Saturday, July 31, 2010

My love is strong enough

Today's post about making parallelograms out of squiggles of yarn is at Toxophily.

You can click over to see more of what this is an extreme close-up of:


Friday, July 30, 2010

Good reads

I've had a few days in between required reading for my various jobs and avocations, and that's given me a chance to catch up on some of my blogs and feeds.  Some great writing out there recently, and since I rarely do the courteous thing and link to my favorites, I thought I'd rectify that tonight.

  • The Secret Knitter sent me down memory lane and made me resolve to find more time for radio comedy with his remembrances of Gary Burbank, a Cincinnati radio personality from his youth.
  • I was by turns horrified, amused, and deeply moved by the Yarn Harlot's description of her disastrous first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game.
  • This beautiful little video has been making the knitting rounds lately, but I encountered it in Kay and Ann's elegantly minimalist framing.
  • And now that I have odd moments to read some of the great journalism I've been rushing past for as long as I can remember, I'm utilizing and Instapaper to pop them over to my Kindle and iPhone.  You can't beat a nice meal-sized chunk of nonfiction, available whenever and wherever you are.
Whatever you're reading, I hope it's as inspiring and relaxing!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

With this ring

I took off my wedding and engagement rings about three weeks ago.  Something had bitten me on our vacation -- right under those bands.  So I wrestled them over my knuckle and carefully secreted them away in a zippered pocket of my purse, where they've sat ever since.

At first I was intermittently aware of the spot where they used to be.  I had a band-aid around it for awhile so that the swollen, bitten place could heal.  Then the dry, chapped skin around that area called attention to the missing band for awhile.  It was like a red, discolored negative impression of the ring that used to be there.

Gradually the finger healed.  Now the negative impression was the opposite -- it was the place where my skin was lighter than the rest of my hand, not as tanned by the sun.  I also noticed the missing rings less often, although there was one reliable time when I was always brought up short by their absence.  In the morning when getting ready to leave the bedroom after getting dressed, I would frequently notice in the mirror that I had neglected to put on my watch and earrings.  The bareness of my left wrist always seemed to highlight the bareness of that hand.

Today I reached in that pocket and put the rings back on.  It was startling how easily they popped over the knuckle and back into place.  I'm used to having trouble getting them on and off, leading me periodically to worry about whether I'm gaining weight or need to have them resized.  And then once on, I felt them intensely for the next half hour.  My left hand felt abnormally heavy.  I caught the glint of the metal and the stone every time the hand entered my peripheral vision.

I like having them back on.  I felt periodically bare without them, like I was inviting awkward questions about my marital status -- like I was a failure, where the rings had previously announced a life accomplishment.  In the movies, taking off the wedding ring is a sad admission of an ending, a ploy to entrap someone, a triumphant return to independence, or a moment of guilt akin to turning a picture facedown before doing something you shouldn't.  Something of all those emotions seemed to be mixed up in my ring's absence, imported wholesale from those pop cultural meanings without regard to their lack of relevance here.  I often joke to students who get married that they are now part of the club -- the married people's club.  Without my rings, I felt like I'd lost my password to the club, even though nobody else even noticed as far as I could tell.  Now that they're back, there's an unexpected satisfaction -- a wholeness I had barely even registered as missing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


In my teaching, I've come to despise answering a certain type of question.  Not the type that seeks understanding or knowledge or a clarifying idea or a helpful framework.  The kind that inquires about the logistics of a class activity or assignment.

I don't like answering those kind of questions because (a) it's inefficient, and (b) it's a back-end scramble to cover a front-end failure.  When students ask about logistics, the answer -- delivered orally -- is inevitably less structured and comprehensive than good instructions should be.  It's also heard differentially by the class; even if the person who asked the question gets what he wants, others might not be engaged, not needing the information right at that moment -- meaning they won't have it when they do need it.  And of course, the answer's not integrated into the point-of-need instructions that are posted where students can access them when they're actually working on the assignment. This leads to a lot of duplicate questions, which is not only wasted time but the potential for telling the various questioners slightly different things.

