Monday, August 31, 2009

Keeping the conversation going

A movie nerd discussion group in which I've lurked for many, many years has started a conversation about changing formats. The intermittently active community interacts through the venerable medium of the listserv, also known as an e-mail list, a Yahoo! Group, and so forth. You're all familiar with them, I'm sure. To post a message, you send an e-mail to the group address, and the listserv program e-mails it to everyone in the group individually.

Way back in the early part of this decade, I gave a conference presentation about the relative merits of listservs ("push" technologies, so-called because the information is pushed into the e-mail inboxes of each user) and courseware sites ("pull" technologies, which rely on the inherent attractiveness or value of the information contained therein to draw users onto the site).

The advantages of listservs primarily lie in their convenience. The conversations come directly to you via e-mail, and you don't have to make any special effort to follow along. If you want to participate, it's as simple as replying to the e-mail.

But there are some hidden pitfalls. Members may post messages that others consider uninteresting or annoying -- and without leaving the group, there's no way to stop them from cluttering the inbox. Active conversations often get "out of sync," with members posting replies meant specifically for one or a few users, while cross-talk goes on under the same subject heading unrelated to that exchange. Although posting is easy, posting etiquette -- discouraging top-posts, judicious quoting, what counts as appropriate listserv fodder -- is correspondingly difficult to enforce.

Enter the forum, or bulletin board -- an online destination where discussions are threaded, recorded, and most importantly, ordered. Unlike the afterthought archives page of a listserv -- how could you expect anything else from a push technology? -- the pull technology of a forum means that the unit of conversation is the thread, not the post (or the e-mail). They're searchable, they're flexible, they're constructive at their best and contained at their worst, and several conversations can go on at once with people checking in only on those that interest them.

But they're inconvenient, because people have to change their behavior to use them. They have to go to the forum; they have to seek out the conversation. Now there are ways to get activity pushed to you -- most forums allow you to subscribe to an area or a thread to get notified of new posts; even better is a daily digest of new and most active threads, e-mailed to all users. But it's not the same as every message from every member of the group just dropping onto your desktop.

I happen to think that the benefits of the latter outweigh the convenience of the former. Yet I'm under no illusions about the drawbacks. I'm in favor of the move, especially since the group has been pretty dead for a long time. On a forum, the group will change. For better, for worse, who can say -- but it will be different because the communication medium will be different, just as a telephone conversation has different rhythms and nuances than a meeting in a diner.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

After the boys of summer are gone

Today's post about the serendipity of a hat is at Toxophily.

Thanks to our friend Ali's invitation, we went down to Dickey-Stephens Park for the last afternoon game of the season. It was a glorious afternoon. Here are two children at a baseball game on the last weekend of August -- one keeping score, one mugging for the camera.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Selected work

For the last few weeks, there's been a tote bag in our backseat with about fifteen of those Fawcett-Crest Peanuts paperbacks inside. Cady Gray likes to read them while we're driving, or anywhere she ends up at loose ends (like during church).

Those particular books come from Noel's childhood library, but my brothers and I had our own storehouse of them as kids. I remember vividly picking them off of rotating racks at any truck stop or souvenir stand we happened upon during family vacations.

Then as now, the provenance of the strips inside was somewhat confounding. Each paperback bore on its cover a cryptic phrase like "Selected strips from You're A Good Egg, Charlie Brown and Good Grief, Snoopy!"

Clearly there were collections that preceded the one I held in my hand. My book was some kind of recombination of previous books. But the books mentioned were not around, and it was impossible to tell if they were originals, or if they themselves were selected from some prior iteration.

Every time I see that phrasing on the cover of whatever comics collection Cady Gray is reading, I wonder whether there's a Patient Zero of those Fawcett-Crest Peanuts paperbacks. Or is it simply turtles all the way down?

Friday, August 28, 2009


When you're in charge of things, you have to do two things that make other people upset with you. You have to make decisions, and you have to take responsibility for screw-ups.

I got in trouble in the latter way this morning. A person in my unit was the victim of a serious screw-up. Ultimately I and my fellow administrators were responsible, and when I got the call this morning from this justifiably very upset person, I didn't hesitate at all to abase myself and accept full blame.

These unpleasant moments are going to come up for anyone in my position every once in a while. The question is how you are going to respond. Are you going to take the failure personally and feel the paralyzing fear that comes from knowing you've made a big mistake?

