Sunday, February 28, 2010

The other family

Tonight's post with all the details of Ravelympic gold is at Toxophily. And here's a preview with the very happy beneficiary:


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Crunch time

I'm down to fumes in my quest to complete two major knitting projects during the 17 days of the Winter Games. Neither is done, and it will take every free moment to get them across the finish line (flailing on the ice like that German speed skater in the team pursuit today).

So no post tonight ... just evidence that even at age five, a reunion with a long lost friend can be sweet indeed.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Cady Gray's oldest friend, the daughter of a colleague who moved away a few years ago, is in town. The two have been keeping in touch via scrawled notes and little treasures sent through the mail, and when Cady Gray heard she was coming to visit, she was thrilled and could talk of nothing else.

Tonight Soli is coming over for a sleepover. It's surely one of the rites of passage of elementary school, and I remember a few from my childhood well. On the other side now, I wonder how to handle my parental responsibilities. Should the kids be given a lights-out time? Are snacks required? Can I still go wake Cady Gray up before I go to bed to take her to the bathroom, as I usually do? If I ask Archer to loan his sleeping bag so the girls can both sleep on the floor, should I offer to let him camp out on his floor tomorrow night?

My sleepover memories are mostly from a later period in my childhood -- one where listening to records and watching late-night TV were the main activities. But the feeling of being part of an exclusive group and sharing stolen moments with friends is my dominant impression of those occasions. It's interesting and touching to see Cady Gray embark on those kinds of friendships.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Comfort food

I'm not usually to be found without an appetite. If there's one thing I enjoy, it's eating.

So I found myself in an unusual position today. After a very stressful morning -- an initiative I was trying to push forward was imploding -- I found myself at lunchtime, but with no desire to eat. I was angry, shaking, and couldn't bring myself to leave my desk, thinking that if I just stared out the window a little longer I could figure out how to fix the situation. But I knew I needed to eat, because thanks to my evening class tonight I was going to have to grab dinner on the run, too, and it wasn't likely to be very satisfying.

What do I want to eat in that situation? I had to think for a long time. Finally I settled on fast food fries. Hot, filling, something I frequently crave (but wasn't really at that moment). It was the right choice. I felt almost back to normal afterwards.

What do you reach for when you need comfort food?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I didn't grow up in ice skating country. When I was a kid, an ice rink opened at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel, convention center, and shopping complex. It was the only ice rink for miles around. Schools took field trips to skate, parents threw skating birthday parties for their kids, and the whole atmosphere of ice skating had a once-in-a-lifetime aura to it.

As we were watching the figure skating at the Winter Olympics this week, Noel reminisced about Cady Gray's school field trip to the Little Rock ice rink. Kids get so excited about skating, imagining themselves gliding over the ice. Then when they get there, it's all falling down and hanging onto chairs and rails. It's hard. And I remember that from my few childhood icecapades.

So it's doubly amazing to me that these young skaters at the Olympic level grew up in families, lived in communities, and had the personal desire to persevere past the unnaturalness of the activity and become a person who can make it look completely normal.

Our attraction to ice skating is the frictionless perfection of curves and the sensation of effortless speed. I'll never have that experience; it's too late for me to become good at such an arcane activity. But there are things I make look easy that amaze others. Maybe as they watch me teach or knit, they sense their possibilities expanding. Maybe even if they never become as accomplished, they enjoy participating vicariously, or just knowing that people are capable of such things. That's part of the reason we love watching others perform at high levels.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On the shelf

As part of my university's employee wellness plan, I attend two classes per six weeks on health topics. Some of this year's classes have discussed depression, personal finance, time management, weight control, and so forth.

Today I went to the second class of this six week period, listed as "Mayo Clinic Personal Health." When I arrived, there was a table of large softback books; everyone picked one up while entering the classroom.

Turns out the class was simply an introduction to this book -- a basic reference book on health, containing self-tests, timetables for various vaccinations and checkups, information on common disorders, and so forth. It's a nice book, don't get me wrong. I will rarely turn down a free book. But it made me wonder about reference books like this in general. If I had a medical question, I would never think to scan my shelf and pull down a book. I would go to WebMD -- or maybe just to Google.

