Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happiness is ...

... being back home after a trip.

... the half-knitted sleeve of a sweater that's all for you.

... my daughter's megawatt smile.

.... my son's secret smile.

... a video of those smiles on a beach.

... boxes of presents that it's finally time to enjoy.

... New Year's Eve the way I like it: quiet with a glass of bubbly and my husband.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Just beachy

It was chilly and windy, but brilliantly sunny and beautiful at the beach on St. Simons Island during our visit. Here's a photolog of our many trips two blocks down Eleventh Street to the golden strand.

Is Cady Gray more excited about going to the beach, or being with her Papa?

Sorry, Papa, I think it's the beach.

The beach inspires frenzied dancing ...

... and running in circles.

Archer shared his non-eco-friendly "dune avalanche" game with his sister.

And he even tried his hand at Frisbie (actually the Aerobie Super Disk).

The beach is even better when you share it with your cool aunt and cousin.

Writing your name in the sand: a beach tradition.

The beach access path forms a magical tunnel enclosed by trees, inspiring contemplative thoughts.

This morning, Archer's cool teenage cousin -- an accomplished cross-country runner -- took him for a jog on a very blustery beach.

Archer kept going (and kept up a running commentary) for a couple of miles, despite the fierce headwind.

Master and pupil.

Everybody joined in for the home stretch.

A new generation follows in our footsteps.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas mashup

Today's post about those worthy of knitted gifts is at Toxophily.

And if you want an idea of how joyous our holidays have been, here's the official video.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Looking for adventure

It's our second family gathering in two days -- and our third Christmas gift exchange overall. And that means some handknits reached their final destinations, rendering them safe to blog. You can get all the details at Toxophily -- and you should expect more in the days to come.

Our travels so far have been safe and uneventful. If we can log one more day like that on New Year's Eve, we'll be home -- literally home -- free.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas number two complete

It was a whirlwind day -- if six hours of driving can be described as whirlwind. We breezed to Nashville and accumulated about 30% more presents by volume than we brought. The kids begged to get into their air mattress sleeping bags early; Archer reasoned aloud that they should tuck in at 6:30 since they have to get up at 5:30, but really they were just excited about what Opie memorably called "adventure sleeping."

Tomorrow we'll trek to the airport at the crack of dawn, board an early flight to Jacksonville, and cross fingers/knock wood, arrive at the rented house on St. Simon's Island by lunchtime. I'm looking forward to the last leg of the outward journey, to Christmas number three, and to relaxing with my family before the even-more-whirlwind combined air-highway journey home on New Year's Eve, weather permitting. See you on the coast!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

To grandmother's house we go

Today's post about socks for black light conditions is at Toxophily.

We're off on a whirlwind trip to the grandparents -- both sets -- and internet may be intermittent. If I don't get to post much or at all before New Year's, please remember that the Archies will be getting underway once 2010 arrives (here are the 2006, 2007, and 2008 editions). I invite you to compile your lists of celebration, grief, and puzzlement, and share them with me when you do!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas haul: A critical review

We took some chances this year on gifts for the kids, and I think we hit the jackpot. After playtesting some of the items this afternoon, here's a brief report of our experience.

This domino-esque tile game was the first one Cady Gray wanted to play. You play tiles in lines that have one of two attributes in common: either the same shape (of six possible), or the same color (of six possible). There's only about one page of instructions, and a helpful diagram of a sample game. We played without keeping track of points, but the kids caught on to the high-scoring moves (play tiles that count in more than one line, complete a set of six and earn a bonus) very quickly.

I love a lot of things about this game. There's no board, just a bag of tiles (substantial, brightly-colored, and well-made). Strategy is important but not complicated. Scoring is intuitive. In short, it's the perfect game for a range of ages. Both the five-year-old and the eight-year-old were competitive with me almost immediately. (I started off playing with Cady Gray while Archer was immersed in his favorite gift -- a handheld electronic chess game -- but after fifteen minutes he wandered over and started pestering me about playing the next game.) This one's going to have good staying power.

Another game whose easily-grasped rules makes it playable for a wide range of ages. In a Yahtzee-esque setup, the player rolls six dice, each with six simple symbols (angle, curve, line, squiggle, face, dot), and has three tries to match one of the figures on the "gallery" of cards that have been played. There are six colors of cards, each corresponding to a figure that takes one to six dice to complete. Your object is to match a figure from each color of card, thereby collecting that card and completing your set.

Like Quirkle, this is all about seeing spatial relationships and exercising foresight. Like Quirkle, there are no words or role-playing to get in the way of the pure challenge. And like Quirkle, the game is accessible from kindergarten-age through adults. It doesn't take very long, either. We were playing within five minutes of opening the box -- again, there's only one brief page of rules. Fun and addictive.

