Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Joining the human race

I did it. And it wasn't as hard as I thought it might be.

Today at lunch I was confessing to a staff member that I'd made it my goal to get myself a cell phone by the end of the summer. After we got back to the office, I decided -- why wait? I know where the AT&T store is. I'm going to lick this sucker once and for all.

I walked in with some trepidation. Anything where credit checks and two-year contracts are involved seems pretty complicated to me. But Kari walked me through it with ease. She got me the 15% discount and waived activation fee to which holders of my university's ID are entitled. She asked the right questions and was patient when my cell phone virginity got in the way.

In thirty minutes I walked out with ... a SIM card. And a cell phone number. The phone itself isn't kept in stock at the store, but ordered on a per-case basis. Mine ought to be here next week, if all goes well.

I know people who get iPhones tend to get excited. (A number of the people I follow on Twitter have posted a series of such comments as "Tracking number says it will be delivered today!" and the like.) And they're people who already have cell phones. For me, this is like a leap into another century -- a futuristic world where people have wristwatch communicators and carry movie screens in their pockets.

I'm glad I have a week to get used to the idea. Although I don't know if you can ever really prepare yourself to become a whole new person. A cell phone person.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Salon culture

Fathers take their sons to the barber shop. Mothers take their daughters to the beauty shop. Or at least they did when I was a kid.

I got a haircut this afternoon, an event that always makes me think of the beauty shop visits of my childhood. My mother would take me along while she got her color treatment or a set, and I would get a perm (or, for a brief period in junior high, a Dorothy Hammill bob). It took all morning, involved sitting under a giant conehead-shaped dryer, and smelled like flea dip. In the weeks that followed, in order to look presentable at all, I had to spend half an hour every morning in front of the mirror with the curling iron and a round brush.

These days I do as little with my hair as possible, a fact I'm reluctant to admit to the women who cut my hair. I feel like something of a gender traitor merely washing and combing. If they ask me if I blow dry, I sometimes lie and say yes.

But after eight years of short locks, I'm thinking of growing my hair a little longer. My cut this afternoon was really just a trim, a slight shaping to avoid the "That Girl" flip that tends to develop if left unchecked. I'm not interested in the hours of drying time I endured in my twenties, but something around the shoulders would not be amiss. For a change.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Precious and few

As we were enjoying dinner tonight after a day of swimming and comic strips, Noel looked across the table at his daughter, her hair pulled up in pixie pigtails, spooning macaroni and cheese into her mouth. "People who don't have a four-year-old girl about to turn five and go to kindergarten?" he said. "I don't know what they're living for."

That's ours on the right. And I know exactly what Noel means. If Cady Gray ever accidentally dunked herself in chocolate sauce, I might eat her all up before I realized what was happening. As it is, I spend half the time I'm around her poking her cheeks and trolling for hugs.

Maybe I'm spoiling her rotten. But I prefer to think of it as letting her know how much she's loved. It takes no effort, honestly, for someone this lovable.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The tracks of my tears

On Saturday morning Noel lets me sleep late. But sometimes I don't use all that time for sleeping. This morning I woke up about half an hour after him and reached for the book I'm reading. I had gotten through all but about fifty pages the night before.

The review will be up on the A.V. Club in a couple of weeks, so I won't give you an extensive evaluation of Alice Hoffman's The Story Sisters. The reason I bring it up is because I lay in bed this morning and read the last few chapters through an almost constant stream of tears. I don't think I've cried that much over anything -- real life or artistic creation -- for two or three years.

Worse, I wasn't really crying about the events in the book. I was crying about the overall message they seemed to be conveying: unavoidable love for family coupled with the inability to control what happens to them. I couldn't dry my tears by reminding myself that it's fiction; I couldn't get any emotional distance whatsoever. Every separation and every hope of bittersweet reunion sent me off again.

A while back, a reader asked the A.V. Club staff what movies make us cry. My answer was -- what doesn't? Yet even as a confirmed weeper, the effect of this book was extraordinary. This wasn't just a welling up, a sniffle, something caught in my eye; tears were literally rolling down my cheeks and collecting at my jawline.

I confess that I don't find crying at movies or books particularly pleasurable, although it's memorable and affecting. I actually put off finishing this book because I knew that how wrenching it would be.

What's your experience with being moved to tears by pop culture or art? How do you respond when it happens, and how frequently does it happen?

Friday, June 26, 2009

La regle de jeu

Every parent knows how difficult it is to keep up with multiple conversations all at once. Here's a reconstructed transcript of our drive home from dinner this evening:

CG: Okay, Mom, I'm going to write down a letter and number on this Magnadoodle. When you tell me the number, you can give me the whole number. Got it?

Me: (doesn't get it) Got it.

Archer: (pretending to play the video poker game he watched at the restaurant) There is $420,000 in the pot.

Me: What are your hole cards?

Archer: They are ... what?

CG: Here's the letter and number, Mom. (Passes a Magnadoodle reading "H-8" to the front seat)

Me: What are your hole cards?

Archer: They are the king of hearts and the queen of hearts. Lickey has a two of diamonds and an ace of spades.

Me: In a real game of poker, you wouldn't be able to see your opponent's cards.

CG: Okay, Mom -- H!

Me: (not knowing what to do) Um, H!

CG: No, H!

