Saturday, January 31, 2009

Girl about town

I had the day free today. And I feel guilty about it.

The deal I make to live with myself when I travel to wonderful cities for work is that I don't actually get to see the city. Yes, I take a day when I travel overseas for international conferences to wander the streets; not to do so would be a squandering of the gift given to me, an indefensible waste and a snub of the travel gods. If you get to go to Salzburg, you should not come home without at least making a gesture at actually being in Salzburg.

But domestic travel is not supposed to be about me. It's supposed to be about the work I came here to do. And having the leisure to sightsee or shop, whether that time is stolen or granted, just feels wrong.

Yet as I half-suspected (and half-feared) when I started looking at the agenda for this series of Atlanta meetings, I did indeed have the entire day free. Our committee met all day yesterday; a bunch of other committees are meeting all day today; we're gathering tonight for the big group summit. When I called home last night, I apologized to my husband for this turn of events.

Of course, he told me to enjoy myself. And I did. But I have to say that I couldn't throw my whole heart into it. I lounged in a coffee shop and read. I negotiated the bus system to go to Virginia Highland for some shopping. I ate a panini with fresh mozzarella made on the premises. I fondled (and purchased) yarn. I stashed chocolate. I scoured shelves to find something to bring home for the kids. Yet deep down, it still felt illicit. Half a day, I could have handled. A whole day, 8-5:30, with nothing on the schedule? Bad, very bad.

In an hour the last obligation of the weekend begins, and the world is setting itself aright. I'm feeling the urge to stay here and grade journals or read blogs or knit, which is only right if I can't actually do so. Such leisure must be earned, and as grueling as yesterday's all-day committee meeting might sound (we actually ran over!), in the private balance sheet in my head, today's great stretch of unscheduled time just doesn't add up.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Executive decision

Committee work is a funny thing. On the one hand, committees are notoriously unproductive. If you want nothing to get done, the best thing to do is to form a committee, am I right, people?

And yet, being on committees can also be one of the only ways to be surprised in academia. We surround ourselves with people who think like us, in our departments, and form cliques against the people who think otherwise. On a committee, though, we are forced into a relationship with people not of our choosing, people we don't know well (if we're lucky) -- and it's remarkably difficult to predict ahead of time what unlikely alliances will emerge.

When that happens, you can end up seeing people in new ways. Stereotypes and expectations fade, and people with complex principles and motivations emerge. One of the most revealing things that can happen in this kind of work is when a proposal is floated and someone unexpected rises to be its champion. Sure, sometimes people do exactly what you think they're going to do. But those times that they don't -- it's like pulling back the curtain on a reality that you never knew existed.

And as grueling and thankless as commitee work is, there are times when (believe it or not) a committee finds another way -- something the people bringing issues before them didn't see or apprehend. That's creative work. As frustrated as I can be with the glacial pace of collective action, it has a virtue that no top-down dictate can muster: When it's done, everyone agrees that something has happened, because everybody did it. Bringing something into being by fiat may be faster and less troublesome, but not everybody may buy into your assertion that the world has changed and we have a new one to live in.

I met today for the first time with the executive committee of my scholarly organization's board of directors, and I may be overly influenced by the newness of it all. But we did a couple of things today that I don't think a single person arriving in that room would have predicted. And I was stunned and gratified to find likemindedness in places where I would not have guessed. Even though most of what we discussed is still very much in process (if not in limbo), it was a good day. And for a day-long committee meeting, as you can imagine, I count myself very, very lucky.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Headin' down the Atlanta highway

One way or another, Atlanta has always been the central urban area of my life. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up, we went to Atlanta when we wanted to go to the city. It's where we went to play, to see a show, to cheer for our teams.

Later in life, I came back to Atlanta when I went to school in nearby Athens. We drove the back roads into town to go to Oxford Books, to eat at the Majestic, to play a show in Little Five Points. I've performed on the big stage at the Fox Theater. I've watched the laser light show at Stone Mountain while eating a Blimpie Best. Heck, my band played the Claremont Lounge.

I didn't really think about my history with the city when I set off for Atlanta today. It's a place to go to a meeting, like a dozen other towns. But flying in over the stadiums, riding MARTA in from the airport today, alighting in Midtown and making my way to the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, I suddenly remembered it all.

Atlanta's never been my home. My husband was born here, but I've never been a native. Still, I have a proprietary interest that I can't deny. And I'm hoping to grab a moment, between meetings, to stroll and reminisce.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Head east

I leave tomorrow early afternoon for a weekend meeting in Atlanta. And Noel is going to be left with quite a weekend with the kids -- ice skating field trip in Little Rock with Cady Gray on Friday, two (count 'em, two) birthday parties at the local gymnastics academy on Saturday, Super Bowl party on Sunday. Sure, it's good to have activities scheduled to keep the kids busy, but it's kind of ridiculous.