Is there still a place in this world for reference books? I love them, personally. I have been known to spend hours browsing through them. Some that are wonderfully specialized and have a distinct point of view are unlikely to be replaced by any website, or by the web as a whole. But basic home health? Is a book really the best way to convey that information anymore? This is an area where currency is highly prized; where searchability is key because only a page or two contains the relevant information at that moment; where you might want to have more details than the all-purpose summary at your fingertips. Yes, you might not want to wade through Google search results that will mix quick facts with in-depth or specialized presentation. But there are a number of popular and comprehensive websites that already exist to provide exactly the the same service as the Mayo Clinic book -- and arguably, to provide it with more of the features we're looking for when we need this information.

Other than working during a power outage, or accessibility for those who have no internet at home or work, I can't think of any reason to choose a book for this task. But maybe I'm missing something. What say you?

Monday, February 22, 2010


There was an envelope in Cady Gray's backpack today. Inside was a letter with a little photograph. It told us that our daughter's artwork (titled, she later told us, "A Zebra, A Rainbow") had been selected as the school's kindergarten entry in the state's Young Arkansas Artists competition.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. A family member of mine in an art competition? It was the last thing I ever expected. I've never felt confident in any artistic endeavor. I don't remember my brothers being talented in that area either, although my maternal grandmother was a very accomplished oil painter who taught art all her life. I've always envied those who can draw, who have an eye for color, who can create something with pencils or pastels.

Now, maybe being selected as a great piece of kindergarten art doesn't indicate much about Cady Gray's artistic skills. How in the heck a judge would be able choose one above another, I have no idea. But I certainly let her know how proud I was of her accomplishment. With every thing she does well -- knitting, building, coloring, writing, reading -- I tell her that she is amazing. The look of pride on her face, and her eagerness to exercise what I've emphasized is her talent, tells me that the objective quality is secondary. What's important is that someone she trusts and believes is telling her she's good at it. So far she seems perfectly inclined to believe it, and to act accordingly.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Citius, altius, fortius

Every four years I get really passionate about curling. And this year NBC is feeding my obsession with hours of coverage on CNBC, MSNBC, and online.

In the last few days I've talked to several people who express confusion about the sport -- both how it's played and why anyone would enjoy it. Here's why I can't get enough:
  • The basic rules are really simple. Anyone can see at a glance where the match stands.
  • But the strategy is insanely complex. With eight shots per team per end (round), the different positions and subsequent choices multiply to infinity as a practical matter.
  • It's physics; put it in the right place with the right velocity, and you'll get the result you want.
  • But you have to perform. The person making the shot has to gauge, then execute speed and spin, and even the very best in the world frequently miss, sometimes badly -- two misses out of ten is a highly respectable percentage. And watching the U.S. team has been an agonizing process of whiffs and airballs.
  • There's a margin of error, though, so you have a cushion -- your teammates can help you speed up a rock thrown too softly and ease your curl right into the position you were aiming for.
  • And everyone participates; the entire team discusses some shots, and everybody has to do every job on the team in turn.
No doubt another attraction is the midwestern charm of the American and Canadian participants. In what other sport would television dare mike all the competitors, serenely confident that no oath stronger than "Goldarnit!" (actual expression of frustration from actual American curler this afternoon) will be uttered on air?

I will miss curling when it disappears from the media radar for another Olympiad; I may begin missing it earlier if the American men's and women's teams are eliminated in the qualifying round robin. But what fun this past week celebrating each stolen point and triple take-out! Thank you, NBC and USA Curling!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

In the club

When you first contemplate having children, you tend to spend a lot of time imagining the typical childhood interests and activities in which they might partake. When Archer came, he turned out to be different from anything we had imagined -- anything but typical. That's been a source of pleasure, as he surprises, befuddles, and often delights us.

With our expectations so thoroughly upset by Archer, I think in large part we just neglected to remember to imagine anything typical for Cady Gray. So now when she does something appropriate to her stage of development, something we should have seen coming miles away, it is equally as stunning as her brother's more oblique stylings.

Today as we drove to the library for our usual Saturday visit, Cady Gray told us that she and her school friends invented a club: the Lunchbox Club. "The members are me, Charlotte, Jaden, and Regan," she informed us. "If you have a tray lunch, you aren't in the club."

"What do you do?" I wanted to know.

"We talk about what we have in our lunchboxes," she answered. "We meet every day but Friday, because we don't want to talk during the movie on Friday."

