Saturday, December 31, 2011

She defines the possibilities

Today was a highly productive New Year's Eve.


I ran a 5K.


Noel made amazing barbecue ribs on the new smoker.


And I sewed my first pair of curtains.

Full story of the last at Toxophily.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Smoke gets in your eyes

Noel and I didn't surprise each other this Christmas, at least not in the big gifts we gave to each other.  I put the sewing machine I wanted on my Amazon wishlist and let him know it was my heart's desire.  And  when I saw this smoker reviewed on the indispensable Cool Tools blog, I sent it to Noel and asked if he'd like it.  He said yes; I hit the buy button.

I didn't know much about wood pellet electric smokers until reading that review.  Turns out they have a lot of advantages.  I bought a little propane grill soon after we moved here (when there were just two of us in the house), but I was always terrified of the thing.  Turning a knob that starts flammable gas spewing out a tap, then hoping that the electric ignition catches before so much gas builds up that there's going to be a conflagration when it does, and worrying about leaky gas canisters ... it was too much for me.  (I have the same issue when I light our gas fireplace, which is why it happens so seldom.)

These smokers are electric; they plug into a three-pronged outlet.  You fill the hopper with food-grade wood pellets which are ignited by a heating element and burn inside a small firebox.  You can use as a grill, but with smoke doing the cooking instead of direct flame; or you can set the dial to the lowest setting which burns low and slow like a barbecue pit.

We had chicken drums and thighs cooked in the smoker on its higher grill settings tonight, and oh man.  The meat had the deep rose tint you get at real pit barbecue joints, it was ridiculously juicy, tender and flavorful, and the skin was crispy and dark.  So good.  I can't wait for Noel to experiment with ribs, fish, sausage, and any other cut of meat he desires.  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

You feel me on your cheek and on your sleeve

Today's post about my newest tool, and the uses to which I hope to put it, is at Toxophily.


The sewing bug appears to have bitten several of my students at the same time as me; my Twitter and Facebook feeds are blowing up with 20-somethings spending the whole day quilting.  Someday I'll write a post about how that reality -- unthinkable without the internet, mind you -- provides an important but rarely noticed counterpoint to the handwringing about how "digital natives" are a different species that will doom our treasured art forms like the novel or the cricket match.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pay attention

Noel made us some delicious sandwiches out of leftover delicious meatloaf for lunch.  While we enjoyed them, we watched the National Geographic series Brain Games.  The episode was about attention and inattention, and featured several games and illusions designed to show the viewer how focus, multitasking, and selective inattention work.

Afterwards, Archer disappeared into the front room and came back with his own versions of the demonstrations.  "Mom, I want you to pay attention to the colors of the poker chips on the table," he declared.  "Pay close attention!"

Then he put a poker chip on the table and ran out of the room.  A second later he ran back in and put in another poker chip, and then did it again.  At this point I began laughing uncontrollably, because the sight of him running in and out was so amusing and fast-paced, and also because I thought he was trying to simulate the "flicker" tests shown in the episodes -- stop-motion sequences where elements are changed while the viewer try to keep track of the changes.  He kept on bringing the chips, one by one, eight, nine, ten, running in and out as fast as he could, while I howled with laughter.  Directed to keep my attention on the chips, I couldn't help watching him trying to keep a straight face as he acted as the star and stagehand of his own illusion.

Several iterations in, I saw that he had something in his hand other than the poker chips, and idly I looked to see if it was still there when he came back.  It wasn't.  Noel, who was watching with amusement, said, "Is that one of their Pokemon DS styluses?"  And that's when I understood which of the show's demonstrations he was trying to replicate -- the ones where because you are paying attention to something in particular, you miss an incongruous element like a person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene.

"Did you notice anything unusual, Mom?" Archer asked once he finally finished his shuttle run.  "Were you carrying a pencil?" I asked.  "It was a Tepig DS stylus," he said triumphantly.  "That was a surprising thing to appear in the poker chip event.  You weren't expecting it, so you might have missed it."

His recreation was so exuberant, so inventive, and so perfect as a handmade, spur-of-the-moment version of what he had seen that I was overcome with delight.  Yet even better -- he grasped what the show was doing with its games for the viewer, what the point of them was, and tried to illustrate that, taking on the role of host narrating the action and director manipulating the audience.  Best of all, he wanted to include all of us, and the funniest part of the activity was watching him make his "I'm trying not to smile because my role is completely serious" face as he dashed to the table and then back out of the room, time after time.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Talk turkey

We ended up going to Noel's folks' place in Nashville for Thanksgiving after their plans to visit us fell through.  We had a great time and a delicious dinner.  But I missed one of my favorite activities of the holiday season -- cooking a turkey.


Luckily Christmas dinner is another perfectly delightful excuse for roast turkey.  And just as good as the turkey is what comes after: turkey sandwiches, turkey tetrazzini, turkey leftovers of all kinds, white and dark.

I wouldn't be so enthusiastic about roast turkey if the roast turkey I make didn't kick all kinds of hiney.  Year after year it's not only the centerpiece of the table, but also a high point of the meal.  You can't say that about every holiday turkey.  It's juicy and redolent with sage and rosemary and crispy, golden brown skin.


I would love to take credit for this annual magnificence.  But the truth is that it's in no way due to any singular genius or skill on my part.  I just follow Alton Brown's recipe for brined turkey to the letter.  It's foolproof.  It was perfect the first time I tried it, and it's been perfect every time since.  Brine overnight, cook at high heat for 30 minutes to brown the skin, then at 350 with the breast covered with a foil shield until the interior temp hits 161, rest for 30 minutes.  Bing bang boom.   Everybody sings your praises.


If you love a turkey dinner as most as we're all supposed to -- or if you've ever wished you could meet a turkey worthy of the tradition -- give it a try.  I guarantee success, because if I can do it, anybody can.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Right before he went to bed, I asked Archer whether he had a good Christmas.  "Yeah," he said in his usual affirming yet robotic fashion.  "How would you rate it out of 10?" I persisted.  This is the way to find out what Archer really thinks.  He will rate anything, and if he has reservations, the rating reflects it.

"10," he answered without the slightest hesitation.

Yes, it was that good a Christmas.  We were occupied all day with our new toys -- Cady Gray with her glowing markers and Mario Kart racetrack and paper planes, Archer with his Wii games and Angry Birds cards, me with the turkey for lunch and my Janome Magnolia and assembling Noel's Traeger smoker, Noel with his Fripp CDs and paleo cookbook and Sondheim lyrics.  If that sounds like a 10 to you, well, you'd be right.

I hope your Christmas was just as merry as ours.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

'Twas the night

Being home on Christmas Eve is a lovely thing.  As a member of the handbell choir, my traveling on Christmas makes it difficult for the church to enjoy bell music at the midnight Christmas Eve service.  So when I'm able to be here, it's not just me that benefits.

This year we worked through December 20, which left precious little time to think about packing or traveling.  Instead of making all those preparations and undergoing the attendant anxiety, I have sat in the front room with the lighted tree and knit a sweater, Noel has baked, and the kids have enjoyed each other's company.

Tomorrow morning we will wake up at our usual early hour, have a relaxed breakfast, and open a roomful of gifts.  I will make the brined turkey I didn't get to make at Thanksgiving, and we will have a festive midday meal.  In short, it's just the holiday I remember from when I was a kid, and the one I always dream of.

But there is a sacrifice to this kind of holiday -- the absence of extended family.  Sometimes Noel's parents come to us at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but this year they were tied to their home by an elderly relative whose alternate caretaker couldn't travel to take their place.  My folks have better, closer options to be with kids or in-laws around the solstice holidays; we can't expect them to make a two-day drive to be with us.

I've dealt poorly in the past with the pressure to pack up my kids and make that same trek, or even a shorter one, at such a busy and hectic time.  We've had some awful ordeals to make the family gathering.  I admit that I never want to do it again.  But my desire for a Christmas at home is at increasing tension with the passing years, and with the advancing age and potential decline in health of my parents.  Am I passing up the only Christmases with their Granny Lou and Papa that my children will ever be able to have?

