Saturday, April 30, 2011

Proud parent

Today Archer had his end of semester piano recital, and once again Noel and I are on tenterhooks.  Will he perform?  Has he practiced enough?  Does he understand the situation?  If he runs into trouble, will he be able to recover?

As a parent, you know that these are things your kids have to do on their own.  But that doesn't mean that every instinct isn't crying out to you to rescue them from potential pitfalls.  It occurs to me that the nervousness I feel waiting to see if he'll come through is the same as the stress I've been underneath all this month as my students, in three distinct groups, worked to pull off their projects.  I've wanted to insure that they had success, but ultimately it wasn't up to me.  My role was to coach, prod, advise, cajole, instill urgency, issue caveats, and provide resources.  In the end, they had to do it.

Letting my students take the lead -- acting as a facilitator rather than as one who professes truth -- was a gradual but dramatic transformation for me as a pedagogue.  I probably have a long way to go in applying those lessons to my relationship with my children.  But when Archer sat down at the piano and rolled through his recital piece like a pro then took his bow with a huge smile on his face, I could see down the road how rewarding it will be when they take the reins and own the accomplishments.

Friday, April 29, 2011

And with that ...

... spring 2011 classes are over.

It's a shock.  I've been working so hard and looking forward so assiduously to a rest.  But nevertheless, the final class meetings of my courses snuck up on me and passed without tremendous ceremony.  We had a lot we were trying to accomplish those last few classes -- presentations to squeeze in, projects to complete, reminders about final exams and last-minute instructions.

It's a shame, though, that we didn't have time to pause and mark the end of a momentous year.  I had both ends of the undergraduate spectrum -- freshmen finishing their first years, and seniors taking their final classes.  For both, there should be a chance to savor this moment and remember its significance, not just a mad dash to the finish and a sincere longing for sleep.

I still have the exam periods, of course.  And I hope to use them.  My preference is for in-class performances, group projects, or take-home writing over sitting in a room in silence scratching in a blue book.  A nice side effect of this bias is that it's a lot easier to integrate food and conviviality into the final occasion of us all being together if we're not doing individual timed writing.  So I have a lot of parties at my final exams.

Given how intensely they've labored and how much they've accomplished this semester, my seniors aren't going to have to get up at 8 am for the designated exam period next week; instead, we're meeting at a local watering hole for pizza and karaoke.  (They do have a final written reflection due as well.)  I'm having a slightly more elaborate freshman final this year than has been my recent custom, with pairs of students doing brief presentations and responding to questions from the group, in addition to a take-home reflection, but they'll do it all with a potluck lunch on the table.

There's still a lot to pack into these last chances to meet and share ideas.  We need to celebrate what we've accomplished, feel the momentousness of the occasion, express any sentiments that need saying, and recognize the transitions that are underway.  I hope I haven't missed my chance to create a space where that can happen.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Untold stories

Yesterday I wrote about my freshman class's decision to create a project aimed at increasing pride and a sense of ownership on campus.  Team Random focused on random acts of kindness, culminating today in chalked messages of encouragement all over campus sidewalks.

The other team decided to focus on the dearth of knowledge about the intriguing stories surrounding our campus.  Team Mystery took their inspiration from a strange block of granite inscribed "CRESTOMATH" that sits next to McAlister Hall, devoid of explanation.  Knowing what these mysterious artifacts are, why they exist, and what kind of bizarre histories surround them -- Team Mystery felt this would help students feel like they had the inside scoop into their campus's secrets.


So they created a Campus Mystery Tour, with nine stops encompassing the most enticing stories they came across in the archives.  On Wednesday they deployed white document boxes around campus filled with the colorful flyers they designed to tell those stories.


Did you know that Old Main, the centerpiece of campus, contains an entrance to a series of tunnels?


Or that this recent monument to alumni and students killed in World War II commemorates a set of oak tress planted as the original memorial -- the significance of which were then forgotten over the years, with some of them eventually removed in building projects?


Or that Harrin Hall, originally the campus's first freestanding library, once contained holding cells for troublemakers nabbed by the night watchman?


Or that Coach Guy Estes, for whom the football stadium is named, was the honoree at the only funeral ever held in Old Main's auditorium?