We knew Archer would be delighted by the chance to use ATM-style debit cards to keep track of his net worth in his updated Monopoly, but I've been hesitant to jump into Monopoly with him, quite frankly. It's long and relatively complicated, what with having to decide when to buy houses and mortgage properties. But I was surprised at how much he started enjoying himself right away. One of the only pieces of strategy I proffered was that he should buy up as many properties as possible at the beginning so they could start earning money for him; he immediately grasped it and was a super-mogul by the second time around the board. (He ended up schooling me in our first game, and not because I was hanging back, either.)

The amounts of money are ramped up in his edition -- the fact that you get $2 million for passing Go should give you an idea of the inflation rate. And the properties are famous landmarks all over the world. (I enjoyed collecting the Gateway Arch, Disney World, and the Grand Ole Opry.) But the only difference in game play is how you keep track of the money. Each player has a card, and there's a banking machine. All cards start off with $15 million. If you have to pay, put your card in the side with the minus sign, and enter the amount in either K or M (thousands or millions). If you're being paid, put your card in the plus sign side and do the same thing. And if you're paying another player, put both cards in on the appropriate side, type in the amount, and it transfers.

The real drawback here is that you have to put your card in the machine to see how much money you have. I found myself asking Archer frequently (he was operating the machine, naturally, and usually he remembered from the last time he'd inserted my card). It might be helpful for everyone to keep their latest balance jotted down on scratch paper as they play.

But I found this a faithful rendition of a classic, with a numerical/electronic component that's tailor-made to delight my number/calculator/ATM/money-obsessed autist. His sister came in near the end-game and asked (characteristically) whether she could be the banker "but not play" next time.

I'm really happy about the way this one worked out. Stuck about a week before Christmas with nothing for pretend-play to put under the tree, I steered Noel toward Trios (which I'd wanted to get for CG's birthday, but didn't manage to procure). He got this castle building set, and spent a couple of happy hours this afternoon putting it together with her. (She enthusiastically adopted his motto for how to tell if the pieces had locked together firmly: "A satisfying snap!"). I was amazed at how big it turned out to be. There are quite a few figures and accessories, and as soon as it was together (CG was able to handle much of the construction solo, with Dad assisting when modules had to be combined), she started having the dragon-catapult attack and putting the little minifig-like knights into single combat or having them man the cannon and crossbow.

There are several other suggestions for ways to combine the building pieces to make different varieties of castles and towers. I was hoping that a Trios set would combine CG's pride in creative construction with her love of role-playing. From her happy embrace of the set this afternoon, I think I was right.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A history of receiving

These are the best gifts I've ever received, in no particular order.
  • Intellectual curiosity and a belief in myself, courtesy of my dad.
  • My children -- thanks to Noel.
  • The love of a good man.
  • An appreciation of well-designed computers and software, from my older brother.
  • Knowledge about and enjoyment of sports, thanks to the men in my family.
  • Space to be myself, courtesy of my mom.
  • A passion for music and the training to take part, also thanks to mom.
  • The lending library system.
  • A Whiteheadian perspective on Christianity, from Dr. Will Power.
  • Fearless knitting, thanks to Ravelry and Ravelers everywhere.
  • Good health, good teeth, and a good appetite, courtesy of my entire genetic heritage.
Thanks to everyone who's given me so much over the years. May you all be as blessed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

When darkest was the night

One of the reasons I like to be here in Conway for Christmas is the St. Peter's Christmas Eve service. Growing up, we usually had an evening church service and then a Christmas Day afternoon service with communion. But I had never gone to midnight services before I got here.

Our handbell choir usually plays -- another good reason to be at home, since it's difficult for a handbell choir to function with members missing. This year we're doing only one piece, but it's a showstopper: a version of "We Three Kings" performed with mallets banging on the tables and each other in a drumline fashion.

What's best about the midnight service, though, is the darkness. The winter solstice has just passed, and the night is at its longest and deepest. The whole service is cloaked in shadow, with only a few candles at the beginning, with more lit as Christmas, and Christ's advent, approaches. Carols quaver from the unlit pews. Scripture is read. And as the clock ticks toward the very heart of the night, we sit in silence and wait.

I'll be in the sanctuary for about three hours tomorrow and on into the day after tomorrow, all told. Between showing up early for a last handbell practice, the Christmas cantata before the service begins, and the lengthy readings and Eucharist, it's one of the longest nights of the year. But that's as it should be. That's what we're celebrating -- the arrival of light in the midst of the deepest darkness. That's what cultures the world over celebrate at this time of year, and that's the archetypal symbolism that Christians have found so congenial for their celebration of Emmanuel, God with us.

