Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Archies 2008: Third Annual This-Thing-Ain't-Going-Away Edition

See here for an explanation and instructions. Previous editions: 2006, 2007. Remember: Much like Time Magazine's "Man Of The Year," these need not be your favorite things in the world, only the top things in the world. Play along at your own site or in the comments, anytime through the month of January.

The Archies: The Top 57 Things In The World, 2008

1. Puffs Plus Lotion with the scent of Vicks
2. Spray-on sunblock
3. Sigg water bottles
4. Flip Mino
5. MacBook Air
6. Howlin' Tornado
7. The Kindle
8. Project Gutenberg
9. Hostess powdered donettes
10. Our new provost
11. Twitter
12. "The Grooviest Girl In The World" by The Fun and Games
13. Chuck Klosterman
14. Ravelry
15. Nalu mitts
16. Luau Lounge Friday night chats on Lingr
17. ZenPages
18. Existential-hayalogical theism
19. Phil Frana
20. Starbucks shaken iced tea (black, unsweetened)
21. Icebreakers Ice Cubes
22. My Antonia
23. The Welcome Wagon
24. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
25. The Condition
26. President-Elect Barack Obama
27. The American electorate
28. Early voting
29. Popless
30. The New Adventures Of Old Christine
31. I Bet You on DVD
32. The Small Back Room
33. Ice Road Truckers
34. Eloise
35. Debbie Bliss Cashmerino Aran
36. Nicole Kidman singing "Somewhere Under the Rainbow" in Australia
37. Ruby Tuesday Conway's private club license
38. Trism
39. Skitch
40. Malabrigo
41. The Red Scarf Project
42. Our new garage door opener
43. Klezmer music
44. The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino
45. Penn & Teller
46. ABC3D
47. Harper's Index
48. The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest
49. Paul Krugman
50. Moo mini-cards
51. Kirby's Pinball Land
52. Slouchy hats
53. Pocket Mod
54. University of Aarhus
55. Presbyopia
56. The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume 1
57. Approaching the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


My methodology for completing a 2000-3000 word entry on "Devil films" in 17 days:
  1. Get an e-mail from the editor soliciting authors for some last-minute entries.
  2. Think to self: "Self, writing about movies featuring the devil sounds fun! Having already done entry on Antichrist, how hard can it be?"
  3. Write back to editor offering to write entry.
  4. By reply e-mail, find out the word count. Realize that you have volunteered to write a five-page paper on the subject.
  5. Hoping to motivate self not to let project drag into next semester, and not wanting to tempt editor to assign an early deadline by suggesting something months from now, e-mail back offering to submit entry by Dec. 30.
  6. Let project lie fallow until Christmas.
  7. Spend a day researching early history of devil in film, movies where souls are sold. Make exhaustive list of seventies horror films involving Satanism.
  8. Spend two afternoons writing one- and two-sentence descriptions of the films research turned up.
  9. Spend an afternoon grouping sentences into thematic clusters and writing introductory, concluding, topic, and transition material in order to turn those groups into an essay.
  10. Count words -- approximately 2250. Rejoice.
  11. Send off to editor late on Dec. 30.
  12. Feel a sense of unrenumerated accomplishment along with a rather sudden expertise in Satanic cinema.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Simple logic

Today's post, about plans to knit within my means, is at Toxophily.

While driving with the kids a few days before Christmas ...

CG: Mom, I'm glad that nobody else lives at the North Pole except Santa Claus.
Me: What about Mrs. Claus? Doesn't Santa get lonely?
CG: (exasperated) He has the elves!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hollywood on Parade!

I don't flip through Parade magazine, the Sunday supplement that claims a readership of 71 million (making it the most widely read magazine in the country), as often as I used to back when my Sundays were more leisurely and kid-free. But I still take a perverse interest in Walter Scott's Personality Parade, the Page 2 gossip column where (supposed) readers write in with their burning celebrity questions.

"Supposed," because it's difficult to imagine what ordinary citizen would come up with a question like this:
Is Colt McCoy, star quarterback of the Texas Longhorns, related to the McCoy Family Singers? -- Billy Joe Oliver, Temple, Tex.
Is Regional-Celebrity related to Family-of-Regional-Celebrities? Just the thing for my national column! Of course, nobody who cared about the regional celebrities in question would ever write to Parade to find out the answer. It seems far more likely that the McCoy Family Singers' hardworking publicist planted the item. Witness the suspicious facility with which "Walter Scott" (actually conservative author Edward Klein, who frequently issues schoolmarmish quasi-political scoldings in his answers) is able to reach the McCoy patriarch and get a quote:
"Our kids and grandkids all sing well," says Burt McCoy, Colt's granddad ... "Since Colt was a child, he's sung in our summer concerts."
I picture Klein sitting in a corner booth in Hollywood, hounded by dozens of hungry press agents. Every once in a while some enterprising Tony Curtisesque youngster manages to get an item about a quarterback or a folksy family group (or both!) in his influential column. ("Hm, who would care about this question other than the McCoy who signs my checks? Probably somebody from Texas ... what kind of names do those rubes have? I've got it -- Billy Joe! Falco, you've done it again, you smooth PR devil!")

Isn't it wonderful to know that the days of Sweet Smell of Success still live on in middle America's favorite Sunday timewaster, next to the Claritan ads and just a few pages away from Howard Huge?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Come on, 2009

In the dead days between Christmas and New Year's, a person's fancy turns lightly to consideration of the past year. There are a lot of folks out there who are thrilled to see the end of 2008, and although the economy has not affected us and we've been spared health problems or natural disasters, I can't help but look forward to the new year with as much anticipation as I can ever remember.

