Friday, December 31, 2010

The Archies: Fifth Annual We're-In-It-For-The-Long-Haul Edition

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

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

Previous editions: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Remember: Much like Time Magazine's "Man Of The Year," these need not be your favorite things in the world, only the top things in the world. Play along at your own site or in the comments, anytime through the month of January.

The Archies: Top 55 Things In The World, 2010

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Summing it up

It's been slightly more stressful than I prefer for the week between Christmas and New Year's, traditionally an oasis of downtime.  Our furnace conked out on the 26th, and finally got fixed this morning; in between we stayed warm with borrowed space heaters, but were worn down by uncertainty about when the needed part would come and whether it would work.

Still, even with that hassle, we had a much more enjoyable post-Christmas week than many people across the nation, who were snowed in or stuck in airports for days.  We were warm, we had our gifts to enjoy, and we could get out for treats.  I knit a balaclava to keep Noel's head toasty when he goes to Sundance in a few weeks.  And today, with the heat back on in quantities sufficient to keep a tropical fish healthy, we finally completed Cady Gray's most heartfelt Christmas wish (and the holiday video below).

So here in one tidy package are our wonderful holidays, from what we were thankful for to what we'll be writing thank-you notes for.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A snap -- really

This is a love letter to a product.  I'm not a compensated endorser -- just a happy customer.

When I heard that Noel had put an electronics project kit on Archer's Amazon wishlist, I was dubious.  I pictured a box full of wires and diodes and resistors, tiny parts that would get lost and break, the risk of injury.

Archer opened the kit Christmas morning, courtesy of his aunt and uncle in Nashville.  It was clearly something he was drawn to; "100 Exciting Projects!" he read with stirring inflection off the box.  And he could barely wait to get everything out of his stocking and be done with presents so that he could study the instruction manual.

To my surprise, this Elenco Snap Circuits system was nothing like what I had pictured.  The components were sturdy and modular, designed to fit on a thick plastic grid.  They snapped together like snaps on clothing, with no little wires or tenuous connections.  Everything was labeled and easy to identify.  And because the large grid keeps everything in order, recreating the configurations in the project book is easy.

In fact, Cady Gray took to it as quickly as Archer.  The two of them have been snapping and unsnapping, testing, reconfiguring, and explaining their creations to us ever since.  And I've been marveling at how well designed this kit is and scheming to get the kids more of the same.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Making it new

I'm teaching the senior seminar in our curriculum in the spring.  The course is supposed to provide a culminating experience for the four-year sequence, and it usually takes the ideas from the early courses and puts them in a global context.

It's the first time I've taught this particular course in a few years, and the last few times it was feeling a little tired.  I wanted to rework it somehow, but due to the intensely experimental nature of the crafting course I created this fall, I had no energy to devote to thinking about the senior seminar until the end of the semester.

Other than a brief course description and a list of required texts, I had nothing on paper for the class until today.  This was the week I knew I had to start putting something together.  I would have begun yesterday, but I was in suspense due to our furnace being broken; I thought it might be fixed on Monday when a regular work week began after the Christmas weekend, and I wanted to get that taken care of before I started the big syllabus push.  But the furnace didn't get fixed on Monday -- in fact, there's still no firm notion of when it will be fixed.  It was time to get going even though everything was not in order at home.

So off I went this morning to spend the morning at the coffeeshop with a blank slate of a syllabus.  The first task was crafting objectives for the class.  They already existed in an amorphous form somewhere in the choice of texts for the class, which stemmed from a vague idea that I wanted to carry forward the intriguing philosophical notions of craftsmanship and quality from the handwork class. The objects also needed to reflect the student development goals of the curriculum, since the course is a capstone, so those goals -- scholarship, leadership, citizenship -- formed a framework on which my interests could hang.

Then the next step: identifying the assignments that would advance these objectives.  For the handcrafting class, I had realized late in the semester that I had too many assignments.  The students did wonderful work for the most part, but I made it impossible for them to do everything well by dividing their attention among several required activities each week.  So I kept it simple for this course: Three major assignments, each linked clearly to one or more objectives from my short list.

And the assignments also had other purposes, not so hidden.  First, they are intended to keep the students engaged and accountable for the daily work of the class.  Second, they require reflection on the ideas generated by the course and on the service activities we choose and implement.  And finally, they teach a new and useful skill.  I always want to leave students with a skill they can take outside the class and use in other setting and in pursuit of their own life goals.  That's what made me realize that I didn't just want to have students do presentations at the end -- I wanted them to do Pecha Kucha presentations, in the highly restrictive lightning format that forces the focus off of bullet points and onto creative juxtaposition to illustrate ideas.

When those structures made it onto the page, the course was well and truly underway.  The rest is details: what chapter to read when, what to do on what day, the text of journal prompts, surveys to kickstart the service project brainstorming process, group assignments.  There are a couple of weeks before the semester starts, and much to do.  But I feel like the hardest part of the syllabus has gotten off the ground -- the part, not coincidentally, that's the most exciting for me.  From a task to be accomplished, the course framework has now been transformed into an event to be experienced.

Then the objectives

Monday, December 27, 2010

It was the same old song with a melancholy sound

Today's post about potholders in living color is at Toxophily.

The end of the year is almost here, and you know what that means?  It's almost Archies time.  The Archies are my own invention, a freeform list of things in the world that have some meaning to the listmaker.   Good things, bad things, troubling things, delighting things.  The things that were significant to you, for whatever reasons you might have.