I'd be lying if I pretended I wasn't looking forward to the trip. There's some work I need to get done (and solitude will help), but in general, I'm pretty well caught up. It's been awhile since I had some time to myself. And there's important stuff to be done at the meeting I'm attending.

Too long in the trenches, and you start to forget some of the big picture. I'm hoping that there will be time to think about something other than my immediate work and family -- maybe even generate some good ideas. And I hope that Noel doesn't get fed up with being a single dad before I'm at least halfway through my busy travel semester.

Here's what I'll be missing this weekend: The further education of my little authoritarian-in-training. Check out 2, 4, and 5 in Archer's spelling word sentences for this week:

1. It will be pretty cold outside today.
2. You cannot go if you don't have permission to go.
3. Grown-up people, like Ms. Lea, are pretty old. (Beside which his teacher, Ms. Lea, wrote: "Wait a minute!")
4. Everyone must do what they are told to do.
5. You should put on your coat if you want to go outside when it's cold.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Winter wonderland

Align Center

With all the ice and snow in the forecast this week, I've been reminiscing about how winter weather used to affect my family when I was growing up. We lived on some rural acreage, at the top of a hill with a poured asphalt driveway going up at about a 30-40 percent slope. It's not just my hyperbolic memory talking, folks -- this was one steep driveway. (Sprinting up to the top constituted the final highlight of any bike excursion.)

Whenever frozen precipitation threatened, we'd leave a vehicle at the bottom of the driveway overnight. Coming down that narrow passage would be suicide in slippery conditions -- a rocky bank going up to the left, brush leading straight down to our pond on the right, and a 90-degree turn at the bottom which, if not negotiated, would lead to a plunge off the earthen dam that kept the pond filled. So on mornings when snow or ice had covered the driveway, we all had to tramp carefully down to the car at the bottom in order to go anywhere.

For a winter event of any duration, Dad attached a scraper blade to his little Kubota tractor and plowed the driveway. The deep treads of the tractor tires made distinctive and wonderful tracks in the snow. Once the driveway was scraped, it was a lot easier to walk down to the car at the driveway's end -- but no less dangerous to drive up and down.

If the power went out -- as it sometimes did for many days at a time -- we ended up huddled in the living room by our wood stove. Closing off the rest of the house, that room stayed fairly cozy as the stove pumped out the heat. You could even heat up food on it, after a fashion. When it came time for bed, we hurried from the warm living area to our frigid, abandoned bedrooms with candles lighting our way.

Any significant snow was greeted by Dad taking the camera out to capture some pristine photos before we kids messed it up. The best place to enjoy disturbing the virgin snow was our tennis court, with its smooth, even surface. Walking, running, and building snowmen there satisfied the irresistible siren song of snow -- to make one's mark where no one else has trod.

Here at our house, it looks as if we've dodged the worst ice accumulations, the prospect of which had me stockpiling candles and matches last night. Tomorrow the kids might wake up to a little snow and no school, and then on Thursday the forecast high is nearly 50 degrees -- it will all be over. I hope I never have to rough it as much with my kids as we used to back when I was a teenager, but those winter storms have left me with nothing but good memories.

Monday, January 26, 2009

People get ready

Ice has started accumulating on mailboxes, trash cans, fallen leaves, even my umbrella when I folded it up after my walk home. The big winter storm that's socking the middle of the country right now has us right on its icy fringe, teetering between the frozen and the fluffy.

Forecast is for freezing rain starting to accumulate a layer of ice tonight, then getting heavier and thicker tomorrow. I suspect that school will be closed tomorrow for the kids at least, and probably for me as well. That could last into Wednesday, threatening one of my precious film classes -- a course that meets once a week is really disrupted by cancellations.

An ice storm is the worst of all possible worlds. The kids can't go out to make snowmen; they're stuck inside. You can't drive. Power lines tend to go down, and with them, most of the things that make being inside bearable for long periods of time.

This could be a nasty one, but at least the duration is limited; we should be in the clear by Thursday (when I'm supposed to fly out for Atlanta). We'll cross our fingers that the power stays on (or goes out only briefly) and the danger passes. If you don't hear from me at my regularly scheduled blogging times, you'll know that we're gathered around the fire trying to remember what people did before electricity.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Faraway lands

Now that Noel is back from Sundance (check out this list of 20 memorable characters he met there), it's time for me to begin my semester's travels. Five weekend trips between now and the end of April will test my mettle: two committee meetings, one board meeting, a conference of an organization of which I am an officer, and a brainstorming session related to a large national grant. I'll be in Atlanta, southern California, Dallas, Montreal, and Atlanta again.