My university went through a traumatic scandal involving the president and the board of trustees just as the fall semester began. Although our interim president and new provost are steadfast in urging us to look forward, not back, the pain isn't over yet, since suspicion naturally swirls around the search process for a new president. Financial woes have hit the institution that, sadly, have nothing to do with the recession -- they're entirely the fault of lack of discipline and transparency, leaving us in a multi-million dollar hole.

The anxiety of the presidential race took its toll on me for most of the summer and fall. I refused to watch debates or other coverage, having made up my mind beyond the slightest doubt sometime last year, and dreading what felt like inevitable mistakes, gaffes, pandering, and boneheaded strategizing.

Yet like much of the country, I'm sure, it felt to me like 2009 actually began at about 10 pm Central time November 4, when the stars (many of them negative, it must be said) aligned to produce the election of Barack Obama. And like much of the country, probably, I still shock myself with the realization that it actually happened -- that a black man with a foreign name could be accepted by a majority of the electorate.

Nobody expects the world to change instantly on January 20, 2009. It's going to be a long road to good times, and the presidency in this election cycle seems like something of a booby prize. But something did change instantly on November 4 -- the world's perception and our own realization of what America could choose to do and be -- and what we look forward to in 2009 is the culmination of that story. And if others are anything like me, we're also looking forward to bold action, shared sacrifice, and getting down to work at last.

Friday, December 26, 2008

One way of looking at it

A message from Archer, discovered on the refrigerator advent magnet moments ago:

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thoughts on Christmas Day

  • Last night's midnight service was truly stunning. The daughter of the choir director, who is studying opera, made chills run up and down my spine with her rendition of a German lieder (accompanied by her brother on oboe) and her duet with her father on "O Holy Night." And the handbell choir came through. We were awesome!

  • Checking Ravelry this morning after the presents were opened, I was struck by the forceful memory of last Christmas, when Noel and I escaped to the St. Simons Island Starbucks in the afternoon and soaked in the internet access. I thought I was really behind when I welcomed 40 or so newbies to Ravelry that day, after several days out of contact; now I regularly welcome that many if I go a single day without making the rounds.

  • Christmas crafting presents an unexpected dilemma. I made four scarves, four pairs of fingerless mitts, one mug cozy, one wrist bag, and one cowl as gifts, and that's taken just about all my spare time for the last six weeks. (Details on all of them in this Toxophily post.) Now that it's all done, I find myself at a loss figuring out what to make for myself.

  • My relations showered me with wonderful items from my wishlist, including several books I've been looking forward to reading. I suppose it's not surprising, however, that no one took the option that I presented as my number one request: gift certificates. I know that I rarely give them because they feel like such a copout. But in my case, an Amazon gift card is the only way someone can give me content for my Kindle, which was my aim in asking. Ah well -- with all the stories from the recent Culture11 rundown of the year's best journalism loaded on there as of yesterday, I'm not hurting for reading material by any stretch of the imagination. Hm ... must check to see if any of the Best American series is available. A little Glenn Stout would be most welcome in the new year.

  • Cady Gray enjoyed her first haircut on Christmas eve eve. It's amazing how an actual hairdo, even the simplest kind, makes a child appear instantly more grown up. Evidence below.

Before ...

... and after.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

To see if reindeer really know how to fly

The in-laws have arrived, and suddenly the number of presents under our little tree has ballooned to three times the number we saw this morning. At the moment, everyone is off at the church Christmas pageant. I've stayed behind to clean up dinner and get ready for the handbell choir's performance at midnight services later.

Just an hour ago, the UPS man showed up with the last present on our list. Tomorrow when the kids enter the front room, they'll see a tabletop pinball machine that Santa brought just for them.

Cady Gray has informed me that Santa likes chocolate milk with his cookies. Archer believes he has seven presents, although since the arrival of gifts with Noel's family this afternoon, that number has surely doubled.

Lights twinkle around the bay window where our tree stands, reflecting off the gilt ribbon and shiny paper on the packages. Outside darkness is quickly falling, and when I leave to go to church we will be deep in the hushed stillness of Christmas eve, "when half-spent was the night."

Archer has handwritten a note and placed it on top of one of his presents. It says, "Do not open 'till Christmas Day!" Tomorrow we look forward to their delight and hope to forge lasting memories, and perhaps there will be a few surprises for us, too. I'm grateful that in this bleak, anxious year, we are home, warm and safe, with plenty to eat and drink, beautiful children who astound us daily, the chance to give and receive in proportion to our blessings, and unexpected hope for the future.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

From the mint to your pocket

Archer was telling us a story a couple of days ago about the journey of a coin, based on a book he had read at school.  

I suggested that he might want to write and draw an 8-page version, and I printed him a Pocket Mod of storyboard pages.  Here's what he made.

Follow The Money!

I got stamped out. Then I fell. I was in a bag.

I said "Let go!" I got took in a cash register!
A lady took me to her house.

I got dropped in a vending machine!
A woman calculated us and got $3.92.

I was in that $3.92!
I finally had some friends.

I was also with a 50¢ and $1.00 (or 100¢) coin.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The weather inside is frightful

Noel realized this afternoon that our furnace wasn't actually heating. He realized this when he looked at the thermostat and it read 60 degrees.

The heat-n-air guys have been here, and diagnosed a broken ignition unit. Because our furnace is ancient, they couldn't come up with one today, so they'll be back tomorrow morning to fix it.

