Sunday, July 31, 2011


The universe is conspiring to make me comfortable with our five-day vacation this upcoming week.  Consider these factors:

  1. It rained today, briefly but hard, making me think that the next several days of triple-digit temperatures might not kill all the vegetation around the house while I'm not here to water it.  (Still watering as thoroughly as I can this evening before leaving.)
  2. We don't have to fly.  That means we're in control of our destiny and we can take as much stuff as we want.  Hooray for thinking "should we bring this?" and answering "why not?"
  3. I haven't seen my brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews in 18 months.  I'm realizing that's messed up.
  4. The open road calls.  As much as I hate traffic and get antsy with tractor-trailers blowing past me, I'm feeling the romance of being on the move.  So many days, hours, and weeks on the road with my folks when I was a kid turned out to be treasured memories -- even though they were never the point of the vacation, just the necessary evil of getting there.  Yet they have contributed to my enduring sense that the journey is the destination.  Normally I breathe a huge sign of relief when I've gotten past all the driving and can put my feet up.  Tomorrow and the next day, if the tractor-trailers will leave me alone, I might actually enjoy myself.
I hope the universe continues to organize itself toward a perfect vacation for me and my family.  But even if everything goes wrong, my happy anticipation in these days leading up to our travel has been a vacation in and of itself.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Off the grid

We're heading to the Tennessee mountains on Tuesday (by way of an overnight stopover at the in-laws' on Monday) to meet up with my extended family.  My parents will be there ... my older brother and his wife will be there with their college-bound son and teenage daughter ... and my younger brother and his wife will be there with their three children who are close to our kids' ages.

I am on record as an unreconstructed homebody.  Normally, it's fair to say, I resent being uprooted from my comfortable recliner and routine in order to vacate and recreate.  Sometimes I even dread it.

But I'm actually looking forward to the upcoming week's trip.  I'm actually thinking that I can let Noel drive a leg or two while I read or knit.  (I'm a nervous car rider and usually insist on driving the whole way, but 9 hours is ... a lot.)  Here's what would make this vacation enjoyable for me:

  • Time with my kids.  They've been on the go and away from the house in various camps for the last several weeks.  I find that I've missed their company more than I expected.  They love having fun, and I'm looking forward to having fun with them.
  • Time with my siblings and parents.  We have a great time when we're together.  My brothers are a barrel of laughs.  When we get together to play games and share memories, it's always a blast.
  • Time to read.  I've got a couple of good books going at the moment -- Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which is our freshman summer reader this year and a favorite of mine from my own teenage years, and Anthony Trollope's The Warden.  A half hour of uninterrupted reading time at lakeside, or on the patio, or while the kids play on the playground, sounds like heaven, especially if I get to rinse and repeat.
  • Time to knit.  Of course.  Two projects going, one that's completely mindless and one that's semimindless.  What a joy it would be to see measurable progress on them for each day we're away.
  • Time to gain perspective.  There's been a lot of anxiety in my life this summer, from the treasured colleague interviewing for another job to the political crisis in Washington.  I need to get away from the relentless grind of those stressors.
I think I've reached a new point in my relationship with both my families -- the one I was born into and the one I've made.  On the one hand, the kids are at the age when they find it exciting to travel and are willing to see the disruption of their routines as an adventure.  So I worry less about the problem we're getting ourselves into by uprooting them and making all that effort.  On the other hand, I sense the increased urgency in spending time with my parents and siblings while we can all be together, in continuing to stock the storehouse of memories with those experiences.  

I don't mean it to sound morbid. I'm happy that these two movements have coincided at this point in my life.  Only if it had happened too late, or if I hadn't recognized it in time, would it be cause for regret.  Take it all together, and I'm hoping for a vacation that's more renewal than endurance test this time around, and for many years to come.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Oh, looks gooooood!

I don't care if they call him Captain Arkansas or Captain Americus Vespucci.  This can't be legal.

Malco Motors from James Spears on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nose in a book

Cady Gray is a reader -- and proud of it.  All we have to do is stock her shelves with anything we think she might like, and within a day or two she has found whatever's new, pulled it down, and started in.  She spends time every day walking around with a book in front of her face, lying on her beanbag chair or stretched out on the floor with an open book in front of her, or (my personal favorite position) curled up on the bed reading.

She comments whenever I find her like this that she is losing herself in a book, or that you can always find her with her nose stuck in a book.  Clearly she has embraced her bookworm identity.

At age 6, she is reading books that Archer's teachers are recommending for his level -- Harry Potter, Pseudonymous Bosch, and all the Roald Dahl she can get her hands on.  I'm ready to introduce her to Narnia and maybe even Bilbo Baggins.

The problem with your kid reading above her age level is that it's hard to gauge appropriateness both in terms of language sophistication and content.  I'm not too worried about content because she's a thoughtful and mature little girl, but obviously there are plenty of topics and tones that ought to wait.  She's starting the Harry Potter books at just the right time; if we can keep her from tearing through them all at once, she'll grow up with them and be ready for some of the darker stuff when she gets to it in later books.

I'd love to get your suggestions for books and authors the precocious readers in your family enjoy!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Leaving childhood behind

A few weeks ago Archer had a scrape on his side that required a bandaid.  It's not easy getting him to accept one; some early experiences where they hurt coming off have made him leery.  But we got it on him.

After a bath a few days later, we asked whether he still had the bandaid on or whether it had come off.  "I took it off," he informed us, and then immediately made sure we heard an important point of clarification.  "Oh, and I have something to tell you," he said, using his standard conversation-starting formula.  "You gave me a Spider-Man bandaid.  I think I'm big enough to use regular bandaids now."

It was the first time I can remember him expressing awareness of growing out of some plaything or theme.  Especially striking was the way he put it -- very much in the vein of "I'm too old for that baby stuff," just as  any kid at a sufficiently advanced stage of development might say.

