Saturday, October 31, 2009

A grand day out

Yes, I realize I've already used this title for a blog post. After several years you start to cycle back around.

Today I had no obligatory engagements until 4:00 pm. What a luxury -- a free day in a wonderful city! I slept late (under strict orders from my husband) and then went to the National Mall to stroll through a museum. Ninety minutes in the American History Museum (newly reopened!) was not nearly enough, and I wished my kids could be there to play in the super-cool SparkLab.

But I didn't want to miss the chance to visit an LYS -- Stitch DC in their Capitol Hill location, where I picked up some long-desired Spud & Chloe Sweater and some Punta Merisock -- have lunch at a local eatery (Matchbox), and meet some DC knitters. I crashed a regular meetup of Columbia Heights knitters at a Starbucks. We knit and gabbed for more than an hour, causing a nearby tween to ask her mother, eyes all agog, how she could learn to do that. Then I navigated the streets and Metro back to the hotel to hear my colleagues and students present an inspirational portrait of their program for academicailly at-risk middle-schoolers.

These days of sightseeing and leisure during conferences or business trips -- they're like a dream. When they're done, responsibility reasserts itself so thoroughly that you wonder if your time spent wandering the city was ever real. Tomorrow I'll be up before the sun to set up a workshop that we're confident will change the minds and lives of 53 faculty and administrators. Before the day is out I'll be home unpacking and thinking about the class I have to teach on Monday. Life moves quickly, and the moments that don't, seem like they were spent in some alternate universe.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Under the wire

It's almost midnight Eastern time, pretty late for the day's post, but even though it's been a very long day I'm still up planning for a bit of leisure tomorrow. And given the late hour, that day might get a late start; one of the most decadent luxuries of any trip is a few hours extra sleep in the morning. I might miss the free conference breakfast, but I doubt I'll be too late in rising and getting underway for just a smidgen of sightseeing.

Right now I'm browsing the Smithsonian website to see if there are any can't-miss exhibitions in town. I'll probably end up going to the newly reopened American History Museum, but my mind keeps going back to the last time I was in DC for the AAR's annual meeting ... the Dead Sea Scrolls were at the Sackler Gallery, and what an amazing experience to be in the presence of those fragments.

I'm hoping to meet a few area Ravelers at their usual Saturday knitting haunt out in Columbia Heights, but I'll have to hop back to the hotel in the late afternoon for a presentation by my colleagues and students. Then I've got dinner plans with an old friend before coming back to the hotel, setting the clock back, and thanking the Lord for that extra hour of sleep given the early start time for our post-conference workshop on technology in honors education (7:30 am).

Tonight a dozen alumni and a few of their significant others met us at a Georgetown restaurant for dinner. It was an astounding group of successful people -- aspiring judges, non-profit sector advocates, teachers, programmers, embassy personnel ... you name it, some UCA Honors graduate was in DC doing it. I was over the moon with happiness, laughing with some of my favorite people on earth, and simply bowled over by the powerful community collected from many different graduating classes, majors, backgrounds, and aspirations, all unified by their passage through our program and their destination here in the center of American citizenship.

It hasn't been easy doing what we do for the last year or so. But look here -- just look what we did. There couldn't have been a better time for that reminder.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The corridors of power

... or at least the Sports Bar of Tourism. After a full day of travel, I arrived with my faculty colleagues and several students in Washington, DC for the NCHC conference.

It's good to get away. I was surprised by how free and energized I felt walking through the Atlanta airport. Outside the sun was shining, and having left behind forecasts for a two-day deluge and rainclouds hiding the tops of Little Rock's meager skyline, the glimpses of daylight felt like an illicit peek behind the curtain into an alternate universe.

All the planes were on time, and I got to try out my first airplane wi-fi on the second leg. (I used it to investigate a student's problem getting to a reading online, and inform another that she didn't manage to complete an application for a teaching assistantship.) Safely checked into our hotel in unexpectedly balmy DC, we all retired to the sports bar to watch the first few innings of the World Series game.

Tomorrow will be a long slog; I'm presiding at one presentation, assisting on another, and attending two more to support colleagues. We have a meeting with area alumni set up for the evening hours. I know I'll be happy to crawl into bed at the end of the day and breathe a sigh of relief.

But right now I'm relaxing and sending all my love home to Noel and the kids, battened down in central Arkansas. I'm already looking forward to being home, my sweets, but I'm going to make the most of being here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To the Capitol

The first of two extended weekend trips for me starts tomorrow. I'll be fleeing the state ahead of another long series of rainstorms, and I feel a little guilty about that; everyone in my town -- and my state -- is sick of rain. At least the rain will catch up to me in Washington, D.C. by the time I leave on Sunday.

First stop is the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting, and it's going to be a long, busy slog. I have two presentations in which I'm participating on Friday, one as lead presenter, and a couple of others that I'm committed to attend. We're meeting up with a dozen or so alumni who live in the area that night. Saturday is a bit more relaxed, and then Sunday we're leading a half-day workshop on technology in honors education before finally heading home.

Between this and my trip to Montreal next weekend, it's like my life is on hold until around Thanksgiving. I always look forward to getting away, but this trip is almost all work and no play. There's a large contingent of faculty and students from our institution attending, and it will be tough to find time to one's self for doing some work or reading or museum-going. I glanced into my little girl's eyes during dinner tonight, and felt a pang about missing Halloween with my kids. They'll be tramping around the neighborhood pretending to be robots and videogame characters, and I'll be halfway across the country.

