Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Redirecting ...

Today's post, with rare all-knitting content, is over at Toxophily.

Bonus Archer Anecdote Of The Day (BAAOTD): During bathtime, Archer started telling Noel about the "personal store" that opened in 2001 in "state 24." When Noel asked what you buy at the personal store, Archer replied, "That is where Daddy picked me and called me tiny." He went on to explain that there were five Archers at the personal store, all wearing different colored shirts, and Daddy picked the one with an orange shirt with stripes.

While I was drying him off and putting his pajamas on, Archer elaborated on his fantasy of multiple Archers made by a copying machine (a frequent trope in children's literature and television, as some of you parents and former children out there may have noticed). I asked him, "How many Archers does Mommy want?" and he replied with a smile, "Just one -- this one, right here."

Monday, July 30, 2007

In search of the perfect television viewing system

We've been steadily upgrading our television and related accessories for the last few years, but we've never gotten ideal results. Even after upgrading the cabling throughout the house and getting rid of the crazy multiple splitters the previous owner had installed in the attic, we still get signal dropouts on our main set. The cable company has thrown up its hands and said that if we insist on splitting the signal (one goes to the digital HD cable box/DVR, the other to our TiVo which is incompatible with HD), we'll never get rid of the pixelation and freezing up that we experience periodically on the digital channels.

So we're looking at several options. Here's what I'd like to do, ideally, and why:

1. Keep the TiVo. I've discovered that I like dealing with interfaces that are well-designed and a joy to use. I'll pay a premium for an item that is pleasant to work with and reveals a user-centered design mentality. So I don't want to ditch my beloved TiVo for the utterly craptastic interface of our cable system's HD DVR, which frequently causes uncontrolled swearing on the part of the operator. And I don't want to be forced into a satellite system's DVR. I want my friendly, happy TiVo, and I'm willing to put up with extra expense or even a less-than-optimal package of channels in order to be able to use it.

TiVo just announced an affordable HD dual-tuner box, and we're strongly considering upgrading from our Series 2. Two downsides: (1) We'll have to pay monthly for the TiVo service, which we avoided last time by getting a "lifetime" subscription for a single fee. That option isn't available for the new box. (2) The new box isn't compatible with the satellite services we've considered switching to.

2. Keep the cable modem. I'm concerned that if we pull the plug on our cable TV service, we won't be able to keep getting cable internet. And I like our cable internet very much. I don't see any reason to bother with the hassle of getting a new ISP. Maybe I'm wrong, but my hunch is that a satellite system would use our existing cabling to deliver its signal to our outlets, and doesn't that mean that the cable system would no longer be sending the internet through that particular tube?

3. Get local broadcast network affiliates. Most of the HD we watch is on the broadcast networks. So I don't want to get any satellite package that doesn't include those channels.

I have some hope that the solution lies in the TiVo HD's support for the CableCard. If we can ditch our cable box/HD DVR combo and get the cable directly into the TiVo (with the digital tuning accomplished by the CableCard), then we keep our cable service and don't have to split the signal to use the TiVo. No more frustrating non-TiVo interface to deal with. Full-strength signal coming directly into the tuner.

The only question is whether our cable company, a charming local corporation that also provides water, electricity, garbage pickup, and recycling, is up-to-date enough (and compliant with the law enough) to support the CableCard. If not, then my greatest fear is that the welcoming pip-pop of the TiVo will no longer be heard in our living room, and that a lot more obscenities will.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Back to the SUV

A polite but earnest gentleman from DriveCongress.org left a comment on my post concerning the proposed higher CAFE standards for automotive fuel efficiency -- a comment very similar, it turns out, to those that have been left on a couple of other of blogs that have mentioned higher standards positively. (See the evidence by googling the organization's name.)

DriveCongress.org is an astroturf website set up by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Their current talking point is this: People want big cars and trucks, and the government shouldn't prevent manufacturers from giving them what they want. (And in a related subpoint, some people need big cars, and if they're regulated out of existence, those people will suffer.)

James Surowiecki, the always-trenchant economic reporter for the New Yorker (and author of the wonderful Wisdom of Crowds), looked at precisely this claim in his column a couple of weeks back. Yes, people buy the SUVs and monster pickups with which Detroit stocks their local dealerships. So yes, they do want these cars. But a solid majority of these same people, in poll after poll, support higher fuel efficiency standards. And it's not simply cognitive dissonance; they continue to support the rise in standards even when the poll explicitly points out that higher fuel standards will mean a reduction in the number of large vehicles that can be produced and sold. "One recent survey of pickup owners," Surowiecki writes, "found that seventy per cent strongly favored tougher requirements."

So the common-sense connection implied by my drive-by commenter -- that because people want to buy and own large inefficient cars, they don't want the higher standards that will make those cars unavailable -- is wrong. The question, of course, is why people's buying habits and desire for regulation that will change those habits are so out of step.

Surowiecki finds the answer in the work of Thomas Schelling, who in the 1970s studied the attitudes and behavior of hockey players vis-a-vis proposals to require helmets. He found that the players said (in secret ballots) that the NHL should require helmets of all players, at the same time as most of them chose to go without helmets in games.

What people want, in other words, is for everyone to be subject to the same rules -- rules they believe in, but will not unilaterally impose on themselves if others are allowed to continue doing otherwise. It's an arms race, car buyers feel, and even though they strongly believe that everyone will be better off in more fuel-efficient cars, they're unwilling to cede to others perceived advantages in safety and prestige. If those advantages were removed by regulation and the playing field leveled at what the majority believes is reasonable, then they'd feel freer to buy according to their values.