When I was a kid, we drove an hour or so to see my paternal grandparents on Christmas Day for a second round of gifts and a big dinner, and visited my maternal grandmother at her apartment in town.  Later my Papa and Nana lived on our property, and my Mamie was in a nursing home about ten minutes' drive away.  I'm sure if that were my familial obligation these days I'd find a way to complain about it, but compared to the effort and expense it actually takes for a visit, I wish it were an option.  Over the river and through the woods for us means down to the airport and connecting through Memphis, fraught with peril and costing more than a grand at the best of times, let alone at the packed year-end season.

I don't feel guilty about staying home on Christmas and enjoying the coziness of leisure, church, local traditions, and immediate family -- I really don't.  But I know that it's more important year after year to find some way to gather with the whole clan.  If not at the holidays, then during the summer when schedules are looser and weather less treacherous and transport easier.  We're lucky to still have a nearly complete family tree with which to reunite.  And we won't have them forever.  Whatever the season, we can make it a holiday if we're all together.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Take stock

The end of the year -- at least around here -- is the time to start thinking about all the things that meant to the most to us in the past 12 months.  They might be good, they might be bad, they might be uncategorizable.  All we know is that they had some effect on us.

Every year I make a list of those things.  I call it The Archies.  And this year -- the sixth (here are 2, 3, 4, and 5) will be an interesting one.  Most things that happened to me were very good.  I have a lot to be thankful for.  But for so many people, it was a really tough year.  Natural disasters, the bad economy, a toxic political climate, conflict everywhere.

Maybe putting your goods, bads, and indifferents in a list with a length of your choosing will help you sum it all up.  Will you join me in making an Archies list this year?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That awkward age

I probably use the word "awkward" more than most English speakers.  That's because it's one of the words I write most often on student papers.  My high-ability freshmen suffer from chronic overwriting; they use twenty words when two would do, and twist them into the most convoluted and often nonsensical students you can imagine.  "Awkward construction" I write on a sentence that contains three unnecessary dependent clauses.  "Awkward pronoun usage" I write on a sentence that turns itself inside out trying not to commit to the gender of a hypothetical person.  "Awkward" I write, just plain "awkward," on any sentence that would cause someone reading aloud to stumble or backtrack.

On the last day of school before the winter break, both kids were invited to wear their pajamas to school.  I drove Cady Gray there, as I usually do.  "This feels awkward," she kept saying in the back seat, referring to the sensation of wearing inside clothes outside.

This afternoon, Noel enlisted Cady Gray's help with some holiday baking.  She sampled the batter for some primal cocoa and nut bites.  "This tastes awkward," she giggled, unfamiliar with the texture of unbaked batter and non-flour-based treats alike.

I'm not sure where she's picked up that word, but it strikes me as the perfect adjective for the situations where she used it.  Awkward is not fitting into the usual categories, the well-worn tracks of our lives.  Awkward is out of place, square pegs in round holes.  But awkward isn't necessarily wrong.  It should be noticed, but maybe sometimes it should be embraced.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Half hours of cheer

At this time of year, Noel likes to put searches for "holiday" and "Christmas" on the TiVo and see what comes up.  This year he's harvested a bumper crop of Christmas-themed sitcom episodes from all across the TV spectrum, from Happy Days and Bob Newhart to Becker and 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter.

The plots are pretty standard.  People obsess over getting the right gifts for each other.  They try to find the perfect tree.  They attempt to make up for the shortcomings of Christmases past by engineering an ideal Christmas in the present.  They get sloshed on eggnog and sing carols and do what everybody does in sitcoms: bond with their families, natural or engineered.

I find myself touched by this slow parade of sentiment.  Christmas doesn't necessarily bring out the best in sitcoms in terms of originality or humor.  But it's that family element that almost always comes to the fore and reminds us what our culture makes of its entertainment and its holidays.  We're too independent to be completely tied down to the families we were given, but we long for the acceptance and closeness and belonging that only family can afford.  And so all these shows hinge on us assembling something to do that job for us.

Watched all in a row, the message can't help but come across.  I'm lucky to have a family that loves me.  Especially at Christmastime.  And especially since we don't have to go through three acts in 22 minutes to get there.

Monday, December 19, 2011

By the chimney

There are many stories about why we hang our socks on the mantle at Christmastime.  Whichever one you choose to tell, I'll bet you have very specific memories of the stockings that were hung by your chimney with care during your upbringing.

Ours were made of felt and had a vaguely Victorian theme.  Mom's was a fancy boot trimmed with lace, Dad's was a manly argyle.  Then the ones for the kids were smaller and a bit more timeless, decorated with snowmen and Santa heads and reindeer.  We came to some agreement back in the mists of time which one of us corresponded with which decoration.

Those stockings were tiny compared with the ones that Noel's family hangs.  His stepdad's mom knit an intarsia embellished stocking for each of us when we joined the family, and each one is bigger than the next -- Cady Gray's would fit Andre the Giant.  They really go in for stockings in that clan, and stocking stuffers are correspondingly ginormous.  Even with all the room, there are typically bags full of gifts intended for stockings that won't fit, grouped around the stockings messily on Christmas morning, the stockings themselves having been removed from their hangers for excessive weight and laid unceremoniously on the hearth.

Even though stockings are generally an afterthought in my Christmas planning and execution, emptied of their contents only after all the presents have been opened, I still think those oversized socks are a central part of the holiday.  Without them, Christmas would be no different from a birthday party -- a pile of presents, a stack of thank-you cards owed. Every time I look at the stockings that have been hanging over our fireplace since Thanksgiving, I sense the specialness of the holiday: family traditions, anonymous gifts, anticipation, and all the little things.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Now bring us some figgy pudding

Some of the folks at our church organized a small caroling expedition this evening.  It wasn't a highly structured affair -- a list of shut-in members to visit, a series of nursing homes.  And there weren't many of us, and we weren't rehearsed, and we didn't have accompaniment.  (At one of the nursing homes we walked in right on the heels of a large Methodist youth group that had brought music stands and guitars.  Is that really in the spirit of caroling, which is in my experience an a capella endeavor?)

But we had heart, and a lyric sheet, and some strong voices.  Most of all, we had a desire to participate in one of the most iconic forms of giving that the season affords, or at least the Victorian version of the season that we all treasure.  And we had a cherubic little girl giving it her all.  We made sure to put Cady Gray, our only child participant, front and center so that our lack of professionalism and preparation would be offset by her indomitable cuteness.

Cady Gray, for her part, took it as seriously as I would have taken it at her age.  I used to love any occasion where I was the only child doing something with a bunch of teens or adults.  It made me feel like they had neglected to notice that I was a child for a moment, and included me in something usually reserved for people twice my age.  I always tried to act casual, like I belonged.  And I saw that with Cady Gray singing tonight.  She wasn't a retiring flower; I could hear her belting it out even over the big booming sounds of the choir members and youth group stalwarts who carried our tune -- even over my very loud voice, and I was singing as loudly as I could.  She studied the lyric sheet carefully and practiced in the back seat as we drove from location to location.

Noel is big on occasions where we can "make memories" for the kids.  This is the kind of memory I treasure, and the kind I want Cady Gray to keep with her long after she leaves childhood behind.  Singing with the grown-ups, bringing smiles to the faces of elderly and infirm community members, standing in a nursing home common area and having resident after resident wheel themselves up to listen in and sing along.  I hope she remembers how easy it is for her to make people happy, and never doubts her power to give so much joy with just a tiny investment of herself.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

What are you making?

At every meeting of my handcrafting class, we begin with ten minutes of knitting circle.  Students and instructors pull out their current projects and begin working while chatting among themselves.  The most common question you hear around the room, over and over: "What are you making?"

I gave a talk last night at the senior banquet based on some of the ideas of my upper-division classes this year.  The theme I used was "quality," and I talked about education and judgment.

