Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pollyanna take my hand

Today's post about the joy of the Anywhere Project is at Toxophily.

And here are my children catching snowflakes on their tongues:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Day 2

Fortunately, we stayed in the zone of sleet and snow yesterday. By this morning, we had a good few inches of optimum packing snow. In this video from yesterday, the snow is powdery and dry -- not the best choice for most snowball fights, but perfect for our kids who don't really want to be hit by chunks of ice.

Friday, January 29, 2010

And I never lose

Today's post about a perfect layer for a snow day is at Toxophily.

We've been happily puttering around the house all day. All the schools were closed as a result of freezing rain overnight and sleet and snow all day today. Inside it was warm; the family was all together. Noel was working and fixing meals; the kids were playing videogames and pretending to be in school; and I was alternately knitting and working on various internet projects. The pictures in the above-linked post represent the scene outside before most of the snow fell. (Thanks to Noel for the fashion photography!) And with a minimum of icing weighing down power lines and making streets dangerous, it was a notably benevolent winter storm. Or was that just the satisfying feeling of spending a cozy day at home?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Snow day

It's been a day on edge. Freezing rain and snow has been in the forecast for sometime today or tonight since early in the week. Noel started back from Utah early in the morning and had a couple of stops on his way back.

Questions ruled the day. Would Noel run into delays? Would the weather impede his travels? Would he get back in time for me to make my 6 pm evening class? I spent the day watching Twitter for Noel's updates to make sure he was still on track, and trying to line up emergency standby babysitters in case I had to leave for my class before he returned.

In the end, everything happened exactly as planned. Noel landed on time, and when I got home from picking up the kids, he was unloading his luggage.

Well, almost everything. We had dinner (Noel cooked! woo-hoo!) and I left for my class. Along with my students, I started watching Sunset Boulevard. About an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, there was a buzz growing among the students. One of them held up a cell phone with a text message on it, gave me the thumbs up sign, and mouthed "Campus closed tomorrow!" I stopped the movie so everyone could get their cheering over with. A few minutes later, my phone buzzed with the text from the campus notification system.

I drove home in a cold wind, but with no precipitation. Dry streets, not a drop of rain, let alone ice. It's the first time I can remember school being canceled before the inclement weather even started. I'm sure I'll wake up to slick streets and the forecast wintry mix, but wouldn't it be funny if my kids had to go to school and I didn't?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

At the end of the tunnel

Tonight is the last night I'll be alone at home with the kids. If all goes well, Noel will be coming back home tomorrow.

And just in time. The weather is forecast to turn nasty tomorrow evening, with freezing rain changing to snow overnight. It seems likely that school will be canceled, at least for the kids and perhaps for me too, on Friday.

To make it home, Noel has to get up at 4:45 am and catch a shuttle from Park City to Salt Lake City, the nearest major airport. Then he flies to Denver, and from there to Little Rock.

I'm confident that everything will go smoothly, but just in case there are delays, I'm going to be putting out a Facebook message to see if I can snag a babysitter to be on emergency standby for tomorrow night. I have class scheduled from 6-9 pm, and unless the roads are already bad, canceling it isn't really an option; there are only 14 classes in the semester, and I'm only leading half of them.

It's been a remarkably easy week. Yes, it's wearying to get up at the crack of dawn every single day, make all the meals, do all the pickups and drop-offs, and perform all my normal chores as well without any hope of relief. But my children are truly a joy to be around. I loved spending time with them and getting to listen to their stories and ideas. And they're easy to supervise at this age. If the most stressful part of childcare is making sure the snacks are ready when they get home from school, you've got it pretty soft.

So fly well and drive safe, Noel. We are ready to have you back so you can take over the lion's share of this job once again. And so I can sleep late on Saturday.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tapped out

I wrote last night about being cold. Yes, I was cold. But I only told you half the story.

I was also tired.

I don't think I appreciated how tired I was until after I hit the "post" button. Truth is that I was ready to crawl into bed right then -- 8 pm. I managed to last another hour, then I indulged in reading for pleasure until it was close enough to my normal bedtime to avoid total embarrassment.

Turns out I wasn't the only one who was bone-weary. I got up this morning at 6:45, a time at which both my kids have usually been up for at least half an hour. But I was the first person stirring in the house. Archer came blinking into the kitchen ten minutes later, clearly just out of bed, and when I sent him to fetch his sister, he reported that she was still fast asleep.

My bet is that my subject matter yesterday -- the penetrating cold and wind -- is not unrelated to my subject for today. It was the fight against the cold and wind that wore me out -- that, and the gray skies, and large Mexican dinner.

