Monday, January 31, 2011

And give it all right back to you

Today's post about a genre of yarn and a scarf that's become its default is at Toxophily.

Another week, another winter storm that has millions of people hunkering down.  Currently the track has rain and wind in our region -- snow and ice staying north of us.  By the end of the day tomorrow we should know whether that prediction will hold true.  Tune in to see!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Decision time

A few days ago I compiled the survey my freshman students have now all taken.  I call it a "class asset" survey.  It has two purposes: to get students to identify the skills they bring to the class, and to ask them what issues they care about locally, nationally, and globally.  When I present the results back to the students, it's the first step toward a class service project.  Between the needs they see around them, and the skills they have to offer, we can begin to imagine what impact we might make over the next few months.

Last year at this time, something quite extraordinary happened.  I described it here.  And when I looked at this year's survey results, I wasn't sure whether I wanted something similar to happen or not.  If I got an immediate brainstorm, or if something itched at me enough that I needed to track it down, then at least I'd have an idea of where we might go as a class.  There would be a direction (and I fear above all being completely directionless).

But what if the students didn't come along with me in that direction?  That was the fear last time.  I saw a possibility, but it's frightening to contemplate what would have happened if they hadn't gotten excited about it.

As it turns out, there's no epiphany in the results -- but there's an inkling.  I see something there about a concern gnawing at several members of the class.  They worry that the people around them don't care (about their education, about the environment), and that the visible evidence of their apathy enervates others who might be inclined to care but who are led to believe that they'd be a sucker to expend any energy when clearly the trend is in the other direction.  I can sense something about "broken windows" taking shape, perhaps, an attempt to take back the setting where those visible signs seem to hold sway in order to create a different environment where care and pride are possible.

Tomorrow we'll see where the students want to go.  I want them to own it, but I don't want them to flail. I want them to share my vision, but I don't want to bully them into anything.  It's a fine line to walk.  Can lightning strike twice?

Saturday, January 29, 2011

We all shine on

I tend to think that everything balances out.  Even-steven, as a famous Seinfeldism puts it.  If something good happens, then it will be matched later by something bad.  If I'm way down, then before long I'll be just as far up.

Today was the day I've been dreaming of for two weeks.  And it was way better than I could have imagined. Not only did I get to sleep in while Noel got up with the kids, not only did he take them to the playground for an hour and a half this afternoon and leave me to do anything I wanted ... but a bunch of unexpected goodness sweetened the pot.

  1. The baby blanket I'm knitting -- a bit of a gamble with yarn that one might not ordinarily consider suitable for such -- is turning out beautifully, beyond my wildest hope.
  2. Cady Gray decided she wanted to paint this afternoon, and created rainbows while wearing one of her dad's old shirts backwards as a delightfully oversized smock, while Archer swiftly checkmated me.
  3. It was in the low seventies outside.  In January.
How quickly will the universe take it all back?  I'm already peering fearfully at the weather map for early next week.  Right now the forecast for our area is rain, with the temps staying too high during the precipitation to put us in any danger.  But just a bit of adjustment to that jet stream path, and we'll be smack in the middle of an accumulating-ice "event," as they say.

This past week was actually the first of the semester that my university was in session Monday through Friday.  Holidays and winter weather closures shortened both previous weeks.  "How do you like your five-day work week?" a colleague joked as we passed on campus yesterday.  If the alternative is being frozen in the house and worrying about power outages, Tony, I like it just fine -- and hope the balancing act of the universe lets the scales stay tipped a little bit in my favor this time.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Not worth doing

Twice this week I've found myself talking to students about how they deal with work that isn't worth their time or effort.  As much as we teachers might hate to admit it, such work exists -- arguably, it's rampant across the curriculum.  The work might have purposes for the person who assigned it, but in terms of advancing learning objectives for the students, it is useless.  If I were a student, I wouldn't take an instructor's assertion that the work has a purpose from their perspective as enough of a reason to care about it.  Shouldn't it count toward some goal more significant than "I can't get my A unless I do this," in order to motivate students to do quality work?

Decades ago, when I was a college student, I ran across this phrase in one of those lists of Murphy's Law-type maxims people used to compile (I actually think I had a page-a-day calendar of them):  "A research project not worth doing is not worth doing well."  That one has stuck with me.  There's a grain of truth to it.  Trying to make everything we do something of the highest quality is probably a terrible idea.  There are plenty of endeavors where the ratio of reward to effort just doesn't justify doing your best.  Effort is a limited resource.  We have to apportion it where it will do the most good.

What makes us unwilling to to admit this, as teachers, is that we're allowing for the possibility that the work we assign might be deemed not worth doing well.  Maybe that's a possibility we could take more seriously, though.  Is the work in our classes worth doing for our students?  Is it worth collecting and evaluating for us?  If not both, then why would we expend an effort to do our part of it well?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pacing yourself

I haven't run in a week and a half.  Since Noel left, my late afternoon gym time has been taken up by picking up kids, fixing them snacks, planning dinner -- all the things Noel usually does.

But as I wait out the last few hours until he returns home, I'm thinking about what happens when I do run.  I usually have a goal in mind; since the new year, it's been more modest -- a mile or two.  That's because I experienced tingling and weakness in my left leg after training hard in November and December, and rest seemed to help.

I often keep in the back of my mind that I'll try to do a bit more past my goal, if I can.  Sometimes I hit my distance expectations and can talk myself into keeping going for a few more laps -- maybe even a few more after that -- and if I can tell myself that I'm feeling good, maybe a lot more.