Team Mystery even unearthed the meaning of Crestomath -- a cryptic gift from a women's literary society named for a legend about a love story between Cres and Math. After months of research and planning, it was a thrill to see the tour stops installed and the fliers starting to be read. There's nothing I love more than a set of questions meeting a group of students with the wherewithal to find the answers, and a reason to do so.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Thinking positive

As we do every spring, my freshman students filled out a survey at the beginning of the semester about the biggest needs they perceive in their communities.  We looked at the results, brainstormed, and uncovered a broad concern about isolation among the student body.  People drift through the university as consumers, without connecting to the institution, its history, its values.  They may bond with a group over Greek life, student activities, or athletics, but they don't have pride in being identified with the university as a whole.

We decided to address this issue on two fronts, and called our effort the Agora Project (nodding to the classical elements of an Honors education along with the notion of a community gathering place).  Today, both projects had public unveilings.  I'll focus on the half of the class we call Team Random in this post.  They conceived a week of actions to promote positive feelings among the student body -- posters, little artistic surprises, candy with notes of encouragement, chalk messages on the sidewalk.  They thought of it as a week of random acts of kindness.

Today one of the most concentrated efforts took place.  After having to cope with bad weather the first two days of their week, forcing them to be flexible and patient, they had a brief window of sunshine before thunderstorms whipped back up this afternoon.  That was enough time for them to put up an inspiration wall in front of the Student Center and ask passersby to write an answer to the question, "What inspires you?"


People took to it immediately. It took only minutes before the wall was covered with messages.



I just had to take a picture of mine.


But it's true -- they do inspire me. Just look at them. They can do amazing things when given just a few resources.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Safety first

Day two of the epic severe weather outbreak in Arkansas.  We rode out last night's storms at home, but it was undeniably frightening when multiple tornadoes are passing just to the east and south.  With an even bigger and more dangerous threat tonight, we've decamped to my office for the duration.

A couple of weeks ago, after tornadoes hit Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw a televised report from Shaw University.  Windows had shattered, trees were down, and roofs and outbuildings were damaged.  But the buildings were all standing.  Mike Bettes commented, "University buildings like this are good places to be during a tornado; they're well built to withstand all but the strongest winds."

I took that to heart.  Tonight we are trying to take life-threatening out of the equation by hunkering down in a building that will protect us a lot better than our house.  We can deal with our property bearing the brunt.  And we're lucky to have a shelter like this that we can go to, and the foresight to head there ahead of the storm.  Here's hoping everyone stays safe and the clouds stay up in the sky where they belong.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Another kind of vigil

We've been hearing for the last few days about a big severe weather outbreak early this week.  Tonight we got the first wave of it.  Sirens went off in Conway four times; we spent about an hour total in our "safe place" interior bathroom.

Elsewhere in our county a big tornado tore through a town, it appears.  I find it strange that I now look at tornado forecast tracks that go within ten or fifteen miles of my location and feel quite reassured.  And while I spent a total of three hours refreshing the #arwx Twitter stream and carefully parsing the National Weather Service's warning language, I felt less panicked than I used to at these moments.

I have contingency plans, so I don't worry about what I'm going to do if various dangers threaten.  (Instead I worry that I've waited too long and it's do late to put the plan into effect.)  I have flood insurance and good homeowners and even earthquake insurance that won't do me a bit of good unless the New Madrid fires up for the big one.  I know where I'm going to take the kids if the waters rise, and how I'm going to get to the unflooded part of the street (cut across the neighbor's lawn).  There's a first aid kit in the car, along with a change of clothes and toothbrushes for everyone.

But I hate having to be on alert and wish that I could rest easy under the mistaken assumption that there's no danger.  I remember when I believed that tornados couldn't touch us because our hometown had magical geographic properties.  Part of me wants to move back to a place where I could pretend that was the case.  And would the outcome be any different?  Only if I'm unlucky enough to be in the path of a storm that destroys my house and threatens my life.  If I'm part of the other 95% of the population and aren't in that path, I end up with the same result whether I take precautions and stay alert or whether I don't.

Not that I'm going to stop taking precautions.  I'm too much of a control freak for that.  But it disturbs me that none of my exercise of control really matters, most of the time, when it comes to these massive acts of nature.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Egg citement


Easter started a little late this year -- we had to obtain white eggs (instead of our usual locally-sourced brown ones) and age them a little for better peeling later. But Saturday afternoon the dye cups came out and we got to work with the little white crayon.


