Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Familiar ways

There are a lot of ingredients to a good marriage. One that is frequently overlooked (except in wedding movies) is in-law compatibility. I was raised in a family that didn't take kindly to roughing it. I've never spent a night in a tent. And if I had married into a family of rugged outdoorspeople, shared vacations would be considerably more difficult than they are.

Instead, fortuitously, Noel's family likes a little good life with their nature. Their idea of relaxation is an afternoon with a complicated board game or a jigsaw puzzle rather than outdoor exertion. Not that they are averse to a stroll through the woods or a campfire; just that it's not their raison d'etre.

So vacations like the one I'm on now are low-stress for me. I don't have to gear myself up for unfamiliar adventures. "Familiar" is, in fact, the key word in my ability to relax and enjoy myself. Doing what I did with my family: playing games, reading books, going to the pool, locating and utilizing all available park amenities. I enjoy challenges and doing new things -- but if doing them is being pressed upon me rather than emerging from my choice and sense of adventure, it's stressful. This week is not about any more stress than "when's dinner." And key to that sense of calm is a family atmosphere that wraps me in the familiar.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Relaxation, Southern style

Live in a family for a while, and I guess they get to know your tastes. The vacation that Noel's mom has designed for me this week could hardly be further up my alley. A beautiful and capacious villa, home-cooked meals twice a day, plenty of games and puzzles, the occasional light stroll and dip in the pool, and a local yarn store just up the road.

Seriously, I think I could get used to this. The brand-spankin' new green villas at Montgomery Bell State Park are flat-out gorgeous. Built less than a year ago, they are tucked into the side of a hill and have eco-friendly energy-saving features designed in collaboration with the Tennessee Valley Authority. But that doesn't make them spartan, not by a long shot -- the kids have their own room with two queen beds and their own bathroom on the other side of the great room (with full kitchen and dining area) from the master bedroom and bath.

The kids are looking forward to getting in the pool tomorrow, and although it's cooler up here in the hills, it's still the kind of weather that makes you crave chlorine in your hair. I hope that the grandparents will go golfing sometime in the next couple of days, because Archer would love tagging along and keeping score. And there's a whole park to explore besides, with some expeditions outside its boundaries for yarn or wifi or the like.

I think I'm set for the next few days, folks. My posting may be late because I'll have to make special trips to town to get an internet connection. But I'm still writing. And I'm on vacation.

Monday, June 28, 2010


I got the first professional massage of my life today. It was a wonderful experience, and my massage therapist (recommended by my friend Carey) made me feel very comfortable and relaxed.

Naturally, a first massage comes with all kinds of questions about what it will be like to be in that position. Will there be any awkwardness from being touched and handled in ways that do not ordinarily come up, let us say, in the ordinary course of business relationships?

It surprised me that I was most unprepared for a touch that might be considered one of the simplest. When the therapist grasped my hand gently to move my arm around, it was unexpectedly intimate in a way that the rest of the hour was not.

Holding hands is such an ordinary intimacy that it's easy to forget just how real and connected it makes you feel to another person -- and them to you. I love to reach for my children's hands, and I always feel like a small miracle has occurred when they wordlessly and simply accept the invitation by lifting their hands to mine. I have a habit of stretching my right arm back between the front seats while driving and grasping each of the kids' hands in turn. And I'm sure we all remember how thrilling it was to hold hands with a boyfriend or girlfriend in that first blush of puppy love, and how comforting to reach for a spouse's hand while walking or sitting together.

It's not the strange touches that jolt us with their power, but the familiar ones. How interesting to learn that today while on the massage table, having my hand held by someone I'd only just met.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Toy stories

Noel and I went to see Toy Story 3 tonight -- second time for him, first for me. It's no spoiler to say that the ending has to do with our memories of the toys that were important to us as kids. Some folks on the blogs and Twitter have been describing their best toy ever.

I have a hard time with that question. When I was a kid, at least as I remember it, toys took a back seat to books. I curled up with books much more often than I played with toys. And my most indelible memories of playing with toys are playing with my older brother's stuff. Much like my little girl just bounces into her brother's room and joins in with whatever he's doing, whenever she's allowed, I wanted to glom onto Dwayne's playtime.

So my favorite toy ever was a Hot Wheels car. Rocket Bye Baby was the model name; it was a futuristic, low-slung affair with curvy lines, a bubble-topped passenger compartment, and a huge jet nacelle on top. In my eyes, Rocket was the king of the Hot Wheels village, always leading the pack and saving the day.

Maybe my parents remember the toys I played with better than I do. Or maybe you remember your best toy ever with more clarity and fondness. I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

In their shoes

We had a brief and pleasant visit with a couple of acquaintances from the great state of Texas today. Eric and Diana joined us for lunch and then took the five-cent tour of Conway before going on with their Arkansas vacation.