But sometimes I find that I've aimed at that goal so intently that I've worn myself out just as I reach it.  I've rationed my expenditure of energy and stamina to run out right on time.  If I had set a slightly longer goal, I always think as I slow to a walk, I probably could have made it, because I would have paced myself differently.  It could even be mental -- I look forward to stopping, and the thought of bait-and-switching myself sometimes is too much to bear.

I've definitely aimed at tonight during Noel's nine-day absence.  The fact that tomorrow is Friday -- even though it's an unusually tough Friday for me, with no fewer than three meetings and my first-and-only lecture in the freshman class to perform -- means that I've treated it as the start of my weekend celebration of freedom from sole responsibility for the family.  Since Noel left last Wednesday morning I've been looking forward to tomorrow.  To not fixing breakfast for the kids.  To staying at work after 3 pm.  To the usual weekend libations and treats I always begin allowing myself once the work day is over, but expecting them to be especially sweet now that I have the luxury of being off duty.

So what would happen if I were asked to push on a little longer?  I know I could do it.  But I also know I've paced myself with the expectation that I can stop running tonight -- rewarding myself for sustained effort with the sweet abandonment of that effort.  I'm ready for the run to be over.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Back to normal

Noel is wrapping up his last day of movies at Sundance and will head home tomorrow, arriving after the kids have gone to bed, if all goes well.  Not coincidentally, tomorrow is one of the busiest days of his absence for me and the progeny.  Archer will be doing a Powerpoint presentation in his gifted-and-talented class on the seven continents, and I'll be rushing over from school to be there to witness it.  After school the kids have simultaneous music lessons back on my campus, and then we'll be going out for our last dinner as a threesome.

I was prepared to let a lot of things go these past nine days as I pushed home responsibilities to the forefront.  Taking the place of various long-range projects and even more immediate administrative needs were remembering to pick up the kids at the right time and making sure they stayed clothed, fed, and caught up on their homework.

As usually happens, I didn't fall as far behind as I had steeled myself for.  Student work got read; classes got prepared for; e-mails got written; meetings got attended.  Even a few big issues got handled, or at least handed off in good order.

But I'm ready to return to my normal life, where these kind of things can be divvied up.  I probably don't do my share on the kid front; Noel cooks the family meals and handles all the chauffeuring, while I do the laundry and pack lunchboxes.  What seems to work about the way we've arranged the labor is that if there's a hiccup in either one of our schedules -- Noel has a phone interview scheduled around the time that school lets out, for example -- the other spouse can almost always step up to fill in.

That's what turns out to be wearying about going it alone for a week or so.  If it's going to get done, you're going to have to do it.  There's no one to hand off to.  I'm ready to turn off my pager and drop off the grid for a little while, but I promise to step back up with good grace and pack the lunches Sunday night -- thanking my lucky stars I won't be cooking dinner as well.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Every one

In my freshman seminar last Friday, the students did a little class exercise designed to illustrate John Rawls' famous "veil of ignorance."  The idea is that our notions of justice are inevitably colored by prior information we have about what benefits us, given our circumstances (age, race, gender, capacities, etc.).  So anytime we try to construct just social institutions, we tend to discount requests for preference or consideration based on characteristics we don't share, and give undue weight to requests from those like us.  We think, in other words, that justice for us comes first, and others should be happy with what crumbs that fall from the table.

The activity divides the students into groups, within which each student outlines a character.  Within the small group, diversity of traits is enforced -- no more than one rich person, at least one person over sixty-five, etc.  The character outlines are collected and then redistributed randomly at the end of the class.

So not knowing who they will turn out to "be," students are then asked to outline the principles of a society they think will be maximally just to all.  I find this part of the activity fascinating.  One student will usually pipe up with a common-sense slogan; last year it was "Equality for all," and this year it was "Everyone contributes."  After we get agreement from the rest of the class that this is a good place to start, which usually comes quickly (because who doesn't disagree with at least the sentiment behind those phrases?), we get down to defining terms.  Equality of what -- resources? status? opportunity?  Everyone who -- children? the elderly? the disabled?  Contribute what -- work? service? money? expertise?

As the nitty-gritty meaning of the shiny idea-surface begins to emerge, you see the students grappling with the reality that this isn't going to turn out like the utopia they would set up on their own little individual planets.  But what intrigued me this go-around was that the founding principle, "everyone contributes," turned out to have a double meaning.  Initially the student meant it as a mandate -- "no freeloaders."  As we talked about the issue, though -- what counts as a contribution, what would justify delaying career in order to receive extra training, who will be exempted on the grounds of incapacity, whether extra rewards for extra contributions are in order, and on what basis the young and the old might be allowed to take more than they give -- another meaning to the phrase emerged: "We will help you become a contributor"; "we will help you find what you can give."

Students who might have been uncomfortable with the tone of the original mandate embraced the idea of moving people from worthlessness to worth, enriching their community with unrecognized talent or energy.  Students who were on board with the original idea found that this new side to the principle clearly followed in its spirit, making a warning into a welcome.  I tend to take whatever principle the class identifies for their imaginary society and actually carry it through into the projects the class undertakes, asking them to shape their activity accordingly.  I can't wait to see how the service project we will be choosing in the next few weeks embodies the theme "everyone contributes."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Downward slope

I've always pictured weeks as ladders.  Monday is at the bottom.  You climb up to Sunday at the top, then plunge back down to start over.

So it's hard for me to really embrace the image of the downhill half of Noel's absence.  We're past the halfway point, we survived a weekend, and now it's time to ping from school to work to clubs to lessons to home in the bumper-car ride of four weekdays until Noel arrives to put things back to normal.