Get the idea?  If not, have a gander at my lists for the past four years.  You can find links to others' lists in the comments to those and surrounding posts, too.

There's plenty of time.  Take until the end of January.  I'll be posting mine as this year closes and the next opens, and I hope that you'll post your own and let me know where to find it.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A network of warmth

Today was shaping up to be an anxious one.  Late in the afternoon on Christmas Day, I noticed that the furnace wasn't working and the temperature in the house had slipped a few degrees below the thermostat setting.  (This is a week after we had a similar problem which seemed to have been fixed.  And this is a heat pump that is only about 10 months old.)

The repair guy was nice enough to stop by that same night and had a suspciously easy fix -- a drainage hose was sagging, causing the pressure switch to read it as clogged since water wasn't moving through.  He clipped the hose to shorten it and reattached it.  All seemed well.  (Actually, the furnace had kicked in and started blowing again just before he arrived after several hours of fruitless cycling.  Ain't it always the way.)

This morning, though, trouble again.  Heat had been pumping as late as 6 am this morning (when we have the thermostat set to push the temps up to daytime levels), but when Noel got up at 7 the three flashing red trouble lights were back.  Repair guy came back around midday.  The hose he had shortened had come unfastened, and he reclamped it.  Heat was back on ... but only briefly.  Before the furnace managed to get the temperature back up to the themostat setting, it died again.  When we called repair guy, he was apologetic but said that he had run out of options.  A new pressure switch was all that could be done, and that wouldn't be available until tomorrow afternoon.

Faced with the prospect of a night without central heating and outside temps of 20 degrees, we decided to get proactive.  I lit the gas fireplace in the living room, which did a remarkable job of lifting both the comfort level and our spirits.  Thinking that we could make it through the night without me losing my mind with worry if we had some kind of heater where the kids sleep, I asked on Twitter and Facebook if any local friends had space heaters they could loan us.  A colleague answered immediately; even though she was out of town, she had a housesitter and knew where her electric heaters were.  Noel headed off to pick them up, sharing with me a plan to get the kids excited about sleeping over together in the same room in sleeping bags.  Within a couple of hours, three more friends responded through social networking offering heaters; we took up the offer from one who lives in our neighborhood, scoring two large radiator-style units.

Throw in one small ceramic heater that Noel picked up at Wal-Mart, reasoning that since this has happened two winters in a row we really ought to have something of our own, and all our sleeping quarters plus the living room were being re-toasted by late afternoon.  By dinnertime, the temperature in the kitchen was back to normal, and the hall thermostat was registered an uptick of several degrees from its low point.  A virtue of a small house.

So we are snug for the night, with barely any inconvenience registering from our lack of central heat (other than some temporarily elevated gas and electric usage).  Here's hoping the part comes in and fixes our problem tomorrow ... but if it doesn't, we'll be fine.  Thanks to friends and Facebook, thanks to an attitude adjustment from worry to positivity, the anxiety that accompanies a breakdown like this -- especially for parents charged with keeping kids and guests out of the bitter cold -- has melted away.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The merriest

In the annals of happy Christmases -- and we've had many -- this has to be right up there.

Not that there was anything extraordinary about it.  The kids got gifts they adored -- Kapla Blocks and a betta fish aquarium for Cady Gray, an electronics project kit and Wii games for Archer -- and plenty more besides.  I participated in America's love affair with the iPad via the gift of a WiFi version from Noel.  Grandma Libby and Grandpa Alex arrived with ham and crafts and sudoku and endless patience for the kids.

What was so wonderful about it was its utter normalcy.  Because we didn't travel, I was able to participate with the rest of the bell choir in the Christmas Eve service.  We arose in a leisurely fashion and actually had to wait until the kids finished helping Grandpa Alex with his computer solitaire game before we could herd them into the front room to see what Santa brought.  Everyone was enthusiastic about the gifts they received, including the kids.  When I asked Cady Gray what the best thing about Christmas was, she said, "Seeing other people open the gifts I got them."

We whiled away the afternoon just as Christmas Day should be spent: building projects with our new blocks and circuits, setting up our new computer equipment, having a feast, taking naps, playing video games.  The fridge was full of food, the candy jar was full of what had lately been in the stockings.  There was nowhere to be, no one to please but ourselves.

About 4 pm, when a Phase 10 game was getting underway on the dining room table, I had a moment of disassociation.  Surely, I thought, there was something I should be doing to advance a project, some work that needed to be underway.  And then I remembered.  It's Christmas.  I can take the day off.  No guilt attaches to doing or not doing anything, except having fun.

Friday, December 24, 2010

How still we see thee lie

I'm not out and about much at night anymore.  When darkness falls, I'm almost always home getting into my pajamas.  Not for me the night life.  My colleagues talk about driving overnight so the kids will sleep through the trip, and I shudder.  I'm strictly diurnal.

So tonight when I go to the midnight Christmas Eve service at our church, it's a special occasion in more ways than one.  For this even I venture out into a new world, one that's cloaked in inky blue-black and alive with islands of Christmas lights glimpsed from the street.

Tonight it's raining and cold.  North of us there may be an inch of snow; we may see a dusting.  The raindrops or ice crystals on my windshield will add their own prismatic glint to the light displays.  Candles inside the church will shed extra warmth with their golden glow in contrast to the chilly colors outdoors.