There's no place I'd rather be.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Three Christmases

It must take a while for parents to establish a Christmas equilibrium. When you go from grandparents' house to grandparents' house during or after the holidays, the kids end up having more than one gift-receiving smorgasbord. So how do you calibrate your own provision for their Christmas morning in light of the fact that they're going to have more later?

A couple of weeks ago, we realized that since we were seeing all sides of the family during the holidays, only our own gifts were going to be under the tree here in Conway. It's the first time this has happened, strangely enough; at every other Christmas, one set of grandparents or the other -- sometimes both! -- have shipped their gifts here and been a part of our own December 25.

What that means is that suddenly the pile of presents under the tree has shrunk by a factor of about 50%. And how have we responded? Predictably, by buying more than we had planned so that our Christmas morning will be as bountiful as ... we thought it should be. Because our kids certainly have no expectations. It's all about our perception of generosity and bountifulness, as parents.

In the end, the kids will have a nice sized Christmas on the day in question, then a couple more on a slightly smaller scale during the following week. Maybe 125% of a usual year's haul. And it's nobody's fault but ours. Luckily, our kids are not the type to worry and whine about what they don't have, nor to hoard and whine about what they do have. Even if we're doing our best to make unsatisfied little consumers out of them with our own insecurities about Christmas, I have confidence that their personalities will remain sunny and their outlook will remain optimistic.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Elf work

Today was unexpectedly warm, so Noel took the kids to the park while I scrambled to wrap a few presents and put them under the tree.

Operating under the assumption that Cady Gray and Archer will not care if their presents are wrapped well -- and only slightly if they are wrapped at all -- I did my fastest, sloppiest work. Ripped paper? A little extra tape will take care of that. Too big a piece for the box? Just crush the corners and force the fold through quadruple layers.

As I slapped tags on packages and grabbed the first bows that came to hand, I was reminded of Christmas Eve in the house where I grew up. On that night, and not before, Dad would announce that "Santa's workshop" was now open. He'd disappear to the basement with a roll of wrapping paper, tape, and scissors. Then, next to my mother's perfectly decorated boxes with curling ribbon and carefully preserved hand-me-down tags, Dad's contributions to the tree would appear: lumpy, misshapen rectangles with no bows and tags made out of squares of wrapping paper folded over. ("Ho ho ho," they often opined.)

Dad couldn't wrap. But he still took charge of a present for each member of the family, usually a book he thought we might like. I can wrap, but today I chose not to exert my wrapping energy. Putting it in the best light, I was paying tribute to those poorly wrapped packages with the carefully-chosen items inside. More likely, it will be Noel's gifts to me that carry on that true spirit. Nevertheless, it's nice to be able to redefine carelessness as a homage to my father.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Haul out the holly

One of the Christmas activities we have here in Conway is a visit to the light display out at the soccer field just outside of the town limits. You drive slowly around the perimeter of the complex and look at the reindeer browsing for fodder ... the elves making toys at Santa's workshop ... the Christmas train pulling in at the depot ... the nativity scene ... toy soldiers marching by their guardhouse ... and skaters gliding (or falling) on the ice.

The highlight of the tour is the set of numbers depicting the twelve days of Christmas. After two or three prior visits where we sang the song while driving by, the kids now know exactly what's coming. I sense that we now have a Tradition.

It's tough to create a tradition from scratch. They tend to just happen, I suspect. You do something by accident, and then somebody gets attached to it. The downside of traditions is that we get anxious if they are threatened. And so while I'm looking forward to Christmas morning here at home -- something we haven't experienced with the kids very often yet -- I know that I'll likely to feeling some stress about trying to make it match with the traditions I'd like to create, the ones that as of now exist only in my head.

And so it's a good time to remind myself that there is no such thing as the way it's always been -- only the selective perception of the way we think it ought to be. The holidays belong to all of us. That gives us the power to create the traditions that work for us, but it also gives us the responsibility to let other people do the same.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A whole new world

Avatar has divided my critic friends. We saw it tonight -- in 2D, unfortunately. But for the moment, if you release a film in 2D and 3D, it had better work in both. It's not like talkies were simultaneously released in a silent version. So I have to believe I saw the film, even though I wasn't wearing special glasses.

And I was pretty darn impressed. Yes, it culminates in some serious mystical hokum; yes, the story beats are predictable and the showdown with the unkillable villain preprogrammed. But there are more moments of spontaneity and humor than a big effects-laden blockbuster like this usually deserves. The facial motion-capture effects are obviously way better than anything we've seen, especially with eye movements, and that makes a huge difference in the parts of the film that have to be carried by the aliens.

