Monday, December 31, 2012

Spectives, retro and pro

Nearly all the bloggers I follow are looking back at their 2012 accomplishments and regrets, musing on the year past. I'm in that spirit, too. So I read all those posts with interest, peering between the lines to discern the joy or frustration, weariness or energy, tedium or adventure in their recollections.

I have a lot of summing up and looking forward I want to do. Much more than one post's worth. I made a lot of things. I watched my children (and my husband) change and grow. I found myself at a crossroads and began to engage in deliberate, regular introspection to understand its opportunities and pitfalls.

For today, I want to focus on one tiny thing that seems to represent my 2012. It's so insignificant, and yet that very fact indicates how critical it must be to my self-understanding.

I'm still making beds.

Every morning I straighten the sheets, smooth the blankets, pile on the pillows. I do it first in our room, then after I'm dressed and while getting out clothes for the kids, I do the same for their beds.

Why do I do this every morning? Nobody is making me. Nobody would say a word if I didn't. If they even noticed, it would be fleeting, with no emotional color one way or another. Even that driver of so many things we women do, What Would My Mother Think, isn't in the picture. I went for decades with unmade beds; any guilt I might have felt occasionally was diffuse and sporadic.

My bed-making appears to be unlike almost anything else I do. It is entirely voluntary. It is not a step toward a larger goal. It is maintenance work, undone a few hours later, then done again. Nobody and nothing depends on it.

Why do I make the beds? Why have I kept making the beds? Will I continue, and why?

Clearly I do it because I want to. But what makes me want to?

There is some satisfaction in the neat appearance of the made bed. There is a sense that something is begin attended to, cared for. There is the control I have over one tiny corner of my environment. There is the welcoming, inviting mood created at bedtime by the bed that is ready to be occupied. There is the division between time for sleep and time for waking activities, created by closing and opening the bedcovers in turn. There is the opposite of the "broken windows" effect for both me and my kids, where a tidied bed seems to lead to a room kept tidier and less cluttered, as if it breathes an energy that impels us to put our things away, or vibrates with a frequency that resonates with clear space and order.

All those things are true. I don't think about any of those things when I make beds, though. I have a fleeting thought, most mornings -- "I could skip this" -- and then it goes away, not with a sigh or a whimper, but just fades as irrelevant. I'm always surprised at how little time it takes. And then it's done, almost before I made a decision to do it.

In the rest of my life, I have two main areas of activity. There are assignments, deadlines, obligations, disciplines, and nagging areas where self-improvement is badly needed on the one hand. And then leisure, creative pursuits, contemplation, recreation, and escape on the other. In my current crisis thinking, the two are sharply delineated, and each defines the other; when pursuing activities of the second kind, I'm constantly aware of the obligations I'm putting off, and when doing work of the first kind, I'm longing and looking forward to the time I can put it aside for something of my free choosing.

Making beds isn't either. It falls outside the dichotomy. I think if I could understand my bed-making, I could find a way out of the trap of guilt and escapism that seems to form the shape of my mid-life crisis.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

One after the other


When Grandma Libby visited over Thanksgiving, she brought something special for Cady Gray: Her portable sewing machine. Since she was upgrading, and since I've embarked on sewing this year with the usual interest from my daughter, Cady Gray got the benefit of a sturdy, small Janome 3128 of her very own.


As every weekend since then has approached, CG has asked me if we could sew with her new machine. There was only one big obstacle in the way -- my vision of a work area in the corner of her room, with a multipurpose table where the sewing machine could live and all kinds of work could be spread out when needed.


We went antiquing and flea-marketing a couple of weekends ago to see if we could make the vision happen. And there at our last stop was this used table sitting in a warehouse. Fifty bucks, said the man. We'll take it, we said.


That very day we started sewing. First some practice sewing straight, guided by stripes on fabric. The next day, armed with more scraps and the tail-end of a bag of lentils, and made a quick bean bag.


Before the next weekend arrived, she prompted me to start looking for a project we could do. I saw this felt garland project on a blog I follow, and I knew it was perfect. Straight to the sewing after cutting -- no ironing and measuring and clipping. And once I got CG started, she could sew as many miles as she wanted without supervision.


I pulled out this beautiful hand-finished circle-marking tool from the folks at WindFire Designs and started drawing circles for her to cut. As the circles piled up, she got more and more confident using the scissors we had gotten to be hers alone.


One right after the other. Maximum machine time, minimum fuss.


The garland piled up on the other side of the machine.


By the time she worked through the entire stack, the string was nine feet long.


And irresistible.


We hung it up near her ceiling, spanning a corner right above her new work table where the sewing machine waits for its next project. Thanks, Grandma Libby!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

By prophet bards foretold

I preached this past Sunday (Advent 2) at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. The texts were Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16 (Song of Zechariah); Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. I'd love to hear what you think of the sermon.

Some people think the world will end in less than two weeks. Were you aware? Based on a questionable assertion about the length of time covered by the Mayan “long count” calendar, various new age groups and doomsday preppers have been promoting the idea that on December 21, 2012, our time is up. Pretty stingy of the Mayans to close up shop on the world right before Christmas, I think.

But the 2012 apocalyptic hysteria in some quarters is a reminder of how we look at prophecy these days. A good century of premillennail dispensationalism has popularized the idea that ancient documents spell out in detail our exact future. Our common-sense definition of prophet is “one who sees what will happen, before it happens.” Of course, almost all such prophecies are couched in vague, oracular language, so that one can fit almost any set of facts into the couplets of Nostradamus, for example. Those kind of prophecies remain so fascinating generation after generation, interpretation after interpretation, because they give a kind of illusory shape to what otherwise seems a chaotic, random world. If someone knew ahead of time that this would happen, doesn’t that give history a direction? If I was a part of their vision, doesn’t that give my existence meaning?