One of the things that came in the kids' Easter box from their Grandma Libby and Grandpa Alex were these egg grabbers, which they took turns using to dip their creations.


Nine colors, nine eggs at a time, two waves ...


(we like our eggs brilliantly colored and smelling of vinegar) ...


... eighteen shades of the Easter rainbow.


From this ...


... to this. (Cady Gray wanted to put stickers on. I've never gotten the hang of these things -- they never stick, no matter how dry the dyed eggs are.)


But the hunt for our homemade eggs would have to wait until after church, which featured a hunt for these red plastic eggs (red in honor of Mary Magdalene).


The kids were in two separate egg hunts (or "egg races" as the kids more accurately termed them). I was there to capture Cady Gray's speedy technique.


She got so many that her basket wouldn't hold them all.


As you see from Archer's basket (to his left), he didn't do too badly either.


Later in the afternoon, it was time for a more challenging and protein-centered hunt in our front yard. At the word go, the kids were off.


I didn't hide the eggs too thoroughly, but they certainly weren't just scattered on the lawn as tends to be the case at the church pell-mell.


When they found all eighteen, they demanded I rate the eggs they found so they could end up with point values.


My attempt to give their comparable eggs the same rating was met with demands for "competition."


In the end, I had to rate how much egg coloring had rubbed off on their hands to break the tie.


Easter was a great success, from the lovely church services to the eggs (and the deviled version we consumed later for dinner). It all took place in a brief respite between days of stormy weather -- a hopeful glimpse of a more beautiful future. And isn't that what Easter is all about?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunset service

When I began attending Episcopalian services, one of my favorite discoveries was Easter Vigil.  I'll never forget my first one.  The scripture readings went on and on, and the priest commented in his homily, "If anybody tells you that we don't read the Bible in the Episcopal church, just have them come to Easter Vigil."

Growing up Southern Baptist, we didn't much go in for the eve of anything.  Yes, Christmas Eve by candlelight, but never at midnight.  Being a good church member in my youth meant attending three times a week -- Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening.  Episcopalians tend to go more all in a few times a year, with services every night and day during the holiest weeks of the year.

One of the most underappreciated aspects of Christian tradition -- of any set of cultural rituals, really -- is the practice of waiting.  Tonight we wait for Easter, when this season ends and the next one begins.  We're more familiar with waiting for Christmas, but the principle is the same.  It's a moment of transition, and those moments always require care and attention.  That's why we keep watch through the night to see the change take place and bring in the new day safely.  I always feel like I'm witnessing something mysterious and uncommon when I attend these vigils -- like the rest of the world is sleeping while everything transforms without their knowledge.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The dreaded day

Cady Gray's class took a field trip to the recycling center and a local park today.  I wasn't aware until she was telling me about the excursion that our city animal shelter was a part of the itinerary.  After excitedly telling me what her friends' favorite dogs were, and the characteristics of the dogs she like best, she finally came out with it: "Do you think we could ever have a dog?"

My family certainly had dogs when I was Cady Gray's age, and intermittently throughout my upbringing.  Now I wonder what impulse led them to get a dog in the first place.  Our first dog, a poodle, predated me and died of old age when I was still small.  I think it was a few years before we got our next dog, a Chihuahua mutt, and it was probably at my urging; I certainly know that it was thought of as my dog.  Then the final dog of my youth was acquired after we moved out to a more expansive property out of town -- a good-natured, galumphing Irish setter.

Cady Gray is just four months into her very first official pet (other than the occasional caterpillar or minnow) -- a betta fish that she cares for very well.  But as I"ve said before, it's hard for me to imagine adding a dog or cat, no matter how small and unobtrusive, to this little house.

When Cady Gray asked her question from the backseat, before we could even formulate an answer, Archer piped up, "I don't want a dog.  I wouldn't like that."  It's rare for him to have such a definite opinion, and even rarer for him to express it categorically.  We heard out his reasons (dogs might bark all the time like when you're trying to watch a TV show that you really like), and knew that underneath is a fear of dogs jumping on him that goes pretty deep.  So we explained to Cady Gray that right now our house is too small for a dog, and it's not OK with Archer, but things could change.

