Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Professors, pizza and pie

Every fall I meet with my freshman students and the dean of the college for an event we call Professors, Pizza and Pie (or PPP, or perhaps P-cubed).  It started years ago as a way for the dean to meet all the freshmen after he stopped teaching seminar meetings in that class.  Now it's the first step in an advising process that tries to help the students clarify their personal goals and forge plans to reach them.

I'm really impressed by this year's crop of freshmen.  They're careful readers, good writers, hard workers, and are unintimidated by the prospect of participating in high-level conversations about abstruse subjects.  They're not yet careful thinkers, but are capable of being honest about it when the flaws in their reasoning are pointed out to them, and are willing to back up and take another run at it.

The question we ask them to ponder over pizza and pie is this: If money were no object, what would you do for the rest of your life?  How would you spend your time?  When we first posed this question to students a few years ago, I recall them having a hard time wrapping their minds around it.  It was a foreign concept to many of them, this consideration of life apart from the necessity of making a living.

This year the answers clustered around several themes, all predictable from this type of student, but nonetheless heartening.  Travel -- experience of different cultures.  Service -- helping people in need.  (A stunning number of them said they would still get the degree and have the career they are currently aiming for, usually in medicine or therapy, but would be free to use those skills for service rather than moneymaking.)   Music, family, and creative pursuits were also frequently mentioned.

All these kids are smart enough to eke out a living from the world doing what makes them happiest and feeds their passions.  A few of them are already questioning their previous direction (or the one urged by their parents) to hedge their bets and tack something marketable onto their undergraduate education.  I'm certainly cognizant of the need for higher education to turn out graduates that will find their niches in the labor market, but these are the best of the best -- they will be in demand in whatever field they choose.  So it would be nice, I always think, if they didn't approach their career and curriculum choices in a spirit of fear.  I'm happy to report that the fourteen who are studying with me this semester seem to have gotten the hang of it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Quest for progress

I'm always trying to improve my teaching, even if I find it difficult to follow through on all the ideas I might have. It helps me to tell my classes what my personal goals are for the class, so they can know that I, too, am continuing to work and get better, and don't hink I have all the answers.

This semester, in both my classes, I'm trying the technique of sending e-mails outside of class for two purposes: (1) to reinforce something important from the previous class, and (2) to set a particular expectation for the next one.  Much of the frustration or disappointment we feel with students not being prepared, I think, is based on not communicating clearly what they should be prepared to do.  I'm going to test that theory this semester.

My university's Instructional Development Center has a blog where professors are asked to write periodically in reflection on their teaching.  I've read the first couple of posts this year with interest, and left comments.  It's good to be in company with colleagues who care about their students' learning, and think together about how best to foster it.  I'm sure all of us with higher education experience know that such an orientation is by no means universal.  If we can give students a taste of professors who have it, though, maybe they'll gain the courage to demand it of all their instructors, though.  I think they should.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Color wheel

Today marks my semiannual shopping binge at Rhea Lana's consignment sale.  I spent almost exactly $200 and outfitted my kids for the next six months -- if I bought the right things in the right sizes.

The first weekend of this seven-day sale is always a madhouse.  People line up and trade passes to get in for the preview nights.  But by Monday, it's a different story.  That's the day that the racks are restocked with new merchandise, everybody goes back to work, and the giant retail floor is wide open for business.

My kids are at awkward ages.  Cady Gray seems to have been put in the stretching machine; she's all the sudden taller and skinnier, and shirts that should fit expose are suddenly too short to cover her belly button. Archer keeps getting taller but isn't getting any wider, and it's a challenge to find pants that are long enough to be decent but don't fall off his hips.

I split the difference for Archer by making sure the jeans I buy him have the elastic bands in the waist that you can shorten with buttons.  Never really noticed them before I had to buy clothes for my kids, but they're lifesavers.  For Cady Gray, I've got no strategy; she's not tall enough for pants that are the same size as the shirts she needs.  So I just hope that I bought enough pants last year that didn't fit then but do fit now.  And the pants I bought today might have to wait until third grade.

Some people -- normal people -- do this more than twice a year.  How they keep track of the vagaries of their kids' sizes, I have no idea.  It's hard enough for me to increment them up a size every time I go.  Ask me what their shoe sizes are, and I don't have the vaguest idea.  Sometimes I think to myself that an organized mother would have a card in her wallet or a note on her smart phone with that information, just in case she happened to stop into a store and saw something she liked.  I don't, but maybe it's not because I'm a bad mother.  It's because I never happen to stop into a store and see something I like -- because I only buy clothes for my kids every six months, in bulk, at a consignment sale.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Spare tire

The month of August was not my best month for working out.  Vacation and very busy work weeks took their toll on my gym routine.  I got in a grand total of four runs, and two of them were 20-minute sessions on the treadmill at the hotel fitness center this weekend.  This week I also did a run-and-walk that was disappointing because my stamina seemed lacking, and I did a workout on the elliptical one day last week when I didn't have earphones for my iPod.