Clubs invented out of whole cloth, for little reason; bonds cemented among friends; the world subdivided and named in ways that give a five-year-old life structure and meaning. There's nothing more ordinary. But I never thought to imagine it.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Missed it on the way

This afternoon, as I do four times each spring, I gave a thirty-minute talk to a group of prospective students on campus to be interviewed for the Honors College. It's a talk I enjoy giving because it illustrates something central to what I do and what I believe, and frequently surprising to the students who hear it. When they arrive for their interview, these students have already survived one round of cuts based on their submitted applications. One important piece of that application is an essay they write in response to a text we give them to read. The applicants might be forgiven for thinking the text is merely an example, an academic exercise designed to measure their skill in reading and analysis. But when I give my talk, which recapitulates and extends the theme of that text in ways the students haven't yet considered, I make it clear that we were telling them something about our program in our selection of text. Suddenly the academic exercise becomes an existential choice presented to them about what educational process they believe ought to characterize their undergraduate experience.

A couple of the upper-division students who act as Ambassadors, assisting us with recruiting, sat in on my presentation today. They had been dispatched to help me with handing out sheets for the students' post-presentation response write, but rather than coming back when they were needed, they just stayed. Both were students who had heard the same presentation a couple of years ago when they were applicants to the Honors College.

Later in the day, after I dispatched my responsibilities (lecturing, leading a small group discussion with five of the applicants, and socializing with parents and students afterward), I caught the last half of a conversation between one of our recent alumni who is now a health care policy adviser for one of Arkansas' senators. As the group broke up, my boss told me that one of the ambassadors had spoken to him about the presentation. She said that I should give that same lecture to current Honors students before they graduate. When she heard it as an applicant, she said, she was too nervous and keyed up about her own performance to really hear it. Listening again, she said, it was one of the best lectures she'd ever heard.

That's a great way to start the weekend.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

In medias res

There are certain advantages to being able to plan and test a process thoroughly before implementing it. But that's not always possible. Right now I'm in the middle of one of those processes put in place before everyone was entirely clear about it. And while I know some of the people involved find the lack of clarity frustrating, I am enjoying figuring it out as I go along.

Before this year, the process of figuring out which subset of our applicants we're going to invite to on-campus interviews went like this. The two administrators -- the dean and I -- reviewed applications as they came in. One or the other of us looked at each application; if either felt the need for a second opinion, we ran it by the other. The rest of the faculty was brought in for the interview evaluations, and that was work enough for all of us.

But when we did strategic planning this past summer, one of our goals was to involve the faculty in all stages of the admissions process. So this year we've brought the rest of the faculty in on the screening of applicants before inviting them to be interviewed.

I'm playing both roles right now; I evaluate every fifth or sixth application that comes in, and I also look at every application at the administrative review level. We're all used to seeing the whole application picture after the interview and making recommendations based on however each of us individually preferred to weight the components. But now the faculty are seeing only the two essays and a few quantitative pieces -- ACT, GPA, class rank -- during their prescreening pass. I've come to understand my role at that stage as quantifying the parts of the application that don't come with numbers already attached: essay content, writing proficiency, evidence of fit. I also have a chance to add comments and give an up-or-down recommendation on whether to invite the applicant to an interview.

Then when the application comes to me as an administrator, I have a different job. I reread the essays and look at the quantification done by the faculty member. I read the comments and consider the up-or-down recommendation. Then I read the recommendation submitted by a high school teacher or counselor. And then I try to place the applicant and the faculty input into the larger context of the whole applicant pool. What factors speak most strongly in favor of or against a certain decision? How should mitigating factors be considered?

Then I say yes or no to interview. But even that's not the end. My fellow administrator makes his own independent review of everything, and says yes or no. If we agree, that's the end. But if we disagree, we have to discuss the application until we come to consensus.

That's a lot more involved than the process was before. More people, more information, more evaluation, more opinions. Now, we knew when we set this up that we wanted that greater faculty input, and we knew we wanted to exercise independent judgment at different levels. But it wasn't entirely clear what the job of faculty doing the initial screening was (to look at everything except the yet-to-come interview data? but that interview data was often crucial in making a recommendation!), and how the job of the administrators differed (on what grounds would we ever disagree with the faculty up-or-down vote?).

And yet over the past four weeks, working our way through eighty-some-odd applicants so far, I've come to some important realizations about how the process should work, and what the various elements in it should provide on the route toward a final decision. I've also been energized every day by reading applications in my faculty role and my administrator role, looking at different elements depending on what hat I have on, and trusting that I'm not the only or the final word. I've been forced to think every day about what characteristics in applicants make them desirable or constitute warning signs, about how various factors should be weighted in each case. And that's been a creative and illuminating process. It's fraught with danger, of course; already we've heard from a few applicants who disagreed with the result. But I'm happy to take those risks because it teaches me more about what kind of educational program I'm helping to shape.

