Friday, September 23, 2011

Living on the edge of the world

And that's it.  The week is done, and early tomorrow morning I'm off to Japan.  It's been a remarkably stress-free preparation; I had my lists, I had my tasks, I had all the deadlines.  Most of them got done, some were foiled through no fault of my own.

What comes next is also not something I can fully control.  My bags contain multiple copies of my conference presentation, maps, directions, receipts, and schedules.  But I am just a participant in this event, just as I am just a passenger on the plane.  I really need these periods when I am not in control -- when I am an audience, or playing a role in someone else's production.  It used to be very difficult for me; I worked myself into knots wishing I knew more about what was going on, or wondering if I could trust the people running the show.  Now, although those tendencies are still with me, I see these occasions as opportunities to relax and focus on something else.

I still have a to-do list for the long transpacific flight -- an iPad full of freshman papers to grade, a presentation next month to prepare.  I'd prefer to have my choice of leisure activities, but with a fourteen-hour flight, there's probably plenty of time for leisure and work both.  The vacation for me is knowing that I will have to grade when I have the chance, e-mail the work back whenever internet is available, and if circumstances conspire against any of those obligations, they'll just have to wait.  Blogging will have to wait, too; don't expect me here daily for the next week, although I'll try to find a chance to write every day and post later.

See you on the other side of the world!

Thursday, September 22, 2011


At about 9 am tomorrow, my phone will buzz with a reminder to check in online for my flights -- first to Atlanta, and then to Tokyo.  I'll be twenty-four hours away from departure.

I feel like twenty-four hours is not perceptibly closer than I've felt all week.  The time available to watch what I need to watch, write what I need to write, read what I need to read, teach, answer emails, prep the next class, leave my teaching assistants what they need in my absence, and button down everything in sight has been severely limited since I came roaring off my weekend of leisure four days ago.  I've been ticking off items on my to-do list and trying to tackle emergencies and unexpected tasks along the way without being caught short on the essentials.  It's been non-stop, dogged work.

After a last TV writing gig this evening (subbing for a fellow writer who happens to be abroad himself this week), and a last class tomorrow at noon, and a last meeting immediately thereafter, I'll be free to spend my final waking hours before departure working directly toward my trip.  Packing, filling my iPad with papers to grade, adding my unread Instapaper items to my Kindle, checking and rechecking my list.  And then I'll be off, and there will be no more chances to do whatever it is that I've forgotten to do.

I love that feeling -- letting go of everything you can no longer affect.  I've been more than diligent, as I think my co-workers will agree, not letting my impending trip be an excuse to foist things off on others.  I'm taking work with me (most notably, fourteen freshman papers to be graded), but that's the only task that couldn't wait.  I'm even doing something I never do in my connected, always available life: I'm setting my e-mail vacation auto-responder.

Sometimes a different form of work can almost be a vacation.  I'm going to be in conference sessions all day, every day while I'm gone.  But even that can be a respite from the rapid shifting from task to task, the constant on-call status, of my normal life.

Plus, when I walk out of these conference rooms, I'll be in Tokyo.  No matter what kind of work routine you're coming from, that's got to be refreshing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Books and bridges

Archer's GT teacher found the perfect book for him to bring home for his nightly independent reading.  It's The Cardturner by the prolific Louis Sachar, best known for Holes but best-loved in Archer's room for Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School.

The Cardturner is about a boy who plays bridge with his blind uncle and aims to compete in the national championships.  The first detail about his day that Archer volunteered to me this afternoon was that Ms. Haynes gave him this book to bring home.  The second detail was the book's basic premise.  And the third details was that certain sections are marked with a whale.

Archer explained that the protagonist uses whales as markers because he once "zoned out" while reading a book whenever the author started giving facts about whales.  (The book was Moby Dick, as I ascertained from Archer later.)  So he decided to mark the passages in his book that are about how to play bridge with whales, so that readers who might zone out during those parts can easily skip them.

Naturally those parts are Archer's favorites, along with any description of a game.  Just now he skipped into the room after doing his reading for the night laughing hysterically at a round of bidding by the protagonist's amateur friends -- the first bid is made out of order, and then the protagonist's partner responds to his bid of 1 heart with 6 spades.  It's enough to make Archer helpless with amusement.

I'm always on the lookout for books that I think will jibe with Archer's game-focused, school-centric, and stat-obsessed worldview.  It's great to be introduced to a new one, and to know that some of his teachers can identify texts to which he's likely to respond.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


I answered the phone at work today with my usual "This is Donna Bowman."  "Is this the eminent professor and theologian Donna Bowman?" I heard, and midway through the sentence I started laughing out loud.  That's the way my mentor and adviser at the University of Georgia, Dr. Will Power, always addresses me on the phone, and it couldn't be more charming.

Will wanted to ask about some new books in the field, hash over whether God should be viewed as a series of temporal occasions or as a single non-temporal instance (an evergreen discussion), and chat about mutual acquaintances.  I was thrilled to hear him so full of life and energy, just as if twenty years hadn't passed since he taught my classes, or a couple of years since our last conversation.  He's still teaching even though he could have retired with forty years' service four years ago, and if it keeps him that young, I say more power to him.

We have so many great tools for keeping in touch with old friends and colleagues now.  And "in touch" is just the right metaphor; Facebook and other social networks let me observe them at an arm's length, making a closer move if I like but otherwise just watching the flow of what they choose to share.