Today I felt completely different. The sun was old, the breeze was light, and while it was chilly, the brisk air felt invigorating rather than debilitating. I'm ready for an evening of writing about television and ... then probably crawling into bed and reading for an hour. Because that was really nice, it turns out!

Monday, January 25, 2010


Current weather in Park City, Utah, where Noel trudges from film to film all the live-long day: 21 degrees. Forecast for tomorrow: snow showers.

Current weather in Conway, Arkansas, where I shuttle children to and from their school in a Honda Civic: 42 degrees. Forecast for tomorrow: sunny.

But I am chilled to the bone after today's relatively balmy temperatures. The wind was positively Arctic, and no matter how brief the walk -- to the mailbox, to the restaurant, to the parking lot -- I felt like a long soak in a hot tub afterwards.

While Noel puts on long underwear and snow boats, I'm sitting in a 72-degree house under a blanket with a microwaveable heated bag draped around my neck. And I'm thinking about turning on the fireplace.

Clearly conditions here are nothing like those Noel will experience for the next couple of days before he comes home to these warmer climes. That's not stopping me from cowering indoors and complaining to anyone within the range of my voice. And that now includes you, reader! I expect ample validation for my hothouse-flower constitution in the comments.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Romance of the mundane

On a recent visit to the public library, Cady Gray and Archer discovered, a website of free games. Since then they've spent hours playing card games and puzzles.

But the one Cady Gray keeps going back to is "What's For Dinner?" Now, to me, this is like a stand-up comedian's hyperbolic parody of the most boring electronic pursuit ever. It's virtual cooking. You peruse a recipe, gather the specified items from a pantry (can you mouse over everything to find the matching words before time runs out?), cut and peel vegetables by moving your mouse, and watch a timeline tick by so you can click on the ingredients to add to the frying pan at the right instant. There's no initiative or problem-solving. It's all the glory of being a prep cook combined with all the creativity of following the directions on the back of a Jell-O package.

Why does she love it? Well, when you're five, simply performing actions in the sequence dictated can be satisfying. And lately I've been thinking that I need more of that kind of satisfaction in my life. Since Noel has been gone, I've prepared food for my children at home four out of five nights. Not bad for someone who never cooks when her husband is out home. Since it's a novel chore, I get a much bigger kick out of it than the degree of difficulty warrants. Let's face it: I'm basically doing one level above the minimum required not to have my kids taken away from me by the state.

But just in the same way making my own garments gives me an absurd hit of joy over and above the pleasure of knitting and the comfort of being clothed, preparing dinner -- when you don't have to do it all the time -- makes me feel like a grown-up. Today I wore a sweater I made, solved an internet problem, and put hot food in front of my children. It might not be much -- it might not even be very hard -- but I felt like a superhero.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

It's chess weekend!

I don't claim to be any good at chess. So when Archer challenged me to a game this weekend, I was a little afraid I was going to get stomped.

And indeed, he surprised me early by having a global view of the board that really don't. But in the end, he betrayed a weakness that's predictable, knowing his personality and thought processes: He knows a bit too much about good positions, and was too focused on setting them up to the exclusion of seeing some of the weaknesses in other parts of the board that he was ignoring (like not seeing some of the ways I could wriggle out of a pin, and not moving his wing pawns leaving himself vulnerable to a back rank mate).

Here's the game we played. Archer kept notes, and I replayed the game on GameKnot using his notation. If you know more about chess than I do, maybe you can follow it and point out both of our mistakes. Archer is White, and he included the notations for excellent move (!!) and very bad move (??) as we progressed.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Different but alike

Today was the day for which Archer has been preparing since school began. His Pinnacle group -- a cadre of gifted and talented third graders -- started off by doing a study on themselves, including their favorites, facts about their birth, interviews with their parents, and comparisons and contrasts to members of their families. Then they took elements of those assignments and integrating them into a Powerpoint presentation. Today Archer presented to his class and one other.

I am always so proud and excited to see Archer do something that demonstrates a reach beyond his inherent talents into areas where he is challenged. The organizational rigor and sequencing of a Powerpoint play to his strengths. In fact, when he attended Pinnacle presentations last year, he came home immediately and constructed one.

