Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Take a leap

Tomorrow is February 29 -- Leap Day. Every four years we get an extra day in the year. Some folks say that an extra day is a gift. It's a chance to do something or be something that you haven't found time to do or be in the usual 365 days of your trip around the sun.

I haven't been thinking this way, I confess. Getting close to the end of the month, I typically focus on the turning of the calendar as a sort of deadline. Everything I want to get done in February, I have one more day to do. Normally, I would have had to get it done today. This year, I have 24 hours more to procrastinate.

But I'm realizing that Leap Day has crept up on some of my friends and colleagues. They hadn't been counting on this day. Maybe it's a disappointing delay to the start of March. Maybe it's another day of work or school, another routine to slog through.

That makes me think that I've been underrating Leap Day. It is an extra, lagniappe, something we didn't earn but that the universe has granted to us. And it would be a shame to treat it just as more of the same.

I don't know what leap I'll make on Leap Day. Not from a plane, not through a flaming hoop. But maybe into something different in the classroom. Maybe into an honest conversation. Maybe into a new opportunity. I don't have a plan, but I'm going to be open. What about you?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Writers write

You may have noticed that I haven't been writing here every day. I made a special effort -- sometimes a superhuman one, it felt like -- to blog every day for several years. But after missing a day or two inadvertently recently, the imperative has seemed less urgent. I've tried not to let more than a couple of days go by without writing, but when I've been traveling, or writing elsewhere, or just didn't have anything to say ... I let it go.

And I've been having a lot of trouble figuring out what to write about for quite a long time. I feel like I need to stay away from religion and politics, except in a careful and general way, because people close to me whose views aren't really congruent with mine make up a big chunk of my readership. I doubt they want to read any tossed-off rants, and walking a tightrope of appropriate tone and balance isn't something I'm usually excited about doing in my leisure time. For some reason, other topics that have made up a big chunk of my posting in the past -- anecdotes about the kids, popular culture, technology -- have fallen by the wayside. I'm left with my crafting (which also takes a lot of effort to write about, what with the template I've set for myself) and my work. And every time I finish a post about administration or teaching, I wonder whether I'm really communicating with anybody but myself and a couple of other academic types.

Writing every day was important to me for a long time. I used it as a discipline that gave my life order. I tried to keep my chops honed for the many pages of text I'm regularly asked to grind out on short notice. And I felt an obligation to my readers to be there for them.

I have plenty of other disciplines these days, from classwork to service to sticking with my diet. My readers are few, and if they are anything like me, the way they read blogs (through RSS feeds or aggregated subscriptions) prevents them from noticing when I take a day or two off.

What I worry most about, by letting the blog relax into a more occasional thing, is whether I will lose my ability to crank it out. I don't want to become a writer who needs inspiration to get the words flowing. There's too much prose for which colleagues rely on me to become an artistic type. Every week when I have to produce a TV review in an hour or so, I feel relieved to find out I can still do it. Whether I come back to this blog on a daily basis, continue at this relaxed pace, or let it slide into abandonment, will depend less on whether I find subject matter that motivates me, and more on whether I feel I need the structure.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The craft of writing

The writing department at my university runs an annual literary festival called ArkaText. It features writers based on Arkansas or with a connection, either personal or thematic, to the state.

This spring the faculty were kind enough to invite Noel to be one of those writers. He gave a "craft talk" to a group of faculty and students in the morning, was treated to lunch with faculty members, and in the afternoon did a reading (of a couple of VSEs -- this one and this one) to the general public.

Even though I tell people all the time that my husband's a writer; even though Noel and I talk about writing all the time; even though I've taught courses on writing for the very department that invited him -- I still find it strange to watch Noel in that setting. He spends all his time writing. Now suddenly he's being asked to spend a whole day talking about writing instead of doing it.

It's not that he doesn't have plenty to say that's valuable to writing students about what he does. His presentations -- both of them -- got great reviews. It's more the psychological and cultural distance between writing, and being named, treated, and queried as a writer. Whenever you make that move from the daily work to the social meaning of your role, its status and connotations, you feel a shift.

