Thursday, September 30, 2010


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Tonight a dozen or so local knitters, crocheters, and allies, aged 20 to 70, covered a downtown park in yarn.


I made this wrap for one of the pillars that holds up the bandstand. 64 inches long.


The shiny reddish purple crochet pelt is also my creation. Trust me, you're glad it's out of focus.


Some of the donated material was absolutely gorgeous. Look, this lamp cozy has cables! Cables!


My student Kate made a tree scarf. The woman in the background watched us for several minutes with her car door open, asking questions and preventing other cars from getting in that parking space.


The Sensible Seamstress sent this piece all the way from Kansas City, where even the crocheted trees are up to date.


Sewing the pieces on was a little like lacing a corset. What was stunning was watching these flat strips and squares conform to the shape of the environment, transforming that shape with color and texture.


Poles of all kinds disappeared underneath big crochet and knit stitches. Bare metal started to look barren in comparison.


Maybe next year we can cover the caboose.


After a while, even my seaming started to look like part of the art.


Donations from different crafters created fortuitous juxtapositions of color, shape, and texture.


Ariel M got so into it. I think she might go yarn bombing on her own next weekend.


She made this beautiful, welcoming armrest cover. Isn't it the perfect accompaniment to a set-a-spell by the fountain?


We worked through sunset and into the gathering darkness.


Soon you couldn't even see the green fringed skirt you just sewed on a lamppost.


A woman showed up about 75 minutes into the event with this enormous afghan, the perfect size for wrapping around an entire bench.


Just as we were tying off the last stitches, the piece de resistance rolled up: a crochet covered motorcycle. Wait 'till the ArtsFest attendees get a load of this.


Those who stayed to the very end. Yarn bombers forever!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The magic number

A month or two ago, we Braves fans were riding high.  Now we are sweating out the last few games of the season, hoping to slide into the playoffs as the National League wildcard.

Most recent years, we've been able to write off our team fairly early.  It didn't make the losing any easier, but at least we didn't remain in suspense for months.  We knew where we stood.

This year everything seemed to be different.  We had hot rookies, breakout stars, and ace pitchers.  Just like the old days.  It was Bobby Cox's last year in baseball, the manager we loved leaving the organization we loved him.  If we could make a run at the playoffs this year, what a sendoff that would be, wouldn't it?

And so here we are at the end of September, decimated by injuries, down to a shadow of our All-Star glory, trying to eke out a few wins to back into the playoff spot that once seemed to be ours by right.  Every night I watch Noel's face out of the corner of my eye as he watches the game on his iPad, riding the ups and downs.  Right now the magic number is three; by the end of the night, if the Giants and/or the Padres lose, it could be two or one.

When it's zero, you will hear a sigh of relief from our house.  But that's just the prelude to the long in-drawn breath of the playoffs.  No matter how much we tell ourselves not to hold out hope, that our star-studded disabled list can't get us past round one, we'll be hanging on every pitch.  Again.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We're undeniable

We'Today's post on the seductive allure of texture is at Toxophily.

But it could have been this post on start-itis by Adrea over at Craft Wisely.  I hope you have time to read it.  As for me, I'm trying to decide which of my half-dozen current works-in-progress I should pick up tonight.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Didja notice?

Like most American homes, ours has a bathroom well furnished with reading material. And for the last few months, every time I've gone in there, I've seen this comics collection cover:


It's one of the DC Showcase volumes of Silver Age superhero comics. This one is the third volume of World's Finest stories -- World's Finest being the series that teamed up Superman and Batman.

I looked at that cover over and over for weeks. And then I began to idly wonder who the heroes were punching out. What was the context for this moment of triumphant mayhem? Was this just a generic image, or did it have a story?

One day I realized the truth. They are punching out their non-super alter egos. It's a little hard to tell, but the signifiers are there: Note the glasses flying from Clark Kent's face, Robin's youthful (and vaguely swarthy) opponent, and ... Bruce Wayne's shoes look expensive, sorta, don't they?

I assume there's a sensational issue from which this splash page was taken, in which some sort of ginned-up appearance of conflict between the costumed versions and the secret identities. What's interesting to me, though, is that every time I see the cover now, I go through a ten-second version of the realization that took me weeks the first time: Oh, that comic book again, hm, who are they punching, oh yeah, it's themselves!

How long would it have taken you to figure it out? Or did you know right away?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

It's here

Temperatures have dropped from the nineties to the seventies in a matter of days.  Football is available on TV almost any night of the week.  I needed to take a sweater on our dinner-and-a-movie date last night.

It must be fall.

The leaves haven't turned yet.  I'm still iffy on some of my students names.  The A/C is still on.  But summer is clearly on its way out.

Since I became a knitter, fall has a whole new meaning.  Knitters live for fall.  We watch the weather anxiously, awaiting the morning when the temperatures justify warm socks, a scarf, or a sweater layer.  Fall means we can wear our handiwork proudly, reveling in its beauty and warmth.