I'm not sure I could have figured that all out ahead of time. So I'm grateful to have the chance to learn by doing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A vast wasteland

Noel and I decided to forgo our annual best-movies-of-the-year countdown for the students. Having participated in compiling the best TV of the decade roundup for the AV Club, we thought it would be fun to share with the students some trends in television and some shows they might not know about.

It shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it always does: My students don't watch much TV. That may sound like it's a good thing. But it shocks me how little interest they have in it. Maybe it's just the vagaries of my upbringing, but I associate an interest in television with a desire to be tuned into the zeitgeist, to participate in a mass event. Is their tuning out a demonstration of disdain for a medium they feel is beneath them, or is it a symptom of their disconnect and isolation?

Happily (at least for a believer in mass culture and the potential of television as a medium like me), the room tonight was full of people who feel strongly about TV, and a few who watch it with almost the level of obsession as we do. One of the reasons I want to teach pop culture -- not just use pop culture in my teaching -- is that I want to assure students that it's okay to take it seriously, that it's a worthy object of study and of passion. If I can make the world safe for one budding fan with both a heart and a brain, then my work here is done.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

17 days of glory

I just got off the phone with Marly's Yarn Thing podcast. With my fellow Ravelympic moderators Chris and Jenny, I talked all things Ravelympics for about an hour.

It was a laughter-filled, chaotic conversation marked by much information and many anecdotes. We were even joined by Jess and Casey, Ravelry's founders.

At the end, some of us talked about what makes the Ravelympics special: its spirit of teamwork, its lighthearted competition. My answer would be a bit more about me (so I kept quiet). For the Ravelympics I am part of a small team managing an organization with more than 10,000 members. That's roughly the same membership as the American Academy of Religion, on whose board of directors I sit as part of a much, much larger management team.

Yet if one were to measure the involvement of the membership in the organization -- their productivity as empowered by the organization -- their identification with the organization -- the Ravelympics would knock the AAR out of the park. Yes, it's short-term. But it's also stunning. Very few of those affiliated with the Ravelympics will fail to participate actively. Most will produce multiple works in their affiliated disciplines. Hundreds have taken on leadership roles in ad hoc suborganizations.

If my real-world academy could approach half this level of engagement, we'd be the envy of every scholarly organization in the world. It's something to ponder as the AAR moves into its second century: how to be a resource to its members, spark their creativity, and earn their loyalty.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Were there more than twenty-four

Today's post is not about me. Well, not mostly. It's at Toxophily, and here's a preview:

If you could see me behind the camera, my proud smile would outshine Cady Gray's. Head here for the whole story.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Construction zone

Because of our new living room furniture, we found ourselves in need of new side tables. The two recliners that now occupy one side of the seating L are positioned slightly angled in toward each other, and there's not enough room in between for the 26" square end table we had been using with our sectional. And there's another angled gap between the corner recliner and the loveseat that comprises the other leg of the L, a place where lighting was badly needed.

We went to the big furniture place where we bought the seating, but what we were really looking for were triangles that would snuggle nicely into the angles -- and there were no triangular tables to be found on the showroom floor.

"Let me look online," I told Noel. "If we can't find what we need, one of the small round ones we saw today will work."

So I searched for triangular coffee tables. And I found, which not only had triangular side tables in the correct size (about 21" maximum width at the base of the triangle), but also had free shipping for those particular items. Click! Then we settled back to wait for our two packages, which (given the free shipping) I expected to take a couple of weeks.

Bam, shipping notice on Feb. 9. Pow, two large boxes arrive via Fed Ex ground on Feb. 11. It took until today for me to have a chance to put them together. I like building furniture, and this almost didn't take enough time to satisfy me. Easy as pie. Fit like they were made for the spaces we needed filled.

Now the vision of our living room is complete (for the moment). And I can sit on the new loveseat with Cady Gray while she happily knits away to finish her very first project. It's the kind of thing you picture when you first start looking at chairs and sofas and tables in the store, now come to life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Excuse me, there's something in my eye

No one relishes getting up early on Saturday morning and going to work. But sometimes there are compensations.