But the need to speak extemporaneously and remember his audience makes it difficult for him. That was borne out in his presentation today. While practicing with the small Pinnacle group, he was more fluid with his speaking, but today he stammered, paused, and became distracted by the forty people and accompanying activity in the room. It's not stage fright -- not something Archer would ever fall victim to, since he doesn't naturally share others' points of view or think of himself as under observation. It's just that he has to construct his sentences fully ahead of saying them, so even at home we wait through a dozen false starts before he gets to a period.

So his presentation was probably a lot longer than it was in practice. He had fifteen minutes allotted, and spent probably sixteen minutes on the presentation itself. Kindly, the teacher allowed him to have a Q&A session afterwards as planned even though he had run over; my video is 21 minutes long. The length made me anxious for him, as I wondered if the teacher would cut him off or rush him along, and if his audience were getting restless.

In other words, he remained different from his classmates (one of whose presentations I saw before his) in predictable ways, given his autism.

But of course, I look at those differences through the eyes of someone who knows how far outside Archer's normal tendencies this task requires him to go. And there he is, throwing in little asides as he goes through his slides, responding to the laughter of his classmates at his explanation of a picture of him in his calculator Halloween costume, and answering (if haltingly) questions about his favorites, vacations, and personal history. His enthusiasm for the task is infectious; he really wants to explain each slide and item, and just when I would fear he was losing focus, he would bring it back by completing the thought. There was plenty of delighted reaction when he listed his favorite numbers (anything where the digits add up to seven) and favorite hour of the day (10 pm); this is an audience who knows his obsessions and was ready to enjoy how he expressed them.

My favorite moments were these: Archer talked about his family: "... and my mom, Donna -- who is over there --" and with a big smile pointed at me standing and filming at the door. And when a classmate asked whether his sister was born when he went to the Bahamas, Archer at first struggled with a literal answer to the question, stammering "no ... oh ... oh ..." I was sure he was thinking about whether his sister was born while on the trip. But when he got his thought out, it turned out he had found his way into the intent: "... she was two when we went to the Bahamas. Or actually -- three."

I can't embed video because it was 21 minutes long; family have been sent the murky, shaky evidence (the room was darkened for the occasion, and the only reason you can see Archer at all is the light from the computer screen at which he is standing). Maybe when he performs it for us at home, I'll share it. For now, I'm just proud that Archer achieved his goal, did it with verve and personality as well as discipline, and showed us again how he diverges from the norm while aspiring to its prosaic, unremarkable skills -- skills that he makes us appreciate as hard-won accomplishments.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Unsolicited testimonial

It's our first day without Noel, who at last report was in Salt Lake City about to board a shuttle for his ultimate Sundance destination. (Apologies to sundry readers, but the blog is going to take a decidedly family-update turn for the duration of his absence.)

I managed to get the kids off to school and picked up on time, and in between I fulfilled work obligations of the ordinary kind. After their afternoon snack, a half-hour of "Bill Nye the Science Guy," and an hour of Mario and Sonic at the Winter Olympics, we struck out for dinner.

The school was having a fundraiser at a local pizza franchise, and I couldn't be happier about that. First, it relieved me of having to give a single thought to what's for dinner. Second, the place has a private club license. Done and done!

Now I have to confess that I've never been to the local franchise in question, even though its locations are dotted all over central Arkansas. So there was one bit of uncertainty in our trip. I wasn't familiar with the menu, and I didn't know how easy it would be to get the kids their usual cheese pizza, find something reasonable for myself, and get everyone bundled off home before bedtime.

It was a tiny bit disheartening to arrive and find a very limited selection of non-pizza items on the menu. A couple of salads, a lonely listing of spaghetti and meatballs, sure; but no calzones, no subs, no anything that might be considered a normal meal for one person. So I ordered a ten-inch spinach and four cheese pie for myself, hoping to save some for lunch tomorrow, and a kiddie cheese pizza for each of my children.

Pleasant surprise number one: The waitress asked permission and then brought two hunks of uncooked pizza dough for the kids to play with while we waited on our food. Cady Gray immediately began a game which involved me guessing which color crayon was hidden in her pizza dough, while Archer flattened it like a pancake and delightedly commenced flipping it.

Pleasant surprise number two: The waitress invited the kids to make their own pizza. When the crust was ready, she called them up to the counter to spread the sauce around and cover it with cheese. You've never seen happier kids anticipating the eating of pizzas they made themselves. Well, until you saw them actually eating it. "That was the best meal of my life!" Cady Gray proclaimed as we left the place about 45 minutes after we arrived, me toting a box with half of my (absolutely delicious, very hard to keep from eating on past halfway) spinach-cheese pie.