My lack of activity is showing.  I feel like my middle is expanding, something that seems to occur when I don't have enough running to just shake and jiggle it all away.  I'm going to need the discipline to get in as many workouts as I can while I have the chance, before Noel leaves for Toronto after Labor Day.  Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't get any easier to deal with; working around Noel's and my travel will be very difficult, since the flexibility of my pre- and post-work hours disappears.  If I become more airship-like in the next month, though, I have only myself to blame.  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ahead of the storm

I slept poorly last night, despite my comfortable hotel room and cozy bed, because I was watching coverage of Hurricane Irene right before going to bed.  Whenever I dozed off, my thoughts or dreams were a jumble of wind and rain and maps and crashing waves.  

I've never lived in a place that was immediately vulnerable to hurricanes.  But even inland, these storms are large enough and powerful enough to have effects.  During my stay in Charlottesville, we experienced the remnants of a hurricane that knocked out our power for four days and came through with the only green sky I've ever seen.  And in Arkansas, we got the tropical storm that Rita became after its pass through Louisiana and Mississippi, complete with tornado warnings and torrential rain.

My parents have dodged hurricane after hurricane at their home in St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast, and Irene is no exception.  The concave indentation of the coastline there means that a storm has to take direct aim at that spot to hit it; any other track takes it across Florida or avoids landfall until South and North Carolina.

I'm in Atlanta meeting with the AAR board, many of whose members come from the spots in Irene's path.  Their flights are being cancelled and their airports shut down for tomorrow; they may be stuck here for another day at best.  

2011 has been a wild year for weather events, with catastrophic tornados, floods, and now a long lasting hurricane battering nearly the entire east coast.  With lots of preparation and the population taking it seriously, one hopes that the human toll will be low.  So much rebuilding is needed from all these events.  It's a chance to put America to work and make our infrastructure better -- so that next time we're better prepared.  Let's hope we take it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Too many trips

I'm at an Atlanta midtown hotel without wireless, and since I went iPad only on this trip I won't be able to post without a trip to the lobby. 

My trip is in the service of the board of directors of the American Academy of Religion.  While I'm always happy to travel, get away, do important work, and spend time with my own thoughts, I'd just as soon not be on the road this weekend.  I miss my children, would like some downtime with them and with Noel, and won't be able to get out for fun in Atlanta anyway, given the short duration and heavy work schedule of the weekend.

And so begins my autumn of travel, not with a bang but with a relative whimper. In a month I'll be on my way to Tokyo (still hard to believe), then three weeks later off to Phoenix, and a month from that time to San Francisco.

Those are wonderful places and should be absolutely enchanting experiences, not to mention the great meetings and tremendous opportunity for me to contribute.  Each of them, however, means multiple days away from my family and long days in Airworld.  What I need to do is decide how I'm going to use that time to make progress toward my own goals.  The worst part about the grind of travel is the feeling that  life is on hold.  If I can't be with my family and students, if it's not yet time for me to learn from colleagues and share my work, then at least I decide how to utilize time that I so often covet -- concentrated time to think, work, write, and make.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lifelong readers

For Cady Gray's birthday, we got her the last three books in the Harry Potter series.  Earlier this summer, she tore through the first four books in alarmingly short order and with great enthusiasm.  So it was a natural gift idea.  When she took them out of the bag, the first thing she did was stack them up and raise them over her head.  "Look at all these pages!" she crowed.

One of the best things about her sudden affinity for Harry Potter is the sight of her, night after night, with a giant thick book in front of her face.  When I trolled the library as a kid, I looked for the fattest books I could find.  The hours upon hours of reading that a tall stack of thick books promised filled me with joy.

My mom expressed a little disappointment that we were encouraging Cady Gray's interest in Harry Potter.  I get it; along with many others with her religious convictions, she disapproves of the series' emphasis on witchcraft and wizardry. "There are so many good books she could be reading," was her comment.

My way of thinking comes from a different direction.  Sure, there are good books and bad books.  But absent a moral opposition to magic, the general consensus from people who know about such things is that the Harry Potter books are good books -- imaginative, well-written, engaging, world-building.  And frankly, I'm less concerned that she chooses books based on a canonical standard of quality than that she chooses books.  That is, that she is reading, that she chooses to read and gets something out of that choice.

The cultural conversation frequently throws me for a total loop.  For years people have been apocalyptic about how reading is on the decline.  And then when there is a surge in interest and reading thanks to some massive hit series, suddenly the crisis is that they are reading the wrong thing.  A few months back,  one of my Twitter friends shared a link to a profoundly misguided essay on young adult literature that complained about a preponderance of dark themes. All of a sudden we're being asked to picture teenagers locked in their rooms devouring books that might harm them, when previously the hue and cry had been about their inability to sustain attention over a novel's length or remain interested in anything that's not a video game.  I don't get it.

It's not that the objections are without merit.  It's just that the priorities seem to be out of whack.  If we want kids to read, let's be happy when they want to read and are excited about reading.  That will lead to a lifetime of reading, and to encounters with all the classics we might think are the best the written word can offer.  A sure way to discourage budding readers is to tell them what they enjoy doesn't count as reading, or isn't worth their time -- that if they want to read, it has to be from this shelf of approved nourishing ingredients.  It's like telling kids who want to cook that all they can make is vegetables.