I arrived on campus at about 8:15 this morning for our annual sophomore matriculation event. In order to continue into the Honors Interdisciplinary Studies minor, second-year students read documents important to the program's founding and prepare ten-minute presentations on some academic subject. They spend the morning fanned out across the campus in groups of four or five, discussing the values of the program, giving their talks, and fielding questions.

Not five minutes after I walked into the auditorium, the students began arriving, dressed for success. And interspersed among them came alumni, nearly twenty of them, who volunteered for the chance to spend a Saturday morning with these students as moderators for their small group sessions.

More than 100 sophomores were in that room by the time the program was to start. And I felt a kind of giddy happiness that these nineteen- and twenty-year-olds were up early on a Saturday morning to follow in the footsteps of the thousand who have gone before them. It was icing on the cake that among them were some of those thousand -- their predecessors, from twenty years ago to last year's graduates, who were so eager to come back and experience a little bit of the Honors experience again that they gave up a weekend morning of their own free will and traveled from all over the region to meet them.

Anybody would be thrilled to work in an institution that inspires that kind of devotion and excitement. And I get to be reminded of it every year -- never more forcefully than on Sophomore Lecture Saturday. It's an honor and a joy, and there's no better recompense for losing out on sleeping late.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I've been looking forward to this day for months. It's the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games. That would be enough for this Olympic junkie, but it's also the mass cast-on for the 2010 Ravelympics, the Olympic-themed yarn event held in the sovereign nation of Ravelry.

There are nearly 9000 members of the Ravelympic group in which I am one of the administrators. Not everyone competing has joined the group, however, so I'm confident in estimating that the true count exceeds 10K.

Thousands -- literally thousands -- of knit, crochet, and woven items will be created in the next sixteen days by competitors around the world representing more than 400 teams. More importantly, thousands -- literally thousands -- of people, all ages and skill levels, will challenge themselves to do something they have never done before. Whether it be a 50,000 stitch sweater in two weeks, a dozen toys for charity, or someone's first-ever try at lace or colorwork, the spirit of the Ravelympics is to attempt something grand.

Until the torch in Vancouver is extinguished, I and my fellow volunteers will hand out medals and celebrate the achievements of these "Ravthletes" as we call them. Among them will be people mastering a skill they have long honed, and people claiming an identity as crafters they've never felt entitled to before. I'm honored to be a part of their transformation over this brief, magical period. Their trust and love changes me as much as the event changes them.

So tonight is a night to celebrate. Let the Games begin!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

And I keeent steeend 'em

I showed Singin' In The Rain to my film class tonight, and even though I had work to do while they watched, I couldn't help but get caught up in one of my favorite movies of all time. Here are the moments that made me giggle or sigh and kept me from checking off items on my to-do list.
  1. Studio head R.F. after the eighteen-minute eye-popping Technicolor "Broadway Melody" sequence: "I can't quite visualize it."
  2. Don standing by the cake Kathy popped out of: "Now that I know where you live, I can see you home."
  3. The director trying to keep the microphone in place on Lena Lamont: "Oh, and try not to make any sudden movements; you might disconnect it."
  4. Don's "Broadway Melody" character working his way up the Broadway ladder from vaudeville to the Ziegfeld Follies, with each iteration involving less and less dancing, until at the end he's barely moving and smoking a cigarette.
  5. "Dignity -- always dignity."
  6. "This line 'Imperious princess of the night" -- I don't like that. Can't I say what I always do: 'I love you, I love you, I love you'?"
  7. "Gotta be a rose 'cause it rhymes with Mose."
  8. And of course that crane move at the climax of "Singin' In The Rain" -- maybe the single most joyous shot in the cinema.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A nation turns its lonely eyes

I've learned a lot about leadership during the last few years that I never learned during my previous life as an introverted loner. One area in which I'm still trying to improve is how to deal with people who don't come through.

I'm pretty good at delegating responsibility, I think. Where I find myself getting stressed out, frustrated, and sometimes paralyzed is when the person to whom I delegated slacks or bails.

The tasks we're talking about are ones that affect dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. What to do? Rescue the overall task by doing the work myself? Let things break so that the consequences of failure are clear?

As deadlines draw near, I find myself expending a lot of energy making contingency plans for what to do if one person or another doesn't come through. I fret, going back and forth about the wisdom of my plans. And sometimes I have to implement, scrambling to plug holes. What I don't like about it is that I'm not following any kind of principle in my action. It's ad hoc. I want to know what I'm trying to do with this leadership situation -- not just trying to get the task done for which some portion was delegated, but leading the team.