I know that feeling really well. Like most of my students, I've gotten where I am today by pleasing people. Therefore the most devastating feeling I regularly experience is when people are unhappy with me. It's a queasy feeling in my gut, a dizzy sensation in my head, an anxiety that keeps me up at night.

If you're in a position where you're bound to tick people off, you can't be incapacitated by this feeling every couple of weeks (or days). So you have to learn how to take responsibility for problems without taking them personally, as it were. Not that you don't resolve to do better, not that you don't try to make up for the error, not that you don't sincerely regret the problem and sympathize with those affected. But at some level, you have to externalize the consequences. The outcome must be manifested in remedial action, not in personal stress and recriminations.

It's hard not to wonder if my ability to avoid stomach-churning and nail-biting over this signals that my heart is hardening. From my point of view, having spent my life at the mercy of others' opinions, a smidge more control over my own self-esteem doesn't sound so bad. As long as the others whom I wrong don't notice a difference in what I actually do about it, as opposed to how I feel about it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Name something

I'm looking forward to all the interesting work Archer will bring home as a third grader. It's always fascinating when the assignments provide a peek into his mental processes. Here's an early example -- a worksheet that asks him to fill in the blanks.

Name Something
  1. Name something funny. silly glasses

  2. Name something green. A green folder

  3. Name something shiny. A gold coin

  4. Name something pretty. A tiera

  5. Name something big. A piano

  6. Name something furry. A cat

  7. Name something mysterious. A magnefieing glass

  8. Name something purple. A plum

  9. Name something curly. A spring

  10. Name something slow. A snail

  11. Name something salty. Salt

  12. Name something sweet. Candy

  13. Name something strong. A weightlifter

  14. Name something yellow. A banana

  15. Name something wild. A lion

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Well children

We took the kids in for their double-barrelled yearly check-ups today, complete with a bunch o' shots (three for Cady Gray, two for Archer), a hearing and vision check for Cady Gray, and of course, a lot of waiting around in a small exam room.

Like almost everyone, I'll bet, I have vivid memories of my pediatrician's office from childhood. The smell is what I remember best -- rubber and paper, like if the downtown library was next to a tire factory. I can remember some individual visits, even, like the one where my younger brother got tested for all the allergies in the world, all over his back. And the ones where the big trigger needle came out instead of the syringe. And the one when my dad brought me from the farm where I'd complained of cramps, and we were told that I was probably getting my first period.

It's strange to realize that my children will have vivid memories of the clinic they've been going to for years, this new building with no discernible smell (to me) and no salient features (to me). Someday they'll be able to recall the Greatest Story Ever Told lying on top of the book basket, or the red-upholstered stool on smooth-gliding wheels, or the portrait of a Pekingese by the nurse practitioner hanging on the wall.

What do you remember about your childhood checkups?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Someone's eager to listen

Today's post about finding the right way to use beautiful yarn is at Toxophily.

And today is my second child's fifth birthday. I'm a biased observer, naturally, but in my estimation, her beauty is matched by her intelligence and sweetness. Happy birthday, my love.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to school sale

I depend on the semiannual Rhea Lana consignment sale to outfit my kids. And thankfully, the sale was moved up closer to the beginning of school this year. So this afternoon I completed my work and headed out to the dying shopping center on the edge of town, where the sale has commandeered five storefronts for the week.

If you're going to try to get ninety percent of your kids' fall-winter clothing in one swell foop, strategy is essential. Shopping carts are scarce, if present at all, and you can only carry around six or ten outfits before your carryin' arm gets tired and you lose your will to flip through the racks. So smart shoppers bring a laundry basket to fill. I've even seen some being dragged around with jumpropes or clothesline, the better to move quickly without having to lean over and lift from the knees.

Naturally it helps if you know what size your children are, generally speaking. However, if you rarely shop at actual stores, you don't get that regular checkup on the key numbers. So there's some guesswork and projection involved.

Cady Gray was comfortable in size 5 tops last winter, but she was still wearing some size four pants and leggings with plenty of length to spare. So I shopped exclusively on the size 6 racks for her today; the shirts and sweaters will fit this year, and the pants next year -- no problem since she still has plenty of size 5 pants that I bought at last year's sale. Archer is rail-thin, making the ratio of length to waist circumference a problem. He made it through last year with size 6 pants, which were pretty short by the time it got to be shorts weather. Eyeballing the size 7 and 8 pants, I was of the opinion that size 8 pants were ridiculously long. I was a little worried that size 7's would be vulnerable to a height spurt, but if I got them with enough elastic in the waist, they should be presentable for long enough.