I go to this service alone.  The rest of the family attends the early service with the children's Christmas pageant.  For me Christmas Eve, like Easter Vigil, is a solitary pause, outside of the normal routine in time and space.  Rarely do the voices raised in winter song fail to bring tears to my eyes.

Then I drive home with Christmas Day a few minutes old and find the preparations for the next morning completed -- toys on display, stockings stuffed, everyone in bed.  I sneak in for a few hours' rest before the celebration.  Those midnight moments are like an intake of breath, held in conscious anticipation -- not just letting the day arrive, but keeping watch for its coming.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas eve eve

The day before the day before Christmas snuck up on me just a little bit.  Technically the University was open today, although I don't believe anyone worked from our office.  Yesterday the place was still humming, getting out scholarship and grant notifications that had to wait until final grades were available on Tuesday.

I took the morning to do research -- a luxury I haven't had for weeks, and that perhaps I shouldn't have taken today, given that the syllabus for my spring course is still a blank page.  But in my mind I've relegated that task to the week between Christmas and New Years, at least to make a start, and to the week after New Years for the bulk of the effort.

My plan was to have primary source research on this project done by the end of the year.  Thanks to a lot of designated research days lost to various kinds of class work, I'm not going to achieve that goal.  But I enjoyed spending a few hours immersed in thinking about my topic and jotting down ideas to explore along with quotations from my sources.  It just whetted my appetite, of course; I'd love to do the same tomorrow, but it is probably inappropriate to leave my extended family behind to indulge in personal projects on Christmas Eve.

This eve's eve will bring some games with the in-laws; more crocheting on the final present to be made (which is going home with said in-laws on Monday, giving me the luxury of a couple of extra days to complete it); and wrapping a last-minute present that arrived today.  With the arrival of Noel's parents in a car loaded with gifts from that side of the family, the number of presents under the tree has burgeoned to an almost alarming degree.  One more day to admire the effect, and then it's time to haul out the trash bags to collect wrapping paper debris.  Which reminds me: one more day to find out whether wrapping paper is accepted in our recycling program.  Even though it sneaks up on you, it's easy to remember back when you were kids, and it was the longest day of the year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A tale of two teeth

Cady Gray lost her first tooth last Saturday.  No child has ever been more excited about losing a tooth.  She has been wiggling -- and reporting on the wiggling conditions of -- the tooth, a lower bicuspid I believe, for weeks.  It finally fell out during breakfast on the first day of Christmas break, meaning that Cady Gray will have to wait until early January before she can report the loss to her teacher and get on the Tooth Chart in her classroom, something that is apparently very important to her.

Meanwhile, Archer is getting the last of his adult teeth, and as they come in he gets more wires and springs put into his orthodonture.  I never had to have braces as a kid, and neither did my brothers.  So this whole process is new to me.   He's been a trouper through the whole thing -- at least, that's what I hear from Noel, who accompanies Archer to all appointments.  Thank goodness Noel has fallen on that sword for me.  I don't know if I could take it.

When Cady Gray lost that tooth, I confess that one of my first thoughts was, "Please let the new ones come in straight."  Stuff like this -- stuff I can't do anything about, that I can't prevent by feeding them right or getting them to do their homework -- is the stuff I hate most about being a parent.  I just want to spare them trouble or pain.  But parenthood means being grateful for everything that goes their way by chance, and stoic about everything they just have to get through.  A single loose tooth can fall either way.  For now, Cady Gray enjoys it as a sign of growing up, and I hope the others take their time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


This time of year, we usually take the kids to the drive-through Christmas lights display that the city mounts on an outlying soccer field complex.  But after flooding at that location last year, the lights were slated to be moved to the new fairgrounds for this Christmas season.  And recently it was announced that the infrastructure wasn't yet in place at their new home to host the display.

So instead, we drove to a local neighborhood where a cul-de-sac's worth of homes has collaborated to put on a computerized light show synced to music on a low-power radio station.  You can read all about it here.  The kids were thrilled and amazed.  Cady Gray got to see a frenetic display timed to the Chipmunks' Christmas song (a number that sends her into full-throated laughter, a delight to hear).  And we stuck around to see a Mannheim Steamroller type number that really showed off the capabilities of the programming.

I've written before about how much I love the lights of this season -- their warm welcome, their brave show against the cold and dark, their expression of hope.  It's even more special when those lights are so clearly the gift of dedicated people to their neighbors.  Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to decorate for the season, filling the gap for our family's lights-visiting tradition.

Monday, December 20, 2010


The day final grades for the semester are turned in is an anxious day for students and instructors alike.  While students wait to find out what they made in their classes, A's and B's or D's and F's (worst of all is the C, which makes the course ineligible to be retaken for a new grade), we on the giving end are checking and rechecking our figures to make sure every grade is defensible.

When I started teaching, I regarded grades as more of a character assessment.  A students, B students, C students -- I thought the difference became clear as the semester went on.  My feedback was mostly concerned with reassuring the A students that their status was secure and letting the B and C students know what they needed to do to change their fate.

Since I've become a convert to more transparent systems of points and percentages, I've noticed two distinct advantages.  One is that you find out things your intuition couldn't tell you.  Today while double-checking the work of my upper-division seminar students, I found to my surprise that a particular member of the class had failed to turn in several pieces of work.  This student had attended regularly and been prompt with some of the major assignments, but minor day-to-day work was spotty.  When I went looking, I found other lacunae hidden in the mass of work that rolled in every week.  A student I thought was going to be a low but solid A turned out to barely hang on to a B once all the points were totted up.