Sounds a little like this Onion t-shirt, I admit. Yet the free market makes hypocrites of all of us who find it impossible to give up available conveniences and "improvements" in an environment where others can keep them without repercussions -- even with incentives. "In calling for a law requiring better gas mileage in our cars, then, voters are really saying they're unhappy with the collective results of the choices they've made as buyers," Surowiecki concludes. "Sometimes, they know, we need to save ourselves from ourselves." Recently I've seen cracks appearing in the mantra of personal responsibility we've had drummed into as an absolute moral and political law for the past twenty years. Is it possible that this is another of them -- counter-commonsensical as it may be?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Back home

... and blogging the five questions, courtesy of the Secret Knitter.

Beatles or Stones? Or are you the contrarian who picks The Who?

Beatles in a walk. I enjoy the Stones, I respect the Stones. But I became obsessed with the Beatles in middle school, and my mania is probably as much a cause as a symptom of my general pop orientation.

If you were one of the X-Men, what would your mutant power be?

During "get to know each other" ice-breaking time in the first period of each new class, I ask, among other questions, what superpower each student would like to have. When I answer for myself, I always say "Wonder Woman's lasso of truth." Because my main desire for students is that they find a way to be honest with themselves, I'd most like the power to show them the unvarnished truth, straight from their subconsciouses.

But if I could be an X-Man, I'd be Storm. Not that she's ever given much to do, but I love that elemental power stuff. On a related note, my favorite Avenger is the Scarlet Witch.

When did you discover your calling, and why do you think it is what it is? Or are you still looking?

Oh, it's to open the eyes of Christians to Christianity, in all its diversity, messiness, and glorious, aspirational humanity. I've known that since my mid-twenties, when I was a graduate student in the Religion department at the University of Georgia, and my own eyes were opened (allowing me to re-embrace Christianity after years of agnosticism).

Why do I think that's my calling? Because it's not only what I'm most passionate about, but it's also the activity that allowed me to rebuild my shattered history and feel a part of the traditions that formed me. How could I not feel called to what saved me? In fact, that sense of being called is so strong in my life that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject of divine calling.

What are people surprised to learn about you?

That I spent several years touring sporadically around the Southeast with rock and roll bands, wearing rock and roll clothes and sleeping in rock and roll vans.

On what reality show would you like to be a contestant?

The Amazing Race, hands down. I'd probably be terrible at it, but I'd enjoy being hounded to fly around the world, and I can tell there'd be a lot of down time for reading and knitting, if you can carry any of that stuff with you. I'd never do it with Noel, though, because it would surely drive us to divorce.

And as promised a few days ago, here is an image of undiluted joy:

CG on the Nashville Zoo Carousel, 7/26/07

Friday, July 27, 2007

An early exit

We've completed our obligations to the Nashvillians, with one exception, which we'll take care of on our way out tomorrow morning. Yes, we're heading home a day early. I do not enjoy the sensation of my control over the kids eroding, bit by bit by bit, but this is what happens in a vacation situation. Any two-year-old worth her salt will realize that she's got her parents over a barrel. She can demand anything -- DVDs every time she gets in the car, the TV on in her room at nap- and bedtime, to be carried every step of every outing -- and there's very little the parents can do about it. They can't follow through like at home, where I guarantee you she'd be left to scream her lungs out in her room all night if she persisted in her obstinance -- because there are other people living here, who deserve relative peace from non-stop wailing. So all the boundaries drop, one by one, and by the time we're on night three and she's whining "I want a video" as we tuck her in at night, you start to think that this can't go on, because you're out of secret weapons. The next step is providing her with a half-gallon of ice cream and a plastic spoon at naptime. Not being willing to go that far, we are going home, where the kids know what's what.

But not before we took advantage of the grandparents' willingness to reassure any small fry who might happen to wake up confused in the mid-evening, and went to see the surprisingly non-obligatory-feeling Simpsons Movie. Our sellout crowd at the Regal Cinemas Green Hills was loving it, and there were more belly laughs from my left -- Noel's seat -- than I've heard in a long time. I know that I'll be voting for the "doodle sequence" in the Skandies this year, and not just because that happens to be the male-part euphemism of choice in our household. (Also, by default, the female-part euphemism, because we have no imagination.) My hat is off to Brooks, Groening, Jean & Co. for a fitting big-screen capper to the Simpsons' legacy. And it's telling, isn't it, that all they had to do was string together three upper-tier TV episodes' worth of material -- heck, really just two -- to make it a shoo-in for one of the five funniest movies of the year. That's how good that show is, even in its long years of decline. I'm with Nathan on this one.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


That's probably one of the first words English-speaking kids learn to read, given its prevalence in alphabet books and children's stories. Certainly Cady Gray instantly recognized it on the signs leading to the Nashville Zoo, a very nice facility that we nearly always try to visit when we're in town.

And finally the kids are just about both at an age when they are excited about animals and will trudge semi-willingly from exhibit to exhibit. Noel planned this outing perfectly: We got there 15 minutes after it opened, worked our way around to end at the petting zoo and the awesome, community-built playground right when the food outlets opened (skipping exhibits when necessary to keep on schedule), and concluded after lunch with the carousel and the savannah habitat area just beyond.

That means we ended on a high note, with the kids' favorite animals (elephants and giraffes) and with the beautiful merry-go-round ride, which sent them into raptures of delight. Cady Gray chose a lion while we were waiting in line ("LION!!"), and Archer got the elephant right next door. I've never seen such an awed, joyful expression on Cady Gray's face as she wore while staring up at the mechanism over her head going round and round ("Look, there's a bicycle up there!"). Pictures will have to wait, since I didn't bring the cable to dump them to the computer.