So put a mark in the success column for Day 1's effort to keep the kids fed, clothed, and in the right place at the right time. Tomorrow couldn't be more exciting: Archer's Powerpoint presentation for his Pinnacle gifted & talented group at school, chess club, and a visit from a babysitter in the evening while I fulfill some academic obligations. Tune in next time for the full report!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting off on the right foot

I met my freshman seminar group for the first class today. How do I try to create an atmosphere on the first day that sets the tone for the whole semester?

First, I spend the majority of the time having the students go around and introduce themselves. I have them announce their name, hometown, major, the last book they finished, the last music they heard before coming to class, their favorite TV shows past and present, their favorite movie, and what superpower they would like to have.

This creates an atmosphere where it's clear they are valued and interesting. I tell them that the most important thing about this semester is that we can do more together than we can do separately, and that we need every single one of them for that task.

It also means that everyone speaks. That's something I'd like to be true in every single class period.

While they're introducing themselves, I ask them to answer an additional question, one that is related to whatever the reading was for the day or whatever the course topic is (if there haven't been any readings yet). Then I try to ask one or two follow-up questions about their answer. Again, the message is: You will have to explain yourself. There's more to what you're saying than you think. You're going to be asked to go farther.

It's hard not to spend the whole first period on logistics. But the more you can push that outside of classtime, the better off you are. Logistics isn't what the course is about, so spending the whole first day focused on them sets exactly the wrong tone. It says that the arcane mechanics of academia -- grades, percentages, assignments, schedules -- is the most important thing, not your subject or the students' learning.

But on the other hand, clarity of expectations is very, very important. The question you have to ask is whether the best way to help everyone be clear about the expectations is to deliver, in essence, a lecture on the syllabus. Some other ways to pursue that goal might be giving a detailed handout, sending everyone the syllabus by e-mail ahead of the first class and soliciting questions, and starting each class period with a brief reminder of what the next few classes will be about and any assignments or tests coming due during that time (in essence, making logistics an ongoing rather than one-time concern).

Finally, I like to ask the students to set the expectations for the class. Given our mutual goals, what conditions should we endeavor to create in the seminar that will help us achieve them? It's that old elementary school trick of having students develop a list of classroom rules. I find it's important that expectations like civility, full participation, preparation, and fearlessness be spoken out loud -- but not by me.

I'd love to hear from some of the other educators in the readership how they like to handle the first day of class. What tone do you want to set, and how are do your activities make that happen?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thinking and doing

I don't write a whole lot about teaching in this blog. But after reading the thoughtful and detailed opening posts on a new blog by business professor Joe Hoyle of the University of Richmond, I'm beginning to think I should.

Joe is blogging his way through a semester of Introduction to Financial Accounting. His methods are not restricted to the teaching of finance or business topics, though; they will challenge instructors in the liberal arts, education, science ... anywhere professors have the job of getting students to think about (and even perhaps care about) their topic.

For a dedicated student of the humanities like myself, the title of a course like Hoyle's sounds like torture by deadly boredom. Yet he proceeds under the belief that the information he's tasked with providing is not only interesting, but vital to his students. If they can master it, they will be in a position to improve their lives. He labors under a double burden: teaching his students both the course content and the reason it should matter to them. As do we all -- but often we are happy to blame the students for not caring about our topics, as if the only reason students sign up for our courses is because they are sincerely eager to drink deeply from our well of knowledge.

I'm inspired by Joe not only to keep trying to improve my teaching, but to share what I'm doing whenever I can. Joe asks us to commit to making our teaching 5% better every year. That may not sound like much, but under the pressure of a typical semester, it's often much easier to just repeat one's self. Building new structures and trying new things takes time and energy that many of us aren't willing to try to find. It's a good time to hear this message, here at the beginning of a semester, when there is still time to share with our students our efforts to make this shared endeavor just a little bit more effective.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two weeks notice

Noel and I are starting to get prepared for his eight-day trip to the Sundance Film Festival, starting this Thursday. There are material preparations (Noel laid in a stock of prepared foods to help me with meals over the week), and there are mental preparations. I'm doing mostly the latter, and I imagine some of that work falls to Noel as well.

For the first time since kids came into my life, I'm completely serene about the prospect of temporary single parenthood. Our children are increasingly self-sufficient; they dress themselves, amuse themselves and each other, and generally make taking care of them a job that affords many extended breaks. In the past I've begged one set of grandparents or another to come help out, but now I don't see the need. Yes, I'll be solely responsible for rummaging up food for them, getting them to and from school, and keeping clean togs available, but taking over the other percentage of those tasks from what I normally cover doesn't seem like that tall a hurdle.