Earlier this week I wrote a blog post about seeing an owl in the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve on two different occasions in the last month. A friend responded with a quotation from the philosopher G.W. Hegel: “The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” Sounds worthy of Nostradamus, doesn’t it? But Hegel wasn’t trying to be mysterious. He’s talking about what he calls the philosophy of right, a kind of ethical-political philosophy that would enable people to understand the proper shape of state and individual relationships. The owl quotation comes at the end of a warning he gives about this philosophy -- that it’s impossible to formulate or use it until it’s almost too late. The ideal society can’t be constructed in the mind until a fully mature society already exists in reality. So by the time we know what we ought to be building, Hegel says, we’re already living in what we’ve built. “The owl of Minerva,” the symbol of wisdom, only takes wing when the chance of applying that wisdom is drawing to a close.

Turns out that’s the way prophecy works in the time of the later Hebrew writers and in the time of the New Testament writers. Prophecy of the kind we read during advent, the kind from Isaiah that the author of Luke quotes, and the kind that we read in the passage from Malachi today, isn’t an supernatural tour of future events. It’s what happens when a crisis starts to bring down the curtain on the prophet’s society, and suddenly he can see the way things ought to be, and how different that is from the way things are.

The passage Luke quotes from Isaiah is from chapter 40, the start of what scholars call Deutero-Isaiah, written about two centuries after the first 30 chapters. This part of the book is directed at the leaderless inhabitants of Judah left behind during the Babylonian exile. That’s when it suddenly becomes clear to the prophet what the ideal Jerusalem will be: delivered from foreign powers, restored to its mythic glory, a sign to the whole world that Yahweh is not just a local Palestinian divinity, but a universal one. Malachi, writing at least a century later, has his own moment of clarity. The restored temple and client government being put into place had fallen short of the ideal Deutero-Isaiah had envisioned. Malachi sees the sharp distinction between, on the one hand, the kind of temple a pure and holy God would inhabit and the kind of servants who would serve him there, and on the other hand, the kind that his society is putting into place.  Like Hegel’s philosopher of the right, a prophet looks at the way things have turned out and can see, almost belatedly, the way things should be.

One of the tensions I always feel during the season of Advent is between the celebration of Christ’s coming, the culmination of history as the writers of Luke and Matthew see it, and on the other hand, the fact that we are still playing out a history that seems to have no end in sight. If it is all finished, then what are we still doing here? People who study doomsday cults talk about the psychology that takes hold the morning after the day the world was supposed to end. Surprisingly, after such events, people usually pick up and find a way to go on. They recast their focus on the end of the world into a commitment to living in the continuing world in a different way.

That’s the feeling that gripped the writers of Isaiah and Malachi. Wait, it wasn’t supposed to be like this, they say. Let me tell you what it should be. What it will be, when the Lord comes and puts things right. And even though those visions aren’t glimpses of us or of our offspring in some actual future, they are powerful, indispensable expressions of the difference between what is and what ought to be. The prophet is not resigned to current conditions. The prophet is not cynical about the prospects for change. The ideal world is so clear to the prophet precisely because the real one is so stubbornly actual that the contrast leaps out and demands to be articulated.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Here in Advent we only know about the coming dawn because the owl of Minerva flew in the gathering shades of night. Our understanding of the world to come arises from the glaring imperfections and injustices of the world we inhabit, our understanding of Christ’s rule from the failures of our governments and corporations to lead rightly. It isn’t just Christmas day that is a gift, the ideal become incarnate at last. It’s this season of darkness, too, when we can see clearly and prophetically what that ideal must be.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Strix varia

Monday, November 5 was the day before Election Day. I was anxious as the last hours of the campaign ticked away. After spending part of the afternoon calling voters in North Carolina, I went out to the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve to run.

Thirty minutes of my usual slow jog, and I was exhausted. My iPhone app told me I was done, so I slowed to a walk and went a few more steps down the trail, out of the restored prairie and into the bordering wood. A circle of benches beckoned; I flopped down on my back, the Decemberists ringing in my ears, and let my arms dangle. Blood roared through my head, and I felt gravity tugging at my face like I was in a centrifuge. I lay there for a few minutes, utterly immobile, as the evening began to fall around me.

When I decided to get up, I did so slowly. Upright at last, I raised my head and took a step forward -- then froze. A gigantic owl was sitting in a tree not eight feet in front of me, maybe another eight feet above my head. Staring at me.

Barred Owl

I didn't want to move, lest I break the spell. But the owl couldn't have been less rattled. It gazed at me, then swiveled its swivelly head to look out toward the prairie. Its sudden presence felt like a portent. I moved carefully around it for twenty full minutes, watching and periodically trying to get a cell phone picture -- nearly impossible in the gathering dark, against a silhouetting sky. This is the best I could do:

Huge owl perched 8 feet above me.

Until it left me of its own accord, I didn't feel I could leave the owl. It was the one who had the right to declare the encounter finished. And finally it spread its wings and flew a bit deeper into the trees, and I went home with my head spinning. To have such an experience on such a day. Surely it must mean something.

When I got home I told Cady Gray, my budding birder, all about it, and we went looking for pictures of Arkansas owls. A barred owl -- that's what it was, I realized. The owl commonly called a hoot owl.

I was thinking about that barred owl while walking through the nature reserve this past Friday, almost four weeks after that experience. "It was just about here," I recalled idly, and then -- I saw it again. This time on a low branch, fifteen feet down the trail, below my eyeline. Staring right at me again. And once again, I froze with my heart beating faster in my chest.