But with members of an older generation, or those who for personal reasons have opted out of those sites, we have the joy that comes from regaining contact after extended silences.  I couldn't be happier to find that my wonderful professor, who inspired me so much, is still thinking of me and still inspiring others.  A moment of pure grace and joy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bit by bit, rung by rung

My countdown to Japan is a matter of lists, days, hours, and tasks.  Five hours of TV to watch, five recaps to write. Five classes to teach.  Fourteen papers to grade.  One roller bag and one carry-on to pack, with one long and detailed list to check off.  Three folders to fill with copies, backups, papers, printouts, instructions, and maps.

In one sense, I'm just letting the event come to me.  Huge moments like this just seem to roll towards me on the calendar, and they will arrive whether I obsessively prepare or not.  But I find that I have a lot more  equanimity about their arrival if I feel like I'm working methodically through all the things I need to do to prepare.

It's only day one of this five-day march toward my trip.  One class taught, one-half hour of TV watched, one recap written, one bank called so that they won't freeze my cards when the Japanese charges start rolling in.  Tonight I'll put another hour of TV and another recap behind me.  You can't do this all at once, luckily for my sanity.  And yet, moving so steadily towards such a near-term goal feels quite different from the long-haul of semesters and years on which scale we normally work.  Every day brings me closer to Tokyo.  Well, every day and then the fifteen hours of plane travel.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I still believe

An old friend sent me a link to this YouTube video.  It's getting passed around to snickers about its earnest optimism and era specificity, I'm sure.  But the thing is, I still feel this way.


It's the question that the 2012 elections will test, the question that the Tea Party was formed to answer in the negative.  Can our government be more competent and honest?  Can it do good?

I know that the structures of bureaucracy and power are inherently corrupting; I agree that they need to be restrained by a vigorous defense of individual liberty.  But I also know that there are things only government can do -- ensure the effective flow of interstate and international commerce, protect the public health, invest in infrastructure for the benefit of all rather than the few.

It's striking that the two presidents who campaigned most squarely on that promise, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, were both victimized by economic crises not of their own making that caused the public to question their effectiveness.  There's another name that belongs on this list of "saying yes," and that's Bill Clinton, one of the most successful presidents with regard to centrist governing and effective budget management.

Our cynicism about government is based on the failure not of the institution, but of some of the people within it.  I still believe that the right people with the right determination can do good and do right.  Like Jimmy, I say yes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Finishing and starting

I've been looking forward to this weekend for a long time.  Noel's back, I'm off the clock at work (unlike last weekend), and sleeping late, crafting, and spending time with the kids are the only things on the agenda.  Bonus: Noel and I are going out to dinner and a movie tonight so we can catch up on all the news and gossip, and see a movie our critic friends are crazy about -- Drive.

But on the other hand, I've been aware for a while that this weekend is the last chance to draw a deep breath before I leave for Japan next Saturday.  At work this week I'll be working frantically to get everything set up for my week-long absence; at home I will have five TV Club pieces to complete, three of which will need to be done after the shows air (the other two I can write ahead of time, although I'm not going to get the screener for one until mid-week).  It's been a while since I wrote about television "live," as it were, typing up notes immediately after the show is over and posting them without much time for reflection.  It's a different way of writing, and I'll have to get back in the groove quickly; the first two episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family air back to back on Monday and Wednesday, respectively, and I'm taking over Project Runway from the masterful John Teti on Thursday.

That means there won't be much downtime in the evenings to get my bearings.  No matter what I get done or don't get done, my departure on Saturday will come when it comes.  I have to remind myself that I can sleep on the fourteen-hour transoceanic flight ... well, except for the time I have to spend grading the freshman papers that will be turned in on Friday.  Rest may have to wait until the flight back on September 30.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Cady Gray came home today all excited. "Guess what I did at recess today?" she asked me. "I played tag with the boys! I played tag with the boys yesterday, too!" She went on to tell me which boys they were: I recognized several of the names as people she's identified as friends before, including one who lives in the neighborhood.

I get it. When I was her age, I was thrilled to be friends with the boys. That lasted my whole life, to the extent that I always felt more comfortable with guy friends than with girls. Up until now, I've been somewhat envious of her ability to make friends with other girls in her classes. They screech and giggle and run around just as girly as you please. But I've also always been glad that she takes pride in being not just a girl -- not just defined by pink and sparkly and frilly. She chooses to have a wide range of enjoyment -- things associated with girls, boys, and neither gender in particular.

But tag is an awesome game. And to be welcomed into somebody else's game of tag -- that's really special. I doubt that Cady Gray would be any less excited if a group of girls had asked her; in fact, she's told me with similar enthusiasm about rotations on the tire swing, games of pretend, and other activities that she's shared or joined with a variety of classmates.

I happen to be involved in a game of tag myself. For the fourth year in a row, I'm playing Dish Rag Tag, the exciting game of cotton yarn and serial knitting. A box travels from teammate to teammate around the country, with each person knitting a dishcloth from the same pattern for the person ahead of them.

 I was tagged earlier this week and had to wait an agonizing three days for the Priority Mail box to reach me. Inside was the pattern and instructions, a ball of cotton for me to knit with, and a finished dishcloth for me to keep. It's also a tradition to tuck a few goodies into the box (which is tiny -- so it takes some creativity to choose the right items!) for the downstream knitter. Our team, Purls Gone Wild, has also chosen to have each member add some stickers for the organizer's young daughter and a magnet commemorating their location for the organizer.

If only my mail came earlier, I would have a shot at getting the box, knitting the dishcloth (about two hours' work) and mailing it on to the next player the same day. Alas, my mail comes at the end of the day, so I spent the evening leisurely knitting the pattern -- a round eyelet cloth called "V for Victory" -- and will mail it out tomorrow morning.