I know I'll be glad when Noel returns to give me some physical and psychological relief from being the only parent on call. And there are a few instances of tough scheduling arrangements in my workday, including a night class (which is being covered by another instructor this week) and a Friday evening obligation (for which I still need to secure babysitting). But it's nice not to have to steel myself for a marathon of mothering in the next couple of weeks. I hope it will also help Noel relax and settle into his work at the festival. Who knows? Maybe someday the load on me will lift enough that I can accompany him to one of these big parties. A girl can dream.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Looking for Miss Golden Globes

I'll be trading quips and snark (with a smattering of real entertainment enthusiasm) at the AV Club's TV Club, as we liveblog the Golden Globe awards. It's an awards show that has very little prestige or cachet -- but it does have the advantage of coming first in the crowded awards season. And I actually enjoy the mix of movie and television stars it attracts, giving us for one night the illusion that all our moving-picture entertainment favorites live in one big happy family.

Too much typing is scheduled for tonight for me to provide a real essay of any kind here. But I'll leave you with one observation: When an actor who has no trouble getting work in the movies appears on television in a regular role, it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I think it's because the stepchild medium of the industry is acquiring the respect of those who in previous generations would have considered themselves too good for it. My love of television is validated by their gracious and wholehearted participation. And that means there's all the more love to spread around to everyone working long hours to entertain me. See you on the red carpet!

Saturday, January 16, 2010


A member of the football coaching staff at my university called me earlier this week to solicit my help. He had a potential recruit with top academic credentials coming for a visit with his mother on Saturday morning. Could I or someone else from the Honors College come over to the football offices and talk with them?

Over the years I've talked with plenty of potential college athletes. Anytime the recruiters are interested in someone who has great grades and standardized test scores, they call us in to provide a picture of what the university can do for the student academically. And many times those recruits end up coming to the university, entering the Honors College, and graduating. We've had our share of intercollegiate athletes in football, women's basketball, soccer, volleyball, and so forth. The only sport that we have trouble helping to recruit for is baseball; their brutal road trip schedule is difficult to combine with an academic program that prizes participatory learning, since the players have to miss so much class.

I'm happy to help out the coaches and recruiters, as I did this morning. We have a lot in common with athletics -- in some ways, more so than we do with some of the academic colleges in which our students major. We emphasizes types of performance that have real-world evaluative structures, rather than classroom assignments. Students test their ideas and creations out in public, and get judged by those standards. It's akin to a football team: you can assemble a squad with stellar credentials, but your success is based on their performance on the field, in a setting that's to a large extent outside of your control as their mentor.

I wish the university could devote as much energy and resources to the recruiting of top academic performers as they do to top athletic performers. Over at the football offices today, a couple of dozen people -- coaches, staff, student hostesses -- had gathered on a Saturday morning to woo one quarterback and his mother. But I understand the worldview in which this young man returns the investment far more readily on the field than in the classroom; his cash value for the university certainly is more easily quantified in booster contributions and notches in the win column than it is in GPA, undergraduate research, or grad school admission. I'm still glad that the coach calls me to participate. It means that there's a value to what I do and the student services I offer that the football program can hold out as a lure to their recruits. I'm just happy that the value is real and has depth -- that I've got something to talk about that I believe in and can demonstrate. A coach can't hide the truth when he brags about his winning program; an academic program shouldn't be able to, either.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Clash of the titans

Archer received a Monopoly game with electronic banking for Christmas, and ever since, he's been obsessed with the classic board game. He plays on Noel's iPod touch every day, and he made his own version with a paper board and cut-out Community Chest and Chance cards called "Monopoly With Lower Prices."

On Monday he asked me if he and I could play a Monopoly game on Saturday. I said sure. Since then he's reminded me of our board game date several times.

This morning he bounced into the kitchen after breakfast. "Mom," he said, "are you really good at Monopoly?"

"I'm okay, I guess," I replied.

"Well, I seem like a master at Monopoly," he boasted. Then he bounced off down the hall.

In a few seconds he had returned, eyes bright with excitement.