But the day before the talk, I had another idea that I wished I could use.  I was sitting in a presentation room waiting for a thesis presentation to start, and a student walked in and sat behind me with a ball of yarn and some needles.  I turned to her and asked, "What are you making?"  And it occurred to me that this question could be usefully extended to the whole educational endeavor.

The talk was already written, unfortunately.  But I'm putting this idea away for the next big talk I have to do ... next December or whenever it might be.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Passing the torch

Tonight I said goodbye to two students who have been at my side almost continuously for the last two years.  Tamami and Ariel are the founders and have been the officers of Knitwise, the Honors knit and crochet society, since its inception.  They've been my teaching assistants in the handcrafting class.  I supervised both of their theses, which were about knitting.

And now they've both gone and graduated on me in the same semester, in the middle of the year no less.  Only a dozen Honors students finished their undergraduate degrees this December, but two of them were Tamami and Ariel.  I feel somewhat unfairly targeted, I must admit.

What Tamami and Ariel have done, however, is spread their enthusiasm and taught the next generation so that there are many students ready to take their place.  I've remarked to everyone I know that this was the year yarn-crafting exploded in our community.  We hit some kind of critical mass where people started teaching their friends who started teaching their friends, and where there were enough people knitting in classes or meetings that other closet crafters felt emboldened to take it public and non-crafters wanted to get in on the action.

Now I feel a responsibility to keep that community nourished.  Without Tamami and Ariel taking on the responsibility of creating and expanding it for the last few years, there'd be little more for me to nourish than the two or three knitters who showed up early on.  Now it's not uncommon to have a dozen or more every week, with new folks arriving to tell me excitedly about their learning process, and novices stopping by for lessons.  The circle is self-sustaining, and that means Tamami and Ariel can take their incredible teaching talents and enthusiasm elsewhere.  I am in their debt both as their teacher, their colleague, and their group's faculty sponsor.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Konichiwa, Masako

You remember a few months ago when I visited Tokyo and got to spend time with my dear student Tamami's mother, Masako.

This week Masako has repaid the favor.  She is visiting Conway on the occasion of Tamami's graduation.  And she brought gifts for my children.  I'can't describe how kind and generous she's been to them, even having never met them.

On Tuesday she did get a chance to become acquainted with Cady Gray. Tamami urged me to bring CG to Knitwise, our crafting club.  Masako had a surprise for her.


It's this beautiful kimono, complete with a matching bag containing a tiny bunny doll which is itself wearing a kimono and carrying a bag ... I'm not sure how far down it goes.

Aren't they beautiful? Am I not lucky to have a student who loves my daughter, who shares that love with her mother, who works so hard to bring special things from halfway around the world?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

'Tis the season

'Tis the season for giving. Although Amazon shipped most of my packages, I got to wrap a few things, sign a few cards, and send them off with the kids for teachers and such

'Tis the season for singing. A few people are trying to get caroling going this Sunday, and I'm ready to join in.  In the meantime, Cady Gray is belting out "The 12 Days of Christmas" every time she's near a calendar.

'Tis the season for cheer. Thanks to Noel, whose cooking and baking get more ambitious by leaps and bounds, our home is full of delicious aromas of food and drink.

'Tis the season for children.  While Cady Gray has decided that Santa is a fun story we enjoy telling at Christmas, Archer has twice told us, with great seriousness, that he knows Santa is real but thinks the flying reindeer are just fiction.

'Tis the season for taking stock. It was a good year, 2011 -- for me and for our family.  As we march toward its end, I'm looking forward to looking back.

'Tis the season for family.  We're going to be our own reunion this year; grandparents and siblings and cousins and in-laws won't be with us.  But that's all right, because ...

'Tis the season for home.  Ours is lit up brightly, filled with anticipation, warm and happy. What more can anyone ask at Christmastime?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Post-shopping plans

I finished my Christmas shopping today and sent the last present off to my family thanks to Amazon Prime.  Now that the gifts are all bought, my mental energy turns to post-holiday crafting ... which doesn't have to wait until after the holidays.

You see, this year I pretty much gave up on handmade gifts.  In the previous few years, I have spent November and December, at the very least, making scarves and hats and gloves and the like for family, in-laws, and assorted community members.  I've enjoyed thinking about their tastes, picking out yarn, and looking forward to the photos I'll get after Christmas of the recipients wearing their gifts.

But this year, all my knitting went into making things for the Craftin' for CASA Buy One, Give One sale.  I made seven items for sale and two items for donation.  Right up until the sale day, December 1, I couldn't make anything for anyone except the customers and the CASA clients.  There was a sense among our group that the more items we could put on sale, the better off we'd be.  And we were right; we could have sold twice as much, if we'd had the inventory.

When December 1 was finally past, it was too late to start a Christmas crafting program.  There were only two weeks left of gift acquisition and distribution.  After a few days flailing about considering whether I could get a couple of things made, I finally let go of the whole idea and let the internet take care of my gift list.

And that means that with a week and a half to go until Christmas, I'm free to start crafting for myself. But what to make?  I find myself browsing, dreaming, imagining, piling up the possibilities.  At this rate, I will probably fritter away my pre-holiday, post-shopping knitting window and enter the New Year with not a single new project underway.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Farewell party

I've never been good at ending classes.  I work so hard to form a community in the classroom, to have students work together on meaningful projects, to create an atmosphere that fosters change far beyond the classroom walls for the participants.  And then the calendar just scatters everyone.

Every semester I search for some suitable conclusion.  The typical final exam, with students writing in blue books silently then leaving one by one, clearly doesn't cut it.  We have potluck meals, I invite students to say a few words.  But it's not ceremonial enough.  I still just feel like we have drifted apart.  The momentousness of our time together fades away without a proper acknowledgement out loud.  I know some students understand it, and a few tell me privately, but it's not just their individual experience I want to honor.  It's our collective effort.

Do you have any examples of classes you've experienced or taught, or even of retreats or seminars, that ended well -- with a sense of closure and reflection, sending you away with a feeling of what you were a part of?  I'd love to hear about them.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Work you don't want to do can lead you to find other work, sometimes to a perverse degree. Right now I'm avoiding the intense and repetitive work of evaluating student work before final grades are due next Monday.

And what I've chosen to do instead is work I could easily have avoided entirely.  There are a dozen students graduating this December, and we're holding our usual banquet for them and their families this Friday.  At the May version of this banquet, when the numbers of graduates have sometimes reaches eighty or nine in recent years, my boss gives an address.  Several years ago, he asked me to take over giving the address in December, to give him a rest from speaking and often giving the same talk twice a year.

We're not going to have any December banquets after next year; the size of our entering classes have dwindled by a third due to scholarship cuts, and the winter graduating cohort will be able to be counted on one hand.  Those graduates will be invited to the May banquet in the same calendar year.  And so I've got only a couple more of these talks to give, and coincidentally a couple of talks already written that work in pretty much any year.

You see where this is going.  Instead of grading, I'm writing a new address.  In fact, I've probably done this same thing two or three times before during my time in this role.  I tell myself it's because I've got something new to say, or some thought I want to get out of my head and into a more coherent form.  This year I'm trying to coalesce some of the thoughts about quality that my seniors and juniors in the past two semesters have expressed in their final presentations, and give them back to the students in a form that will let them see the collection whole.

But really my writing comes from the same impulse that leads us to clean our homes, or organize our desks, or rearrange our computer's document filing system.  It's a way of putting off the work we don't want to do at the moment without giving up on working altogether.  Work that doesn't actually have to be done at all, let alone that second, is the purest form of avoidance.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


On Wednesday night, my students gave their presentations about quality work.  Many of them remarked on perfectionism; a few embraced it as an impetus to quality, but more used their experience pushing past their first imperfect knitting experiences as a indicator that they needed to look at other indicators of quality, like effort and intention.

A week ago I grabbed a spare hour from the kids while Noel was gone to Chicago, and I cut the fabrics for my next sewing project.  Midway through the week I looked at the pattern again and realized I had miscut the interfacing; it bugged me until today I was able to get out the pieces and cut them down to size.