I could be completely wrong, and I suppose I'll know it when this generation of young people who have grown up on Harry Pottery turn out to be Satanist sociopaths.  Right now I'm too jazzed seeing my just-turned-seven year old showing a preference for the longest-lasting books she can find.  I've been there, and it was the best way to grow up that I could have imagined.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Seven years ago

Cady Gray is very excited about turning seven years old tomorrow.  It's not about getting presents -- between the shared birthday party last weekend and the gifts that have been arriving from grandparents, she's already opened everything but a few books we've held back for her.  It's not about cake or ice cream or fancy clothes.

Apparently she's just excited to be growing up.  I try to think back to that age and remember what it was like to know I was a child, but that something other than childhood was coming.  I remember specific times when it irked me that I wasn't old enough to do something I wanted to do, and I remember the generalized looking forward to having more privileges and freedoms.  But I don't remember the sense of my own powers increasing, the sense that more and more things would be possible for me, the sense that growing older meant growing better -- this sense that seems to infuse Cady Gray with an incandescent glow.

For parents as lucky as we have been to have smart, happy, healthy kids, it can be almost embarrassing how life with them just gets more interesting and rewarding by the year.  My daughter is the gift I never deserved, and best of all, she gives that gift to herself as avidly as she does to everyone around her.  Happy birthday, sweetie.  Thank you for your boundless potential, which I borrow regularly to fuel my continued optimism for the future.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Total fun

Total Fun comic

I have pictures to share from the birthday party, but I can't resist posting this amazing comic that Archer brought home from school today. Click to see a bigger version on Flickr.

This is his account of the trip we took to Magic Springs in July. Just look at all the detail he recollects and includes. In the first panel (after the title), we're traveling on highway 65, there's a sign that says "Magic Springs 17 mi," and Archer is saying "Are we there yet?" The top right panel shows us parking, with Archer shouting "Yay!!" and a sign noting that it costs $10 to park (true fact).

In the middle row, we see Archer floating in a Wave Pool and saying "Woot!" The depth markings for the wave pool are indicated on the lefthand side -- 2 through 6 ft. The line through the middle is 4 ft and has a sign: "Non Swimmers STAY OFF THIS LINE." In the second panel, Archer is entering a wonderland of tall grids with a machine asking for "PASSWORD 776_". "Coooool!!" he exclaims. This represents the rows of lockers where we stashed our stuff for the day, whose automated locking system and endless numbers were a source of obvious delight.

Moving on to the only carnival game we played, BALL TOSS wasn't a success. Archer is throwing at a pyramid of milk bottles but doesn't get them knocked down. "Aww!" he exclaims, and his sister kindly empathizes: "Sorry!" In the last panel of the middle row, Archer is riding "Pirate Run -- Moderate Thrill" in the middle car and yelling "EEEE!!!!" (He's numbered the cars since we had many discussions about the relative merits of front and back positions.)

That's the setup for the big climax of this comic: The Arkansas Twister, whose sign is portrayed in the bottom left panel. "Warning: High Thrill" and "MUST BE 48 in", the sign proclaims, and in addition to fancy lettering on the ride's name, there's a drawing of a tornado. In the next panel Archer is going down a big hill with a speedometer reading of 54 mph and shouting "Weee!" And to close out the story, we ride back home on Interstate 30, leaving the exit for Magic Springs behind, and hear a voice from the car exclaiming, "That was FUN!"

I have to agree with Archer's teacher that this comic is AWESOME.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Smart sports

Every once in a while, Noel gets a chance to write about sports on the A.V. Club.  And every time he does, readers who enjoy popular culture and geeky obsessions get a chance to sound off on a subject usually left to the jocks and frat guys.  They come out of the woodwork, and I wonder anew why there's so little out there for them.

Sports is a natural for people like us.  It has characters, storylines, history, taxonomy, hit points, strategy, stats, 'shippers, and endless opportunities to play "what if?"  But because it's associated with the kind of people who used to shove us into lockers -- not to mention the kind of people who despise literature and art -- we tend to turn away from it.  And if we don't, it's hard to find a community of likeminded people to discuss it with.

I'm hoping that The Classical, a new sportswriting site, will becoming such a gathering place.  It's got an impressive roster of writers lined up (if a predictable dearth of female voices), and a mission I can support.  They're looking to raise a year's budget on Kickstarter.  Every single person who commented on Noel's piece on Sunday Night Baseball should head over and kick in a few bucks.  It's just what they're looking for.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gotta catch the cake!


In a successful effort to make my birthday-party-throwing experience as low-stress as possible, Noel ordered the cake. As you can see, he did a great job. This is a chocolate cake with whipped frosting from Ed's Custom Bakery, a local outfit that has been providing our kids with birthday cakes since they were born.

The party was Pokemon-themed, and this cake, featuring Charizard, Turtwig, and Piplup, was a huge hit. As I brought slided pieces out of the kitchen and gave them to the attendees, I heard excited conversation: "You got a water piece! I hope I get a fire piece! Ooh, that one is mostly grass with some water!"

The cake itself is exactly what all adults attending kids' birthday parties hope for: light as air, delicate chocolate flavor, with a melt-in-your-mouth frosting that's the polar opposite of the heavy, sugary mortar that gets slathered onto grocery-store cakes.

