Monday, October 31, 2011

It's all treats here


This is the picture where Archer was trying to look all serious and competitive like Ash Ketchum.


And this is the one where he let slip just how much he's actually enjoying Halloween. Hope yours was just as happy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A bunch of cutups


We managed to carve out enough time in our weekend to make jack-o-lanterns. Get it? Carve out enough time?


Archer volunteered that he was having a lot of fun scooping out pumpkin guts with his hands.


That surprised me given how carefully he was trying to remove the stringy mess from between his fingers after each scoop.


Archer took this picture of me scraping the inside of his pumpkin.


He made his pumpkin face simple, which was considerate to the carver (me).


By contrast, Cady Gray made hers pretty fancy. Archer kept up a running commentary about how he used 100% polygons and CG had 87.5% closed curves.


I appreciate that they chose pumpkins that were almost the exact size of their heads.


See? It just needs a pink headband.


When I set the pumpkins up together, Archer said, "It looks like they're going dating." "Going what?" I said. "Like they're on a date, like they're dating," Cady Gray explained.



Those are four handsome faces!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pressing the flesh

I spent the morning working the Honors College table at Bear Fair, an event showcasing my institution's departments, colleges, and student programs for prospective students visiting the campus.  It's a role I've gotten used to over the past few years.  You answer questions, give information, make people feel welcome, convey excitement about your program.

Earlier this week, my boss had a talk with me about the near- and long-term future.  He's going to be very busy for the next year planning a national conference, and the year after that presiding over one.  So he's wanting to hand off some of the day-to-day operations to me, starting right away with leadership in the assessment and curricular efforts that we have going.  The good news in that message is that we both feel confident, based on recent history, that I have what it takes to do these jobs.  And the even better news is that he thinks I could do the kind of bigger jobs that are taking him away from the office recently -- fundraising and national leadership.

I think I can, too, and it's little things like the Bear Fair that show me how far I've come.  I'm not afraid to approach people; I believe in my message; and people respond to me.  I'm welcoming.  I can connect to people on many levels, not just the intellectual one.  I was knitting as I stood by our table, and in the first ten minutes three mothers of prospectives students stopped to ask me if I had knitted my sweater, providing an opening for further conversation about UCA and Honors.

'Twas not always thus.  Becoming a teacher brought me out of my shell.  It's not insincere, either; I enjoy the interactions and genuinely want to leave people with a smile on their face and a good feeling about the institution I represent.  I aim to always be straight with people, never to gloss over problems or tell them what they want to hear, and I can see that they appreciate that when they ask my opinion and get an honest answer.

If you had asked me ten years ago whether I wanted these kinds of events to be a regular part of my job -- be they with colleagues, recruits, committee members, alumni, or prospective donors -- I would have shuddered with dread.  Now I see their value in the connections generated, the positive feelings spread and multiplied, the reputation enhanced.  You work at home to have a program worth bragging about; then the bragging isn't so much work.  It takes time, and I personally find it exhausting, but all you have to do is be yourself and represent what you do.

Who, among those who knew me back when, would have thought that my skills could ever be described as administrative?  Yet I'm an excellent wordsmith; I have a structural/architectural "big picture" view of complex processes; I'm good at thinking through problems from needs to detailed solutions; I enjoy connecting with people and advocating for what I believe in; I have strong opinions that I'm learning how to leverage into leadership.  At this stage in my career, I'm starting to think that I truly have something to offer in a dean's or director's chair.

Friday, October 28, 2011

October 31

This afternoon a student asked me if I knew when the city was planning to hold Halloween.  I'm afraid I scared her a little with the rant I offered in reply.

Before last year, I had never encountered this notion of rescheduling Halloween.  In 2010, October 31 fell on a Sunday.  For weeks ahead of time, people were asking whether Conway officials would issue an edict moving trick-or-treating to Saturday, to avoid conflicts with Sunday evening church services.

I know that some of you will find this bizarre because of the religious angle; I found it bizarre despite my Southern evangelical in-church-every-time-the-doors-were-open upbringing.  When Halloween conflicted with church, we trick-or-treated early, late, or not at all.  We didn't ask elected officials to get involved to protect our God-given right to dress up in non-occult and non-slasher-movie costumes and solicit candy around the neighborhood.

Here's why you can't reschedule Halloween.  Number one: It's a day on the liturgical calendar -- All Saint's Day Eve.  That's not under secular control.