Archer will be in fifth grade this coming school year.  Yesterday we had a long and fruitful conversation with the GT specialist at his new intermediate school.  Afterward we felt much better that he would be able to adapt to the strange environment.  It will take time, and there may be bumps.  But some of his traits and tendencies will be helpful, like his obsession with schedules, frameworks, instructions, and step-by-step processes.

What remains to be seen is how he will adapt to the increasingly complex social world of the tweener years.  Rare occurrences like Archer's sensitivity to appropriate bandaid designs make me think that he's finally begun to take some notice of distinctions that are key to these years' intense identity formation imperatives.  I know he'll have a long way to go; my only hope is that other kids allow him the space to get there at his own pace.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Though the heavens fall

A couple of weeks ago, in response to my welcome message, a new Raveler engaged me in a discussion of literature.  (My username on the site is that of a literary character; those who know the book often ask about it, striking up any number of pleasant conversations.)

When I mentioned my recently-discovered love of Dickens, she mentioned that I ought to check out Anthony Trollope.  Her description made Trollope sound right up my alley, and after a look at his Wikipedia entry, I downloaded the first of his Barsetshire novels, The Warden, from Project Gutenberg.

I'm enjoying it immensely.  It's the story of a minor churchman whose position includes the guardianship of a group of poor elderly men, with stipends provided by the income from some land.  Over the centuries the income has grown, but the small pensions played to the men has not; instead, the amount going to the warden's position has become quite lucrative.  A would-be reformer takes up the cause of the men through the courts and the press, and the warden's son-in-law defends the arrangement in the name of crushing all those who criticize the prerogative of the church.

What the warden wants is what's truly right.  But like so many of us, what we thought must be right was whatever arrangements were in place when we came on the scene.  The reformer believes it wouldn't be right to abandon the suit just because he hopes to marry the warden's younger daughter -- he quotes the maxim "Let justice be done though the heavens fall" -- but Trollope doesn't agree.  For him, justice is not just objective fairness, but also attention to individual circumstances and needs.  The old men aren't being deprived, and the warden isn't greedy; the men are susceptible to being turned against their loving caretaker, and the warden is hurt by the thought of being made into a symbol of clerical arrogance in the press.  On the other hand, the archdeacon who is so zealous in making sure the suit goes nowhere doesn't care about any of those things -- he's thrilled when he gets a legal opinion that the suit was filed against the wrong parties and need not ever be resolved at all.

It's really a book about politics and people, and how poorly the two intersect at times.  A good book to be reading in the middle of the wrangling in the halls of Congress, which so seldom seems to take any account of the good of people, caring only about the purity of abstract principle or the defense of power.

Monday, July 25, 2011

ArDemGaz letter of the week

Back in the olden days of this blog, I used to present some of the more ridiculous or offensive letters sent to the Voices page of the statewide newspaper, the current incarnation of the oldest continually-operated newspaper west of the Mississippi, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Once every year or two, a letter is so ridiculous or offensive that I can't let it go unanswered.  A couple of weeks ago, one of those letters was printed.  I sat down after dinner and dashed off a response via the paper's website.  A week later, I got a call asking if I would give permission for my letter to be printed; a week after that, it appeared -- just a few days after one making the very same point at a bit shorter length, I thought.

Here's what appeared in the paper on Saturday.  Unfortunately the letter that prompted mine is no longer available on the website, even for subscribers; it has vanished into the archives beyond a paywall.

Questions get in way 
    Letter writer Louis Burgess bemoans the 500 staff members, 200 Secret Service agents, six doctors and 12 TelePrompTers that accompanied President Obama to the 2009 G20 summit in London. He finds the scale and expense to be evidence of the disconnect and entitlement of “Emperor Obama.” 

    Aside from wondering why a 2-year-old trip is suddenly newsworthy again to Burgess, I encourage him to ask the simplest question that should occur to anyone with critical thinking skills at this news: Is this unusual for a president making an overseas trip?
    A simple Internet search for the entourage size and composition of the president’s predecessor reveals that it is simply standard operating procedure. As reported by the New Zealand Herald, George W. Bush’s 2007 trip to Australia featured 700 agents, aides and others, as well as three jumbo jets, two helicopters, and a bulletproof limo.
    But why ask basic questions when they might get in the way of an ideological point?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Down time

We're heading to Tennessee for a family reunion in about a week -- meeting up in the mountains with the Bowman clan, under what I hope will be cooler conditions than the prevailing trends here.

There will be many preparations over the coming days.  Clothes will be packed, meals will be planned, amusements for 18 total hours of automotive travel assembled.  My favorite preparation, though, is choosing my vacation knitting.

Right now I have two projects in active development.  One is a Doctor Who scarf requested by two former students for conventioneering and general dress-up fun.  I had reached nearly five feet (out of twelve) before having to rip out four stripes because I got them out of sequence.  It's mindless garter stitch and it goes very quickly even in sport-weight yarn.

The other (to which I returned today because the garter stitch was starting not to feel like knitting anymore, so little effort is needed) is a pair of socks whose cabling is the most complex I've ever done.  That's the opposite of mindless knitting.  Every stitch needs to be considered with care, and it's slow as molasses (but you really know you've done something when you finish a round).

I think I need to split the difference for my vacation knitting.  I'll take the Doctor Who scarf because it will be knittable anywhere, anytime.  But I'd also like to have something a bit more challenging on hand, a bit more beautiful, a bit more engaging.  A lace scarf (without a chart), probably; that's my standard portable, easy but not completely braindead project.  I've already got a long-neglected one of those going, though -- almost done, in fact -- so I'd be loath either to start a new one or take this one (with only a few hours' worth of knitting left on it).

I'll probably spend way too much time looking for the right project and matching it with the right yarn.  But anticipation is half the fun.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


If you're a Mac owner, the big deal this weekend is OS X Lion, the new version of the Apple operating system.  It's got a number of very interesting innovations, including being distributed without discs or boxes, and bringing some iPhone- and iPad-like interfaces to the computer.