Fall means time spent outdoors requires some extra preparation.  Folks going to the game might want a hat or a muffler.  We can provide that.  Fall means that gift-giving season is right around the corner, the winter holiday conveniently timed for woolly comfort.  For me, fall means trips to conferences, long meetings, classes, lectures, all places where needles can work away quietly and gradually, fashioning something beautiful to ward off the chill.

It must be fall.  And for a knitter, fall is the reason for everything we do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Author author

Cady Gray decided to to make some books today. Here are the three books she made:

The One Paged Funnies

CG's books

Front cover

CG's books_0001

A long time ago there was a the end.

CG's books_0002

Back cover

Pokemon Tips: Bulbasaur!

CG's books_0003

Front cover

CG's books_0004

At a certain time of year Bulbasaur from all over the world gather together for a festival where they evolve!

CG's books_0005

Back cover

Learn To Knit

CG's books_0006

Front cover

CG's books_0007

In the front door ...

CG's books_0008

Around the back ...

CG's books_0009

Slip it off ...

CG's books_0010

And off comes Jack!

CG's books_0011

Back cover

Friday, September 24, 2010


Sending away my beloved MacBook Air is always difficult.  But earlier this week, I had to do it.  I had noticed awhile back that the volume indicator in my menubar was grayed out.  Not needing sound except very occasionally, I didn't investigate further; I leave the sound off on my laptop as a rule, and only think about turning it on if I'm watching a YouTube video.

And then the moment came two weekends ago when I wanted to look at a YouTube video, and tried to turn on the sound.  No dice -- the volume indicator that comes up when you hit the speaker buttons showed a circle with a line through it.  Opening up the sound pane in system preferences revealed that the computer wasn't "seeing" any sound output devices.  No headphone sound ... no speaker sound.

Time to Google and see if anyone else had experienced this.  Yep, turns out this is a known issue on MacBook Airs and other MacBooks, where the Audio Flex Cable needs to be replaced.  Check AppleCare status -- still have more than 100 days on my warranty.  (Always get AppleCare on any computer or phone purchase.  Always.)

Call AppleCare.  I'm prepared for a long conversation, since even though I've researched the issue, the techs usually want to go through a diagnostic process on the phone.  Very pleasantly surprised to find that the tech accepts my assessment of the problem prima facie; the first question he asks after "what's the problem?" is "do you want to mail it in or take it to a store?"

Mail it in, of course!  (The nearest store is two and a half hours away.)  The box arrives on Tuesday; I take it to the FedEx location to drop it off Wednesday at 11 am.  Thursday morning I get an e-mail from Apple saying they've received it.  Thursday afternoon I get an e-mail from Apple saying they've fixed it and it's on its way back.  Friday morning Noel signs for it.  Friday evening I turn it on and hear the pleasing startup chime that says, "Yep, we fixed it!"

Did I mention that I love my MacBook Air?  I do.  It's my favorite computer that I've ever owned.  And I'm so glad its minor sound problem has been fixed, that it's back in my hands, and that I'm writing this blog post on it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Y factor

This week, the Craft Wisely student bloggers tackle:

  • Eric, a novice male knitter, braves the church knitting circle to learn from the best. 
  • Shannon goes from frustrated zero to gift-knitting hero in just a few months.
  • Kirsten tackles illusion knitting and creates a piece with a hidden meaning.
  • Sara finds inspiration for her crafting in the orphans she met in Peru.
  • And this week's podcast from the Dust Storms group delves into the meaning we find in the artifacts around us -- those we make and those we preserve.
Please visit and leave a comment -- I guarantee you'll be amazed and invigorated by the way these students think, write, and knit.  And when they hear from you, they'll be invigorated knowing their words have reached a listening ear.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Trust the yarn

When I teach people to knit or crochet, I frequently see that they think it is their hands that force the stitches into the right shape.  These people tend to hold the yarn really tightly and tug on it after each stitch, thinking they are knotting the yarn into a fabric..  They are also terrified that if they lose their grip on the yarn, the whole thing will fall apart immediately.

To them I often say, "Trust the yarn.  Trust the needles."  The yarn has its own qualities that will make the stitches well defined, that will keep them from coming apart.  The needles create the size of the stitch under regular tension, and pulling the yarn tight only fights that and distorts it.

Last night I took up a couple of pieces of knitting that were supposed to go together.  This cardigan is knit from the right front edge all the way around to the left front edge -- sideways, as if you were slowly knitting a wrapping for the torso.  Then the collar is knit at the end and sewn on.  You can see in the photos that it is narrow at the buttoned front edges and flares out wide at the back.  Like the cardigan itself, it's knitted from one end to the other, starting narrow, getting wide, then going back to narrow.

The collar has given almost the 100 or so people who've knit this sweater (and posted projects on Ravelry) fits.  Instructions in the magazine were incorrect; errata were posted by the designer on Ravelry.  But knitter after knitter betrayed in their notes that they didn't trust those corrected instructions.  They fudged, frogged, reknit, and in many cases decided to live with a collar that wasn't perfect because they were tired of trying to make it work.