Instead, I tend to write extraordinarily detailed assignments.  And I've been gravitating toward a question-and-answer format that reduces the need for students to have to intuit my structural logic.  Students what to know what they're being asked to do, how they're supposed to do it, where to find the tools they'll need, how they'll be evaluated, in what form to turn it in, when it's due.  So I'm writing assignments with sections headed by those very questions.  I wrote a blog assignment and a podcasting assignment this morning in about two and a half intense hours of work.  Here are some of the headings:
  • Where's the blog?
  • When do I write?
  • Can I write when it's not my turn?
  • What should I write about?
  • Halp halp, I can't post/edit/upload a picture/etc!
  • How do we make a podcast?
  • How long should our podcast be?
  • What should we talk about?
  • We've recorded.  What do we do now?
  • When is our podcast due?
Communicating with students is an underappreciated art.  Many instructors feel like the students should just be able to get it -- that it's their responsibility to extract the relevant information however the instructor chooses to present it.  I sometimes think we could all use a good technical writing short course.  If we put in enough effort and thought on the front end, delivering what students need know in a format where they can find and utilize it, then we save ourselves (and our students) a lot of frustration on the back end when we don't have to clarify our vagaries piecemeal, incompletely, and repeatedly.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rock me tonight

In today's music section of the A.V. Club, Noel very kindly validates my 15-year-old self's taste by reviewing a 30th-anniversary reissue of one of the most important albums of my pre-majority. I don't remember how I acquired a copy of Billy Squier's Don't Say No. I just know I didn't buy it -- I didn't buy any albums for myself until I got my driver's license and headed to Cat Records to pick up ELO's Time later in 1981. Probably I won it in a radio station promotion. Between the ages of 12 and 20 I won a lot of things that way, including a copy of Phil Seymour's classic power pop debut, tickets to see Don Henley and Tom Petty, and a New Year's Eve trip to Los Angeles.

At any rate, that album became central to my 1981 self. And when a Squier concert was announced for my hometown, it became my mission to convince my parents to let me go. Not easy when the act in question was heavy, sexually-tinged rock. I remember a session where I played tracks from the album in my room for my parents to hear. But for whatever reason, they finally agreed. And I did get to see that show at the Roundhouse, with Ratt opening.

It was hard to have a supercool teenage experience in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the early 1980s. Some people manage a time and place where their enthusiasms match up perfectly with the cultural cachet to be validated by subsequent generations. I had Billy Squier and ELO; my much more sophisticated boyfriend at the time had King Crimson and Utopia. So it's nice to have a moment to look back and say yeah, those may not have been the coolest times in the world, but the things we loved were worth it in their way. We need not be ashamed that our adoration of them formed us.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Catch 'em all

Parenting is nothing if not a constant stream of new situations. As your children grow up and develop new interests, hobbies, and personality traits, you find yourself in neverending research mode. What are the best books, websites, or activities to engage a child who has latched onto something particular in her environment? Most of us have no way to know from direct experience; the choices were all different during our upbringing, and even having an older child doesn't help much given the variety of interests available, especially if the genders are different.

I've asked you readers a variety of questions over the last few years about what books or hobbies Archer might enjoy given various obsessions he's developed. Now it's finally Cady Gray's turn. She's got an obsession of her very own: Pokemon.

It's a subset or offshoot of her love for comics. I've given her various manga, and the Pokemon Diamond and Pearl Adventure series seems to fire her up more than any other. She rattles off the Pokemon used in each story, describes their characteristics and attacks, and gets very concerned about irregular play. (She's started watching the TV show too, which is shown on Boomerang.) The key seems to be the collecting, categorizing, and sports aspects of the premise.

I'd like to help her branch out into other manga with related themes. That might help her form a bridge to manga with different premises. My research has gotten me excited about the Hikaru No Go series, which I think even Archer might like; and Cardcaptor Sakura seems like a natural fit for a Pokemon fan. But a lot of the websites I looked at turned up their noses at Pokemon and were eager to demonstrate to skeptics that most manga is nothing like it. My efforts to discover some logical next steps for a Pokemon lover weren't as fruitful as I would have thought given Pokemon's ubiquity in popular culture.

Some of you are big manga folk, I know. And some of the rest of you might have non-manga suggestions for where to take Cady Gray's Poke-love. If you have ideas, leave me a comment!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Second time around

We finally got to see Inception tonight. And while I thought it was awe-inspiring and endlessly stimulating, that thought is inevitably already a response to other thoughts about the movie that have been debated in the media, in critical circles and in the chatter of social networking. The lash, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash were all underway before the movie even opened, and it's impossible to experience it without all those layers. Appropriate, in a way, for a movie that is constantly asking you to figure out how many looking glasses you have gone through.

I've been mildly tormented recently by acquaintances mentioning on Facebook and Twitter that they saw some fantastic movie or other and were underwhelmed (or worse, are on a mission to expose its fantasticness as a massive fraud perpetrated on them by the cultural establishment). Sometimes I wish I could just fast-forward people into the future so they could see these great movies for the second time. The first time, we're too burdened by the reason we're watching them in the first place -- because everybody says they're great. We may have some idea what quality of greatness we expect to say, or we may have a vague impression of the genre or type of movie our taste buds were set for. And what people often mean by greatness is that it can't be contained in the usual boxes we have prepared for the experience. It's not until the second time, when the artifact can emerge from the background of all that surrounds it in the ordinary course of moving through popular culture, that we are startled by how far it stands above or how much it stands alone.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Got a dream to take them there

Today's post about how simple it is to make a scarf is at Toxophily.