Her eyes welled up, but when I asked if she understood, she nodded tearfully.  I contorted myself from the driver's seat to hold her hand.  A few minutes later she interjected a comment into a discussion of Governor of Poker, and I knew everything was all right for the moment.  As for most families, the pet issue is not a one-time thing; we'll be revisiting it, I have no doubt.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

And chose a servant's part

I agreed to preach a Maundy Thursday sermon a couple of weeks ago, and that night has arrived.  "Maundy Thursday" is one of those phrases I read occasionally in British books during my upbringing, but as a Southern Baptist never thought would become a part of my life.

Maundy Thursday is so called because it is the day of Holy Week when Jesus gives a new mandate -- a new commandment -- to his disciples.  Actually, a number of different mandates are piled together on this day.  It's the night of the Passover meal that we now commemorate in the Eucharist, Communion or Last Supper, and Christians understand there to be a mandate to "do this in remembrance of me."  The author of John adds another institution, portraying Jesus as leading a foot-washing ceremony, which was presumably something regularly practiced by the community for which he wrote.  (Mainline churches that celebrate Maundy Thursday typically wash feet only on that night; a few Christian communities, like Seventh-Day Adventists, understand the ritual to be mandated more regularly and broadly, and therefore schedule it as a prominent worship ordinance.)

But the most important mandate of this night is Jesus' statement in the gospel of John that he is giving a new commandment to his disciples to love each other in service, just as he has made himself a servant to show his love to them.

If you'd like to read my sermon -- it's short and contains no jokes or anecdotes! -- it's available here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Why does this drawing delight me so?

I came home this evening to find it stacked on the kitchen counter with other papers the kids had brought home from school.  When I asked Cady Gray what it was, she told me it was a robot.  "It's holding two diamonds, which is where it gets its power.  It's powering up," she explained.  The ovoid appendages near the legs are airplanes which it can send off to carry messages.  The gauge in the middle is a power meter.  "And it can hold other things when it's not charging itself," she clarified.

Something about this drawing makes me giddy.  The roundness, maybe -- the way the robot's instruments are distributed on its circular body.  Or the imagination of diamonds connected by wires to the head, combined with the recognizable conventionality of the squarish, mechanical robot face.  Most of all, it's that childhood habit of addition and accretion: having decided to draw a robot, the various features of that robot can be increased without limit, just be adding detail after detail.  And of course, every attachment has a Cady Gray-ish idea behind it, as if they were symbols in a code that she carries around in her head.

I tried to explain to her why I loved her robot so much; I praised her imagination and attention to specifics and inclusion of detail and story.  But really, I love it because it seems the perfect record of something surprising I never knew she was holding within -- the spontaneous yet meticulous emergence of some remote possibility she was nevertheless destined to enact.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Close to the edge

There are only seven class days left in the semester.  I've been so busy, so bustling, so on point for the class projects that it's difficult for me to come to terms with that reality.  And even though the most stressful period has ended, final exams are approaching at a rapid pace, and I always have to scramble around that time.

Some professors probably dread finals week only because of all the grading that will ensue.  But I never formulate a plan for final exams until the last minute.  Part of the reason is that I almost never give conventional exams with students answering questions or writing essays; I prefer creating projects.  My students write collaborative essays, form editing and rewrite teams, and create peer education structures.

Because of the intensive service projects in both my classes this semester, I've backed off of the complicated finals.  My freshmen will divide labor on a half-dozen essay questions for short team oral presentations, and then everyone will write one essay reflecting on their service projects.  For my seniors, who have worked so hard and accomplished so much, a take-home final reflection on their project and a well-deserved celebration.

I'm not quite out of the thicket of projects yet; my freshmen have two separate efforts that will be going public next week.  Last-minute complications are sure to ensue.  But because I've been intimately involved with only one of the groups -- the one whose project is most under their control, with little necessity to get cooperation from others or pull off major events -- I'm feeling rather sanguine about it.  My teaching assistant is taking charge of the other group, and has done a great job getting them the support and participation they need from others.

Once it's all done, with finals and graduation behind me, I'm likely to experience a certain amount of shock.  For the last several weeks I've been working flat out, as hard as I ever have.  To have it all disappear in a matter of days, no matter how prepared I am for the drop-off, will no doubt leave me reeling and confused.  But with an empty calendar -- which should make it easier to cope.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What government is for

Many of the students in my academic unit are in student government.  In fact, it's kind of nuts how large a preponderance of the Student Government Association is made up of the 2% of the student body that I teach.

