Friday, April 30, 2010


Some things that we do for ourselves are not really optional. If we didn't do them, we'd hate ourselves or go crazy. But some things that we do for ourselves are truly little selfish gifts. Here are a few.
  • The recliner. Sure, I could sit in the corner of the sectional couch, and I did for years. But the recliner ... ahhhhhhh.
  • A pastry for breakfast. A yogurt or cereal bar would fill me up just as well and twice as healthily. It's nice to start the day with a treat, though, isn't it?
  • Sleeping in. Human beings can live while getting up every morning before 8 am. Do you want to?
  • Wearing a bracelet or necklace. Earrings aren't optional; if you forget them, you appear to have gotten dressed in too big a hurry. Other jewelry and accessories exist to make you feel special.
What do you give to yourself on a regular basis?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

With bated breath

For the last month, the students in the film class I'm team-teaching with a digital film graduate student have been working in teams to make short films for their final project. We've been gathering each week just to check in, touch base on logistics, and troubleshoot. Mostly the teams have been on their own -- shooting, editing, and finalizing their films.

I've also had a window on their team work through their blogs and through the minutes of their weekly team meetings posting on our course site. And I know by experience why many professors simply don't want to know what goes on inside those groups. Sometimes the reports don't reflect so well on the instructor's planning. In this case, I found that my careful schedule hadn't taken into account the necessity of digitizing each team's footage after it was shot -- a process that can only be done with the cameras. Meaning that the cameras were tied up and unavailable for team shooting for several hours each week. And since we have only two cameras, a glut of digitizing after the shooting was done made for a bottleneck, and it became difficult to get footage back to the team editors for them to use in constructing their films. I had thought that teams would have at a minimum three weeks to edit, but because of the bottleneck, most teams didn't get their footage until this week -- only one week before the deadline.

I'm perfectly able to take account of this in evaluating their work. The bigger worry is just the effect that this unforeseen difficulty has had on class morale. I would like for students not to feel as if I've set them an impossible task; I would like for them to have confidence in the instructional team, and by extension in the skills and insights we've tried to give them.

At tonight's brief meeting, though, the mood seemed upbeat. I asked students to fill out the course evaluation, and everyone was accommodating. I won't know what they think until after grades have been submitted, and I'm expecting some critique of the course structure and process. It certainly was an experiment, and it certainly wasn't perfect. I could use feedback. My hope is that the feedback will be constructive -- that the students will give us credit for our efforts. And my hope is that the experience of overcoming these obstacles will not only lead to good films at the final exam festival next week, but an appreciation for what they've learned and accomplished.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It must be summer

To the tune of "It Must Be Summer" by Fountains of Wayne


It must be summer
Benchmark tests are done
We go to Arts Night
Where awards are won
Archer signs the table
With operations of math
We won't get the kids home
In time to take a bath


Each one has paintings
Hanging on the wall
And there's Archer's lion
High up in the hall


We found a still life
Several yards away
When we checked who signed it
The name was Cady Gray


And there's a zebra colored like rainbows
With a ribbon like the county fair


All the students are cool by the fountain
Like they just don't care


Do you think they care?
Do you think they care?


It must be summer
Cause my street is green
Strolling to the office
Is walking through a dream


And the sun keeps shining
In a sky so blue
That it must be summer
If I'm here with you

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

To tell the truth

So what did my students discover when they fanned out across the campus in search of the truth about parking? What they knew ahead of time was that their friends -- maybe even their professors and advisers -- almost unanimously thought parking was broken, and that something needed to be done.

And what they found was that parking places are not in short supply. What is scarce are spaces within a three-minute walk of any given classroom building. But anybody on a college campus with more than 10,000 students will tell you that students are not entitled to such spaces. "The real problem lies in the unrealistic belief and desire to park at the front door of every class," my students wrote in the executive summary of their findings.

The danger of the perceived problem of too little parking is that it leads to demand for unnecessary, expensive, and precipitous solutions. Remember that one student in my class whose major concern was convincing the administration to build a parking deck? By the time the group's research was done, there were no voices calling for a parking deck. Two factors led to this result. First, as mentioned above, parking spaces were plentiful, if not located on prime real estate. And second, the only prime real estate most people see where a parking deck could be located already has an occupant: the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve, a few acres containing trails, educational material, and the last remaining remnant of the prairieland that once covered this area.

My students became fervent defenders of the Nature Reserve. They discovered how many science students use it as a living laboratory. They found out how many campuses are trying to add green space, while we have a big chunk of it already in our backyard. And they learned that only the ongoing consent of the university administration shields the Reserve from development -- no contracts, no deeds, no official designation to protect it from the campus's insatiable need to grow.

A sense of history was vital to the students' new perspective on the parking "problem." The archive contained newspaper and yearbook stories from the past several decades, all complaining about parking. Students who are here for four years and then gone don't realize what my students learned -- that there used to be roads, traffic, and parking throughout the campus, and that following a nationwide trend starting in the 1990's and continuing until the present day, lots were moved to the perimeter and traffic rerouted around the campus. The result is a pedestrian-friendly campus where community members moving from building to building aren't competing with cars.

