Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's my disguise

Today's post about little luxuries for the general head region is at Toxophily.

This week we've been dealing with plumbing and with Archer's memory. With regard to the former, a failing pipe meant we were looking at a week's worth of torn-up floor. With regard to the latter, we were trying various strategies to help him remember the increasingly complex responsibilities of third grade (returning library books, bringing home homework). Today, suddenly, both situations resolved for the moment: the plumbers took a less invasive approach and were done in a day, and Archer came home with a completed checksheet and all his materials. Right now, life is sweet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Today I am a ham

Yesterday in a fit of whimsey -- or a fit of having an unscheduled hour toward the end of the day -- I decided the moment was right for the buying of boots.

Longtime readers will know that I have a Boot Problem. I know that I need to to ask boots to come into my life. I know that boots will be just what I need. But boots are alien to my lifestyle. I don't know how to shop for them. The boxes are so big, and the prices are so daunting. Every time I looked at boots, I ended up confused and bootless.

But it was clear to me for the first time this weekend that fall was really coming. Monday was cool -- so much so that I was hesitant sending the kids off to walk to school without jackets. I had told myself during the two weeks of rain that just ended that I wasn't going to get complacent about sunshine again. No more wishing I had bought boots before I needed them, then suffering without them because I didn't prepare.

So I left work with a new determination. It felt like Boot Time. And at the big shoe mall (slogan: "It's an anomaly!"), there were boots everywhere when I walked in. I fondled the suede Uggs, but I knew that suede wouldn't give me the weather resistance I needed. These weren't fashion boots. These were work boots.

Two or three aisles later, I was back at a familiar spot for me -- the Born section. Seems like most shoes I buy are Borns. They have a chunky aesthetic. They're made for walking, not standing around looking pretty. The leather is durable and rustic.

A few minutes later, these boots were on my feet. The heel is low -- walkability. The material is soft and matte finish -- functional, not fashionable. Comfort was the clear watchword, but with my calves encased in leather for the first time in decades, I felt unaccountably daring.

Thanks to my frequent-customer card, almost one-third was knocked off the price. Glowing with boot success, I took my savings and cleaned out Tuesday Morning's bin of Patons SWS ($1.99 a ball) and Elizabeth Austen Antuco ($3.99 a skein).

When I woke up this morning, the weather station said that it was 54 degrees outside. A real cool fall morning. If I were to walk to class, my options would be pants and my Born clogs, or a skirt and ... my Born boots. Yes, I broke them in today -- walking to work and back and all over campus. I felt like a superheroine -- a very comfortable, ready-for-anything superheroine. I have converted. I am a boot person.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Give me one reason

In two weeks, the A.V. Club's second book will go on sale. It's called Inventory, and if you're an A.V. Club reader, you not only are familiar with the feature therein celebrated, but you're also sick of seeing the book promoted on the site already.

Like most projects like this, I have only vague memories of spending most of 2008 composing brief blurbs for crazy lists that had been proposed for the book. (It's mostly new material, with a smattering of greatest pre-existing hits. And looking through it now -- our copy arrived today -- I find it very hard to remember what I wrote and what I should have written but somehow managed to foist off on someone else.

And by "looking through it," I mean "finding myself fifteen minutes later still standing in the bedroom with a child's discarded clothing in my hand which I was on my way to put in the laundry before I decided to pick up the book for a quick looksee." I'll sound like a shill for saying it, but this is the kind of book that'd I'd get sucked into even if I didn't have a small hand in writing a small part of it.

If you're one of those people -- the kind who can't resist a good list, obscure and eclectic popular culture, disputable but persuasive opinions, and the obsessive ordering of all of existence into incredibly narrow categories -- you just might like it, too. Warning: contains far more swears than necessary. Makes a perfect gift. I don't get royalties. On sale October 13.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The towel with the big E on it

Today's post about races and elephants is at Toxophily.

It's been a beautiful weekend of carousels and smiles. I could be wrong, but I think the upcoming week will be less jam-packed than last. Next weekend we'll have movies to see. The following weekend it's my birthday (send yarn and gift certificates) and our anniversary. I'm relaxed and ready to enjoy myself. Hope your fall is emerging just as gracefully.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Late September

The skies have finally cleared after nearly two straight weeks of rain. Although the temperatures are reaching eighty degrees, a vigorous breeze keeps the air dry and refreshing.

Out at the fairgrounds, shaved ice seems like the best of all possible treats -- watermelon flavor for her, cherry for him. Tasting the cherry syrup, the parents are startled by its intensity. Memory has watered down the mouth-filling flavor, but it all comes back in a rush.