I never got to go to zoos regularly as a kid, since the only one in Chattanooga when I was growing up was a sad bears-on-concrete-slabs affair affixed to a public park. Now that I'm a snake fan, I enjoyed seeing the massive anaconda, gorgeous emerald boa, and vibrant corn snake in the Nashville Zoo "animals of the Americas" bird, reptile, and insect house as much as I enjoyed the marquee mammals (meerkats, white-handed gibbons, and cougar cubs). This November I'm going to San Diego for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, and since I'm going to be there extra days to attend board meetings, I'm hoping to take a day off and play tourist at their famous zoo, which I last visited as a kid on a family vacation, and really don't remember at all.

In our ongoing attempt to completely wear the kids out, we took them to Bicentennial Mall to play in the fountains in the afternoon. Perhaps it worked -- they appear to be sacking out nicely this evening* -- but it took more out of me, I'm convinced, than it did the kids. All that sun saps my energy, and by the time it's about ninety minutes from any conceivable mealtime, I'm starving and listless.

Tomorrow we plan to go to the bookstore and let Grandma buy the kids some books. Then we're flat out of ideas, with a day and a half of visit still in the hopper. Dragon Park if the weather holds ... probably Opry Mills** or Green Hills mall if it doesn't ... after that, we're stumped. Anybody with child-amusement experience in the Metro Nashville area, leave suggestions in the comments.

*Also working: Noel's plan to put them to sleep in different rooms.
**If we do go there, expect to be regaled with my memories of Opryland, a theme park I visited in my youth at least every other year.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


That's the clever name -- or at least I always thought it was clever -- of a Nashville deli-style eatery, famous for its Jewish specialties like matzoh ball soup. There's a location about two miles from Noel's folks' house, a hand-me-down from his paternal step-grandparents, in the fashionable Belle Meade village. (Al Gore built a new house a couple of years ago, a block down from where I'm typing right now.)

Not that I'm sitting in a mansion; no, this neighborhood has relatively modest post-war split-level ranch houses cheek-by-jowl with looming Spanish three-story jobs constructed in the last decade. I'm in one of the former. I'll bet this property could sell for big bucks as a tear-down, considering the ritzy location, but I don't know that selling is a possibility for my in-laws -- not as long as the parents who gave them the house are still around to be hurt if it's treated like a commodity rather than a bequest.

I drove the last two thirds of the journey here, starting in West Memphis. Normally I don't take the wheel until after we've crossed the Mississippi, because I have gephyrophobia -- a fear of driving over bridges. I don't know when it started, but the first time I noticed it as something debilitating was when we moved to Conway. I made sure I was driving the car, not the rental truck, when we got to the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi, and even then it was all I could do to keep going. I remember just fixating on the back of the truck that Noel was driving and chanting "you're almost there, you're almost there" to myself -- out loud -- in order to make it across.

But Noel was very tired today because he stayed up late last night (for the 13-inning Braves game) and didn't sleep well, and when he's not at ease driving I can't relax either. I took over after lunch, about fifteen miles before the river crossing, and I found as I drove that I wasn't getting nervous about the bridge. Somewhat to my surprise, I drove across with no anxiety, conversing easily with Noel.

I don't know if that means my phobia is gone, or whether I'm just used to that bridge; the thought of a high bridge still makes me squirm. But it was an unexpected moment of growth in the middle of a trip where I mostly anticipate headaches. (No offense to my in-laws meant; I just dread dealing with the kids' disrupted routines and sleep patterns. And aside from the mostly pleasant journey here, that's what we're dealing with so far -- the kids are yelling at each other in their common bedroom even as I type. Here's hoping this doesn't set the pattern for the next three days.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

No secrets

I'm afraid we aren't going to be able to put on our pious lifestyle hats for the grandparents and expect to look like we've been wearing them every day. At the dinner table tonight:

Cady Gray: Let's say the blessing.

Me: (surprised but game) OK.

Everyone: God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Amen.

Archer: That's what we say when Granny Lou and Papa are here!

And speaking of grandparents, we're off to see Noel's folks tomorrow through Sunday. Blogging should continue apace, barring unforeseen network outages. See y'all in Nashville.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A satisfied customer

Friends, are your drains clogged? Does your water seep slowly through the muck hiding beneath your sink, or does it swirl in lazy circles without going much of anywhere at all?

Well, have I got the product for you.

We've got perennial slow drainage here at Chez Bowman-Murray. I don't know whether to blame Noel's tough whiskers, my foamy beauty products, or some unknown goop that the kids are pouring in there when we're not looking. But in any case, I've spent the last few years periodically trying all the drain openers on the market. It didn't matter whether it was liquid, gel, or two mysterious ingredients that foam when combined* -- nothing worked very well, or for very long.

I was excited when Liquid Plumr put a compressed-air canister on the market, because I've long wanted to just plunge my drains clear, the same way I do my toilet. I bought my share of them for the thrill of the three-second blast. But I couldn't get the cap to cover the drain opening because the faucet extends over it, forcing me to hold the can at a slight angle -- and the recommended solution (creating a seal around the system with wet washcloths) is impossible if, like most, you have been born with only two hands.

So I turned to an expert: Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools reports. Every week Kelly, the well-known Wired editor, or one of his hand-picked compatriots, reports on four or five gadgets, tools, websites, books, or even films that solve a problem or fill a need with elegance, efficiency, and good design. A few months back, my Cool Tools e-mail mentioned just the drain-blaster I was looking for -- a pump-action gun with multiple adapters to fit over different size openings. Pump the thing up, run water in the drain up to the top (as we know, air will compress but water will not, making it the perfect conduit to send pressure down from the source to the clog), cover the drain and press the trigger.