One fascinating feature of the distribution is that a single download of the OS can be installed on all the computers a person owns.  I have a copy of the installer, but I'm not going to double-click until I free up a lot more space on my (rather skimpy) MacBook Air hard drive.

I'm doing that by splitting my 35 GB iPhoto library in two and putting all the older photos onto an external disk.  But I don't feel secure having the only copy of those files in only one place, so I'm not deleting the photos from my laptop iPhoto library (and getting back that disk space) until I upload a copy to Flickr.

Which I'm doing as fast as I can.  But it points to a character trait that bedevils me sometimes.  I can't start something I want to do unless I feel ready, and that often means getting a bunch of preliminary things done first.  I know people who would just dive in, but  not me.  I'm a scene-setter.  I'm a two-steps-backer.

It doesn't always make me happy, this need to get all my affairs in order before enjoying myself.  In fact, it sometimes keeps me from doing things I want to do.  I end up frustrated and feeling impotent, having gotten nothing done because I couldn't get far enough back to get the requisite running start.  And I have plenty of good examples where taking the opposite tack -- jumping in with both feet -- has paid off handsomely.  When nobody's life or livelihood is at stake, when the worst that might happen is that you'll learn something by making a couple of mistakes, why not just do it?

What I'm most concerned about, I think, is my precious time.  If I've got a free afternoon or evening, I want to do something rewarding with it.  Then the search for something rewarding becomes a high-stakes affair, and nothing seems good enough.  That's when I start convincing myself that I can't do x until I've done y and z, and if I do y and z today I won't get to x, and y and z are not a rewarding way to use my limited free time.

The problem just gets worse when free time begins to be in shorter supply, and that's the case here at the end of the summer.  Nevertheless, I have managed to overcome my self-defeating procrastination and get some things done.  I hope that when my schedule returns to academic-year normal, I'll look back on the summer and feel like I made progress on things I wanted to do three months ago.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Back at work

For the last month, things at my office have been a bit unsettled -- a mite up in the air.  We've all been waiting, in some respects, for an answer.  We've been hanging on until the future became clearer before committing ourselves to it.

That's not just because of the summer.  One of our colleagues, a key member of our team, was a candidate for another job.  A few years ago events like this could, and did, send us into tailspins.  This time we knew we could weather the worst.  Still, we held our breath.  What version of normal would we be settling into for the upcoming academic year?

It was a long month.  Our colleague was traveling the entire time.  We waited through weeks with no news, parsing the occasional status update and running over contingency plans among ourselves, as much as we could bear to contemplate.

Just this week, our colleague is back, and back for good (or until the next candidacy -- but isn't it that way for us all?).  We were at last returned to full strength.  How unexpectedly energizing it was to gather in an office with all of us present, or to go out to lunch together and lend all of our views to the problems ahead!  It felt as if we had started again after an unofficial hiatus -- as if we had all finally been able to draw breath.  And for better of for worse, it was clearly time to go to work on all those things that were put on hold while we waited.

Whenever there is a situation out of our control, we might feel as if our choices have been taken away.  But in truth, there is always a choice.  In everything that is uncertain, in every crisis, in every forecast of impending doom or uncontrollable change, I want to choose hope over fear, trust over blame, the long view over the next step.  My dad ends his blog every day with a prayer for help walking the walk he believes to be right.  Tonight, I do the same.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How heat turns into fire

Archer's SLUFY homebase class is "Burning Issues," which is about fire.  (They've got kids pegged, don't they?  Classes about ice cream and fire.)  Today was the last regular day (tomorrow is closing ceremonies), and the kids brought some of their work home.

I read with great interest a folktale Archer wrote and decorated.  They apparently read "How Coyote Stole Fire" and talked about how folktales are structured and what morals they are intended to teach.  Then they wrote their own.  Here's what Archer wrote (click pics to embiggen):


How Heat Came To Fire
A Written Folktale by Archer Murray

Once upon a time ...

There was a cactus and a jar that is 155 degrees F.  The cactus said, "Ka-ZAAM!!!" and hoped the jar would turn to fire.  But nothing happened.  The cactus did a magic trick, pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  Then it said, "Abbraaahhhh!!!!!"

BAM!!!  It fell flat on its spikes!  And still there was no fire.

An evil genie appeared and cooled the jar.  He said, "Ha, Ha, HAAAA!!"

The cactus fired its spikes and killed the genie.  Suddenly, a match appeared!  It lit the matched, placed it on the jar, and there was the first Great Fire.

Moral: you don't need magic to accomplish something.




Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Work in progress

One of the reasons I wanted to build myself a new crafting area is to make it easier for me to undertake sewing projects.  Right now if I want to sew, I do it on the dining room table, and it better be something I can complete in a few hours.  I'd like to leave my sewing machine set up on my new desk and have everything already at hand when I have time to work.

Denizens of Ravelry frequently ask whether there are similar sites for their other hobbies -- needlepoint, cross-stitch, rug-hooking, tatting, etc.  The answer is no, at least with the features that make Ravelry so powerful and unique.  But at least one group has attempted to apply a self-consciously Ravelry-esque model to sewing, and the result is

Ravelers will find the site familiar, from the "notebook" where they can link their projects to patterns and fabrics, to the lower-case sans-serif typeface used throughout.

Right now it's small, but growing.  Evidence that things are going right is easy to come by.  I entered my projects yesterday, and for one of them, the pattern (an internet freebie) wasn't yet in the database.  As I would on Ravelry, I created the pattern entry myself, entering all the information, then linking it to my project.

When I went back to the site today and took a look at my notebook, I saw that the pattern now had an official picture in the database.  Somebody scanning the newly entered patterns had gone to the site where it appears and found a picture they could attach to the database record for the pattern.