And if baseball's more your thing, here's Archer's "eye of the tiger" batter's face:


Friday, July 23, 2010


Today marked the last day that the kids needed to be ferried to Little Rock and back. SLUFY was great -- without a doubt worth it -- but the driving was hard on Noel and me. Well, mostly on Noel; I managed to get out with only one day of transport duty each week.

It was a 35 minute, 28-mile trip, each way, Monday through Friday. And then it was five hours of amusing one's self while the kids learned and grew. I don't mind the five hour down time -- I can log four hours at a coffeeshop with internet without breaking a sweat -- but the drive was exhausting, at least for me. The traffic, the rush, the monotony.

There are people who drive from Conway to Little Rock every day of their working lives. I suppose I'd get used to it if that were my lot. But I've spent way too much time with a .5 mile commute that I do on foot in a leisurely ten minutes. I've gotten attached to it, and correspondingly impatient with any time spent in an idling car or on a lengthy stretch of asphalt.

I've been working my way down to my minimal no-auto commute my whole life, it seems. As a kid, after we moved outside of town when I was in the eighth grade, it took 45 minutes to drive from our house to my high school. We left at 7 in order for me to make it before the 8 am bell. In grad school, I worked less than 10 miles from my apartment, but it took 20 minutes to get there on a good day since there was no way to bypass a lot of stop lights in the strip-mall district.

A few years ago I read a magazine story about how drastically every half hour of commuting time cuts into people's estimations of their quality of life. I love living right next to where I work, and every time I have to get back in the car to do some hard driving, I'm reminded of why.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

New element discovered!

Archer has been enjoying his SLUFY "World of Matter" class. They've talked about elements, atoms, and the periodic table. Earlier this week, each student created a new element; Archer's was called Slufium, an element he told me was used to make periodic tables and sunscreen. Here's the description he wrote in his press release:

Atomic number: 10
Symbol: Sf
Atomic weight: 18.6608909986333...

Boiling point (Celsius): -359
Melting point (Celsius): -459
State of matter at room temperature: Solid

Chemical and physical properties: Slufium is very cold, boiling point colder than Antarctica. Metallic, used for periodic tables, colder than 0 Kelvin.

What are the potential uses for your element? It is use-ful for sunscreen, SPF 5000, makes you especially protected from the sun.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Friend and unfriend

Over the weekend, Cady Gray and I made these woven friendship bracelets out of strips cut from t-shirt scraps. She wanted to make three: one for her school friend Charlotte, one for her friend from preschool Tori, and one for a new friend she had just made at her summer camp.

On Tuesday, she took the bracelet to camp to give to that friend. That evening I asked her if she had bestowed the gift. Yes, she said, but the friend didn't want it and gave it to another girl.

Cady Gray was mostly philosophical about it, although I could tell that it confused her. I found it piercingly sad. A little girl, a handmade gift, a pledge of friendship -- refused, discarded, regifted.

Watching my daughter navigate the rapids of childhood relationships fascinates and terrifies me. The earlier friends I can remember that were of my own choosing, rather than the children of my parents' friends, came at a later age, maybe Archer's age of 8 or 9. There were kids whose friend I wanted to be who may not have been as keen on reciprocating. I'm not sure I had the capacity at her age to make such a personal gesture -- a friendship bracelet that I made and whose recipient I selected. It touches me to see Cady Gray light up when her peers want to spend time with her. And it hurts me on her behalf when these novice friends treat her affection cavalierly.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


To the lengthy list of Archer's obsessions, add maps. When he gets hold of his dad's iPod touch, he doesn't play games -- he explores the Maps application. His conversation revolves around what interstates go where and whether we're on a major or minor road.

I'm not sure what aspect of road maps appeals to Archer's autistic mind. Roads come with numbers, labels, and categorizations, and those clearly delight him. He draws them on his Magnadoodle and adds road signs and exit structures.

What I wonder is whether the idea of maps holds any fascination for him. I suspect it does. When I drove the kids down to Little Rock last Thursday, I directed the kids to grab a book to read on the half-hour drive down. Archer brought his well-thumbed -- falling apart, actually -- Rand McNally road atlas. As we drove, he followed our progress with his finger, periodically calling existentially from the back seat "We're right here now, Mom," and anticipating the transition to the inset map of the city at the exact moment our position made this possible.

In his head, I imagine, he was riding through the map itself, the landscape outside his window replaced by the lines and colors and numbers and symbols traced by his finger. Perhaps he was filling in the spaces left blank by the atlas' relatively small scale, adding features too minor to show up on the printed page. Time to see what books on cartography are available at our local libraries.