I'm looking for advice. Who has some wisdom for me?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Putting off until tomorrow

Today was our second straight day of snow cancellations. Conway schools and the University were both closed again. And the rain and hard freeze overnight left yesterday's fluffy drifts with a crust of ice. Streets were partly littered with big frozen chunks and partly coated with a frictionless black sheen.

The prospect of another very cold night following a day that didn't rise much above freezing led to an announcement this afternoon that the kids would have a third snow day this week. My employer sent out word that opening would be delayed two hours.

Because I only teach two classes, and one is team-taught, I haven't been put far behind in my classes by two unplanned days off. What has been lost is two precious days of evaluating applications to the program ahead of next Monday's deadline and next Friday's first interview day.

That means that we'll be scrambling for the rest of the week trying to push faculty to complete their part of the review process so we can complete our part and get invitations out to prospective students so we have some shot at filling our dance card on that first interview day. It was always going to be difficult, given the complexity of the process, the number of people involved, and the tight timeframe between deadline and showtime, but it hurts to lose two and a half days.

There's nothing like a snow day to remind you that the piper must be paid -- that leisure time now leads to crunch time later. The kids will have days tacked on to the end of the school year. I'll just have that much more stress trying to fit it all in to the originally allotted time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Six inches of partly cloudy

We weren't supposed to get snow today. It was supposed to stay warm enough that we were to have a wintry mix starting out as all rain. But by noon the streets were coated, and by afternoon we had, as my dad would say, six inches of partly cloudy all over the driveway.

Finally, enough to make a snowman!

Or two.

Or three.

In the background of this next one you can see CG preparing to roll a big snowball to start another.

See, when I was trying to make snowmen as a kid back in Chattanooga, that rolling technique never worked. But check it out: She starts with the above ...

... and she ends with this. Just like Schulz drew it in the comics!

The whole family grouping.

Archer was more into imitating snowmen than making them.

If he stands there long enough, that light dusting will become a full coat.

The Greeks thought their wild spaces were populated by female spirits of various kinds -- nyads, dryads, and so on. Did they have a name for a snow nymph?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hard at workst

I guard my leisure time jealously. Evenings and weekends, ideally, are for knitting, reading, and catching up on TV and movies. Work often intrudes, of course; I write about TV a couple of times a week, and frequently student work has to be graded. But I don't regard those occasions as business as usual. I resent them, and breathe a sigh of relief when I can contemplate a couple of hours with nothing obligatory on the schedule.

But I also work hard to make sure those couple of hours don't get eaten away bit by bit. Sure, I could still get in some stitching if I were also taking care of other minor chores. But I want the whole enchilada, not just twenty stolen minutes.

So even though I could get our tax records ready for the preparer in a few half-hour chunks spread out over several days, I took a different tack. The two hours this afternoon during the kids' quiet time that I would normally spend on knitting and internet while clearing a couple of items off the TiVo, I instead spent organizing the 1099's and separating 2010 receipts from 2009 stuff. By the time Archer came out to fire up the Wii for his afternoon playtime, I was halfway done with the job. Sometime before the end of the month I'll need to add up all the deductions and job-related expenses, but the hardest work of gathering all the material and entering the big numbers is over.

This may be the earliest I've ever tackled the taxes. And it's all thanks to the Winter Olympics, starting next Friday, and my aversion to sharing my weekend time with work. I know I'm not going to want to buckle down and start the massive job of tax prep when I want to be gorging on curling and starting the last pattern repeat of my Totally Autumn throw. Only a desire for total purity in my off-the-clock activities could lead me to devote much of a Sunday to non-deadline-related work. Now I can settle in for next Friday's opening ceremonies with a clear conscience. If only I didn't have to spend Saturday morning on campus for a half-day event -- or if only I could go ahead and get it out of the way on my own time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Be mine

Valentine's Day kinda crept up on us this year. What with Sundance and snow, it feels like we're just now digging out of the beginning of the year. I confess that my heart sank when I realized it was this weekend that we needed to dig into the cache of shoeboxes and wrapping paper to make the traditional mailboxes for school parties.

I'm no good at this kind of thing. The boxes I see in my head, neatly wrapped to provide a canvas for the kids to decorate, a tidy slot for Valentines to be deposited notched into the lid, inevitably give way to hasty and awkward realities. This year Archer's third grade class is giving awards for boxes in several categories; what does that mean for me, I wonder? How much am I supposed to suggest to him to put him somewhere in the running -- or even help him to be a contender?