I love how the edging frosting color changes with the grass, water, and fire stripes, and how those colors flow down the sides of the cake.  Having wonderful local businesses that do great work and make you feel like you've gotten special treatment -- what a bonus for a party into which we put the minimum of effort, really.  Thanks, Ed's!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Social occasions

We are the beneficiary of generous friends who frequently invite us to their houses even though we never reciprocate.  Or, if you look at it from the other side, we are deadbeat guests who never fulfill our duty to take a turn as hosts.  The reason is our house, which is embarrassingly small, cluttered, and old-fashioned compared to the newer and larger houses of our friends.  I'll take the blame; I just haven't felt like I could expose the relative squalor in which we live until we had fixed up a few things.

Well, we have fixed up a few things.  The front yard is presentable from the street; the guest bathroom has flooring; the upholstery is free of obvious rips or cracks.  There's a lot that one might want further, like new carpet, paint on the walls instead of peeling wallpaper, and a complete redo of the kitchen, not to mention areas that casual guests don't see like the shower enclosures.  But updated and spiffy isn't necessary to provide hospitality; navigable, cleanish, and not immediately dangerous will do.

So we finally had our friends over, for the first time in years, as we hosted their kids for Archer and Cady Gray's double birthday party today.  And while there's never very much space for adult to sit while ten kids play, the occasion was still cozy and congenial.  It was kind of our friends to overlook our dereliction of duty for the past few years and share our company today.  I enjoyed myself and was surprised that the very few provisions I had made for the party attendees -- paper for art projects, an origami craft, and party hats that could be worn like Pikachu ears -- were huge hits, and occupied the kids as much as more elaborate games would have.

We're also the beneficiary of friends who don't treat entertaining as a competitive sport.  They're as easy-going and casual as any slackers like ourselves would want.  Otherwise we'd never have gotten away with sponging off of them for so long, or been treated as well when we finally, belatedly, stepped up.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Double digits

Archer turns ten years old today.  What a journey he's taken us on during the last decade.  We have learned so much from him and about him.  It's no exaggeration to say that we would not be the same people, or the same parents, if Archer had not been our first-born.  And I think we're better people and parents -- more compassionate, more patient, more excited by the wonder of our children and the possibilities for the future -- because of him.

For a boy who often doesn't seem to care whether he gets any affection or not, he has earned the love of so many people.  The teachers and administrators at his previous school went out of their way to give him opportunities and encouragement.  His sister adores him, and we're constantly surprised by what a celebrity he is among his peers.

I think all parents are just waiting for things to go south.  We have been conditioned to believe that childhood is a golden age from which the fall is inevitable, and happens sometime around the time "teen" gets appended to their age.  That may be; time will tell.  But so far, Archer just gets more incredible.

Just now he popped into the room and volunteered, "I've got an idea for the party tomorrow.  Maybe the guests could play Wii with us."  We (who had already planned this, but hadn't told Archer about it) agreed with him that it was a wonderful idea.  "OK!" he enthused, spinning and jumping as he does when really excited.  And as he left to go back to his room, he paused halfway into the hall.  "I'm glad you accepted my idea," he said.

When every instance of purposeful communication -- initiative, thinking about audience, expressing emotion, responding spontaneously -- is something special, you have the opportunity to be delighted by your child every day.  That's life with Archer, and it's beyond our wildest dreams.  Happy birthday, sweet boy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Shared celebration

I admit that I procrastinated on this year's dual birthday party. The kids have so far shared the spotlight on their birthdays, having their party together, usually during the six days that separate the two dates. Because we took our family vacation in the first week of August, and because school started so early this year, I found it hard to commit to a date until we were less than two weeks away from Archer's birthday on the 19th.  Finally I agreed that this weekend was the best time, as long as the party was a slacker special with a minimum of organized activities and a maximum of kids dragging toys out of the closet and amusing themselves.

It's a challenge to make each child feel special on his or her own day when the celebration doesn't fall on either.  After we agreed that Archer could open a couple of presents after school, I asked Noel whether he could have some kind of special breakfast tomorrow to start his day off.  He looked at me blankly; neither of us had any idea what would constitute that kind of treat.  In a way we've conditioned our children to low expectations. When we do give them something special, they know it's an unusual occurrence, and often get inordinately excited about something that other children probably expect as a matter of course.

I'm glad I don't have to do a lot of prep for the party on Saturday.  Send Noel off to pick up balloons and a cake, throw a couple of colorful tablecloths over flat surfaces, toss sidewalk chalk onto the driveway, haul a few building sets into the living room, fire up the Wii.  On the other hand, you get a finite number -- and a distressingly small one, at that -- of chances to throw birthday parties for your kids.  I feel bad about missing an opportunity to make a memory that will really last.  Is there still time to arrange for a lifesize Pikachu to make an appearance?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In style

I haven't been to Archer's new school yet.  It's fifth through seventh grade, so while Archer is yet to turn ten, he has schoolmates who are up to 13 years old -- firmly in the early teenage years.

Noel confesses to being alarmed at how big and self-possessed those youngsters are.  They are carefully dressed, he says, and carefully coiffed.  It's clear that image and style are huge at that age.

I remember being a tweener -- not that we called it that at the time.  Because I went to a small church-related school, I don't remember clothes or style being a big deal until I moved up to a prep school in seventh grade.  Then having the right shoes, jewelry, and hair accessories became a huge deal.  (We had uniforms, so people expressed themselves around the margins, but just as avidly.)