Monday, July 19, 2010


The second half of July has set in, and that means the end of summer is rushing upon us. Only four more weeks of my much-beloved summer schedule, with its dedicated time for research and course construction. I'd like very much to continue setting aside a few hours a week for research, but my administrative duties make that difficult -- meetings are called at all hours, and the pressure to be available whenever someone might request you is strong.

Summer's waning days also mean it's time to plan the kids' shared birthday party. My dream? A party in an arcade with several pinball machines, allowing Archer to indulge his love of the clanging tables, clacking bumpers, plunging silver ball, and sharp crack signaling a few game. If anyone knows of a place like that within a reasonable drive, let me know. Otherwise we'll be going to the local giant-maze emporium and party center, which is greatly adored by our children for its arcade games, but isn't the pinball heaven of my ideal.

And I've been scanning the schedule of the local minor-league baseball team to see when we can squeeze in a couple more games. We may not make it to any roller coasters or water slides this summer, but I'm willing to bet that the kids will be just as thrilled and have as many good memories of ballpark hotdogs and keeping score.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

These are a few of the states I'm in

Today's post about a dangerous pattern addiction is at Toxophily.


Think I'm bluffing? Don't stand too close to this tower of tawashi -- it could topple at any moment.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Branching out

Cady Gray and I got to spend the morning together, after a week of seeing very little of each other. I had a brunch date with The Sensible Seamstress, passing through town on her way home, and she was generously enthusiastic about Cady Gray joining us.

So I took my daughter to the coffeeshop for a morning of knitting and conversation. Her project is entering its latter half -- a new navy stripe joining the two stripes already done. We talked about technique, design principles, color theory, and fiction while we sipped our fancy drinks and wielded our needles.

Before long it was time to go to Stoby's to meet our out-of-town guest. A more pleasant breakfast in a cozier corner booth could not be imagined. We talked about our personal histories, mutual acquaintances, the writing life, plans for the future, and the friend whose life she had come to the area to honor. Cady Gray was thrilled to be included in the grown-up socializing.

All mothers think their daughters are the most beautiful and charming creatures on earth. And yet, I still think mine is extra special. I want to squeeze all the pleasure out of every moment I get to spend in her company at this remarkable stage of life, when she is discovering the power of her mind and heart when turned full blast on the people and objects that surround her. It's like witnessing the origin of a superhero. And my only desire is to be there as it happens.

Friday, July 16, 2010

One, two, three, four

My altered schedule this week has affected my workout routine in ways I didn't expect. Because I didn't need to be home before dinnertime to help out with the kids, I stayed at work on Monday until past quitting time. By the time I got to the gym, the dressing room was filled with coworkers of mine getting ready for their exercise class. "You should come!" they enthused. So I did.

The class was Zumba. Now, if you're a woman of college age or beyond, you probably know that Zumba is an aerobic dance kinda thing influenced by Latin styles. Or so I gather from having been to all three of the classes offered this week.

It's not that I'm any good at dancing, especially dancing that requires galloping and relatively rapid footwork and lots of hippy swirling and sashaying. It's that it was really hard. After the first class, I was a little sore in the thighs. After the second, I ached every time I got out of a chair. And by the time I showed up at the third two days later, my feet felt like they needed a session with a reflexologist.

My last exercise class was at least five years ago; I don't recall having been to one since Cady Gray was born. And it was probably step. I'm sure you readers on the progressive coasts are wondering why we're still doing Zumba here in flyover country, but for me, this was like going from rotary to the iPhone in one giant half-decade step.

I didn't look good trying to swivel my hips to salsa-tinged R&B. It was sobering watching the co-eds around me demonstrating their effortless rhythm. But I had a lot of fun. If I recover fast enough, I'll take advantage of one more week of late afternoon free time and try to learn a few more steps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I sat in a Starbucks for several hours this afternoon, sipping drinks alternately hot and cold, working on the syllabus for my new fall class. While I read about eighteenth century embroidery, a young man next to me was making several phone calls -- not too loudly at all, but he was fairly close by.

As the hours passed, I occasionally heard him making reference to orders, artwork, "shells," "cards," and other manufacturing-type terms. When we finally struck up a conversation (prompted by a third party who asked to sit down at the empty seat across from me), I asked what business he was in. Advertising, he said. He handles promotional materials for his firm's clients.

So he makes things. Material things. And I was reading about the making of things, from an earlier age. In my book, the material things were being made by hand, and reflected something of the maker's values, or ideals, or sense of self, or way in which she wanted to be perceived by others, or receipt of cultural tropes. These items were one of a kind, but nevertheless part of a tradition.