Was it the same one? From this angle, it looked a bit smaller than the almost two-foot length of my election eve owl. Maybe the coloring was a bit different, not quite as white around the face? I wasn't even certain it was another barred owl. While I was still wondering, it gathered itself, spread its wings, and flew right past me on its way to a higher branch overlooking the prairie. Involuntarily, I spoke aloud: "It's you!"

My walk abandoned, I followed the owl when it moved, in a completely unrushed fashion, to another tree after ten minutes or so. Then it seemed settled. Finally my time was up; dinner would be waiting for me at home. I had to back away from the owl's lead. I left it perched against the disappearing sundown in the western sky.

In the reflective, contemplative, self-assessing mood I've been occupying for the last month, the owl looms large. Birds represent freedom, owls in particular wisdom. I've thought about Athena and Harry Potter. I've turned over the long stretches of time I spent with this owl, searching for clues to its significance. The way it transcends its environment, refusing to be startled or spooked, moving its its own good time. The way it observes, turning its gaze on everything in all directions as it chooses. The fact that the barred owl is the only eastern U.S. owl with brown eyes rather than yellow ones.

I don't know if the owl has anything to teach me. But after two encounters in the past month, both up close and unbidden, it certainly has my attention.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Turning a corner

I've always found one particular aspect of our online lives fascinating. We create a persona for ourselves at a certain time in our lives. We hop on Facebook, get involved in Twitter, start a blog. The word "branding" is overused in this context, but really, it's quite apt. By our tone, behavior, activity, personality as exhibited in these online spaces, we establish who we are. And if people connect to it, well, they connect as much to that established pattern as to "us ourselves," the complexity and variability of the offline self.

There are a lot of people I really enjoy following on Twitter and Facebook, and reading their blogs, because they are funny, helpful, positive, creative people. That's why I add them to my life feed and get pleasure out of having them be a part of my environment. And because I like sincerity more than poses, I take it for granted that people I connect to in this way are really like that.

But people change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate. People who are basically helpful and positive have down days. People who establish their brand as funny probably aren't hilarious every day. But we know why people have connected with us, we know what they've come to expect, we know what our past behavior has promised, and yes, we feel pressure to deliver.

So when we don't have anything positive, helpful, funny, creative to say, we might just go silent.

I know this is something of a false trap. I've seen it over and over. Normally online-bubbly person apologizes because she hasn't felt like being bubbly lately but was a little afraid to tell us, and the reaction is overwhelmingly supportive. Because people who once upon a time asked you into their lives because of some trait you exhibit online, have probably in the meantime come to care about you in a fuller way, as a human being. They understand. It's simple, really. It shouldn't be so hard to admit.

Or maybe we apologize because we suspect that these people didn't add us to their life feeds to hear about our troubles -- for us to be a burden Again, true in the start, but the longer you've been reading, probably less and less true, or at least less and less important. It doesn't take that much psychic energy to sympathize with someone on the rare occasion that she's more in need than able to give. People are generally happy to do it. I do it all the time, and typically, it gives much more to me to be able to express a tiny bit of care than it could possibly mean to my online acquaintance, who might not know me from Adam except as a stat blip on her blog.

Now I'm not saying I'm a relentlessly positive person. But I do avoid talking about troubles and frustrations here online. I just don't think anybody signed up to be on the other end of my complaint box. However, being a human being, there are times when the troubles and frustrations are a bit more ... pervasive. Where it's pretty much what you're thinking about a lot of the time, and if you were going to go to all the trouble of writing a blog post, it's probably not going to be about something other than those things.

I had a bit of an epiphany in the last couple of weeks. All semester, and really stretching back into summer, I've been under increasing stress. Some of it was identifiable (deadlines and crises at work, the national elections, etc.). Some was hidden to me, but made itself known in the tightening knots of my upper back and other minor health complaints. Gradually I came to admit to myself that I was at the stage of life known as mid-life crisis. I'm 47 years old, about to apply for promotion to full professor, looking down the barrel of my boss's retirement and the expectation that I would be a candidate for his job. No matter how good you've got it, when the treadmill is bearing you inexorably forward on a career path like that, you start to feel a little panicky. The anxiety starts as "can I make it?" but quickly expands into a more significant and difficult question: "do I want to?"

While in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, I threw open my mid-life crisis to almost anybody who innocently asked how I was doing. From strangers on shuttle buses to dear and intimate friends, I told them I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I listened to their advice. Just deciding to be free and unashamed about asking the question was liberating. And I got some terrific guidance and affirmation, both from the strangers and the friends.

You can't get closer to an answer until you decide to ask the question. And so I feel more positive about my choices, just because I'm actively looking for them instead of wondering in the wee hours whether they exist. And being more positive, I can now tell you about it all. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Apologia pro se voto

For almost all of my thirteen years as a educator, I've tried to stay outwardly apolitical. I felt that students might prejudge me as a teacher if I were open and free about my political leanings. So my only political activities, by and large, were voting and hoping. No bumper stickers, no volunteering, no social media posts. We felt strongly enough about the 2004 election to put a Kerry sign in our front yard, but I remember being slightly terrified that some student would see me going to the mailbox and know. I'm sure they all had their suspicions, but there's a difference between being thought to be liberal in this blood-red state, and declaring yourself openly. After Obama was elected in 2008, I got a "Yes We Did" sticker in the mail and took it to work, thinking I might be brave enough to put it on my bulletin board; it's still buried in a stack of papers, where I run across it occasionally and wish I had the courage to display it.

In the last couple of weeks, whatever fear has kept me in that attitude for more than a decade has quietly dissipated. I started retweeting political messages, commenting on the campaign news of the day. I slapped an Obama 2012 magnet on my car.