It's always a strange experience to welcome folks to the town where you live, when that town is utterly unfamiliar to them. Our little college burg is unknown outside of the state, by and large, so people visiting have no basis for any particular expectation.

We are well aware of the limitations of our town, but we also like living here and rarely get frustrated with what we don't have. It's when we're showing it to friends from out of town that we wonder if our impression is accurate. Does Conway seem impossibly minor -- or quaintly so? Is there more here than you would think, or less?

Right now we're aware of a certain degree of privation since we're down to six movie screens for a population of 75,000 -- and for a week, after the fire marshall closed those down, we were at zero. Yet we also hear of new restaurants and businesses opening constantly, and the city continues to expand its parks and recreation facilities. On the other hand, the town's Fourth of July fireworks have just been cancelled due to a budget snafu in which a couple million dollars in operating funds evaporated overnight (they were committed to a project but had been mistakenly included in the balance of available funds).

So do we live in a charming village or a one-horse town? And who is the best judge -- the resident or the traveler?

Friday, June 25, 2010

A lifetime's worth

Yesterday I showed you my yarn stash, one that will certainly last me decades at the fastest foreseeable rate of consumption. Today I'm thinking about the book stash that I've had all my life and continue to accumulate. These days it's more on my Kindle than in physical form, thank goodness, but I still love finding a book I want to read and adding it to my queue.

I've always loved libraries more than any other social institution. My parents could park me there all day when I was a kid; in college I spent countless hours exploring their riches. I used to keep lists of books I wanted to read, first on sheets of paper (writing as small as possible, with columns for call number and title), then on Hypercard stacks and e-mailed search results. I thumbed through every reader's guide and best books list I could, in book, newspaper, or magazine form, to add to my list.

I've never stopped doing that, although at least 95% of the books on those various lists remain unread, and although long weeks and months go by when I read nothing except what I must for my work. It's still a joy to find the books and file them away, anticipating the joys of immersing myself in them someday, secure in the knowledge that I'll never be at a loss when I have the urge to read for my own pleasure. Just today I came across an enticing list of novels about domestic life in the midst of some other research I was doing, and I couldn't resist dropping everything for ten minutes to look up the authors on Wikipedia, Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and my local libraries' catalogs to see how many of the books in the list were easily accessible to me.

There will be a sight more books left over at the end of my life than yarn, I hope. But the whole point of such a stash is that it is an opportunity, not an obligation. Knowing that running out of one's chief pleasures isn't a problem -- well, it lends all of life an air of abundance.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Catching clouds in a bucket


I have a lot of yarn. A reasonable person might say -- too much yarn. Above you see a large Rubbermaid tub completely filled with sock yarn. Just on the top layer there you can see some Knit Picks Imagination, Dream in Color Smooshy, Berroco Ultra Alpaca Fine, Wool in the Woods Cherub, and Claudia Handpaint.


And that's not all my sock yarn. This 15x15 inch fabric cube is about 2/3 full of sock yarn. I call it the laceweight drawer to hide the fact that my sock yarn has spilled over its allotted space.


Since last summer, my yarn has been hidden away in plastic and paper bags. I implemented a project-stashing system, where I packaged yarn with patterns, numbered them, and vowed to knit them in random order.


Here's what's become of that system. It's not so much that it failed me, although the packaging was taking up far too much room and making it seem like I had more yarn than I did. (Bags were stuffed onto shelves and new unbagged yarn was taking over the guest room.) It's that I couldn't see my yarn. It was invisible under layers of opaque plastic and meaningless numbers. When I wanted to be inspired by the beautiful yarns that I've acquired, I had to call on my stash photographs and my memory. The glorious colors and textures, though, were sealed away. If I wanted to see and touch, I had to consult my code system, locate the item in one of the various storage areas where bags were stuffed, and rip open a grocery sack.


So over the course of two or three Sundays, while Noel took the kids to the playground and gave me a few hours alone, I dismantled that system. The yarn is free from its bags. Some of it is still linked to planned projects, but online (thanks to Ravelry's genius attach-stash-to-queued pattern feature) instead of in physical packaging.


Now the yarn is visible, touchable, stackable, craveable. It's the yarn store in my house.


Fiber fiends talk sheepishly about SABLE: Stash Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. I don't think I'm there yet. But I have a lot of yarn. A lot of beautiful yarn that I can't wait to knit. And reorganize whenever I need a megadose of pure merino right into the vein.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

All together now

What a day for a sports fan! We barely had time to register the US national teams' stoppage-time goal, miraculously lifting them out of the Group C doldrums into the round of 16, before it was time to switch over to Wimbledon where two relative unknowns were slogging out a 118-game fifth set that by itself was longer than the previous longest tennis match in the championship.