The funny thing is that I think the heat has actually been off for a couple of days. Yesterday I was passing the furnace enclosure and felt a cold spot on the carpet. I stopped and felt around, and realized that cold air was blasting out of the vent. Now because what I was worried about was leakage (we've had plenty of leaks from that enclosure, related to the condensation outlet), and my feeling-around confirmed that the carpet was dry, I actually didn't give that cold air much thought. "Hm, maybe cold air comes out here, but hot air comes out of the ceiling vents!" I surmised with absolutely no reason, and went on my merry way.

Of course, now that I know the heat is off, the house does feel chilly, whereas yesterday it felt normal. But in at least 24 hours (maybe more) of no heat, the temperature in here has only dropped five or six degrees. (I credit the replacement windows we got a couple of years ago -- can't even imagine how quickly the house would be turned into an icicle with the drafty numbers that were here before.) And these are some of the coldest days we've had -- the temperature outside when we woke up this morning was 13. So if we've held onto the heat this well so far, we probably won't drop down below 50 tonight, I'm hoping.

Meanwhile, I fired up the gas logs for the first time in a couple of years, and at least the living room is snug. We've got plenty of comforters to pile up on the kids' beds. But I hope our no-heat adventure ends with a whimper tomorrow morning.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Love's pure light

When asked about their favorite Christmas songs, most people I know don't give the old standards much love. We all enjoy singing "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" and "Joy to the World," but our favorites are likely to be the ones we hear more seldom -- the ones that have the power to impress themselves upon us by means of unfamiliarity. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," with its minor modality, and "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming," with its unusual rhythms and gentle descent, are frequently mentioned. (The latter is my dad's favorite carol.)

But for all the pleasures of these tunes and their poetic lyrics, I think that "Silent Night" might be one of the most beautiful songs ever written. And it's our good fortune to be able to sing it every year. Its hushed quality means that one sings it in a fragile quaver that enhances the message. Its simplicity makes it accessible to everyone, and removes the barrier that medieval or Victorian flourishes, as much as we treasure them, place between us and the gospel.

Sung slowly, sung by candlelight, sung with minimal accompaniment or a capella -- everyone knows instinctively that this is the only way to experience "Silent Night." You rarely hear it put to a swingin' beat, subjected to crescendo or climactic arrangements, tarted up or modernized. It resists innovation, yet remains eternally fresh -- able to move us to the deepest emotion every time we encounter it. It's the one song that we have to sing, every Christmas. It's mandatory, not optional. It wouldn't be Christmas without it.

How lucky we are, then, that it is perfect in every way.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

No matter how far away you roam

A few home-baked goodies for the holidays:
  • Perpetuating an insidious stereotype, this three-in-a-row yarn ball game is at the AARP website.

  • Cady Gray has been wearing a deeley-bopper with two Santa faces on the antennae. I find the dual bobbing Santa heads very disturbing, as if Santa were suddenly identical twins, or perhaps if I were having the DTs at Christmastime.

  • Here's Archer's homework meditation on the sentence; "Home is where the heart is even for Archer."
My house is made a "home" 'cause that's where I live. Also I collect stickers there. I keep track of the good as golds from 2nd Grade on my dry erase board. I play in my room if needed. I really think my house is a home.

On the back he drew a map of the house and icons of its inhabitants -- Cady Gray and Archer with big smiles and speech balloons stating their ages.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A holiday letter

Here's a worksheet Archer brought home from his last day of school today. Instructions and provided model are in italics. I enjoy the air of authority, simultaneous with a spirit of self-criticism, exhibited here.

Pretend you are Santa Claus. Write a letter to Happy Elf.
Dear Santa,

I would like to work at the North Pole. I am too young to build toys. But I would be very good at testing them. May I come work for you?

Your friend,
Happy Elf

Dear Happy Elf,

Congrats! You have a chance to win the Toy-Making Award! You may test them out.

Your friend,
Santa Archer

Brainwork! Read your letter to a friend. Find two ways to make your letter better.

Describe. Put in excitement.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The admin gene

When I entered academia, I had no ambition to become an administrator. I wanted to teach, having found out that I was good at it and that it fired me up. When my boss asked me to take on an administrative role, I was skeptical about his judgment. What made him think I would be good at it, or enjoy it?

I've come to appreciate his discernment, however, because he was right. I don't know if I'm particularly good at the job, but there are aspects of it that fire me up. Here's a handy checklist; if you answer yes to more of these questions than not, you too might be cut out for administration.

  1. Do you like being an insider -- knowing everything that's going on?
  2. When some injustice or misfortune occurs in your workspace, is your first response to think of a policy that could prevent similar problems in the future?
  3. Do you enjoy crafting precise language that encapsulates a process thoroughly?
  4. Are you alert to the balance of sympathy and justice in your dealings with other peopel?
  5. Are you comfortable with sharing the spotlight?
  6. Do you move easily from considering fine detail to constructing large-scale enterprises?
  7. Do you love to bring things into being -- are you a builder by nature?
  8. Can you criticize yourself before anyone else has a chance to criticize you?
  9. When you make a hard decision, can you stick to it in the face of blowback?
  10. When you're wrong, can you admit it and change course?
  11. Can you share confidences without indulging in gossip?

I don't meet all these criteria by any means, but as I do the job and watch people who are much better than me do the job, I can see that this is what it takes. I suppose the real measure of my aptitude for adminstration is that even the things on the list that I'm not good at, I take joy and pleasure in being a part of.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A life in public

I got a message from a colleague today on Facebook, in response to one of my status updates. I've integrated my Facebook status with Twitter using an app called Tweeter (the actual Twitter app on Facebook doesn't appear to be entirely reliable). So my Facebook statuses always begin with "Donna tweets:" and then the message.