But that "coming out" wasn't the start of the change. It started back in the summer, when for the first time in my life I donated to a political campaign. I felt deeply attached to the Democratic cause, and to the president's re-election. And for the first time, I didn't want simply to vote and hope -- hope that other people were willing to contribute the time and resources to craft a victory.  If Obama lost, I told myself, it wouldn't be because I didn't do all I could.

I've donated regularly since then. The total is a bit staggering for modest-living folks like ourselves, to be honest. This week I've made calls to get out the early vote in battleground states. My vote is already registered. But if there's something more I can do to affect the outcome, I'm not going to leave it undone.

Some of my conservative friends surely believe that such a transformation from timid voter to active campaigner could only be motivated by hatred of my candidate's opponent. I've see some Twitter conversations about how apoplectic Obama supporters would be if Romney won because they find him so despicable. Maybe that's true for some, but not for me. I don't hate Romney. I don't even think he'd be an awful president. He's clearly not an ideologue on most issues -- just witness the way his positions on them have shifted over the past couple of decades, from universal health care to abortion rights. He's a politician who believes in the political process as a way to get things accomplished (again, Romneycare is the prime example). That lack of ideological rigidity, coupled with political facility, means that he's likely to govern much closer to the center than our last Republican president (who did not share those two qualities).

I object to three aspects of the Romney campaign, and three aspects only. They are important enough to  help bring me out of the closet, but they are not the basis of any hatred or revulsion.

First, I object not to what Romney himself believes or would do, but to the agendas of those to whom his candidacy and possible election would be beholden. Any honest observer will surely admit that many of these most prominent and influential supporters are dismissive of the poor in favor of the continued enrichment of the monied class, in favor of war as a preemptive solution in world affairs, and desirous of a return to times when women and people of color stayed in their place and didn't seek power over their own lives and destinies, leaving that instead up to the people who knew best. Those people will expect their agenda to be enacted if Romney is elected, and some of it no doubt would be.

Second, I object to the premise that Romney himself seems to have brought to this campaign -- the single most important principle, in my observation, that motivates him to run. That premise and principle is: It's my turn. I've paid my dues, I've worked my way up through the establishment, I've gotten the right people to pull the strings for me, I've kept my nose clean, and now I am owed.  As an argument to the electorate, even a Republican electorate desperate to end the Obama presidency, this smacks of presumption and fails to inspire.

And third, the only reason in my list that is rooted in one of Romney's personal positions that would doubtless affect the way he would govern: Mitt Romney has no interest in understanding or sympathizing with gay people. Of all the stories of his record as governor of Massachusetts that have been passed around, the only ones that sickened and alarmed me were the ones about his animosity toward homosexuals. He dismissed, in the most callous and cavalier terms, the human appeal of a mother in his office who happened to be seeking marriage to her lesbian partner. He vindictively blocked legally married citizens from obtaining accurate birth certificates for their children except through court order. He seems flummoxed by the very existence of gay people with ordinary human needs and desires, evincing a powerful urge to flee from their presence rather than have his cognitive circuits overloaded by the dissonance they represent.

I'm distressed that, whatever his religious convictions, a man who does not believe in the full humanity of a large swath of the American citizenry believes he should serve as their chief executive.

And I'm relieved that the candidate who has my vote, the president whose accomplishments I celebrate, represents the opposite of these objections. Look at the financing of his campaign. 34% of his campaign funds have come from small donors, those giving less than $200. That's not 34% of contributors, or of donation instances -- that's 34% of the total funds. More than $214 million from people who gave less than $200. At a minimum (if they had all given nearly $200), that's a million people who own a piece of the campaign. I don't even count as one of these, and I'm certainly not the kind of fat cat one thinks of as a "large donor." (The comparable statistic from the Romney campaign: 18% of his total individual contributions come from small donors, adding up to $70 million -- less than one-third of Obama's total in terms of both numbers of donors and money contributed.)

By contrast to Romney's "I've paid my dues, now give me the goodies" political career, Obama of course emerged as a political upstart, a surprise, even a distressing line-jumper for the establishment. The premise of his 2008 candidacy was anything but "You owe me this"; instead, whatever you think of the principles and ideals of that campaign, it was clearly based in what he would do, not what he deserved to be handed.

And in terms of being the president of all of America -- including people who don't pay individual income taxes (like the elderly, service members, and the working poor) and people who love someone of the same sex -- well, there's really no doubt.

I don't write this in order to impose my political views on you. I write it to explain why I've changed from vote-and-hope to vote, speak, act, and give.  And to insure that my vote can't be mischaracterized as a expression of class hatred or demonization of the other party. However you vote and whatever your political actions, I think they should come from love rather than hate, determination rather than fear. I write simply to say that for the first time, I'm trying to live that out in public and not just in private.

Thanks for reading. Most of you probably know me in real life, and the general thrust of the opinions here can't be much of a surprise -- but maybe the package surrounding them isn't quite what you expected. I don't expect to change any minds. I only make an explanation (an apology, in that antique sense) for myself. I appreciate the indulgence of my friends and family, especially those who disagree with me politically and on any of the specific points above, in tolerating a more divisive and partisan version of myself than is normally on display in this space.

Go vote, and if your circumstances and conscience permit, also speak, act, and give. Here is a scientific pumpkin made by my daughter; I hope that brings us back to the Union, Trueheart and Courtesy status quo.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Relatively spooky

I had a long weekend due to my college's two-day Fall Break this week. And I saved up all the Halloween prep accordingly. Including the jack o' lantern!