Archer: It's $43,500 to call. Lickey has $200.

Me: (still confused) H!

CG: No, Mom! I said H! Now you say the number!

Me: Oh, eight!

Archer: Here's the flop: three of diamonds, three of spades, three of clubs.

Me: No hearts, too bad.

Archer: But I have a three.

CG: Okay, Mom, six!

Me: I thought you had a king of hearts and a queen of hearts.

CG: (consulting a road atlas) Six!

Archer: No, I have a king of hearts and a three of hearts.

Me: (unsure) Um, seven?

CG: No, put the numbers together!

Me: So you have a pair of threes, Archer?

Archer: No, I have four of a kind!

CG: Mom, put the numbers together!!

Me: Oh, okay ... eighty-six?

Archer: The turn is a four of spades.

Me: That doesn't help you, but you've already got four of a kind, apparently.

CG: That's right! Now here's the next one.

Archer: The river card is a joker for diamonds and hearts.

CG: Magnadoodle! Mom, Magnadoodle please!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Long live the king

Although I grew up in the seventies, I had no direct relationship with Farrah Fawcett. I didn't watch Charlie's Angels, I didn't have that poster on my wall or have a t-shirt with her picture on it. In other words, I was not a boy. Farrah meant something to me, though -- she was married to my all-time biggest crush, Lee Majors. I can still see in my mind's eye a photograph of them together with their son in a Scholastic paperback bio of Majors I got from the Weekly Reader.

So even though it was surprising that one of the icons of the decade of my upbringing died yesterday, it wasn't shocking.

Michael Jackson dead? Now that's a shock to me. Because I did -- and do -- have a relationship with him.

When I was in ninth grade, my best friend Vicky and I choreographed an aerobics routine to "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough" for a PE assignment. I don't remember what the moves were, and I sure don't want to remember my chunky self performing them. But I will never forget the liberating feeling of dancing to that song -- and to all of Off The Wall, one of my favorite albums of all time.

When I was in eleventh grade, Thriller came out. Each January, the glee club at my school went on a tour. I don't know where we were that year, but I do remember a hotel ballroom, a big party, and Mrs. Greene, our director, dancing on a table to "Beat It." And once again, I can feel exactly what it was like to let go of all inhibitions while we grooved along, lost in the collective moment.

If you didn't live through that age of top 40 radio and the birth of MTV, you have no idea what it means for a pop culture event to be completely ubiquitous. There were no niches; everyone was in the same media melting pot. And Thriller saturated every medium that existed -- television, radio, and print.

And when I was older and more discerning about the music of my upbringing, I found myself able to embrace the music of Michael Jackson wholeheartedly, without any intellectual or aesthetic reservations. He was simply brilliant at what he did. As his bizarre personal life came to dominate the tabloid media, I feared that this would be his legacy -- the freak, the creep, the mutilated oddball. Would anyone be able to hear the music anymore and recognize the giant stature of those recorded (and videotaped) acommplishments?

Like everyone, I have a perverse fascination with the reclusive, semi-human existence Jackson's been living for the past two decades. We all want to understand how immense fame and fortune can turn someone from a man into ... something else, something with strange appetites and impenetrable motivations and twisted desires.

Yet there was nothing oblique about the music that he made or the pleasure that it has the power to bring. And it's not just the early hits, before he got weird. When I listen to the Michael Jackson playlist on my iPod, I get especially excited when "Black or White" comes up. Its album, Dangerous, was number one on the Billboard 200 as 1991 turned into 1992. The album it displaced at #1? Achtung, Baby. The album that followed it? Nevermind. Yet right in the center of this epoch-making moment in rock music is Michael Jackson, with a song that I find irresistible.

For some of us, I dare say, this is a version of Elvis' death. It's equally hard to believe because of the magnitude of Jackson's musical and cultural gravity. And I don't think it will be just crazed fanatics shedding a tear. No one should be ashamed to grieve for a man who made art that changed our lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Family hour

If you're a book person, one of the activities you probably look forward to doing with your children is reading a classic book in stages. I know Noel and I talked about reading Harry Potter or Winnie-the-Pooh or Chronicles of Narnia to our kids, all gathered around in the living room, a few pages a night.

It turns out that getting the whole family together for such a serial event isn't exactly easy. The way our kids' evening schedules have evolved, I end up reading with Cady Gray while Archer takes charge of his own books.

Up until now those books I read with Cady Gray have been picture books, mostly. But recently in the library she spotted The Meanest Doll In The World, the sequel to The Doll People (a book she got for Christmas and claims to have read on her own, though I have my doubts), and clamored for it. We started reading it together every night before bed, trading off paragraphs.

Last night we finished the last chapter, and it dawned on me what a milestone this was -- a 305-page, eighteen-chapter book recommended for grades 3-6. And we'd made it all the way through, me reading a paragraph, then Cady Gray. Obviously it means that her reading skills are outstanding, but it also means that she kept pace with an extended story. Frequently she'd look up at me with alarm or amazement and exclaim over the emotional significance of some event, predict what might happen based on the clues being dropped, or make a judgment about the truthfulness of a character. These are narrative interpretation skills that her brother still struggles with, not to mention an attention span that he reserves for Deal or No Deal.