I love moments that bring the nation together in breathless anticipation of an unscripted result And today's examples are stellar. Anything could have happened -- and that made what did happen supremely unbelievable. More than anything, we simply marveled at the unpredictability of it all, so striking in the moment and so difficult to recover in hindsight.

It's instructive to compare those moments with the other cultural event recently that brought millions of Americans to their TV sets at the same time: the Lost finale. Whether you thought it was a hit or a miss, the conversation afterwards is about what should have happened. Control of the outcome by the little gods of Lost is presumed. What makes sporting moments like today's matches so mind-boggling is that they can only be about what happened. Praise or blame, even if apportioned liberally to players and coaches, can't be absolute, because a sports event is so supremely contingent. I've argued theologically that only in the presence of the contingent is a true response of faith and wonder elicited from human beings. The awe of these moments and the gratitude of those privileged to witness them speaks to that point.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Glory days

For the last couple of years, I've spent my summer writing about a sitcom that was never a big hit (and hung on for a couple of years at the bottom of its network, ratings-wise). Episode by episode, season by season, I have been working my way through NewsRadio, a NBC comedy that aired from 1995-1999. If you weren't a television aficionado, a Saturday Night Live fan, or a Kids In The Hall follower at that time, you might have no memory of it.

But for my money (and I'm not the only one), it's one of the pinnacles of the half-hour situation comedy genre. Now, granted, that's a genre I think is well worth paying attention to -- a format in which great art is genuinely possible. Not everyone would agree. Particularly in the twenty-first century, when laugh tracks seem to be on their way out among the cognoscenti.

Week after week I find it immeasurably gratifying that a loyal cadre of readers gathers to comment on my write-ups and offer their own observations about the quality of the episodes discussed. It's one of the defining primordial Internet experiences, one that we might find ourselves forgetting as we move farther way from the birth of the web: Strike out alone, and find a community. All of us were watching back in the nineties, or someone helped us out with tapes between then and now, or we've caught up on DVD or online in recent years. And we all find this semi-obscure show worth talking about and thinking about.

The season I'm writing about this summer is Season 4, the consensus best season of what we would contend is one of the best shows the network system has ever somehow fortuitously allowed on the air. If you remember the show dimly or fondly, tune in to the coverage. If you've never been initiated into the club, find yourself a box set or Hulu. We're having an amazing time celebrating TV comedy that approaches perfection more often than any of us have a right to expect. And we'd love to have you join us.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Presenting solutions

And now for the final chapter in the saga of my students and their research into parking and transportation at my university. You may recall from the four previous installments how we chose the project of researching and proposing changes to UCA's parking, shuttle, and pedestrian culture, where we went to find answers, what guided our communication efforts.

Today one prong of that strategy came to fruition, as three students from the class joined me in presenting hard copies of the fifty-page report to the university president and the vice president for finance and administration. A PDF went to a slightly wider distribution list, with an invitation to share it wherever it might be useful.

And the other prong is underway as well, with the hope that it will spring more fully back to life in the fall when students return to campus. UCA G.O.Y.A. is the name the students chose to brand their campaign. We knew we needed a logo, a name, a consistent identifier that would tie all the elements of the project together. But our brainstorming session to come up with a name sputtered for most of a class period. Everything we thought of seemed too limiting, confining the message to parking lots or cars, when we had recommendations on everything from shuttles to bikes to green space.

As we batted names back and forth, Jesse muttered, "Get off your asphalt." He meant it as a joke. But I gasped and the room went silent. That was it! We were saying that paving over more land wasn't the solution to UCA's parking and transportation problems. And it had an acronym -- not one that meant anything, necessarily, but one that you could pronounce: GOYA. Our most talented graphic designer got to work making a logo, our Facebook team started a fan page where all the links and info could be collected, and the brand was born.

Today UCA G.O.Y.A. became a movement that the administration took notice of. Its name, logo, and the names of its founding participants are on the report that we gave to the president and vice president. The story isn't over, but the task of organizing in such a way as to communicate and advocate is complete. You can learn more at, where the Executive Summary of our report is posted along with a few of the images and maps. We'd love to have you join us.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Some people would consider my life a success. I have a wonderful marriage, two gorgeous and brilliant children, minimal debt, an advanced degree, and a prestigious job. And it probably looks like I did it all myself. What you can't see is that I owe it all to my dad.

My dad is a laid-back character. It's not in his nature to push people. His high expectations are quiet. His motivational method is invisible. Yet he and my mother raised three children with three masters degrees and two doctorates between them, all occupying high positions in the field of education. He built a business he inherited into a major cog in the food chain in our community. I remember him joking about being one of the "community leaders" at his local Kiwanis Club; "gotta go hang out with the CL's," he would say. But of course he was a leader. He was never the loudest voice, but everybody listened to him.