Fortunately, up until now neither of my children have strong opinions about what they wear.  Cady Gray is sweetly enthusiastic about the clothes I choose for her, and Archer has no interest one way or another.  I can't imagine Archer starting to care about Abercrombie and faux-hawks, but it is possible that he would be the target of ridicule for his lack of style.  Noel's fairly sensitive about that because of times in his childhood when there wasn't a lot of money for nice shoes or clothes.

It's difficult for me to assess the harm that might be created if Archer doesn't know people are making fun of him.  On the other hand, I don't want to wait until after he's been hurt to address the issue.  My inclination is to keep dressing him just as we have been, but I recognize that preference may stem from not knowing how to change horses in midstream.  Time will tell.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Practice, practice, practice

Next week my seminar on handcrafting will convene for its first class.  I'm revising and reworking the syllabus extensively after debuting it last fall.

One of the changes I made was to ask students to begin posting on the class blog during the summer.  I had them fill out a survey about their current expertise, then assigned them to learn to knit, learn to crochet, or master an advanced knitting skill if they already had experience with both crafts.  Each student will post on the class blog to report on their learning process and show off their work.

In the next few days I expect a flurry of posts, but several students have already shared.  Holly is hoping that she'll be able to loosen up so her stitches come off the needles more easily -- and that the gerbils that power her home computer get some 5-Hour Energy shots.  Kearstin is knitting a scarf for her cousin with Knit Picks Palette yarn (one of my favorites, but very fine weight -- I hope she's using appropriate needles and stitch pattern). Ashley has hit upon the excellent idea of practicing various stitches by making squares for a blanket. Molly has mastered cabling with the help of Debbie Stoller, but is now dealing with the dreaded stockinette tube effect. Ashley R found a YouTube video that helped her produce a lovely ribbed swatch.  Check out grayfox's crochet -- not just a practice swatch, but also a perfect granny square!  And NoMercySedia has big plans for something in Slytherin colors, or at least she did back in July; I'm looking forward to finding out how those plans worked out when she makes her second post.

Having the students post during the summer was a good brainstorm.  They are telling their stories, revealing their frustrations, asking the right questions and taking pride in their efforts.  I hope you'll subscribe to the blog and follow their adventures (and those of their classmates) all semester long.  And I hope all my changes to the syllabus work out as well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mending basket

I was folding clothes tonight and noticed something odd about one of Noel's new pairs of shorts (purchased recently for his new skinnier waistline).  "Did you lose a button on these?" I asked him, while looking at the fastener to see if I was missing anything.  He copped to it, and retrieved the button from our room where he had stashed it.

Ordinarily I'd stack the button and the piece of clothing somewhere for a day of repair that would be a very long time coming, if ever.  But tonight, for some reason, I was in the mood to mend.  I grabbed my sewing kit and brought it into the living room where the Braves game is on; I even picked a pillowcase whose trim has long been separating from its body and added it to the pile.

The button was short work with black thread doubled.  The pillowcase took some time, with white thread at single thickness, for a seam that stretched almost halfway around the opening.  I pinned the rip together since I needed to tuck the pillowcase body between the two layers of the top trim, and whipstitched without too much regard for evenness.  To help me keep it stretched out and to prevent sewing the two sides of the pillowcase together, I put a throw pillow inside.  It would have taken a quarter of the time to do on my sewing machine, even counting setting it up and breaking it down, but I don't quite have my machine sewing area set up yet; besides, part of the romance was sitting by Noel's side while the pillowcase was slowly returned to its rightful state, rather than disappearing, making a whirring sound, and returning with something as good as new.

Some mothers do this every day, I'm sure.  But taking care of a stack of clothes that need mending is unusual enough for me to give me a pioneer glow.  I fantasize about having a basket by my chair where the items will gather and await my needle, of taking them up on evenings while the fire crackles, the kids do their sums, and Pa reads his newspaper by kerosene light.

Noel jokingly asked if I were planning to darn a sock next.  Actually, yes.  One of my most beautiful handknit socks has a hole going on a year now.  I want to learn how to darn to return it to usefulness and adornment.  (I will need one of these, which would make a thoughtful gift, hint hint.)  I am far from handy, but in the right frame of mind, I can approximate the skills of my more capable forebears.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Level up

No matter how long we've had to see it coming, the start of a new school year for the kids always blindsides us.  Suddenly they are a year older, a grade higher.  We can deny it no longer.  Our society's institutions insist that we face it.

Starting tomorrow, Archer is in fifth grade, and in a new school -- intermediate school.  We have to drive him out to the west side of town and leave him in this huge place with an entirely new procedure.  He changes classes, has A days and B days with different schedules, and of course will be surrounded by strangers.  My hope is that a few of the people from his gifted group in fourth grade will be on the same or similar class schedule and will help him out from room to room.  But despite the anxiety of the first days, there's no doubt that Archer will take to a complex rotating schedule.  I suspect what he does and when, and how it changes based on the day of the week, are all we'll hear about pretty soon.

As for Cady Gray, no worries -- she's a veteran at her elementary school, where she has two more years after this one.  But that doesn't mean dropping her off is going to be a piece of cake.  For one thing, I have to do it while Noel is shepherding Archer into his new routine.  For another, it's second grade.  I don't like facing the fact of my daughter growing up.