What that says to me is that the site is already populated by people who care about making it useful.  They tend the garden, water and weed what's planted by the whole user population, keep everything tidy, and jump in to contribute where they see a need.

That's what's made Ravelry so successful -- a combination of site design that makes user contributions easy and rewarding, and a community that quickly evolved folkways of service.  Seeing those same attributes at gives me confidence that the site has what it takes to become the elusive "Ravelry for sewing" that so many are looking for.  And just as Ravelry has made me a better, more prolific, and more adventurous knitter -- by leaps and bounds -- I'm hoping will improve my skills and inspire my efforts.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cube by cube

Today's post about my awesome crafting area in progress is at Toxophily.


 Pictures galore!  Just ignore the wallpaper and carpet.  Yeah, I know we should have replaced them before I put a bunch of new furniture in the room.  Someday.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The biggest stage

Last night was the premiere of Breaking Bad's fourth season.  It's been more than a year since season three ended; an entire cycle of Emmys have come and gone, meaning that the show and its personnel are not nominated for anything this year.

For some programs, such a long break would spell danger for devoted fans.  A show might come back and find its viewership has evaporated, people having long since moved on to the next big thing, or forgotten the thread of its convoluted plot.

But the lengthy hiatus has only caused Breaking Bad's popularity to grow.  The season four premiere last night was the show's most watched episode ever, beating the previous season's first episode by thirty percent.  It appears that the show's fans spent much of the last year, and certainly all of the past month, badgering everyone they knew to start watching.

And the heightened interest and bigger audience translates into a shockingly huge comment section for my first recap of the season.  Twenty minutes after the show ended, there were 100 comments; everytime I refreshed thereafter, the number seemed to grow by leaps and bounds.  Right now, about 20 hours later, there are over 800 comments.  That's getting up into territory I associate with Noel's immensely popular writing on Lost.  It's a scale with which I am entirely unfamiliar; my writeups of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family, two network comedies with much larger viewerships than BB (though certainly a less avid or cultish fan base) might draw a couple of hundred comments, while my "classic" writeups of NewsRadio struggle to reach half that.

I certainly can't attribute the activity to my writing; fans of the show gather to discuss it, not what I said about it.  Nevertheless, at that level of interest, there are more people reading what I'm writing, even casually and cursorily, than anywhere else my work appears on the site.  It's a daunting prospect -- to know how to do what I do best while at the same time giving such a sprawling group what they might want.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Creative space

Back when Archer used to bring us his "If I Drove A Tractor Trailer" book to read several times a day, Noel used to get especially wistful about the description of the little sleeping space behind the truck's cab, complete with its own TV.  I understand the impulse to have a nook for yourself.

That's why I've been planning all summer to turn a rather large corner of our bedroom into a craft storage and work space.  Three weeks ago I moved the computer to Archer's room and got rid of the big desk that used to occupy that corner.  On Monday the furniture was delivered; on Wednesday I built the storage unit;  last night I built the table.  Cady Gray and I spent Saturday morning packing the unit with yarn; I worked on needles and tools today.


Just as storage, this is going to be an improvement; easier to get to, more spacious, better organized. I was surprised to find that the yarn that had overflowed four big Rubbermaid tubs and several storage crates -- the yarn that runs to several pages in Ravelry's stash in list view -- all fit in the 25-cube Expedit.

I'll have a full and photo-rich chronicle of the tranformation in the next week or two. But right now I'm thinking about that desire for a little cozy space to live and work. People who make things are rather obsessive about their studios, craft rooms, and organizational schemes, as a look around the internet will tell you. Such spaces are partly about facilitation, but partly about inspiration -- an arrangement and decor that we imagine will unlock our ability to create.

My surreptitious aim in reworking this area is to facilitate and inspire my nascent sewing skills.  Right now I have to set up and take down my sewing machine on the dining room table if I want to use it, which is quite a production.  The desk and table I put in my new craft area is intended to give the machine a home and to provide a space for associated tasks, like cutting and pressing.  So will I sew more now that I've set up everything the way I think will be perfect?

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Archer's never been a movie fan.  Long narratives that require an understanding about why people are acting as they are and what they are feeling -- not exactly his thing.  But we took him to see Cars 2 earlier this summer in the hopes that there would be enough racing to keep him from getting board while the rest of us enjoyed the story.  And based on his enjoyment of the trailer for Disney's new Winnie the Pooh traditional-animation feature (which had a meta-textual element using the book pages and words), as well as the movie's short running time (69 minutes), we decided to go see it as a family, too, and hope that Archer could find something to engage him.

Did he ever.  The animated book illustrations and playful interaction with the text tickled him pink.  And during the rapid-fire verbal farce about whether Piglet could tie knots (Piglet: "I cannot"; Owl: "So you can knot"), he was in hysterics, confiding to me afterwards, "I was laughing so hard I almost threw up."

Of course Cady Gray loved it all, as did her parents; the movie has a handmade feel that combines the gentleness of the books, the classic imaginative touches of the original Disney Pooh featurettes, and a dash of contemporary zip.  But every time some comic misunderstanding or bit of narration-related fourth-wall-breaking happened, I glanced at Archer and saw a huge grin on his face.  With the right sense of humor and self-awareness about its formal qualities -- whether cinematic or literary -- a story can hook him, and keep him enthralled.

Friday, July 15, 2011


One week of Summer Laureate University For Youth -- SLUFY -- is done.  It's our second year with both kids in the day camp, which is produced by the Center for Gifted Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Last year we really struggled to get the kids down to Little Rock and back every day.  The camp runs for five hours in the afternoon, not enough time to be worth the thirty minutes each way of commute, so whoever drops them off winds up hanging around coffee shops and libraries until it's time to pick them up. This year we have a carpool partner, so we only have to make half the trips per week, but it's still brutal.