But because I'm at the bottom of the ladder staring at an uphill week, I feel more like I'm not quite at my goal, rather than "time to coast until it's over."  The mental image of climbing -- of having to get somewhere, and most of the work being ahead -- is unshakeable.

One reason I like weekends so much, though, is that I picture them at the very top of the ladder.  Up there I'm basking in my achievement, I'm enjoying the view, I've arrived.

How do you visualize your weeks?  Are they across, like a calendar, or vertical?  Linear or circular?  What day goes where?  And how does it affect your overall sense of how time passes?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beneath this bold and brilliant sun

Today's post about gifts that bring sunshine into the dead of winter is at Toxophily.

Here we continue as a threesome, with Noel heroically bearing the burdens of a Sundance field reporter in Park City, Utah for another three full days and one more long travel day (though I hope not as long as his outbound trip turned out to be).  The week will be unceasing, the evenings long and the sleeps short.  Our eyes are on next weekend when we'll be back at full strength at last.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In touch

While discussing the first chapter of Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants with my senior seminar, we started talking about the well-worn topic Social Networking: Bane Or Boon?

A few days earlier, I had sat quietly fuming as the five dozen freshmen in our program fell all over themselves in an introductory class session to denounce Facebook and cyberspace in general as the root of all evil.  Not for themselves, mind you -- for their less enlightened peers, and especially for their younger siblings.  "I didn't get a cell phone until I was sixteen," one young man interjected, vis-a-vis the inappropriately early introduction of cell phones into the lives of the next generation.

I was amused -- the haphazard adoption of new communications technologies in the last decade thus being turned into ironclad and commonsense principles of The Way Things Should Be -- but also annoyed.  Never having not been connected, the eighteen-year-olds were disturbingly quick to identify connectness as the central problem of their time.

Kelly helped my seniors put it in perspective.  I paraphrase, not having the book in front of me: "At the exact moment when Americans were said to bowl alone, millions were gathering online."  I looked it up.  Sure enough, Putnam's famous essay is dated 1995, and what else was happening in 1995?  The World Wide Web was entering its adolescence, having come into the lives of the early adopters just a couple of years earlier.

I never fail to be astounded at how quickly the predictions of doom shift.  Fifteen years ago (and for the previous several decades), the ruination of American society was our increasing isolation from each other -- we sat before our TVs passively imbibing, amusing ourselves to death, building houses without front porches and cities without coffeeshops or gathering places.  Now the ruination of America is that we can't live without each other, that we communicate incessantly, that we are losing the ability to be alone, that we have way too much to say and feel entitled to be heard.

This afternoon I sat at the playground while my kids constructed two elaborate fantasy parks in turn -- one for each of them to run -- complete with tickets, attractions, rewards, challenges, and prizes -- and I knitted while occasionally making an observation on Twitter.  A thousand miles away, my husband was standing in line at a movie, making his own observations -- a conversation with our friends and acquaintances, tangentially directed at each other, in real time.  Between our tweets flowed the observations, news, appeals, jokes, items of interest, and other ephemera of the conversations we've each chosen to listen in on -- some people we know, some we simply find enlightening.  We are connected.  Being connected, we are presented with opportunities to care, to touch, to help, to encourage, to critique.  Is this not exactly what the doomsayers of the previous generation felt was slipping away forever?

Friday, January 21, 2011

On a cold night

On a cold night, I like one of those microwaveable bean bags nestled around my neck, and someone to throw it back in the microwave for me after it cools down.

On a cold night, I like to fold clothes just out of the dryer.

On a cold night, I get out my warmest pajamas and slippers.

On a cold night, I long to knit a blanket and have it spill over my lap, growing out of control.

On a cold night, if I must go out, I demand corduroys.

On a cold night, nothing calls to me more loudly than a bed covered with quilts.

On a cold night, there's no place like home.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Turn on your radio

Noel's "Gateway to Geekery" essay on Harry Nilsson went live today.  Nilsson is somebody I knew only glancingly in my pre-Noel days -- as the voice behind "Everybody's Talkin'," the beautiful theme to a movie I loved (Midnight Cowboy), and as John Lennon's companion during his infamous "lost weekend" in California (an episode I cataloged along with my obsessive knowledge of all things Beatles).

Finding and resurrecting the three-dimensional career, the arc and the art, behind the handful of pop hits and moments of cultural notoriety -- it's one of the great joys of life, and of my marriage.  When Noel and I go out for a date-night dinner out, I like to ask him, "So what's the deal with Ricky Nelson?", and get treated to the fascinating story of who this guy was, where he fit in during his own era, how he got there and what happened to him.  It's like the blank spots in one's Headline News version of cultural history being filled in with color.

My interest in Nilsson, I admit, derives partly from his similarity to Todd Rundgren, of whom I've been a rabid fan since my college days.  Both were known as great pop songwriters and studio wizards; both put out crazy, idiosyncratic albums full of obtuse jokes and pastiches.  Both resented, probably, to some extent, being pressured to be conventionally entertaining, and rebelled in their own ways.

Nilsson probably didn't take himself seriously enough, endlessly deconstructing his own legacy and sabotaging his chances of success; Todd probably took himself too seriously, dumping all his philosophico-mystical dabblings into the marketplace.  But that's what makes the frequent moments of absolute pop perfection in both of their catalogs so glittering and precious.  Take them as they are, or don't take them at all.  For me, the human failings of the carriers of so magical a gift, so immense a share of creativity, make their stories all the more compelling, and the music all the more worthy of our love.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The waiting game

According to his Twitter feed, Noel spent the afternoon in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport being shuffled on and off planes that always seemed to have something wrong with them (to cumulatively hilarious effect).  He's finally in the air on his way to Salt Lake City now, but his experience provoked sympathetic memories of all the times I've cooled my heels in airports.  My most common reaction is "Thank goodness the kids aren't with me."