Number two, and more important: You can't get the memo to everyone.  To its credit, that's how the city responded last when the hue and cry arose.  They got the word out to the papers that the city was taking no action so that there wouldn't be an incomplete penetration of the news, meaning some people would expect trick-or-treaters on Saturday and some on Sunday.  Disappointed kids and embarrassed doorbell-answering would ensue.

And number three: There is no problem to be solved here.  Are we concerned that Halloween falls on a school night?  That happens most years.  Why is it suddenly unacceptable?  Trying to move it creates far more problems, because people are uncertain about what they're supposed to do and are afraid of doing the wrong thing.

All we have to do is have Halloween on Halloween.  No issues whatsoever.  Everybody chill and stop calling City Hall.  End of rant.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The warmth of family

Today was chilly and rainy, with temperatures dropping and students huddling into their hoodies and under their umbrellas.  When it turns cold, I think of the emotions that the weather suggests -- and "cold" equates to "lonely."

There are good reasons for that association.  The best kind of warmth comes from other people -- from their body heat, their energy.  The warmest place to be in winter is a cozy home, and home is associated with family.

When we must endure cold, we sink into ourselves; we hold our arms close to our chests, hunch our shoulders to shorten our necks, fold our legs up and reduce our surface area as best we can.  It's the opposite of the openness of sociality, when we untangle our limbs, lean in toward another, exchange the spark of conversation, kindle smiles and laughter.

Large social institutions are often described as "cold." We mean that their processes aren't directed by human feeling but by routine, bureaucracy, inflexible rules.  They don't have hearts to be warmed by love or compassion, to be moved by a person's story or need.

How cold would it feel to be both alone and in the grip of one of those big institutions?  The children that CASA serves are in this situation.  They have been taken from their families; they are alone.  Sometimes they have siblings with them; sometimes they can't stay together in a single foster home, or don't want to because their chances of being adopted as a group are much slimmer than on their own.

They are subject to the grindingly slow pace, arcane rules, and rigid processes of the court.  For years their cases drag on, sometimes with an eventual resolution in view to work toward, often not.  Meanwhile they are files to be shuffled, appointments to be kept, problems to be disposed, complications to be dealt with.

It must be very cold there, away from your family, waiting for the justice system to decide where you are to be put.  Even in the hottest summer, you might shiver and curl up within yourself.  And when the weather matches the chill of that loneliness, that impersonal setting of the court, the cold must be compounded.

So the knitted and crocheted warmth of the scarves, hats, gloves, and blankets that my students are making for them seems triply apt.  They are not at risk of succumbing to the cold outside, although everybody can take comfort in warm clothes to wear.  But the cold inside -- the cold of separation, the cold of being a case file in an overworked lawyer's briefcase -- does put them at risk.

If there aren't enough people saying loud enough, often enough, and honestly enough that these kids matter, then they will freeze inside.  If there aren't enough people to demonstrate by actions that these kids are individuals and not cogs in the wheels of family court, then they will live the rest of their lives without seeing any reason why they should be held accountable, without any reason to believe they could decide for themselves about their future.  If there aren't enough people prying open these kids' arms and lifting their heads, they will hibernate, isolated, begging without words for a rescue they cannot imagine.

If you want to be one of those people, join us.  Follow our project on Facebook at; we'll tell you how you can help.

We want to share the warmth of yarn and fabric, ribbing and cables, ears and necks and hands covered.  But far more important is the other kind of warmth -- the care we can show with a scarf that's a teenage girl's favorite color, a hat with a seven-year-old boy's name stitched on the inside, a soft toy that a two-year-old can hug.  Made just for them, by people who want them to know they matter.  A gift of warmth in every way imaginable.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cartoon conventions

Noel is reviewing a collection of Laurel and Hardy shorts this week. These comedies and their ilk were the models for many of the Warner Brothers cartoons I watched obsessively as a kid.

In "Tit for Tat," L & H have a feud with a neighboring business owner.  Each time they leave his grocery store after dealing him a reciprocal humiliation, they pick up marshmallows out of a display box near the door and pop them ostentatiously into their mouths.  At one point, the store owner picks up a canister that the close-up tells us is POWDERED ALUM and sprinkles it on the marshmallows.  As anyone who has ever seen "Long Haired Hare" could predict, the next time L & H eat the marshmallows (going back for seconds this time for good measure), their mouths pucker up such that they can't speak, and they have to spray seltzer in each other's mouths to recover.