 I almost didn't play Dish Rag Tag this fall because I was going to be traveling so many days out of the two months or so that the game lasts. But at the last minute, I just couldn't be left out. It took a lot of work for my team captain to accommodate my crazy schedule and create a tagging order that would get the box to me while I'm home, and I really appreciate the chance to be included. Last year I was a team captain, and my team formed an astounding bond of mutual support and enthusiasm; we still keep in touch.

 In the end, I still love to be asked to play with others just as much as I did when I was a kid. And after years of playing with the boys, it's especially sweet to find common ground with so many wonderful women in this game.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Changing planes

Noel arrives home this evening, ushering in what should be a glorious weekend of cooler fall weather, a TiVo bursting with entertainment, one of the best-reviewed movies of the season so far, and returning life to normal.  Not that our routine will last long; one week from Saturday, I'll be boarding a plane for the first leg of my flight to Tokyo.

I've been talking about and prepping for this trip since mid-summer.  The paper I'm presenting was completed at the end of July, the plane ticket and conference registration were purchased in May, and the hotel arrangements were made in August.  I've been corresponding by e-mail with the mother of an international student I've mentored, making plans for food, shopping, and sightseeing on two of my free evenings.

And yet, of course, I feel woefully unprepared to be only a week away from flying to another hemisphere.  I haven't been to Asia since my wonderful 2004 trip to Seoul, South Korea -- a trip Cady Gray made with me before her birth.  I've wanted to go to Japan for decades.  Now that the moment is here, I find myself all aflutter.  How can I make the most of my time there?  What experiences should I be sure not to miss?  Given a short stay and a crowded conference schedule, will my efforts at soaking up the culture be doomed from the start?  Will I be able to hang with the few American attendees that I know, or should I try to break away from them and enjoy the company of new local acquaintances?

The reality is that I have to treat every aspect of the trip as worthwhile, and not constantly fret about whether I'm having the right experiences.  Whether the food I eat and the sights I see are "authentically" Japanese or aimed at tourists like myself, they will be the experiences of Japan that I will have.  The conference, the hotel, the airport, the Sophia University campus I'll walk through to get to the conference every day, the food vendors or restaurants nearby where I'll grab lunch -- these will be the setting for my memories.  Whatever I encounter -- that is Tokyo as I will know it.

The trip will be short in terms of opportunities to experience Japan -- I'll be there only four full days, arriving Sunday evening and leaving again Friday afternoon -- but it will be long in terms of being away from my family.  Internet access will be expensive and rare while I'm there (I'll probably try to grab a few minutes in the computer center at the University rather than pay for it by the half-hour at the hotel), and I don't plan to use my cell phone.  I'll truly be cut off from everything here for most of my trip, and that's what I can't really fathom -- that such isolation and such difference is only a week away.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Toronto again

Someday I'd like to go to the Toronto International Film Festival with Noel.  Given that it's impossible for me to take vacations in the middle of the semester, it might not be until I'm retired.  (I'd hold out the possibility of a sabbatical, but as an administrator, the only time I can get sabbaticals is in the summer.)

I loved Toronto when I was there for the American Academy of Religion meeting several years ago.  The sprawling underground shopping district that connected my hotel to the meeting venues was never less than fascinating, and I became proud of my ability to navigate it after a couple of days.  I even got out to the area where some of the festival screenings take place and saw a movie, as I recall.  A lot of that has changed since I was there and the festival has changed the spaces it uses, but I still feel like I got a tiny taste.

Noel has attended for years now, and has the status of a veteran.  Friends who decide to make the trip or more sporadic attendees quiz him about the festival's arcane ticketing procedures, transportation, and accommodations.  He works hard while he's there, seeing four or five movies a day and writing them up in capsules every night to be posted the next morning.  I especially like the little touches in the capsules that I feel are just for me, like the "Headline" category which often approaches an inside joke.  For example, the Headline on Noel's review of Kill List is "But will it sync with Toodledo?", referring to the to-do list manager we both use.

It seems to me, reading these reviews and Noel's more immediate tweet-reactions from the films, that he's had a pretty good festival -- a couple of awesome experiences, some confounding but unforgettable ones, and a nice run of solid second-tier successes.  He's gotten to hang with friends he sees only once a year, typically, and eat some good meals.  Sleep probably hasn't been too plentiful.  I know he's missed his kids something awful.  But I hope the trip has proved well worth his while.  Maybe the shakeup in his routine will re-energize him at a time of year when we all need a serious kick-start.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Waiting for a win

When the news is relentlessly bad, when the numbers are in the tank and the sniping is vicious and the disasters just keep mounting and no one seems to have any answers, sports become a refuge.  It may be bread and circuses (or just circuses, really), but we can escape the drumbeat of doom when our team chalks up one in the win column.

Unfortunately, my team -- the Braves -- haven't gotten one in the win column for a week now.  A nine-and-a-half game lead in the National League wild card race has become a four-and-a-half game lead.  Leads have been few, and squandered when they occur; hits in RBI situations have been anemic, the slim one- and two-run margins of victory have consistently not fallen in our direction.

I get piqued at times with how personally Noel takes all of this.  He gets angry or cynical or fatalistic when the Braves can't get it together.  I usually want him to show his frustration less, to maintain a front of "ah well, it's only sports," at least for the purposes of the smooth functioning of our home life, which gets disrupted when somebody's mood goes black.  But deep down I understand.  When nothing else in the news is going well, when the outlook everywhere is negative, when the political "teams" or causes that we root for are on the ropes and gasping for air, you need the more even-handed and less morally-charged world of sports to throw up a couple of moments of joy for you.