Kelly's informant found the gun at American Science and Surplus, truly one of the great catalogs of our time. (Check out the entry for "Amusing Bargain Post-It Notes," a drug company giveaway for a rectal gel that feature "an unfortunate little fire extinguisher logo.") But like many of the items AS&S sells, once it's gone, it's gone. So I went to Source Number Two: the novelty company Things You Never Knew Existed (motto: We Have An Entire Category Called "Fart And Wind-Breaking Gags"!). There, among the diary-shaped joy buzzers and trick golf balls, lurked BAAM!, the air pressure drain opener (The Extra "A" Stands For "As Not Endorsed By Emeril").

It arrived this afternoon. My first clog-busting effort went awry when I underestimated how firmly I needed to hold the gun -- it blasted itself right off the drain, spraying me with a light mist of standing water. But after a few more pumps to rearm the weapon, I showed that drain who's boss.

For my next "how did I live without it" purchase, I'm checking out these stylin' flexible rubber buckets. My next turkey-brining will be that much more enjoyable without lugging around a shin-damaging five-gallon plastic bucket with a metal handle designed before the word "ergonomic" was invented. If you wash cars, pot plants, or pour packing peanuts over small objects more than once a year, I think you need TubTrugs at least as much as me.

*And have a disturbingly suggestive name.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The street where I live

Part I: Growing Up

I don't remember the first house I lived in. My folks refer to it as the "Lakeshore House," somewhere in the Lakeshore Estates development in an unincorporated part of Hamilton County, Tennessee. It was the first place my parents lived after they were married. Even photos of this house's interiors or exteriors don't bring back any memories for me, although I'm sure my brother, three and a half years old than I, remembers it. This picture is my father's birthday in 1966 -- I'm about eight months old. That's my paternal grandmother's famous homemade caramel icing on a yellow layer cake. We moved out of this house when I was two or three years old.

What I'll always think of as my childhood home is this stucco Tudor on Glendon Drive in the Brainerd neighborhood. That's my older brother in the Tennessee Vols sweatshirt, riding his sweet banana-seat, high-handlebar bike on our quiet street, sometime around 1970. You can see the fake half-timbering that needed to be repainted by a friendly guy named Roy every five years or so. There was a full finished basement, four bedrooms and two full baths on the second floor, and an entirely inadequate kitchen from back in the day when homebuilders and homemakers thought it was more important to have a huge formal living room than a functional place to make jello molds. My favorite room in the house was the massive cube stuck on the back -- two car garage below, den/TV room above, complete with a flat concrete roof that comprised the view from my bedroom window.

When I was fourteen years old, we built a house on a clearing atop a hill on our farm property, twenty miles away in the miniscule crossroad town of Apison. Here's how it looked in one of the snowstorms that periodically prevented us from making our way down the steep blacktop that connected us to McGhee Road. Separate garage doors for each car -- that must have been our dream. You can just make out the basketball goal we put up on the slight upslant of the driveway, the area where cars backing out of the garage were supposed to make a Y turn. This picture must have been taken in 1979 , because we hadn't yet built the tennis court that took up the entire foreground, surrounded by chain link fence. It was a 45 minute commute to high school, carpooling with my dad whose office was just across the river downtown. Once the nest was empty, while I was in graduate school at Georgia, my parents pulled up stakes and moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia. It's hard for me to imagine other people living in this house, which we designed and built, on this land that I visited every weekend with my dad to tend to the dwarf fruit trees we planted and the dozen or so head of cattle we raised. But the nature of houses is that they change hands, and the current owners, whoever they are, would probably find it just as odd that anyone else might feel proprietary about it.

Stay tuned for Part II: On My Own.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


I forwent my usual chance to sleep in this morning in order to accomplish an extremely rare bit of handywork. Normally I'll avoid all work around the house, be it repair, yard work, cleaning, or even picking up after myself. But the front bay window installation was finally finished earlier this week, leaving behind some bare trim and a sheet of plywood under the overhang. And that means painting.

I love to paint. When I was pregnant and the kids' rooms needed to be painted and decorated, it just about killed me to be excluded from slapping paint on the walls. Others probably wouldn't be so cautious, but the books said not to spend a lot of time breathing in the fumes, so I fussed over it from afar. Painting is like magic to me -- handling liquid color directly, like a distillation of perception itself.

Whenever I watch a movie about an artist, and they show the tubes of pigment, or the pure primary colors piled on the palette, I wonder why anyone would ever mix them, or try to make a painting look like it wasn't painted. The oils themselves are so sensuous and rich. Maybe that's why I like so much twentieth century art, including abstract art -- the paint forms a thick texture on the canvas, like a relief map, demanding to be recognized as a material that's been applied.

My painting wasn't very exciting today -- white on white. But the kids came outside with me, and I gave them old brushes and a bucket of water, and let them "paint" on the driveway. They liked it so much that both demanded to do it again this afternoon, and Cady Gray astounded me by painting her first name. Sure, she balked after the Y in "CADY" and tried to erase it with her foot, saying "No, it's Cady Gray!" But I didn't know she could spell her name.

A few weeks short of age three, she can form all her letters except K, R, S, and X (for some reason -- I can understand the complexities of the other three). Two days ago when we were coloring together and turned to a new page with a bumblebee drawing, I asked her to read the caption. "The queen rules many bees," she read without hesitation. How do these kids do it? What switch gets thrown in their mind that allows them to translate groups of letters into vocabulary? They know their phonics, but Cady Gray (unlike Archer) rarely sounds words out; she's clearly using the "whole word" system, to the point where if she doesn't know a word, she'll guess by (a) context; (b) first letter; and (c) approximate length.