Because of the wet weather, leaves have started falling early, even though the chlorophyll has yet to leach out of them. But the ginko on the corner and that one maple a couple of blocks away have begun to turn yellow, emerging from the larger trees around them like the one party-goer who came in fancy dress.

The football team is having its first home game, and the parked cars are inching down the street towards our driveway. Kids in purple jerseys race around their yards, throwing and catching with their dads or brothers while their mothers gather supplies for the walk to the stadium. Soon the crowd's roar will be washing over our house and fading away again, a faint but powerful tide.

It will be another month before the weather is reliably cool and the trees put on their full show. But there's no doubt that the season has officially arrived.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Spelling sentences, third grade version

I haven't had much creative work to post from Archer's third grade classroom so far this year. From what we hear, it's mostly been about multiplication tables and U.S. presidents. But finally yesterday Archer brought home a sheet of sentences he wrote with his spelling words. (His teacher wrote "Good use of creativity!" encouragingly at the top.)
chew: "Chew your food."
flew: Devin has flew 'fore. [The "be" in the last word is erased and replaced with an apostrophe; the teacher circled it and wrote a question mark.]
grew: The plant's roots are growing.
shoot: Will you shoot a basket or not?
noon: We eat lunch at noon, and that's true.
new: The opposite of old is new (that's easy!) [Teacher's note: Good!]
loose: Is the cat loose?
dune: There is a dune that's uniquely shaped in the desert.
choose: Do you choose coins or Stars?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Notes from the fairgrounds

The country fair opened in town this week, and Cady Gray's class went to see the livestock barns on Wednesday. Before she went off to school that morning, I asked her what animals she wanted to see. She said that she was looking forward to seeing the pigs with their curly tails.

"Will there be horses, do you think?" I asked. She allowed as to how there might be. "Remember to tell me if there are horses at the fair," I requested.

"If we have centers today, I'll choose the writing center and stamp a note for you," she promised.

When she got home, she told me that the fair didn't have horses, but that she also didn't have centers. "I'll stamp a note for you tomorrow," she pledged.

Today she brought home this note:

"There were no horses. Love, Cady Gray."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Evidence of activity

Lately it seems that all I've been doing is pinballing from one time-sensitive assignment to the other. Writing deadlines, committee deadlines, class preparation ... as soon as one is complete, the next one pops into place.

The premiere example occurred last night. After a day spent (a) preparing for class; (b) teaching class; (c) going to another campus to appear as a guest in another class; (c) watching a TV show online; and finally (d) writing a review of the TV show -- that takes us up to about 4 pm -- I went home, had dinner, helped get the kids to bed, worked out, and then settled down to watch another TV I had agreed to write up. No big deal -- it was reality TV, and I can usually write those up while watching them and post the write-up immediately after they end. Except that unbeknownst to me, the show had a double episode last night. Instead of one hour spent watching and writing, it was two hours. When it was over and the write-up was posted, it was time to make the kids' lunches and go to bed. Day over with just about every spare moment spent on the job.

But I think that tonight marks the start of a slowdown in deadline volume and frequency. Not that there's not still plenty to do -- all the reports and projects I've been putting off while dealing with deadlines, for starters -- but maybe it'll be a bit less hectic

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I'm new to the performance anxiety commonly felt by parents. So far the evaluations of my children's prowess have been fairly low stakes. Sure, we let out a gentle sigh of relief when the report card shows excellent all the way across, but we expect no less from our academically talented and mostly well-behaved children.

Starting in third grade, though, the "everybody gets a trophy day" egalitarianism practiced by the elementary school in regard to the Gifted & Talented program (GT) comes to an abrupt end, and students are tested to see whether or not they qualify for this special training in problem-solving and creativity. We received a notice a few weeks ago that if we wished, we could nominate Archer for the program; this nomination would trigger standardized testing using the SAT-10. In most cases, only students scoring in the highest percentile on the test would be accepted to participate in GT.

Archer's been focused on GT since viewing the PowerPoint presentations created by its students during the last school year; you may remember that he came right home and made his own version. We knew that he wanted to go, but couldn't help feeling the odd sensation of almost not wanting to mention it to him in case ... in case he didn't make it. In the end our conviction that he would benefit from GT overcame our worries about this first possible instance of disappointment or failure, and we nominated him and gave permission for the testing. Then came the anxious quizzing after the testing happened about how he thought he did.