But it was the scope, imagination, and detail of the environment, as well as the camera's swift and joyous movement through it, that really make this a movie to be reckoned with. Some people are saying that it is the Jazz Singer of computer-generated films. I don't think it's that big a game-changer. But I do think it's the Jurassic Park of the genre. Remember the sense of awe that was provoked when those dinosaurs ran right by Sam Neill and Laura Dern? That's exactly what this movie provides for some very long stretches. It's clearly a huge leap forward for the technology.

And thanks to the distinctive voice and eye -- for good and ill -- of James Cameron, it's a real movie as well. It has all the flaws and strengths of its creator. It's not a corporate creation. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars and the thousands of people involved in it, there's a singular point of view to be found there. You may not like it (I've certainly got my problems with it), and it's certainly not subtle, but I think it's rather amazing that such a huge enterprise and such a technical achievement turns out to have a soul, even if partially worm-eaten.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Post scripts

It's suddenly become evident by the writing assignments Archer is bringing home that, like all kids at one time or another, he has discovered the humorous possibilities in multiple postscripts. Here's an example (all sic):

Dear Grinchy Santy Claus:

Christmas-time is special because of the snow! You can really play in that snow! You can play in it for hours! You can make snow-men, snow angels, snow-balls, or, even snow-ball-fight! Just play on in the snow, Grinchy. Good luck!

Another specialty is hot cocoa. Drink it when you're hot cold. Drink away!

Love, Archer

P.S. Are you calling yourself Grinchy-Santy-Claus?

P.P.S. You're mouth's going to water when it's time to feast.

P.P.P.S. Why are you wanting to steal Christmas?

P.P.P.P.S. The Whos want their presents back. May you pleasy please give them back?

P.P.P.P.P.S. Pleasy-please-really-sugar-topped-please?

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Please-pleasantly-plesanlly-pleaserry-raspberry-topped-please will you give them back?

P.P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Suddenly to just turn the page

Today's post about obsessions in bulk is at Toxophily.

As wonderful as our Thanksgiving meal was, one element was missing: traditional stuffing. I got to have hot, bready, celeryish, yellow-orange, rosemary-and-sage scented stuffing today at Archer's third grade Christmas lunch. It was the very definition of cafeteria heaven.

We haven't thought at all about Christmas dinner yet, seeing as we're going to be here all by ourselves. But I know what I'd like. Pancakes for breakfast and turkey and stuffing for lunch, with plenty of sandwiches and apples for a pre-bedtime snack.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


One of the most painful duties of an administrator in my position is dealing with grade appeals. If a student accuses a professor of grading her unfairly, I have to get both sides of the story, gather evidence, and propose a resolution. What makes it so difficult is that professors feel assaulted by grade appeals. They feel that they should not have to prove they acted professionally. I understand that, because that's the position I occupy half the time I'm at work.

But part of that professionalism is understanding that their authority is exercised on behalf of the institution, and that the institution has to be able to examine what they do in order to stand behind them. I don't like peeking into another instructor's perogative, because I wouldn't like to have it done to me. I have a close relationship with students, too, though, and I know that they sincerely feel assaulted as well, sometimes. The process of grade appeals means standing in between two wounded parties. And no matter what you recommend and decide, you can't patch them up. The damage is done; the trust is shattered.

One of the happiest duties of my job is to become colleagues with my students. Tonight I took my teaching assistant out to dinner with her husband. It's wonderful to deal with students as equals -- to give them responsibility, to depend on them, to watch them rise to the occasion. And the enjoyment comes from being able to help them along to the next stage. You can give them opportunities that they can use to open doors for themselves. You can write in letters of recommendation about the very specific ways they responded to the challenge. You can introduce them not as your students, but as your partners.

The two experiences are polar opposites. One breaks the fragile connections of academia; one creates bonds that can last a lifetime. One feels like a betrayal; one feels like a gift. It's probably impossible to do this job without the promise and the peril combined. I feel very fortunate that I probably have ten experiences of the latter variety for every one of the former.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


For the day after grades were due, I find myself surprisingly booked up. Today we reviewed the grades of all our students; I took the car to the dealer for service; we went to a school fundraiser at a local franchise restaurant and then to Cady Gray's kindergarten Christmas program; and then I wrote up the last performance show of So You Think You Can Dance.