We asked the kids whether they wanted two jack o' lanterns, one for each of them, as we've done in the past (mostly because in the past we've gone to pumpkin patches and let them each pick out a pumpkin--not applicable this year since Noel was going to get the pumpkin at the supermarket). As we suspected, Archer said one was fine. After reassuring Cady Gray that this meant she was in complete charge of the sole jack o' lantern, we were good to go.


More than 200 seeds came out of this thing. CG regards the counting of seeds as an important part of the Halloween ritual.


CG's design was inspired by a pumpkin she saw somewhere with a math equation carved into it. She picked her favorite equation and added nerdy spectacles and a big happy mouth just for fun.


I drew the line at carving out "HAPPY," especially since it was so close to the top opening, but executed the rest of her design exactly as drafted. It came out great!


Let others have their jack o' lanterns that are "scary" and "traditional" and "coherent as a collection of elements." CG's design couldn't be more perfect for this family.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

As long as you both shall live

When you teach, you get close to some of your students, and some of your students get close to you, and within those two groups there is significant overlap. When you teach college students, some of your students meet each other and fall in love, and some of those students are those who are close to you and vice versa. And some of those students end up getting married.

And when you teach religion, and your first boss was a Lutheran minister who officiated over the weddings of many of his students, some of your getting-married students will ask you to be the minister at their weddings. And although you are not called to be clergy in any established church, in this age that is no impediment to becoming a person authorized by the state to perform weddings.

That is how I became internet-ordained several years ago when the first of my students asked me to preside at their ceremony. It's the greatest honor and tribute to have this service requested of you. I've never said no.

Today is the wedding day of F. John and Hannah. I was very close to F. John when he was a student in my program a few years back, and given that he kept signing up for my classes, I would imagine he feels the same. I was the adviser for his undergraduate thesis. He was my teaching assistant for a freshman seminar.

Hannah wasn't a member of my program. But we all considered her an honorary member. She showed up at all our public events. She hung out in the dorm. She knew all the professors by their first names.

So when I got a call this summer from F. John asking me to officiate at their wedding ceremony, I was doubly pleased. I knew it was a joint decision for this couple to choose me. That's pretty special.

The event is taking place outdoors on beautiful Mt. Nebo, on a crisp but not cold fall day, with brilliant sunshine filtering through the leaves and shining off the Arkansas River visible in the valley below. I drove up yesterday for the rehearsal. The road up the mountain is "steep and crooked" according to the signs, and that's an understatement. On the way down I counted ten hairpin switchbacks. I was nervous yesterday about whether the Subaru would have the power to make it to the top, but in second gear with the A/C off, I needn't have worried. Even so, I'm glad I don't have to drive that every day.

The wedding party is filled with my students. All the groomsmen are graduates from my program. The congregation will be dotted with alumni and faculty. It's not my day -- it's F. John and Hannah's day. But I couldn't be prouder to be standing up with them at their request, speaking the words, making it all legal. From their past I appear to inaugurate their future together.

F. John runs marathons and wrote his thesis on the concept of cool. Hannah is a talented artist who knows her way around a pair of knitting needles. It's like they are far more advanced versions of myself, split into two people. Surely it's fitting that I'll be the one to tell them today that God has joined them together.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It was mumbly-mumble years ago today

For the first several years of my professorial career here, I frequently was mistaken for a student. It didn't hurt that I never wore power suits or other markers of authority, I'm sure. But I also took those occasions as markers of a generally youthful appearance. I treasured them. I can't deny it.

That doesn't happen anymore, even though I wear suits just as infrequently as ever. Only from a distance or without their glasses could anyone fail to notice the stray gray hairs poking coarsely out of my head, or the worry lines that have creased my forehead. I've probably slowed down just a little, too.

But aside from the particular twinges and pains, and an increasing annoyance that manifests every time I am asked to stoop or bend in any say, I don't feel my age. I suppose I'd need a feelie-o-graph of some kind to be sure, some way to keep a record of how I actually felt as opposed to my vague memories that provide little standard for comparison. But whether it's the slowness of the process or just poor recollection, I can't say that I expected to perceive so little difference between 25 and 35, between 37 and 47.

Noel and I are in different boats. He writes about pop culture for a living. It used to be rock music almost exclusively, but he's transitioned out of that beat and into more general cultural criticism, television, and film -- areas where a sense of history is valued, and where the inherent youthful rebelliousness of rock is less likely to be leveled at him as a criticism. At 40 he began thinking about what the next stage of his writing life would be, anticipating that he couldn't keep his hand in the young man's game forever.

I am a college professor, and at least in terms of reputation and authority, age is an enhancement. One isn't really a professor until one meets the stereotype, which includes visible aging, at least halfway. I tend to think that keeping in touch with the generations one is teaching (through participating in their culture) is important, but I know that's not a universal opinion. Many college professors are happy to relinquish the effort to stay current with the world's fast-paced changes, and settle down in the slower timeframes of the discipline and the academy. (Well, in the humanities, anyway.)

When I think about the downsides of getting old, I don't think about my job. I think about my family. Will I be around long enough to see as much of my children's lives as I want to, and will I be healthy and vital enough to enjoy it and participate fully? Some people start thinking about retirement when they get to be my age, but aside from a little light financial planning, I resist having it on my to-do list. Instead, I think about whether I'll be able to keep teaching as long as I'd like, which is as long as they'll have me.  And then will Noel and I find meaningful ways to occupy our remaining years?