It's a watershed moment for me, too. When I reminded Cady Gray just now that for the first time in a month, she needed to pick out a new book for us to read, she responded with excitement: "I know just the thing! A nice long book that will last us a long time. Wait right here!"

She returned with Charlotte's Web.

I think a tradition has been born.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The late show

The celebrated arrival of Conan O'Brien to The Tonight Show a few weeks ago, and the death of Ed McMahon today, have me reminiscing about my relationship to late night television.

I didn't grow up watching Carson, but I know my parents watched at least occasionally. They had a TV in their bedroom, and sometimes when I knocked on their door late at night for something, I'd see that familiar rainbow curtain on the screen.

Letterman was all the rage when I was in college, and I was a devotee. In fact, I have treasured memories of watching his morning show during high school whenever I was home sick or babysitting during the summer. I'm still a huge Letterman fan, and frequently watch the first half hour of Late Night before going to sleep.

Perhaps the ideal time to become a late night talk show regular is during college; you're always up late, and the antiestablishment humor is appealing. Because Conan debuted during a somewhat later period in my life, I never followed him regularly. I enjoy what he does, but probably just because of acclimation, Letterman's looser, more genially meta style seems to fit me better.

My prime days of late night TV watching are probably behind me, which seems odd only because I associate Carson with older people. Has the target audience for late night changed along with the hosts and the times? Or does Letterman -- and Conan -- now appeal to the comfortably middle-aged and senior, of which I must now count myself one?

Monday, June 22, 2009

How to relax: a photo-essay

Here are some pictorial highlights of our long-awaited (and since much yearned-for) trips to Eureka Springs and Hot Springs.

The view from our Basin Park Hotel window.

I tried and tried to capture the steam rising from my $5 margarita in the warm late afternoon, but failed.

One of the pieces of art at the controversial Gallery Wall exhibit of modern religious icons: St. Caffeina.

You couldn't get Noel to pay $100 for shoes anytime but on vacation.

But you can get me to pay $10 for hand-dyed yarn any old time.

The kids rode in a piece of fruit or something.

The carousel is almost always the best ride in the park. Certainly better than the down-for-repairs coaster in the background.

You can also count on the utensil dispenser (in this case, "multi-purpose spoon") to delight kids even more than the ice cream whose consumption it is intended to facilitate.

It was really, really hot.

And this tower would be really, really tall even if it weren't built on top of a mountain.

Of course, the kids wished it could be even taller. Somewhere right up there would be nice.

Stubby's Bar-B-Que. Motto: "Resurfacing Lot Tues-Wed We Are Open."

It took an unrelated dad and mom to built this catenary arch at the Mid America Science Museum. It took three girls from two families to take credit for it.

The kids practice their flying buttress skills, essential to employment in the new economy.

Archer would still be at this build-a-boat-then-time-the-race station if we hadn't forcibly removed him.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Comedy tonight

Today's post about getting it done -- and looking good doing it -- is at Toxophily.

Tomorrow: back to work for me, off to day camp for the kids. It's been a great week of vacation. I'm not sure I remember how to do my job. Colleagues, please excuse my shoddy labor for the next week or so!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Simple pleasures

Here's what I've been enjoying so far this summer:
  • Reading for more than half an hour at a time. I'm burning through about 1.5 books a week on my A.V. Club review schedule, and it's great to have long evenings or mornings (or even afternoons when no one else is in the office) to devour great swaths of prose.
  • Italian plumbers. I play Mario Kart Wii and Super Mario Galaxy with Archer just about every day. Those little guys never fail to amuse me and bring back memories of making up words to the Mario music with J.F. back in the day. ("Jump on his head/jump on his head/jump on his head/jump on his head," for example.)
  • Knitting. What else is new? But thanks to WIP Wrestlemania 2009, I've felt inordinately free with my casting-on. Now if I could only restrain myself from finishing anything before the competition starts in July.
  • Buying yarn. Way too much and way too often. I had bold plans to resist impulse buys this year, but halfway through 2009 they're in complete disarray. Truth be told, that's why I need y'all to help me pick an iPhone rate plan, readers -- so I won't have any disposable income for yarn.
  • Marveling at my children. Next week they'll start their various summer camps, which will run straight through until school starts again. That's good because it will get them out of the house, away from the TV, Wii, and computer, and out of Noel's way while he tries to work his usual schedule. But I'll miss their intense energy and bewildering, delightful imagination lurking around every corner. Luckily we still have nights, weekends, and holidays.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bandwagon's in the garage, but I'm finally on it

I twitter and plurk, Facebook and Skype, blog and ravel. But there's one piece of communications technology I haven't yet adopted.

The cell phone.

Fifteen years ago, when cell phones were first becoming everyday accessories (rather than accoutrements for the rich who wanted to be able to make telephone calls from their cars or construction sites), I decided that I didn't care to be available twenty-four hours a day, at the beck and call of anyone with my number. It was the age of Caller ID and e-mail. We got to decide who we communicated with, and when. Carrying a phone around seemed like a step backwards in that trend toward control.

I still feel that way, actually. I'm annoyed enough by students' phones going off in class or in conferences that I'm reminded all over again why I don't want to be a slave to the ring. It amazes me when I'm in a meeting and the convener's phone chimes. Invariably he looks guilty and apologizes while he checks it. Ten seconds later, as the night follows the day, the voicemail notification blurps, and he apologizes again. Why would I want to set myself up for that kind of embarassment and exasperate those around me, when I could just check my home or office voicemail as soon as I return?