Seen another way, though, it's not so surprising; we recruit and serve the most involved concentration of student leaders on campus.  Tonight I had a chance to watch them in action.  The student senate was taking up a resolution introduced by my senior seminar members, supporting permanent protection for the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve.  It's the penultimate step in the project we've been pursuing all semester long, the political follow-up to the media event we mounted last Thursday.

Listening to three solid hours of reports, debates, and parliamentary procedure, I was reminded of what student government is usually tasked with doing.  People come to them asking for money, or for their blessing in the spending or collecting of student money.  The other big agenda items tonight were a resolution to support the administration's proposed tuition increase, and the approval of the distribution of student activity funds (notably to a fraternity appealing the decision to deny them funding for a pig roast off-campus).

We came to student government looking for leadership, not money.  And although the vote ended up closely divided, for a solid hour the elected students debated exactly that.  How to show leadership when it comes to preserving campus resources on the one hand, or preserving facilities options on the other?  How to show leadership when thinking about recommending a commitment not just for our lifetimes, but for generations to come?  How to show leadership when petitioned by thousands of community members, attempting both to represent their wishes but also exercise independent and informed judgment about the common good?

I'm thrilled that the result came out in our favor; I believe the senators made the right decision and that their resolution, along with the demonstrated commitment of so many project supporters, will prompt the Board of Trustees to think differently about the issue.  But even more than that, I'm glad that these governing students had an opportunity to think, talk, argue, and commit themselves to an exercise of leadership, and accompanying personal ideals and visions for their individual roles, that don't often arise in their line of work.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

No cure

Nobody in this family is big on cleaning, it must be said.  But every so often, we catch the bug.  Maybe it has something to do with spring, at least this time around; usually I vaguely resent spring's arrival because people expect one to get all industrious about sprucing up the place, but when Noel went on a binge this weekend I quite enjoyed his efforts, and even pitched in a little.

The kids are growing older, and their rooms have evolved in fits and starts.  Remnants from their toddlerhood exist haphazardly alongside more recent acquisitions, in their closets, bookshelves and toy cubbies.  After a few hours with them deciding what to toss, give away, and keep, Noel had their rooms looking much less cluttered -- although still not fully updated.  For that, we need some different furnishings and storage options.

I have a modest dream for our room, too.  Years ago when we were first preparing Cady Gray's room, we moved Noel's home office (consisting of a large computer desk) to our bedroom.  Now Noel's home office is the living room when he's watching movies or television, or the front room when he's writing -- wherever his laptop is.  The computer desk in our bedroom is used mostly to store miscellaneous objects and to provide the kids with access to game videos on YouTube.

It's about time to give Archer one of our old computers, using a small desk that used to be my home office that we've already moved to his room.  And then we can get rid of the big home office desk, and I can convert that corner of our bedroom to a place for my yarn and sewing supplies.  It's more copious than the notch by the garage where I'm currently keeping everything, and as an added benefit, that nook will open back up for other kinds of storage or activity.

So much needs to be done around here -- curtains, painting, carpets -- but we get seized by one set of projects and ignore the rest.  Good thing, too, because if we started thinking about all the things that are waiting on our attention, we'd never know how to begin.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When you're treated like you should be

Today's post about socks from way back in 2009 is at Toxophily.


Sock weather is almost over, and sandal weather is beginning. Just in time, too, because my beloved Born clogs have a worn-through footpad. One hopes that such shoes would be on sale this time of year. I also get another chance to get the size right; last time I bought shoes that I wanted to wear mostly with handknit socks, I overestimated the amount of extra room those socks needed. I would have done better with a snugger fit, something I'll try to remember when I go to the store.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hugging the Green Bear

After yesterday's Bear Hug for the Nature Reserve event, I was too tired to get my pictures uploaded and blog about it.  With a day in between, though -- even though I only got about four hours of sleep last night due to stormwatching -- I'm rested and ready to show you our great success!


We advertised with this student-created banner in front of the Student Center, and with a stack of fliers we posted and passed out at our petition drives, in addition to a very active Facebook event.


Students also wrapped campus trees in green and purple yarn, the symbol of our efforts and a teaser for the yarn we planned to use when surrounding the reserve.


Our logo right next to the Reserve entrance, ready for the event!