I read over those notes carefully.  One of the designer's notes and a prominent knitter's notes indicated that the number of rows knit for the collar should be the same as the number of rows along the neck edge of the sweater.  That made sense since the were knitted in the same direction -- sideways.  If the pieces were attached with mattress stitch, row by row, they should match up perfectly.  So I counted my neck edge rows -- and recounted them.  Then I began the collar according to the revised instructions.  All seemed well until I got almost halfway to my total row count and realized that I wasn't going to have enough rows to complete the instructions for the first half of the collar.  I was going to have to start the mirror-image second half without getting to the end of the instructions that were supposed to take me to the middle.

I stopped and thought.  Then I decided to trust the row count and the logic of knitting the same number of rows.  I began the mirror-image decreases at the middle even though I hadn't gotten to the end of the increases.  I knit to the end and completed the correct number of rows.  Then I laid out the collar on top of the sweater where it was to be attached.

Way, way too small.  Not even close.  When I tried to stretch the collar to match the length of the neckline, it seemed impossible.  I'd estimate that the collar was less than 2/3 the length of the edge to which it was supposed to be attached.

But the logic was still unassailable.  The same number of rows, sewn together matched one to one, should come out perfectly.  The collar, in garter stitch, was a different row gauge (number of rows per inch) than the neckline, but it was the same yarn and an only slightly smaller needle.  It should work.  I decided to trust the yarn, trust the numbers, trust the logic of the one-to-one seam, and start sewing, regardless of the apparent disparity.

And it worked.  Row by row I sewed, and as I approached each clip I had used to pin the two pieces together and keep the ends and middle lined up, the gap between the two pieces straightened, evened, and disappear.  The lower edge of the garter-stitch collar stretched, row to row, while the top edge stayed prettily compact.  By the time I reached the middle of the seam, I was elated; what had seemed impossible was turning out better than almost all of the projects whose notes I perused, by knitters who had tried to make it work this way and that because the instructions and result as given seemed so problematic.

Trust the yarn.  Trust the needles.  And trust the numbers.  If you can let go of your worries and your tendencies to fix or shore up your work before you see the outcome clearly, you will frequently experience that elation as the impossible becomes the elegantly real.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Inspiration from the north

I've been privileged to teach some extraordinary students.  It hadn't occurred to me until today, though, how many of them have been here at the same time.

2006 alumna Michelle Underwood returned to campus today by invitation of her undergraduate college (she was an art major) to speak to current students.  Last week she contacted me and asked if she could speak to some Honors students as well, and this afternoon a handful of them listened with interest as she described her experience with 800 25-and-unders from around the globe at the One Young World International Summit in London.

Michelle showed those students more than an opportunity to take a cool trip and get inspired by folks like them who want to change the world.  She was a living example of how quickly they could do great things and transform their surroundings.  Michelle is an ad director for a major worldwide advertising agency.  Ten months ago, she co-founded Chicago's Mortar Theatre Company, a non-profit troupe that has been performing socially-conscious world-premiere works. And perhaps most impressively to those of us in the room this afternoon, she designed while an undergraduate the logo for our campus art gallery, and was amused to discover upon her return that it is still plastered all over the gallery's banners and publicity.

And as we reminisced about the group of students she used to hang with during her days at my university, I realized how remarkable a collection they turned out to be.  We've gone so far as to invite another one back for a presentation next month.  I hadn't made the connection that the two were not only from the same graduating class, but were also close friends.

I think I can perceive another group like this that will be graduating next year.  I look forward to following their accomplishments for the next six years, then inviting them back to inspire the students of 2016.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The secret of my success

I often tell students that the secret to life is finding away to get assigned to do things you want to do anyway.

That seems like a simple matter, like telling people to do what they love.  But what you love and what you'll make time to do are not always the same thing.  Take movies.  There are a ton of movies I want to see.  But how often can I make those the highest priority in my leisure time?  It's actually hard for us to devote a whole evening to a movie we don't have to see, when there are so many things we need to see to keep up with the media that's part of our jobs.

So as a way to see some movies I want to see, I created a no-credit course that screens them.  Students sign up to attend, and every other week I watch with them.  I don't always want to be there doing exactly that at precisely that moment, particularly when I'm really busy.  But I want to see these movies at some point.  And now is the moment when I can assign myself that job in order to have those pleasure.

A desire made into an assignment can become a chore, it's true.  But at the end of the day, would you rather not have read the books on your life list, because it wasn't quite as spontaneous as you might ideally have wished?  If you can find a way to work your bucket list into your everyday to-do list, it's possible to make some progress before you retire.  Good thing, too, since the list of movies I want to see isn't getting any shorter.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

In my blue world

Today's post about two green scarves -- one lost and one found -- is at Toxophily.