As a knitter, waiting often presents itself as an opportunity, within reason.  Even outside the bounds of reason, the sense that productive and enjoyable labor is getting done can make the agony of open-ended waiting marginally bearable.

The problem is the project.  As you may remember, I usually travel with an easy, repetitive project, one that I can pull out in day-long committee meetings and work from memory.  But for waiting, those projects are far less desirable.  If nothing interesting is going on in your surroundings, you want your project to be interesting -- to engage your mind and attention.  That means a complex project, something with lots of counting, shaping, changes, charts, lace, etc.

I haven't traveled with a sock project in a long time, since I find the sock patterns to which I'm drawn too complicated for mindless knitting.  But I'll never forget a cross-country flight back in 2007, where I used an unusually constructed sock pattern as an exercise in increasing my Continental knitting speed.  The lengthy flying time made the perfect laboratory for my experiment, and the pattern held my interest for hours.  I finished the pair soon after landing.

In April I'll be flying cross-country again, and I think I'll find a pair of socks to knit, along with my usual endless lace scarf for meetings.  For involuntary layovers and long flights, I don't want to just be held captive.  I want to be captivated.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Out here on my own

My annual January bachelorette-hood begins tomorrow, when Noel leaves for the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.  It's important for him to go -- he sees a ton of movies, files dispatches for the A.V. Club, and builds up a backlog of reviewable content that can be parceled out as the movies are picked up for distribution and released throughout the year.  And it's gotten a lot easier to do basic parenting as the kids have gotten older and more self-sufficient.

It's the advanced parenting that has gotten harder.  Getting the kids to their various lessons, clubs, and appointments has become increasingly complicated.  And I think our kids are probably underscheduled relative to the norm.  Noel is the designated picker-upper and chauffeur in our family, although I pitch in wherever needed.  So the anxiety for me is remembering to be where I need to be, when I need to be.  The fear is a child sitting forlorn waiting for the parent who hasn't come.

Couple that with staffing shortages at my office, increasing panic among my co-workers about being able to carry out our responsibilities, and looming events on the horizon, and the fact is that I can't carry all those concerns around all day.  Time to compartmentalize and prioritize.  Getting through Sundance with the kids on a regular meal schedule and with no abandoned-on-the-side-of-the-road incidents is job one for the next nine days.  A lot of other things will get done, but my phone alarm will be on kid-alert settings for the foreseeable future.  So if you could just back-burner that other stuff -- or better yet, take care of it yourself! -- we'll all get through this just fine.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Step up to the drop

When Million Dollar Money Drop premiered in December, Noel TiVoed it on the grounds that Archer would like the money calculating aspect.  What we couldn't have foreseen is that it's become a weekly staple for our family.

Even though the show partakes of many of the post-Who Wants To Be A Millionaire tropes that make almost every contemporary game show nigh-unwatchable -- a flashy Thunderdome set, overly talkative contestants, the apparent belief that waiting thirty seconds for the music to finish and a predetermined outcome to occur makes for compelling television -- it's got some surprising strong points that keep us coming back.

The premise is that the contestants (who compete in teams of two) start with a million dollars is $20,000 bundles.  They must place those bundles on platforms corresponding to answers to a question.  If they're not sure if the answer, they can hedge their bet by dividing the money among multiple platforms (with the caveat that they must keep one platform empty).  Incorrect answers are trapdoors down which your money tumbles; the correct answer platform stays horizontal, and whatever money you've placed there is available to use in the next round.  There are seven rounds.  The early questions have four answer choices, reduced to three in middle rounds, and finally to an all-or-nothing two platforms for the final question.  A clock counts down the time that contestants have to place their money; in an interesting twist, they get more time in later rounds.  They can exercise a one-time "quick change" option in early rounds to give themselves additional time to move money.

The game puts a premium on trust, intuition, and relevant information.  Typically the two contestants will end up throwing whatever they know about the answers at each other as they move money and the clock ticks down.  Often what they say is completely unrelated to the choice in front of them, and if they have to spend too much energy determining that, there's less time available for being sure of their choice.  Ideally at least one of the contestants will know or be able to figure out enough about the answer choices to make a decision -- then they have to convince their partner to trust them, even though the partner's instinct is usually to hedge the bet.  The questions are usually of a continuum variety, where incorrect answers are hard to eliminate because they appear somewhere on the continuum.  For example, one question asked the best-selling variety of Girl Scout cookies.  Unless you happen to know that information, your task is going to be to make some sort of logical argument to eliminate the less plausible bestsellers and focus on the ones that make the most sense.  But all the answers were Girl Scout cookies, so there was no way to use pure common knowledge to make a choice.

A fun little side game for the view is taking the answers (which are revealed first) and guessing the question; it's surprisingly easy, but that doesn't make it any less satisfying.  And of course, as the contestants decide how much money to divide among various answers, the running commentary at our house is whether we would be confident enough in our methods of logical inference to go all-in on one answer, or whether we would try to stave off bankruptcy by leaving a couple of bundles on other answers.  Having $100,000 or less, though, especially before the last couple of rounds, is hardly worth it; you can't break up $20,000 bundles so there's no way to make nuanced probability wagers.

And finally, there's the undeniable thrill of reminding yourself just how much money is going down those chutes when the contestants decide to hedge just a handful of bundles on a wrong answer.  One bundle buys a basic car; two buys a nice car; three buys a boat.  Five bundles is what we paid for our house.