Even though we have the parking we need, we can still make the system of parking and transportation better at UCA, my students concluded. Shuttle routes have a checkered history of being added and yanked unceremoniously, and currently they serve only one-quarter of the academic area of campus. The university could do much more to encourage walking and biking, activities that contribute to a healthier student body. Carpooling could be incentivized with premium HOV spaces; higher fees could be charged for access to highly desirable spaces. Maps showing where particular categories of parking are located and what amenities are available to ameliorate the inconvenience of distance could be more user-friendly and available on the website. The campus could become a showpiece for sustainable and innovative transportation technologies and strategies.

Maybe you can tell from this short summary just how much work these 17 students did, and just how much truth they uncovered from the morass of rumor and opinion and uninformed desire that rules this topic. Now came the moment to decide what to do with all this information we excavated and all the knowledge we synthesized. And that's the next chapter of the story.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Putting it together

I don't always relish developing a new class. It's a lot easier to take a syllabus that's already developed and tweak it a bit than it is to start from scratch. Until you begin, it's easy to overlook how much goes into that document -- objectives, policies, assignments both daily and long-term, the flow of topics, and of course, readings for the whole semester.

But I'm tremendously excited about the course I'm developing for next semester, "Craft Wisely: The Past, Present, and Future Of Handmade." In fact, I can't remember the last time I was looking forward the hard work of syllabus construction this much. For one thing, it's a course that students have been hounding me to teach for a couple of years. For another, the topic is something I spend much of my free time -- and work time -- thinking about. There's a real chance that I'll learn as much or more in the class as my students. And I believe the course could put into action many of the pedagogical ideals I've come to cherish over the past several years -- about experiential learning, students taking on teaching roles, and class members all working together to support the group's overall goals.

I'm still glad I don't have to start from scratch. A professor at another institution was kind enough to share her syllabus and bibliography from a course with some similarities. That gives me a big head start -- a reading list and some assignment ideas to start with -- and makes the task of putting the whole thing together much less daunting.

But my course will have a larger scope than my model, and will range more into the philosophical and historical modes. The question then becomes how to keep it focused, and how to ground its diverse facets in a common experience.

I've got some great ideas. And the desk copies of my required text arrived today; I wanted to stop everything and read them cover to cover. It's not going to be perfect the first time out. I expect to make a bunch of mistakes, as we all do when mounting a course for the first time. But I'm going to work hard to build a structure with the required specificity and flexibility. And best of all, I'm already looking forward to the second time I teach it, when it will be that much better.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

From the pulpit

I was lucky enough to be invited to preach today. The luck was the set of lectionary readings, which included some real meaty stuff. I decided to connect them to Fringe, just to delight my husband.

You can read the sermon here. I hope that wherever you were, the preacher had just as much fun as I did!

Update: You can also hear the sermon as a podcast!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

That Michael Jones moment

A month ago, the Internet was briefly abuzz with follow-ups to a piece on the Huffington Post. In "That Steely Dan Moment," Michael Jones generalized about a step in new relationships when you find out that your intended has some failure of taste so egregious that the connection is instantly doomed. His example is finding out that an otherwise suitable mate loves Steely Dan.

I'm sure that after this article appeared, old flames of mine opined in corners of the web obscure to me about their realization that I was a cultural troll. Because I love Steely Dan. And it's not because I've never heard better music or been educated into more refined tastes. In fact, what would count as a Steely Dan moment for me would be finding out that someone is using Steely Dan as an example of a musical passion completely beyond the pale.

Someone clearly needs to explain to me what is so godawful about Steely Dan. I could understand if the demon of choice was, say, the Eagles. Because I get why people hate the Eagles. I don't agree, but I get it. The Eagles completely steamrolled the Top 40 for years, and their slick version of country-roots rock (plus Don Henley's often-insufferable pontificating) strikes many as the triumph of corporate soulless style over substance.

Steely Dan has slick production and a sound that was AM radio-ready back in the seventies. But that's where the similarities with the much-reviled Eagles end. Steely Dan could never be mistaken for heavy equipment cramming pablum down our throats or shoving more sophisticated entertainment out of the way. It was moody, jazzy art-pop. Maybe that's not your thing. Maybe that sends you completely round the bend with rage. Maybe you hate the pretention of people who call them "the Dan" and insist that they be appreciated for their cynicism and subversion. (I kinda do.)

Why, though, would I want to deprive myself of some of the most beautiful music of its kind ever to find its way (improbably, it increasingly seems) onto the radio? The slickness isn't some calculated capitulation to the market; it's what Fagen and Becker aspired to. You may not like that, but to mistake it for a sellout move is just unfair. And why assume that anything aspiring to professionalism and virtuosity is tainted? Or that it lacks authentic feeling? I've been listening to these songs and albums for years now, and they move me as regularly and as deeply as any artist in my personal canon -- for sheer gorgeousness combined with a sense of yearning and loss.