And lurking in the background of the photography is our brand-new retaining wall and part of our new sod lawn, in progress. If only I could transform our landscaping as easily and inexpensively as I can transform my wardrobe!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Joining in

Last night, to celebrate Archer being named a star student at school and his dad's return to the fold, we went out for dessert to a nearby fix-your-own yogurt place.  Noel and I helped the kids get a reasonable amount of yogurt and an unreasonable mix of toppings, then we all sat down at a long counter by the front window to eat.

As usual, Noel and I were carrying on a conversation and occasionally pausing to respond to the kids' unrelated comments.  Noel mentioned the heat -- for him, quite a change from fall-like Toronto -- and I started telling a little story about a weather report I heard on the radio earlier that day while driving.  "Highs near 100 degrees," the weatherman said, and out loud, alone in the car, I exclaimed, "C'mon!  September!!"

"Wahhhh!" said Archer, sitting to my right.

It's his standard falsetto interjection when something is humorously out of whack.  I turned, thinking he might have dropped some yogurt on himself.  He's eating away.

"Are you okay, Archer?"  I asked.

He was smiling to himself.  "You just went, 'It's September!  That's too hot!'" he said.

Realization slowly dawned over me.  I had been talking to Noel -- but Archer had been listening.  His exclamation of jocular dismay was a response to my vigorous re-enactment of my story.

Archer is autistic.  He doesn't pay attention to other people's conversations.  He certainly doesn't make appropriate noises or responses to what they say, thereby including himself in the circle of communication.  I was confused, then amazed.  It might be the first time I've witnessed him following the tone and meaning of a discussion going on around him so well that he could unintrusively insert himself, as we do when we chuckle, exclaim, or encourage the speaker to go on from our position in a group of listeners.

Before I had time to articulate that realization, Cady Gray made the point -- because she had noticed, too.  "Archer was just joining in on your conversation!" she said.

Yes, he was, honey.  And yes, it's that simple, and that wondrous.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Simple pleasures

Watching television with my husband.

Knitting a sweater.

Seeing a "star student" sticker on my son's shirt.

Having him suggest, "Now, why don't you go inside and hug Cady Gray?"

A cold beverage on a hot day.

Letting go of the stress of the week.

Sleeping in.

Anticipating some of my favorite television shows returning for a new season.

The whole family together again.

... I'll be savoring these and other simple pleasures this weekend, now that Noel is home from Toronto.  Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

They write -- will you read?

Last time I directed you to the multi-author blog for my Craft Wisely class, the only thing up there was my introductory post.

Now there's two weeks' worth of content provided by students in the class, reflecting on their experiences, thoughts, and creative connections between class material and their handmade lives.  Kim wrote about the division of labor in a medieval castle being constructed in Arkansas.  Kate wrote about what she's learned by roasting her own coffee beans.  Christabel wrote about bringing craft from Tanzania to the States and back again.  Becca wrote about a pact she's made with her grandmother that has gotten her past the frustration stage as a knitter.  Natasha wrote about knitting for charitable organizations.  Kat wrote about the ups and downs of learning crochet.  Four other students posted a podcast about the discussions we had during the first week of class.

Their writing and the experiences they relate have often astounded me.  But me -- I'm not the point.  You are the point.  You, the audience they do not know, the readers they never imagined they would have.  When you read and leave a comment, you provoke an epiphany for these student writers.  They are not just fulfilling a class assignment when they write.  They are communicating to people they've never met.

You can change everything for these students.  And I'll bet you'll enjoy reading what they have to say, and learn something in the process.  Please follow at least one of the links in this post and comment.  I thank you in advance, and will be happy to accept your thanks later.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Every little thing

It's the last full day of my annual TIFF widowhood.  Noel will be back tomorrow evening after nine days away attending the Toronto Film Festival.  For him, it's a busman's holiday; he worked long, hard hours seeing films, tweeting reactions, and writing up several capsules a night before getting up early the next day and doing it again.

I can't pretend his absence has been a crushing burden on my shoulders.  After all, his mother was here to take over during the two days I spent at a mountaintop retreat.  The kids don't require round-the-clock care anymore.  The major changes I experienced were a shortened work day due to the need to pick them up in the afternoon from school, being in sole charge of meals, and that sinking feeling that when a kid has lost something precious in the clutter of their rooms, there's no one else to call for help in finding it.

But it's true that I'm tired as Noel's trip nears its finish line.  And I realize with new forcefulness that when the responsibility of family provider and facilitator falls solely on your shoulders, any tiny bit of unexpected good fortune or the kindness of others feels like a huge gift of grace.  For instance, I'm looking forward to next week when I can stay late at work for some meetings and events because I know Noel will be able to stay on kid duty.

Today I was arranging the teaching schedule of our departmental faculty for next semester, and one colleague e-mailed me back to say that a mid-afternoon slot wasn't preferable because of the need to be available to pick up his kids if the arrangements he'd made with others to do so fell through.  I was able to make some swaps to position his teaching earlier in the day, and his gratitude felt quite familiar to me after these nine days alone.  Every little bit helps -- and helps so much that it sometimes changes everything.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book order day

I've always been a sucker for Scholastic Books.  As a kid I circled everything about football (especially my beloved Oakland Raiders) and animals that appeared in the newsprint catalogs.  My parents indulged my every book-buying request, and I can still remember the thrill of my teacher handing me a huge pile of shrink-wrapped paperbacks with my order form taped to the top.  Heaven.

