Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ready to rock and roll

I've participated in Dish Rag Tag every year since 2007.  The competition is a relay race in which each member of a team gets a box with a completed dishcloth and yarn, keeps the dishcloth, knits a new dishcloth with the yarn, and sends the new dishcloth and more yarn on to the next member.  The first team to get the box back to the starting point wins.  In a sure case of beginner's luck, I was on the second place team in the race's inaugural year.  Since then I haven't been back near the winner's circle.

After three years of competition, I figured it was time for me to share my experience with others.  So I volunteered to be a team captain this year for the fourth installment: Revenge of Dish Rag Tag.  My team has members from Pennsylvania to California.  As captain, my responsibility is to coordinate strategy -- especially the order in which the box will be mailed from knitter to knitter -- and to facilitate communication.

It's not a hard job, especially with the specialized tools that the Dish Rag Tag coordinator, Emily Ivey, has built into her website.  The fun of Dish Rag Tag is tracking the box as it crisscrosses the country, and marveling as members of your team knit like mad to finish the dishcloth in a matter of hours, sometimes managing to get the box back underway the same day as they receive it.

Five Alarm Fire -- my team, named (as is customary) in honor of its original designation as Team #5 --  has a winning strategy and an enthusiastic group of knitters scattered nationwide.  As of today, the opening salvo of dishcloths have been mailed to team captains from Dish Rag Tag headquarters.  You can follow our progress on the sidebar, where a widget will track how much of the race is completed.  I'm hoping to get the box in a couple of days, drop everything, knit a dishcloth, and send it to my first teammate -- fulfilling my duty to get the team off to a good start.  Game on!

Monday, August 30, 2010

The limitless classroom

I've frequently had students keep blogs during my classes.  The idea has been to give them a place to post their own writing that's accessible to the larger world.  Writing to a real audience changes the academic game and makes the task of communicating more urgent.

For my handcrafting seminar this semester, I'm doing something different.  This class emphasizes the collective journey we're taking into the world of making things by hand.  So I've created a multi-author blog, Craft Wisely, where all the students will post.

So that there won't be fifteen posts every week, and to divide up labor, I've assigned the students to groups of three or four people each.  The groups will rotate posting duties week by week, with each student in the assigned group posting his or her own thoughts.  On a parallel rotation, groups will record podcasts with each other to discuss class topics and ideas; those will be posted on the blog as well.

I hope you'll subscribe to Craft Wisely and follow the students' journey there during this semester.  They bring different skills and are starting from different places on their trek into the world of handmaking.  I expect this shared record to be diverse, interesting, and possibly occasionally enlightening.  Please join us there starting next week, when the first student posts will appear, and comment boldly -- the more it's clear that they have readers beyond the boundaries of the classroom, the more they will make connections and grow as writers and thinkers this semester.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

All our summers

One more video before we let summer go completely.  The kids had a wonderful few months and turned a year older.  See if you can see them leaving childhood behind in the course of these six minutes.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mighty swings and trick pitches

If the weather is fine, we will spend Labor Day at the ballpark catching one more Travelers game. Noel assembled a brief video of highlights and lowlights from our early morning wiffle-ball matches on vacation a couple of months back.  Note especially Archer's eye-of-the-tiger batter's scowl and Cady Gray's determination to cheer and celebrate regardless of whether she knew where to run.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sample sentences

Archer brought home some examples of different types of sentences from a school assignment this week.  His notebook paper was divided into fourths, each with its own heading.  The sentences in the sections, thought, have a lot in common.  (All punctuation is reproduced as in the original.)

"I like playing on the Wii."
"My dad only allows 1 hr. a day."

"Do you like playing a Wii?"
"Do you have a Wii?"

"It's fun to play a Wii!"
"We just got 'Endless Ocean: Blue World'!"

"Buy a Wii, they cost $249.99 at Target."
"Buy Game Discs."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fine points of protocol

Earlier this week, I spent an hour with new freshmen talking about how to stay on the good side of their instructors.  Topics included classroom behavior, communication, and shared responsibility.  One question asked by a member of the group was particularly cogent: "Will my teacher expect me to have the textbooks on the first day?"

It's probably one of those unspoken points of consensus, I think.  At least I've never heard anybody talk about it -- so I don't know, I suppose, whether there is actually consensus.  I told the student what I would do in their shoes, and therefore what I tend to expect as an instructor.  The smart move is always to wait until after the first day of class to buy your books.  Maybe the instructor will let you know that an older edition (that you can pick up used more cheaply) is acceptable.  Maybe you'll find out that you won't need one of the books until late in the semester.  It might even be the case that a book marked "required" turns out to shade more toward "recommended."  So I would never expect the students to have books in hand on the first day.  On that day I show them the books, I let them know that they are available at the bookstore, and I point them to the syllabus that shows them when we will be reading them.