As for styles, I have definite opinions. I stay away from pink and purple in the girls' section as much as possible, and I like to keep it simple -- long-sleeve tees that can be layered, not a lot of frou-frou. For Archer, it's all about stripes. I love a boy in a striped tee shirt; it's just ... boyish in a way that makes me happy.

If I can get out the door with seven to ten shirts, four or five pants, a jacket and sweater, and a pair of pajamas for each child, I consider it a Rhea Lane sale well shopped. PJs get harder to find the older they get, but for everything else, I scored -- and I only broke my "nothing over five dollars" rule for a couple of special items. Now to put bricks on the kids heads and try to keep them the same size until March or so!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Helping us all to remember what we came here for

Today's post about birthday knitting and the resulting joy is at Toxophily.

The weekend has been every bit as wonderful as I thought it would be, with amazing coolish August weather as the icing on the Mario Brothers birthday cake. Here's one more picture of the party, showing Cady Gray's girlish and appropriately Japanese glee at everyone singing "Happy Birthday" to her:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Five eight

This morning, our newly eight-year-old son and our almost five-year-old daughter shared a birthday party at the park. Then this afternoon, they opened presents from the family. Herewith, a photoessay.

The kids, um, had a lot of energy.

Thanks to timely and generous artwork provided by the incomparable Lydia (who was paid in birthday cake), the boys pinned mustaches on Mario ...

... and the girls pinned crowns on Princess Peach. (Yeah, I know it's a gender stereotype. A liberated dad at the party told me it was okay.)

Pizza and juice boxes for all!

Take a look at this awesome Mario-themed cake provided by our local bakery, Ed's!

Cady Gray is quite overcome by the singing of "Happy Birthday" to her.

Archer just wants cake.

What's this weird glop of decompasing food on the playground?

Maybe everybody should take a look at it.

Back at home, electronic games were found under layers of wrapping paper.

Granny Lou and Papa sent real Capezio ballet shoes!

Mom knit hats based on beloved trademarked characters.

After all the excitement, a quiet afternoon building with our new magnetic shape blocks is exactly what we needed.

Level ups for everyone!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Celebration weekened

There's something really special about this weekend. It seems the stars have aligned to produce a near-perfect confluence of enjoyment. Let's count the factors:
  1. Birthday party! The kids will have their shared birthday party tomorrow morning. Subfactors: (a) It's a slacker party at a local public park with a game exchange instead of present-giving. (b) Tomorrow is going to be the nicest day of summer in weeks, with temperatures in the low eighties and plenty of sunshine.

  2. Tarantino! His new film has generated plenty of heated disagreement, which makes me eager to see it for myself.

  3. No class! Since classes have started, I feel a great sense of freedom on the weekend when school is not in session. Yet since classes have just started, I don't have any work to do to prepare for next week. Win-win!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

New beginnings

I taught my first class of the year today, and it was one that was especially fraught with danger. For the second time in two years I'm teaching outside my department -- this time in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Happily the students in my seminar on process theology were very kind. They nodded with understanding as I went over the syllabus, even the requirements which are probably less common in their classes than in the ones I usually teach, like shared notetaking, podcasting, and blogging. They contributed energetically to the brief discussion after we got done with the logistics. I left feeling like the class had a chance of working.

While we were taking a stroll around the neighborhood after dinner, Noel asked me whether I hoped to open eyes or change lives with this class. I really don't want to present the students with any kind of crisis, I answered. If the class has any goals for what I want the students to be (as opposed to what I want them to know or do), it's simply this. I want them to appreciate the honest struggle of some thoughtful religious people to find ways to be faithful in the twenty-first century -- ways to integrate understandings of the world that they can't easily deny with a belief in the transcendent that they have no desire to abandon.

There are a variety of attitudes toward religion in the class; that I can see from my informal first day survey. I have a student who leans toward Hinduism, another that leans toward Buddhism. I have two who cited interests in Christian apologetics, plus a couple of Catholics. There are a few students who didn't mention any religious belief, and one who stated that he's an atheist.