Now as a mother, I've tried to carry on that tradition, ordering large numbers of books from the fliers and harboring a secret pride when Archer or Cady Gray let me know that their orders were the biggest in the class.  They get books -- and I will always be happy to give them any book they desire -- and their teacher gets books.  Win-win, right?

But there's a new wrinkle this year.  Cady Gray's teacher is sending home the standard kindergarten-first grade level catalog (Seesaw, I think it is).  And the books are simply too elementary for her.  Even the small section of beginning chapter books is stuff she read last year.  What she really wants are the graphic novels and cartoon-illustrated books in Archer's fourth grade Arrow catalog.

No problem on one level -- Archer's book orders have been about 1/3 Cady Gray books for at least a couple of years.  But this is the first time I looked through Cady Gray's catalog and saw absolutely nothing that she would enjoy.  She's left picture books and easy readers behind, and that's what Scholastic is offering through her teacher.

And I feel terrible because I don't want Cady Gray to get nothing when her teacher passes out the book orders.  I don't want her classroom to miss out on the free books they gets when I order.

Maybe I should order a few things and give them away?  But of course I already have plenty of books she's outgrown that we already need to give away.  Does anybody have a solution for this dilemma?

Monday, September 13, 2010


One of the reasons I enjoy watching Cash Cab is that it reminds me that people are actually awesome.  That's easy to forget while watching reality TV, especially game shows.  Most of the people on TV appear to be vile fame whores who are rewarded for selling their souls and excising any remaining shreds of conscience and genuine emotion.

But when people compete on Cash Cab, they are (1) genuinely excited (or at least genially bemused) to be playing; (2) able to poke fun at themselves; (3) supportive when working in teams; (4) sanguine about losing, usually exiting the cab with an easy-come-easy-go smile.  When people are not selected for personalities outsized enough to avoid domination by the oppressive Albert Speer-esque sets now de rigeur in the post-WWTBAM era, when they are not coached about making sure their interminable and uninformed answers have plenty of personal backstory attached to them, they're actually likeable.  Yes, likeable quiz contestants -- how long has it been?

It's for that same reason that I enjoy participating in the occasional knitting competition or swap.  I've posted about Dish Rag Tag recently (the box is now in the hands of the third out of twelve knitters on our team -- go April in Texas!).  An important reason I continue playing, though, is that you meet the nicest people.  How thrilling is it to see members of a team logging into a website every day to cheer each other on and even comfort each other through unexpected grief or personal crisis?  The spirit at work reminds me of de Tocqueville's identification of America's social strength through voluntary associations.  Somebody needs to write a rebuttal to Bowling Alone for the internet age, because everywhere I look I see people connecting and forming ad hoc groups that often burgeon into real, effective, supportive communities.

I just signed up for another swap precisely because I like the idea of meeting more of these people -- these unexpectedly decent and giving people who prove in a hundred robust ways that there's no reason to become a misanthropist, no matter what you see on TV.

Sunday, September 12, 2010



I grabbed my camera on my way out the door on Friday, thinking I'd take a few shots of my small group in their academic workshops to document my teaching activities. Won't need the extra battery or charger, I reasoned, since I didn't plan extended photography sessions.


Saturday morning was rainy, then obscured by mist. By the time evening fell, though, the sky was clear and the moon and stars seemed to hang near in the sky, ready to be plucked. Then this morning -- a nearly-fall crispness matched with the brilliant sunshine that makes the late summer green foliage glow from within. I couldn't stop taking pictures.


The view into the valley from the house where I stayed -- like looking onto a lit stage from a darkened theater.


Sunrise over Winthrop Rockefeller's cattle pasturage.


Across the field, the first horizon is only a few hundred yards away, stacked with the blue-tinged and distant ridges, then unblemished sky.


The swirling lichen patterns on this large rock by the side of the road reminded me of petroglyphs.


This was the shot that captured best what I was seeing and what caused me to keep snapping away until I ran out of battery. The luminescent green of the sun-drenched leaves, the china blue of the sky. Is it any wonder I wanted to linger on top of the mountain this morning?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Beauty in the ruins

Today is September 11.  I never completely lost sight of that anniversary; I had a conversation with some students about it this morning, and the Twitter and Facebook reminiscences throughout the day kept the subject close at hand.

But today is also one of the most successful days I've ever had at this freshman retreat event, in which I've been participating for ten years.  It's one of the first of those days that I actually didn't want it to be over, and stayed out talking with others long past the point where most of the students had packed up and headed back to their bedrooms.