I suspect I learned the same way -- at any rate, I don't remember a lot of combining letter sounds, but I do remember recognizing words. I have a vivid memory of sitting on my bed sometime between the ages of 3 and 5 with my older brother, reading a "Dick and Jane" style reader he used in first or second grade, and completing the whole thing without errors, much to my parents' pride. I could read well before age 6, I know, because the kindergarten teacher at Bright School kept me and Lynne Pierce in at recess for reading enrichment -- the first time I got that feeling of being singled out for academic achievement, and not the last. In fact, it's probably part cause and part symptom of the academic identity that's been my major personal drive throughout life.

Do you remember learning to read? When did it happen? And how did it happen? Do you have any sense of the process you used, whether Sesame Street phonics or Electric Company word recognition?

Friday, July 20, 2007

The ol' six hundo

My favorite webcomic Achewood* dropped a casual moment of brilliance into this strip: the concept of the relationship mistake that will cost about six hundred dollars to set right. Lost your wedding ring? That'll be six hundred. Put a ding in the car you borrowed from the college buddy you're in town to see? About a sixer. Inadvertently destroyed a neighbor's cherished piece of childhood memorabilia? Expect to spend about six c-notes.

Specific, yet round, dollar amounts are comedy gold. It's been years since I heard the Bottle Rockets' song "Thousand Dollar Car," but every time I pass a used car lot or a clunker wheezing down the street, I sing it to myself and chuckle. That price tag has a lot of truth in it, much like the six hundred.

And since you're not queuing (that's how the British say it!) for Harry Potter And The Blankety-Blank tonight, nor reading it in the cold light of a new dawn, but are instead racking your brains thinking of more funny currency amounts from popular culture, I invite you to share your examples in the comments.

*Noel fulfilled one of my career goals for him when he interviewed Achewood creator Chris Onstad earlier this week. Now if he can find a way to get the editors to agree to a Joel McHale feature, I'll be in the proverbial catbird seat.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Speaking of stringing words together ...

  • Here's a peek into the high-profile, high-stakes, high-pressure life of a Hollywood reporter (or a guy who occasionally writes for the Hollywood Reporter). Today was the first day of Emmy season, with the nominees announced early this morning in Los Angeles. Under contract for a couple of pieces in the Emmy preview issue, Noel was on the starting blocks as soon as he got out of bed. He has today and tomorrow, basically, to contact as many writers, directors, producers, publicists, and other assorted television personnel related to the nominees and get quotes to fill out his two pieces (one on writers and one on directors). They're due first thing next week. So he's been glued to the phone since the kids left the house. I dropped by around 11 to see if he could go to lunch with Archer and me, but he said Walter Hill was supposed to call soon. We can all relax when enough phone calls have been fielded and brief interviews conducted to produce enough quotes to string together for the pieces ... we hope by Saturday. If Noel's still sweating out that last call from J.J. Abrams on Monday morning, things might be a little tense around here.

  • Every time I go down the stairs on my wait out the south side of my building (I'm a dedicated stair-taker), I'm confronted by a large poster for the University's Writing Center (don't click on that link, the site is a mass of broken html). Here's the text: "Problems with your papers? You won't after seeing us." A "Good As Gold" to the first commenter, professional grammarian or otherwise, to point out the excruciating mistake therein.

  • If you're tired of waiting for me to post one of my occasional roundups of A.V. Club writing, good news! You can apparently subscribe to a feed of articles tagged with my byline. (Or Noel's, if that's the way you roll. You're an autonomous agent, man.) For those of you with commitment issues, I'll keep updating you via blog. Not much to report from the last month -- the Lost in the Stars writeup in this "Surprisingly Good Tribute Albums" inventory, a review of Tim Willocks' blood-and-thunder crusader novel The Religion, and new today, a review of the Potemkin book I mentioned in the "closest book meme" post.

  • And in "things you should be reading" news, the second biweekly* installment of the A.V. Club's Comics Panel is an endless feast. The sheer number of graphic novels, single issues, and collections both prestige and mass-market covered by the team of Keith, Tasha, and Noel is awe-inspiring, but the variety is just as impressive. From DC's line of girl-comix to the newsprint Atom collection to a Top Shelf coming-of-age animal allegory to Rick Geary's compulsively readable Victorian true-crime tales to a critical take on the comics medium ... the column made me want to sweep off my bedside bookstack with a dramatic flourish and restack from the bottom up with comics, comics, comics.
*Every time I use the prefixes "semi-" or "bi-" with reference to time periods, I have to recite to myself: "semi means half, bi means two." I have occasional arguments with people who insist on using them with the reverse meaning, but my own inability to intuit the distinction without conscious rehearsal shows how difficult it is to get it right.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Famous for fifteen words

Adam Villani (Gentleman) was kind enough to point out, in the comments on the old UTC, that the recent paperback edition of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink features a blurb from yours truly. I have not asked him why he read three pages deep into the list of probably 30+ reviewer quotes that precedes the book text proper, and over which any reasonable person would skip with glazed eyes.

One of the non-lucrative but highly ego-gratifying side benefits of being a critic is being blurbed. Since I practice the art form only occasionally, I rarely get the rush. Occasionally an author or publisher will feature a quote from my review on their website; Jennifer Egan, Carolyn Parkhurst, Patrick Rothfuss, etc. In my own field of theology, I occasionally get contacted to read a book and provide a blurb for the jacket. Jeff McCloud tells me that a quote from my review of Rick Prelinger's Field Guide To Sponsored Films (the bedside-table equivalent of crack cocaine) will appear in the advertisement for that publication in the new box set Treasures III: Social Issues In American Film.