Probably I shouldn't be writing this while the Braves are still in the midst of their game tonight, with a small lead still out there to lose -- or before their playoff spot is clinched.  And I recognize that the view of the sports world as fair competition without significant moral downsides is horrendously blinkered.  It's hard for me to take the same refuge in college football, for example, being all too aware of the tradeoffs schools make in ethical standing and prudent academic management to bring us those contests.

But damned if we don't really need those wins right now.  Every one gives us a few hours, maybe a day or two, or feeling like it's possible to do something right.  Go Braves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Karaoke dreams

At the retreat's open mic night this past weekend, the students leading the event persuaded me to hop on stage for a rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" at the very end of the night.  Thankfully, everyone was up, yelling along, bouncing, circling, and playing air guitar -- it was less of a solo and more of a very enthusiastic sing-along.  I admit that it took very little arm-twisting for them to get me up to the mic.  I had a ball.

I have never sung karaoke, but I fantasize about it frequently.  Last year I celebrated the end of my senior seminar class with the students in a local pizza joint and bar that has karaoke on Wednesday night.  Several of the students got up and sang.  I have to admit, I was hoping they would insist I take a turn, and was plotting what song I might choose.  But nobody pushed me on stage, and I felt too self-conscious to volunteer.

My most frequent karaoke fantasies happen while I'm running with my iPod on shuffle.  Certain pop acts and songs instantly send me into a reverie of slaying an appreciative audience with my rendition.  ABBA, Fountains of Wayne, Robbie Williams, just to name a few.  At open mic night I noticed a marked preference among the students for Coldplay, Maroon 5, Kelly Clarkson, and Miley Cyrus amongst the surprising number of original compositions.

What I'd really like is a chance to try karaoke at a party, among friends, rather than at a bar among strangers.  The alumni who joined us at the retreat went off on their own for some karaoke after the open mic night devolved into a dance party, but I didn't join them out of sheer exhaustion.  I regret that now.  The supportive atmosphere would have been perfect for my first outing.  But maybe that opens the door for something more authentic in Tokyo in a couple of weeks.  Any chance that the participants at the Eighth International Whitehead Conference will unwind after a long day of papers and keynotes with some soulful ballads in the hotel bar, Lost In Translation style?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Archer has recently shown a keen interest in the game of bridge.  He has read the basics in books about card games that he studies, and he frequently asks to see the bridge column in the daily paper.  So for his birthday, I suggested to his grandparents that they get him a book on bridge.

When his schoolwork started coming home with bridge layouts and bidding sequences drawn on the back, I knew he was reading the book and absorbing some of the intricacies of the game.  The grandparents' visit this week turns out to be a good chance for him to play for the first time, since there would be three other people around with some experience and knowledge.

I'm a rank amateur when it comes to bridge; I enjoy the game, but it frightens me because of the ever-present potential for letting someone else down.  When we dealt out the first hands, with me partnering Archer at his suggestion, I wondered if we'd end up in situations I didn't understand or couldn't cope with.

Turns out we had three very interesting hands, with Archer acting as declarer twice (and therefore playing both his and my hands) and us defending once.  I coached Archer through each hand with suggestions on what suit and rank to lead when, and reminders to keep count of the trumps.  As he executed a perfect back-and-forth from his hand to the dummy in order to mesh high cards in both hands, I could see the light bulbs going off in his head and the excitement of the elegant pattern and rhythm in his demeanor.  When he overtrumped a trick his grandparents were counting on, he was jumping out of his seat with the thrill.  The hands he played were not slam dunks by any means, but we accumulated overtricks on both of them, and we set our opponents on the only hand where we played defense.  I could tell that he felt most challenged when it wasn't clear how to lead when we were out of guaranteed tricks, but heck, that's when I'm most at sea, too.

I think he'll be good at the game, and really enjoy it as well.  When the pattern is evident and the cards are flowing from one side of the table to the other, when you can see several moves ahead and your opponents' hands contain few surprises, it's highly satisfying.  And when you can pull out some surprises of your own and find tricks where none seem to be hiding, it can be a thrill.  Archer should be able to hold a lot of the detail that bidding and play reveal in his head as the hands unfold.  If he can find some people to practice with, he might have found another gaming obsession.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Sometimes we teachers get a little too caught up in our status as leaders.  We think of ourselves as the shepherds and the students as the sheep.  They need to be herded and led for their own good.  They are not capable of leading themselves, or of generating worthwhile ideas on their own, or of organizing themselves into groups that get things done without help and prodding.

At least with the students I teach, which are admittedly students of high ability and motivation, that's demonstrably not so.  Each time we give them the opportunity, they show that in the right structure and with clear expectations, they can do amazing things -- and can reap the benefits of having done it themselves, together.  Those benefits include the belief that their ideas are worth having and worth sharing, and the confidence to lead instead of waiting for the teachers to clear the path ahead of them.

Last year at the freshman retreat, after much discussion, we faculty decided to dispense with the folk band we used to regularly invite to provide Saturday evening's entertainment.  They were great, and we love them, but it was never a pleasant task to hound and herd the kids to the event and to glower disapprovingly if any of them left early.  Some freshmen always enjoyed it, but as an event that we planned and scheduled, it became clear that the band was more for us than for them.  The general feeling in the room was "mandatory fun."