Because I haven't been out of town since late October, I'm looking forward to taking off and having some time to myself. I'm sure that will last about one and a half trips, and then I'll be sick to death of airports, hotels, and conference rooms, and more than ready to stay home with my children and my classes.

And I'm only now starting to realize just how little time I'll have for anything other than work. Leisure will be rare this semester -- the more so because I have a night class once a week, and students are clamoring for the start of my regular foreign film tutorial one night every two weeks. Although I enjoy the longer stretches during the office day for work with only one class to interrupt it, by mid-semester I really begin to resent having to be away from home so many nights.

I doubt I'll get anywhere on big projects this semester, as a result of this unusually high level of busyness (even for typically-busy me). But check back in May, and you're sure to find a very relieved -- perhaps even giddy -- tone in this space.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Air Bud's spawn

Today's post about fourteen-month socks is at Toxophily.

When I got up this morning, Cady Gray was playing with three stuffed animals that came as a promotional item with a Disney DVD. They're dogs dressed up in little space suits -- two American and one Russian -- with removable plastic space helmets. She was specifying which ones were "astronaut dogs" (the ones with the helmets) and which one was the "space dog" ("the astronaut dogs can NOT go into space, only the space dog," she explained to me).

I had never heard of the DVD that the toys were promoting -- Space Buddies -- but Noel eventually worked out that it must be a late-generation Air Bud spinoff (Air Bud begat Air Buddies begat Space Buddies). Cady Gray believed me when I dubbed the Russian dog Laika (actual moniker: Spudnik), and she happily toted Laika with her to the library.

As we entered the children's area and I took Cady Gray's coat off, an older girl came up to her. "What's that?" she demanded, pointing at Laika. "A space dog," Cady Gray responded. Without missing a beat, the girl said, "Oh yeah. Space Buddies."

Later on our way to lunch, Cady Gray asked me, "What's my dog's name again?" "Laika," I said. "Yeah, her name is Laika," Cady Gray announced with her typical authoritative tone. "That's not her real name, but we like this one better."

Friday, January 23, 2009

Who's this Al, again?

Here, reproduced precisely (including one teacher correction in brackets) from that wonderful elementary-school tablet paper with the dotted lines in the middle to mark where your lower-case letters should reach, are the sentences Archer wrote with his spelling words for the week. I like how the reverse side of the paper, comprising the second set of sentences, makes a little open-ended Tom Sawyerish story.

(Side 1)

1. We rang the bells because we liked their sound.
2. There are 7 days in a week.
3. We ride our bikes on a be[a]utiful day.
4. There are 3 kinds of names.
5. My dad always does the dishes. (True. -- Ed.)

(Side 2)
Archer's Work on English Language Arts

6. We make our clubhouse with boxes.
7. We need more nails.
8. Paint with these brushes.
9. Here comes Al with glasses of juice.
10. My friends show him the house.

Page 69

Thursday, January 22, 2009

There she is

Out of professional obligation, I'm watching the genially appalling TLC reality show Miss America: Countdown to the Crown. This is a competition in which one potential beauty queen will get a free pass into the top fifteen in the actual pageant by navigating obstacle courses, making cocktail dresses with glue guns, and doing runway walks.

I have a dog in this fight, because Miss Arkansas is my student. (Go Ashlen!) I don't really have strong opinions about pageants, just vague feminist misgivings. But there is sentiment on my campus against the Miss UCA pageant that feeds into the state competition. Should the university be asking women to display their bodies in a swimsuit-off for a scholarship prize?

What I find interesting in this whole situation is how reality television has regularized the notion of competing in the realm of looks and poise -- a concept that seemed irredeemably marginalized ten or fifteen years ago. What with America's Next Top Model and its ilk, in which women are judged on their ability to look their best in the context of actual professions for which this is a critical job skill, pageants don't seem nearly so retrograde to the general public, I'm betting. What they seem, instead, is old-fashioned -- which is why the Miss America pageant has been adding reality-show frills as fast as they can. It appears much more likely these days that the venerable institution of Miss America can find a home somewhere in between Tyra and True Beauty.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A house is not a home

Noel's back from Sundance, and after a long evening of teaching, I'm heading home to see him.  It wasn't the same around here without you, honey.

In lieu of actual content, I will note with great pride that jenniechris has posted her Archies list!  40 items of 2008 goodness, just in time for the wave of Bush-era nostalgia that will be hitting next month.  And in case you were wondering, yes -- there's still time!  January is the traditional window for this addictive exercise in exhaustive compiling.  If you haven't participated yet, why not give it a try?  You know you want to.  And the first one's always free.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Over the last few months, every so often I would turn to Noel, apropos of nothing, and say: "Our next president is Barack Obama." And every time it sounded so implausible. A black man with a foreign name; how the heck did this guy get elected? How did the American electorate overcome all the reasons not to vote for him -- and vote for him?