Given his prolific output, eclectic tastes, and frankly, better writing and more refined critical skills, Noel gets blurbed a lot more than me, unsurprisingly. It's not uncommon that band/label PR packages arrive in the mail with quotes or even a full reviews from Noel included. Until one of us gets a cover quote on a DVD package, however, Dear Husband retains the blurbing prize. His name may not be on it, but that's his authoritative declaration above the title of the paperback edition of Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. I used the book in my criticism writing class last semester, and when students asked, I confirmed Noel's authorship. In terms of making the work of a critic seem worthwhile, a whole semester of discussion about the art of criticism paled before that fact.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Family roles

Both of our kids have suddenly acquired the kind of imagination it takes to roleplay, and they love to act out versions of stories they see on TV or read in books. Sometimes the playlet is elaborate -- sometimes simple.

On the simple side, Cady Gray decided some weeks ago that she would get "stuck" occasionally and require the ministrations of "Super Archer" or "Super Daddy" to rescue her. More frequently in the past few days, she's been urging me to admire her beautiful "jools" (antecedent to their theft by some mysterious character, probably from Little Einsteins). She asks me if I'm wearing my "jools," and then addresses me as "Lady Mommy."

Better that than "Servant Mommy," the title given to me by Archer as we got ready to go on our walk this evening. Then he asked me what a servant was. I said it was someone who helped another person and did whatever that person said -- fed them, helped them get dressed, ran their errands. The shoe does fit, I confess, but I'll wear it only by choice and not by fiat.

More poignant is Cady Gray's recent concern for my welfare. Little girls, I'm told, go through this stage when they mother their parents, and she's in it. On walks she asks to hold my hand "so you'll not be scared." The only clue I have as to why I might be scared comes from a few vague references to "the birds will be too loud, and the birds will be quiet."

Ever since we got Archer a 20 Questions game around Father's Day (it was the gift he picked out for Noel, but he immediately appropriated it), he's been pretending to be the computer inside that surprisingly knowledgeable ball. Yesterday he wanted me to think of something; I picked celery, which we'd just been talking about -- the Wonder Pets have convinced both children that it's delicious (and they say television isn't a positive influence on kids).

His questions remained mostly on point, and of course directly quoted from the 20Q ball ("Is it a vegetable? Do you hold it when you use it? Does it have leaves?"). But then came the oddly apropos quotation, delivered in his trademark deliberate drawl: "Is it comforting?"

Thank goodness for the models of conversation provided by the electronic media. Without the hosts, reporters, and inteviewees on television, we'd have much less back-and-forth with Archer. Today at lunch, he observed suddenly, and with touching curiosity: "Dad, you and Mom are not drinking your soda. Why?"

I always knew that at some point their questions would get harder to answer. If you feel like answering some hard questions of your own, play the 20Q A.I. online -- it's fun to try the newer variations on the classic game like Harry Potter 20Q, Old Testament 20Q (it guessed "Delilah" in 17 questions) and 20Q Movies (Sunset Boulevard took it the full 20 questions, largely due to a previous player who had classified it as an actor rather than a movie, leading to questions like "Do you wear glasses?").

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bigger is better?

I first ran across the new Big Oil talking point in a Charles Krauthammer editorial two weeks ago. The new party line: Increasing CAFE standards (the federally-mandated average fuel efficiency an automobile manufacturer has to achieve across its fleet) will kill people.

At first glance, there's some grim logic to this. To increase fuel efficiency, cars have to be smaller and lighter. And smaller and lighter cars are not as safe in a crash, primarily because the "crumple zones" (the parts of the frame built to collapse and take the energy from a collision, so the cabin doesn't have to) are not as big and can absorb less energy.

How much less safe? Well, Cecil Adams addresses that question in his Straight Dope column for Friday the 13th. Conservative think tanks are trumpeting numbers like 50,000+ highway deaths since the 70's directly attributable to fuel efficiency targets set by the government. Turns out that even the government's own numbers (through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) estimated in 2002 that smaller cars have cost between 1300 and 2600 deaths per year.

But it's not like we didn't know that going in. Nobody thought, pace Krauthammer, that raising CAFE standards is a painless way to bring utopia on earth. All decisions about automobile and highway regulations are made in a cost-benefit analysis. Does Krauthammer like his 70-mph speed limits? They undoubtedly cost lives. And the small loss due to the increase in lighter cars is vastly offset by laws that mandate active restraints (seat belt laws -- 211,000 lives saved since 1975) and the inclusion of passive restraint systems in new cars (air bags -- 14,000 lives saved between 1987 and 2003).

Even more damning, it's not like big cars and their large crumple zones are providing a cost-free increase in safety. Crashes are one thing -- rollovers, to which SUVs are more prone, also kill. And the heavy cars are more dangerous to the occupants of other cars on the road than their fuel-sipping neighbors. Malcolm Gladwell masterfully deconstructed the myth of SUV safety in 2004, and like all Gladwell's work, it's well worth a half hour of your time. Here's Cecil's summary:

A 2002 study of 84 cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans conducted for the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that SUVs and pickup trucks had the highest combined risk of any vehicles — that is, risk to both their occupants and occupants of other cars. True, the average SUV protected its occupants better than the average small car. However, some midsize cars protected their occupants just as well as SUVs without unduly endangering the occupants of other vehicles. The study also found that the safest compact and subcompact cars were as safe for their drivers as the average SUV, and safer from a combined-risk standpoint.
Are CAFE standards sneaking in our homes at night and smothering us in our sleep? Not by a long shot. Buy a hybrid car with a high safety rating and the sun will shine brighter, food will taste better, the laughter of little children will bring more joy, and most important, fewer people will suffer on the road or in areas at risk for climate change.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The indoctrination program finally bears fruit

We parked the kids in front of the Sesame Street Old School DVDs this afternoon for an hour before dinner. Later, as we were preparing to go out for our post-prandial stroll, Archer started counting in a funny voice -- puckering up his lips like he was pretending to be a fish, and semi-growling in a low tone. It was only when he mentioned "a counting contest 1 to 10" and started holding up his fingers one by one (with his palm facing him, rather than out toward the listener) that I realized he was imitating Ernie in the slow counting sketch. There doesn't seem to be a YouTube, but maybe you remember it: Ernie counts in a theatrical manner and at a glacial pace, and every time Bert coughs or speaks or breathes, he starts over from the beginning. I couldn't contain myself when Archer looked at me and said, in his strange Ernie voice, "What're you laughing about, Mo -- what're you laughing about, Bert?" Followed, of course, by: "I need to start again. One!"