We do have a mobile phone -- a prepaid one that we turn on only when we leave the kids with a sitter, or when we're traveling. For weeks at a time it goes untouched. We got it when Archer was born, for emergencies only, and that's the way it's remained. I love paying for more minutes once a year to keep the number rather than paying every month on a contract.

But my days of bopping around town untethered to the telephone system are numbered. I'm second in command at my unit. I need to be reachable when I'm at lunch or at the library or walking across campus. Intellectually I've known this for a while -- at least a couple of times a year when I help organize big events and everyone exchanges numbers like jewel thieves synchronize their watches -- but it wasn't brought home to me until last month. When our seniors give their presentations, I'm typically not scheduled to preside over one of the six or seven rooms where they happen throughout the day; my boss and I are free to float around and visit multiple rooms to hear a variety of students. Nobody told me any different this spring, so I just checked the schedules to make a list of the presentations I wanted or needed to attend. As they began, I was over at Starbucks getting a drink and doing some grading. As I made my way back toward the office about twenty minutes later, my boss intercepted me on the lawn and told me I was supposed to be moderating one of the rooms. Fortunately I only missed one presentation, but what I suddenly realized was what would have happened to 99% of people in that situation. As soon as somebody was noticed to be missing, she'd be called on her cell phone.

Only I don't carry a cell phone. Nobody knew where I was. My boss had to go looking for me on foot, hanging around our building until he spotted me coming.

There was no excuse for not being reachable, I realized. No excuse for being off the grid when I'm responsible for doing my part to keep the place running. I can't let my decades-old preferences inconvenience others who reasonably expect everyone to have a cell phone.

So before the summer's out, I'm biting the bullet. Now if I'm going to carry a cell phone, I'm going to carry a Cell Phone -- an iPhone. The TracFone is going to die a natural death, and we're leaping into the smartphone world with both feet. My timing is good, since iPhone prices just went down. But lemme tell ya, the AT&T contracts just make my blood run cold. A c-note a month or more for the privilege of being in touch? A two-year contract? It's exactly these kind of service plans, where you get locked into a money drain month after month after month, that made me feel so superior about my prepaid phone. I hate monthly bills, I hate debt, I hate not having control and feeling like my bank account's being siphoned regardless of whether I'm getting what I want or need.

And I can't quite imagine how I'll get acclimated to the cell phone world. I'd like to get the cheapest calling plan available and add unlimited texting, so I can do as much communicating as possible that way rather than by voice. But ... I've never texted. Would people text me? Whom would I text?

That's where I'm at, and I could sure use some advice. I'm confessing this, my most galling sin of technological omission, to you my readers. Have mercy, and give me the benefit of your experience, please.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Vacation success defined

  1. The lifeguards at the water park didn't blow their whistles at any of us.
  2. Cady Gray's first roller coaster ride -- and she whooped in glee all the way through then wanted to get right back on. Just like her mother.
  3. Kids slept on sofabed without fighting and allowed their parents to sleep until designated wake-up time.
  4. Frequent swimming occasioned not only much delight but actual swimming/floating progress.
  5. Barbecue for lunch.
  6. Ice cream for desert.
  7. No one threw up.
  8. Many paper airplanes made and tested at the Mid America Science Museum.
  9. More than eight people got on the elevator at the Hot Springs Mountain Observatory, yet we did not plummet to our deaths. (Four of them were children, luckily.)
  10. GPS intoned "Arriving at home" about two hours ago.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In the sun

We brought the kids down to Hot Springs, one of the many playgrounds that draw visitors from all over the state. It was hot. And while I love playing in the sun, the coloring of our family doesn't make it easy.

I'm kind of a sunscreen nut. If the kids are going to be outside for more than 10 minutes, I'm slatering them with cream. Actually, since I discovered spray-on sunscreen, I'm just spritzing them, which annoys all of us much less. I buy the bottle with the highest number I can find -- bonus points for waterproof, sweatproof, and ultra-anything.

During our four hours in the midday heat at the water park, I managed to keep the UV rays completely off of the kids. I wasn't so successful with own skin. When I examined my back later, I found red streaks around my swimsuit straps and on my back. Seems that spraying my own back didn't really do the trick -- I should have asked Noel to do it, and he should have asked me to do him (burned on shoulders and back.

Things were different when I was a kid, as some of you may remember. You didn't buy sunscreen -- you bought suntan lotion. My very fair skin burned any number of times, and more Solarcaine got put on me afterwards than SPF ahead of time. My preferred avatar on a number of sites is a snapshot of me at about two or three years old, pudgy belly pooching out of a plaid two-piece, red as a beet all the way down the arm. When I was in high school, a deep tan was highly coveted; seniors spent free periods on "Senior Beech" with reflectors under their faces; and despite my complexion, I succumbed to the conventional wisdom that you had to get burned early in the season so you could get a tan later. (I never got a tan that anyone could see from a speeding horse, but I delighted myself with the slightly darker "dots" I got on the backs of my hands through the holes in my cycling gloves.