We frequently engage in handwringing in America about not making anything anymore. It occurred to me that usually I sit in Starbucks and overhear people making websites or planning revivals. Here was a guy whose business was making things. Well, putting corporate logos on mass-produced things of little value made in third-world countries, to be more exact. But because of his labor, material things were coming into existence. Whose values, ideals, sense of self, desired image, or cultural norms were reflected by those things, I wondered? As I knit my scarf, I thought about the way material things come into being. And I thought that it would be worthwhile if the students in my class this fall reflect on the differences between my Starbucks neighbor and me -- and the similarities.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Home alone

Because of the kids' summer camp in Little Rock, I have had no reason to get home as early as I usually do. There's no chance for quality time with the kids or husband, and there's no dinner waiting on the table.

So for a few hours in the late afternoon, I'm a singleton again. Nobody's expecting me anywhere.

I've stayed somewhat later than usual at work for the last two days. And when I got to the gym an hour after my normal time, some staff folks convinced me to go to a Zumba exercise class with them. Ordinarily that would not work for me, since the class lasts until 5:45 -- past our family dinnertime. But with no family dinnertime for the next couple of weeks, why not? It was a nice break in my routine yesterday -- so nice that I went back today on my own.

When I get home, I revert to my college and grad school days. There's no point in making elaborate food. I slice some bread, make a sandwich, or drizzle honey and butter on it; I chop up an apple, I peel a banana. It's bachelorette food. And there's something satisfyingly spontaneous about it, even though I'm aware that it would get old really fast.

I like the meals Noel makes for us. I like spending an hour with my children before we eat together. But I don't mind something different -- for a couple of weeks, at least.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Get your game on

It's All-Star time in major league baseball. At this halfway point in the season, the contenders have been distinguished from the bottom-dwellers. You know whether your team has a decent shot of competing for a title, needs to step it up to get off the bubble, or will be unloading stars before the trading deadline.

This is the time of year when I look to my right, where Noel occupies the other recliner, and check his mood. In the last few years it's been darkling. The Braves hovered somewhere south of .500 ball, and even though they made a couple of runs, it was hard at the All-Star break to imagine them as pennant winners.

In 2010, it's different. The Braves are on top of their division and boast the best hitter in the league. Now I'm looking over at Noel and trying to remind him to enjoy the moment. Anything could happen in the second half. So we should resolve to be happy that our team is successful now, and not to be too disappointed if that doesn't translate into postseason play.

That's always been my philosophy as a sports fan, although I can rarely follow through: Keep expectations low and be pleasantly surprised if anything good happens. The All-Star game (which features five Braves on the NL squad) is such a pleasant surprise, and the standings at the break are another. It's too painful to get your hopes up that it will last. So the moment will have to be enough.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Earlier this year, Archer's GT teacher sent home information about a two-week summer program administered by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for talented youngsters. When I looked into it, I saw that Cady Gray could also apply. They were thrilled that they were accepted, as were we.

The monkey wrench in our planning is that the program is in Little Rock, a 40-minute drive from our house, and at an odd time -- 12:30-5:30 pm. One of us (Noel most days, though I'm hoping to relieve him a few times) has to drive them down at midday, and then find a library or bookstore or coffeeshop in which to while away the hours until it's time to pick them up.

It also means that our family mealtimes are disrupted. Noel is the cook, and most days he'll be on his way to pick them up at the time when he's normally serving us dinner. We might switch the big meal to lunch a few days; I'll pack lunchboxes so the kids can eat on the drive home. And there might be fast food sometimes.

Right now I'm waiting for my family to come home, and I'm hearing that there might be a few kinks for the program staff to iron out in the pickup procedure. Noel tweeted at 6:10 pm, 40 minutes after pickup time, that he had been stuck in a line of cars for 45 minutes and still hadn't gotten to the point where the kids could be retrieved. That makes me anxious for Archer. Things going over schedule, having to wait, minutes and hours dragging on without knowing when the next thing will happen -- these are recipes for weeping and meltdowns. I hope that the process gets fixed so he (as well as the rest of us) doesn't have to endure that day after day.

And I hope the program itself is worth the trouble it takes for us to commute with the kids and disrupt the routines that give comfort and structure to our days. Everything up to this point has made us confident that it is. I'm looking forward to the kids being home and hearing about it. It would be a shame if their enthusiasm about the classes and the experience was dampened by a traffic jam on the first day.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

America the beautiful

We live in a great country. A country where people can spout any nonsense they want, and where -- thank God -- other people can stand up and call it nonsense.

A country where it's not a crime to be a white supremacist -- where you can even run for public office on a platform of the eradication of races other than white. And where I can call that morally repugnant and Satanic.