Maybe I'm so far into the Bizarro world that it seems normal to me. If so, you can keep your good taste. I'll be over here singing "Razor Boy," one of my favorite songs of all time. And I'll be smiling.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The parking brigade

So when we last left our heroic professor, she had experienced a blinding brainstorm thanks to the suggestions her students made about their class project. "Parking!" I realized. "We could investigate the parking situation here on campus, find out the truth behind all the rumors and myths running around, make a recommendation to the administration on future transportation spending, and educate the campus community through some sort of campaign!" The plan had the advantage of encompassing a range of concerns that students expressed on the class survey, from the environment to democracy to beautification.
But the first hurdle standing between this dream and its fulfillment were the students themselves, or at least they were in my mind. How would they take this? Would they embrace it? Could I get them to share the enthusiasm of my conversions experience? To my relief, they rallied around it. (I think they were all quite amused at my energetic pitch, but they refrained from making any comments about it to my face.) I apologized to them that we weren't raising funds for orphans or bringing justice to a dictatorship, but they set my mind at ease. "We're keeping it real," one of them remarked. "Yes!" I shouted. That is our motto. Keepin' It Real.
Then it was time to figure out what we wanted to know. There were so many huge gaps in our existing collective dataset. Everyone parks, but few knew anything about the stuff we'd need to know to make a cogent recommendation. (And if we Honors folks didn't know it, we were pretty sure our fellow students, faculty and staff didn't know it either.) We settled on several areas of research:
  1. History. How did the parking and transportation infrastructure we now have in place come to be? Has it improved or degenerated over time? Where has parking been located in the past, and has there been a trend in its movement? For this we would need the University archives and the services of the redoubtable Jimmy Bryant, Archivist, and interviews with folks who'd witnessed the changes.
  2. Comparison. What do other universities of comparable size in communities of comparable size do about parking and transportation? Are there some good ideas out there that we could adopt from our sister institutions? Most of the research here could be done on the web, with help from trade publications and journals.
  3. Innovation. Transportation is an area where technological progress is really on the move (no pun intended). What cutting-edge solutions could become part of the mix at UCA? Again, websites and trade publications were the main sources of information.
  4. Environment. Parking and transportation comes with significant environmental concerns and impacts. What is the footprint of our current system? And should the land currently occupied by the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve be part of the conversation about the future of parking at UCA? Interviews, archival research, and academic journals could supply some of the answers.
  5. Costs. What's the bottom line -- how much do parking lots and parking decks cost? And would the University be justified in spending it based on foreseeable demographic and usage trends? This topic required digging through spreadsheets, talking to planners, and making some connections between disparate pieces of information.
What struck me about this list was that nearly all these questions represented stuff I really wanted to know. It included the mandate to find out the reality behind comments, rumors, and scuttlebutt I'd heard here and there with no indication of its veracity. And the students raised the same point: "I was told ..." "I've always heard ..." "I thought ..." Yes, we all have and we all did. Now's the time to find out! I got more and more excited as I contemplated the thick layer of uncertainty (and downright misinformation) that we could sweep away with our research.
Students attached themselves to one of these five areas and started digging. But the story doesn't end with what they found out. More questions and ideas for the active generation of knowledge emerged as we went. Next time I'll talk about phase 2 of the project, which involved moving out of the research stacks and onto the streets.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The moment of truth

When you put stuff out there in the real world, there's always a moment of truth. It may be the first time a knitted garment is worn, or the first time it gets washed; will it fit? will it fall apart? It may be the moment an article you wrote gets posted on the web; what will people think? what will they say?

One of the biggest temptations of academic life is the desire to play it safe. Professors are in the unique position of setting the agenda, delivering the goods, and assessing the outcome -- all on our own. If we don't want there to be a moment of truth for ourselves, there doesn't have to be one. We're little gods in our classrooms. We say what needs to be learned, then we measure whether it is learned, and we equate that process with actually mastering a discipline that is larger than ourselves.

That's why I like pushing myself to have moments of truth as an instructor. What it takes is breaking down the classroom walls enough so that somebody other than myself has a view of how I'm doing. Often that means outsiders are seeing how my students are doing, judging my teaching by their performance.

The moment of truth is frightening, no question about it. You have no control over the forces in the real world that are going to impinge on your work. They might be merely physical, like the effect of a washing machine on a garment; they might be malevolent, like Internet trolls. But until you put it out there, you'll never know if your work can stand up under the pressure. The reason we professors hate being vulnerable is the same as the reason we should embrace our moments of truth. They are the measure of our worth. Do we want to know, or don't we?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Our parking "problem"

Sometimes students take you where you never wanted to go. I've been on a journey this semester where the students were the leaders, going places I never would have chosen on my own. And it could hardly have been more astounding and gratifying.

Each freshman discussion group this semester had the opportunity to undertake some sort of service project. This was an experiment on the part of the instructional team, and some of us had better ideas than others, it's fair to say, on what we wanted to do with this project. All I knew going in was that I wanted the project to arise from the intersection of the class members' concerns with their skills.

So I created a survey for the class member to take. I asked them what proficiencies they possessed (from photography to calligraphy to CPR); their major and minor; the topic of their Honors admissions essay (in which they were asked to write on an issue of public concern where they want to make a difference); the needs they perceive in the campus and local community; and what they would want to accomplish if they could mobilize 16 Honors students for just one purpose.