That's the real difficulty of the first day of school tomorrow.  They level up, and we watch with a sinking feeling mixed with our pride.  A new grade, a new year, and age six and nine -- wonderful as they were -- are in the rearview mirror.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Step by step

Something inside me is highly susceptible to method.  I read about a Regimen or Process or Diet or Discipline, and I start feeling a deep longing.  I want to push all my chips in and follow the plan.  I want to devote myself singlemindedly to its rituals and ways.  I sense that all the meaning one could want is buried there for the patient seeker, that it would only take steadfast resolve and dedication to peel back a lifetime's worth of layers.

Mysticism, therefore, exerts a pull on me.  Highly complex texts attract me because they are well-suited for structural analysis; I remember one of my teachers noting how well I took to the study of Aquinas.  But so do instructions on how to wash your face correctly, or get a book written, or train a child to sleep through the night, or declutter your desk.  It's not the significance of the goal, but the assertion by some confident person that they know how to get there.

In a word, orthodoxies.  Always this, never this, and for God's sake, if you value your life, avoid that.  Two of these, then one of those, unless the moon is full.  Make it a way of life and you will find what you seek.  Failure is not the fault of the method but of those who fail to follow it religiously.

I would have made an excellent nun, in other words.  I am more prone to blame myself for any lack of success than the advice I'm following.  I resent the multitasking necessitated by my many responsibilities, and believe I'd be able to fulfill my desires if my life were simplified to a single goal and a clear process. Even though I know that longing is mythological to some extent, I still look forward to retirement when I  can test out the theory.

Meanwhile, I try to remember that the methods that attract me so powerfully do so not on the basis of their promise, but simply the rigor that they demand -- for their elitism, selectivity, and demands for complete commitment.  They are avatars of the authority I wish I did not have to exercise over myself, the freedom I want to escape, the choices I would prefer were taken out of my hands.

Friday, August 12, 2011


I was a little afraid that the last post in my four-year run of NewsRadio recaps would sink into the internet little noticed.  Season 5 of the show, after Phil Hartman's tragic death, is problematic for many fans, and I figured I would have lost some of my readers in this final summer when that was the topic of conversation. The readership for the series was never massive in the first place; certainly it was far from the most popular feature on the site, more of a niche audience at best.

But it's been an amazing week, as readers came out of the woodwork to express their appreciation.  I resolved early on to try to thank everyone who commented with a compliment or a pat on the back, and the lovefest went on for the entire week.  In addition, I've gotten a steady stream of tweets expressing sadness that the series is over.  Some people have even praised the writeups in comment sections, blogs, and columns around the web.

The comments on the article were the best, though.  Some said they had never watched Season 5 before, but gave it a try because of my writeups.  Some said they only just found the TV Club in the last week, but were now rewatching the whole series and reading along.  Some talked about how they never knew many other folks who liked the show, and had found a whole community among readers of the feature.

I know the end can't last forever.  But it's been incredible dragging it out as long as possible, and having the readers play along as if they didn't want it to end any more than I did.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

You think you can?

Tonight marks the end of my second season covering the reality TV competition So You Think You Can Dance?  I am perhaps the least qualified person writing about this show and getting paid for it.  I've never taken a single dance lesson in my life.  My best friend in high school was an accomplished dancer, and I'll never forget her teaching me a simple routine to dance with our glee club.  As a chunky teen, I'm sure my insistance on being in the front row during the performance delighted exactly no one.

But though I know next to nothing about dance, I find this show one of the better reality competitions around.  It draws almost exclusively well-trained contestants to its auditions, and while it perhaps oversells the abilities of its finalists compared to the mass out of which they were plucked, at least it doesn't indulge deluded amateurs the way American Idol regularly does.  I like to watch people who know what they're doing.  And the training comes with a culture that is infinitely more charming.  The contestants have received innumerable critiques and been to countless auditions in their lives, and they know how to take praise and criticism.  They don't argue with the judges or stake their appeal on idiosyncratic assertions of quality, ignoring the opinion of experts as elitist and irrelevant.  Dance on this show is clearly something you have to study long and hard to know how to do, not something that any of us could wake up and decide to be famous at.

This particular season, the show's eighth, has featured perhaps the highest level of professionalism in the eventual top pool.  Last night's final performance show was strangely lacking, perhaps because of the number of original pair dances each contestant learned and performed -- four in various styles, plus a solo.  But I have high hopes for the final results show, which over the years has elicited some of the most inventive group routines ever exhibited by the program.  And whoever wins the title of "America's Favorite Dancer," as producer Nigel Lythgoe rather pompously said last week, "the winner is daaaahnce."  Annoyingly phrased, but actually true.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

R.I.P. Richard Rutt

Last year, as I embarked on the beginnings of a multiyear and multistage project on theology and handwork, I read the only comprehensive history of knitting to be published in English in the last fifty years.  The author of this indispensable work, A History of Hand Knitting, was Richard Rutt.  It was clear from his extraordinarily winning book that he was an amateur historian, with very definite opinions and biases on controversial topics in the field, and also that he was a charming Englishman with a passion for his subject and plenty of energy for research.