Nothing has been more influential in my life than the words my dad repeatedly said to me: "You can do whatever you want to do." I'm sure there were times when he and my mom wondered if that assertion was misleading, as I went for a Ph.D. in a field with no clear job market. But more than anything else, my life has been shaped by the fact that I never thought to doubt my dad. I knew that my opportunities were limitless, and I simply acted on that knowledge. I didn't give a moment's thought to pursuing a career on the basis of job security or ease of entry or renumeration. I did what I wanted. And that has made all the difference.

Even when I was trying my parents' love and patience most severely, even when we disagreed about almost everything, Dad was always there. "We can always talk," he would say, and he didn't mean it as a prescription -- it was a description. No matter what, we could have a meeting of the minds. Our difference remain, but they're matters of approach, perspective, and philosophy. They're trivial compared to the common interest in thinking, talking, reading, learning, and finding the good in life every day. And Dad always treated them that way.

There are a lot of remarkable dads who deserve tributes on this Father's Day, including the one sitting next to me in the living room, the father of my amazing children, who deserves so much credit for their optimism and accomplishments. But I hope they will all forgive me if I put them second to the man who raised me and believed in me. Dad, it's not just Father's Day obligation when I say you're the best. It's just the truth.

Saturday, June 19, 2010



KIP = Knit In Public. It's an initiative to show our communities that knitting and crafting are going on all around them, that there are plenty of us that do it, that we are all ages, genders, races and social classes. Knitting in public is a way to dispel the myths and stereotypes about knitters and display our strength.


Cady Gray and I headed down to Little Rock for the city's World Wide Knit In Public Day meet-up. It was our first time in the Main Library, right near the River Market on the busiest of the downtown district streets, and we found a score of knitters gathered around tables.


There were Ravelers a-plenty, as well as knitters who have never joined up. There were grandmothers, mothers, and daughters; men and women; complicated Fair-Isle cardigans and simple garter-stitch squares.


As we suspected, Cady Gray was the youngest knitter there. Our new friends exclaimed over her work and examined her book, causing her to fairly bust with pride. A newspaper photographer was there snapping pictures, and he wrote down Cady Gray's name and age; maybe we'll see her in the paper tomorrow.


She chose a Happy Meal to complete our adventure. An inspiring day, a productive day. Just what my hard-working little girl loves.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Classic style

There are a number of ways to define the transition from childhood -- extended longer and longer as time goes on -- to adulthood. Maybe it's when you can legally drink at 21; maybe when you graduate from high school or college; maybe when you're paying your own rent or mortgage. I had the idea years ago that the moment when you started craving sleep in the morning instead of getting up as early as you could get away with marked an important step away from childhood.

We could, however, define it in a way that would put true adulthood decades away from legal majority for most people. Adulthood is when you start realizing that the classics foisted upon you in school are classics for a reason -- namely, that they're actually amazing.

In high school I read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. A few years ago I decided that I ought to give David Copperfield a try, seeing as it tops lists of the greatest novels in English. And I discovered, much to my shock, that I adored it. That I adore Dickens, and would happily spend the rest of my days reading through the entire Dickens catalog. Nothing would have shocked that 16-year-old slogging through Great Expectations more.

Thanks to the A.V. Club's Wrapped Up In Books monthly feature, I just finished Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. "You know what's a really good book?" I told Noel after turning the last page on my Kindle. "A Scanner Darkly." It shouldn't be surprising that books widely acclaimed, books that have taken their place in canons of one kind or another, are actually wonderful to read -- affecting, surprising, deeply emotional, beautifully written. But there's the child in me that hates to be told and is tired of hearing the unanimous voice of her culture.

It's liberating to be an adult and to strike out into the heart of artistic halls of fame, able to fathom the radical notion that quality might be present and that I might be able to appreciate it. This is a marker of adulthood that I didn't pass until just a few years ago -- most probably later than I should have, if I weren't so stubborn or blind. At least I have years of classics ahead of me to explore, like the well-trodden paths I never bothered with because so many had been there before me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ready to start

It takes a lot to get me into gear. I can live with stuff that's broken or suboptimal or ugly for quite a long time. But when the switch clicks and I decide I can't live with it anymore, I like to act decisively.

That has now happened for my front yard, or what my neighbors probably call "the Sahara desert" behind my back. It's devolved from mostly moss when we bought it, to mostly bare dirt now. The railroad ties that form the retaining walls that keep the yard from completely washing away into the street are falling apart. I've long known we needed to get a landscaper in to built new retaining walls, plant ground cover, lay some sod (I'd rather not have much lawn). But I didn't know where that stood on my priority list of things I need to hire someone to do. Walking back toward the house with the kids after a stroll around the neighborhood this evening, I realized that the time was now. I can't live with this horrendous hellscape anymore.