But you know, I found out today that I do expect the students to get the books before the second day of class.  A couple of my students came up to me after class to tell me that they've ordered the books from Amazon, but don't have them yet and don't know when they'll get them.  One even asked if she could borrow mine to do the reading that is assigned for our next meeting.

As I formulated a response (no, I need my books to prepare for class; you'll need to see if you can share books with one of your classmates to do your homework until yours come), I realized that my expectations are more specific than I had communicated to the freshmen on Tuesday.  No, you don't have to buy your books before you attend class for the first time.  But yes, you have to be prepared for the possibility that you will be assigned something out of those books a day or two later.  So here's what you do: either buy early on Amazon and forego the opportunity to finesse the textbook list, or buy at the bookstore as soon as you exit the classroom and forego the opportunity to get a discount.  Next time, I'll be able to give the whole answer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Life unexpected

When I was a child, I never felt comfortable in a girly-girl role.  I idolized my older brother and wanted to play his games.  My Barbie and Skipper dolls were never my favorites, despite the outfits my grandmother sewed them to match the ones she made for me.  I couldn't fix my hair -- or my friends' hair -- in fancy braids or up-dos.  Partly from lack of confidence and partly from obstinate preference, I thought of myself as a tomboy, and took a perverse pride in hanging more comfortably in male circles than female ones.

So when I found out that my second child was a girl, I felt ill-prepared in a way that wasn't the case with my son.  What would I do when she wanted complicated hair arrangements or flipped over pink and purple unicorns?  Could I relate to her desires and obsessions, if she turned out to be more culturally typical than I thought I had been?

Six years later, those worries sound silly, despite how real they were at the time.  My girl is a real girl, but not a girly-girl.  She loves an eclectic variety of artifacts and activities, from Pokemon to comics to architecture to knitting.  She likes to look pretty, but she thinks that just about any way we dress her or do her hair is fantastic.  She's enthusiastic about almost everything that takes place around her, embracing the world with an enormous appetite for joy.  The heap of things I thought I was too inexpert to lead her through, is dwarfed into insignificance by the enticing mountain of new adventures we face side by side.

In some ways, my gender-based trepidation prevented me from other eventualities that might have daunted me, had I thought of them.  How to cope with intellectual brilliance.  How to respond to blinding love.  How to treasure astounding creativity.

We all want to raise happy, healthy kids.  Sometimes, though, I think it's not up to us.  Happiness and health is bestowed upon them, a grace so transformative that we tremble at the thought of it fading to merely normal luminescence.  Every day I am roused to respond to Cady Gray's ebullient happiness with happiness of my own, reinforcing and reflecting back to her a world of delight and wonder.  And so I am raised by her, happier, healthier, more welcoming to life, less in the grip of fear the less I want her to see fear in me.

Happy birthday, girl of sweetness.  And thank you.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

One more time

At the beginning of the summer, I carved out two mornings a week to work on long-term projects.  I didn't go to the office on those mornings -- instead, I went to a coffee shop.  And it's been a successful strategy.  Since mid-May when I started this practice, I've read and taken notes on twenty books and dissertations.  On alternate days, I constructed a new course and participated in my students' summer assignments.  Last week, at what I thought was my last opportunity to spend a morning at Starbucks, I wrapped up my summer by mapping out the next 18 months of the research project.

It turns out I have one more chance.  Classes start on Thursday, and normally the days prior are packed with meetings and preparation.  But tomorrow my calendar is pristine.  Not a single appointment, not a single meeting besmirches its emptiness.  The message seemed clear: I could take one more of those research mornings.  The summer gave me a bonus.

I'm actually a little at sea.  What should I read?  What should I write?  Having tied up the loose ends already, I don't know if I should reopen the project or unpack any new cans of worms.  But I've always been of the opinion that any given segment of a multi-stage effort isn't ready to be put on the shelf marked "done" unless you've gotten a running start at the next stage.  So tomorrow I'd like to construct a draft outline for the first paper I want to write from this research.  If I can generate momentum toward the next step, I'll be able to put the project aside until time permits more work on it.  Even if my bonus half-day doesn't result in a solid start on a publication, though, I can look back at 2010 as my most productive summer of scholarship ever.  And I can look forward to my two mornings a week out of the office in summer 2011.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mired in details

We faced our brand new students for the first time today, and once again I felt the tension between the processes we design to get education done, and the education that is supposed to flow through those processes.  As with all meetings of this kind, introducing people to a new institution, there's a fair amount of "go here, push this button, don't forget this, here's a tip, new policy -- be alert."  It's damnably difficult to avoid talking as if a facility for navigating the institutional corridors is the aim, rather than the pursuits that are supposed to take place within them.

Now, you do have to learn the language and get your sea legs underneath you when entering a new and complex institution.  But the problem is that you can't accomplish that by having somebody talk to you about it.  You have to get in there and do it yourself.  The best way for us as instructors to help is by providing easily accessible guidebooks and tutorials -- step-by-step instructions they can follow to walk through the processes the first few times.  Hand 'em out, or send 'em a link, and resist the urge to read it with them.  They're big kids.  They can read on their own.