Alum is one of those gag items that seemed to me in my youth to have no existence outside of cartoons.  It's used in pickling, Noel tells me after a quick look at Wikipedia, and as a hemorrhoid remedy, among many other household uses.  To me it occupies the same realm as the anvil (familiar in a bygone age of blacksmithery, but not exactly a common sight thereafter), "Those Endearing Young Charms," and yes, the seltzer bottle.

What props or plot devices populate the comedies or cartoons of your upbringing, without a chance of being glimpsed in real life?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In the details

Fall's arrival draws my eyes upwards to the shape of treetops against the deepening blue of the sky.  And invariably I think of a day in art class in seventh or eighth grade, and a watercolor still life assignment.  The subject was an arrangement of budding branches in a vase.  I spent the first few class periods working on the shape of the vase and the precise curvature and proportion of the branches.

Then came the moment to turn to the minuscule reddish-pink flowers on the branches.  And that's when I made a decision that I still think about to this day.  I felt that no one could be expected to actually paint those tiny petals individually.  I was sure I would not be blamed for merely suggesting the flowers, rather than specifying any detail.

So I washed a kind of general pink haze around those carefully delineated branches.  And then I went on to wash some blue and green behind that as a sort of paint backdrop.

It was a terrible copout, and an even worse picture.  I got a bad grade.  I can still see how awful it looked -- like I'd just given up.  Which is what I did.

Looking at those trees today, with each leaf of tens of thousands sharply evident against the sky as if pasted on by collage-style, I perceive that these details, at every scale, are a key to the meaning of life.  And I see my knitting and crocheting work as a remedy for my former negligence.  Stitch by stitch is how we have to go.  There's no way to take a short-cut or fake your way to the end; every thing you do, good ideas and bad, careful decisions and careless, become details in the finished object.  They might be details you treasure or ones you wish you could forget.  Leaf by leaf, petal by petal, stitch by stitch -- the edges clear, the individuality unmistakeable, the whole constructed thereof.

Monday, October 24, 2011


I got home at 5 pm after a full day of taxis, airports, and planes. As these things go, it was easy -- Southwest has direct flights between Little Rock and Phoenix, so no connection anxiety intruded on my day.  Just long hours of grading papers, reading, sitting, waiting, driving.

But when I arrived home, there was ravioli and meatballs.  And my daughter had a new book of magic tricks.  And she was eager to work on her patter with me.  And she grinned knowingly as she insisted her fake shuffling was 100% all real.

It's all worth it.  I'm so glad to be home.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On being praised for staying out of the way

Being a college professor is a pretty high status occupation in our culture. In most fields, the renumeration isn't high, but there are tradeoffs: the autonomy of the classroom, tenure, the opportunity to follow your curiosity wherever it leads, the respect of your community.

But that doesnt stop me from feeling a bit small and provincial next to the students I used to teach, the ones who probably thought I was a fairly August personage in their day. The toughest part of being a teacher of any kind is staying put while your students move on and do great things and become people of real consequence.

We had lunch today with an alumnus from six years ago, who is now in the first year of a pediatrics residency in Tucson. I hope she didn't mind as we peppered her with questions about her work, about the state of medical education, about the kinds of patients she sees, about how her life has changed since she left us behind, about what in the education we gave her has proven useful.

She's not only beautiful, thoughtful, and self-possessed -- she's also an impressive person who is on her way to accomplishments far beyond the ones in my own life that I like to think are so noteworthy. I feel foolish being on the receiving end of her deference and respect. it should be the other way around.

I certainly take pride in what my students go on to do after they leave my classroom. But I don't deserve any credit for it. The idea that their lives should shine some spare glory onto mine seems backwards. I'm the one who is lucky to have been around while they were building towards greatness, and the respect and status I get for standing still while they flow around me like water around a rock is hardly earned.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One weekend in November

At the NCHC business meeting bright and early this morning, my boss -- who is also, as the incoming president-elect, the chair of next year's conference -- stood up to give a preview of the 2012 annual meeting in Boston. He painted a glowing picture of an uncrowned schedule that would allow the city to be a key "program" at the conference; of the prestigious and compelling plenary speaker; of the gorgeous venue and attractive amenities. And then he mentioned, almost offhand, that the conference would be held almost a month later than this year -- November 14-18, 2012.

I got a sinking feeling. That sounded suspiciously like the weekend before Thanksgiving, which is when the American Academy of Religion holds its annual meeting. I mentioned the confluence to a fellow religion scholar whose Honors half-time duties brought him to Phoenix to attend this meeting; "isn't the AAR in Boston, too?" he suggested. For a moment I was full of hope. Perhaps I would just be shuttling from hotel to hotel, attending some sessions at each conference and discharging various board and committee responsibilities by swapping lanyards and badges several times a day.