So I'm going to call a local landscaping firm. What I'd like is for them to rebuild all the retaining walls, plant a hardy, shade-loving ground cover on the front slope, remake the azalea beds around our large shade trees, and put down a minimum of turf that would have to be mowed or watered. I'd be open to turf alternatives.

What should I think about or know before I make this call? Any recommendations for landscapers in the area? Can I do this without ending up paying a fortune for an underground irrigation system?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cupid, draw back your bow

Today's post about creation on a tight schedule is at Toxophily.

We've had a great week with my mom and dad here. The kids have taken this opportunity seriously. Archer organized an "Uno marathon" -- four sessions of ten games each, adding some of the optional special rules in various sessions. Cady Gray has lobbied for tickles and hugs at every opportunity. It's a two-day drive for them to get here, two more days to get back. So we really appreciate it when they make that effort. Thanks, Granny Lou and Papa!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer stock

On NPR this afternoon, while driving home from a day in Maumelle, I heard a piece about summer jobs. I didn't have as many experiences in summer work as some people; other than time spent answering phones, typing, and organizing invoices in my dad's business, and one terrific summer making sample books in my uncle's carpet factory, I spent my summers doing everything but working for a living.

These days my job continues throughout the summer -- like most adults, but unlike most of my fellow faculty members. The professoriate is a nine-months-a-year occupation. In fact, my university offers a scheme whereby one quarter of your salary is withheld during the year and then paid to you during your summer off so you don't have to go without a paycheck.

In four decades, I've never had a summer that proceeded without significant change from the seasons before and after. I've either been a student or a teacher all that time, and that means that summers constituted their own separate reality on the academic calendar. It's like the summer job experience that most people leave behind after their college years became my default; I do one thing for nine months, then something different from three, year after year.

What's your summer job memory? And do you still feel like you have a summer job -- or would you like to?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cards on the table

My parents arrived this afternoon for a few days with the grandchildren. Right now they're participating in a grand Uno tournament enthusiastically narrated by Archer. Granny Lou just won her first game with Cady Gray's help, and Archer has battled back from two games down to tie Papa 4-4.

The clear rules and bounded structure of games appeal strongly to Archer's autistic mind. He is able to adjudicate any question about procedure with authority. And the "storyline" of the game seems to delight him. Motivations and emotional responses which might remain murky or inexplicable in real life become transparent in a game: good fortune and bad are well defined, and the appropriate emotions for each are plain.

And so my sometimes retiring, sometimes robotic boy becomes wildly animated while playing games. He grins, dances, shouts, sinks to the ground, and loudly rehearses the twists and turns of the game's and match's course to whoever will listen. It's a story with a plot that makes perfect sense and an appealingly granular -- often even numerical -- dramatic arc.

Someone along the line -- I think it was Noel -- started a little tradition of snapping the last remaining card in his hand after announcing "Uno." Now Archer does it with delight, and Cady Gray reaches over to flip Granny Lou's card for her when appropriate. There's something extravagant about the gesture: an expression of delight, a challenge to the other players, and nothing strictly necessary or prescribed in the rules. As these little extras accumulate, they sketch out more detail in this stripped-down game world. With enough time and tradition, the game might become as complex as parts of life. And perhaps Archer will have the tools it takes to navigate in such circumstances.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Arkansas is a battleground state in the mid-term elections this year. Our primaries were hotly contested, especially on the Democratic side. And that meant a landscape littered with election signs.

Now that the election and runoffs are over, I still see plenty of election signs on roadsides and medians. Homeowners who placed them in their yards have whisked them away, although some for the winning candidates remain in anticipation of the November general election. But every day I pass lonely signs, sometimes in reduced clusters, touting candidates who lost their bids.

Occasionally we hear about localities with regulations about cleaning up signs after elections. I couldn't find any evidence of such laws in Arkansas. But the impression left by orphaned signs of losing candidates left littering the roadsides is that the campaign staff and volunteers gave no thought to the consequences of their publicity blitz except their hope that it would pay off. Every sign that's still there is a testament to the dilution of responsibility and the narrowness inherent in short-term thinking.

Maybe on the weekend after an election, civic-minded folks regardless of party or campaign affiliation should get together and drive around town collecting the signs that no longer serve any purpose. Get enough people with enough pickup-truck beds and trunks, and you could make a dent. Take 'em to the recycling collection center, and return the wire frames to party headquarters, make them available to school and church groups that do sign-based publicity, or sell them back to sign companies.