In place of that event, we decided to provide an open mic venue for the students themselves.  It was a risky move for some of us.  What if nobody came? What if nobody performed?  Thinking about the kids we have in our community, though -- their general outgoing nature, their desire for the spotlight, their well-documented talents -- it seemed like something that could work.  And it did, like gangbusters.  The kids flocked to the venue, took their turns at the mic with both planned and spontaneous performances, and stayed late.  The secret ingredient, though, wasn't anything we had anticipated.  It was their support of each other.  Each performer who had prepared in advance had already enlisted their friends to encourage and cheer for them, and the whole group took that on for everyone who took the mic, lauding their efforts and giving them massive positive reinforcement.  It was a lovefest.

The same thing happened tonight, with this year's group.  And it followed an event that made the case for trusting the students even more clearly.  We brought in a colleague as the facilitator for the academic discussion about the book we had them read this summer, and he let us know that he intended to let the students generate the questions and come up with answers -- without faculty or teaching assistants leading them.  That made some of us nervous.  What if they just sat there like dumb posts?  What if they hadn't read the book?  What if they couldn't come up with anything worthwhile when they broke into groups and worked together?  Without us guiding them, how could we make sure the experience was worthwhile?  But -- you guessed it -- the students were fantastic.  They came up with incisive questions, worked together to answer them, and gave reasons for their answers, supporting them from the text.  While reporting their answers, they even became passionate about some of the competing interpretations that emerged, engaging in back-and-forth exchanges with each other during which the facilitator became part of the audience, rather than the leader.  This happened because the facilitator set up the situation skillfully and queried them closely about their ideas, helping them sharpen and clarity them.  But it also happened because he was determined to trust them.  And he was right to do so.

I truly believe that when we are disappointed by our students, or when we encounter a situation in which we seem to have uncovered something they are incapable of doing, some limitation in their ability, it is far more likely that we have failed to create a framework where they could succeed.  We have not been clear about what we wanted them to do, and we have not provided the tools or the setting in which they could do it.  Those expectations, tools, and settings are not that hard to make available.  All it takes is a willingness to lead in a different way -- to observe rather than herd, to facilitate their activity rather than making them an audience for ours.  And most importantly, to trust that they can do it, and demonstrate that trust by leaving them to it.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I love coming up to Petitjean Mountain for the freshman retreat every year.  It falls at a terrible time -- Noel is almost always away at the Toronto International Film Festival, and I have to rely on relatives to travel long distances to stay with my kids while I come up here.  But I look forward to it even though it complicates my life.

What I love the most, perhaps, is the drive up.  I plug my iPod into the stereo and put it on shuffle, dialing it up when Wilco or the Hold Steady pop up in the mix.  (Mom gave me a Lee Strobel CD for my listening edification during the 45 minute drive.  Sorry, Mom, didn't happen.  A Friday afternoon drive in the country just doesn't make me think, "Man, is that evangelical apologetics? Turn it up!" ) The best part happens when the steep, meandering mile-long drive up the mountainside suddenly levels out, and the last several miles before reaching the retreat center roll along the spine of the mountainside, the road straight by the compass and undulating in height.

Years ago I had a colleague who enjoyed coming up here because it was a chance to ride his motorcycle on these narrow, beautiful state highways. In fact, the retreat itself seemed sometimes to take a backseat to that pastime.  Whenever I drive that last part of the journey, along the top of Petitjean mountain, through the trees and pastures and up to the gates of Winthrop Rockefeller's sprawling ranch, I understand something of what he felt.  I should probably make this pleasurable journey more often, but I'm glad there's an annual event that pushes me to make it at least once a year.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A big day

Both kids had a lot to look forward to when the day began.  Archer was excited about his first practice with the Newz Brain competition in his GT class, and about his team's first game in a kickball tournament that will play out over the next few weeks.  Cady Gray, as is her wont, shared Archer's anticipation of his intermediate school activities, and added to them music class at her school ("I know it's not special, but I like it!" she told me) and her grandparents' arrival for the weekend.

When I picked them up today, I wanted to hear about how all those much-anticipated events had worked out.  Archer told me that his team won 6-1, helped along the way by a 3-run homer.  He came up to bat twice and grounded out both times, and played right field where he said few balls came his way.  But he's far more excited about remaining in the winners bracket than disappointed about not contributing to the team.  I had already had an update on Newz Brain via a note from the GT teacher; the practice quiz they used was from several months ago and the questions were entirely unfamiliar.  Archer said the questions were "wild and wacky" (a phrase I'm sure he got from his teacher), and that his team only got 35%, which was about average for all the teams.  Again, there was no disappointment in this result; as I might have guessed, he's more focused on the mechanics of the game, including a timer and scoring.

I found out later in the day how much all of this excitement affected Cady Gray.  We went to an open house at her school, and her teacher met us at the door with news of how much she had been talking about all these events.  The grandparents, the kickball game -- the teacher knew about all of it.  And when I picked Cady Gray up from school, her first question was whether his team had won the game.  When Archer said that they did, she cheered.

It's one of her most agreeable traits -- sharing in others' happiness, not needing to be the center of attention all the time.  Sure, she loves to be noticed and to be in the middle of things, and she gets perturbed when marginalized.  But she sees participating in the conversation and energy around events where she's not the protagonist as fulfilling, fun, and worthwhile.  I'm always struck by the generosity of that impulse.  And I hope she keeps it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Was school as complicated when I was a kid (or college student) as it seems to be now?  I'm sure it was.  I still have nightmares* about the schedule I endured for six years at prep school, which was embodied in a six-by-five grid that rotated one or two periods downward each day.  The only thing that was harder than figuring out where your day started and ended, I feel sure, was the teachers' job of figuring out which group of kids would be in front of them at any given moment.