My colleague asked whether I actually found Twitter useful. It's a timely question, because the way I use Twitter, Facebook, Plurk, and other social networking services has evolved since I wrote about their profusion in my life a few weeks ago.

My students are all on Facebook. On Facebook, status updates are a must, because they show up in your friends' minifeeds, and your friends are reassured that you are around and active. I need to be active on Facebook so that my students can contact me there. I need to be there, and be social there, in order to be part of their lives. The key to effective teaching and mentoring is proximity -- and Facebook gives me proximity, so long as I regularly update and therefore appear on my students' pages.

I resisted Twitter for a long time because (a) it seemed redundant since I was already posting statuses on Facebook, and (b) I didn't know why or to whom I was broadcasting my status on Twitter. I have a reason to be active on Facebook, one related to my job. I have a reason to be active on my blog, one related to my personal goals. Why did I need to be active on Twitter?

Thanks to Noel's entrance into Twitter, which allowed me to piggyback off his following list and add a bunch of far-flung friends, acquaintances, and people I admire, the purpose of Twitter has suddenly become clear to me. Twitter is micro-blogging in a social context. It's the place where the dozens of daily thoughts or happenings that are too minor for a blog post, but that nevertheless are worth communicating, can go. And it's where you stay within the orbit of people in whom you are truly interested. The trick to Twitter is to follow only people whose lives you actually want to keep up with -- because you know them, because they lead interesting lives, because they have something to say that you want to hear. And the trick to twittering is that you aren't doing it for yourself -- you're doing it to be a part of the lives of the people who follow you. Presumably they are following you because they're interested in you. Unlike blogging, which I would argue you do primarily for yourself, with an audience as motivation rather than reason, I believe that you don't twitter for yourself, but for your network. It's freeform communication, an ever-reconfiguring cocktail party where you can wander from conversation to conversation, but where you have an obligation to contribute appropriately -- to be interesting, but not overpowering.

And now that my administrative colleagues have joined Plurk, I'm even starting to make use of it in the way I had hoped to do. I listen in (and sometimes comment) on friends' Plurks, but if I used it for status updates or even link sharing, it would be redundant -- I'm already doing that on Twitter. Instead, I can use the time-stamp and private plurk functions -- not part of the Twitter concept -- to keep notes on decisions made and official activities undertaken. It's a notepad where I jot down what I told a student in an advising session, or what we decided to do about a certain policy in an ad hoc meeting. Since it's searchable, I can quickly find plurks I posted about any given student or any given topic, a must for retrieving records of the hundreds of minor decisions we make every week. What did I tell Student X about her scholarship? Did I promise Student Y he could come back into the program? What did we decide about students taking classes for grade forgiveness? Being able to private-plurk a timeline of decision points means a record that can actually be useful, because I'm living in it continually.

Having a bunch of memberships in sites that ask you to be active by posting what you're up to -- that feels like an obligation, a burden, and if you don't know who you're doing it for or why you're doing it (other than that everyone else seems to be), it won't be useful. Now that some of those questions of why and wherefore and who-for have been sorted out for me, I feel a sense of purpose and value in twittering, plurking, and facebooking.

(Kwipping, though? Haven't quite figured that one out.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frozen solid

Central Arkansas is in a deep freeze today, with a couple of inches of solid ice -- packed sleet and frozen rain -- on all the roadways.

After Noel called to report that his flight to Little Rock had been canceled last night, I was somewhat relieved. Today, I though, would be a better day for driving the 40 miles from the airport to the house.

Was I ever wrong. Noel landed at 10 am, and was in the car by 10:15 am. At 3 pm, he pulled into the driveway. In between he spent over an hour stopped on I-40 while a huge accident that closed both directions of the freeway was cleared away, then more hours creeping along at five mph.

In our relief over his being home safe and sound, and in the absence of anything exciting to eat in the house and any desire on either of our parts to cook, we decided to venture out to our favorite Mexican place for dinner. I started reconsidering the wisdom of that decision about a quarter mile from the house, by the university on a gentle decline, when the car started sliding. Thank goodness for Subaru all-wheel-drive -- the wheels caught before we hit the curb. But just like the Wise Men, after dinner we returned home by another way.

School is canceled again for Archer tomorrow. The crucial admissions and retention decisions that my colleagues and I were supposed to make today will be made tomorrow, since they can't wait any longer, and I just hope that enough of us will be there to make them. For now, I'm thrilled to have the whole family together again and to be inside and warm.

Monday, December 15, 2008

That's why they call it Christmas

Today's post is at Toxophily.

Family status: Still down one dad (in Chicago, maybe coming to Arkansas tonight). Snow and sleet coating the ground. Everything canceled. Let's just reboot tomorrow, shall we?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A tale told by foam

The kids spent a quiet hour this afternoon putting foam Christmas stickers on frames. I let them have free rein to make whatever designs they wanted.

Cady Gray told a strange story, in which I was somehow implicated:

I don't know who these people are:

But I like her invention of a holiday treat perfect for our coming underwater lifestyle -- or is it a new physical therapy tool?

Archer spelled QUEEN and JUMP on his first two frames (not pictured). His work became progressively more cryptic, however. He told me that this acronym stood for "Race Be Void So Don't Over-race."