Then I looked at the pattern again and realized I had missed an entire paragraph in the cutting section; there were two pieces of lining fabric I hadn't cut at all.  Luckily the fat quarter of lining fabric I had bought was really a large remnant, with plenty of extra.  But while squaring it off to cut those two remaining pieces, I separated it into sections that weren't either one wide enough to get the longer piece of of.  I had to piece it together, which was a first for me.  Pressing forward, I managed to sew the lining together right-side-to-wrong-side, with stitches too small to rip; I had to cut those pieces again, and it took me another two tries to get the bottom semicircle cut correctly.

When I first started knitting, I didn't know the difference between a mistake you can recover from and one you need to correct before you can go on.  I compounded a lot of errors and ended up with a lot of disappointments.  Now, I still have a momentary flash when I miscross a cable or miscount stitches.  I think: Maybe I can just leave it.  Maybe I can just fix it in the next row.  It lasts a few seconds before I resign myself to ripping back and fixing it.

Sewing requires precision at the outset, in the cutting and the pattern reading.  At this point, early in my experience, this stresses me out.  I haven't got a system for keeping all the pieces straight in such a way that I know what I have and whether it's all of them, and the stuff I know I should be paying attention to, like grain and the directionality of the pattern, all flies out the window when I'm trying to find a way to get  8.5 inches by 7 inches out of the fabric I have left from the quarter-yard.

Being a beginner at making things is hard not only because you don't do a very good job right off the bat. You also ruin a lot of material.  When you really want to learn to make things, it's often the material that attracts you.  And it's painful to ruin it with your clumsy mistakes.  But that's the nature of practice.  And in the quest for quality, practice is necessary, and perfectionism is one of the tools you can wield in that practice -- not the only one, and not good for every task, but essential for your toolbox.  Just keep it and your thriftiness far away from each other.

Friday, December 9, 2011

No more bullets in Battle Creek

Today's post about a simple hat that's far from simplistic is at Toxophily.


Christmas knitting? Not yet, friends. I'm not planning on doing much since I expended so much time and energy on the Craftin' for CASA sale (a topic that connects to the link above), but I'd like to do a couple of teacher gifts and a couple of family things. With sixteen days to Christmas, seven days until the kids' school is out, and maybe twelve days until the last moment I can mail things for holiday arrival, I am not sure that can be accomplished. Could be a knit-gift-free Christmas for the first time in years.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


This afternoon, I was working in my office when the secretary asked if I could receive a student and some friends.  I didn't know which of the family students with the first name she mentioned it could be, but I invited them in.

Turns out it was a former student, someone who had dropped out of the program in his first year but whom I see, greet, and keep up with frequently on campus. He and his friends came in wearing Phi Mu Alpha gear and carrying songbooks.  What a delightful surprise -- a holiday serenade!

Then they opened their mouths, six men singing in four-part harmony, and the moment went from a sweet surprise to an aesthetic delight. They sang a Christmas carol so beautifully, then pulled me into the center of their circle to sing "To The Sweetheart of Phi Mu Alpha," a 1914 vintage that is full of collegiate tradition and turn of the century charm.  Yes, just as in this version (with more singers) from the University of Miami, they went down on one knee in unison all around me.  It was a sheer happiness to be surrounded by these beautiful singers, giving me their gift of talent and entertainment.

As they left to spread their cheer elsewhere on campus, I thought how courageous it is to decide to share freely what you do well with your community.  And yet, once you make the decision, it's the easiest thing in the world to do.  Having the idea and making the commitment is the tough part.  I was inspired by the men of Phi Mu Alpha to look for opportunities to do just that, and invite my students and associates to do the same.  Christmas is a time for gifts. The gift of music, art, craft, beauty of all kinds, coming to you unbidden -- that's a wonderful idea, and one that occurs to me far too rarely.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Conflict and consensus

I've had a bit of a tough day. There was more conflict than I prefer, and that's difficult to take at a time when the semester is winding down and we'd all like to move forward.  I get frustrated at three steps forward, two steps back, and sometimes it feels like all three steps.

But tonight I get to spend two hours with my amazing students in the Craft Wisely class, the ones that accomplished so much this semester.  They will be explaining, in the most animated and convivial way possible, what quality work means to them.  Judging by the practice presentations they did earlier in the semester, I expect tonight to be less a high-stakes evaluation moment than a celebration of their abilities and insights -- as well as a collective affirmation of the work we've done together.

For a look at our sale in moving pictures, check out this video from the UCA YouTube channel.  Can you feel the love?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A year in song

Years ago, Noel spent his Decembers and Januaries putting together massive mix CDs of his favorite songs of the year.  I loved those playlists and listened to them all through the next year.

It's been awhile since he made one, and I've missed them.  Like with any good mixtape, the songs in their assembled order become the way they were impressed on my memory.  Hearing any one of them out of their mixtape context made me anticipate what was supposed to come next.

I'm happy to report that, inspired by a particularly fine musical year with a bumper crop of great songs, Noel has put together a forty-song collection of tracks from albums that didn't make his top 15.  Even better, the A.V. Club's Jesse Woghin turned it into a Spotify playlist.  You can listen to all the songs start to finish, and you can share the playlist with friends on your social networks.

I have fallen in love with some of these songs.  The criteria for a playlist like this is the boldness of the song's concept and execution.  Glen Campbell, Sloan, Fountains of Wayne, Ron Sexsmith -- these are stunning songs that command your attention when they activate your speakers.  Listen and enjoy!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I like taking the weekend off whenever I can.  It's not always possible at my busiest times.  But the weekend is an essential period of recharging, resting, and recreating for me.  Whenever I can successfully compartmentalize home life from work life, I do it.  I find it makes me appreciate both spheres of activity more fully.

Intersessions pose a challenge to that philosophy.  We're quickly approaching winter break, and this year because of a late start to the semester, the last day we full-year employees are supposed to be at work is the day after grades are turned in.  Usually there are two or three days after that day -- which is a very busy one, considering grades must be reviewed, grants awarded, and scholarships renewed based on that data -- to wind the semester down and do some prep for the next one.

Much of the winding down comes with an inflexible deadline.  Everything has to be graded in time for the grading deadline; that's the biggest one for faculty.  Any communications with students prompted by their performance has to be done before the university shutters, whenever that is.  But the preparation for next year is naggingly unconfined to working hours.  Course construction of all kinds might be done by the ultra-efficient before leaving for break, but most of us are probably still assembling syllabi and schedules in early January.  Some projects span semesters, like student theses or research endeavors.  And of course there's work that is not course related -- publications, scholarship, editing, writing.  Breaks are often times when we turn to that kind of work, trying at the very least to leave teaching behind when office hours cease.

Where does that leave my carefully hoarded off hours?  The time I want to devote to my avocations, my family, my church, my health, my soul -- all without the feeling that I should be working, that feeling that saps the joy and presence from that time and replaces it with guilt or anxiety?  I've written before that I am most blissful when those hours are not stolen here and there from my schedule, but instead pile up in wanton excess -- uninterrupted days devoted to my free choice of projects.  But I understand better and better than, as much as I love and crave those times, they are rare and cannot be expected as my due.  Most people have busy lives and full calendars; their hobbies and passions, the ones that don't count as work, have to be undertaken in between everything else that demands their attention on other people's timetables.

All that is to say that this weekend, while Noel was in Chicago and I was taking care of the kids on my own, contained more than my fair share of restfulness.  I gave myself the weekend off after an extremely high-pressure week executing the Craftin' for CASA sale, even though I'm predictably behind on the grading that has to be done quickly as the semester rushes to its close, even though complex initiatives in the areas of curriculum and hiring and planning are clamoring for attention before everyone scatters, even though a colleague and I are creating a new course to debut in 45 days for which all the structure that currently exists is a list of required textbooks.  A rainy Sunday led to an afternoon where Archer played Wii, Cady Gray worked on a craft kit, and I happily cut fabrics for a sewing project. Only when I looked up from my intense concentration on accurate measuring and cutting and realized that I hadn't been interrupted by a child in an hour.