I'm stuck between elation at the rather magical connectionsI witnessed emerging here, and despond at the seeming impossibility of connection in the public square these days, directly related to the direction we've taken in the past nine years after September 11, 2001.  There's so much hope in the spontaneous way these students supported each other today, in various settings.  But the mountain of animosity and inertia they would have to climb to spread that more widely in the world seems steeper and craggier than ever.

I wonder if they know just how much of a miracle they represent.  I wonder if those of us standing between them and a more productive civic life can remember to get out of their way.  Like we did today, standing on the sidelines, cheering them on as they took the initiative and made beauty out of the day's remembered chaos.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Continental Divide

My September is always divided into two distinct segments of time: Before Retreat and After Retreat.  Each year we take our incoming freshman class on a weekend getaway for social bonding, writing workshopping, and academic discussion.  And every year it falls on an awkward weekend, right after Labor Day, the same time as my scholarly organization holds committee meetings which, due to the retreat, I cannot attend (in beautiful Santa Barbara, no less, for the last two years) and right around Noel's trip to Toronto.

As a result of this crowded scheduling, I tend to see the retreat as a couple of days set apart -- no multitasking, no thinking ahead, no additional complications.  It's enough that I'm trying to keep in touch with Noel's mom who kindly agreed to come to town to take care of the kids, and with Noel at the film festival in between movies, and with the folks here in and around the scheduled activities.

It's a compartmentalization strategy I frequently employ during very busy times.  I allow myself to take the abnormal set of responsibilities or stressors as a license to put off thinking about other things.  So what am I pushing off my plate while I sit on the top of Petitjean Mountain and banter with freshmen?  Putting together the spring course schedule ... preparing a presentation for a meeting in a month ... a batch of tasks that I've known about for months but have managed to mentally tag as post-retreat activities.

The problem is that my compartmentalization doesn't extend to worrying.  I know I have to take up those tasks in earnest as soon as I get back -- the procrastination window will be closing.  And because of that, they hover over my mind as I'm at the retreat in a way they did not while I was in pre-retreat mode.  I wouldn't be surprised if I end up working on one of them while I'm here, because the most effective way to banish the worry is to get started.

But I also wouldn't be surprised if the magnitude of thinking those tasks through proves too daunting to essay before I enter the After Retreat period.  Of course, the magnitude is what makes me worry ... which makes me want to ease my mind by making a start ... but also makes the process of starting too big to contemplate.  Add to that a twinge of guilt for burdening someone else with my children, and you've got a stew of guilt and anxiety that, at odd moments during the weekend, will surely pull me out of my enjoyment and relaxation.

What will also happen, though, is immersion in the work I'm actually up here to do -- the In-Retreat period, completely neglected in my schema, but oddly transcendent in its actual unfolding.  I'll work with students on their writing, facilitate a discussion of the book they read this summer, and spend time with them in recreation.  And while that's happening, the oppressiveness of past and future tends to fade.  After it happens, there's the sense of fulfillment of purpose, of a job well done, of something worthwhile having happened.  

Perhaps it's the incongruent combination of worktime and downtime -- I'm here on an academic mission for my department, but I'm also reading for pleasure, knitting, and eating fantastic food -- causes this unsettled sense that I am cheating somebody or something by not being more productive, while at the same time I myself am deprived of time I usually spend on the unambiguous pleasures of family life.  In any case, I suspect that tomorrow at this same time, with the major work of the retreat over, I'll be looking forward again to life off the mountain, quickly forgetting this teetering, uneasy cusp. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010


I usually try to stay away from political matters on this blog.  Too many friends and family of different persuasions read it, and I'm not interested in provoking an argument.

But the current hysteria over plans by the leader of a tiny fringe Christian organization to burn copies of the Qu'ran on September 11 strays into my professional territory.  Late-breaking news this afternoon came that the self-appointed pastor had called off the book-burning on the grounds that he had received assurances that the controversial Islamic community center would not be built near Ground Zero.  Heaven knows if that "deal" will hold.

Listen, folks.  It's really very simple.  Do we take Christ at his word or not?  What does Jesus tell us quite clearly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:12): Whatever you wish others to do to you, do that to them; this summarizes the law and the prophets.

We're very quick to throw this out the window when we've been wronged.  "They didn't do to us what they would have us to do them!" we shriek.  "All bets are off!"  But the whole point of the Golden Rule is to reverse the grammar of revenge.  Jesus didn't say -- unless they strike first.  The "law and the prophets" contained in that statement is quite complete and unconditional.

Do we want Muslims burning the Bible?  Of course not.  Not that they ever would, given that the Bible is also a holy book for them (although not the only holy book nor the chief among holy books).  But that's not what we're thinking when we flail about for a statement to make about what ideology we oppose.  We protest that we are speaking out against a false and demonic religious doctrine, not against human beings (we love our enemies, don't we, just as Jesus commanded a few verses later).  But how would we receive that same argument coming from those profaning what we hold most sacred?