In a week or two, what seems bewildering and labyrinthine now will be second nature to most of these students.  What will have been lost, though, is the chance to set the tone of our face-to-face meetings.  You only get the one shot to show what you value by making it the theme and content of your first encounter.  If you bow to what seems like necessity, and spend that time on logistics, the message comes through loud and clear: The important thing about this course is the margin width on your homework.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Three flights up

Today was move-in day for the new freshmen in my Honors program.  It's a day I look forward to each year -- an opportunity to demonstrate from the get-go what we're all about.  I go for two hours in the morning to haul their Rubbermaid containers, three-drawer organizers, new printers still boxed up, and endless mattress pads and pillows up to the top floor of the Honors dorm.

By doing so, I'm saying: You matter to us.  I'm an administrator with a fancy title; I've got letters after my name; the last time you saw me, I was pontificating about ideas and you were furiously taking notes.  But today I'm in shorts and a sweaty t-shirt, dragging those industrial-size containers of detergent that your mom scored on her big going-off-to-college Wal-Mart run up three flights of stairs to the blank-slate dorm room that will be your home for the next nine months.  Today I'm serving you.

The day has changed dramatically since I started participating ten years ago.  Then there were basically two groups of volunteers assisting freshmen to move in: Student Orientation Staff in their orange shirts, and faculty and staff in purple.  Now every frat, sorority, church group, and campus ministry descends on the poor 1700 freshmen and their parents, probably outnumbering them three to one, grabbing their furniture and pushing literature into their hands before disappearing out the suite door.  There's plenty for everyone to do, but I feel like the message I'm trying to deliver gets diluted.  Today I toiled in relative obscurity, greeting parents and freshmen but rarely seeming to be recognized, despite the central role I played in their admissions and orientation processes a few months ago, despite my name tag.  There are too many people and too many groups swirling around looking to grab recruits or at least brownie points.

I resolved to get less exercised about the situation this year, and hence I worked more on carrying stuff and getting my stair workout in, less on being visible or audible.  If nothing else, the non-freshmen working in the dorm today -- the mentors, residence hall staff, and members of those many volunteer groups clogging the halls -- saw me and got the message.  I showed up when others in my position would not have.  I did my part and made my case, noticed or unnoticed, for the nature of this organization and the relationship its constituencies should have to each other.  It's the best I could do on this increasingly chaotic day.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Autobiography

I've been working hard on some of these recent blog posts.  So it's a relief to me that the kids are back in school and likely to bring home some written work I can post, giving me a break.  Here's my first lazy blog post of the new academic year: Archer's "My Autobiography" worksheet.

My name is Archer.
I am 9 years old.
I was born on 8/19/2001 in the Conway Reg Med Ctr.
I have 0 brothers and 1 sisters.
I have 0 pets.
My hobby is creating board games such as New Monopoly.
My favorite color is red.
My favorite food is carrots.
I know how to play Pay Day and fast walk.
My best friend is Charlee Burnside.
When I grow up I plan to become a mathematician.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Everybody's working for it

For years there was not an appreciable difference in mood between my weeks and my weekends.  Other than my daily destinations -- office versus leisure centers -- I lived a very similar lifestyle no matter what day came up on the calendar.  People who looked forward with rabid longing to the weekend, I regarded with bemusement.

Then I started the No-S Diet.  Now I'm one of those woo-hoo weekend!!!1!! people I never understood before.

On the weekends I drink the diet soda that I love (and deny myself the rest of the week).  On weekends I have dessert.  It's not that I'm miserable during the week, when I drink unsweetened tea and refuse sweets.  I don't feel an appreciable sense of deprivation or sacrifice.  But oh, how I look forward to that first sip of Diet Coke and that first bite of chocolate.

The weekend now represents the opportunity to indulge myself.  And I think that the difference between weekdays and weekends provides a pleasing contrast.  Life should include tension and release, work and play, ordinary and special, workaday and indulgence.  I find the movement between the two, mapped onto time in the distinction between weekday and weekend, exhilarating in a small, regular way.  Those sips, those tastes, now are more precious and consequently more savored.  The same is true of the time in which they are permissible.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Many happy returns

It's Archer's ninth birthday today -- but I feel like I got all the presents.  Great news arrived in our offices about the scholarships we can offer to our recruits.  My co-editor sent me an e-mail letting me know that our book on theology and energy got rave reader reviews, and that Fordham University Press had accepted it for publication.  I spent the day having imaginative, stimulating discussions about the future with my fellow administrators.