That shift is enhanced when you go outside your normal site and are introduced to strangers in terms of your role. They don't know you as a person; they only know what they've been told you do. Then it's up to you to live up to those expectations, or to ignore them if you prefer.

I'm going to a university in a nearby community on Monday to give an invited talk. As I prepare my presentation, I'm not just thinking about the topic of my talk. I'm thinking about how they'll see me. I'm thinking about my image as a professor, and the image of my department and my university.  The school that invited me is a more conservative place than my home institution. I don't want to offend, but I also want to represent my topic and myself accurately. I want those who attend to leave informed and challenged, not only about my topic but about me.

In between my work, my self, and my various roles, lies my self image. And it's constantly on the move. I can't imagine how hard it must be for people who have more roles they need to fill and more people they need to please.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Home delivery

There are a few things that most of us like to keep available to us at all times. Some people want to make sure the fridge is continuously stocked with soda or beer. If you start running low, you make sure to stock up before you get to the end of your supply.  That way you have uninterrupted access to whatever consumable you'd like to have available to you whenever you have a whim.

For me, it's gum. I might be addicted, I admit. I like to have Ice Cubes spearmint gum in my purse at all times, and I have a piece several times a day. Driving to work, after my morning tea, after lunch, before class, after exercising.  There are ten pieces in a box.  You can probably imagine that I go through several boxes a week.

So I'm constantly reminding Noel to buy gum for me whenever he's at the store. It's not an easy item for the shopping list, I admit. At the grocery store, they only have the gum in individual boxes at checkout. Noel has to basically clean out the display. At Target you can get larger packages, little tubs that are the equivalent of four or five boxes. So we stock up on those when we're at Target, which might be once a month.

Noel wrote me a satirical poem after the last time I reminded him to get me gum:

Buying you
Four packs of gum
Is my way of saying
Shut up already
About not having enough gum.

Today I decided to take another tack in feeding my gum habit. I set up an Amazon subscription, which is a wonderful thing if you have an item you hate to be without. Free shipping, a discount, have your favorite food or drink shipped to you in a quantity you specify, on a schedule you set (every month, two months, etc.), and get notified before each shipment so you can cancel that once if you are fully stocked.  It's like the Columbia Record and Tape Club without the commitment.

So now my gum will be arriving on the doorstep, and Noel will be freed from the frustration of not being able to find enough for me. Frankly, I'll be freed of that frustration too.  So I've written my own poem.

Signing up
To have my gum 
Delivered monthly
Is my way of saying
Please add the box they come in
To your recycling pile.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

You must be my lucky star


Stars fell on Conway today. Their arrival was facilitated by an origami-obsessed seven-year-old, who taught her mom how to make them. We filled a jar in a few hours of folding.


Cady Gray watched the skies for more.


Her brother tried to estimate how many we'd caught.


It's not often you get to hold the stars in your hand.


Each one as individual as its creator -- as plump, as wry, as sparkling.


If you keep your eyes peeled the next time you pass a patch of mossy ground, maybe you'll find a star of your own soon.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The hut theory

We went out to dinner tonight prior to heading over to Archer's school for a math and science exhibition. As we left the restaurant, we started talking about the Republican primaries.

I happened to have heard a piece on NPR about the history of the primary system, so I told the kids about how primaries changed after 1968. Noel then talked about what happens if a candidate, like Newt Gingrich, drops out of the race -- the delegates become free to support someone else.

"It's like if the delegates are in little huts," Cady Gray began explaining. "And if one of the huts gets knocked down, the people inside are free to roam around the village."

"Usually the person who drops out endorses one of the other candidates," I explained, adding that the delegates are then likely to go to that person.

"It's like, to continue my analogy," Cady Gray went on, "the prisoners in the hut that is destroyed have a chance to go to any of the other huts that they want."

Archer followed this up with another primary metaphor -- that it's like playing Coin Runners in Mario Kart, where when a person drops out all their coins become available for the other players to pick up. But to be honest, I doubt I'll be able to think of the primaries from here on out without picturing delegates locked in a series of huts.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Got nothing to lose, just the rhythm and blues, that's all

Today's post about my Valentine's gift to my husband and personal chef is at Toxophily.