Today we got the letter informing us that he'd been accepted. And my relief and happiness surprised me. When I was a kid, I took all these advanced programs as my natural due, and I imagined that my parents did, too. But I really didn't know if Archer's deficits might interfere with the testing, and therefore if he would make the grade. Holding the notice of his acceptance, I felt not only proud but also ... unclenched. There, he made it over that first hurdle; the next one might be easier, I thought.

I suppose I need to accept that parenting is going to be a long series of these tests and evaluations and gateways, open and closed, for the foreseeable future. I think my reaction means that I need to guard against over-emphasizing their significance, for me and for my kids.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Big fan

We've got a bunch of Jeopardy! episodes saved up on the TiVo, for viewing during dinnertime. The rapidly changing dollar totals in the contestants' podiums never fail to absorb Archer.

Lately -- at least lately in our DVR-delayed viewing -- the show's been celebrating its 30th anniversary by showing historic episode. And tonight was the first one we've seen featuring all-time champion (and Noel's secret best friend) Ken Jennings.

Archer knows about Jennings from his Guinness Book Of World Records, as well as from Noel telling him all about the millions of dollars he won and the length of his championship run. So when he spotted Ken Jennings in the contestant list, he was transfixed. A delighted smile crept across his face. Periodically he would update us on Jenning's score. Then, when his over two million dollar total winnings were announced at the time, Archer made sure we all knew the extent of the fortune: "His 75-day cash total is two million three hundred thiry-five thousand six hundred twenty!" (Or whatever it was. Archer's signature move is the rapid-fire recitation of specific numbers with a bunch of digits, and when he gets started, you can't interrupt him until he gets the whole number out.)

It's a trip to see him all starry-eyed at this giant of accumulating scores and setting records. I know that he has no greater ambition than to have a lot of money (because that's how you keep score in the game of life) and be a winner. If only there were some way to start feeding him trivia so that he could follow in Ken Jenning's path.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Breathe in

It's time for another week to start, the first "normal" one in a while. Everybody's home, school is in session, work proceeds apace. Yet once again I feel cheated out of my full weekend's due of leisure; I fussed over my lecture today, created a powerpoint, wrote a post for this week's Wrapped Up In Books discussion, and tonight I'll be participating in the Emmy liveblog with other A.V. Club staffers. Sunday didn't hold a candle to Saturday, relaxation-wise.

And it's shaping up to be a busy week. In addition to the lecture and attendant stress, I'll be a guest in a class at the college across the railroad tracks on Tuesday, and I'll chair a tenure committee meeting on Wednesday. The TV premieres are beginning to come thick and fast, so more evenings than normal will involve an hour or two of writing. On Friday, freshman papers will be turned in, and although I've arranged with my teaching assistant to take one day off from grading next weekend, one day will still be on.

I've got no basis for complaint. Some people in this house work practically every second they're awake, and I've had a long summer where pretty much every evening and weekend was my own to command. But I'm terribly jealous of my leisure time. The one thing that didn't happen this weekend that I might have hoped for was an extended time alone in the house to play with yarn. Because of the rainy, humid outdoors, and because of a daddy-daughter date this afternoon, there just wasn't a chance to shoo the three of them out and enjoy some productivity on my own terms. Ah well -- there's always next weekend. I'm already looking forward to it.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Completely relaxed

Today's post about lace, warmth, and style is at Toxophily.

And my Saturday of rest is now over. I knit, I made t-shirt yarn, I spent time with my daughter, I had dinner with my husband and saw a movie. Tomorrow I've got to finish Monday's lecture, write a piece for the A.V. Club's Wrapped Up In Books feature, and live-blog the Emmys. Hey, it's one more day of leisure than I had last week, so things are looking up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

All new

When I first started teaching, I was regularly called upon to give presentations that I had never given before. I had models to draw from -- the lectures of my teachers -- but the circumstances of the classes meant that I had to synthesize the material in a new way.

Over the years, some of those presentation turned out to be one-shots, but some became recurring features of recurring classes. Gradually the inherited material leeched out of those lectures, to be replaced by some more personal understanding of the issues at stake. And over the years, the necessity of creating brand new lectures came up less and less. That's because I only lecture in the team-taught freshman seminar, and then only once or twice a semester.

But every once in a while, even in these attenuated circumstances, I have to create a new lecture. It is exactly this situation in which I find myself. The freshman curriculum was revamped last year, and some new content was added. So here I am with a brand new presentation to give on Monday, on the topic of Augustine, Aquinas, and the medieval self.

And that wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary if the stakes weren't so high. Remember, this is one of two lectures I will give in this entire semester -- perhaps this entire year. The audience is one hundred of the best students in the state, along with six of my colleagues and seven upper-class teaching assistants. A tradition of dynamic, challenging presentations has arisen in the last several years. If the students don't leave in a state of existential crisis, you haven't done your job.