And of course, all the burdens will be falling on Noel while I'm gone -- he'll be taking the kids to get their flu shots tomorrow, feeding them, bathing them, clothing them, and making sure that their Wii time does not parent mandated limits. It's going to be a long two weeks until I'm back for good ... when it will be time to make plans for holiday travel.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Meet Ross

I certainly appreciate Archer bringing home a sheaf of creative work this week that I can use for my blog! Here are his spelling sentences for the week (the spelling words are underlined):

  1. Ross can paint a roof.
  2. Ross has paid for the paint.
  3. "Leave the store, Ross!"
  4. Will Ross or Cecily use the clay?
  5. On Ross's farm lay eight cows
  6. Ross may seem to smell like gold
  7. Ross's neighbor is Lien Skylar and her phone # is 770-2190.
  8. Ross may weigh 62 pounds.
  9. Never speak when Ms. Callaway or any teacher speaks.
  10. No one got eight good as golds as their most.
  11. Sometimes, I don't feel good.
  12. Ms. Callaway needs to mark folders.

Monday, October 26, 2009

These are a few of my favorite things

At church yesterday, during the peace, Archer was cornering our unsuspecting pewmates and telling them: "Now, my favorite way to count is like this: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 ..."

So the note I tucked into his lunch today asked this question: "Why do you love the Fibonacci sequence?"

Here are his answers (I provided the numbered blanks):

1. It is calculated 1+1=2, 1+2=3 [AA provided arrows showing how each number repeats in the next equation]
1. It starts 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 [AA circled the bolded numbers]
2. It has a puzzling ctdn.
3. The 12th number is 144 (12x12!)
5. The countdown is hidden in this note!

And along the edges he provided the first 12 numbers in the sequence.

Tomorrow it's Crazy Hat Day for the drug-free emphasis Red Ribbon Week in school, and I'll put the kids in their fish hats. Archer could care less about having a fish on his head, but he might get a kick out of the fact that the stripes are all Fibonacci numbers. Now there's something he wouldn't mind dressing in -- or living in.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

... Scary! Scary!

Cady Gray took some time while we were setting up jack-o-lanterns to show me her most frightening looks.

This is just generalized scary.

Boo! It's a ghost!

Vampire ... you can see the fangs, I'm sure. They're still baby fangs, they'll fall out eventually.

And my favorite: Mummy! I didn't get any more shots because I was too busy running away in terror. Luckily her actual costume is nowhere near this scary.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Scary! Scary!

Today was jack o'lantern carving day! Here's how it turned out.

The spiky one is Cady Gray's ...

And the happy one is Archer's.

Everybody say "Halloween!"

I certainly hope these pumpkins can coexist peacefully.

Ahhhh! What have you done with my children?!

Friday, October 23, 2009

On scholarships

My institution developed a generous scholarship policy over the last decade. Now the pipers have to be paid; state law has limited the percentage of tuition revenue that can be spent on scholarships, and in order to comply, the scholarship budget has to be cut by half.

Our administration has repeatedly and publicly said that we don't need to buy students. We have a great university with great programs; students should pay to come here.

In general, I agree. But there are some categories of student that won't pay. If we want them, we will have to pay. That's just a fact. The highest-performing high school students will not come here without scholarships, because they can command quite handsome prices. Why would they sell themselves short? Our regional public university, no matter how wonderful a place, will not be able to attract them at full price or even half price, when there are many institutions in and out of state willing to buy them at the MSRP.

It sounds logical that a university should not have to buy its students. But would you say the same thing about a football program? Would you assert that we have such a wonderful team that potential athletes will gladly pay to be a part of it? The fact is that if you want top athletes, you must pay for them with scholarships. Nobody would argue differently, because it's patently obvious. If you want a marching band, you must pay for it with scholarships. (That may not be widely known, but it is true.) Would you say that you don't have to pay competitive salaries for top faculty because we have such a wonderful university that people should be glad to come here regardless of their compensation?

Quality costs money, because quality is in demand. That goes for top students just as it does for top athletes and employees. The question before my institution is not "do we have to pay for students?" It's "what students are worth paying for?" And if the answer truly is "none," then exactly what does the assertion that we have a wonderful university that's attractive on its own mean? Can you point to a high-quality university that doesn't have any top-tier students? Those students enrich faculty life, which keeps morale high and turnover low. They win top national awards and provide tangible evidence of the desirability of the university's education -- which in turn attracts more high-quality students.

Students worth paying for attract other students who pay their own way. Success breeds success. The rich get richer. And an attempt to have an unquantifiable "quality" on the cheap might end with the institution poorer than it was before it started trying to save money.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Anxiety and nausea

I put it off until today. I knew how difficult it was going to be, and I saw no reason to extend the misery by starting early.

The task was selecting a teaching assistant for next semester. In our freshman team-taught class, each of the seven instructors has an upper-division student working at her side. The program is a way to give our undergraduates teaching roles, to help alleviate the heavy workload of the writing-intensive seminar, and to foster mentorship between the instructor and the assistant.