As participants began to gather, the press (in the person of Tammy Keith from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) talks to Steve Runge, dean of the College of Natural Science and Mathematics, and his Honors College scholar daughter Monica. In the background you can see students signing our petition.


1:50 and we're off to surround the reserve! Folks hold onto green and purple yarn as they set off down Farris Road.


Other participants wait for their chance to grab on and join the line.


The huggers stretch all the way down Farris Road before heading into the heart of the Reserve about a quarter-mile away.


... And here they come back toward the entrance! About 250 people encircled the central 17.5 acres of the Reserve, consisting of one of the last remnants of the virgin prairie that once covered the whole river valley region, buffered by a mature hardwood forest.


Faculty and students together took part in the event, a powerful show of solidarity in the UCA community for a landscape that benefits so many.


On a beautiful day, the participants walked about a sixth of a mile around the reserve. As you can see, the line just kept coming as marchers approached the entrance where they began.


Flying the banner of the Green Bear Project, the students' overall effort to raise awareness, educate the community, and secure a commitment from the Board of Trustees to permanently protect this space from development.


It took us awhile, but we finally found the end of the line! And just in time for students and faculty to head back to class. As we reached the entrance to a round of applause and high fives, we celebrated a successful effort in turning out the community and demonstrating the value we all find in this unique landscape.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

MadLibs (tm)

Archer brought home an unusual piece of schoolwork this week.  It was a MadLib that he'd clearly written, but it didn't look like another student had filled in the blanks -- the handwriting was adult.  We asked Archer about it, and what came out (after much questioning) was that he had written the MadLib and then his teacher had let the whole class participate in filling in the blanks, taking their suggestions and writing them on the sheet.

Here's the MadLib Archer wrote, called "Super Mario Bros.", with his notations about the parts of speech, and the blanks filled in with the class's answers.
Attention All Platypuses (Plural Noun)!  A New York City (Noun) called Super Mario Bros. is being puked (Past Tense Verb)!  Princess Meghan (Female Person In Room) is being mowed (Past Tense Verb) by Gray (Male Person In Room)!  Mario must rescue her.  Walk (Verb) with the Z (Letter) Button.  Scream (Verb) with the W (Letter) Button.  Finally, fall (Verb) with the C (Letter) Button!  Mario must swim (Verb) Goombas and Koopas.  If he doesn't, he'll sharpen (Verb) a Lylla (Noun) ... And avoid having Mario shimmy (Verb) all his scorpions (Plural Noun) or it's Game Over for you!  Also, try to juggle (Verb) a top score!  Good Luck! 
P.S. Dance (Verb) your best. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I'd like to teach the world to sing

Ten weeks ago, my senior seminar students decided what project they wanted to pursue this semester.  I was thrilled at the time to have a direction and a goal.

The uncertainty that plagued me after that decision was made was about the signature event for the project. I'm a convert to having some big splashy thing happen in any student project -- but especially for an awareness campaign -- to which media can be invited to help spread the word.  For our campaign, which seeks to rally support for permanent protection for the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve, I initially had a problem wrapping my head around such an event.  Students had brainstormed ideas like holding classes in the Reserve, inviting in school groups, doing performance art.  I was worried that the concepts were too complicated, too hard to communicate to the media and the campus audience, not camera-friendly enough.

Then a few days later, during a early-hours period of sleeplessness, I had a vision.  People holding hands and forming a human chain around the entire Nature Reserve.  It was exactly what I was looking for -- simple, symbolic, visual, participatory.

Tomorrow my vision is going to come true.  I'm hoping for a big turnout, and fussing over details.  I'm still a little worried about the weather, although the forecast has been improving steadily.  I anticipate an exhausting day tomorrow, fraught with anxiety over success and unanswered questions and unforeseen difficulties.  But I'm starting to think it's going to come off.  And if any part of my vision turns into reality, I'm going to be ecstatic.

If you're in town, come join us -- 1:40-2:30 at the Nature Reserve along Farris Road.  You could show up in my dream!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tax man, Mr. Wilson

We send our taxes to a preparer because, what with Noel being self-employed as a freelancer by multiple outlets, it's not a simple matter of a couple of W-2s and ample withholding.  If we've got our act together, our information goes off to the preparer in early March, and we get back our returns to sign and file in about a month.