And the two smartest, sweetest, happiest kids in the world went off to school arm in arm.  What more could anyone ask?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ready as I'll ever be

While waiting for summer commencement to begin last Saturday, two of the undergraduates receiving degrees struck up a conversation in the procession line.  I happened to be standing nearby in preparation for leading the march, so I couldn't help but overhear.  One young lady was talking about how she and her fiancee thought they wanted kids, but weren't sure when; the other was making sympathetic noises.  All the  contingencies about jobs, homes, graduate school, and so forth were brought up in more or less detail.

Oh, girls, I thought to myself.  Don't you know that it's no use trying to figure out when you'll be ready to have children?  You'll never be ready enough, and so in a sense, you'll always be as ready as necessary.

Nine years ago tonight, Noel drove me to the hospital.  Nine years ago tomorrow, Archer was born.  I was 35 years old, Noel was 30.  We had been married almost six years.  I had a good job, and Noel was building his freelance career.  We were homeowners.  Were we ready?  Not by a long shot -- not for what happened.  Not for a baby who spent a couple of days in the intensive care unit after birth, then returned to the hospital less than a week later for failure to thrive.  Not for a boy who screamed at the incessant blood draws until, by the time an IV had to be inserted into a vein in his scalp, he couldn't even produce any more noise.  Not for a son whose odd habits of spinning toys and lack of language led to a diagnosis of autism at two and a half.

We weren't ready for mixing supplements into breast milk, for speech therapy, for IEPs.  Nor for a child fixated on a calculator or a magnadoodle.  A boy obsessed with numbers, then chess, then maps.  A mathematical prodigy who struggles to understand human motivation and emotion.  An alien in our house whose creative perspective on the world stops us short and fills us with wonder every day.

No one could ever be ready for the decision we had to make shortly after the autism diagnosis about whether we wanted to have another child.  And we weren't ready when our daughter was born to have two children, not any more than we were ready to have one when our family grew for the first time, three years earlier.

There is no perfect moment.  But then, afterwards, there are so many perfect moments that you feel embarrassed at how much you are blessed.  Forge forward boldly.  Wait for the circumstances to be advantageous, but don't wait until you are ready.  Unless you want to wait forever.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I've been lamenting the end of summer for the past several days.  Today, however, was the first day that felt like the beginning of something.  Classes are a wonderful opportunity to begin again.  New students, new books, clean slates, a chance to do it right.

Maybe that's why I'm itching to start a new sweater knitting project.  I completed my Braided Hood Tunic just weeks ago, and since then I've been occupying myself with more crochet practice and with getting some small, easy, portable projects established that will be suitable for classes and meetings.  But as I get excited about embarking on the fourteen-week odyssey of a college course, with its steady relentless pace and its stack of books and its many tiny details that must be attended to every day, I have the desire to make something just as complex and just as long-term with my hands.

What I've chosen doesn't quite match that goal.  The right project would be a blanket that would grow gradually over half a year, or a lace stole that represents months of stitching investment.  The sweater I grabbed out of my queue could be relatively quick if I'm able to work on it steadily; it's bulky yarn and short sleeves.  But the idea is what's grabbed me: a big project.  A major project.  Something that will cover my lap and have to be wrestled around while I'm working on it.  A garment.  Shelter from the cold wind that might be in the air by the time it's done.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Catch and release


A month ago, Cady Gray brought home a minnow from her summer camp.  Minnie the minnow survived and thrived in her soda-bottle ecosystem.  But Cady Gray agreed that we had to take her to a stream and let her go before the school year started.


Today was the day -- the first somewhat bearable summer day, perfect for a walk over to the nature reserve. Cady Gray talked Minnie through the whole trip.


I had scouted out the perfect spot, where the creek passed under a footbridge. The water flows fast through a narrow channel, then spreads out in a shallow, still wide area where other minnows darted.


Cady Gray emptied her jar into the water, and we watched Minnie join her cousins.


We lingered in that idyllic spot, watching the silvery fish move to and fro in the water, feeling the breeze, listening to the birds.


As we walked back, Cady Gray found a feather. She put it in her jar as a sign, she said, that Minnie is where she belongs.


I suggested that Cady Gray write about Minnie. Here's what she just gave me:
Minny is a Pet that I loved and cared for. She swam, I watched. She swam, I fed. Today, I let her go. When I had my first pet, I didn,t want to let him go, but I had to. Now he,s a butterfly! So, I ♥ Minny!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The right start

One of the most thought-provoking reads on the internet, at least for a college professor like me, is Joe Hoyle's Teaching Financial Accounting blog.  I've gotten plenty of ideas from Joe's ruminations on being an effective teacher.

Yesterday Joe wrote about setting the right tone on the first day of class.  That's something all teachers think about -- or should.  As our opening day approaches, I start to rehearse those opening speeches in my mind.

My junior seminar on handcrafting is likely to be the first course of the whole semester for most of my students, given its 9:25 am start time on the very first day of class.  And I'm determined not to spend the 75 minutes talking to my students about how to turn in their work and what the class policies are.  Every semester I resolve to demonstrate on the first day that this class isn't about me talking to them, but all of us talking and working together.  And sad to say, most semesters end up with me reading over the syllabus to them, as we profs have done from time immemorial.