Mark your calendar for the morning of November 6 -- what do you say? Who's in?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick

Today's post about yarn that won't run dry is at Toxophily.

Tonight my co-workers and two decades of program alumni said goodbye to a woman who's been a huge part of all our lives. When it's my turn to go, I hope I inspire a tenth of the tributes and affection. Glenda, you are one of a kind, and we can never tell you enough how irreplaceable you really are.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Love is just what you make it

Today's post about guinea pig knitting is at Toxophily.

And so ends one of the toughest weeks of the summer for me: swim lesson week. I'm relieved to find that my kids still love the water, and have that much more familiarity with it. They're not swimmers yet, but I know that they'll get there in their own time. Every experience reduces my anxiety and makes me a little more confident that putting them around water isn't a tragedy waiting to happen. Most importantly, they pushed their limits a bit, and still had fun. As long as their feelings about swimming are positive, I'm comfortable that proficiency will come eventually.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Interlibrary loan

I love interlibrary loan. I use it profligately, requesting articles and books in great piles when I'm doing research. The problem with that strategy is that the books tend to arrive all at once, and be due within a short time period a few weeks later.

But to tell you the truth, I kind of like that, too. Having to get the books read and the notes taken creates a kind of urgency. I have to organize the sources to get through them in the order in which they're due. I have to make time to work my way through them -- and that means setting aside time.

My time is Friday morning. I go to the coffee shop and spend three hours, if I can get there early enough, doing nothing but reading and notetaking. It's wonderfully extravagant to have that much time for books and ideas. But the luxury, the largesse of hours to dedicate to this task, is dependent on the urgency of deadlines. If I had the books indefinitely, would I ever get around to reading them? Isn't it the short-term loan of these items, the fact that their possibilities will only be available to be gleaned until a specified date, that makes them such a source of pleasure?

Like all indulgences, I feel guilty about this one. Yet as I spent the day with eighteen-year-olds entering the university, I realized how weird that must seem to non-academics. Feeling guilty about a half-day devoted to research? Maybe I'm through the looking glass. But you take your pleasures where you can find them, and I'll bet some of my colleagues will agree: nothing beats an empty calendar, a stack of books, and a citation organization system.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Game club

Archer would play games with us all day and all night if we'd let him. He's chess-obsessed -- give him a chess book and he'll read for hours -- but Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, or a book of marble, domino, or card games are almost as absorbing. In fact, not infrequently he draws his own game boards and cuts out money and cards, and a major subject of conversation is game rules and strategy.

I asked him last week if he'd like me to contact any of the kids in his school's chess club to see if they wanted to meet for matches, and one of the children he mentioned is the daughter of one of my university colleagues. We got them together today for an hour of chess -- two matches. In the first, Archer finally checkmated her when she had only a king left and he had a king and rook. In the second, they played to stalemate in about twenty minutes.

Last week I ran into a former student in a coffee shop, passing through town with her partner on her way back to her job in another town. She has worked with Archer before, and asked about him; the conversation turned to his love of games, and I mentioned Settlers. Turns out the two of them play quite a bit and have all the expansion packs. I enlisted them to come play with Archer when they're back in town for an extended session. There's only so much he can get out of playing a two-person game with me; what's more, I have no idea what I'm doing.

I would love to find Archer a regular game group to play with. Not for the first time, I've thought that we ought to introduce him to Magic-type collectible card games, which he might be able to play with other kids at the bookstore or the library. A game provides a structure to the social occasion of playing with his peers. Today while playing chess, he had intermittent conversations with his opponent about the rules, about whether the game has reached its end, about setting up the board. Archer is rarely focused enough on a common task to have an interaction with another kid; he tends to ignore their conversational proffers and wander off on his own or to the company of adults. I'm impressed that he sat across from a nine-year-old for a full hour today; words might not have been plentiful, but the two were completely engaged with each other and the chess board. I was not part of the equation.

I'd like to see Archer in more situations like that with kids his own age. His speech therapist told us this year that he won't make an effort to play with his classmates during recess unless he sees her watching -- then he approaches other kids eagerly in order to get gold stars from the observer. But nobody had to bribe him with a gold star to play chess for an hour with Miriam. With a structure in which he's already intrinsically interested, with scorekeeping and points and strategy and the reduction of the environment's unwritten rules to clear, written, and unambiguous ones, he can really be a part of a group of his peers. If I could find the group and the venue, I'd have him there every time the doors were open.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In every moment there's a reason to carry on

Today's post about a favorite fancy dessert and the dishcloth that brings it to mind is at Toxophily.