The other advantage is that when students (or their parents, or your boss) raises a question about the grade that was given, you have all the data you need to back it up.  I make it a practice to be generous with my assessments, not wanting to end up with a good student being bumped down a letter grade (we have no pluses or minuses in our system) for ticky-tack points lost.  And students who have been consistently subpar will get the grade they deserve even if I'm giving them a few too many points for each assignment.  When a student asks if there's anything I can do about their grade, I can honestly say I've already done it.

It's a heavy responsibility to sit where we do, especially for my students where thousands of scholarship dollars can rest on a hundredth of a grade point in their average.  Thank goodness I learned that responsibility demands accountability, and accountability demands accounting.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The season of giving

I shouldn't declare victory this early, but it looks like I'm going to get all my handmade Christmas gifts made in time for the big day.  I'm on track to finish the second part of my mother-in-law's gift within 24 hours, and then there's only one more small thing to make before they arrive.

Getting them made is not the same as getting them under the tree, though.  We're planning on sending boxes of stocking stuffers and the few gifts we have to ship to out-of-towners tomorrow.  That gives them the whole week to reach their destinations, but I know that if we were more on the ball, we'd have sent them last week and not had to worry about delivery times.

Noel and I took the kids -- separately -- to pick out gifts for each other.  They have a "behavior fund" left over from last year when we were using monetary rewards to motivate Archer to stay engaged at school (and gave Cady Gray the same deal even though she didn't need the incentive).  We've treated it like a line of credit and encouraged the kids to draw $10 out of it when each other's birthday's came around.

They've been generally enthusiastic about giving to each other. And interestingly, even though we've never used Christmas or Santa as a threat to improve Christmastime manners, I've noticed a marked uptick in thoughtfulness in the last several days.  At bedtime recently, Archer blew past me into his room with the remark, "I'm going to clean up my Mario Party 8 level," a reference to little slips of paper denoting a Mario Party 8 gameboard he had scattered around the room.

Tonight, driving home after dinner out, I asked Archer if he'd let Cady Gray play Wii before bedtime.  "Yes ma'am," he said -- a phrase that we've never actively encouraged, and that I can't specifically remember coming out of his mouth before.  "Thank you, Archer," Cady Gray responded, and Archer replied, "You're welcome."  It sounds so ordinary, but emerging from the darkness of the backseat as we drove through the winter evening, it was like listening to an instructional film on childhood etiquette.

"You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry," as they say.  I don't think it's the notion that Santa is watching that is leading to all this niceness (only a slightly noticeable uptick, it must be said, from their normally sweet and loving dispositions).  Rather, the friendly spirit of the season seems to have made an impression.  More "friends shaking hands saying 'how do you do' / they're really saying 'I love you'," than the imagine of a naughty/nice list, I'd say.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bowl of cherries

'Tis the season to spudify on the couch and watch other people performing athletic feats.  Bowl season has begun, and there seem to be more of them than ever.  Or maybe it's just that they have perplexing new names.  Right now we're watching the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl, which raises the eternal question: uDrove?

You can't tell the players without a program.  And for bowl season, the essential guide is Noel's 2007 inventory "12 Defunct Bowl Games."  In the three years since, the pieces have reshuffled and the sponsors have turned over, but I know you've all been wondering what happened to the Bowl and the Haka Bowl (the latter was actually cancelled before it took place).

And if you have free time on your hands before the meaningful BCS bowls start in January, you could provide a short history of your favorite frequently-renamed-or-relocated bowl in the comments.  This is one list that really needs a yearly update.

Friday, December 17, 2010

That's what friends are for


I love this piece of writing Archer brought home today.  The vocabulary is delightful, but best of all is the way he conceptualizes character traits as the abilities of videogame characters, able to be chosen from a menu and utilized to solve problems.

"Friends" by Archer
Friends follow all character traits: fairness, truthfulness, trustworthiness, honesty, sportsmanship, leadership, and kindness. They don't brag, are fun, and understand what I say.

It is therefore easy for me to talk to them. They are common. They even share!

If you are upset, your friends could cheer you up. If they lose, they use the sportsmanship trait to not get pouty. They aren't tattletales -- they use the kindness trait.

Friends are a cinch to get along with!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lab and workshop

Craft Wisely Red Scarf Project 005

My semester-long experiment -- an Honors seminar on handcrafting -- ended today with a celebration. The students knit, crocheted, read, discussed, wrote every day, recorded podcasts, and brainstormed with each other. They participated in two major service learning projects; above are the red scarves they made for the Orphan Foundation of America. Most of all, they thought about their own experiences in relation to the ideas in our texts, and worked hard to express those connections clearly in their writing.

Craft Wisely Red Scarf Project 013

I made some mistakes in the way I set up the course, and in some of the decisions I made executing it. But viewing it as an experiment, I could hardly be happier with the way it went. The students amazed me on a weekly basis with what they gleaned from our readings, the relationships they discovered during discussion, and how deeply they were willing to interrogate their own experiences, assumptions, and emotional responses.

Craft Wisely Red Scarf Project 022

This course taught me about implementing service learning. It taught me about balancing individual and group learning objectives, and giving students a say in crafting objectives and choosing among processes to achieve them. It taught me once again how amazing my students are, and how the insights I think are to be found in our materials are just a drop in the ocean of ideas that the students can synthesize out of what they are given.

