Saturday, June 28, 2008


Today is my son's 6th-birthday party., and the theme is Webkinz. We have a Wheel of Wow, a Wishing Well (really a portable slot machine), a Zingoz and t-ball set to play Wacky Zingoz, balloons to play my version of Balloon Darts (I refuse to give 6 year olds darts to throw, so they will sit on them and pop them), and the piece de resistance, a Gem Hunt. The cake will be decorated as the Wheel of Wow. For pre-cake snacking, there will Farm Fresh strawberries, watermelon and (baby) carrots. The colors of the paper goods are all Webkinzy blues, greens, yellows and neon pinks. There is a Frog Pinata for "Candy Bash." (I wish I could have found cheap sombreros.) There will be a cooler full of diet Coke and beer for the parents.

Photos will be forthcoming.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Parenting as an Academic

I was just reading this post from Mama PhD, the blog at the Inside Higher Education site (founded by an old college friend of mine, if I may name-drop a moment). The question at hand is whether or not academia can become more family friendly. And of course the answer is "of course."

I feel incredibly fortunate because my university makes it incredibly possible for me to be both an involved parent and a college professor. And most of my colleagues feel the same. We understand our work commitments and don't shirk them, but we also respect each other's roles as members of families, both the women and the men. How is it so easy for us and so difficult for the rest of academia?

I always credit the fact that I have women bosses. My chair is a mother of two, and my dean is a mother. (Let me tell you one story that recently happened. We were dealing with an angry parent, and my dean was on the phone with the parent, and they eventually worked out that the I would e-mail the student with some info and cc- the parent; my dean said, "Well, Professor X is here with me now, but she has to leave in a minute to pick up her children, so she will contact your son tomorrow." How many deans would assert the professor's right to deal with family matters and put off the student until the next day?)

But I've had women bosses who were not so understanding. One that comes to mind was childless. As I was talking with her once about some work I was doing, explaining that it had been difficult to complete recently because my toddler daughter was waking several times a night, she looked at me and said "We all have responsibilities." Uh, yeah. And when you face those responsibilities, I will give you a break. I know for a fact that her biggest problem at that time was finding a coffee shop close to her new apartment.

At my current job, I have a 4-course teaching load (actually, I teach 5 classes now, but 3 are half-classes, so I teach the equivalent of 3.5 classes, 14 hours a week in the classroom total). I serve on many committees, including Writing Across the Curriculum and the Publicity Committee. I run the writing assessment program as well. One of my classes is a service-learning course which requires me to go to the community partner site with my students. I don't shirk my service duties.

This summer I am writing an article on my service learning project, and I am working on a conference proposal on the writing assessment program with my colleagues. I recently submitted a biographical article for a journal issue on American Romance Novelists.

And yet I work most days from 7 am to 2:30 pm. My kids are dropped off by their father, though sometimes I don't teach till 9:20 and can do it myself. I am able to leave most days at 2:30, but sometimes I have meetings or a class scheduled, in which case I take advantage of my children's school's very flexible after-school program. In unusual situations where I have no flexibility, my husband can often take the time to fill in, but that's unusual.

So what are the structural differences?

1. I have flexible before- and after-school care which is provided at the school by an outside contractor.
2. I am allowed "sick/personal" days. The official number is 10, but one year when my son's asthma was just being diagnosed and we were figuring out how to manage it, I might have gone over that amount by one day. My dean chose not to dock my pay.
3. We work a 4-day week. I have 6 child-free hours on Fridays to get grading/prep done. The four-day week is for the benefit of the students, who work in their careers, mostly in the food services/hospitality industry.
4. My chair and colleagues value family and help each other out. I sub whenever I can for others having problems. They subbed for me when my mother-in-law and grandmother died in the same week and I had to miss a week of classes. Also, my chair will try to accommodate our needs whenever possible. We try not to ask unless it's really important. (Examples: my colleague who was still nursing her son and needed a schedule a certain way; another colleague who was taking classes for her PhD and had a last minute schedule change there which required a last minute schedule change at work.)
5. Publication of books and high-level articles is not required for promotion (we have no tenure). We are expected to do professional development, such as attend conferences, and we are rewarded if we publish, but it is not required. Many of us choose not to publish.
6. We all teach a slate of 4 courses that are required of all students. There are additional courses in food writing, travel writing, news writing, developmental writing, technical writing, but mainly we all teach all 4 core courses. That helps when schedules have to change last-minute.
7. I can imagine that some colleges have a student body that prefers classes in late afternoon and evening. Our student body would prefer that if possible, but they also understand that they are preparing for careers. In some cases, they know they need to work on the discipline to get up for 7 am classes, and in other cases, they work in the afternoons and must schedule their classes in the mornings for that reason. It helps that the bulk of classroom hours are before 3:45.
8. Personally, I live only 6 miles from my workplace. But other colleagues live a 45-minute drive away, and they have no major problems balancing.