It's been a long time since I had to feel the heat of sunburn for days after each summer excursion. I'm hoping my kids never -- or rarely -- do.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The road not taken

This afternoon, driving the kids home from lunch in our sensible Civic hybrid, Noel confessed to taking a long look at a young man on a motorcycle. He was helmetless (common in Arkansas), extensively tattooed, and had a beautiful girl clinging to his back. I understood what Noel was trying to say -- there's a freedom symbolized there that contrasts rather strongly to the minivan lifestyle we're now living.

There are a lot of things I sometimes wish I were able to do, if I were single, or childless, or in a position of less responsibility. Travel the country riding rollercoasters or visiting ballparks. Teach abroad. Heck, just go out to the movies more often.

But the tradeoff for being tied down has its perks. You have no idea how the sunny smile of my little girl makes every day worth living. How the strange enthusiasms and secret satisfactions of my son astound me. How rare and precious is the creative, meaningful work I get to do every day.

Some people get to live all stages of their lives to the fullest. It's probably common -- even cliche -- for people who've jumped quickly into family and work to wish for the greener pastures beyond the suburbs, where young tattooed men roar past on their iron horses with their girlfriend's hair blowing in the wind. Not everyone is lucky enough, though, to have such incandescent reminders of how good they've really got it right here on the home side of the fence. For that, I'm thankful.

Monday, June 15, 2009


You probably know many people who boast about how much vacation they've accumulated over their years of work, and how little of it they ever take. I'm on vacation this week, and while I'm not sure how much time I have accrued, I know that I don't come near using it in a calendar year.

Maybe that's because I'm not sure what I'd do with it. This morning I actually went to Starbucks so I could get a couple of pieces written on deadline while Noel watched the kids. It was like being at work, except I couldn't go to my office because ... I'm on vacation.

We are taking a short two-day trip with the kids mid-week. Given a choice between days where thunderstorms threatened and sunny days, we chose what promises to be the hottest days of the year so far. I plan to spend all moments out-of-doors dunked up to my neck in chlorinated water.

My parents took us on meandering trips through historic regions every summer. I treasure those memories, and the time is fast approaching when we need to start making some of them for our kids. The thought of spending weeks of vacation time actually traveling, though, is quite daunting at this stage in their lives. There's also the matter of through-the-woods-to-grandmother's-house -- unlike my upbringing with two sets just across town, visiting grandma and grandpa is an expensive and time-consuming proposition for our family. If you're going to muster the funds and energy to go anywhere, it's kind of difficult to justify a destination without relatives.

Maybe next summer we'll plan a major excursion. This year I'm just as happy to be vacationing near home, and only for a few days. Now if I could only figure out how to stop working while I'm on vacation, I'll really have this whole thing licked.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The five-cent tour

Noel cut together a quick video of our 24 hours in Eureka Springs. As the billboards for all the hotels say, "BIKERS WELCOME." Note: The original music Noel put in the background was rejected by YouTube and replaced with something lame.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Happiness is ...

... cookies-and-cream truffles.
... pressing the foot pedal of a working vintage sewing machine.
... buying yarn.
... a new straw hat.
... a four-year-old's smile.
... turning the pages of an unexpectedly good book.
... a new volume of Little Orphan Annie.
... Jeff Smith for kids.
... cinnamon rolls for dinner.
... Mom's potato salad.
... accomplishments and milestones.
... dinner with your husband.
... permission to cast on.
... looking forward.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Because Granny Lou and Papa are here, Noel and I have a chance to get away for a night. We came to Eureka Springs, an oddball enclave of artists, new agers, bikers, ghosts, and wedding parties.

On the way we drove through a lightning storm and downpour, even pulling over for awhile when it was coming down too hard to see much. We got a phone call from my folks while we were still driving with the somewhat disturbing news that the power had gone out -- the one thing Archer gets anxious about whenever there's a thunderstorm warning. Later when we called again, we caught them on the way to the kids' swim lesson, and found that the power was also out at the Hendrix Aquatic Center.

We had a nice stroll around the streets of the city and a terrific dinner at a little dive bar. When we got back to the hotel, I nervously called again. I hated to think that I had left the grandparents with the kids at the precise moment their routine was about to be disrupted by a combination of disappointment (their last swim lesson canceled) and fear (bedtime with no nightlights or radios).

How relieved I was to hear that everything was back to normal. The swim lesson went on as planned, and their teachers praised them to the skies for their efforts. Back at the house, all the lights were on. And as Archer told me, "We played the fastest game of Sorry on record. We just zipped around the board and into Home. And I won the game." (Cady Gray: "We played Sorry and Granny Lou was the yellow pieces. I was blue, and I won! Actually, everyone was a winner.")

Although we're only a few hours away, and although Archer is a lot more flexible than he was when he was younger, it's still a little nerve-racking to leave him. We've grown used to anticipating his needs and thinking in his terms that sometimes we forget that there's anything unusual about him at all. And then we go for a walk with his grandparents, and he spends twenty minutes quoting from the Mario Kart Wii instruction manual, and we remember.

It's good to be child-free for twenty-four hours. But it will be good to be back where we belong, too, taking care of the children who need us.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I'm a bad loser. Maybe not as bad as some, but I get testy when I'm behind in a game. My parents are here to visit their grandkids, and last night we played Phase 10. Is there any worse game to be behind in? Your opponents pass phase after phase, and you're left repeating the same rounds.