And finally, a frame that eloquently conveys his attitude toward the whole project:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday in list form

  1. 8:15 am: Noel leaves for the Little Rock airport. His flight doesn't leave until noon, but he's anxious to enjoy free wi-fi and a beer with lunch without being interrupted to find a magnadoodle. I can't blame him.
  2. 9:45 am: The kids and I go to the library for new books and storytime. There is only one other child a storytime, a girl whose mother has disappeared for the duration. The kids sing "Jingle Bells" while accompanying themselves on actual jingling bells. Space Case makes his second yearly holiday appearance, much to my delight. Full disclosure: I frequently whisper "The location of my origin is outer space" to myself.
  3. 10:45 am: Off to lunch at Chili's, as per Saturday ritual. Cady Gray insists on ordering cheese pizza.
  4. 12:20 pm: While the kids have rest time in their rooms, I watch two episodes of Rehab: Party at the Hard Rock Hotel that have been cluttering up the TiVo for quite a while. The girls who wanted Ja Rule to pay for their bar bill were real pieces of work. So were the couple who claimed they had been told the $200 beverage minimum at their cabana was actually a $200 all-you-can-eat-and-drink "inclusive" deal, and refused to pay their (comparatively meager) $500 tab.
  5. 2:15 pm: Off to Target with the kids to buy stocking stuffers and angel tree gifts. The place was bursting at the seams with dead-eyed shoppers. I didn't have much fun purchasing travel-sized toiletries and post-it notes (our motto: only useful stuffers this year, no cheap plastic crap bought just for the heck of it) because I was constantly worried that I'd get separated from the kids in the unprecedented crush. There was actually a traffic jam at every entrance and exit in the parking lot.
  6. 3:20 pm: A stop at Hancock Fabrics to find some buttons for my mom's Christmas present. I told the kids to look for big ones, and they were tickled to find a display of "The Big Button" brand buttons. They kept calling me over to look at them, howling with delight.
  7. 3:45 pm: Home again. Kids watch an episode of The Price Is Right on the TiVo while I check e-mail. Then they play in the front room while I heat up vegetable and noodle soup and make peanut butter sandwiches.
  8. 5:20 pm: Because the kids have been good sports all day and because their usual Target/Starbucks cookie treat was rendered impossible by the massive crowds, we go out for a hot fudge sundae.
  9. 6:00 pm: Wheel of Fortune followed by two games each of Kirby's Pinball Land on the Super Game Boy. Archer stays on couch for the entire show, a possibly unprecedented feat. In the mail: A Lionsgate screener of W., somewhat forlorn.
  10. Later: Catching up on things Noel has already seen while he's away, Part 1: The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. And possibly Part 2: The first 80 minutes of Man On Wire.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Something for nothing

I have an aversion, instilled at some point deep in the recesses of my upbringing, against tying myself down to subscriptions or services. Monthly fees give me the willies. Debt terrifies me. I choose paying up front over paying on time for nearly everything; on our two TiVos, for example, I insisted we buy the lifetime service plan for a one-time fee rather than taking on the monthly charge. Both of our cars were bought with cash. I was taught to pay off my credit card every month, and I've never deviated from that plan, even in my leanest years. The only debt we have is our mortgage, and that will be paid off in six years.

So I tend to see products and services in terms of how much they're trying to bleed from me. I assume that everybody with something to give away is trying to sell me the razor blades, as it were.

With that in mind, one of the features of our modern age that continually delights me is free software updates. Noel just pulled out our Flip Mino to upload a bunch of videos from the past few months, and when he plugged it into his computer, he was prompted to install a new version of the software that allows you to do rudimentary editing and YouTube uploading directly from the camera. For nothing, we got new capacities -- transitions, audio controls, credits, a better uploading interface.

Free updates have become the rule rather than the exception. To me, that's an amazing fact in a world where we've been conditioned to think that nothing comes without a price.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

If it weren't for bad luck

After recovering both my lost items last week, I thought I was done with losing things -- but no. This time I don't think it's my fault, but nagging doubts remain, causing me to enter obsessive-retracing-my-steps mode yet again.

I took the kids to JumpZone this afternoon for an hour to give Noel some peace to finish up his work and make dinner. While I sat and knitted, they played happily until ten minutes before time to go, when I took them to the arcade to play their beloved air hockey.

Five minutes until dinnertime -- right on schedule -- we went to the front so they could get their shoes and coats. Shoes, no problem -- but where were their coats? Archer had been wearing his black microfiber jacket, and Cady Gray her tan corduroy jacket. I was paying at the register while they were taking them off, but Cady Gray told me they'd thrown them on the bench that sits in the middle of the check-in area. Certainly I'd seen the two of them going into the play zone, and they weren't wearing their jackets, which means they took them off and left them in the 10x10-foot area between the door and the inflatables, which is lined with cubbies and hooks.

There were few people at JumpZone, so the distribution of children's shoes, backpacks, and other paraphenalia in the space was sparse. The kids' jackets were nowhere to be seen. I asked the two workers, who had been at the register overlooking the region since we arrived, whether they'd tidied them up, seeing as the items were left on the bench instead of put away. No dice. We walked around all the other paces where they might have ended up -- stools, benches, along walls, in corners. Nothing.

I'm left with the unpleasant conclusion that somebody snatched them up while leaving with their children. There seems little chance such an action could be accidental -- the jackets were hardly generic in appearance. Did some parent or grandparent really steal my children's coats on purpose?