But we decided after last year's experience that it was well worth it for our kids.  The classes are wonderfully interdisciplinary and advanced.  Take the first week of Cady Gray's class on ice cream as an example.  The students conducted taste tests; created their own flavors (each using a base flavor, a fruit, a nut, and a candy ingredient); wrote a letter to Ben & Jerry's about why their flavors should be adopted and produced; designed packaging; and shot a commercial using Flip cameras.  Any kid would love to do those activities, but collectively they create a self-directed, creative, and educational picture of the food business's many facets.

We're lucky that both our kids have been able to qualify for this camp two years running.  Archer's classes are Game Show Probability (and how perfect is that -- today they explored the Monty Hall Problem) and Burning Issues (about fire).  In addition to the ice cream class, Cady Gray has come home with facts about medieval times from her Knightly Days class (we've heard about the plague or "the plaque" as CG termed it, the unfairness of the feudal system, and the code of chivalry, and a lot about the cardbox box and tube castles they've made).

I could wish that all their education were like this, but I'm thankful that at least some of it is.  One more week of SLUFY -- I hope they enjoy every minute.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


You know that Kindle single I was writing about yesterday?  It became available today in the Amazon Kindle store.

I was in Little Rock waiting to pick up the kids from SLUFY when I saw the announcement from the A.V. Club's Twitter feed.  When I went to the single's Amazon purchase page, I was delighted to see that both Noel and I are credited as authors (Noel filled in for me at least once in each of the three seasons, and he did an interview with Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan that's included in the e-book), along with editor Josh Modell and cover illustration Danny Hellman.

It occurred to me that I should make sure the single is linked to my Amazon author page, so I went to Amazon Author Central and clicked the link to add items to my bibliography.  Amazon's search engine then presents to you everything with your name on it, and you can click buttons underneath to claim the item as your book.  In a few minutes, hours, or days, after some algorithm confirms it, the items appear on your author page.

I flipped through the pages, skipping over the children's books by Donna Bowman Bratton, and not only found the Breaking Bad e-book, but also -- surprise and joy -- the upcoming volume of essays Cosmology, Theology, and the Energy of God that I co-edited with Clayton Crockett, which is due out from Fordham University Press in November.  The book has appeared in Fordham's catalog, but this is the first I've seen it available online for pre-order.

So whether you're in the mood for some great televised drama or some energetic theology, I've got you covered at Amazon!  Either or both make great gifts for a loved one -- or why not treat yourself?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Back to the lab

A few years ago, I took on the job of writing about a brand new drama on basic cable.  It was the second original series produced by a channel better known for showing the same second-rate movies over and over.  Most of the people involved with the show were relatively unknown quantities, or were best known for material quite different from the show's premise.

The show was Breaking Bad, one of the best shows of our era or any era.  And thanks to my lucky break, I've been writing about it for the last three seasons.

The fourth season premiere is this Sunday, and I'll be writing about it again.  Connected with that premiere, the good folks at the A.V. Club have put together their very first Kindle single.  It's a collection of my posts, episode by episode, combined with interviews and other related content that's appeared over the run of the series in our publication.

I wrote a new introduction for the collection, and it should be available in the next day or two.  What a cool reward for one of the most fortunate gigs a TV blogger could ever get.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Just can't wait

Because the kids are in Little Rock at a summer camp this week, and don't get home with their designated parent (or carpool driver) each day until about 90 minutes after I get off work, I find myself at home with a bit of alone time around dinner.  I really shouldn't be left by myself when there are boxes of furniture awaiting assembly.  It gives me ideas.

I was going to wait to assemble the big Expedit shelf unit, desk, and worktable that will constitute my new crafting area until the weekend.  But while I was waiting for Noel to bring the kids home from the city, I started looking at websites and videos showing the assembly.  I started to get antsy.  And when the rest of my family walked in the door, I was stacking up empty boxes in the hallway and inventorying all the pieces.

Commentary on the web suggested that the large 25-cubicle square could be assembled in as little as 30-40 minutes.  With some trepidation, because I wasn't sure I understood how the pieces went together and because I tend to be a blind follower of instructions, I took the advice of and put both sides on first, then stood it up and put all the shelf and vertical pieces in from that position.  It was an absolute breeze.  I couldn't believe how fast it all went together.  Within an hour of turning the first screw, I was turning the last one.  It was so effortless that I went ahead and put the attached desk together, too.

I also got a trestle table, but it's just a bit too wide for the space that's left between the desk and the wall, unless we move our bed a bit so there will be more room on that side.  I may not be able to resist setting it up even so, though; I'm so close to the crafting space I had envisioned that I think I could deal with having to squeeze through on my way to bed temporarily.  I'll post pictures soon.

Now I get the joy of moving all my yarn and equipment into my new space -- maybe the part I've been looking forward to most, since it involves getting reacquainted with my stash.  Can I hold off long enough to let Cady Gray help, as she has pleaded?  My self-control just isn't the best when it comes to new spaces, new organization, new inspiration.

Monday, July 11, 2011

You gotta love sports

On Sunday, we hurried home from church to catch as much of the women's World Cup match between USA and Brazil as we could.  The kids love watching sports events, and will often excitedly comment on the stats being shown on the screen and the rules being followed by the players.  It gives them a chance to understand the structure of an activity that's highly structured, building up a diagram in their minds of how the sport works, cog by cog.

When we're watching baseball, Archer will frequently stop whatever he's doing and trot out to the living room to check on the score and the situation.  He often delivers a sportscasterly bit of commentary on what he sees, something like "This is just an epic duel between two players."  And if we yell or get excited, he'll come running to see what happened.

So when Abby Wambach headed the ball into the goal in the last minute of injury time on top of extra time to tie the game, and Noel and I exploded in joy, both Archer and Cady Gray dashed into the room from their designated play-in-your-rooms time.  And of course we let them stay to see the penalty kicks.  They perched on the loveseat together explaining to each other how it worked and counting the goals each team scored.  When Hope Solo made the only save of the PK's, they crowed.  And when the last USA kick found the left corner of the goal, they leaped off the coach and screamed along with their parents.