"This is going to be like the Super Bowl!" he enthused.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why I love the first day of class

  1. Students are happy to see me -- and I can't help but return the favor.
  2. The focus is on the big picture: what we're going to learn and why we want to learn it.
  3. Icebreakers! I get to learn about the students' favorite movies and TV shows, and about the books and music that they lately consumed.
  4. Nobody has disappointed me yet, and vice versa.
  5. All the organizational work gets revealed: the syllabus, the schedule, the assignments.
  6. I set the tone for the semester -- energetic, casual, enthusiastic.
  7. Trying to convince the students that I'm cool.
  8. Endless possibilities.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The meaning of it all

We human beings are cursed with the inescapable need to assign meaning to events. Whenever a major tragedy happens in the world -- as with yesterday's immensely destructive earthquake in Haiti -- we wonder what it means, what it signifies, the ultimate "why" of it all. And some people with microphones and followings aren't too shy to tell us their conclusions. Pat Robertson, for example, declares that the earthquake is the result of a curse placed on the Haitian people after "they" (he doesn't specify who among the population or leadership) made a deal with Satan to serve him if he would drive out the French colonialists.

It's not just the big tragedies that lead us to assign responsibility and infer divine significance. What does it mean that we didn't get into the classes we need to graduate on time? What about that bank error in your favor? The second budget cut in the current fiscal year? The leak in your dishwasher supply line? An opportunity for extra credit? A pop quiz?

Figuring out how to maximize good fortune and buffer yourself against bad is an appropriate response to the vicissitudes of life. Assigning the responsibility for outrageous good fortune to God's favor (and therefore our righteousness) and the blame for unimaginable suffering on God's judgment (and therefore our sinfulness) -- although tempting for those in charge of mediating God's ways to man -- is theological hubris.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Archies ahoy

Not only did my dear friend The Secret Knitter make an Archies list ...
  1. ... he made it the same length as mine (51 items), and ...
  2. ... he alphabetized it.
Witness his concert-heavy, links-galore list over at Knitting Confidential. Make one of your own, and be sure to link to this blog and/or leave me a comment to let me know you did!

Me? I'm still trying to extract my brain from the cotton-candy happiness that was the musical number in "Girls Vs. Suits." Here's some links to explain why:

Monday, January 11, 2010

Nothing suits me like a suit

Noel and I have had a lot of fun watching and rewatching How I Met Your Mother's one hundredth episode, which we received on a screener DVD prior to the holidays.

This is a show that I dearly love, one that can be as sharp and inventive as the half-hour televised comedy ever has been, and one that features the immense talents of our generation's consummate entertainer, Neil Patrick Harris.

Tonight's episode showcases NPH in his element: the Broadway-style musical number. And it does so with all the verve and giddy enthusiasm that you'd hope. Maybe you've missed Harrismania since it got underway a few years back. If so, I recommend you enjoy Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and the closing credits of the 2009 Tony Awards. Then check out "Girls Vs. Suits." My gushing recap can be found here at the TV Club. Sing along!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A period of mourning

Today is the last day.

Tomorrow students who have special jobs -- RA's, mentors, others with pre-class responsibilities -- will arrive on campus. Over the next couple of days the other 3,000 who live on campus will trickle in. And on Thursday classes start, and the sidewalks will be full of students once again.

So this is the last day of vacation, in a way. Of course, the Sunday after New Year's -- the day before I went back to work -- was also the last day of vacation, in a way. And Wednesday, the last day before classes begin, is another last day. There are plenty of chances to reminisce about the peace and quiet that's about the end.

There are plenty of reasons to look forward to normal academic life returning. I genuinely love my students and classes. I'm energized by the topics and discussions; I had a small taste of that teaching adult Christian education at church this morning, when three of my students showed up. And I'm anticipating some creative excitement around a new core course we're designing, to be implemented in the fall of 2011.

A wise person once observed to me that any change in one's life, no matter how thoroughly positive, is an occasion for mourning. There's always something lost in any change. I tend to cling obsessively to the things I lose when holiday periods end -- leisure time, opportunities for working on large or long-range projects, control over my schedule. Come the end of the semester, I'll be mourning the graduating students whom I'll never see in my classes again. For now, it's time to sigh longingly for the vacation time that's past and fret about the steady diet of work and responsibility ahead of me.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

When it all goes crazy and the thrill is gone

Today's post about the perfect sweater is at Toxophily.

And I'm too happy about the sweater to write any further snippets for the main blog. I spent the whole day accosting strangers and telling them "I knit this sweater." Just go over there and admire it already!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Deep freeze

Since the cold snap settled into Arkansas last week, I've avoided writing about how cold it is. Well, that ends now. It's too cold to ignore.

The lows have been in the single digits for the last few days, with highs in the 20's. The line carrying condensation from our furnace to the outside of the house freezes overnight, meaning that every time the pump comes on to push the condensation out, we hear a sudden spray as the water backs up in the line and leaks out. When I walk from the car to the office, the unbelievably bitter cold wind gives me an instant headache.