The reason to forego burning other people's holy books is not because it might have bad practical consequences.  It's not because Islam as a whole is not to blame for September 11 any more than Christianity as a whole is to blame for Oklahoma City.  It's that it is utterly contradictory.  It's that it is profoundly un-Christian -- so un-Christian that it threatens the very power of the Gospel in which all Christians have their hope.

Such an action is contemplated, planned, and carried out in the name of a Christianity that clearly and unequivocally condemns exactly such actions -- actions of revenge and retaliation, actions justified by the rhetoric of holy war.  It doesn't matter that one's enemies couch the conflict in that rhetoric.  It doesn't matter how terribly you've been wronged.  Jesus is so clear on this point.  Turn the other cheek.  Bless those who curse you.  Do good to those who hate you.  Pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.  When it is time to act, let your actions express the moral identity between others and yourself, rather than making of yourself an exception to the rule you would have others follow, or declaring the rules null and void because others broke them first.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This is the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

If I had to do the same again

Today's post about the last red and white crocheted scarf for a while is at Toxophily.

Meanwhile, Noel has arrived in Toronto and succeeded in turning his laptop into a wireless internet hub for his hotel roommates.  Expect more wonders emanating from the north as the movie-going and capsule-writing begins in earnest; follow all the action at the A.V. Club and on his Twitter feed.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


When I got home today and looked through the mail, I found a little box about the size of a videocassette, stuffed to bursting.  I knew what it was -- I'd been anticipating it arriving today, having taken its sweet time to amble my way during the long Labor Day weekend.  It's the opening salvo of Dish Rag Tag.  My mission for the next few hours is to knit like mad and complete the included dishcloth pattern in the included dishcloth yarn, then pack the whole thing up with new yarn and a few goodies for my teammate next in line and send it off as soon as the post office doors open tomorrow.

But before that can happen, tomorrow brings another imperative.  Noel leaves for his annual busman's holiday to the Toronto International Film Festival long before the sun rises.

What do these two events in my life have to do with each other?  Both set me on a frantic scramble to get done what I need to get done, meet deadlines, fulfill my obligations, take care of business, and do my best not to let down the side.  In the case of Dish Rag Tag, my part will be done when I hand the box over to the postal worker tomorrow.  In the case of Noel's Toronto trip, I'll be on the front lines for most of the next  week.  (Thankfully, Friday evening through Sunday noon I'll get to hand over the reins to Noel's mother, arriving to stay with the kids while I go up Petitjean Mountain with the members of our incoming class of students.)

I didn't dread Noel's absence in the worst of times because our kids are so delightful and well-mannered. And as the years have gone by, any residual anxiety has pretty much faded; they practically take care of themselves, so other than driving, providing food, and keeping the power tools out of reach, there's not much I have to do that Noel ordinarily does.  But if there's one thing that concerns me year after year, it's having everything depend on me -- having to meet all the deadlines, fulfill all the obligations, take care of all the business, and do my best not to let down the family.

It's by no means an impossible feat.  Some people do it by themselves three hundred and sixty-five days a year.  But it's a change of pace.  At some point in the next nine days, I'll be scrambling.  Let's hope whatever I'm trying to get done is as easy and as well within my powers as the dishcloth I'm already halfway done knitting.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Stop the presses

I've been a subscriber to the New Yorker for several years.  I love having access to the digital archives, and occasionally I leaf through the magazine to see if there's a current story I want to read.  But in reality, the physical printed copy that arrives in the mailbox every week is a burden to me.  I don't want to carry around a magazine, I don't want to stack them on my bedside table, and I don't want to recycle them.  What I want is simply to have access to the stories that interest me (usually my attention is called to them by blogs or tweets or in digital form, added to my Kindle or available on the web.

What I want, in other words, is an online-only subscription.  And I would gladly pay the same rate I do for a print subscription (even though it would be nice if, given the costs of printing and mailing, the online-only were available at a discount).  It would be worth it to have free access to decades' worth of magazine content online, and to be able to selectively read anything in the current issue that had been pointed out to me as worthwhile.

I suspect that many of us are paying for services we don't want half of, in order to get the half we do want. Do you have an example?  And is there an answer to my online-only subscription wish -- are any venerable publications giving people that option?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Buy one get one

My family will never let my mother forget the time she bought Ginsu knives off the TV.  You remember the ad, if you're my age or older -- the knife cutting through steel cans and frozen blocks of spinach?  And you remember the set of steak knives and the carving fork that you got for free?  The whole lot (cheap plastic grips and all) lived in our cutlery drawers for years after the single, impulsive, atypical day that my mom picked up the phone and called the toll free number.

People are still buying stuff off the TV, it seems, because the commercials selling the stuff are still everywhere.  I was briefly fascinated by the reality series Pitchmen before star Billy Mays' death, partly because it detailed the grammar necessary to qualify for special TV offer -- including BOGO, the standard "we'll double your order!" thrown in for free (just pay separate shipping & handling).