I think all those students will need to take some kind of journey to empathize with the impulses, desires, and needs that lead some religious thinkers to embrace process thought. It's hard to tell on the first day if they want to go there. But at least the friendly faces and open discussion give me hope that my goals aren't completely unrealistic. And at least we all know where we stand; it remains to be seen if we want to move.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Personal messages

Today is Archer's eighth birthday -- and the first day of school for both him and Cady Gray, whose birthday is next Tuesday. Last week I took them separately to buy birthday presents for each other, and it wasn't hard to steer them to an aisle where they could not only locate something perfectly suited for their sibling, but also something that might be useful for, oh, the first day of school, let's say.

Yesterday I collared each of them in turn to sign the birthday cards they picked out. Their approaches to the task were as perfectly matched as the gifts they selected.

Cady Gray's effort to communicate the rationale behind her choice of card:

... and Archer's provision of an opportunity to quantify the experience (note that Cady Gray happily played along):

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Summer's last light

Tomorrow my last child enters the tender embrace of the school system. Tonight, she's still a little girl playing school with her brother on a summer's night.

Here's a selection from their summer activities, put together by their dad. Enjoy!

Monday, August 17, 2009


I have a love-hate relationship with instructions. Well do I remember the elementary school worksheet that told me in no uncertain terms to read all the directions before beginning. Naturally I was too impatient for that, and so I dived right in doing math problems and coloring all the O's orange and underlining all the threes ... only to find that the last instruction was to disregard all previous instructions. Oops.

The early days of any school year are all about instructions. Today we had our initial meeting with the new freshmen, in which they were provided with a bewildering sheaf of papers and asked to remember and not fail to do a long laundry list of things. And then our kids went to their elementary school and heard a similar spiel from their new teachers while acquiring similarly varied folders full of forms to be returned and procedures to be followed.

I spend a lot of time getting my classes organized so they'll run smoothly throughout the semester, so naturally I find myself giving exactly these kind of talks on a regular basis. And every year I listen to myself and hate what I hear. Sure, these are things that people need to know. But a rambling lecture -- heck, even an organized lecture -- on logistical details makes even the most dedicated listener weary, confused, and disengaged. Trying to emphasize ten tips and five rules and seven policies results inevitably in zero items actually being heard, understood, and retained.

So having heard two of these talks today -- both lasting about 20-30 minutes, both involving shuffling large stacks of paper and muttering "did I cover everything ... oh yes, very important!" -- I'm already thinking about how to do things differently on the first days of my classes coming up shortly. What's the best first day of class you ever had -- or ever led? How do you handle all the logistical details that come with wrangling a group into the same procedures without turning the members' brains to mush?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Care package

I spent a couple of hours at midday meeting freshmen and their families, unloading their trucks and U-Hauls, and carrying their Rubbermaid containers and futon covers up to the top floors of the dormitory. It was in the nineties today, and every once in a while the loading zone at the front door emptied out and gave the students and me a chance to check our cell phones, suck down some water, and stand in the shade for a minute or two.

During one of those breaks I pulled out the scarf I'm making for the Orphan Foundation of America's Red Scarf project and knit a few rows. One of the student orientation staff made a joke about not needing a scarf today, which gave me a chance to mention why I was making one.

It seemed so appropriate to be knitting for college students with no parents while I was greeting parents who were dropping their children off at college for the first time. I love the Red Scarf Project because it gives me a chance to send the same kind of warmth that I enjoy lavishing on my students to former foster children attending college all over the country.

If you knit or crochet, consider making a scarf in any unisex color and pattern for this wonderful program. Starting September 1, you can send up to five scarves to the OFA, along with gift cards or the like, and they'll distribute the care packages next Valentine's Day to the thousands of young adults they serve.

If you're not a knitter or crocheter, you can contribute to the effort, too. Just donate via this PayPal link. The Orphan Foundation of America gets four stars, Charity Navigator's highest rating, and 91 cents out of every dollar donated goes straight to the beneficiaries. I promise it'll make you feel nearly as good as wearing a cozy handknit scarf on a frosty day.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


NPR did a story this morning about a new serial killer novel that comes with a packet of items -- driver's license, death certificates, etc. -- along with phone numbers and websites where you can interact with the characters.