That's all I can ask on a day when I'm solely responsible for them.  And combined with my determination not to let academic work intrude on my mental life for sixty hours or so, it's profoundly rejuvenating.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Throw another chocolate bar on the grill

This Hershey's commercial has been running during college football this season.  It shows people in slow motion passing around s'mores, digging into s'mores, tossing the ingredients for s'mores to grillmasters who are assembling s'mores.  These people are wearing football jerseys and are in a crowded, energetic parking lot.  They're tailgating.

When I saw this commercial for the first time, I was waiting for the ironic payoff.  I thought it was going to be like those commercials for ranch dressing that show people in idyllic settings completely dominated by ranch dressing -- bowls of it, mugs of it, stockpots of it.  The joke is both that the item is out of place, and that people are being inordinately delighted by it.

But the Hershey's commercial is apparently playing it straight.  Tailgating and s'mores, it says, are an All-American pairing, one we all grew up with.  When you go tailgating, instead of meat grilling and beer being poured, all you see are graham cracker sandwiches with gooey marshmallow and chocolate filling.

Is this true?  Do people make s'mores at tailgates?  It's been a long time since I spent a lot of time in parking lots before ball games, I admit, but surely things haven't changed that much.  Or is this a bid to get s'mores out of the scouting and camping ghetto and into the mainstream with barbecue, Mom, and apple pie?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Eight hundred forty-seven

Yesterday I showed you the handmade donations from our sale going into their box and one step closer to the children for whom they were created.  Today I want to showcase the customers and the beautiful, warm, colorful accessories they took home.


Claire snagged this Malabrigo slip-stitch infinity scarf by yours truly.


As this student donates his cabled scarf, he's hanging onto a striped tasseled crochet scarf by Ariel.


This supporter donated a baby blanket and got Ashley H.'s big fleece throw with a music motif for his very own.


Vice President Gale has a huge haul behind that red earflap hat he's donating -- a white cashmere scarf by me, red fingerless gloves by Brittany, and a yellow ski hat by Molly.


How happy is this student to be getting Emma's pink variegated scarf and Kearstin's yellow lace headband?


Jennifer is thrilled to be acquiring Brittany's white headband embellished with a crochet flower, while she donates a blue hat to a CASA child.


One of my favorite pieces in the sale was Bethany's ribbed scarf in self-striping yarn, bought by Justin.


Justin is modeling the other piece is bought -- far-flung supporter Diane's rugged wool hat with knotted cables.


This customer acquired my bamboo blend single-cable reversible scarf in my favorite color -- true red.


Infinity scarves! They're so versatile and contemporary, and this patron got the perfect color for our campus: UCA purple a la Brittany.


Paulette bought a pair of cozy fingerless gloves and a handful of crochet flowers, all generously made for us by talented supporters.


Love these bobbled mittens made by Craft Wisely alumnus Tamami and bought by Brittany E.


Tamami's not just a crafter -- she's also a customer. She purchased this clutch I made to use as a cosmetic bag.


Class member Ashley H. (left) was lucky enough to snag this magnificent hat made by the prolific and talented Brittany.


This young man has a definite eye for style, as proven by his selection of Brittany's stunning orange infinity scarf.


Happy students with a beautiful fringed scarf made by our supporter Jenny.


How about this hip guy with a bold purple and orange skater beanie courtesy of Tamami?


Talented supporter Amber made dozens of these crocheted flowers which were in high demand as hair and clothing accessories or decor, as this customer (a crafter herself!) demonstrates.


One of the final items purchased was this horse-themed fleece blanket made by Debra, a faculty supporter. It perfectly matched this customer's Western purse.


Amber's flowers closed out the sale thanks to my colleague Adam and this enthusiastic booster.

Eight hundred forty-seven dollars -- that's the total that all these wonderful, wonderful people contributed. For their money they received the work of our hands and the gratitude of our hearts, not to mention the spiritual and communal benefits of contributing to children in our county for whom we as a society have taken responsibility.

Thursday, December 1, 2011














The students in my class were introduced to twenty-one clients -- infants, children, teenagers -- who have been taken from their parents because of abuse and neglect.  We learned their names, ages, and a few details about them, like their favorite colors.  Today twenty-one items made especially for them were donated by customers at our fundraising sale.  Over and over again, throughout the day, customers cut a piece of yarn connecting the item they bought from the item that we made for the client -- a hat separated from a hat, a scarf from a scarf, a blanket from a blanket.  And then they put the client's handmade object in the donation box.  Softly it filled.  At the end of the day, our gift box was full, and the generosity of the crafters and the buyers alike was spilling over.  The sum is far more than twenty-one.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Every Christmas I write about the lights -- my favorite part of the holidays.  Yet as the season begins this year, I can't resist the subject again.  Nothing strikes me more strongly after we set the clock back, as the darkness drops before I make my way home in the evening, than those lights.  They shine on through the cold and through the gathering night, delivering a promise: You are not alone.

We put up our tree this past weekend.  Not long after, we got a call from one of our neighbors -- an elderly woman who lives alone in a house a couple of doors down and across the street.  She wanted to thank us for our light display.  It's not much compared to others in our area -- the people in the big corner house who go all out for every holiday do about 100 times as much as we do.  All we put up is a tree in the bay window and some lights on and around it.  But she appreciates it, and lets us know with a call or a note each year.

I appreciate it, too.  I feel a pang of sadness when we turn the lights off before bedtime, and I can't wait to see them on again in the morning.  When I drive or walk home from school, which is after sunset these days, the lights greet me and lift my spirits.  I'm home.

For the next month, the lights will be present anytime the sun is not.  That's one reason this time of year touches me so deeply.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The big push

The cold has finally arrived in Central Arkansas.  To our east and north, snow fell last night.  Everywhere you look, students are wrapped in jackets and hoods, hands muffled in pockets, hats and scarfs.

It's the perfect environment for our sale to benefit Craftin' for CASA on Thursday.  The sun will be out, but the air will be crisp.  People will be rushing to class, to the dorm, to lunch, and they'll see colorful knitwear hanging from clotheslines around our tents.  We want them to see the warmth, to anticipate feeling it around their necks or over their ears.

We have one opportunity to raise funds and raise awareness of CASA's work.  And we choose to do it with the material objects we make with our own hands.  There are a million details to take care of between now and the opening of the sale, and I fret over every one of them, hoping that it will all come together, wondering what I've forgotten.

But in the end, it's the cold air and the winter sun that will be our biggest allies.  If people feel the cold, they will come for the warmth.  If they are surrounded by bare branches, they will adorn themselves with color.  If they see they can make a difference, they will contribute.  All we have to do is be ready with the merchandise.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Glistening once again

We got Christmas underway at our house at the earliest possible moment.  After returning from Thanksgiving festivities on Friday, Noel gave me a couple of extra hours of sleep on Saturday morning and hauled out all the decorations in the meantime.  All I had to do was assemble our little tree and recruit Cady Gray to help with the decorations.

Playing Santa was Noel's mode all weekend.  He fired up the massive Christmas playlist on the iPod, set the DVR to record everything with "holiday" or "Christmas" in the description, and stacked our Christmas special DVDs high beside the television.  And the spirit was infectious.  Cady Gray and I started talking about the spirit of Christmas, and Archer sat raptly watching the new Elf on the Shelf special after dinner tonight.  Every time a kid walks by our Christmas stockings, they can't resist jingling the little bells at the bottom.

It's a commonplace to complain about how quickly Christmas takes over the retail shelves and the Muzak airwaves. But in a year that has gone by like a flash, I suspect that the next month -- the rest of the holiday season -- will go by just as expeditiously.  And I'm aiming to hold onto every precious emotion and moment of joy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

For the joy of human love, brother sister parent child

Today's post about Jacob, a boy with a story, is at Toxophily.