In fifth grade, Archer has A-days and B-days and Fast Days (when double periods for math and language arts are cut in half and activity classes like art and music take up the slack).  As I predicted, he's taken to this nomenclature and structure like a duck to water.  The backs of many of the worksheets he brings home are covered with diagrams of A- and B-days, along with the many varieties of Fast Days he might encounter.  Just as the classroom doors of his teachers display laminated signs to remind students in the halls what kind of day it is, A or B or Fast, his charts reproduce the same iconography.  I picture the calendar in his head festooned with those signs, all lined up along the column of a dayplanner's hourly layout.

The students I teach in college have unconscionably complicated schedules.  Leaving aside their scheduled classes, with any vagaries introduced by syllabi (don't meet this day, meet outside of class this week), they live in halls with mandatory meetings and inspections, belong to organizations with mandatory meetings, and have a never-ending stream of cultural and academic co-curricular experiences thrown at them, sometimes with course credit attached.  I saw an exceptionally organized student with heavy sorority involvement display her planner that was color-coded for different types of responsibilities -- Greek, campus ministry, class, residential, social, who knows what.

Add on top of that the various bureaucracies students must navigate in order to make progress toward their degrees, like the registrar that controls their access to classes, the major and minor advisers (or general advising for undeclared students) who have to press the magic button to unlock their registration screens, the financial aid office that writes the checks that pay for their books or meal plans, and so on and so forth -- and it's no wonder few students have the mental energy left to care about their institution's well-being or long-term policies.  The few that do strike me as miracle workers or superheroes.

Things probably aren't more complicated now than they used to be; in fact, with web-based information systems, it's potentially a lot easier to find out where you stand and what steps you need to take.  But it's not necessarily the complexity of the educational system that astounds me -- it's any system you have to deal with as an adult, or an adult in training.  When you look at how over-the-top labyrinthine it is to buy a house or file taxes or handle medical insurance, and then read any story about what it takes to file for government assistance or register for benefits of any kind, you wonder who anybody -- let alone the chronically poor and undereducated -- could possibly navigate these hurdles.  The more avenues there are for advancement or for help, the more Brazilesque (or Kafkaesque) those lanes tend to be, littered on all sides with those who just couldn't find the next paving stone to jump through, or who were banished back to the start on a technicality.  I'm astounded that anyone manages to get through at all.

* The typical nightmares of missing a class for the entire semester and then having to face a test or exam.  The complex schedule of my high school years makes this scenario seem all too plausible, at least in my dream state.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

All of a sudden

As soon as Labor Day is over, our schedules kick into high gear -- and this year more so than usual.  Noel leaves for the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow morning.  My parents arrive on Thursday.  And I leave for our first-year student retreat on Friday, returning on Sunday.

At least this year I'm not missing another meeting at the same time.  The American Academy of Religion held a late-summer board meeting this year instead of an early-fall executive committee meeting, which has always conflicted with this exceptionally busy weekend.  I love going on this retreat, which features good food, good company, and good work, but it's hard to relax and enjoy myself when Noel is away and the kids are in the care of grandparents specially imported for the purpose.

I'll be leaving shortly after Noel gets back, on the first of several trips this semester.  Noel observed while prepping for Toronto that it feels different to leave now, compared to past years.  The kids are so interesting to be around, are changing and growing so fast, that it's no longer a longed-for escape to get away on your own.  You feel like you are leaving friends and interesting people behind, rather than people who depend on your care and exhaust you with their need.  I'm not eager to be gone from them, even for a week, even though I can't wait to travel to some of these meetings and locations.

At least while Noel is gone I'll get some extra time in their presence.  I'll be the one who picks them up and hears about their day.  Noel is trading those moments for wonderful movies and the company of fellow critics, but I think it's not obvious that he's getting the best of the deal -- not with these kids, not at this time of their lives.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Summer's last moments

I've never completely understood why we let the calendar have such dominion over our lives.  No wearing white after Labor Day, Memorial Day as the official start of summer, New Year's Day we have to eat black eyed peas.  I used to roll my eyes when people would talk about what they needed to do on this particular day or another -- things they could do at any time, but felt compelled to do along with everybody else because the calendar said so.

Now I think I'm getting the hang of it.  On Labor Day weekend, for the last several years, one or another of our friends has organized a picnic at the lake or invited everyone over to grill out.  It's an extra day of leisure, to be sure, but it's also a reminder.  We need to gather with each other, feast, play, communicate, empathize, connect.

As a loner by nature, I always resented the times that tradition took away my freedom to keep to myself.  I'm glad my children, at least in their pre-teenage years, don't have that attitude.  They love going to others' houses for parties or having people over at our house.  They look forward to those special days on the calendar that signal celebrations.

I still prefer to stay away from the big locations on the big days -- the crowds, the traffic jams, the hassle and expense.  But I understand much better why these red-letter days trigger people to make special plans and special efforts.  It's because the calendar can remind us to take time for each other, and to take time to mark time.  As time begins to pass quickly in our children's lives and in our lives with them, I begin to see the value of that attitude.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reaching out

When I'm driving with the kids in the back seat, I like to reach one hand behind me, between the driver's and passenger's seats, and hold it out expectantly. I'm always rewarded with a small hand placed in mine.  If I reach toward the passenger side, Archer grasps it; if straight behind me (as best I can), Cady Gray does.  It's a comforting feeling that never gets old.  A hand reaching out blindly, and the feeling of it being taken by another.

I like to half-joke with Cady Gray, the way parents do, about the day when she won't love me anymore, and she protests (the way kids do) that that day will never come.  I'm confident that she's right, by and large.  What I really fear is the day I reach into the back seat and no one takes my hand.  It may be because their hands will be busy with cell phones, or it may be because they're rolling their eyes at their sentimental mother.  Or it may because they're not there.