When we were kids, we played games during dinner, or afterwards, just about every night. We went through phases, so to speak. For months we'd play nothing but Spite and Malice, or King's Corner, or Rummikub.

I remember other phases from my childhood. There was the Presto Fry Daddy we got at one point leading to a spate of deep-fried items. On the other end of the spectrum was the stir-fry kick that lasted a few months. When Mom took a cooking class and got a crepe pan, we froze stacks and stacks of thin pancakes, enough to last a French family for a year.

Maybe that experience has led me to a kind of all-in mentality. When I get hooked on something, I go all the way. I buy every book, every accessory, spend hours doing research, obsess over it, dream about it. Sometimes the phase only lasts through the first burst of shopping, since eventually all that stuff that seemed so essential when I bought it ends up gathering dust. But most of the time I will stubbornly stick with something I jumped into too quickly and too deep, just to keep from admitting defeat. Because I'm not a good loser.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


For the second Wrapped Up In Books monthly feature, the topic is Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Full disclosure: It's the first of McCarthy's books I've ever read.

In a way the novel is right up my alley: austere, quasi-Biblical, almost fantastical. But the relentless horror and opaque narrative point of view did not make for pleasant reading. It's a book I ended up admiring much more than enjoying. I couldn't deny the power in it. But a book with a similar theme, but with a stronger narrative and some peek into internal life to the characters, would have grabbed me and not let go.

If you want to read my take on the book, in conversation with the other staffers who've already posted, it's on the site as of late this afternoon. I hope you'll stop by at 5 pm Eastern (4 Central) for the live chat where we'll hash it all out.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Make you wanna ...

As an early Father's Day gift, I got Noel the new EA Sports Active fitness game for the Wii, and we've both been working out with it for a couple of weeks. It's pretty challenging for couch potatoes like us. By far the hardest part, though, is the jumping. As the workouts get more intense, more jumping exercises are added. Jump from a squat. Jump from a lunge. Jump side to side.

Jumping is an integral part of the childhood repertoire, of course. It's not a matter of making the effort to jump, when you're a kid. Jumping comes naturally. In fact, it's unusual for Cady Gray to move without jumping. But I can probably go months without having both feet leave the ground at the same time.

But for a relatively unathletic adult, jumping is rare and extraordinarily difficult. I'm amazed at how hard it is to leave the ground -- how much effort it takes, and how tiring it is. How can something that starts out as easy as walking become so arduous?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Sink or swim

The kids are having swim lessons over at the brand new aquatic center of the private college across the railroad tracks. Archer had lessons for a week last year and was doing great until that one time he jumped into the instructor's arms -- and the instructor let him go under for a second before grabbing him. It was a calculated move to help him get his head underwater, but it spooked him. He wouldn't jump at all after that. And he's scared to death of putting his head under.

Cady Gray is taking her first lessons. She's a rank beginner, but she's excited about learning. After her first excursions out and back with the instructor holding her so she could kick and pump her arms, she hopped over to me, barely able to contain herself. "Did you see that I even swam with my arms? And I got my ears wet?"

Archer, on the other hand, is in a group of other seven- and eight-year-olds. They're already good swimmers, while he's hanging onto the wall trying to muster up the courage to get his nose under water. The instructor spent a lot of one-on-one time with him, but at the end of the lesson, he went off with the other pupils to jump off the diving board and freestyle in the deep end, and Archer's time was up.

On the way home, Cady Gray was enthusing about how much she loves swimming lessons. Meanwhile, Archer was trying to lowball his own expectations. "I think I got about a 34%," he said. "60% is passing. What happens if I don't get 60%?" "You keep practicing," I told him. "This isn't a test. There's no deadline. You just keep practicing until you get it." "What if I don't put my head underwater?" he persisted.

I know where he's coming from. I have a fear of failure, too. I'd rather not try if I have a suspicion I can't do it.

It's not like I have anything particular invested in his swimming. Really, all I want is for him to be able to dogpaddle his way to safety if he falls in to a body of water. But as kids grow up and become part of peer groups with activities and birthday parties and field trips, you start to worry that they won't be able to fully participate in their own childhood without certain essential skills.

I try not to stress about these kinds of things. Archer will acquire the skills he wants to acquire, in a timeframe set by his own motivation. I'm seeing that already this summer with his dedication to mastering Wii games. That's a physical discipline to which he's decided to apply himself, and it's paying off handsomely and quickly -- more so than I ever would have expected.

These big physical milestones, though -- riding a bike, swimming, someday making a basket or a catch -- they loom. I need some help staying positive, and helping my boy to do the same, in the face of hurdles we'd rather run around.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I just came from my annual presentation to the incoming freshmen, where I elicit their cinematic standards (realistic, believable, relatable, draws you in and keeps you watching) and then try to destroy those standards one by one. My methodology is the musical. The conventions force us into new stances toward the material. And the form can even be used to create distance, to subvert genre expectations, to question the conventions themselves. It comes sometimes from cultures with their own take, with alien emotional beats and technical traditions.

Now here I am watching the Tonys. And I'm full of love right now, as I always am after that presentation, for theatricality and heart-on-your-sleeve performance. In the perfect mood, in other words, for a celebration of Broadway.