If I think of other structural issues that help make my family-friendly job possible, I will post them, but basically, IT'S NOT THAT HARD IF YOU WANT TO DO IT. I think academia just has to want to do it.

Stormy Weather

Tuesday was an unusual day. I rescued a rather large turtle from the middle of the road. A deer was caught in my office building in the middle of the city, far away from any wooded land. And the skies opened up and rained hail.

My garden? Beaten down.

The broccoli.

The zucchini, once mighty. Those ragged edges were caused by hailstones, not slugs, bugs or bunnies.

Lightning strikes caused fires in two houses in my area. It was a wild set of storms.

Edited to add:

And now falcons?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Soaps and the Average Person

This article has already been blogged here and here.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

So very alien to me on one hand, but on the other, I can see how this comes to be. All my life, people had been telling me that I was "too smart" to read the junk I read, and I should read "real" books. I loved series fiction even then, gobbling up Bobbsey Twins books at age 6, Nancy Drew at age 7, and Narnia, Little House, the Little Women books... anything I could get my hands on. I did not like fantasy and sci fi very much; I preferred mysteries and domestic stories, t(w)een precursors to romance novels, I guess. My nine year old daughter is much the same, by the way. I can't get her interested in Harry Potter!

Anyway, for a while I lied, telling people my next book would be, I don't know, "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates." I didn't know what people wanted me to read. I learned to just shut them up by assuring them that the very next thing I read was going to be "good for me." But on I went, finally, when I was about 15 or so, discovering the shelf of romance novels on my best friend's mother's bookshelf. I had been watching soap operas for a while, since I was 11 or so; I was 15 and a half when Luke and Laura got married. For a while, soaps were, if not popular or accepted, at least a subject of discussion.

But I resented people's interest in what I read and their tsk-tsking over my choices. I was the one with the genius level IQ. I was the one who was the smartest kid in my class. Why were other people telling me they knew better for me?

After a while, I started defending my tastes, not aggressively, but when possible. I wrote a paper tearing apart Ann Barr Snitow's article on romance novels when I was a freshman at Cornell. Thank Janet Dailey for being a romance author ahead of her time and portraying a level of complexity in her Harlequin American romances that, I admit, didn't exist in other lines. I started watching soaps again; my parents had bought me a little black and white tv so I could watch Guiding Light (and the Mets games). My housemates teased me for reading Cosmo (so much so that they bought me a subscription for my birthday so I "wouldn't embarrass [them] by reading it on line at the grocery store."

Then it became a way I tested people. I would get to know a person, then, when I sensed they were impressed with me and my intelligence, I'd slip into the conversation that I liked soaps. I enjoyed watching their faces change. And their reaction to me often determined whether I pursued a friendship with that person. (The exception: a boyfriend, but what can I say? Physical attraction outweighed common sense.)

I gave up soaps in 1999 not because I learned to hate them, but because I no longer had time for them once my daughter was born and I went back to work. We didn't have TiVos or YouTube in 1999! I thought having a VCR was pretty hip. :)

But I'm pretty thankful for my love of soaps. It kept me connected to a world outside of academia, even as I tried to integrate my love for soaps into my academic work. (I wrote a conference paper on rape in the soaps, and I was interviewed for an academic book on soap fandom.) I was part of soap fandom. I met fellow fans through pen pal ads in the back of soap mags. I wrote fanfiction. I joined fan clubs and went to fan club luncheons. I always contended that soap operas were the one form of pop culture/writing that was co-created by fans.