It's been an amazingly successful program, now entering its fifth year. I've had amazing students at my side, and the course has changed dramatically as a result. Now I see the classroom as a collaborative space, each interaction a chance to hear many voices. Grading has become a conversation with three participants at a minimum. I love what's happened as a result of sharing the classroom with my "pedagogical associate" (or PA for short).

But in order to enjoy those benefits, I have to choose a student each semester to work with during the semester following. And that's getting harder and harder, or at least it feels that way. The selection process involves an extensive application each candidate submits, the rank-ordering of top candidates by each instructor, and then a meeting at which we look at our individual rankings. We choose our own PAs; if the student I ranked first was not ranked first by any other instructor, I get to work with that student. If two or more instructors had the same top choice, we negotiate to determine who goes with their second or third choice.

This semester thirteen students applied for seven slots. I made an initial pass through the applications and came up with eight students I personally could see choosing. The job this morning was to narrow that down to three, and put them in order.

How do you choose? I knew many of the students well, but not all of them. I was impressed by the erudition of some, the writing facility of others, the teaching philosophy of still others. Did I want a strong personality, a charismatic figure who would inspire the freshmen? Did I want a nurturing, behind-the-scenes type? What was more important to me -- the associate's dependability in a job that requires continuous herculean effort; her prowess as a reader, writer, or editor; his mastery of complex interdisciplinary material; her potential as a leader of class discussion?

I can't answer any of those questions ahead of time. What emerges as most important in any given semester does so out of the particular pool of candidates. I imagine them in my classroom, try to feel the dynamic that will arise out of the combination of our personalities. I think about their strengths and wonder about their weaknesses. I feel the desire of some candidates for the position itself, some for the opportunity to work with me in particular. I try to assess my own feelings for the students whom I think deserve this opportunity, would benefit from it, would make the most of it, could have their lives changed by it.

And in the end, I make a short-short list of ... five, actually. But only the top three matter, almost certainly. I order them with a heavy heart. I'm not sure if what I'm being swayed by is the best factor to have as the deciding one. I rationalize my qualms, try to live with it settled. Then at the last moment, seconds before the meeting begins, I change the order. I'm convinced that I can't ignore or downplay a factor I'd been willing to overlook before.

Now the rankings are made available to the group, and glory hallelujah, there are no conflicts! We're done almost before we had a chance to begin. But the meeting's not complete before we talk a little more about the candidates and justify our choices to each other.

It's done. And now it's up to me to write to the candidates who weren't chosen. The nausea sets in. Some of these were people I specifically asked to apply. Some were on my short lists. And I have to tell them (some for the second or third time, some in their last chance) that they didn't get selected. Did I make the right choice? Was my last-second change of heart motivated by the right reasons? I'm feeling the loss of all the classes that could have been -- the different energies and expertises and relationships that won't come into being because I settled on this one instead of that one.

But it's done. I think I did right -- but right has little meaning when you're talking about multiple possibilities for growth and flourishing and creativity. It's just decision, "cutting off," this one rather than that one -- a vision of what could be that you settled on, even though others beckoned with their own unique value. I can't wait to get started. But right now, in the short respite before my new PA responds to the news and we begin forging our partnership, I'm still mourning all the other ways that might have been.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where do you see yourself in five years?

It's fair -- if not a bit of an understatement -- to say that my university is in transition. Budget woes of our own making have been compounded by revenue shortfalls statewide that have resulted in mid-year reductions in current budgets. An academic culture created by the previous administration is being replaced wholesale, and morale as well as expectations are in flux throughout the institution.

Nothing is certain in such an environment. I'm thankful for tenure, and I'm pretty sure my unit isn't going to vanish or my job be taken away. But what could happen is that the administrative part of my job could disappear. Anyone who's got extra time and duties layered on top of their base faculty position could find themselves back in a regular faculty position at any time, either through replacement in that position or through its elimination.

I thought hard today, for the first time in a while, about what would happen if I were no longer an administrator. And for the first time ever, maybe, I discovered that I really didn't like the idea. I got into administration because I loved being a part of making things happen, and I loved seeing how things tick. Certainly there are downsides to it -- less direct contact with students, becoming a lightning rod for criticism, thankless attention to trivia.

But when I thought about going back to having responsibility primarily for my classes and having more time for my own research projects, I found -- somewhat to my surprise -- that I didn't like the idea. In fact, if I spun out the hypothetical, I thought that I'd probably end up searching for other administrative jobs rather than stay put in a different capacity.

Now I have no desire to search for another job. Quite the opposite; I'm quite attached to staying put. And I have no reason to think that the administrative part of my job is in question or jeopardy. But it shocks me somewhat to find that I identify myself as an administrator rather than as a faculty member or scholar. I have to be grateful for that clarity. Knowing what you want now -- rather than what you envisioned for yourself ten years ago -- is important. Even if I never have to act on that knowledge, it's a sea change in my self-image. And I'm thankful to the crisis for helping me understand who I am in 2009.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The jet set

Next week I'll be headed to Washington, D.C. for the national honors meeting, at which I'm giving two presentations and leading a half-day workshop. The following week I'm going to Montreal for the national religious studies meeting -- no presentations there, but plenty of board of directors duties.

I've been too busy to look forward much to the trips. There's too much preparation, especially for the first meeting, to think about packing or sightseeing. But some of that preparation can't be rushed, either. There's a temptation to just take a couple of hours and grind it out, but you can't grind out ideas or inspiration.