The busiest day of the summer is coming up this week -- far too early in the summer, if you ask me. On Thursday I'll have the kids at work in the morning to give Noel a much-needed break. After I pass them back, there's lunch with the provost, incoming students and their parents. Then in the afternoon I have a webconference for which I have to prepare a major report tomorrow. Late afternoon starts a sequence of several meetings with incoming students at our summer orientation which includes dinner and doesn't end until early evening. Then I come home after the kids are already in bed and have a TV show to write about before I get to hit the sack. After that day, everything slows down considerably. One big obligation per day is enough for the summer, even for someone like me who's trying to having the most productive summer since graduate school.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Caught in the flow

My folks are coming to visit at the end of the week, a prospect that always lights a fire under our simmering urge to make our home more livable. (Yes, Mom and Dad, it does get worse than what you see!) Noel has ambitions to organize our extensive collection of games and to pass books the kids have outgrown on to new owners.

He's calling this "de-hoardifying" the house, the idea being to make our home less like one of the places profiled on A&E's Hoarders. Not that we qualify for the show. We have teetering stacks of DVDs covering every available flat surface, yes, but we don't have psychological issues that prevent us from getting rid of them. Instead we have logistical and physical issues getting rid of them. You see, they just keep coming. A dozen a day, most days. I counted once while Noel was out of town; 60 DVDs or sets of DVDs arrived in one week. If you're not actively pushing them back out the door at the same rate, they quickly become an organizational nightmare.

And how do you push them out the door? We're not going to send them to the landfill. They're actually worth something to someone, if you can make the effort it takes to find that someone (a reseller or an end consumer). Again, though, at 250 flowing in a month, just making that effort to redirect them back out again is costly in terms of time and energy.

Every few months Noel makes a big dent in the DVDs, CDs and comics (notice how I didn't even mention the last two) by hauling them to a store or sending them to a reseller. But we haven't been down to level zero -- that is, only having in the house the media we actually want to keep -- in many years. If we ever manage to get back there, I might not recognize the place.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Now I hold my head up high

Today's post about radioactive dishcloths is at Toxophily.

This is the week we look summer in the face and see whether we can meet its challenge. The kids are both at home. Their dad is home, as usual, although he swears he's arranged a lighter work week. I'm at work, as usual, although I'll take the kids with me a couple of mornings to give them a change of scenery. After this there aren't too many more weeks where one or the other of them aren't in camp of some kind. If we can establish a summer pattern this week that doesn't drive any of us crazy, we'll be set until August.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The limits of obsession

When I get on a roll, real life annoys me. I'd like to do whatever I am currently obsessed with doing with from morning until night. Moderation is not for me. If it's something I enjoy, I'm not interested in taking breaks. Right now there are three things I'd like to just keep doing until they are done. I'm working on a storage and decorating plan for our extensive collection of games; I've got loads of yarn I'd like to knit up; and I'm at the beginning of a couple of fascinating research projects.

But that way of working isn't compatible with family life. Kids won't let you take over their spaces for days to decorate. Parenting can't be put on hold for marathon knitting or research.

The summer comes with longish stretches of time during which my obsessive nature can express itself. I can take hours or days and just do one thing, because there are fewer tasks to get crammed into each day. No classes, fewer meetings, periods of time when people are on vacation and the office is empty. And I can start to think that I have a right to that organization of time and that one-thing-at-a-time, all-the-time lifestyle.

Home brings me back to reality. It's not worth thinking about huge redecorating projects until somebody could be persuaded to take the kids for two weeks. I can't pull all-nighters in the library or crank out a sweater in a weekend. So the things I want so much to do have to get done in bits and pieces. And to be frank, that's a good thing. Because the problem with that obsessive tendency is that it can be an excuse not to do anything at all on the grounds that you can't do everything you'd like. Better by far to tackle a minor reorganization of a room than a wholesale retrofit, since my visions for the latter are probably unrealistically grandiose Better to fit my knitting and my research around the other tasks for which I'm responsible, lest I fail to live up to what I imagine limitless time at those occupations would produce.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Onward and upward

Today was the last day of school for Archer and Cady Gray. I picked them up from school with a little ache in my heart for the realization that they will never be third graders or kindergarteners again.