And because of all that I didn't remember until right now that I hadn't written a blog post. So I'll have to let what I wrote about the dance competition stand in for actual content tonight. Perhaps after tomorrow's recommendation letter writing, Course of Study School grading, meeting with the public relations officer, dinner with teaching assistants, and two hours of liveblogging, I'll find a little more time for reflection.

Monday, December 14, 2009

In decline

I had an errand to run in a certain part of town, so I thought I'd visit a fast-food establishment over there that's not in my usual rotation. I probably haven't been there in six months or more. But after a run with Archer this morning, I had a craving for one of their burgers.

When I arrived, it was five minutes after opening. Cars were lined up at the drive-through, but I was the first to pull in and park. I grabbed my book and my purse and walked up to the door -- only to find it locked. Checked the hours; yep, supposed to open five minutes ago. Walked around to the other side -- locked.

I peered in the window and saw a couple exiting the other side of the restaurant, and then an employee coming toward my side. She opened the doors and said, "You can come inside, but I'm the only one here. The others will be here in a few minutes."

As I waiting, I thought about what it meant if a franchise doesn't have employees who show up for opening. It's a sign of a business in decline.

Noel and I used to go to a pasta franchise not far from where I was having lunch today. By the last time we went, some menu items were listed as unavailable, and the food was served on paper plates from the nearby Wal-Mart. The franchise couldn't afford to get its supplies from the main office. It was the last gasp. Shortly thereafter, the building was up for sale (and so it still remains today).

I find the experience of visiting a failing business depressing. It's like throwing good money after bad. I can no longer help them, and they know that; so why should they care about me? Driving back to my office, I almost expected to find it as abandoned and dysfunctional as the restaurant. Failure feels like a virus that could easily spread.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

At the movies

Noel let me horn in on his daddy-daughter time this afternoon. Usually he takes Cady Gray to the movies and I spend time with Archer. But because I was excited about seeing The Princess And The Frog, he let me switch places with him.

It was a thrill. When you're young and just starting to imagine having a family, you think about taking your imaginary kids to the kinds of movies you saw as a kid. And for me, of course, that's traditional Disney animation. The return of cel animation is like the ability to step back in time and give your children an experience that you had, that for a scary moment you thought never would return.

And I think those who are critiquing the movie for not being an instant classic are missing the forest for the trees. Quite aside from the cultural significance of a Disney heroine and setting in the African-American community -- a belated rectifying of the Uncle Remus legacy -- this is a tremendously enjoyable and often technically astounding piece of work. I think some of the broad, slapstick humor is off-putting, but that's maybe two sequences out of the whole. Some of the most remarkable effects animation in history more than compensates -- the brief song of the fireflies is glorious, and nearly all the musical sequences have animation that pops right out of the frame. I don't know what people who complain about the music are talking about -- it's fantastic; loving, complex, but infectious invocations of distinctly American genres, with some inspired lyrics. Not the most hummable tunes, but really wonderful in context.

The story might be among the weaker of the fairy-tale adaptations, but the writers make something out of almost nothing by giving the hero and heroine a classic ant and grasshopper dynamic. It turns out to be a meditation on what it means to achieve your dreams -- what success consists of -- a theme I frequently bring up with students.

I hope I get to take Cady Gray to many more hand-drawn animated films in the future. Perhaps Noel will let me have that segment of the kid-movie market to experience with my daughter. We both enjoyed our first outing in the series, and hereby petition John Lasseter for a long and fruitful run of the new golden age of the cel.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A moment to shine

I attended two commencement ceremonies today in my role as one of the faculty marshals. Seven times a year I lead the undergraduates who are receiving Latin honors or have completed a thesis project across the stage. It always takes up most of a Saturday, and in the case of the three May ceremonies, all of a Saturday.

My undergraduate commencement was a momentous occasion. I gathered with my friends on the recently denuded quad (Dutch elm disease had claimed the stately rows of trees that had previously shaded it), I walked across the stage, I shook the president's hand, and a few weeks later I got my diploma in a mailer tube.

But I didn't attend the ceremony for my master's degree. It was to be held in the basketball arena, and there was no walking across the stage for the thousands of graduates. Besides, I was headed to the big moment -- the Ph.D. hooding ceremony, held in a beautiful garden just off the Lawn at the University of Virginia.

There were between three and four hundred graduates at each of the two ceremonies today. Each of them heard the melodious voice of the dean of students pronounce their name, walked to the center of the stage to the sound of whoops from their family and friends, and took an empty embossed diploma cover from the hand of the president. Even as the student reached for it, the next name was being announced. They walked to the other side of the stage, passed by me or another faculty marshal, and it was over. Fifteen seconds in the spotlight.