I know the answers. On the one hand, things were so bad, so astoundingly bad, that a black guy with a foreign name was preferable to more of the same. On the other, a singular political voice with the power to inspire came on the scene suddenly and changed the entire equation. And yet despite all the sense that makes, the outcome never ceased to astound me.

Today as I watched the inauguration, letting out involuntary whoops and fist-pumps in my empty living room, I wondered whether this is all truly as extraordinary as it seems. Is it just me, or does the joy surrounding this election, this inauguration, the promise of this presidency seem to emanate not just from one party or one race, but from the country as a whole? Doesn't the celebration appear to be all-encompassing, transcending all the myriad reasons for rejoicing and coalescing in one singularity of hope and triumph? Isn't it like everyone, all at once, sees a new age dawning?

I'm aware that this isn't strictly true. I'm surrounded by people in Arkansas who went the other way, in larger numbers than they did in 2000 or 2004. Yet it seems to me that the emotion isn't just relief that it's over, or resignation that it hopefully won't be too bad, but an active sense of thrust, of movement, of people swinging onto the train as it chugs purposefully toward something new.

Those who drive history forward, the President said, are "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things." Today I want to be in that number. And let all the people say -- amen.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tonight on CBS

I'm going to be posting both the Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother blogs on the TV Club this evening, so I'm giving myself a pass on blogging here.

Obligatory Archer Anecdote: Quickly surveying the stack of books Tasha sent me from Chicago for review, Archer asked, "Mom, is God a mathematician?"

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Today's post about candid photography is at Toxophily.

Not much to report from the Natural State, thanks to my folks who have helped make the weekend quite uneventful (and, speaking particularly of my mother, delicious). The kids are healthy and happy, and the relatively warm weather has allowed them to play outside two days in a row. Mom and Dad are leaving tomorrow, and we should be in great shape to handle the three days until Noel's return. You can follow his Sundance odyssey here, by the way; sounds like it's been a very solid festival so far.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

AA in a nutshel, Part 8,673

Read this NPR story about a new conversation-tutoring methodology for high-functioning autistic children. Then you'll better understand this exchange, which sums up Archer extraordinarily well.

At the playground today:

Archer: In the cafeteria on Friday, our new movie was Horton Hears A Who.

Me: Oh, really? Did you like it?

Archer: Yes. It has 33 chapters. We watched chapters 2 through 7.

Me: What was it about?

Archer: I don't remember. Bye!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Snug again

Today was dominated by the drama of our furnace. You may recall back right before Christmas that we discovered our heat was more like our cold. After a tense couple of days -- the coldest of the winter so far -- workmen brought our ancient furnace back to life (at a hefty price tag). We were resigned to buying a new heater as soon as winter was over, knowing that the lifespan of our 21-year-old dinosaur was over.

Earlier this week, right before Noel was scheduled to leave for Sundance, we noticed that the furnace seemed to be running for longer and longer before the fan came on to blow the hot air out. By yesterday, it was churning continuously, and even though there was record cold outside (they always pick the best times to self-destruct, don't they?), the blower only came on for a few minutes every hour. I checked the thermometer -- a full ten degrees below the thermostat setting. We were getting a little heat every once in a while, but not enough to keep up with the single-digit chill outside.

I spent the day at work fretting about the repair. It seemed ridiculous to throw any more money into this furnace when we were just going to replace it a few months hence, but we couldn't get a new unit in today, and the house would have been uninhabitable tonight (at its lowest, the inside temp was 50 degrees and dropping). And even after I made the decision to spend another few hundred dollars for an immediate fix, there was no guarantee that (a) the repairman would be able to get it going or wouldn't find something else wrong with it, or (b) it would last this time. Visions of a night in a motel and the risk of frozen pipes in the 20-degree night chill ran around my brain all day.

When I called home between meetings in the afternoon, I was so relieved to find out that the repair had been complete and the house was warm again that I ran around hugging everybody I could find. Dad told me that the temperature was 72 degrees; "Turn it down!" I commanded happily. My usual Friday afternoon weekend-welcoming ritual, the Soapbox student presentation (a particularly good one, as it happened) was especially joyful knowing that the crisis was over.

But as with most crises, the relief revealed low-grade worry and regret as it ebbed. The amount of money we've wasted repairing this stupid machine that's just going to be replaced soon. The possibility that it will conk out again before winter is over, leading to the next decision about fixing it in order to get through the night, or figuring out a way to get a new one without freezing in the meantime. Annoyingly, the repair people who had promised us a break on a new furnace because of all the money we spent back in December couldn't find any record of that bill this time, making me worry that we'll end up paying more for the new unit eventually on top of everything we've already shelled out.