So I've been slaving away on this lecture all week, adding material a few bullet points at a time. I'm at the end, still looking for a big finish, and I'll be spending part of the day on Sunday putting together a slideshow of period images. On Monday morning I'll be too nervous to read student work before class, and afterwards I'll feel like I deserve the rest of the day off. It's a good thing this doesn't come along more than once a year, because it's probably the hardest work I do.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

At last

Noel is home! And normal life can resume. To celebrate, here's an assignment that Archer brought home earlier in the week. He told me that the assignment was to write about why he loves his mother and why she is special.

I love you because you call me when you go on trips. You are so very special because you let us have meals 1 hour earlier than most people do.

From Archer
To Mom ♥

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It makes me anxious

Today started out with some stress, became remarkably relaxed midday, and then hit the panic button again toward the end.

Stress Up: When I woke up this morning, after a night of heavy rain, I peeped out the front window to find that our street was starting to flood. Worried that it would be difficult to leave the driveway if the water continued to rise, I alerted the kids that we would leave early; the rain slackened and gave me pause, then started coming down cats and dogs again. When we pulled out about 20 minutes before our normal departure time, the depth at our driveway was around mid-hubcap. I killed time getting a drive-thru breakfast and depositing a check before taking the kids around to their school. The rain would almost stop, then come down in torrents, over and over, and the black skies didn't offer any hope it would be ending soon.

Stress Down: At work I watched the weather radar and got reassurance that the southern edge of the system would indeed move past us eventually. I got cracking and did my class prep. Then I found out that our panicky meeting about budget yesterday was a bit too panicky: (a) some expenses had been double-counted, and (b) we could staff courses for the spring without having to hire four more part-timers. Suddenly one of the dark clouds hanging over me for the next two weeks -- namely, how to find people to teach the classes we needed covered -- was unexpectedly lifted.

Stress Back Up: I got a call around 2:30 pm from Noel. "I need your help," he said. "I've lost my wallet." After I picked my stomach off the floor -- what could be worse than losing your wallet in a foreign country? -- I got to work thinking about how to deal. Get Noel the bank phone number so he can have them cancel the debit card. Research online to see if the two checks in the wallet can be pre-emptively stopped, preventing the need to close the account. (Yes, and stopped checks are actually free with the account we have.) Think about if there's anything else potentially damaging in the wallet. (Just a driver's license, but luckily because of the whole crossing-the-border thing, Noel's got a passport with him; he'll have no trouble flying back, although the drive back from the airport will be of questionable legality. Noel doesn't keep cash in his wallet, and he has about 50 CAD left, so with a loan of American cash from his friends up there, he should be able to pay the parking fee and make it home.)

The whole thing is less scary than it first sounded; the major upshot will be the need to replace the driver's license upon his return, and naturally there were a lot of minor cards that will have to be accumulated again -- private club memberships for the liquor-license restaurants here in town, library card, etc. But the danger of identity theft or bank-account draining seems low. It's too bad this annoying and frightening loss happened now and put a pall on Noel's last day at what had been shaping up as a highly successful and enjoyable festival. But it could be worse. Reflecting on that helps me take the stress back down a notch.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The more you know

When you hang out with your kids a bit more than usual, you get odd glimpses of their life at school that you'd never think to ask about. For instance, Archer volunteered this morning that independent reading time started at 10:15 am. I asked him what he reads, and he said he reads books from his book box. Examples? I queried. The Best of Times, he reported, and The Hershey's Kisses Addition Book. I should have known.

My mom and dad left around midday, flying back home to St. Simons Island. Now we three are left here to wait until Noel's return on Thursday. We occupy our time with thirty-minute sessions on the Wii, with bead crafts and knitting, with computer games and homework and buildings made of blocks and tiles.

Just now Cady Gray came into the room where I'm working and asked to see the weather in Georgia. We checked it together, and Cady Gray sat beside me and rattled off all the statistics on the Weather Channel page: 80 degrees and mostly cloudy, UV index 0/Low, visibility 10.0 miles, dew point 75 degrees ("if it's 75 degrees, it will be foggy in here," she explained to me in an aside). She's talking non-stop about visiting her grandparents in December, when we have an after-Christmas trip planned.

But she also said that her dad gets back on Thursday, "and then everything's back to normal." I'm ready for that, too, sweetie.

Monday, September 14, 2009


I had an unusual day at work today. Usually Monday is all about interruptions -- ideas my boss wants to run by me, students and staff with questions, sudden projects that have to be done right away. But today I spent long stretches working alone on a book review, then on the student work that I didn't do on time because I was writing the book review. Both got done. I wouldn't have laid odds on that when I walked in the office.