Archer brought home his writing folder chock-full of writing exercises I haven't read before. Here's a final draft of one from January 12, 2010.
Me, my mom, etc. had a blast having triple Christmas together! We were having triple Christmas Friday, December 25 through Thursday, December 31. We gone to 3 places!
At my house we did "rounds" (dividing out the presents and opening them one at a time). But some of those gifts weren't wrapped! So we got those presents for free.
It took us 6 hours to drive all the way to Nashville, TN. We did the same thing in Grandma Libby and Grandpa Alex's house as we did in my house, but the rounds were a lot longer. We woke up at 5:30 the day after that. We woke up so early that we had breakfast at the airport!
When we finally at St. Simons Island on 4343 11th Street, we rushed up the porch steps and into the house. We got there by first going I-25 N to Exit 29, then right on Ocean Road, then right on 11th Street. We opened the presents for free at Granny Lou and Papa's lodge, and heart a stored and devoured a chocolate pretzel topping with icing and an M&M there. Then, me, Drew, and Sawyer played a little New Super Mario Bros. Wii together back at 4343.
On the second day, we played again and beat the first world. It was a hard time for me at world 2-2. I kept losing all my lives over and over. I ended up with 10 continues!
On day 3, it was a hard time at world 1-4. I kept hitting fish and losing lives. And Sawyer deleted our checkpoint! He forgot to quicksave our progress! Now we have to start over from the beginning! What a day!

Thursday, June 3, 2010


I adore my children. Maybe I'm more of a worrier than most -- in fact, I'm pretty sure I am. In any case, my particular species of adoration leads me to think about what would happen if I lost them. The idea terrifies me, but I can't look away. For some reason I think that considering the possibility will help me deal with my fear. As if I could convince myself that such an event could be rendered ordinary by thinking about how it happens to other people, and what would occur if it happened to me.

At lunchtime today I read the first few chapters of a novel in which the main character is a mother whose little girl -- about Cady Gray's age -- has died in an accident. I couldn't stop myself from getting emotional at the descriptions of her difficulty getting through each day as everything in her life reminded her of her daughter. My overwhelming feeling was that I wouldn't be able to cope at all. I don't know how anyone does.

And then I wonder whether that means I adore my children too much. Not that I have any choice in the matter. But my inability to keep my emotions in check at any depiction of children in peril, or grieving parents, makes it difficult for me to keep perspective. I imagine all this is normal, yet isn't it also normal to integrate death into life?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Waiting for the words

I've never subscribed to the notion of a muse. My approach to my work has been, well, workmanlike; it's not always easy, but when I need to produce, I grind it out. When I was writing my dissertation, I treated it like a job. By the time the day was done, I needed to have five pages done. And as a result, I produced the dissertation in about six months.

But it's clear to me that I need time for thinking built into my day if I'm going to make progress on my research, or on constructing a syllabus, or on a review, or nearly any other creative endeavor on my plate. My thinking time on most days consists of my walk to and from the office, about 10-15 minutes at a leisurely stroll, longer if I stop to get a beverage.

During the two mornings a week I'm spending off campus for intensive work, I've found myself more consciously taking time for thought. As I lift my eyes from book or computer, stare out the window, and try to formulate or follow an idea, I feel more like I'm waiting for inspiration than usual. In fact, I sometimes feel like a parody of an academic, surrounded by books, scratching my chin, gazing absent-mindedly into space.

It's not so much waiting, though, as processing. In no more than a few moments, I'm able to see clearly what the next step is, and decide whether it follows on the course I'm currently plotting, or need to make a note of the insight to be pursued later. Does that mean I'm more like a bricklayer than an artist?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Crowdsourcing inspiration

One of my favorite features of the twenty-first century world of social networking is how visible inspiration has become. It used to be up to art and technology historians to identify who was an influence on whom. But as we assemble our plans and creative impulses in tiny pieces scattered across the internet, our browser histories themselves become a record of our sources. In addition, it's become customary -- indeed, expected -- for those keeping online project notebooks to note and link to the items and ideas that inspired them.

Inspiration is always a delicate matter in academia. We are socialized simultaneously in the art and ethics of referencing our sources, and in the value of originality. Paying homage to our inspirations, in that environment, can come to feel like a chore and a cheat. We overwhelm our readers with references to convince them of the thoroughness of our research. At the same time, we struggle to assert that we are neverthless doing something new, unique, and valuable -- something worthy, we hope, of being cited as inspiration or authority by another.

Perhaps there's something to the two terms I just juxtaposed. Academia -- well, the humanities, at any rate -- operates according to structures that bestow and honor authority. The fear of the limitless eclectic synthesis ethic of the Internet is based in the horror of lost authority. Yet everywhere I look in my social networks, I see people citing each other -- spreading the word about what others have done, adding their own spin, and putting what they do out there to inspire in its turn. The arts have long understood that there is a distinction between inspiration and authority. Even though originality is far more highly prized in those circles, it stands in tension not with the repetition of truths implied by the notion of authority, but with the participation in a communal process of choosing styles and elements of meaning.

As usual, I see a lot to be optimistic about in the emerging folkways of social networking. My hope is that these environments are socializing their participants into an expectation of generosity and appreciation. It seems unlikely that the need for critical engagement will go unfulfilled by other corners of the 'net -- or even in some activities in the same communities I'm discussing. I seek only to praise the existence and growing normativity of counterbalancing forces.