A good definition of having a place in the world would be reaching behind you and having someone take your hand.  A good definition of solidarity -- perhaps of hope.  Instead of dreading the day my hand isn't met by another, I should probably be thinking about the day when I'm the one in the back seat waiting for someone to extend a hand to me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Baby steps online

Cady Gray has been wanting her own Ravelry account for some time.  I've been posting her projects on my account, and she beams with pride at every "heart" (favorite mark) or comment they get.  About a year ago the Ravelry team floated the idea of a parent-monitored account especially for minor children, with the ability for the parent to see the child's activity and limit their access to parts of the site with potentially mature content.  But it doesn't appear that feature is anywhere on the near horizon, so after setting CG a goal that she met, I made an account for her.  I know the password and can log in as her anytime to see what she's posting and who she's talking to.

It's her first social networking account, or maybe second.  Earlier this summer I donated to a Kickstarter campaign for Tinkatolli and in return got a membership to that game-world for Cady Gray.  She can make "buddies" on that site and chat with them, and she takes very seriously the rules that are displayed to her while the game is loading (never give out personal information, be kind to other Tinkas).  The interactions delight her; every time somebody talks to her Tinka, invites her to their "pad" (a personal space you can decorate), or gives her a gift, she comes running to me bursting with happiness.

The same thing has happened on Ravelry.  I suggested she use her Tinka's name, and made her a Ravatar out of her Tinka's picture.  She looked forward from the moment of her first login to the welcome message she'd get from a Welcome Wagon member.  I suggested she post in the group for newbies, and when she received a reply or two, she clearly felt like a real Raveler.  She made a faux pas, posting a generic "hello" message on one of the Big 6 forums, and got some disagrees, which dismayed her.  I explained to her that anytime you come into a new situation, it takes a little experience to learn the rules (my example was the etiquette surrounding the tire swing on the school playground), and then I posted in the thread gently redirecting her to a more appropriate forum, and the thread was archived.  After listening in on some Harry Potter chatter in the Welcome Mat forum, she asked how she could get involved in some of the HP-related crafting being discussed, and received a kind explanation which she immediately relayed to me in great detail (as a newly minted expert on the Harry Potter Knitting and Crocheting House Cup).  When we searched for kids' groups, we came across Harry Potter Kids and Teens, which so perfectly fit her needs and desires that I thought her eyes would get stuck in permanently wide surprise.  Now she is reminding me that we need to move her projects to her notebook as soon as possible.

Both Ravelry and Tinkatolli are gentle introductions to social networking.  They have well-communicated boundaries and folkways that make them safe and unthreatening.  Members are fiercely protective of the hospitality of their community, vigilant at informal enforcement of rules against harassment and spamming, and vigorously work to isolate and remove those who don't adhere to its norms (through shunning, banning, and public shaming).  Such incidents are rare and are quickly shunted out of casual view by a vast army of volunteer moderators.  I have next to no concerns that she will encounter anything untoward from her fellow gamer-makers or fellow knitters, and I'm confident that she will tell me about anything confusing or concerning that might happen to her online.

Nevertheless, she has crossed a border that didn't exist when I was growing up.  I was a teenager when I started to get involved in BBSes -- the kind you dial up on your modem and log into individually -- and nobody knew anything about online safety.  I'm probably lucky I didn't get myself into trouble.  I'm sure there are seven-year-olds out there with Facebook pages; no reason to cross that bridge anytime soon in this house.  You all know that I'm an techno-optimist; treated with the proper respect and constructive attitude, the internet is no more dangerous to kids than a sidewalk or playground, and should be monitored but promoted in the same way: it's good to get outside, meet new friends, and be a part of the civic life of your community, as long as you know a few simple rules that allow you to do it safely.  I'm grateful that places like Tinkatoll and Ravelry exist; the playgrounds of the internet, if you will -- places largely free of commercial pressure, places with constructive purposes that promote healthy behaviors and self-images, places where kids can connect with others who share their interests, be inspired, invite and reciprocate friendships.  If there are bumps along the way, they are likely to be small, and they will be learning experiences for the bigger social challenges coming down the pike, both on- and offline.

(By the way: If you are a Raveler and friend of mine -- IRL or in cyberspace -- and would like to friend Cady Gray, please leave me a comment or shoot me a message through any convenient channel, and I'll give you her username.  The more of my wonderful friends who are part of her online life, the better.  Each new friend will give her immeasurable happiness, so please don't hesitate to make her day.)

Friday, September 2, 2011


A few years ago the president of my university resigned and received a seven-figure contract buyout after a fraud was uncovered in his request for an accelerated bonus.  Among the unseemly details that were unearthed after his departure were an addiction to high-stakes slot machines that put him in debt and later got him brought up on federal charges.  It was a terrible time for our university as six years of deception and backroom deals unraveled in full view of the press.

After what many in the faculty considered a disappointing search process, a new president was hired in early 2009.  We were all ready to rebuild our finances and our reputation, but progress proved elusive.

Today that president resigned, just two and a half years into his contract.  It happened so fast most of us barely had time to process it.  Last week the Board of Trustees met, and in the course of normal business were informed of a $700,000 "unrestricted grant" from Aramark, the university's food service contractor, to be used for renovations to the president's residence.  Now, leaving aside how an "unrestricted" grant can be earmarked for a particular project -- in the financial world I inhabit, "unrestricted" means you can do anything with the money -- this was a curious occurrence in many ways.