A country where a man can give a speech claiming that a cabal of Democrats engineered the promotion of slavery in the nineteenth century, and that this means that black people are fools for not voting straight Republican tickets today. Where a newspaper columnist can swallow the speech whole and proffer its content as suspiciously suppressed truth in print. (Even though the judgment of those who give him column inches and order the type set is thereby rendered suspect.) And where a history professor can author a column in that same newspaper politely shining the light of day on the speech's distortions and falsehoods, and calling the columnist to account for endorsing it without question. (Links unfortunately lead behind a paywall; check the July 6 and July 10 opinion pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette if you want the full story.)

As a wise man once said, I will defend to the death the right of these people to believe whatever hateful, self-serving nonsense they prefer -- even to shout it from the rooftops through any mass media they can harness to their cause. And I'll exercise vigorously my right to broadcast why they're horribly, harmfully wrong, and encourage everyone I know to do likewise.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A new obsession

A few weeks ago, we checked out a library book on backgammon for Archer. A few nights ago, he suddenly appeared in the living room after bedtime with a piece of cut-out paper in his hand -- a doubling cube he had drawn and wanted me to tape together. The boy clearly wanted to play backgammon. And so today, while Noel and Cady Gray went to Despicable Me, I took Archer to Target and bought him a backgammon set.

There's no shortage of games to which Archer could happily devote a lifetime of immersing himself in strategy. And there's nothing he'd rather do. Every time we go to the library, every time we pack books into a backpack for him to take to church or on a trip, he asks automatically, "Did you get a chess book?" With the same single-mindedness, he endlessly turns the pages of books on card games, dominoes, marbles, and pinball.

Games are a structured, rule-governed environment in which Archer can interact with anyone -- his peers, adults, family members. He is drawn to them as if by an irresistible force of gravity. I'd be surprised if his love for games didn't last a lifetime. I just hope he's able to achieve both the socialization and the mastery that he craves.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Just a number

All of a sudden this week, the world seems determined to tell me I'm old. We started watching the hilarious (and dreadfully profane) Louis on HBO, and Louis C.K. was talking about how he's in irreversible decline in his early 40's. An Olay Regenerist commercial on the Weather Channel a few mornings ago urged me to "defy" my age, and the beautiful spokesmodel asserted, "I'm 42."

What are these people talking about? I'm 44, about to turn 45. Yes, the gray hairs have started appearing, and I can look forward to a distinguished coif in a short while. The view in the mirror is going to be really different in a few years, and I'm not sure if I'm reconciled to that after a couple of decades of minimal change.

But old is exactly what I don't feel. Or feel like I look. Listen, I don't want to brag, but nearsighted campus visitors have recently mistaken me for a current student. Who are these people on the TV telling me that I should be buying wrinkle cream and anticipating physical deterioration, if not experiencing it already?

There's no doubt I'm blessed with good genes; my parents don't look their age, and never did. I've been moisturizing with sunscreen for years, I've never been a tanner, and even though I've never been a fitness nut, I've tried to stay in reasonable shape. Nevertheless, the number 45 doesn't fill me with dread any more than 40 did. Nor does 50 sound so bad (although somewhat sobering). I just can't accept the judgment of these cultural voices telling me that I've entered old age, when I feel firmly in the driver's seat of middle age for years to come.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A spark of life

Today's entry about my first ever crochet project is at Toxophily.

After I wrote the reflection on trying to learn crochet yesterday, I made a little tawashi flower from my extensive collection of dishcloth scraps. And I confess, I've been itching to make another all day. New obsession? Thrill of accomplishment? At the very least, another tool in my tackle box.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

First steps

This fall, I want my students to reflect on the process of learning a new craft. So it seems only fair that I reflect on my first experience with crochet today.

My agreement with myself was that I would start the process of learning to crochet in July. I had thought that I'd be farther along with the class syllabus by then ... but no matter. A deal's a deal.

As I wrote last night, I have no childhood or familial experience with crochet, and having only learned to knit a few years ago, crochet seemed utterly peculiar and counterintuitive to me. I felt like I had to prepare myself for today's embarkation with some study. Last night I read through my entire textbook -- Teach Yourself Visually Crocheting. And for some reason, I thought I actually understood the process better than I ever have before. Perhaps my fumbling experiments in the craft prepared me for the explanations I saw in the book; perhaps watching videos (even though the crocheters in them always seemed to move awfully fast and know a bewildering variety of stitches by heart) had put the right templates in my head; or perhaps the book is just that good. In any case, I felt upon closing it that I could pick a yarn and hook and try a sampler of stitches the next day.