What makes me sad, though, is how quickly yesterday's starring product becomes today's bonus freebie.  Consider the amazing vegetable chopper, that hand-powered device to which whole infomercials were devoted years ago.  Now if you buy the Pasta Boat, you not only get two Pasta Boats (of course) but also two amazing choppers.  A whole 5 precious seconds of TV ad time is allotted to the chopper in the Pasta Boat ad.

Next year I fully expect to be able to get those two Pasta Boats thrown in to sweeten the deal for some other gadget I can't live without.  And I imagine the demoted products shedding a little tear as they're thrown into the shipping box solely to squeeze an extra s&h charge out of customers, remembering the days when a television personality lovingly demonstrated them for studio audiences full of admiring fans.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The fourth estate

My university has been getting the wrong kind of press for the last two years.  After the president was involved in a financial mismanagement scandal and forced out, the institution's relationship with the media changed.  That president had been the subject of glowing editorials in the state paper during his six-year tenure, but unfortunately, there was a marked willingness on that same paper's part to take him at his word when he reported robust growth and a twenty-four-karat future.

All that has changed now.  The new administration didn't get any honeymoon.  As if to make up for its previous credulity, the media is now scrutinizing every aspect of university operations, from extra spending on decorative sidewalks to inappropriate comments made during non-FOIA-able segments of trustee's meetings.

Understandably, perhaps, there's a certain amount of exasperation on the part of university personnel about being under a microscope.  But it's important to remember that we lived through the opposite -- when nobody in the media was checking to see if the emperor had any clothes.

Yes, it's annoying that the paper is filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests on fishing expeditions to find anything and everything that might not be precisely according to Hoyle.  Would we really rather the media err on the side of leaving us alone?  I'm grateful that somebody's finally watching to make sure this public institution is being run the way the law requires, and with the transparency and accountability that the taxpayers who still foot a portion of the bill, and in whose interest the school is chartered, deserve.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Exclamations and commands

Archer brought home some work for Language Arts and Spelling this week.  The following were examples of exclamatory and imperative sentences he wrote to be used in given situations:

Visiting a museum:
Don't touch any exhibits. / What a huge dino!
Going fishing:
Catch a manta ray, please. / Wow!  A humpback whale!
Playing a game:
I scored 10,000,000 points! / Please earn the extra ball.
Preparing dinner with family:
What a huge pizza! / Give me a slice.

And this was a story he wrote using at least ten of his spelling words for this week (underlined).

*Untitled Story* by Archer
A huge pupil got bigger than usual.  He goes to a cool school.  His class has very few students.  The menu today is fruit and juice.  His suit got him into a bad mood.  And then he died.
The End!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A confession

Can you call yourself a knitter if you've never yarn-bombed?

The answer is clearly yes.  Thousands upon thousands of knitters, especially those of a certain age, would meet the term with blank stares.  But can you call yourself a hip, with-it knitter who refuses to be defined by her certain age if you've never yarn-bombed?

I've never yarn-bombed.  But it looks like that's about to change.

A group of folks are planning to cover fixtures and random items at the downtown bandstand with knit and crochet fabric as part of an arts festival.  Somebody knew somebody who knew that I knit and that I have students who knit.  They put me in touch.  And now I'm going to a meeting to plan this act of fuzzy vandalism.

When it's done, if I've managed to contribute and facilitate contributions from my students, I'll have crossed another point of no return in my crafting journey.  I will have used needlework to subvert the dominant paradigm.  I will have poked another old-lady-knitting stereotype in the eye.  I will have with malice aforethought aided and abetted an overthrow of public space in a way that (were it not all so very artsy and benign) could get me arrested.  Take that, upcoming forty-fifth birthday!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Image making

I always enjoy people-watching during the first week of school.  The new students work hard to define themselves as individuals, asserting a style or personality with a touchingly awkward self-consciousness.  The veterans flaunt their status by underplaying it, making the statement that they don't need to try because they've already got an identity.

It's the freshmen who are most interesting, because their position is marginal and there's so much riding on the way they establish themselves during these first days.  Arriving in class or walking to the cafeteria, they give great care to image they project.  Do they want to be known as weird?  Cat-ear headband and a skunk backpack.  A geek?  Math in-joke t-shirts, home haircuts.  Prom queen/potential sorority recruit?  Makeover-style makeup, coiffed hair, collegiate t-shirt.

All those proposals for social identity find their way into my classroom, which is purportedly the home of budding intellectuals.  What's interesting to me is that the intellectual label is thought to be compatible with any or all of these styles.  I see the first-year students eyeing each other, wondering if the prom queen can really philosophize, the jock really write, the chess club geek really care.  They're still in competitive mode, thinking that their choice of social niche will help them gain the inside track to enlightenment -- or perhaps to the favor of their professors.

But what I love about them is the collective effect.  Arriving in class every day, walking down the halls of their dorm every day, seeing all these people so wrapped up in the ways they are different -- at some point, it clicks over and they realize that it is not their differences that define them, but their common pursuit.  And then the asserting becomes less important, and the collaborating more so.