This hat will go to Jacob after our Craftin' For CASA sale on Thursday.  I hope you'll support Jacob and the other CASA clients, all of whom have a story that is waiting to be told.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And while I search for you I'll leave my door ajar

Today's post about a three-city, two-conference scarf is at Toxophily.


It rained all day today. Really hard sometimes. Guess who was thankful to be home instead of driving six hours to get home?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thankful to be home

I've spent one night at home in the last week, so my gratitude is all about being in my easy chair, with my computer and my DVR full of my shows, in my PJs and looking forward to a hearty sleep in my own bed.  Not that I should be complaining about visiting beautiful San Francisco, where I spent time with wonderful colleagues, had enriching professional experiences, and ate some lovely meals; nor about spending time with Noel's family in Nashville, where the turkey was well-brined and the long-unseen relatives were copious.

For me, however, four trips in three months is about the limit.  I've been to some fabulous places and done good work, but I am ready to hibernate at home for the rest of the winter.  Home is where I can spend an afternoon sewing -- where Cady Gray can choose a Perler bead or knitting project at the drop of a hat.  Home is where my beloved Little Orphan Annie collections, far too heavy to take on the road, are sitting by my bed to end the day.  Home is where the Christmas tree lights will soon go up.  It's where there is time for all the lengthy thinking and plotting necessary to end this semester and start the next one.

Home is home base, and everyone knows that home base is where you safely rejuvenate for your next forays into the wide world.  I'm thrilled to be done with the forays and in for a long round of rejuvenation.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

One big happy

More frequently than you might imagine, I pause and say to myself, "I'm ridiculously happy." Aristotle thought happiness was the ultimate goal of human life, because it is the only goal that is not a means to achieving another goal. And while being happy doesn't mean that you're done with life and need to stop striving, you also don't have to wait for the final moments of life to be happy.

Happiness is sometimes of your own manufacture. We seek it by bettering ourselves with education, so we are better able to appreciate and participate in the wide array of experiences the world has to offer. We hone our skills so that we can take pleasure in doing things well, and so that we can accomplish tasks that are stepping stones to other tasks that will satisfy and enrich us.

But so often happiness comes with the participation of others. We find it in relationships, which have the aura of serendipity -- this spouse, these completely unearned children, these parents. We are allowed access to the benefits of our professions when editors work with us on publications. There is happiness just in the experience of being given something. Those moments are among those that bring my happiness to remembrance.

I think about my own happiness most frequently in two distinct situations. One is when I am around my children in their happy moments -- which are nearly continuous. I remind my daughter how important her happy nature is to the happiness of others. "If you're a happy person, people want to be around you," I tell her. And I try to demonstrate and reinforce in words how pervasive and significant that can be, by being friendly to people who serve us and telling Cady Gray how a smile and the time spent to be appreciative can have a ripple effect as those others pass it on.

The other situation is when I pause in my busiest moments. A walk, a meal, a wait, a drawing of breath. I feel the expanse of my life, the people it encompasses, the ideas and beautiful objects it has generated. Sometimes I compare myself to others who have done more, affected more people, enjoy a greater abundance of the things I like and want, and that comparison is invidious; it makes me think that happiness is not yet. It's around the next career corner, it's in a bigger house, it's in another book or more acclaim or a higher status. But surprisingly, those moments occur far less than the ones where I recognize my own ridiculous happiness. I know I have far more of the good things in life than I have earned. I take a moment to feel content with it all, not as an exercise in positive thinking, but just because the realization of happiness forces itself upon me.

While at the conference these past few days, I've talked to some colleagues who are not where they hoped to be in their lives. They are having trouble in their jobs, or with their families, or with their health. Any of those misfortunes could be mine as well -- might even likely be mine, as I and those I love pass through the stages of our lives, changing along the way. I confess I fear those possibilities, and find it hard to imagine how my colleagues cope with wayward children or terminal illness or a public career setback. The flip side of a pervasive happiness is that it is never the last word.

But how do I know how I will respond when tested? Will I rise to the challenge and find a response that moves me toward that ultimate goal of happiness once again? Have I developed the capacities I recommend to my daughter to rejoice in all things? I am aware that I will not escape life without finding out. And while I don't look forward to the situations that will reveal the answers, I wonder if my happiness is really, in a literal sense, ridiculous or incomplete until they arrive.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The next big thing

I've been going non-stop ever since I got to The Annual Meetings Hosted by AAR & SBL (their official tightrope walking title between the former "joint meetings" model and the less-integrated "concurrent meetings" model). My meetings started only an hour or so after I checked in, and didn't stop except for sleep and an early-morning workout until 2:30 pm today. Even my meals were meetings; an egg salad sandwich I wolfed down before my last two meetings today was the first food I'd eaten since arriving that wasn't connected with some work that needed to be done or some people I needed to meet with.

But I've finally reached the point where I have some breathing room. And with time to stop and reflect, I can recognize how much all that activity has accomplished. On the recommendation of the finance committee, which I chair, the board of directors voted to move forward with a socially responsible investing program. I presented my research on the annual meeting program, for only the second time in a competitive format (I've been on the program on other occasions as an invited participant). And the positive notices for that research presentation included interest from a publisher.

At this point in my career, I'm thinking a lot about what I want to do with the next few years. Because I'm on an administrative track, I can't sustain a research program indefinitely; administrative duties will take over that work time if I continue to move in that direction. So the research that I'm doing now is probably my last chance to make a scholarly contribution to my field in a sustained way.

If an agreement with a publisher comes about, if this research is validated in that way, then I will be making a plan to bring it off and put it to bed. Even though I'm at the beginning stages of the research now, and have much to learn to be able to accomplish what needs to be done, I'm thinking about it in terms of an end. Imagining the final deliverable as a book manuscript means that there would be a last chapter and a concluded process.

That would be fitting and satisfying. I'm surprised that I'm possibly on that path already; I've been proceeding with the thought that I'd need to get farther before searching for publishing partners. But that's troubling in the career sense, because I don't want this project to grow without guidance and possibly spiral unproductively -- or to succumb to the kind of perfectionism I see in my students sometimes, where if you don't finish things because they're never good enough to satisfy you, you never have to face anyone's judgment, including your own. You can pretend forever that it will be great once it's done. I've never been that way; it's why I've been able to get a lot accomplished in my career so far. I don't want to start now.

The existential academic

On a plane high above the desert giving way to mountains, one is as alone as it's possible to be outside of the wilderness or cloister. Yes, you're packed in an aluminum tube with a couple hundred strangers; you're even sitting cheek by jowl with them, sneaking surreptitious peeks at the crossword puzzle on which they appear to be stuck.

But your thoughts are so thoroughly your own that it can even be disturbing. The song that is running through your head (in my case, "All Kinds Of Time" by Fountains of Wayne) will be there until displaced by the noises of the terminal at your destination; it seems to pulse along with the white noise of the aircraft engines. The ideas that arise when you look out the window, or pause in your reading, or glance at the Selena Gomez movie playing in the flip-down screen that youve never heard of before (I was hoping during the opening credits that MONTE CARLO would turn out to be a sequel to GRAN TORINO) -- they are as private as they come, since there is no one with whom one is in social intercourse, and not the slightest opportunity to express them.

The most pressing decisions I always feel weighing upon me during a conference like this one are the choices, repeated and unrelenting, between company and solitude. There are obligations, and there are opportunities, and between the two is limned a space for choice. In dispatching my obligations to meetings and committees and appearances at functions to which I have been invited, am I clearing for myself a space to retreat when those events are over? Am I still obligated to myself, my profession, my colleagues, to be present at every point where my calendar gives me a choice?

I'm not suggesting that this is an all-or-nothing equation; my Annual Meetings app is already chock-a-block with sessions where I have no formal role but plan to attend in support of a friend or a group. I take heart, too, in the example of my boss who defends the expense of a hotel room partly by the rest and rejuvenation that the busy conference attendee -- especially the busy leader or elected official -- needs.