Today was a gorgeous day -- low seventies, brilliant sunshine. After my classes and meetings, I went out to the big fountain that serves as the campus focal point, sat on a bench, and jotted down thoughts for those presentations and workshop sessions. It's all material that I've spoken and presented about dozens of times, and the workshop is based on one that we did three years ago, just with slightly different personnel and emphasis. But you still need a reason to say this rather than that. You need an idea and an organizing principle.

I sat by the fountain soaking up the sun, knitting, thinking, writing. All the ideas came in the first quarter hour. Then I tried to think about objections, counterexamples, extensions. I watched classes that had managed to persuade their instructors to come outside gather under shade trees and try to ignore loud groups of students taking pictures of each other with the fountain as a backdrop. I gathered my thoughts and plans for the next week, and tried to figure out when I'd get this piece done and that piece done.

The semester is half over, and after I get back from my travels, there won't be much left to the two classes I'm teaching. It will be time to finalize the syllabi for next semester and make holiday plans. These trips are the watershed and the crucible of the season. I'll be as busy and stressed during certain days over the next two weeks as at any time during the year. But it's all in the service of the ideas that come when they come, the ones you can't force but that nevertheless have to arrive before the deadline. The ones you scratch down in a notebook beside a fountain on a perfect fall day, playing hooky from the office.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I have semi-regular evening classes or screenings just about every semester. It's not something I really enjoy, going back to campus after dinner when all I want to do is read to my kids and take a shower and write and watch television.

But the reward comes when the class or the film is over, and I walk out of the building into what's suddenly -- night. There's a cool blast of air when I open the door. As I descend the steps, I can't help but look up into the dark sky. After a moment of acclimation, stars appear.

The academic buildings may be empty, but gaggles of students roam the dormitory areas, the fitness center, the parking lots. Our faculty illusion of ownership over the campus is shattered at night.

I'm glad for the moment to walk in the glow of lamps and security lighting, and to breathe the night air. A settled middle-aged life means, among other things, that you're not out and about much at night. I'm not sure it compensates for hours spent at the office after normal working hours, but it's pretty nice nonetheless.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


We turned on football this afternoon, and there were our Tennessee Titans in their Houston Oilers-style throwback uniforms ... slogging around on a snow-covered field in New England.

I've been looking forward to colder weather ever since I finished my Malabrigo coat back in July. And while there are weather extremes in other parts of the country -- too much rain in California, hot in the Southwest, snow up north -- we're having a bracing slide into autumn here, now that all the wet stuff is over. I'm enjoying dressing myself and my children in their new sweaters and jackets, digging out hats and mitts, reminding their dad to bundle them up before taking them to the playground.

But the white stuff flying around on television was a sudden reminder that there's a downside to winter's advent. I have a lot of travel coming up in the next few weeks, and we're planning to visit the family right after Christmas. Snow and ice can really throw a wrench into those schemes.

Ever since summer, our weather has been just about perfect. Leaving aside some flooding rains in the last month, we had an unexpectedly drought-free summer, a July and August virtually bereft of three-digit temperatures, and long stretches of perfect readings in the seventies since school's started. Could it be possible that we'll have a winter without an ice storm, with a couple of half-foot snowfalls only on the weekends that melt before we have to go back to work on Monday? Might we have pleasant weather and on-time flights for our trips, dry highways and flurries on Christmas Eve while we're safe in our beds?

I know it's asking too much. Really, I'll be happy if we make it where we're going and back without losing our luggage or sleeping involuntarily in a layover city. I hope your autumn and winter is everything you dream, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

But will it preach?

I'm preaching tomorrow at St. Peter's -- come on down if you're in Conway -- and it's a particularly challenging Sunday. The Old Testament text is Job, and it's the start of the church's stewardship drive. Begging for money is no exactly what anyone wants to do from the pulpit.

Luckily that's not my job (although our wonderful vicar Teri give me the green light to mention stewardship if I so desired). And luckily I'm fascinated by the book of Job.

I only occupy the pulpit three or four times a year, and that only because of the kind permission of the vicar. But I have many friends who are both clergy and university faculty. For me, getting a chance to speak out of my faith is a clarifying and refreshing break from my academic pose. Some of my colleagues (especially those who teach in church-affiliated schools) wear both hats every week.

It's gratifying when some of my students come sit in the pews while I'm preaching, but beyond their show of support for me, I'm glad they get to see a public university professor speaking in the arena of faith. There's a stereotype about us academic types out there, and there's another stereotype about people with religious confessions. Professional intellectuals can value their church communities and their prayer lives, and clergy and laypeople can value scholarship and intellectual rigor. Some of my students have never seen those two worlds occupying the same time and space. To them, I say: The doors of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway are always open to you.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Dancin' machine

Tonight we went to Archer and Cady Gray's school for their Fall Festival fundraiser. Hot dogs were eaten, chip & dip recipes from all the grade levels were sampled and evaluated, bingo was played and cakes were walked.

The kindergarten teachers had the most ... aggressive ... dip sales operation. The idea was that you were supposed to sample all the dips and vote with a donation for the one you liked the best. Under a blue awning, the kindergarten teachers wore the local high school's football uniforms and did organized cheers.

Just as we were finishing up our food and getting ready to head out to the carnival games, the kindergarten tent fired up a boom box with a dance tune. I'm sure I had heard it before, but it was a little under my vintage. Something about stepping this way, sliding this way, jumping back and forth, then clapclapclapclapclap.