Sports can bring families together -- that much is a commonplace of nostalgic commercials and greeting cards.  What surprises me are the characteristics of sports that attract them.  The numbers and scorekeeping, sure, for Archer; but also the boundedness, the comprehensibility, the transparent structure of them as rule-governed activities.  In the act of understanding sports, the kids find handles to understand how all kinds of things work -- or should, in a perfect world.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hammock time

Coming off of a frenzied academic year, my idea of leisure is usually not to do anything at all.  To vegetate in front of the TV, sleep late, and have my food brought to me on convenient trays.  It's then that I dream about hammocks and Adirondack chairs and beverages served with little umbrellas and just ... existing.

But faced with the actual practice of such leisure, I am usually a failure.  Dating back to my teenagerhood, I've never understood how people actually manage to do nothing.  I mean really nothing -- like "laying out" on the beach, as we used to call it.  Hours spent just laying there in the sun, not sleeping, not reading, not ... doing anything?  I tried sometimes, but I always found myself trying to sneak a book in there.  Even listening to music wasn't enough for me to feel like the leisure was at a satisfying level of minimal activity.

So it's not surprising that I've taken up knitting, since it's the perfect compromise between doing something and doing nothing.  Now my relaxing no-goal days have at least that much accomplishment.  I often find myself at my most rejuvenated when I've done more -- organized something, cleaned something out, built something, crossed something off my to-do list.  The transition between leisure and work is made much easier when you get a little of the preparatory material for work out of the way during your supposed downtime, like watching a piece of media you have to write about, or coming up with a framework for something you have to produce, or even just dividing your work time into segments so the decision about what to work on when is already made before you start.

Tomorrow morning we're getting a delivery of IKEA furniture to form the basis of my new crafting space.  I highly doubt I'll get any of it assembled before next weekend, given the relatively tight evening TV and writing schedule we keep combined with the kids' summer camp commutes making for a later start than we're used to.  Part of me resents having to devote half a day of my unstructured leisure to assembly; but part of me relishes spending concentrated, extended time on something I'm so looking forward to.  If it works out, I imagine I could end the weekend far more satisfied with myself and the way I whiled away my time than usual.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Beat the heat

Well, there's no way to beat heat this pervasive.  But Magic Springs and Crystal Falls distracted us for a day!


Water slides require held breath. This is Cady Gray's version.


Nice to start off the day with this much enthusiasm!


Time to leave the water and head for some rides. I apologize for the preponderance of daughter pictures and relative paucity of son pictures. I am a bad mother.


You see my source of my problem. What a little ham.


Archer and his dad get ready to enjoy a coaster ride while Cady Gray and I wait our turn.


Hey, there's Archer again! Or at least his hat, in the old-timey car in front of us.


But enough about him. Here's Cady Gray driving our car, cool as a cucumber.


And waiting to ride on the airplanes.


Archer waited, too. The camera loves the back of this kid's head, doesn't it?


Both of them fed the giant mutant albino catfish in the lake.


And both of them ate an monstrous funnel cake with strawberries and ice cream. (But not all of it. We do have some parenting standards.)


And here's the photo taken by the kindly park employee that will be included in the nostalgic time capsule of this summer.  Farewell, Magic Springs!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thrill seekers


On our last trip to Magic Springs a year two years ago, we introduced the kids to their first roller coaster -- the Diamond Mine Run, a kid-sized version of a classic runaway mine train ride.  They adored it. Cady Gray especially took to my advice about riding in the last car to get maximum whip-crack action, and we had multiple rides to close out our trip.

This year we headed for the Diamond Mine Run as soon as we were done with the family section of the park.  Cady Gray was keen to ride on her own, without an adult, so I rode in the last car while she and Archer took up the first car as a duo.  Then we rode again with Mom and Dad, and the kids' huge smiles gave us a crazy idea -- were they ready for their first full-sized coaster?

The fact that Big Bad John, the regular-scale runaway mine train ride, was rated only "Mild Thrill" gave us confidence that we weren't over our heads.  I rode next to Cady Gray twice, and she screamed in pure glee from start to finish.  "OH YEAH!!" she yelled with a full-throated rasp I have never before heard from her.  So far, from that last trip to this, her reaction to roller coasters was unbridled laughter throughout.

When Dad mentioned that Mom wanted to ride the Arkansas Twister, a classic wooden out-and-back coaster (pictured above) that's without a doubt the most bone-rattling ride in the state, both kids were adamant that they wanted to join me. Dad was out, since his go at it some years back convinced him this is not a ride for folks with a family history of heart disease. Given Cady Gray's unqualified enjoyment of the mine trains, I took her first; Archer was willing to ride in a car by himself, but I wanted him to wait until I could go with him rather than risk him freaking out without someone beside him to talk him through it.

As we crested the turn at the end of the "out" portion of the ride, I turned to look at my seatmate.  She had a shocked look on her face, and the rattling was causing her cheeks to shake like someone in a centrifuge.  I was momentarily concerned that the funnel cake she had eaten recently was on its way back up.  To my shout of "are you okay?" she managed a gasping "okay" before we were on our way down and back.   Fast and fun is all well and good, it seems, but this was an order of magnitude more than she was prepared for.  When we stopped short of the station, she was finally able to release her clenched grip on the lap bar.  Her smile wasn't so much pleasure but relief.  "I stayed on all the way to the end," she announced, and I couldn't help pointing out that she had had little choice.  As we exited, she admitted that it was scary and decided to advise Archer not to go.