A friend on Ravelry chose this exact moment to send me a message responding to my post about last week's more personal crisis. Happily, there could have been no better time for me to hear what she had to say. In times like these, for my own peace of mind I need to redefine the situation as something that happened to me -- a trial, a hardship -- rather than something I screwed up. Never mind where the blame actually lies, or if there's any to be apportioned at all; I tend to descend into recriminations, second-guessing, and rehashing what I should have done differently and how badly I responded. I need to be grateful for what didn't happen (another night without heat) and stoic about what did (for which knitting determinedly on through provides an excellent backdrop).

Cross your fingers that we stay warm until spring. Or if not, that we'll figure out that adventure when it meets us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Non-film-fest report, Day 1

  • Archer tally: 1 good as gold (for a good spelling-word sentence).
  • Cady Gray schoolwork: A picture of me. On one side, I'm sad. On the other, I'm happy. (Concerned that CG thought I was sad a lot, I asked her when I get sad. "When I don't give you hugs and kisses," she told me.)
  • Game with Granny Lou and Papa: Sorry. Outcome: Cady Gray won the gold medal, Archer won the silver medal.
  • Dinner: New China, which luckily Granny Lou and Papa like as much as the kids.
  • Song from Archer's "School Days" musical: "The Concert Etiquette Rap," with its catchy chorus that had Cady Gray and I singing along in the car -- "The concert etiquette rap!/The concert etiquette rap!/A code of behavior/And courtesy/Socially proper/For you and me."
  • Current status: Kids asleep, Dad doing crossword puzzle, Man v. Food in the background. All is well on this cold Arkansas night -- or will be as soon as Noel checks in from Park City.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Somewhere over the rainbow

Today's post celebrating Cady Gray's sweater of many colors is at Toxophily.

I'd like to thank the many readers who delurked yesterday. And now, a warning to same: While Noel is at the Sundance Film Festival for the next seven days, this blog will become a boring chronicle of kid activities and home status. You have my permission to take a short sabbatical. Thank you for your loyal clickership.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stand up and be counted

I am reliably informed that today is International Delurking Day. Some of you lurkers have already revealed yourselves through your embrace of the Archies, the hottest once-a-year meme around. (There's still time to get in on the fun!) But there must be more of you, unless forty people are directed here each day by The Google looking for report from Hoople or computer in my life (Romanian only).

So it's time to sheepishly raise your hand and announce to the class your name, hometown, major, favorite movie (only one allowed, people, show some decisiveness), last music you heard, and what your superpower would be if you could have one. Speak up so the people in the back can hear you!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Scenes from a marriage

A friend who is going through some marital struggles has told me frightening stories about communication breakdowns. I remember the times that Noel and I have not communicated well -- mostly times that we concealed concerns or needs from each other -- and they're some of the most gut-wrenching memories I have. It simply feels awful to have something in between you, blocking you from saying what you mean and feeling what you feel.

At times like this, when I hear about such a block or division or disconnection between people in a marriage, I think about the far from perfect relationship between me and my husband, and I feel both sheepishly grateful and somehow incredulous. We went out to dinner last night, as we try to do on "date nights" a few times a month, and we talked for an hour or so about our work, mutual friends, plans for the future, and ideas that we've found interesting recently. Our marriage has always been based on shared interests -- in pop culture, sports, writing, humor -- and as time has gone on, we've taken to talking more, when we get the chance, about some of the philosophical and historical aspects of those topics.

In other words, we seize the chance to be analytical, to throw out some theories about the meaning of the things that mutually fascinate us, to try out some schemes that fit the pieces together. I think it's because our kids make it difficult to have a conversation that is more than thirty seconds long (and we have to ask for permission at that; "Can I talk to Daddy for 30 seconds?" "OK. One thousand, two thousand ..."), so an hour of time to have a back and forth, to build an actual interchange, is absurdly precious. On the other hand, we use that time to focus on each other rather than (as is our wont of a normal evening) focus together on a third party -- the television. It always starts out a bit awkward, as we wonder if we really have anything to talk about, and it always ends up with rich ideas and a scandalous sense of indulgence, as we take advantage giddily of an atmosphere of adult sophistication to enjoy everything that the kids (wonderful as they are) make it harder to find time for.