It reminded me of one of the first places I spent a lot of time on the web -- The Spot. It was purported to be a kind of reality show on the web, with a bunch of beautiful people living in a house and posting journal entries and photos with all kinds of relationship gossip. I couldn't browse graphical sites from my Charlottesville apartment, but I had access to Netscape on my workplace computer. Several times a day I'd check in, looking for new content in the characters' diaries.

Even though the faux-real touches of projects like this are gimmicky, they have the potential to draw you in. One reason I'm so looking forward to seeing District 9 tonight is that it's framed in that documentary style. I find that approach makes me more alert, scanning for information and feeling like whatever I've caught is something I really possess, not something that was fed to me. It's a structure that involves me, exactly as it's designed to do.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Everything's coming up Millhouse

I joked to Noel tonight that I was in the midst of the Two Days of Donna. Today I acquired a new wall in my office ... just a few inches from an existing wall, but insulated and blocking a door that had let through a lot of sound from the adjoining room. It's going to be painted a deep shade of red -- an accent wall in my battleship-gray room, just like on the HGTV design shows!

And after a three month wait and lots of shipping back and forth to the Lenovo factories deep in Red China, I have a brand new tablet to replace my beloved (but four-year-old) X60. There's nothing I like better than setting up a new piece of equipment; I can spend hour upon hour tweaking the parameters, customizing the colors and menus, researching extensions and accessories. I lost myself in that process for the whole afternoon.

And if that weren't enough, Noel has a crazy plan to take the kids to Little Rock tomorrow, let them run wild through a toy store, stuff them full of pizza and bombard their senses with video games. That means I get to stay home and do whatever I want. Maybe for two, three hours! Then later that evening, Noel and I are going out to dinner and a movie. I really don't know what I've done to deserve such largesse.

Next week, the deluge: I'll help move freshmen into the dorms on Sunday, attend three meetings (one in full academic regalia) on Monday, and then it's just more meetings and frantic preparation before classes begin on Thursday. It's the perfect time for knitting, reading, thinking, and drawing a deep, contemplative breath. I plan to do them all tomorrow.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

In readiness

I've spent the last few weeks in mourning for the dying summer, savoring every last moment of peace and quiet on campus, gazing at my uncluttered calendar, and generally dreading the day when it would all end.

Today as I was walking home after a three-hour workshop and a two-and-a-half hour meeting, I caught up with a group of Honors students who are on campus a few days early to undergo training as residential mentors. Now I flatter myself that I'm a well-liked professor and that students are comfortable around me. (Students past and present, now's your time to disabuse me of my illusions.)

Falling into a conversation with the eight or nine students was effortless. And when I broke off from the group because their route and mine diverged, I was surprised to find myself energized. I felt as if I'd been plugged into the wall after sitting on standby.

Maybe the students coming back and my life getting more hectic has an upside, I realized. Am I fully alive when they aren't around?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Basic training

A couple of weeks ago the instructional resource center at my university sent out an announcement for "course design camp." People who were teaching a course for the first time, or reworking an existing course, were invited to come to a half-day workshop on the subject.

In my ten years of university teaching, I've designed lots of courses. If I had to do a quick count, it would be thirty to forty, counting major redesigns of courses with nominally the same topic. You'd think I'd consider myself something of a veteran, if not an expert.

But I signed up for the camp, because I find course design to be difficult work. I'd like to know about other approaches than the one I built for myself out of trial and error. Maybe there are better ways to accomplish some of the goals I set for myself in putting together my courses. It's tough for me because over time I've come to believe that just about all the values and processes of the course need to be carefully structured ahead of time; anything without very specific delineation in the syllabus and grading structure tends not to be successful in the implementation. I've gone from being a go-with-the-flow course designer to being a meticulous demiurge -- if not micromanager -- making sure everything is in place and robust, every contingency accounted for, every potential question answered, before I walk into class on the first day.

All that construction work is pretty intense, although it tends to be creative and rewarding. I guess I just wonder if there are other ways of going about it. I also wonder if my approach might prove to be the norm on this campus or an outlier, and I'm curious to see what methods my fellow workshop participants bring to the table. In the final analysis, I just find it irresistible to get a peek into other people's course design approaches, both informed and ad hoc, and see both what I might learn and where I currently stand.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Women be shoppin'!