Our culture elevates the commencement ceremony, whether high school or college, into a hugely significant rite of passage. We're supposed to have the party of our lives, be assaulted by existential anxiety, and experience it all in slow motion through a star filter. I think the reality is far more pedestrian for most students. And yet for most, there's only get one shot at it. Perhaps I'm lucky to have seven commencements a year. Sure, it means I'm not going anywhere; but at least I have a chance to savor the moment over and over and over.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Inside, Out, and Back Again

Every December and May we have a banquet for our graduates on the night before their commencement ceremonies. My boss and I divide up the responsibility and honor of giving the banquet address; I give the talk in December, to a smaller number of graduates, and Rick gives it in May at the larger ceremony.

Since it's a different crowd every semester, we typically repeat ourselves with impunity. I've given two addresses total, I think, in the many years I've been speaking at the December event. But for some foolish reason, I decided that I might want to write a new speech. I was just completing my second semester teaching outside of the Honors College, and I had been thinking about the lessons of the experience.

I really shouldn't have committed myself to such a major writing project during a week of grading and voting in the indieWIRE and Village Voice critics' polls. But I forced myself to think about it in the last few days. The blog post I wrote on Monday was an attempt to jumpstart the process. I didn't end up using those ideas or structure so much, but when I finally sat down Thursday afternoon to get started, I worked in fits and starts through the entire piece.

I can pound out a piece of writing if I need to. And given enough time and enough determination, it can even be good. I like to be inspired, but I don't need to be; in fact, the majority of what I write week after week comes out of necessity and not desire. When the people in my unit need a letter composed or a report drafted, they come to me. Rick says that I'm deeply shallow -- meaning I can spin a really good phrase, something with meaning and relevance and verve, really reliably. I don't always enjoy the process, but I certainly enjoy getting so much done, and having others feel they can depend on me when writing needs doing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Campus waste management: A photo-essay

Last year the Student Government Association bought a few dozen recycling containers and distributed them around campus. Believe it or not, it's the first time our campus has had outdoor recycling collection. Various departments and units collected recyclables in their buildings with hallways containers, some official, some improvised.

One September day as I was walking to school, I saw physical plant workers hauling away these gray trashcans from the Student Center plaza. These cans had been in place for less than a year, much-needed replacements for beat-up wood-paneled trash-drum corrals whose tenure on campus was about the same length as mine.

The gray cans were being replaced with these shiny new green ones. A couple of months later, the green ones still haven't made it everywhere. It's possible the replacement program was curtailed because a new protocol was being put into place ...

These dual-opening customized bins made a sudden appearance just a couple of weeks ago. And they followed an early-semester edict that all recycling containers in building hallways were to be removed because of unsightliness. Only a few of the blue student-purchased bins still can be found.

Just this week I've started to see these black barrels appearing in some indoor locations. It looks like the final step in the waste collection strategy is finally in place, and it only took four iterations in less than twelve months to get it done! And the emphasis on campus image hasn't gone unnoticed by student wags. This sign appeared on the bike rack by the cafeteria a little while back:

"For the sake of better aesthetics for the UCA campus, we would appreciate it if you parked your bikes in rainbow order."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Four panels, no waiting

James Callan, movie critic and trivia master, tweeted about this list from School Library Journal of this year's best comics for kids.

Cady Gray has taken to comics in a big way. Noel stocks her bookshelves with phone-book-sized compilations of kid-friendly strips like Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Little Lulu, Casper and all his friends. We pick up Archie digests for her every time we go to our local bookstore. And when we go into her room and see her lying on the floor with one, or reading one in bed, we get the warm fuzzies. If there's anything more nostalgic than remembering your own childhood love of comics, it's realizing that you can nurture the same passion in a new generation.

Both our kids have developed a deep appreciation for silliness and topsy-turvydom. It's natural in a certain age, I understand, but Archer seems to have acquired it simultaneously with Cady Gray -- or maybe he got it from Cady Gray. She frequently emerges from her room with a comic strip she wants to show us. "It's so funny!" she'll enthuse, then quote the speech balloons. "Get it?" she'll exclaim with delight, repeating the phrases over and over.

The best moment was when I found her in bed happily turning the pages of one of the Moomin anthologies. It's precisely the kind of anarchic craziness combined with determined good manners and decorum that I find irresistible. Do a favor for the kid in your life -- or the kid in your heart -- and pick them up. And if you have any comics recommendations for Cady Gray, share them in the comments.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Say a little prayer for I

Today's post about what yarn wants to be is at Toxophily.