Then I checked the website. Yep, the NCHC conference dates were the weekend before Thanksgiving. And nope, the AAR was not meeting in the same city; we'd be in Chicago while my boss executes the signature event of his tenure in Honors national leadership for 1800 of his closest friends.

I ended up in the same position earlier this year when our instiitution hosted a regional conference on a weekend when I was already committed to be In Atlanta for an AAR board meeting. It's a terrible conflict. On the one hand, I have longstanding commitments and specific offices to fulfill in the AAR for the next year or two, and my role in NCHC is much less formal. But on the other hand, my institution and my closest colleagues are taking on huge organizational tasks, and just when I could be of the most help, I disappear.

These collisions of conferences will be less frequent once I rotate off the AAR board -- at that 2012 meeting in Chicago. I'm ready at that point to assume more formal roles in NCHC. It's sickening and heart-wrenching, though, to see the involvement requested and reasonably expected of me peak at the same time in two organizations whose calendars have in no way been aligned for my benefit..

Friday, October 21, 2011

It's a dry heat

Arizona in October. Autumnal is not the word anyone would use to describe it. The high temperatures are in the 90s, you have to keep hydrating all day or risk splitting headaches, and even in the evening short sleeves and short skirts are comfortable.

Not that you get much of a chance to go outside at an event like this. I left my hotel room at 6:30 am in order to get a Starbucks drink across the street before the conference breakfast buffet opened, and that was the last time I set foor anywhere other than a meeting room, hallway, or bathroom until after 4 pm. It was one of the fullest days I've experienced at any conference I've ever attended, national, international, regional, disciplinary, or Honors. And it was a productive day; my presence meant something in nearly every session, whether I was presenting, supporting friends and colleagues at their presentations, doing committee work, or voting on official business.

I'm not sure today will turn out to have been the least stressful day of the conference; tomorrow my colleague and I need to make sure we're fully prepped for the workshop we're leading, and then Sunday morning we have to execute that plan. That's the longest session of sustained responsibility of the trip. But I'm ready for a little more balance in my day -- regular meals, time to check e-mail occasionally, maybe even work on some of the tasks I brought with me. As it is, today's nonstop sprint caused me to lose ground on some of the things I have to do every day, meaning there's even more to squeeze into the last few days of the trip. Luckily the unscheduled time should expand as the weekend goes on.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

In the valley of the sun

The NCHC conference is like no other. The bulk of the attendees are students -- although the proportion of faculty and professional staff has been growing for years. The parties are frequent and lavish. The sessions are evenly distributed between matters pedagogical and administrative, and students presenting on everything under the sun. And the discussions frequently begin, end, or break down over the vast differences among the programs who send representatives here.

I've got an exceptionally full day tomorrow, with bookings straight through from 7:30 am to 4 pm. Breathing may have to be optional; eating certainly will be. I'm ready for some sleep after a day two hours longer than I'm used to -- and that's not counting the hour early that I awoke to go to the airport.

After tomorrow, things slow down at least a bit, until Sunday morning when I'll be on the spot leading a workshop. I need to find some downtime for the many tasks I've brought with me, like grading and giving feedback, but for the next 24 hours, those to-dos will have to be set aside. Nothing adds stress to a full day of being on the spot like constant guilty reminders of the things you're not doing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Are there any songs about Phoenix, Arizona?

Trip number 2 of my autumn of travel begins tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn. I'm headed with several of my colleagues and students to the National Collegiate Honors Council annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.

It will be my first trip to Phoenix, and possibly my first visit to Arizona (my parents might be able to confirm whether we ever passed through any part of the state on any of our family trips).  The location of this year's conference is not without controversy; a lot of academic groups are boycotting the state because of their immigration law.  Having been on the planning and financial side of these operations, though, I know that contracts made years ago are not easily broken, and that organizations without huge cash reserves to absorb penalties for doing so have few choices.

The weirdest thing about this trip is the weather difference.  We just entered our biggest shot of autumn to date, with nighttime temperatures near freezing, and jackets and sweaters necessary in the day.  When I leave tomorrow morning before the sun comes up, I'll need to bundle up, but none of those layers will be useful in the slightest for the next five days.