This year it's going to be different, I vow once again.  Thanks to an idea I stole from Joe, I have a fighting chance at making that real.  I sent a two-week-notice e-mail (and Facebook post) to all my students a few days ago.  In it I shared a few pieces of news and tips for success, pointed them to the course schedule, assignments, and policies already posted online for them, and stated some key elements of the philosophy I hope the class will follow.  Given that everything I would normally go over in class on the first day is already available for them to read, I don't plan to review those documents at all.  Instead we're going to spend that day reporting on the work we were assigned over the summer and maybe gathering a list of topics and questions we collectively hope the course will shed light upon.

In other words, we're going to hit the ground running -- with work already underway, with the matter of the course in our hands, with the ideas of the course set pinging around in our conversation and in our heads.  I want the first day to be the model for all the other days to come, not the introductory throat-clearing that students have come to expect.  And I've let them know they will be engaged in learning and contributing from the very first day.  They may not believe it, given what that day is usually like in college, but that's the whole point of expecting something different from them, informing them of my expectation, and then following through with the reality.  If they don't know this course is different by 10:40 am on that Thursday, when the class lets out, then I've failed in my effort to make it real this time around.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Show a little faith

Today's post about the elusive pursuit of confidence is at Toxophily.


Cherry red and white may be the colors of the Special Olympics Winter Games in Washington State, but here in Arkansas they're the colors of the summer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The rising tide

It's starting to feel just a little bit like summer is over.  Some students are moving back into the dorms, a week or two ahead of their classmates -- those who are in football or band camp or who have to attend leadership training.  There's more traffic on the roads.  Folks with bags full of just-purchased books are popping up on the campus sidewalks.

And the kickoff meetings for the semester will begin on Monday and continue for the next three weeks or so.  When the faculty is all assembled again, that's when it will be clear that our summer of scattered autonomy is over and it's time to pull together to deliver a curriculum again.

I always get excited about the new semester when the freshmen arrive.  They are starting their college adventure, and I love to be there at the start of it -- inserting myself into memories they'll carry with them forever, setting the pace and expectations for the next four years.

But right now, that's all yet to come, and what we're experiencing is far more like an end than a beginning. An end to days with big chunks of time that can be devoted to long-term projects; an end to vacations with the family; an end to sleepy summer days in a college town that loses a fifth of its population when the students go home.  I'm attending summer commencement tonight, the official end of summer classes; nine working days later, fall classes begin.  It's not that I'm not ready, it's not that I won't be thrilled when it arrives.  But let me mourn summer as its last motes of daylight fade.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mod Incons

A while back, Noel coined the phrase "modern inconvenience" to describe an exasperating occurrence inextricably connected to a technology or aspect of modern life unknown to our forebears.  And a few weeks ago, I wrote about the pleasures afforded by connecting Instapaper.com to my Kindle so that long essays found on the web could be transferred to a device on which they are readable and portable -- where I consume them on my terms.

There's one big modern inconvenience associated with this plan: sites that don't have a single-page option for viewing long pieces.  Without all the text on one page, Instapaper can't do its magic.

Now it's not like I'm asking for the world to change to fit the way I want to navigate it.  A single-page option, even if it's just a reduced-graphics print version, is pretty much standard issue for any magazine or newspaper that posts multi-page articles.  Which means that when there isn't one, I sit and fume for a second or two wondering why that site hasn't joined the rest of us in the 21st century.  Then I skip the article and resign myself to never reading it.

What's your modern inconvenience?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I'm going to confess one of my flaws.  When I see people who look lost, or who are transparently lost but trying not to look lost, I feel hostile toward those people.

I'm not proud of it.  It's ridiculous, unkind, and raises my blood pressure completely unnecessarily.  Yet there it is.  I'm sure it's because when I am lost, I feel like everyone is being hostile toward me, and I hate that feeling.  I hate not knowing where I am or how to navigate my surroundings.  My hostility towards those who act as I do in those situations is obviously self-hatred displaced onto them.

What reminded me of this today was a woman in the campus gym who was clearly making her first visit.  She got on the machine next to me, and as always happens, one of the attendants came by to ask if she wanted a fan to be turned her way.  Unfamiliar with the mores of this gym, she stared uncomprehendingly until he repeated the question and gestured toward the fan.  Then, during the rest of my workout, I was distracted when she got off the machine several times to retrieve something from her bag or change its position on the floor.  Finally, before I was finished, she got off the machine and wandered toward the treadmills, standing indecisively next to them as if waiting for an invitation.