I probably should use this forty-seventh birthday to reflect on the past or make some resolutions for the future.  But I'm so enmeshed in the middle of so many things -- my children growing up, my career continuing to grow and expand, my research projects taking definitive shape, the books underway, the promotions around the corner. I can see a point up ahead, in a couple of years, when the book is done and the promotion is achieved, where I stop, look around, and decide how I want the rest of my teaching life to go, and where I want to spend it. I'm looking forward to that. But for now, I've got too much to do to feel old -- or even to wonder if I should.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What I see is so much more than I can say

Yesterday I posted a lengthy and photo-rich account of some overdyeing experiments. You can read it all at Toxophily, or if you aren't interested in the details, just revel in the eye candy.

heading to ecofest

But I know that what Noel and other family members are craving isn't pictures of yarn. So to go along with the above photo snapped as we were heading toward the exhibits at EcoFest 2012, here's a short piece of writing that Cady Gray brought home from school.

The Tye-Dye

Once upon a time, I went to Tennessee with my Grandma Libby. We Tye-Dyed one day with a tye-dye kit. We did three swirl patterns and two bullseyes. I did a freehand and one of the swirls. I did a swirl pair of socks and a pair of splatter socks too. We used a neon color kit, but we have a primary one at home. I hope I get to do it again someday.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Summer's end

Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of summer, but the weather has picked this moment to give us a last blast of heat and humidity. In the wake of Tropical Depression Isaac, which brought us some much-appreciated rain, the heat index is soaring into the triple digits again. Regardless of how it feels, though, some things are coming to an end, and other things are beginning, just as they do every year.

I'm focusing on the things that are ending. It's not just nostalgia or regret; some of those things I'm glad to see end, at least temporarily. Two of my major summer writing projects, the TV Club Classic coverage of Sports Night and the regular coverage of Breaking Bad, are going on hiatus until next year, and it's a relief. Those pieces take a lot of concentration, time, and anxiety every week, and it will be nice to have them off my plate for a while. Sports Night's last season 1 post went up this past Wednesday, and Breaking Bad's last episode of the current half-season is tonight. It's still a couple of weeks until the other shows I cover regularly (How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family) start their seasons, so I've got a nice break coming up.

It's also pleasant to have the kids' birthday party and the Ravellenics behind me. Last week I went to the Rhea Lana sale and bought most of the clothes they'll need until next spring (I hope). I still haven't cleaned out their closets of too-small items, or unpacked the bags of jeans and jackets I hauled home from that sale, but at least I'm more than halfway ready for colder weather. And with all the Ravellenic administration in the past, I've gleefully started what I hope is a binge of knitting things to keep other people warm, whether they are friends or strangers in need.

We've been having our master bathroom remodeled this summer, and that's nearly done, too. The pace would be considered too leisurely for people more outcome-focused than ourselves, or for a room where the loss of function is more disruptive. But we're just proud that we've gotten the process underway after years of knowing it needed to be done.

That's also the way I feel about starting a conversation with a financial planner this summer. We haven't finalized much yet, but stuff is in the works: more life insurance, rearranging some assets to provide more focused retirement funds, college savings, and an easier way to keep track of it all. I'm so pleased with myself for finally moving in this direction after living so long with the uneasy feeling that I wasn't properly taking care of business, that I'm not in too much of a hurry to get everything signed and squared away; it's enough that the ball is rolling.

Maybe this change of seasons isn't really about things ending, or about us moving on. It's about not having wasted the time we've been spending. And that goes for time with the kids, too, which right now is not a matter of long looks backward, but lovely moments that still linger in the now.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Eight years ago today

Earlier today I read this post about how time seems to move more slowly when you are taking in lots of new information. That's why childhood days seem so long, and the years fly by the more routine and less engaging your life becomes.

I'll say one thing for routine, though. If you do the same kinds of things at the same time every year, and a momentous occasion happens to coincide with one of them, you get an annual reminder of that occasion whenever that part of your annual schedule comes up. As long as the momentous occasion is a good thing, it's a wonderful chance to remember.

The routine in which I was engaged eight years ago today is something we call PPP -- Professors, Pizza and Pie. The dozen or so freshmen in my Honors seminar meet in the evening with me and the program's dean for some food and conversation. Over the course of a couple of weeks early in the semester, all the freshman seminars will do this, with the dean and their instructors.

Eight years and ten hours ago, I had just come home from my group's PPP. I immediately put on my pajamas and was helping Archer get ready for bed. And my water broke. Copiously. We called a friend to come stay with Archer, I changed into something that wasn't soaked with amniotic fluid (I'm pretty sure it was a muumuu-like swimsuit coverup), and Noel drove me to the hospital. And just a couple of hours later, Cady Gray was born.

I can't think of a single day since that hasn't been more magical because of her presence. I sound like a typical parent when I say it, but I don't know of any way to get across her all-around wonderfulness. She is brilliant, creative, hilarious, sweeter than honey, and beautiful beyond anything that we could have possible contributed to producing. There's a light in her eyes that illuminates the world.

Yesterday, the day before her birthday, I was jokingly bemoaning the fact that seven-year-old Cady Gray was going to go away forever, and I would always miss her. Cady Gray wrapped her arms around me as she does dozens of times a day. "Seven-year-old Cady Gray will still be here," she said. "It's just that there will be a little bit more."

And I was strangely comforted. Yes, the child I love will always be there, receding perhaps under layers of additional years and experience, but never gone. I'll stay connected to her as long as I'm still having pizza and pie with new students, telling them the story of how the dean almost had to assist in her birth, laughing, remembering, and silently giving thanks.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


When I got home this afternoon, a delighted Noel made Archer come tell me about an unexpected homework assignment. "I had to do something for my parents without being told to," he said. "So I cleaned my room without anybody asking."

Later that night I reminded him that he had a questionnaire about that assignment to fill out. He came back having written only one sentence under each of the three questions, even though there were several blank lines available. I had a little chat with him about how the space provided tells you something about the expectations, and made a deal that if he wrote enough to get down to the fifth line, he could play some more DS.