I have to maintain a certain critical stance -- at least to the extent that I can ask questions about quality and elicit the students' responses -- while hosting that 75 minutes for the students. But the truth is that I'm almost in tears during every single clip I show. My selection varies little, and over the years it's been honed to the moments that move me the most. "Pines of Rome" in Fantasia 2000. "Your Song" in Moulin Rouge. "Start Of Something New" in High School Musical. "Singin' In The Rain." "Ghanan Ghanan" in Lagaan. "Cvalda" in Dancer In The Dark.

If anybody cared to, they could create a frighteningly accurate psychological profile of me from that list. Please feel free. I need to excuse myself for a moment; there's something caught in my eye.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


While the kids were playing in their rooms this early afternoon, Noel watched a documentary to review called (unfortunately) Enlighten Up! The director has been practicing yoga for several years, and decided she wanted to introduce a novice to the exercise, following his progress to see whether he experienced any transformations.

Although infuriating in some ways, the documentary captures the novice's fascinating conversations with established masters from many yogic schools in the United States and in India. They give him conflicting answers to his questions: Is yoga a physical or spiritual exercise? What is it for? How do you do it correctly?

The lifelong practice of yoga is frequently emphasized. Doing the same things over and over and over, day after day, year after year, not knowing when there will be an outcome or what the outcome will be -- it runs counter to our goal-oriented thinking, doesn't it?

Watching, I suddenly realized that I've made a decision to do something everyday, too -- not because I know what will happen if I do, but just because I sense that the discipline will teach me something about myself. I write in this blog every day. I don't write the same things; somedays I just copy what someone else has written. Most of what I write is inconsequential, even repetitive.

But maybe people doing what look outwardly to be the same yoga poses over and over again aren't, in fact, repeating themselves. Maybe the pose is truly a different experience depending on where it's done and who's doing it and what has happened to them a moment ago, a day ago, a year ago. So I wouldn't have to write the same blog entry over and over in order to approximate the same kind of daily practice.

You may do something by choice every day, too -- pray, run, read, cook. Do you know what you want to get out of it? Do you just do it because doing something by choice every day seems inherently a good exercise? Are you sometimes surprised by what happens -- or what doesn't happen?

Friday, June 5, 2009

When your working days are through

I really look forward to weekends this days. To a ridiculous degree, really.

It's not that work is so bad. In fact, it's quite flexible, often creative, and (in the summer at least) low-stress. It's just that weekend things are extra-special.

What are weekend things? Well, there's the pleasure of consuming items that are forbidden under my No-S Diet. Sodas, mainly. That first cola of the weekend is something I look forward to, way too much. And chocolate. That food and drink that I enjoy so much -- it's a big reason I approach every weekend with delight and anticipation.

Then there's sleeping late. I only get one morning of sleeping past 7 am every week: Saturday. Noel gets Sunday. On Friday night I stay up extra late, I read as long as I want, and then when Archer bursts into our room in the morning with his usual, "Mom and Dad, it's time to get up," I turn over and close my eyes again. I really love sleeping. So an extra couple of hours of sleep is a rare and wonderful pleasure.

If there's something in theaters that we want to see, we get a babysitter and go out for a date night of dinner and a movie. Actually having a conversation that lasts longer than thirty seconds feels quite indulgent.

And usually Noel takes the kids somewhere for most of an afternoon, leaving me the house to myself. I use that time either to knit or to organize my knitting stuff. That doesn't sound very exciting, I know, but it represents something I do just for me, just because it brings me joy and makes me feel creative, productive, and in control. I treasure those hours and try to make the most of them.

If you're young, single, childless, and ambitious, this might sound truly sad. Is this all I have in life? Do I slave away all week over a hot dry-erase board just for a few extra hours of sleep and knitting on the couch?

But it all means a lot more than it did just a few years ago. The routine of child care, work, and self-discipline is unsustainable without built-in respites. Conscious enjoyment of those breaks gives life a shape, time an arc. I feel deep happiness in those days and moments of pure indulgence.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The kids got a closeup-identification quiz game with their Quizno's meals tonight. As we walked around the neighborhood on a beautiful breezy evening, we got to experience ...

If Cady Gray Were A Game Show Host

CG: Okay, Mom, tell me the clues. You can earn four points, three points, two points, or one point.

Me: I think you have to tell me the clues, and I guess the answer.

CG: Okay. Here are the four clues. It's a form of transportation, human powered, it has spokes, and it can have training wheels.

Archer: Bike!

CG: Well, I'm sorry but you were supposed to say bicycle. Okay, here's the next question, and I will give you the first hint. It can purr but it can't roar.

Me: Cat?

CG: No, that's not it.

Me: Can I have another clue?

CG: The answer you should have said was cheetah. Cheetah. Okay, I'm going to give the cards to Archer so he can check them. Is the answer cheetah, Archer?

Archer: Uh-huh.

CG: Okay, here is the next clue for the game. You find it on a beach, and it's a multicolored ball.

Dad: Beach ball!

CG: Oh, that is correct! Beach ball is the right answer! Okay, who got that one?

Dad: I did.

CG: And who got the last one?

Me: No one did because you gave us the answer too quickly.

CG: All right, I'll give that one to you because I gave you the answer too quickly. Just hold this card. Okay, we're going on to the next clue. Here is the first hint: It is made out of pigskin.