I gave the staff my name, phone number, and a description of the coats in case they turn up or get returned. But I'm mostly questioning myself. I know they arrived with the coats, but I don't know what happened to them afterwards. Did I look everywhere I could? Why didn't I stay in near the front desk on a stool instead of going into the play area to sit on a bench? (Answer: I thought about perching on a stool, but last time I did that, my back got tired.) Is this somehow my mistake, in a way I can't quite fathom? Because I'm having a difficult time accepting that what seems to have happened, happened; it's more conceivable to my mind that I've pulled a Donna yet again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Letter To Ben

Today Archer brought home the following assignment, titled "Writing a friendly letter." The text in italics are the instructions and provided model. I can attest to the fact that Archer's response is entirely truthful, given the repeated requests we get for next summer's vacation and the numerical reasoning behind them.

Read the letter.
Write a letter to Ben.

November 7, 2006

Dear Friend,

My family and I are on a trip in the mountains. Where would you like to go if you could take a trip? What would you do while you are there? Would you eat anything special? Would you see anything special? Write a letter to me and tell me about a trip you would like to take. I can't wait to read about it!

Your friend,



I would LIKE to go to NEW YORK CITY. I can ride up the elevator to the 102ND floor of the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. YES, I will eat AMERICAN rolls. I would see buildings out the window and kid's art at the 67TH floor.

Your friend,

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The slow spinning blue line of life

Noel has been cursed with hand-me-down computers for the last couple of years. First Archer sat on and cracked the screen of his iBook, but it seemed too soon to replace with a "real" computer, so he bought a cheap obsolescent model as a stop-gap. Then that failed (predictably), and so I upgraded to my beloved Air and gave him my white MacBook. Now the Airport card in that computer has begun to crap out, and it's not user-replaceable. (Also the bevels around the keyboard casing have been flaking off steadily for more than a year.)

So it seemed only right that he buy an actual brand-new computer. Not the latest model (unfortunately), but a upgraded black MacBook, which arrived today.

I suppose I should be able to remember from year to year how best to handle the migration to a new Mac. I've done it enough. But when Noel called this afternoon to ask if I had a FireWire or ethernet cable, I blithely assured him that there were ethernet cables in the computer-stuff box in the back. What I should have done was to tell him that I'd bring my FireWire cable from the ancient iPod I keep at work. I should have remembered how much faster a FireWire connection is than an ethernet connection.

But because I didn't, the information from his old MacBook -- its keyboard edges held together with Scotch tape -- is sloooooooooooowly transfering to his sleek new black beauty. So slowly that even as the blue line has infinitesimally moved to the right, the window still reads, just as it did when it started two hours ago, "About 18 hours 8 minutes remaining."

I remember when I had to transfer data to my Air that the same very lengthy process pertained. It was necessary because there's no FireWire port on the Air. And it got done eventually (overnight and on into the next day, as I recall). So I'm confident that the transfer will succeed, but I'm kicking myself for not remembering that there's a faster way. I know Noel is eager to use his new computer, and might even be in some need of it tomorrow before it's done. There are backups -- his iPod Touch can access the internet, and my Air is at home during the day -- but he needs his files and schedule and half-written drafts.

I suppose that as a last resort we can abort the process by disconnecting the ethernet cable, and restart it with the FireWire cable tomorrow after I retrieve it from my office. My hope is that if we leave it to churn away all night, we'll see enough progress that we can resolve to wait it out for as long as it takes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Please have snow and mistletoe

We're staying home for the holidays this year, an eventuality for which I am very thankful. Longtime readers may recall last year's travel horrors; for those with strong stomachs, the details are here and here.

So since I never want to fly anywhere at Christmastime ever again, and since my family is sympathetic enough to make that "never" equal at least one year, we're going to be in Conway. As I walked up the driveway this afternoon in the glow of the twinkly Tannenbaum lights, I thought about the pros and cons of a Christmas in our own place.

Pro: Can work on handmade gifts for immediate family right up until Christmas Eve.

Con: Most handmade gifts destined for out-of-towners; must be mailed sometime next week.

Pro: No presents to lug across the country and back.

Con: Only one big round of present-opening. (The chief consolation of Christmas travel is that you get to open all the at-home presents when you get back.)

Pro: Control over meal- and bed-times for the kids.

Con: I'll miss Mom's chocolate cake and Libby's cranberry bread.

Pro: The chance to develop Christmas traditions that fit with this house and these kids.

Con: No reliving the Christmas traditions of my upbringing with my brothers.

Pro: Midnight service at St. Peter's, complete with a performance in the handbell choir.

Pro: The airports and highways are emptier by one more family, and our stockings are hung by our very own chimney with care.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Plurking, Twittering, Gmail chatting, Facebooking, iChatting

Like most of us, the places where I'm supposed to update my status have proliferated. I can keep my tweets and Facebook statuses synced, and supposedly the same thing is available through the Plurk Facebook app, though I've never been able to get that to load.

But what I really want is a Plurk-like timeline journal where I can keep both public and private updates at once. You see, I'm on Plurk because I'm on some projects where the team uses it to keep in touch. I see the potential in the application to be something I've wanted for a long time -- a desk journal of sorts where I can jot down decisions made, people met with, outcomes of conversations -- anything I might need to look up later when people ask "what happened with that? when? who was involved?" Plurk's searchability and automatic timestreaming make it a natural for that.

However, it looks like I don't have the option to plurk something only to myself. I can either make all my plurks personal (nobody else ever sees anything I post, which removes the functionality of communicating with a team), or I can make them all available to the group (my friends or the world at large). There are "private" plurks, but they must be shared with at least one person or group. I tried to create an empty group, but Plurk wouldn't allow it. I tried to share the private plurk with my own username, but the search for me came up empty.