Around our table half the fun comes from our children picking up on our preferred answer and making it their own.  "It's Thin Mints!" they scream in frustration.  "Put it all on Thin Mints!!"

Never thought I'd be watching another game show with dramatic lighting and a "never thought this would be my career path" host like Kevin Pollak.  But here we are -- and I must say it's fun.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Getting past "can't"

The always-intriguing Joe Hoyle blogs today about students -- and teachers -- who claim they just can't succeed in their classes.  To the student who says, "No matter what I do, I can't seem to get an A in that course," and the instructor who says, "No matter what I do, I just can't get those students to learn the material," Joe says: What if you were offered $10 million if you did what you just said you couldn't do?

In that case, I believe we'll all agree, the student who find a way to get an A, and the instructor would find a way to reach those unreachable students.  Which reveals, Joe says, that it's not a problem of ability, but a problem of motivation.  What these people are saying is really "I can't succeed within the parameters of what I am willing to do."

For some weeks now I've been bothered by a few memories from my crafting class -- memories that fit into a pattern I frequently witness among other friends and on social networks.  "Oh, I just don't get knitting charts."  "I could never make socks."  "Lace (or cables or colorwork or whatever) is beyond me."

It's simply not true.  These are smart people.  They learned to manipulate complex symbol systems as children.  They have aced organic chemistry, raised children, served souffles, become fluent in Japanese, filled out IRS forms.  I think they believe themselves when they say they can't do it.  But it's shorthand for some far more complicated statement.  "I consider myself a beginner, and that is an advanced skill.""I'm not willing to make the effort to figure out a chart when I can muddle through with written directions and get the same result."  "I can't picture the process of doing this, so I prefer to believe it's utterly mysterious."

If they really wanted to, of course they could do whatever is under discussion.  Their excuses or self-deprecation all come down to this: "My desire is not strong enough to overcome my inertia."

Putting it that way might just shock somebody into hearing their excuses for what they are.  I'm in favor of being honest with yourself, always, and I think what bothers me when I hear people say things like this is that they are not being honest with themselves.  If they are happy with their skills the way they are, say so.  But if they contend that acquiring new capacities as a student, teacher, or maker is something they actually want to do, then they shouldn't pretend that some immovable object -- their own inadequacy or the impenetrability of the task -- is blocking their way.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


We're now used to living in a world where the iPhone and its larger cousin, the iPad, have spawned a thousand imitators.  It's hard to think back to a time when a smartphone meant having a keyboard, web browser, and graphical texting.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that the way people want to use mobile devices is with little purpose-built apps they can mix and match in any combination they please, customizing their handheld computers for the tasks they want to perform.

But the success of the iPad should remind us just how big a gamble and how bold a piece of imagination our taken-for-granted world once was.  Creating the iOS took an early decision to be user-focused rather than hacker/hobbyist-focused.  Putting the file system and the guts of the operating system of out reach, and allowing access only through a controlled system of miniature programs predictably angered do-it-yourselfers.  When the iPad came out, a lot of frustration was vented about Apple's decision to make it an iPhone writ large rather than a computer writ small.

Making that move required futurist thinking that broke free of the computer operating system models that dominated our experiences five years ago.  Starting from scratch and thinking about how we could interact with a mobile device -- how we could buy, install, update, and use software -- and what we really cared about in our computing interactions (hint: it's not folder hierarchies or knowing where things are stored) -- led to an unbelievably risky proposal that now feels simply inevitable.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Under the weather

Our kids rarely get sick.  I'm not saying that to brag about our parenting or health habits, which are as slapdash as any you might find.  But years can go by between their doctor visits for anything other than a routine checkup.

Maybe because of this, we get more anxious when they do feel poorly.  Cady Gray threw up at school this afternoon about thirty minutes before dismissal, and she's currently in bed half asleep and unable to keep anything down, even water.  I think it's fair to say that Noel gets nervous at stomach upsets, certain that the trouble will spread throughout the family soon.  My anxiety is in trying to decide when a malady can be dealt with at home, and when a doctor needs to be consulted.

And my mind immediately goes to the remedies that I'm most familiar with -- those that were employed on me as a kid in similar circumstances.  Ritz crackers, Coke (virtually the only time we kids were allowed to drink Coke at home), and jello were the prescription for our bouts with stomach flu or indigestion.  As I was thinking about Cady Gray's prospects over the next day or so, I mentally scoured our pantry to make sure we were stocked with those essentials, and rehearsed how I would judge whether she were ready to give those foods a try.

I hope Cady Gray's illness is short, and that the rest of us stay healthy.  As long as this is an ordinary occurrence and not the start of something big, it's probably good practice for us as we try to keep our parenting toolkit sharp and up to date -- and our worry-meter in the green zone.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Chill out, what you yelling for?

Today's post about exchanging generic headgear for handmade goodness is at Toxophily.


And here's a gentle reminder of why warm woolies are so very important. Not that you need one if you reside in any of the states that currently have snow on the ground -- which is 49 of them.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gut instincts

I've been an administrator now for almost ten years. It's been a long, slow learning curve. I've gradually taken on more responsibilities and become comfortable managing more kinds of processes.

Where I still have the most to learn, however -- and maybe this is inevitably the case, no matter how long I do this kind of job -- is making useful judgments about people. Just today I had an epiphany that's been a long time coming. If I can keep it in mind, I might be able to restrain some of my less helpful tendencies.