We have lots of work to do at the conference; personally, I have a committee meeting to attend, a presentation to give, and a post-conference workshop to lead.  There will also be some parties, some dinners, some networking, and a lot of time to catch up on classwork.  As soon as I get back, I'll be focused on finishing my third major conference presentation of the semester, which is due to the respondent less than two weeks after my return.  The merry-go-round won't stop until that final trip of the year, to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Francisco, is over.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Clouds, chill, and crafting for CASA's children


Today was the first Craft-In for CASA. My class and allied crafters gathered in the center of campus to knit, crochet, teach, and spread the word about the CASA kids we are working to help.


We were many.


And we were mighty.


Molly's hat, ready to add the earflaps.


Ashley and Kendall consult on yarn choice.


Ashlyn's project matches her sweater.


Monica and Claire craft while wearing items they've crafted.


Tamami and Lydia are ready for fall with colorful wooly hats.


Ariel won't let the cold stop her; she has a handmade scarf to wear while she knits a new one.


Emyleigh starts a pair of baby booties in fashionable fall colors.


Emma brought gifts from a knitter who's decided to participate in our effort.


Bruce D. Bear, UCA mascot, gets a quick knitting lesson from Monica.


And the beat goes on. Taylor gets his first lesson ...


... and so does Connie.


The hour went so quickly. Thanks to everyone who came. Let's do it again -- only bigger and better -- on November 3!  Like the project on Facebook to get all the updates and join in!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find

Today's post about a gift that went across the sea is at Toxophily.


Tomorrow is our first Craft-In for CASA. If you're on campus or in Conway and free from 1:30-2:30 pm, come join us on the chapel steps to support children in custody. The weather will be crisp and the needles will be flying -- stay tuned for a full report!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

Today's post about a return to knitblogging after an unintentional absence -- and a cashmere scarf from the past -- is at Toxophily.


If you're in the Conway area, this elegant cashmere scarf can be yours at our Craftin' for CASA sale on December 1!  Like the project on Facebook to get updates on what you can buy and give, and how you can help.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Yipes, stripes

It was a beautiful warm autumn day.  There happened to be a stadium a five minute walk from our house with a football game in it.  So we went.


We had general admission tickets, so it was up to the top of the home stands with us.


Here come your UCA Bears!


You may have noticed something strange about the field.  Yep, they replaced the grass with purple and gray striped turf before this season.  It's ... striking.


There were free bam-bam sticks.


Which were a big hit.


And there was a football field of real grass, for a change, to run across as we left, recreating the 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown that the Bears accomplished on their field.


"This has been a good day," Cady Gray proclaimed at dinner.  I have to agree.  Days don't get much better.

Friday, October 14, 2011


Cady Gray came into the living room where her dad and I were watching Project Runway, bearing a gift. "I figured out how to use those big pieces of paper," she told me -- referring to large newsprint sheets that had cushioned our Ikea furniture this summer, and were so unblemished and smooth that I put them in her room for arts-and-crafts purposes.

She flourished a large origami star from behind her back.  "It was rectangular, so I had to give it a little trim to make it square," she pointed out.  Then, without warning, as if she had just thought of it: "I'm going to color it."

Fifteen minutes later she was back.  "This side -- colored," she demonstrated.  "This side blank.  You can color this side.  You can use my coloring as a guide if you want.  Or you can use your own creativity."

"Interactive.  I like it!" I praised her.

"Yes.  You can participate!" she enthused. "Here, I'll sign it right under this flap.  And I'll leave a space.  If you color it, you can sign it, too."

The more I think about it, the more my praise doesn't seem empty. It's a generous gesture to open up a space where another person can be a part of your creation.  For Cady Gray, audience participation or partnership isn't just a nice extra.  It's an essential part of the joy she gets from creating.

I think I've molded her in that direction, too.  Whenever she asked me to come to her room to see a building she'd made or a Tinkertoy gadget she'd invented, I would make a suggestion or ask if I could explore.  Her self-appointed role as a gracious host led her to agree enthusiastically and integrate my contribution into her description or construction.

It's a short step from that kind of interactivity to sharing the stage and the credit for creative expression.  I love this impulse in my daughter.  She's both confident of her own artistic worth and eager to pass along the praise to others, even to the point of encouraging them by leaving them a blank space to fill with their own ideas.  If she becomes a teacher, as is her childhood desire, this attitude will serve her well.  But it's wonderful -- both functional and beautiful -- no matter what kind of work she ends up doing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

From zero to 20:21

On Monday morning, the day after my birthday, I woke in what we gently refer to as intestinal distress.  I took the usual medicine and considered going to work.  But I felt poorly, and even though I would usually expect to be able to function despite a wonky GI tract, I decided that I had better take a very rare sick day.  Good thing, too, because I spent almost the whole day unable to move from a horizontal position, feverish and chilled, without the strength to stand.  It took me another two days to regain my appetite, although I was over all the most troubling symptoms the next morning.