Final exam giving is over -- grading is about to begin. In the next two days I need to make a dent in reading papers and evaluating essays, scoring everything that hasn't yet been scored. And whenever I don't feel like doing that, I'll need to be writing a talk for the senior banquet on Friday. If you had a chance to say something to top-flight students who are about to walk across the stage and pick up their diplomas, what would it be?

Monday, December 7, 2009

The real world

I've been teaching for ten years. Before that, I spent five years getting a doctoral degree. Before that, I spent three years getting a master's degree. Before that, I worked for a few years. Before that, I spent four years getting a bachelor's degree. And before that, high school, elementary school, and before that, I can barely remember.

All my life, with only minor interruptions, in the warm arms of the educational system. I knew early on that it was where I belonged. It's where I excelled, and it's where what energized and excited me was to be found.

But it probably doesn't make me the best qualified person to prepare students for life outside of that insular world. Some of my students leave classes and grades behind forever when they move on from where I stay. The closest I get to a culture shock is when I venture outside of my academic unit and teach in other departments. Relatively speaking, though, that's a major shift. When you live inside, the slightest change of scenery can be a revelation.

Tomorrow I'm giving the first final exam I've give in probably five or six years. I'm out of the habit, having long since abandoned the practice of asking students to justify their learning on the final day and taken up projects that extend over several weeks. Sometimes I ask students to do presentations on final exam day, other times we just have a meal together.

Why am I giving a final exam? Why am I going to be sitting in a room for two hours while a roomful of students scribble essays in blue books -- essays that I will have to read before next Monday? I'd rather not. But things are different over in the next building. The students are different. I'm different. Not as different as night and day, or school and work. Enough, though, to make a few things clear about the situation in which I spend most of my time.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Saint Nick says giddy-up

Today's post about Christmas in the classroom is at Toxophily.

A week ago tomorrow, I popped a ligament in my ankle while running at Archer's school and ended up with a mild sprain. After a couple of days, I was out of pain unless I tried to twist it oddly. But I've also tried to rest it by taking a break from my exercise routine, including my usual Wii Fit and jogging. Now that a week is past, I'm going back to the track. My ankle is still slightly swollen and sore around the bone, with a long bruise near the sole of my foot. I won't be in the group jogging around the grounds; we'll have to stick to the slowest group on the paved track, walking and running alternately. But it's time to stop resting and start slowly making my way back toward a regimen.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Christmas music

People like to complain about Christmas music during the six-week period when you can't escape it. Piped into stores, coming over the TV and radio -- some people feel like they can't escape.

But I'm one of those people whom Christmas music puts in an instantly festive mood. Noel made his Christmas playlist available via iPod today, and we've been driving around town listening to Keely Smith, the Beach Boys, Fred Astaire, and all the other quirky classics.

A couple of our writing colleagues dissed Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" in an e-mail conversation a few weeks ago, and my heart sank a little. That's one of the songs that makes me bounce and sing under my breath no matter if I hear it in a long check-out line or in a cheesy radio mix. It's the contrast between relatively simple 4/4 beats of the verse and the soaring, propulsive syncopation of the chorus. If we don't hear that anymore because it's over-exposed, we've lost a little bit of the easy-to-come-by joy of the season.

I feel the same way about "Little St. Nick" by the Beach Boys -- who could fail to be reliably amused by the the circularity of "Christmas comes this time each year"? -- and "Jingle Bell Rock." Maybe that shows that I'm easily pleased by the little things, like that guitar hit that follows quick upon the first line of the latter song. I never get tired of those tiny touches, the ones that bring it all to life, the ones that you can treasure as your very own no matter how many millions of people are listening to that same song day after day.

Friday, December 4, 2009


Christmas lights are up all over town now that December is upon us. Soon we'll be headed out to the soccer fields on the outskirts of town to drive through the city's big display. Our own tree is adding its miniature pyramid of color to the mix.

I get emotional about Christmas lights. Their pinpricks of brilliance on a cold, clear night move me deeply. Wherever they appear, it seems like someone has made an outpost against the cold and dark. It's a bulwark shared with everyone who happens by. And that makes it a gift -- not a protest, not a resistance, not even a private enclave, but a public statement that we are standing together against the cold and the dark. That we have confidence.

Tonight the moon was almost full, and it rose late, as we were driving home from a party. Over the lake it appeared huge, yellow, just a sliver short of a perfect circle, slightly hazy behind very high clouds. Combined with the sky full of stars and the lights encircling houses and forming pictures on lawns, in the biting cold, it seemed a resounding statement. Of what, I'm not quite sure. But I always feel it this time of year, full of mysterious meaning, pinpricks of light radiating out into the infinite lifelessness.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Teach and be taught

Today I convened the last meeting of my process theology seminar. It was a momentous semester and a momentous course for me -- my first time teaching in what some might consider my natural department here at the university. My appointment is in the Honors College, which teaches interdisciplinary classes. But my training, and the discipline where I do most of my scholarly work, is religious studies.