Why was I annoyed at this woman?  I was once a first-time visitor to the gym.  I recognized especially the phenomenon of getting on a machine and not really being committed to a workout so much as wanting just to try it out -- I've done it many times.  But I kind of despise myself when I do it.  I imagine that all the people who are serious about their workouts are rolling their eyes at me, and so I put on a show of working hard and knowing what I'm doing, even though I frequently feel like I've gotten in over my head.

When I see people looking at a map on campus, or standing on the sidewalk pointing this way and that as if in search of a certain building, I make a point to ask if I can help them.  I don't feel hostile toward them when I'm in the position to be their benefactor; in fact, I'm grateful to them for giving me a chance to make a good impression for the university and to do a good deed.  But when accepted etiquette does not allow for offering help -- as in the gym, where we are all supposed to be isolated in our workout bubbles -- they anger me.  It's not their fault.  It's clearly my problem.  Hence my confession.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I'm never gonna set you free

Today's post about Special Olympians is at Toxophily.


Two down, and I've got plenty of red and white yarn for more!

Monday, August 9, 2010


I entered this summer determined to set aside time for personal goals.  There was a new class I was excited about preparing for, a new research project I wanted to kick start, and a lot of crafting in my queue -- including learning a new skill.

As summer draws to a close, I'm impressed by how much I've accomplished, but also aware of how far I have to go to accomplish those goals.  The research project is well underway, and I have a better idea of what kind of products might result, but it's also clear to me how large it is and how many facets there are, including a related and larger effort that might end up being something that occupies me for years.  The class has taken shape, but I can see that it's only a pilot.  A course of this complexity and about a topic rarely explored in academia will take a few years to get right.

What I've most enjoyed is spending dedicated time on these efforts.  And it's great to see some concrete products, like the knitting and crochet I've been cranking out, as well as the course syllabus, the stack of research notes, and the books read.  I wish I could keep on spending several hours a week on my research, but maybe it's possible to carve out a couple, while treating the time I spend on my course as development efforts for its future.  I know I'm lucky to have the chance to devote work time to projects I'm passionate about, and as my schedule becomes orders of magnitude more crowded with the start of the semester, I'll try to remember that -- and not completely lose the momentum.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Right down the line it's been you and me

Another day, another finished object.  The story of a wonderfully productive weekend, and the charity that will benefit from my crochet practice, is today's post at Toxophily.


It's either my enthusiastic model or a robot coming to attack the camera.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Wouldn't you think I'm the girl who has everything?

Today's post about negative ease, and how it's changed my life, is at Toxophily.


And that's where you'll find out what the rest of this looks like.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Hook vs. needle

I've had a grand time getting into crochet this summer, after the logic of it finally clicked about a month ago thanks to the fantastic book Teach Yourself Visually Crocheting and a long soak in YouTube.  As I work on new shapes and techniques, I've frequently taken my crocheting to work to pull out during my frequent meetings.  I've also crocheted at home while catching up on TV.  And while I've grown pretty fast with my hook (if I do say so myself), there remains one hurdle I don't know if I will ever get over -- one that will limit the presence of crochet in my life.  I can't crochet without looking.

I can knit without looking.  Very easily, in fact.  The stitches sit there on the needle, waiting to be caught and pulled through, lined up in a neat queue.  After enough time, you get to know your needles and your yarn and your tension and your movements well enough to whip through them while your eyes are firmly fixed on a speaker or the television or even a book.

But crochet doesn't have stitches waiting to be knit.  It has a previous row or round that contains spaces -- spaces into which a hook has to be inserted quite deliberately to create a new stitch.  Frequently, spaces are used to make more than one stitch.  Frequently, spaces are skipped.  You have to look at your work to direct your hook into the proper space.  After that, for a second or two, it's all automatic, as you complete the stitch, but then you have to look again to find the next space.  The space isn't waiting for you as an incomplete loop, the way it is on a knitting needle.  It is completed.  It is a self-contained design element.  It doesn't need your hook; it will not unravel if you fail to work into it.  It's already done.  To make it into the foundation out of which a new row or round will grow, you must invade it and transform it into an anchor point for the next stitch.  And you must look and choose and insert; the hook will not find it by sliding along the work automatically, the way your right needle can find the next unworked stitch on the left one.

I pull out my knitting almost every time I'm placed in the position of listening or engaging in structured conversation.  But that's only because I don't have to look at it while I work.  I can stay completely involved in the discussion or presentation, maintaining eye contact, and still keep my hands busy (and my mind from wandering or eyes from drooping).  Crochet, I think, is unlikely to have that virtue.  I'm more likely to look absorbed in my handcraft and disconnected from what's going on around me ... and I'm more likely to actually be that way, if I have to turn my eyes frequently to what I'm doing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The reading list

One of the tricks to a happy life, I often tell my students, is to find a way to make what you really want to do into your job.  By that I don't mean finding a career doing the thing you would do even if nobody paid you for it, but putting yourself in a position where the valuable experiences you might be too lazy or too scared to choose voluntarily are what you get assigned.