When I got the results, one particular response stood out like a sore thumb. Although I had students put their names on the first page of the survey so I could tell who had not completed it, I deliberately did not choose to connect names with responses, so I don't know whose answer this was. But it rankled at me. On the question about needs on campus and in Conway, among the high-minded concerns and issues I expect from this group of students -- poverty, environment, ignorance, apathy -- one student mentioned "Parking." And for the last question, the one about what you would do if you could mobilize the group to address one issue, this student wrote, "Convince the administration to build a parking deck."

I was annoyed. Somebody wasn't taking this whole thing seriously. Somebody was being facetious or just plain self-centered. Really, with all the ways that we could serve, the most important thing this student wanted to change was parking? I frowned. I fretted. I tried to turn to the other answers and let go of my frustration with this monkey wrench thrown by one troublemaker.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This answer was not an outlier. It was, in fact, of a piece with the answers about environmental friendliness and getting involved in campus administrative decisions and landscaping and drainage and community. It was simply a specific instance of an issue that shares a large swatch of concerns and impacts with those other, mostly more abstract issues.

Parking. Everybody cares about it. Everybody complains about it. Everybody feels strongly about it. But how does that passion square with people's other commitments to sustainability and beauty and justice and stewardship? And how informed is everybody's opinion about parking? I know that I've heard hundreds of rumors and pronouncements about parking in my time here -- that the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve is the eventual site of a parking deck, that we can't build a parking deck because the soil isn't adequate for it, that there aren't enough parking spaces for everyone, that there are too many faculty parking spaces, and on and on. But what is the truth? Does anybody know?

I knew that other freshman groups had chosen some impressive projects, from improving Conway's community garden to raising funds for a Honduran orphanage. I worried briefly that if we tried to find out the truth about our parking problems and come up with a plan to solve them, our project would seem trivial next to the others. But I felt strongly that this project, if we could accomplish it, would conform to a value that I prize: It would be real. Not to say any of the others aren't just as real. The difference would be that we would be dealing with an issue that affects everyone in our community, and that generates strong feelings and energy. If we could make an impact -- change minds or change directions -- that would be something we would all witness and benefit from. We wouldn't be aiming for an impact outside our normal daily rounds, but within them. And we'd be accepting and claiming for ourselves responsibility for the problems we usually attribute (rightly or wrongly) to the uninformed decisions of others.

The results of this bold (and frankly scary) move, of accepting student leadership and wrestling with a literally concrete problem right under our feet, are now coming into being. There's more to tell, so for now, watch this space to see what we found out, what we want to do about it, and how you can get involved.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A pause to reflect

Yesterday I didn't write a blog post. It was an accident; I started writing about How I Met Your Mother right after getting the kids to bed, and ninety minutes later, when I was done, I simply forgot that I hadn't written a blog post yet.

Cursory research indicates that the last day I didn't write a blog post was February 29, 2008, Leap Day and the official Blog365 day of rest. My memory further indicates that I did miss a day at least once between then and now, but backdated a post to take care of it. (I think the situation was that I wrote a post but neglected to hit the publish button. I don't remember when or what the circumstances were -- only the slight twinge of guilt.)

What simultaneously alleviates my regret and makes it worse is that I had a relatively major opus planned, one that is intended to serve several purposes in addition to filling this space for one more day. On the one hand, that post will get written (and it will be fairly extensive), and I could say that it should stand for more than one day's effort. On the other, it's not like I didn't have an idea for yesterday! I just forgot to write it. Think of all those times when I had no ideas, yet got something posted. It seems a waste.

In any case, this relatively major opus will get cross-posted to Facebook (where it will serve those other purposes), in addition to appearing in this space tomorrow. If you arrived yesterday expecting to hear from me, I'm sorry. But maybe (as I tell students who are about to lose a highly-prized perfect 4.0 GPA) retreating from perfection (at least numerically!) gives this blog much-needed character. As long as I don't use it as an excuse to stop dailyblogging altogether, now that the string has been broken ...

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Out of hibernation

Spring is here. If you don't believe me, check out the view from Toxophily, where everything's coming up green.

And tomorrow I'll be back at school, emerging from a homebody weekend of Wii games, dice games, card games, and any other kind of games the kids asked for. Noel is heading home, school is winding down, and it's time to recalibrate for a new season. Are you ready? If you need a new frock, you know who to call.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Monkey news