What did my students learn? I think they'd say that they learned just how much they're capable of. I think they got a new sense of how they can contribute to their communities. And I think they now see ways of connecting the work of their minds and the work of their hands, to joyful effect.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mood swings

This is one of the times of year where I indulge my short attention span.  Decorating for Christmas leads me to see things around the house that need doing, and when I see something, I tend to drop everything and want to take care of it.

I was doing three things at once this morning -- getting the kids' backpacks and lunchboxes ready, starting a load of laundry, preparing for my own departure -- when I noticed the stockings folded on top of the mantel.  Immediately I felt compelled to take care of that incomplete task.  I dropped what I was doing and dedicated myself to hanging up the stockings.

Now, last year I hit upon a solution for the bedeviling Murray problem of ginormous, groaning stockings.  Noel's family gets really into stockings.  Our handknit personalized and sequined stockings are big.  Really big.  And the tradition is to stuff them to the brim and beyond.  No stocking holder, no matter how heavy, can stand up to these stockings.  Believe me, over the years I've tried them all, convinced that I just hadn't hit upon the heaviest-duty options.  Nope.  For stockings like these, you have to use some ingenuity.

My solution last year was Command adhesive large hooks.  I mounted them to the top of the mantel; the hook curves back toward the wall, creating security for the integrated hanging loops on the giant stockings.  It worked perfectly.  Because the hooks were horizontal rather than vertical, and because they were Command-adhesive stuck to the mantel itself, there was no danger of them being pulled down and off.  Best of all, when the stockings came down, the hooks unsnapped from their bases, which remained flat on top of the mantel unseen while the hooks were put away until next year.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.  When I pulled the stockings down from the top of the mantel to put them up this morning, I had to figure out what I had done with those hooks.  I had a vague idea that I'd stuck them in the junk drawer, so that was the first place I looked.  No hooks.  Maybe I put them in the basket on top of the mantel.  Nope.  How about in one of the Christmas storage tubs we had unpacked three weeks ago?  I rooted through the tissue paper and bubble wrap.  Nothing.

Now I was getting peeved.  Was my perfect solution -- intended to last year after year, forever putting to an end the constant struggle to get the stockings hung with care -- going to be undone by my inability to find the crucial parts?  What the heck had I done with them?  I was mad at myself and irritated that this little task that I had thought I could accomplish this morning was going to defeat me.

And then I decided to check inside the stockings themselves.  Yes.  I was that clever last year -- so clever I just about outsmarted myself.  I had tucked each hook inside the corresponding stocking before folding them up and putting them away.  Being plastic and relatively small, they hadn't made a significant lump or given the stockings any heft, so I hadn't noticed them until I went looking.

When I found them, I felt like I had solved a major mystery.  My growing frustration turned instantly to triumph.  I snapped the hooks onto their bases and hung the stockings in a flash.  Task done, problem solved, but more importantly, plan from 2009 me validated.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Window to another world

The best thing that happened to our kids this year -- at least if you asked them -- is their discovery of gaming videos on YouTube.  Forty-part walk-throughs of entire games with commentary ... speed runs racing through games from start to finish in the shortest time possible ... special levels, secrets, or extraordinary achievements.  It's like an endless documentary history of the worlds that so fascinate them.

I think the attraction for Archer, judging from the tidbits he shares excitedly with us while he's watching, is that these are environments with very clear goals, very clear rules and very clear exceptions.  This is his version of fiction, and in a limited way, he ascribes motivations and even minor emotions to the in-game characters and to the players.  Every so often he emerges from the back of the house to tell us about what he's seen, and it's all about how you get from world to world, or how many coins were accumulated, or where the infinite one-ups were to be found, or what boss is the most difficult.  There's a story there, albeit one starved of most emotional color and nuance, about how to get from point A to point B and what the notable achievements are along the way.

Lately they've been working their way through the various Pokemon games.  Cady Gray tends to favor the more colorful Mario game commenters -- she comes out to tell us about something hilarious that the player said, rather than what was happening in the game -- while Archer goes for a just-the-facts style from his players.  But she and Archer are on the same page when they watch Pokemon game walk-throughs.  They follow the accumulation of Pokemon, their leveling-up and evolution, and the journey to the various arenas to battle other trainers.  It's a quest combined with a sport, with collecting, and with an exercise in taxonomy.  Both of them seem equally invested in the story and the strategy.  I have to conclude that the combination of elements hits their mutual sweet spots.  There's memorization, strategy, infinite recombination, sorting, and scorekeeping.

When they watch the games together, Cady Gray asks questions about why things happen, and Archer answers with statements of what happened.  An example: Tonight they were watching a Sonic the Hedgehog speed run, and Cady Gray asked whether Sonic can ever get rings back after he loses them.  Archer responded: "I don't think he can, and if he touches an enemy when he has no rings, he immediately loses a life."  There's something there about the difference between the way an autistic and neurotypical kid interact with the world -- one wanting to interrogate the way it works, one wanting to memorize the rule book.

Monday, December 13, 2010

So close

Christmas seems to be upon us faster than ever this year.  It's not all perception and advancing age.  My university started a week later than usual in summer, and won't be done until three weeks after Thanksgiving.  That's a full seven days of holiday that was unceremoniously moved from December to August, and a full seven days faster that Christmas will arrive after finals are over.