And yet no one who attends such meetings will deny that the choice to skip a session, to go walking by the Bay or to see a museum exhibit or just to retreat, is fraught with guilt and self-justification. How do we know our motivations are unsullied? How do we make the most of the money various organizations have contributed to our expenses? If I meet with a publisher about a book project that will enhance the reputation of the department and solidify my promotion prospects, have I earned an indulgence, or is this no more than my bounden duty at every waking moment while I have the University's name on my lanyard and the honorific flags of board and committee member hanging from my name tag?

I dramatize too much. But it's the solitude that makes you wonder, that gets inside your head and renders every minor decision fraught with existential pitfalls related to one's many conflicting roles -- as a traveller, a stranger, a professional, a director, a scholar, an alumnus, a teacher, a learner, a colleague. The couple on the row in front of me looking at a Beijing guidebook and excitedly planning their trip have fewer roles but will feel the same weight of decisions -- how best to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime journey? How to regard plans and improvisations respectively? If the thought arises to separate for individual activities rather than remaining a duo, how should it be regarded? Freedom brings more questions, the burden of the answers' significance stronger than ever. It's a dilemma my students reading Sartre and Kierkegaard would recognize immediately.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flyover work

I'm flying cross-country tomorrow, which affords one of my most coveted opportunities: several hours where my time is my own. In a perfect world I'd be able to pull out my sewing machine and whip out a project with that time -- that's what I'd most like to do with four hours of leisure. But sewing is an activity that takes a lot of space and equipment, unfortunately.

The next best thing would be to spend my time knitting or crocheting, especially with a number of projects ongoing with a deadline of about two weeks away (our Craftin' for CASA sale). But the sad fact is that my lengthy trip doesn't equate into a lengthy stretch of leisure to choose my favorite pastime. I have a lot to do tomorrow while I make my way west.  There are a few more freshman papers to grade.  There are reflective pieces from my juniors that I need to critique and hand back for revision.  There are three major end-of-semester activities I need to design and publish to my students before the last two weeks of class start, right after Thanksgiving break.  And then there are also documents to be read in preparation for  committee and board meetings once I arrive.

Not that I deserve some sort of transcontinental vacation; I'm on the job, after all. And these days, a few hours to get work done without the phone ringing or people knocking on my office door is almost as good as time to read a book, knit a hat or sew a bag.  Nevertheless, what I'm most looking forward to on this trip is the time when I look at my to-do list and realize that knitting and reading are the only things on it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One day to go

I leave on Thursday for San Francisco. Between now and then there are a dozen things on my to-do list. It seems hard to imagine that I'll get it all done.

Some of the tasks are about leaving my colleagues, including my teaching assistants, with what they need to continue on.  That means making sure they know what I expect, and providing them with any materials that they can't easily produce themselves.

Some of the tasks are about being ready to come back.  That means getting paperwork in before I leave if it's due while I leave, and having structures in mind for classes, assignments, and activities that will happen as soon as the break ends.

And some of it -- not as much as you'd think -- is about being ready for the trip.  I still have to cut down the paper I'm giving so it will fit in the 20-minute presentation slot, and rehearse it.  I have to make sure the materials for the committee and board meetings I'm attending are on my iPad to be read on the plane.

And if I have time, I need to deal with some regional business -- work on the new operating agreement that will clarify our relationship to the national organization, communicate with my regional leadership, get the program submitted for next spring's regional meeting.

The last part is what I've been letting slide.  It's the one thing where I set the schedule, more or less.  Everything else is coming quickly no matter what I do, and all I can do is be as diligent as possible so I'm ready when it gets here.  But the regional business is something I can't let slide forever, and I wish I had the space to make it a higher priority and to do a better job at it.

In the end, I have to check off everything on my list that will cause me and other people immediate problems if I don't take care of it.  And while I'm away, I know what will happen, because it always happens at conferences: I'll get excited about a number of other projects, even though I'm not giving the ones I have my full attention as it is.  Happily, there are only a couple more years until some of those responsibilities pass to others.  So maybe my main job should be not to take on too many more until I have a chance to catch my breath.  My to-do list doesn't need to get any longer!

Monday, November 14, 2011


I'm off to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature (together again, just like in the old days!) in San Francisco on Thursday.  The report today was that there will be over 10,000 people in combined attendance.

With hundreds of simultaneous sessions in dozens of groups under the aegises of two huge learned societies, figuring out how to spend your time is one of the most difficult tasks of the pre-conference period.  Add to that the bewildering array of options available when you need to make a judgment on the fly, and a lot of people just give up and duck into the nearest open room.

This year for the first time the AAR and SBL have provided a smartphone app (Android and iPhone) that cuts admirably through the clutter.  Search for people or keywords, and get a list of sessions and presenters for both societies. Select and get abstracts of the session; select a participant and get an abstract of her paper.  Add the session to your schedule and the app builds a calendar of your choices for all four days of the conference plus the two days of pre-conference workshops and additional meetings.

That works great for planning your days before you get there, but what about on site?  That's where the app really shines.  It senses your location and will tell you what sessions are taking place at that moment nearby.  Maps of the massive convention center and hotel meeting spaces turn interactive with pins dropped at your location and at the session you've selected.  Updates are constantly pushed to the app with no need to download the changes; just restart to get the new information.  And of course, sharing to social media is all integrated.

This is one of the biggest upgrades to the annual meeting experience that has happened in my lifetime -- during which a multitude of changes, tweaks, and strategies for the program books, abstracts, and planners have been tried.  Everybody going to the meeting should download it (search for AM11AAR&SBL -- it's free!) and get started building a schedule and agonizing over those conflicts.  And be sure to follow @AARWeb on Twitter!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

From the pulpit

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway this morning.  Our vicar is generous about sharing her pulpit, and I'm glad I can help out in the week-to-week grind of presiding, celebrating, and preaching that is the vicar's lot.  I preach three or four times a year.  It's a healthy exercise for me to speaking to theological, cultural, and biblical topics from the perspective of a member of the church community rather than from the stance of academia.

But it's not always easy, depending on the texts, and today was a doozy -- the parable of the talents; the beginning of the story of Deborah, Jael, and Sisera in Judges; and Psalm 123, which speaks (in the Book of Common Prayer version) of the "indolent rich."  Anybody would think of Occupy Wall Street in that context, and although I was careful not to endorse that movement, I did have a visitor to the church comment that I am apparently "not afraid of controversy" for implying that the concentration of power and freedom in the hands of the rich is something that, biblically, we should be concerned about.

You can judge for yourself; the sermon is here.  When and if a podcast becomes available, I'll update with that information.  Your comments are welcome!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The heart-scratch melody means that there's more than this for you and me

Today's post about the perils and promise of the zipper foot is at Toxophily.


This is what it looked like before assembly, all neatly labeled by my tailoring assistant Cady Gray.  For the after version, you'll have to click!

Friday, November 11, 2011

End of days

In June 2008, Noel began rewatching and writing about Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the A.V. Club's TV Club Classic.  It was a serious gap in our pop culture credentials as a couple.  We missed the initial run of Buffymania in the late nineties, and by the time we were trying to catch up a couple of seasons in, we didn't catch the fever by watching it every night in syndication, despite our best efforts.  So when the TV Club Classic format debuted, it was a natural for us -- but in a different mode from NewsRadio, my first effort in the format.  Rather than something we loved being revisited, it was something that most of our readers would be more familiar with than we were.

Noel brought me along for the Buffy ride (which includes picking up the BTVS spinoff Angel at the point in the series continuity that it premiered).  And with the framework of watching, writing, reading, and being shepherded along by commenters who seemed to enjoy seeing the series again through the eyes of complete newbies, we got past the not-quite-Buffyesque first season and quickly appreciated what was so special about the show.  We quickly became huge fans.  Instead of being a pop culture blind spot we needed to fill out of a sense of obligation, the two episodes we watched every week became a much-anticipated highlight.