 Isn't he handsome? The primal diet has worked wonders for him, and given him an excuse to become a first-rate cook as well -- a hobby which, as my gift indicates, I am only too happy to enable.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Like most of the country, we've had an unseasonably warm winter. Temperatures have been in the fifties most days, sixties occasionally. A high in the forties has been an excuse to break out the heavy coat.

Finally this weekend we've had a shot of cold air, and tomorrow there's frozen stuff coming our way.  Except for a dusting in October, there's been no ice or snow anywhere the vicinity. With accumulation of both in the forecast for tomorrow, I expect school to be called off, at least for the kids, without too much handwringing.  We've had no snow days this academic year, and there's not likely to be an opportunity for any more.  Temperatures are supposed to rebound to near sixty by midweek.

I don't ask for much travel disruption out of my winters, but a snow day or two isn't unwelcome.  In fact, the lack of any is a bit disappointing. As long as ice doesn't coat the trees and powerlines so heavily that we lose power and heat, and as long as slick streets don't keep us cooped up for days, a snow holiday can be a beautiful thing -- a chance for the kids to make some memories, a chance for me to take some winter pictures, an excuse to drink hot cocoa and knit the day away.

It's difficult to ask for an exact dosage of picturesque winter weather without the nasty side effects of danger and disruption.  If we were to get it tomorrow, I'd consider myself lucky enough for the whole season.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Look I made a hat

One of my favorite songs from any genre is "Finishing The Hat" from Sunday in the Park with George. I don't know that there's a better description of the process and the pride of creation. The smallest detail involves a constant passage from the world of the artist into the world of the artwork -- a submission to the reality of that created world. And then when it is done, the accomplishment is immense not because of the magnitude of what has been created, but because of the power exerted and the change from nothing to something: "Look, I made a hat where there never was a hat."

What attracts the artist is control. When circumstances take control away from you in the real world, when you are blocked or limited by location or by other people, you take control in the arena that is yours alone. But Sondheim is saying that it's not about being the king of that world; it's about creating an environment where the world exerts its own logic and brings its power to bear on you, where you obey the forces that are bringing it into being.

I've come late to the addictive power of the maker. Writing is something I've done all my life, and I've felt that sense of being able to craft words and phrases that are more than the sum of their parts. But to make something come alive for multiple senses -- for sight and touch, for warmth and movement -- you need to create in the physical world. That's something I didn't start doing until a few years ago. The transformation is both laborious and intoxicating. Which is exactly how Sondheim describes it.

Creation awaits me this weekend, and I'm afraid and excited, the way I always am before starting a project that will have a bunch of challenges, probably some setbacks, and could go horribly wrong. I love the pride that comes from the improbable existence of a finished object. But even more, I think, I love knowing what goes into them -- their story, their birth pangs. "Look, I made a hat" requires and includes the whole song that comes before: "Reaching through the world of the hat like a window/Back to this one from that."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Body and mind

While driving Cady Gray to her school today, I was the recipient of an excited discourse from the back seat about P.E.  She loves to play games and dash about, in school or out. Anytime she's moving from room to room, she not only does so at a run, but also throws in random leaps and dance moves. It's a unique, syncopated rhythm.

As she was telling me how excited she was to have P.E. today, I responded with my pleasure in seeing her enjoy all kinds of movement. Not only major physical exercise, but also the fine movements of her hands that make beautiful origami for me, and those that twist yarn into crocheted hearts and knit snowflowers.

So much of what I find rewarding these days has to do with the movement of our physical bodies in the world. To run, to measure, to cut, to stitch, to knit, to walk, to wind, to embrace. It's quite a change from the first four decades of my life, which were all about the mind. And now when I look at my students sitting in class, doing their best to be disembodied as if that's what fulfilling their potential is obviously about, I wonder. Are they better integrated than I was at their age? Do they accept and understand and embrace their future as moving, working bodies, not just hosts for the dance of ideas?