It's a whole new world out there when your children are headed into the public school system. There are Requirements unthought of by the preschool parent. Specifically, the Requirement that students show up for twice-weekly physical education classes wearing sneakers.

Cady Gray lives her life in Crocs. She started in Robeez, graduated to Pedoodles, and then I bought a cheap pair of used Crocs at a consignment sale. It's been all Crocs ever since. She has two pair that fit currently. It's frankly been hard for me to imagine that she'd ever need to wear anything else, at least until she got married.

I didn't take P.E. into account, obviously.

So today she and I went shoe shopping, embarking on a ritual that has united mother and daughter since the dawn of the fashion industry. Well, it didn't unite my mother and I, because I had to wear orthopedic shoes until high school (or so it seemed to me). I'll never forget my grief at being denied saddle oxfords on the grounds that they wouldn't give me any arch support.

Given that I've been letting my child get by with Crocs for the past couple of years, it's clear that arch support is not high on my list of priorities. But I did find myself taking some interest in her choice of sneaker. I tried my best to steer her away from pink (we ended with sparkly blue). Easy velcro closure, of course. And I thought something with a bit more of an athletic shoe appearance might be better than the fabric-topped Keds type, although I'm probably fooling myself about the sporting benefits of the Sketchers we bought. I talked her down from the $50 Nikes that were her first choice, so it seems that space-age technology and pro-sports testing aren't really my priorities for a five-year-old's footwear.

Meanwhile, I had shoe needs, too, that I wanted to solve on this trip. Winter is here, and I was without a utilitarian yet reasonably professional pair of black mules. Thankfully the season's shipment of Born shoes had just arrived, and though I dithered over size (having to factor in room for the handknit socks, of course), I found just what I needed. We paid our bill with a sense of accomplishment and the special bliss that comes from shoe buying.

Yet I admit that I am still badly in need of boots. I have no shoes that can be worn in chilly weather with skirts, and I'm unwilling to completely cede my wardrobe to pants for several months a year. The selection of boots at the store was both daunting (in price) and uninspiring (in style). Where would you go to buy boots? What brands and styles work best? Advice, please!

Monday, August 10, 2009


In our brief few months' experience with a car navigation system, we've been amused by the reactions of the female voice to our automotive wanderings. Sometimes it asks us to go in what we consider strange directions to reach familiar destinations. Sometimes it isn't aware of the current state of construction and thinks we're offroad when we're actually on a perfectly good highway. Whatever the reason, when we deviate from its prescribed course, it gives us the same reaction: "Recalculating ..."

Today we found out that as an academic unit, our current direction is blocked and we're going to need to turn off on an alternate route. We have the same mission, the same goals, and we're going to have to do all the same things. But we'll be doing them at a different scale, with different resources, and with a different impact on our environment. We're going to have to recalculate in order to reach our destination.

It's hard to let go of the very detailed journey we spent the summer mapping out, the one that's been years in the making. But really, not much of it will change. The scenery will be a little different, the crowds will be smaller, the planning will be easier in many ways. We can't help but feel a sense of loss for the people that won't be able to come along, for the critical student mass that has so naturally bent our processes around its gravitational field. Everything will feel different at the mandated reduced size.

The danger is that it will feel less important. It shouldn't. Whether we are educating a thousand students or a hundred students, our mission is the same, and it requires the same efforts and functions and structure to achieve. All summer we've been thinking systematically about what those efforts, functions, and structures are, and how we can measure and demonstrate what they achieve. None of that lengthy, creative strategic planning process has gone to waste; arguably it's more critical than ever to actually do what we say we do, to make our promises into reality for the increasingly elite group that accepts our invitation to join.

I'm ready to see this in the best light. But there's always something a bit disappointed, a bit resigned and frustrated, about that voice: "Recalculating ..."

Sunday, August 9, 2009

No time to write

Noel and I are going out to dinner and a double feature tonight. That would have been nothing to our twenty-years-ago selves, but for oldsters like we are now, it's a marathon that requires use to psych ourselves up and carbo-load for days. Add to that the rather intense Super Mario Galaxy session that Archer roped me into this afternoon, and I'm not sure I'm capable of rational writing.

So I'll just leave you with the hope that you're having as relaxing as evening as I am. Enjoy!