I hope I don't wake up one morning to find out that we've been drifting apart without my knowing. I'm not one to "work on" my marriage -- like my house and my health, I have this baseless hope that it will take care of itself -- but the changes we were forced to make after the kids came along, out of necessity, seem to be keeping the channels of communication open. And I'm glad of it; for a homebody like me, if my spouse isn't my best friend, I'd be pretty much all alone.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Awards season

Noel and I have come home from a rare evening out for dinner together, and we've turned on the Golden Globes. People who know that we write about film and pop culture usually assume we care a great deal about year-end awards. They're right, and they're wrong. We care far less about the awards as an actual indicator of quality, but we care far more about them in terms of analyzing every category and microscopically nitpicking the presentation than the average viewer.

I think a lot of serious cineastes profess to hate the glitzy Hollywood awards. But those of us who stand somewhere in between the highest elite of film lovers and the general public -- often trying to communicate the concerns of one side to the other -- have a love-hate relationship with them. On the one hand, this is the one moment when ordinary Americans get exposed to some of the more esoteric films and cinematic elements, the ones that we really love and care about. On the other hand, it's a popular art -- things like star power and box office really matter in the sense that they distort the landscape and determine what gets made and what gets seen.

I confess that the award shows have come to mean more to me over the years. I enjoy seeing old and new faces in the inimitable stage, mic, and statuette context. As shallow as it might seem, the fashion is more interesting to me than it was decades ago. It's always fun to root for your favorites and moan over the poor taste of the various voting academies and the public.

And most importantly, these events capture a moment in a particular populist perspective. These arts are about instants frozen in time -- what we care about now, what we want, what we fear, what we think is funny. No matter how tarnished the tinsel surrounding these problematic honors, their relevance for dedicated students of popular culture can't be easily dismissed.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Last night some worsted saved my life

I got some very bad news last night. No, it's not about the health of anyone close to me; we're all well and happy. I can't divulge it because it's not my place to do so. But this post isn't about what the news is -- it's about my reaction to it.

I cried for a while, ranted and raved to Noel about how unfair it was, grieved silently, indulged in morbid speculation about the future. Then I picked up the sleeve of Cady Gray's cardigan and got to work.

What would I do in a moment like this, a moment when a dream is dying and I can't imagine what comes next, without her half-finished sweater? Above all, bad news makes you feel impotent. There's nothing you can do to stop it. A worrier like me spins a thousand scenarios, each worse than the last, about what might happen. But there beside me is something I'm creating. Something beautiful and functional. Something, most importantly, under my control.

It sounds melodramatic, I know. But I believe knitting is saving me from despair. I'm bringing about change. I'm using my hands, my brain, the labor of others who made the raw materials, to clothe my daughter. I'm moving forward, stitch by stitch, row by row.

Each time I pick up the needles, I remind myself that there is always a way to create. There is always the ability to share in the creativity of others. There is always beauty to bring into the world. There is always trust in one's own abilities that is necessary to make the leap from raw materials into the process of making. There is always thankfulness for the opportunity to turn yarn into fabric, and fabric into warming, comforting, protecting, inspiring, loving shelter for myself and those I love.

My grief will always be with me; I know that by experience. But it can be transformed. Because I am a knitter.

Friday, January 9, 2009

How we still live, apparently

When I came home this afternoon and asked Cady Gray about her day, she told me that she made a new friend at Burger King. "But his dad was very mean," she concluded sadly.

Later Noel told me the whole story, and I have to say, "very mean" is a mild description.

The child in question was a boy younger than Cady Gray, probably about three years old. At Burger King there is a large maze structure that kids can climb up and slide down. The boy's older brother was negotiating it well, but the three-year-old was too scared and too little to hoist himself through the holes and up the stacked platforms to reach the top. The father commenced a series of shocking attempts to shame him into a better effort.

"Come on! Iron Man would be able to do it," he encouraged the boy. "Can I wear my Iron Man costume when I get home?" his son asked. "I don't know, because right now you're acting like a little wimp," the father replied.

Cady Gray, being her usual friendly self, decided to help him. But the father wanted the boy to do it himself. "Look, a girl is doing better than you," he told him. "She's gonna kick your butt at school someday."

And the crowning touch: After the boy failed to follow his brother into the play structure, Dad called out, "I didn't know you were retarded."

Our own parenting style is probably more sweetness-and-light and far less negative reinforcement than the happy medium most people would consider reasonable. Still, it's not just the contrast between what we would tell Archer or Cady Gray at that age (and I was just as afraid of them getting too far beyond their comfort zone in those mazes as that they wouldn't go at all) that makes the father's methods disturbing. Perhaps I'm sheltered, but I'm surprised and distressed that the code of manliness is still so unquestioned in some quarters that a father would think such "encouragement" was appropriate right out in public.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rewards and meta-rewards

On the way to dinner:

Archer: I got three tickets today.

Me: Fantastic, Archer! What for?