Cady Gray and Archer dropped everything and started dancing. They jumped in the aisles. They slid and stepped in front of people trying to navigate to tables with plates full of chili. They clapped like their lives depended on it. No matter how many times we tried to herd them out of the traffic lanes, they jumped right back into the open spaces as soon as the amplified voice told them to.

If the Pied Piper needed an updated tune, this would be it. Completely irresistible to our children, I tell you. The beat pounded and the voice commanded, and they were helpless to do anything other than dance.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Like everyone else who participating in the A.V. Club's Chicago promotional event for its new book, Noel came down with a vicious cold (or a relatively mild flu) twelve hours later. By the time he got home the next day, he was shaking and hot, had lost his appetite, and wasn't able to do anything but lie motionless on the couch under a blanket.

That had an interesting effect on the reunion in several ways:
  1. No hugging. Even though Noel is feeling somewhat better today, the only physical contact I've had with him is feeling his forehead. The kids have had none.
  2. Continuation of caretaking. I got up this morning to make the kids breakfast, just like I did for the rest of the week.
  3. Takeout diet. I made the kids dinner one night while Noel was gone, and I felt pretty good about that. In normal circumstances his return would mean we're eating home-cooked meals. But because neither of us wanting his germy self preparing food -- and because I'm lame -- we ended up with drive-through food again tonight.
But things are looking up. Noel's fever is down, although his cough is still painful. He slept well last night, worked through the day, and had an appetite for the chicken I brought home. I had a productive day at work and stayed late because Noel was well enough to pick up the kids and supervise them during the afternoon. And tomorrow is Friday; if things continue to improve, we'll have a normal weekend.

Provided none of the rest of us get sick, of course. Here's hoping all that hand-washing, sanitizer, and lack of physical contact keeps us out of harm's way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Man on the moon

I confess that I arrived at last night's videoconference full of doubt. The plan had been hatched last spring in Montreal at the AAR's board of directors meeting. John O'Keefe, a professor at Creighton University, had bonded with me over the past couple of years; we were fellow technophiles and enthusiastic about taking our pedagogy into the twenty-first century. Over breakfast in Montreal we came up with a way to combine our classes. He would be teaching ecological theology; I would be teaching process theology. His syllabus would have a unit on process thought; mine would have a unit on ecology. If we could just make those units coincide, then we had the perfect opportunity to get our students together.

And so this semester we contacted the appropriate technical people on our campuses to make use of the videoconferencing facilities available to us. It was a lengthy and worrisome process, with personnel out for long periods of time or not as communicative as we might have liked But finally we had confirmation -- the test call had gone fine, and we were set to go.

I showed up last night convinced that something would go wrong. (After all, my babysitter had canceled that morning, and I'd spent the day fretting about just making to to the session.) Fifteen minutes before class was due to start, and I was kicking myself for not calling that day to confirm plans with the IT department. But ten minutes before class was due to start, the technician showed up and opened the door -- and voila, we could already hear chatter through the speakers. The call had already come in and been connected, and all that was left on our end was to turn on the cameras. The technician showed me how to control the cameras and audio, and then left me in charge. I was shocked; far from being a monumental undertaking requiring intensive cooperation and expertise, the whole thing was ... routine.

We enjoyed a spirited hour of conversation -- nine or ten people on their end, a similar number on ours, and a guest speaker to get us started. My students enjoyed answering the Creighton contingent's questions about process theology; I think it surprised and delighted them to be the experts in the discussion. The differences between the two groups became clear in a way that led to much comment, especially in the level of religiosity (my students being all over the map from atheist/materialist to Hindu to evangelical Christian, and O'Keefe's group being mostly Catholics and theology majors).

We ran fifteen minues over before I felt like I had to shut things down, and afterwards everyone left our room still talking and arguing. O'Keefe sent me an e-mail to tell me that he and his students had retired to the campus pub (there's another difference right there) and talked theology for ninety minutes.

And it was easy. The equipment was all there waiting to be used; all we had to do was come up with a time that worked for both of us. I'm already scheming ways to connect up my classes with others every semester.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Brightening skies

It's been a strange trip all around. Noel's Chicago jaunt was supposed to be headquartered in the guest room at Chez Head Editor, but then said editor got called out of town on a family emergency. So the bivouac moved to the sofa at Chez Old Friend. A bed of one's own and a big dog was exchanged for a sofa to crash on and a preschooler. A day spent in exhausting meetings at the A.V. Club offices was exchanged for a morning waiting for the cable guys to arrive.

As for me, I woke up to forecasts of heavy rain and the news that my babysitter, who had been secured well in advance for tonight's evening class, was sick and had to cancel. That led to a frantic morning flooding Facebook and Twitter with requests for assistance before a kindly alumnus came through.