We've got a couple more days of this before temperatures rise above freezing during the day. I am happy to curl up on the couch with my working furnace and double-paned windows and knitting, but I'm getting tired of spending a minimum of time outdoors -- of not being free to walk to school or run with Archer, or do anything than park as close to the door as possible and rush inside to the warmth. Maybe by Monday. Meanwhile, you'll find me under the blankets.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thought for the day

Archer is in the Pinnacle gifted & talented program at his school, and each week during their two-and-a-half hour session, the GT teacher gives the students a thought or quotation. They write it down in their notebooks, and then write down what they think it means.

That second part has been giving Archer trouble. Drawing inferences is exactly what's hard for him. He understands the words well enough -- even the literal meaning of the sentence -- but making the lateral move to interpret a proverb or elaborate on a pithy chiasm stumps him.

For example, the thought for November 4, 2009 was: "One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men, and zero machines can do the work of one extraordinary man." Archer explained that as follows: "A machine can do 50 short pieces of work at once, but it can't do 1 long piece of work."

The teacher grades their interpretations, and Archer consistently gets one and a half out of a possible four points. You can see him trying to improve by elaborating on his answer in his November 18 try. The thought was "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit. -- Aristotle." Archer wrote: "Excellence is not acting something repeatedly in the future -- excellence would be having a habit repeatedly. To show that excellence is a habit, we are what we repeatedly do."

But this week I actually think he grasped the thought -- although he characteristically expresses it through his numerical obsession. For January 6, 2010, the quote was: "Our enemy is mediocrity."

Archer explained: "I think it means that when you're trying for an A or B, watch out for mediocre grades such as C or D. Watch out for 50% test result! The medium percentage (50%) is the worst grade (F)."


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Her ongoing mission

I chatted with a friend today who is suffering at his workplace. His unit is perceived by various constituencies -- one might even call them clients -- as primarily geared to serve their unique needs. Trouble is that the unique needs of each client differ. And so conflict arises as the unit tries to balance its tasks against the ever-increasing demands of each client for near-exclusive attention.

I sympathize with my friend's situation. And it could be that the problem is intractable. But my advice was that his unit develop a mission statement (or locate, revive and revise one that might already exist).

Mission statements are easy to mock. I can't help but think of Jerry Maguire's earnest attempt to change his business with one. But my experience is that when taken seriously and disseminated widely, they're very helpful in just the sort of situation my friend is experiencing.

His unit has some sense of who they are and what they do, but it's not explicit and it's not shared. That leaves all its clients and constituencies free to define the unit's identities and functions to suit themselves.

A mission statement is the first step toward differentiating between the good things that it would be nice if somebody did, and the good things that are your particular job. If carried through as a guide to planning, it tells you what you should spend scarce resources on -- money, employee time, energy and effort. It outlines a core set of responsibilities. And it helps other people understand where you're coming from when you make a case for how you do your job (not to mention a case for particular resources).

You may think you know all these things without having to write them down. But does everyone know them the same way? Does everyone agree on them in principle? How many conflicts arise because people disagree on the very notions a mission statement makes clear -- what goods are to be pursued and in what priority, who is to be served?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Knit one, teach four

There's an absolutely beautiful LYS (local yarn store) on St. Simon's Island. It's called The Stitchery, and to walk inside is to be inspired. Floor-to-ceiling shelves of Cascade, Araucania, Malabrigo, and (it being the balmy seashore) cotton and linen of all kinds.

So I don't just credit my own gifts of knitted accessories this Christmas for my two sister-in-laws' desire to learn to knit. They had ample temptation in the bins and shop samples of The Stitchery.

Some of it was the gorgeous, buttery Malabrigo Worsted that they picked out for their first garter stitch scarves. But can I admit to a touch of pride that I taught them to knit?

Karen learned to knit.

Dawn learned to knit. (Although I could use her help taking a decent picture.)

Even my camera-shy mom learned to knit. And although it was harder for her because of problems she's been experiencing with her grip, she not only kept doggedly at it, but even went back to the LYS after I left to get more help and advice.

But best of all, Cady Gray learned to knit.

She took to it like a fish to water, if I might say so without undue pride.