I hope they won't wait as long as I did to learn the potential of my hands, my muscles, my senses. It is a shame that as we grow up, those topics are more and more segregated into classes like P.E. or art, away from the training of the mind which is thought to be purer the less it is connected to movements in space.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Faster than the speed of light she's flying

Today's post about a magical gift is at Toxophily.


We've been having weather that's almost as beautiful as Cady Gray. How's by you?

Friday, February 3, 2012


I've had occasion recently to think about a complex of emotions with which I have limited experience. Disrespect is not something I've paid attention to for the first four decades of my life. Before the last few years, I doubt I could have articulated what disrespect feels like, and what it means.

But now I've witnessed disrespect at close range in various settings, and it's a very interesting phenomenon. Disrespect happens when a person is performing their role or duty, and another person either interprets that performance as a personal attack, or treats the performance as illegitimate. What's most intriguing about disrespect is that it's a public matter. It requires the witness of other people. The whole point of disrespect is that there is an audience. Just as the according of respect is a performance that communicates roles to a broader public than the two people involved, so the enacting of disrespect shows others that the recipient's authority or position is not accepted. In that way it is an attack, or more properly a rear-guard action.

Disrespect feels like a blindside. Here we are in a group setting, doing our jobs, and somebody's decided not to play the game.  And in a public setting, it can be jarring, and difficult to decide how to respond. Do you draw further attention to it by noticing or calling it out?  Do you take the high road and just go on doing your job?  What if you weren't present for the public disrespect, but found out later that people didn't feel like you deserved honesty about their intentions? How do you react next time you see them?

We can all understand disrespect because we've all been in situations where we are annoyed, frustrated, or impatient with someone doing their job. We feel like we'd do their job differently, or we find that their way of doing their job rubs us the wrong way. We have the impulse to roll our eyes or mutter asides to our neighbor or otherwise act out our disapproval. Normally we save it for the next venting session with friends or spouses. But sometimes we take it public, and it shades into disrespect. It can be impulsive, like a moment of annoyance, or calculating and thorough.

I don't think we deserve respect because of the positions we occupy, or even because of our simple humanity. We deserve respect if we haven't foregone it by failing to be worthy of trust. I think if we're trying to do our jobs, we deserve respect. And when we don't get it, the hurt is quite singular. We don't know how to fix it, since doing our job isn't the answer. How does one demand respect if others are clearly and publicly on record as unwilling to give it?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Conversation hearts

There's an interesting book to be written about the way cultural celebrations are packaged for the consumption of children. Christmas, Easter, July Fourth -- these are all big moments in our culture whose original audience is adults who can appreciate the quite serious narratives, religious and political, that are therein commemorated. But at least in the first two cases, the children's version has come to predominate. We may even feel that children are the primary celebrants, and that the activities should cater to them.

Valentine's Day is another case in point. It's a cultural celebration of romantic love, and that would seem to be a tough sell to prepubescents. In truth, however, the marketplace has been extraordinarily successful creating an innocent, egalitarian, cartoon version that barely acknowledges the notion of one's Valentine as a sweetheart, partner, crush, stalkee, or otherwise object of affection or devotion.

Elementary age kids give Valentines to everyone in their class and wouldn't dare single out (or slight) anyone. It's a great occasion to accuse someone of liking someone else, with all the associated teasing, giggling and indignant denials. But it's hardly a romantic holiday for kids; it's hardly even about love. At best it's about friendship. The cards all convey vague regard through puns on Transformers or Scooby-Doo.

I'm wondering whether Valentine's Day is going to start changing for Cady Gray soon. After a brief conversation about crushes the other day apropos of nothing I can recall, she confessed to me that she has two crushes. "This is really embarrassing," she laughed repeatedly. And at the same time, she's suddenly become interested in doing a themed mailbox. Every year up until now, we've pulled out stickers and wrapping paper and played it by ear, but she announced that her friends all had big plans to make their mailboxes look like football fields or jerseys, and that she wanted to participate.

At some point, Valentine's Day transitions into the chance to revel in your couplehood or, if you're brave, to make advances to someone you like. I wonder how long it will be before one of my kids crosses that border.