I've realized that I put a lot of stock into the desire people show. For example, I have to make judgments about people applying for various kinds of jobs, positions, opportunities, and privileges. I am drawn to people who show intense desire for the position. The more desperately they seem to need the opportunity, the more I'm inclined to give it to them. People who clearly could be saved from themselves or from a bad situation attract my attention. I feel for them; I believe I can provide what they need. I sense that they could be tightly bound to the organization and the mission I represent, because it's a life ring thrown out to them.

And now I've seen a few bad outcomes from that kind of judgment. People who really need or want what I have to give might not be the people who do the best with the opportunity. Perhaps, as happened with a (non-academic) hiring committee on which I served, the person who showed the desire was actually running away from something; the opportunity I had to give was a fresh start not because of what it was intrinsically, but simply because it wasn't the untenable old situation.

Perhaps whatever salvation the person wants isn't what I have to offer. Perhaps what I interpret as desire is actually neediness that can never be satisfied. Perhaps with too much desire comes unhealthy identification or obsession with the position. Perhaps the opportunity is actually overvalued, leading to paralysis as the person fears they can't live up to its demands or standards.

I need to learn to balance the desire I see with other factors that will affect the person's performance or suitability. That means not letting that instant identification I feel with the person exhibiting that desire overwhelm other characteristics to which I need to be paying attention.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

That face I'm making is "pride"

It was a big day for the eldest Murray child.  He was asked by his school to be its representative student at the monthly school board meeting.  A short bio was placed in the board agenda, and Archer was given the chance to address the board for one minute.

Over the weekend I gave him the following prompts to help him compose his speech:

1. Introduce yourself and give some details about yourself.
2. What do you like about your school?  Give details.
3. How do you help your teachers?  Give details.
4. What are your goals? How has your school helped you achieve them?

Total time for speech: 1 minute!

The speech he wrote in response is completely original -- if you know Archer at all, that should be obvious. He loves standing up there and delivering it, though. Several of his teachers came to support him.

I'm really proud of my boy!

School board speech

I’m Archer Murray, a math whiz. I am usually polite to others-even teachers-because I don’t want them to get mad at me. I like my school because you can get G.A.G.S (good as gold stickers) in many ways. If you follow directions/rules, you earn one G.A.G.S. You can also earn an A.G.A (art gallery award) by having your painting in the school art gallery. But there are special reasons for earning G.A.G.S, too, such as cleaning the classroom! I usually help my teachers my starting up and shutting down the computers. I sometimes file papers into students’ cubbies. And I also help Mrs. Ennis by fixing other students’ presentation problems! My goal is to get straight A’s on my report card. My school helps me earn that goal by detailing the lessons. Thank you!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Suspended animation


When snow falls, the city goes quiet.  Car and truck noises cease.  So unimaginable is the cessation of this constant motorized background noise to our lives, that it seems as if the snow has simply wrapped the normal sounds of urban life in a muffling blanket.


We become fascinated with areas of untouched snow.  For a moment, we can imagine that no one has set foot on that space at all.  Everything is restored to its original state, before human witnesses.  Or perhaps it is as if humans have been removed from the scene, and the world can proceed without our interference.


Traces of alien life are visible.  Their comings and goings are recorded, and we believe we can know who they were, and what their cat paws felt picking their way through the cold landscape.


Gradually the environment comes back to life.  Children make their way out to have snowball fights and build forts.  Intrepid souls with four-wheel-drive trucks and joyriders with all-terrain vehicles roar down the street occasionally.  It becomes conceivable to leave the house and carry on normal activities.


The snow day is a day out of time.  No doubt we pay for its lost productivity in the days to come.  But for all that becomes commonplace on that day -- hot cocoa, tomato soup, extra layers of clothing, icicles on the roof, empty streets, snow-coated mittens in the dryer -- that are unusual during the rest of the year, it is surely worth it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Blame me

If the snow in central Arkansas has ruined your plans or stranded your car, blame me.

When winter weather entered our forecast a few days ago, I had qualms.  Winter weather sometimes means ice, and ice is bad news.  It coats power lines and takes out electricity; it makes streets impassible even on foot for days as it melts and refreezes.

But as the week went on, the forecast models kept pushing the ice line further south.  If we got wintery precipitation, it would be snow.  And I started to think that a little snow wouldn't be half bad.

Just a little, mind you.  Last year when we got snow, it came in rather too large a package, and we didn't leave the house by car for four days.  I can take a couple of unplanned vacation days, but that was a bit much.  (And even at that, we probably jumped the gun on going out to get dinner; there was an unpleasant slide at our traffic circle on the way home that made me wish we'd waited.)

But a few inches?  For the kids to play in?  The one accumulating snow event per season that we are owed by nature?  When the university's not in session yet and no class schedule can be wrecked by cancellations?

I'm perfectly okay with that.  In fact, I started to secretly hope for it earlier today.  My anticipation was fixed on the knitting I would do and the hot cocoa I would make for kids coming in from their snowmen and snowballs and snow angels.  Imagining that the snow would somehow miss us -- or that it wouldn't pile up enough for school to be canceled -- began to be a disappointing thought.

That scenario is now out of the question; we just got the robocall informing us that the district schools would be closed tomorrow.  A couple of inches are on the ground; there are still a few more hours of snow to fall.  The only question now is how much we will get, how long it will stay on the roadways making travel treacherous, and when schools will reopen.

If it's more than a day, blame me.  I asked for it; I deserve whatever I get.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


As we prepare our syllabi and plan our curricula, ideally we are thinking about objectives.  We list what knowledge and skills we want our students to acquire during our classes, and craft activities and assignments linked to those objectives.