It's her own pride that really makes it worthwhile. As we knit, she tells me how she knows what steps come next and how she is reading her knitting to see when she makes a mistake and how to fix it. And I tell her how wonderful she is, and she smiles and knits another stitch.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The return

Since we got back from our trip, I don't mind saying: I've been enjoying my home. Yes, you too, teetering stack of DVDs blocking my path! And you, barely functional curtains and carpets! It's so cold outside (snow on the ground this morning), and I've felt so displaced on our grand tour of the relatives, that I've just been reveling in the sensation of being stationary. I've sat on the couch, watched football and movies, played Wii with my children, and finished knitting a sweater.

And now normal life is about to return. I went back to work today, although it hardly counts as a normal day -- classes have yet to resume, and my boss wasn't in the office, so I had hours to myself to work on Huge Research Project and complete grade appeal reports.

Tomorrow we take yet another step back toward our usual schedules. The kids return to school, my boss comes back to the office. In another week or so, everything will be back in full swing -- more so, in a way, since I find myself back in charge of an enterprise I happily surrendered last year, adding one more responsibility to my load.

Leisure time gets pinched in normal life, of course. I get home later. My workout and subsequent shower cuts into the evening. I have to make lunches for the kids. TV, reading, and knitting time shrinks.

But for all that, things get done. Sometimes it seems that rest is hard to come by. I know that I'm lucky to have ample time to devote to my hobbies and passions, and to my family. I can't help looking forward, though, to the day a few months hence when the hours expand and the responsibilities diminish -- giving me time to recreate and renew myself.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

To see that twinkle in your eye

Today's post about chunky hats and perfect style is at Toxophily.

Ding ding ding! The first outside Archies list of the year has rolled in, courtesy of one of my oldest friends, Doc Thelma. You have to be invited to view her blog, but maybe if you're lucky she'll cross-post it on her cooking site -- with the food-related items appropriately bolded, of course.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Today's post about a very special gifted scarf is at Toxophily.

Meanwhile, I'll point you back to yesterday's entry and remind you to compose your own Archies list. If you do, please link back to the 1/1/2010 post (or to this blog in general). January is prime Archies season, so get cracking and spread the word.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Archies: Fourth Annual Outlived-Its-Welcome Edition

The Archies, named after my son (or the pride of Riverdale High, take your pick), is a list of the Top ___ (your number here) Things in the World. Listed items must be things in the world, and must have played a significant role in your year. Significance, as will soon become clear, is to be defined solely by subjective criteria.

I refrain from mentioning the perennial Top Things in the World: Noel, Archer, and Cady Gray. To avoid tiresome repetition, immediate family members have been retired as members of the Archies Hall of Fame. Things done by said family members remain eligible for the annual list.

Previous editions: 2006, 2007, 2008. Remember: Much like Time Magazine's "Man Of The Year," these need not be your favorite things in the world, only the top things in the world. Play along at your own site or in the comments, anytime through the month of January.

The Archies: Top 51 Things In The World, 2009
  1. Mario Kart Wii
  2. Starbucks shaken iced tea (venti black unsweetened)
  3. Signature Needle Arts straight needles
  4. The Dizzy Sheep
  5. Evernote
  6. M&M's Premium
  7. In-flight wifi
  8. Chess club
  9. Prayer shawl ministries
  10. Coraline
  11. James Franco
  12. Meryl Streep
  13. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  14. Quirk Classics
  15. Vanilla bean scones
  16. Sonic Route 44 Diet Coke
  17. Malabrigo Worsted
  18. Super Mario Galaxy
  19. Barack Hussein Obama
  20. Skip's Foreign Car Repair
  21. T-shirt yarn
  22. Tuesday Morning
  23. Ice Cubes spearmint gum
  24. The Sausage McGriddle
  25. Google Wave
  26. Lauren Knetzer Kopf
  27. The four people I've taught to knit
  28. Mr. Greenjeans
  29. Running club
  30. Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus
  31. The No S diet
  32. Strategic planning
  33. They Might Be Giants, "Meet The Elements"
  34. So You Think You Can Dance Season 5
  35. Kimberli Pollard
  36. The Luau Lounge Friday night chat
  37. Shrimp fried rice! Shrimp fried rice!
  38. Jason Segal
  39. Paul Rudd
  40. The Complete Little Orphan Annie Vol. 4
  41. The iPhone
  42. Portia Di Rossi
  43. Neil Patrick Harris
  44. Web Soup
  45. Joel McHale
  46. WIP Wrestlemania '09
  47. KeePass
  48. Google Chrome
  49. Bronson Pinchot's Random Roles
  50. Wrapped Up In Books inaugural Geek Love edition
  51. David Copperfield