Archer: I got the first ticket for having a clean desk. I got the second ticket for getting 100% on my math test. I got the third ticket for telling Ms. Cloud to give Mrs. Lea some more tickets.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Avoidance strategies

I often tell students and colleagues that despite the many hats I wear, I have no organized system for managing my time. Instead, I've found what works for me: (1) Agree to do a bunch of things, largely without considering whether I have time to do them. (2) Put deadlines on my calendar. (3) Ignore projects until deadlines begin to loom. For big projects, it may start looming a month or two out; for smaller ones, anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. (4) As the deadline approaches, a pressure wave begins to build in front of it. And when that pressure wave reaches a critical level of stress, I begin to work on the project.

Since the semester is approaching, a number of pressure waves have started washing over my days. The syllabus pressure wave peaked right after Christmas, and ever since then, I've been handling the two massive syllabi I'm in charge of putting together. A FAQ that I was assigned to put together for our website was actually due before the university closed for the holidays, but because I knew that the deadline was largely self-imposed, the pressure didn't hit until a week before the university reopened; my intuition was that I just needed to have it done before my boss came back to work.

Right now I'm facing two deadlines: a complicated report for a subcommittee due Jan. 13, and a paper for a February conference that's supposed to be submitted by Jan. 20. At the beginning of the week, I was lying awake at 3 am wondering how I could get those projects done and still pull together all the hundreds of details for the syllabi at the same time. But it turns out that I've gotten an extra week of intensive work time while my boss is still on vacation, and I've been able to spend unbroken hours cranking out the syllabi.

That means the report and the paper still haven't been broached. I fully intended to do so today. But I fell victim to one of the intriguing side effects of my time-management non-strategy: Mundane tasks suddenly become more appealing when a project that will require major thought and creativity is due.

In fact, if it weren't for this side effect, I don't know that I'd ever get the more boring or repetitive parts of my tasks done. For example, after polishing off three minor to-do's this morning (giving me the sense of accomplishment required to keep the deadline pressure wave tamped down), I spent the entire afternoon copying and scanning texts, turning them into PDFs, uploading them to our electronic library system, arranging them in the right order, and making sure that the reader matched the written syllabus. I spent a couple of hours standing in front of the copier -- holding it down so the book would lie flat, watching the green bar of light slide to the right, opening the lid and turning the page, rearranging the book on the platen, and waiting for the last copy to slide out so that I could press the button again. Then I peered at the monitor for another couple of hours -- grabbing the PDFs off my e-mail, renaming them and saving them in the right folder, uploading them to the server, adding them to my class's collection. Rinse and repeat.

It was largely mindless work, although I did have to solve the problem of a too-large PDF saved from the New Yorker digital edition (by printing it out in black-and-white and scanning the printout at a much lower resolution). And it did need to be done, although I could have parcelled out the work in little batches throughout the semester -- the readings only need to be available online just-in-time, not in a complete coursepack at the beginning.

But its great virtue was that it allowed me to be productive without having to embark on the two major projects. When I know the deadlines are coming and time is short, I can't simply be idle -- the guilt and stress absolutely prevent that. I can, however, do something other than what I should be doing, something that needs doing but doesn't require any outlay of creativity. At the end of the day, I've dealt with the pressure wave, something has been accomplished, and most importantly, I've pushed those bigger problems into tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Distinction, illustrated

Another Archies list, and a particularly elegant and poignant one as well, from proactive bridesmaid. Don't be intimidated -- yours will be great, too, so get to listmakin'!

Today was the first day back at school for Archer (success! one good-as-gold!) and a special playdate for Cady Gray at her best friend's house. We celebrated this era of good feeling with dinner at Cady Gray's favorite restaurant. On our way home, as is their wont, the kids kept up two rarely-intersecting monologues from the back seat. One particular sequence seemed to me a particularly clear example of the difference between our two children.

Archer: In the Primes To One Hundred grid, the prime numbers were colored yellow, but 41 was accidentally colored red, but it is a prime number. And below the Primes To One Hundred grid, some people were carrying signs that said 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, and 17. Mom, the numbers that are not prime numbers are multiples of 2 except for itself, multiples of 3 except for itself, multiples of 5 except for itself, multiples of 7 except for itself, and so on.

Cady Gray: Remember the time when the lemonade tasted like water so I got blue Powerade and I really liked it? Remember that? That was a special day!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Lessons hard won

Another Archies list has rolled into Archie Headquarters, this one a whopping 53 items, many related to dog sledding and Germany. Unfortunately, you can't see it, because Doc Thelma's House is eyes-only exclusive.* But I encourage you to head over to the good Doctor's (public) cooking blog and bug her to let you in. Really, the mushing content alone is worth the trip.

Because yesterday was a big two-blog extravaganza, I'm letting myself off lightly today. But I do want to share something I learned this afternoon.