This semester I exchanged places with a professor from the Department of Philosophy and Religion. He taught an interdisciplinary seminar for the Honors College. And I taught a 4000-level seminar called Readings in Process Theology.

My dissertation works within the field of process theology. Most of my publications are in that field. But I had never taught a full course on the subject before this semester.

The course was a challenge in many ways. I was working with students who weren't necessarily well versed in theology in general, or Christian theology in particular. They were students in the religious studies minor in a public university; theology was not in their purview. From our initial conversations, I gathered that half or more of those enrolled were skeptical about the relevance of Christianity and/or the rigor of theology as a discipline. In fact, as I ended up conceiving it, major objectives of the class dealt with simply appreciating the task of religious people facing the contemporary situation and trying to find some way to continue living out traditions they believed were valuable.

Today I told my students that I was grateful to have spent this semester with them. If not for this course, I wouldn't have spent so much time this semester thinking and reading in process theology week after week. And I discovered some nuances and some ideas that surprised me. I learned. I don't know if my movement from understanding to deeper and broader understanding is as large as the movement I asked the students to make, but I know that it was more significant for me than they could imagine.

I've worked steadily and published regularly in this field for a decade. But this semester re-energized my theological muscles. I think it's probably important that I teach a disciplinary class outside my home department periodically. Meanwhile my scholarship has acquired a new momentum, and my confidence and determination has notched up accordingly.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

In between

We all have certain holes in our wardrobes. Ninety percent of the time, they don't bother us. But then come those days or occasions when it would really be helpful to have a particular item -- and we don't have it. We think to ourselves: "Selves, next time we get a chance, we're buying that thing. We're not going to have to go without it next time."

But then the moment passes. When we get that chance to buy it, we think to ourselves: "Selves, do we really need this? After all, ninety percent of the time we have no use for it. Surely we can do without it." And so the cycle continues.

Earlier this year, I conquered one of those pesky holes when I bought my boots. Now I'm thinking about another one. It wasn't always a hole. For the last several years, my preferred outer layer when the temperature ranges from about 50 to 70 degrees has been a Talbots slightly cropped corduroy jacket (actually a petite size) that my mother got for me once upon a time. But sometime in the spring, I lost it. And ever since, I've been frustrated on those days when it's not cold enough for my fleece jacket, but too chilly to go without all together.

I think the answer is a jean jacket; the late lamented corduroy jacket was jean-styled, and perfectly casual yet structured. But my shopping demons always strike when I'm in a position to browse for such a thing. Do I really need it? Don't I have other items already that would do? Then I get back home and remember -- nope, I don't.

So here's a gift idea: Classic jean jacket or facsimile thereof in leather or cords. Women's size 8 or medium oughta do me. You'll be saving me not only from spring and fall in-between temps, but also from my own inability to provide for myself.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Almost every day I spend some time in our front room while the kids are watching Bill Nye The Science Guy. I work on my computer, and Noel works on his from his home office on the comfy sofa.

Noel listens to music while he writes -- music he's writing about right then, music he's got to write about later, music he's catching up on while writing about something else. The other day he was listening to an advance copy of Neil Young's Dreamin' Man Live '92, a recording of a concert at which Young performed the whole Harvest Moon album.

And I was reminded of a strange association I have with Neil Young. Something about his voice and style takes me back to a family trip to North Carolina. I was just a child -- too young to remember details or have more than vague images. But I remember going to Beech Mountain and visiting the Land of Oz, a Wizard of Oz themed amusement park. I can almost see through the haze of time the yellow brick road we walked down, and the Emerald City at which we arrived. No memory of the balloon ride at the end of the show survives. But I know we bought a sweatshirt. And I know that I was puzzled at the time that this place could be a ski resort; seemed improbable in the summer heat during our visit.

That trip must have taken place in the early 70's. The park was closed by 1980. And I don't know why Neil Young singing makes me think about it. It seems unlikely that I heard any Neil Young on the trip; my parents weren't pop music people, and neither was I until much later. I think it has something to do with the unreality of it all. I can never understand how that beautiful, fragile tenor comes out of that big rough man, much less those gorgeous melodies. And yet it's grounded in the details of a rural landscape. When I am taken back to Beech Mountain by that voice, what I see is tall grass, brown in the heat of late summer, outside the gates of that odd fantasy park. Something about that image is exactly what Neil Young means to me.