Today I ran in my university's "Trick or Trot" fun run for the second year in a row.  It's a short race, only 1.8 miles by official course reckoning (1.71 on my GPS).  But when I nervously attempted it as my first official race ever last year, I found it challenging.  I remember being alarmed by how winded I was by the first leg up the north side of campus, and how I thought I was going to have to stop and walk while making the loop around Alumni Circle in the campus center, and how I had to will myself to keep going in the last half mile through campus back to the start, and how difficult it was to smile and raise my hand for high-fives from the race volunteers in the home stretch.

Tonight, despite my paralyzing illness three days ago, and despite no training since a rigorous set of runs last week, the race was easy -- almost alarmingly so.  Chugging east along Bruce Street, preparing to make the turn south on Donaghey, ABBA's "S.O.S." exploded in my headphones and I felt like I was flying through the darkness under the full moon.  Running around Alumni Circle, I was conscious that I was more than halfway through the course but still feeling the long steady energy that usually begins for me after the first half mile.  Turning back west to pass through the campus toward the fitness center where we started, I didn't want to find myself suddenly running out of gas and monitored myself carefully, but by the time the finish line was in sight, with about a minute to go, I knew I had plenty left for a big kick.

I finished with a per-mile average under 12 minutes, which is a personal best for me for an outdoor run.  Most importantly, I never felt like I got near my limits.  That means it's time to step up my workouts and see how far I can take this jogging thing.  And maybe how fast.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


One measure of a marriage is whether you look back on it from the perspective of many years and see a transformation.

Noel and I were married fifteen years ago today.  He was funny, a great writer, kind and caring.  I knew that we would share a passion for pop culture and deep thought for life.  I looked forward to a long life with my best friend.

Then everything began to change.  I became a college professor.  We moved to Arkansas.  Noel began to rise in his profession.  And most important, we decided to have a child.

I don't think we could have gotten as far in our careers if we hadn't had each other for support and second incomes. Those careers have produced some things that we're very proud of -- books, organizations, communities of interest, courses, essays, ongoing features, fan groups.  But what we never could have anticipated were the two lives we would bring into the world together.  Who could have thought that putting Noel and me together would add up to Archer and Cady Gray?  Their wonderfulness is far beyond the sum of the two of us.  And having them in our lives has changed us still further, all for the better.

The marriage is the start of it all, but it doesn't tell the whole story.  It persists underneath all the changes, all the growth, as the substrate in which they flourish.  What's most remarkable about the last fifteen years is how far they've brought us from where we started, in ways we never could have imagined.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

For you, for them

Last week, I tucked my gorgeous seven-year-old daughter into bed and said, "Sweetie, I have something important to tell you."

As she always does, she looked at me with eyes open wide, ready to drink in whatever I told her. All her life I have been there for her -- protecting, teaching, nourishing, guiding.  It's what any mom would do, and I never thought I did it particularly better or worse than others.  Never, until now.

"Honey, I heard today about some kids who aren't as lucky as you," I told my daughter.  She blinked, listening.  "Some kids don't have parents who take care of them."

"Some kids ..." she started in, as she always does, processing what I tell her by rephrasing it.  "Some kids' parents don't take care of them because they don't have enough money.

"That's true," I said, sadly.  "But that's not what I mean.  Some kids' parents don't take care of them because they don't want to, or they don't know how."  It was difficult to admit this to her.  How could I explain?  "They neglect their kids, don't clean up after them, don't feed them, don't teach them or provide for them.  Sometimes they might even hurt their kids."

I could see that this didn't make sense to her, but she was willing to believe me. "I just want you to know how lucky you are, sweetie," I explained.  "And those kids that don't have parents who take care of them, we're giving them something to let them know they matter."  I gave her a kiss and turned out the light.

Those kids are in the care of the court, and they are cared for by CASA -- Court Appointed Special Advocates.  A trained volunteer represents the child's interests as they move through the foster care system, towards reunification, adoption, or another permanent placement.