I loved what he wrote. He was a little apprehensive about the third answer, asking me "What if what I wrote just started being garbage that is off-topic?", but I thought he fulfilled my request cleverly and well. The first sentence of each answer, by the way, is the original response, before his elaboration.

Do something for your parents, grandparents, or someone you live with. Do something nice without being asked or told to do it (e.g. clean your room, or feed the dog without being told). 
1. Write what you did to "DAZZLE." 
I cleaned my room without being told. I sorted the books and instruction booklets. I did it with so much vigor, it was amazing! I could not have done it faster. It was clocked in at about 1 minute, 30 seconds. 
2. Write what your parents, grandparents, or guardians did when they were "DAZZLED." 
They were very proud of me! There was no special reward, but at least I got their respect. If I could rate it on a scale of 0 (worst quality ever) to 10 (best quality ever), I would rate it a 9.1. 
3. Write how it made your feel to "DAZZLE." 
I felt proud to myself. I got 100% of the credit. I got 100%, the entire thing, the whole enchilada, yada yada yada.  Cady Gray (my 7-year-old sister) may have helped, but she decided not to.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eleven years ago today

Eleven years ago yesterday, I had gone into first stage labor with our first child. It was exciting. Noel and I took a walk together, just like we had seen in all the childbirth videos and read about in advice books.

Eleven years ago today, right now, I was recovering from an emergency c-section. My son was put in my arms briefly after I got out of the recovery room.

So much of becoming a parent these days is trying to predict the unpredictable. We read books, we watch shows, we slurp up all the advice we can, and it's all in an effort to peer around the corner and see what's coming, so we can be prepared.

We weren't ready for what happened to Archer. He wouldn't nurse, and after his first-week checkup he was immediately hospitalized for failure to thrive. We were sick with worry. And for my part, I felt angry. I felt lied to. All the preparatory apparatus we had consumed that told us everything was almost always all right -- well, it wasn't.

Strangely enough, I didn't feel that way two and a half years later when Archer was diagnosed with autism. That news didn't come as a blow crumbling some ideal developmental expectation we had to dust. Instead, after the initial shock, it was a relief to have a framework to put around his idiosyncracies, to have some steps to take to help him integrate into a neurotypical world.

When I think back to those days of crippling uncertainty, I'm so grateful to Noel for the way he stood behind me. We had to make some tough decisions. Honey, you know what I'm talking about. You didn't hesitate. You supported me in responding the way I felt was right.


Now, years later, we look at each other on a regular basis and just shake our heads in wonder. How did we end up with these brilliant, delightful, surprising, and incandescent children? Archer makes us see the world differently. When he makes a special effort to join our world temporarily, we're so touched. His challenges are singular, but we learn along with him as he faces them. And there's nothing in the world like watching him trying to contain his happiness when it spills over his emotional reserve. His cheeks distort under the effort to control his smile, his spinning and wandering turn into an exuberant dance.

Happy birthday to my handsome, happy robotboy. Gold star for you.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Lying in them

Earlier this summer, I suddenly started making beds.

Not obsessively. But regularly. And for the first time in my adult life.

If I were seeing a therapist, we would probably already have had several long chats about this abrupt change in my behavior. Since I stopped living at home full time at age 18, right up until now, I have never voluntarily made a bed unless guests were coming over and a house tour was likely. I never saw the point. You wrestle the sheets and blankets into place, and then a few hours later you mess them up again. Just leave 'em messed up. All muss, no fuss. As long as nobody but you is going to see it, who cares?

And then, sometime in June, I woke up, got out of bed, got dressed, and decided for some reason to straighten the bottom sheets and smooth out the beautiful king-size quilt that Noel's mom made for us and that covers our bed. Or doesn't, because I never make the bed. Usually the quilt is flipped and skewed and tangled with the sheets. If I had to peg one reason I decided to make the bed that day, it would be because I wanted the quilt to look nice, the way it does after the cleaners have just been to the house and the beds have all been changed.

I didn't go whole hog. Didn't make sure everything was neatly tucked all the way around; just left the sheets hanging off the sides. No hospital corners. As I've just now realized writing this, I still have no dust ruffles on any of our beds to hide the bare box springs (another conventional homemaking practice I've never seen the point of), so the "made bed" is probably still a mess by most civilized standards. But the quilt was centered, and smooth. The pillows were stacked neatly if not decoratively at the head. It was a bed that looked different than one that had just been slept in. It was a bed that looked like it was waiting to be slept in later, instead of one that had just disgorged its occupants.

Then I did the same to the kids' beds. And the next day I did it again. And I didn't stop. Even when we went on vacation, staying in two places that didn't have daily maid service, I made the beds.

I liked it. Not the making of the beds, but the made beds that greeted me when I went in and out of the room throughout the day. And at least in the desultory way I went about it, the process took very little time or energy. I think I experienced a shift in perspective. Before, I saw making beds as something you did to finish a night's sleep, and I found it pointless because I was ready to move on. Now, I see making beds as something you do to start the day. So you can have a room that's ready to live in.

Cady Gray took to thanking me for her made bed shortly after I changed my habits. We talked about how nice it was to have that big piece of furniture neatened up, how welcoming that smooth coverlet is for lounging with a book as she loves to do. And I realized that making the kids' beds is an important broken windows strategy to help them keep their rooms neat and floors clear, as their dad likes them to do.  And if they are able to do that, then all of us are far less stressed as we pass through our home without seeing messes that demand to be cleaned up or (worse) are too massive to tackle ad hoc.