Joining a book club has that effect for a lot of people.  Faced with a choice between a slightly more difficult or serious book and the sweeter, more palatable entertainments on offer, a lot of us wouldn't read the book. But if we commit ourselves to other people to read it, we're often grateful for the push, getting an experience we wouldn't have had the discipline to choose for ourselves when there are more immediately pleasurable options for our leisure time.

I've been grateful for the A.V. Club's Wrapped Up in Books feature, which has enabled me to put several books under my belt that I now love but probably never wouldn't have gotten around to without the assignment.  The latest was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a formidably thick tome whose premise is about nested stories and intertextuality.  Sounds like a chore, no matter how many positive reviews you read.  But it was often stunning and frequently moving, and I didn't just admire the virtuosity -- I was delighted by it.  There have been a couple of selections for WUiB I haven't cared for, but by and large I have been so glad to be pushed into these experiences.

What assignments have enabled you to live the life you really want, but that you might not have chosen voluntarily?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Minnie the Moocher

Cady Gray's "Survive and Thrive" class at SLUFY made ecosystem aquariums out of cut-apart two-liter soda bottles and brought them home with minnow inside.  It's an ingenious setup.  The bottom section holds aquarium gravel and a water plant.  The top section has the bottle-top "funnel" set in upside down, with a cloth filter fastened to the spout, filled with dirt and grass seed and covered by another soda-bottle-bottom "dome."  As the grass grows, the roots poke through the filter and reach down to the aquarium's water, and moisture from the grass and soil, filled with nutrients, trickles down into the fish's habitat.

My girl has been reminding us frequently that she really wants a pet.  So Minnie the Minnow (so CG named the fish) arrived in a timely fashion.  And in the couple of weeks since SLUFY, the fish has thrived.  We have a thick mat of grass in the upper dome, long roots reaching down into the water, and a fish that darts around in a way expressly calculated to delight a five-year-old.

I looked up the life cycle of the fathead minnow, and found to my surprise that it can live up to fourteen months.  Uncertain that we want to try to maintain this soda-bottle contraption for a year, I talked to Cady Gray about releasing Minnie into a nearby stream before school starts.  She was receptive to the idea.  But of course I have mixed feelings.  She does really want a pet, and letting this one go just means we have to think about a more permanent situation.  (Maybe one of those bettas that lives in the roots of a phylodendron?)  And is my real motivation to avoid the death-of-your-pet discussion with Cady Gray by sending her minnow into the wild before we find it floating belly up?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Doing something about it

At some point, things get so ridiculous that you can't help blogging about the weather.  It's possibly the least interesting topic in blogdom, unless you have pictures of the country's largest hailstones to show off.  But when it dominates your day, what choice do you have?

So it's hot here.  I live in the Southeast, so for most of you who have seen a weather map in the last week, that's not big news.  It's really hot, though, even for here; temps were forecast at 106 today.  I've lived here 10 years, and I've seen some hot spells.  I've seen seemingly endless stretches of July days where the extended forecast had three digits every single day.  What we're having now is a spike up to unheard-of levels, a spike in a long stretch of upper 90's weather reaching back a month or so.

Last year's summer was the nicest I can remember since we arrived.  Temperatures stayed in the low 90's or below, and rain was regular throughout the season.  Quite a contrast to the previous few summers, when we went whole months without moisture and when oven-baked temperatures persisted week after week.

So perhaps it's only fair that we're broiling on high heat right now.  And frankly, as undeniably hot as it is, I feel like it could be worse.  I measure the heat with a highly subjective gauge: When I get in my car at the end of a work day, can I bear to touch the steering wheel?  Even though the numbers on the weather reports are singularly alarming, no day has yet failed the steering wheel test.  The wheel is hot but not unbearable, which is more than I can say for the hottest days I remember in Arkansas.  I don't have any scientific explanation for the failure of my steering wheel to rise to hand-burning temperatures, but I know that it does make me feel like I'm not yet living in the Arkansas desert.

Monday, August 2, 2010

It's everywhere

I'm on record as a Kindle lover.  My first-generation Kindle is always with me, tucked into my satchel to be pulled out at lunch or at the gym or at the coffeeshop.  On it you'll find books I've recently reviewed, upcoming and past Wrapped Up In Books selections, and a long list of Project Gutenberg books and other e-texts that I've grabbed off the web and sent to my Kindle's address for conversion.

Prompted by the elegant and astounding website longform.org, I've recently revived a neglected tool for my Kindle.  Longform.org selects and links to long form non-fiction feature writing -- from magazines, newspapers, and blogs.  You can send its finds to your Kindle so that whenever you have a moment to read, you have a collection of high-quality journalism waiting for you.  I find that I don't want to read long pieces on my computer screen; scrolling is awkward, the bright light is tiring to the eyes, and the computer is a place where I multitask rather than concentrate on a text for an extended period of time.  By contrast, the Kindle is exactly the place where I read longer texts, happily and naturally.