I know about them because the students in my handcrafting class have decided to partner with the local branch, CASA of the 20th Judicial District.  We have a few personal details about a few of their clients -- not enough to invade their privacy, but just enough to make something for each of them that fits their needs and taste.  A hat, a scarf, a toy.  Made especially for them, from us.

Why? Because these kids are the future of my community.  They will live in my town, go to school with my kids, maybe even attend my university if they're lucky.  If they're not lucky, they will work a few miles away from me in a minimum-wage job ... or not, if they're really not lucky.  They will have kids, and if someone doesn't show them love and recognize their true worth, they will abuse and neglect those kids in their turn, and the cycle will continue.

But if a few of us invest time and energy -- material and spiritual -- into these kids, they have a chance.  They have had a bad break to start out.  Their parents didn't deserve them.  But that's no reason to throw them away or just let the chips fall where they may.  Our efforts can change things for them -- maybe even in them.

At the end of the semester, we're going to hold a sale on campus.  It's buy one, give one -- like Tom's Shoes.  A one-of-a-kind handcrafted accessory for you, a made-to-order gift of warmth for them.  In the meantime, we're asking everyone with needles, hooks, and yarn -- or anyone who wants to learn how to wield them -- to join us.  Craftin' for CASA: October 18, 1:30-2:30 pm, on the steps of the Chapel on the UCA campus.  Everyone's welcome.  Spread the word.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Forty six

Forty-six full years upon this earth.  What do I have to show for it?

Students who teach me more than they'll ever learn from me, whose gratitude humbles me.

New passions with each passing decade.  More worthwhile skills waiting to be learned than I have time left to acquire.

Two brilliant, beautiful children whose spirited existences are far beyond what any mother deserves.

A husband whose talent and work ethic earn him the approbation of people who know what they're talking about, whose dedication to our family is a quiet miracle.

Work that has meaning.  Opportunities to travel and meet remarkable people.  Positions of service that make a difference to folks I'll never meet.

A world that seems new and marvelous every day I venture out into it.  A future that demands optimism.

Chances to be proud of myself and to be appreciated by others.

More love and friendship than I could ever reciprocate, from more people than ought to care about me.

And as should be clear from the above list, grace beyond measure.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I had to work hard to figure out how to participate in Dish Rag Tag V this year.  The game started in late August as it always does, but it was difficult to get a slot in the running order that didn't risk the box arriving while I was out of town.  In fact, I almost didn't join the race this year for fear I would let my team down.  Then on the verge of signups being filled, I caved.  I couldn't let dishcloths be knit in a competitive relay fashion without me.

And look -- six weeks later, here I am on the third highest step of the awards podium!  My team, Purls Gone Wild, came in third.  In reality we tied with another team, but because of the well-established rules of Dish Rag Tag, the box on the bottom of the mailbox, the one that the postman put in there first, is counted as finishing first in that day's standings.

I'm just happy to medal at all, after a scary interlude one knitter from the finish line when the box stubbornly refused to leave the Bozeman, Montana post office. And I'm especially happy because this year's prizes for win, place and show are Dish Rag Tag tote bags.  The only thing better than cheering on your teammates and knitting your bit is winning a prize that tells everybody that sees it that it's a prize for winning a race!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Weekend of me!

My birthday is Sunday, and as has become customary among my students and friends, I'm extending the celebration over more than just the actual day.  On Facebook I read about people taking whole birthday weeks.  I couldn't manage that -- way too much to do this week, and I am proud that I took care of business for so much of it -- but I can reserve the weekend for all things Donna, and so I have.

Well, I would have, if the publicity machine at a certain network whose prestige program I recap weekly had sent me a screener so I could watch it and write about it during the week.  Since that didn't happen, I am having to watch it and write about it this weekend, which will cut into the Weekend of Me for at least three or four hours.  Still, it's the season finale, which means I won't have to worry about this again until next year, so I don't begrudge the intrusion of work too much.

What's the agenda for the Weekend of Me?  I'm ready to start a new knitting project, which is always an exciting and rewarding moment.  I've got a stack of comics to read, including some graphic novels that Noel has been recommending highly.  I'm going out to dinner with my husband, and I would like to play video games with my son and knit with my daughter.  It's nothing too different from a regular weekend, except that I'll be taking a special birthday satisfaction in it all.

I invite you to celebrate the Weekend of Me with me!  Except that for you, it will be the weekend of Donna.  An apt time to think about how I have made your life better, and honor me with appropriate leisure activities.  Enjoy!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Working my way back to you

I've been back from Japan a little less than a week, and while there hasn't been much of a respite from the work of catching up, the load hasn't been dispiritingly crushing, either.  You can't ask for much more than to feel like you are moving forward on important matters while you're still recovering from a week out of touch.