What's interesting about our job as teachers is that there's a constant tension between those course objectives and larger goals -- the goals of degree programs, of graduate schools, of the professions for which we're preparing them, of families, communities, nations, the human race.  There is supposed to be some alignment among those sets of goals; they should express similar values or point toward a shared vision of the good.  We know, however, that we have little or no control over those bigger spheres.  So sometimes our course objectives are parochial -- even, perhaps, trivial.

It's when we think about what our objectives might be if their success was measured not at the end of the course, but weeks, months, or years after the final exam, that we might see the connections.  Many of us have had the experience of students telling us what our course meant to them years later.  Even more striking is when we see the learning and the transformation with our own eyes, not in an e-mail or a card or a phone call, but in the actions of our students.

I had the members of my Craft Wisely class join Ravelry at the beginning of our time together.  Now that the course is over, I'm realizing that I'm going to be able to witness some of the effects of the course as their activity on the site pops up on my feed.  Over the break, as I checked my "friends activity" (a Ravelry feature that accumulates the projects and photos posted, favorited, planned, and discussed by your friends on the site), I saw the holiday gifts my students made for their families and friends.  I saw their aspirations soar, through the patterns and projects they marked as their favorites -- signaling the items and techniques they find inspiring, or would like to try someday.  And I saw their future plans in the patterns they placed in their queue and the yarns they added to their stash.

It's not all the students in the class who continue to be active knitters and crocheters, of course.  But how cool is it that I can see how the course affected -- and continues to affect -- some of those who participated, by observing their ongoing involvement in the activities around which the course revolved? Not only is it gratifying to see them continue to participate in handcrafting, it also refocuses my gaze beyond the intramural concerns of the course and toward the broader ways I want my students' lives to be changed.

Friday, January 7, 2011


Archer participated in his first spelling bee today.  As you might expect, he was very interested in the logistics of the affair.  Yesterday he told me all about the practice round they played in his class.  But today, he was up against all the fourth graders in the school.  And there were no word lists to study.  As Archer told me, "any word can be called."

I asked him about his strategy.  He told me, "I see the word in my mind, and I read the letters left to right."

And that's probably why, at least in the absence of word lists, he went out in round 3.  The word was "kerchief."  Not being an avid reader of fiction, Archer has scant opportunity to encounter these words in the wild.  So he has no mental picture of them.  He spelled it "k-u-r-c-h-i-e-f," and was dinged out of the competition.

Happily, he was not upset, and watched the rest of the bee with interest.  The first and second place students are both classmates of his in the Pinnacle program.  Noel, who was in the audience, knew the girl who came in first, but not the second place boy.  We asked Archer who came in second place, and he said with brio, "That's 'Thought Genius' JoVoni Johnson."  He explained that JoVoni has the nickname "Thought Genius" because on the thought of the day in Pinnacle -- a saying or proverb that the students need to explain in writing -- he almost always gets a top score.

We thought Archer had the potential to win the bee, or at least be one of the two who got to move on to the county level.  So did his classmates; there was an audible gasp when he misspelled his word.  But there's some relief that he found himself handicapped by his lack of preparation.  At the national level, it's clear that many of the participants are like Archer -- obsessed or autistic to some degree, able to focus single-mindedly on the minutiae of the spelling word list, using sheer photographic memory to crush their opponents.  I always pity the poor neurotypical kids at that level, trying to use ordinary study skills to ingest all the words and information they need to compete.  Often, too, the oddball kids who show up at the highest levels are the subject of ribbing or even gently-intended ridicule by the media.

We don't want Archer to be misunderstood that way.  We want him to do well at things he enjoys, and to receive the praise that's due anyone who makes the effort to acquire skill at something that requires it, no matter their innate talent.  What's been gratifying about his schooling the last couple of years is that his peers and teachers have clearly given him respect for doing just that.  I hope that continues for a long time.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Cady Gray has a friend sleep over before.  Soli, her oldest friend who now lives in Iowa, came to visit and stayed in CG's room.

Today, her best friend Charlotte's mom e-mailed me to ask if Cady Gray could come to their house for a sleepover tomorrow night.  I knew CG would be thrilled.  She's not going to have a moment's hesitation packing up and leaving her familiar surroundings for a night.  And she's so adaptable and positive about everything that I doubt she'll have any of the moments of doubt or anxiety that I well remember from my first sleepovers.

It's her mom that will be suffering.  Probably not from fear -- just from poignancy.  It will be the first time she's spent a night away from home without a relative or parent in the same house.

Well, there will be some fear on my part.  It's my control-oriented personality.  I usually find it difficult to let go in situations like this; my head engages in a constant fight with my gut.  Tomorrow night I'll probably be resisting the urge to walk by her empty room, and will keep the phone close by.

But mostly I'll feel proud of her, and bittersweet for myself.  A first step away from her home, another step toward adulthood.  Soon they will be commonplace.  For now, I just want to notice yet another milestone passing on the highway's verge.  And smile through my tears.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Five year itch

Is there any more fragile anniversary for an annual event than number five?  In the second year you've proved you can pull it off again.  Three and four, you're building your brand.  Then five hits.  It's like number one all over again.  Every five from now on, you'll be celebrating one of the big ones.  But this is the first step on that ladder.  You've got to get over this hurdle and into your next half decade, or nobody will take you seriously.  You'll just be another of the failed traditions that never got traction for the long term.

And that's where the Archies stand.  This is the fifth year of listmaking.  It's the only list that can be whatever you want it to be -- you choose the criteria, the length, the items, the significance.  The Archies are difficult to describe, but easy to master.