A little less than three years later, Noel has reached the end of Buffy. There's still more Angel to go, but there's no doubt that leaving Buffy behind marks a milestone as significant as embarking on the series in 2008.  I personally feel a sense of accomplishment and community, working my way into the dialogue and discussion that remains so important to people of the generation immediately behind mine.

But it was a pleasure, not a chore, because Joss Whedon has such a playful and energetic approach to serialized television.  I fell in love with all his characters, enjoyed their company every week, and cared deeply about their fates.  I'm happy they will always be there for me to revisit, but there will never be a first time again for discovering their stories.  That's over -- forever.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Warm gesture

A nice writeup about last week's Craft-In by Caroline Zilk, with two outstanding photos by Rusty Hubbard, appeared in today's paper!  I'm reproducing the text below since much of the paper is behind a subscription paywall, and I don't know how many of you will have access to it.  All content copyright held by its creators and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Warm gesture

Honors College students hold Craft-In for CASA

Staff Writer 

    Several members of the Honors College at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway carried around pointy sticks on Nov. 3.
    “So don’t mess with us,” Honors College Associate Dean Donna Bowman joked.
    The Honors College held a Craft-In service project for its seminar called “Craft Wisely: The Past, Present and Future of Handmade.”
    Bowman’s students were responsible for designing the project and choosing an 
organization to work with: Court Appointed Special Advocates.
    “Our syllabus specifies that there be at least one public event associated with the project, and the Craft-Ins fulfill that requirement,” Bowman said.
    “It’s an idea carried over from the same course last fall, where we did a Craft-In on campus to promote the work of Conway Cradle Care.”
    On the steps of Ferguson Chapel on the afternoon of Nov. 3, Honors College students, as well as other members of the UCA campus and Conway communities, knitted and crocheted scarves and other warm 
winter items for children in the court and foster systems throughout the state.
    UCA student Monica Runge said CASA provided the volunteers a list of names with the children’s favorite colors so the students could personalize their projects.
    Runge is a biology major who happens to love knitting, and she said she was one of many excited to help out CASA.
    “I believe everyone involved in this project is very strongly motivated to help other people,” she said. “We almost feel a personal connection making these items 
for these kids. It’s great to be able to help them just a little bit.”
    Bowman said CASA has partnerships with several groups on campus, especially students and faculty in the family and consumer sciences department, who often make things for CASA’s clients.
    The Honors College’s Craft-In is the first of two public events in conjunction with the project. The second will be a “buy one, give one” sale on Dec. 1.
    “We will have handmade 
winter accessories for sale in conjunction with items made specifically for CASA clients — kids who have been removed from abuse or neglect in their homes and are in the care of the court,” Bowman said. “Customers can buy the linked items, keep the one that’s for sale and donate the one made for the CASA child.”
    Bowman said this project is important because many of her students have benefited from a good support system and parents who took care of their children, while, on the other hand, the CASA kids have had a tough break.
    “It’s a long-term drag on their self-esteem and their 
future,” Bowman pointed out. “Some of them will have good outcomes, and some are going to have a lot of trouble.”
    However, if Bowman and the Honors College have anything to do with it, the children at least all will have warm hats, scarves and mittens this winter.
    “These kids are going to be our neighbors pretty soon. Maybe if they’re lucky, they’ll be on our campus, and they need any step back up that we can give them,” Bowman said.
    Staff writer Caroline Zilk can be reached at (501) 244-4326 or

Sarah Rawlinson, a junior at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, knits while participating in the Craft-In service project held Nov. 3 by the UCA Honors College to benefit the youths in the Court Appointed Special Advocates program.

RUSTY HUBBARD/RIVER VALLEY & OZARK EDITION University of Central Arkansas students participate in the Honors College Craft-In, a service project for the CASA program held Nov. 3 on the steps of the university’s Ferguson Chapel.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Birth day

Getting the author copies of your book is like holding your baby for the first time.  Every author knows this feeling. Opening the package, pulling out the books with their heft and their smooth covers, seeing the cover for the first time on a three-dimension object rather than a picture on a screen, flipping through the page, breathing in the newness.

I experienced that today. The author copies of the book that my colleague Clayton Crockett and I edited -- Cosmology, Ecology, and the Energy of God -- landed on my desk this morning.  The book has been a long time in the making, starting with the conference that we began organizing in 2008 and held in 2009, and continuing through the process of getting a contract and rewriting the chapters, all the way to finalizing the front and back matter.

I don't have any illusions that this book will change the world. But there are some really thought-provoking ideas in it.  There's some harsh reality, there's some hope, and there are important questions. It's aimed at a general audience, even though it's based in some heavy-duty philosophy and theology. You can't buy the book yet, but I hope that when you have a chance to get it at your local library or bookstore, you'll give it a shot.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The thrill of the search

It's been several years since my academic unit searched for a new faculty member. We're almost at the end of the application-gathering phase of a search right now, and I just spent an entertaining hour reading the files that have come in so far.

Faculty searches are very odd things. The existing faculty recommends who will join them. And existing faculty are not always interested in being shaken up. Administrators make the final decisions about who will be hired. And administrators are not always the best at distinguishing their runaway imagination from reality.

To read faculty search applications is to enter a succession of worlds in which the shape of the department, the opportunities for students, the courses taught, the collaborations possible, change with every new file you open. It's impossible not to visualize what life would be like with those courses and that research and that personality happening in the halls every day. And each one is different.

Depending on what potential future is most attractive to you, the faculty committee member, you can get really enamored of one of those files. Searches are like internet dating; you see your particular Mr. Perfect and get your hopes up. Then you argue with your friends about what characteristics in the profiles you all looked at are mostly likely to make for a good match.  Finally, you meet up with a few of them and see how they measure up to your dreams.

Maybe the most interesting aspect of this process is thinking about the research interests of these candidates. If it's close to something you work on, you might be intrigued. But there's not much benefit to the department in having two people doing the same thing -- or having the ability to teach the same specialized courses. If it's not close to your interests, you probably don't care as much, and you can't judge as well whether that research will appeal to students or complement department course offerings.

In the end, it's not a scientific process; it's an attempt to judge whether relationships are worth building. That's always a matter of imagination, attraction, and probably unreasonable bias.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name

Today's post about a hat for a girl who deserves all the love in the world -- like we all do -- is at Toxophily.


She just gets more beautiful every day, doesn't she?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The giving box

Children want to give. Just like the rest of us. And just like the rest of us, children find it easy and inspiring to give when there is a process and a framework that helps them succeed.

At Sunday School a few weeks ago, Cady Gray heard about Operation Christmas Child. She asked if we could get one of the wrapped shoe boxes in the church vestibule and fill it with items for a child in need. It was easy to say yes, to pick up a box and a packet of instructions and labels.


Cady Gray dug through our closet of unused art supplies and unopened toys to find notebooks, markers, a tub of play-doh, a small stuffed animals. She ran to the bathroom closet to retrieve toothpaste and toothbrushes from her trips to the dentist. She picked out festive pencils and erasers from our large supply. She asked if we could include a small shampoo and lotion, and a crocheted scrubbie from my stash of last-minute gifts.


She knit a colorful butterfly, using a pattern she knew well. I sewed on the felt pieces and buttons she picked out.


And right before we sealed up the box with our donation to cover shipping inside and the label identifying it as intended for a 5-9 year old boy outside, she decided she wanted to write a note to the recipient. Here's what she wrote:
Dear ________ (write name here),

In this box there are things you might enjoy. I did my best to enclude as much as possible. My name is Cady Gray. I am 7 years old and in 2nd grade. My teacher is Mrs. Flowers. I have 1 brother and 0 sisters. I have 2 parents. I am the smartest kid in my class. I hope you have fun with the things in this box.


Cady Gray Murray

A box, a list, a label, and the idea of a child just like her -- a child who loves to be creative, who takes baths and brushes his teeth, whose imagination can take flight on a butterfly's colorful wings -- is all it takes for Cady Gray to give. Just like the rest of us.