On August 3, Rutt died in the UK at the age of 86.  Reading through some of the obituaries and remembrances posted after his death, I find what an interesting and multifaceted man he was.  As an Anglican priest, he rose to the rank of Bishop of Leicester after serving almost 20 years as a missionary in South Korea.  In 1994 he switched allegiance to the Catholic church, was ordained as a priest therein (although he remained married), and was made an honorary prelate (with the title of monsignor) in 2009.  The impetus for his conversion to Catholicism was not opposition to female priests or other liberalisms, as with more recent Anglican defections, but dissatisfaction with moves to bring other Protestant groups into full communion with the Church of England.

The bulk of his published works related to Chinese language translation and Korean studies, some of which were groundbreaking.  Knitters valued him for his singular History, however, as well as for a few patterns published in English magazines.  He was known for knitting his own vestments, bishop's miter, and sacramental textiles.  At the time of his death he was the president of the Knitting and Crochet Guild, a national organization that publishes the journal SlipKnot.

Rutt's book was one of the first pieces of my serious research into craft history, and produced a wealth of notes that will form a strand in my work going forward.  Rest in piece, Monsignor Rutt.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

No, thank YOU

It was a beautiful day today.  After a week of triple-digit temperatures and what seems like months of triple-digit heat index readings, it rained last night for hours on end.  We woke up in the morning to cool air and green everywhere.  It felt like the long summer of doom and conflict was finally over.

And then today featured the bittersweet appearance of my final writeup of NewsRadio for The A.V. Club. I received so many wonderful expressions of thanks for the series, and was able to thank many of the commenters who have shown up week after week and summer after summer for their companionship and contributions.  It was a lovefest.

Today, in other words, was the perfect remedy for plunging stock markets and general worldwide worrisomeness.  Everyone was generous and kind; the world was full of light and life.  I came home to a delicious home-cooked meal and hugs from my intelligent, happy children.  Tomorrow's troubles can wait until tomorrow.  Today was a beautiful day.

Monday, August 8, 2011

End of an era

Tomorrow morning, my very last recap of NewsRadio will post on the A.V. Club website.  I've been writing about the show, one of my all-time favorites, for four summers, encompassing five seasons.  It's been a labor of love, and a lot of wonderful people have come along for the ride, watching along with me and commenting each week.  I've learned a lot from them and made some new fans and friends.

I'm not going to able to find another show to revisit that has the same combination of appealing features for me.  NewsRadio was a traditional-format sitcom I have championed for more than a decade as one of the high points of the form and of broadcast television, despite its lack of ratings success.  In many ways it sparked my interest in treating television seriously and trying to understand how it worked.  Some sitcoms aspire to be little more than competent ephemera, but anyone who tuned in with more than a passing interest could immediately see that it assembled the elements of comedy with elegance, invention, and a deep passion for the possibilities of the form.

When I come back to TV Club Classic, probably early next year, I'd like to do another show that has a similar level of cult interest and formal excitement.  NewsRadio established me as something of a multi-camera sitcom specialist (although I have no formal training to support that status), but I can't think of another show that fits the bill -- relatively short run, underappreciated, pushing some envelope.  If you have any ideas, leave 'em in the comments.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bullet points

I've got bullet points on the brain, since it's the name of tonight's episode of Breaking Bad (my recap post will go up at 10 pm Central).  But I've also had a bunch of random stuff on my mind today.  Here's some of it.

  • My unsweet tea regimen on weekdays and diet soda indulgence on weekends have left me little room to try other summer drinks.  But in need of refreshment on the road last week, I tried a frozen strawberry lemonade at McDonald's.  Mmmmmm ... surprisingly tart, cool and utterly delicious.  I had another one today.  Nothing cuts through the heat of this brutal summer better.
  • Over the years living with a man who keeps shaving cream on the vanity, I've noticed that the cans always get rusty around the exposed metal rings at top and bottom.  Which makes me wonder -- why are they typically made out of metal?  Is there something about the foam or gel contents, or about the aerosol propellant, that precludes a plastic container?
  • It was the first-ever back-to-school sales tax holiday in Arkansas this weekend.  We took advantage both yesterday and today, getting just about everything on the kids' supply lists and some work clothes for me.  The crowds were certainly out, but we shopped early on Saturday and late on Sunday, and seem to have avoided the worst of the crush.
  • I thought this piece by the great Robert Lipsyte about the punishing ascendency of jock culture in this country got to the heart of the matter a bit more than the usual handwringing.  Short and thought-provoking.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What we did on our summer vacation






Expressed ourselves.




Called it.


Took in the view.



Friday, August 5, 2011



I have a confession to make.  I'm madly in love with my daughter.


Oh, I love my son, too.  Sometimes in a way that overflows my heart and makes me get teary-eyed.  But the degree to which I've fallen head over heels with this little girl is just embarrassing. I can't be in her presence without mooning like a teenager.


She's so gorgeous.  And if you've ever met her, you know her beauty is only matched by her sweetness and intelligence.


I've been mourning her growing up, leaving childhood behind.  I loved her round baby face and plump short-stuffness so much.


But even though she's shot up in height, even though she's getting more mature by leaps and bounds, she moves from loveliness to loveliness.


What melts my heart and makes me grab her and squeeze her until she begs for mercy is her exuberance. And at almost-seven, that shows no signs of abating.