By the evidence in their backpacks and their scattered reports, things seem to be a bit unusual at the kids' school, too. Archer didn't bring home his assignment planner, and when I pointed that out he told me that his teacher had to take car duty because the regular car duty teacher was sick, so they didn't do their assignment planners.

But some things are quite organized. Today Cady Gray turned in a large human-shaped cutout decorated as what she'd like to be when she grows up -- a teacher decked out in a fabric-strip outfit with button eyes and yarn hair, holding chalk and worksheets and sporting an identity badge on a lanyard -- thanks to the help of her grandmother in completing it over the weekend while I was gone. And I got a robocall from the principal inviting me to PTO open house two nights this week.

My parents leave tomorrow; Noel gets back on Thursday. There's nothing unusual about the few days in between -- drop off the kids, go to work, teach class, attend meetings, pick up kids, supervise playtime, have dinner, get them to bed, write and knit. No problems on the horizon except the usual ones of being on point, the ones from which my parents have been insulating me since their arrival last Wednesday. Cheer me down the homestretch, and Noel back into the locker room.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Where did the weekend go?

I drove back from Petitjean Mountain today in a rain that varied from misty to moderate, listening to an invigorating iPod shuffle -- Marah, Beastie Boys, Daft Punk. Skipping lunch because a bunch of biscuits, sausage, scrambled eggs, fruit, and scones fell onto my plate at breakfast, I got home just in time to see the kids sitting down to their peanut butter sandwiches.

By all accounts, they were little angels while I was gone, and when their dad called a couple of hours later, they considerately filled him in on the important aspects of their Friday and Saturday (Sorry scores, behavior records, Wii games played, etc.). With no obvious parenting to do upon my return, I was left at loose ends until their rest time ended and I could take them to JumpZone for some movement on this drippy day. We played a little Mario Kart Wii upon my return -- I was woefully out of practice, but Archer had unlocked the option to use Miis as characters, delighting Cady Gray to no end -- and then I took the whole family out to eat.

It's back to work in the morning; the usual round of course prep, teaching, meetings, and administrative work awaits me. That's a little bit of a shock after spending all day yesterday working. But I'm sure that when Noel returns -- and after this weekend, it feels like the home stretch although it's four days away -- he'll give me plenty of time for whatever leisure activities I desire. In between now and then, I'll try to maintain the routine, meet my deadlines, and put a little effort into the projects that will be coming due shortly after normal life resumes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Long after sunset

It's been a lengthy day -- socializing and teaching students of all ages, driving back down then back up the mountain, holding my breath to see if our rather elaborate evening program came off, then relaxing with some live music. I'm pretty much beat.

This day has been hanging over me for several weeks. I always see these kind of crazy full days as cliffs in my schedule. I can't see what's down below until after I've jumped off and hit bottom, so there's no use in trying to look past them to what's coming up. I just have to put everything else aside until they're done.

The downside of this strategy is that eventually you're at the bottom of the cliff, and you have to pick up those post-cliff projects. Now that my two-places-at-once weekend is nearly over, it's time to remember childcare responsibilities, lectures that need scripts and slideshows, schedules to be constructed, deadlines I decided I could worry about later.

On the other hand, it means that we're halfway through Single Motherhood Week, and that Noel will be home before you know it, and then it will be the weekend again. And I miss my kids and there's probably something good on the TiVo. Life seems to stop, or at least you decide to put it on hold, and then when it goes on, there's some comfort in that.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Up the mountain

It was surprisingly difficult to leave town today. My plan was to leave directly from work mid-afternoon in time to arrive at the conference center on Petitjean Mountain before the students arrived on their chartered buses.

Yet after my class ended at 1 pm and all the e-mails were answered, I kept stalling. Part of the reason was that my unit had just been hit with another budget-shattering mortar shell, just when we thought the enemy was surely out of rounds and no more buildings remained upright to be demolished. I heard about it from the staff, and I was in no hurry to come face to face with my boss who'd just climbed out of his debilitating depression from the last crippling blow. Part of it was that I was leaving my kids behind, stretching the bonds of family another fifty miles when they were already pulled taut from Noel's flight out of the country.

And part of it was that it felt just a bit pointless to be driving out of town for the night, only to return less than twenty-four hours later, then to do it all again after a brief three-hour sojourn in the city where I live. I have responsibilities up here -- it would seriously inconvenience my colleagues if I didn't show up for tomorrow morning's session -- but all the back and forth wasn't something I could relish, given the stressors mentioned in the previous paragraph.