Henry Jenkins says that this kind of participatory culture is crucial to the future of democracy in America:

In Convergence Culture, I argue that we are learning through play skills which we are increasingly deploying towards more serious purposes: in this case, a generation of young people may have found their voice in online debates and discussions around their favorite television programs. In this space, they felt empowered to express and argue for their points of view, precisely because talking about popular culture lowered the stakes for everyone involved. And it was through these conversations that they developed a strong sense of social ideals and values which they carry with them as they venture into real world political debates. I am unshamed to say that much of what I now believe about diversity and social justice I learned growing up watching Star Trek in the 1960s, watching a multiracial crew operate as friends and team members on the bridge, seeing how they responded to the challenges posed by alien societies radically different from their own.

I can't disagree. Though I was older (26) when online fandom and discussion became possible for me, I have found that it has helped me find my voice and my self-confidence to be a soap fan (and later, a tv fan).

So 4 years of Ivy education and 9 years (ack) of graduate school at Ground Zero in the 1990s Culture Wars, and I still don't have a problem chatting with pretty much anyone. Except now everyone else watches reality tv, and I can't stand the genre....

Friday, June 20, 2008


Flock is a new browser that promises to make social networking and web surfing easier than ever.

Still not sure what I think.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

Monday, June 16, 2008

Party Time

This weekend we had a birthday party for my 9 year old daughter. The theme was ice cream, which is my daughter's favorite thing in the world, and it was in part inspired by the best birthday party I ever went to, Laura Gaizo's party right after 6th grade ended. We had make-your-own sundaes then played ringalevio as darkness fell. I never wanted that party to end.

We planned games like Pin the Cherry on the Ice Cream Sundae, and a relay race with ice cream cones and cotton balls and "Freeze Dance" to the Hairspray soundtrack. In reality we got only to the first because we have one of those Intex pools:

Note: I do not have my husband's mad photography skills, alas.

When the girls arrived, I had them all decorate plastic margarita cups with paint-markers; they would be each girl's individual sundae cup. Then I had a treasure hunt, which was HUGE fun. Then they begged to go in the pool. *shrug* OK. They had a BLAST in the pool, and I dragged them out for their sundaes. But then it felt like we squeezed pinata-hitting (shaped like an ice cream cone, natch), Pin the Cherry on the Sundae, and present-opening into about 15 minutes, punctuated with pauses while the girls jumped into the pool. Oh well! I heard many say sotto voce that it was the best birthday party ever, so I'm happy. :)

Next on my agenda: a Webkinz birthday party for my 6 year old son. Yes, I plan to try to recreate Webkinz World in my backyard. Wish me luck.

I don't do this party thing out of any sense of "bigger and better." I have a blast doing it. And I just can't bear the thought of having this huge backyard and kids with summer birthdays and then having a party in some sort of indoor place.

Bird blogging!

Look at our new friend! Photo by my husband, who has mad photography skills.

I read/skimmed a book once about the suburban backyard and all the wildlife there. I grew up in Long Island, where we had blue jays and squirrels and occasionally tiny frogs if you lived near a sump. But here in SE Mass, we've had:
* nest/eggs, which hatched into baby catbirds
* a lost painted turtle (we brought it back to the local pond)
* bunnies
* groundhog (which my husband kept referring to as "the hedgehog")
* a star-nosed mole
This summer we finally have a backyard deck (small but serviceable), and it's so much fun to sit outside and watch the wildlife visit. Strangely, we have no cats hanging around (which may be why we get so much wildlife).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

School Volunteering

I enjoy volunteering at my daughter's school. Third graders are cute, and I like spending time with them. My daughter also likes it. I'm lucky that my job is flexible enough that I can make time now and again. Most days I'm in the office and/or teaching from 7 am to 2:30 pm. And I always have Fridays off because my university strongly believes in the 4-day teaching schedule.

What I don't like is volunteering for Sports Day. When I was a kid, we had something similar, Field Day. I loved Field Day. We had awards and stuff. Tony D always won the running awards. I was the team pitcher in the kickball finals in 5th grade. We had sack races and egg races and long jumps.