Now there remain only two uncertainties -- well, maybe three.
  1. I have to skedaddle over to campus at 5:30 in order to be present as the host of the 6 pm videoconference. What form should dinner take for the kids? I'm leaning toward pizza, but it's not quite as easy to go pick it up from the place a few blocks away when there's only one adult in the house. (Delivery, shelivery -- I haven't paid to have a pizza brought to my door in years.)
  2. This is the first videoconference I've ever done using the facilities at school. A guest speaker on my end will be addressing members of my class, his class from the school across the tracks, and a class at Creighton University led by a colleague of mine on the AAR board. I don't know how smoothly it should go, but presumably the technician on site both here and in the remote location will be able to make it work. Never having done it before, I have no image in my head of what to expect.
  3. After I rush home and relieve my emergency babysitter, it's time to blog the finale of a reality show. Or is it the finale? The previews last week didn't bill it as such. So I'm not sure whether I'll be investing two hours in that endeavor or just one.
In any case, once we get through the night and the kids are safely at school tomorrow, it should be the end of my shift of single parenting. Noel is scheduled to arrive home mid-afternoon -- if there are no delays, he'll be available to pick up the kids. And then Thursday and Friday I'll have quiet days at work with no students and no class. (Some would say I never have any class.) I'm looking forward to a relaxing weekend of me time. And preaching on Sunday. Which will be relaxing if I can get my sermon written on Thursday or Friday.

Monday, October 12, 2009

So good to me

What makes a perfect pumpkin?

It's a question asked in many a fall-themed children's book. And one that comes up anytime a kindergarten class takes a field trip to a pumpkin patch.

There was an article in the local paper today about the difficulties pumpkin-patch operators encounter trying to turn a profit. At this time of year, it's hard to imagine that the pumpkineers aren't raking it in; all you have to do, it seems, is plant a half-acre and then sit back and collect money from the school buses that will start lining up at your gate before they've even sprouted. But I guess there's quite a bit to it -- you need to press some sorghum, map out a hayride, invest in some petting-zoo animals. The article stated that if the crop is bad, as it's been the last couple of years, you have to buy pumpkins wholesale to plump out your patch. That cuts into the margin, I'm sure.

Like most parents, I have some definite pumpkin preferences. I'm not sure what the point of a small pumpkin would be, since I don't like pumpkin to eat and am unlikely to make a pie. The bigger, the better, as far as I'm concerned -- easier to carve, more impressive on the doorstep.

I didn't get to accompany Cady Gray on her pumpkin patch field trip today. What with Noel in Chicago and me with the usual work responsibilities, there was no one who could subtly push her in the direction of jack-o-lantern-sized gourds. So she came home with a perfectly Cady Gray-sized pumpkin, just about exactly the volume of her head. It's gorgeously round, pleasingly proportioned, classically sectioned. I have no idea what to do with it, but sitting on our kitchen table, it's a lovely evocation of the misty, chilly weather that's taken hold, and a signal of the rapidly fleeing year.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

... Naturally

Noel took off for Chicago this morning. His colleagues at the A.V. Club have a full two days of brainstorming and planning in store for him, interspersed with cool premieres and book readings.

Luckily, I'm feeling like this week is going to be relatively easy. There are only three days of classes for me -- our fall break is Thursday and Friday. On Tuesday I've canceled my regular class meeting because we're doing an evening videoconference with a class at Creighton, featuring a guest speaker. I have a lot of writing to do (book review, four television write-ups); there's midterm grading happening, and a thousand other administrative tasks that need attention.

But all along I've considered this whole week an extension of my birthday. It might not feel like it until Noel gets home on Wednesday and I'm basking in two days with no students and no classes (and trying, as usual, to get up the motivation to accomplish something under those conditions). Things will really start hopping next week when we're back in class and it's only a few days until the double-whammy of conferences on back-to-back weekend in DC and Montreal (at both of which I have responsibilities, although it's behind the scenes only at the second).

And fortunately the kids are ridiculously easy to handle right now (knock on wood). Cady Gray is thrilled about going to the pumpkin patch tomorrow. As long as I get clothes on their backs and lunches in their hands, my work is done.

So I hope Noel enjoys himself with friends and productive work in Chi-town. I won't be playing all that much, but I also won't be stressed about the solo parenting for the next few days. Now please excuse me while I watch a TV show online ahead of time to avoid a pile up three days hence, then retire to plow through the last 100 pages of the book I'm reviewing tomorrow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Teach the controversy

I've had a full day at Hendrix College, across the railroad tracks, teaching Reformation theology to part-time lay pastors. It was an especially good class today, to an especially good group -- smaller than most I've had, and maybe therefore more active.

Anybody who watches me in class knows that I love to teach and I love my subject. And almost any period of Christian history gives me a chance to get into what about it I love -- the complexities and relativities of theology in time. We started the day with a vigorous application of existentialism to the kinds of certainty and absolutism displayed by both reformers and Catholic authorities, and we ended with a vigorous defense of Calvin's worldview. No two discussions could be more different, and yet what united them is a delight in wrestling with the ideas that meant everything to people at that time.

Can we think along with people in history? I think we can, and nothing gets me more excited than when I see someone assuming that posture and defending a worldview that is quite different from their own. That's necessary if we are going to be able to assume good faith on the part of those who currently think differently from us. I find it invigorating to think that both the Catholics and the reformers (and the reformers and the spiritualists, and the Inquisitors and their victims, and so on) were trying to defend and promote what they felt to be the essential elements of the tradition they received and the faith that will save. How their commitments then issue into wildly opposed action becomes a study not in right and wrong, but in conflict and compromise.

Friday, October 9, 2009


I went to work. I graded papers. I went to class. I went to meetings. I graded more papers. I attended a conference call.