And that's when we find out how well we balanced our income and deductions the previous year.  It's possible as a freelancer to make too much money and to spend too little on your business.  If you do, not only do you owe a lot of income tax (there being no employer to do your withholding and match your Social Security contributions), you end up paying higher estimated taxes throughout the following year.

So it was with great joy that we discovered, upon opening our completed returns this year, that we had overpaid on estimated tax all year long and therefore had gotten way ahead for the coming year.  Not only did we not owe any tax with our returns, but our estimated payments for 2011 were already paid with the overage from 2010, at least until the final installment.

I can't remember the last time I submitted tax forms ahead of time.  Usually I wait until Tax Day to keep from having that big check hit the account as long as possible.  But with nothing owed, we signed and sent everything off within a couple of days of getting the return.  April 15 is the day after the Bear Hug for the Nature Reserve this year, a day of celebration, not a day when we owe the government.  We're paid up.

Next year will be different; it always is.  But for this year, we are thinking of our vacation from estimated tax payments as the closest thing we ever get to a refund.

Monday, April 11, 2011

High stakes

It's the week of the Arkansas Benchmark tests in Archer's grade level, and that makes it the climax of the school year.  For months the students have been doing practice items, being reminded to number their answers and not to go outside the box and show their work and fill in the bubble completely.  And when the week is over -- four solid days of not being able to do anything but follow directions and check their work -- the fourth grade will essentially be over, even though there will still be almost two months left on the academic calendar.

We don't worry too much about Archer being able to perform well on these things.  He did really well last year, and the structure of them seems to be comforting and comfortable to him.  When much is expected of him, he tends to rise to the occasion.

Say what you will about high-stakes testing, what bothers me the most is how much wasted time it leaves at the end of the year.  There is a long list of field trips, carnival days, and so forth in the school newsletter, but that still leaves days and days and days where I suspect everyone will be herded into the cafetorium for a movie.  If they're going to make up a week of snow days on top of it all, I wish they'd find a way to make the most of it.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From start to finish

The warm weather is here, apparently to stay.  And after polishing off a complicated beaded lace shawlette and two pairs of socks in the past few weeks, I'm craving a real summer knit -- something I can wear on the hottest days as I walk to and from the office.

Rather than knitting in my leisure time for the last couple of nights, I've been researching what pattern to make, what yarn I have in my stash that will work for it, and how to make it work.  I kept coming back to some 100% linen yarn I've had since snagging it in a sale bin some years ago.  After settling on a pattern, I went back to some posts I'd noticed about how to work with this fiber.  And that's when I went down the rabbit hole.

Linen is a fascinating thing.  Despite not being easy to work with, the flax plant yielded some of the first perfected woven fabric.  Beginning to think about knitting with it, I find that it presents problems of coarseness in the working, difficulty in maintaining tension, and biasing -- that is, the fabric leaning to one side so that what's intended to be a square ends up as a parallelogram.

So I woke up today looking forward to finding out something about the project I've selected.  I found the yarn in my stash, tied it in a couple more places to keep the skein together, and soaked it for about half an hour to soften it up, then waited for several hours while it dried in the sun.  Then it was time to wind it.  I enjoy this step with my yarns and always wind balls from the hank by hand, getting to know the yarn.  Which was important with this unfamiliar fiber; it wound into a small, compact ball, with zero squoosh or stretch, and correspondingly no relaxation and expansion.

Then and only then could I begin to swatch.  I had read that the twist of the yarn made biasing in stockinette stitch inevitable, but I had also come across some claims that half-plaited knitting (twisting stitches on every other row) has the potential to pull against the desire of the fabric to lean.

So toward the end of the day, I was finally ready to knit -- but not my project.  No, just a swatch, trying a new technique and seeing what kind of fabric it makes.  And when the swatch is done, I'll be laundering it.  Only then will I know a little of what linen is all about.

It's a wonderful luxury to have a day to start on such a lengthy road and take several steps down it.  Time is an element that cannot be circumvented: time to wash, dry, wind, swatch, and wash again.  Time to become acquainted, to experiment, to fall in love or not, as the case may be.

At this time in the semester, everything is so fragmented; you rush from one task to another, doing them all in tiny segments, pushing each counter forward just enough so it's not at risk of falling off the table and then running back to the start of the line to catch the ones that have been neglected the longest.  Spending time with linen today reminds me of what I love most about my research and my vocation (including the avocations I've managed to make a part of my everyday work): the promise of living within them for lengthy stretches, integrating myself into their world rather than trying to chop them up enough to fit into mine.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I need so little, yet so much

Today's post about regaining sock mojo is at Toxophily.