But I have to admit that something in me wanted to escape. Not the kids, not the grandparents, not the basement-dwelling morale in my office, but just in general. I've always both feared and been exhilerated by driving alone. It's a potent symbol of freedom that I'm both drawn to and profoundly spooked by. Out on the highway, listening to Fountains of Wayne and rolling farther from home and closer to some distant destination, I usually have to face with some greater degree of honesty what my conflicted feelings mean. I didn't want to leave, but I knew that I had wanted to leave, had been looking forward to leaving, all week. What does it mean to be caught between that yearning for flight and some combination of safety and responsibility?

Once I arrived and the students began pouring in, I became giddy with the energy of it all. Once I sat and talked with my boss and his wife, venting our frustrations and trying out existential responses to the increasing intolerability of our position, I was glad that I didn't have to bear those burdens alone -- that there is some solidarity even in our marginal state. Tomorrow will be too busy to think much, except in those couple of hours of driving, betwixt and between, feeling with gut-level urgency what I am approaching and on what I have turned my back.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unexpectedly complex

You know how something seems really simple to you because you do it every day, but then when you describe it to someone, it starts to seem so complicated that you despair of their ever being able to do it themselves?

I'll bet all the parents out there know what I mean, because they've had to describe the pickup or dropoff procedures at their school to grandparents or other surrogates at some point. In my case, it involves driving on the wrong side of the road temporarily so that you don't get sucked into the line of cars going to middle school, and judging when you are safely "in the zone" so your kids can get out of the car but not too far back so you're keeping other cars from getting "in the zone."

Everything went smoothly, except that Cady Gray somehow ended up at the school office at pickup time instead of in the cafeteria where she was supposed to be. Mom was convinced that was because she can't find her way around the school yet, but I believe that the note I wrote, in an excess of caution, informing the teacher that her grandparents would be picking her up somehow was interpreted to meant that she shouldn't go where she normally does. No indication that this caused any upset on Archer's part, though, which is always my main concern when the routine breaks down.

When I got home at 4 pm, Archer was playing Uno with his grandpa and Cady Gray was insulating herself from losing by keeping score. Granny Lou fixed us a terrific meal of tilapia (which Cady Gray loved and Archer sampled with relative enthusiasm), asparagus (ditto and ditto), and squash casserole (yep and yep).

Archer brought home no homework to do, but a big stack of Scholastic Books that truly delighted him (especially Greater Estimations, the sequel to one of the library books he requests over and over). And he reports that he got a prize for getting the most books in the book order -- a prize that I feel is rightfully mine.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

With apologies to readers outside the immediate family

This blog is going to go into kid news mode until Noel returns from Toronto. So here's the update:
  • Archer seems perfectly healthy after a few days of mild fever earlier this week.
  • A smart cookie of a practice teaching student gave Archer his choice of pocket calculators for his behavior prize today instead of the promised "pencil with dogs on it, including Ms. Bennett's dog."
  • Cady Gray brought home a three-quarter scale outline of herself that we are supposed to decorate to represent what she wants to be when she grows up. Deadline: next Monday. Sounds like a project for Granny Lou and Papa!
  • Apparently Archer didn't get to see the President's speech despite our signing a piece of paper saying he could.
  • The kids' assessment of their school days? "Perfect."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Survival mode

I always get a perverse kind of enjoyment out of the September week when Noel goes to Toronto. Having sole responsibility for kids, parents, and family in general tends to focus the mind admirably. Suddenly everything that can fall away or be put aside, does and is. Yes, I pay for it after his return, when I'm a week behind on long-term projects that gave way during the crisis. But for a brief time, it's clarifying to understand what has to wait and what must be done.

My personal schedule is unusually hectic during this particular trip, given my double-booking on Saturday that will have me trying to be at Hendrix College and on Petitjean Mountain simultaneously. And I will be scrambling far too much the following week if I don't make some headway on two items: the spring course schedule and a new lecture I have to prepare for September 21. But if I can get just a little ways into those responsibilities -- they don't have to be completed while Noel is gone, just started -- then all I have to do otherwise is prepare for each class period as it arrives on the calendar, be present when the meetings happen, make sure the kids get picked up on time and have their lunchboxes full when they're dropped off in the morning, and show up where I'm supposed to be with the right set of notes.

I'll be really glad when Noel returns and I can relax back into normal mode -- the state where labor is divided and I don't have to worry about being responsible for everything. But to the extent that his return will coincide with the expansion of my vision to include those items I was able to put aside, I know I'll also miss the clear priorities of survival mode.