To make the longform.org to Kindle connection, your intermediary is Instapaper, a miraculous service that allows you to save the text of any webpage to read later.  Create a free account at instapaper.com.  Then drag the "Read Later" bookmarklet to the toolbar of your browser.

You'll need to set up your Instapaper account to send bundles of articles to your Kindle.  There are a few options; I think the service is well worth the 15 cents per instance that Amazon charges to receive a document and put it on your Kindle wirelessly.  Instapaper allows you to maximize your bang for that fraction of a buck by sending up to 20 of your unread items in a single file, every week or every month, whenever you have accumulated a minimum of 10 items.

Now go to longform.org -- or do what I do and add the site's feed to your favorite feed reader.  Mine is Google Reader.  Whenever longform.org adds a link to an article, it shows up in Reader along with all the blogs I follow.

Click on the "Original Article" link in the longform.org post.  Off you go to the website where the article sits on the web.  Then click your "Read Later" bookmarklet.  A pop-up informs you that Instapaper has saved the text to your account.  (If you don't happen to have your Kindle at any given moment, read your Instapaper articles on your iPhone or iPad, too.)

Pretty soon you'll start clicking "Read Later" all over the web, saving articles from your online newspapers and magazines and blogs.  And your reading time will be that much more diverse and enjoyable.  It's like stuffing your messenger bag full of newspaper sections and magazine issues for the next time you are in a waiting room with time on your hands -- except the selection's always growing, you only have the articles you're interested in, and if you're in the mood for Dickens, The Pickwick Papers is still open to the page where you stopped last time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


The weekend started with a problem.  I woke up on Friday morning, retrieved the clothes from the dryer where they had finished tumbling last night, and immediately saw a problem -- orange goop smeared and hardened on the dryer drawer.  If you have kids, you've guessed it: Somebody left a crayon in a pocket, it went through the dryer, melted, and now there were colorful spots and smears on the whole load as well as the inside of the dyer.  Actually, it was two crayons, an orange one and a blue one.  And there were brown spots on the clothes as well, but more on that later.

I spent some time on Friday researching whether there was anything I could do to rescue these clothes -- which included, most upsettingly, my Hey, Teach.  What I found was heartening.  So when I got home Friday afternoon, I spent an hour on my hands and knees scrubbing out the dryer drum with Comet.  Then I put the clothes that had been waiting patiently in the washer -- the load due to be dried after the one with the crayon disaster -- into the dryer and started working on treating and rewashing the crayon-befouled load with my Internet-gleaned recipes (involving copious amounts of Borax, Oxi-Clean, spray stain remover, and the like).

When I pulled the load out of the de-crayoned dryer, though, I learned that my problems weren't over.  Those brown spots had appeared on them.  Gradually the truth dawned on me.  Not only were there crayons in some kid's pocket in that dryer the night before ... but there was soiled underwear.  Cady Gray had dumped it in the washer without my knowledge, so they didn't get rinsed out.  There was poop in that dryer.

Back I went with my Comet, this time supplementing my sponge with an old toothbrush and a sample tube of toothpaste.  I found where the poop was lurking in the cracks and did my best to scrub it out.  And now I had not only the crayon stains to deal with, but the dried and set-in stains from this second contaminent -- not only in the first load that had run through that dryer, but the one that followed it after I thought it was clean.

Strangely enough, the affair sent me not into tear-my-hair-out frustration, but into problem-solving mode.  I started trying different combinations of cleaning products in load after load to work out the solution.  (It helped that my handknit came out of the first, pre-poop-revelation rewash apparently crayon-free, thanks to Oxi-Clean.)  I've probably washed most of those clothes five times over the course of the weekend.  For your edification, the only thing that helped with the set-in poop stains was repeated applications of color-safe bleach as a pre-treatment, allowed to soak in for 10-15 minutes before laundering -- this resulted in incremental fading and shrinking of the stains.

The mood extended beyond laundry.  I woke up Saturday morning, saw the broken divider screen that separates our entryway from the living area, and decided the time had come to take it down.  Twenty minutes later, down it was, after months and even years of taunting me with its dysfunctionality.  It could be that it wasn't my experimental and largely scientific engagement with laundry problems that put me in this mode, but the items I crossed off my summer to-do list this week, which included adding more insurance coverage for our home and initiating some other improvement discussions.

As I write, a half-dozen clothing items await their next round of Clorox 2 and agitation.  (I thought I might be done, but a switch to my normal cold water wash/rinse with a basketful of other clothes apparently stopped the stain-fading process cold (ha!) after the steady progress achieved with warm/cold over the last few days -- no improvement visible.)  At some point I will have to stop, throw them in the dryer or toss them out, and cut my losses.  But for now, I'm perfectly happy spinning my wheels -- because at some bizarre level, I feel like I'm actually moving forward.