Time for a new project. Correction: Time to dither for a week or so over what my next project will be. Ravelry makes dithering so much fun.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Cunning schemes and crazy capers

For a week or two now, ever since my class and I settled on the idea of surrounding the Nature Reserve with people (which was one of my original visions for the project), I've been at a loss to picture how it could actually be done.  You've got a few hundred people (we hope) milling around the parking lot at the reserve entrance.  How do you deploy them around the perimeter of the reserve?  How do they know when to stop walking?  How do you tell them when to break and come back to the entrance?

While in the shower tonight -- the time when many of us come up with our best ideas -- I had another vision.  The students had stated that they wanted to have students hold on to green yarn as they move down the paths to form their human chain.  What if had a member of the class lead, and we counted the participants off, and every 50 or so we added another member of the class?  Six or seven class members ought to do it (if we're lucky in our turnout).  And what if all members of the class had walkie-talkies?  We have a dozen or more walkies that we use at fall retreat to keep the upperclass student organizers in communication.  That way the project leaders at the entrance could signal to the class members out on the line to stop when we ran out of people (or if we needed a pause for any other reason), and when we were calling the group back in.

I had another vision, too.  And that was of a video camera running down the whole length of the line, the film in fast motion, showing the entire human chain.  Can we get people into place in time to get that video before our 50 minute time slot is up?  And what else is wrong with my plan that I can't see right now, dazzled as I am by shower fumes?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A humble request

College professors are largely autonomous in their classrooms.  They get to set the tasks, evaluate the tasks, and give the rewards.

One should always hesitate to suggest anything to a professor about how to run a gradebook.  But today I made a hesitant appeal to some of my colleagues to consider giving incentives in their classes to students who attend an event I'm helping to facilitate.

I spent about 45 minutes composing that email.  It's a delicate thing.  I didn't want to outright ask them to give points to students who come.  I don't have any right.  But I wanted to let them know how they could help with our cause, if they're inclined to help.  I also needed to make sure they understood I wasn't asking as a member of the administration, but just as the instructor who happens to be working with the students doing this project.  The power structure at the university is a very touchy thing, and people can feel coerced or pressured when no such thing was intended.

I sent the email to about fifty colleagues about seven hours ago.  So far, no negative responses.  No positive ones, either, although one chair replied that he would post our flier.  I said in the email that nobody needed to tell me what they were doing one way or the other; if they decide to participate, just make sure they let their students know.

But then, if someone decided to take it amiss, they wouldn't e-mail me.  They'd take it to my bosses -- which is why I made sure to run it by them before sending.  At least if offense is taken, I can say that it wasn't just my judgment in play.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A day in San Francisco


When I walked up from the Powell Street BART station last Friday afternoon, this gorgeous blue sky greeted me. What amazing spring weather for my weekend in the city.


I had an afternoon free after my meetings were over, and headed out to see some art. First stop: a little sushi place on O'Farrell Street right near the hotel.


Followed by a cookies 'n' cream cupcake from a tiny cupcakery nearby.


Then on to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which features an iconic circular tower rising up through the building. I was there for the Eardward Muybridge exhibit, which was utterly spellbinding.


Couldn't take pictures inside the Muybridge exhibit, but I did spot this Matthew Barney installation, the remnants of a piece of performance art where he climbed up the wall (using handholds on left), grappled across the bottom of the pedestrian bridge, drew on the opposite wall, and left his rope and carabiners behind, all dressed as Douglas MacArthur.


The tower from across the street. This was Sunday -- just as lovely as Friday.


And the glorious burbling fountains in that park across the street.


Next up: The Cartoon Art Museum, for Berke Breathed and Looney Tunes exhibits.


On my walk back, I passed this clothing store whose windows were full of vintage sewing machines. Wow.


Stopped off at Union Square on my way back. These heart sculptures were popular places for tourists to pose for pictures.


Later that night we went to an amazing South Indian restaurant called Dosa.


I'll end where I started, with food on the plate -- in this case, my paneer & peas uttapam. Just a taste of San Francisco, but oh so spicy and sweet.