But Archer was not to be deterred.  He urged me to head back into the queue as quickly as possible so we didn't miss the next ride.  I told him how long it would last and how many steep drops there were.  And then we were off.  To my utter surprise, he was much less fazed by the height, the speed, and the boneshaking vibration as I thought he would be.  When I checked with him at the halfway point, he was able to answer readily that he was okay, and as we went over the small hills at the end, he was even cracking a smile.  As we got off, he was visibly proud of conquering the ride, and grilled me about what speeds he thought we had reached.

I've always loved roller coasters; Noel has never been a fan.  Looks like the kids have inherited my mild thrillseeking tendencies.  I'm excited about having someone to ride with for all our amusement park trips to come.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Reading the entrails

If Julius Caesar had had a 48 hours like I have, he would have sent his army home and taken up needlepoint for the season. Alas, we live in more enlightened time, and are nit allowed to use omens as an excuse for cancelling plans.

We've had a quick overnight trip to Hot Springs (America's First Resort) planned since summer began. No big deal. Drive an hour or so down the freeway, go to a water park, ride some rides, stay in a nice hotel, eat, drink, and drive home the next day with the kids' backpacks full of memories.

The trouble started the afternoon before our departure. Our Civic Hybrid wouldn't turn over, and needed a tow to the dealership. It's the car we were planning to drive on our getaway, but no biggie -- the other is in good shape and ready to go.

Then the night before the trip, I heard a funny noise and checked out the central air unit. Uh-oh, there's damness around it, water pooling on some of the flat surfaces, dripping behind the filters (where we tend to get seepage under our floors and carpets), and condensation forming on one of the bathroom registers. Nothing can foil a planned trip like a leak, so we called the service guy, who told us the top of the unit needed better insulation to avoid such sweating. He made a date to come back and do it Saturday morning, and suggested turning the A/C off while we were gone. Nothing to do but try to keep cleaning up the moisture if we wanted to be cool in the meantime.

For some people, a busted car and a spontaneous source of water inside the house might convince them that the trip wasn't in the cards. We were making final preparations to leave the next morning, though, when the universe sent us its final message. I was using our hose reel to coil up the hose not 30 minutes before departure when I felt a sharp sting on my arm -- then on my ring finger, in my side, and under my chin. I caught only the briefest glimpse of a bee or yellowjacket as I shrieked and ran for the house. First time I've been stung since I was a kid, and it hurt like the dickens, especially on my finger. I'm not allergic, thankfully, but as I nursed the four bites, I couldn't help wondering where the heck that came from. I had oo idea there were bees or whatever in that reel or around it; I make several trips a day to the outdoor faucet not 6 inches from there while watering the lawn.

You could take at least the car and the A/C as blessings in disguise. By breaking down before we left, we saved having a bigger disaster with the car out of town, or with a leak when we weren't home. But it was hard to see the insect attack's silver lining. It felt more like a final warning, or maybe a spiteful kick in the teeth. One thing's for sure -- it made me glad to be putting that apparently cursed house in my rearview mirror, if only for a day.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The administration gene

One of the reasons I like administration is that consistency and integrity matter to me.  There is nothing more infuriating than an arbitrary decision; nothing more rage-inducing than ad hoc leadership.  We should know why we are going this way rather than that, on something more than purely practical or least-resistance grounds.  There should be a principle that guides and unifies various decisions.

Identifying and following that principle isn't easy, to be sure, but neither is treating each choice as a wholly separate, unique, unrepeatable event for which no precedent or context comes into consideration.

I'll bet I'm not alone.  When I get together with other academics, or with the denizens of any reasonably-sized institution, the majority of complaints center on senselessness.  When decisions don't cohere with each other, when leaders whack moles, when squeaky wheels get grease and everyone else goes begging, morale plummets.  People deserve better, and they know it.  A little explanation and a lot of follow-through goes a long way.  When communication channels shut down, every action -- even the most defensible -- looks unprincipled, because it comes with no strings connecting it to other actions, making a pattern that illustrates a principle.

And there's one more key.  Missions, values, principles, strategies are wonderful, essential things to have.  They tell you what's the most important things for you to do and the essential components to doing them.  But without structures that can persist beyond the commitment of individuals, no matter how central or dedicated, they are empty.  We can't just farm this off as Person A's job; everybody in the organization needs to be able to follow the logic and understand -- if not make -- the decision.  Without a transpersonal structure, that's coincidental at best and a sham at worst.  Structures make some people nervous; they take resources to maintain, they add layers of oversight complexity and can form hierarchies, they can become ossified and recalcitrant and creaky.  But none of those potential flaws is a reason to dispense with them.  Indeed, without a structure that identifies such elements in the effort that are in conflict with principles -- without a structure of assessment and reflection -- any labeling of structures as problematic is just an aesthetic judgment or opinion, asserted without any common language of process and perception underlying it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Countdown to crossroads

It's a luxury to have a job where you get to define yourself.  In academia, every class is a chance to remake your image for a new group of students.  Every research project is a moment of freedom and possibility -- more so as you develop a reputation and gain respect with your colleagues.  And opportunities are always coming along to direct this, administer that, edit the other thing.  You get to choose what kind of career you want to build.

I feel like I'm at one of those moments of choice -- not in a pressure-filled way, but in a freeing way.  Having started a new field of research last year, I've now gotten validation from my colleagues in the form of papers accepted to a national and international conference.  Now I can decide where I want to take it, how fast, and for how long.

This fall there's another book coming out with my name on it -- a co-edited volume arising from the conference my colleague and I organized a couple of years ago.  My boss thinks that puts me well on the way to a promotion to full professor -- an opportunity I'll have in another couple of years.  And if that promotion comes my way, I'll be at the top of my profession.  If I choose to look for opportunities, I can.  The kinds of chances coming my way will be bigger and involve more changes.  But there is an advantage to this stage in life -- the freedom to imagine something different from a position of strength.  After years of apprenticeship and stress about career viability, it's nice to be in a place where most of the choices in front of you are good.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Vacation season

It's hard to believe that summer is half gone.  But by any measure, that's the case.  I wrapped up my semester's work in mid-May, and will go back for fall in late August.  The kids finished school in early June and will return in mid-August.  I'm transitioning from working on my fall seminar syllabus (June's task) to constructing two major research presentations for national and international conferences this fall (July's task).  Once August starts, all bets will be off; we're taking off the first week for a family reunion, and when we get back the kids will be only one week from the start of school (I have an additional week and a half before my first classes, although semester tasks will start ramping up immediately upon our return).