Of course, CG went over to the Sesame Side a couple of weeks ago, when she wouldn't stop inserting Cookie Monster into the alphabet. It was funny to Archer at first, but after a while he got annoyed and started chiding her: "Uh, Cady Gray -- Cookie Monster is not a letter. Do not say people in the alphabet."

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Closest book meme

Taken from Doc Thelma.
The game:
1. Grab the nearest book to you.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don't you dare dig for that "cool" or "intellectual" book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.
Predictably, the book that's closest to me -- sitting on my couch -- is the last one I reviewed for the A.V. Club, Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days On The Battlefield Potemkin. (The review will be appearing next week.)
Kirill looked back to the port, where people continued to arrive in droves. At that moment, Dymchenko approached and invited him to a special meeting that had just been called.

At noon, Matyushenko stood at the head of the long table in the admiral's stateroom, surrounded by the sailor committee. He introduced each member to the leader of Odessa's revolutionary parties, who were seated on stools and chairs about the room.
Not the most exciting section of this very engaging history, I admit. I'm sure you'll find something more intriguing when you try the game. But it does remind me that I can't read a book about Russians without thinking of the Peanuts strip where Linus is reading The Brothers Karamazov. "Don't all those long Russian names bother you?" Lucy inquires. "Oh no," Linus replies blithely. "When I get to one I can't pronounce, I just bleep right over it!"

Is blogging writing?

It may seem an odd question to address on a blog, to a blog readership, but it came up today, during the last session of our conference. Amanda gave a fantastic presentation about establishing an online presence, and brought up the issue of text conventions in online communication.

One of the participants asked whether acculturation in the world of online texts -- with their overt cues, like smilies and bracketed meta-comments *to show what I'm thinking* -- will dull students' senses such that they won't be able to handle the ambiguity and multiple levels of literature.

My boss, as he's so good at doing, reframed the question to show that it assumed a hierarchy of literacies. Being able to read literary prose is the highest and best literacy, and that's what we should therefore aspire to. Other literacies, including the composition and consumption of online text, are lesser or even transient; too much attention paid to them will tend to hamper students' acquisition of the most valuable skills, and worse, legitimize the flashy, cheap, and easy skills by treating them as relatively equal, to the detriment of the truly worthwhile skills.

My immediate thought was for the bloggers I read with the most interest and pleasure. Would they like to be lumped in with the smiley-laced, ungrammatical and indifferently-punctuated Xangas maintained by a certain demographic? Those people aren't even using the right text conventions for the medium they're in -- not e-mail or txting, but writing prose. The fact that he prose happens to be on a blog rather than in their journal or in a newspaper or magazine is immaterial. The lazy, poor bloggers aren't representative of blog text conventions, as anyone who has spent time with the form knows. We don't give students bad novels and tell them that learning to read and interpret them is essential to literacy; we give them the best. I don't teach students to write bad blogs; I send them to read the best and try to get them to emulate what they see.

Like any medium, blog writing can be rich or poor, deep or shallow, mature or infantile, advanced or rudimentary. I have no doubt that blogging every day -- along with reading more and better blogs, more regularly and with more interest -- has made me a better writer and has led me to think more creatively about texts in general. I agree with Amanda that online writing and reading must be thought of as a new form, rather than as a poor cousin or mutated monster sprung from real writing (whatever that is).

My boss, who's been in higher education since the 1980's, tells the story of the consternation caused among the professoriate by the advent of word processing. Long, bitter debates took place about whether students should be writing their papers on computers -- whether that even counted as real writing at all. Only pen across paper, with its enforced languid pace, or at most typing, should count. Because instant correction and cut-and-pasting while you write, it was assumed, were terrible things. They would destroy the system of drafts and laborious revisions which constituted the labor that created the only possibility of truly creative, reflective writing.

This debate mistook the characteristics of a method for the virtues of its product. Word processing did change the way students wrote, and it changed the kinds of prose they turned out, I have no doubt. I would write much differently without the opportunity for continuous rethinking. But how does that disqualify or devalue the writing produced by that process? Does it mean that I have lost something essential to prose literacy? I have lost something, but I have gained something I consider far more valuable: the ability to write more, because the writing process is less taxing and more intuitive. The change from oral culture to written culture meant a loss in the ability to create aphorisms and engage in feats of memorization that helped store and recall information. That's a loss. But I will take in trade, 10 times out of 10, what we gained in the evolution into written culture.

And similarly, while I might mourn the loss of the hegemony of literature over our reading habits, I will gladly take in trade the explosion of writing my students do without even realizing it, and the widely diverse high-quality sources of prose they can read every day, for months or years on end, becoming part of those writers' communities and responding in kind.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The nights get later

It was truly a 12-hour day at the technology conference today. I got to the venue at 8:30 am, and I just got home at 9 pm. Group meals tend to be protracted affairs, and this one was three hours -- a bit too long even by the loose standards one applies to give the kitchen time to get all the meals out at once.