Whether it's laziness, incompetence, or a respect for the purity of the competition, I always end up helping as little as my conscience will let me get away with. I wrap boxes and lids with foil and tissue paper to provide a surface on which markers and stickers can get purchase; I set up whatever random materials I can pull together and help if the kids express an interest; I do the cutting of cardboard. I suggest that attention be paid to blank sections. I try to make sure they don't head to school with a box on which the Stride-Rite logo comprises the dominant graphic element. But I don't sit down and make tissue flowers with them or cut out paper hearts. I leave any such ideas up to the kids. I figure that someday Cady Gray, at least, might say something like "Last year Sunny had lacey paper hearts on her box. Can we do that this year?" And then I'll do my best to facilitate my little girl's dreams.

When they take their boxes filled with Hello Kitty and sports sticker Valentines (respectively) to their classes next week, what they're carrying with be largely their own work and their own scattered, random vision. Is it conceivable they'll wind up shamed or disappointed? I doubt Archer could summon the social sensitivity for such an emotion, and I hope Cady Gray is too young and too generous in spirit. And if so, I'll have gotten away with my half-hearted Valentine's box effort for one more year.

Friday, February 5, 2010


It was a big day at Chez Trueheart. Earlier this week we freecycled our leather sectional sofa, which was still serviceable but was increasingly prone to cracks and holes. And today witnessed a flurry of service people visiting to clean the carpets and haul in the two new recliners and matching loveseat.

When we first visited this house with our realtor, one of the things that made us feel great about it was a pair of recliners in the living room -- right where I'm sitting now. It was the end of a long day, and my father and the realtor almost immediately sat down in those recliners and cranked the footrests up. This was a place where people felt comfortable. A homey place. And we felt so good about it that we bought it.

Now we've come full circle after ten years living here. For the first time since we moved in, two recliners are in that spot. We're relaxing in large, well-cushioned, smoothly rocking chairs. And I'm taken back to that first time we walked in, when a pair of side-by-side recliners made us feel that this was a place we could belong. A decade later, we've made it our own, but we're still reveling in that sense of home.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Through their eyes

I have twenty-six students in a class I'm co-teaching this semester, and as usual, they're blogging. The subject is filmmaking. On some nights, I'm presenting a film about filmmaking and leading a discussion after the screening. On other nights, my colleague is facilitating a workshop about the basics of digital filmmaking. Meanwhile, the students are podcasting about each week's class, getting their hands on editing software, dividing up into teams, and planning a short film by the end of the semester.

As I've mentioned before, the reason for having the students blog is to get them writing for an audience other than their instructor. And nothing makes that into reality like comments on their blog from people they don't know. So I'm going to introduce them briefly below, with quotes from their blogs on the subject of last week's viewing of Sunset Boulevard. If you're so inclined, visit a couple that catch your eye, and leave a comment. Your help will make the assignment much more than an assignment -- letting the students know they are engaging in real communication with a vast, unknown audience.