And given that both of our kids have summer camps for the next three weeks, family time will be thin on the ground until that August trip.  This long weekend was full of togetherness, and we've got another one on the docket coming up in just a couple of days.  Continuing a family tradition, we're headed a couple of hours south to our nearest theme park and waterslide extravaganza for an afternoon of fun and a hotel stay (complete with pool and pull-out couch sleeping).  We'll hang around Hot Spring the next morning for some more swimming and maybe some minigolf before heading home ... to start another weekend.

The way I see it, the only thing better than a family vacation is one that comes with a relaxing weekend at home at the end of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rock star dreams

We had dinner at a friends' house tonight and enjoyed some adult socializing while our three sets of kids played (and occasionally fought over) Lego Rock Band on the host family's Wii.  Once we sorted out who got to play what instrument and when, I was fascinated to see how hard they worked at their drumming tasks.

Last year Noel made an offhand comment that he'd like to have Rock Band, and I made a stab at researching the purchase for Christmas.  It was daunting -- nothing seemed to come bundled, there were too many options, and in the end we thought about all the other games we'd bought for us and not for the kids and never play, and decided not to do it.

Now I think we might be interested in getting it for the kids.  Archer's one weak area musically is keeping a steady beat, and I saw how much the game feedback mattered in that respect; whenever he stopped getting points, he slowed down and worked harder at staying in rhythm.  Cady Gray became so delighted with the effects of hitting the booming tom on "We Are The Champions" that she became more and more demonstrative, lifting the stick over her head and engaging in a bit of proto-headbanging.

I still don't know how to assemble all the parts, and I'm sure the cost will give me pause.  But now it's not just a matter of something that might be amusing.  I see how hard my kids work, how dedicated they are to mastering these games.  Anything that inspires that kind of effort gets my attention.  No matter what skill they're trying to acquire -- even if its something as utterly useless as mashing buttons int he right sequence -- what they're really practicing  is perseverance, willingness to fail, and using feedback to improve.  If those lessons come with a better sense of rhythm and familiarity with some classic rock, that's just icing on the cake.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


We had lunch at Panera Bread today.  Since it's Saturday -- an S day -- I got to contemplate choosing a dessert from their bakery section.

Usually in this situation I would find the chocolatey-est thing on the shelf.  I have only a few sweet opportunities a week; I try not to waste them on anything non-chocolate.

But last time I took the kids to Panera Bread, Cady Gray picked out a thick, flower-shaped sugar cookie with bright yellow and pink sprinkles.  It looked so cheery that I decided to try it today, much to Noel's surprise.  I tucked it in my purse and brought it home; an hour or so later, I unwrapped it, broke off a piece, and popped it in my mouth.

Perhaps you've had this particular cookie.  A quick Google search finds people in search of the recipe.  All I can say is that it was something far greater than what I was expecting.  Thick, buttery, not just sugary but also with the underlying rustic richness of shortbread, accented with the sharp, sweet hit of the sprinkles coated on the top.

I involuntarily exclaimed at its goodness, earning a longsuffering look from Noel (whose low-carb diet would recoil in horror from such a confection).  It was an instant trip back in time, both to the thick homemade sugar cookies we helped bake for holidays, and to the shortbread biscuits that my Scottish grandmother always gave us when we visited her, dispensed from a tartan-covered package.

 It's been a long time since I was brought up so short by a morsel of food.  I felt like I had taken a bite of summer itself.  A reminder of the power of taste, and a call to expand my dessert horizons every so often.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Needing each other

It's the end of Superkids, a camp for K-2 students sponsored by my university's early childhood education program.  Our children have attended every year they've been eligible; Archer went for three years and Cady Gray has one more year to go.

So for five  years running we've heard the same songs at the graduation ceremony, with the same hand gestures and CD accompaniment.  Before the program began, Archer, sitting with me in the audience, told me how mixed up the track numbers and CD changes were before the leaders put all the songs on the same recordable CD.  His attendance coincided with the height of his obsession with digital displays and time.

Cady Gray is very receptive to the curriculum's message of empowerment through learning, high self-esteem, and the importance of friendship.  On our way home from dinner tonight, she essayed the proposition that friendship isn't a want, but a need.  I agreed, talking about all the things we can't accomplish by ourselves, and praising her and Archer for being good friends and giving each other someone to depend on and someone to trust.

I've had a number of good friends -- best friends, the kind that are needs and not wants -- in my life.  But I don't think of myself as a person who's good at friendship.  Social media has made it easier; I can be aware of people's needs, try to help when I can, and offer compliments and advice without relying on frequent physical meetings.  Because as a homebody, I treasure my family time and my solitude, and anyone who knows me would agree that I'm not proactively sociable.

Because easy friendship is not one of my talents, therefore, I treasure all the more the friends who stick with me in the most friendly of situations.  They invite my kids over, water the plants, pick up the mail, host the barbecues, stop by for the small talk.  The ones that are farther away remember the birthdays, check in regularly, play "remember when," and generally let me know that when needed, they will be there.

If July 4 is about anything, it is about solidarity.  Independence from a colonial power didn't mean individual freedom as much as it meant greater dependence on each other -- a need for trust, for solid relationships, for institutions, for respect.  I'm a huge fan of my individual freedom, but find myself nurturing a growing appreciation, year after year, for those who make themselves available as friends.  Thank you, one and all.