Edited to add: OK, we didn't make it through two movies. We are so old. And Julie & Julia was somewhat ... awkward in structure and halting in execution. Yet my love for Meryl Streep knows no bounds. I need to revise my answer to this AVQ&A, Tasha, please.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A grand day out

Our fair city of Conway isn't really a tourist destination. It's a nice place to live and we enjoy its hometown charm. But I'm not sure what you do with people after you've taken them to Toad Suck Park and antiquing downtown and touring the college campuses.

So thank goodness our repeat guest this weekend is an easygoing sort. I've been hauling him around to look for crafting supplies and help Cady Gray shop for her brother's birthday and the like, when he's not being challenged by Archer to games of Mario Kart. It's probably not the kind of excitement anybody's looking for on vacation, but it's just about the best we can do on a hot August weekend when the kids need diversion, too.

But tonight I broke away and took him to Little Rock for an Arkansas Travelers ballgame. Because of the scarcity of day games on the schedule, we don't get to Dickey-Stephens park as much as I'd like. Most games start pretty close to the kids' bedtimes. So it was a real treat to see a few innings under the lights.

And I followed Charles Schulz's advice: A hot dog just tastes better with a ballgame around it. I know it's heresy, but I like my dogs with mayonnaise and ketchup, if I can't get 'em with cole slaw. We sat behind home plate and hoped that the season ticket holders whose seats they were wouldn't show up (and they didn't). The talk of academia and politics was occasionally interrupted by a dizzy bat race or budding no-hitter.

It was a lovely ending to a low-key visit by our friend Mark from Ohio. He's been unerringly gracious in letting us pursue our normal weekend program of keeping the kids entertained and getting a little work done, so it was nice to reward him with some Travelers baseball and adult conversation.

Friday, August 7, 2009


This is the last full weekend of summer for me. Next Sunday the freshman students move into the dorms, and then meetings and classes and appointments take over the schedule in earnest.

One of the great benefits of the academic calendar is that we get to start over again every fall. New students, a new chance to get it right. Naturally most of the time we make the same mistakes and fall into the same traps.

But I still love that moment on the cusp of a new year when everything is possible, when you could -- if you could figure out how -- go a different direction, experiment, get these brand new relationships off on the right foot.

There's a bit more of that for me this year than usual, thanks to the strategic planning we've been doing. I was helping to summarize the changes and provide a sense of timing for the actions the plan prescribes, and we've been pretty excited all summer about the change of direction. But as I worked on the timeline, I realized how slowly much of it will happen.

The illusion of overnight change gets fainter as the years go by, perhaps because of cynicism, perhaps because idealism can't be sustained, perhaps because the weight of the past overwhelms the possibilities of the future. But maybe it's possible to replace it with a belief in slightly more gradual change. I hope so, because change is coming whether we want it or not -- and I'd like to be out ahead of it, where at least some of that sense of eternally renewing possibilities can be preserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I'm in ur iPod

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a fruitful hour with Tripp Fuller recording a podcast for the Homebrewed Christianity site. Now that conversation is online, and an invigorating listen, if I do say so myself. Ever wondered about the theological implications of the internet? Even if you haven't (like most normal people), you might find something to pique your interest or spark passionate disagreement in the ideas Tripp and I bandied about. Download and enjoy!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Coping strategies

My work life is a little stressful these days. The university is in transition, and it's safe to say that the role of units all over campus is being reassessed. That means uncertainty for lots of people, me included.

At the same time, the new academic year is about to kick into gear. There's so much to do to get ready. Even though not all of it is my job to get done, my type A personality means that I tend to get stressed over what I see that's not getting done, or what I don't know if it's being done or not.

At least my work is still contained to the office. I don't have to bring it home in the summer, and I work pretty hard to arrange my life so I don't have to bring it home during the semester, either. Evenings are my haven, to spend time with my husband and family, to keep up with television and movies -- the cultural wellspring that provides me with ideas and energy. To knit and feel as if, no matter what I don't have control over in my job or in my life, this stitch is one more step toward creation and toward beauty.

A friend who also works at a university is coming down this weekend to visit. I'm looking forward to spending some time talking about some of these things. Perspective is an antidote to stress, and as deeply as I've been immersed in planning and creating, perspective is exactly what I need and the hardest thing to provide on my own.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Committee work

I spent the last two hours of my workday in a committee meeting, performing the thankless, no-win task of deciding which applicants' "extraordinary circumstances" merited funding from what used to be the mysterious presidential discretionary fund.