It was a normal day -- maybe even a bit busier than usual. But it was still an outstanding forty-fourth birthday for me. Here's what made it special:
  • When I walked into the living room first thing in the morning, Cady Gray greeted me with a beaming, "Happy birthday, Mom!"
  • Students, colleagues, readers, and general well-wishers flooded my Facebook page, Twitter feed, and HCOL thread with birthday congratulations.
  • My freshmen decorated a pumpkin with all their names and gave it to me in class.
  • One of my freshmen, who just learned to knit a few weeks ago, gave me a beautiful fringed coaster she had made and thanked me for everything I'd done to help her.
  • Noel not only told me to take my time getting home, but met with me cookies and my birthday present on arrival.
  • That birthday present? These beauties. Oh, yes.
  • There's a half-dozen comedies on the TiVo for tonight.
I can hardly think of anything better. Happy birthday to me!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The beat goes on

Tomorrow is my birthday. I've already got the Facebook messages and the card from the university president to prove it.

But there's no rest this weekend. Tonight and tomorrow we're supposed to get torrential rain, and I get anxious about heavy rain because our street and yard flood so easily. I won't be able to relax fully until the heaviest rain has passed by tomorrow. Saturday I'm teaching the Methodist pastors all day. Saturday night I'm going out for a birthday dinner with Noel. And then Sunday he's leaving for Chicago. I'll be in charge of the kids until Wednesday.

The real relaxation won't come until a week from now; our two-day fall break starts next Thursday. Until then, birthday or no birthday, I'll be in one-day-at-a-time mode. But I'm still looking forward to being forty-four. As Noel pointed out today, that's the Hank Aaron age. And I'm determined to knock it out of the park during the year to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I woke up this morning after an uncommonly refreshing sleep, turned on the Weather Channel, and vigorously circled my shoulders to work out the kinks.

Bad mistake.

I got an immediate twinge between my shoulder blades, and no amount of stretching or popping would relieve it. As the day went on, the twinge turned into a dull spreading pain; I could isolate it by tilting my head straight back, as though I were looking up at the sky.

My motivation to do any work, or move around much at all, dried up. After a normal productive morning, I spent most of the afternoon almost motionless in my office chair, reading online and doing some light grading. Brisk walks to the library to pick up a book, or to the parking lot to check the mileage on my car so I could renew the registration online -- little errand breaks that normally I would welcome -- I skipped.

When I got home, after a delicious dinner, I went to the front room and sat in an upholstered chair. Leaning my head back was painful at first -- a few seconds of ow, oh, eeyahh -- but once I got in that position, I had no desire to move at all. I believe I could have fallen asleep in that exact position.

The relief of motionlessness convinced me that I could skip my usual half-hour workout. I went straight to the showers. Now I'm sitting on the couch with a microwave heat bag spread across my upper back, helping Cady Gray with a list of rooms in the house and typing slowly.

I don't experience pain or discomfort often, and it always surprises me how pervasive it becomes while it lasts. I feel vaguely chilled, almost like I were coming down with the flu; the hot shower felt like heaven. I feel worn out, as if I could collapse into sleep at any second. The first effect comes from the radiating effect of the pain; the second from the lethargy of motionlessness. But they combine to make me feel not so great, even when the pain's not present.

It's such a minor thing, but it has such a cumulative affect on my mood and on what I can talk myself into doing. Check in with me tomorrow to see whether I've bounced back -- or possibly sunk deeper.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Me from TV

The new TV season is upon us, and a lot of my favorite shows are firing on all cylinders. Here's what I'm enjoying these days:
  • How I Met Your Mother. I write about this show for the TV Club. It's a traditional sitcom -- laugh track and all -- but with an energetic tweak. And the performers have developed into quite the ensemble.
  • Actually, there's a lot of CBS comedy that I love: The Big Bang Theory, The New Adventures of Old Christine. Is this a sign that I'm getting old?
  • On the "heck no, I'm not old yet" front, nothing delivers the laughs like It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
  • New network sitcoms with promise: Modern Family, Community, and yes, Cougartown.
  • I look forward to the cream of the reality competition crop every week: Top Chef, Project Runway, Survivor, The Amazing Race.
  • Perhaps because my attention span is decreasing, I don't watch the hour-long dramas like I used to. Noel writes about Fringe and Lie To Me, but they're not appointment television for me (well, Fringe is pretty awesome).
I'm not ashamed to admit that I love television. What's on your season pass list?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Counting up

On Friday I'll be forty-four years old. Written out like that, it takes me aback just a little. That's a patently adult number. And outwardly at least, I may look like an adult. I have a mortgage, kids, cars, a job, positions of responsibility.

On the other hand, I didn't start my career until ten years ago. So I still feel quite junior in that respect. I'm still on my first home while many of my younger friends have traded up one or two times. I neglect important matters of health and money and preparing for the future all the time, matters that I tend to think more adult people take care of routinely.

The dirty little secret of being decidedly middle-aged, unable to be plausibly mistaken for young anymore, is that you don't feel as old as you look. Oh, maybe the eyes don't see small print anymore like they used to; maybe there are aches and twinges. But you remember what you used think separated the oldsters from the youngsters: the former claimed to know what they were doing.