It seems the only way for me to have it all with Plurk is to create a second Plurk identity. I can then share my desk-diary plurks with that alter ego. The only reason I hesitate to do this is its inelegance.

Backpack now has a journal feature which seems to be more what I'm looking for (although I'd miss the wonderfully intuitive Plurk timeline). Yet I don't want to add another journaling application to my already-full journaling agenda.

Any suggestions?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

By the chimney with care

Our church held its first-ever Christmas Market today -- a fundraiser for the preschool. More than 20 vendors set up booths with handmade items. I was really just going to lend moral support to the project and to get the kids out of the house, but I ended up lugging home a lot of loot.

I can't resist cheap beaded earrings. These were $2.

Handmade notecards and a bookmark by one of our fellow parishioners.

A small book of handmade paper, perfect for stuffing into a special stocking.

Gift bags sewn up from upholstery fabric scraps. I'm keeping at least the green one for a sock project bag.

Autumnal sachets, four for $3.

And locally-produced dip mixes. Who will be lucky enough to get the habernero, I wonder?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Core competency

Today I spent the morning orienting and interviewing twenty-four students -- currently on my campus, and planning to transfer from other schools -- who hope to enter the Honors College next semester. On a day when there are no classes in preparation for finals next week, these freshmen and sophomores spent three and a half hours listening to information, absorbing an academic presentation, writing an essay, and discussing ideas in small groups.

I'm always made hopeful by admissions and recruiting. Students respond so enthusiastically and with such persistence to the promise of an academic program where they can play a central and active role. As I spoke, listened, and judged which of them fit our standards most closely, I was once again charmed and gratified by the dedication that led them to complete such an arduous process. Some of them, I could tell almost immediately, were "our kind" -- students who want to take charge of their education, who are set on fire by ideas, who need a place where they are surrounded by their true peers.

After writing detailed evaluations of the four students who participated in my seminar group, I packed up and headed over to the dorm where most of our current students live. There, as happens almost every Friday, a group of undergraduates had planned a presentation. This one happened to be the final event in a semester-long series created by a junior. Her work with Japanese students in the Intensive English Program classes on campus, combined with the coincidental scheduling of Honors and IEP classes in the same seminar rooms, gave her the idea to invite Japanese students into the Honors dorm to give presentations on Japanese life and culture, and on their perceptions of American life and culture. We provided the venue, the technology, the publicity, and some snacks. The students provided the idea and the implementation.

These presentations aren't part of any class. They're completely student-driven. And week after week, as I attend, I am more convinced that our job as educators is to provide our students with the support and resources they need to pursue their own projects. Some of that support is educational -- students need to be trained in the fields that will enable them to proceed competently. Some of it is guidance -- many students don't have a project yet, or don't know how to go about making it realizable.

But much of it is simply logistical. With students like ours, great things can happen when you provide a structure and then get out of the way. I'm starting to wonder how many other traditional activities of our program -- classes, publications, grants, co-curriculars -- would look quite different if we thought of them not as assignments or roadmaps to education, but as resource centers where students come and get what they need to advance their personal developmental agendas.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dedicated to St. Anthony

There's very little that makes me more crazy than losing things. When I lose something, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to completely suspend my life and devote all my time to finding it. Knowing that something is lost -- no, knowing that it is somewhere -- utterly consumes me. I become impossible to live with. I can't sit still. My mind keeps going over and over where it could be, reviewing all the crannies I might have missed in the places I've already looked, becoming enraged by my stupidity for losing it at all, and railing against the seeming impossibility of its disappearance. I want to enlist everyone to help look, even though they're probably less aware of the objects' possible locations than I am. But their inactivity galls me. The lost object is eating away at my soul -- can't they see that?

This week I lost two things. On Tuesday, I wore my long coat to work. In the pockets were my Amanda hat and my Dashing mitts. The pockets on this coat are shallow, so while I can stuff the hat complete inside, the mitts tend to stick out. And I often put my hand to my pocket to find them dangling dangerously close to disengagement. Sometime on Tuesday -- was it in the office? at the CIVT meeting in Harrin? on the way to the Discipline Committee meeting? -- they fell out. I checked with the main lost-and-found center on campus but they didn't have them. Convinced that I had dropped them while walking the grounds on an exceptionally busy back-and-forth-all-over day, I despaired of recovering them. It hurt to lose something I knit for myself, but at least I have other mitts in the pipeline, I thought. Of course, given my pathological obsession with what's lost, I didn't expect to retain that equanimity for long.

On Wednesday I lost the pair of child-size Nalu mitts I'm working on for Cady Gray. They were in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, sharing space in my Ravelry project tote with an Irish Hiking Scarf. I had taken the tote to the staff senate's holiday banquet at midday, knowing that I'd have time to knit on one or the other while in line, and while waiting for the program to begin after lunch. I decided on the scarf, and while we waited for the doors to open I was regaled with praise and interest from the women behind us in line. Then after eating my turkey and trimmings, I did another couple of pattern repeats before and during the door prize awards. When I pulled out the scarf to knit later that night, I was distressed to find that there was only one plastic bag in the tote. Where were the mitts-in-progress? I was somewhat sanguine about finding them on campus, because (a) there were fewer places they could be -- the banquet hall and my office chief among them (it seemed unlikely, though annoyingly still possible, that they could have falled out of the tote in transit to or from those locations); and (b) my name and e-mail was on a Pocket Mod inside the Ziploc (although I frustrated myself imagining that the person who found it wouldn't dig around in there to look).