And yet, because we're not traveling over the break, I'm feeling a minimum of urgency.  Yes, there are presents on their way (and shipping boxes piling up in the guest room), but nothing is wrapped and under the tree yet.  There are still a couple of people for whom I've haven't settled on a gift yet, even though everything needs to be on its way to the various domiciles of relatives pretty soon.  Contributing to my relative ease is the fact of my in-laws' visit on Christmas weekend itself; gifts and stocking-stuffers for his family can travel back east with them when they return, giving me another week to finish their preparations.

My low stress level is also due to the major events I organized in my classes this year, like the Conway Cradle Care hat campaign.  Until that was over, it was my sole focus; it had a clear deadline and parameters; everything else (including Christmas for my loved ones) had to take a back seat while it was underway.

Today as I walked to the gym, I was mentally reviewing my workouts last week.  I ran Monday, rode the stationary bike Tuesday, ran Wednesday, and walked Friday ... and I skipped Thursday, I remembered, but for what reason?  I knew I had pushed myself on my Wednesday run harder than usual because I was aware that I wouldn't be working out on Thursday.  But I couldn't remember what had happened on Thursday that made going to the gym impossible.  Then after a few minutes of futilely racking my brain, it hit me: That was the Conway Cradle Care party.  It already seems like it happened weeks ago, not days.  Such was the magnitude of the effort; such was the slope of the decompression after it was done.  I haven't ramped back up my organizational campaign for Christmas yet, because I'm on the downward slide from that full-court press.

But with every day that knitted gifts don't get finished (or started), with every day that I fail to make a decision on gifts to be sent around the country from online retailers, it's a day closer to a Christmas that is rapidly approaching.  I'm giving myself the rest of this week to get everything underway.  That's cutting it close, probably, for an ordinary year.  This season, though, feels shorter and yet less shot through with pressure -- out of the ordinary in so many contradictory ways.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Take a bow

Archer got to play on one of the music department's beautiful new Steinway grand pianos today. Noel made a very brief video of his end-of-semester recital, the highlight of which (in my opinion) is the deep and elegant bow at the end of the piece.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Every mother's child is gonna spy

Today's post about a last minute hat is at Toxophily.

It's two weeks until Christmas.  Do you know where your loved ones' presents are?  (I do.  Well, mostly.  Don't worry, loved ones, they're on their way.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Made by hand

Our society is divided into those who make with their hands, and those who make with their minds.

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So too is our education divided into the liberal arts and vocational training. We train the mind, or we train the body; and especially in the former instance, we sometimes find it hard to deal with the ways in which motions of the body are involved in the motions of the mind.

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There is some acknowledgement that manual skills are worthwhile in the sciences. More open and consistent are the fine arts; think how integral the body and its training is to the production of musicians, sculptors, and actors.

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But it takes only a moment's reflection on the athletic department, and on the debates it raises in the context of education, to see how thoroughly we tend to separate the mind and the body in our practice.

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One of the most intriguing experiences of my upper division class on handcrafting, now drawing to a close, has been the attempt to reintegrate the work of the hand and the work of the mind. At every class, students' hands have been busy, knitting, crocheting, winding yarn. At every class, too, we have worked through ideas in vigorous, sometimes knotty discussions.

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The last time we met, we engaged our hands in a new workshop activity -- wrapping our work for presentation to those for whom we made it. We bent our minds to the task of making sure everyone on our list was cared for.

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While I cross-checked our roster of handmade hats with the list of recipients, students came forward in a steady stream to assume the tasks of cutting, labeling, fastening, and tying.

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What connects the mind to the hands? The learning process itself, where we transform language and perceptions into understanding and finally replication. That day, as at every class meeting, someone showed someone else a new technique or a more efficient movement. The learner watched, formed an image of how to do it in his imagination, then tried it himself. So was the mind formed and the hands trained together.

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And then we used our hands to reach out. To pass along their work.

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To touch. To give.  To hold.  To lead.

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As we stirred, we were stirred.  As we created, we were created.  Connecting minds and hands turned out to entail more than our own minds and our own hands.  Some of the hands we touched, the ones that opened our packages and fitted our hats to their children's heads, will someday make something themselves -- re-enacting the images at the top of this post.  What could be a better argument for an education that bridges the divide between mental and manual work?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas, crafts, and Conway Cradle Care


A pile of more than fifty hats accumulated when we met for class this morning. They were made by the students in the class, the instructional team, and friends around the country who sent hats by mail.


By mid-afternoon, they had been converted into this pile of holiday packages, waiting for their new owners -- the teen mothers and fathers, and their children, served by Conway Cradle Care.


Ella, Natasha, and Anna arrived early and helped the organizers set up for the party.


Adrea's "Raspberry Beret" was a big hit with Sherry.


Crocheted beanie -- just like it was made to order for this little guy.


Lon'dynn loved her girly beanie, made by Christabel.


Kim's dog-eared beanie, modeled by Kaeden, was the hit of the party.



My Urban Jungle slouch hat had many fans, intended (top) and serendipitous (bottom).


Kiran rocked Carol's roll-brim hat with super style.


Kate made this adorable tasseled hat -- a perfect photo prop.


I may have to hire Aaron for my next photo shoot. Who could resist this smile, situated under a twisted-rib knit hat that I made?


Emily knows how to show off this purple slouch hat by Carol of Kansas City.


