a course through the various decisions we've been putting off.

By Saturday evening when they're scheduled to return, I'll be desperate for their presence. (I'm desperate for it now, but the tasks ahead of me, both pleasurable and dutiful, are covering up the ache.) Meanwhile, I'll be taking a vacation in Single Town.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

On the verge

It's been several weeks since our last rain, and the heat here has been near or over 100 degrees with high humidity since the last week of July. Yet on Sunday, a gusty wind seemed to push the moisture out the air, leaving behind only the baking sunlight.

Today as I was walking home from the gym, I turned the corner into our neighborhood and glanced up at the sky. Between the overarching trees I could glimpse a startlingly deep blue, cloudless expanse. It was a rich color that I associate with the weather turning colder.

Under the shade trees, the temperature was perfect. In the midst of the summer's worst heat, I could almost taste the approaching autumn. It's less than two weeks until students arrive on campus. It will be months before even a light sweater is needed in the dead of night. But fall is coming nonetheless, and even the dog days of August can't hide it forever.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Skip Caray, 1939-2008

Skip Caray has been a part of my life ever since Braves baseball has been a part of my life. Baseball wasn't my favorite sport growing up -- that would be NCAA basketball and football -- but it wasn't long into my adulthood before I embraced America's greatest contribution to the world of sport.

We were always Braves fans in Chattanooga -- hey, it was either that or the Cincinnati Reds, and Atlanta was closer. When I moved to Athens Gee-Ay in the late eighties, the last vestiges of the early eighties contenders had faded and the Atlanta dynasty was almost in place. We were all crazy for Braves baseball, crazy for the Olympics, crazy for the Atlanta renaissance that put the town on the map at the end of the twentieth century.

Skip's old-fashioned, slightly twisted, highly idiosyncratic radio calls took me through many a long road trip. I fell asleep to his voice whenever the Braves were on the West Coast. And thanks to TBS, I got him on TV too. For years the broadcasting teams would switch after four and a half innings -- the pair that started on TV moving to radio, and vice versa. It wasn't unusual for me to turn off the sound on the TV and follow Skip over to radio after half the game.

His immortal call of Francisco Cabrera's game-winning single and Sid Bream's lumbering trip home from second in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Pirates in 1992 -- "Here comes Bream! Here's the play at the plate! He is -- safe! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win! Braves win!" -- was my System 7 startup sound for years afterward.

I was sad when Skip began to have less of a presence in my life and my continued Braves fandom, thanks to a move away from TBS broadcasting the Braves. I'm devastated that I'll never here him call a game again. Rest in peace.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

It's finally time for that talk

Today's post, about hats times two, is at Toxophily (again).

I took the kids to Playworld today for an afternoon of climbing through the maze. After Archer went with Cady Gray through the maze a couple of times, they split up, and Cady Gray found gainful employment guiding a little girl named Brooklyn, who was scared to enter at first. Archer spent about half of the visit perched near the barrier separating the maze area from the arcade ticket redemption area, watching the automatic ticket counter gobble up long streamers of tickets, the numbers clicking over on the display. I got him to race through the maze three times more by encouraging him to time himself on his wrist watch ("My watch can be a chronograph," he announced to a father helping his toddler son get up onto the climbing nets). His times: 2:27, 2:08, 1:57.

Then came the requisite air hockey game, where occasionally Archer gets mesmerized by the digital score display but mostly demonstrates the best hand-eye coordination I've ever seen from him -- nobody would know, watching him play, that he wasn't an absolutely normal six-year-old. Score: Archer (Visitor) 7, Cady Gray (Home) 2. Before going home, we waited by the snack counter for the free small cheese pizza that we got for two paid maze admissions. Cady Gray perched on my lap. "Hey Mom," she said, "Archer can't hardly look at me." "I know, honey," I said. "He is nice to me but he can't look at me," she repeated.

"That's because his mind works differently from ours, sweetie," I said. "I'll give you a book about it that will explain how Archer's mind is special."

Noel and I were just talking earlier this week about how the day was going to come when we'd have to try to explain Archer's autism to Cady Gray. Looks like it's here.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Charity appeal

Today's post, an opportunity to support a worthy cause, is at Toxophily.

I took Cady Gray out this afternoon to pick up another couple of fuse bead kits from Hobby Lobby, and after doing all the wandering around and aimless shopping we could, we went to a nearby McDonald's for a hot fudge sundae. Then I watched for about half an hour as she carefully sorted the bricks on the restaurant's Lego table by color. A trio of moms with about six kids among them came in and were having ice cream and yogurt treats, and three or four of the kids joined Cady Gray at play.

As for me, I sat nursing my precious weekend Diet Coke and gazing at the tousled curl of Cady Gray's ponytail as she knelt on a chair with her back to me, intent on the Legos. It's that careless, unplanned beauty of children that pierces me to the soul. And it's why I have this picture, from our Christmas trip to the Georgia beaches, as my desktop image:

Friday, August 1, 2008

2 cool 2 be 4 gotten

Even though I haven't yet mustered up the courage to read my teenage diaries (maybe while Noel and the kids are out of town next week?), I continue to think about my dreadfully naive, self-conscious teenage self.

I was reminded recently of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks by two things: (1) Miss American Pie, which features at least one diary entry where Margaret Sartor reports what various people wrote in her yearbook; and (2) the Comics Panel's review of Alex Robinson's latest graphic novel, Too Cool To Be Forgotten -- the title being both a stereotypical yearbook inscription and a reference to Kool cigarettes.

After my senior year of high school, I frequently hauled out that year's annual and reveled in the notes my classmates had written me. I was never a popular girl, but I found my niche that year by expanding my circle of geek friends out into the theater and reject -- and to some extent, rebel -- communities. To me it seemed that the endpapers of that book recorded the highwater-mark of my standing among my peers. (It was also the coolest yearbook design I could remember, with the little black ribbon we all had to wear on our school uniforms actually threaded through holes in the front cover and tied in a bow.)

What I can't remember is what I wrote in anybody else's yearbook, although the terrible pressure to pen something memorable and impressive is seared into my emotional memory. I wish I could collect those books from my friends and see what I thought counted as memorable and impressive back then.

Did you have a standard yearbook inscription? Do you remember what other people wrote to you? And how did you feel about that particular high school tradition?