This morning I wound a ball of cotton, took it with me to my Wednesday coffeeshop retreat, and, studying the book's directions intently, made my first chain. Much like I've always thought it was discouraging to teach knitters to cast on first thing -- it's a process you don't use all that often, it's not knitting, and it delays getting to what you actually want to learn -- I found starting with the foundation chain alarmingly dispiriting. It wasn't chaining that made me anxious; it was trying to see the parts of the chain clearly, and counting the links. Nevertheless, I forged on with my treble crochets. When I got to the end, I tried a turning chain. Onward through single crochets, double crochets, and half-double crochets. After I got back to the treble crochet row, I stopped and looked at what I'd done.

It looked like crochet. The movements were becoming more natural. I had started to believe I could remember which stitches had yarn-overs where. But my sampler was too narrow. I unzipped it, rolled the yarn back up, and started again with a longer foundation chain.

This time I felt better about my understanding of the chain. And the crocheting went quickly. But when I stopped at about the same point, I found that I had lost two stitches somewhere along the way. I looked carefully to try to understand where. It looked like I had missed a stitch in the middle of a row at one point, and maybe mistakenly started with the second stitch at another point ... or maybe missed crocheting into the turning chain at the end of a row, it was hard to tell.

I ripped it out again. I have nothing to show for my hour of crocheting -- no swatch, no scarf in process. But something changed today nevertheless. The stitches made sense. The hand movements started to come naturally. There's still some trick or some taking-care that I am missing -- something akin to the knowledge, so rarely imparted to the new knitter, that if you turn your work and the yarn is at the back, you're going to add an extra stitch because that first stitch is pulled over and is going to look like two on the left needle. But you're not a failure as a knitter because your first piece grows every row, unintentionally. You are just in need of that next step of awareness or information that will keep your stitches at the right number.

And so, faster than I had thought possible, I am a crocheter. The world of crochet seems open before me. I am confident that I can figure out what I need to figure out, YouTube and Ravelry what still doesn't make sense. Launching into learning a new skill -- or teaching it to yourself -- is always a bit dicey right at the beginning. What if you don't get it? Does that mean that your learning and growing days are over? So it's a relief to find that I'm still able to pick up something new. I am still a student. I am still learning.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Perpetual student

As preparation for the course on the handcrafting movement that I'm teaching this fall, I've asked all the students to learn a new craft. Those who don't know how to knit are teaching themselves basic knitting. Those who know how to knit but don't know crochet are teaching themselves basic crochet. And those who answered my questionnaire with the information that they know both crafts already, I'm asking to up their game on the craft at which they consider themselves less proficient.

I didn't exempt myself from the requirement. And so I'm teaching myself crochet this summer.

My experience with crochet is almost non-existent. I never picked up a hook as a kid, while my grandmother did teach me enough knitting for me to work on the traditional trapezoidal swatch while onstage in a kindergarten play. I did some sloppy work around the neckline and armholes of a top for Cady Gray a while back. And lately I made a couple of chain loops for washcloths, feeling my way through it with more instinct than technique.

I know a lot of people who consider crochet easier than knitting. I don't get that. First off, in knitting there are two stitches -- knit and purl. There seem to be dozens of ways to put various numbers of loops on the crochet hook and draw them through, confusingly named single, double, half-double, treble, etc. In knitting, the stitches are all there on the needle waiting for you to knit them. You know what your next move will be -- it's the next live loop on the left needle. No ambiguity. In crochet, though, there are no stitches waiting. You create the next stitch into whatever space you choose. The loop on your hook is the remnant of the stitch just made, not the road map to the next one. It's a vertiginous experience. There's no clarity about where to go.

I've been watching and reading carefully about crochet, and some things are starting to make more sense to me -- or at least, I can see the outlines of the sense they might someday make. But there's no substitute for grabbing a hook and some yarn, and making some mistakes. I'm hoping that if I work steadily this month on mastering some basics and wrapping my head around the process, I'll be able to work my way through a simple pattern -- like a granny square -- before class starts in the fall. The prospect of having enough crochet skills to make something has made me greedy; I'm marking lots of crochet favorites on Ravelry and dreaming about the things I might make. For now, though, the first steps still await me.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What I missed most

We were only gone on vacation for five days. When we got back, it felt like we'd been gone longer -- we had packed a lot of relaxation into those days (and the last one was very long, what with seven total hours of driving and a birthday party in the middle of it). But waking up the next morning, it felt like we'd never left.