Ariel's black watchcap couldn't have been a bigger hit with Byron, who opined that it fit his day's wardrobe to perfection.


Marshan put on this green cabled hat from Twitter follower Amy in New Jersey and refused to take it off.


Ella got a fluffy cap crocheted by yours truly.


So did Lydia, but in a more grown-up size and attitude.


Deaira is wearing the very first hat Shannon crocheted -- which came out fantastic, by the way.


And Michael got to take home the hat I wanted to keep for myself -- Diane's gray heather ribbed hat in Cascade 220.


We all felt like Santa for an hour -- giving the gifts we'd made in our own workshop. From all of us (and especially Ella, Ariel, Anna, and Eric) to everyone who gives time and love to the high school families served by Conway Cradle Care, a heartfelt thank you for allowing us to add our small contribution to these lives at this moment. May all of them know how precious and valuable they are.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Making music

I think we've reached a turning point in Archer's musical education.  This past summer, after he became obsessed with chord structures, we re-enrolled him in piano lessons with the university's community school of music.  He's had a good semester, but he's not getting what he wants out of the lessons, I know.

It's a tough call.  Conventional music lessons emphasize technique and use the lure of melody -- the pleasure of playing a song.  Archer isn't as motivated by melody.  For him it's all about structure, especially harmonic structure.  And in conventional music lessons, that's not the first priority.  In fact, it's one of the last things you do at the basic level.

I don't think we can keep Archer motivated unless his lessons focus more on what interests him: the way notes combine to form chords, chords transform into other chords, and the sequences cycle endlessly in infinite variations.  What I'd like to do is to find an instructor who will feed that interest while getting him to pick up some technique and skill along the way.  I need a music theory teacher who will use the ideas inherent in musical structures to motivate Archer to learn to produce them and their associated musical forms.

Just as an example: Archer loves to transpose.  Imagine a teacher who would share that enthusiasm and use it to get Archer excited about performing a piece well, with the expectation that he could solve the puzzle of transposition once he'd mastered it.

I'm not sure I can use the community school of music system to find that teacher.  These are undergraduates and graduate students, not people who want to teach for the rest of their lives -- people making a little extra money while they pursue performance degrees.  I'm wondering if I need to try to find someone for private lessons, someone who is flexible and can work with Archer's particular mindset.  The advantage of the community school is that it's nearby and easy, a relatively low-pressure investment.  I'm hesitant to step out into the unknown and try to find someone on my own, but I'm also worried that another semester of standard instruction will leave Archer uninterested in further lessons at all.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Halfway up the well

I've been feeling pretty good about myself for the last week, because I've spent several hours each day diligently reading and commenting on student work that I should have read and commented on earlier in the semester.  I would look at my list, decide that I would read all the papers that had been turned in more than a week ago, and get at it.  When I resurfaced a few hours later, I congratulated myself on being so diligent.

Never mind that the group of papers I hadn't read turned a week old three days later, long before the glow of self-satisfaction wore off.  Never mind that in deciding to concentrate on papers, I was ignoring daily journal writing and revision that was already piled up before I started ignoring it, and didn't stop arriving while I was getting stuff done elsewhere.

I flatter myself that I did very well keeping up with student work this semester.  It was only in November, when the press of first-paper revisions and second-paper drafts started to overlap, that I started falling behind.  And here we are in the last week of class, I have several days of solid work behind me and feel like I should be on top of the pile given all the effort I've put in.

But the reality is that I'm hardly far enough up the well to get a glimpse of the sky.  That light I see is really a reflection from the water that's still just inches below my feet.  And my pride in putting in the hours and getting through the pile is mostly self-delusion.  There's nothing to do but dive back in tomorrow and try to stay at the same level -- or maybe slightly above.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Half a pocket

I've suffered through a couple of unfortunate trouser failures in the last week.  Oh, nothing spectacular -- no splits in embarrassing places, no underwear hanging out in public.  But rips and holes where repairs are of no avail.  Evidence that the garment has outlived its usefulness, evidence that should be heeded.

My distaste for clothes shopping has been a frequent topic in this space -- or as frequent as my infrequent clothes shopping trips, which I undertake only when I can no longer avoid the need.  I don't think I'm being entirely honest with myself, though.  The trouble may be that I like clothes shopping way too much.  I could try on infinite versions of myself, infinite stylistic variations on my look.  Maybe I tell myself that I hate clothes shopping in order to avoid falling into its sucking black hole of possibilities, time, energy, money.

What I do, then, is go looking for the bare minimum.  I want a pair of brown corduroys.  I want black cotton khakis.  I want, if it can be found, a pair of black knit pants.

And if I find the bare minimum that will fill my closet and get me through a work week, if they fit with reasonable accommodation -- a belt here, a cuff there -- I head for the register and count myself lucky.  Yet when I get home, I'm as excited to wear these clothes for the first time as if they were fancy party wear.  I'm as nervous about ruining them, as anxious that they not wear out prematurely.

I wrote a while back about the change that has come over me as a dresser since I became a knitter -- my embrace of accessories and flair into my utilitarian wardrobe.  And yet I haven't let that creep into my clothes purchases, for which the prevailing question is always "can I wear this every day?" rather than "would I wear this at all?" I have, however, grown skeptical of my own long-standing just-the-basics dressing philosophy.  Maybe it's never too late to change, although inevitably, as time goes on, it gets harder to turn on a dime.  So stay tuned, but give me time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not

Today's post about a scarf that turned out to be a gift to myself and to my mother is at Toxophily.