I did get to sneak home for 45 minutes while the attendees were being escorted back to their hotel for a pre-dinner freshen-up. Noel took advantage of my unexpected appearance to indulge in a shower, and I put the kids in their pajamas and sang "I Love You A Bushel And A Peck" with CG. That's a song my mom used to sing to us, and I can't hear a reference to agricultural volume measures without thinking of it. (Warning: Those who follow the link may experience nausea due to an overload of flowers and kitschy cartoon animals.)

As I get older and interact with my growing kids, I flash back more and more to childhood experiences of my own, especially to little traditions or habits I associate with various relatives. We spent a lot of time with my maternal grandmother, Mary Gray Jorges, known to us as "Mamie." She immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland as a teenager, helped run the chenille bedspread business her husband started, and eventually (when my mother was a teenager) divorced him. CG is named after her. When we were very young we spent time at her little white house in the Brainerd area of Chattanooga, a couple of miles from where we lived. There she fed us chicken pot pies -- I still love chicken pot pies -- and let me listen to the floppy plastic record of bird songs in the back of her big "Birds of North America" coffee table book.

Later she moved into an apartment in an old building downtown, much farther from us, but without all the maintenance, presumably. (This was before the age of assisted living.) When we visited her we got to ride the elevator down to the basement, where there were storage cages for the residents' trunks and boxes, and get glass bottles of Coke out of the machine. She always had Hershey bars for us. We played Scrabble. She had a potholder hung up in her little kitchenette that said "all i want is a little peace and quiet." When we dropped food, she mock-scolded in her Scottish brogue, "Don't feed the floor!"

Her home was full of the china she painted, and her oil landscapes and seascapes, some of which I now own. She painted beautifully detailed Biblical figures and scenes on fabric and backed them with flannel to make flannelgraph religious teaching aids, and as an art professor in her working days, taught students at Tennessee Temple University how to do it themselves. The flannelboard ended up in our basement, where I amused myself tucking the little cake into the slot provided in the raven's beak as he swooped down to deliver dinner to the exiled Elijah.

When I play with my kids or talk to them, I'll sometimes feel the vibrations of the way she talked to us, and what I thought she was and meant at that time. What will be the Hershey bar and the potholder that my kids will forever remember and associate with their childhood?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What the heck is a technology conference?

21 participants from Kentucky, Vermont, Florida, New Mexico, and points beyond trickled in yesterday, spent the night at the Comfort Suites, and then took vans to Brewer-Hegeman Conference Center this morning at 8 am.

Some of you with present or former connections to my university are familiar with Brewer-Hegeman, but you probably haven't been at a conference put on by its staff. It's a professional experience all the way. I might question whether this facility was built to the proper size -- I'd love for it to have been a lot bigger to have conferences of different sizes be possible -- but I can't question how they are running it. A classroom setup with notepads and tables for lecture and discussion presentations, connected to a dining area where we'll have breakfasts, lunches, ice cream socials. Across the hall, a high-tech classroom with everyone on their laptops, sitting at tables in a big V, watching the slides on the Smartboard and projector, where right now our graduate assistant Mike is showing The Walnut.

I think we had this whole 3-day conference mostly so Mike could show The Walnut. Phil has a 10x17 full-color printout of The Walnut spread out in front of him. If only we could have somehow engineered an acronym for the conference that spelled out W-A-L-N-U-T. (Web And Local Networks Upward Trends?)

The Walnut is a graphic representation of the ideal connectedness of information. A database at the center, and around the outside -- classroom interaction, public information flow through the website, social communication among members, administrative information flow and communication. Should all those be connected? If they are, it enables the repurposing of bits of information generated in one area (a student research project, an administrative report pursuant to travel funds granted to a student) for different audiences (a library of past theses that students and alumni can access online, a photo taken on a study-abroad trip thrown up on a website accessible to prospective students).

It's a more organized version of what Mike used to scare us by calling the "content pool." We're so hierarchical, so addicted to structure, that we're all scared of the thought of a big bucket with free-floating pieces of data milling about. But that's our problem, not the data's. The genius of Web 2.0 is the liberation from pre-determined, rigid structures. "Dynamic" means that every query, every purpose breaks down and rebuilds the structure. That's all well and good, we think, for fields in our database that we're going to generate reports from -- but we're chary of seeing student classwork as an item in a content pool, or an album of photos taken in Nepal, or audio of an oral history interview. But can't we think of ways we'd like to use that material that's been generated -- and ways we want to make sure they're not used? That's what The Walnut is all about.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This could be the start of something new

I'm going to use the next few days to try out Blogger. Will it dazzle me like the other Google apps? Will I finally muster the strength to leave behind quirky, buggy, inexplicable iBlog? Stay tuned.

If I find myself posting regularly here, then I'll make the change and slowly start moving old content over here from my online home for the last four years.

The test may well come over the next three days. From 9 am to 7:30 pm -- sometimes later -- I'll be holed up in the university's conference center with 21 Honors administrators and faculty from around the country, talking databases and classroom technology. I have primary responsibility for only two 45-minute sessions in those three long days. The rest of the time I'll be listening, running errands, eating, knitting (I hope), and blogging (I hope).

Maybe I'll write about the epic battle between NBC's Singing Bee and Fox's Don't Forget The Lyrics. (Not since Leno vs. Letterman have the stakes -- and the concept -- been so high.) I'm overdue for a roundup of links to my own writing -- that's always good for a day's post. There's that history of Places I've Lived that I promised awhile back. Maybe it'll be philosophical musings about educational technology, or a political rant, or a lazy meme. The point, dear faithful readers, is that you don't know. So surely it doesn't matter than neither do I.

Anybody with tips or tips for proper Blogger use, or suggestions for clean template design -- please step up and be heard. Thanks for making that extra click to follow me over here. Don't change your links and bookmarks yet, but click in again tomorrow when you see the teaser over at the old homestead.