At least in those terms, I still feel like a bumbling kid. But I also feel young in a more accomplished and positive way -- I'm still learning new things, and I'm excited about developing my skills in new directions. Working with college students helps; being a technophile helps; teaching in an academic unit that values initiative and innovation definitely helps. Becoming a knitter in my forties, gaining the ability to cloth and adorn myself and those I love and care for, makes me feel brand new in the world.

At times I know that I'm in the middle of my life, and heading towards the shorter end. Those are the times when I feel like my time is filling up and running out, when I see moments as precious and few rather than copious and abundant. But there are parts of my life with plans that keep burgeoning instead of fading into the distance. I may be solidly ensconced in my forties, but in some ways, I'm still climbing upwards and seeing more and more as I rise.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In the bleak

Today was the first day in five or six months that I have worn long sleeves. I've flirted with three-quarter sleeves several times in the last few weeks. But today, the sleeves came all the way to my wrists. I suppose that means that the weather has started to turn.

If only the turn had been in the direction of those brisk, smoky autumn days that make the world stand out in sharp relief. But no -- it was because of a cold drizzling mist that occasionally condensed into outright rain showers. The sun made no appearance, and the temperature stayed in the fifties. That's no time to pretend that you're in between seasons. It's the moment when layers begin to seem like a good idea.

I've been enjoying the cool mornings lately -- gives me a chance to break out the woolly accessories and plan sweater knitting. But this wasn't the kind of day that makes you want to swath yourself in cozy knitwear and stroll through autumn's glory. It was the kind of day that chases you inside no matter what you're wearing.

After returning from church at lunchtime, all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch and make progress on a scarf or a vest. Instead I started and ripped, started and ripped, dissatisfied with size or fabric. I headed out midafternoon and pinballed from office to drive-through to church and back again, struggling with umbrellas and feeling both rushed and chilled. It's an apt start for what promises to be a wet and crowded week whose routine threatens to be crowded out by deadlines and special events.

If I can make it through to Friday, though, I'll be rewarded with two days of birthday bliss ... before Noel leaves town. It's not just the start of colder, grayer weather. It's midterm. One word signifying simply that your time is not your own.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Block party weekend

Today's post about gifts you can't bear to give away is at Toxophily.

Today was Family Day at my university. Do you think the kids had fun with the activities provided before the football game?

Giant inflatable slide: check.

Make that double-check.

Snowcone: check.

Hello Kitty facepainting: check.

An iTunes playlist to examine: check.

Pony ride: check.

Fun in the sun: check and mate.

Friday, October 2, 2009


No, I'm not participating. Well do I remember my last attempt at writing fiction. It was the eighth grade, and it was horrific. Really, you have no idea. Imagine if the function of every character was to state the opinions of the author. Imagine what would happen to the basics of fiction -- plot, for example. That was my eighth-grade stab at fiction, enough to cure me of ever believing I could write it again.

But after today's Soapbox (voluntary student Friday afternoon presentation) on National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo veteran Sarah asked the assembled 25 students or so how many would be trying the exercise. More than half raised their hands. "I love you so much right now," Sarah declared, and I can only second the emotion.

It's hard for some people to wrap their minds around the concept of doing something not because the end product is expected to be intrinsically valuable, but because the process of doing it will make you a better person. That's NaNoWriMo. The novels written because of the exercise will never see the light of day, in almost every case. But writing them has taught the authors something. It's shown them that they have far more resources than they imagined -- that they are capable of doing something they never thought they could do. At the end they believe themselves to be more capable than they did when they started. It's an accomplishment than can never be bought; it must be earned. Yet moving from here to there takes only a month, and can be done along with thousands of like-minded people.

It was Sarah's commitment to NaNoWriMo that led me to knit my first sweater, as part of NaKniSweMo. And like the writers, my sweater knitting was a quantum leap. It took me from "I don't know how people ever do that" to "I did that," in one fell swoop.

I'll be starting another sweater for NaKniSweMo, there's no doubt; I have dozens planned, so it's just a matter of picking the right one. Sounds like a good project for October, while my novel-writing students begin planning their plots and characters.

Thursday, October 1, 2009


It's my favorite month of the year at last. Among the many great features of October: (1) Autumn, my favorite season; (2) My birthday; (3) Our anniversary.

I'd add Halloween to that -- I really enjoy doing Halloween with the kids -- but I won't be here for it this year. I'll be in Washington, D.C. at the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting.

All day I've been joking with the staff that it's too bad October is here, because now I have to do all the things I put off until October. And there's some truth to that. I've committed to doing a lot of things in October -- this weekend I'm teaching an Inquirers Class at church, next weekend I'm teaching Methodist pastors all day again, the following weekend I'm preaching. Noel is taking a brief trip to Chicago in a couple of weeks. At that DC meeting I'm doing a presentation and co-leading a workshop. Reports are due, memos await writing, and that's on top of the weekly round of teaching and writing.

It doesn't seem as overwhelming as September did. There's a mini-vacation in the middle of October. None of these little extra tasks will consume more than a couple of days of my time. At the end of the month, though, is a two-and-a-half week black hole. I'll be in DC for half a week, then three days after returning I go to Montreal for five days. The second trip, especially, should be therapeutic. I'll see lots of friends and colleagues, important work will be done, there will be time to immerse myself in my field and enjoy the city.

Every semester, one way or another, lurches from one crisis to the next. So right now I'm enjoying the relative normalcy of my days and trying not to anticipate the stress of what's coming until it actually hits.