Here's what I missed most about home life during our trip:
  • TiVo. We had to watch some TV during the trip -- I was writing up So You Think You Can Dance for the TV Club -- and it made me strangely anxious not being able to pause or fast-forward. Or have anything on tap to watch during idle moments.
  • Knitting choices. I took two projects with me: a long-suffering pair of socks (finally restarted, on the home stretch) and a new lace scarf. What I didn't have was a choice of large gauge project, like my worsted-weight brioche stitch scarf or my hoodie vest. And I didn't have my yarn to inspire me with dreams of projects to come.
  • Wii. Our kids were fantastic on the trip, enjoying the simple pleasures of comic books, card and board games, swimming, sports, and wandering around outdoors inventing amusements. But I missed Archer's enthusiastic explanations of the intricacies of pinball machines in his Gottlieb Hall of Fame game (the current favorite), and Cady Gray's excitement over a new species in Endless Ocean.
  • Internet. It's hard to overestimate how much internet access means to me. It's connections with friends and colleagues, planning on Ravelry for what to knit next, doing research, having information at my fingertips, writing every day.
I like my connected lifestyle, with its choices and conveniences. Even though I couldn't have asked for a more comfortable or restful vacation, some of the little things I love about home are even better given the chance to experience life without them.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Today's the Fourth, but tomorrow's the Monday after the Fourth. Which means that I don't have to go to work.

But I haven't had to go to work in a week, because we've been on vacation. So how best to use a day when nobody's expecting me anywhere?

I'd feel bad taking a day -- or half a day, at least -- to hang out at the coffeeshop. But tomorrow's kind of a special case. First, everybody needs a vacation from vacation, as you well know. For me that means some concentrated time with my own work, which is not necessarily the work I do at the office.

Second, that work involves deadlines. Tomorrow I have two of them, and I need time not only for the research I'd normally dive into during a coffeeshop day, but also for writing those two pieces. And third, if I bail on the home front, Noel's not left supervising two kids and trying to get his workload covered at the same time, because Archer's going to a day camp on my university's campus next week.

So all things considered, it's the perfect day for me to put my nose to the grindstone. And that's my version of a perfect holiday.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

At last

After a very long day of celebration and travel, we're back home and thrilled to have access to wi-fi and TiVo again. I'll have plenty of pictures of our wonderful trip in the days to come, but for now, here's an image that would have gone well with yesterday's blog if I had had access to Flickr at the time:


Friday, July 2, 2010

How to up your rating

From the point of view of our children, the two big attractions of our vacation were our morning whiffle-ball games and our afternoon swims. The villas here at the state park are nestled at the treeline in a semi-circle around the crown of a hill, which is completely covered by a large grassy field. Every morning we took our plastic ball and bat and our rubber bases out to the middle of that field and played three innings of baseball. The teams were ever-shifting, but Archer as the leader dubbed them the Archer Geniuses and the Noel Papers (later renamed the Noel Reds by Cady Gray). After the three-inning mini-games were up, Cady Gray knit one row for each inning on her latest project, and Archer recorded the box scores.

Every afternoon we made our way to the park's inn and conference center for a swim in its outdoor pool. Nothing special -- a small and shallow pool with water not much cooler than the (quite warm) air temperature -- but the kids loved it. They invented games and commandeered us to participate; they played along with our efforts to help them progress with their swimming and water-safety comfort level; and they chattered absolutely non-stop about the fun they were having. From day one to day three, they became bolder in the water, venturing on their tiptoes into water that lapped above their chins, and ceasing to cling to us desperately as they practice their strokes. We spent an hour there each afternoon, and naturally the kids would have stayed much longer if we'd allowed it.

This morning I asked Archer and Cady Gray to rate the vacation from 1 to 5 (a common Archer scale). Cady Gray gave it a "5 plus," but Archer, always cautious about keeping his options open, scored it a 4. I asked him how the trip could rise to a 5 rating by the end of the day, and he suggested another swim. Not a problem, big man.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Local yarn

We don't have a yarn shop in our town anymore. The beautiful shop that used to occupy a prime downtown location closed up a couple of years ago because of health issues in the proprietor's family. So a key element to some people's knitting addiction has been missing from Cady Gray's inauguration into the craft. There's no yarn store for her to visit, where she can fondle various fibers and be inspired by color.

Today my enabling mother-in-law took us to a lovely little shop in Dickson, just outside the park boundaries. Yarn Frenzy was everything you want a yarn store to be -- packed with yarns from all over the world, in all sorts of weights, colors, and fibers. As Cady Gray and I made our way slowly around the floor-to-ceiling shelves, I could see her sense of the possible firing on all cylinders. She strained for a high shelf, and I asked her what color of Berroco Pure Pima she was reaching for. "That red," she said decisively. And I thought: There's a girl who wants to take the burst of energy her eyes have perceived and turn it into something that has a texture, a feel, a weight, a tangibility.

She gravitated to a jacquard-patterned wool for a pair of funky wristers. I picked up two balls of long-repeat fingering-weight yarn in the deep shades of green I see in the woods, grasses, and lakes of Montgomery Bell State Park at summer's height, for a scarf to remember. And I realize with a jolt what she's been missing. It's a craft for all the senses, and it's a real shame not to immerse yourself physically in all its possibilities.