I always tell her how beautiful she is -- and that her beauty comes from inside. It's going to take a personality transplant to get me over this massive crush. Until then, I'm afraid I will remain besotted and silly, trailing little hearts every time I'm around her.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The scrapbook of memories

One way Noel gets me out of my homebody ways, up off the couch, and out into the world doing things I ordinarily judge to be too much hassle is to remind me that we need to make memories for the kids.

That resonates with me. My childhood is full of such memories, from vacations to family gatherings to all sorts of special events, and I realize now that my parents were going out of their way to make sure we had experiences to tuck away in our memory banks.

We don't have the resources to give our kids some of the trips I took as a kid. But thankfully, our kids are of the disposition to take our word for it that some little trip or experience is special. They open all their senses as wide as they will go and drink in those hours and days. Then they regale us with their memories for years to come. I know we have been successful in making memories when I see their eyes light up as they fall over themselves telling us what they saw, felt, heard, tasted, and did.

Because we're the only branch of the family west of the Mississippi, it's hard on everyone else to find a reunion location far enough our way to make travel reasonable. We're always going to have the longest drive or be the ones who have to take a couple of flights, and I'm grateful that my brothers and parents appreciate and understand that. For my part, I promise to remember how important those memories are, especially when they involve family, and cooperate as best as our schedule will allow in setting aside time and taking some trouble to make sure they happen.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fools and their land are soon parted

I've never met any other family who owned the party game Wise and Otherwise. But it's become a legend in ours. In this game, someone reads out the first half of an old ethnic saying, viz., "There's an old Polish saying: If you knock three times with no answer ..." Then everybody writes down a more or less plausible conclusion to the saying, which is then combined with the real ending and read out for votes Dictionary-style.

The importance of this game to our family comes from a memorable occasion in which the saying to be completed was "Darkness conceals ..." My older brother's answer, "... the fool's shoddy workmanship," is a masterpiece of Wise and Otherwise misplay. Note the reliance on a proverbial construct, the fool; note, too, that the word "workmanship" is not only odd, but is judged incapable of standing on its own without the strangely archaic adjective "shoddy." Put it all together, and "Darkness conceals the fool's shoddy workmanship" has, improbably enough, become an actual saying in our household.

As the caretakers of the Wise and Otherwise game, we were implored by this reunion's organizers (my parents) to bring it along, and tonight we broke it out for an hour's hilarious play. You know a game is going well when the very first candidate read for our votes, "When the rats have enough food, there be nothing left in Mother Hubbard's cupboard" could not be completed without the poor reader cracking up. (Yep, that's a Dwayne classic too my mistake; it was my sister-in-law playing on his team, clearly affected by decades of close contact with the master, from the affected "there be" verb to the allusion to a nursery rhyme probably unknown in the country of this saying's origin.

Pretty soon, every time someone mentioned "fool," "land," "wisdom," or "piled high like the snows in winter," the room broke up. I don't know whether this game plays this well for all gatherings, but for our family, it's a guaranteed good time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rocky Top

I grew up in Tennessee. So did my brothers. So, for that matter, did my parents. They were actually born within a few days of each other at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga.

Tennessee will always be my home. Our home. But none of us lives there anymore.

Several years ago, when Archer was small, we all gathered in Chattanooga, our hometown. We stayed at a hotel and went to the aquarium and the carousel and the choo-choo. I even drove around the campus of my high school -- no one was there, it was summer. That's the only time I've been back since my folks moved away from Chattanooga while I was in grad school.

We're in Tennessee this week -- all the siblings and their families and the patriarch and matriarch. It's not any place in Tennessee that has special meaning to us, just a lovely resort near one of the massive lakes created by the TVA back in the last century, lakes we were taught in school to regard as wonders of human ingenuity and triumphs over nature. The distinguishing features of the place are that we're all able to reach it in a day's drive, there's lots to do for the kids, and we can all be accommodated together in gigantic suites with kitchens where each family takes turns cooking for the group.

Yet driving through this landscape will always bring it all back to me. I have an affection for the distinctive feel of each of the places I've lived -- eastern Tennessee, central North Carolina, central Georgia, central Virginia, and now central Arkansas. The air feels different, the vegetation smells different, the soil crumbles differently, the hills rise and fall in distinctive wrinkles. It's the close gaps and expansive plateaus of eastern Tennessee, though, that will always send me straight back into my childhood.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sea dreams

We're staying with Noel's folks tonight before heading on to our vacation destination tomorrow. They are big cruisers -- a lifestyle I desperately want to adopt one of these days. Our only cruise experience (with Disney several years ago) was magnificent, and I'd love to make that kind of experience a regular part of my leisure time.

I know it's a terrible practice that doesn't deserve the name "travel," but I love having everything provided for me, with no bigger decision to be made than when to eat and which pool to sunbathe beside and when to nap. Travel is one thing -- I enjoy going new places and having new experiences -- but vacation for me means relaxation. And nothing is more relaxing for me than no schedule, nowhere to be, and no one to answer to.

I owe Noel a trip for his 40th birthday, and while we want to go to New York one of these days and see some shows, I feel pretty certain I could talk him into a cruise ... or a series of cruises. Maybe that's something we can work toward next year. My older brother is heading toward an empty nest -- he'd be thrilled to host our kids for a week, surely. Or so I imagine in my cruise-starved craze.