My mother is probably laughing her head off right now as my dad reads her this account of my sudden change of behavior. It's not her fault I spent thirty years as a bed rebel. She did her best to get all of us into the habit. Like most people, I went my own way during college, and then I just took a lot longer to find my way back than others. A lot of folks revert to the basic civilized conventions quickly when they get a chance to control their environments. Others walk the walk, but feel guilty that they don't derive the right level of satisfaction from these domestic niceties, or that no matter how they try they won't measure up. I made my dissent into a habit and (mostly) refused to feel inadequate about it, except when it was exposed to others and I couldn't help resenting the judgment I imagined them passing.

And now I've joined the ranks of barely-minimum adequacy in the bed-making department, not nearly enough for Martha Stewart I'm sure, but a huge leap for me. It's not the result of some determined effort of self-improvement or long-procrastinated adulthood. Just a whim that's persisted so far, under summer conditions when there's little pressure to leave home in the morning in an all-fired hurry. We'll see if it survives once school starts next week. And we'll see if it's part of a pattern -- if it means anything more than my conscious mind grasps right now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

And the public wants what the public gets

Today's post about a lucky break and the Olympic spirit is at Toxophily.


And check out my medals! Toxophily is now wearing them proudly. The Ravellenic Games weathered an early controversy, benefitted from a huge outpouring of support from the knitting world and publicity far beyond its borders, and were an unqualified success, far beyond the few awards I earned. Full report coming soon!




Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hold your head up, you silly girl

Today's post about uncharacteristic perfectionism is at Toxophily.


We're pausing here and taking a deep breath before plunging into vacation with family next week. After that it's time to flail toward the start of school like the Olympic swimmers in the 50 meter sprints. See you on the other side!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Feathered friends

Last time we spent a few days at Noel's parents' house, Cady Gray couldn't get enough of Grandma Libby's bird feeder. She watched through the living room and kitchen windows as the birds flitted on and off the deck, collecting sightings and assigning personalities to the various species.

I filed that experience away in the back of my head. And when I saw a bird feeder recommended on Kevin Kelly's marvelously useful Cool Tools site, I decided to bring it home.

Since then, Cady Gray comes to me daily with reports of what bird has made an appearance at the feeder. We've had our share of sparrows and wrens and Carolina chickadees and tufted titmouses, as well as the abundant cardinals in our neighborhood.  Both of us have marveled at how many house finches live around us, and have thrilled to the brilliant neon flash of eastern bluebirds. And most exciting, we've often been visited by a pair of downy woodpeckers and even the occasional hairy woodpecker.

Last week, passing through our front room with the big bay windows, I was startled to see a hummingbird buzz by -- and then another. Hoping to attract more, Cady Gray and I acquired a little feeder to stick on the window. Then we waited. Day after day we watched. And yesterday evening, Noel and I were rewarded with a visit from a couple of hummingbirds. I reported to Cady Gray that our feeder had been found, and before we took off for language camp this morning she insisted on watching for a bit. Not two minutes passed before she came running to report her first hummingbird sighting to me.

We've learned that the ruby-throated hummingbird summers in Arkansas, and it appears that we've been visited by both females (who lack the red patch on the throat) and at least one male (who I saw just this afternoon).

I love the excitement that dawns on Cady Gray's face when she tells me about the species she's collected, and describes their behavior. It gives her a pride in expertise, too, as she adopts the role of my guide to Arkansas' bird life. What an unexpected delight, these series of moments prompted by the nature Cady Gray loves so much.

Friday, July 20, 2012

She is dancing away from me now

Today's post about a highly unlikely shawl is at Toxophily.


Three separate people -- well, one married couple and another person -- have mentioned that they miss this blog. Message received, universe! I've got a lot of Toxophily posts in the queue, but I'll also try to do some prose writing here, too.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Just an old sweet song

Back from our trip to the place of Noel's birth, to the metropolis where we played and absorbed culture during our University of Georgia days, to the team that haunts our childhoods and commands our undying loyalty. Back from Atlanta, where we seized the excuse provided by a colleague's wedding to introduce our children to some of the city's riches. Here are a few highlights.


We got to experience two, count 'em, two Staybridge Suites about a mile apart! This photo was taken outside the first one.


Walking the downtown streets.


Archer utterly confused this attendant at the World of Coca-Cola's secret formula vault exhibit with a robotboy question.


Granny Lou and Papa were with us for a couple of days, and the kids worked hard to give them enough love to last until the next visit.


We may not have eaten very healthy, but we ate very happy, including this Johnny Rockets lunch ...


... followed by rock candy on a stick.


We got to hang with old friends from our UGA days.


These are the kinds of smiles that happen inside a Legoland Discovery Center.


And these are the kind that happen when you're in the home of Hammerin' Hank.


Look at that form!


He's trying to stretch it to three! Really testing the arm of that right fielder!


More old friends at the ball game.


Our tomahawk chop took a while to get coordinated.


Cady Gray insisted on keeping score.


An enthusiastic rendering of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."


Outside Staybridge Suites #2. It's a long story.


The Georgia Aquarium mesmerized Cady Gray.


Peeking at penguins.


There was even a fish for Archer.


CG picked up so many feathers for her collection that I was sure she would fly away on our many long walks.


Our friend Stephen probably wears suits frequently. This is the first time Noel's been in one in many a year.


MARTA was Archer's favorite Atlanta attraction. Goodbye, Peach City -- we'll see you again soon!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How tough must we be to ask for more now?

Today's post about a hat by choice it at Toxophily.


Normally I'd put a picture of the hat here. But CG was being very silly during our modeling session. Most of my shots feature the buck teeth she's growing more prominently than the hat. So here'a a throwback shot of her on the swingset last weekend -- reminding me of how many of those pictures I took of her swinging in earlier years. How she's grown!