The president's residence dates back to the WPA.  Research done by my freshman students last year revealed that when it was built, students regarded it as a marvel, since no houses of that magnificence existed for miles around.  The president's contract requires him to live in the house, and once again campus, our newly minted president circa 2009 immediately began requesting upgrades.  The new satellite package, flat-screen TVs, and hardwood floors had murky origins, but wherever they came from, over the last two years hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the building.  Problems with mold and asbestos were discovered, and the president and his wife vacated to another campus-owned house several months ago.  A committee was formed to report to the Board of Trustees about options for the house; it was reported that the 5000-square-foot house was felt to be unsuitable for a college president, especially if one with a family and children were to occupy the position in the future.  Additions were discussed, along with other options, like replacing the contract provision with a stipend to pay for other housing or purchasing another home in Conway, while turning the president's residence into a reception or events center.

When the $700,000 "gift" was announced last Friday, the board's chairman described it as a "godsend."  Due to public and faculty pressure, the prospect of using public funds for further renovation to the home was unattractive to the board.  The Aramark grant allowed work to go forward with private money.  That is, until the newspaper reported Tuesday that the gift came with strings attached.  The letter from Aramark management offering the funds stipulated that the money was conditional on a ten-year renewal of the company's contract with UCA, a contract that according to reports nets upwards of $6 million per year for the company in meal plans and catering revenues.

Board members professed to be livid that they had not been informed of this condition before voting to accept the money and go forward with architects on renovations to the property at Wednesday's meeting.  The president and board chairman apologized, while defending themselves with the contention that deals like this do not constitute kickbacks or corruption because they are common across large institutions; food service companies often contribute large amounts for infrastructure improvements that house their operations, such as the construction of cafeterias or retail locations.  The difference in this case seemed to be how the deal was presented to the Board and what they thought they were voting on, and perhaps about the presumption of Aramark preempting the decision of the committee working on the issue of what would happen to the house.  To be equivalent to those situations at other universities, Aramark would be paying for renovation of a building they expected to occupy, and that everyone else expected them to occupy.

A special meeting was called for Thursday, responding to news stories appearing in the morning papers.  The board refused to grant the president's request to reside elsewhere, and members often responded testily to the discussion about the boondoggle.  When yet another board meeting was announced for today, with an executive session (dealing with personnel issues) beginning immediately upon its commencement, the campus community knew immediately that the president's employment was what was under discussion.  And indeed, the news that came out of the meeting confirmed it, with a buyout of his contract to the tune of half a million dollars and the naming of longtime senior staffer -- and former interim president after the Hardin debacle -- Tom Courtway as interim president yet again.

It's deeply disheartening to have this happen again.  And yet, unfortunately, it's not surprising.  The search process in 2008 appeared to focus not on the candidate's credentials, impressive as they may be, but on his hometown connections as an alumnus of the university and a fraternal connection to folks in a position to make it happen.  We have this supremely frustrating tendency in Arkansas -- maybe elsewhere, too, but Arkansas has it in spades -- to mistrust outsiders to the extent that we will manipulate any process of appointment or hiring to insure that only insiders get the jobs.  This is the second time in ten years that it has bitten us in the behind and further damaged the good name of an institution that has existed for a hundred years and survived wars and depressions.  How many more chances will the public give us to get it right?

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Late this summer, my co-author Clayton and I got the proofs of our manuscript (due to be published late this year) back for review.  It was my job to create an index of names and titles.  I have no one to blame but myself; I volunteered, thinking the task wouldn't be too difficult if we limited ourselves and didn't include concepts.

It wasn't too hard, as it turned out.  I got it done in about nine hours of total work.  What I didn't anticipate was that about three hours of that were spent working on the twenty pages of endnotes.  Every single note -- ten or fifteen to a page -- contained nothing but names and titles, by and large, and sometimes long lists of them.  I pushed through, despite the tedium, and turned in the index ahead of schedule.

Last week we heard from our editors with last-minute questions about hyphenation at line breaks and whether certain epigrams that would cost money to quote could be omitted.  Among the requests was a notation that the index needed two changes.  One, fictional characters' names need not be included. (Goodbye, Bickle, Travis.)  And two, index entries that referred to notes should contain not only a page number but also the note number on the page, e.g., 177n13.

I got this request just as I was getting ready to start fall classes, followed by a weekend of work travel.  So I responded that I would try to get them a revised index early this week.  It wasn't until today, though, that I got a bit of concentrated time to work on it -- and that only after having to warn my colleagues that some of what I'd promised to do for them would have to wait until this overdue task were completed.  I hope to knock this out this afternoon, I told them.

I should have remembered that three hours of original indexing.  The revision is taking, if anything, even longer.  In an hour and a half of steady, uninterrupted labor, I got to the end of the Gs today.  The procedure is this: Note every page number in the index that is 163 (where the notes begin) or higher; go to that page on the proof PDF and look for the name or title in question; add the note number to the page number; repeat.  I use Adobe Reader's jump-to-page and find functions to go to names quickly; titles are harder since they are often composed of common words and take so long to type in the search box that I might as well jump to the page and scan it.  Every index datum that gets revised takes a minimum of 20 keystrokes or so.  It's a slog, and I have no idea when I'm going to find another three hours or so to get it done.

If only I had known the proper formatting while doing it the first time; adding the note numbers would not have required much more effort or time than I was already putting in.  I should have asked for an index style guide, but I thought I had all the knowledge I needed.  Now here I am clicking, typing, reclicking, switching documents, searching, clicking, typing.  Is it too late to pay a student to do this?