A few days ago, I posted one of the practice writing exercises that Archer did for his Benchmark exams. Here's another one, complete with a reference chart at the end. I believe the prompt asked him to write a story about what would happen if a monkey suddenly came into his classroom. (The astute will notice themes -- or perhaps obsessions would be a better word -- repeated from the previous example.)
It was 5/28/10 at 3 P.M. when a monkey jumped into our class with a thermostat. He plugged it in. His name is Absolute Zero. I'd call him A.Z.
A.Z.'s thermostat settings bear his name. Well, at least in winter. His thermostat setting in winter is -459°F (-273°C.) That's absolute zero. The term 'absolute zero' comes from -459°F (-273°C) at 0 kelvin.
When it was time to go home, I stayed and played a chess game with A.Z. I was White. A.Z. was Black. The game went like this: 1 e4 f3? 2 d4 g5?? 3 Qh5#. A.Z. offered another game. This time, the game was much more moves. A.Z. placed his queen en prise and I captured it. A.Z. also played 5 ... Ke5?? I won with 175 h8 Q#. I had 9 queens.
A.Z. just sat at the table. Everything stopped. Absolutely stopped. "Points?" said A.Z. So I awareded points. I won with 115 points. A.Z. had only 95. "Total?" asked A.Z. "The total is 210," I said.
So that was the end of A.Z. Did you like the story?
Circle one: YES ☺ NO :( [I don't know the HTML for frowney face -- Ed.]
"A.Z.'s Thermostat Reference"
AZs temp scale.jpg
Click to embiggen

Friday, April 16, 2010

Flying solo

Noel is in Nashville for the weekend to attend the Nashville Film Festival, see friends and family, and take care of some business. With my blessing, I might add, since I've had a couple of weekends away recently and have left him with the kids.

And I've been looking forward to my turn at home, I must admit. Cady Gray and I have not gotten a chance to indulge in some extended crafting for quite a while. Archer has spent the whole week doing Benchmark testing, a high-stakes and high-stakes schedule, and I want to let him know how proud I am of him by spending some quality time together.

When I asked Archer on the way home from school whether there was anything special he'd like to do to celebrate his great job on the Benchmark, he said, "We could play some Crazy Dice Math." I'm always amused when he asks for a reward that is so mundane. Yes, we can play Crazy Dice Math, honey, but I'm also thinking I might take him to the arcade for some real live pinball.

My weekend will differ from the normal two-person parenting format in that I'll have to get up early with the kids every day, won't get any breaks when they go somewhere or I do, and will be responsible for all their meals. But not expecting anything different, I hope I'll appreciate and enjoy every second with my wonderful children. And then look forward to having my own break after Noel gets back on Monday.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The password is ...

Last year I started a personal crusade to do a better job securing my passwords. My former student and colleague Mike had a great canned presentation on choosing and remembering passwords that I heard him give a couple of times. And at a certain point I realized that there must be tools out there that make it easier to have diverse, unguessable passwords for the dozens of sites where I have accounts.

My initial research led me to KeePass, an open-source stand-alone password manager application that has versions for Mac and PC. I started keeping separate versions at home and at work, but I was pretty sure there must be a way to have them sync. The problem with the open-source approach, though, was that the solutions were third-party extensions that weren't necessarily maintained and didn't always work with versions for all platforms. Finally, just a month ago or so, I investigated the frequently-mentioned Dropbox solution. Dropbox is a free program that runs on PC, Mac, and iPhone; it works as a folder on your system. Drop any file in that folder, and it's available on any computer or phone synced to that Dropbox account. You can put your KeePass database file in your Dropbox and open it from there with the KeePass application on all your systems. Any changes sync automatically.

All was well until yesterday morning when I started up my PC and entered my master password (the only one I now have to remember!) in KeePass. "Invalid key," said the message. Uh-oh. It was the right key, all right, but somewhere between home and the Dropbox file, something got closed while it was still saving or somethin', and the file was corrupt. I had an export version of the database from a while back, but it was missing some of my most important passwords, like the one for my unit's information system.

I researched repairing the database, and actually managed to do that this morning (the procedure doesn't work on the Mac version, so I had to wait until I got back to work). But the vulnerability in my cobbled-together system had been revealed. And when I ran across a Lifehacker article advocating Lastpass as a replacement, I was ready to listen.

Lastpass's database sits out in the cloud, so syncing between computers isn't a problem. And it's a browser extension (any browser!), so it can autofill username and password fields -- something that wasn't possible with a standalone application. Because I recovered my KeePass database, I was able to import them into Lastpass in one step (using the Firefox version of the extension).

I'm already making plans to replace some of my still-insecure old passwords with unique codes, now that I'm less concerned that I'll be without my passwords anywhere I happen to go. I think I've traded up, and I hope Lastpass will last me a good long time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The joys of fiction

Cady Gray's kindergarten teacher has worked hard to find chapter books that will challenge her. The latest book sent home in her backpack is a Boxcar Children installment called The Pizza Mystery. Usually Noel handles Cady Gray bedtime reading duties while I take Archer, but for the last couple of nights, for various reasons, I've been listening to Cady Gray read about the Boxcar Children.

Now, I know nothing about the Boxcar Children. And I came into the book midway. But I was struck by how quickly I became curious about what was going on. In last night's chapter, a young woman was hired by pizza parlor owners the Piccolos, and tonight the Alden children are getting tired of being yelled at by her. They also saw the woman leafing through Mrs. Piccolo's secret recipe book. And mysterious customers are ordering pizzas they don't want and causing the store to lose money.

I'm genuinely concerned about this situation. And it was interesting to see how animated Cady Gray's reading became as the chapter went on and the problems deepened. Both of us were caught up in this simple conflict, and the open-endedness of it created a desire to know more.