Monday, September 7, 2009

One day shall ye rest

It was a slightly tense day today as our plans were beset by illness. The chili supper we'd been looking forward to at a friend's house was canceled because said friend was feeling under the weather. And Archer was running a fever of 102 this morning, even though he claimed to feel reasonably well. We dosed him with Tylenol before his sister and I set off for our morning at Mom's school.

The Tylenol did its thing and Archer was nearly his old self again for the rest of the day. His running commentary on Mario Party 8, the U.S. Open, and facts about the human body's waste elimination system (learned from a book in his room during naptime) continued as usual with barely a break. If it weren't for the very occasional sniffles, sneezes, and coughs, and if it weren't for his preference for lying curled up on the couch rather than spinning autistically around the room, you'd never know he was sick.

At school, Archer's been collecting play-money coins for good behavior. (Bad behavior has been "taxed," he tells us, although he seems to have escaped taxation thus far.) Wednesday is the day the money is to be counted and a reward bestowed on the coin champion. Nothing motivates Archer like accumulating money, so he's been looking forward to the culmination of the coin program ever since it began. I hope his condition improves from here rather than worsening; I know it would be terribly disappointing to him if he were kept home from school on such a big day.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From all our labors

This long weekend is a chance for us to catch a deep breath before the busiest two weeks of the semester.

On Wednesday, Noel leaves on his annual trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. My parents will fly in that night. Friday I'm driving up to Petitjean Mountain with a hundred and twenty freshmen, faculty, and assorted student helpers for our annual fall retreat. Saturday morning I'll be one of the leaders of a writing workshop up on the mountain. Then as soon as we break for lunch I'll be sprinting down the mountain and back into town to lead half a day's worth of class on Reformation theology for part-time Methodist pastors (I have a former student covering the morning session, when I'll be tied up with the writing workshop.) As soon as that's over I reverse course back up the mountain to participate in the retreat's evening academic session. Sunday at noon I'll be back home to relieve my parents of kid duty before the school week starts Monday morning. Noel will be back on Thursday.

That's a couple more activities than we usually try to cram into the week of Noel's Toronto excursion. Usually he's back the same day I head up the mountain. And usually I'm not teaching a Saturday class that same week. And usually I'm not supposed to be in Santa Barbara at the same time for an executive committee meeting (that's the one thing that had to give way in this triple-booked weekend).

At a certain point you just set your jaw and figure that no matter what goes wrong, time will pass and it will all be over eventually. Then today Archer started showing signs of getting the flu -- lethargy, aches, fever. If we all come down with H1N1 this week, all bets will be off. But I've already let go. Whatever will be, will be. Bring it on, September 9-17.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Fishy in the sea

We just returned from seeing Ponyo, after it unexpectedly opened in town. And I can't wipe the smile off my face.

Thanks to Disney, John Lasseter and other champions, Hayao Miyazaki has received plenty of exposure in the United States. Yet it's still difficult to describe what makes his films so special.

For me it's the combination of precisely observed behavior -- especially child behavior -- with an unhurried pace, a total lack of concern for cinematic economy that leads to a richness of detail, and the impression that the filmmakers somehow translated images that bubbled up in imagination or dreams directly onto the screen with no intervening technical steps. The idle thought that a goldfish looks something like a little girl in a red dress becomes an exuberant sequence of transformation. Yet just as much delight comes from watching the fleeting yet all-consuming emotions passing across a child's face as he waits for his noodles to cook.

Miyazaki wears his heart on his sleeve, and the mythological and ecological fantasy of Ponyo might be too big a leap for some viewers. But its utter sincerity and wild invention is of a piece with the empathy the film shows for a little boy who walks barefoot over the crest of a hill wiping tears from his eyes and looking for his mother. I watched every moment of the movie with delight, as much in the evidence of freedom found in the drawing style and pacing from moment to moment, as in the overwhelming joy expressed by the children's wide, simple smiles.

Friday, September 4, 2009


Today's post about taking control -- and letting go -- is at Toxophily.

This Labor Day weekend will be a much-needed chance to recharge. I plan to spend plenty of time with my kids riding bikes and doing crafts, plenty of time with my husband talking about work and life, plenty of time socializing with friends, plenty of time by myself knitting and reading. It won't fix everything that's chaotic in my professional life. But I hope that it will put some of it in perspective. Here's wishing you a restful and refreshing holiday as well.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


A couple of days ago, Cady Gray brought home a piece of kindergarten "homework." It was a game where we took turns pulling two cut-out pictures out of a paper bag; if we got a pair of pictures that rhymed, we got to keep the match.