This morning I walked to work somewhat flutter-stomached over the task of looking for the lost items. I knew I couldn't just wait for them to come to me. First, I'm constitutionally incapable of inactivity in the face of a lost item, as mentioned. Second, the mitts bag also contain a circular needle that I need for my set, a little bag full of stitch markers that I had just bought before starting them, and the Pocket Mod with my complete notes for the mitts knit at full size and the modifications I made to downsize them for a preschooler. Those might be replaceable more or less, but then there's the yarn -- in a discontinued color. All together, they seemed an irretrievable loss that was doomed to frustrate me for months before I could move on.

I walked into the office, and the secretary greeted me. My spirits fell just a bit, because I was sort of hoping she would immediately say, "Oh, somebody brought by the knitting you left at the banquet!" No such luck. But I turned to the right to enter my office, and saw on top of the little lost-and-found box my Dashing mitts. Aha! One down. Not the one I was most upset about losing, but a definite upswing in my fortunes. The secretary told me she'd found them in the stairwell.

Seconds later I entered my office and immediately looked at the chair where I habitually stack my satchel, purse, and knitting bag. Tucked just under it was a Ziploc bag, sitting upright as if somebody had propped it up to pour soup into it. Inside was the half-finished child's mitt, the needle, the markers, the notes, and the yarn.

Within 30 seconds, both lost items were found. And suddenly the weight of my own perceived incompetence lifted like a hot air balloon. I must admit that the sequential loss of the gloves and the project made me feel as if I were doomed to lose one important thing a day for the rest of my life. So their recovery put me back at even. And let me tell you -- square one never seemed so fresh and new.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Are we not men?

After a rapidfire screening schedule that included Australia, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, and Slumdog Millionaire, Noel made an observation that rings true at least at this point in the prestige movie season.

These films aren't for grownups.

Compare to last year, whose prestige slate included such thoroughly adult and morally sophisticated fare as There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. By contrast, this fall seems to be feeding us fables and fairy tales -- highly enjoyable ones, even stylistically adventurous ones. But nevertheless with the simplicity, schematic outlines, and overdetermined messages of the morality tale or the bedtime story.

Now I quite enjoyed Australia and Millionaire (I haven't seen Button). But I certainly see what Noel means. For all their cinematic daring, the stories are supremely comfortable. I know they are meant to evoke movie traditions (from Oz to Bollywood) and the happy endings that those historical models demand. Isn't it striking, though, that this is what these talented (and often iconoclastic) filmmakers are giving us? What is it about this moment that calls for the soothing tones appropriate to children?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hold on tight to your dreams

I never acquired the habit of coffee drinking. My mother, like your typical caffeine addict, needs a few cups to get going in the morning. But my father doesn't indulge, and in this I emulated him.

Because coffee is such a quintessentially adult pastime, I sometimes feel a twinge of anxiety going to meetings or non-meal gatherings. Inevitably, coffee is offered as the default refreshment. I feel funny refusing, almost like I have to offer a reason. It's strangely similar to the unneeded explanation my mother often volunteers when a restaurant server asks if she wants a cocktail. "We don't drink," she says; instead of just declining, she justifies herself. And so those who innocently ask whether I'd like a cup of coffee are treated to an overly-detailed discourse in which I explain how I never learned to like the stuff.

So I never expected I'd be spending so much time at the Starbucks that opened up on campus this year. My default drink at coffeeshops for years has been a chai latte. But that feels like an indulgence, almost like dessert -- not the sustaining and stimulating essential that I imagine coffee drinkers are seeking.

After giving up soda earlier this year, though, I missed the continuous refreshment that I used to sip throughout the day. I filled my water bottle, but found that I used it only to quench thirst, not for enjoyment and comfort. In desperation I turned to the unsweetened iced tea that Noel guzzles by the bucketful. I've always hated the stuff. But what other low-calorie beverage is available without artificial ingredients but with plenty of flavor, even if it's a flavor I can't stand?

I drank unsweetened iced tea without much enthusiasm until I tried Starbucks' shaken iced tea. Black tea shaken with ice cubes -- a biting, lively flavor in a cool venti-sized refreshment. Where I used to sip my iced tea and then throw out half of it after the ice melted, I find myself at the bottom of a Starbucks cup far too soon.

Noel asked me yesterday if I liked iced tea now. I couldn't go that far. It's still not a drink I would have if I had another light, natural choice. It's better than water -- more interesting, more enjoyable -- but it's not what I really want. Sometimes, though, craving a Starbucks tea in the middle of the afternoon, it's almost a drink I could love.

Monday, December 1, 2008


As we left Moe's tonight, Noel remarked on the crescent moon, hanging low in the eastern sky. Beside it were two points of light -- one bright below, and one dimmer above.

"Archer, do you know what those stars are?" I said, suddenly remembering the 30-second snippet of Weather Channel I'd watched that morning. "The bright one is Venus, and the dim one is Jupiter. Those are planets!"

All the way home Archer informed us that he could see the dark part of the moon (absolutely possible -- the Earth's daylight side actually throws some light onto it), how big around the various planets are ("Earth is 8000 miles long, but Jupiter is 80,000 miles long"), how many miles away they are ("millions and millions"), how big around the Sun is ("800,000 miles long") and how there is a star even bigger than the Sun (he called it "Bettle-goose" -- "Three hundred million miles long!").

"Is there are star even bigger than that?" he asked.

"I'm sure there probably is," I replied. "The universe is a big place."

"Yeah," he agreed. "The universe is infinity miles long."

(To which Cady Gray replied, in her usual definitive way: "Mom, infinity means one trillion.")