Now that I'm on the downslope of the semester, I have more time to read for pleasure. I've started going back to the gym just to give myself a half-hour reading window. For a long time I've been wanting to give Elizabeth Moon's science fiction another try; she's the author of my favorite fantasy series, The Deed Of Paksenarrion, but in the past I haven't been grabbed by her sci-fi work.

Maybe it's a sign that I have a different relationship to fiction these days -- a far less critical relationship, perhaps -- that I was grabbed this time, immediately. I had just finished Oath of Fealty, the latest book in the Paksenarrion series, and was absolutely riveted by its careful delineation of political and military maneuvering in Paks' world. Much of what I've always loved about Moon's work, I realized, is the interest in organizational detail. And so I immediately recognized those elements in Trading in Danger, the first volume of the Vatta's War series, which reminded me more of Charles Stross's Merchant Princes books than the military sci-fi that I had been expecting. It was as much a primer in the shipping business as it was a tale of adventure. I just started book two, and I wish I had more than an hour a day to devote to it.

Why am I so easily captivated by fiction these days? Have I been lucky enough to have only really good books come my way lately? Or is my interest in the fate of the Boxcar Children an indication that I'm a sucker for any story?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Long-range plans

I came back from Atlanta with my head clear of details and full of vision. Something about the minutiae of a board meeting, with people focusing on this and that, parsing commas and conjunctions, leaves me frustrated with details and action items. I always want to think back to first principles after weekends like this. The task that appeals at this point is connecting the road we're on to the values and purposes we elsewhere espouse.

So while I got a few details cleared away today -- gathering needed signatures and getting a form submitted, grading journals, answering e-mails -- what I kept gravitating towards was the big picture. I set up a Google Wave with a colleague to think through our field's use of technology. I sent a follow-up e-mail about a committee meeting yesterday that put a speculative discussion in some further context. And I met with students about two different long-term projects that are still in the conceptual stage.

What's happening is that I'm finding it dissatisfying to focus on details until I know something that differentiates between relevant and irrelevant details. I've become quite evangelical on the need to know why one course of action is preferable to another. It matters where it takes us, and it matters what that says about who we are.

At some point I'll have to get down to brass tacks. But I'm pretty sure when I get there, I'll know better what those tacks are supposed to be holding together.

Monday, April 12, 2010


They say that the wet winter has led to the pollen that now coats all outdoor surfaces. When I left for Atlanta on Thursday, I was warned that I was headed into a pollen blizzard. But when I got there, a heavy thunderstorm had just washed it all off the streets and out of the air.

Now that I'm back, everything's changed here. In just a few days, the amber strands of oak pollen have begun to float through the air at the slightest breeze. And the bright yellow-green pellets that drop to the ground are bursting at every footfall and tire tread. The streets look like the aftermath of a massive pixie stick party.

I've never been diagnosed with allergies. On the other hand, I never had problems with watery eyes, sneezing, or coughing before I moved here. My issues aren't constant, but I do have periods during the spring when my eyes are coated with gunk and I have periodic sneezing fits. So when the warnings went out about the high pollen counts in Atlanta, I briefly considered packing some Claritin, just in case.

But my few symptoms barely slow me down in a bad year, and so far there's no sign of problems this spring. I have to wonder, though, how I can inhale all this stuff and not end up with some sort of respiratory illness. It must be worth it, though, to live in the riot of color we experience for a few weeks this time of year. Walking home is like strolling through one of the Technicolor tropical travelogues the Kiwanis Club sponsored during my childhood. And right now, I can breathe deeply and enjoy it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Lobster chess

I'm not sure what Arkansas Benchmark practice prompt was the impetus for the following piece of writing by Archer. But his teacher noted at the end: "Archer, I loved your writing! You used lots of details and author's craft! You are going to do great on the test next week! I'm so proud of you!"
I was by the lake on March 23, 2010 at 3:05:52 pm when suddenly it happened. A lobster crawl out. His name is ... I dare say it ... 01010. 01010 has a friend named 10101. Let's call them Onnie and Tyren.

The lake started to get wilder. Onnie was red and had sharp claw. Tyren was orange-red and had claws 10x sharper! You know what? I like Onnie, but I want to avoid getting clawed by Tyren. I'm probably going to die soon.

I tried to run away, but Tyren and Onnie chased after me. I tried taming them, but they dashed off. 2:30 minutes later, I started to talk them. But Tyren attacked back. I'm just about dead.

But now, everything stopped. I'm cold. Brrr. The temperature was absolute zero, which is -459 degrees F, which is -273 degrees C. At 4:10:05 pm, my mom and dad came over to me with dinner. I finished my dinner and dessert at 4:49:05 pm. At 5:10:09 pm, Tyren threatened to play chess, and the loser would get clawed. By Tyren.

Tyren made a few blunders in the opening and middle game, such as 10...Kf7?? and 13...K35??. It's the endgame now, and I just played 47 b8Q+. The winning move I made was 65 Qh7#. I defeated Tyren and Onnie.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Our two headquarters hotels for the fall meeting of my scholarly organization are the Hyatt Regency and Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta. The two hotels sit back to back on adjacent blocks. For our spring board meeting, some of us have been given rooms in one hotel, and some in the other; I happen to be in the Hyatt.