And so as I've hosted a representative from the partner organization for my class's service project; sketched a plan for a workshop I'm co-leading at a conference in two weeks; guided my students past their first experience with Pecha Kucha presentations; and mapped a schedule for the period leading up to midterm and fall break, I've also been working through the backlog of daily student work.  Priorities have been set and communicated to students according to what feedback is most essential at this point in the semester.

Most satisfying is that the service project in my handcrafting class has been launched, though I'm still getting anxiety vibes from students who don't think they'll be able to contribute at the level expected, or who want to make sure that they won't be penalized if they don't have as much time as others to devote to it.  I get really tired of reassuring them that no, everyone's not expected to do the same amount of work (different skills and speeds are an essential fact of life in the class), and yes, it's okay if the work is basic rather than intricate.  I don't understand why they don't trust me at this point to adjust for their skill level, seeing as I know it quite intimately, and why they don't believe me when I repeat that some people will make very little and some will make a lot and we'll all work together for a collective outcome.  The individual mentality is strong in these students, especially the ones in the sciences.  They don't seem to be able to grasp that we are not aiming in this project for an assessment of individual work but of group impact.  As long as everyone contributes what they're able, and push their skills and confidence level past their personal barriers, that's all I want in terms of their work.  More important by far is the connection we make to the people we're serving.

It's early days, yet, and this nervousness tends to calm down as we begin to see what our collective capacities really are.  I just wish that I could head it off at the pass, before it breaks out in the students, by saying the right things as we begin.  I tried this semester, but apparently I failed.  In the end, it comes down to whether they believe me -- whether they trust that my past experience with these matters is a sufficient guide to the present situation.  So far, they're taking a "believe it when I see it" attitude, rather than taking my word for it.  I hope that's not a larger reflection on my effectiveness.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Japan: The Food

I tried to remember to take a picture of every meal I ate in Japan.  Skipped a bunch of breakfasts since they were similar, and most of the snacks too, but here's a sampling.

Minced tuna, prawn & avocado spring roll
Minced tuna roll, prawn and avocado spring rolls.

Noodle bowl
Pork noodle bowl at the Sophia University cafeteria.

Fish roe, octopus, jellyfish
Fish roe, octopus, jellyfish.

Cuttlefish with egg dip
Cuttlefish with egg sauce.

Assorted sushi.

Champagne mousse and mussel soup
Champagne mouse and mussel soup.

My sushi lunch 2
Sushi lunch purchased on street outside of university, a bit the worse for being carried around.

Chinese lunch
Sweet and sour chicken and egg drop soup at a Chinese place.

Dinner at onsen
Seafood salad, tofu two ways, duck, fugu at the onsen.

Narita sushi bar
Salmon sushi and tuna roll at Narita airport sushi bar.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Japan: Day 4

Bonsai 6
500 year old bonsai

I'm waiting in Atlanta for my last flight of this trip -- my flight home. Well, to Little Rock, which is a half hour in the car away from home. These travel days seem to stretch on endlessly through stage after stage. Bus to the airport. Wait for the plane. Fly backwards in time across the international date line, from Friday afternoon into early Friday morning and back again, twelve hours in all, food and sleep arriving at arbitrary intervals. Land. Go through the multiple levels of immigration and customs, ending with security screening again as you go back into the airport. Wait for your next flight. Then there's the flying, the landing, the walking, the paying, the driving -- all before I can finally get home.

Tea at Happo-En
Tea at Happo-En

I'm looking forward to being home for so many reasons. Seeing my family, of course. Sleeping in my own bed. But also getting my pictures off my camera so I can put together epic blog posts about my trip, and giving the gifts I picked out for Noel and the kids. I'm lucky to have two days to decompress and reconnect with the central time zone before heading back to work on Monday. Then it will be time to hit the ground running on preparations for my next conference, for which I have a half-written presentation and a completely unplanned workshop.

View from teahouse
View from teahouse

What I've got in my rear-view mirror, though, is the trip of a lifetime. I know how lucky I am to have been to four international conferences in the last decade, not to mention yearly national and regional meetings all over the country. With travel costs rising and department budgets shrinking, none of that can be taken for granted into the future. It's up to me to make sure the investment pays dividends for the program, and to squeeze every drop of value from the places I go and the people I meet.