Each year the Archies have attracted more and more participants.  The number's still in the single digits, but  growing.  With each step beyond my personal circle of friends, the Archies become more of an institution.

But here we are in year five, on day five, and nobody's made an Archies list yet but me.  Now I know that some of you have them in the works.  Maybe a few of you are finding it hard to start -- or finish -- based on the stress of the moment or of the past year.

Others of you don't think you're going to make an Archies list this year.  Either because you never have, or because you're just not up for it at the moment, or because you don't think it's for you.

I hope you will.  The Archies needs you.  Last year it was on the cusp of becoming something real, something we do every year, something we urge our friends to do, something that orders and makes sense of our lives, something we look back on every year with smiles of recognition.  This year, it could all dwindle away.

Fifth year -- much like the first year.  Will the Archies thrive, or stumble?  If you're sitting on a partial list, or even a head full of ideas that you could let out if a friend depended on it, let me urge you to step up to the plate.  Traditionally you have until the end of January.  But traditionally there would be some nibbles by now.  I hope you'll play along.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Grace period

There's a magic in the in-between times.  They are the cracks where we can escape notice, where we can lose ourselves temporarily.  As children, we experienced in-between time when we went to play outside, inventing our own games, accountable to no one, parents and playmates alike unaware of where we were in our heads, even if they could see us through their windows.

The days between semesters are in-between times.  We appear in the hallways and offices, but our days are largely unscheduled.  Tasks that must be accomplished are on our own timetables, with only the end result important, not the moment-to-moment progress.  There is time for experimentation, for wild goose chases, for personal quests, for unanswerable questions.

In between is freedom.  It's neither leadership nor followerhood -- it's autonomy.  And for those of us who live life on stage, constantly judged by those we are assigned to judge, a moment out of the spotlight is a rare treasure.  We are so often caught in between our students and our supervisors, our administration and our accrediting agencies, our academic freedom and our promotion and tenure committees.  To be in the cracks of those cracks, somehow out of sight for a spell, is exhilarating.  All the more so because the in-betweens are short and precious, yet with the appeal of endless indulgence.

Enjoy your in-between times, and the responsibilities from which they afford a gloriously brief respite.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Forever blowing bubbles

Cady Gray's dearest wish for this Christmas was to get a pet.  After much discussion about the responsibility of caring for a living thing, everyone agreed that a fish was a possibility, and fulfillment of this dream was left to Santa.

It was a longer wait than it should have been.  Santa brought the miniature aquarium on Christmas day, but that evening our furnace conked out, and our trip to the pet store had to be delayed until the house was at a temperature healthy for tropical fish.  Not until the following Thursday morning was our heat fixed -- a long time for a little girl to wait, especially since we couldn't tell her for sure when the big day would come.

Thursday afternoon, though, she went with her dad to the pet store and emerged with a beautiful scarlet betta.  She named it Goldeen, after the goldfish Pokemon.

The first few days were a little anxious, as they always are with a new arrival.  Would the water temperature and pH be well regulated?  Would the fish adjust?  Would it eat?  Stay healthy?  Goldeen, though, proved adaptable to his new home.  Never was a fish more loved by its caretaker.

And I admit that I enjoy watching him as much as Cady Gray does.  When I tuck her in and turn off her light, I linger in her room to see the show.  Goldeen's lighted tank suddenly throws back his reflection to him in the newly dark surroundings, and he responds to what he perceives as a rival by flaring out his long tail and feathery fins in a way that's gorgeous to behold.  I could stay there, mesmerized by the grace, color, and motion, for hours.  But I leave the sight to Cady Gray, nestled under her covers, eyes drawn to the glowing cube of water and its beautiful swimmer until she can keep them open no longer.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Holiday, oh holiday

Today's post with the full Christmas gift knitting lineup for 2010 is at Toxophily.


And here's my favorite picture of the whole season -- it didn't show the hat as well as the one I chose for the main post, but it shows my girl's beautiful eyes, sparkling for the season, quite beautifully.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

It'll be just like starting over

Checking tweets, Facebook posts, and blog entries from many of the people I follow, I see that many people had a rough year in 2010.  For some it was the economy, for others health issues, for others relationship problems or loss.  They are all ready to say goodbye to a year that beat them up in some way, and hope for better with the turn of the calendar.

In academia we have the singular opportunity to start over at least twice a year.  New semester, new students, new courses, a new chance to do it right.  I'm very happy with the progress I made as a teacher this past year (a subject for another blog post), and want to keep the ball rolling in 2011.  There's a lot of pressure on firsts: the first few class meetings, the first minutes of each class, the first graded assignment, the first test, the first individual meeting with the student.  Setting the right tone can feel not only important, but critical -- like you'll never get another chance, or like a misstep dooms the relationship for ever.

Maybe some people feel that way about the first day of the year, too.  The superstition is that the person you kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve is the person you'll kiss the rest of the year.  And some people try to start new habits or break old ones starting with January 1.

If it's an all-or-nothing shift, then disappointment can come just as quick as change.  The first time you backslide, everything's ruined.  I was happy to see that some of my online friends have more nuanced resolutions -- less of this, more of that, better consistency, smarter judgment, fewer exceptions to your rules.  Those are the kinds of changes we can make.  Instant transformation is unlikely; a gradual turn toward our ideals is always within our reach.

2011 isn't a clean slate.  We carry into it all the baggage we've accumulated so far.  Every day we have to decide what it's going to be.  And if we fail to make the decision we want on day one, or day ten, or day one hundred, when it comes to being the person we envision, we will have another chance tomorrow.