I love fancy hotels. I love big hotels. And both these hotels fit the bill. They both feature soaring atria that go all the way up to the tower skylight, with rooms that overlook the inside vista as well as the outside. I never tire of that expansive space, the sense of delirious architecture, the overkill of it all.

It doesn't hurt that the staff and amenities at these hotels are top-notch, and they have treated us well. (The lunch we had catered in to our board meeting today ... well, let me just say that I could have taken a vat of that peach cobbler home and sold it off piecemeal at a profit.) I can't wait to come back here in October -- which is, of course, the aim of the management.

But I confess that I miss my children, painfully so. I wish I could show them this crazy place and let them ride the glass elevators that rise in full view on the outside of the central column all the way up two dozen suspended stories. It's a fantasy world, and it makes me feel like a kid to pretend that I'm an adult who's not surprised by such things.

Friday, April 9, 2010


A few nights ago -- just before I left on this trip, actually -- Noel mentioned something that got my wheels churning. Archer had told his dad that he needed to score 85% on his Arkansas Benchmark Test to remain in the gifted and talented program next year.

Two relevant facts: (1) Archer has thrived in the Pinnacle program. He is given assignments that involve technologies that are very attractive to him, like Powerpoint. He has the opportunity to participate in the chess club, creating from nothing a year-long obsession with the game. And the challenges put to him, like interpreting a proverb or axiom, have pushed him to develop strategies for dealing with aspects of language (like its metaphorical, allusive, or poetic nature) that don't come naturally to him. (2) The writing and reading portions of the Benchmark are bound to be challenging for him. So a top score is by no means certain.

When I got an e-mail from his GT instructor today about another matter, I took the opportunity to ask what criteria will govern retention in the program for next year, mentioning that Archer had made this remark about 85%.

And when she replied, I felt somewhat foolish for not figuring out where that number really came from. What happened was that the teacher had told the class that if they did really well, she'd teach them a new game. Archer immediately pressed her for clarification: What score did they need to make to do really well?

That's not at all surprising. It happens at home all the time. We make some if-then statement about consequences of behavior. Archer demands clarification along the lines of quantification. And sometimes, knowing his need for numbers to organize his world, we relent (just as his teacher did) and provide a scoring system he can use to understand that conditional.

The teacher was able to set my mind at ease about Archer's future in the program. And I was reminded that just as I need reassurance at a qualitative level, Archer needs it at a quantitative one. When I can provide that, I should, even at the cost of what (to me) is clarity.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The comforts of home

I'm in Atlanta for the spring board of directors meeting of my national scholarly organization. It took awhile to get here -- strong storms moving through the city delayed our arrival -- but as soon as I got checked in, settled in my room, food ordered and a much-needed shower enjoyed, I was ready to enjoy some precious downtime.

That's the tradeoff for these work-intensive trips. The schedule is insane -- I have only one meal between now and Sunday noon that's not a meeting -- but in the few hours that aren't filled in already, my time is all my own. I can sleep, exercise, read, work, shop ... just as I like. I don't have to coordinate with anyone.

Next weekend Noel gets his chance. He's going to the Nashville Film Festival, and will have a number of mandatory events. But he'll also have downtime, time he's planning to use to accomplish a few things, and maybe some extra left over. I hope he gets that expansive feeling of being master of the hours ... even if it's only minutes.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Advantages of olden days

Archer's been bringing home a lot of practice exercises for the Arkansas Benchmark Test, which is taking place next week. I always read his open-response writing answers with interest to see how he's interpreting the questions and readings -- and to see how his brain processes an answer.

This particular prompt followed a reading selection called "The Shortcut," about a girl who was sent to bring the doctor in some 19th century crisis. Archer was asked to give at least three reasons why he would want to live in the heroine's time.
I would really like living in the time of Caroline's life. Here are three reasons why.

I can go to Dr. Harrison's and I can be done very quickly. That is because I don't even have to pay, and sometimes, Dr. Harrison knows what I need for quicker service.

I can even take a shortcut to Dr. Harrison's. It's 3.5 miles, while the road take 7 miles. But even the road can be a short distance to travel for me.

I can take the short cut and make it to Dr. Harrison's in less than an hour. It would take me 42 minutes! On the road, it would take me 1 hour, 24 minutes.

OK, so you have all 3 reasons why I'd like living at the time of Caroline. I'd really like living at that time!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

There has to be a twist

We picked up a Wii game called Pinball Hall Of Fame: The Williams Collection last year. It became Archer's favorite almost immediately. I attribute his interest to the fact that there are many complicated scoring scenarios, all of which are outlined and explained in very extensive rule screens that can be paged through for each table.

I love this game because these are fantastic tables (Funhouse! Pinbot! Taxi!), and because the pinball simulation is absolutely fantastic. Everything has just the right weight, sound, and feel. I don't know how they did it, but it's perfect. I can't quite explain how Archer achieves high scores on the tables when his strategy 75% of the time is just to flip continuously (he does hold the flippers up to receive ejected balls and then aims his shots), but he racks up huge numbers.