It's even more beautiful with my hair out of the way. Many more pics, and the whole story, at the link above.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Beginning to look a lot like

We were invited to a holiday party tonight at the best decorated house in the neighborhood.  That may sound like some kind of boast, but really, I think no one in our little rectangle of streets and cul-de-sacs would dispute the title.  For Halloween they fill their large corner yard with ghoulish displays, and for Christmas the lights cover every inch of the property.

It's the first time we've been inside, though, and what a revelation -- Archer announced after his whirlwind tour that there were twenty-six trees of all shapes and sizes.  Skinny hallway trees, full-sized color-themed trees, tabletop trees, even a rotating tree.  And in between the trees were garlands, lighted villages (at least three huge sets), Santas, snowmen, trains, carolers, twinkles and merries on every available surface, horizontal or vertical.

The kids adored the spectacle and would have stayed for hours searching for the Christmas pickle and peanut our hosts told us were on one of the trees.  The warmth and wonder of that house, inside and out, reminded me of a lifetime of decorating for Christmas.  I can't imagine spending a tenth as much time or effort as the family that lives there, but I do remember well what it meant to my parents and their parents to pull down the Christmas boxes from the attic every year and lovingly place each element yet again.

My favorite Christmas decoration from my childhood was probably a white ceramic tree, about a foot tall, equipped with an incandescent light bulb inside.  When we visited our paternal grandparents for the holidays, I always looked forward to the job of putting colored transparent pegs in the holes and watching them light up.  Something about adding light to a Christmas decoration made it magical for me; I felt the same way about a set of ceramic carolers my mother had, who gathered around a lamp post with a soft white nightlight bulb shedding light on the scene.

What was your favorite holiday decoration as a kid?

Friday, December 3, 2010


Noel and I have the enviable job of revisiting old television series, episode by episode, and writing about what made them work or whiff.  I only take up this job during the summer, when the current shows I write about regularly (How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Breaking Bad) are in reruns.  But Noel has extended his TV Club Classic shows -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel -- throughout the year.

One of the joys of this particular task is anticipating great episodes to come.  When writing about current weekly series, we discover the show along with America, as it airs.  (Well, sometimes we get advance screeners and see the episodes a few days ahead of their air date.  In the case of our favorite shows that are really on a roll, that peek ahead of the world can be so sweet.)  But when we're writing about shows that our readership, in many cases, has already seen, we get the fun of hearing from them about what's coming up -- their favorites and not-so-favorites.  In the comments to our reviews, week to week, our readers let us know their opinions ranging over the whole run of the show.  They look forward, they look back, they make comparisons within the show's seasons and episodes.  In some cases we're familiar with the show before going back to write about it, which means we can participate in the game of what's coming up and how it rates; in other cases, we're going into as a newbies, trying to avoid the spoilers that the commenters might be posting.

I tell students all the time that they are living in a golden age of information and media.  More of the history of entertainment and communications is available to them -- easily, often freely, or on the consumer market -- than at any other time that humans have been on the planet.  Revisiting part of that history in public, step by step, along with readers who look forward to each installment and play along at home, is quite an experience.

And Noel and I get the added enjoyment of watching the shows the other is recapping.  I haven't been able to keep up with two to four hour-long shows each week, but even though the full slate was beyond me, I asked Noel to keep Buffy for our evenings together even if he had to watch Angel during the day.  At the end of his recap of the hotly anticipated Buffy musical episode "Once More, With Feeling," Noel mentions how much I was looking forward to it.  Finally experiencing an hour of television I've heard about for years ... sharing it with Noel, who was also experiencing it for the first time ... and joining the company of all the commenters who have been anticipating this moment since the recaps started a couple of years ago ... it's the kind of confluence that only the Internet (and TV series on DVD) can bring about.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Season of lights

I can't get enough Christmas lights.  While some might complain about the early appearance of lights in store windows or on Main Street lightposts, I welcome them as soon as there is a chill in the air.  The twinkle and glow through crisp air transforms each night into a magical realm, as if we'd all become untethered to gravity and were floating through the stars.

This year I decided not to stress about the strings of blinking incandescents with their inevitable colors that won't illuminate, and went to the home store to get new LED lights.  Downside: No patterns of blinking.  Upside: bright, steady light that glows with Christmas warmth.  And no missing colors.

The great joy of this season -- and as good an argument for getting the Christmas decorating done early as I can think of -- is walking home or driving home in the pitch-dark early evening, and being drawn by the colored lights in our front window.

The lights shine out with the message home, and underneath that message I hear love and hope.  If we have once again put up our lights, if we are once again celebrating, then all the pain or fear of our time has not conquered us.  We believe that Christmas will come; we believe that the new year will begin; we believe that the darkness will give way before our light.  The lights whisper courage.  Joy is still within our reach.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In his master's steps he trod where the snow lay dinted

Today's post about the overlooked value of a unisex hat is at Toxophily.


Ever since I crocheted a couple of quasi-hyperbolic shapes earlier this year, I've wanted to know more about these alternative geometries, and how it happens that crochet is one of the only media in which they can be approximated and modeled. It so happens that the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef installation is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. If you are going to be in the nation's capital before April of next year, stop by and see a roomful of hyperbolic shapes reproduced in yarn!