Don't try to take your kids on a Monday to any business set up to provide kid-play. No, let me stop you before you ask -- it doesn't matter if the local schools are not in session on the Monday in question. All kid-play businesses have colluded to take their weekly Sabbath on Monday, every Monday, rain or shine, holiday or ordinary time.

If your kids need to play on a cold, rainy Monday when there is no school, might I suggest turning your local Target into the setting for a vast scavenger hunt? Because that's what salvaged my unsuccessful attempt to get the kids out of the house today. If the employees of the store complain, refer them to the managers of Playworld, Jump Zone, and the roller rink.

*Or at least it used to be ... unless my cache is lying to me, this has changed without notice. I feel a bit less special.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Snuggle up and deal

Today's post celebrating triumphant sweater completion and head-over-heels passion is at Toxophily.

More and more people are getting on the Archies bandwagon! Three big lists of yummy 2008 Archie goodness today:
Visit them, get inspired, and create a list of your own!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A few of my favorite things

The Secret Knitter has registered his perspective on 2008 with a high-quality 52-item Archies list. If you haven't posted your own, why not take a moment to compile one? (And if you've done so but I haven't acknowledged it, be sure to leave word in the comments.)

Last night we watched A Matter Of Life And Death, a 1946 film by my favorite filmmakers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Whenever I see a movie by the Archers (after whom we named our son), I am almost overcome with the exuberant, fearless belief in the power of art that is on display.

Why do I love these movies so much? I Know Where I'm Going!, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Tales of Hoffmann, The Red Shoes. What is it about their construction, their vision, their rootedness in British convention and their wild, unrestrained phototropic reach toward aesthetic romance?

It's not anything in my natural constitution, other than an Anglophilia born of teenage worship of Agatha Christie and the Beatles. The strange thing about my passion for Powell is that the films themselves produced it -- that and the memoir I casually bought at a used bookstore decades ago. They're not necessarily the kind of movies I naturally gravitate towards ... although they are now, now that they've worked their magic on me. Or is it just that there is almost nothing like them, anywhere, and so there's no way for you to know whether you have a taste for them until they appear in your life, sui generis?

Under their influence, I became a person who responds above all to a sense of aspiration in works of art -- in film, music, literature. Whenever I am in the audience for something striving toward the ineffable, struggling to transcend its time and place (best of all, if it doesn't reject that time or attempt to slip the surly bonds of earth, but instead embraces it with fondness while seeking to plumb its unseen depths), I am lost to it.

Powell's movies are among the best and most complete examples of that effect on me, but they aren't just examples, I think. Without them, I don't think I'd be that person. The Archers' movies created my artistic sensibility, and I feel so fortunate to have encountered them when I did, and to be able to immerse myself in their images and cinematic music my whole life through.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The hardest part

There's nothing that brightens my day more than the anticipation of a big package in the mail -- or more than one. And there's nothing that makes me question my own self-worth more than those packages not arriving.

I've got a bunch of packages in the mail to me from end-of-the-year yarn sales and the like. The orders were placed in the days in and around Christmas. Every day I remember at some point that they are coming, and a smile crosses my face. My steps get a little bouncier. There could be a little present to myself in the mail today!

Then the mail truck comes and goes without leaving anything at the door. The UPS guy delivers his usual armload of DVDs to Noel, but nothing for me. And I wonder: Do I merit the packages? Have I angered the shipping gods? What do I need to get right in my soul to open up the doors and allow the boxes to bless me?

I ordered a set of 100 Moo mini-cards with images from my Flickr set back on December 19. A dispatch notice arrived in my e-mail box on December 22. Now, I know that these cards have to come from the UK by airmail. And there have been a couple of postal holidays in between now and then, which is some consolation. But with every day that exceeds the 5-7 business day estimate, I become more concerned. Not about Moo or the international mails. About whether I deserve to be happy.

If any of these packages could hurry up and arrive, I'd be spared a whole lot of pointless examination. Do you hear me, Hubert of Liege, patron saint of mail?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

The Archies are rolling in! Check out Petunia Town Girl's photo-enhanced list of 40. Apparent lurker Ryan Wilkins checks in from the left coast with 50 items. Won't you join them?

We didn't go to a party last night, continuing a tradition for the last several years. I don't want to do anything on New Year's Eve than sit at home, have a glass of champagne, watch television, and go to bed as soon as the ball drops in our time zone.

Two observations:
  1. For the second year in a row, we watched the ESPN crazy-motorcycle-stunt special, and I must say that last night I thought I was going to see stuntman suicide on live TV.
  2. I love and respect Dick Clark as much as any godfearing American, but maybe it's time to stop trotting him out in Times Square, guys.