Archer was really interested in this game, and kept playing long after Cady Gray had moved on to something else. I idly asked him how many different combinations of two cards we could draw from the sixteen cards in the bag. "If it mattered which order they were in, the answer would be sixteen factorial," I said, "but I don't know how to figure out the answer when the order doesn't matter."

That night I was packing lunches for the kids, and as always, I wrote notes to accompany them. Since this summer I've been writing little quizzes or questions for Archer, and packing a pencil in the box so he can answer them. Because I was still wondering what he would do to figure out the answer, I wrote: "If there are eight pairs of rhyming cards in the sack, and the order doesn't matter, what are the chances you will pull out matching cards? Total # of possible combos: ___ Chance of a match: ____"

When I got home yesterday afternoon, I immediately opened his lunchbox to see what he'd written. In the first blank, he'd penciled in "120." In the second, "8 in 120."

Now I had to try to figure out what the right answer was. I Googled around until I found a description of how to figure out problems with the form "16 choose 2" using Pascal's triangle. Then I Googled around some more until I found an image of Pascal's triangle with enough rows to get down to 16. I read over to the second place and ...

120. He was right.

But how did he know? I asked him today, and he explained that he added 1+2+3+4 and so on, up to 15. When I asked him how he knew how to do this, he just said that if he kept going farther, he would draw one of the combinations that had already been used. Noel asked him if he read about how to do this in a book, and he said that he hadn't.

I'm at a loss to understand what numerical logic would lead him to this method. Any mathematicians out there want to explain it to me in plain English?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The password dilemma

Like many people, I have a few standard passwords, which I alter mostly by attaching various numbers to them. I've sat through the usual lectures on password security, but most of my passwords are for sites that I consider fairly low-stakes. It was probably a horrible mistake, but I never worried about it too much, other than for my bank's website.

A few weeks ago, I got a new computer at work. As I set up my browsers -- I use Google Chrome and Firefox about equally -- I wanted to find some way to take all my stored passwords and transfer them to the new system. I found a program that claimed to decrypt Chrome's storage files, and decided to try it.

It didn't work. But then I started to worry. Maybe it did work, and all my passwords had just been transmitted to some nefarious entity. Uh oh. Time to start worrying about password security all of a sudden.

While running a spybot check on my machine, I started to change the most sensitive of my passwords -- my Google account. See, I mail usernames and passwords to myself, using my Gmail as an easily-searchable credential retrieval system. So if you have my e-mail password, you have all my important passwords.

Then I started changing more, working my way down the sensitivity list -- bank, PayPal, etc. How to keep track of all these passwords, though? I wasn't willing to use Gmail anymore, seeing its vulnerability so suddenly.

I researched password storage programs, and the open-source KeePass system seemed to be the consensus winner. A brand new master password later, I was storing my refreshingly diverse passwords in the program. I installed one version at work, one version at home, and a similar app on my iPhone.

It's unsettling to think that I won't necessarily have access to my passwords if I'm away from my computer. Sure, you only need them when you're online, but what if you're working on another terminal -- at the hotel courtesy boarding pass printing station, or at the internet cafe in a foreign land? There are a few key passwords that I'm going to have to carry in my head, the ones I use every day. I wish there were a web application that I could trust with my passwords -- then I'd know they were there no matter where I was, like they used to be in my Gmail.

How do you keep track of your passwords? Are you a password slacker, or have you seen the light?

Oh, and the postscript... I figured out how to transfer the key Chrome files to the other computer. My stored passwords aren't there, but a lot of autofill information (including usernames) is. So at least I didn't have to start completely from scratch.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Today the Arkansas Democrat Gazette shrunk by half a column in width. That's not necessarily surprising, in these days of economic woe for the industry. Many other papers have taken the same measure recently; some took it some years ago; others have been forced to more drastic cuts.

What's strange is that the paper itself seems to contain no notification of the change. Not on the front page, not on the op-ed pages, not in the local news section, not in business. The result is that readers all over the state unfolded their papers, wrinkled their brows, and said to their spouses, "Does this look smaller to you?"

And it happened to be the day that the managing editor publishes his weekly column. Seems like that would be a natural place to talk about the decision and explain the rationale. Instead, it's a discussion of how the Dem-Gaz and other newspapers handled the late-breaking news of Ted Kennedy's death. Interesting, but strangely removed from the fact of the skinnier newspaper one is holding in order to read the column.

I hope there will be ample coverage of the paper's finances and business decisions in the days to come. It would have been nice to have seen such coverage coincide with the tangible evidence of its contracting fortunes.