Me: Football.

CG: You can punt, pass, or kick it.

Me: Football.

CG: You tackle the person carrying it.

Me: Football.

CG: Well, Mom, it surely is the right answer! Archer, how much money does she get for that?

Archer: A thousand dollars.

CG: Okay, here is your next question. I'll give you a hint, and you try to guess. It's a toy that walks down stairs.

Dad: (whispers to me) Slinky.

Me: Can I have another clue?

CG: It can be made of metal or plastic, and I have one in my room in a box.

Archer: Is it an igloo?

Me: Slinky!

CG: Correct! All right, it's time for the next question. It's a popular flavor for desserts, and it has a shell that is hard to crack.

Archer: Egg!

Dad: Let me see the picture. Is it coconut?

CG: Oh, that is the right answer! Okay, I'll take all the cards now.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Picking up stakes

It's the time of year when a lot of people I know are on the move. Students who just graduated are finding apartments near their graduate school campuses. Others are getting jobs, leaving jobs, or relocating closer to their jobs, a better place, something more affordable.

Settled as I am, I feel more nervous for these friends in transit than they might even feel for themselves. Last night I had dinner with recent graduates and talked about the places they were bound: New York, Chicago, Savannah, Oxford Mississippi. Their coveted spots in prestigious programs didn't come with financial support. Not only are they leaving home for the great unknown, they're going into some serious debt.

Looking back at that time in my own life, I find that I worried very little about how it was all going to work. With supreme confidence in my abilities and the unfounded belief that academia owed me a living, I never had to stare into the abyss of loans or weigh the worth of my education against what it was all costing.

And so I'm not sure my advice is worth much to these students. What good is my experience, when their burdens are so different? Should I really be telling them to grab that top-tier graduate program slot even with no fellowship or assistantship?

The problem is that I've seen any number of students put off the decision to attend grad school in recent years -- only to get stuck, seemingly. I've started to worry that students clearly destined for an academic life won't be able to get there if they decide to wait. The momentum dries up along with the best opportunity to work your way into some funding. My probably poor advice stems from that concern.

So there they go -- students, friends, proteges, acquaintances far and wide. Moving around, moving on, chasing the dream or giving up on one. I haven't lived that life in so long that their mobility astounds and frightens me. I wish them all the best, and I'm glad I'm just watching them from the sidelines.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


I went for my yearly eye check-up today. You might not know that I have terrible vision. It all started in fourth grade when I was seated near the back of the glass, and was frequently seen squinting at the board. When I got my first pair of glasses, I couldn't believe how clearly normal people saw the world. The sharp edges were hyper-real, like I was living in the Matrix all of the sudden.

In eighth grade I switch to daily-wear contacts. Back then disposables hadn't yet been invented. And so I've never changed. I think I'm single-handedly keeping the daily-wear contact industry in business ... if indeed one pair a year is enough to keep them in business.

I've never forgotten one particular eye exam when I was in high school. I read the chart with my right eye; "20/100," announced the doctor, making a notation on the chart. I tried to read the chart with my left eye, but couldn't see any of the letters. The doctor held up three fingers in the stream of light, and I gave the right number. "Counted fingers," said the doctor, writing on the chart.

For years I boasted about how bad my eyes were by telling that story. But now I wonder if it ever happened that way. I've gotten many eye exams since then, and not once has an optometrist ever resorted to holding up fingers. My eyes are still bad -- really bad -- but maybe they're not as legendarily bad as I've always believed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Two of the R's

Archer brought home his "Reading and Writing Log" from school today. In it he's recorded, in a rather formulaic fashion, summaries of books he read in class. Some samples:

Stella Lou Ella's Runaway Book
Stella's book got lost.
Lots of people read it and passed it.
It's due 5:00 P.M.
Will it be at the library on time?

Library Lil by Suzanne Williams
G. - Realistic fiction
Bust-'em-up Bill was blocking Lil's parking place. Will she move the bikes?
The author wrote this book to entertain.

Cats by Gail Gibbons
G. - Nonfiction
The phrase "MEOW" is when cats are noticed well. Aren't these cats good hunters?
The author wrote this book to entertain.

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Weber
G. - Realistic fiction
Lyle was dismissed from the pajama department to the zoo. Then he moved to Australia. Will he get back to the house on East 88th Street?
The author wrote this book to entertain.

Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles
The Old One told them she would go to Mother Earth when the rug is finished. Annie tried lots of things to stop the weaving. Annie learned you can't change what's going to happen.

The Three Little Pigs and The Big Bad Wolf by Glen Rounds
G. - Realistic Fiction
The 3 little pigs had to make new homes. They also had to watch out for the big bad wolf. After he actually blown down a house, he ate a pig. Will he eat the third little pig? The author wrote this book to entertain.

Martin's Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
G. - Nonfiction
Martin saw some "White Only" signs when he was a boy. He waited for 340 years for his rights. Might he die? The author wrote this book to entertain.

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
My pathological fear is an error while I'm logging on. I really like the site I log on to.

A Child's Calendar by Joan Updike
G. - Fiction
The year began in January.
Spring began in April.
Summer began in June.
Fall began in September.
Winter began in December.
Will the next month be January again?
The author wrote this book to entertain.