The problem with this job is that by its very nature, it's impossible to set up criteria for what constitutes "extraordinary circumstances." They are by definition things outside the ordinary circumstances of life, things no committee can foresee. Therefore you can only take the students' stories on a case-by-case basis.

Yet while doing that, you must come up with a justification that could pass public muster for each individual decision. In most other cases, the justification would place the request in a class of similar requests and show how they compare to each other. Yet again, by definition, there's little or no possibility of such a class of similar requests existing here. Each circumstance is unique. The decisions can't be justified comparatively, therefore. And unique justifications are uniquely open to question and open to attack.

All that said, I think we did a very good job discussing our general approach and debating individual cases. I think we can stand behind the reasoning for each denial or approval. But this is new territory for the university. The so-called "Special Presidential Scholarships" (money the previous president gave out at his own discretion) had no criteria and no justification -- that was the problem. The suspicion was that it went to students from well-connected families, and without a process by which the funds were allocated and oversight by some entities outside of the administration, there wouldn't be any way to answer that charge.

Now we're trying to recognize the existence of circumstances that fall through the cracks of the current scholarship and financial aid policies, and help out those students that deserve it. Well and good. But we're in uncharted waters here, and there's no way to tread lightly.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Last night I was sitting in the front room working on my blog post, waiting for the babysitter to arrive so that Noel and I could go out on our date night, while the kids were in the dining room eating dinner.

"Cady Gray," I heard Archer say, "are you excited about kindergarten camp?"

This week Cady Gray is going to her new school for three days of learning the rules. We've been talking to her about it for a few weeks.

"Well," she replied, "I am excited ... but that's not really the right word. I'm just a little bit nervous, too."

"Oh, you will really like kindergarten camp," Archer responded.

This simple exchange was electrifying for me, listening in from the next room. I'm not sure I've ever heard Archer open a conversation that way, with an open-ended question about feelings. Maybe it was just a version of one of his normal gambits -- "Mom, do you like winning races?", for example -- but both the tone and the syntax were remarkably ... normal. Mature, even.

Like other kids on the autistic spectrum, Archer has a limited range of topics he's interested in talking about. A typical conversation at home starts with "Mom, didjaknowthat ... I came in first place in N64 Bowser's Castle and I won by 2.68 seconds?" If I make an encouraging response, I'll hear several more details about the race. If my opinion is solicited, it's on the order of, "Mom, have you ever won a gold medal in the 150cc Star Cup?"

That may sound eminently normal in isolation, but it's representative of about 80% of the conversations that Archer starts. He gets training in conversational skills in his speech therapy at school, and I've been amused to see him try to engage other kids on his own initiative. His standard opening is "How old are you?" or some other question that will elicit a number ("How much do you weigh?", accompanied by enthusiastic flappy pointing, is an especially intrusive one). At swim lessons this summer I saw him talking on the side of the pool to one of the other students. Afterwards I asked him what they were talking about. "I was asking him how old he was," he responded.

So his question to Cady Gray was so out of the norm -- and so much of a leap forward -- that it startled me. We worry about his obsessions and lack of social consciousness holding him back in relationships with other kids. But maybe there's a way he can find to bridge the gap between the rote conversational movements he's taught in therapy, and the flowing context of everyday life. Our boy is good at building bridges.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bicycle! (safety)

Cady Gray got a new bike helmet with knee and elbow pads at Safety Town camp this past week, and she couldn't wait to try them out. Here's how it went down.

Sweetie, the first rule of safety is to open your eyes.

The rule she learned is: look left-right-left, then listen for sirens. Here she demonstrates the listening part, paradoxically by putting her hands over her ears.

We're finally underway, and looking good.

It's a constant battle between practicing balance, which causes the eyes to drift down toward the wheels, and watching where you're going, which requires eyes forward.

Speed! I ... Am ... SPEED!

Now we're getting the hang of it!

One, two, three, SAFETY!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Just under the wire

Today's post about the drive to the finish line is at Toxophily.

The greatest joy of the day was filling our shopping cart with fresh notebooks, glue sticks, pencils, markers, watercolors, and rulers from the kids' school supply list. But it went along with a stunning realization: in three weeks we'll be dropping them off at the same school. Can it really be possible that they are both ready to step into the educational system -- and away from us?