But Sports Day makes me feel so inadequate. First of all, it always seems as though the other parents all know each other. I keenly feel my lack of history in CorruptSmallTown at these times. Second, I don't know half the rules of the games they play. Last time I volunteered, the kids were assigned to play soccer. Ack! I know nothing about soccer. And M, a student in my daughter's class, seems to be a pretty good soccer player and basically just commandeered the ball every time we tried to play. How do you to tell a second grader to stop showing off his skills?

And then, it's all outdoors, and after an hour or so, the sunscreen wears off and I start to worry about getting sunburned and dehydration. I can't even focus on enjoying the kids.

I have to stop reflexively volunteering for things just because I'm free. It's that guilt, though. I see all these other parents, mainly but not always moms, volunteering so much of their time, and I feel competitive.

Oh, and in case you couldn't tell, Sports Day is tomorrow. And I signed up to help out. Volunteer's remorse!

Monday, June 09, 2008


My mother-in-law passed away a year and a half ago. She went quickly, a particularly aggressive ovarian cancer. Affectionate but not close in life, in death, she has become somewhat of an inspiration to me. Living on very little money, she still managed to indulge her greatest love, travel. She also managed to leave my husband a little money, and this year we're trying to use that money to travel the way we know she'd want us to. We've already spent a week in Disney (for the kids!), and right now I'm planning our trip to the Pacific Northwest in August.

Planning a trip with two kids is a bit challenging. We have to always consider whether they'll be able to handle an attraction. I think we've planned our trip well, 2 to 4 days in each part of the PNW we'll be visiting. 3-4 days in Seattle, 3-4 days in Portland visiting one of my oldest friends, and 3-4 days on the Oregon coast. It's enough variety to keep the kids - and us - from getting bored.

What's funny is that money isn't really an obstacle. Our plane tickets have been paid for (we no longer keep debt on the credit cards) and all we need are accommodations for about 6 nights in Seattle and on the Oregon coast. And yet I cannot bring myself to pay the $200+/night prices in the midrange Seattle hotels.

There's a frugality inside me, born of years of living on a teacher's salary (my father's, then my own). I remember September as being the hardest month. My father saved part of his 9-month salary to cover the summer, and he supplemented with summer work such as building houses, working at summer camps, and even working as a seasonal US Customs Inspector at JFK. But it was never enough, and we waited and waited for that third Thursday in September, the first paycheck of the year.

I guess I do not understand how paying for a more expensive hotel nets any benefit to me. I can see that location may be worth the extra cost, but there is a pleasure to be had in navigating the non-touristy areas of an unfamiliar city either by car or public transit. Amenities? All I want is a cold Diet Coke in the morning and a hot shower. A pool for the kids would be nice, but not necessary. Higher quality beds or linens? That can't compensate for not being in my own bed; I can't see that luxury ensuring me a good night's sleep.

When you scrimp on some things, you can splurge on others. We may be staying in a quite affordable guest apartment on a college campus in Seattle, but that means that on the Oregon coast we can splurge on an oceanfront or oceanview beach house. I won't pay $200+/night for a cramped hotel room, but for a hot tub overlooking the Pacific Ocean? You bet I will.

I don't remember if my mother-in-law ever made it to Seattle or the Pacific Northwest (she was well-travelled in Europe and the Caribbean and had been to Alaska). But you can be sure I will dip my feet in the water (she loved the water and loved swimming) in her memory when we're there.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Garden Blogging

Inspired by Laura's photo.

This is our third summer in our house. The first summer was just crazy, and we were broke after buying the house in the first place. Last summer was when my father was diagnosed with cancer, and I spent a lot of time with family and didn't think much about gardening. This summer, I set my plans into motion. I removed the huge yews that overwhelmed the front of the house. In their place, I planted some blue star junipers, a butterfly bush, and trellised up a honeysuckle. I also planted marigolds in a row (you can sort of see them--they're orange), circling the bush, then used spare rocks from our very rocky lot as a border. There's also a not-dead-yet small rose plant next to the honeysuckle. I'm seeing what happens.

Later: What to do with the flowering quince I loathe but I can't seem to dig up.