At the library the other day, I happened across a big coffee table book about pinball, and Archer was charmed the instant he opened it to find a picture and description of Old Chicago, the first table the author ever played, and one that Archer played several times at our local Old Chicago pizza franchise. He turns the pages looking at the pictures of tables and reading the description of their gameplay for hours.

I'd love to get him more books about pinball, to go along with his insatiable appetite for books about chess. If you have any recommendations along those lines, I'd love to hear them!

Monday, April 5, 2010


Easter has come and gone. There are twenty-odd colored and hardboiled eggs in the refrigerator. And that means it is my favorite eating season of the year: deviled egg time.

What is it about a deviled egg? The way the yolk mingles with the indulgent fats and oils of the mayonnaise and the spiciness of the mustard, making a creamy, piquant filling. The way that flavor and texture is supported and balanced by the neutral, firm egg white cup.

I've infected my children with my deviled egg love. After I made the treats, Cady Gray called me back to the bedroom to witness some achievement she'd unlocked on her computer game. Archer came bouncing in a few minutes later. "Deviled eggs toniiight!" he said, with a celebratory quaver in his voice.

Deviled eggs are a warm weather food, for picnics and dinners with the windows open. We could have them all year round -- eggs and boiling water are always available. But isn't it wonderful to look forward to them as a spring specialty, a taste of breezes and sun and that aroma right after lightning? On the other hand, deviled eggs with every meal, from January to December ... now there's an idea.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dash for the eggs

Easter egg hunts, in my experience as a parent, are typically more like Easter egg dashes. Eggs are strewn on the ground in plain sight, and kids are set loose to grab as many of them as they can. There's very little hunting involved.


I've got a dash through this week, too. On Thursday I head to Atlanta for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday meetings with the AAR board of directors and regional directors.


But first, I've got to pause and pick up a few eggs along the way: teaching class, meeting a few writing deadlines, hosting a guest speaker on campus the last night.


After I get back, Noel will be off to the Nashville Film Festival the following weekend. To get through all these tasks and keep the household functioning, it will take teamwork.


At the end, I hope there will be a basket full of treats for me!

Saturday, April 3, 2010



I sometimes feel guilty about taking so many more pictures of my daughter than my son. My excuse is that she's just so blessedly photogenic. Not that Archer doesn't take a good picture, but something in Cady Gray's ever-blossoming beauty appeals to me. I feel it's always on the verge of slipping away, so I race to document it, only to find she glows more day by day.


Today we took the kids to Easter activities at the local library. Here's CG displaying her haul of plastic eggs (most, we would later discover, with Laffy Taffy inside).


See, I do take pictures of Archer sometimes. Especially if he's got his arm around his sister.


I defy you to find a scarier looking Easter Bunny. But you probably didn't even notice him because Cady Gray's adorableness is so blinding.


The flash on my old point-and-shoot is pretty terrible. Normally I avoid using it at all costs, as every picture taken with it suffers from terminal ugliness. But there she is, making it work.


Here she waits patiently -- and cutely -- for this little suction-cup-bunny-on-a-spring to pop back up. (Either the spring was insufficiently powerful or the suction was too much so; it never did.)


Archer, I apologize for neglecting you. I'll make it up to you, buddy. Just one more shot of your sister, and then it's your turn, I promise.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Let's siphon off some gas

It was World Autism Awareness Day today. Nobody sent me the memo -- me, of all people. But I wound up with something blue in my wardrobe nevertheless, because I wore the scarf I finished yesterday. And that (not World Autism Awareness Day) is the subject of today's blog post at Toxophily.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Movie night

Every other Thursday this semester, I've been spending the evening with my students, watching movies. Tonight was our last movie night. The students will spend the next four weeks working in groups on shooting, editing, and finalizing short films.

I'm going to miss movie nights. It's a large class, by my department's standards; two sections meeting together with two instructors. That means almost thirty people in the room, watching the movie projected on a big screen. The students bring their dinners and snacks -- class starts at 6 pm -- and they feel at home. At first I was bothered by the number of murmured comments and side conversations going on during the movies. But in discussion, it was clear that they had watched carefully and picked up on all kinds of interesting nuances. I concluded that the commentary was their way of processing what they were seeing. They weren't watching the movie in isolation; they were using each other as a means to pay attention.

We had terrific discussions after each of the movies, and I have been gratified to read in their blogs about the depth those discussions added to their experience with the movies. Before class today, a student told me, "Now I'm even doing it to music videos. I was watching Lady Gaga ...?" I told her that she wasn't overdoing it, that there were all kinds of things going on in those videos intimately related to what we'd been doing in class.

Sometimes I hear complaints -- or at least concerns -- from those students who feel like this academic approach to film is condemning them to a lifetime of analysis rather than enjoyment. I'm glad that my students this semester seem to be more interested in the enhancement of simple entertainment experiences than worried about losing their naivete. And in four weeks, I hope to see a few incredible moments -- maybe not a lot, but a few -- that they've created because of what they've seen and thought about.