All About Austin: "Gloria Swanson is fierce, just plain fierce."
Blinking Blue: "I love and hate Norma, find Joe charming yet cowardice and Max is just too twisted to discuss."
Check It Out: "It seems that the theme behind it, with reference to the movie industry, is that only the strongest survive."
Discovering Film: "Even the way that the credits were being filmed on a moving road boosted the movie's overall effect."
Diva's Choice: "Her life is a script, a dramatic show that she lives, and Joe helps her with her life, which at the end is not successful as well, but she does get her time to shine."
Doug On Film: "Norma and Joe? They definitely did it. Don’t pretend you didn’t play it out in your head."
Figuring Out Film: "I can only imagine what it would be like in the 1950's to understand everything they were saying and see it as reality."
Film Blog: "This film revealed the dangers of denying reality. If you do, you’ll be crazy like Norma. "
Film In Words: "So I just have to ask, is everything that we pointed out, whether out loud or just personally, intentional?"
Film Through A Changing Lens: "I left last class under the impression that I had watched Sunset Boulevard thirty times, each through the eyes of a different individual."
Film: A Journey: "No, I couldn't relate to the washed-up, psychotic actress and her turmoil, nor could I relate to the struggling people vying to "make it big" in Hollywood, but I was reminded that everyone has flaws and anyone can get stuck in a place they have no desire to be."
FilmResidue: "I would like to say that Norma is a great shot with a pistol. Three shots. All of them hit."
Imran's Film Making Blog: "I kept thinking something pivotal would happen so that everything would work out because you get attached to Joe and become sympathetic towards him."
Learning Film: "They really are on the same playing field; Norma is just 20 years ahead (and CRAZY!)."
Let's Make A Scene: "I had planned on taking notes during the movie, but after the first 15 minutes, I was completely captivated."
Lights, Camera, Action: "Often the world of film imitates, if not exaggerates, what is happening in the real world at the time."
Lights ... Camera ... and Action ... Yes, It's FILM!!!!: "For me, my love for the authenticity of this movie all comes in when I realized that all the characters being mentioned in the movie were real people."
Mariam's Film Blog: "More than the character, this film had two dimensions of the world."
Movie Thoughts: "Like many other students, I was puzzled at first by Joe's motives at the end of the film."
Musings On Film: "it would seem that Sunset Boulevard is a film about the pointlessness of dreams and the shifting nature of personal reality."
Reel Talk: "There is just so much that goes into the screen plays, so much symbolism and themes that are hard to catch as a 'superficial' movie watcher."
The Film Is The Experience: "I find that constantly re-watching films and figuring out what makes them click and work really well and what makes them not click and just plain suck can help in building your own vocabulary of critical thought with regards to film."
They're all the leads in their own stories: "Joe gets a taste of the twisted life of an "actor" when he plays the role of Norma's lover/companion while trying to continue to live a normal life in the real world."
Thoughts From My Brain: "The overacting, dramatic lighting, and thrilling music just started to make my stomach turn."
Watch This: Films: "The age was one of mastering that which was available and the creation of novel methods and ideas to uncover the endless possibilities of reaching into people's hearts and minds."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The shortest month

I've been looking forward to February. Sundance is over, and I don't have any trips until March. It's only twenty-eight days, but it's probably the least stressful of the spring months.

But February is filling up. The Olympics are starting in just over a week, and while I'm not an athlete, I am a Ravthlete -- and worse, an administrator in the Ravelympics, which so far has 7000+ participants. Because my weekends will be consumed with Olympic fever, I need to work on our taxes this weekend ... which is also Super Bowl weekend. And before the Olympics are over, I need to make serious headway on March's Spaghetti Junction of deadlines. I'm doing two presentations, moderating a session, and organizing the business meeting at the Southwest Commission on Religious Studies March 12-14. I've also agreed to present a paper at a local conference earlier the same week. If some writing doesn't get done in February, the first ten days of March are going to be very unpleasant.

So my job is going to be finding a way to perceive enough stress for the next week to get a head start on March. That's difficult for me, since I don't plan rationally but emotionally. Now that I've let you all in on my secret, though, perhaps I can obligate myself publicly. Before next Friday I will begin planning all four of the sessions for which I am providing content. You're my witnesses -- now hold me to it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back to the beach

Our household has been looking forward to this day for months. It's Tuesday, February 2. Groundhog Day. And the premiere of the final season of Lost.

Noel has been writing about the show for several years, and has frequently mused about its place in television history and its significance for serialized storytelling. I'm not nearly as well versed in Lostiana as my husband, but I've gasped and laughed and sat on the edge of my seat since the beginning.

What I'll always remember about Lost, though, is a television critic's pessimistic report from a network promotional panel about the show. The critic marveled at how all of her colleagues were fawning over J.J. Abrams as if he was the savior of television, a sure thing if ever there was one. Then she noted that previous Abrams shows -- Felicity and Alias -- had persistently failed to become popular hits, despite their status as critical darlings. Networks kept going back to the Abrams well, she concluded, despite the the absence of any evidence that he could bring them an audience.

I still find it funny that she chose that moment to make that argument -- the moment just before it became completely untrue.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Animals in translation

Archer brought home an illustrated version of Black Beauty for his nightly reading homework last week. And unlike most fiction he reads, he really seemed interested in it. He continued reading even after his timer beeped to get to the end of a paragraph or page. He paused to make comments on the action, like "He's going to be sold again?"

His connection to the story reminded me of a minor obsession I had as a kid with books narrated by animals. I remember a whole series of Scholastic hardbacks with that theme. The one that sticks with me purported to be the autobiography of an Arctic seal pup.

Of course, I wonder if Archer is able to involve himself in an animal's less complicated, less socially variable emotions -- if there's some kind of Temple Grandin effect going on.

At any rate, I asked him if he'd be interested in reading more books with stories told by animals. Do you have a favorite you'd recommend?